Posts tagged ‘history’

May 14, 2014

#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

July 18, 2013

#57) Book review: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson

There are books that may be enjoyable but not particularly worthy of discussion and there are books that are worthy of discussion but not particularly enjoyable.  In that second category is Bill Bryson’s “In A Sunburned Country.”

After loving “A Walk in the Woods” and being disappointed by “Lost Continent”, I decided to try this travelogue of Australia, mainly because I was looking forward to reading a book that didn’t contain the phrase “Most Americans _____.”  (Yes, Americans are idiots, but Bryson usually points this out in a way that makes you wonder how he hasn’t pulled a muscle from patting himself on the back.)

Conversely, Bryson goes too far in the opposite direction with Australia. It’s like when someone wants you to meet their friend and have talked your ear off about how great this friend is to the extent that you hate them before you even meet them. Just as “Lost Continent” was essentially a laundry list of complaints and disappointments about America with no real conclusion or evolution, “Sunburned Country” lacks any significant tension or suspense as Bryson travels across the continent, experiencing one wonderful thing after another, using the words “charming”, “cheery” and (especially) “arresting” ad nauseum.

In general Bryson is stronger when delivering facts, not opinions. He has a definite knack for making history and science interesting without dumbing them down.  He partially makes good on his promise to describe the country’s unique and often deadly wildlife (the box jellyfish seems like a particularly tough customer.)  He’s unsparing in his description of how the Aborigines were treated and presents interesting questions on how they may have come to the island to begin with.  He paints a fairly engaging picture of the vast space and searing sun of the Outback, describing several of history’s ill-fated attempts to cross it.  He clearly loves Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, providing some historical background on each.   Still, the reality is that it took me almost two months to get through this book, ultimately bailing on the appendix about the Sydney Olympics.

What would have made “In A Sunburned Country” more effective?

Trimming some of the personal narrative would have helped.  Bryson spends nearly 30 pages on a visit with a friend in Victoria; while this section of the book has some good historical anecdotes and descriptions of the natural landscape, it easily could have been halved.  The friend certainly seems like a nice enough fellow but he’s just not that interesting.  More of a dramatic arc would have been nice.  In “A Walk in the Woods”, Bryson’s plight on the Appalachian Trail makes him seem more sympathetic to the reader; he earns his soap box time.  At the beginning of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia; at the end of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia.  Perhaps I may someday visit Australia and understand why he loves it; if so I will happily revise this review.  For now, I will stick to foreign vacations with a shorter flight time.

January 23, 2013

#52) Book review: “Bad Land” by Jonathan Raban

If Stanley Kubrick were still alive, he’d probably consider making a film of “Bad Land.”  This story of early 20th century Montana homesteaders has several themes that appealed to Kubrick: history, isolation and survival.  More importantly, the slow pace–straddling the fence between tension and tedium–that Raban uses to lead the optimistic homesteaders to impending disaster parallels “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining.”

Raban, an Englishman now living in Seattle, describes his book as “An American Romance.”  The story is definitely American, although the only romance might be what the homesteaders felt when they were offered the “opportunity” to buy large tracts of land in what was then called the Great American Desert.  When the Milwaukee Road laid is tracks through eastern Montana, the railroad magnates lobbied Congress to pass the Enlarged Homestead Act, with hopes that immigrants from the east coast, the Midwest and even abroad would build new towns to support the line.  Led by science that may have been deliberately deceiving, and literature that definitely was, many people took the bait.  As Raban notes, after the majority of the homesteaders failed, many took the same railroad out of town that had taken them to eastern Montana, hoping for a fresh start farther west.  But a few of the homesteaders did stay, surviving the first few years of bad weather, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the war years and everything in between.  Visiting a corral where bull calves were being branded and neutered (“quite an experience for…one and a half minutes”), Raban notes, “One would never have guessed of the amount of ruination that would have gone into the making of this scene, of country neighbors, at ease with themselves and each other.”

There’s a clear intent to the slow pace Raban uses to tell the story.  The outcome of disaster is known from the beginning, evident as Raban (in 1995, when the book was written) travels through eastern Montana, picking through ruined homes and the abandoned schoolhouse.  Raban’s attention to detail, in the backgrounds of his characters, the description of the endless prairies, and the deft manipulation of the railroad literature, serves two purposes.  In addition to establishing the world of 1909 Montana for the readers, it also holds off the impending doom, almost like a literary version of a cat playing with a mouse.

This is successful in some ways; not in others.  For example, Raban devotes over 20 pages almost exclusively to Evelyn Cameron, a photographer who documented the landscape around the time of the Enlarged Homestead Act.  While the starkness of Cameron’s photos is important, providing a hard reality that contrasts the idealized version of the land painted by the railroaders, the reader (at least this reader) might be bogged down by this rather slow section of the book.  Similarly, Raban devotes over 50 pages to stories of the homesteaders’ lives after leaving eastern Montana: settling in the more fertile western end of the state; living as itinerant apple pickers in the valleys of Washington, or making it to the “Emerald City” of Seattle.  While these epilogues are interesting to a point, most of the dramatic arc of the story has already taken place; don’t be surprised if you’re reading the last few pages more to finish the book than out of real interest.  Perhaps Raban is trying to provide a reading experience that simulates, in a literary sort of way, the trials and challenges of his subjects.

To what kind of person would “Bad Land” appeal?  Certainly history buffs; people with an interest in agriculture (my dad, off of whose shelf I pinched this book, is both.)  It might have appealed to a certain film-maker whose subject matter included space travel, the Age of Enlightenment, the Vietnam war, and a comedy about nuclear destruction.

