Thursday, December 26, 2013

Courage ("The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin)

It's tempting to see Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit, a study of the close relationship between politics and the press in the early years of the 20th century, as an attempt to proselytize about current events through historical narrative. At over 900 pages, with a full quarter of them being the sources and index alone, Goodwin focuses on two decades--1901 to 1919--in which the United States was in a state of social and political upheaval. The Republican Party was enduring its own internal war, with half of its members looking to keep the party unchanged and the other half looking to transform it into something more radical, often by challenging  incumbents. The environment was threatened by pollution and industrialization, companies were so large that they could easily destabilize  the American economy,  the gap between rich and poor was as wide as it had ever been, and money was so permissive in politics that corruption was the rule rather than the exception. And the media, specifically journals located on the East Coast, saw their roles as shapers of opinion and ideology rather than protectors of fact and conveyors of truth. The similarities between these long-ago events and those of today are, from a distance, staggering.

However, these similarities are also coincidental; as Goodwin herself notes in the opening to her book, she labored over this story for seven years, long before the age of Obama, the recession, bank bailouts, Citizens United, and "too big to fail"; it even began as a study of an entirely narrower topic, expanding only when Goodwin realized the scope of Roosevelt's relationship with the press. Nevertheless, a coincidence doesn't necessarily make these similarities unimportant. On the contrary, the fact that we are enduring these same issues so many decades later shows not only the cyclical nature of history--that we are doomed to repeat what we choose to ignore--but the necessity of the changes men like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft once fought for. Together, they did more than any other single president since, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, to change the anatomy of our country:  most of the national parks and natural landmarks we have today exist because of protections they established, often in complete disregard for the law; every business and industry in operation today does so under regulations and guidelines passed during their respective administrations; the food we eat is kept safe by laws they supported; and our relationships with other nations were affected by both men, often in person rather than through legislation. Even after both men had left elected office, the issues on which they took public stands and, in Roosevelt's case, hoped to return to the White House--women's suffrage, an 8-hour workday, the direct election of senators, presidential primaries--were revolutionary for their time but have since become ingrained in our modern society. (In fact, Constitutional amendments guaranteeing women the right to vote and the direct election of senators would both be realized by 1920.)

Despite the undeniable roles both Roosevelt and Taft had in bringing about lasting and important change, they do not deserve full and complete credit; rather, much attention is given to the half-dozen or so journalists who saw a crusade within the truths they were assigned to tell. Goodwin focuses especially on the staff of McClure's, a monthly East Coast magazine that, almost instantly, became a voice for the large swathes of America that were downtrodden, abused, or ignored. These included coal miners who were beaten and harassed by their fellow miners; soldiers who were unwilling cogs in the drummed-up jingoism of an unnecessary war; consumers who paid inflated prices for daily necessities because they were produced and distributed by an unregulated monopoly; and everyday citizens whose voices went unheard because their elected officials were guided by money rather than elections and conscience. These journalists--Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White foremost among them--also investigated the forces that poisoned American society and politics, including corrupt party bosses, industry executives, and union heads. Such was their reach and significance that billion-dollar monopolies were rendered illegal and disassembled, corrupt politicos were thrown from their thrones, and progressive ideals once considered outlandish were now the foundation of party platforms. Part of this was because of the journalists' ability to find the most convincing details and render them in a way that was relatable to the average reader, and part of this was because, as Goodwin details, they were exceptionally close to both Taft and Roosevelt...closer, in fact, than one would ever expect, with their research often serving as the cornerstone of a speech or piece of legislation.

Goodwin's tome is a fascinating, exhaustive, and often exhausting look at how politics and journalism worked together in order to bring about changes that were necessary but also next to impossible:  had either piece of the puzzle been missing--had Roosevelt or Taft never been president, had McClure's never chosen to become a moral compass for its readers and the nation itself--the affects on American history and its people would be unimaginable. And this is the one area where there is a sad, telling contrast between the early 20th century and these early years of the 21st century. We have politicians with almost impossibly high--but desperately needed--ideals, and we have a media that is continuous, pervasive, and influential--that is, they are in the best possibly position to affect real change. The problem is that, unlike the 1910s, these two pieces no longer have the same relationship they once did:  a politician cannot gain any traction without selling out to the biggest bank account, and a news channel cannot gain an audience without devoting its energy and staff to the biggest money-makers, which have increasingly become stories of scandal and entertainment. And it's this lack of courage--a politician and a news organization both willing to break from money for the greater good--that will keep us from experiencing the same progressive changes that so reshaped our country for the better 100 years ago. For all its similarities and coincidences, and for all the cycles through which it passes, sometimes history does not repeat itself.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Strangers ("Humans of New York" by Brandon Stanton)

A few years ago, I was talking with a student of mine between classes when she made an offhand comment that startled me somewhat. "I bet you wish we would just be normal," she said offhandedly, in the same way someone might read the lunch specials at a restaurant or remark on the weather. The "we" she was referring to was her group of friends, all of whom were high-achieving Honors students known for their artistry--singing, photography, creative writing, painting, acting, fashion, and so on. They were also known for being what high-schoolers might call "weird" and adults call "eccentric." However, I'd known them long enough to know that they weren't weird or eccentric--they were simply being themselves in an environment that demands conformity, silence, or both--and I responded to my student's claim by telling her quite simply that "Normal is boring."

What's strange is that, besides being designed to make her feel better about herself or her place in the grade scheme of high-school politics, those three words are actually a good way of approaching the world around us. We like to think--and society likes to tell us--that to be a part of the majority is to be a buttoned-up mass of trends, routines, and near invisible differences. Those who defy these prescriptions--those who dress against the current, break with expectations, and emphasize their uniqueness beyond the point of avoidability--are the outliers of society, the "other," the weird and eccentric and impure. They are strange and therefore deserve to remain strangers. Something has gone wrong, we're taught to think, and this is imprinted so thoroughly in us that is causes our entire bodies to reshape themselves into hunches, scowls, and dodging eyes. We're taught to walk past and ignore, to chuckle, to dismiss...all the while, unbeknownst to us, these actions instead make us the outliers. What we don't understand in these moments--but what people like Brandon Stanton realize and embrace--is that "normal" is the outlier and "different" is the norm.

"My mom died when I was eighteen. I acted like it didn't bother me cause I was
a punk rock kid. But I think it came back to me later in weird ways."

As Stanton himself notes in his introduction to Humans of New York, a book of his photography, he has taken thousands of pictures throughout New York City, from its city streets to the alleyways of its boroughs and every crevice in between, always focusing on people. And what he finds are not outliers or cast-offs but people more human than any of us could possibly imagine...simply because we don't try to imagine. We are content to live within our preconceptions, judging those who are not like us as unworthy, strange, or dangerous...and it's by that criteria that we allow those millions of other human beings to remain at a distance. And in doing so, we lose beautiful connections that could have transformed our lives. It's like living your entire life surrounded by the ocean and never once wandering down to the shore to dip a toe in the waters.

"When my husband was dying, I said: 'Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?'
He told me: 'Take the love you have for me and spread it around.'"
Every single person we meet in Stanton's book has a story all their own, some of them spoken and some unspoken. There are tales of of being a good father or a bad son. Of being a drug user...or the friend of one...or a recovering addict trying to navigate a strange and dangerous world. Every one is an immigrant in their own way--some literal, most metaphorical--and they are all strangers to us, though Stanton collection argues they shouldn't be. Even with the distance that separate us--between where we live, between reader and subject, between generation and ethnicity and status--we can know one another, simply by looking past our own snap judgments and searching out the humanity in one another.

"I'm going to let you take my photo because you seem like a genuine person.
But--just so you know--I don't normally let people steal my swag."

We only have a short time on this planet, and there's much to learn--too much, it turns out, for one lifetime, and so we need to be discerning and curious and patient. There are seven billion of us, which means there are seven billion stories out there in need of hearing, regardless of how hesitant or unsure the storyteller may feel, and the ingredients in that mixture are constantly changing:  stories we have today may be gone tomorrow, struck from the page by illness or death or the haphazardness of human memory. Brandon Stanton's book is a fantastic read, yes, but it's also a guide on how to be a good human being...because being alive isn't just about living for ourselves. It is about living to know and love others and, in doing so, understanding ourselves better so we're no longer a diverse world of strangers.

"I see how much I love him, and I imagine that my dad loved me like that one day,
and it makes me wish I'd been a better son."

*All screen captures and captions were taken from

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Food ("Anything That Moves" by Dana Goodyear)

Deep down, I'll always be that chubby 12-year-old grabbing at candy in the supermarket check-out lane. And for the first twenty years of my life, my diet was dominated by everything a blubbery pre-teen might consider ambrosia delivered directly from the gods themselves:  Doritos, Cheetos, Pizza Hut, Snickers, McDonalds, Kit Kat, Sara Lee, Little Debbie, Blue Bunny, Little Caesars, and so on. Even now, years after dropping 100 pounds, cutting most fast and processed foods from my diet, and starting my own (relatively small) backyard garden, I can't deny the fact that 90% of the food sold at my local supermarket is both disgustingly inedible and completely delicious.

