17 July 2018

Reading List, April - June 2018

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1914/

The origin story, in which Untutored White Man is shown to be physically, mentally, and morally superior to all he encounters. Colonialist claptrap, or foundational text for the Alt-Right? Definitely not suitable for children, no matter what Walt Disney thought.

A.M. Lightner, Day of the Drones. NY: Norton, 1969.

A perfect foil for Tarzan, in which White People have all but destroyed the planet: no part of the world has remained habitable after The Disaster, but a little haven in the mountains of Afria. Or so they thought.

A great exploration discovers other survivors, in England, in a culture later echoed by Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country. The voyage even adds to the remaining Shakespeare canon of Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale. NY: HarperCollins, 2015.

In this exploration of the town made famous by their podcast, the authors use weirdness to provide cover for what is, really, a simple story about finding one’s family.

Robert B. Parker, Walking Shadow. NY: Putnam, 1994.

Boston PI Spenser investigates trouble at his girlfriend’s theater. In true noir fashion, people die and the sun never shines when he’s working.

Horatio Alger, Paul Prescott’s Charge. NY: Hurst, 1865.

The Alger myth that anyone can become successful through perseverance, hard work, and thrift, has been instrumental in demonizing poverty as a personal failing in the poor, rather than an inevitable result of structural inequality. Studies have repeatedly shown that those who begin with advantage see that advantage increase, while those born without are seen as lazy in spite of working longer hours at more physically dangerous and demanding occupations for less than a living wage.

This story, too, shows the importance of luck, rather than effort or ability, in attaining success. When Paul’s father dies after a long illness, leaving him saddled with debt, Paul is sent to the poorhouse. He runs away -- that is pluck. He is then adopted and educated -- that is luck. He gets a job with a member of his benefactor’s church -- that is structural advantage. Given luck and structural advantage, he succeeds, where given only his pluck, he would have starved at the side of the road.

This country has unprecedented wealth. There should be no poverty. Establish universal health care and basic income for all residents, open the borders to all who desire entry, and provide a foundation from which creativity and industry can rise via true meritocracy. The Alger myth is an evil fraud that only serves to justify an entrenched position to those fortunate enough to have already gotten theirs.

Victor Appleton, Tom Swift and His Airship. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1910.

Like Alger or Burroughs, another book my grandfather may have read as a boy. Tom Swift stars as a young inventor in a series of adventures involving, as antagonists, the Happy Harry gang. In this episode, the gang robs a local bank and frames Tom, who is out testing a new hybrid plane and balloon contraption. Tom and his friends prove their innocence by using their airship to help recover the money, but part of the gang escapes to cause further trouble in later volumes.

Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy. NY: Vintage, 1926.

In a story as spare and harsh and Cather’s beloved prairie, Myra Henshawe gives up everything for love, and ends feeling it a bad bargain.

Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth. NY: Putnam, 2014.

Tirado became a national figure because of her essay “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts”. As a necessary antidote to Alger’s insistence on the all-overcoming power of self-reliance and initiative, Tirado provides a personal look at poverty in the United States. Her discussion ranges from how a constant struggle to stay alive saps the will to live, through the fact that systems are rigged to keep those without money from making money, to the inequities in health care. Presented in an unflinching conversational tone with lots of swearing, this book is easy to read but difficult to forget. It should be required reading for everyone, beginning in high school.

Stephen Wildish, How to Swear. San Francisco, Chronicle, 2018.

This illustrated guide uses charts to examine the etymology, grammatical functions, relative offensiveness, and common forms of several basic secular profanities, then provides a short list of more socially acceptable alternatives. Unfortunately, it does not provide instruction in creative cursing, only correct usage. If anything will create an interest in linguistics among high-school boys, this is surely it.

Zane Grey, The Red Headed Outfield and Other Baseball Stories. Lexington: Shepperd Publications, 2014.

This print-on-demand volume brings together eleven early stories from a minor-league ballplayer better known for writing Westerns. It features “Old Well-Well” and a series about a young pitcher know as The Rube. A surprising number of these stories are about a ballplayer’s trouble with women. Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor layout and copy editing, which can happen when expired copyrights allow anyone so inclined to repackage previously-published material. It is, nonetheless, welcome affordable access to otherwise hard to find material.

Ryan Roenfeld, Wicked Omaha. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2017.

Roenfeld shows a frontier town, with a focus on the original Red Light district around Tenth and Farnam Streets, growing into a respectable city in this volume collecting accounts of gambling, prostitution, and murder from Omaha newspapers between 1870 and 1911.


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