Monday, November 27, 2006

Peter Pavia

On the plane back from a Thanksgiving visit to the in-laws in San Jose, I read a Hard Case Crime novel, Peter Pavia’s Dutch Uncle (2005), which got me thinking about George Pelecanos. Not that Pavia writes much like Pelecanos; his much more obvious (and clearly credited) forebear is Elmore “Dutch” Leonard. Rather, my thoughts ran in that direction because over the years Pelecanos has garnered tremendous critical praise, his novels able to escape the crime/mystery ghetto and be reviewed more or less as straight-up novels—and Pavia, at least on the evidence of Dutch Uncle, is better.

Now, I’ve only read four of Pelecanos’s novels, the ones featuring private eye Derek Strange, which I understand are not as highly regarded as his earlier quartet featuring Nick Stefano, Dimitri Karras, and Marcus Clay (let alone his reportedly stellar work on The Wire). And I’ve enjoyed all four: together they present an wide-ranging and detailed picture of contemporary Washington, D.C., legal and illegal, and unshadowed by the Capitol or the White House and what happens there. In Strange, Pelecanos has created an interesting central character who grows with each story, and he’s surrounded him with a supporting cast that looks like it’ll prove worth his continued attention. He’s aiming high, trying to both relate a good crime story and tell us something about the way our cities work now, especially at the margins.

Pelecanos clearly works very hard to portray different perspectives, from that of a redneck Virginia gun dealer to the drug peddler who kills with what the rednecks sells him. More than any other contemporary author I can think of, he refuses to be limited by racial boundaries, feeling as entitled to present the perspective of a black teenager as of the Greek restaurateur who is much closer to his own background. It’s admirable. But somewhere along the line, the seams start showing. Reading Pelecanos, at times I can feel the effort, can guess at all that’s involved in trying to portray life from these varied points of view—I can see what ought to be transparent. Part of that comes from Pelecanos’s attempts to put readers deep into the thought processes of secondary characters through a third-person omniscient narration so close as to be essentially first-person—near stream-of-consciousness at times—which tends to by its very nature draw attention to itself. I find that at those points I’m thinking about Pelecanos’s word choices and thought processes rather than sinking willingly into the characters themselves. Those very efforts at authenticity backfire; they remind me that the characters are ultimately under Pelecanos’s thumb, subject to his will and the needs of his story.

None of this is intended to denigrate George Pelecanos: he’s writing good books, and ambitious books, which I’ll keep reading and for which it woulf be unfair to punish him. Instead, it’s an attempt to tell you how good I think Peter Pavia’s Dutch Uncle is. Whereas Pelecanos has, in my view, failed to fully bring his secondary characters to life; Pavia populates his novel with more than a dozen fully realized characters, without striking a wrong note. To make the comparison with Pelecanos fair, I should point out that we only see from the perspective of three characters, all white men, in Dutch Uncle—but the overall impression of a group of real people living their lives and happening to intersect is so strong that the perspective doesn’t seem the slightest bit limited.

The novel tells the story of Harry Healy, a small-time hood who gets in over his head and is suspected of murdering a drug dealer. The plot is pretty skeletal, but like most good crime novels, Dutch Uncle has a strong sense of place, depicting all the squalor of mid-90s Miami, along with other unsavory Florida locales, and it’s got a full cast, including worn-down cops, vapid models, a hillbilly drug dealer, a rust-fund cokehead, bar bouncers, and a variety of good people in bad situations. What separates it from a lot of novels—not just crime novels—is that the characters, even the most minor, seem completely alive and independent: they’re ends in themselves rather than means, who they are rather than what they are—or what Pavia needs them to be and do. Oh, they further the plot (after all, in a crime novel, how could they not?), and they advance Pavia’s themes, but those considerations always take a back seat to the characters’ own existences as fully imagined people.

Pavia has somehow, for one novel at least, found his way to the right side of that near-mystical line that separates the ordinary fictional characters, created out of whole cloth from masses of detail, from those who, like Tolstoy’s characters, surmount their details and seem alive, rounded, and breathing. Lord knows, I’m not saying Pavia’s as good as Tolstoy—he doesn't, for one thing, project quite the same god-like sympathy for everyone that Tolstoy did in his novels—but his characters cohere in the same manner, their histories, thoughts, and actions forming a seemingly organic whole, from the hapless young Alex Fernandez, a washed-up college baseball star now caught up with criminals, to the quietly drunk house painter whose work ethic Healy learns to appreciate.

