The first time in Boston was December 1995, for the fourth World Wide Web conference. The last time was two years ago almost to the day, on a night stop-over on the way to (finally) meet – in ‘real life’ – the person who would be my fiancee.
The events of the last week – not just in Boston, but elsewhere in America, and much more personally closer – have been strange, turbulent, upsetting, downright scary, annoying as hell, thought-provoking and personally defining. Sometimes, in life, you never know your exact feelings about something until a situation or crisis occurs. That’s happened a few times this week.
One of the (by far) lesser things, personally, was finally deciding which baseball team to support. I know a lot about cricket but, despite going to several matches over the years, hardly anything about baseball. Apart from the basics (e.g. loading the bases, top and bottom of the innings, of which there are nine). The statistics aspects, the tactics, the culture surrounding it look enjoyable and reminiscent in some ways of cricket, and no other sport. And above all, it’s fun to go and watch; a truly social spectator sport that fits the “pursuit of happiness” ethos of America well.
Not so easy with baseball. I’ve been to many matches now, in cities including Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle, and seen teams play in major and minor league baseball. I have no geographical affinity to any side – there is no major baseball team within a good 6 hour drive of the place I consider ‘home’ in the USA. I have no baseball heros or players I follow closely, past or present. And people advise me to pick a major league side, and a minor league one close by so I’d not have to take a plane to always support my side.
Who to pick? Not an urgent question, but one dithered with for several years. A team is for life, not just for a season. Choose wisely, young padawan. You may be explaining this choice for several decades yet.
But this week it clicked. Boston. The Red Sox. Of course. The first baseball match I went to in America (or anywhere), over fifteen years ago. The events of this week, with a city (and a country, and a people) I recognise, and like, and like a lot, in the news, across all news and disposable social media. The city where I got my online web work mojo together. The home city (near enough) of JFK, after whom I was named, and various presidents, patriots, and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
And the city where I first thought “Hey, maybe I’ll move to this country one day”.
Those reasons are more than good enough for me. So the Boston Red Sox it is. Here’s a video taken by someone three years ago during a Patriots Day match between the Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston:
There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.”
You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.
Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.
For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.
And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.
Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.
But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.
This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.
From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.
But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.
But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.
Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.
Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.
And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.
And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.
And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…
The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.
Looking up at the midnight sky just now, while listening to distant English church bells chime in midnight. Hey; there’s the moon, barely a degree away from a bright Jupiter. Thinking, slipping back to four years ago today, watching the moon and stars from my bed and train cabin as it trundled through North Dakota, waking up the next morning somewhere in Minnesota while heading towards Jenny Levine’s excellent ALA conference on games and libraries. That evening would be spent meeting a new bunch of people and friends, drinking various things, investigating this Twitter thing, and/or remarking on Amy Jean Kearns’s pink iPhone.
But that was then, and this is now, four years later. Four days to go now until election day. Five days exactly, or 120 hours, until the polls start to close in the swing states. Six nights – minimum – until there’s a result. Still too many unknowns, though the more plausible analysts have Obama narrowly ahead at this moment.
My fear is widespread disruption in many polling stations on tuesday. Especially by twitchy and partisan “observers” kicking it up over people voting who they don’t like the look of. Also, it being close enough where it matters for delays due to slow counts, recounts, problems with voting systems, and lawyers. Lots and lots of fucking lawyers, on both sides. A repeat of the 2000 count would be a socio-economic and political disaster.
Even an American Political junkie such as me wishes this particular three ring circus was over with, and over with now. This hour. I’ve been following it for four years, this road to yet another extreme, bitter election with shouting and abuse on all sides. But, whatever the result, the day after a president-elect is determined it all starts again. “Who will be the Democrat candidate in 2016; Hillary, or someone else?”, what’s left of the media will ask.
I might have something positive to write about the whole American political thing when it’s done, but for now I’m tired of it and out. And if you ain’t got anything good to say, probably best not to say anything at all.
