“Would You Rather” Book Tag Tour

My friend Mitch Mitchell of the Syracuse Wiki (among other blogs) tagged me in one of those blogger challenges. This one was about reading–so I jumped on it!

I’m supposed to tag other bloggers–although several of the folks I read regularly already seem to have been tagged. So, if you want to do this–feel free!

Would you rather only read trilogies or only read standalones?
I would much rather read stand-alone books than trilogies. The best part of having read a good piece of fiction is to speculate on what happened to the characters. Oftentimes the official sequels are quite disappointing. Interesting question given the fact that we are on the cusp of the publication of Harper Lee’s alternative take on “To Kill A Mockingbird.” 50+ years after the original. Even though this book was written before—it deals with the same characters 20 years later. Apparently it takes Atticus Finch to some dark places.

Continue reading ““Would You Rather” Book Tag Tour”


List-o-mania: Rock Books edition

This is starting to look like trouble. I hope I don’t have to write up a blog post for every damn list that pops into my head. But here’s another one. I saw a little video piece online where Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers describes his 5 favorite books about rock ‘n’ roll. Now this makes sense because Hood’s most recent solo album “Heat Lightning Rumbles In the Distance” started life as a book–until the songs he wrote as marginalia took over. So he gives us his choices for top 5 rock books.

Now, I know you need to listen to music to fully appreciate it–not just read about it. But the rock books I enjoy take a stab at relating a big slice of the musical sub-culture (and perhaps just our general culture) along with the “which-band-played-which-show-when-which-album-hit-the-charts-with-who-was-sleeping with-whom-while-taking-which-drugs.”

So by all means, play the appropriate music in the background while reading my favorite rock books: Continue reading “List-o-mania: Rock Books edition”

Wise Blood

Well, the list of 12 books that I promised to read by December 31st, 2011 is now down to 10! I’ve certainly jumpstarted my reading this year, by putting in a selection of memoirs, travel books and the latest novel by my favorite author William Kennedy (the most recent edition of his Albany Cycle.)

That ambitious 2011 list of all-fiction novels has not been so readily attacked. Perhaps finishing Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” will change that. Continue reading “Wise Blood”

The Fortress of Solitude

I’ve finally finished my first book in the 2011 “To Be Read” pile challenge: “The Fortress Of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem. It’s hard to express how much of an impression this book made on me–“Fortress” is one of the most interesting and arresting books that I have ever read.

For a long while the book languished on my shelves, “a kid grows up in 70’s Brooklyn” I kept thinking to myself. Yet the story is so much more. Yes, the main character Dylan Ebdus is a kid who grows up in Brooklyn in the 1970’s. The story is much greater than that: race relations, comic books, graffiti, superheroes and their powers, magical realism, education: from elementary through grad school, music: soul, funk, rock, punk, the life of the artist, the life of the art critic, fandom, drugs, divorce, crime, corrections, sex, murder, family dysfunction, friendship–the book trains its eye on a wide swath of life.

Continue reading “The Fortress of Solitude”

What It Takes

Usually I blog about books AFTER I’ve read them, but my copy of What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer has an interesting back story. Since the book is over 1,000 pages long and has landed on my doorstep while I’m right in the middle of several other books I’m attempting to read in my 2011 “To-Be-Read Pile” challenge, I wanted to dash off a note about this book now.

Matt Langer is a web site creator and more, having created things such as a co-op work space in Brooklyn and a new venture to create a Facebook-type site for social causes called Jumo that I find fascinating and am still trying to work into my online world.

Anyway, one day on his blog, Matt mentioned how much he liked the book “What It Takes: The Road To The White House”. As you can see, his devotion to Richard Ben Cramer’s book is a bit stronger than “like”:

It’s the one book that perfectly captures all the reasons I give a shit about policy and government and political journalism, and it’s the book I return to whenever I need to be reminded that we can always do better, whether as journalists or as citizens or as a nation. And considering that this “American Iliad”, as it was billed, emerged from an election cycle so marred by the likes of Lee Atwater and the Monkey Business and Willie Horton—an election cycle that in many ways set the tone for those we continue to endure today—that such a gem emerged from all that mess gives me hope.

