Rainbow Pie, part 2.

So, with all the caveats out of the way, why did I find Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir so fascinating?

Well, first, because Bageant describes a world so like my own. His first chapters describe his youth growing up near his extended family and their farm in Virginia, and how his grandparents ("Pap" and "Maw") were very can-do people. I too grew up on a farm and know people who knew how to do things (and regularly did them) like raising one's own animals, hunting, butchering, raising gardens, canning food, and fixing and maintaining all the farm machinery.* So a lot of that--the missing it and not missing it, which Bageant displays, I can relate to.**

But I also like Bageant because he takes me out of my comfort area. I'm a Northern girl, and there are often things about the American South (culture, history, how anyone can stand the climate) that I don't understand. Bageant makes that world more clear for me. And he does it as a person whose ideology I respond to almost as instinctively as I often respond to Wendell Berry's.

On politics: "Today he [a Republican neighbor] would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understanding something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined--men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible." (p. 52.)

On what to do now: "Ok. I'll say it so you won't have to. There ain't no goin' backwards. We certainly can't all take up horse farming or go to sowing lespedeza hay and oats. Of course not.

But the underlying theme here is loss, and that loss poses some big questions. It is at all possible to regain a meaningful, positive, and satisfying expression of character while working in such a monolithic, non-human scale of 'production'? Anybody else feel like America is just one big workhouse, with time off to shit, shower, and shop? Or is it just me?" (p. 69.)

On community: "A community with no memory of its dead is no real community, because it has no human connectivity grounded in time--just interaction. It's merely a location populated by disassociated beings. A community's inherited memory from its dead provides its spiritual and moral animation, its posterity. This is because we are humans, not aggregations of marketing or employment demographics, and are more than just a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time." (p. 111.)

I could go on and on. But I really just think you should read it. I really do. Even with its many issues. (I think Bageant should have included more family stories and a bit less class warfare discussion; some of it's uncomfortable; he concludes without providing much in the way of suggestions for change; etc.) Read it and feel free to complain to me about any of those issues, but also tell me what you THOUGHT about it. I want to know.

NOTE: Re-reading these reviews I notice I've done a terrible job of explaining why I both loved this book (and Bageant) and am conflicted about it. If you just watch this brief video of him talking (please note it's not really suitable for work), I think you'll see his anger and understand my conflict. My question after that is, how, Joe? How do you try to educate and help people? People who may or may not want education and help?

*I don't know how to do any of these things, although if forced, I could maybe plant, maintain, and harvest a garden. But it would be a half-assed garden and would mostly be eaten by bugs and bunnies, and if I had to work in it when it was much warmer than 70 degrees out I would be swearing a lot.

**These were also not people who believed in government "handouts." "Pap may have been a Democrat, but he felt free to cuss either party and its candidates with equal fervor, if he was in the mood. He didn't like Coolidge, and, though he voted for FDR twice, he was leery of parts of Roosevelt's New Deal. Particularly Social Security. He could not grasp how a man could get money in the mail at the end of the month if he had not worked during the month...After he died, a shoebox of uncashed Social Security checks was found under his bed." (pp. 35-36.) That is SO something my grandpa might have done.

Glutton for punishment.

I'm pretty much done with politics. I've been pretty much done ever since I read John Bowe's superlative book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, in which he pointed out that the system isn't broken, the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work.

So why on earth would I check out George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points?

Decision I read the first chapter of it last night, and I just spent a good half-hour washing the dishes and thinking about it. My questions about this title and why I would read any of it are legion. Let's consider them, shall we?

Q: Why would anyone who is done with politics, and who was no fan of W., be interested in this book?

A: Sometimes, when I am in a whimsical mood, I find autobiographies and memoirs by people I dislike amusing. In this case I was also vaguely curious to see how W. put a spin on the events of his life and presidency. I liken this, particularly in George W. Bush's case, to "getting inside the mind of a serial killer,"* which is a reason some people cite for reading True Crime. Also, this is a book a lot of people will be reading, and the librarian in me wants to look it over. Last, but not least, it always gives me an illicit thrill to check out Republican memoirs from--gasp--publicly funded libraries.

Q: Does W. himself actually believe this stuff?

A: I don't know. Sure seems like it. In the first chapter, W. gives a flash history of his life up through 1986 and his decision to quit drinking (chapter 2 starts in 1999, with his presidential bid). In a sick sort of way there was a lot to laugh about in the first chapter.** Here are the highlights:

"Nearly all the historians suggested that I read Memoirs by President Ulysses S. Grant, which I did." (p. xi.)

(I have my doubts about that. Grant's memoir is over 500 pages long. But I digress.)

"As the days at Andover wound down, it came time to apply for college. My first thought was Yale. After all, I was born there. One time-consuming part of the application was filling out the blue card that asked you to list relatives who were alumni. There was my grandfather and my dad. And all his brothers. And my first cousins. I had to write the names of the second cousins on the back of the card. Despite my family ties, I doubted that I would be accepted." (p. 13.)