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first popped up on my reading radar during a first read of Blue Highways, where the author mentions packing this book to read as he travels around America. I’ve been curious since then as to why William Least-Heat Moon (yes, that’s his real name and his book I’ll review another time) chose this book in particular. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Leaves of Grass as an important book within the canon of American literature, and the controversial and lively debate surrounding its author – to the extent that Walt and Mark are the two people who adorn my Kindle cover. But it’s only the last few weeks that I’ve properly read Leaves from cover to cover.
Poetry is not a form of literature I’m at ease with. There’s cultural and upbringing reasons for this discomfort. Ironically when very young I won a national poetry competition, more as an act of rebellion against being told that culture such as literature, poetry, classical music and other “fine arts” wasn’t the kind of thing that people of “my type” (farming lower working class) should or could do. That was by the headmistress of the primary school I endured, but hopefully for many reasons she’s now burning in whatever kind of purgatory exists for people of “her type”.
Anyway, that’s why I’m not going to attempt to analyse Leaves of Grass; it’ll just read like some fumbling junior school literature review 101 essay. I’ll just write about what I read.
The edition I perused was a 1986 reprint of the 1959 Viking Press print of the original 1855 text, borrowed from Birmingham Central Library. The first version of Leaves, as Walt tweaked and fiddled about with it for the rest of his life, seemingly never happy with the body of work (typical Virgo, perhaps). The editor of this edition, Malcolm Cowley, added a lengthy introduction and analysis of his own which, for me, didn’t really add or shed any new light on the core work. It speaks for itself pretty well.
Leaves is partially a kind of observation of America as it was 160 years ago, the people in it, what they do, how they go about their business. It’s also partially about the author, as a person, a human people, a physical and emotional being, and as an American. The second paragraph of the original work begins:
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
So I guess it’s interesting, not just from a literature perspective, but from a historical perspective. For example, there’s a rather graphic retelling of a retelling of the massacre at the Alamo (of the accuracy, we are not sure), of how people of trades travel around their country, of what they wear and what they eat. And there is mention, descriptions, of slaves and slavery; for example:
The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at the table, my firelock leaned in the corner.
It’s a very person-based piece of work. There’s probably a deep and meaningful poetry phrase that means “person-based”, but that’ll do for me. And Americans, leading American lives, is the element that most reoccurs in the text; for example:
The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers.
The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill.
The canal-boys trots on the towpath – the bookkeeper counts at his desk – the shoemaker waxes his thread
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings
Walt obviously takes pleasure in observing Americans being themselves, and makes no secret of this:
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
Speaking of observing women, Leaves of Grass was controversial in its day and for a long time thereafter because of the “explicit” nature of the work. It isn’t, of course, explicit in terms of the low-grade Internet pornography of today. But Walt doesn’t hide his often celebratory thoughts regarding the human body and nakedness, which appear frequently, or his musings about sex. To an extent that a subtext of Leaves of Grass could arguably be “I really want to get laid more”. For example:
Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!
We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.
Voices of sexes and lusts … voices veiled, and I remove the veil
I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips
Despite my lack of poetry experience, I did enjoy reading Leaves of Grass fully. It’s a collection of poems and texts that, for me anyway, has to be read in pretty much one go in order to get some kind of grasp on the work.
It’s also useful as a historical timeline marker in the compressed, accelerated history of America. This work was published in the decade before the civil war, and less than 80 years after independence – but this is still recent enough that there are people alive today whose grandparents would have been alive then and would have recognised the America, and Americans, described by Walt. The relative “recent-ness” of the text, compared to European historical descriptive poetry which can be many centuries old, is what makes Leaves of Grass still easily readable, and the people and places within it recognisable.
Even a few days after finishing it, I’m still not sure what to make of American Gods, and whether I really like it, or not.
This is the first book by Neil Gaiman, an author-hero to the library sector, that I’ve read. Hence, I’m not used to his writing style or subject matter, so this was a bit of a new experience.
