Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
While CAAF and others have spent much of the new year discussing and praising Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep, I have followed along, blissfully unaware that I could, apparently, be a character in the book. Today, I read this article in the Washington Post, which clued me into Sittenfeld’s tenure as an English teacher at St. Albans where I attended high school, and which she used as inspiration for the novel:”It was almost like cheating,” she says of living at St. Albans. “I’d been writing this book about this kind of place and the kinds of people you might find there, and then there I was, sort of back in it, overhearing pieces of dialogue or something… If I got to a place where I needed to describe some food in the dining hall, well, I’d just go downstairs to the dining hall and have dinner.”Although I wasn’t a boarder there – most of us weren’t – I can imagine that the school would be good material for this sort of book. There’s lots of dark wood, stone edifices, and groves of old trees on the grounds the school shares with the National Cathedral. At the same time, the school, while something of an island, does sit in the city and is a part of the city in a way that the New England boarding schools are not, and this gives St. Albans a different feel. Sittenfeld started out as the Writer in Residence at St. Albans and continues to teach there part time. My alma mater, when mentioned in the Post tends to be labeled “exclusive,” and while this is undoubtedly true I always thought it was pretty cool that we had a writer in residence program. The most notable writer in residence when I was there in the mid ’90s was Matthew Klam. St. Albans alums of a certain age still fondly remember the day that Klam shocked the faculty and riled up the students – it’s an all boy school, by the way – at our weekly assembly with his reading of the title story from his collection, Sam the Cat, a graphic tale about a drunk guy who falls for a girl who turns out not to be a girl. Considering that we were an auditorium full of sheltered and not very worldly young men, it sort of blew our minds.
Norman Mailer made an unorthodox appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, beamed in via video link from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He’s apparently not big on technology, however, calling the video-interview system more suited to a “young chimpanzee.” The Herald’s story on the event includes a number of other classic Mailer quips, including his noting that the many punches he’s thrown in his lifetime were “always well considered.”
The contributor’s notes accompanying Michael Lewis’ various pieces over the last year or so have hinted at a new book in the works for Lewis that promises to take on the economic crisis and offer a sequel of sorts to Liar’s Poker, the book that he thought would take down Wall Street. Now we know the title, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and have a release date, November 2. (via Kottke)There’s already a book out about the crisis that Lewis edited called Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, which has garnered mixed reviews from critics looking for a more substantial take on our economic woes.Elsewhere, Lewis takes a contrarian view of Warren Buffett, everyone’s favorite billionaire, in his review of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. (via The Daily Dish)
There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: “Bush vows to unite a divided nation” says the Chicago Tribune. “Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “A deepening divide between red and blue” says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.The Civil War: A nation doesn’t get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic. Civil rights: These days we’ve got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn’t long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America’s collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don’t forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled “Reds” faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy’s supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I’ve always found Arthur Miller’s parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan’s On the WaterfrontSo there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don’t think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren’t going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.