And that's the point. All of those foods have been tested and manufactured--rather than, say, planted and harvested--to be not only delicious and convenient but addictive. When I think back to how insatiable I was with a bag of anything--potato chips, crackers, candy--I shudder to think what those not-quite-foods were doing to my insides. Yes, there was the fat and sodium and cholesterol, but there were also the chemicals pumped into each bite--tasteless little additions with thick, multi-syllabic names, each transforming a simple list of ingredients into an encyclopedia entry. We've taken food--the thing meant to keep us energized, healthy, and strong, the thing that is supposed to come from nature alone, the thing we need to survive--and turned it into our greatest enemy, a source of obesity and illness and death. And not only that, we've taken this dangerous food--so omniscient, so affordable, so mouth-wateringly tasty--and made it inherently addictive, so the very things that hurt us the most are also the ones we cannot stop eating.

The irony is that I only came to appreciate food--its purpose, its sources, its benefits--at the exact same moment when I could no longer eat as much of it as I wanted. Suddenly my horizon was filled with shelf after shelf of local foods that were actually good for me...and I found myself having to walk away, my hunger tempered by an equally strong obsession with watching calories and not falling off the proverbial food wagon. Thankfully, though, my new eating habits are moderate compared to others around the globe--not the "foodies" we hear so much about on television and in print so much as fringe cooks and fearless eaters, both living along the boundary of what is considered eccentric eating and what is downright dangerous.

Dana Goodyear documents this shaky little tightrope walk with utter seriousness; never once does she find herself questioning the entire premise of her book, which is more than I can say for myself. Not that her subjects aren't fascinating in their own right, or that Goodyear's writing isn't spot-on wonderful--because they are, and because it is--but the idea that thousands, even millions of otherwise sensible Americans would take the most basic cornerstone of life and transform it into something more seems at times utterly incomprehensible, if not downright silly. There are Californians who risk imprisonment and death from unpasteurized milk and shit-covered eggs because they want their food as natural as possible, which means untouched by government regulations; at times their crusade feels more like a revolt being staged against genocidal totalitarians than government's bureaucrats. There are the Japanese whalers who exploit a loophole in international law to hunt sharks for their fins, which are illegal in the United States but find their way into not-so-underground restaurants anyway, and the activists who go undercover to expose this assignment that, ironically, requires the consuming of said shark fins. And there are the chefs who see marijuana as the next frontier in culinary arts and arrange small, private gatherings at which the much maligned plant is the central feature of each dish.

But perhaps the strangest and most ironic chapter concerns a series of chefs who stand aghast as foie gras--goose liver fattened through forced feeding via a tube--is outlawed. There is something perverse about professional chefs pushing back against the prohibition of intentionally overfed animals because it means they cannot over-feed their own customers, and it is a disconnect in reasoning that is both ticklishly funny and deeply disturbing:  these chefs have put so much passion into this one supposedly vital piece of meat that being without it is somehow devastating, even as the world around them suffers from poverty and malnutrition by the billions.*

Which is the greatest disconnect among Goodyear's subjects. For all the ethical nuances and moral debates inherent in the food and its eaters--whether any animal should be up for grabs or only certain ones, the role of government oversight in what we eat, the level of animal cruelty that is acceptable in the preparation of our daily meals--not once do any of Goodyear's subjects realize just how precious these debates are. When a chef prepares a massive, multi-course meal, whether it be in a five-start restaurant or their very own living room, they are doing so simply because they can:  there is no food shortage, widespread pestilence, or fascistic government embargo stopping them from pushing a menu to the next level. They are allowed to serve full, gluttonous meals while soapbox-preaching on the unfairness of animal-cruelty laws or the stranglehold of the FDA because food is a luxury to them rather than a necessity, just as it was to that chubby 12-year-old so many years ago.**  When someone adopts an approach to food that shuns fast or processed foods, he or she is doing so because they see the detriment to not only their own health but the health of the world around them. They see food for what it is--rich, sustaining, necessary--rather than what it has been, which is a dangerous luxury.

To say, as Goodyear does in her subtitle, that this movement towards "fearless" eating is the beginning of "a new American food culture" is pretty prescient, though not for the reasons Goodyear intends or her readers might assume. Only in America, a country where 40 million of its citizens live with food insecurity while simultaneously one-third of the population is obese, can the glamourization of food be seen as ordinary or interesting rather than brazen and heartless. When Goodyear's subjects elevate food beyond its original purpose--its only purpose--they do so for the benefit of themselves and the similar-minded around them only, and that is a great shame indeed. For them, food is a commodity, a lifestyle, a weapon; to millions of others--the population that does not appear in Goodyear's book or, for that matter, the world of her subjects--it is a necessity, and a scarce one at that.

*In deference to these chefs, I will concede that what happens to geese is nothing compared to what happens to cows, pigs, and chickens by the millions across the United States, and to be offended by one while condoning the others is simply hypocritical. At this point, I should note that I'm a vegetarian, so I'm an observer on this front and have no horse in the game, so to speak. I should also note that much of the "beef" Americans eat is, in fact, horse.

**In deference to Goodyear's subjects, the FDA is pretty idiotic in most instances...just not in this instance.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Focus ("The Aviators" by Winston Groom)

For whatever reason, 2013 saw renewed interest in Charles Lindbergh, to the point where reading about him--sometimes on his own, sometimes as part of a larger historical narrative--became downright nauseating. (As a simple man almost entirely focused on aviation, Lindbergh and his accomplishment become tiresome almost immediately.) Lynne's Olsen's Those Angry Days attempted to depict Lindbergh and Franlin Delano Roosevelt as lead opponents in the run-up to World War II, with Lindbergh the isolationist and Roosevelt the interventionist; needless to say, Olson's attempt at making both men into bitter adversaries fell a little flat--the two men only met once, and both had greater antagonists beyond each other. Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic Ocean featured prominently in Bill Bryson's One Summer:  America 1927, though Bryson's focus on that year's many key players--Coolidge, Capone, Ruth, Byrd, Ford, Dempsey, Sacco and Vanetti--allowed him to weave a grand quilt without over-indulging in too much of one figure or the other. And Richard Moe's Roosevelt's Second Act, concerning Roosevelt's unprecedented push for a third presidential term, coupled with the growing war in Europe, assigned Lindbergh to supporting-actor status, if that, though he was still treated as though he and Roosevelt were opponents in a public-opinion boxing match.

Winston Groom's The Aviators does right not only by Lindbergh but by history itself. His three subjects--Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, and Jimmy Doolittle--were all pioneering aviators alive at roughly the same time who each had a direct and profound impact on World War II...and other than a slight mention of their similarities in the book's opening pages, which includes the role played by an absent or deceased father during their formative years, Groom leaves them alone to follow their own historical paths without forcing each of their narrative paths to cross. Groom could easily have turned his book into a thesis on aviation supported by the connections between each man--in fact, his lengthy subtitle seems to suggest this is the focus of his just-as-lengthy work--but he keeps them separated, not just by their roles in the same world events, but in chapters all their own. Rarely if ever throughout the 450-plus pages of Groom's book do the men meet, even in rhetorical flourishes, and everyone--Groom, his subjects, and his readers--are better for it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Apart ("The Men Who United the States" by Simon Winchester)

The major theme of Simon Winchester's The Men Who United the States is, not surprisingly, unity--a word Winchester himself uses throughout with purpose and precision, if not careless school-boy abandon. And, on one level, his focus on cohesion makes perfect sense:  over 500-plus pages and four centuries of history, Winchester traces the attempts--most successful, some not--to bring areas of our growing and changing nation together, one acre or mountain pass at a time. From the post-Revolutionary era, when small bands of men roamed the uncharted Louisiana Purchase in search of the Pacific Coast, to the 19th and 20th centuries, when inventors spanned the nation not with coaches and canoes but telegraph and telephone wire, this is the ever-growing story of how we strive to bring every last home and family into the grand American web.

However, as Winchester's book moves from the untamed American wilderness to the taming generators and transformers of modern times, something surprising takes shape beneath its narrative surface, and it's not altogether encouraging. In Winchester's first chapter, the United States has no master other than itself:  it is unmapped, unexplored, and unknown.* By the book's closing pages, he's narrowed the focus to the American living room--the new land of discovery, of radios and televisions and wi-fi. We've begun our journey on the most epic of scales--an entire country--and finished in an area measuring three hundred square feet. If this is the story of American ingenuity--of its endless need to explore, invent, harness, advance--it's a bittersweet closing number to what, until then, has been a grand and patriotic opera.

We as a country pride ourselves on our rough beginnings and wholly original national character, and our history was never destined to be like that of our European and Asian ancestors. We did not have emperors or monarchs, nor could we boast vast palatial estates or grand museums; instead, our rulers lived humbly and governed through pragmatism, their humanness a far greater legacy in many cases than their political achievements. Monticello and Mount Vernon would never measure up to Versailles, just as the eras of men like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln were bound to end with them, not tremble on through sons and grandsons. The American crown was a marked ballot, its palace a home built on the sweat of slaves. The bloodlines of its powerful were one thousand different rivers leading not towards thrones but away from them, into log cabins and onto battlefields and even down the well-walked streets of Chicago.

