Friday, March 6, 2020

Songs of America, by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw

In Songs of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer of Presidents Jon Meacham and Grammy-winning country singer Tim McGraw teamed up to trace America’s history through patriotic songs that shaped and reflected the country’s mood amid wars, social movements, and other times of conflict from before the American Revolutionary War up to the election of President Obama. Anyone who enjoys reading history or listening to music – or better, both – will find it irresistible. 

Meacham writes a celebration of the history and songs of the eras while McGraw reflects, as an artist and performer, on the songs selected in a series of sidebars. The two form an irresistible duo, connecting us to music as a force in our nation’s history. They begin their narrative early on, when tensions first arose between England and the 13 colonies. From there, they recount the next two-and-a-half century journey over our history’s rocky road. 

From the Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle Dandy, to I Wish I was in DixieAmerica The Beautiful, This Land is Your Land and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, in early years, to the more current We Shall OvercomeBlowin’ in the WindOkie From Muskogee, and Born in the USA, to name a few, they connect us with music as an unsung (no pun intended) force in our country’s development. 

McGraw’s engaging commentary fits well with Meacham’s artful delivery in writing about each song and how it fits into the era. Rarely do such diverse talents mesh in a way that produces a result of a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

In summary, they have written a wonderful and moving account of how the sounds of America have inspired us and contribute to our understanding of our past.

Toward the end, Meacham quotes Shakespeare:
The man who has not music in his soul
            Or is not touched with Concord of sweet sounds,
              Is fit for Treasons, Stratagems, & Spoils,
             The Motions of his mind are dull as Night,
             And his affections dark as Erebus.
             Let no such Man be trusted.

Perhaps this is why the authors halt their story just before the 45th President….

p.s. A personal note of a segment of my early history and music.  While a ninth-grader in 1956, I joined a group of boys who were skipping school to travel to Memphis to hear Elvis Presley at the Cotton Carnival, an event much like the Mardi Gras. Elvis had recently made the scene with his hit “Heartbreak Hotel”, and we were entranced by his sideburns, swiveling hips, ducktail haircut – all of which we quickly tried to emulate. We got back home well into the wee hours of the morning, and of course my parents had been extremely worried and now mad, but glad I was safe.  I think I was grounded forever. Several years later, Elvis and I were both serving in the Army at the same time in Germany. — Ken Johnson

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver

I knew I was going to get some good chuckles out of the book when I read the opening paragraph of Bean Trees:
                  “I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw 
                  a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father
                  over the top of the Standard Oil sign.  I’m not lying.  He
                  got stuck up there.  He wasn’t killed, but lost his hearing 
                  and in many other ways was not the same afterwards.” 
And I kept chuckling throughout the book.  It’s funny but it also is a good story, really a series of good stories from beginning to end.  The stories are intriguing, clever and wise.  Barbara Kingsolver has written a number of books but this is her first. 
The “heroine,” Taylor Greer is a determined, spirited, and very likable young woman.  She has two goals in life:  To move away from her home in rural Kentucky and not to get pregnant.  She heads off on her getaway adventure in her newly-purchased 1955 Volkswagen bug which, besides being unreliable mechanically, has no windows.  No starter either, so it has to be push-started, preferably on a hill.  She stuffs all the money she has into one pocket of her jeans and heads off.  
Taylor grew up poor, but she is resourceful. Her plan is to drive west and never look back until her car stops running, then settle wherever that takes her.  She lands on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona on a Cherokee Indian reservation.  She manages to drive her wobbling car off the highway and find a much-needed auto repair shop with the interesting name of “Jesus is Lord Used Tires.”  
Somewhere along the way, her trip takes a very unexpected turn.  A woman places a small child wrapped in a large pink blanket into Taylor’s car, insisting that she must “Take this baby.”  Taylor is too stunned to refuse and so becomes the instant mother of a three-year-old Native American Cherokee girl, a round-eyed child with a “cereal bowl haircut.”  The child’s tiny hands grab and hold tightly onto everything she can reach, especially her new mother’s long braid  She also realizes that the child has been horribly physically and sexually abused. 
Perhaps because Turtle needs security as the result of the fear and pain she has suffered, her tiny little hands grab and hold tightly onto everything she can reach, especially her new mother’s long braid.  So Taylor names her little girl “Turtle” after mud turtles who also hold tightly to everything they can grab.  Turtle becomes fascinated with beans, especially the purple beans from Wisteria trees and loves to collect and plant the beans, then dig them up. The little girl is also fascinated with horticultural magazines and books, anything that pictures vegetables and plants.  Her quick mind helps her memorize the names and types of vegetables.
In Tucson, Taylor meets and becomes good friends with Lou Ann Ruiz, whose husband has lost a leg in an accident. Lou Ann also has a child and the two women agree to move in together with their families.  From there on the book is filled with the sometimes touching and always humorous lives of the two women, their families and the events and everyday miracles in their lives. 
The Bean Trees is witty and wise and funny - a good read from start to finish.  I did not want it to end.— Gail Stilwill

Monday, January 27, 2020

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Dillard’s opening anecdote of the old fighting tom leaping through the window onto her bed at night and kneading her chest while she’s half-asleep is borrowed from someone else. But the reaction to the event is pure Dillard as poet and theologian. 