I’d be a far better critic if I could identify that animating spark, the difference between this detail and that—between Pavia’s gay Miami playboy drug dealer’s too-short silk bathrobe that reveals his sagging balls and Pelecanos’s teenaged drug dealer’s unspoken love of his pit bull—but in the absence of science, I’m forced to go with feel, and Pavia’s characters feel right. And their actions and choices, because somehow Pavia makes them seem to be wholly their own—surprising at times, but always believable—carry a real weight, a sense of long-term consequence that lends a palpable tension to every moment of decision. That in itself is a measure of Pavia’s achievement: there does seem to be a long term that those actions could screw up; these characters have an existence after the book is closed.

From what I can tell, Dutch Uncle is Pavia’s debut novel. It’s the best I’ve read from Hard Case Crime yet, and I can’t wait for his next.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


From Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005)
In the 1970s, when I attended high school, a popular history text was America: Its People and Values, by Leonard C. Wood, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Edward L. Biller. Nestled among colorful illustrations of colonial life was succinct explanation of Tisquantum’s role:
A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Captain Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.
My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Tisquantum had demonstrated the proper maize-planting technique—sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgirms to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds, a traditional native technique for producing a bountiful harvest. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving.
. . . .
The story in America: Its People and Values isn’t wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.

Tisquantum was critical to the colony’s survival, contemporary scholars agree. . . . Just as my teacher said, Tisquantum told the colonists to bury several small fish in each maize hill, a procedure followed by European colonists for two centuries. Squanto’s teachings, [colonist Edward] Winslow concluded, led to “a good increase of Indian corn”—the difference between success and starvation.

Winslow didn’t know that fish fetilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention—if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before. To return to the Americas, he in effect had to escape twice—once from Spain, where his captors initially sold him into slavery, and once from England, to which he was smuggled from Spain, and where he served as a kind of living conversation piece at a rich man’s house. In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

Skipping over the complex course of Tisquantum’s life is understandable in a textbook with limited space. But the omission is symptomatic of the complete failure to understand Indian motives, or even that Indians might have motives. The alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth was successful from the Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off [their enemies] the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, for the alliance ensured the survival of Plymouth colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. All of this was absent not only from my high school textbooks, but from the academic accounts they were based on.

From Penelope Lively’s Making It Up (2005)
Most Americans know who they are, to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, they signal myriad identities; they define the nation. They are Greek-American or Italian-American or Latino or black, they propose China, Japan, the Philippines—they echo the globe. They are a walking, talking mnemonic system, remembering arrivals and survivals, the Atlantic passage, the trek west, settlement and dispersal, calamity and prosperity, whispering still of the other place that is hidden in each person—the shtetls of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, the fishing villages and the farms, the fetid slums of cities, the plantations and the slave quarters. She and Ben had a friend called Mary Dixon, as Anglo-Saxon a name as you could find, but Mary herself was a figure from Greek tragedy, she was Electra, she was Clytemnestra, she was dark, dark, with great Byzantine eyes and rich black hair. And yes, indeed, Mary’s great-grandfather arrived at Staten Island from Piraeus, with extended family and not a word of English, so that the recording clerk, defeated by the accent and the names, put down Mary’s father simply as Dick’s son, to have done with it. And Dixon the family became and remained, but Mary’s face said otherwise.

From Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998)
1979: X

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

And, as we enter this Thanksgiving holiday, which I hope you all will enjoy with friends, family, and wonderful home-cooked food, one last note. It’s a bit of dialogue from Penelope Lively’s Making It Up; you’ll know immediately if you’re one of those who might be well-served by recalling it this weekend:
People are not responsible for their relatives.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ghosts, part 2

I wrote the preceding post when I was only a little way into Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Finishing it didn't force me to revise my opinion of the book—it continued to be enthralling—but it did force me to revise my opinion of the ghosts and presences that feature in it. When Mantel is nearly eight years old, she tells of seeing . . . something . . . in the backyard:
I am playing near the house, near the back door. Something makes me look up: some shift of the light. My eyes are drawn to a spot beyond the yard, beyond its gate, a spot in the long garden. It is, let us say, some fifty yards away, among coarse grass, weeds, and bracken. I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense—at the periphery, the limit of all my senses—the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment. I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing. It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.

I pluck my eyes away. It is like plucking them out of my head. Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.

