Thursday, July 31, 2014

the last book I ever read (Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel, excerpt five)

from Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel:

On January 16, Jaroslava Moserová is on call when they bring in a young man. She hears the paramedics saying that this is Torch Number One. His name is Jan Palach. He set himself on fire outside the museum on Wenceslas Square. Almost the entire surface of his body is charred, as are his airways.

The orderlies, who always call young people by their first names, address him as “sir.”

The nurses say he is Jan the Second, because he wanted to remind people of Jan Hus.

Jan Palach’s death throes last for seventy-two hours.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

the last book I ever read (Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel, excerpt four)

from Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel:

In the field of skin-loss compensation, Jaroslava Moserová collaborates with some Polish scientists, who award her a gold medal.

She is also granted a scholarship to go to the University of Texas at Galveston.

She notices that she suffers from a strange affliction: she has no memory of the patients whom she has helped. She only remembers the ones in whose cases she failed.

Being ineffective is what she finds most horrifying about herself.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the last book I ever read (Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel, excerpt three)

from Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel:

A Czech could either work for the Germans, or work for the Germans.

As soon as he graduated from high school in 1942, eighteen-year-old Josef Škvorecký—later a famous writer—was assigned a job at a munitions factory. He had the choice of an arms factory in Bremen, where there was constant carpet bombing, or a factory making parts for German Messerschmitts in his own peaceful town of Náchod.

He chose the job without air raids.

However, in a world of crime it’s impossible to remain on the outside. Many things explain the attitude of the Czechs, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by what happened. They bore a sense of shared guilt, though they may not have been aware of it.

They may have intuitively taken it out on Baarová and Mandlová—on people who, in their eyes, had communed with the executioner of their own free will.

Monday, July 28, 2014

the last book I ever read (Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel, excerpt two)

from Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel:

“Bata approached our parents, asking them to sell him their beloved orchard. They refused, because they’d waited twenty years for it to produce fruit. My brother, my sister, and I were already supporting ourselves—we were all working for Bata. The head of personnel threatened us, saying that if we didn’t force our parents to sell the land, we needn’t bother coming to work the next day. So we put pressure on our poor father, who wept as he sold the land for a fifth of its value, just because Mr. Bata had a whim” (Josef and František Hradil).

In analyzing the documents, the author reveals that in the period from 1927 to 1937 not a single worker went from Bata into retirement. The workforce was systematically rejuvenated. Workers were laid off for any reason at all at least ten years before retirement.

“This was how the era broke people, this was how the old regime debased them,” adds Turek.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

the last book I ever read (Gottland by Mariusz Szczygiel, excerpt one)

from Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel:

Emil Zápotek, the world’s top athlete of 1952, keeps his hands above the quilt. Others who will do so too include: the famous (forty years on) writer Ludvík Vaculík, and the leading representative of the new wave in Czechoslovak cinema (also, forty years on) director Karel Kachyňa. Kachyňa starts work at Bata as a cleaner, and finished as a trained draughtsman. “I was a Bataman,” he’ll say, in the early twenty-first century. “At Zlín I learned to fight against fear.”

Each of Bata’s students is a Bataman.

You can become a Bataman through obedience and hard work.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt eight)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

Then, “Mule Train,” by Frankie Laine, not one of the great Laines but great enough, and “It’s Magic,” by Doris Day. Those pauses back then: It’s ma- gic. They knew how to hurt you, back then when there were two eight-team baseball leagues and you could remember all the players. People then were not exactly softer, they were harder in fact, but they were easier to hurt, though in fewer places.

He has to leave 176 for 23 through Amish country, it’s the one really local stretch of road, but there shouldn’t be any buggies out this late to slow him down. Rabbit wants to see once more a place in Morgantown, a hardware store with two pumps outside, where a thickset farmer in two shirts and hairy nostrils had advised him to know where he was going before he went there. Well, now he does. He has learned the road and figured out the destination. But what had been a country hardware store was now a slick little real-estate office. Where the gas pumps had been, fresh black asphalt showed under the moonlight the stark yellow stripes of diagonal parking spaces.