For my part, “Bad Land” was a book that took me almost two months to get through; I would read close to a hundred pages one day and nothing more for a week.   Having finally finished the book, I can say this: like a Kubrick film, it’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work, but on the balance, it’s a positive experience.

November 30, 2012

#48) Book Review: “Tough Jews” by Rich Cohen

Most people don’t necesarily associate the words “Jew” and “Gangster”, and those who do probably think first of Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.  However, in Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews”, he outlines the extensive history of Jewish gangsters in the early 20th century, mainly in Brooklyn.  As the famous Italian crime families such as the Gottis and the Gambinos were making names for themselves, many Jewish gangsters were experiencing parallel rises and falls.  Colorful names such as “Tick Tock Tannenbaum”, “Pittsburgh Phil” (who was not from Pittsburgh or named Phil) and “Kid Twist” abounded.

Cohen tells the story from an interesting perspective.  His father, Herb Cohen, author of “You Can Negotiate Anything”, grew up in Brooklyn listening to the stories of the old-timers.  His friends, including Larry Zeiger, now known as Larry King, eventually moved and settled in other parts of the country, but kept a part of Brooklyn with them.  As one of them notes, “Being from Brooklyn is a full-time job.”  The stories were handed down to Rich Cohen, who seemed intrigued by the idea that “for once, a Jew in jail didn’t mean white-collar crime.”  Thus, the younger Cohen sought to learn more of the history of the Jewish gangster.

The result is often entertaining, although disorganized.  Cohen’s voice seems to shift frequently from an authoritative source somewhat dryly reciting names, dates and places, to a star-struck kid, fascinated by even the mundane nuances of his heroes’ lives.  Cohen presents Abe “Kid Twist” Reles as a sort of protagonist, but isn’t able to infuse him with much detail, good or bad, to make him seem human, or at the very least to distinguish him from the dozens of other gangsters mentioned in the book.  Similarly, while “Tough Jews” follows a loosely chronological outline–beginning with the influx of Jewish imigrants to New York in the early 20th century, and how they rose to power, were influenced by prohibition, the Depression and World War II–there are some back and forth shifts which seem a little out of place, disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Cohen also sometimes treats somewhat mundane events with elevated importance; it’s almost as if he’s trying to show off his own writing chops.

Still, for those interested in learning about this time in American history, “Tough Jews” is an enjoyable read.  It paints a picture of a New York that at times resembles the world of Damon Runyon, but also focuses on the grim realities of the lifestyle it describes.  One can begin to understand why Herb Cohen, Larry Zeiger and the others who grew up only a generation removed from the gangsters have a certain admiration for them.  Even Brownsville’s Mike Tyson, as it turns out, loves the old Jewish gangsters–which probably explains a lot.

April 9, 2012

#41) Learning from Geniuses (geeks): Game 16, Move 37

I came across an interesting chess story the other day.  Yes, I realize, for most people, using the words “interesting” and “chess” in the same sentence is contradictory, but this one contains some good teachable moments – even for those outside the chess world.  (And anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love teachable moments).

In 1984, 21-year old Garry Kasparov, the future world champion, was challenging incumbent Anatoly Karpov for the title.  Karpov had been the reigning champ since 1975, when Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title against him.  The rules of the match stated that the first player to win six games took the prize.  Karpov was crushing his young challenger, leading four games to none (with 11 ties).  In the sixteenth game, after 37 moves, Karpov offered Kasparov a draw, which was accepted.  At the time, no one had any idea that this unspectacular activity would be discussed (and blogged about) in the decades to come.

Many experts who have since analyzed the position at the point where Karpov offered a draw have said that he could have easily won the game, taking a commanding 5-0 lead.  It’s easy to assume that, after falling behind so early, Kasparov might have become discouraged and lost the match soon afterward. As it turned out, following the draw, Kasparov started mounting a comeback.  After losing a fifth game, he won three, but following many more ties–40 total–the match was called off.  The two players battled again in 1985 under different rules, and Kasparov won.

Garry Kasparov would go on to make waves both in and out of the chess world.  He defended his title against Karpov in 1987 and 1990, but all the while, he was feuding with FIDE (Federacion Inernationale des Eschecs, or World Chess Federation; pronounced “fee-day”), the governing body of professional chess.  Kasparov formed his own organization, the Professional Chess Association.  In 1993, when he defended his title against Englishman Nigel Short, he did so under the jurisdiction of the P.C.A., not FIDE.  FIDE organized a championship match between Karpov and challenger Jan Timman, which Karpov won.  In 1997, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue, after which he speculated that the machine was being “fed” moves by its inventors.

While Kasparov would retire from chess in 2005, he would remain an active political figure, outspokenly opposed to Gorbachev, Putin and other Soviet leaders.  At one point, Kasparov considered running for the presidency, but withdrew.

As polarizing a figure as Kasparov became, one could make the case that had Karpov not offered him a draw in a game he should have won, none of it would have happened.  The story of Game 16 illustrates some interesting points:

  • You never know when you might be on the threshold of victory.
  • You never know when, or how, an event – as unspectacular as it may seem – might impact the future.
  • Sometimes, geniuses can miss simple details, which are obvious to mere mortals.

To be sure, most peoples’ lives haven’t been deeply affected by whether Karpov or Kasparov was the champion, or whether chess is governed by FIDE or the P.C.A.  But it’s interesting to consider the impact that a seemingly inconspicuous move might have had on the game.  Like the removal of Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp (replaced by Lou Gehrig) or the chance meeting on Church Road in Liverpool between young John Lennon and even younger Paul McCartney, Karpov’s draw offer became part of history in a way that no one who witnessed it could have predicted.