Mantel never is able to explain the sighting, even to herself, beyond calling it a mistaken glimpse of a pure evil humans are not intended to see, the horror stays with her, is still with her. Her powers of description are so strong—“rinsed by nausea,” “a sick resonance”—that it’s not hard to believe.

By focusing on these poorly understood presences, I’m probably not being fair to Giving Up the Ghost overall—it’s about far more than that. It’s emotional and impressionistic, but it’s also deeply thoughtful and packed with interesting details about life in postwar England, an honest groping for the truth of Mantel’s life and the complicated interplay of illness, sexism, class, and personal choice that have made her who she is. Knowledge of it will infect—and inflect—all her novels, which I now feel compelled to read.

Oh, and a side note: Saturday was the one-year anniversary of this blog. 148 posts. Goodness. Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 17, 2006


From Macbeth, Act 3, Scene IV
Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!
how say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


English writers toss out references to ghosts with remarkable casualness; they seem to take the default position that they will be believed when they talk about hauntings—the opposite, I would argue, of the position Americans and American writers take. Ghosts are around, the body of literature seems to say; sometimes people see them. There's no controversy. I suppose that if your national history is one of knights and ladies and dank castles, ghosts come naturally—though I would also expect that if your national history included the largely ignored story of the extermination of the ten million people who were living in the land when your forebears arrived, you would have quite a few ghost stories, of an extremely unpleasant variety.

Yet it is England, not America, that is rich with ghosts. And, unlike the ghost of Banquo (which, understandably, greatly frightens Macbeth just by his appearance), most of the ghosts I've come across in English novels—and especially in English memoirs—are unthreatening, ordinary, even quotidian. Penelope Fitzgerald, for example, tells of Keats's ghost haunting the then-pastoral village of Hampstead when she was a girl, and in her novel The Bookshop (1978) a ghost troubles the heroine, though never in a particularly menacing way. Anthony Powell, in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling (1983), mentions a ghost that haunted one of his childhood homes; that ghost, transmuted like all the facts of his life, appears in his fiction as the driver of a particularly vivid domestic scene. Rebecca West, in The Fountain Overflows (1957), a thinly veiled retelling of her childhood, includes ghosts, poltergeists, and magic, invisible horses. Unexplained presences manifest themselves here and there in Iris Murdoch's writing, and—perils of being away from my bookshelves!—I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

Halloween, of course, put me in mind of this topic, as I was reading ghost stories (of which the English are the masters (followed closely by the Japanese?)). And then I was thinking about William James (because of a new book on his paranormal researches), the first chapter of whose The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) includes several stories of ghostly encounters that James collected. But it was Hilary Mantel who really brought it to a head, with the opening pages of her enthralling memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003):
About eleven o'clock, I see a flickering on the staircase. The air is still; then it moves. I raise my head. The air is still again. I know it is my stepfather's ghost coming down. Or, to put it in a way acceptable to most people, I "know" it is my stepfather's ghost.

I am not perturbed. I am used to "seeing" things that aren't there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that "aren't there." It was in this house that I last saw my stepfather, Jack, in the early months of 1995: alive, in his garments of human flesh. Many times since then I have acknowledged him on the stairs.
She talks herself back from that certainty a bit, offering the reader a chance to believe her sightings are the result of migraines; but throughout the book, presences abound, flickering at the edge of consciousness like ideas too large and unwieldy for childhood apprehension. They aren't exactly benign, but Mantel gives the sense that their danger is more potential than actual, like the shadowy adult secrets that quietly define childhood.

Childhood is when I, too, reportedly saw a ghost. I have no memory of it, but I've been told by my parents, no wild-eyed new-agers they, that it happened when I was three or four, while our family was being given a tour of a house in Colonial Williamsburg. I turned to my mother and, pointing to the empty corner of a room and said, "Look, Mommy--there's a ghost." The guide blanched and told my parents that the house was rumored to be haunted.

From Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost (2003)
One night, I hear my mother and Jack, discussing. I am lurking in the cold Glass Place, coming in from the lavatory. "Well," she says, "so? So what do you think it is?" Her voice rises, in an equal blend of challenge, fear, and scorn. "What do you think it is? Ghosts?"

Thursday, November 16, 2006

R.I.P. Johnny Sain

This, the first ever cross-posting between my two blogs, is in honor of former major-league pitcher Johnny Sain, who died last week at the age of 89.

