Arkansas Times Recommends is a series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we've been enjoying this week.
What Southerner can resist yet another read of "North Toward Home," the Willie Morris memoir/coming of age book that inspired me to bring my scant newspaper training home to the New South, where I hoped to join brilliant, progressive writers like Morris in chronicling—even inspiring—a new day for Dixie.
Well, look around at the Arkansas beachhead where I planted my flag. Not much to show for 43.5 years except Republican hegemony built on bone-deep dislike of a black man. Perhaps I'd have been better off swan-diving into a jug of whiskey and following Willie to New York.
Still, "North Toward Home" is a good read—gentle, funny, inspiring, hopeful. Even if that's not exactly how I'd characterize some of those it inspired.
There are certain books that I read once a year, but no book has remained as important to me as "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck. By turns hilarious, tragic, pointless and poignant, it's a masterpiece work that tells a good story using some of the most wonderful descriptive language I've ever read. If I go too long without a visit to Mack and the boys or a trip down to the tidal pools (with a stopover for a beer milkshake) with Doc, things just don't feel right.
In an effort to kill a few birds with one stone, I started re-reading "You Can't Win," by Jack Black (not the actor), recently. Here are the birds I killed by doing so:
Bird 1: The need to increase the presence of class-heroes in my children's living environment. As predicted, my hyper-vigilant twin sons asked me what I was reading. I explained to them the general truths of the story, how it's the autobiography of Jack Black, who was a transient criminal hobo addict who traveled America and Canada hobo-ing it up from train to train, at least while he wasn't in jail. I know soon enough my boys will begin looking for heroes that are not animated rescue dogs or physics-teaching monster-trucks. And I want them to know that their options are multitude, and that class-heroes are one of the best. One of the many themes Black explores is the invisible blockade the "good" citizens (knowingly and unknowingly) put up that prevent law-breakers from becoming law-abiders. And how law-abiders aren't always such.
Bird 2: The need to be reading something
. Just something dear god children don't let me become a person who you've never witnessed reading these hundreds and hundreds of books you're growing up around.
Bird 3. They made a movie that will be coming out this year, I think? I'll probably rent it someday. But I'd like to have the book fresher in my head before I do.
Bird 4. Despite being a book about addiction, penology, prostitution, pity, and all-around deviance from good society, it feels like a light summer read, which was the last bird needed killing.
I recently read David Greene's (NPR) book "Midnight in Siberia," available at Barnes and Noble, though frustratingly shelved in the "travel writing" section. It chronicles his travels and interviews across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway. It provides a firsthand view of a very misunderstood society (though, as one reviewer noted, with a bit too much "why aren't they a perfectly working democracy yet" editorializing.)
I'm also reading Masha Gessen's "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin," which tells the odd tale of Putin's rise from a low-level paper-pushing KGB agent in a remote town in East Germany to becoming President of a country that spans nearly 11 time zones.
And, "Анонимная Война," or "The Anonymous War" (Kobyakov, Voskanyan, Cheremnyh), about the changing nature of civil protest. It would be impossible for someone to get a copy of it, as you can only order it from a bookstore in Brooklyn and it takes a few weeks to get, and even then I can't say anyone would particularly be interested as it requires translation, which is why I'm reading it.
I spent the last decade cruising past successive matrimonial waves of friends coupling off in their early 20s and late 20s, and I’ve now emerged into the placid seas of thirtyish singledom. It’s nice here, most of the time, but every now and then the anxieties come burbling up: Why aren’t you married, eh, boy? Where are your babies? Why aren’t there Facebook pictures of you squatting at the bottom of a playground slide, beaming with bliss, hefting your cubs up into the air like hunting trophies? Could it be because you’re a stunted child of Gomorrah yourself, just like all the bullshit pundits say about your generation? (This despite the fact that vast numbers of your Millennial peers seem to be reproducing quite nicely, judging from what fills your FB feed.)
Well. If you need to be re-disabused of the notion that the nuclear family is a free pass to a haven in a heartless world, sit yourself down and read “Revolutionary Road.” Richard Yates’ 1961 classic novel is a gut punch, an emotional horror show, a cautionary tale. Not against marriage itself, of course, but against goading yourself into the contract as a result of — in the words of April Wheeler to her husband, Frank — “your cowardly self-delusions about ‘love’ when you know as well as I do that there’s never been anything between us but contempt and distrust and a terrible sickly dependence on each other’s weakness.”
I won’t try to outline the subtleties of “Revolutionary Road,” because I’m not skilled enough to do so. Instead, I’ll just direct you to this wonderful essay by Adelle Waldman that convinced me to read the book in the first place, “A First-Rate Girl: The Problem of Female Beauty":
For Frank, April represents success. April, for her part, likes Frank O.K.—he’s “interesting,” she tells him—but she doesn’t like him well enough that he ever feels secure. To be so close to the woman who represents so much but to also feel her perpetually holding back maddens Frank. When April gets pregnant, she wants to have an illegal abortion, which Frank interprets as a rejection of him. And this is intolerable. Though he doesn’t want a child any more than she does, he is finally able to talk her into getting married and having one. Anything is better than a rejection from the only first-rate girl he’s ever been close to.
It is notable that April’s power over Frank does not lie in the fact that she excites him more than other women sexually—it is, rather, that her cool brand of beauty imbues her, in his mind, with a higher social value than that of his previous lovers. In other words, he is driven, if unconsciously, by an impulse cooler and more calculating than lust.
Both Frank and April are, in some sense, victims of her beauty, of its hold on Frank’s imagination. They both would have been better off if he had let her go. And this is key: if April’s looks give her power, it’s not always a power that works to her advantage. The course of her life is shaped by Frank’s need to repeatedly win her affection. Young and without a better alternative on the horizon, she gives in to the pull of Frank’s desire and decides that what she feels is probably love, or at least close enough.