Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Duality of the Southern Thing

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

I recently read an article that sums up pretty succinctly what the Drive-By Truckers are getting at when they talk about "the duality of the southern thing" - pride and regret.

That's what Tony Horwtiz addresses best in Confederates in the Attic, a book that I simply cannot believe I haven't read until now, given a) my kinship with Horwitz as a Yankee interloper who, for a variety of reasons, has a deep interest in said duality, and b) the fact that this book has been in my house for years.

In Confederates, southern pride sometimes manifests itself innoculously, and even humorously, in the form of Civil War reenactors so devoted to historical accuracy that they spoon one another in the mud on battlefields to stay warm, shunning the Farbs* who wear JC Penney long underwear and retreat to the local Holiday Inn when night falls.

And sometimes, it takes an uglier turn, as in Horwitz's account of Michael Westerman, a young Kentucky man who was shot by a black man after crusing down the street in a Confederate flag-adorned pick-up truck, and consequently, became a Klan martyr.

Horwitz manages to highlight the deeply ingrained racism of the South, while at the same time, giving voice to the many Southerners who abhor it. And Horwitz does one better, talking about racism as a national problem, not just a Southern one.

I don't believe that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, despite the many individuals who have tried to convince me otherwise. However, when you read about Horwitz's encounters with the many Southerners -- otherwise sane save for their obsession with the Civil War -- it must be acknowledged that there's far more wrapped up in that obsession than slavery.

A thoughtful and even-handed book - I've got to take my hat off to Horwitz for interviewing researchers, writers, truck drivers, booze hounds, factory workers, college professors, and Klansmen alike with a shockingly consistent professionalism and courtesy.
* the shortened form of "far be it from authentic"; one can be a farb, farb out, or behave farbily.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Something for the Indoor Kids

Nominees for The Morning News's Tournament of Books have been announced!

Last year, I followed this March Madness-inspired battle of the books like I was losing money on it. Anansi Boys eliminated in the first round! Somebody knocks Veronica down a peg! Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss face off! Home Land almost wins it all!

Peaks and valleys, folks, and a thrill a minute.

Judging won't start for a few weeks, but polling for the zombie round has already begun. Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad made the Sweet Sixteen, so vote early, and vote often.

Hadn't heard of 5 books on the list, but am looking forward to reading this one.

Predictions and odds to follow.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Who knew?

I recently...ah..."procured" a copy of the new Arcade Fire album, Neon Bible.* Imagine my surprise when, searching for reviews online, I happened upon this, the novel of the same name by John Kennedy Toole.

Seeing as how A Confederacy of Dunces is on my all time list of "Books I'd Grab From a Burning Building Before I Would a Great Many People", I'll be procuring (and reviewing) it shortly.

Until then I'll recommend Ignatius Rising: the Life of John Kennedy Toole by Rene Pol Nevils. It's the first major - and as far as I know, the only - biography of Toole, whose life parallels that of his most well known character in ways that are alternately intriguing and disheartening.

It's a compassionate and unflinching portrait of Toole, whose ambition as a writer and sense of self were so deeply entwined that his sad end seems almost inevitable. By Nevil's account, Toole's efforts to get Dunces published were hobbled as much by his inability to let go of his manuscript and his refusal to entertain sympathetic criticism, as they were by cautious or indifferent publishers.

Finally, Ignatius Rising is also a fine elegy for Toole's New Orleans which, lest we forget, is currently moldering in a stew of neglect and national indifference.

*Yes, it's good. Yes, I will buy a copy when it comes out on March 5.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Be Mine

The valentines at Rite Aid and Walgreens tend to fall into the general categories of "gross," "unfunny," or "taking far too seriously the amount of sentiment one can pack into a $2.79 purchase."

Five minutes in PhotoShop and you can do so much better for your Valentine. I got the image here from art-e-zine, and they have loads more that are neat-o.

Yet, the librarian in me had to press onward. You'd be amazed how many libraries have their greeting card collections digitalized. You can find valentines from days of yore here, here, and here. And you can see some pretty creepy ones here.

Dear readers, I lurve you all. I'd say I choo choo choose you, but probably everyone is telling you that.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

There was a time when I knew a lot about poetry. I read it, explicated sonnets, wrote long, critical essays on the structure of Robert Creeley's verse, memorized Sir Philip Sidney, and, at one point, carried on a correspondence with a contemporary experimental poet of some renown.

But gradually, the stuff began to wear me down. It was either form without function, or confessional whining, or meditations on the oak tree in one's yard in New Haven, or dense and impenetrable for the sake of being dense and impenetrable. And if it wasn't any of those things, it was probably boring.