No, it isn’t moonlight, he sees; it is the sulfurous illumination that afflicts busy paved places all night. Though the hour is near eleven, a traffic of giant trucks heaves and snorts and groans through the sleepy stone town; the realtor’s big window is full of Polaroid snapshots of property for sale, and Route 23, once a narrow road on the ridge between two farm valleys as dark at night as manure, now blazes with the signs that are everywhere. PIZZA HUT. BURGER KING. Rent a movie. Turkey Hill MINIT MARKET. Quilt World. Shady Maple SMORGASBORD. Village Herb Shop. Country Knives. Real estate makes him think of Janice and his heart dips at the picture of her waiting with Nelson and Pru for him to show up over at the Springers’ and panicking by now, probably imagining he’s had a car accident, and coming back with her key to the deserted house, all fluttery and hot-breathed the way she gets. Maybe he should have left a note like she did him that time. Harry dear – I must go off a few days to think. But she said never forgive him, shoot you both, she upped the stakes, let her stew in her own juice, thinks she’s so smart suddenly, going back to school. Nelson the same way. Damned if they’re going to get him sitting in on some family-therapy session run by his own son whose big redheaded wife he’s boffed. Only really good thing he’s done all year, as he looks back on it. Damned if he’ll face the kid, give him the satisfaction, all white in the gills from this new grievance. Rabbit doesn’t want to get counselled.

Friday, July 25, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt seven)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

To placate the pain, he switches to weeding the day lilies and the violet hosta. Wherever a gap permits lights to activate the sandy soil, chickweed and crabgrass grow, and purslane with its hollow red stems covers the earth in busy round-leaved zigzags. Weeds too have their styles, their own personalities that talk back to the gardener in the daze of the task. Chickweed is a good weed, soft on the hands unlike thistles and burdock, and pulls easily; it knows when the jig is up and comes willingly, where wild cucumber keeps breaking off at one of its many joints, and grass and red sorrel and poison ivy spread underground, like creeping diseases that cannot be cured. Weeds don’t know they’re weeds. Safe next to the trunk of the weeping cherry a stalk of blue lettuce has grown eight feet tall, taller than he. Those days he spent ages ago being Mrs. Smith’s gardener among her rhododendrons, the one time he ever felt rooted in a job. Fine strong young man, she had called him at the end, gripping him with her claws.

A block and a half away, the traffic on Penn Boulevard murmurs and hisses, its purr marred by the occasional sudden heave and grind of a great truck shifting gears, or by an angry horn, or the wop-wop-wopping bleat of an ambulance rushing some poor devil to the hospital. You see them now and then, driving down a side street, these scenes: some withered old lady being carried in a stretcher down her porch stairs in a slow-motion sled ride, her hair unpinned, her mouth without its dentures, her eyes staring skyward as if to disown her body; or some red-faced goner being loaded into the double metal doors while his abandoned mate in her bathrobe snivels on the curb and the paramedics close around his body like white vultures feeding. Rabbit has noticed a certain frozen peacefulness in such terminal street tableaux. A certain dignity in the doomed one, his or her moment come round at last; a finality that isolates the ensemble like a spotlit crèche. You would think people would take it worse than they do. They don’t scream, they don’t accuse God. We curl into ourselves, he supposes. We become numb bundles of used-up nerves. Earthworms on the hook.

From far across the river, a siren wails in the heart of Brewer. Above, in a sky gathering its fishscales for a rainy tomorrow, a small airplane rasps as it coasts into the airport beyond the old fairgrounds. What Harry instantly loved about this house was its hiddenness: not so far from all this traffic, it is yet not easy to find, on its macadamized dead end, tucked with its fractional number among the more conspicuous homes of the Penn Park rich. He always resented these snobs and now is safe among them. Pulling into his dead-end driveway, working out back in his garden, watching TC in his den with its wavery lozenge-paned windows, Rabbit feels safe as in a burrow, where the hungry forces at loose in the world would never think to find him.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt six)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

Judy, startled just like the girls on the show, does put it back, but by now it’s a commercial, and she cries, as the insult sinks in, “I want Daddy back! Everybody else is mean to me!”

She starts to cry, Pru rises to comfort her, Rabbit retreats in disgrace. He circles the house, listening to the rain, marveling that he once lived here, remembering the dead and the dead versions of the living who lived here with him, finding a half-full jar of dry-roasted cashews on a high kitchen shelf and, on the kitchen television set, a cable rerun of last night’s playoff game between the Knicks and the Bulls. He hates the way Michael Jordan’s pink tongue rolls around in his mouth as he goes up for a dunk. He has seen Jordan interviewed, he’s an intelligent guy, why does he swing his tongue around like an imbecile? The few white players there are on the floor look pathetically naked, their pasty sweat, their fuzzy armpit hair; it seems incredible to Harry that he himself was ever out there in this naked game, though in those days the shorts were a little long and the tank-top armholes not quite so big. He has finished off the jar of cashews without noticing and suddenly the basketball—Jordan changing direction in midair not once but twice and sinking an awkward fall-back jumper with Ewing’s giant hand square in his face—pains him with its rubbery activity, an extreme of bodily motion his nerves but not his muscles can remember. He needs a Nitrostat from the little bottle in the coat jacket in that shallow closet upstairs. The hauntedness of the downstairs is getting to him. He turns off the kitchen light and holds his breath passing Ma Springer’s old breakfront in the darkened dining room, where the wallpaper crawls with the streetlight projections of rain running down the windows.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt five)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

She expects Harry to be more grateful; but a man even slightly sick assumes that women will uphold him, and in this direction, men to women, the flow of gratitude is never great. In the car, his first words are insulting: “You have on your policeman’s uniform.”