Matt’s love for this book is such that he went through a local bookstore and got a bulk buy of the book and said he’d give away the book free to the first 10 folks that sent him an e-mail. He called it his political donation in this political off-season. He ended up giving away 23 books and I got one of them. I even offered to pay postage and he said no.

I’m very interested in this book, as the 1988 Presidential campaign was the last national campaign where I played an active role as a volunteer. Immediately after this election I became a VISTA volunteer and, due to the Hatch Act bar on federal employees engaging in partisan politicking, had to sit out the first Clinton election. Since that election I became a community organizer and turned my back on electoral politics as a means to community change. My mantra during my now 17-year organizing career has been “we can bend any politician to our will!”

I’ve been aware of this book since it was published, but remained relatively dismissive of its impact for two reasons. 1) As a callow youth with little world experience around 1988, I dismissed the book as fluff. I can imagine myself saying things such as “Who cares about personality, character and the real world test of management skills during a political campaign? It’s all about the ideology, the platform, the issues.” I think I’m finally ready to entertain a more holistic look at politics as I enter middle-age and have been away from the nitty-gritty of politics for awhile. 2) He covers 6 candidates, but not the most interesting candidate to me: Jesse Jackson.

I was, of course, a Jackson volunteer. I made phone calls, helped organize fundraisers, went door-to-door in the African-American neighborhood in which I now organize and was a poll watcher during the primary. People forget how close Jesse Jackson was to breaking out in ’88. I’ll never forget the thrill when Jesse won the Michigan primary and the next big vote was ours–N.Y. It was a heady moment. Win N.Y. and we’re on our way. It was truly the last time N.Y. had any influence whatsoever on a national race. Unfortunately, we gave Dukakis the nomination. Al Gore campaigned as a spoiler, walking arm in arm w/ Ed Koch through white ethnic neighborhoods fanning racist backlash. (The Hymie-town comment surely didn’t help.) Syracuse did its part. Jesse packed the Syracuse War Memorial for a speech, drawing 5,000 people at a time when every other candidate drew 25 campaign workers to fly-in, fly-out press conferences at the airport. Our efforts helped Jesse win the city of Syracuse primary. But, like every other place in the state, Jackson lost heavily in the suburbs and didn’t do well enough in NYC to make up the difference.

Since I’ve received the book, I’ve read the author’s foreword and he states that not covering Jackson was one of his regrets about the project. However, the Jackson campaign simply did not want to provide the depth of cooperation and access that the author was requesting. Given the Jackson campaign’s tone deaf response to its candidate’s ethnic slurs and what we now know was Jackson’s personal secret about infidelity, it’s not surprising they were not forthcoming. I accept Cramer’s explanation that he wasn’t able to write about a candidate whom he really didn’t know. I wasn’t so accepting back in the day.

Anyway–Thank you Matt Langer!

2011 “To Be Read” Pile Reading Challenge

Adam at the Roof Beam Reader blog has created the To Be Read Pile Challenge (TBR Pile 2011):

Here is my list of 12 books, from my “to be read” pile, that I will read over the next year:

Rule of the Bone–Russell Banks
Yiddish Policeman’s Union–Michael Chabon
Lord Jim–Joseph Conrad
The Corrections–Jonathan Franzen
The Fortress of Solitude–Jonathan Lethem read my review here.
Wise Blood–Flannery O’Connor read my review here.
Pudd’nhead Wilson–Mark Twain
The Count of Monte Cristo–Alexandre Dumas
The God of Small Things–Arundhati Roy
In Dubious Battle–John Steinbeck
Return Of The Native–Thomas Hardy
Herzog–Saul Bellow

After I have completed reading a book, I will add a hypertext link to the list above, taking you to my review of the book.

