The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt (Giffels)

Giffels, formerly of the Akron Beacon Journal and now the University of Akron, has stayed. While industry and people have left Akron in droves, Giffels has stayed. He has investigated what the city once was and has observed what it has started to become. His insights, particularly when it comes to the architecture of decay, are impressive. Where others see sadness or even ‘ruin porn,’ he sees memory and possibility. These essays are both about him and about Akron (as well as the surrounding area). His stories are complicated in a way he says outsiders, including the media, don’t understand (he claims – and I defer). There is more diversity from block to block and neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city than is convenient for those who want to simplify things.

Giffels is an insightful writer. Recent news that one of the tire companies that made Akron famous is opening a plant – somewhere – made the front page of the Cleveland papers, a sign, perhaps, of a kind of desperation. The city is trying to find its way, not back – I think Giffels would reject that notion – but to something new. At the same time, Giffels notes how Akronites are protective of the old, retaining signs from old buildings, even bricks, calling things by what used to be there.

Two things nagged at me. First, the collection could have used some editing. There were unnecessary repetitions that made it seem like the book is not so much a collection as a compilation. Second, perhaps accustomed to length constraints imposed by newspapers, Giffels sometimes seems to stop his pieces short. I wished he’d pushed on the edges a bit more.

A great book for those interested in what’s happening to cities that are not named and not near New York City and Los Angeles.

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Whale Rider (Ihimaera)

This book is a lesson in adaptation. Ihimaera reports in his author’s note that the origin of the book was sparked by two things – a whale swimming up the Hudson River and one of his daughters complaining about females were always portrayed as helpless in movies. From these two events came a remarkable book, part folklore, part survival of a culture, but in the end, all its own. The story of the rise of the new whale rider, Kahu, and how she challenges her male-dominated culture is both real and surreal, and together, the two parts, complete with dialogue among whales, works quite well (though Ihimaera’s grasp of point of view gets shaky here).

And then Niki Caro somehow takes this sketch of a story, this mixture of myth and culture and action, and crafts a stunning movie that, I’ve just learned, you can now watch for free.

TransAtlantic (McCann)

This is a remarkably well-constructed book. The first half is a triptych of biographical sketches, the second a story of one of the characters in the second biographical sketches and her descendants. As the title suggests, the flight motif resonates throughout the entire book – not just in its literal meaning – what does it mean to fly, to cross from one place to another?

The first and third biographical sketches are fine. I gripped the book tightly while I read the middle one, about a visit Frederick Douglass made to Ireland, the one that sends the matriarch of the women in the second part of the book all the way across the ocean to America. As with many efforts to fictionalize historical figures, I wondered about the necessity of it. I was worried that my perception of the person would be violated. This was not an issue in the first part; I’d never heard of the two pilots. But why wasn’t it an issue in the third section, the one that follows George Mitchell as he negotiates the Good Friday accords? I was alive when he was around, but not (obviously) when Frederick Douglass was. Why did that section make me so nervous? Why was I so bothered by McCann’s intimation that Douglass flirted with other women? The image of Douglass lifting weights made from melted down metal that once bound slaves is incredibly powerful. But is it true?

I was more comfortable in the second part of the book, as we moved from one generation to the next. Ireland, I realized, is one of the main characters in this novel. McCann’s tone is melancholy here; his Ireland is a beautiful mess. “Ireland. A beautiful country. A bit savage on man all the same. Ireland” (39).

As always, McCann’s sentences, particularly his verbs, are artful. Describing a house, he writes that “[t]he rooms led into one another like fabulous sentences” (58). When he describes Douglass looking up at the night sky, he says, “The stars collandered the Wexford night” (70). Collandered? Remarkable. “The buskers beneath the awning, tromboning the raindrops down” (104). Tromboning? Stunning. Like collandered, it should be a word. “She bid him good-bye, ached her way into bed” (197). Don’t you wish you’d thought of that? More on the weather: “It rained. The sky did not seem at all surprised” (75).

And it is two of these sentences that illuminate both the form and content of this novel. McCann writes, “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing möbius strip until we come home, eventually to ourselves” (252).

In the end, though, we can’t come home. Our home has to be sold because a letter can’t be. The future is in front of us and “[W]e have to admire the world for not ending on us” (300). The story continues.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Speck)

This is a remarkably readable book about urban design – how to reduce traffic and accidents and bring more patrons to downtowns that are struggling. As someone who spends his time well outside the spectrum of city planning, I found it astonishing to learn how decisions are made about, for example, the width of traffic lanes and how they should be made. I know this may sound dry, but Speck’s tone (though over the top once or twice) makes his book as engaging as it is persuasive. If your downtown is struggling or there are plans afoot to revitalize it, make sure everyone involved has a copy of this book.

The economics are here, but there’s the usual (and difficult) trade-off of short-term for long-term and sometimes what you can see for what you can’t.