It's this unpredictability, this wildness, that marks American history as something unique on the world's stage. Our birth and growth as a nation was dichotomous and dirty, and even today the legacies of those men and women who brought forth that new nation are grappled with, studied, shied away from and forgotten, as even Winchester himself points out. Taming the various frontiers of America--the land and water, the air, the engines--meant taming the very spirit of our country and its people, in much the same way grand animals throw themselves at gates and cages, yearning to be free. What happened to America was, in its own way, unnatural, even though it was also necessary and unavoidable at the same time. To see this warm, wild history descend from the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon into well-furnished living rooms and hand-held devices is somewhat appalling in its own way--a sign that, as a nation, our landscape is not the only aspect of our animal selves that has been tamed beyond rehabilitation. 

The subtitle of Winchester's book--whether chosen by the author himself or prescribed by his publisher, I'm unsure--reads, "America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible." It's that last word--indivisible--that is the curse of Winchester's otherwise enthralling unity hypothesis, for while all of these men--not to mention their work--certainly did help to bring states and homes together, they also moved us towards a contemporary society that, in bringing us all together under the umbrella of Internet and television, also surreptitiously pushed us away from one another. We live one text message, Skype conversation, Tweet, or phone call away from each other--from almost anyone within our nation's borders--and yet we're desperately far away, hidden not behind miles of empty desert, towering mountain ranges, or thundering rivers, but screen names, apps, icons, and anonymous online profiles. We've spent hundreds of years spanning every possible acre of American wilderness, only to find ourselves shut inside our own individual technologies--our own crowning achievements. We've united, certainly, but less as a nation of independent people and more a land of 300 million lonely tribes, divisible by our own choosing.

*The presence of millions of Native Americans was not a concern to those early pioneers and homesteaders, just as it's not much of a concern to Winchester himself. His book is almost entirely focused on the impact of white, European men and their disregard for cultural respect...something in which American history is, sad to say, not lacking.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Praise ("A Prayer Journal" by Flannery O'Connor)

"Dear God, I don't want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness."
--Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal
Were I ever asked to choose the one American author whose writing best represents our country--its promises and lies, its perfections and blemishes, its benefits worthy of praise and its mistakes worthy of shame--I would overlook the obvious choices, the Hawthornes and Melvilles and Twains and Fitzgeralds, and choose Flannery O'Connor, a Southern woman who lived her life away from the public eye and died of lupus at the tragically young age of 39. Thankfully, this task of choosing will never fall on my shoulders, but if it did--if a task like this were ever to exist--O'Connor would be far from a popular or obvious choice. Her works are centered around the brutality and viciousness of human nature, the emptiness of our relationships to one another, and the conflict between what society expects of us and what we're willing to offer. There are no dreams fulfilled in her world, and more often than not America's innocent lambs fall victim to its guiltless wolves; anyone hoping to find peace or prosperity had better look elsewhere.

Nourishing all of this is a heavy current of Catholic dogma, which imbues many of O'Connor's characters with a delusional belief in their own wisdom and superiority that, sadly, does not translate well beyond the walls of their hearts. We mock these characters for their haughty ideas, laugh at them as their worldview becomes increasingly ridiculous-looking, page after page, word after precious, gnawing word. I think of the young man at the end of "Everything That Rises Must Converge" who, not understanding his mother's racism--her inability to accept that African-Americans might have the same things she does, whether it be a physical hat or a metaphysical right--looks down on her as though she were a child in need of scolding or a condescending education. He doesn't understand her, even though he never ties to, so much so that when she walks away from him at the end, he stands in bafflement...all the while, we look down on him for his immaturity and detachment, his need to seem better than what he really is.

Flannery O'Connor is this young man--or at least was, according to a journal she kept during her stay at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was a young woman at the time, not yet 20 years old, and only a few years away from the start of her burgeoning literary career. As the short introduction to A Prayer Journal tells us, O'Connor lived modestly at the workshop, keeping refrigerated items in her dormitory window, and matched skills with the other attendees, most of them men (and many of them assuredly veterans of the war who'd recently returned home). But despite her modesty and anecdotal confidence, her journal reveals a soul tortured by its--her--inability to connect with a God who she simultaneously looked to for blessings and pleaded with for affection. She is a tortured Catholic all her own, one so thoroughly invested in heavenly intervention she seems to offer her workshop stories at the altar in much the same way a mother would offer her child. She believes wholly in God's powers while seeming skeptical of her own...and that struggle, between faith and skepticism--between the infallibility of one and vulnerability of another--haunt her journal's 40 pages, a slimness possessed by depth that could fill volumes.

There are few proper nouns here, and even fewer glimpses into her private life:  it is just Flannery O'Connor and God in these pages, rendered with the same nuance, joy, and confusion that one might use when writing about themselves and a parent, or themselves and a lover. One of the journal's rare moments of personalness comes at the very end--in fact, its second-to-last line--when O'Connor makes a confession of sorts:  "Today I have proved myself a glutton--for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought" (40). Taken on its own, this one statement seems pointless and snarkingly self-punishing; taken with the previous 40 pages, however, we see that O'Connor's "hunger" is possibly--probably--much more metaphorical than we might like to admit. As she writes on page 23, "The desires of the flesh--excluding the stomach--have been taken away from me. For how long I don't know but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them." In these two short, separate excerpts we see the totality of O'Connor's world--a distrust of all urges beyond the simplest, a relief when rid of them, and a willingness to give in to them and more, all mixed into the same body, the same mind. It is Catholic contradictions at their most pure and poetic, erotic thoughts being lumped into the same category as cookies, both seen as satisfying inner cravings that defy a Christian purity.

In her journals, O'Connor strives for perfection and understanding--the ability to write stories with God's guidance but also for his appreciation--while also dismissing knowledge as something dangerous to achieve, saying, "No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist" (25). This is a paradox of the tortured thinking, a belief that knowing all can only be accomplished through God--or only by God--but knowing all will also make God irrelevant, like a dream dispelled by waking into fact. O'Connor's entire religious life seems mired in paradox, in an inability to reconcile God's demands of her with what she demands of herself, and as a result her journal is a road-map of her soul that doubles back on itself and never fully reaches its destination. Which is exactly the struggle faced by so many of her characters:  an attempt to get from one place to another, whether literal or figurative, and realizing that their destination wasn't the place they hoped it would be in the first place.

And isn't that the story of America itself? We are a paradox, not of rock or river or soil, but of flesh, sweat, and blood. We arrogantly demand others' praise--an acknowledgement that we are the greatest, God-gifted country in the world--while filled border to border with turmoil over our many unresolved moral and ethical issues. We claim to be a united nation "under God," but we are a nation of many gods--some religious, some political, some material--that looks for salvation from beyond without looking first within ourselves, where much of our salvation lies. We celebrate our every progressive achievement, even when there are twenty or thirty nations who've hit that milestone before us; we congratulate those who break barriers and elevate themselves--and, in essence, elevate the collective us--while also looking for ways to bring them back down to our level, lest someone be better than us. We are the old woman in turmoil over what others have, and we are her spoiled son not understanding this hostility. We are the parent and the child in one, and in Flannery O'Connor--the fatherless daughter, the doubting devoted Catholic, the bedless lover--we see ourselves for all that we are, for all that she was.

There are very few instances in which a Flannery O'Connor character finds him- or herself better off in the end; in fact, her characters are almost always worse for the wear as the story draws to its close, and O'Connor's attitude towards this is one of not only acceptance but resignation. Our lives are tortured four-act tragedies, and we are the bit players--the hungry college writers hunched over their journals, praying in words to a God who seems unable--or unwilling--to read them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Poetry ("Aimless Love" by Billy Collins)


Poetry is pointless.

Allow me to clear this lump in my throat
And begin again:  poetry has no purpose
Other than itself, other than to exist.

Poetry does not slay the dragon or win the wars,
Nor does it fertilize the soil and grow the flowers
And trees from which we taste the fruit and see;

We are born, we cry, we suckle and swing
And totter and walk and speak, and through it all
Poetry stays on its dusty shelves, unaware of us.

Voices read us bouncy little rhymes and rock us
In their arms, and you say this is its first purpose,
But who remembers those rhymes? Who remembers

Wynken and Blynken and Nod once we've been
Cut open because our food will not stay down, because
Even our mother's milk isn't good enough; where are

Those little wanderers and their wooden shoe
When parents become the shadows they cast
Instead of the people they are, and one big house

Suddenly becomes two smaller ones, quiet ones,
Almost like magic giving you the promise of those lines?
Except the magic of those bouncy rhymes isn't

This new magic, which is cold like the air that
Now separates your one bedroom from the other,
And the arms now hold papers of a different kind,

And there are no pictures on these pages, no line breaks
And architectured stanzas. And no rhymes, either. No
AA's and BB's, and certainly no CC's. And these pages

Are colored only at the very top, where a brassy little shape
Is followed by small print and some letters that have nothing
To do with poetry at all. Where is your poetry here?