"My attitude toward the [Vietnam] War was skeptical but accepting...One day in the fall of my senior year, I walked by a recruiting station with a poster of a jet pilot in the window. Flying planes would be an exciting way to serve...Dad referred me to a man named Sid Adger, a former pilot who was well connected in the aviation community. He suggested that I consider joining the Texas Air National Guard, which had pilot slots available. Unlike members of the regular Guard, pilots were required to complete a year of training..." (p. 16.)

And so on and so forth. There's more, about how his early oil businesses failed due largely to bad timing in the mid-80s (there's lots of talk about merging with other companies, not being bought out for political good will) but I just realized, typing just now, that I've hit the end of my whimsical mood. I'm rapidly passing into my disgusted mood, which for some reason often does follow the whimsical one. But more questions remain: Does this guy really think he wasn't going to get into Yale? (A corollary: can he imagine what it must be like to come from one of those backward families where not everyone does go to college, let alone Yale?***) Does he really think serving in the Texas Air National Guard counts as serving in the Vietnam War? Is he the dumbest man alive, or is he so clever he just appears dumb?

Anyway. Even with a lot of dishes to do I didn't come up to any answers for my questions. After the dishes I picked up Decision Points, read a few more pages, looked at the pictures, and checked the index for "cocaine use."**** Tomorrow I'll take it back to the library.

*Literally. And also.

**Laugh about in the way Albert Brooks describes in the movie Broadcast News: "At some point, it was so off-the-chart bad it just got funny."

***Sometimes I think about Helene Hanff, she of 84, Charing Cross Road, not having the money to attend college, and it breaks my heart. Particularly in light of this guy wandering through his years at Andover, Yale, and Harvard. That's all right--Helene educated herself, and gave us a great book about it: Q's Legacy.

****I'll end your suspense. It wasn't there.

Here's an attention-grabbing title: Fist Stick Knife Gun

Gun The book Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada, has been sitting on my table for weeks now. I can't figure out what I want to say about it.

I can't remember how I originally found the book, but I think I saw the title and felt that I had to read it. (I abhor violence and yet can't stop reading about it.) If you've never heard of him, Geoffrey Canada is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and you may remember him from this American Express Members Project spot:

The book is a memoir, and short: 181 pages, so it can be read fairly quickly. Canada describes his childhood growing up in the Bronx, and how he learned early on the neighborhood codes of how and when to fight, how to gain a rep so he didn't have to fight, and how quickly things can spiral out of control once violence is introduced. Thinking of children across America, across decades, having to learn these lessons made me very, very sad.* This description of what happened before the fight really got to me, for some reason:

"During the time I was sizing up my situation I made a serious error. I showed on my face what was going on in my head. My fear and my confusion were obvious to anyone paying attention. This, I would later learn, was a rookie mistake and could have deadly consequences on the streets." (p. 20.)

It's a pretty shitty world where a kid can't let what he's feeling show on his face without having the fear that he'll get the shit kicked out of him.

About half of this book is Canada's coming-of-age memoir, and the other half is more about his experiences with the Harlem Children's Zone and his opinions about what is going on in today's inner cities (and he is not shy about saying that everything on the streets changed and became exponentially more violent as handguns became ever more available).

Do consider reading it. Oddly enough, it's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. I salute this guy and believe more firmly than ever that people like him are much more worthy of attention and charitable giving than any asshole politicians.

*Not least because I know if I'd grown up in these surroundings I'd have been toast--I cried easily as a kid, no matter how much I fought it.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Wrestling with Moses

One of the best books I read last year was Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Moses I know I said enough with the heavy nonfiction reads, but I don't think this one really qualifies as "heavy." It's serious, but for one thing, it's not a really long book. And even though it is a serious historical story, it's also a very personality-driven and lively one.

In it, author Anthony Flint describes how Jane Jacobs (author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I still desperately want to read), a New York City resident and budding urban activist, took on Robert Moses, the New York city planner/builder who dreamed of dropping huge highways right through neighborhoody parts of Manhattan, in the 1950s and 60s. It's a fabulous book, and tells the story from both the urban design and personal activism points of view. I finished this one with a true appreciation for yet another feisty lady--Jane Jacobs--and the rare feeling that individuals can (or at least they were successful once) in taking on unnecessary "progress." Even if you can't think of anyone to buy this book for, consider gifting it to yourself.

So, who might like this book?

Anyone with an interest in or love for New York City.

Anyone with an interest in urban design or architecture.

Readers who enjoy character-driven histories.

Feminist readers who will find a lot to like in feisty (and very smart) lady Jane Jacobs.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Griftopia

There are not enough words to describe how awesome Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America is.