“I need to feel presentable for my quiz tonight. I’m afraid I won’t be able to concentrate. I can’t stop thinking about Nelson.”

He has slumped down in the passenger seat, his knees pressed against the dashboard, his head laid back against the headrest in a conceited way. “What’s to think?” he asks. “Did he wriggle out of going? I thought he’d run.”

“He didn’t run at all, that was one of the things that made it so sad. He went off just the way he used to go to school. Harry, I wonder if we’re doing the right thing.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt four)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

Thelma makes an annoyed motion with her hands. “Harry, you’re not actually God, it just feels that way to you. Do you really think Nelson was jumpy because of you?”

“Why else?”

She knows something. She hesitates, but cannot resist, perhaps, a bit of revenge for his taking her always for granted, for his being in Pennsylvania a week before calling. “You must know about Nelson. My boys say he’s a cocaine addict. They’ve all used it, that generation, but Nelson they tell me is really hooked. As they say, the drug runs him, instead of him just using the drug.”

Harry has rocked back as far as the rocker will take him without his shoes leaving the rug and remains in that position so long that Thelma becomes anxious, knowing that this man isn’t sound inside and can have a heart attack. At last he rocks forward again and, gazing at her thoughtfully, says, “That explains a lot.” He fishes in the side pocket of his tweedy gray sports coat for a small brown bottle and deftly spills a single tiny pill into his hand and puts it in his mouth, under his tongue. There is a certain habituated daintiness in the gesture. “Coke takes money, doesn’t it?” he asks Thelma. “I mean, you can go through hundreds. Thousands.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt three)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

Though Judy swears Roy has been to the movies before, he doesn’t seem to understand you can’t talk up as in your own living room. He keeps asking why, with a plaintive inflection: “Why she take off her clothes?” “Why she so mad at that man?” Harry likes it, in the movie, when you see that Melanie Griffith in her whorehouse underwear has a bit of honest fat to her, not like most of these Hollywood anorectics, and when she bursts in upon her boyfriend with the totally naked girl, like herself supposed to be Italian but not like her aspiring to be a Wall Street wheeler-dealer, riding the guy in the astride position, her long bare side sleek as the skin of a top shell and her dark-nippled boobs right on screen for a good five second. But the plot, and the farce of the hero and heroine worming their way into the upper-crust wedding, he feels he saw some forty years ago with Cary Grant or Gary Cooper and Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur. When Roy loudly asks, “Why don’t we go now?” he is willing to go out into the lobby with him, so Janice and Judy can see the picture to the end in peace.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt two)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

“I think,” he says, “Dukakis tried to talk intelligently to the American people and we aren’t ready for it. Bush talked to us like we were a bunch of morons and we ate it up. Can you imagine, the Pledge of Allegiance, read my lips—can you imagine such crap in this day and age? Ailes and those others, they made him into a beer commercial—head for the mountains.” Bernie sang this last phrase, his voice quavery but touchingly true. Rabbit is impressed by this ability Jews seem to have, to sing and to dance, to give themselves to the moment. They sing at seder, he knows, because Bernie and Fern had them to seder one April just before heading north. Passover. The angel of death passed over. Harry had never understood the word before. Let this cup pass from me. Bernie concludes, “To my mind there are two possibilities about Bush—he believed what he was saying, or he didn’t. I don’t know which is more terrifying. He’s what we call a pisher.”

“Dukakis always looked like he was sore about something,” Rabbit offers. This is as close as he can bring himself to admit that, alone in this foursome, he voted for Bush.

Bernie maybe guesses it. He says, “After eight years of Reagan I would have thought more people would have been sore than were. If you could ever get the poor to vote in this country, you’d have socialism. But people want to think rich. That’s the genius of the capitalist system: either you’re rich, or you want to be, or you think you ought to be.”

Saturday, July 19, 2014

the last book I ever read (John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, excerpt one)

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike:

Janice is at his side again. She is breathless, excited. “Harry, hurry,” she says. “They’re here, ten minutes early, there must have been a tail wind from Newark. I came out of the Ladies and went down to the gate and couldn’t find you, you weren’t there. Where were you?”

“Nowhere. Just standing here by the window.” That plane he had mentally exploded hadn’t been their plane at all.

