My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 3 #27,
January 5, 1998


I don't know if three years is exactly enough to call something a tradition, but it is becoming customary for me to start the new year by reflecting on the books that mattered to me most in the past year.

Because the folks at Library Journal forgot that what I review is sports novels, I got a very odd assortment from them last year: blood-and-guts spy-versus-spy stories, Jaws-like thrillers, the new Sidney Sheldon. And Marjorie Reynolds' book, The Starlite Drive-In, which all by itself made up for LJ's error, because I never would have encountered it otherwise. It's about a young girl with a crush on a mysterious drifter who has come to work for her father at the drive-in. Normal adolescent self-involvement keeps her from grasping that the drifter and her mother are falling in love and planning to run away together, until he mysteriously vanishes. The family relationships are dark and twisted--her mother is an agorophobic, and a target for her husband's constant verbal abuse. He blames her fear of moving for trapping him in a thankless job running a barely profitable drive-in theatre in the middle of nowhere. For all that, he needs her, and is terrified when he realizes she is leaving him. The story is framed by the voice of the grownup heroine, but viewed through the eyes of her 12-year-old self, which allows us to share her feelings, but nonetheless see and understand, far more than she can, what is happening to her family. It's a beautifully told story and, I think, a classic.

But what made it special for me is that it brought me back a chunk of my childhood I'd totally forgotten. You see, I really don't remember much that happened to me before I was ten, just a few bits and pieces. This story, set in the 1950's, brought back all-five-senses memories of the nights all of us kids were packed into the back of the car in our pajamas to go to the drive-in, stuff ourselves with popcorn and candy, and fall asleep. We could watch the movie, too, though that was by no means necessary. As we waited for it to be dark enough to show the movie, we told silly jokes and whined and sang and threw popcorn at each other, while my mother sat watching us with amused vigilance. It was nice to get this small hunk of my life back.

It was a good year all around for reading about eccentric mothers almost as charming as my own. I read Annie Dillard's book, An American Childhood, and the chapter about her mother, "Terwilliger Bunts Again," is not to be missed. I also read Bailey White's book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living. White, who you may know from her short sketches on NPR, is a Southerner, but not precisely typical--of Southerners or women or anything else. Her mother is odder still. The stories are just about their lives in a household where astounding quantities of stuff accumulate, wiring is hard to find, the bathtub is on the back porch, they read Jane Austen to the alligators, and unknown friends give them eggs to hatch of unidentified species. These are quietly amusing stories, by one of the few women whose mother was odder than mine, though equally lovable.

Speaking of such a life-affirming book leads me to another, an oldie but goodie that I at last got around to reading, thanks to my friend Mark who chose this as one of the books he would memorize when I asked you all the Fahrenheit 451 question--John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, an almost ecological study of a seedy neighborhood during the depression, when only the doctor and the whores and the grocery store owner had regular work, and everybody else lived hand to mouth. For all that, the feeling of community is strong. Not that that's an unmixed blessing, you understand--in the hands of wildly incompetent men, the desire to repay Doc's generosity with a party leads to small-scale disaster. But this is a neighborhood where, though not everybody is employed, everybody is needed.

Another piece of serious fiction that sneaked its way into my stack of books was Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, a story about a bright and funny man who sabotages all his prospects and friendships with his chronic snarkiness and insensitivity. Because he constantly deals out casual hurts to the people who care about him, this fool literally belongs to nobody--he has driven away his wife and his son. Now, aging and injured and desperate for cash, he has to save himself somehow, and help his son and grandson. At last understanding how he has failed the people he cares for, he begins to try to change. He's one of those men you like the entire time he's driving you crazy. I had to read it slowly, to savor Russo's technique. His word choice is so beautifully exact that I had to mentally listen to every sentence.

It was a delight to discover John Welter this year. His newest book, I Want To Buy a Vowel, features an illegal immigrant who comes to a small Texas town (knowing only a few English words he has learned from television), the pimply awkward would-be Satanist son of a fundamentalist minister (who can't bring himself to sacrifice chickens, and settles for sacrificing Vienna sausages), and Eva, an 11 year old girl who prays to Ted Williams (because "no one knew what God looked like. God didn't have a face. There weren't any photographs. ..she couldn't pray to someone without a face, so because her father loved baseball and had a baseball card signed by Ted Williams, just because she knew what Ted Williams looked like, and also because she once heard her father say 'Maybe Ted Williams couldn't walk on water, but then, Jesus never hit .406.'"). Eva befriends the immigrant with some difficulty, since she doesn't speak Spanish, and his knowledge of English is pretty much limited to the knowledge that good things happen to people who buy vowels. When he is discovered hiding out in an abandoned house, the town is convinced that he is the mysterious Satanist, who they would like very much to punish if the sheriff didn't keep pointing out that Satanism isn't actually against the law. It's just as well I wasn't reading this book in public, because I was ROTFLSTC (rolling on the floor laughing, scaring the cat). But funny though the book is, it has a wonderful sense of place--you kind of sink into this small Texas town and become part of it for a while. And a nice place to visit it is. Understandably, I rushed out to buy Welter's earlier book, Night of the Avenging Blowfish: a Novel of Covert Operations, Love and Lunchmeat. No, I'm not even going to try to explain it. If that title doesn't grab you, nothing I could say would.

