Tag Archives: Books

A gentle reminder for Richard Ford

Acclaimed American author Richard Ford, the man behind such classic novels as The Sportswriter and Independence Daygives an interview to the U.K.’s  Guardian about his new novel, Canada, and he has some fascinating things to say about the country that has showered him with fame, riches and literary accolades (hint — it’s not Canada):

America beats on you so hard the whole time. You are constantly being pummelled by other people’s rights and their sense of patriotism. So the American’s experience of going to Canada, or at least my experience, is that you throw all that clamour off. Which is a relief sometimes. … There is this very strong “If you are not for us, you are against us” feeling in America just now. Perhaps there always has been. You are not allowed to complain. Or even have a dialogue. But if a novel is there for anything I believe that is what it has to induce.

To which commenter Bix2bop responded:

Yeah, it’s a real drag to live in an multiracial democracy when you’re a Mississippian born in 1944 and your books are reviewed in the NY Times by fellow writers who happen to be female or African American.

When Alice Hoffman gave The Sportswriter a bad review in the Times, he took one of her books out in the yard and shot it with his gun.

After Colson Whitehead gave A Multitude of Sins a negative review in the New York Times, Ford spat on him at a Poets & Writers party.(read about both altercations here — ed.)

I have read Ford’s Wildlife and I’ve been meaning to read his Frank Bascombe novels, but the idea that Richard Ford, of all people, has been “pummelled” by the American experience … (the rest of Bix2bop’s comment calling Ford out for his hypocrisy is not to be missed — ed.)

And some people say anonymous commenters don’t bring anything of value to the online conversation.


Barney Rosset: A free-speech warrior passes away

It’s always sad to be introduced to a remarkable life through an obituary. This week, it happened again.

Book publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press pushed the limits of free expression by giving a home to controversial works of literature by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, died on Tuesday. He was 89.

I had never heard of him until USA TODAY published the extensive, well-written AP obituary, which revealed how important Rosset was to the First Amendment:

Rosset waged a long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

In 1954 a copy of Chatterley was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts,” a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees.”

A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset’s favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office’s ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie also reminds us that beyond his efforts on behalf of free speech, Rosset also broadened America’s literary palate:

If you grew up interested in literature and writing and a world bigger than the one you were immediately born into, you owe a debt to Rossett and people like him …  In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren’t just frigates (as Emily Dickinson would have it), they were battleships and aircraft carriers, capable of completely rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home.

Very true. Thanks again, Barney.

Was Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ a fraud?

That’s the surprising thesis of this article from Reason that raises some serious questions about the artistic integrity of one of America’s greatest writers.

The author, Bill Stiegerwald, doesn’t say John Steinbeck never went on the 1960 cross-country road trip he documented in Travels With Charley in Search of America. Instead, Stiegerwald asserts that Steinbeck fabricated much of what happened on that 11-week journey from New York to California and back. An excerpt:

From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes.

Stiegerwald is blogging about his experiences retracing Steinbeck’s steps at Travels Without Charley. Check it out.

Everything’s going to be OK — maybe

Talk of impending doom threatens to overwhelm us these days. If that’s not bad enough, a lot of people seem to be cheering it on.

The  economy? We’re heading for another Great Depression, and it’s payback for our greed. The environment? We’re drowning in our own poisons, and probably deserve to. The government? We’re on the road to serfdom, theocracy, fascism, communism, anarchy (choose one, depending on the day of the week). The world’s population? It’s either too big to sustain, which means Soylent Green is on the menu, or it’s going to slowly die off in a couple of generations, which means entire societies could become extinct.

So in a world that’s falling apart, it’s nice to know that people like Matt Ridley still exist. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist, and here’s the thesis of this intriguing book:

Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout.

Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous. In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.

I really want to read this book (this one, too), if only to arm myself with rejoinders to fans of gloom-and-doomers like James Howard Kunstler. (Though at least in the area of urban planning, Joel Kotkin is doing a fine job with that.) The progress-haters have been proven wrong in the past. Let’s hope they’re proven wrong again.

Otherwise, you might as well just dig a hole, sit down in it and wait to die.

Of course, Kunstler and his ilk would probably prefer it that way. After all, self-dug one-person holes are local, sustainable and have a small carbon footprint.

Mini-review: ‘South to a Very Old Place’

Albert Murray‘s delightful  South to a Very Old Place (1971) defies easy categorization. It’s both stream-of-consciousness travelogue and impressionistic snapshot of the New South at the moment the Old South has just started to fade away. Either way, it’s a wide-ranging collection of thoroughly original essays.

If you’re interested in stories about newsmen, the book is a treasure. Murray travels to North Carolina to rap with future Pulitzer winner Edwin Yoder about editor and author Jonathan Daniels. He visits Georgia, where Ralph McGill agitated  for desegregation in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution long before it was acceptable. He stops in Mississippi to meet Hodding Carter, another crusading Southern journalist who editorialized for integration at great personal risk.

But South to a Very Old Place is not about journalism personalities. At its core, it’s an intensely personal journal. Murray’s improvisational reminiscence of his college days at Tuskegee flows like a literary jazz solo. It’s easily the book’s most engaging chapter. Another vignette describes the delightful cognitive dissonance he experiences after checking into a formerly segregated hotel in his hometown of Mobile.

The writing is all the more enjoyable because Murray, a black man, unapologetically embraces the subtle multiracial sophistication of his  Southern heritage, a down-home cosmopolitanism he rightly views as “incontestably mulatto” rather than irrevocably segregated. That cultural miscegenation is a vital gift to America, and it touches nearly everything — our music, language, law, sports, cuisine and much more.

That aspect of the South too often gets overlooked amid the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, but it’s a deeply humanizing perspective, and we should applaud Murray for sharing it with us.