Heart thumping, his breath annoyingly short, he strides after his little wife down the wide gray carpeting. Her pleated tennis skirt flicks at the brown backs of her thighs and her multilayered white Nikes look absurdly big at the end of her skinny legs, like Minnie Mouse in her roomy shoes, but Janice’s getup is no more absurd than many in this crowd of greeters: men with bankers’ trim white haircuts and bankers’ long grave withholding faces wearing Day-Glo yellow-green tank tops stenciled CORAL POINT or CAPTIVA ISLAND and tomato-red bicycle shorts and Bermudas patterned with like fried eggs and their permed and thick-middled women in these ridiculous one-piece exercise outfits like long flannel underwear in pink or blue, baby colors on Kewpie-doll shapes, their costumes advertising the eternal youth they have found like those skiers and tennis players and golfers now who appear on television laden with logos like walking billboards. The hunchbacked little Jewish guy in such a hurry has already met his loved one, a tall grinning woman, a Rachel or Esther with frizzed-out hair and a big pale profile, carrying over one arm her parka from Newark, her plump dumpy mother on the other side of her, Grace was her name, while the old man with angry choppy gestures is giving the women the latest version of his spiel, they listening with half an ear each to this newest little thing he feels very strongly about. Rabbit is curious to see that this grown daughter, a head taller than her parents, appears to have no mate. A tall black man, slick-looking in a three-piece gray suit, but nothing of a dude, carrying himself with a businesslike Waspy indifference to his appearance and lugging one of those floppy big bags that smart travellers use and that hog all the overhead rack space, is trailing unnaturally close behind. But he can’t be a relation, he must be just trying to pass, like that black chick in the red Camaro coming in off 75. Everybody tailgating, that’s the way we move along now.

Friday, July 18, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt ten)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

But if our culture is amnesiac, forgetting crucial dates and places as soon as they are taught, it also spits people up when we least expect them. America continues to regurgitate Van Buren in the most unlikely places. In the debates over the League of Nations, an arch-Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, quoted Van Buren when he argued that we should go to war only after a “sober second thought.” When Pauline Esther Friedman wanted to write an advice column for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956, she adopted the name “Abigail Van Buren” because she thought it sounded prestigious, and soon “Dear Abby” was a national institution. How Van Buren would have loved the irony that his poor name—so maligned by the grandees of the Hudson Valley—suggest the whiff of grandeur to a young social climber! In the 1988 campaign, Garry Trudeau drew a series of Doonesbury cartoons ridiculing George H. W. Bush (seeking to become the first vice president elected since 1836) and Yale’s Skull and Bones Society as would-be grave robbers of Van Buren’s tomb. Rumors persist that Van Buren’s skull is, in fact, incarcerated there, along with those of Geronimo and Pancho Villa. If so, he is in good company, for to men of a certain privileged class, the architect of Democracy was as fearsome an opponent as any warrior on the battlefield.

Despite these blips on the radar screen, Van Buren will remain one of our lesser-known presidents, for reasons that he would understand. His presidency produced no lasting monument of social legislation, sustained several disastrous reverses, and ended with ignominious defeat after one short term. There will never be an animatronic Van Buren entertaining children at Disneyland alongside Abraham Lincoln. But still, he lives wherever people find gated communities shut to them. He lives particularly in the places far from the presidential stage where democracy does its best work—in the back rooms of union halls, fire stations, immigrant social clubs, granges, and taverns like the one he grew up in. Or even far from American shores, where courageous men and women are risking their lives every day to form opposition parties against the wishes of their governments.

He does not need fame, or pity, but Martin Van Buren is worthy of a sober second thought. Quite simply, it’s antidemocratic to expect all of our leaders to be great, or to pretend that they are once they are in office and using the trappings of the presidency for theatrical effect. It goes without saying that we need our Lincolns and Washingtons—the United States would not exist without them. But we need our Van Burens, too—the schemers and sharps working to defend people from all backgrounds against their natural predators. For democracy to stay realistic, we need to remain realistic about our leaders and what they can and cannot do. In other words, we need books about the not-quite-heroic. Van Buren is history, and this book has reached its terminus, but, as Kafka tell us, the work is never done.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt nine)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

Van Buren also lived on, as all presidents do, in the world of gossip, innuendo, and half-truth that lark in the shadows behind any important leader, especially one who disturbs the status quo. Near the end of his life, at the end of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman remembered Van Buren fondly as a “brilliant manager,” though not quite Lincolnesque. He also added the confused recollection that John Van Buren was the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr. Nor was Whitman the only poet who dilated on the eighth president. Improbably, well into the twentieth century the great modernist Ezra Pound developed a literary crush on Van Buren, in one of the strangest artist-muse relationships in the history of creative expression. “Canto 37” of his Seventy Cantos is a long-winded poetic exploration of the issues surrounding the Panic of 1837, with some sections drawing upon Van Buren’s autobiography (written “in the vicinage of Vesuvius, in the mirror of memory”). It ends with an ecstatic Latinate celebration of the man Pound considered the author of economic freedom in America: “HIC JACET FISCI LIBERATOR” (here lies the liberator of money). Pound also wrote elsewhere that Van Buren was a “national hero” offering one of the “few clean and decent pages” in the history of the United States.

