Friday, December 28, 2012

Clearing the Decks

William Michaelian's Work Space

William Michaelian’s blog post today on Recently Banned Literature presented a picture of heaven on earth as well as an accounting of the books he has read this year.  He has inspired me to list a few that I have imbibed over the last few weeks of Christmas vacation.

By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

When it was released, critics heralded this book as McPhee’s first to include autobiographical reflection.  Known as The New Yorker writer who could put together thousands of words on oranges or the geology of America, the book does indeed include some memoir-ish writing, and those sections are the most interesting parts.  But McPhee also includes ample material on his favorite subjects.  Here, we get a full and detailed accounting of the origins of those white cliffs at Dover, as well as an exhaustive piece on lacrosse.  I loved his personal insights, but most of them could be gleaned from a Paris Review interview McPhee gave a few years ago.  His explanation of the fact checking process at The New Yorker was fascinating and a source of a decent headache.  I now truly appreciate what it is like to be obsessive about verifying every detail of a 30,000 word article.  However, I would still like to hear more personal stories as opposed to every nuance of lacrosse or golf, but that’s just me.

By Garry Wills
Viking Press, 2010

Garry Wills has become one of my favorite writers this year.  He is an historian and journalist who has made a career out of examining all aspects of the Catholic Church.  He is one of the important critical voices in this regard, a practicing Catholic who does not hesitate to call out the Church for its remarkable hypocrisies.

This book is his memoir of journalism.  He gives the backstory on his coverage of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the stories behind Jack Ruby, film directors like John Waters and Oliver Stone, Baltimore politics, opera singers, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and everyone’s favorite political power couple, the Clintons.  The journalism itself is dated, and there are certainly other writers who have more fascinating things to say about their subjects, but like John McPhee, I enjoyed the bits of memoir.  Wills is a writer I’ll be reading more of in 2013, and his work in The New York Review of Books is required reading (he also blogs for the paper occasionally).

Which leads me to a second book from this prolific writer.


What Jesus Meant
By Garry Wills
Penguin Books, 2006

Arguably, this could have been a multi-volume work.  We are talking here about Jesus, the man, the myth, the legend.  However, Wills devotes only 142 pages to his subject, and most of the material could be found elsewhere in the work of other writers.  No new ground is broken.  However, if one is looking for a good overview of recent scholarship on the life of this influential figure, this might be a good place to begin.  But others have done the man better, and I was disappointed.  Wills wrote several books like this about the gospels and St. Paul, and hopefully the others will give a little more depth and insight.  I probably would not have finished it, but I hate leaving things undone, and it was, after all, only 142 pages.  I’ll commit to an afternoon of reading just because it’s Garry Wills’ name on the cover.

By Joe Queenan
Viking Books, 2009

There is a bit of a story behind this one.

I found an article on Joe Queenan’s recent book, One For The Books, about which I’ll be writing much more in a later post, and after reading that book, I bridged over to this memoir.  Queenan is a humorist, probably most like Mark Twain but twenty-first century.  Where normally he is laugh-out-loud funny, here he is mostly dark and harrowing.  In this book, he details growing up in Philadelphia with an alcoholic and violent father and a disconnected mother in neighborhoods where no one wants to walk alone, especially at night.  It is grim stuff.

Queenan finds a number of surrogate father figures, and eventually makes his way in the world, but not without lasting scars from the traumas.  He excels here in the details and descriptions of the characters in his neighborhood, but a few of them really are only passing through.  He spends a lot of time making them real for us only to have them disappear relatively quickly.  In this way, I thought the book could have been a bit shorter and more focused.  However, the payoff at the end is the resolution of his emotionally and physically damaging journey with his father, and for that, I was glad I kept reading through the darkness.

If I make any resolutions for the new year, it might be to follow some kind of reading system.  These four books are a little random, but I enjoy just plucking something out of the pile and digging in for a winter’s afternoon.  My room is never as neat and as organized as William’s, and he has definitely put away some titles that most of us only dream of.  I mean, Ulysses, in Armenian?  He is an inspiration for me as 2013 dawns and a new year of reading begins.

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