Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Notes

Today there is rain and fog, although there are weather forecasts of bright, warm days ahead. Last week, it snowed in Louisiana for the first time in years, and many people were excited by that. It was briefly cheering as the late autumn/winter landscape here can be bleak, with the brown grass and browning trees and the mostly bare cane fields, the large combine tractors and their drivers having done their work. Books offer, still, some news of the larger world, past and present; and they can help a man to see the present a little more clearly. I have been reading two books offering a perspective on Louisiana politics: Louisiana: A History, edited by Bennett Hall, from Harland Davidson Inc. (1984/2008), and Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, by Wayne Parent, from LSU Press (2004). The latter mentions a popular Louisiana T-shirt, “It’s Not the Heat. It’s the Stupidity.” The book informed me also that in 1930, the black population in Louisiana was 50% but only 1% were registered voters, a fact which says much about the balance of power in that time; and in 1980 the black population was 30% and 70% were registered voters. Of course, in the recent election, most African-Americans in Louisiana voted for Barack Obama; and the balance of the state's votes went to John McCain, who was not the victor in the national election. Times have changed, though not every mind reflects that change; and history, for better and worse, has had its effects…I have been reading parts of Richard Megraw’s Confronting Modernity: Art and Society in Louisiana, on the New Deal, modernity, and the relationship of modernity to local values. In the last few months and weeks, I have been “looking at” or reading various books, including Clarence Major’s novel My Amputations, a novel about identity, literature, ambition, despair, and conflict (FC2/University of Alabama Press, 1986/2008); and another fiction, Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy (Knopf, 2008), in which she fills the absences and silences of early American literature. The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, edited by Marc Smirnoff, has articles such as Peter Guralnick’s commentary on music and career, Carol Ann Fitzgerald on Bessie Smith, love, and sex, and Mike Powell on Fred Neil (Everybody’s Talkin’”), and Elizabeth Wurtzel on R.E.M., and other pieces (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). I liked Fitzgerald and Wurtzel’s work very much. The book is better than much of what passes for music criticism today, too much of which is the promotion of attitude and cliques rather than the exploration of music or its makers. Sarah Vowell’s historical research book, The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead/Penquin, 2008), on New England and early American intellectual and political history, could be a companion piece to the Morrison novel. It captures something contentious and progressive in early American life. The photo book with text that is The Black List, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell, is a great reminder of the progress that has been made by some African Americans and the work yet to be done; and it displays the images and words of Toni Morrison, Vernon Jordan, Serena Williams, Louis Gossett Jr., Lorna Simpson, Karem Abdul-Jabbar, Thelma Golden, Sean Combs, Colin Powell, Bill T. Jones, and others (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2008).