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From the Book Front

I’ve fallen over two months behind in writing about the books I’ve been reading. This has had the unfortunate effect, whenever I’ve been tempted to write about the book I’m reading at a given moment, that I’ve not allowed myself to do so, since I think to myself that I have to write about other books first. Worse still, as I move on to each new book, I no longer remember the specific details that so excited me about previous books. As a result, my remarks about these books will be regrettably cursory. But by getting the backlog cleared, perhaps I will be able to do a better job with upcoming books.

Just after last Christmas, I wrote my third post about Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which I had finished so that I would be ready for Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which I anticipated receiving as a present. I did get it, and I began to read it, getting introduced to the three principal characters Wilkerson would track in their journey as part of the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the industrial cities of the north. Wilkerson’s book was every bit as wonderful as I expected. However, I was making slow progress on it, and soon Robert Crais’s new crime novel The Sentry, which I had pre-ordered from Amazon, would arrive. Once it did, I put Wilkerson aside and devoured it, writing about it here. Alas, Wilkerson got put aside yet again, because next up was yet another Amazon pre-order, Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, which I also devoured, and wrote about.

At that point, rather than return to Wilkerson, I decided to finish two books that had come out in February 2010 and that I had bought at the time. One, Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World, describes six independent journeys in different parts of the world, and I had read one and a half of them a year earlier. How I stopped at the time is a mystery to me. It’s quite an engrossing book, and I made quick work of it on resuming, as described here. The other was Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, which I wrote about in early February after reading the first of its three parts. I promised to say more when I finished it. Two weeks later, by which time I was already on to the next book, I made a list of the items I be writing posts about, including my promised second installment on Country Driving as well as the book I was then reading, but neither happened.

Now I’m ready to pick up the trail.

1. The pity about my not writing more on Hessler’s Country Driving two months ago is that the second and third parts of the book were so different from, and more satisfying than, the first, and now I don’t have much to say. The first part described Hessler’s drive along the Great Wall and some of the people he encountered. The second focused on a rural mountain village a couple of hours outside Beijing where Hessler rented a weekend home. Over several years, he became almost a member of the family who rented the house to him, years during which the village underwent great change as roads were built that drew it closer to Beijing. Hessler would, for instance, routinely drive up to the village on Fridays, picking up their young son from the boarding school he attended in a larger town down the mountain, taking the boy back to school at the end of the weekend. We are able to appreciate the great changes families even in peripheral areas undergo during this period of rapid development through the experiences of this particular family. The third part features life in a newly built factory town in the south of China, as Hessler spends time with the owners of a new factory and with a family of workers who move to the new town to find work. Hessler is a sympathetic listener and insightful storyteller.

2. I might have felt, after traveling in Siberia, all over the world, and China with Frazier, Conover, and Hessler that it was time to put such books aside, but I had one more to go, Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. When it was published last August, the weekly and Sunday reviews days apart in the NYT tempted me, and I downloaded the small sample for my Kindle. This didn’t get me much past the Prologue — or maybe it was only the Prologue — giving me little sense of the book as a whole. But in February, I decided to take my chances and download (buy) the full book for the Kindle.

The book is built around the organizing principle that the eponymous tenth parallel of latitude forms a dividing line between Christianity and Islam, a line Griswold proceeds to visit in six African and Asian countries. Griswold justifies the significance of this line in her chapters on Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia, based on climate and geography, but to the extent that it serves as a dividing line in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, this seems to be more a function of circumstance than of any fundamental feature. Nonetheless, the conflict is real, and is vividly displayed in Griswold’s background passages, conversations with participants, and direct experience. The book is extraordinary, and as Mark Oppenheimer observes in opening his NYT review, “The most impressive thing about ‘The Tenth Parallel’ is that Eliza Griswold lived to write it.”

One theme that emerges is the role European and American missionary or evangelical groups have played in some locales in fostering Christian political or terrorist groups every bit as inflexible as their Muslim opponents. Griswold brings to these conflicts her background as the daughter of Frank Griswold, an Episcopal priest who served as Bishop of Chicago for nearly a decade and then as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

3. After this sequence of books, I was way overdue for a novel. The problem at this point was, I already had the novel picked out, but couldn’t start it yet. As I explained in a Kindle post last month, I’ve been eager for some time to read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I had been warned by an Amazon review that it was not suitable reading on a Kindle because of a lengthy portion of the book, set as a Powerpoint presentation whose slides were unreadable. I would have simply ordered the hardcover, except that the paperback was due out in another two weeks, and at a price lower than the Kindle price. I decided to pre-order the paperback and wait for it.

This might have been a good time to return to Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Sons. Instead, with the new golf season in full swing and the Masters approaching, I decided to go back to a book I had ordered for my Kindle two falls ago, when the Kindle first came. At the time, I was looking to load books on that would cover a range of interests and thereby be sure to keep me engaged during our then-upcoming trip to Europe. To complement my novel and my Venetian history book, I chose James Dodson’s lengthy biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. I’ve read so much about the period from late 1930s to mid 1950s during which Hogan, Sam Snead, and Byron Nelson dominated the US golf tour. I had never, however, developed a coherent understanding of those years. In particular, I knew of Ben Hogan’s near-fatal car crash in 1949 and his miraculous return to golf in 1950 (he wasn’t even expected to walk again), culminating in his US Open victory that year at Merion. And I knew of his amazing 1953 season, winning the Masters, the US Open, then heading over to Scotland to appear for the lone time in his career at the British Open, winning at Carnoustie. But the details had eluded me. Now was my chance to learn more.

Dodson’s book is the ultimate in breeziness, a style of writing to which I needed to adjust. Especially when I stumbled into errors such as the one early in the book in which Herbert Hoover is described, “during the long hot days of 1921” as “Cal Coolidge’s new secretary of commerce.” Surely I’m not the only reader who knows that Coolidge was the vice-president in 1921, not the president. Warren Harding (War Harding?) would have had to do the appointing.

No matter. Dodson has quite a story to tell, and he’s quite a storyteller. We can breeze on by such errors (Dodson also has FDR serving as president in 1932) when there’s so much else to hold our interest. If I were still reading the book rather than having finished it four weeks ago, I would have so many incidents to retell. At this point, I’ll just say that it’s a rich tale, with highlights such as Hogan’s Texas forebears, his early relationship with Byron Nelson at the club where they were both caddies, his marriage, his multiple narrow losses in major golf tournaments in the mid 1940s, his victories, the crushing playoff loss to Jack Fleck at the 1955 US Open, his battle with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at the great 1960 US Open, his later years. And in the background, the story of the growth of Fort Worth during the twentieth century.

4. I finished the Hogan biography on a Sunday, with Egan’s novel due to arrive two days later. It did, and I jumped right in. But I wasn’t far along when I read of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s request under the state’s Open Records Law for the emails of University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, as I recounted here. I was so upset by the McCarthy-esque effort at intimidation that I was inspired to read his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, as I explained in that same post. I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began immediately, finishing late Wednesday night. I will devote a separate post to Cronon’s book, which I urge all of you to read.

5. What next? I suppose A Visit from the Goon Squad, and then The Warmth of Other Suns. But I have a feeling other books will intervene.

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