It is hard to say whether Pound’s advocacy helped or hurt Van Buren. It is safe to say that there were not many other modernist poets clamoring to defend him, or to attack him for that matter, and any attention helped. But Pound’s later zeal for Benito Mussolini did not do much to promote his reputation as a shrewd judge of character. In fact, his emotional embrace of Van Buren may have helped Pound more than it helped anyone else, because it offered convincing proof, as his defenders later claimed, that the poet was completely insane.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt eight)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

Much better, from the Slave Power’s perspective, and much worse from our own, was Van Buren’s performance during the celebrated Amistad case. In 1839, slaves had revolted and taken control of the schooner Amistad off Cuba. Attempting to return to Africa, they had instead landed at Long Island, and they were soon imprisoned in Connecticut. Van Buren issued an executive order demanding that the slaves be taken to a naval vessel, to hasten their return to their Spanish owners, but the case ground its way slowly through the courts. Finally, in the last days of the Van Buren administration, in February 1841, the seventy-three-year-old John Quincy Adams delivered a stirring defense of the slaves before the Supreme Court, winning their freedom and his glory. An abolitionist wrote that Van Buren’s executive order ought to be “engraved on his tomb, to rot only with his memory.”

About the worst thing that can happen to your reputation is to be cast as the villain in a popular Steven Spielberg film. Undeniably, Van Buren’s actions in the Amistad case deserve censure. But it is difficult to imagine any president between John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln acting differently, and it helps to understand that Van Buren was fighting several difficult battles at the same time. Without Southern support in 1840, Van Buren had no chance to pass his economic program, recover from the Panic of 1837, or win reelection. As I hope I have made clear, he was not consistently pro-slavery and often enraged the South with his tacit support for certain African-American rights. In 1848, he would go quite a bit further.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt seven)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

To appreciate the full import and the even fuller strangeness of the slavery debates roiling Congress, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the man who was presiding over the Senate as the chief representative of the administration. Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, had made his career as an Indian fighter—alleged to have killed Tecumseh—and was a loyal Democrat. Like Jackson and Van Buren, he had fought against debt imprisonment and was popular with Northern workers. He didn’t care too much for ceremony, or comb his hair, and Harriet Martineau wrote, “If he should become President, he will be as a strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled.” But the most striking fact in his personal background, an open secret in Washington, was his unusual domestic arrangement: Johnson was living openly with and was probably married to one of his slaves.

Early in his life, Johnson had fallen in love with a woman named Julia Chinn, a mulatto whom he inherited from his father. By her he had two striking daughters, Imogene and Adaline, and he treated all three as his family members, seating them at dinner with guests and traveling publicly in a carriage together. Johnson paid for his daughters’ tutoring “until their education was equal or superior to most of the females in the country,” and his wife ran his estate during his long absences on government business. But for all these progressive ideals, Johnson’s attempt to integrate his family with local society failed, and a local newspaper article reported hauntingly that “they never circulated among the whites.”

Julia died of cholera in 1833, but Johnson found a new consort, described in a remarkable letter from Amos Kendall to President Van Buren in 1839, recounting a visit to Johnson’s “watering establishment” in Kentucky. Kendall was amazed not only by the vice president’s happiness “in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping,” but that he was spending time in the presence of “a young Delilah of about the complection of Shakespears swarthy Othello,” said to be his third wife . . . some eighteen or nineteen years of age and quite handsome.” If anything had happened to Van Buren during his presidency, this young African-American woman would have become the first lady of the United States—if the nation could have withstood the shock, which of course it could not have.

