Friday, January 07, 2011

You can kill the dreamer, but you can't kill the dream.

I just finished reading Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides, subtitled: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr and the International Hunt For His Assassin.

Before reading this, I admit I was woefully ignorant of any of the facts, forces, mythology, or context of the MLK murder. I knew it was in Memphis, I knew he was here because of a garbage collector strike. That's about it. What Sides does so well is wrap this event in an almost novelized form to give it so much context and life. Alternating chapters highlighting James Earl Ray (and his whole cadre of aliases and fake identities) and MLK, the book builds incredible suspense up to the point of the assassination, and then beyond, as the FBI begins a weeks-long, international hunt for JER. He tries to escape to Rhodesia to become part of a white supremacist paradise that supposedly exists there that he's read about in various nazi and white power magazines.

I really enjoyed reading about JER's fucked up life and the incremental steps it took him to end up murdering Dr. King, but what I enjoyed most of all were the history lessons. Sides is a native of Memphis, and fills the book with all kinds of sociological and political background on why it was such a powder keg of a city. Unlike other black majority cities in the United States at that time, Memphis was once the epicenter of the cotton trade, and had made a lot of white people extremely wealthy, while paradoxically keeping the large black population subservient and in poverty, but employed, nonetheless. (In a somewhat perverted irony, the old "Cotton Row" of South Front Street in downtown Memphis, where white landowners had all of their offices, is now a mile of renovated, upscale condos full of rich white people overlooking the river.) Up until the early 1980's Memphis had a huge celebration, on the scale of Mardi Gras, called the Memphis Cotton Carnival with a King, a Queen, a Royal Court, and a huge barge that would float down the Mississippi with Egyptian-themed decorations to pay homage to the only city in America named after an African capitol.

Cotton Row downtown Memphis

When the cotton jobs dried up due to automation, more and more Delta blacks moved into the city to try to find work. Very little was available except service jobs, and one of the biggest employers was the city itself, in the form of garbage collectors. It was the death of 2 workers by being crushed in their faulty trucks that led to the 68-day garbage strike that was the nexus of the murder of Dr. King.

Another interesting subplot of the book was James Earl Ray's obsession with George Wallace. As Sides describes Wallace's political activities, whether it's intentional or not, he sounds a whole lot like another base-rousing, divisive Republican politician who is the de facto leader of the party, but who party elites don't like because she can't win a general election. I'm just sayin.

It is interesting to me, though, not being a particularly adept student of history, that the arguments conservatives use today are the same arguments they used back in the 60's against civil rights: state's rights, the tyranny of the federal government "cramming" civil rights "down our throats." Wallace was part of a 3rd party American Independent Party hellbent of taking the White House and repealing the gains of the civil rights movement. In a biography of Wallace he is described as "the surly orphan of American politics... the grim joker in the deck, whose nightrider candidacy is a rough approximation of the potential for an American fascism." He called President Johnson's civil rights legislation "an assassin's knife stuck in the back of liberty." And about the riots that swept Watts and other cities, he liked to say you could count on "pointy-headed intellectuals to explain it away, whining that the poor rioters didn't get any watermelon to eat when they were 10 years old."

It would be really shocking if it didn't sound so similar to so much of today's conservative rhetoric. In fact, only one month after King's assassination in Memphis, Wallace held a comeback dinner there (he had dropped out of the presidential race briefly when his wife died of cancer), with 13,000 participants, to rekindle his race.

Nobody can accuse George Wallace of having too much class, that's for sure. No one thought he could actually win in 1968, but that he would have enough power to potentially spoil the race. Life magazine declared, "In both the North and the South, Wallace appears to be tapping a powerful underground stream of discontent."

It is true, kids, this is why we study history. Everything is cyclical, is it not? That, more than anything, is what I found so interesting about Hellhound. Not that I think we're going through anything nearly as traumatic as the civil rights movement of the 60's, but really, the parallels are eerie. And ultimately, we came out of that okay. The book actually make me feel strangely hopeful.

King's death was the first time Wall Street ever shut down to honor a civilian. It was the first time flags all over the country were ordered flown at half mast for a civilian death. Hellhound is that rare work of art that is full of pathos, dread, heartbreak, desperation, hopelessness, despair, and yet still comes out hopeful and stronger for it at the end.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

My 2010 Book List

I read 51 books in 2010, falling short of my goal of 52, to average a book a week, but still I guess 51 isn't so bad. I wanted to rank my top 10, but I find that almost impossible (I know, that's supposed to be part of the fun, I get that), and also I'm really lazy, so instead I will simply present my 10 favorite books in alphabetical order.

Some are new, most are old. Most are fiction. I considered making 2 lists, one of fiction, one of non-fiction, but I didn't read too much non-fiction this year. It was somewhat of an anachronistic year for me in that way. Maybe due to the fact that I was working on my own writing this year for the first time in a long time, I devoured me some fiction.

