Tuesday, September 11, 2018

New Books!



Hello. I am happy to announce the publication of two new books.

The first, What Happens Next, is the latest collection of poems by my friend and fellow writer, George Ovitt.  Here’s the link:




 









The second book is a novel of mine called The Perfection of Things. Here is the link for it:





As ever, thank you for reading our blog.

George Ovitt & Peter Nash

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Devil’s Biographer



One Life by David Lida

In Mexico there is a program called The Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program that helps train, pay, and advise U.S. lawyers in handling the cases of Mexicans nationals facing possible execution in the United States. Specifically, as described on The Marshall Project website: “One of the program’s chief purposes is to help defense attorneys construct a biography of the accused—to humanize them. Poverty, family dysfunction, and developmental disability are frequent themes in their clients’ lives. When presented as  part of a defense, such themes can encourage mercy among jurors and dissuade them from handing down a death sentence.”
 
This, essentially, is the background of David Lida’s remarkable novel, One Life. Lida, himself a mitigation specialist dealing with precisely such cases, tells the bracing, often eloquent story of a disaffected American named Richard, whose job it is to travel to Mexico, to remote, often desolate towns, to uncover the fractured life stories of his clients in the always desperate effort to complicate, if not actually temper, the judgment of prospective American jurors. Of course, humanizing Mexican immigrants—according them the basic dignity of a past, a family, a conscience, a dream—flies directly in the face of much American rhetoric today, a rhetoric fueled daily by our increasingly punitive immigration policies and practices, and by the racist vitriol of the president of himself.    

At the heart of this poignant, complexly wrought novel, is the case of a young woman, a Mexican national named Esperanza, who is due to stand trial in Louisiana for allegedly murdering her baby. Richard, an ex-novelist recovering from a recently failed marriage, has been hired by her lawyers to travel to Mexico to assemble, as best he can, the scattered pieces of her past as a means of rendering her anew—as a human being, as a woman of flesh and blood. This proves no easy task, as the people he meets are not only wary of him, a gringo, but often so taciturn, so beleaguered, so fatalistic in their view of life, that it is everything he can do to get them to speak to him at all. What unfolds is a story as harrowing, as trenchant, as it is hopeful, compassionate, humane. Writes novelist Daniel Alarcón, “David Lida’s One Life is simply revelatory. It’s Juan Rulfo meets Raymond Chandler, Roberto Bolaño meets Chester Himes. It’s the American justice system, exposed, and the inside story of the frenetic, cruel push and pull that lures Mexican migrants from their homes to the U.S.. I’ve never read a book quite like this, and neither have you.”

David Lida has also written a collection of short stories called Travel Advisory and a smart, street-level guide to Mexico City called First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, a city in which he now lives, writes, practices mitigation, and leads tailor-made tours of the various neighborhoods, markets, parks, gardens, restaurants, and museums. If you have never been to Mexico City it’s time to plan a trip there now. 

 

Check out his website:


Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rural Beauty

Driftless, a novel by David Rhodes

Horse

In its stall stands the 19th century,

its hide a hot shudder of satin,

head stony and willful, 

an eye brown as a river and watchful:

a sentry a long way ahead

of a hard, dirty army of hooves. 

-Ted Kooser-


For many years I spent my summers driving on the blue highway of rural America, sleeping in my bivy sack on the sides of dirt roads, eating in local diners, drinking Old Style and Hamms in downtown taverns.  Each July I'd pick a route that would take me through states I came to love--Wisconsin and Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana. I scrupulously avoided interstates and Holiday Inns; if I slept in a bed it was in the Downtown Motel for nineteen dollars a night.  I made a point of driving only a few hundred miles a day, thus leaving many hours to explore every local historical marker, every regional museum, and all of the "sights" suggested by the locals.  If it was America's Biggest, or Oldest, or most remote I would go out of my way to see it: the tallest man-made structure, the last outpost of the pony express, the Kansas Farm Museum, the birthplace of virtually every president.  I did this out of restlessness (since passed) and out of an abiding interest in the lives of my fellow Americans, most of whom live no where in particular--in small villages and dying towns, in farming communities like Wonewoc, Wisconsin, home of David Rhodes, the genius.