There is no poetry here now, and that pointlessness is
The point.


Poetry is the ash of so many fires burned,
And you come upon the fossilized cinders long after
The fire-starters have gone to rest for good;

They have already seen everything you will see
And more, for the ideas they had were written down
Lifetimes before the idea of you was an idea at all;

You will fall in love, just as they did, but your love
Will be the tick of a watch against their eternal church-bells
Chiming away in a music that is foreign and discordant to you;

In order to sing their songs, you will need to wait, but
You won't. You will charge ahead, eyes veiled, chest
Scarred by invisible letters announcing your salvation;

If only you could see those letters yourself, could flip
The mirrors in other people's eyes and gaze upon
The mark you bear to all but yourself, then maybe

Your ears would ring with understanding, and slowly
Your hums would begin to sound somewhat musical,
And your heart could find the words that were meant to be--

Not old words, because only the aged and pathetic
Like old words, and you are neither yet, but new words,
New matches to hold to the tinder in your soul.

And that is how you will continue, as a fire-starter just like
All those pyromaniacs who came before you, thumb stained
With sulfure and eyes blighted by the brightness of the flames

Until you have lived long and loved enough to fill volumes,
And you become a dust indistinguishable from the rest.
But that day is far in the future, and your thumbs are clean.


Poetry is vast and barbaric, like the wild country,
Like ourselves,

And just like the animals of our buried nature
We glance into the reflections

Of the lakes and ponds and pools of cool rainwater
And shudder.


Poetry is a joke, but please
Don't lose the whole thing.

We must remember that humor--
Little tummy rumbles, little shakes--
Keep the mind from becoming
A lazy old man afraid of labor.

He must be choked awake,
And then he must be told a joke--
Something quick and simple, the words
Easy to avoid stumbling over, and

If his stomach bounces and face flushes,
Good--his mind is ready for other things,
Bigger things.


Poetry is vital truth, and vital truth
Is the shadow on the wall when you can see
Nothing but shadows anymore.

Poetry will not be the one to hold your hand,
To set the quilts against your chin, to warm your legs
Or drip pharmaceutical life down your throat; instead,

Poetry will be there to whisper all the truths
You already know, like why she left, or why
You could never crack eggs the right way, or why

The dogs all looked at you funny, every one;
These are the truths of your life that matter most,
The absences and judgements and small failures,

Because life is too short for the big truths, the ones
They talk about on TV and in skinny, empty books,
The ones you avoided, afraid the answers were just like

Those dogs you owned--simple, easy, and somehow
Still totally incomprehensible.


Strip away your Sunday clothes--these lines
Are not your destiny. Abandon them before
They abandon you, and refuse to look back;

We do not have to wait to understand the poet
And his fire because the matches are ours,
The tinder is fresh, the kerosene smell strong;

We do not have to wait for rimshots to make clear
That there's more than just poetry here, and we
Can throw open our arms to flowers and swords

And cut lowly fruit from the lowing trees.
Must we really wait so long to hand our mirrors
To the young and show them what they already see

And explain that our mirrors are only to borrow, not
To keep, because we too need to look up into the light
Now and then and remind ourselves to stop and see?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pairs ("This Land That I Love" by John Shaw)

Drawing connections between two historical figures, especially two who never met, is a dubious act on the part of any writer, regardless of how similar their lives or legacies may be. Earlier this year, Lynne Olson attempted to conflate a relationship between Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Roosevelt in order to personify the United States' conflicting emotions over isolationism; instead, she managed to write a book that was interesting in its own right but one that ultimately failed to link the primary men to each other in any substantial way. Similarly, the last few years have seen books hoping to contrast Truman and Eisenhower, Nixon and Eisenhower, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, Douglas and Lincoln, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, James Madison and James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, not to mention James F. Simon's trilogy on conflicts between presidents and chief justices. And while these latter examples are much more understandable, given that the subjects actually knew one another on a professional if not personal level, the fact remains that contrasting two historical figures for the sake of a common narrative--one that needs to be painted into history rather than wrung from it--is disingenuous.

So ridiculous has this trend become that book subtitles have begun to follow the same tedious format, almost like a publishing-house MadLibs:  an interesting, attention-getting title is followed by "[Person 1], [Person 2], and [Conflated Historical Narrative]." Simply choosing two important figures who were alive at the same time and tagging on a connection that is knee-deep in lofty sociological importance, one that is both impressive in its surface weight but vague and unmeasurable beneath the surface, seems now like the go-to formula for historical nonfiction, as evidenced by some of the lengthy, comma-heavy titles that have appeared in the last few years.*

One of these is John Shaw's This Land That I Love, which is subtitled "Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems." On the surface, Shaw's premise seems perfectly fine:  Berlin and Guthrie were two musicians who were alive at the same time--though one man would end up living almost twice as long as the other--and wrote music that captured specific eras and moods. The two anthems of Shaw's subtitle--"God Bless America" by Berlin, "This Land is Your Land" by Guthrie--have there roots in dark moments in American history, written to celebrate the United States amid the horrors of war, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. Beneath the surface, however, we begin to find flaws in Shaw's arrangement. It doesn't seem to matter that Berlin and Guthrie never met, or that there's very little evidence that either man even knew of each other's existences other than a parody of "God Bless America" written by Guthrie himself. Suddenly, these seemingly compatible historical figures seem somewhat less complementary. 

Even more, the entire narrative Shaw is attempting to construct--that Berlin and Guthrie, the authors of two unofficial American anthems, were more similar than their styles and music let on--is never actually followed through. Much of Shaw's book is devoted to elements of music history that are only loosely connected to Berlin and Guthrie's music: blackface, ragtime, minstrel shows, Teddy Roosevelt, tenement poverty in New York City, the Civil War, the error of "folk" music, Marian Anderson, Tin Pan Alley, and so on. Sure, each is important in its own way to understanding the men, their lives, their inspirations, and the styles of music they embraced throughout their lives...but in that case, the focus should be primarily on the men rather than historical divergences. The title and subtitle tell us this is the story of two men and two songs; Shaw seems intent on writing about anything besides those topics.

Furthermore, Shaw's book takes this disturbing trend even further than his compatriots by introducing himself into the narrative. On the surface, this doesn't seem like much of a problem; after all, he's the writer and researcher, so it's only natural that he will sometimes find himself dead-center in the action, especially when he's uncovering previously unpublished lyrics to the subjects' most famous songs. (A little personal reflection at this point would be understandable, even forgivable, if also a little pointless.) However, Shaw crosses a sacred boundary in historical writing by introducing his own opinion into the narrative, almost as though it were evidence of something much greater. Discussing the musical lineage of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Shaw begins a new paragraph by saying,

I love "The Star-Spangled Banner." I share the eighteenth century's assessment of John Stafford Smith's melody--it's great. The story behind Key's lyric is stirring, and I love its celebration of freedom and courage. Being a fan of Robert Herrick, rock and roll, and Woody Guthrie's party songs, I enjoy the celebration of sex and alcohol in the Anacreontic Society's theme song as well. (Shaw 77)

Shaw's fanboy gushing is beyond embarrassing, and it contributes not at all to our understanding of the two men, their music, or their connections to one another. Had this been the only instance of Shaw breaking away from his responsibilities as a historian--and an impartial one, as writing such as this requires--it could have been overlooked, but This Land That I Love is littered with instances like these in which Shaw cannot restrain himself from letting his readers know just how important all of this is to him.

Which is great--a writer should love what they're writing about, and Shaw clearly--obviously--does. But he loves it in the same way an annoying cinephile loves movies, a bibliophile loves books, or a patron loves a specific artist and their work:  a passion that makes him or her feel instantly superior. Shaw cannot keep himself from telling us just how much better he is than us, simply because he knows "The Star-Spangled Banner" better than we do, that it means more to him than it does to us. It's an attitude that gives him permission to interrupt history with his own meaningless interjections and asides, as though this retelling of history will be made all the better with his additions. In the process, however, we see that his book is little more than a sketch. There is very little story here, very few ideas that haven't been presented elsewhere, and anything new--a new lyric, a revision, an interpretation--is nothing more than scaffolding for a house that will never be built.

*A small sampling:  Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War; America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union; Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World; What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States; Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation; The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism; and so on, on and on. Not to bemoan historical connections--after all, history is little more than millions of these intersections of people, placed, events, ideas, and so on--but this sort of thing seems incredibly lazy on the part of book editors and publishers.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Perspective ("The Inheritor's Powder" by Sandra Hempel)

Sometimes you think of a book as important, not because it's groundbreaking or a bestseller or even an entertaining read, but because it reminds you just how fortunate you are to be living today rather than, say, six or seven generations ago. For instance, The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel has a pretty straightforward premise:  it's the story of a farming family in 19th century England who are poisoned, leaving many of them violently ill and killing the elderly patriarch, and the search for a culprit using a new and untested area of science and criminal justice that will eventually become known as forensic science.

