Sunday, August 26, 2018

On "Macadam" by Lucia Berlin (148 words) ***

This is Berlin doing poetry essentially. The focus of this story is the sound of words--or rather, one word. Read the story here at Biblioklept.

On "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau ***

I can't say that this is a book I've been wanting to read for a long time. I can take Thoreau in short bursts, but whole books bore me. I base this on those short pieces and on his Week on the Concord and Merrimack River. But this is a classic, and it was on the shelf at home, and I was needing a book, so I read it.

Also, there was an amazing NPR piece on Walden. That was really what made me take note--the radio piece made this book sound amazing. I figured, Why not? So I checked it out.

Some things the radio piece did: It quoted from the book--and those quotes were amazing (remember, short bursts). Also, it talked about how there's a subtext about the underground railroad, which Thoreau's family was involved in--indeed, there were a couple of mentions I spotted.

There's also the idea, according to the radio show, that this book is not about isolation and solitude, as most people assume, but about going into civilization. The radio person made this claim because Thoreau doesn't leave permanently--this is just one stop on life's journey. Of course, he's not really isolated at Walden either; it wasn't that far from town, and he talks about his neighbors and others who come to the pond.

For me, the book was more about simplifying one's life. The first chapter and the conclusion are the pieces that really drive that point home, and those were, for me, the most interesting parts of the book. Once Thoreau gets involved with describing the nature around him, it was a snooze fest for me. But his material on economy gave me much to consider. In a way, that was my life really up until marriage, although I probably did get myself too caught up in doing too many things rather than just enjoying the present. Still, in many ways, I was one to say, I don't need that or this, and I often didn't go out and purchase gizmos everyone else wants. Even furniture was minimal. Now, married, I don't have as much choice in regard to what to keep and what to get rid of; there's others whose desires and needs have to be accounted for, and their idea of simplifying (if indeed they even want to--kids tend to want more toys not fewer) is something different from my own.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

On "Holy Ground" by Jamie Quatro (about 6400 words) ***

In “Holy Ground” a woman decides to literally run away. She's been having an affair of sorts (on the phone) and feels a need somehow to make good. Her husband and kids stay home. She runs to a poorer area down the hill, in another town, where she hopes to live for a week, getting a sense of how others live and helping them. Instead, she finds herself helped of a sort. Read the story here.

On "Brushing Back Jim Crow" by Bruce Adelson ***

Jackie Robinson's heroic turn as the first African American major league baseball player receives lots of attention--and for good reason, as this brings out. But few think about all the other players who helped integrate professional baseball, and here I don't mean major league ball. Adelson, in this book, turns his attention to the minor leagues, particularly those in the South, which lagged behind the majors and which featured many of the same struggles that were endured by men like Robinson.

The book begins with an anecdote about a young man whose intention was to continue on to college but who was drafted by a baseball team. He didn't really want to play, but his dad urged him to, because that had been the father's dream. For most African Americans, until the 1950s, playing baseball professionally was just that--a dream--unless of course one played for the Negro Leagues. This was an opportunity, the dad brought out, to do something great for a people. The son chose baseball. The anecdote, as written, held for me an emotional wallop.

Alas, in one of the major issues for this book, the anecdote is repeated in the very next chapter, word for word (though in slightly greater detail insofar as it is enlongated at its start and end). Other anecdotes and quotes are repeated elsewhere in the book. And there is no index, so tracking down a minor character's identity is difficult; described first in some early chapter, the character is not reintroduced in a late chapter where he shows up again, and so one is left with a gnawing wish to remember who this guy is or was.

But the tales themselves are incredibly interesting. Adelson spends time in different leagues during the course of the 1950s, covering events year by year, and connecting them to large events in the civil rights movement. Often, rather than writing about the events, he lets quotes from newspapers or from interviews with baseball stars stand in for narrative, giving one a sense of the times.

In brief, some of the rather amazing things that happened included the following: A given minor league team might integrate by adding one or two black players. That team then reaped the benefits of larger attendance from black patrons, at a time when attendance numbers were otherwise sagging. But other teams in a league often disagreed with such actions, and so various things might happen to stop the integration from fully occurring. State and local governments might ban interracial game and sporting events, or the league leadership itself might step in to enforce segregation. As a result, black players from another team had to be left behind or the team might have to forfeit (ironically to the team that refused to play because of the inclusion of a black player). Just as segregated buses were boycotted in some cities during the civil rights movement, so too African Americans often ended up boycotting games by those teams that refused to integrate, which increased the attendance problem and the declining revenue. In some cases, leagues or teams ended up going out of business because of their stubborness. Some northern teams simply stopped coming South to play sports (most notably, in college football, but also exhibition baseball games with major league teams).

But even if a black player was allowed to take the field, there were other issues. There wasn't just the name calling, which often spurred such athletes on. There was the fact that seating was often segregated so that African Americans were relegated to lousy outfield seats and often not enough--this last factor sometimes led to expanded black and eventually integrated seating. There was the fact that black players might take the field with their white counterparts, but after the game, they'd have to go stay at someone's house. They couldn't go to the hotel with the team, couldn't eat at the same restaurants as the team, couldn't essentially do anything with the team itself out in public. It was a lonely and tough life, a mirror of what Robinson endured but sometimes in spades insofar as this was the South, where jim crow reigned.

I never thought much, when I was younger, about what some players had endured just a decade or so before my birth, men like Billy Williams or Hank Aaron, who played minor league ball in the South and who were old and about-to-retire stars or new coaches when I was a kid. I thought of them as great ballplayers, but their early careers were in fact civil rights-type actions, given the prejudice they had to endure. As Adelson shows, baseball was in some ways the first line of integration. As segregation fell here, it would fall elsewhere in entertainment, at schools, and in public transportation.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

On "La Vie en Rose" by Lucia Berlin (12 minutes) ***

"La Vie en Rose" revolves around two girls on a visit in Europe who are swept up by two young dashing soldiers and are summarily dealt with by their strict father. It's a story about youth--youthful daring and folly--more than about anything sinister or hateful, rebellious or oppressive. Listen to the story here at Soundcloud.

On "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey ****

Here's another novel it's taken me over two decades to get around to reading. Back when I was in my early twenties and working in a bookstore, one particular coworker of mine was a huge fan. He was taking a break from college up in Utah, and his desire was to be an environmentalist attorney. And he was not, one would say, too averse to sundry tactics to prevent the development of the West. He was a huge fan of this book as well as Marc Reisner's book on dams.

And so finally, I've read Abbey's classic, and I can see the appeal to young idealistic Alex. Oh, to be young again.

As I read the book now, the four central characters, conspirers to prevent the destruction of the West through nearly any means necessary (save killing people), come across as essentially terrorists. They do not, for most of the book, seem like heros very much. And they are hypocrites, littering their way across the same landscape they profess to be saving by destroying bridges and wreaking havoc on new construction. For most of the book, I did not have much sympathy for them.

But credit Abbey with somehow making the characters get into you enough that by the end you are cheering for them, hoping they get away with all their bad deeds, even if you don't agree with them. You come to like them in some odd and twisted way. Perhaps, that's because most of the squares come across as unsympathetic foes. (I also credit Abbey with making much of the writing itself absolutely beautiful.)

Still, I do end up wondering where Abbey's real feelings lie. In creating characters who are not entirely good and in naming one of the "squares" after himself, one gets the feeling that while Abbey might sympathize with the views of his four main characters, he does not entirely approve of their means. The character named after himself is a ranger who comes across them and lets them go--the first time--and then who catches one of them the second. Maybe there's hope in a more conservative approach to conservation.