I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.
— Groucho Marx
As is our custom, Weld will not publish a print edition during the final week of 2016. That means two more “Red Dirt” columns, including the one you’re now reading, to close out a year that, by virtually any measure you care to apply, has been one of the strangest on record.
I mean, come on: If at this time last year, someone had offered to bet you $1,000 that in the ensuing 12 months, David Bowie and Prince would die, Alabama’s 73-year-old governor would be embroiled in a sex scandal, and Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States, would you have taken the wager? If so, then consider this an invitation to sub for me next week, when I plan to take a speculative look forward at what 2017 has in store, at least as it relates to us here in Birmingham.
In the meantime, this penultimate column of the year is an indulgence in a personal custom of mine, a periodic review of several books that I commend to you as worth your time as a reader. While this indulgence doesn’t adhere to any particular timetable, now seems a good time for it, due both to the possibility that one or more of my suggestions might be good gift ideas for the readers on your Christmas list, and the troubling notion that we’d do well to read all we can in view of the fact that the new leader-elect of our country, by his own admission, does not.
As always, this is a list that reflects my highly idiosyncratic reading habits. With that in mind, I offer the following for your consideration:
Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, by Michael Streissguth. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nashville became the de facto capital of country music, churning out hit after hit that featured the slick production and formulaic lyrics that were the foundation of what came to be known as the “Nashville Sound.” Willie Nelson arrived in the city in 1960, after a decade knocking around the honky-tonks of his native Texas, and soon established his credentials as a writer of what became classic hits for stars such as Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), and Ray Price (“Funny How Time Slips Away”).
But Nelson’s efforts to forge a singing career of his own hit a brick wall, for reasons of both his own singular singing style and his stubborn insistence on doing his music his way. As the decade wore on, the increasingly frustrated Nelson found kindred spirits in two other obstinately distinctive songwriters, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, with whom he pioneered what came to be known as the “Outlaw” movement. In the process, they — along with the likes of Johnny Cash, who had found early success on his own terms, but later joined in their “rebellion” against the rank commercialism of Nashville’s country music establishment — changed the very definition of the genre.
Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman. Since first encountering this hypnotically contemplative little novel a dozen or more years ago, I’ve reread it twice and gifted it to a couple of friends. The book is set in the spring and early summer of 1905, when Albert Einstein — then a frustrated young physicist working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland — was conceptualizing what by the end of that year became the four seminal papers that catapulted him to recognition as one of the world’s leading scientists.
Author Lightman, himself a physicist, speculates brilliantly, beautifully, and captivatingly about the dreams that might have visited Einstein’s fevered sleep as he developed the theories that changed the way we think about the very nature of time and motion. Consider one such dreamscape:
In this world, time is a visible dimension. Just as one may look off in the distance and see houses, trees, mountain peaks that are landmarks in space, so one may look out in another direction and see births, marriages, deaths that are signposts in time, stretching off dimly into the far future. And just as one may choose whether to stay in one place or run to another, so one may choose his motion along the axis of time. Some people fear traveling far from a comfortable moment. … Others gallop recklessly into the future, without preparation for the rapid sequence of passing events.
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, by Roxana Robinson. One of the most original, influential, and, ultimately, iconic artists of the 20th century — she was among the pioneers of the modernist movement in America — O’Keeffe was an exemplar of fierce artistic and personal independence. As such, she was also an early feminist. As Robinson writes in what is generally viewed as the best and most complete biography of the artist, O’Keeffe “did not become a feminist leader and seldom made a public commitment to the cause, the equality of the sexes was a concept for which she felt a profound natural sympathy.”
Born on a Wisconsin farm in 1887, O’Keeffe died in 1986, at the age of 98. By that time, she had been famous for more than six decades, perhaps best known for her large-scale paintings of natural objects, which she began to produce in the 1920s. Those included flowers, which, as Robinson writes, were depicted with a “sexuality [that] was at once declared as fact by critics and public alike,” but which “offended and surprised” the artist herself. (“When you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t,” she told one interviewer.) All intents and interpretations aside, O’Keeffe remains among the most singular of artists.
11/22/63, by Stephen King. “There’s a book you have to read,” an old friend said to me not long ago. Not that I don’t welcome recommendations, but I have to admit that I’m always a little wary when someone says that to me, torn between appreciation of the thought and apprehension that the book in question will be one on which I have no desire to spend my time.
I don’t mind telling you that when I heard the words “Stephen King,” the latter was the case. I was a huge King fan at the beginning of his career, when I was in high school and college, and have continued to acknowledge his facility as a storyteller when I’ve stumbled on a piece of his writing here or there, but it had been a couple of decades since I’d cracked the spine of one of his novels — and this one, I discovered, runs to about 850 pages.
But in I dug, out of a combination of friendship and the subject matter, which is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. King’s twist is that a present-day high school English teacher is “recruited” to travel back in time, prevent the assassination, and thereby change the ensuing course of the United States and the world. That description doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the epic tale that King unspools, complete with interweaving subplots that move inexorably and — how else? — chillingly toward and beyond the titular day in question. There’s also a strange and unsettling poignancy to the tale that makes the story all the more gripping.
I couldn’t put it down. Thanks, Kip.
Love in the Ruins, by Walker Percy. If you’ve known me for any length of time — or if you happened to read my tribute to Percy back in June, in observance of the 100th anniversary of his birth here in Birmingham — you know that Walker Percy is my favorite writer. Along with two collections of wide-ranging essays, he produced five novels, my favorite of which is Love in the Ruins.
The protagonist of Love in the Ruins is a psychiatrist, Dr. Tom More — not coincidentally, a descendant of Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English writer, philosopher, and statesman who was beheaded by King Henry VIII and later sainted by the Catholic Church. The modern-day More’s predicament is encapsulated in the book’s subtitle: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.
The book is by turns — or, perhaps more correctly, simultaneously — philosophical, satirical, and exaggeratedly reflective of the societal issues that Percy, writing in the early 1970s, saw as threatening to rend America’s increasingly threadbare social fabric. More, a self-admitted alcoholic and womanizer, is both preoccupied with and abstracted from the disintegration, decline, and division — left from right, black from white, believer from heathen — that besets the Louisiana community in which he lives, and the country at large.
With an eye toward treating the mental and spiritual sickness he sees as the cause of the problems, More invents a device he calls the Ontological Lapsometer. But the government becomes interested in his invention, which if misused can make the problems worse. Read today, in view of the current social, economic and political situation in America — and, a tribute to Percy’s skill as a satirist, quite regardless of the reader’s ideological bent — Love in the Ruins takes on the aspect of prophecy, as in a passage in its opening chapter:
Undoubtedly, something is about to happen.
Or is it that something has stopped happening?
Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?