“I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign or the Passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence . . . ‘Seems like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

In this opening, Dillard poses the question of the book very colloquially. Seems like we’re just set down here and don’t nobody know why. The opening also puts the reader on notice that her writing style is going to be poetic. She’s going to use words that need to be paused over and considered. And she’s going to use them abundantly in sentences with rhythm and repetition that convey feeling as much as they convey meaning. And she’s going to make lots of allusions to Scripture (just give a second glance to the quotation above as an example).

In her younger years, Dillard had turned away from organized religion because she couldn’t reconcile the easy, pious answers about Why? with the suffering she observed in the world. But in her mid-twenties, Dillard dared take a crack at answering the question of Why? herself. And she won the Pulitzer for her efforts. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the young poet took on the absolutely biggest question of all, suspecting it was impossible to answer, but daring to try.

In her year-long, up-close observation of nature along Tinker Creek, Dillard does her best to show us “here” (as in Seems like we’re just set down here . . .) in blinding color, shifting shadow, ice and heat, big and small. Animal, vegetable, mineral. She serves up details of nature both adorable (the juvenile muskrat floating past with his feet over his stomach) and ghoulish. She observes the abundance of the natural world as something not altogether positive (all those parasites and predators). And trying to draw a conclusion about the nature of God from all this, she concludes merely “the creator loves pizzazz.” –which, honestly, made me laugh. And reminded me of the Psalmist claiming God made the great leviathan just for fun.

In her poetic, abundant way, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard show us nature in which the Creator must be because He is omnipresent, so He has to be in there, right? 

But questions linger. 

And in her later book, Holy the Firm, Dillard tries to answer them. That book was written while she lived on Lummi Island, off mainland Washington, where nature is sparse. She called Lummi Island “the edge of the known and comprehended world . . . the western rim of the real . . . the fringes’ edge . . . where time and eternity spatter each other with foam—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of Divinity begins.” Or, put more succinctly: “If God is in the abundance of creation, take away creation and get a better look at God.” Or, put a bit more esoterically, perhaps Creation was the fall.

Dillard invites us on a pilgrimage to understand God. But she also quotes Augustine: “If you do understand, then it is not God.” 

Or as Anne Lamott prays at the beginning of her day: Whatever.

Seems like we’re just set down here, and don’t nobody know why.— Sharelle Moranville

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Considered by critics to be Cather’s best work, Death Comes for the Archbishop is a full-color portrait of the southwestern United States, especially New Mexico, and its people in the second half of the 19th century. As she has done in other books, Cather catches a culture on the cusp of huge change—the “new” world pushes against the “old,” indigenous religions fight to maintain their beliefs while integrating with Catholicism, the strength and beauty of nature begins to face those who want to control it. The Americans are pitted against the French, the Spanish, the Indians, the Mexicans, although it is not clear who, in this context, actually is an American.

At the center of the story are two French missionaries, Jean Marie Latour and his good friend and assistant Joseph Vaillant. Their lives mirror the men on whom they are based: Latour on the first bishop of New Mexico, Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Vaillant on the first bishop of Colorado, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf.

Latour is sophisticated, thoughtful, and cool. Vaillant, who is a few steps beyond homely, is warm and engaging, enthusiastic about raising funds for missions and, ultimately, for the bishop’s dream: the cathedral. The two men are yin and yang, each showing strengths that combat the other’s weaknesses. Vaillant helps Latour establish himself in a land in which priests have been settled for hundreds of years, although those priests have been on their own, with no oversight from Rome, and they've created their own rules, or lack of them. They flagrantly take advantage of the local people and grow ostentatiously wealthy while living a life of pleasure, marrying, having children, and building a bit of a family business. Latour carefully and slowly forces the errant priests out of their parishes, and Vaillant is there to care for the parishioners, wherever or however he finds them.

