The World Is What It Is (French)

I’m not a big Naipaul fan. I’ve read a few of the classic titles, mostly the fiction. So rather than re-read those when my book club chose to do a few books by Naipaul, I decided to read his biography instead. I can’t remember who it was being interviewed New York Times Book Review section somewhat recently who said she rarely completes biographies because authors tend to be inclined to overstuff them with all of their research because they are only going to get a chance to write the book once. French lapses into that every once in a while, especially when he goes down the rabbit hole of digressions on people only of seemingly small importance to Naipaul’s life.

There’s also the danger that the biography writer and reader will become armchair psychologists and when that ‘lens’ creeps into an analysis of the author’s literature, I can get quite concerned. I’ve always liked Billy Collins’ line about “waving to the author’s name on the shore.” French tempers this instinct by approaching the overlap between the writer and his works more in terms of inspiration than any kind of psychological diagnosis.

But I can’t resist. Naipaul, by virtue of geography, seemed to struggle to find his identity so he adopted a range of them, sometimes, it seems, for his own convenience. And then once this absence of identity became his trademark, other elements, like the way he treated women, fell into place.  In short, on the way to finding himself, he seems to have invented himself and because the role made him famous, he inhabited it. Does it bother me that he wasn’t (apparently) a very virtuous person? Not really. I just didn’t like his fiction very much, and this book didn’t inspire me to give it another look. But I do buy French’s thesis that because he belonged to nowhere, he became a good observer of everywhere. So my next Naipaul move – after the novel that I am reading for book club – will be his non-fiction. Based on French’s biography, I would not have wanted to travel with Naipaul. But I will travel with them through his books.


Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Jackson)

What a remarkably layered biography of a man who comes across as incredibly complex and perhaps not ever very or truly knowable. I’ve had a copy of Black Elk Speaks on my shelf for a while, but I’ve never really thought I was ready to approach it. I think I am now. Black Elk’s collaboration with John Niehardt by no means dominates this book; instead, it adds still more layers. After all of the steps of translation and editing, whose story is it?

Black Elk’s life intersected with so much history, both American and First American – even European, he definitely merited an excellent biography and this is definitely it. Jackson’s prose is well-paced and his research drives the narrative, but never overwhelms it.

And the reader adds another layer here. What, I wondered, do I believe about all of this? Then again, what do I really know about it? Jackson definitely seems to admire Black Elk, and I land in that same place too. Whether he was using others or being used, whether he was a success or failure, his persistence, his passion for trying to negotiate a world (for himself and for his tribe) that was changing so rapidly deserves a great deal of respect. Jackson definitely gives him that. And he definitely gave me a lot to consider.

Jungle of Stone (Carlsen)

Subtitle: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

The subtitle, it now seems to me, tells you everything that is great about the book (roughly, the first 400 pages) and everything that is disappointing about it (the last 60 pages). When Carlsen focuses on Stephens and Catherwood and their re-discovery of the Mayan civilization, his account is compelling in the same way that Stephens’ original accounts apparently were. The tenacity and resilience that the two men show as they follow leads, navigate and escape revolutions, and deal with the weather, rough terrain, mosquitoes and malaria (before the two were linked) and the generally destructive passage of time is just amazing. And Carlsen’s words, though he clearly admires the two men, are honest. There is criticism for the way they, especially Stephens, exploit the locals and loot some of what they find. That said, to his credit, Stephens is more open-minded than his contemporaries when it comes to considering whether the Mayan civilization is the product of indigenous minds or more traditional outside influences, such as the Egyptians.

I understand Carlsen’s instinct to find closure for this story, but once Stephens and Catherwood leave Central America, the book loses its (and the word choice is deliberate here because of its historical significance) ‘steam.’ Carlsen indulges in his own history of the Mayan civilization and then concluded the biographies of his two protagonists.

Perhaps Carlsen wanted to put all of his research in one place, but the book’s subtitle suggests that he had too many agendas, and the last 60 pages diminish the momentum of his powerful narrative.