Those completing the challenge are eligible for a prize, but starting this process is enough for me. I have a habit of buying books and then never getting around to reading them. I’m always on to something else and some titles fall through the cracks. One of my goals this year is to put a big dent in the unread books in my collection. There are currently over 100. These twelve fiction books will start me off well on my larger goal. The majority of the books I own that remain unread fall into the social science/public policy realm–with a smattering of travel, history and biographies as well. Reading fiction will be a good way to ease into this project, less intimidating and more entertaining. Growing up I read more literary fiction than anything else, but since college I’ve focused on non-fiction.

Anyway . . .

My choice to kick off this challenge is: “Fortress Of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem.

10 Influential Books (For Me Anyway)

The right wingers, albeit some of the more thoughtful ones, are engaging in a bit of a blog meme at the moment–10 books that have influenced their world view.

Can’t let the lefties get cut out of all the fun.

Small Is Beautiful– E.F. Schumacher
This series of essays on appropriate technology, ordering production to meet human needs and eliminate the worst exploitation of capitalist markets is inspirational and closely reasoned. It’s sub-title says it all, “economics as if people mattered.” Given to me as a high school graduation gift by my first real girlfriend, it more than makes up for the horrible break-up a few months later.

Rules For Radicals–Saul Alinsky
I bought this book in college, read part of it and wondered why it was considered so radical. None of my experiences as a sheltered, suburban, political dilettante gave me any means to understand organizing and people’s movements. 15 years later, I’m a community organizer and I’m reading the book in its entirety several times a year for both its practical ideas and its passion.

World’s End– T. Coraghessan Boyle
Erudition is hip! In the fiction of TC Boyle, the words come in a dizzying array, like reading a dictionary on speed. But it’s the amazing world view and depth of feeling for characters that reels you in. I could have chosen almost any of his novels or one of his masterful short story collections, but this book was my first and still favorite. A historical novel of the Hudson Valley area–interlocking tales seen through the eyes of the residents of the same area during several different eras.

Ball Four– Jim Bouton
I grew up a baseball fan, devouring all the pulp biographies/puff pieces on the stars of the sport. In high school I got ahold of this book and, while I am still a baseball fan, the book’s expose of the fact that baseball players are real humans with real problems, contradictions and the ability to act real stupid, taught me that PR and spin are everywhere but the truth is infinitely more entertaining.

A People’s History of The US–Howard Zinn
The book that should be on every lefty’s list–the book that shows our nation’s history through the eyes of the exploited, marginalized and oppressed. The book’s whole purpose is to force people to think about their world view and to consider the viewpoints of people different from themselves.

Death At An Early Age– Jonathan Kozol
Everything I still work to change is in this book–racism, discrimination, liberal guilt, heavy-handed and uncaring bureaucracies. Liberal guilt? Try reading this as you’re just about to graduate from the area’s most privileged high school and getting ready to enter an Ivy league university.

Letter Concerning Toleration– John Locke
Who says you never learn anything in school? Toleration is the principle more central to my world view than any other. This is the argument, encountered in an early college philosophy class, for a nation’s need to respect others and that a nation will only be stronger if it carves out a space for those who may not be in the mainstream. If you want the crib notes, listen to “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone.

Adventures Of Tom Sawyer–Mark Twain
Yeah, Huckleberry Finn is better literature, more important. But this book made me a reader, a lover of books. Read at a very early age, with the help of my parents, it showed me that books open up your world–to ideas, to people, to adventure. The imagination kicked off by reading didn’t even stop at night when my parents made me put down the book, turn off the lights and go to bed. I could dream all night long.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas– Hunter S. Thompson
Look beyond the surface–the guns, the drugs, the lunacy. I read the book cover-to-cover in one day in college, soaking up only the surface. On future readings you pick up the elegance of the writing and the most heartbreaking description in modern literature of the death of 1960’s idealism.

Custer Died For Your Sins–Vine Deloria, Jr.
No single book has ever hit me as hard emotionally and intellectually. I found it in the collection of books left behind by guests at a Caribbean resort during a high school winter break. It is impossible to read this book and not look at the world differently. Why weren’t we taught any of this in school? Why has our history been, no pun intended, whitewashed?