Stories of Heroes, Despots, Killers, Musicians, and Things That Go Bump. . . .   Leave a comment

About Some Of My Favorite Books

October 1, 2016

For two decades I was a road warrior, traveling on company business around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many of those road trips were the long-haul variety, to New York or Toronto, London or Tokyo. A constant traveling companion for me on those journeys was a book, sometimes two. Books were excellent companions for frequent flyers, all of us happily oblivious in those pre-smartphone days, with no hint of the on-board tech-driven in-flight annoyances to come. With the Lighthouse Peddler’s  regular book contributor Joel Crockett taking a well-deserved leave from writing for a few months, I decided try and fill his shoes by reconsidering some of those literary traveling companions of mine.

Crafting a story based on fact can sometimes be more difficult than it seems. Subsequently adapting that non-fiction story for film can be even more daunting. I recall seeing a preview for the soon-to-be-released film All The President’s Men (1976) and couldn’t wait to see it. A friend of mine was surprised that I had such anticipation for the film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of Richard Nixon. My friend said, “why would you want to see that film?  Everybody knows how it ends.” But that is what separates many/most of those aspiring to literary success from successful writers.

In the early 1980s I found myself on a Pan Am flight to London clutching The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. My copy of this classic, Wolfe’s 8th book, shows the wear and tear of all that travel. When I pulled it out of the bookshelf in our home this weekend, an Eastern Airlines “seat occupied” card fell out of the pages. Eastern was once one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines, and like Pan Am, it had a glorious history, only to be eclipsed by a dramatically changed travel industry. Coincidentally, the glory days of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am paralleled many of NASA’s as well.

The Right Stuff is an amazing book. Most people, these days, are at least familiar with NASA and know some history of the early space program, and the lives of those early pioneers. There was Chuck Yeager; not destined to be an astronaut but a legend nonetheless. Gus img_1782Grissom, Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and all of the other wannabe ‘spacemen’ are here. Wolfe’s recounting ranges from stool specimens to test flights, and then the final glory of being selected to sit on top of a rocket and be hurled into space and history. The Right Stuff was a ‘page-turner’ as they say. I recall a British Pan Am flight attendant, observing my reading material on that London flight. She simply looked at me and said, “powerful stuff, that!”. Understatement of the day. And Wolfe told this amazing story in just over 400 pages.

In 2001 I did some reading as part of my graduate research in New York for a class taught by Professor Robin Blackburn, a regular guest lecturer from London, on the subject of the slave trade. In addition to Blackburn’s own fine books—The Making of New World Slavery (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988)—I selected img_1787Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The subtitle pretty much says it all: “A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. In just 318 pages, one gains a thorough understanding of the contemptible nature, the arrogance, and the greed of many of our European Ancestors, and the baggage left behind on three continents. I loved King Leopold’s Ghost. There is imagery in and between the lines to give you pause, but then perhaps the slave trade and colonial exploitation should continue to give pause to us all.

I rarely read fiction, but another college assignment back in 2000 was The Killer Angels, the gripping and historically accurate look at the Battle of Gettysburg. My copy of Michael Shaara’s book is a pocket-sized, inexpensive hard cover edition. But once again, a writer proves that using more words is not always a necessity. How those words are put together is the test. Like All The President’s Men, we all know (or should know) how the Gettysburg story ends, yet Shaara take’s the horror and the drama and refines it into an amazing literary work. The imagery is outstanding. As the days of fighting took their toll, the Battle of Gettysburg was nearing its conclusion. “[General Robert E.] Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky.” Shaara writes so well that you’d swear he was sitting on a bluff overlooking the bloody fields. In July of 1863 the American Civil War was at its turning point. Many more lives would be lost, with sacrifices on both sides. Books like The Killer Angels speak to George Santayana’s mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The more casual we speak of war, the more likely we are to reaffirm Santayana’s words.

If Wolfe, Hochschild, and Shaara don’t interest you, there are plenty of other good books around, probably in stock at your local independent book seller. Here are a few more older titles that I recommend:

The Last Lion, William Manchester’s trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill. I found volume one fabulous, volume two a little slow at times but worth the read. I picked up a copy of the final volume at Four-Eyed Frog some months back and its nearing the top of my reading pile.

Lawrence In Arabia is Scott Anderson’s look at the great Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. Note the title emphasis: in, not of. This is about the complexities of the man and his img_1785adventures, and not simply the T.E. we saw in the grandeur of David Lean’s marvelous 1962 film. The pages are filled with the real dirt and grit that Lawrence lived. And Anderson knows how to tell the story.

Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musician’s And Their World by Gene Lees. This book came out of a reading assignment some twenty years ago. Lees takes a look at some well known (and less well known) musicians from the world of Jazz. There’s Shorty Pederstein (. . . me either), Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, and others. You will absolutely learn something about Jazz, Jazz musicians, and the desire to express oneself through music. This book is a bit tougher to find, but it’s worth it.

My wife taught me years ago that there remains a tactile wonder when turning the pages of a book. Just browsing the aisles of the Four-Eyed Frog or other bookstores we’re aware that there isn’t really any such connection when reading with the glowing screen of a Kindle or an iPad. But however you choose to read, do it again. Even if it’s for the first time. And don’t wait for a long flight to London.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: