Making Sense

Oh, Generation X.

If we're all as long-winded and as boring as Jeff Gordinier's book X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, I can see why we don't have time left over to save the world.

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from SuckingI'm 90 pages in already and I can't for the life of me think of one thing to say about this book, or what Gordinier's point is. It's not that it's poorly written, it's just kind of, well, underwhelming. I think the basic point is that X is a generation stuck between the narcissistic Boomers and the hyper-connected Millennials, and it's a generation that can "do the old stuff really well--maybe as well as anybody ever could--but nobody seems to give a shit about the old stuff anymore. And this new stuff? You could do it well, too--you're flexible--if you could only figure out what it is. Because sometimes it looks like selling air." (p. xxx.)

Well, okay. That makes sense. But then Gordinier is off on a first-person tangent (his phrase) and pop culture references*, and I didn't pay much attention again until I got to the chapter where he picks on the Millennials, which I'll admit, I really enjoyed:

"These new kids cared about belonging, they cared about the group. They did everything in groups, they even dated in groups. They moved in noisy little packs, they only read books if there was a book club with which to share them, they networked, they sought out mentors, they kept each other in line. The wanted to connect with everyone; they wanted the world to cuddle up with them on Friendster and Facebook. They were unfamiliar with the notion of privacy. Solitude made them...uncomfortable." (p. 70.)

Well, I think he's honed in on why Millennials make me vaguely uncomfortable.

So I did what any slacker Gen Xer would do: I skipped to the end. Gordinier suggests that all Xers try to keep things from sucking by getting out there and...daring.

See? Underwhelming.

*At one point he compares the music videos for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Britney Spears's Hit Me Baby One More Time. Never having had MTV, I went and checked them out on YouTube--I'm flexible--and must admit I'm old enough to have been a bit shocked by the Spears video. Frankly, I even like the song,** but holy cow, that's quite the four-minute walking, talking definition of "jail bait."

**I mainly like the song because of this cover version by Scottish band Travis.

Human Smoke: Let's talk about it.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of CivilizationHas anyone else heard about this book Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker? I'd been on hold for it forever at the library, and it finally came in. I hadn't heard much about it, just that it was going to be controversial. And so it has been:

Anne Applebaum called it a "profoundly bad book about World War II."

William Grimes, for The New York Times, called it a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book."

And, holy cow, in this roundtable discussion at Ed Rants, they say lots of things about the book, most of which I don't understand, but all of which prove they a) read this book much more carefully than I did, b) know Nicholson Baker better than I do, particularly as a novelist, and are just c) way, way smarter than I am.

So, WHAT is it? Well, that I can nutshell for you. It is a history book about World War II, told entirely in disparate anecdotes, culled from newspapers, diaries, and other sources of the time, and which ends on December 31, 1941. I don't think there is any big secret that Baker means to skew it in the direction of stating "maybe World War II wasn't the best idea" (in his brief afterword, after all, he dedicates the book to American and British pacifists: "they tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."),

And HOW is it? Well, I'd be lying if I said I think Baker's on the wrong track with his pacifist bent. I also must say that I found the first forty pages of the book very, very interesting. But I will not be able to read the whole thing, and this was a surprise, because I've never thought of myself as a particularly story-driven reader. But to read 475 pages of something that has absolutely no narrative and few comprehensively drawn characters? That's tough.

That said, this would be a book I might actually buy, because Baker cites all his sources, and it does give you a lot of food for thought. When I read something like this:

"Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. 'It was decided,' Roosevelt later explained, 'that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%.' It was about 1922." (p. 9.)

I don't immediately believe FDR was a huge anti-semite. But it makes me want to learn a little bit more about him. The whole book, in fact, made me want to learn a little bit more about World War II, which is more than I can say for any of those crap-pandering Greatest Generation books or Stephen Ambrose's cottage industry tomes. Can that really be so wrong?

No, Baker is not a historian, which Applebaum points out so aggressively that it makes you wonder if she thinks her own career is secure (it should be; she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History). Nor is he an expert. I think the New York Sun review had it right: "No one who knows about World War II will take 'Human Smoke' at all seriously." And maybe that's why I think it's got merit, and it's unique, and it deserves at least a look. Perhaps people who don't know very much about World War II need to start getting educated--so we have a leg to stand on when we converse with people who know (or think they know) everything about World War II. I think that has value.

Forgot to add: There's an interesting post about this book over at Books Are My Only Friends. Also, the blurbs on the back of it are very interesting as well, from Daniel Ellsberg (author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers), historian Simon Winchester, Gar Alperovitz, and Chalmers Johnson. Johnson is the author of the superlative titles Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire; I will look at anything he puts his name on.

Title of the Year Award.

Men Are Not Cost-Effective: Male Crime in AmericaAnd I'm giving it to: Men Are Not Cost-Effective, by June Stephenson.

Now that's an eye-grabbing title, admit it.  Sometimes when I'm searching for other titles in my library catalog, I scan the other titles that come up in the alphabetical list, which is how I found this title.  So I just had to order it.