I was disheartened, to say the least, when I read Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, a very sad book about Louisiana's Tea Party members, men and women filled with hatred for almost everything that feels worthwhile about this country.  My own experience of rural America--limited, of course, but compared to everyone but Charles Kuralt I've seen a fair piece of the country, the entire lower forty-eight, and the sad sacks Hochschild interviews--people who prefer cancer-producing toxic spills to government regulations--seem to me anomalous if not aberrant.  I made a point of having morning coffee in rural towns with the local farmers and (once in a while) their wives, and while I found them conservative compared to my urban neighbors, they were reasonable, thoughtful, and welcoming, truly the salt of the earth.


Rhodes, a prodigy who wrote three wonderful novels during the middle 1970's and then was silenced for three decades after a motorcycle accident, is a deeply compassionate chronicler of the lives of invisible people--farmers and small-town ministers and Amish families and housewives whose greatest concern might well be the state of their housekeeping on the eve of Mother's visit. That is to say, Rhodes writes about us, for this is who we really are, not gun-slinging heroes or angst-ridden intellectuals or cyborgs, we're ordinary folk, overwhelmed by the cost of living, the loss of love, our kids' future, the fear of dying.  It amazes me that Rhodes's critics fault him for the quiet dignity of his characters' lives. Quiet dignity is the entire point, and no one I've read, including Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Richard Russo, does a better job of bringing to life the small town, the destitution (economic and spiritual)  of rural America imposed on us all by the coastal elites. 

Driftless, a novel I read with profound pleasure and admiration, is a richly imagined collection of short stories, of vignettes, linked by common characters and overlapping themes.  July Montgomery, a figure in nearly all of Rhodes's work, settles in Word, Wisconsin and takes up dairy farming after a long life on the road,  Over the course of twenty years he takes on a shamanistic character in the tiny farming town. Folks come to him not only to borrow tools but for his good sense and, as July himself puts it, his love for his neighbors.  There's a lonely widower, a mystical preacher, a young couple bent on justice, an Amish family and their extended clan, a wheel-chair bound young woman who finds love at a dog fight, a cranky retired farmer whose discovered capacity for fellow feeling is one of Rhodes's finest achievements.  Over the course of a year this endlessly interesting cast of characters lives through the kinds of changes that all of us live through.  We search for love and truth and justice; mostly we don't find them, but that doesn't deter us from searching.

Rhodes's style is lyrical, poetic, generous.  I read long passages aloud to my wife, sharing the beauty of language with her but also marveling at the cadences of Rhodes's description, the economy of his character sketches, the visual power of the landscape he describes.  Every set piece has a moment of reflection embedded in it; every character possesses a voice that is his or hers alone, an inner world brought to life with great economy.  You'll find yourself missing July's wisdom, Olive's impetuousness, Jacob's decency.  Not a book to be missed at a time when Americans have been polarized--for nefarious political purposes--into antagonistic tribes. Read Rhodes and discover once again our shared humanity.


 Driftless is published by Milkweed editions.

George Ovitt (8/26/2018)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Ever-Present Fullness of All Treasured Life




Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers (1900-1983), born Netty Reiling, was a German-Jewish writer whose education in pre-Nazi Germany included studies in Chinese language and culture; German, French, and Russian Literature, as well as sociology and history. She completed her studies at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation, Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts, in which she examined the role of Jews in Rembrandt’s work. It is believed that she chose her penname, Anna Seghers, after the Dutch painter, Hercules Seghers, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

A lifelong reader, she was especially devoted to literature, to the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Kleist, Büchner, and Kafka, Racine and Balzac, and lived her life with a special affection for fairy tales and Jewish and Christian legends, which often play a part in her fiction. 
After the burning of the Reichstag in February of 1933, she—a Jew and member of the Communist Party—was arrested then released, at which point she fled to Switzerland, before continuing on to France, to Paris, where she got involved with the anti-fascist coalition, Volksfront or Popular Front. Yet soon she was forced to flee again, as Hitler’s troops invaded and occupied France, first to the south, to Marseille, “the uterine center of the earth”, from where she and her family finally managed to escape the mounting horrors of Europe aboard a ship to Mexico, a voyage which included the passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such, at heart, is the story of her 1951 novel, Transit. In a description that surely captures her own perilous efforts to evade the steady advance of Hitler’s troops, she writes:

I watched them streaming into Marseille with their tattered banners representing all nations and faith, the advance guard of refugees. They had fled across all of Europe, but now, confronting the glimpses of blue water sparkling innocently between the houses, they were at their wits’ end. For the names of ships written in chalk didn’t mean that there really were ships but only a faint hope that there might be some—the names were constantly being wiped off because some strait was mined or a new coastal port had been fired on. Death was moving ever closer with his swastika banner as yet unscathed. 


