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Archive for May, 2012

Meeting Maraniss

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Do campaign biographies help or harm presidential candidates? Or do they generate anything but ripples along their publishing path? The question arises because there’s one coming our way very soon, and it seems that the it is likely to cause more than ripples — like, possibly waves.

To begin with, the book is not the usual sort of campaign biography that throws together some facts from Wikipedia, offers a pleasing and positive narrative, and winds up as bland as pudding. Or as one-sided and myopic as a press release. Nope, this one comes through the hands of one of america’s most distinguished journalists, an associate editor for The Washington Post, an acclaimed biographer, and a Pulitzer Prize winner. His name is David Maraniss, and he’s coming to speak at a program arranged and sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book (on Tuesday, June 26, at 7 p.m., hosted by Agnes Scott College).

Maraniss is no casual biographer. He’s collected reams of praise and awards fo his biographies of Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente and President Bill Clinton (“First in His Class”). His new book, the one he’ll be talking about June 26 here, is “Barack Obama: The Story,” is already the recipient of a lot of media attention, even though it hasn’t officially been released yet, and very few people have actually read it. That’s because  one of its chapters deals with the President’s drug use as a teenager. There are two very distinct sides being drawn about this: one from the White house, the other from Republicans. No surprise there.

What won’t surprise either is that Maraniss is a careful, skilful writer and reporter, and his take on the President is eagerly anticipated and will, no doubt, be much discussed. I’m not taking sides here excepy to note that if you care about the upcoming election, regardless of your politics, checking out Maraniss and his book probably is a good idea. It might yield some worthwhile information along with a few surprises.

And, while tooting our own horn here, let’s celebrate the fact that Maraniss is making this visit under the auspices of the Center for the Book, which is the busiest nonprofit literary presenting organization in the Southeast. And its presence in this area remains the principal reason that Decatur maintains such a high profile in national book circles. The Center made it possible for the Decatur Book Festival to come into existence, for instance, and its on-going series of events — well over 100 each year, all free — have made it THE place to be if you care about books and writers.

And so ends this little commercial reminder. Now do yourself a favor and get out there and meet David Maraniss on June 26.

On the Shores of Gitche Gumee…

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Like me, do you ever marvel at the things your brain brings up from the most surprising places? The subject today is poetry, dabs and dribbles of which never seem to go away even when I think — and hope — they have finally disappeared for good.

And what brings up this particular subject is a brain tsunami that rolled over me yesterday, recalling vividly — in spite of no wish for it to do so — a poem my mother dearly loved, read to me often, and which, like a bad piece of pizza, never goes away. I will quote only the opening lines so that you will not find yourself too burdened: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea Water,/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis…” etc. Yes, those immortal lines by Longfellow which begin his lengthy and once-popular narrative “The Song of Hiawatha” return to haunt me periodically. I don’t have to close my eyes to see my mother eagerly and dramatically reading it to me, time after time. I can still recite large slices of it but assure you, kind reader, I will not do so in this space.

Looking back,I suppose there was an upside to hearing the poem, enjoying it and committing a lot of it to memory at a young age. I learned, I think, that poetry was not an alien word form, that readers derived pleasure from not merely its sound but its structure, and sometimes both the mystery and the magic lay in words and phrases that didn’t always seem clear on first glance.

Miss Baker deserves the credit for moving me farther along that path. She was the 11th grade English teacher at my high school in Charlotte who believed that her students should be fully immersed in great literature, from the Greek classics to Shakespeare to the finest poets. It made for a memorable year, one that stretched most of us intellectually and emotionally. I remember her announcement that we would next be reading Emily Dickinson was greeted by groans, probably from me, too. And yet, I loved her poems, I loved reading and learning them, and lines like this are welcomed on the occasions when they pop up in my brain these days: “The pedigree of honey/does not concern the bee;/A clover any time to him/is aristocracy.”

And so it goes. On and on. When Yeats makes a return appearance in my head, the welcome mat is always out. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” never fails to evoke a deep sense of melancholy. The scattered lines from Shakespeare, or maybe John Keats, or Grays’s “Elegy” (another of my mother’s favorites, and now mine as well), or Wadsworth, or … well, you know, don’t you?

Why some re-visit more often than others remains a puzzle. And certainly why Longfellow is invariably in their midst is a source of annoyance. At least until I get to thinking about Nokomis’ wigwam, and Hiawatha and Minehaha, and I begin to reminisce in spite of myself. And to be honest about it, that reminiscence is pretty sweet. Pretty darned sweet. I hope you’ve got your own Big-Sea Water somewhere, too.

Boswell’s Biography

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

This month we celebrate the 221st anniversary of a major literary event: the publication of James Boswell’s biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Feel free to start your partying now. And consider this while you’re raising a toast: since it first appeared in 1791, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” has NEVER been out of print. As in never. That’s remarkable enough; how many other books from the 18th century can you quickly recall? (Actually there are a lot of great books from that century, but don’t let that obscure my point.)

Boswell is regarded by many scholars as having written not merely the definitive biography of Dr. Johnson but the finest biography ever written in the English language.  At the least, he may be viewed as the inventor of the modern confessional biography. And that wasn’t all he wrote, either. His pioneering travel account of a trip to Corsica is still quite readable, and his book recounting the delightful trip he and Johnson made to Scotland in 1773 is a classic and second only to the biography. In addition, Boswell’s journals — lively, insightful and sometimes outrageous — are quite entertaining and perceptive for more committed readers.

But it is the biography that still draws most attention, of course. Boswell was a remarkable writer, a genius, really. He had a fantastic memory — he could conjure up details in conversations and situations both recent and long-ago that are scarcely less than amazing by any measure. But his genius lay not in that photographic memory but in the way he composed the material he gathered into print. Boswell was a literary artist. Yet not everyone reading the biography might be aware of that, for it can often seem that Boswell was little more than a recorder of words and events. Those who have studied his careful, thoughtful preparation know otherwise.

But then, isn’t that one of the measures of a true artist? Someone who makes the difficult seem easy, seem something anyone could accomplish? In another field, consider a major league batter who hits balls thrown by fast-throwing pitchers. The good ones make it seem possible. The great ones make it seem easy (I’m thinking of someone like Ted Williams, the last player to hit .400 over a full season).

So, Boswell and Ted Williams? I may have drawn the analogy a bit too far, but in their own very individual artistic ways, maybe so. You really should read the “Life of Johnson.” You’ll easily find copies at your library, your bookstore and ebook versions, some of which are free. And yes, it’s long (print editions will run over 1,000 pages), and it will require some time to get accustomed to the 18th century way of speaking. But you’ll get it quickly, I promise, and you won’t regret the experience.

And finally, in the interests of full disclosure — and to keep my publisher happy — I should mention that I am not altogether unfamiliar with the various guises of Boswell, having written a book recently which tracked the Boswell/Johnson trip to Scotland with a  modern-day sensibility. It’s titled “Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster.” After you finish the biography, perhaps you’ll find this a pleasing coda.