Monday, June 08, 2009

Summer Reading List

Welcome back to the fourth annual Zeta Woof Summer Reading List. Once again, these are books which I have read over the course of the last year or two — or five — that I can in confidence recommend to you.

It is, as usual, an eclectic bunch. If there is any unifying theme, it is my love of history—ancient to modern; past, present, and future. We begin with the very recent past.

No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times by Dorothy Rabinowitz

Dorothy Rabinowitz has spent a good part of her writing career defending, in her columns and editorials in The Wall Street Journal, those unjustly — and often preposterously — accused of heinous crimes against children. There were a rash of these cases in the eighties and early nineties; the McMartin preschool in California, Officer Grant Snowden in Florida, Dr. Patrick Griffin in New York, the Wenatchee, Washington, investigations, in which dozens were accused and imprisoned, and many more.

Worst of all was the Fells Acres Day School case, in which Gerald Amirault, his sister Cheryl, and their mother, Violet Amirault, were accused, tried, convicted, and imprisoned for crimes they never committed. Crimes which, it seemed, no rational person could even believe possible. Violet Amirault died in 1997 at the age of 74, having spent seven of her last years in prison, still protesting her innocence.

Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey

Kirk Douglas assembled the cast and crew himself, and hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. He always said that Lonely Are the Brave was his favorite movie. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Michael Kane, and Carroll O'Connor — it's probably worth watching, but I don't know. I've never seen a movie that didn't disappoint me at some level. The books are always better.

So I bought the book instead. It's worth the time. It's worth reading twice.

I could see the movie now, but why bother? The pictures in my mind are clearer, the dialogue more convincing, the background of the characters and the details of the plot more complete. Sure it's a great story, but Edward Abbey's finely crafted prose could never survive translation to film.

Or could it? Maybe you can tell me. But read the book first.

Mean Martin Manning by Scott Stein

Martin Manning lives alone. Has for thirty years. Likes it that way.
The young woman knocked on my door—three intrusive raps without a trace of apology....

"Mr. Manning, I'm here to help you."
Martin Manning doesn't want help.
She knocked, this time with the palm of her hand. The metal door echoed flatly.

I was silent.

Again, she knocked.

"Mr. Manning, I know you're in there."

She couldn't know anything of the sort.

"Mr. Manning, don't be afraid. My name is Alice Pitney. I'm your caseworker."

Caseworker? What the hell was she talking about?
Alice Pitney had better watch out. It's not nice to mess with Mean Martin Manning.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

The title comes from an essay by William Graham Sumner, written half a century befor the Depression.
"As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine . . . what A, B, and C shall do for X."
But what about C? Ms. Schlaes asks.

This is a book about C, the forgotten man, the one who was not consulted, the one who paid. The one whose business, and often whose life, was destroyed by A and B to remedy the evil afflicting X.

Once There Was a War by John Steinbeck

In 1943 John Steinbeck was already world famous for The Grapes of Wrath, which had won the Pulitzer prized and been made into a popular film. He was forty-one, too old for the draft, and he didn't need to go to war. But he did.

These dispatches, covering the period from June 21st to December 13th, 1943, were originally published contemporaneously in The New York Herald Tribune and other newpapers. Not until 1958 were they gathered together, with a new introduction by the author, in book form.

It's not straight reporting, but journalism in the original sense of the word. From England to Africa to Italy, Steinbeck lived with and observed and talked with and wrote about the men he encountered, sticking to the facts when the facts were sufficient, but never letting them get in the way of the story.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Here's an excerpt:
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel feverish, shaken with sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care.

I finished the drink and went to bed.
Most people rate The Big Sleep as Chandler's best. I don't agree. It's good; they're all good, but this, written in 1958, is the best.

Art of the Rifle: Special Color Edtion by Jeff Cooper
Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons. The possession of a good rifle, as well as the skill to use it well, truly makes a man the monarch of all he surveys. It realizes the ancient dream of the Jovian thunderbolt, and as such it exercises a curious influence over the minds of most men, and in its best examples it constitutes an object of affection unmatched by any other inanimate object.
Jeff Cooper died in 2006, at the age of 86, after a long and eventful life.

Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It In The Sandwich Islands by Mark Twain
"The missionaries have christianized and educated all the natives. They all belong to the Church, and there is not one of them, above the age of eight years, but can read and write with facility in the native tongue. It is the most universally educated race of people outside of China. They have any quntity of books, printed in the Kanaka language, and all the natives are fond of reading. There are inveterate church-goers—nothing can keep them away. All this ameliorating cultivation has at last built up in the native women a profound respect for chastity—in other people. Perhaps that is enough to say on that head. The national sin will die out when the race does, but perhaps no earlier...."
So wrote the thirty-one year old correspondent for Sacramento Union, in 1866.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker made the Summer Reading List three years ago with The Bank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. This one, published five years later is every bit as good but perhaps less controversial.

I've been justly accused of recommending books that are challenging. Tough, that is, and thick. Dry as chalk. Too long, too wide, and too deep. Maybe so, but they're also entertaining, and if you stick with it you'll pick up little gems to decorate the knickknack shelves of your mind. Isn't that what you read for?

Anyway, if all of Pinker is too much just read Chapter 7: The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television, a scholarly ramble that picks up where George Carlin left off.