Griftopia And by awesome, of course, I mean depressing as hell. If you want to get a handle on a) how our political system now only functions as entertainment for the masses, and b) how thoroughly manipulated our financial markets are for the vast personal gain of the very few, then this is the book for you. And no one, NO ONE, can lay it on the line like Matt Taibbi:

"Bad political systems on their own don't always make societies fail. Sometimes what's required for a real social catastrophe is for one or two ingeniously obnoxious individuals to rise to a position of great power--get a once-in-a-billion asshole in the wrong job and a merely unfair system of government suddenly turns into seventies Guatemala, the Serbian despotate, the modern United States.

Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan is that one-in-a-billion asshole who made America the dissembling mess that it is today." (p. 34.)

I'll give him this: he tells the truth, so he makes me cry, but at least I'm laughing while I'm crying.*

Rest assured: he does not blame everything on Greenspan. He goes on from there to describe (in terms a normal person can actually understand) how the financial crisis of 2007-2008 actually got rolling, how the "commodities bubble" caused gas prices to go up (an event which had nothing to do with supply and demand), and how our politicians are currently busy selling our infrastructure to foreign investors for lump sum payments that vastly underestimate their value. The last anecdote I wowed my brother with from this book was how all the parking meters in Chicago have been sold to a consortium of foreign owners, and now they can't have street fairs anymore in Chicago. Why? Because the consortium wants to charge fair organizers for their day of lost meter business--and no one can afford what they're asking. (pp. 165-171.)

So who might like this book?

Anyone you know who feels ripped off by their vote for Obama.

Anyone you know who enjoys indignant profanity.

Anyone who know who might be interested in learning what a credit default swap actually is, without reading a whole boring business book on the subject of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

*Taibbi must have a great sense of humor and a sanguine personality. A friend told me she recently saw Taibbi speak, and he was quite chipper, especially in light of what he was talking about. This annoyed her--she didn't see how he could be so happy--but it made me feel better. Taibbi's one of the smartest guys around, and if he can write this whole book and understand it and STILL smile, well, that makes me feel better too.

Obit shockers.

I'm not quite old enough (just yet) to scan the obituaries on a daily basis, but today I bought the Sunday paper just for something a bit different to read, and did a cursory glance over the obits. Wherein I was shocked to see that a high school classmate of mine has died from cancer. Which is lousy. Considering that this particular classmate, although he was good-looking, smart, and athletically talented, was also completely offbeat and thoroughly nice. (The percentage of high school boys who match that description, by my estimation, is roughly .000005% of that population.) This is not fair--I'll bet all the assholes from my high school class (who comprised 98.5% of the population) are still living. 

My local newspaper is now also including short obituaries "of note," which is actually kind of a helpful journalistic feature, and is where I learned that Chalmers Johnson, age 79, has also died. For those of you who have never read him, Johnson is best known for his master nonfiction work titled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, in which he posited that--get this--America's increasingly imperial and military actions worldwide might increasingly foster anti-American sentiment and retaliations ("blowback.")* Two more volumes in the "Blowback Trilogy" are The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (American Empire Project) and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (American Empire Project). All three are fascinating reads, but if you're looking for a place to start (and some well-written nonfiction prose, to boot), I wouldn't look any further than Blowback.

So, gah. I think I'm off buying Sunday papers for a while; evidently I AM at an age where I should be reading the obituaries, and I don't want to.

*He wrote this before 9/11, mind you.

The Wars We Inherit.

I have never, ever read anything like Lori E. Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory.

I placed it on hold during one of my monthly trolls through the New Nonfiction list my friendly local library publishes, simply because I often do read titles about the military. But whatever I was expecting, it wasn't this. I only read it this past weekend because it's coming up due, and I thought, I should at least see what it's about. I wasn't particularly in the mood to start it, or feeling like a book about the military or violence. Although I could put it down after I started it, I found myself reading it again the morning after I first picked it up--at five a.m., when I couldn't sleep.

I don't know what I was expecting, from the title, but I wasn't expecting a mix of memoir and scholarly dissertation on the nature of violence in our world and in all of our lives. Amy opens the narrative with several chapters about her own child- and young adulthood, describing in particular her relationship with her father Frank, and his relationship with her mother and his other children. Raised as an army brat, while Frank served in both Korea and Vietnam (and then on various bases throughout the country), Amy tells a (sometimes horrific) tale of sexual and psychological abuse. She doesn't go into great detail, choosing instead to focus on how she went about remembering her childhood, and talking with her other sisters and brothers to piece together the stories of their family life.

So, you say, it's an abuse memoir--there's (so sadly) tons of those. No. Where Amy takes this book into new territory is her use of her own history, including her marriage as a young woman to a Navy officer, to "illuminate the relationship between the violence that we experience in our homes and the ways that we organize our culture." (p. 1.) In the second half of the book, Amy continues to explore not only her own family dynamic--and the dynamics of her sisters' families--but she also, ambitiously, takes on broader issues of militarization, gender roles, and violence in all aspects of our society.

