Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recent Books Read

Here are a bunch of books I have read recently (since my last book post). Many of them were read on the bus, which is a supurb reading enabler. Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg. This was a very readable book about a deeply boring man. It explains well how Coolidge was able to achieve the presidency and his lack of will to deal with problems and issues that came his way. One certainly sees the seeds of the depression in his presidency. The growth of the economy is fundamental initially--more production leads to more consumption leads to more investment which leads to growth. Says Law works beautifully. But somewhere in the mid-20s, the quantity of good investments decreases, but not the quantity of money needing investing. Unwise speculation takes over--in the stock market, which starts to get very inflated, and in real estate, especially in Florida. Both these markets will crash horribly shortly after Coolidge leaves office. Hoover, Coolidge's Commerce Secretary, actually suggested something be done to reign in out-of-control speculation. But that would have been too much like "doing something," which Coolidge was temperamentally and ideologically opposed to. Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg. This slim biography is almost impossibly stuffed with information and analysis. Hoover's life and personality were expansive, and the man was full of contradictions. He was a self-made millionaire who ruthlessly exploited his employees, but later advocated for workers and even supported unions (as a rational way to settle labor conflicts). He managed to feed Europe and Russia during WWI and afterward, but failed to muster the resources to do the same in the U.S. He was considered a moderately progressive Republican as Commerce Sec, but became reactionary over the course of his disastrous presidency and for the rest of his life. There is really way too much in this short book to comment on here. But first--Hoover was not in any way responsible for the depression--in fact, he worried in the 20s that the economy was overheated and asked the fed to raise interest rates. But his inability to grasp the scale of the problem made his response to the Depression (a word he coined, by the way, as a euphemism for "panic") totally inadequate.

Obviously the reason I read about Coolidge and Hoover was to see what preceeded the crash and the Depression and what measures were taken--to compare then with now. Those without knowledge of the past are doomed to repeat it, and all that. The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall fo the Greatest Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough. Very entertaining. Mainly the story of four families of early Texas oil wildcatters, the Richardsons/Basses, the Cullens, the Murchisons, and the Hunts, along with a few side-tracks into other wildcatter stories, particularly that of Glenn McCarthy, the real-life model for Jett Rink. Most are pretty famous for being ultra-conservative--they essentially funded the American ultra-right in the 50s and 60s. They also tended to be super-tasteless big spenders, often with little in the way of civic pride or noblesse oblige. (There were exceptions--the Bass family and the Cullen family donated staggering amounts of money to schools and hospitals.) Of special interest to me was the history of proration in Texas, the system set up to prevent over-exploitation of oil and gas fields. The majors loved it--it helped define property rights and keep the price of oil high (OPEC essentially copied Texas's proration regime), but the wildcatters, who always had bigger debts and needed more money faster, hated it. Many of them tried to pipe and ship "hot oil" out of Texas, which lead to armed federal intervention in the 30s. It may have been this that pushed many of them into an ultra-right anti-New Deal stance. Also interesting was to read what big partiers the second generation were--with Clint Murchison Jr. screwing his way through the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders while hoovering up half of Bolivia. He, like several of his ilk, became born again once the wages of sin took too much out of him, and he subsequently became a public scold in the editorial pages of the Dallas newspapers. Like so many of these guys, his life story is one of "It's OK for me, but not for thee." Like it or not, these rich nuts put their stamp on Texas and the U.S.A. Queen of the Oil Club: The Intrepid Wanda Jablonski and the Power of Information by Anna Rubino. This curious biography tells the story of Wanda Jablonsky, a journalist who decided early on (the 50s) to make the oil business her beat. Unusual in that she was a woman and working in business news, she excelled getting scoop after scoop from foreigners who were involved in a slow struggle to wrest control of their oil from the majors. These sheiks and oil ministers liked her, I think, because she was an outsider just as they were. Plus she was beautiful and evidently a witty and amusing conversationalist. While the majors shut the oil producing countries out, the nationalists used Jablonski as their way of signaling to the majors. Consequently, her magazine with McGraw Hill and her subsequent newsletter were eagerly devoured by Mobil, Esso, etc. She was one of the people who helped midwife OPEC by introducing Tariki and Perez Alfonso, from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela respectively. She thought they should know each other because they had each separately come up with similar ideas about prorationing oil. (OPEC indeed is the Texas Railroad Commission writ large.) A fascinating book--the topic is really narrow, but illuminates far beyond its seemingly narrow scope. A Journey Round my Skull by Frigyes Karinthy. Very interesting book. The author, a well-known Hungarian playwright from before WWII, starts experiencing strange symptoms. He visits several doctors, who give him wrong diagnoses--often laughably wrong. Finally he learns that it is a brain tumor and travels to Sweden to have a famous brain surgeon remove it. He is conscious during the operation, and his decription of the sensations of surgery is quite interesting. A master of suspense, he unexpectedly interupts the brain surgery with a chapter about what is going on back home in Hungary as he is laying there with his brain exposed. This juxtaposition of post hoc reportage with his first-person account is striking, and of course builds the suspense of the operation to a very high level (surprising that it works, in a way, since we readers know he survived). Oliver Sacks writes the introduction, and if you enjoy Sacks' books, A Journey Round My Skull is likely to appeal to you. Karinthy is a good writer, erudite and intelligent, with a good memory for what was happening to his brain. McSweeney's issue 27. Three books in one--a art show catalog (nothing exceptional, even though I like many of the artists), a sketchbook by Art Spiegelman, and a volume of short stories, which seem more or less evenly divided between disturbingly violent stories (Stephen King's story of attempted murder, a story about Gilles de Rais and a story about an associate of gangster Dutch Schulz) and stories of Southerners. Pretty high enetertainment quotient, but despite the subject matter, most of the stories were "epiphany" stories, not genre stories. (Even the gangster story was.) Very cool cover as well. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Really good. It calls itself a work of fiction, but reads like a memoir. But O'Brien frequently circles back onto the question of what is true and what isn't. A lot of war memoir cliches and indeed Vietnam cliches are on display here, but O'Brien makes them feel fresh through unexpected characterization and a kind of questioning approach to writing about war. He writes movingly about the deaths of his platoon-mates, but perhaps the most touching depiction of death is when he writes about a girl he loved in fourth grade who dies of cancer. The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming by Frank Stack. Frank Stack's sketchy drawing style always worked best in these Jesus stories. They are all pretty good, but my favorite of them is "Jesus Joins the Academic Community"--since Stack was a professor himself, I think the satire in this one probably hit closest to home. The faculty party is especially hilarious, as we meet the "token black" professor, a milquetoast who fades when some rougher ghetto blacks crash the party with the local wild-man poet/ex-faculty member. His reputation is all hot air too--he crumbles when challenged to a fight. The whole thing descends into an orgy. The way this party is depicted shows Stack at his best. Figures are crowded into the panels, some detailed, some sketchy--just like people at a party where your perception is not so great. Dozens of tiny balloons give you the idea of the constant flow of small talk. It's the comics equivalent of Robert Altman.