Sain was a member of the pennant-winnning 1948 Boston Braves, where his and teammate Warren Spahn's success relative to the rest of the pitching staff led to the well-known rhyme, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." (This past summer, some Cardinals fans altered the rhyme to read "Carp and Soup, the rest are poop.") Sain went 139-116 with a 3.49 E.R.A. for the Braves, Yankees, and Athletics in an eleven-year career.

This obituary appears on both my book and baseball blogs because Sain is one of the most memorable characters in Jim Bouton's wonderful Ball Four (1970). Much of the drama and fun of the book comes from the distrust with which Bouton is viewed by his teammates, coaches, and the baseball establishment. After all, the man reads books on the team flights--and on top of that, he's a knuckleballer. Throughout the book, Bouton clashes with his manager and pitching coaches. The biggest problem he encounters is resistance to the fact that, as a knuckleballer, he's sharper if he throws pretty much every day, while ordinary pitchers perform better on a schedule with days off. Most of the other players and coaches refuse to accept that Bouton knows what he's talking about; he's seen, variously as a malcontent and a moron.

Sain, on the other hand, takes a minimalist coaching approach. He looks at each player and sees what works for him. You pitch better if you throw every day? Throw every day. You pitch better if you make sure to do your running? Do your running. Quiet but effective, Sain isn't suspicious of difference, nor is he at all controlling; he's just looking to make his pitchers better. Therefore, he stands in such stark contrast to nearly everyone else in the book that he appears a genius both of baseball and of life in general.

I've been told it was raining in Boston the day of Sain's death. I guess that means Spahn started the next day for the Heavenlys, with Sain up the day after. After all, though I usually come down on the side of there being no heaven, if there were to be one, it would be inconceivable without baseball.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


In the past eight days, I've been to four bars and to my local bookstore five times.

I leave you to guess which of those frequencies is unusual.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Veterans Day part two

From Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War, by Martha Hanna
Paul to Marie, 7 July 1917
I received your letter from the 3rd where you say that I sem to be happy. Listen my dear if I didn’t cherish in my heart the love of my wife and my child and my parents if I were all alone on this earth then yes I could count myself happy because when the weather is warm as it has been lately and I have everything that I need I cannot really say that I am unhappy especially since the Boches don’t ever fire on us. I am not happy because no one is happy in war I missm y home and those who are dear to me I also miss my freedom but in comparing my life to that of all my comrades then in comparison to them I really am happy.

From When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (2005), by Patricia O’Toole
Archie [Roosevelt] was also struggling to comprehend the brutality of what he had seen and done. In one French raid he had rushed a burly German and fired five shots into him at close range, he told [a friend].
The German fell forward. From my aim, and from his look, and from the way he fell, I knew I had done for him. But I felt I absolutely had to stamp on him. I brought my left heel down on his face, by the mouth, as hard as I could. It went right in, and my boot was splashed with blood up to the ankle. Then I ran on.

That was an absolutely primitive action. I was a man of the Stone Age at that moment, hating my enemy and wanting to humiliate him even after he was dead. If I had had more time, I should have spat in his face. As it was, I stamped on it. . . . . It is extraordinary how savage the men have become. They are absolutely ruthless. I think the fighting and the blood drives them mad, they will kill anything in sight, without asking questions, there’s no talk of guarter. But get them back of the lines with a prisoner and they are very decent. In peacetime, we used to be upset if we saw a man ill in the street. Now, I can see a friend shot right next to me, and I don’t care at all—it seems quite natural, and it’s somebody else’s turn next. I’ll give orders for his tin hat to be taken, or his boots to be taken off, and that’s all.

From Studs Terkel’s “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (1984), E. B. Sledge, author of With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), talks about his experience in the Pacific in World War II
There was nothing macho about the war at all. We were a bunch of scared kids who had to do a job. People tell me I don’t act like an ex-marine. How is an ex-marine supposed to act? They have some Hollywood stereotype in mind. No, I don’t look like John Wayne. We were in it to get it over with, so we could go back home and do what we wanted to do with our lives.

I was nineteen, a replacement in June of 1944. Eighty percent of the division in the Guadalcanal campaign was less than twenty-one years of age.
. . . .
It was raining like hell. We were knee-deep in mud. And I thought, What in the hell are we doin’ on this nasty, stinkin’ muddy ridge? What is this all about? You know what I mean? Wasted lives on a muddy slope.

People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I’ve had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?