Beneath this story, however, is where we find the book's true relevance. In order to not only track down the poisoner but also convict him or her in a court of law, investigators and scientists alike had to deal with corrupt or incompetent officials, outdated methods of evidence-gathering, sloppy detective work, and a court system that still allowed members of the jury to serve while drunk...a prospect made all the more horrifying by the knowledge that inquests and trials were sometimes held at the local pub. On top of all this, the poison that was suspected of being used in this case--arsenic--was difficult to test for, and had it not been for the ragtag group of academics and policemen honored by Hempel herein, an accurate test would not have appeared for some time, allowing countless more murderers to walk free and strike again. (And, as Hempel points out towards the book's close, the setbacks that come with developing a revolutionary new procedure often resulted in criminals walking free, though that was also sometimes due to a judicial system with little interest in following its own procedures.)

In reading Hempel's book, you are struck time and again with just how primitive the entire system was only 160 years ago--only a few decades after our own country, brand new in the world, wrote itself a Constitution guaranteeing judicial practices like the right to due process, a trail by jury, and a safeguard against self-incrimination.* The Inheritor's Powder is filled with stories of detectives getting drunk on the job, losing evidence, or even passing it around to friends at a pub to be contaminated or destroyed; coroners, untrained in even the most basic aspects of anatomy, who offer shoulder shrugs when called to the witness stand; judges who speed through five trials a day, just for the sake of appearing expedient; and so on. To us, living in a world where trials are usually tedious and dull--a far cry from how they're depicted in film and television--these anecdotes are downright appalling.

What's worse, the vast majority of those living in 19th century England saw little issue with the fraudulent science, slipshod criminal justice system, and hack police work of the day--to them, it was their normal--and only when a few small but influential figures raised their voice did public opinion and social ideas begin to change, albeit slowly. Which makes Hempel's book significant, if for no other reason to emphasize the forgotten roles of those very influential few, but it also makes those revelations a little worrying. After all, if so much of science, law, and criminal justice has changed in just a century and a half--their idea of normal now seen as mind-boggling incompetence and tragedy--what will writers think of us two hundred years from now? What aspects of our own society will future Sandra Hempels look back on with disbelief, derision, even scorn? How will we--supposedly advanced, supposedly progressive, unstoppably self-assured--be written about after a half-dozen or so generations have passed?

What's more, the issues that will most likely doom us in those books--our swelling prison-industrial complex, a prison population disgustingly imbalanced along racial and socioeconimics lines**, racial profiling, the entertainmentization of trials via 24/7 news networks--are almost wholly ignored by those in a position to change them, if not outright promoted by them, which is not unlike England more than 150 years ago. We hope, in reading these stories from the past, that our own James Marsh or Alfred Swaine Taylor will emerge to right these wrongs. For the sake of our future. 

*Hempel's book focuses entirely on forensic science in England. For the story of forensic science's origins in the United States, see Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook, an excellent read.

**See Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow...and once you see it, pick it up and read it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Alone ("Five Billion Years of Solitude" by Lee Billings)

In the final chapter of Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude, after more than 200 pages of dense exoplanetary prose and interviews with respected astronomists, we're introduced to Sara Seager, a middle-aged scientist at MIT who is one of the world's foremost experts on exoplanets--that is, earth-like worlds existing beyond the scope of our current scientific reach. Unlike the book's other chapters, however, Seager is introduced to us not through the complexity of her research, the revelations of her writing, or her influence on the next generation of astronomers--all of which is important and comes later--but through her relationship with Mike Wevrick and the long canoe trip they took through the empty tundra of the Northwest Territories.

For sixty days, Seager and Wevrick made their way through the wilderness, never once encountering another human being outside of a small outpost and the skeleton of an old Inuit whose grave had been ransacked, leaving his or her skull exposed. They engaged one another in long conversations, observed the beauty of a seemingly barren part of the world, and became closer as a couple. They also spent long moments in silence, not unlike that of the same universe--our universe--which Seager would soon spend her life studying. When they returned from their trip, Seager now destined for Harvard graduate school at only 22, they moved in together and, some time later, married and had children.

Years later, their children still young, Wevrick was diagnosed with intestinal cancer--a result of Crohn's disease--and passed away after a short battle, leaving Seager a widow at 40 with two young boys, a burgeoning professorial career, and the future of space exploration on her shoulders. When Billings meets Sara Seager, he describes a woman who is stretched thin, her life a desperate attempt at balancing her responsibilities to the science field and her responsibilities to her children, both of whom show little interest in their mother's profession outside of its similarities to Star Wars. Nevertheless, Billings also finds himself impressed by her ability to do so much  with so little time, and her willingness to embrace the wisdom delivered by her father on his deathbed:  "I never want to hear you say that anything is the 'best' you can do. I never want you to be limited by your own negative thinking." In the middle of her life and the highest point of her career, Seager is still pushing herself into new fields and struggling with even more difficult questions.

This closing chapter, which rarely touches on the minutia of Seager's expertise, is a marked contrast to the previous nine, which are written in such a way as to bridge the personal stories of scientists with their fields of study, all of which are in some way impacted by the search for exoplanets. More often than not, these bridges collapse under the weight of technical information, much of which is written about in a dry, droning prose that causes the mind to wander; only when Billings focuses back on the stories of those involved does his book regain its footing, and we reach the book's end wishing he had written the first nine chapters in the same way he writes the tenth.

Because what makes the chapter on Sara Seager so interesting is that, unlike many of Billings' other subjects, Seager opens up her life in a way that allows us to see the relevance of planetary science as something more than just a desperate search for fame, patriotism, or scientific understanding. A search for life in the vast, empty universe is a search for a better understanding of ourselves. We want to see life beyond our own world, not just to settle the debate over extraterrestrial life, but to compare that existence to our own. Are they more or less intelligent than we are? Are they scientifically literate? Do they have social classes and hierarchies? Do they look like us? Have they taken care of their world? Do they wage war? Do they have music? We seek these answers, not because we're vain, but because we're afraid--afraid that we're not as good as we could be, that we're not as smart or developed as we think we are, that we're somehow foregoing our own possibilities as a species or committing sins against the very rare world we call home. We fear that, in the great community of space, we are the seven billion outliers who don't belong.

And, more than anything else, we fear being alone. The night sky holds billions of stars, and beyond those there are billions and billions more, and the very idea that we might be alone in the universe, fully and irrevocably alone, worries us to our very core. The idea that this precious blue marble we call Earth, so comfortably distant from the sun but also close enough to sustain life, is a galactic fluke unreplicated anywhere else, and that we're the only source of intelligent life in all of existence--that our world alone possesses the gift of music and love and friendship and curiosity--is an unsettling condemnation of how little we appreciate just how special we might be. As we pollute ourselves ill, shout ourselves hoarse, devalue ourselves to the point of suicide, become angry to the point of violence or revenge, bomb ourselves to dust and commit genocide against our neighbors, the universe looks back at us as its only heartbeat beyond the pulsars of lifeless matter drifting so quietly through the vacuums of space.

When Sara Seager opens up her life to us, especially as she remembers her late husband while their sons sleep in nearby room, she is demonstrating the fears we all feel when we stand beneath that night sky and wonder, either out loud or silently to ourselves, if we're alone. Because loneliness, for all its occasional benefits and virtues, is a disheartening condition after so much time, and never more so is this apparent when we think about our tiny world rolling gently in the cradle of the universe, alone, for billions of years. When we search space for other life, even if that means the possibility of a world like our own light years away--an unreachable distance in anyone's lifetime--it's no less emotional of a search than when we look across our own world for a companion, for a connection to our parents or children, for a memory of someone who's forever gone from our lives but shouldn't be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Honor ("Last of the Blue and Gray" by Richard A. Serrano)

On its surface, Richard Serrano's Last of the Blue and Gray is the story of two men, both veterans of the Civil War, and the paths they took once the battles ended. The first, Albert Woolson, fought for the Union and would remain and active part of veterans groups until the end of his life. The second, Walter Williams, was a Confederate soldier who kept his distance from those groups after the war's end, choosing instead to live a solitary life in rural Texas. Both men's stories are far from unusual, especially since both lived typical and un-dramatic lives, save for one important aspect:  when Woolson died, he was 107 years old and the last of the Union soldiers, just as Williams was the last of the Confederate soldiers--in fact, the last Civil War soldier from either side--when he passed away at age 117. Their deaths marked the end of an era that, even today, seems almost unimaginable:  young men, even boys, taking up arms against their fellow countrymen; fields were soaked in blood, hills and forests were littered with bodies, and limbs were amputated with medical indiscretion, often worsening the soldier's already excruciating condition. Even more, their lifetimes allowed them--or, if you prefer, forced them--to see the progression and advancements of man's hatred towards man. Their war, fought with cannons and rifles, paled in comparison to the Second World War, in which tanks, B-52s, and atomic bombs became the weapons of choice. Suddenly, in only 80 years, combat became industrialized:  now, instead of facing down foes with bayonets on the battlefield, hundreds of soldiers could be wiped out with one strategic strike. It's a lesson in how our world can change for the worse, if we just give it enough time and ignore the wisdom of those who've come before us.