Monday, July 14, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt six)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

Van Buren offered more satisfaction to the South as he pursued a different Jacksonian legacy. Throughout his presidency he continued the brutal Indian removals that had freed up vast quantities of land in Jackson’s Southwest. Thousands of Cherokees were forced to march along the “Trail of Tears” from Georgia to Oklahoma, and the Seminoles in Florida were violently hunted down (their leader Osceola was tricked into capture with a false flag of truce). Van Buren dwelt in the lying pieties of the day when he reported to Congress that the government’s treatment of the Indians had been “directed by the best feelings of humanity.” One of his favorite nieces, an insubordinate teenager, told him she hoped he lost the election because of what he and Jackson had done to the natives.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt five)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

One problem, of course, dominated all the others, and it too was brought uncomfortably into the sunlight by the Panic of 1837. Slavery was anything but a tiny defect. It was the most glaringly undemocratic idea in our history, so powerful that we are still wrestling with its legacy in the twenty-first century. But until Van Buren’s administration, it was largely as a matter of public discourse. To be sure, it existed, and Americans knew of it. But it was not generally an issue in political campaigns or newspaper headlines or speeches on the floor of Congress. After the founders failed to resolve the slavery question, predicting that it would disappear naturally over time, it hardened into an impasse, with the South generally prevailing in its desire not to discuss the matter. All that was about to change.

To visit the United States in the 1830s, as many foreign travelers did, was to see two Americas. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, visitors could marvel at all the signs of an aggressively entrepreneurial culture, wheezing and humming in the open air of the bustling nineteenth century. There were railroads, newspapers, cheap books, factories, and a culture of connectedness not too different from what the world feels now in the so-called age of globalization. Business depended on information and speed; all three depended on the railroad—the literal engine of capitalism.

But if that same traveler peered across the invisible boundary separating North and South, he would see a very different world. Instead of machinery, human beings generated the power needed for the local economy to function. Instead of increasing openness and information, a small population of privileged landowners controlled all access to news and political power. Instead of democracy, feudalism prevailed—a feudalism based on race hatred. Visitors noticed, and Americans, always sensitive to foreign opinion, began to ask themselves what kind of country they aspired to be. And so, for this and other reasons, slavery came out from the shadows and into the daylight of American politics.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt four)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

Will Rogers once said, “I don’t belong to an organized party—I’m a Democrat.” But, in fact, organization is precisely what distinguished the proto-party that Van Buren was forming. Far beyond anything that had existed before, Van Buren envisioned a national structure, tethered together by speedy communications and tight message control, that would unite the aspirations of “the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North.” It was the Regency reanimated—only on a far bigger scale. From across the Union, the people would be connected by alert local committees reporting to their state chairmen, but, just as importantly, by the novel sense that politics was a participatory ritual, gaudy and fun. It took a tavernkeeper’s son to figure out that the American people actually like being with each other.

Friday, July 11, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt three)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

As the newly elected senator Van Buren wended his way toward Washington, there were precious few reasons to expect that he would enjoy the same success that he had found in New York politics. At home, a Byzantine in Byzantium, he had deciphered the local bureaucracy and prevailed against formidable enemies. But the national stage was vast, unfamiliar, and unforgiving. Those who dominated it possessed qualities that were foreign to him—stentorian voices, aristocratic noses, generous estates. His talents, at first glance, would seem more congenial to the House of Representatives than to the Roman Senate. But once again he would trump the cynics. Within seven years, he created the modern Democratic Party, anointed Andrew Jackson as its standard-bearer, and revolutionized American politics forever.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt two)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

All this innuendo was even more unlikely given the relative poverty of Van Buren’s upbringing—an indigence exceeded only by Jackson and Lincoln among the early presidents, and not matched by too many since. He is one of only two men elected president without the benefit of military service or a college education (Grover Cleveland is the other). But his humble background was one of the reasons his enemies disdained him, while also attacking the urbane tastes he had cultivated to mask his modest origin. With some enemies, you just can’t win. Like almost every Democratic president since then, his enjoyment of life was twisted by his critics into hypocrisy and selfishness, and proof that his form or democracy was insincere—the bulk of the criticism coming, of course, from the most abject defenders of the status quo.

Not all his shortcomings were exaggerated. Some were even underappreciated. Like every politician in the antebellum, he failed to confront the ticking time bomb of slavery. Or to be more specific, he neglected it when he could have done something, ahead of the pack, and turned to it only late in his career, with mixed results. Slavery was not just a moral crisis; it was a political problem of the highest magnitude, and as a clairvoyant party boss he should have seen it coming. But the fact that Southerners though him pro-northern and Northerners thought him pro-southern conveys something of the delicacy of his predicament. It is true, as Dante wrote, that the hottest circles of hell are reserved for those who, in a time of crisis, preserve their neutrality. But to have been braver and wiser in 1837 would almost certainly have doomed him to political irrelevance. The nation was not yet ready—not even close (part of Lincoln’s genius is that he arrived at a moment when it was possible to become Lincoln). Like most Jacksonians, Van Buren tilted at windmills and lunged at chimeras, consumed by the “monster” of the Bank while ignoring the genuine monster nursing at America’s bosom.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt one)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

That is only one of the reasons that Martin Van Buren eludes us today. He has been escaping pursuers since they began chasing him, which may explain why “the Fox” was one of his many nicknames. Has any other president held so many? The Red Fox of Kinderhook. The Little Magician. The Enchanter. The Careful Dutchman. The Great Manager. The Master Spirit. The American Talleyrand. King Martin. Matty Van.