If I believed in an afterlife, I would believe that all those who choose war as a first resort, all those who lie a nation into war, all those who put young men and women into harm’s way without first having tried all other avenues, all those who put young men and women into harm’s way without adequately supplying and supporting them or planning for their mission, all those who see war as a tool for winning political victories, all those who see war as a chance to make money off the backs of soldiers, all those who speak religion but are cavalier about the taking of human life, all those who unquestioningly support leaders who would march our soldiers to senseless death, and all those who push and push and push for war, but for themselves set “other priorities than military service”—if I believed in an afterlife, I would believe that all those people would face hard questions when they reach it, questions that they would, I am confident, not be able to answer to the satisfaction of their judges.

But I do not believe an eternal judgment will be forthcoming, no matter how high humanity piles its sins. We are their only judges. We must be the ones forcing them to answer the hard questions. We must push, and push, and push until they are discredited and disempowered. We must heap public scorn and shame on their heads. We must, where possible, put them in jail for years on end. We must blacken their names completely, stain the pages of the history books where they appear a hideous, soul-sickening black.

Only by doing such things can we ever hope to stay the hand of their successors in the years to come—successors who are sure to be far more like them than we would ever wish. We must hold them to account.

Only then could we possibly be worthy of those who have given their lives in the name of our country.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veterans' Day

From Patricia O’Toole’s When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House (2005)
The months with Quentin [Roosevelt] nearby had been happy ones for [his mother] Edith. Her anxiety about the dangers of flying abated each night with the sound of his footsteps on the veranda, and after he sailed, she was sometimes visited by the odd sensation that she had just heard the footsteps again. Sagamore [the Roosevelt family home] ached with emptiness. Edith felt that her life had broken off sharply; “it is like becoming blind or deaf—one just lives on, only in a different way.”

From a letter written by Lieutenant Arnold Schuette to his newborn daughter, collected in War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (2001), edited by Andrew Carroll
December 21, 1943
My Dear Daughter, Anna Mary,
Some day I shall be able to tell you the conditions under which I write this letter to you.

You arrived in this world while I was several thousand miles from your mother’s side. There were many anxious moments then and since.

This message comes to you from somewhere in England. I pray God it will be given to you on or about your tenth birthday. I hope also to be present when that is done. It shalle be held in trust by your mother or someone equally concerned until that time.

Also I pray that the efforts of your daddy and his buddies will not have been in vain. That you will always be permitted to enjoy the great freedoms for which this war is being fought. It is not pleasant, but knowing that our efforts are to be for the good of our children makes it worth the hardships.

From a letter written by First Lieutenant Ed Luker to his wife, collected in War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (2001), edited by Andrew Carroll
June 18, 1918
Dearest Girlie,
Do you smell gas also? We were all subjected to several different kinds of it today [in training], with and without masks, and as usual, I cannot rid my clothes of the odor. It is sure awful stuff, honey. Deadly and usually insures a slow horrible death. There is one kind which kills quickly, Chlorine, but I do not prefer any kind or brand myself. I’ll use the gas mask if possible, with all its discomforts and smell.

I had to have a photo taken today for another “Officer’s Identification Book” which every officer must carry. It provides for a small size bust without head-gear, so when I receive same, I will send you copies. I believe they take the book when your body is found and send the photo to the War Dept to be placed on the Honor Roll. Won’t you be proud to have your Hubby’s picture on a nice magazine page, all fringed with black? Ha! There’s no danger tho. You’ll have me back soon. The war cannot last forever, you know, and even if it does, I will return to you safe and sound eventually.

Unlike the majority of other boys, I am not over here to “die” for my country. I came over to live for it, and after I have helped make it possible for others to live in peace and happiness, I’ll be back to continue living for you. Then we’ll be happier than we would have been had you not sent me over.

From a letter written by Union Army soldier Charles E. Bingham to his wife, collected in War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (2001), edited by Andrew Carroll
August 9, 1863
Same old camp six miles from Rebbys
. . . .
well i must drop this and wind up i am well and doing well and god grant that this bad mess of scribbling may find you in good health the weather has been exceedingly hot for all i thought it was getting colder please write as often as i remain your kind and affectionate husband and shall till death give all the love that you can spare to them that kneeds it only keepe what you want.

Thank you to all who have served and to all who are serving.