Beneath this story, however, is a much broader lesson in what happens when history itself is not only ignored but unpreserved. More than a few chapters of Serrano's book focus on the controversy over Williams' age--he may have been more than a decade younger than he claimed--and his service in the war, which was difficult to verify. Throughout the controversy, which took place while Williams was confined to his bed and unable to defend himself, records were sought out and double-checked, which would have solved the issue had it not been for poor Confederate records-keeping. Where Woolson's service was irrefutable, Williams died with his achievement still in question. Even today, his life and service both come with an asterisk, and many now agree that he was not the last Civil War soldier, and even more look at his purported age with heavy skepticism.

Serrano himself seems all but certain that Williams' claim was fraudulent, though he admits it may have been unintentional:  after years of embracing the lie, Williams's advanced age may have transformed the lie into truth without his consent, making him both culpable and innocent. This theory, not to mention a rumination on the nature of truth when its keepers are all gone, would have made for an interesting tangent had Serrano followed it. Instead, he spends more than enough of the book's 200 pages on the history of Civil War reunions--which are interesting in themselves but hardly important here--and the procedures of veteran's-group meetings, differing opinions on the Confederate flag, and the final years of both Woolson and Williams, which are heavy with descriptions of their bodies abandoning them to dementia and immobility. Important topics and difficult questions are ignored for day-by-day descriptions of two incredibly old men--two figures of immense historical importance--slipping towards death.

Regardless of how we see the Civil War today, or how we handle the moral quandaries that come with commemorating men while at the same time being appalled by the cause for which they fought, these were two men who lived long, humble, and productive lives. Accepting that Williams was a veteran in the same vein as Woolson, they deserved to have their achievements celebrated, if not for the sake of preserving their glory as soldiers, then at least to promote their civility and humility as men--as citizens, neighbors, and fathers. And taking as fact what the evidence seems to suggest, that Williams' claim was false, doesn't necessarily mean he deserves to be maligned in print as a sort of contrast against Woolson--the pretend veteran against the real one, the dishonorable man against the honorable one. After all, it's Serrano himself who suggests that Williams may have been little more than an old man grabbing onto a fantasy he thought was true. It seems almost perverse to maintain both storylines in the same book, framing a man as both a willing fraud and a misguided centenarian, and had Serrano explored those ideas instead of rushing past them in search of the next long diversion, he may have found something worth filling his pages.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tangents ("One Summer" by Bill Bryson)

For all the history contained within his books--the history of science, of language, of domestic life, of nations, of "nearly everything"--Bill Bryson's writing is grounded in the modern world. Read any other work of biography or historical nonfiction, especially concerning specific events, and you'll find the authors rehashing those events (and introducing the people involved) according to an exhausted formula:  begin with the event itself, capped off with a sentence or two about how this seemingly innocent time will change history; go back and start at the beginning of the story, when one or more of the principal players was born; trace the lives of those involved, making special note of disparities in their upbringings or experiences, as though they mean something more than what they really do; and treat the climactic moments as though it were the closing moments of a thriller, with sparse prose and short, matter-of-fact sentences. Along the way, the writer must stop for small sidetracks into historical context that add quite a lot to our understanding of the events themselves--social unrest, race relations, a changing social structure or shifting political ideologies--but often take away from the topic at hand and add little to the author's credibility.

In Bryson's books, however, those sidetracks are the story. In fact, where other writers see history as linear, destined to be written about as a series of events forming the inevitable straight line from Point A to Point B, Bryson sees history as a chaotic web of activity that, taken together, become a map of parallels, coincidences, contrasts, and strange incidents...what we might call actual history. (In other words, Bryson sees history as a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, whereas other authors see history as a paint-by-numbers still life; the importance is in the patterns and intersections, of which there are many, rather than the cleanliness of lines and isolation of color.) In a world where writing about history involves whitewashing out 95% of the information and 100% of the ethical ambiguity and nuance--the "textbook style" of writing--Bryson takes our past and its people for what they are, because it's that chaotic web that makes our collective human experiences worth studying.

One Summer is the story of four months in American history--a very narrow time frame for someone who has previously written about the entire scope of man's scientific inquiry. However, these four months--at least according to Bryson--are worthy of study, if for no other reason than their effects on the world in which we live today. Contained within that June-to-September span are monumental jumps in human progress, such as the invention of television by Philo Farnsworth and Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean. There is important social change--the beginning of Prohibition's end, for one, as well as a meeting of the rich and powerful that will lay the groundwork for the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression two years later. There is Babe Ruth making a surprise comeback, iron-bodied Jack Dempsey transforming the sport of boxing into a national obsession, and a murder trail that enamors an entire population with its scandal. And there are the figures both famous and infamous, many of them now forgotten, who shaped our entire world--sometimes intentionally, often accidentally--and whose flawless work fails to mirror the personal legacies they left behind.

Bryson's pages are populated by men and women who led fascinating lives and held powerful positions--Lindbergh, Ruth, Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone, Herbert Hoover, Lou Gehrig, and so on--but lived lives that were strange, controversial, and tragic, often all at the same time. Their stories are the heart of Bryson's book because, as Bryson very well knows, history is the story of individuals. In any other book we'd be asked by the author, in classic textbook-style fashion, to wonder if there ever could be another time and place when this sort of thing could have ever happen; in contrast, Bryson writes as though this seemingly random assemblage of stories is all that history truly is, and nothing more. And he does this because that's what history actually is, like a single streak of paint on a canvass:  alone it means very little, but taken as one stroke among hundreds and suddenly it's a portrait of something specific, something more than just its parts.

But we're forced to wonder, as we close the book--and what a bittersweet moment that is, to close the covers on a book by Bill Bryson--if Bryson's choice of these four months could be replicated with the same ease and outcome. Could there be another four months--not necessarily summer months, not necessarily American or from the previous century--that would reveal themselves to be just as relevant and engaging? The answer must be, undoubtedly, yes. And at the heart of Bryson's book is an awareness that, regardless of what subject or location or time period he could've chosen to write about, there would've been another 500-plus pages of material. Human history is rich and bottomless, and to only skim the surface of those waters--so sweet, so bloody--is to do a disservice to those individuals who stand in the past as forces of change. They do not stand as heroes or villains, but rather as gray figures deserving of our attention and our study but not our blind worship or scorn. After all, to know them is to know our history, our world, and ourselves, from one paint streak to the next. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Villainy ("I Wear the Black Hat" by Chuck Klosterman)

Towards the end of I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman, there is a section--a chapter? an essay?--in which the author discusses 90s gangsta rap group NWA; Jack Tatum and John Matuszak of the Oakland Raiders; their team's now deceased longtime owner, Al Davis; and Dutch auteur Lars von Trier, whose films seek out controversial topics like rape, racism, xenophobia, and adultery, and handle them, well, controversially. It's a bizarre combination of people that, outside of a Pynchon novel, would never have any valid reason for being assembled in one text. But in the ever-churning cultural-societal melange that is the mind of Chuck Klosterman, there is a perfect reason for this unique assortment of men to exist:  they are all, in their own special way, villains.

Specifics aside--and each of their individual connections to "villainy" are as interesting as they are diverse--Klosterman is attempting to understand just what makes someone a villain. The usually tendency to condemn a person as a villainous figure is based on inconsistencies and undefined, ever-changing criteria:  for example, someone like Hitler should undoubtedly be considered a villain, his actions having been responsible for the deaths of millions, but other men who committed similar crimes, or even brought about the deaths of two or three times as many people--Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong--are not placed within the same circle as Hitler. We've isolated Hitler, made him out to be the one and only Ultimate Villain, even when the very criteria used to judge his villainy judges other men as even worse. It's as though, in evaluating the wickedness of men, we administer the Hitler Test, and often the subject scores higher than the control.*

Similarly, villainy is often defined by the era in which its potential villains live. Klosterman examines these discrepancies as they occurred over the last two or three decades--Bill Clinton in the 90s versus Bill Clinton in 2012, Bernhard Goetz in the crime-addled New York City of the late 80s versus Bernhard Goetz today--but he could easily have reached back centuries and found examples that are just as pertinent.** For instance, an adulteress in the 1600s--let's call her Hester--would be shunned by her townspeople as the pinnacle of sinfulness and egotism--a living, breathing danger to those around her--while, four hundred years into the future, she'd be little more than a prototypical American woman, possibly even a reality TV star, some sort of "real" housewife whose lack of job skills allows her to spend all day drinking and being catty towards other, similarly hobby-less women.

But in reading Klosterman's book--a collection of pseudo-essays, each connected by the theme of villainy and containing an eccentric selection of figures real and fake--it becomes apparent that our author isn't too interested in deciphering a formula for villainy; in fact, within the first few pages, his theory--"villains don't care"--is pretty well established, and it carries Klosterman through the remainder of the text. Which is actually just as well, not because his theory isn't fascinating in its own way, but because, page after page, watching Klosterman wax philosophic over such a strange company of men and women, somehow drawing them into a web of similarities that makes perfect logical sense, is downright beautiful. Over the course of 200 pages, he manages to boil up a mixture of artists, politicians, athletes, millionaires, presidents, rappers, hackers, comedians, coaches...and make it work, despite all expectations to the contrary, as a stew of disparate ingredients that goes down smooth and tastes delicious.

