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Wednesday, 10 September 2014 20:34

Time to clear the desk of books waiting for review

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bookFor many reasons, this summer in particular afforded many opportunities for reading. During a 60-hour stay at Figure Eight Island, for example, I finished a novel and a book of essays, mostly because my hosts wanted to do nothing more than cook excellent meals, sprawl on the sand, and read books. As a result, my pile of books for possible review sprinted ahead of my ability to write of them.

First off the mark is Christopher Buckley’s But Enough About You (Simon and Schuster, 2014, 450 pages). Buckley, best-known for novels like Thank You For Smoking and Boomsday, and for being the son of the late conservative William F. Buckley, has in this volume collected dozens of essays: political opinion pieces, sketches of his time in Paris, humorous bits, and portraits of other writers and friends, including Joseph Heller of Catch-22 fame and Christopher Hitchens, the liberal journalist who until his death was one of Buckley’s most cherished friends. 

But Enough About You is worthy of attention on several fronts, but particularly in its humor and in the affection of its portraits of certain authors. In an essay titled “To-Ga!,” a brief look at the movie and the book Animal House, Buckley writes, “His book is sophomoric, disgusting, tasteless, vile, misogynist, chauvinist, debased, and at times so unspeakably revolting that any person of decent sensibility would hurl it into the nearest Dumpster. I couldn’t put it down.”

The two best biographical sketches in But Enough About You are of Ray Bradbury and Hitchens. In writing of Bradbury, Buckley reminds us not only of the enormous number of short stories Bradbury put out in his lifetime, but of the rare joy he took in writing. So many writers whine of the difficulties of their craft, but for Bradbury it was sheer fun. “My job,” he told college students in regard to literature and writing, “is to help you fall in love.”

But it is the portraits of Hitchens that are the most touching of all the essays. While lauding Hitchens for his prose style, his vast knowledge of literature, and his acute political observations, Buckley writes that “among his prodigal talents, his greatest of all may have been the gift of friendship.” His eulogy to his deceased friend includes the dedication at the beginning of But Enough About You.

•••

Katie Kieffer’s Let Me Be Clear: Barack Obama’s War on Millennials, and One Woman’s Case for Hope (Crown Forum, 2014, 338 pages) has some excellent points, but these are smothered in the disorganized style and too many failed attempts at being cute. Here is a random selection on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. Kieffer writes that “the press gave a flying squirrel about Trayvon’s life; his story meant money. And there’s no use denying his story, rehashed around the clock, came at a price: We never heard anyone else’s life and we were left with the impression that racism is rampant in America.”

“Flying squirrel?” “We never heard anyone else’s life?” The squirrel, substituted presumably for the f-word, sounds silly, and “we never heard anyone else’s life” makes absolutely no sense. Let Me Be Clear often seems anything but clear.

While reading Let Me Be Clear, I also kept trying to imagine the audience for this book. Would millenials — young people in their teens and twenties — read Kieffer’s call to action? She clearly knows a good deal about politics, but do they? And would they be able to follow an author writing such skittish prose? 

Like so many political screeds produced nowadays from the Left and the Right, I suspect that Let Me Be Clear will prove as ephemeral as … well, as this review.

•••

In The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend (Simone and Schuster, 2013, 414 pages), Bob Drury and Tom Clavin give us an engaging and informative biography of the Sioux chieftain Red Cloud. Most Americans, familiar with Custer’s Last Stand, have heard the names Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, but it was Red Cloud who seems the greatest of these warrior-statesmen. In the years immediately following the Civil War, he organized the Sioux resistance to the settlers and American cavalry troops coming into the Black Hills—“Paha Sapa to the Sioux, or the ‘Heart of Everything That is.’”  

In addition to its lively writing, what makes The Heart of Everything That Is valuable as a history of this man and his era is the background information provided by the authors regarding both the Sioux and the US cavalry. We come away from this history feeling as if we know the Sioux and why they sided with men like Red Cloud to defend their way of life. Details from religious ceremonies to the leadership qualities expected from warriors imbue this book. Here, for example, is a description of the death of one trooper during the Battle of Red Buttes in 1865:

“Traveling at 250 feet per second and deadly accurate to 100 yards, it produced a sound that was described variously as a shrieking whistle or a mere whisper on the wind. In either case soldiers on the frontier certainly heard it coming, even if there was no time to react. So it was that in all likelihood Lieutenant Caspar Collins, a musket ball already lodged in his hip, recognized the hiss of an arrow an instant before its cast-iron tip pierced his forehead, drilled through his skull, and exploded his prefrontal cortex. The last thing he saw was his cavalry troop being overrun by Indians.”

Here is an excellent history worthy of a read.

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