25 November 2014

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.

Someone, once upon a time, will have written the great American novel. Freedom is Franzen’s bid, and Freedom isn’t the great American novel. Then again, neither is Infinite Jest. Or Catch-22. Or The Great American Novel. Twain? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? All good candidates, but start with Moby Dick.

Freedom, though, is (what passes for) a great American novel, vast and open and experimental (but not really) and trying to be everything at once in a great rush of excitement, and eventually disappointment and a a bit of a headache.

Dostoevsky tells us that happy families are all alike, and in so doing exposes one of the novelist’s best tricks--follow a family and catalog their miseries. The Berglunds shouldn’t merit a novel; they have an American Dream life in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when the story opens. But Franzen uses one of Vonnegut’s favorite plot moves: someone gets into trouble, then gets out of trouble. It’s simple, but if it’s trouble enough, it can carry a novel easily.

And the Berglunds, they get into some trouble. Franzen tears this family apart, and when only a faint glimmer of hope remains, squelches it. This would make a fine ending.

It would also be an easy ending, because the anti-climactic years between losing hope and death are tedious for everyone. Yet this coda, this uniquely American need for closure, is also where the Berglunds get out of trouble, at the very last moment. So of course everyone loves it. In spite of this obvious, unnecessary and sorta cop-out ending, this over-hyped book is an enjoyable experience, easy to read in a well-crafted, invisible way and easy to keep picking up until there is too much invested in the characters to quit. Go ahead, read it all.


18 November 2014

Jackie Robinson & Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made

Jackie Robinson & Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made. NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.

Robinson is good enough to credit his long-time ghost-writer conspicuously; otherwise, we might wonder why a twentieth-century Black activist sounds like an Edwardian gentleman.

Most people will pick up an autobiography from a Hall of Fame baseball star expecting to read about baseball. People picking up Robinson’s book are already familiar with his role as the first Black man in organized ball since the 1800s, and would also expect to read about is struggle to integrate the game. And we do get that, for 134 of 287 pages. It isn’t how Robinson defines himself, and he doesn’t dwell on what is already well documented.

No, Robinson is writing to point out that he was a civil rights leader even after, outside of, baseball. We get a bit about family--nothing in the book is more personal or more moving than a frank assessment of his relationship with Jackie Jr. We get business and politics, fields into which his fame allowed entry, where he did seem to work diligently to change the culture and create opportunity for the disenfranchised. We also see inside disagreements with Malcolm X and fundraising for Martin Luther King. Overall, the book is a reminder that life goes on after the game is over, and that what comes next can--and should--be even more important.

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04 November 2014

Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magonn, X. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2015.

This title is marketed as a young adult novel, but it is really as close to an authorized biography of civil rights activist Malcolm X as could be written.

The author takes her father’s chosen name, Shabazz. Her book tells of him as Malcolm Little, himself the son of a murdered civil rights activist. She tells the story Malcolm glossed over in his Autobiography--the story of Detroit Red. And though she was only three when her father was killed, Ms. Shabazz has a large, close, and proud family full of stories and correspondence to draw from. With Magoon’s help, she brings a brash fifteen-year-old runaway in the 1940’s into focus. She doesn’t ignore her character’s imperfections or the allure of the big-city life-style that brings him low, but uses a concluding author note to explain that Malcolm’s troubles were what allowed him to be such an effective leader--he knew the temptations, the indignities, and the injustice his brothers faced; they knew he could relate to their lives, and they to his. Even without this note, though, Shabazz closes the story with an image of Malcolm taking on his new name, X, and with it his new calling. It’s an uplifting tale of redemption, never mind how important the redeemed would become, and a good fit for any middle- or high-school library.