Friday, November 10, 2006

I think I made the right choice, or, It's hard to go wrong deciding to read about TR

TR was the right choice. In the first half of Patricia O’Toole’s splendid When Trumpets Call (2005), Roosevelt publicly breaks with his hand-picked successor, Taft, and the Republican Party to run a doomed campaign at the head of the newly formed Progressive Party. O’Toole presents a detailed picture of the rupture between Roosevelt and Taft, suffused with sadness and misunderstanding and driven in equal parts by Taft’s lack of self-assurance and Roosevelt’s lack of self-knowledge.

Taft’s hurt feelings are palpable; in his laments about Roosevelt’s mistreatment of him, he frequently sounds like a jilted lover, or a kid who’s been beaten up by his long-admired older brother. In 1910 when Roosevelt first began speaking out against the work of Taft’s administration, “He is unhappy without the power he wielded as president. I have been made to feel it. His treatment of me has left scars that will never heal.” As Roosevelt saw it, though, O’Toole explains,
After promising the country that he would “complete and perfect the machinery” built by Roosevelt, Taft had allowed it to be dismantled. Roosevelt had not foreseen the dangers of leaving his progressivism to a maintenance man. Progress requires motion, change, momentum. Taft was a creature of stasis.

Baffled by Roosevelt’s animosity, Taft said more than once in the summer of 1910 that if he knew what Roosevelt wanted, he would do it. “I am absolutely in the dark.”
Following a slashing anti-Roosevelt speech on the campaign trail, Taft was dicovered by a reporter alone, head in hands. “‘Roosevelt was my closest friend,’ he said. Then he wept.” Despite his somewhat muddled nature and his less-than-forceful personality (especially when set alongside TR), it’s extremely hard not to feel sorry for Taft throughout the whole miserable period. He did, however, get the last laugh, I suppose: he not only defeated Roosevelt for the Republican nomination, but he went on to outlive him and to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the job he had always wanted most of all.

Meanwhile, though Roosevelt's need for power was so starkly obvious that his blatant refusal to even acknowledge it must have required a supreme exercise of his vaunted will. When, with Taft out of town (Taft liked to travel in part because it got him away from his wife and her hectoring about his waistline.), he visited Washington, DC,
[Roosevelt] stopped by [the White House] to leave his card—it would have been discourteous not to—and when the servants seemed glad to see him, he lingered. He inquired about the kitchen’s cornbread, which he remembered fondly, and the staff brought him a piece. He ate it as he followed the chief usher on a tour, which included an inspection of the new tennis court and a stop in the executive office, where he sat at the president’s desk and said how natural it felt to be there.
Trying to imagine a contemporary ex-president doing such a thing boggles the mind. O’Toole’s book leaves no doubt that it would have been good for Roosevelt—as it has been, I would argue, for Bill Clinton—had the Twenty-second Amendment been in place to set an insuperable limit on both his ambitions and his sense of duty.

Adding yet another layer of political and emotional complexity to the conflict is TR’s daughter Alice’s marriage to Republican congressman Nick Longworth, who represented Taft’s home district in Cincinnati. Though Roosevelt privately urged him to support Taft, as was his duty as Taft’s home congressman, the tension within the Longworth family was almost unsupportable. Taft backers through and through, they all, aside from Nick himself, hated the Roosevelts, including (especially?) Alice, and they never hesitated to make their feelings clear. Alice, truly torn, and unable to appear to support either candidate too fervently in public, perhaps suffered more than anyone other than TR when he lost the election; her husband, possibly due to his undesired (and undesirable) association with Roosevelt, was defeated by 101 votes in 1912, meaning the couple had to leave their beloved DC and move back to what Alice dubbed “Cincinnasty.” Worse yet, they were forced to live in Nick’s mother’s house, where
“even [Alice's] nieces and nephews had been taught to despise her. One of the boys, down with the chickenpox, had been told by his mother to be sure to kiss Aunt Alice. The boy allegedly refused on the ground that she would infect him with something worse from her.”
In this, too, President Taft comes off better than most, able to retain legitimate affection for Alice despite the difficult situation.

These brief episodes alone should give you an idea of how full of fascinating detail, incident, and insight When Trumpets Call is. It’s the work of a historian who is able to fully flesh out characters, bringing tremendous empathy to bear without letting it cloud her critical judgment. If the last half of the book holds up, it will be one of the best history books I’ve ever read, right up there with the first volume of Edmund Morris’s two-volume life of Roosevelt (while making any third volume he may be considering writing utterly unnecessary).

