Hello, dear readers — apologies for a long but unavoidable absence. It was an overwhelming spring (book promotion) and a stressful early summer (family matters), so Thoughtful B. more or less kicked back and took the rest of the summer off, surrounded, of course, by reading — both e-books and the old-fashioned kind — along with laundry, shopping, social life, a loving spouse and the care of forty or more houseplants.
As summer draws to a close, I sense that my blogging time will get squeezed as I start in on a new writing project. So today, I’d like to share a short list of summer reads, three books which stood out because they were neither novels, novellas or poetry. All were non-fiction — biography, memoir and autobiography — all by and about remarkable men.
Some of my books wait around for years before they get read. That was the case with historian Martin Duberman’s masterful Paul Robeson (New Press, 1995). It’s a weighty (800 pages with endnotes), definitive biography of the great American singer actor, political activist and the country’s first African-American superstar. Robeson was a generous and gifted man caught in the coils of both the McCarthy witch-hunts and his own naivete about the Soviet state. It’s a riveting history of the mid-twentieth century, a page-turner, and, at that length, a whopper of a read. (BTW, there’s no e-book version to stow in your backpack).
Yes, the book’s both a literary triumph and an ergonomic disaster (which explains why it sat on my shelf unread for fifteen years), but I’ve been a Robeson fan for most of my life, and at last I decided that after years of enjoying his magnificent voice, a little tendonitis wasn’t too much to ask. The power and dignity of that great-hearted man and his singing has seen me through many of the world’s dark nights, and a few of my own. For lovers of African-American culture, American history and biography, Duberman’s scholarship and fluid writing make this a must-read.
Next up: If you’ve ever spent a long night in a hospital emergency room, you know what boredom is all about — not to mention the need for reassurance as you hold the hand of a loved one. Calm and friendly, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life on Earth (Random House Canada, 2013) is the go-to book for an all-nighter in the ER. Hadfield did a tour of duty as commander of the International Space Station last year, and his experiences in orbit qualify him as an even-handed guide through some of life’s more stressful situations. Astronauts, he explains — again in his calm, almost affect-less voice — are trained to ask “What is the next thing that can kill you?” (In the ER context, that made me smile). Astronauts analyse every possible problem that might arise in space flight, then master all solutions so that they handle glitches with confidence. He regales us with a few harrowing stories, but his tale is, for the most part, the can-do vision of a bright kid who’d always wanted to be an astronaut, and then made his vision a reality.
As commander, the guitar-playing Hadfield made himself an online star with his tweets from space and his gravity-free YouTube performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” While his writing tends to be flat, the story’s inspiring and heartfelt, and during that long night in the ER, I was happy to have the company of a cheerful, engaging Canadian voice, reassuring me that all would be well.
All’s not so well in the world of Amos Oz, one of Israel’s foremost writers (see my review of his wonderful novel, The Same Sea). Hoping for insight into at least one chunk of Middle East craziness, I turned to his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Harcourt, 2005). Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and grew up in humble circumstances, his young life sandwiched between the final years of the British mandate in Palestine and Israel’s War of Independence. The only child of idealistic European settlers — a pedantic father, frustrated in his ambitions to become a professor, and a cultivated, gifted mother, he read voraciously and bore witness to what is now a lost world: a city and country crammed full of intellectual ferment — Zionism, socialism, agrarian ideals — not to mention kindly relations with middle-class Arab neighbours. Amos Oz crams his story with unforgettable character profiles and striking anecdotes worthy of Chekhov. It’s a poignant book, circling around the suicide of his mother who suffered from undiagnosed depression. We know early on that she’s taken her own life; over and over again he hovers over this terrible incident, delving at last into unspoken grief in the book’s final pages. It’s a tour de force, full of tales that slide back and forth across time, meandering through consciousness, much the way that all memories do. I believe the book’s about 500 pages long; I read it as an e-book, where it clocked in at 1,075 pages.
That said, I prefer the heft and weight of a hardcover book, dear reader. More about that at another time.