The book is episodic, less like a novel and more like a series of short stories tied together by the missionaries and some continuing characters. Kit Carson plays a prominent role and, through him, Cather shows this country’s relationship with its earliest settlers, the Indians. Carson is married to an Indian and, in most cases, he acts like their friend. Yet, when the U.S. government wants to find a hideout where the Navajos stay safe, Carson leads the troops right there, causing the death of more than 100, and leading to the death of their way of life. Cather offers a poignant overview of that way of life:

They seemed to have none of the European's desire to "master" nature, to arrange and re-create. They spent their ingenuity in the other direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves. This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect. It was as if the great country were asleep, and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things not to antagonize and arouse. 

Perhaps the biggest contrast Cather creates is between the first chapter and the rest of the book. In that initial chapter, she introduces us to "three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America," in an opulent villa overlooking Rome. The four men are fed exceptionally well and drink fine champagne, which feeds the Cardinals' already overblown egos. They are committed to sending more missionaries to America but are not interested in the least in learning just what America is or who its people are and assume Indians all live in wigwams. Their evening ends over brandy and a sunset. These cardinals wouldn't last a half hour in the territory to which they are sending missionaries, nor would their arrogant attitudes achieve many converts.

Characters throughout the book are compelling, real, and beautifully flawed, but the exquisite scenery is the real star, and Cather captures that with breathtaking clarity; the book is full of a love of the land and with descriptions that take the fine hand of a master.  Perhaps her most-quoted description:
The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere anthills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky.
Death finally comes for the archbishop, after he has lived a long and full life. When one of his friends shows his obvious grief and wants to heal him from what looks and sounds like pneumonia, Latour simply says, 'I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.” —Pat Prijatel

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This book accomplishes several things at once.  It gives us superbly researched accounts of three intriguing stories that peaked in the first decade of the 1900s – the familiar career of Theodore Roosevelt, the less known path of William Howard Taft, and the misunderstood investigative journalism of that period.  It shows how these three stories entwined with each other and fed each other.  It gives us a comprehensive feel for a period that echoes our own in many ways.  It is a long but wonderfully readable work of history.  

Teddy Roosevelt was a huge and energetic personality, a scholar, a prodigious reader and writer, and a man dedicated to progressive domestic policies but flawed by an impetuous temperament and muscularly nationalistic foreign policies.  After some initial political success, personal tragedy triggered a depression that he conquered by physical activity during an extended ranching sabbatical.  He returned to the meteoric political career we are familiar with.  In just over a decade he served as a reforming U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Vice-President and President of the United States.  Goodwin gives us well-documented explanations of why and how he achieved a number of progressive social policies in each position.  

Goodwin gives us a welcome picture of Big Bill Taft.  We typically know him as an oversized president who was the regular Republican Party nominee in 1912, opposing Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” campaign that allowed Woodrow Wilson’s campaign as the Democratic nominee to win.  But the full story is far more vibrant and impressive.  He was a popular and productive public servant in Ohio, especially in judicial service, which was his own preferred path.  He developed a close personal friendship with Roosevelt while working at the Justice Department; Roosevelt and Taft’s wife kept pushing him in political directions.  He served admirably as the first Governor General of the Philippines and the leader of Roosevelt’s cabinet.  He was a natural choice, and Roosevelt’s choice, to succeed TR in 1908.  Somewhat trivial bureaucratic squabbles during Taft’s presidency produced a serious division between them that led to Roosevelt’s third-party run in 1912.  Touchingly that rift was healed in 1918, shortly before Roosevelt’s death and Taft’s eventual appointment as Chief Justice of the United States.  

The rise of investigative journalism in the 1890s and 1900s is the third story Goodwin tells.  An increasingly educated and urban America provided a market for more thoughtful and probing journalism than daily newspapers could provide.  Goodwin introduces us to McClure’s, a monthly led by S.S. McClure and featuring well-researched articles by writers such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White.  Despite their documentation of social issues with high standards of scholarly journalism, these writers were often included in the maligned category of muckrakers and yellow-press. 

Roosevelt was the perfect foil for these writers.  He invited them into his thinking, and in return used the relationship to project his policies, and not incidentally his personality, to the general public.  This relationship of press and politics gave Roosevelt the Bully Pulpit of the title.  It was unprecedented in American government but has become a necessity for successful governance ever since, and continues so with the evolution of the press to broadcast and electronic media.  Taft’s inability to understand and use this resource – due to his personal temperament and his judicial approach to public leadership – was a major barrier to his presidency and to his 1912 campaign.  

