Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen
Usually when you pick up a long novel it takes two or three chapters, maybe 50 or 100 pages to get into it. With Franzen it takes about a page and a half. He writes of the ordinary life of ordinary people, but in his prose they are anything but.
Crossroads is about the Hildebrandt family. They live in a parsonage in suburban Illinois. Russ, the father, is an assistant minister. He lives with his wife and four children, one in college, two in high school and one younger. Russ and Marion do not have a happy marriage (but really who writes 500+ page novels about happy marriages). It’s 1971, so the oldest, Clem, is thinking about his student deferment and his draft status number. (At the time we were all subjected to a lottery drawing which determined what our chances were of ending up in Vietnam.)
Each member of this family is on the verge of making some bad choices, in some cases life-changing bad choices. And when they’re not contemplating these self-destructive moves they’re bemoaning the bad choices they’ve made in the past.
Crossroads is the name of a church sponsored youth social group where most of the consequential scenes in Franzen’s story take place. There’s not too much religion there but some drugs, some sex, and even a little rock and roll.
The strength of Franzen’s writing is not just the depth of his characters but his descriptive powers. Here’s one example. If you ever had this electronic NFL game as a child, you’ll enjoy this. “The sheet-metal playing field vibrated electrically, with a sound like a Norelco shaver’s, beneath two teams of tiny plastic gridders with oblongs of plastic turf glued to their feet, the quarterbacks eternally frozen in he-man forward-passing posture, the halfbacks carrying a ‘ball’ that was more like a pellet of pocket lint and frequently fumbling it, or becoming so disoriented in the buzzy scrum that they speeded toward their own end zone…”
You take a look at a Franzen book and it seems to promise a significant investment in time. It won’t be. Like the two previous Franzen novels I read, I ripped right through it. Not sure I could name a better contemporary novelist.
True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson, Kostya Kennedy
One might think that everything that could possibly be said about arguably America’s most consequential athlete has already been said. If you read True, you’ll find that’s not the case.
Kostya Kennedy’s bio covers four ‘seasons’ in Jackie Robinson’s life. 1946 when he played his first year of professional baseball with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers AAA farm team. 1949, his third year of major league baseball, a time when he shed the “turn the other cheek” Jackie and became the fiery competitor that he truly was. 1956, his final year of baseball, when, according to Kennedy “Robinson might, from his locker room stall reflect on civil rights, segregation, the implications of say, Brown vs. Board of Education. just as soon as he might remark on the Dodgers hotel accommodations in the South.” And 1972, the year he passed. The last chapter is really all about life after baseball when Robinson encountered personal tragedy and deteriorating health.
Kennedy does not dwell on the racist crap that Robinson had to put up with. But he does point out a few that were new to me. Like the ignorant comments of Ben Chapman, unsuccessful manager of the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, who suggested in 1947 that what Robinson was after was sex with his teammates wives. And there are the charming folks from Greenwich, Conn., who many years later sold their homes because Jackie and his wife Rachel moved into the neighborhood.
Not all is venom and vile however. There were the people of Montreal, baseball fans or not, who greeted the Robinsons with a smile on their faces. And Kennedy says of the Dodgers Brooklyn home “was there in 1949 another public accommodation in America so naturally desegregated as Ebbets Field?”
This is a really well written book. One of the things that Kennedy does so well is capture the feel of the time and place. So when Robinson in appearing in the 1949 all-star game, the author doesn’t just rattle off the stats from Robinson’s at bats, he takes us to the corner of E 95th Street and Church Avenue in East Flatbush where Dodger fans, likely not TV owners, are watching the game on a black and white screen in the window of a TV shop. Others are listening on big wooden console radios in their living rooms.
I think this book comes as close as you can come to feeling what it was like to be Jackie Robinson, especially in the latter part of the 1940’s when he was breaking through the color barrier. It is a little piece of American history as much as it is a biography of a sports hero.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, Michael Lewis
This is a story about health care heroes, and about the people, agencies and companies that blocked them from saving us from the pandemic.
One of those heroes is Joe DeRisi. He ran a lab at the University of California -San Francisco where he invented a tool that would identify previously unknown viruses. When the pandemic started, he set up a test facility that would provide quick turnaround on COVID test results for free. It was underutilized as hospitals and public health agencies were committed to the paid company labs like Quest
despite their too slow to be useful processing.
Another of those heroes is Carter Mecher. A doctor at a VA hospital in Atlanta, Mecher would eventually write the first pandemic plan while working for the Bush administration. He used what Lewis calls ‘redneck epidemiology,’ an extensive study of the 1918 flu pandemic and a model created by a 15-year old girl for her science project. His Targeted Layered Containment plan involved telework, social distancing, banning large gatherings and closing schools. When the COVID outbreak started, neither Carter, his plan, nor anyone he worked with were in the conversation at the Trump White House where they were busy denying the existence of a pandemic.