Speck holds up several cities as not-unqualified successes – Portland and Vancouver, for example. But he seems to skip a major step. He talks about how Portland has chosen to grow, but does not go into how the players involved generated the political and financial capital to get everyone moving in the same directions. So often, Speck argues, it is the specialists who are the problems. Therefore, he argues, that it is the generalists who should do urban planning. In order for it to succeed, he continues, compromise and a sense of the greater good is required.

He is (rightly) harsh when it comes to starchitects like Frank Gehry who have little concern for context. He is equally disdainful of those who think that it is sufficient for them to buy a Prius and call themselves environmentally aware.

These shifts in downtown are, in Speck’s mind, necessary to draw the millenials to your city. We built highways to respond to one desire (60 or so years ago). Is there a way to follow Speck’s plan without committing to something that will no longer serve the public in another few generations? He does talk about cases in which certain public spaces can be converted in a certain period – from parking spaces to something else. Perhaps we need more of that flexible kind of thinking.

Read the book or watch the 17-minute version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wai4ub90stQ). Fascinating and important stuff.

Glaciers (Smith)

I bought this book because of five words: A Tin House New Voice. I’ve always enjoyed the journal Tin House, and I love reading first novels. For a while, I was on the borderline with this novel, wondering if it was too precious, too carefully calculated. Ultimately, though, I was won over. Smith writes so well, in what I think of as the Iowa style, and her story and its symbolism is precise and poignant. This is a quiet story, interrupted only by the presence of Spoke and the story of his name. It is the kiss Spoke’s grandfather gives his wife on the back of the neck as she stands over the sink doing dishes. It remains.

The story is summarized in this beautiful passage (151):

Her eyes close, and she begins to drift. She thinks of these things: Spoke and the war; the oil in Alaska and the oil in the Middle East; the glaciers melting; and the water that connects them all. The glaciers will melt and the water will rise. Everything will be washed through. All the young lovers in their hats and their party dresses. All the plane trees and the elms. All the tall houses. All the narrow brick lanes and city squares. Glaciers take the cities, cities take the architecture, the architecture takes the bodies.

A good first novel. A writer worth watching.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Egan)

What a remarkable undertaking, both for Curtis and for Egan, who continues to rank as one of my favorite non-fiction writers. Curtis set a remarkable task for himself – to try to record for posterity the vanishing ways of the American Indian. If this meant, at times, asking them to play dress-up or to be re-enactors, he was willing to do it. And JP Morgan, both fortunately and unfortunately, was willing to fund it. (Curtis did not ask for enough; Morgan didn’t give enough and when he had to give more, he and his son asked for too much.) Along the way, Curtis got rave reviews and ignored, was friends with Presidents and ruined his marriage, and he accomplished his goal – 20 volumes of The North American Indian which are apparently quite difficult to actually see. A triumph of ethnography and publishing, these books, according to Egan, now help to re-acquaint tribes with their own languages and practices.

When pressed by a judge to explain why he pressed on, even though he made no money from the project, Curtis says, “Your honor, it was my job. The only thing . . . the only thing I could do that was worth doing” (293). Hard not to admire that.

After initially promising not to engage in political commentary and being pressured to omit some of his discoveries about Custer’s conduct, Curtis, with help from a loyal and slowly diminishing band, finds his voice. And the injustices, both de jure and de facto that he recounts will never cease to astonish me. Why did we do what we did to the American Indians? Why do we do it still?

The book can be slow in places. We know he’s aiming for 20 volumes, so sometimes I found myself noting the count. Nevertheless, this book is an important record of an amazing and important achievement. The photos Egan provides are teasers. I wish I could see the whole thing.

The Conformist (Moravia, trans. by Tami Calliope)

This was a strange novel. When it starts, it seems like we may have a serial killer on our hands. Young Marcello is brought up in a loveless household and takes to killing, first flowers and then animals and, in his mind, a friend. Then (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) the key moment happens. Marcello has not one but two interactions with a stranger, and the second one informs the rest of his life – his choice of a career, his marriage – simply because he wants to, as the title explains, conform. He seeks normality.

But he can’t find it. Or perhaps he learns it doesn’t exist. Not even his superficial wife with her seemingly ordinary needs can provide it for him. As political events unfold, Marcello, on the side of the Italian fascists, wonders whether the desired normality even exists. Was he cast out of it as a child when he went on the attack against flowers, lizards and, probably, a cat?

But for Marcello, there’s no escaping what he melodramatically calls his fate. An unlikely confrontation with someone he hasn’t seen in a while (on the night of the fall of Mussolini) seems to mark the beginning of the end.

Moravia’s writing, particularly in Marcello’s more introspective moments, is sharp but slippery. Is there a personal-political piece going on here? Are we to try to understand the mind of a fascist? Or is this more about fate and the events we think shape our destiny? Or is there a cold, Camus-like existentialism going on here? Are we seeing true evil?

A puzzling, though not compelling book.