All meat and no pulp make a banal reader, and caviar always tastes better when you’ve reset your palette with a tuna salad sandwich every now and again. I keep a secret stash of self-indulgent and politically-incorrect reads by the likes of W.E.B. Griffin, Craig Johnson, and Robert Parker. These writers and many others like them remind us that sometimes a trashy novel is better than an arty film.
Think me lowbrow? Believe yourself the better person because because you would never be caught dead with a formula procedural or bodice-ripper? To you, then, say I: faithless is the holy man who ignores the divine within the profane, and benighted are the literati who are blind to the virtues of the meanest scribe.
Now excuse me while I, literary taste-buds thoroughly cleansed, dive into James Joyce’s Dublliners.
In a departure from his normally humorous style, T.C. Boyle builds upon the little-known history of a forgotten American domain to spin a novel both lyrical and haunting. So perfectly are the characters and their setting woven together that I almost feel like I was reading Steinbeck.
I finished the novel late at night, and, sitting up on the edge of my bed, opened my windows so I could invite in the mist and listen to the sea lions sing a duet with the foghorn.
When my biggest P.R. client relied on licensing for its most important revenue stream, I figured it might pay to learn a bit about the law behind their business. Laughable, perhaps, both because a P.R. person was bothering to actually study the law and because this Dummies volume isn’t exactly Goldstein and Reese’s. The effort was worth it nonetheless: while I thought I understood enough about intellectual property law to get by, I discovered that I did not, and I gleaned enough tidbits from this book to be able to speak to the company’s attorneys like something more than a high-functioning cretin.
I have no idea how I made it to my mid-fifties before I picked up Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I am left ascribing it to the same oversight in my formal education that denied me Harriet Beecher Stowe and W.E.B DuBois and to a vocational focus that limited my post-graduate reading to the most utilitarian of tomes. Released from the professional-development beartrap, Mr. Douglass beckoned from atop a very tall pile of books, and I took him up.
Douglass’s life would have been painful enough to read had it been but the exceptional tale of a single individual. Knowing throughout – and reminded by Douglass – that his experience of slavery (though not his life post-escape) was archetypal threatens to overwhelm the empathetic reader. Many were the points in the narrative where I had to stop, even step away, to process.
It is indicative of the age that even as I fall into Douglass’s shoes during his story, I hear a voice shouting, “you privileged white-passing old fool! You can never understand what he went through! You can never understand what we went through! How dare you presume to try?
I ignore the voice. There should be no limits to empathy, even if we share nothing in common beyond mere sentience. I will never be Frederick Douglass. But I would be a failure as a human being if I did not do all I could to crawl inside his mind, and come out changed.
JD Vance’s book about his broken Appalachian family may be remembered as the last good and honest thing Vance ever did for his country. It is difficult today to separate the author of this book from the politician, but separate it we must.
Without claiming for the memoir any academic merit, nor confirming Vance’s implication that his family’s story was exemplary of white poverty, his book helped me see and understand the dire cycle into which poverty pulls its victims. I suspect I am not alone, and for that, the book deserves to be recognized and a renewed effort to address poverty in America at its uncomfortable roots begun.
Back in print just in time for a Navy overdue for a doctrinal rethink, Little Ship, Big War is naval officer and historian Edward P. Stafford’s memoir of his time as executive officer of the USS Abercrombie, a destroyer escort in the Pacific in the last half of World War II. Stafford’s engrossing and tension-filled account serves as a modern reminder of the central importance of small combatants in naval warfare.
NB: in writing what was supposed to be a caption to the above, I wrote an essay, which I will publish and link separately.
Herzog is Saul Bellows’s timeless contribution to that unique body of mid-twentieth century fiction that deconstructs the neuroses of homo postbellum Americanis.
Like many, I assume, I could not like Herzog (the protagonist): his puerile narcissism drove him to disregard or belittle moral strictures and ethical codes purely because they threatened to limit or delegitimize his hedonistic desires. But I empathized with the mental and spiritual dead-end with which he was struggling, and I appreciated his effort to fight his way through by writing cathartic letters.
(Indeed, I found his approach so provocative that I began my own series of letters to individuals, companies, government officials, and foreign dignitaries that I have no intention of sending. They will be found among my papers after my death.)
Despite the countless times I wanted to pick Herzog up by the scruff of his neck, slap him around, and set him straight about his life, the book was brilliant. If it does not wind up with an entirely happy ending, Bellow does make it satisfying and, in so doing, offers a little light to those of us struggling with the demons of andropause and our own limitations.
In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan, a renowned and respected historian of the American Revolution, made a convincing case for systemic racism in the American polity, and he did it in 1970, six years before Derrick Bell published his article “Serving Two Masters” in the Yale Law Journal.
I am in what appears to be a small-and/or-quiet group that approaches race studies generally and Critical Race Theory specifically with an open mind and a critical thinker’s toolkit. It can be exhausting, but Morgan helped open that door and push me down the corridor beyond. Forget 1776, and forget 1619. Seek the truth, not someone else’s narrative, regardless of its provenance and intent.
This is the first volume of what promises to be a two-volume presidential memoir. I decided to order the audiobook for this one, and no regrets: whatever opinions you hold about Barack Hussein Obama and his presidency, he has an orator’s voice. Given the man and tone of the memoir, I cannot imagine experiencing it any differently.
Like most presidents, Obama has a complex legacy, and I would argue that those of us not otherwise disposed to pillory or lionize him have put off an honest analysis of that legacy until such time as criticism may not seem to offer undue comfort and legitimacy to the forces of fascism in this country. Until then, we shall gather our string, take our notes, and listen to Mr. Obama deliver his side of the story.