It’s set in America (obviously) and, well, it’s difficult to say much without giving away spoilers. I’m also a little wary of the large and fanatical following for this book but, hey, nothing is liked by everyone. Not even chocolate.
The cover, and some other reviewers, have used the phrase ‘road trip’, but that’s a bit inaccurate. The action did move across several – though not many – places in the USA, and not always by road. A large chunk of the novel takes place in one town in Wisconsin which the received wisdom of people who have tried to identify where it is based on have settled on the authors home town (in real life).
The plot revolves around, erm, Gods. In America. Gods of many forms and shapes who have been brought to this (in some ways) new country by immigrants. And also newer gods, who express themselves in different ways (You may not watch “I love Lucy” in the same light again). The main character within is “Shadow”, an ex-prisoner who falls in with another bloke, “Wednesday”. Shadow I found disappointing and emotionally a bit detached, dulled. He rarely seemed surprised; in fact, possibly never. A case in point being the reappearance of his wife, where most people would have reacted in a different way. Shadow himself isn’t developed much as a person, and there’s hardly anything about it from childhood until when the novel starts. Then again, he’s probably not supposed to be a ‘main’ character, as the gods take a more central (and interesting) role in the book.
And there are many gods in the book, with the timeline moving around to fill in their back stories. Some fleshing out of a few of the human characters might have been better, especially Sam, the student and coffee shop barista from Madison. She was particularly under-developed and appeared at times merely as a plot movement device.
The book – which exists in several editions of varying length from ‘long’ to ‘sole Labor Day weekend read’ – is rich with metaphor, dream spaces, and the more considered forms of the human world(s) colliding with those of the supernatural. There’s also several good passages of writing. Sam, stuck in a car with someone who may or may not be a serial killer, elicits a long list, over several pages, of what she believes in:
“… I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste … I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly …”
And our hero – well, possibly not – the main character of the book thinks:
“He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while; or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.”
There’s several major plot twists near the end, of differing levels of surprise, which were a good reward for sticking with the book. Apart from the climactic scene, the last few chapters of the book were notched up a gear over the rest of the text which meandered off in places. There’s plenty of characters, a few somewhat unusual sex scenes, and some violence (though perhaps not as much as you’d expect).
The main problem I have with American Gods is that it seemed quite … familiar. I’ve read a lot of Clive Barker over the years and still do, even though he’s progressively mellowing with age. And many of the concepts and ideas in American Gods are present in Clive’s books from previous decades, especially Weaveworld, Imajica, Everville and Coldheart Canyon. I’m (definitely) not saying that Gaiman has ripped off Barker; many of the concepts can be traced back to other literature, the foundations of gothic writing, and before. But if you’ve read a lot of Barker, then you’ll know what I mean.
This particular book is over a decade old. It shows, implicitly; several of the sequences and plot progressions wouldn’t happen now, due to the Internet. There’s apparently a film version of this at a very early, not yet turned into a screenplay, stage, as well as a sequel on the way at some point.
One personal thing about the novel that I liked was that several of the places within I’d heard about previously, and want to visit, but haven’t yet. For example, the town at the notional centre of America (found in the 1930s by balancing a giant cut-out of America on a pin until it balanced), and The House on the Rock, with its Infinity Room and world’s largest indoor carousel. And a few others that I won’t say for spoiler reasons.
The ending, too, may be a little anticlimactic for some. Though, oddly, the last location in the book is the place on the top of my list of places to visit which I haven’t been to yet. And, because of the history of that place, seemed the most plausible passage in the whole novel.
I look forward to reading more of Neil’s writing. Hopefully there’ll be something I can get a grip on better (people keep recommending Neverwhere and Stardust, so they may be next).
Overall: 7 out of 10. A good read, but not an original one.
Arguably the most important book ever written, this was first published on the 5th July 1687. From this eventual trilogy, modern mathematics, science, engineering, technology and physics is influenced and derived.
There’s a rather battered copy, at Cambridge University library, that’s been digitised so you can look at every page. There’s also an English version, downloadable as one huge PDF file.