And I haven’t even touched on the story of the assassin who shot Roosevelt in Milwaukee during the 1912 campaign. I’ll save that for a later post; for now I’ll just tell you that of course TR didn’t allow the shooting to prevent him from making his planned speech that night, and that the reason the assassin didn’t shoot him in Chicago was that “he did not want to spoil the city’s ‘decent, respectable reception.’”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lincoln or TR?

On the eve of this splendid, historic Election Day, I faced a reading choice, one that seems to confront me every couple of years: Lincoln or TR? I find both endlessly fascinating, but it’s hard to imagine men of more different temperaments. So which president should accompany me through this election week? So far, I’ve dithered, reading bits of some books about each, unable to choose.

Reading about Roosevelt is, it seems, a lot like being with Roosevelt: fascinating and fun, but draining. He was exactly who he seemed to be, a big, boisterous, energetic, smart, willful, needy man who, in the words of his children, “longed to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” There are virtually no unplumbed depths there—as biographer Patricia O’Toole puts it, he “galloped away from introspection.” So the pleasures of reading about Roosevelt lie in a combination of the joys of reading about someone of such indomitable will and awe at the sheer number of his accomplishments, good and bad. O’Toole’s book, When Trumpets Call (2005), which is the one I have before me, promises to be of particular interest on both fronts, as it focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years, when his will began to be thwarted and his own sense of accomplishment began to waver.

To read about Lincoln, on the other hand, is to yaw between shivering admiration (bordering, this life-long Illinoisan will admit, on reverence) and deeply felt sympathy for the obviously human, familiar man trying not to be crushed by the unimaginable pressures brought to bear on him in the last five years of his life. In his knowledge of himself, Lincoln seems to have been the opposite of Roosevelt. Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her book about Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals (2005):
Lincoln possessed an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness and stress. Indeed, when he is compared with his colleagues, it is clear that he possessed the most even-tempered disposition of them all. Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights. Through the appalling pressures he faced day after day, he retained an unflagging faith in his country’s cause.
Yet he remains somewhat mysterious; as Richard Carwardine relates in Lincoln (2003),
Lincoln had dignity, considerable reserve, few real intimates, and a proper sense of the private; as John G. Nicolay and John Milton Hay, his White House secretaries [both quite young men, who would go on to write the first major biography of Lincoln], later remarked, in personal relations with him, “there was a line beyond which no one ever thought of passing.” But he was hardly aloof. He cultivated no airs and graces. In the words of a fellow lawyer, “in the ordinary walks of life [he] did not appear the ‘great man’ that he really was.”

Yet, like TR, Lincoln got people to do what he wanted and needed them to do—including his star-studded, fractious cabinet. And he was clearly a shrewd judge of character (a characteristic he definitely shared with General Grant, though, not, sadly, with President Grant). My interest in that aspect of Lincoln, of his deep understanding of personal relations and how to work with people, may tip the balance this week in his favor, and in favor of Team of Rivals.

But on the other hand, When Trumpets Call, because it treats TR’s post-presidential years, necessarily delves into the many failures of President Taft and the vexed relationship between Roosevelt and his hand-picked successor:
[Taft biographers] have wondered in exasperation how Roosevelt ever could have considered him fit for the presidency. Taft was indolent, irresolute, dependent, and undone by opposition and criticism—a dooming combination. But the Taft that Roosevelt knew had distinguished himself as governor-general of the Philippines, problem-solver in Cuba and Panama, and secretary of war. Under Roosevelt’s energetic leadership, Taft kept his lassitude in check, and his other shortcomings easily could have manifested themselves as virtues. A dependent man makes an excellent lieutenant, for he is happiest when carrying out the orders of others. And a man who shies away from conflict can be an exceptionally agreeable colleague. TR thought his friend Will had “the most loveable personality” of anyone he had ever known.
If that’s not a recipe for a fascinating book, what is?

So TR or Lincoln? Taft and TR or Lincoln and his cabinet? How to choose?

Maybe I should change the name of this blog to too many books, too little time?

Monday, November 06, 2006

We have always been at war with Eastasia

On this election eve, this post is intended as a reminder that, regardless of how often Christopher Hitchens misuses his name and work, George Orwell really did see it all coming.

We have always been at war with Eurasia.