So, until yesterday, I'd ditched poetry, making an exception only for Everette Maddox, and sometimes, Anne Sexton and James Wright. Then, while I was at work, events transpired to bring me to the Wallace Stevens poem, "The Snow Man."*

This dredged up a slew of memories from the semester during college when I spent a lot of time thinking about concupiscent curds, high-toned old Christian women, and the genius of the sea. Those were the days when the blackbird was involved in what I knew, and it was like nothing else in Tennessee.

Good times.

I feel bad about having thrown Wally out with the bathwater all those years ago, and hope he and I can be good buddies again.
Here it is, one of poetry's most famous run-on sentences, complete with a nice little staring-into-the-abyss moment at the end.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Adoption Before Roe v. Wade

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler

Fessler's book contains the oral histories of unmarried women who became pregnant, entered homes for unwed mothers, and surrendered their babies for adoption during the 1950s and 60s. On the one hand, this book contains the kinds of stories you'd expect -- the women interviewed are mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly Catholic, and mostly woefully uninformed about sex. The stories echo one another almost to the point of saturation. And yet, the cruelty and denial of parental rights each woman was subjected to is so egregious that their stories stand alone, each heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The treatment the women received at the hands of their families and their babies' fathers is awful, though somewhat predictable, knowing what we know about gender roles and sex ed. in those days. More shocking, however, are the psychological games that social workers played with the new mothers. Lines like, "What do you have to offer this child?" and "He'll be called a bastard on the playground," and "She'll be better off with this nice family," are repeated over and over, as though scripted. The women in the homes were encouraged to forget about their children, being told, "You can have another one."

And, of course, this did not prove to be a good coping strategy. Many of the women interviewed spoke of entering into abusive or hasty marriages, either believing that they deserved no better or hoping to give birth to a child they could keep.

A horrifying social history that tells you a good deal about what you think you already know about sex, the double standard, and unwed motherhood in the 50s and 60s.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More Everette Maddox

I missed this comment on my Everette Maddox post awhile back, so I figure y'all did, too. Anyways, I'm snagging this book ASAP.

Two things: 1) Grace Bauer and I (Julie Kane) have just co-edited a book of essays, poems, short stories, and even song lyrics about Everette, containing work by fifty writers including Ellen Gilchrist, Rodney Jones, William Matthews, etc. The title is Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox, and the publisher is Xavier Review Press (2006). It can be ordered from the publisher's website,, or from amazon. 2) Bill Roberts of Pirogue Publishing (which published Everette's second book, Bar Scotch, in 1988) told me he still has some copies of it and that if you contact the Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans (504 862-0008), he will fill any requests for it through them.

Call the man, and get your NOLA on.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Little Off-Topic

And a day late, besides, but I ran 16 miles yesterday and was just too tired and sunburnt to post. Less than a month until the Los Angeles Marathon - woot!

Anyhow, leave it to the Bureau of the Census to nerd up the Super Bowl.

How cute is that?

And, should you ever find yourself trapped somewhere with an iPod, may I recommend Jim Dale's fine reading of the Harry Potter series? His performance is so captivating, it makes a 3-hour run seem like nuthin'.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Lightning Doesn't Strike Twice

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Devil in the White City, Larson's highly readable history of the Chicago World's Fair (coupled with the contemporaneous doings of a maniacal serial killer bent on torture and surreal architectural design), is exactly what popular history should be. It lures you in with the promise of something Weekly World News-ish, then holds you spellbound with more respectable information.

Thunderstruck attempts to do exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way -- the books are even set during the same time period (although the events of Thunderstruck take place in Victorian England rather than Victorian America). This time, however, Larson's formula -- alternating serious and lurid chapters, building suspense, pointing out ironic coincidences and places where the murder mystery intersects with the straight story-- hangs clumsily on his subject matter.

Thunderstruck examines the life of Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, obsessive, and sometimes cruel. He blends the story of the development and implementation of Marconi's technology with that of the unassuming, timid Dr. Crippen, who nearly commits the perfect murder. Of course, the intersection here is that Crippen was captured thanks to Marconi's invention, but Larson sure takes his time getting to it. While Devil in the White City was crammed full of fascinating information, Thunderstruck spends a very long time saying very little. Marconi's innovations and biography are glossed over; meanwhile, the Crippen story is drawn out so exhaustively that its shock value is rather dilute.

Still, I finished it. The book was just interesting enough to keep me reading, although I was a little resentful about it. Larson is a talented historian who writes with a novelist's touch, and isn't afraid to explore a subplot or go off on a tangent. Sometimes these little flourishes are more enjoyable than the primary subject.*

For Larson fans, it's worth a skim, but otherwise, I'd suggest Devil in the White City or Isaac's Storm instead. That said, this book has been getting great reviews. Has anyone else read this? I'd like to know whether I'm way off base here, or if the big reviewers are just kissing up.
* Here, it's the story of Oliver Lodge, a competitor of Marconi's, whose pioneering work was often sidetracked by his obsession with the occult.