It's a work you have to take as a whole, and at 189 pages, it should be taken as a whole. But there is one part I can't resist quoting, as the author remembers an experience she had while she was teaching school in 1991:

"I heard about it during third period--that Todd's stepfather had come back from Kuwait, where his reserve unit had been deployed during the Persian Gulf War, with pictures. He has these pictures displayed in the auditorium, and studnets have been going in all day to look at them. Photographs of dead Iraqis--limbs missing, blood everywhere. I can't believe the high school principal let him bring these pictures to school, set up a public display. I can't believe this school is sending students in to look, with pride, at pictures of dead Iraqis. The boys come back from the auditorium, euphoric, happy, proud...What are we doing to these boys? They are children--fourteen, fifteen, sixteen--they don't even shave! And these words are coming out of their mouths, dehumanizations, obscenities. They are learning to forget that these are human beings they are looking at...

I told my students: This is wrong. This war, these deaths, these things are cause for grief, for mourning, not for celebration. I told the principal these pictures should not be displayed. I had my students watch the news, explained to them the history of the 1980s, when the United States was funding Saddam Hussein and building his army. I tried to give them some of the historical context of which they were completely ignorant--about the Shah of Iran, the revolution and the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war. My students told their parents what I told them. Their parents compalined to the principal. The principal told me not to talk about the war anymore.

Amnesia. Denial. A blind patriotism that, in its blindness, loves killing." (pp. 122-123.)

I repeat: This is an extraordinary book. It is a university press book, but it belongs in every public library. Book groups should read it. Even if you don't agree with what the author is saying, I think you would have to agree that she is trying to be thoughtful and fair while she is saying it. In fact, speaking of high school, it should be required reading, along with Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Vintage Departures) and Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War.

War nonfiction hiatus.

If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.

Junger The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."

The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.

What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most excting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it...In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die---though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." (p. 144-145.)

"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)

Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.

War...what IS it good for?

Right now in my house there's more than 1500 pages of information and history about war waiting to be read, spread out over four different titles. I am not going to have the time to get all of those pages read, nor am I going to have the stomach for it, so I will have to pick and choose.

The first book is titled Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, by Susan A. Brewer. This book looks interesting, and I have always been interested in the uses and effects of propaganda (it's the former Communication Arts major in me), but it's a more scholarly book and I'm just not up for it right now. I did read the introduction last night, and must say I lost interest after this sentence: "As we will see, propaganda can promote a legitimate war such as World War II or a flawed conflict such as Vietnam." (p. 7.) Now, "legitimate" is a better word than "good" or "valid," but I still think it itself constitutes propaganda, and, if thought about, only continues to stigmatize veterans of later, more "flawed" conflicts. People think I'm nuts when I say things like this: but can any war really be called "legitimate"? I just don't know.

Stripping The second book is a monster titled Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War, by Mark Danner, and it looks really fascinating. In fact, because I would probably never get through this one in the four weeks allotted me by the library, I have been thinking about buying it, just to have it around and to support Mark Danner, who has written several interesting books based on his reporting career. In this book his journalistic pieces from a number of the world's hot spot--Haiti, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan--were chosen to reflect what the book jacket promises: "it tells the grim and compelling tale of the true final years of the American Century, as the United States passed from the violent certainties of the late Cold War, to the ideological confusions of the post-Cold War world, to the pumped up and ruthless evangelism of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and the ruins they have left behind." Please note this book's cover, which I find scary as hell.

No judgment yet on David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, as I have been waiting for it on hold for a long, long time, and still hope to get it read before it has to go back to the library.

But will I be in the mood for that one when I'm done with Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick? I don't know. I only started it yesterday, but it's pretty chilling. In this one, reporter Frederick describes the activities of one specific platoon of soldiers--the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment the 101st Airborne Division--who were deployed in late 2005 to try and maintain order in the violent triangle between the Iraq cities of Mahmudiyah, Lutufiyah, and Yusufiyah (just south of Baghdad). Under ridiculous amounts of threats and stress, some of the soldiers in this unit engaged in war crimes that I really don't even want to describe, but which involve the murder of an Iraqi family. Atrocities were also perpetrated against them; this is the same unit from which several servicemen were taken, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

I may be ready for some lighter reading when I'm done with any of the above books.

Not so funny after all.

I'll admit it. I checked out Going Rogue (Sarah Palin's autobiography) from the library because I thought it might be kind of a hoot. I don't know why, really. Something about her bright smiling face on the surreal cover just gives me the giggles. (And, on the inside cover, it notes that the book design is by "Got Moxie Design." This also strikes me as funny.)

Rogue But then I got to all of page 2, when she is sharing how her daughter Piper was shown in a poster used by the organization Alaska Right to Life, and I just got sad. Primarily because I started wondering why so many pro-life people are also so pro-war. It was too depressing a thought for words, and it was really a deeper philosophical question than I wanted dredged up during the reading of what I thought might be a pretty ridiculous political autobiography.

I did persevere for about forty more pages, but I don't have much to report other than a) it's standard political autobiographical fare, with, one can only guess, massive whitewashing of Palin's idyllic Alaskan childhood, and b) it's actually not the worst-written thing I've ever read, which was a bit surprising.