The surfeit of sobriquets suggests both a familiarity with Van Buren and an ultimate failure to catch him. The names cancel each other out, they disagree with each other, and they suggest an inscrutability that still hangs like Spanish moss around him. Truly, there was something vulpine about the Fox. He eludes easy classification by the phrenologists of the historical profession, who measure the bumps and gouges of presidents to determine their lasting significance (at last glance, he ranked twenty-first out of forty-three). He eludes us because he apparently destroyed those parts of his correspondence that would have revealed his innermost secrets. He eludes us because his loyal confederates divulged precious little of their private thinking about him.

But mostly he eludes us because no one is looking for him anymore. He’s a lost president, floating in purgatory between Jackson and the Civil War, unremembered by most, and doomed to occupy the least heroic categories designed by historians (he has a lock on “average”). Weirdly, he was placed on a pedestal by Ezra Pound, the architect of lost causes. But that’s hardly a case for immortality in our amnesiac culture. On the extremely rare occasions when his image is presented before modern Americans, it is either disappointing (the cad-president in Amistad who turns a deaf ear to the African plea for freedom) or farcical (on Seinfeld, the idol of a secret society in New York, “the Van Buren Boys,” whom Kramer discovers when he accidentally sticks eight fingers in the air—the invocation for all loyalists to the eighth president).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt ten)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

On down Pleasant Valley Road along the west boundary fence of the cemetery, wherein tiny American flags bristle from many graves and my first son, Ralph Bascombe, lies near three of the “original signers,” but where I will not rest, since early this very morning, in a mood of transition and progress and to take command of final things, I decided (in bed with the atlas) on a burial plot as far from here as is not totally ridiculous. Cut Off, Louisiana, is my first choice; Esperance, New York, was too close. Someplace, though, where there’s a peaceful view, little traffic noise, minimum earthly history and where anyone who comes to visit will do so just because he or she means to (nothing on the way to Six Flags or Glacier) and, once arrived, will feel I had my head on straight as to location. Otherwise, to be buried “at home,” behind my own old house and forever beside my forever young and lost son, would paralyze me good and proper and possibly keep me from maximizing my remaining years. The thought would never leave me as I went about my daily rounds of house selling: “Someday, someday, someday, I’ll be right out there . . . .” It would be worse than having tenure at Princeton.

Monday, July 7, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt nine)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

From where I stop out on the shoulder for a look, nothing yet seems inspired or up to parade pitch. Several tissue-paper floats are not yet manned or hitched up. The centerpiece Haddam High band has not appeared. And marshals in hot swallowtail coats and tricorne hats are hiking around with walkie-talkies and clipboards, conferring with parade captains and gazing at their watches. All in fact seems timeless and desultory, most of the participants standing alone in the sun in their costumes, looking off much as the fantasy ballplayers did in Cooperstown yesterday, and much, I’m sure, for the same reasons: they’re bored, or else full of longing for something they can’t quite name.

I decide to make a fast swerve through the lot entrance, avoid the whole parade assemblage and continue back out onto 27 toward town, satisfied that I’ve glimpsed behind the parade’s façade and not been the least disappointed. Even the smallest public rigmarole is a pain in the ass, its true importance measurable not in the final effect but by how willing we are to leave our usual selves behind and by how much colossal bullshit and anarchy we’re willing to put up with in a worthwhile cause. I always like it better when clowns seem to try to be happy.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt eight)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

Around and down the cross street I now unexpectedly see the Baseball Hall of Fame, a pale-red-brick Greek Revival, post-office-looking building, and I make a quick, hazardous right off what was Chestnut and onto what is Main, postponing my drink for a drive-by and a closer look.

Full of baseball vacationers, Main Street has the soullessly equable, bustly air of a better-than-average small-college town the week the kids come back for fall. Shops on both sides are selling showcases full of baseball everything: uniforms, cards, posters, bumper stickers, no doubt hubcaps and condoms; and these share the street with just ordinary villagey business entities—a drugstore, a dad ‘n’ lad, two flower shops, a tavern, a German bakery and several realty offices, their mullioned windows crammed with snapshots of A-frames and “view properties” on Lake So-and-so.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt seven)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

The corners of Ann’s mouth thicken with disapproval—of me. “Maybe you could think of your children as a form of self-discovery. Maybe you’d see your interest in it then and do something a little more wholeheartedly yourself.” Ann’s view is that I’m a half-hearted parent; my view is that I do the best I know how.