You may not be able to cast your ballot against those lying bastards tomorrow, but you can at least cast it against any and all of their enablers. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Vinegar Joe.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


I have Sandy and Sarah to thank for pointing me to the best book I read during my baseball-induced blog hiatus. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, through the sometimes strained conceit of tracing four specific meals back to their source materials, is a fascinating exploration of the current state of our production of—and relationship to—food. Coming from a farm background, and being both a vegetarian and a subscriber to the produce of a nearby community-supported farm, I knew a little bit about the subject going into the book. I know that our contemporary food system is built on a willful blindness about the materials and methods that bring us our meals. I know that most American eat in ways that are bad for them and their planet, out of a combination of ignorance, busy-ness, complacency, and lack of opportunity. I know that, like many other aspects of our resource use as a culture, our current approach to food is likely to be unsustainable. And I know that I haven’t always had this knowledge, despite my background and the amount of cooking I’ve done since I became an adult; I distinctly remember being stopped cold by Wendell Berry’s reminder that we can never be any healthier than the land from which we draw our sustenance.

But despite that knowledge, Pollan’s relentless questioning, his dogged working backwards through link after link in the food supply chain, taught me a lot about aspects of our food culture that I knew little about. Take the huge fields of corn that blanket the Midwest. Pollan’s opening chapter clearly and carefully explains how, in part because of various subsidies and government programs, American agriculture after World War II began growing a tremendous surplus of corn every year. That corn has ended up in every part of our food system, with often terrible, unanticipated results. Corn syrup replaces sugar in soft drinks; because corn syrup is so cheap, the soft drinks get larger (rather than getting cheaper); people drink more calories of soft drinks; people get diabetes. That’s a simplified version, of course, leaving out many mitigating and complicating factors (which Pollan does not neglect), but when you see similarly malignant patterns in the realms of livestock, chemical fertilizers and herbicides, crop rotations, and more, the overall effect is powerful.

That chapter, and subsequent ones on large-scale organic farming (which has its own grave problems) are both fantastic. But the highlight of the book is when Pollan visits a small-scale farm in Virginia, where grasslands, chickens, hogs, and cattle interact in layers and loops of dizzying complexity to create an ecological system in careful balance, one requiring very, very few external inputs beyond sunlight, rainfall, and manual labor. The farmer, evangelical about his type of farming to the point where I think he’d probably be annoying as a relative or friend, is adamant that this is the way forward: producing and selling locally, keeping a close connection to the land and therefore (as Wendell Berry would certainly agree) fully understanding of the responsibility the farmer has to the land. At first, Pollan is confused that the farmer won’t fedex him a steak; by the end of his visit, he feels like a fool for having asked.

The closing section, on hunting (pigs) and gathering (fungi), isn’t t anywhere near as interesting. And while I love the process of cooking, I’m not actually that interested in reading about food itself, so the descriptions of meals that crop up here and there in The Omnivore’s Dilemma were mostly skippable. But it’s still a great book, and the one I’m most likely to buy as a Christmas gift for more than one person this year. It’s also the gift most likely to spark lively discussion. Pollan, after all, raises far more questions than he answers—he ‘s too smart not to acknowledge that every possible solution to our current situation has its own limitations and problems. But I’ll be very surprised if you can read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and keep it out of your thoughts the next time you sit down to a meal with the person you gave the book to, or the next time you go to the grocery store.

After all, asparagus in January? Apple cider in March? Twinkies, ever? Clearly there’s something wrong here, but how wrong, and how can we make it right? That’s a Thanksgiving dinner conversation if I’ve ever heard one!

Friday, November 03, 2006


From Diana Kappel-Smith's Wintering (1979)
It turns out that not many animals do truly hibernate, let go of that hard-won skill of keeping themselves warm from the inside out, beacuse like all risky private lettings-go it is not easy to find a place safe enough to do it in. Hibernators need a hidey-hole and the complex series of behaviors to find a good hole, or to make one. They need a place that is safe against frost and prdators. A tall order. So there are not many hibernators here, or anywhere, for that matter. Groundhogs, jumping mice, bats. That's all we have. Farther north where the frost runs deep in the ground there are no hibernators at all; Arctic mammals have to keep themselves warm, keep the inner fires burning. They have no choice. There is no safe place there to let go in.

Winter began this year late on the night of October 27th with an 0-2 curveball thrown by the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright past Detroit's Brandon Inge, followed by much rejoicing.

While I'm not by nature or temperament a true hibernator, my calendar does clear up a bit once winter arrives. Baseball is over, marathon training is over, my busiest time at work is over. We've set our clocks back, so there's no light after work to call me out of doors. Soon there will be no light in the morning before work, either. There's reading and cooking and sitting in the cool front room of our little house, watching the birds. And now it's time to write again.