I'm going to return it now, so the next person in line can get it in a timely fashion. I hope they are a member of the Tea Party, otherwise paragraphs like this are just going to make them chuckle:

"One part of athletics I really appreciated was our local chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which I co-captained under the leadership of the Wasilla Warriors' wrestling coach, Mr. Foreman. At least sixty of us met in public school classrooms for Bible study and inspirational exchanges that motivated us to focus on hard work and excellence.* In those days, ACLU activists had not yet convinced young people that they were supposed to feel offended by other people's free exercise of religion." (p. 28.)

In other Palin news, Bookninja posted a link the other day to a story about her PAC purchasing numerous copies of this book (however many copies $63,000 gets you), and paying for her photography and book tour travels.

*Because Jesus was all about the "excellence." 

You go, Jane Jacobs.

The book which has held me captive since Sunday night is titled Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Too On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint.

Moses The reasons I love this slim history are legion. I had never read anything about Jane Jacobs (a longtime New York City resident and activist, and author of the architecutral and urban planning classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities), but she is a fascinating woman. Through the 1950s and 1960s she fought against City Hall (and "master planner" Robert Moses, who was responsible for building numerous bridges, highways, parks, and residential buildings across the city for decades through the middle of the twentieth century), primarily to save Washington Square Park from having a highway built through it, and against the construction of an elevated ten-lane highway across the tip of Manhattan.

I also loved this book because it is a great slice of history. In a succinct 195 pages, it provides information about the history and planning of New York City, controversies about urban renewal and development, the remarkable career of Robert Moses, and the even more remarkable career and personality of Jane Jacobs. Of course I loved this book because it is about New York City, and I wish I had a cool author name like "Anthony Flint." But the front and center attraction of this book is Jacobs herself. Consider her conduct at a sham city hall meeting to gather community feedback about the proposed elevated highway:

"Though the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to collect opinions about the project, it had been hurriedly scheduled--to make sure testimony was gathered before legislation passed that required an even more extensive public approval process...The manner in which the meeting was being conducted--the microphone faced toward the audience, not the officials the residents were nominally addressing--suggested that state officials were just going through the motions...

From the seat she'd taken near the front of the auditorium, Jane Jacobs made her way up the stairs and onton the stage. 'It's interesting, the way the mike is set up,' she observed tartly as she reached the microphone. She was calm, and her expression was matter-of-fact. 'At a public hearing, you are supposed to address the officials, not the audience.'

The chairman of the hearing, John Toth of the New York Department of Transportation, bounded down from the statge and turned the microphone around. But Jacobs turned it right back.

'Thank you, sir, but I'd rather speak to my friends,' Jacobs said. 'We've been talking to ourselves all evening as it is.' The crowd roared with laughter." (pp. xii-xiii.)

From there she went on to call for a silent protest march across the stage, during which the stenographer's rolls of tape documenting the meeting were destroyed (which meant there was no public record, and the meeting couldn't be counted), called it a "fink meeting," and was arrested.

It's a great book, and it has spurred me to consider, again, reading Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I always used to shelve it at the used bookstore, and wonder if I should read it, and then for years I would shelve it at the public library and give it some more thought (it went in and out quite regularly); but it was so thick I never got around to it. Maybe now is the time.

Men I Love: Second in a Series.

I have always had a little thing for Jimmy Carter.

Carter Which, let's face it, is pretty much the only reason I picked up Kevin Mattson's new book "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. For one thing, I'm not a big history reader (unless it's about British history, or labor history, or the holy grail of my history nonfiction reading, British labor history); for another, that's not really a title that inspires a whole lot of "wow, I've got to read this one!"*

But I do find it interesting that there's actually a growing little subgenre of nonfiction books in which authors look at history and presidents through specific speeches**; I'm somewhat interested in speeches and rhetoric (as only the nerdy author of a public speaking handbook for librarians can be); and what the heck, it was only 217 pages long. 

The book takes as its subject the summer of 1979, primarily its gas shortages and cultural ennui, and examines how President Carter sought to address the energy crisis and what he described as America's crisis of confidence. One of the most interesting things (to me) about the story is how Carter sought to hear a variety of viewpoints, and duly invited groups of people (people other than politicians and lobbyists, note) to the White House to talk these issues over. When he was done, he charged his speechwriters with creating (with his input) the speech he would give on July 15, 1979. The entire text of the speech is also provided as an appendix, so you can read it for yourself, and I would do so:

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,*** too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose...

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate...We believed that our nation's resources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence on foreign oil.

These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed." (p. 212-213.)

I won't lie to you; although it's not obnoxious, this is not an author who is being very critical of Carter, although he does point out his many and obvious missteps. But he's also an author who has managed to weave a compelling slice of history out of a speech that has been largely misremembered by an entire nation. If nothing else, he also does a good job of placing the speech and Carter's presidency in historical perspective as the one that paved the way for Reagan (and the Cult of Reagan and all that went with it), as evidenced in this quote:

"I remember the exact moment I knew Ronald Reagan could beat Jimmy Carter. The date was July 15, 1979." (Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster.)