Which brings us back to NWA, the Raiders, and Lars von Trier. The first is depicted as "villainous" only in an archaic sense:  they sang of race, violence, and inequality at a time when doing so, especially as blatantly and unapologetically as they did, was seen as little more than stoking the flames of civil unrest. Davis is a "villain" because he ran his organization with the sole purpose of winning, which is an obvious goal for the owner of a franchised football team, but in doing so he removed any accountability for the actions of his players:  as long as they worked to win, he didn't seem to care how much damage lay in their wake.

Tatum and Matuszak--a defensive back and a defensive end, respectively--are seen as "villains" for their actions while players in the NFL; Tatum is remembered for paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley from the chest down, an act he never fully apologized for, while Matuszak is depicted as someone whose dangerous lifestyle was either caused by--or was the cause of--how the public perceived his role on the team, which is almost paradoxical in a way:  does a player's violent off-field behavior inform his violent on-field actions, or do his violent on-field actions inform his violent off-field behavior? Does the player beget the man, or does the man beget the player?

Klosterman has no real say in the matter--he even refers to Matuszak's situation as being "less clear-cut" in comparison to Tatum's. However, his short sections on von Trier, specifically the filmmaker's over-eagerness to stroke controversy by speaking of Hitler and Judaism in an intentionally misleading way, offer some guidance in the matter. Von Trier is villainous for the sake of being so; he makes statements that are incendiary and all but certain to cause a stir, and he makes sure they're spoken in such a way that the over-eager and context-shunning media will take the bait. (Anyone who's seen interviews with Von Tier, like the one he did for The Story of Film, know he can be an intelligent and charming man, much against the self-made caricature of himself.) But does acting like a villain (and not meaning it) necessarily make one a villain?

By the end of the book, there is no clear answer here...and that's quite possibly the point. Just as there's no definite answer on von Trier--and NWA, and Davis, and the two Raiders players--there is also no conclusive evidence linking any one person to the label of Pure Villain. Even someone like Hitler, who is far and away the closest we have ever come to understanding pure evil--whatever that terms means--cannot be the standard-bearer, the definition, the model by which all others are judged. "Villain" is such an in-flux idea, constantly moving to fit the changing morals and ideals of our society--our hundreds of societies--that trying to wrangle a consistent measure is pointless. But that doesn't mean reading about them can't be just a little fun, never mind how slightly villainous that idea in itself might sound.

*This is a terrible analogy, so if you prefer.... Imagine you take a test called the Einstein Test, in which your intelligence ranked on a scale of 0--or incredible stupidity--to Einstein, which signifies that you are the most intelligent person alive, an equal to the great physicist himself. He is the Everest that you scale:  you may reach his peak and essentially become "the next Einstein," but you cannot exceed him. Now imagine you score Einstein + 1...smarter than the man himself, on a test named for him. You have climbed Everest and now somehow stand a foot above it. That is analogous to judging all historical villains against Hitler and finding, quite shockingly, that some exceed the test.

**My apologies to Bill Clinton for placing his name within the same dash-separated clause as a bigoted, squirrel-obsessed vigilante from thirty years ago. But it could've been worse--I could've mentioned him alongside Sarah Palin.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Inheritance ("Empty Mansions" by Bill Dedman and Paul Newell, Jr.)

When William A. Clark--copper industrialist, mining magnate, railroad tycoon, former United States senator--died in 1925 at the age of 86, his youngest child was only 19 years old:  a shy, sparkling daughter by the name of Huguette (pronounced "ooh-GET"). Born during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, Huguette would live long enough to see the election of Barack Obama--a life spanning almost 105 years. Taken with her father's lifespan, not to mention the late age at which he became a father for the sixth and last time, their story is one of two generations spanning 172 years, a monumental feat by any stretch of the imagination, and one that connects elements of American history that would otherwise seem too distant:  Martin Van Buren to Barack Obama; a union of 26 states to one of 50; the American Civil War, waged face to face with cannons and muskets, to the War on Terrorism, waged by tanks and Humvees and unmanned aerial drones; tintype photographs to digital cameras, telegraphs to Skype, the Pony Express to e-mail. The changes are endless.

But the story of these two individuals--an accomplished, cutthroat father and his beloved but withdrawn daughter--is more than one of historical bridges. It's the story of legacy:  what we leave behind when we depart this world. Both W.A. Clark and daughter Huguette lived full, interesting lives--lives supported almost entirely by unimaginable wealth and opportunity--but left behind vastly different legacies. Empty Mansions, ostensibly about how Huguette Clark spent her vast inheritance over her 105 years, is really the story of how two people connected through blood could walk such thoroughly different paths.

The first half of Dedman and Newell's book is devoted almost exclusively to W.A. Clark, with a special emphasis on his rags-to-riches early life and how, as he grew older, his ethics and his wealth fought for control over him. On the surface there seems to be little here concerning Huguette, other than to offer a backstory about where her eventual millions came from (and for the occasional anecdote about a doting father); however, in beginning with the story of Huguette's wealth rather than, say, her life interrupted every so often by backstory, the co-authors are offering up a financial contrast between father and daughter--how they used their money, how money affected them--rather than a biographical one, as much of Huguette's life revolved around artwork, real estate, a vast doll collection, and her correspondences with friends and family. The emphasis here is not on their obvious differences--W.A. Clark was a public man, whereas Huguette was private, downright reclusive--but their material ones. It is on these terms that Huguette Clark is defined, and it is also how the story of Huguette Clark becomes something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy.

You see, W.A. Clark used his money to gain influence and power over others, often for the benefit of his own status and legacy. This included buying his way into the United States Senate, which would eventually get him removed from office. (He would return to office, Dedman and Newell say, on his own merits a few years later, though he would accomplish very little there.) He used his power to gather up businesses, fight against competitors, and muscle his way into social circles that would have otherwise pushed back against his advances. He also built himself and his family a large, ugly behemoth of a mansion in the middle of Manhattan--one the family occupied for less than two decades and had to be torn down afterwards because of its cost, which no other buyer could afford--which would be the first of many Clark Family houses that would stand opulent but empty over the coming decades.

In contrast, Huguette used her inheritance to not only buy up expensive works of art, many of them handmade dollhouses built to her specifications in Europe and Japan, but to make the lives of her friends and family, not to mention casual acquaintances and even strangers, extremely comfortable. The depiction of Huguette's habits is one of a woman who has an innate understanding of how money can be spent--this becomes obvious in her later years--but not how it should be saved. Not that she was ever in danging of depleting her accounts, but Huguette's seemingly carefree ability to write a check for tens of thousands, continue paying pensions to the spouses of long-dead family employees, or pay in full the tuition for a friend's children is a direct challenge to the legacy of her father. It's an interesting and admirable way for one person to use their wealth, though it invited quite the number of blackmailers and thieves as she grew older--the very same kind of people who, a century earlier, would have seemed like successors to the practices of W.A. Clark himself.

In an era before campaign finance and the direct election of senators, when safety regulations, strong labor unions, and income equality were still fantasies of a majority of Americans--an era much like our own, the authors suggest--Clark used money like a weapon. His wealth poisoned him, and while he was far from a ruthless Scrooge, it's safe to say that he would never have accomplished so much had he been worth half as much as he was. Seventy-some years after his death, Huguette sat in a New York City hospital room--a place where she'd spend the previous twenty years of her life--as those around her seemed hell-bent on gathering up weapons of their own. Her cherished nurse, as well as the nurse's family, received checks from the old woman, which slowly gave way to requests for more--in one instance, one of her sons asking for a car--until they had received upwards of thirty million dollars in money and gifts...quite the income, even for a nurse who worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Banks stole from her safety deposit boxes, knowing she wouldn't report it for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself, and artwork was pilfered. Even her attorney and accountant, two men who should have had her best interest in mind, seemed to be drawing a suspiciously high amount from her, especially in a revised will that looked to benefit them greatly when she passed away. (Clark's wills are currently the subject of a massive court case pitting both of those men and Clark's trusted nurse against more than a dozen members of the Clark family, many of whom never met Huguette.)

W.A. Clark used his power, wealth, and influence to gather even more power, wealth, and influence; in turn, Huguette suffered at the hands of those who wished to gain the same from her. It's a strange cycle, perhaps the saddest aspect of the Clark Family's legacy--a moral on how the sins committed by our parents can come back as sins committed against us--and one that is tinged with an even greater sadness considering how much more goodness such wealth could have brought so many others over that century and a half. And regardless of how Huguette Clark's wealth and possessions are eventually distributed, there's little question that its inheritors will find themselves rich with money and objects that, despite their value, are little more than physical embodiments of the emptiness that comes with such fortune. After all, no matter how much art you store within their walls, empty mansions are still empty.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Journeys ("Love in the Time of Global Warming" by Francesca Lia Block)

I'm a sucker for odyssey stories. No matter the genre, any literary journey strums a chord or two somewhere in me that other books and plots do not, regardless of their own merit. Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson are the two works that immediately come to mind, both involving two very unprepared narrators on walks that span over a thousand miles, though there are certainly others.  But why? What is it about experiencing a journey vicariously through others--real or fictional, realistic or fantastical--that draws such profound reactions from readers?