All in all a pretty classic collection of comics, created for a sophisticated adult readership. The Lone Racer by Nicolas Mahler. Pleasant and amusing, with a dash of bittersweetness. Mahler is a cartoonist who draws his characters as barely recognizable as human, which ironically makes them a little bit more lovable. Slowpoke: One Nation, Oh My God! by Jen Sorenson. Occasionally funny, her humor is highly dependent on very recent news. So much so that she seems to feel compelled to accompany each cartoon with a little description/explanation below the cartoon. (The cartoons originally ran in weekly newspaper, where they were unlikely to require such a crutch.) Usually this explanation is not necessary, and sometimes it is kind of a humor-killer. But it's a risk you run when your cartoons are so timely and so involved in cultural and media criticism, as hers are. And she is quite good at pointing out perverse reframings and redefinitions--such as how caring about poor people or safe food makes you an "elitist." Peculia by Richard Sala. Richard Sala used to write and draw grim little short stories with somewhat twisted, troubled male protagonists. The female characters were, often as not, femme fatale types. But at some point, he changed his approach ever so slightly--now the stories, though often dark and violent in a way, are less grim and even a bit silly (intentionally so). He aims to please with them. To this end, they always include cute cartoon girls in various stages of undress, including the heroine Peculia. The change from the "old" Sala to the "new" is basic--he has wrung the anxiety and dread out of his comics. I'm not sure if that is such a great thing, but Sala's work is always pleasing to read and look at. The Magic Whistle no. 11, by Sam Henderson. In the 10+ years he's been drawing The Magic Whistle, Sam Henderson's drawing hasn't gotten any better. Nor has his humor. It's still hilarious. I like how he works in the "modern" age by having Monroe Simmons blog about jerks he knew in high school. Henderson is so cutting edge!

These days, Sam Henderson is writing for TV cartoons or head of NASA or something like that, so he doesn't do comics as much as he used to. That's too bad, because they're really really funny. Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the Twentieth Cetury's Most Enjoyable Books by John Carey. A highly idiosyncratic list of the "most pleasurable" books of the 20th century. Pleasure is subjective, and Carey's book is full of head-scratchers. The list is very much titled towards English writers (only one postwar American novelist makes the cut--and it's John Updike, not Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth...). Some literature in translation. You just can't believe that he's "right." But that's OK. It's more of a recommended list than a definitive one. Of the 50 books listed, I have read four (*blushes*) but Carey sometimes picks less obvious books by well-known authors (I have read books by 17 of the authors). I am encouraged by his enthusiastic descriptions to try some of the others. American Splendor: Another Dollar by Harvey Pekar. These stories have a little bit of the charm of classic Pekar, but little of the urgency or heart. I think the title, in a way, says it all: "Another Dollar." One problem is that his life is a little less interesting since retiring. He doesn't have the conflict and characters he had in the V.A. But on another level, it seems as if his motivation for doing these stories is to get paid. When he was self-publishing, he had few such illusions. I think this has a lot to do with his retirement. When he worked for the V.A., he had steady income. Indeed, one of his classic stories is "Working Man's Nightmare," in which he relates a dream of not being able to remember what his job is. At the risk of engaging in dime-store psychoanalysis, I think that lack of steady income for steady work, combined with the fact that folks will now pay him to be an artist, has actually hurt Pekar's work--despite the fact that for most artists or writers, it would be a dream situation.

That said, there are good moments in this volume and Pekar does work with some very interesting visual artists--Rick Geary, Hunt Emerson, Warren Pleece, David Lapham, etc. The Complete Little Orphan Annie vol. 2 by Harold Gray. More great Annie strips. Gray reflects a bit of what's happening in the world. For instance, before the Great Depression, there was an agricultural depression. The story of the Silo family reflects this--although Gray's solution for farmer Silo, to modernize production, was one of the reasons that there was an agricultural depression--over-production. Then the stock crash of 1929 wipes out the banker Mr. Blunder.

One of the pleasures of reading so much of the strip all at once is that you realize what an insane parent Daddy Warbucks is. His business is a roller-coaster ride, and whenever it goes bust, he leaves Annie behind while he goes out on the road to try to fix it. For instance, he leaves her in a luxurious hotel suite, for which he has paid in advance for 2 weeks. First, the notion of leaving a little girl alone for two weeks is crazy (although this is the super-humanly resourceful Annie we're talking about). But it's even worse--Daddy isn't actually reunited with her for over a year! (In the meantime, she has a number of excellent adventures, of course.)

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