It's an interesting book. If you're up for a historical stroll through the late 1970s, this might be a good place to start. Now off with you, and have a good weekend.

*Or is it? I think it's kind of a clunky title, myself. I might have chosen How to Lose the White House: Endeavor to be Decent and Intelligent.

**David Maraniss's The Clinton Enigma is also a fabulous little book.

***I would guess that most atheists are probably not Carter fans.

Well, I'm with you in theory, but that's about it.

I was amused by the jacket copy on Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free:

Idiot "The culture wars are over. The idiots have won. This pisses Pierce off immensely. Like all cynics, he's secretly a romantic at heart, and his disbelieving anger is fueled by the knowledge that America doesn't have to be this way. Like an Old Testament prophet (albeit an agnostic, funny one), Pierce lets loose on the foibles of society in the secret hope that, somehow, being smart will stop being a stigma and idiots will once again be pitied and not celebrated. But don't get your hopes up."

Pierce is a journalist and appears regularly on NPR; he can write and his prose is reasonably entertaining. But I'll admit I never got past the first chapter, in which his chief evidence that idiots are taking over is a line from a New York Times article about intelligent design, in which the reporter wrote that the ID movement "have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive."*

Really. That's the sentence he holds up as the shining example of the ridiculousness of the idiocy in our society.

Nothing against Pierce, but if that's the best he can do, I'm not impressed. I might suggest that a greater break with reality is evident in the phrase "keep government out of my Medicare," which I actually saw people say on the news last week. I think a bigger problem is that very few people could probably tell you what the theory of evolution actually is, or how it differs from intelligent design; and that another large chunk of the population simply hates the New York Times on principle because they think it is elitist or too smart. But that's just me.

In all, don't bother with this book. Pick up Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War instead--it's a million times more interesting and provides a nice mix of empathy and frustration, which Pierce's book totally misses.

*Authors always lose me when they start pointing out that only idiots would ever have any questions about evolution. I find the entire debate deeply uninteresting (I've never really understood why it's even a debate, frankly, since one of the major religious tenets seems to be that if you believe in God, you believe God can do anything, so why couldn't God set evolution in motion?), but I always think it's hilarious when anybody holds up a belief in evolution as the gold standard of intelligence. Richard Dawkins falls firmly into that camp too, and you know what? He's boring too. Maybe boringness and the tendency to sound like an asshole evolved along with the need to make everyone accept evolution as gospel** truth in writers of this sort.

**Pun intended.

World enough and time.

Is it wrong that I waste prayers* on the subject of keeping my eyesight until I die, so someday when I'm really old and retired and my children don't visit me, I can at least spend all my time reading? Because I actually have a list of authors whose entire lists I'd love to read, but who I just don't have the proper time for right now?

Susan Sontag is one of those authors. I've always found her really interesting, even though I've only read snippets of her work. I tried to read On Photography once, but it was a bit over my head. Whenever I see her novels in used bookstores, I think about trying one of those, too, but I never do. I am also fascinated by her relationship with Annie Leibovitz, which was at least partially chronicled in Leibovitz's photography collection A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 (Leibovitz's photographs of Sontag after her death from cancer in 2004--she was 71 years old--are some of the most simultaneously beautiful and saddest I've ever seen). The two also collaborated on a work published in 2000 and titled simply Women.

The book I had home this week, and which I won't get enough time to read (add it to the "retirement list") was Regarding the Pain of Others. I'm not sure where I got the idea to check it out; recently I indexed a book about World War I posters and war photography, which led me to look into broader issues of the pictorial depictions of wars, and I must have stumbed across it sometime during that (I'm guessing). This is how it begins:

"In June 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, her brave, unwelcomed reflections on the roots of war. Written during the preceding two years, while she and most of her intimates and fellow writers were rapt by the advancing fascist insurrection in Spain, the book was couched as the very tardy reply to a letter from an eminent lawyer in London who had asked, 'How in your opinion are we to prevent war?' Woolf begins by observing tartly that a truthful dialogue between them may not be possible. For though they belong to the same class, 'the educated class,' a vast gulf separates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is 'some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting' that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy." (p. 4.)

That, to me, is an opening that promises a very interesting book. And I love Sontag's prose; it's crisp. She's got a way with description (I love the image of Woolf observing "tartly"), and even when her sentences require a bit of deciphering on my part**, she's expressing complex thoughts as succinctly as really is possible.

*I know it's wrong. I try to throw a few prayers at the problem of world peace at the same time to make up for my selfish personal needs.

**Think on this one a while: "The destructiveness of war--short of total destruction, which is not war but suicide--is not in itself an argument against waging war unless one thinks (as few people actually do think) that violence is always unjustifiable, that force is always and in all circumstances wrong--wrong because, as Simone Weil affirms in her sublime essay on war, 'The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,' violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing." (p. 12.) That's a sentence I need a few days with.