I know.  I have the nerdiest bad habits EVER.  I also spend a lot of time on the Internet, watching videos I shouldn't...of Jane Austen adaptations.  That's right.  It's porn for girls, and I'm addicted.

But, I digress.  Now, from Men Are Not Cost-Effective.  Check this out:

"Of the first-timers in state prisons, 73 percent of the males are charged with committing violent crimes, compared with 7 percent of the females.  Of those who had prior violent crime convictions, 98 percent of the males are returned to jail for committing another violent crime after being released, compared with 2 percent of the females." (p. 8.)

"The best case for making the point that men are not cost-effective is found in the group of almost entirely male criminals who are now costing US taxpayers an anticipated half trillion dollars.  These men are involved in the worst financial scandal* in the history of the United States.  Men fraudulently and premeditatively, or at the very least greedily, siphoned off savings and loan depositors' money to their own advantage, knowing that the government, or more precisely the American taxpayers, would make good on their crimes." (p. 126.)

"A consistent element in most rape is the lack of concern for the victim. As a consequence, the most difficult task in rape counseling treatment centers is to get rapists to develop a sense of empathy.  This is almost impossible for men who are devoid of emotions other than anger or frustration." (p. 209.)

June, God love her, goes on to suggest adding a "user's fee" of $100 on men's tax returns (since men are using the criminal justice system almost exclusively).  She also points out, succinctly, that "if guns made us safer, the US would be the safest country in the world."

The pub date on the book is 1995, so I would take all those statistics with a grain of salt.  But I like June's spirit.  How's 'bout it, boys?  Anyone up for putting $100 in the kitty voluntarily?  Mr. Citizen Reader probably wouldn't be in to it, but I could just start taking the money out of his wallet if it's all for the greater good.

*In our current era of government and financial scandal, doesn't the Savings and Loan scandal seem almost quaint?

Memoir Madness: Made in Detroit

For a long time, I wasn't up to reading memoirs.  They're almost like fiction for me in that there's so many of them available, I'm bound not to like the majority of them.  But when I find a good one?  Ooh, baby.

Okay, many people would argue memoirs are like fiction in a good many other ways, but I've never had the energy to join that particular fight.  You only have to try and recall any conversation you had yesterday to be able to put two and two together and figure that memoirs (many of which include events which took place years, not days, ago) are largely creations.  Doesn't mean they're not true.  They are one person's true viewpoint.  And I can happily deal with that. 

Made in DetroitThat's a topic for a different day.  What we have in captivity today is that rarest of wild animals: the memoir I loved and couldn't stop reading.  Paul Clemens's Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir should be required reading in any college class with the word "diversity" in the title.  Clemens grew up in Detroit and makes it a point throughout the book to stress that he and his family lived in Detroit proper, not the suburbs.  In other words, Clemens lived the life described in the book's blurb: "white in a predominately black city, Catholic in an area where churches were closing at a rapid rate, and blue-collar in a steadily declining Rust Belt." 

It's awesome.  I didn't really know much about Detroit before starting this book, although I'd started to get an inkling about the city from reading Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism.  (I'd also seen pictures showing numerous abandoned buildings in the city's downtown on another website, which was informative.)  But in addition to all that, this is also a fantastic story of growing up boy, growing up Catholic, growing up in a largely segregated city, growing up in what sounds like a beautifully no-nonense family, growing up in college, growing up through marriage and family, and living one's life fully while also trying to give it some thought.  There's only one small chapter where it drags a bit, but the whole makes up for it so beautifully I'm not going to split hairs. 

I also love that Clemens doesn't pull any punches.  He tells you how the city was for him then, and how he thinks about it now.  He doesn't waste any time, even in his very first chapter, dropping you right into the middle of the action (his mother wakes him up to follow and retrieve his father, who himself was rudely awakened by someone shooting out the windows in their truck; he chased after them in one car, and Paul chased after his father in another car) and finishing up with a perfectly detailed and surreal thought about "a city where, when your car was stolen and a black Detroit cop happened, several hours later, to arrive on the scene, the quizzical look you were given said, 'What are you doing here?'--as if, at seventeen, I were a doddering British farmer, stubbornly tending land in a country I insisted on calling Rhodesia."  (p. 7.)

Not to be too demanding, but I want all of you to read it immediately and then come back so we can talk about it; it's got a lot of things to say about race and society that I'd desperately love to talk over with someone. 

Whatever I do end up reading, it won't be this.

Writing like this just doesn't do anything for me:

"The American dream might be a nightmare.  What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins.  Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies--for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn's brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows." (p. 9.)

Against Happiness: In Praise of MelancholyNow there's nothing I really disagree with there, and it's from a book titled Against Happiness (by Eric Wilson), which is an interesting title.  But could you actually finish reading the paragraph above?  (I only could because I was typing it, although I nodded off a bit at "brownish indolence.")  I couldn't, and the whole book seems to be like that.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I'm hoping for bigger things from Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

Have a good cantankerous weekend, everyone.