So without further ado, here is the list of my favorite books I read this year, fiction and non, in alphabetical order!

by Christopher Isherwood

I have to admit, I was drawn to this book after seeing the movie, which was remarkably loyal, right down to much of the dialogue. What the movie doesn't get, however, and why books will always be better than movies, is the internal monologue of the narrator, a middle-aged English professor in California mourning the death of his longtime male lover in the 1960's. He is angry but witty and perceptive. And mostly he's exhausted, fed up with American greed, capitalism, and self-entitlement. A heartbreaking and also hilarious little novel.

BELOVED by Toni Morrison

One of the most frightening and moving books I've ever read. After the Civil War, a "freed" female slave murders her own daughter rather than see her be kidnapped and exploited by the "white man." The daughter's ghost haunts (literally) the rest of the novel and her relatives. A furious novel, and in typical Morrison fashion, full of brutal violence, both physical and spiritual, but also redemption and hope.

CITY OF QUARTZ by Mike Davis

Subtitled Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Quartz is really a social and cultural history of Los Angeles, including its politics, in which I realized that L.A. is actually a very conservative, segregated, and hostile city. Not at all the liberal, dreamy Utopia it's sold as (maybe that's just Northern California, and I confused them). Nevertheless, it's a fascinating and thorough history of that gleaming city, through the eyes of a religious socialist.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

This was my year to read a fair amount of Young Adult fiction, but nothing stuck with me like this book. Set in a near dystopian future, where America's youth are randomly selected each year to live on a deserted "island" (really an elaborate television theme park/studio) a la Survivor, and kill each other off one by one, for the viewers at home. The winner gets some sort of special prize, I forget what exactly, but it's not important. Kind of like Battle Royale, if that movie had been made by someone with a heart, not to mention a brain. The concept isn't unique, nor is the thesis, but it's the great characters and almost unbearable suspense that make this book resonate. Violent and disturbing, but it doesn't feel gratuitous or mean-spirited. For some reason I haven't gotten around to reading the sequels yet, but I will.

LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner

Starring the unforgettable Joe Christmas, this has so far been my favorite Faulkner novel (of course I've only read 3). Like all other Faulkner novels, it's impossible to describe, but concerns itself (also like all Faulkner novels) with race relations/racism in the South; extreme religion; mixed identity; murder; and possibly latent homosexuality. A pretty fun and wild ride.


Actually kind of a nice contemporary companion piece to Light in August, this Southern Gothic yarn concerns a very precocious (but not in the typically annoying fashion usually found in literature and movies) tween girl searching for her little brother's murderer. Creepy as hell, and totally engrossing and atmospheric, it's a perfect summer read. It'll still never replace The Secret History (Tartt's first novel) in my heart, but it makes me wonder why she isn't more prolific. It's too bad. Just based on those 2 novels, she's one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

METHLAND by Nick Reding

Anybody wanting to understand a major facet of the swirling rage and despair currently circulating through American culture and politics, could do worse than to read this book. It goes a long way to explain the loss of entire ways of life in this country, and what that has meant for small-town America and the folks who inhabit it (or don't anymore, because everything they have has been lost). It's bleak, to be sure, but also showcases one small-town mayor making major strides in his attempts to refashion his small farming community ravaged by unemployment, drugs, and violence into something new and more palatable and sustainable.

REBECCA by Daphne de Maurier

The classis gothic suspense novel upon which the very famous Hitchcock movie is based, although I watched the movie after I finished the book and I thought it sucked, a major snoozefest. As with A Single Man, so much is lost in the film translation. There is a plot, but the suspense and terror is truly to be found all in the protagonist's head, as she grows increasingly more paranoid and unsure of her own experiences and judgment, as she goes slowly crazy in a giant, empty castle that may or may not be inhabited by the ghost of her new husband's dead wife.

STORY OF MY LIFE by Jay McInerney

I can't help it, I have a soft spot in my literary heart for the 80's Brat Pack, and McInerney has quickly risen to belong in my top 5 favorite contemporary authors. A fictionalized account of one Rielle Hunter who McInerney dated for about 5 minutes back in the 80's, he claims to have been so fascinated and appalled by her and her friend's completely self-absorbed and amoral behavior that he had to write a book about her. Told in first person from her point of view, she has one of the funniest, most glib and flippant voices I've ever read. I was laughing out loud through parts of this novel, but I highly suspect the real Rielle Hunter was never this clever. Or twisted.

TESTIMONY by Anita Shreve

A very contemporary novel about a sex scandal (which goes viral) that rocks an elite New England boarding school and ruins the lives of the 3 boys involved. They are accused of gang-raping a girl, but may have all been set up. No matter: they committed a penetrative act and got caught on tape, and this book is about the fallout. It's incredibly depressing, and I suppose it could be billed as a "cautionary tale," but what I loved about it is the skillful way Shreve jumps around in the narrative, offers different points of view, and deftly untangles how it all ties together. When something like this happens, no one ever really knows the full truth, and no definitive account is ever offered and that seems to be the point. Haunting.

I hope you enjoyed my list, and maybe from it you can find something to read that you might also enjoy! Happy New Year everybody!