Maybe the most interesting of Lewis’ health care heroes is Charity Dean. A young woman raised with no advantages, she got herself to college and then through medical school. Eschewing the big bucks of private practice she instead took up a county health officer position, partly because of her fascination with communicable disease. Fast forward a few years and she was the L6 in California. The concept of an L6 is based on the thought that in any organization there is someone who knows his or her stuff and knows what to do. But that person is never one of the heads of the organization. The L6 is that person and is likely six layers down the org chart.
After reading this I’m not sure I’ll ever think of the CDC the same way again. After one failed attempt to get their help Dean said, “I was mad they were such pansies. I was mad that the man behind the curtain ended up being so disappointing.”
Why were they not involved in working on Mecher’s plan? “They’d be constrained by their sense that they already knew everything worth knowing about disease control, and would be threatened by the possibility that in fact they did not.”
Lewis describes an incident shortly after the pandemic broke out in China. Fifty-seven persons traveling from Wuhan were quarantined for two weeks in Omaha. When the nearby Global Center for Health Security wanted to test them, CDC director Robert Redford refused permission claiming it would be ‘doing research on imprisoned persons.’ This despite the fact that the travelers wanted to be tested.
Ultimately what this book does is explain how it came to pass that more Americans died from COVID than any other group. Lewis writes this public health story in the same fast-paced play-by-play style that he used writing about football (The Blind Side). I know next to nothing about medical biology but everything here is clearly explained and presented. It makes for not just a very timely, but a very readable story.
Anxious People, Fredrik Backman
The bank teller is anxious. The bank robber is anxious. The hostages are anxious. The police are anxious. Hence the title.
But this is not solely a tale of anxiety. The author tells us on page one “this is a story about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.” Much of what follows corroborates that statement.
The basic plot involves an attempted bank robbery of a small-town institution in Sweden. It is a cashless bank. So the bank robber comes up empty handed, flees into a nearby apartment building and walks in on a viewing of a for-sale apartment. The viewers, as well as the realtor, become the hostages.
The story revolves around this odd collection of hostages, as well as a marginally functional father-son police team. There’s a bickering lesbian couple expecting a child. An older couple with a bruised ego husband. A bank exec who has made apartment viewing her hobby and a heavy drinking, reminiscing older woman. The author connects this disparate group of characters like a jigsaw puzzle, the connecting piece being a 10-year old suicide.
There is no violence and no one gets hurt. These hostages, as well as the perpetrator, need a battery of psychologists more than they need a law enforcement intervention. The story offers some suspense and some mystery. Buy mostly what it offers is humor, which occasionally hits a laugh out loud level. If there’s a moral it’s that there’s a little bit of wisdom in every idiot.
Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, Kerri Arsenault
It’s a story you’ve heard before. This one’s about Mexico, Maine, and it’s a paper mill. But it could be a Massachusetts town with a textile factory, a Pennsylvania town with a steel mill, or a New Jersey town with a chemical plant. A whole town is built around a manufacturing facility that provides good jobs and supports a middle-class lifestyle for a generation or two or three. Then somebody starts to figure out how to do the same thing cheaper. They figure out that they don’t need so many people and they decide they can’t afford to pay a living wage.
The younger generation begins to disappear. The movie theater closes, as does the other stores that are named after a local family, not a national chain. Homes lose their value and are abandoned or foreclosed. And to top it off, we begin to realize that the stench that hovers over the town, what they used to say was “the smell of money” instead seems to be the smell of cancer.
Kerri Arsenault’s story is, however, much more personal than that. She traces her Acadian ancestry back to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and even further back to France. She grew up in Mexico (Maine), goes back to visit her parents and old friends and remembers the sense of community nostalgically. She even connects with some community activists trying to stop neighboring Rumford from contracting with Nestle to tap into the town water supply. (If you read this book, you’ll never buy Poland Spring again.) She describes the environment in which she grew up: “We lived in a Shrinky Dink world where everything we needed was there, just smaller.” But she also realizes that she, her family, her neighbors didn’t realize that “all of what was before us was not as bright as what had passed.”
For all of the pride and backward-looking fondness Arsenault shows for the community she grew up in, she can’t look back without remembering her grandfather and father, both of whom spent most of their adult lives in that paper mill and both of whom died of cancer. “When my father retired from the mill after forty-three years, he received a toolbox (which he used), a Bulova watch (which he never wore) and asbestosis of the lungs.”
After being sold by its founder and town benefactor, the mill was sold several more times. Over the years it spewed out asbestos, mercury and dioxin. It’s toxic legacy is in the soil, in the water and in the air. One can make the case that America’s industrial polluters didn’t understand the consequences of what they were doing. But that rings hollow when you see the efforts made to not find or understand those consequences. And that’s not just from the mill owners but from the local, state and national agencies that are supposed to be looking after such things. Arsenault talks to everyone who’ll talk to her, plows through every document she can find. She can identify the poisons, she can identify the diseases, but a clear, irrefutable line between the two remains evasive, in spite of what common sense tells you.
Interesting selection of books. I’ve not read any of these, but I have read a couple other Fredrik Backman books which were very good. I have seen the movie of Anxious People, which was also quite good.
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We read Anxious People in my book club last year…we all enjoyed it as I recall. Pretty quirky.
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