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Leerhsen)

Every once in a while, I like to read a baseball biography, and  the prospect of this one intrigued me since I knew very little about Cobb aside from his reputation. And it is just this reputation that Leerhsen wants to address. His thesis is that Cobb’s reputation for violence is not deserved, and he couches this in the era he played. People were still learning what it meant to be a star, the role of baseball in the national consciousness was evolving, the relationship between players and fans was still being determined, Cobb’s mother murdered his father, and so on. Nevertheless, Cobb’s violence, regardless of time, place and circumstance, was just intense and often criminal. There can be no doubt about Cobb’s talent and innovation, and the move from Cobb-as-hero to Ruth-as-hero was kind of cool to consider, but Cobb’s sustained longevity was a product of the privilege of being a superstar. Granted, there were times that he used this for the benefit of others. He anticipated the protests of Curt Flood by pushing against the notion that players were property. Still, he was only able to get away with this because of his stardom.

Leerhsen writes like a fan, which is mostly fine. And, in an effort to be definitive (because he only has one shot at it and so rejects other efforts of other biographers – think Robert Wuhl in the movie), he writes a lot. Maybe we needed a few less game descriptions, but perhaps the book is like a baseball season. You can’t stay at the same level of intensity for the whole season. I definitely drifted through some sections.

Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel (Shapira)

When our daughter asked me who Ben-Gurion was, I showed her the subtitle of the book and she said, “Wow. That couldn’t have been an easy job.” And she is right. Based on Shapira’s well-focused biography, Ben-Gurion not only faced remarkable challenges in terms of establishing the state of Israel, but also in terms of developing as a leader. Though I don’t agree with Shapira’s rather abrupt contention that Jewish people have some sort of unique inclination to “schism,” dealing with internal factions – a warning George Washington offered the U.S. that we’ve failed to heed – seems to have taken up a great deal of his time. And he did not appear to have been blessed with tremendous interpersonal skills. This could be why his best work was accomplished during a time of crisis. He was unafraid of controversy and contributed to the establishment of the country in such a wide variety of ways. As long as I’ve introduced the comparison to the founding of the United States, I’ll say that he brought Benjamin Franklin to mind, at least with respect to his number and range of contributions.

As I mentioned, I was almost always pleased with how well-focused the biography was. I sensed innumerable times when Shapira could have been tempted to digress for many, many pages. Still, her paragraph, yes paragraph, on how easily Ben-Gurion abandoned his principles when it came to the treatment of Arabs seemed too casual for a topic that has had such long-lasting implications.

This book is part of the Jewish Lives series. I am not sure who should be next – Levi, Brandeis, Marx. Groucho Marx, that is.

Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Smith)

I’ve been fascinated by this guy ever since I saw an exhibit about him at the Maryland Science Center. He seemed the perfect model for the adventurer who finds Victor Frankenstein on the ice and hears his story.

Still, there has to be more than that. His exploits on the ice, in terms of improvisation, are legendary. His preparation, his domestic life – not so much. Does he have the whiff of a tragic hero about him, similar to Alexander Hamilton?

Smith writes well by limiting the technical jargon and the digressions and writing a kind of adventure story himself. So much is easy to see in hindsight. I also appreciated how Smith was careful to identify where knowledge stopped and speculation began, especially as it relates to Shackleton’s finances, a mysterious letter, and his relationship with women.

Maybe Shackleton’s charisma just works on me the way Smith reports on so many people who maybe should have known better. I think Smith’s account is balanced and in the end that he applauds him, for all of his many flaws. I guess, in this age where we’re bloodthirsty to take down anyone and everyone for any flaw real or perceived, I want to applaud both Smith and Shackleton.

Woody Guthrie: A Life (Klein)

I started this to get myself in the mood to teach Steinbeck, but I think I got more than I bargained for. This biography is just too long, especially when Klein quotes (at length) some of Guthrie’s more sexual letters. I also think he does Guthrie a disservice by waiting until the end to retroactively label some of Guthrie’s behavior as symptoms of the disease that would kill him (and had killed his mother).

It was interesting to read how Guthrie pretty much invented himself and made his way around the country, learning both by observing and by reading. The relationship between his family and fire was just heartbreaking. As always, I loved when Klein described intersections Guthrie had with other names I knew (musical and otherwise, like Steinbeck) as well as historical events.

I don’t know if it’s the best Guthrie biography out there, but it’s certainly the only one I’m going to read. And yes, I now have Guthrie in the regular Spotify rotation in my car.