The period echoes themes of our own times.  Economic growth since the Civil Wat resulted in extremes of wealth and poverty, and the political divisions were equally extreme.  Industrial powerhouses of that day – railroads, oil companies, and meat packers – were eventually tamed, income taxation was introduced, popular election of senators was adopted, and labor and housing conditions were addressed.  Goodwin shows how these accomplishments were the result of Roosevelt’s political skill, breaking legislative deadlocks by using the press to apply public pressure 

It is an extensively documented period of history.  People still wrote meaningful letters and left thoughtful diaries.  Public documents are generally preserved.  Goodwin has distilled these resources to tell powerful stories, full of credible and nuanced characters, motivated by strong beliefs and purposes.  One member of our group stated that the book should be read by any current Republican as a reminder of what the party once stood for.  — William H. Smith Jr.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

I am in awe of Angie Thomas’s accomplishment with this book. It has a moral without being moralistic and a message that creeps into your consciousness through believable, likable, and courageous characters, a complex and compelling storyline, and a city you can almost hear and smell, even though we have no idea where it actually is. 

This is a book about the importance of speaking out, despite the very real risks it presents. It’s also about community, with interconnected themes of belonging and loyalty woven with race, police brutality, and black identity.

That’s a lot to pack in, but Thomas does it so elegantly the reader falls in love with these amazing people facing a decision: Can they go on as usual or is it time to challenge the power structure? In this case, that structure includes the police department and district attorney on the one hand and a drug lord and his minions on the other. Caught between these two, which do you align with? What happens when the answer is “neither”?

At the center of the story is Starr, a smart and perceptive Black teenager who sees her childhood friend Khalil killed by a police officer after a traffic stop for a bad brake light. She struggles with her responsibility to Khalil, her community, family, and ultimately to herself. She’s terrified of telling the truth, which implicates both the officer and the drug kings, but she finally realizes she has no choice.

Starr straddles two different communities with different cultures and language. In the neighborhood, she is the grocer’s daughter, who sometimes works in his store. At her school in a ritzy white neighborhood, she is only as cool as she needs to be. She’s in that school because her parents know she will not get the education and opportunities she needs and deserves if she stays in the local school. She’s not a total fit in either place.

She has to leave parts of her behind when she goes to school—her language, her stories, and certainly the fact that she was in the car when Khalil was killed. If the white kids know too much, she fears, they’ll see her as a ghetto kid and dismiss her. Eventually, loyalty to her community and trust from her white friends help her speak out.

Thomas began this book when she was an undergraduate in creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. She says she chose to write it as a young adult novel to make it more accessible and relatable—and she succeeded.

The book was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the title comes from rapper Tupac Shakir’s THUG LIFE philosophy (and tatoo), an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody. Shakir says, "What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face." When you force kids to live in a community that offers few opportunities besides drug dealing, you allow children to grow up broken and angry.  But those are our kids, even if they don't look or act like us—or we like them—and their world is connected to ours. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Ideally, we would be motivated to help black children get the same benefits as white because that is simply part of a just society. But THUG LIFE reminds us that, no matter our motivation, our inaction will come back to hurt us all.—Pat Prijatel

Near the Exit, by Lori Erickson

Being shown the world through the eyes of thoughtful people who are keen travelers and also engaging writers is a big treat to someone who doesn’t travel (me). Near the Exit: Travels with the Not So-Grim Reaper is a wonderful read and a thought-provoking discussion of death and death rituals. 

As a huge fan of the movie Coco, I really enjoyed visiting the largest annual Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago with Erickson. Likewise, ancient Egyptian sites; nursing homes; the New Zealand Maori; Aztecs and Mayan ruins; funeral homes; the spiritual center in Crestone, Colorado; Assisi; and the Sacred Stone Circle at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City were each, in their way, fascinating destinations for conversations about death. After reading this book, I think I may be able to react to nursing homes with more peace and grace.

My favorite section of book is near the end, when Erickson describes what she saw at Eremo delle Carceri (a hermitage overlooking Assisi): 

Just outside the building is a statue of Francis that’s the happiest depiction of a saint I’ve ever seen. It shows him lying on the ground, his hands behind his head, his sandals kicked off and ankles crossed, a contented smile on his face. Christianity might produce more saints if we pictured them like this, rather than carrying the tools of their martyrdom.

Erickson goes on to say:

When it came time for him to die, he wanted them (his brothers) to place his naked body on the ground, not long, just about the length of time it took someone to walk a mile.  . . . maybe he knew that after his death his bones—and his message—would become the property of the church, which would inevitably try to corral and domesticate the wild spirit he’d unleashed. Before that happened, he would have one last moment of communion with the earth he loved so much. It is said when Francis died, a chorus of larks wheeled and swooped above him for a long time, singing him home.

I’m not sure why that passage is so appealing. Maybe because it shows such a vibrant, living membrane between the spiritual and the physical–which is, indeed, something I sometimes, in lucky moments, feel. 

Humans are apparently the only one of God’s creatures who grapple with their own mortality. In Near the Exit, Erickson shows us a way to circle closely to the inevitable and look at it without too much unease.—Sharelle Moranville