The easy answer is, well, easy:  life is itself a journey, and these storylines represent, in some small way, the experience we all have on this small, cloudy marble. But this answer is too broad and overused, and at some point we have to look beyond the obvious and investigate ourselves. For example, the minute I got my drivers license I couldn't stay off the roads. Looking back it seems ridiculous--pointless, mundane reasons to get behind the wheel for hours, just moving from one street to another with no real destination in mind--and I cannot begin to imagine how much time, money, and gas I wasted in those aimless pursuits. But I can't be that hard on myself because those trips opened the doors to world beyond my small town; what began as 20- or 30-mile drives to shopping malls and movie theatres became excursions that lasted for days and took me (and my brother, and friends) to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and hundreds of smaller towns in-between. These trips cost very little money--just enough for gas, food, and a movie, with more than enough left over from my supermarket job for college--and I honestly don't know how I managed to pull it off. My parents didn't even put up a fight, even though it was technically their car--a seven-year-old Pontiac with great gas mileage but a poor driver--and they never knew exactly why I needed to go. All they knew was that I needed to, and it was good enough for them.

So why did I go? Why is it that, one year after graduating from high school, a friend and I decided--almost on a whim, with very little actual planning--to uproot ourselves for a week and drive over 600 miles to Cleveland, where there was absolutely nothing we wanted to see or do? We just picked a city--after ruling out Seattle, after ruling out Memphis--and drove. I don't remember how we got a hotel room for four days, though we did stay in one, and I don't recall spending one minute in Indiana, though we must have. Instead, I remember small, seemingly irrelevant details that have stayed with me as Big, Important Moments:  leaving Cleveland at midnight and passing a caravan of parked semi trucks, which ran alongside the highway for three or four miles, all their marker lights on full under a sky free of stars; a mall that, for whatever reason, had pink and purple swirls painted on every surface, a place we dubbed the "Wonka Mall"; walking out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after five minutes when neither of us could figure out why we were even there, except that it was something people talked about.

Or for that matter, why all those college weekends spent driving down Highway 41, from Green Bay through Oshkosh and Milwaukee to Chicago, to see four or five art-house movies that would be on DVD in a few months anyway? Almost a decade later, I should know the answers to these questions...and yet, I don't. Part of being a teenager, even a college student, is doing things without a clear enough reason, other than that they fulfill some longing inside you that is desperate to be satisfied but really is, and I was lucky enough to have family and friends who accepted this and even took part, even if they didn't fully understand. (Even today, the urge to spend my Saturdays and Sundays on the road is ever-present, though thankfully it's dulled somewhat with age and responsibility. Still, the road awaits, and I'm not one to turn a deaf ear to its siren call.) I can't say I did it to run away from anything--there was never an urge to drive away and stay, and I've always been an unapologetic homebody--and it had nothing to do with being a tourist or laying claim to arrogant pride that comes with being well-traveled. It was about exploring the world in which I lived--the world in which I would someday be an adult, with added responsibilities and problems--and about being totally free for the few moments in my life when that was completely possible. Kids--teenagers, college freshmen, what have you--live on maps with vague, gray borders that change with every given day, as though the world were still being redrawn in response to them, and perhaps by wandering like I did, as though I were some modern-day minimum-wage nomad, I was fulfilling one of the few responsibilities I had as a young adult:  walking away from what I knew and exploring what I didn't, not because I had to, but because I could. Because it was there.

However, there are those who explore because they must, not because they can. Such is the case with the protagonist of Francesca Lia Block's Love in the Time of Global Warming, which is set in a post-apocalyptic America. Centered around Penelope--later shortened to Pen, a nod to her gift for storytelling--Block's novel opens like a typical dystopian thriller, with landscapes ravaged by out-of-control weather, little food, and a roving band of thieving killers. Escaping their attempts to capture her, albeit barely, she embarks on a journey in search of her family, who were washed away in a sudden deluge but might still be alive. A lover of classic literature, Pen is guided on her way by Homer's The Odyssey, yet another story of a lost survivor trying to back to loved ones.

But this story is not what it seems. Our assumptions about the apocalypse's cause, supported by novel's chaotic weather and allusions to an overheated former world, not to mention the novel's actual title, are false. As it happens, the world was destroyed by an overzealous scientist and his creations--an army of giant, one-eyed genetic mutants--who now stalk the Pacific coast causing mass destruction. Along the way, Pen joins forces with other wayward teenagers--all of them seemingly gifted with superhuman powers, all of them familiar with The Odyssey, all of them LGBT--to fight back against the scientist and rescue her family. There is little doubt Pen's journey is written to mirror Odysseus', and that's perfectly fine--after all, a good adaptation, especially of such a significant and rich literary work, can still be a story all its own, ala O Brother, Where Are Thou?--just so long as it's done right.

The most difficult part of allegorizing one of the most important works literature is balancing the original with the new--that is, preserving enough of the original story to make it a loyal update while also departing from it enough that it isn't a lazy ripoff. Unfortunately, this is where Francesca Lia Block's book suffers greatly. Not only does Love in the Time of Global Warming feature not one but four protagonists who rely on Homer's original tale to guide them through the post-apocalypse--in essence, an allegory of The Odyssey that also features The Odyssey as a main driver of the plot, which is simply ridiculous--but the similar characters and plot-points are not so much alluded to as copied outright, with updates that are supposed to modernize the story doing little more than reducing one chapter after another into helpless parody. The Lotus-Eaters who populated an island of drug-fueled laziness in Homer's tale are now lotus-eaters who populate a hotel of drug-fueled laziness in Block's.* Circe, the seductress who transformed Odysseus' men into slobbering pigs, is now a failed TV star who has one "minion," a teenage boy she brainwashes with pastries and keeps in a collar. And the cyclops who terrorized Odysseus and his men are still cyclopes, only now they're genetic mutants who supposedly cause earthquakes.

Though to be fair, that might not be true. From the book's very early pages,  encounters with the Giants are strange and inconsistent--they're big enough to rest on mountains, they're small enough to hide in a store, they're illiterate, they understand complex narratives--leaving some doubt as to whether these creatures even exist at all. Even more, Pen's encounters with them are less human-versus-monster and more human-versus-human, only the human being attacked has created a fantasy in which her attacker is not of her own species, almost like an abuse victim whose mind has engineered a fabricated reality to avoid dealing with the real one. (Pen is also led places by strange butterflies that appear randomly, which is never explained, and much of the novel moves between what is happening and Pen's flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations, all of which are presented indistinguishably and in italics.) For the novel's first 50 pages, Pen seemed less like a lost survivor and more like an unreliable narrator whose own mind is nothing but a pool of delusions, and we're left to reconstruct what happened to her through possibilities related to this diagnosis. Had the ambiguity around this issue been intentional, it would've been a risky but interesting choice on the author's part; unfortunately, it reads like the effects of sloppy writing.

Which is a shame because there are rare moments and flourishes--the ones that mark Block's strongest departures from The Odyssey--that are the novel's most memorable and interesting. A scene in which Pen and her two companions visit a museum, one that she and her mother visited often, for the sake of seeing if art has survived is especially poignant, though its emotional depth is ruined when yet another Giant appears, this one sporting two eyes and a spoken desire to fatten up Pen into a good wife. (She is then tied to a bed in a newer wing of the museum and fed tendon-heavy meat until freed by friend and love interest Hex, who wields a Japanese sword.) As the novel moves closer and closer towards its close, it becomes increasingly overwrought and ludicrous:  the main villain strokes his goatee as he speaks, the love scenes between Pen and Hex read like something in a Harlequin romance, and a closing plot twist related to Pen's parents and her special powers--though for some reason not the others'--is eye-rolling in its silliness. When the story finally ends--and it does so, grindingly, with one last overdone surprise--it feels less like an accomplishment and more like a betrayal of Homer, whose epic poem could easily have been read in the same amount of time and with much more enjoyment.

When I say that I have a soft spot for long journeys--by real men and women, by fictitious inventions--and that I'm a sucker for those stories, I make that statement with one obvious caveat:  just because I'm a sucker for those kinds of stories doesn't mean I'm a sucker, period. Regardless of the journey your characters take, if the story isn't well written--if the dialogue is stilted, the emotions cliched, the prose so shoddily written it seems as though it were done on purpose--then it doesn't matter where your characters are going, or why, or with whom...the entire experience is painful. Reading about someone else's journey is itself a journey for the reader, one that draws out a deep sense of understanding--we feel the pull of wanderlust, the bitterness of being homesick, the flatness of the road beneath our feet. That is why a book like this is so deeply unfortunate: a road trip that could've gone somewhere promising if only its driver had embraced the joys and freedoms of such an experience.

*You would think, in an age of runaway drug abuse and drug-abuse hysteria, the author could have thought up something different. After all, it's been more than two millennia, and there is Ecstasy now.