From Books

Books 2020, Chapter One

I am still slumping, reading-wise. Two of these books were read way back in 2019, when the long anticipated next pandemic was stealthily ramping up, and when our racist past–and present–was smoldering mostly unattended. The last read of these, and the most joyful, was read just as the proverbial scat was about to hit the fan. The load I am dropping here will succeed in knocking the saddest post I’ve ever written from the front page of my online Etch-a-Sketch.

This is unusually long for a “10 books” post. I had planned to write standalone posts for the first two books listed. Each effected me profoundly, though in very different ways. The less-ambitious write-ups I settled on here are inadequate but lengthy, and relegate the other eight books–a few of which deserve better–to afterthought status. If you generally skip my book reports, and I can’t blame you, please consider reading the first two of these.[1]

Color-coded, clickable indicators of placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists are better than a poke in the eye by 2020′s very sharp stick.
 

Nonfiction: Shameful, joyful, frightful

 

  • Devil in the GroveGilbert KingDevil in the Grove (2012)
       Sad recent events have caused me to reexamine my initial response to this book, which included a healthy measure of disgust at the Confederate flag-waving Bible-belters of the South. In particular, the white Southern men whose pathetic insecurities and fear of black men has been is such a morally-abject stain on our nation.
     
    But we in the self-satified Midwest have blood on our hands too. Literally, as in the Duluth lynchings of 1919, and figuratively, in the racist red-lining and other sins that locked African-Americans out of the American Dream for so long, with reverberations that roil our communities today. My own prejudice against white Southern culture can no longer serve as an excuse to ignore what has happened–and is happening–in my own backyard.[2]
     
    I will find ways I can contribute to a better, more just and loving future here in my community first. Then, the nation. Then, the world. I won’t live long enough to see much of this accomplished, but I am leaving behind a wife, children, and grandchildren who will. Because it must happen. The alternative is unthinkable.
     
    Deep breath.
     
    This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a brilliant portrait of a giant of American history, the courageous Thurgood Marshall[3], and a chronicle of one of the saddest chapters in the thick book of sad chapters that comprise American history. The false allegation of a rape in 1949 and the groundbreaking legal fight that led to the exoneration of the Groveland Four is at the center of the book. The exoneration came too late for three of the four accused. Sheriff McCall, a racist monster from the pit of hell, shot at least two of them (a third was shot by a McCall-led posse). McCall continued to be elected sheriff in Florida’s Lake County through 1972. He was repeatedly accused of atrocities and, once, was tried for murder. He was never convicted. To those who can’t seem to understand why many of our African-American brothers and sisters are fearful of the police, reading about McCall may be one of many places to begin to learn.
     
    The Groveland case is central, but the author touches on other cases (including one I’ve excerpted and make available here as a PDF, “A Christmas Card”–please read it), and touches on Marshall’s indefatigable efforts to fight for the most basic fairness across (mostly) the South.[4] This is a book that should be assigned reading in high schools across the country. One of many.[5]

  • Mozart's StarlingLyanda Lynn HauptMozart’s Starling (2017)
       This book was an absolute joy to read! I am happy I didn’t read it immediately following Devil, and I’m happy I read it before this year’s one-two pandemonium combination.[6] The darkness that fell so soon after my reading this almost robbed me of the experience. But just a little bit of light can dispel overwhelming darkness, if only for a time.
     
    Yes, Mozart kept a starling as a pet. Mozart’s diaries attest to the great affection he had for the bird (see this image of his poem written in memory of his beloved pet). The starling sang an almost note-for-note rendition of the theme from the final movement of Mozart’s 17th piano concerto before the composer bought the bird, according to a diary entry. The bird’s song as recorded by Mozart:
    Mozart's musical notation of his starling's song.
    The above image is from this Wikipedia page. Visit it to compare the bird’s tune to Mozart’s, notationally and aurally.
     
    The author’s lovely and informative biographical sketch of Mozart’s life in Vienna is one half of the story. The other is the story of “America’s most hated bird,” the starling. The species both deserves the title–it is an invasive that causes trouble for our native birds, for one thing–and doesn’t deserve it–it didn’t ask to be imported: humans are to blame for that. Haupt keeps one as a pet and learns a lot about it. She passes much of it along here, and I learned a lot. The species is a much more talented mimic than I’d known. I will think differently about them now. At least until the next time they mob my feeders, aggressively drive away all of the other birds in the yard, and noisily hoover up all of our bird seed.
     