Started after she found safety in Mexico, Transit takes “a sadder, longer view of her own experience,” writes Peter Conrad in his helpful introduction. “It observes events from what might be the vantage of the gods, looking down…on the spectacle of human folly, the delusion of human hope, and the alternation of anxiety and ennui that consumes our days.” Indeed, central to the overall force of the novel is the abiding impression that, for all of the apparent progress of the modern age, remarkably little has changed:

It was the age-old harbor gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and even older. Wonderful, an ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.


Sengher’s recognition of this was by no means an apology for or capitulation to the apathy and fatalism of the age, let alone to Hitler and his kind. Rather (Why else would she write?), informing it all is the frank and finally hopeful recognition that, as Alan Watts puts it in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, “Poverty, disease, war, change, and death are nothing new. In the best of times 'security' has never been more than temporary and apparent". What matters is that we continue to live, to strive, moved—as by some mystery, some magic—by “the ever-present fullness of all treasured life”.


Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Genius of the Islands

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems

 


His best poems have about them a ferocity, an anger or impatience that makes them impossible to ignore. Reading Walcott is a sustained pleasure, but unless you read casually, his poems will make you squirm.  He had no patience for cant or cruelty, no love for the imperialists who had skewed the history of his beloved islands.  Here's a sample, the extraordinary poem "The Sea is History," included in Walcott's 1979 collection, The Star Apple Kingdom.  He's the perfect poet for high summer, for heat and the proliferation of life, for rum and fresh fish, for long days and short nights. 



Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Exodus.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mosaics
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—

jubilation, O jubilation—
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.
 
 
George Ovitt (7/24/2018) 
 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Five-Mile Wall

Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen (essays)

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong (poems)


As I write this post, Mr. Trump is meeting in Helsinki with Mr. Putin.  Mr. Pompeo, our latest Secretary of State, has met a few times with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  My brother-in-law, a businessman, has made many trips to Vietnam, exploring mutually beneficial economic relations with our former enemy.  We briefly forgave Cuba for Fidel, but it didn't stick--too close to home.  Iran remains non grata going on forty years after that country's Islamic Revolution.  We don't care for Venezuela, though this administration doesn't much like Mexico, Canada, or Europe either.

In the peculiar calculus of international relations, friends and foes change places with astonishing rapidity.  That our president admires Putin but despises Theresa May is surely wondrous, a fact not even explicable in reference to national interest. The nexus of corporate capitalism and high-end scheming has created strange bedfellows in the 21st century. Like the stock market, volatility and creative destruction (of companies, or workers, or resources) has replaced the once sacrosanct pursuit of stability. 

Nothing is more mind boggling to me, a college student in the 1960's, then the about-face on the country we invaded and made war on for twenty years, the domino that wasn't to be allowed to fall, the communist state that would infect all of southeast Asia with the contagion of monolithic communism.  But my incredulity stems from my inability to grasp the simple fact that ideology is dead, replaced, worldwide, by the logic, the omnipotence, of capital.  There's a franchise here that I hadn't paid enough attention to: destroy a country, then with multinational investments rebuild it; once rebuilt (more or less after a Westernized model) use the former enemy as a base of operations for the storage of surplus domestic capital, avoiding taxes at home.  Everybody gets rich, except for the people. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the bestselling and remarkable novel The Sympathizer attempts, in his essays Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War to catalogue the ways in which for Vietnamese and Americans alike the war in Vietnam, the war of American aggression (as it is known in Southeast Asia) has been memorialized--in graveyards, formal memorials, novels, and films.  It's a fine book, but for me at least, unconvincing.  As with Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering, the award-winning account of the memorization of the Civil War dead, I came away thinking that the construction of memorials, the dedication of grave sites, the commercialization of war in books or films has nothing to do with remembering.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's academic style--he's a professor of English, and writes like one--obscures the fact that for Americans the war in Vietnam isn't a historical fact, but a mythological tale, a story that has taken its place alongside the vast array of myths that define our national consciousness.  The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example, is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the war for the United States. A similar war memorializing Vietnam's dead would stretch five miles, from the Lincoln Memorial well up Capitol Hill.  But what does this reflective wall have to do with remembering?  What does any statue or any field of white crosses have to do with the internalization of a catastrophic historical event?  Remembrance depends upon compassion, empathy and imagination far more than it does on the traditional symbols of death and loss.  A visit to Gettysburg's famed battlefield, with its plinths and equestrian statues, is like an episode on the History Channel unless one is willing to look inward and feel the mayhem and suffering that took place on those pastoral acres on three summer days in 1863.  Americans might be moved by the Wall, but they aren't thinking much about what it really means; if we were, we wouldn't be continuing to behave as we do, creating new memorials to the dead. It's easier to build another Wall than to stop the need for them.