Jan Waldron's book, In the Country of Men, was one of the things that led me to write the column Half a Human. As a woman deeply disappointed in her father and the men in her life, yet resolved to raise her sons to be good men, she is seeking to understand the imperatives men labor under. She has watched her brother and her sons ruthlessly expunge certain parts of themselves in the interest of becoming masculine, and it distresses her at the same time she's not convinced society offers boys any other way of growing up. As one who was asked to expunge large chunks of myself when growing up, in order to become more feminine (and no, I never got really good at it, because I didn't want to part with those chunks), I found the question just as interesting. I followed her, step by step, musing about my own men, and learned a great deal.

History Wars was a collection of essays about the doomed Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. A curator with the perfectly reasonable notion of using the most recent historical scholarship about the atomic bomb innocently walked into a political buzz saw. The patriotic right wing and the military both were affronted at the idea that the dropping of the bomb was anything but good and necessary, an act that saved the lives of American soldiers. Making the mistake of thinking that they actually wanted a discussion, he kept offering compromises, realizing too late that what they wanted was total war, total victory, and a good hell-raising, fund-raising political issue. I took the book as a warning that gentle academics and curators and librarians should heed--most of us are unprepared to see our work made a cause celebre, and lack the kind of political antennae that would allow us to form coalitions and take the offensive. We'd better start learning. They're already after us for putting the internet in libraries.

Which brings me to Nicolaus Mills' book, The Triumph of Meanness: America's War against Its Better Self. The book crystallizes a lot of my problems with the fanatical right wing--the way it demonizes its enemies, is spiteful and vindictive toward even the working poor, and determined to wrest back every jot and tittle of racial advantage white people were used to having before affirmative action. But it's not just them--the meanness stretches to our reporters, who so often frame their news inside two sneers. It includes our corporate bosses who take pride in firing people and squeezing every last bit of salary and benefits from the ones that are left, to extract maximum profits for themselves and other stockholders. The book went well with Jim Hightower's There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. With his inimitable Texas drawl and wit, Hightower attacks Corporate America and its hired politicians. (And here I thought I was the one who came up with the line "I don't need a third party; I just want there to be a second one." ) Think of him as a successor to Thomas Paine: deeply democratic, outraged at a bought and paid for congress, convinced that we can take our government back. All this and funny besides.

This leads me to Edward Abbey. I came to Desert Solitaire as the result of one of those convergence experiences--my friend Mark told me about it, Dan thought he'd memorize something of Abbey's in the event of Fahrenheit 451, and our library had to start stocking up on his work for a course on the literature of the west. I believe that when God drops that many hints, you should pick them up. This is a book that describes for all five senses a delicate ecology at risk that must be preserved. Nobody, I think, has ever done better at conveying the austere inhuman beauty of red slickrock country. I've never been much driven by a longing for scenery (I like to travel where there are museums and libraries and theatre), but after reading this, and Stephen Ambrose's magnificent book about Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage, I need to see their deserts and their mountains for myself. I'll be going out west next May.

Vincent Barry's book, The Dog Ate My Homework, takes us to task for how easily we excuse ourselves and others for our offenses. He captures all our glib excuses, and he will have none of them: playing dumb, shifting blame, the devil made me do it, it's legal, isn't it, the computer is down, it's not in my job description, and how was I supposed to know, anyway? This is no way, he says, for grownups to run a society. Hear, hear!

I end with William Zinsser's book Willie and Dwike, the true story of one of America's great jazz duos, Dwike Mitchell on piano, and Willie Ruff on French horn and bass. They both came from a background of family conflict and abandonment, but music helped them get through. They met and joined forces at a segregated army base in the 1950's, which had one of the best bands in the country--making me marvel once again that racism, despicable though it is, created some rich communities of talent. Willie and Dwike travel around the country, giving not just concerts, but also talks and demonstrations in schools everywhere they go. Willie is a born teacher, self-taught and widely read, eager to make kids understand jazz, and for that matter, classical music. These are wonderful people to travel along with, good minds to get inside of for a while. And Zinsser is the perfect chronicler.

I could have talked about far more than these, but this column really does have to stop some time. I'll put the rest on my Book Bytes page. Feel free to stop by and visit. Here's wishing all of you a 1998 that's rich in books and family and friends.

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