    This is a book that will appeal to readers who aren’t necessarily birders or enthusiastic listeners of Mozart’s music. As I said, it was a joy to read–despite the fact that I found myself weepy over the too-early death of the composer.[7]

  • The Omnivore's DilemmaMichael PollanThe Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)
       Pollan’s examination of King Corn’s impact on our diet–it’s in everything we eat, often in unrecognizable forms–is eye opening. Horrifying, really. Large-scale agribusiness is the focus of the first of four sections in the book, and it is where he finds corn everywhere in his attempt to trace the origin of every bite of food in a typical American meal. There is nothing natural about the way we consume it. In the other three sections he examines “organic” farming (the quotation marks are not a mistake), locally-sourced food, and foraging (hunting and gathering). None is a wholly satisfactory alternative to our highly-processed diet. The book raises questions it can’t answer. It is worth reading despite that.
     
    I have created and offer here encouragement to read, a PDF document consisting of some critical praise for the book and the first part of the author’s introduction to it. I also enjoyed this author’s The Botany of Desire (and wrote about it here).

Fiction I: Three ‘A’ students, one class clown

 

  • The Sportswriter 92   Richard FordThe Sportswriter (1989)
       Not at all what I expected from a novel named The Sportswriter. I’m not sure what I expected, but I couldn’t have expected this. It’s a profoundly affecting book. Frank Bascombe is a frustrated novelist who took up sportswriting because it came easy to him. He is not much of a sports fan. The story begins when he meets with his ex-wife at their son’s grave on the anniversary of his death. And so begins an introspective and eventful Easter week during which the protagonist learns a lot. In some limited respects he reminds me of Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Possibly only because Ford wrote a cycle of four Bascombe novels. I hope to read them all, after which I expect to look back on my Bascombe-Angstrom comparison with amusement.
     
    Richard Ford is somewhat a controversial figure. He was born and raised in the South, and he speaks candidly and unapologetically about his racist past. He can be heard speaking and responding to questions about The Sportswriter and more in this World Book Club broadcast.

  • The Death of the Heart 73   Elizabeth BowenThe Death of the Heart (1938)
       Bowen was a prolific and critically acclaimed writer best remembered for her Second World War novels and short stories. I know this because I read through her Wikipedia profile. Before reading this novel I was completely unaware of her. Which is a shame. That I “discovered” her is entirely thanks to my dubiously-generated 113 Great 20th Century Novels list. If I could only read all the books on the list, plus a healthy share of the output of its authors who impress me, then I might approach “well-read” (in fiction) status. And I’d have to make a much better effort to keep up with contemporary literature, rather than relying on the well-worn and fawned-over works of yesteryear.
     
    This story of a young woman cruelly used by her slightly older and much more “sophisticated” (read: emotionally and morally crippled) relations, and one rake introduced to her by them, is tragic and moving. Bowen seems to me–based on this one novel–to be Edith Wharton 50 years on, lightly influenced by the prose style of Virginia Woolf.

  • Way Station 31   Clifford D. SimakWay Station (1963)
       A humble novel by one of the more obscure pioneers of science fiction. It won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Simiak wrote an astonishing number of (mostly sci-fi) novels (30) and stories while working as a journalist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (37 years), fishing, spending time with his wife (59 years) and children, collecting stamps, and cultivating roses. He was the anti-Philip K Dick.
     
    Way Station is the story of a man chosen by extraterrestrials to man a Earth-based station in a galaxy-wide transportation network. This position confers certain advantages (he doesn’t age, for one), and it comes with awesome responsibilities. A galactic crisis tests his suitability for the role. Will he prove up to it?

  • A Load of HooeyOdenkirk BobA Load of Hooey (2014)
       Yes, that Bob Odenkirk: television’s Saul Goodman. This is a collection of humorous essays that would be right at home on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. But of course it would. The book was published by the McSweeney’s empire! It is hilarious in places, but I wanted to like it more than I did. Undoubtedly it is not a book for all-at-once consumption. It is a book to be enjoyed in moderate doses. A “bathroom book,” I think (and there is nothing wrong with that). If I had picked up the hint in its first selection, “One Should Never Read a Book on the Toilet,” I likely would have enjoyed it more.