Sorry, I've oversimplified Viet Thanh Nguyen's argument here. He has many subtle and important things to say about the asymmetries of power and the problem (impossibility) of humanizing one's enemies--please do read this book--but I still haven't understood how remembering and memorializing explain America's amnesia or Vietnam's transformation into an "acceptable" communist government. What sleight of hand is at work here? I defer to historians on this question.




If you want to feel things, if you want to know about human beings, it's poetry that is required, not statues. 

The young (he's twenty-nine) Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has produced a remarkable book of poems about war, isolation, foreignness, loss, and memory.  Particular impressive is the way in which Ocean moves from formal verse to free verse to idiosyncratic styles in order to blend meaning and feeling with form.  There's a violence in the book, a sustained pitch of anger and despair that is inescapable, particularly if one reads straight through in a single sitting. This book is not a sampler but a slap in the face, a call to wake up and share in a stranger's life (and what could be more foreign to us than this young man's life)? 

There isn't an uninteresting poem in the book. Here's one that shows the range of feeling and mastery of tone:

Prayer for the Newly Damned

Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen.
Behind the wooden fence, a field lit
with summer, a man pressing a shank
to another man’s throat. Steel turning to light
on sweat-slick neck. Forgive me
for not calling Your name. For thinking:
this must be how every prayer
begins—the word Please cleaving
the wind into fragments, into what
a boy hears in his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner. The hour suddenly
stilled. The man genuflected, his lips
pressed to black boot as the words spilled
from his mouth like rosaries
shattering from too much
Father. Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
and blue—beg to remain
clear and blue? Did my cheek twitch
when that darkness bloomed from his crotch
and trickled into ochre dirt? Father,
how quickly the blade becomes
You. But let me begin again: There’s a boy
kneeling in a house with every door kicked open
to summer. There’s a question corroding
his tongue. There’s a knife touching
Your name lodged inside the throat.
Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?

Many of the poems in Ocean's collection are memorials to his father, as here. Some are love poems, and some, among the most moving, are reflections on the poet's own identity as a son, a gay man, an American. (See "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong").  Here's a poem about remembering the war:

Aubade With Burning City

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving
Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent
Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese
refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
           Milkflower petals in the street
                                               like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright…
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
           Open, he says.
                                       She opens.
                                                           Outside, a soldier spits out
           his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
                                                                         fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
                                        as the traffic guard unstraps his holster.
                                       His fingers running the hem
of  her white dress. A single candle.
                                       Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
                                     shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
           through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                           lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
                                                                             crushed into the shine
                                                      of a white Christmas.
On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                 for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                               facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                            A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
               beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white…A white…I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
                                              falling from her shoulders.
Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
                                      with gunfire. Red sky.
                             Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just
                                                                               out of reach.
           The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                    The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                           like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
           something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                       beneath them. The bed a field of ice.
Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
                            their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                 and tomorrow…
                                            The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming…
                                                           to hear sleigh bells in the snow…
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                           runs silently toward her god—
                          Open, he says.
                                                        She opens.






 If you can, get both books and read them together.  Let me know what you think.

George Ovitt (7/16/2018)



Friday, July 13, 2018

The Science of Destruction



Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

“I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium,” professed the philosopher William James in his 1910 essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. “The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticism, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them… I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.” It is a declaration, an optimism, that seems naïve, if not positively obtuse, when viewed in the light of the decades that followed it, nearly a century of the worst violence and destruction the world has ever known.