“Maybe,” I say, though the thought of dread-filled weekly drives to dread-filled New Haven for expensive fifty-five dread-filled minutes of mea culpa! mea culpa! gushered into the weary, dread-resistant map of some Austrian headshrinker is enough to set anybody’s escape mechanisms working overtime.

The fact is, of course, Ann maintains a very unclear picture of me and my current life’s outlines. She has ever appreciated the realty business or why I enjoy it—doesn’t think it actually involves doing anything. She knows nothing of my private life beyond what the kids snitch about in offhand ways, doesn’t know what trips I take, what books I read. I’ve over time become fuzzier and fuzzier, which given her old Michigan factualism makes her inclined to disapprove of almost anything I might do except possibly joining the Red Cross and dedicating my life to feeding starving people on faraway shores (not a bad second choice, but even that might not save me from pathos). In all important ways I’m no better in her mind than I was when our divorce was made final—whereas, of course, she has made great strides.

Friday, July 4, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt six)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

Past Exit 16W and across the Hackensack River from Giants Stadium, I curve off into the Vince Lombardi Rest Area to gas up, take a leak, clear my head with coffee and check for messages.

The “Vince” is a little red-brick Colonial Williamsburg-looking pavilion, whose parking lot this midnight is hopping with cars, tour buses, motor homes, pickups—all my adversaries from the turnpike—their passengers and drivers trooping dazedly inside through a scattering of sea gulls and under the woozy orange light, toting diaper bags, thermoses and in-car trash receptacles, their minds fixed on sacks of Roy Rogers burgers, Giants novelty items, joke condoms, with a quick exit peep at the Vince memorabilia collection from the great man’s glory days on the “Five Blocks of Granite,” later as win-or-die Packer headman and later still as elder statesman of the resurgent Skins (when pride still mattered). Vince, of course, was born in Brooklyn, but began his coaching career at nearby Englewood’s St. Cecilia’s, which is why he has his own rest area. (Sportswriting leaves you with such memories as these.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt five)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

Right about now, unless I miss my guess, Joe and Phyllis are lying just as I pictured them, stiff as planks, side by side, fully clothed on their narrow bed, staring up into the dim, flyspeck ceiling with all the lights off, realizing as silent as corpses that they can’t help seeing themselves. They are the lonely, haunted people soon to be seen standing in a driveway or sitting on a couch or a cramped patio chair (wherever they land next), peering disconcertedly into a TV camera while being interviewed by the six o’clock news not merely as average Americans but as people caught in the real estate crunch, indistinct members of an indistinct class they don’t want to be members of—the frustrated, the ones on the bubble, the ones who suffer, those forced to live anonymous and glum on short cul-de-sac streets named after the builder’s daughter or her grade-school friends.

And the only thing that’ll save them is to figure out a way to think about themselves and most everything else differently; formulate fresh understandings based on the faith that for new fires to kindle, old ones have to be dashed; and based less on isolating, boneheaded obstinance and more, for instance, on the wish to make each other happy without neutralizing the private self—which was why they showed up in New Jersey in the first place instead of staying in the mountains and becoming smug casualties of their own idiotic miscues.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt four)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

“There’s a prison behind that fence.” Phyllis points out the picture window, across the little spruced-up lawn.

“Is that right?” Joe says, still smiling. He sort of ducks so he can see out the window. “What’s that mean?” He has yet to notice the seepage.

“There’s criminals in cells behind the back yard,” Phyllis says. She looks at Ted Houlihan and tries to seem agreeable, as if this were just an irksome little sticking point to be worked out as a contingency in a contract (“Owner agrees to remove state prison on or before date of closing”). “Isn’t that right,” she asks, her blue eyes larger and intenser than usual.

“Not really cells, per se,” Ted says, thoroughly relaxed. “It’s more like a campus atmosphere—tennis courts, swimming pools, college classes. You can attend classes there yourself. A good many of the residents go home on weekends. I really wouldn’t call it a prison.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

the last book I ever read (Richard Ford's Independence Day, excerpt three)

from Independence Day by Richard Ford:

Unhappily, the Markhams, out of ignorance and pigheadedness, have failed to intuit the one gnostic truth of real estate (a truth impossible to reveal without seeming dishonest and cynical): that people never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself. And not that there’s anything wrong with that scheme. Why should you only get what you think you want, or be limited by what you can simply plan on? Life’s never like that, and if you’re smart you’ll decide it’s better the way it is.