Ah, serendipity.

Remember how, a while back, I was looking to find the portrait of Helene Hanff (she of 84, Charing Cross Road fame) that Elena Gaussen painted? (The artist and the painting are described in Hanff's sequel to 84, CCR, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.)

Well, Google had turned up nothing, except for a bit more information on the artist, Elena Gaussen Marks, and her husband, Leo Marks (whose father originally owned the bookshop to which Hanff wrote about in 84 CCR). So I was resigned to never seeing the portrait. However, as I read more about Leo Marks and his career as a codemaker during World War II (and as the author of lovely cipher poems), I became more interested in reading his book, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945.

So I checked the book out at the library, brought it home, and looked at it for a few weeks, longingly, as I didn't have time to start it right away. Finally I decided I would just have to get it back some other time, but before I returned it, I opened it up to check out the pictures in the middle. I don't know how you feel about this, but I am fundamentally unable to put a nonfiction book down before I have looked at its pictures (if any are available). Even if I don't get them read, I always look at ALL of the pictures in whatever nonfiction books I drag home. I don't know why. They're usually the first thing I look at when looking at new nonfiction books in bookstores, too. So before I returned Between Silk and Cyanide, I went to look through the pictures, and guess what I found?

"Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, by Elena Gaussen Marks." A picture of the portrait! Or at least I'm guessing it's the portrait. (As my sister says, how many can there be?) It's not at all what I expected, but it's beautiful in its own way. So there it is, and if you want to see it, all you have to do is check out Leo Marks's book. All I can say is, suck that, Google.

You're preaching to the choir, dude.

So, here's my question about political books. How do people stand to read books that only share and provide facts about their own personal points of view? I'm talking about the Ann Coulter and Al Franken political readers of the world. For the most part, the only people reading those books are the hardcore disciples who completely agree with everything they already think. To me, that sometimes seems like nothing more than a big waste of reading time.

Reagan Take a book like William Kleinknecht's The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America. Now, I am of the opinion that Ronald Reagan was a total shithead. So you'd think, wouldn't you, that this book would be right up my alley? And I guess it could be. But after reading the Introduction, I just couldn't get myself to read any further. For the most part, I was completely in agreement with everything the author said. If I had any sort of memory (I don't, sadly, except for book titles and the names of BBC actors and the literary adaptations in which they appear, you know, the really important stuff) this would be a great book from which to learn facts and interesting tidbits about the many and exact ways in which Ronald Reagan was a total shithead. Consider:

"But therein lies the great myth of Reaganism, for his betrayal of the working people of America could not have been more complete. Thanks in large part to Reagan's policies, the two periods of economic expansion that followed his election did little for Americans in the middle and lower income brackets...Expressed in constant 1998 dollars, households whose wealth placed them in the bottom 40 percent of the country had seen none of the benefits of two decades of economic growth. Between 1962 and 1983, the average household net worth of that group had grown from $800 to $4,700. But by the time Reagan was out of office in 1989, that group had a negative net worth of $4,100; that is, they were in debt for that amount...

The real winners in that economic growth were the wealthy. The top 1 percento fhouseholds saw its average net worth grown from $7.2 million to $9.1 million between 1983 and 1989, a 26.9 percent increase that far surpassed the 6 percent growth for the middle 20 percent." (pp. xiv-xv.)

Now, that's interesting stuff. But the problem* is, a. I know numbers can be largely manufactured or construed to say pretty much whatever you need them to say, so it's hard for me to get too passionate about them, and b. I'm never going to remember them anyway, so I can have them ready for when someone asks me why my gut feeling is that Ronald Reagan was a total shithead. So yeah, this would probably be an interesting book (there are also chapters on Reagan's mastery of the media, deregulation, his big-business friendly policies, his campaign against Jimmy Carter, crime and punishment, tax, and his relentless pummeling of liberals and the New Deal). I just don't have the time or the heart or the inclination to read it right now. On the other hand, I do now have a title I can remember for the next time someone tells me how great Ronald Reagan was. They won't listen to me or read it or anything, but I'll at least have tried.

*My second problem with the book is this line, from the introduction: "This book is borne of annoyance: a great bewilderment over the myth that continues to surround the presidency of Ronald Reagan." I agree with that in spirit. But shouldn't it be "This book is BORN of annoyance"? Help me out, grammar experts, because if it should be BORN I'm going to be totally annoyed with this book.

What is the appeal of Curtis Sittenfeld?

I really don't understand why Curtis Sittenfeld is such a popular author.*

Wife Amazon.com named her latest novel, American Wife, as one of its best of 2008, and it made the New York Times Notable list** (although I was pleased to note that reviewers at both Publishers' Weekly and Bookmarks magazine called it "uneven" and providing a "pat, unsatisfactory" answer to some of its key questions). You know this novel; Sittenfeld herself describes it thus:

"American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of his adminstration are recognizable. All other characters in the novel are products of the author's imagination, as are the incidents concerning them."