 
       Nazi Diagram of Gas Chambers at Auschwitz
 
Patrik Ouředník, in this extraordinary short novel, takes pains to remind us of just that in what is largely a compendium of brutal, if deftly rendered facts. The novel begins like this:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot the would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again…


 
            U.S. Government Diagram of ‘Fat Man’ 

Continuing in the same matter-of-fact tone, if with the occasional inflection of irony, of humor, Europeana is—in the tradition of Rabelais and Beckett (both of whom Ouředník has translated into his native Czech)—a prose poem of modern hubris and folly, a dazzling, finally breathless, primer on the horrors and absurdity of our times.   

 
Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Poorest Coffee in America!


My favorite scene in West Side Story is the one in which George Chakiris and Rita Moreno,  Bernardo and Anita in the film version, sing and dance on a tenement rooftop to Bernstein and Sondheim's  "America." Bernardo is disillusioned by America--especially by the fact that Puerto Ricans like himself are not welcome on the "isle of Manhattan." Vivacious Anita feels differently. America a land of possibility, or at least of short-term glamor and fewer hurricanes.  "Everyone free in America" sings Anita as she swings her orchid skirt and high kicks with the exuberance that characterized all of Robbins' choreography for the film. As it turned out America wasn't altogether welcoming, and its Romeo and Juliet (Tony and Maria) are killed by the racial hatreds that we Americans are still, perennially, struggling to put aside.

****

I just put out my American flag--reluctantly I admit--as I do each Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July.  If my neighbors, who resolutely show no colors, asked me about the flag I would explain that for me the stars and stripes acknowledge the noble idea of individual rights, freedom of conscience, and the striving for an inclusive, just, and democratic society.  We haven't done so well in any of these departments. We are, in fact, rushing backward toward the worst periods of oligarchy, racism, xenophobia, and civic indifference. But still, one can hope, and the flag is a reminder of what might be.  (No doubt you know this iconic Gordon Parks photo, one I have above my desk at home.)



But this is a post about books, not politics, and I wanted most of all to mention just a handful of  books about America, or the Other America, that lately mean most to me, that have done most to shape my perception of my country. 

This is not a list of "great American novels," It is a personal list of books (including non-fiction) that at this moment mean a great deal to me.  I almost wrote "help me make sense of," but that, I think, is asking too much.

On the very top of my list of novels about America is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 Americanah. This brilliant exploration of the life of a Nigerian immigrant woman in America and its unsparing analysis of racism is required reading, especially now.






And what is it like to be a Mexican-American in the late 2010s? Indispensable is Cristina Henriquez's aptly titled, multi-voiced, poignant The Book of Unknown Americans. Told from many points of view, Henriquez's lyrical novel examines with humanity and sobriety the plight of invisible yet  polarizing immigrants from the South. Super smart and beautifully written.


I have read all of Ha Jin's novels.  In the category of "what does it mean to be an American" I recommend A Free Life. As in all of Ha Jin's work, there is a deceptively simple story masking rich philosophical and political themes.  Here the issue is what it means to be a person, specially a writer, who happens to be a refugee from China living in America.


 Independence Day (1995) by Richard Ford, is the second part of the four-part series of books about Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged, white, male, real estate agent. Yes, I know, stories of white men who live in suburban New Jersey and sell houses between existential crises don't exactly titillate, but Ford has never written a dull sentence, and Frank's July 4th Odyssey explores not only the inner life of an Everyman, but also the flaws and beauties of our perplexing country. 



I never really "got" immigrant life on a visceral level until I read Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. This Jewish-American bildungsroman might be complemented by John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.  Bellow is funnier and far more readable. Bellow's book should be read in tandem with James Baldwin's Another Country.  The similarities between the lives of a Harlem "Negro" in the 1940s and a Jewish boy in Depression-era Chicago are uncanny. Both books deconstruct the idea of the American "hero" and replace him with men and women who must hustle to get by on the fringes of a never-quite-welcoming America.






American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Plot Against America--a trilogy of novels by Philip Roth that measure out the cost of our deeply-felt fears and paranoia. We are the melting pot that mostly prefers not to.




 What's the best book celebrating America and American values? Hands down, the complete version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Two volumes, 1836 and 1840).  Don't keep promising to read it--just do it. This liberal Frenchmen (zut alors!) saw more clearly into our soul than anyone save Jefferson, Emerson, and Henry Adams.


 Gotta go and put the burgers on the grill.


George Ovitt (July 3/4, 2018)