Fiction II: Murder, murder, murder

 

  • Devil in a Blue Dress 24   Walter MosleyDevil in a Blue Dress (1990)
       The author’s first novel, and the first of his 14 detective novels featuring Easy Rollins. It tells the story of how Rollins transformed himself from a day laborer struggling to hold on to his prized possession, his own home, into a private eye. It was a reluctant transformation. He knew that the mysterious, wealthy white men who paid for his access to the African American community were not friends, and would not hesitate to betray him the moment he became inconvenient to them.
     
    A riveting, suspenseful read. This book won for Mosley the 1991 Shamus Award for best private eye debut novel.

  • C is for CorpseSue GraftonC is for Corpse (1986)
       The third novel in Grafton’s “alphabet series.” Her private dick Kinsey Millhone plies her trade just up the coast from Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rollins. She noses about in the relatively tony Santa Teresa (fictional stand-in for Santa Barbara), rather than in the poorer parts of Los Angeles. Murder is murder, though.

  • D is for DeadbeatSue GraftonD is for Deadbeat (1987)
       Millhone encroaches a bit on Rawlins’s territory in this one, tracking a person of interest to Los Angeles. She is merely trying to locate a hard-to-find person in order to pass along to him a check for a decent chunk of change. Things do heat up however. This novel features an intricate plot, and like the two above, it is an entertaining whodunnit. Only fictional characters were harmed in the making of these books.
     
    Grafton is fast-food for tekkies. Surely that is not a terrible thing when consumed in moderation.

Notes

  1. My “10 books” posts are written for and to myself, and maybe to a distant ancestor with an interest in early-21st-century anthropology. She may include it in her doctoral thesis, which I imagine might be called Fiddling While the Earth Burned: Mental Self-abuse as an Avoidance Tactic While Sea Levels Rose and the “Earth Died Screaming”. Her use of a Tom Waits song title there is one way I can identify her as my descendant. [^]
  2. I can’t ignore Minnesota’s god-awful history of atrocities perpetuated on the Native Americans who were here long before our European ancestors stole it from them as, no doubt, a benevolent Christian god intended. [^]
  3. I remember the disdain and hatred directed at Supreme Court Justice Marshall prior to his retirement in 1991. In a cynical and insincere gesture to “honor his legacy,” the unworthy Clarence Thomas was appointed as his successor. What a travesty. [^]
  4. There are so many brutal injustices outlined in the book. Separate facilities of every kind. Libraries for “coloreds” consisting only of discards from “white” libraries. Schools for non-whites inadequate in every way, except for the dedication and courage of black teachers who, though paid less than their white peers, made do with whatever they could in the hope that education would be the salvation of their people. (I am reminded of the star of Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball, Negro-leaguer and Hall-of-Famer Buck O’Neil, who recounted how he left home to attend one of only four high schools for black students in the entire state of Florida.) The state of Texas, under a court order to address the fact that there was no law school in the state open to black students. Rather than admit the one qualified black student who wished to attend the University of Texas law school, the state cynically rented a warehouse basement, threw a few surplus texts in it, and called it a law school. Marshall fought them and won.
     
    One of the most memorable parts of the book was its description of how the redneck men of Florida seethed when they saw black soldiers, returned from fighting for their country in WWII, proudly wearing uniforms–as was their right–on the streets. Any pretext was used to hassle, humiliate, and arrest these “uppity n*****s” who needed to remember their places. Often, these vigilantes–with and without badges–would search the discharged or on-leave soldiers’ wallets for photographs of white women. It was known that French girls were not averse to dating black American GIs. Those caught carrying these photos were given especially brutal treatment. They were bigger-than-ever threats to the “flower of Southern white womanhood.” Thus were the African-American members of The Greatest Generation treated at home. [^]
  5. I don’t remember hearing anything about the Groveland Four, the Tulsa race massacre, or much else about some of the most consequential events of our history. I didn’t hear anything about Juneteenth, of course. (Our president only heard about it quite recently after he scheduled a rally and cross-burning on the date.) I don’t recall hearing much or anything about our founding fathers owning slaves, though I heard plenty about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree and then fessing up to it (which isn’t true, but does make a fine story–I guess). [^]
  6. I read Devil in the Grove late last year. [^]
  7. Weepy over a death that happened more than 300 years ago? Yep, ‘fraid so. [^]