Monday, January 23, 2006

Red River Red Readings of 2005

As America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, it is incumbent upon me to try to stay apprised of recent literary offerings, aided in no small part by the good folks at Shreve Memorial Library. Every time I visit one of our local libraries (my favorite, by far, being the main branch downtown, for selection, architecture, staff, you name it), I visit the new releases, taking a kind of machine gun approach: for every three books I check out, I probably read one. Then, I'm probably reading one of my own (or would it be owned?) books for every one from the library (for those of you even sicker than me, of the 36 books I completed in 2005, 19 were from my personal collection, 17 from the library.)
Alright, there's no turning back now. I planned to use this space to write about a couple of books I've read in this first month of 2006, but instead, I'm now going to obsessively list and briefly review every book I read in 2005. I should be forcibly committed soon after, so this may be my last communication as a free man. The books are listed chronologically, in order of my completion of them:

1), Vermeer in Bosnia, by Lawrence Wechsler - This wonderful book of previously published essays combines cultural criticism and political analysis as only the best public intellectuals can: think Sontag, Edward Said, Cornel West, the Red River Red, Groucho Marx. The title essay refers to the trial of Yugoslavian war criminals, while other highlights include profiles of Roman Polanski and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.

2), Bad Bet on the Bayou, by Tyler Bridges - The sordid tale of casino gambling coming to Louisiana and the long-sought conviction of Edwin Edwards is detailed in this meticulously researched book an accomplished journalist. Byzantine.

3), War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges - A veteran foreign correspondent gives us a profound meditation of the social and psychological uses of war. My wife and I gave a copy of this to our nephew just before he shipped out with the Air Force. He's in Iraq now. Who knows what became of the book.

4), Homegrown Democrat, by Garrison Keillor - My initial aversion to Keillor's homespun homilies were gradually worn down by the quality of musical guests on his show. Then he published a passionate, angry, grief-inspired denunciation of Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who capitalized on the death of Paul Wellstone, replacing the most important antiwar voice in this country with another stupid hack politician. I cried when I heard about the death of Paul Wellstone on the radio, and Keillor's eloquent rage won me over to his corner. This book is conversational and anecdotal, a good explication of the decent Midwestern liberalism that has given us politicians like Adlai Stevenson, the late Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, Wellstone and Russ Feingold.

5), Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky - Maybe my favorite book of last year. Lansky works for an archive collecting as many of the important Yiddish texts as possible before the language, once the primary one for many Eastern European Jews, dies. Yiddish was also very much the language of Jewish radicalism in both Europe and among immigrants to North America, and Lansky provides vivid portraits of intellectually and politically engaged liberals, social democrats, socialists, communists and anarchists debating and squabbling well into their 90's. The portrait of 20th-century Jewish immigrant culture, with its language and literature and food and causes, is intoxicating, exhilarating, touching. I need to read this one again.

6), Dixie Lullaby, by Mark Kemp - This is a music journalist's memoir, basically through the prism of his passionate but ambiguous feelings about his southern upbringing and the music that accompanied it, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers are the giants towering over this book, but the Charlie Daniels Band, REM and others also are discussed with great feeling. The guy's personal memoir is a bit melodramatic at times, but the landmarks are very familiar.

7), The Politics of War, by Walter Karp - Karp's analysis of American involvement in the Spanish-American War and World War I is meticulously researched, well-written and utterly relevant to today's headlines. Presidential deception and illusions of infallibility, manipulation of a compliant media, slandering of principled political opponents, the unconstitutional surveillance and detainment of American citizens--all of these were at work in the efforts of Presidents McKinley and Wilson to drag a reluctant American citizenry into war. Bush is often compared to Woodrow Wilson, and this book 's portrait of the latter makes clear that such a comparison is both apt and chilling.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?!? To be continued...


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Hello, friends, so sorry about my absence recently. As many of you may know, the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, is coming out of his early retirement. Sure, my own little Elba over here in Highland was fine for a while, my life of leisure interrupted by grueling expeditions to find books to sell to the West Coast masses, but just as Napoleon eventually returned to Paris, Macarthur to the Phillipines, Michael Jordan to the NBA, the moth to the flame, so must I return to the workaday world, on my own terms, of course.
I humbly accepted an appointment as the executive director of the West Edge Artists' Co-op, a brilliant concept soon to be a brilliant reality in the heart of downtown Shreveport. A number of artists, many well-known to the local cognoscenti, others from the hinterlands of Minden and Cotton Valley, will share gallery space, labor and expenses in a utopian enterprise sure to stir the hearts of all who approach it. The workers will control the means of exhibition, aesthetic wealth will be redistributed, and the dancing, drinking and conversation will go until dawn every night (provided our hours can accomodate it).
Yours truly will also bring to fruition a long-held dream of opening a small used, rare and collectible book shop, modest in quantity but Whitmanesque in its qualitative ambitions, containing multitudes of wisdom, inspiration, knowledge, entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Poems will be written, romances will be kindled, facts will be checked, revolution will be hatched, fortunes will be won and lost, baseball minutiae will be argued until the wee hours (Willie Mays or Ted Williams?). Bohemians, scholars, troubadours, griots, wordsmiths, bibliophiles, mystics will flock to Shreveport, decide to stay, will make Shreveport the Alexandria of the 21st century (no, the one in Egypt).
Are you ready, Shreveport? Prepare for liftoff, because I didn't come out of early retirement for nuthin'.