The first lady in question is Laura Bush; Sittenfeld got a lot of her information from the biography The Perfect Wife by Ann Gerhart. (Her characters are named Alice Lindgren and Charlie Blackwell, and they're from Wisconsin, not Texas.) I don't have a problem, really, with Sittenfeld's writing; she's a competent, if not graceful, prose stylist, and you can actually get through the first 100 pages of this novel pretty easily and quickly. But here's the problem: Laura Bush is boring. So any book you base on her is going to be boring too. And even if you don't think she's boring, she's a woman who clearly and literally beds down with evil every night.*** Either way, is that a character you want to read about?

Give this one a pass. Sittenfeld does not need to be rewarded for her average prose and her "ripped from the headlines" plot device, which smacks ickily of a Jodi Picoult-like move to capitalize on news headlines and current affairs.

*Full disclosure: I've not been fond of Sittenfeld ever since her catty review of Melissa Bank's novel The Wonder Spot. Which, by the way, is about ten times the novel that American Wife is.

**Why am I still bothering to read New York Times Notable books? And I find it hilarious that Publishers' Weekly provided a much more astute review of this book than did the Times.

***Literally. Do you want to read and think about Laura and George having sex? I didn't.

Too good not to post.

I wasn't going to post today, but Andrew Bacevich is blowing me away with his book The Limits of Power. As my brother would say, this guy is a super-talent. Consider this timely nugget, from the conclusion:

"At four-year intervals, ceremonies conducted to install a president reaffirm this inclination. Once again, at the anointed hour, on the steps of the Capitol, it becomes 'morning in America.' The slate is wiped clean. The newly inaugurated president takes office, buoyed by expectations that history will soon be restored to its proper trajectory and the nation put back on track. There is something touching about these expectations, but also something pathetic, like the battered wife who expects that this time her husband will actually keep his oft-violated vow never again to raise his hand against her." (p. 173.)

Holy cow, Andrew, say what you mean, why don't you. I LOVE people who say what they mean. I love Andrew Bacevich.

All is not doom and gloom today: I'm doing some work and listening to Teddy Thompson, who is also a super-talent. Thanks for another great year of reading and talking about reading, and I hope your new year rocks at least as hard as this Thompson song.


The year's must-read.

Power I'm not calling Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism* a best book of 2008. I'm not saying it's a book you have to read. What I am saying is that you should buy it and give it to anyone who thought Ronald Reagan was a good president and a decent man:

"Reagan reiterated an oft-made promise 'to check and reverse the growth of government.'

He would do none of these things. In each case, in fact, he did just the reverse. During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office. Overall federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office." (p. 39.)

In all fairness, Bacevich has some shocking things to say about all the presidents since Kennedy; his thumbnail history of America in the 20th century in the first fifty pages alone makes this book a worthwhile purchase. He is also a succinct writer,** with what seems to me a keen grasp of the obvious:

"Long accustomed to thinking of the United States as a superpower, Americans have yet to realize that they have forfeited command of their own destiny. The reciprocal relationship between expansionism, abundance, and freedom--each reinforcing the other--no longer exists. If anything, the reverse is true: Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk...Rather than confronting this reality head-on, American grand strategy since the era of Ronald Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away." (p. 66.)

Oh, boy. Happy new year, everyone.

*I couldn't quite make it through 2008 without reading another political book.

**Bacevich is also a retired army colonel, and has had a son killed in the Iraq War. So any Republicans who don't think he knows what he's talking about as far as the military is concerned can just shove it.

Surprisingly interesting.

Even though I wasn't expecting to, and even though I hate its blah cover, I found myself really interested by Gregory Levey's memoir Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I learned in the Israeli Government. Levey, bored by law school and looking around for something new to do, applied to be an intern at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. Eventually they contacted him and told him they didn't hire interns, but they might have a speechwriting job for him. Wham, bam, and some scarily comprehensive security checks later, Levey was employed as a speechwriter, working with the Israeli ambassador and other political and United Nations dignitaries.

Levey There's a couple of funny things about that: 1. Levey was all of 25 at the time; 2. He had no experience in speechwriting, and 3. Although Jewish, Levey is not an Israeli citizen--he's Canadian.

On the bright side, this is a fascinating story, told in an appealing way. Levey would eventually end up moving to Israel for a time to work as a speechwriter for Ariel Sharon, so you learn a lot about the UN, politics, and the Middle East. On the down side, any illusions that you have about decisions being made and statements being drafted by the UN or any governing bodies being made by well-informed people with tons of time and resources on their hands will be shattered. It's amazing what all goes on in this world, and who's out there doing what. (In one memorable chapter, Levey even found himself at a UN meeting when he was supposed to vote on a resolution--which was awkward since he had no idea what the resolution was about! The solution? He found out how the US was voting, and voted the same--although theirs were the only two dissenting votes.) Fascinating if alarming stuff.