Monday, October 08, 2012

On the Shelf 10.9.12

Watership Down, Richard Abrams
It is hard for me to express how much I love this book.  As a kid, I only knew it from glimpses of the movie version that I stole while playing at my friend Tony's house, the friend who had HBO.  I remember only something about a black rabbit at the end, but I don't want to know more. I'm reading it now, out loud, to my seven and nine year old kids, usually near the wood stove now that it's colder, and it's such a great final hour of the day that I'm usually ready to be tucked into bed myself after a chapter or two.

If you don't know it, it's about rabbits, and they talk, but it's not a kids book, really--it's written with enough sophistication and there is enough subtlety of character here that most of today's popular young adult fiction looks laughably simple in comparison.  And that's what's odd about it: I dare say it could be a difficult read for someone not used to challenging themselves much beyond Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but, at the same time, my kids hang on every word, and it's not like they're especially special or anything. And I just spoke to another student last week who first heard the book read to her by her dad when she was seven, and it's her favorite book, too.  

But anyway, it's wonderful.  The brave young rabbit Hazel, leading his small band to friendlier land, the descriptions of the land itself, the violence and fear that makes up the life of these small animals--it's one of the most affecting novels I've picked up in a long time.

"Disunion," a series on the Civil War at The New York Times blog The Opinionator .

I used to have a teacher who used to brag to us students that his Civil War final exam was so difficult that . . something, I don't really remember, but I know it was bad.  We never found out because, luckily, he had some kind of health thing that made him retire before we got that far.  Ever since, the Civil War has always hung there for me, like a war all my buddies went off to without me.  There has been some guilt.  But Disunion, a series of blog entries that focus on big and little stories of the war, is helping me to face this dark period of my personal history.  It's full of details that feel quaint now: generals too timid to pursue an enemy to take a crucial railway station, the effect on mortality caused by a simple change in the shape of bullets.  I still don't have a clear overall picture of the war, and would fail that test for sure today if forced to, but this blog gives me enough of the tiny stories that I would be able to bluff my way through an essay or two.


The first six seconds of this video of Allen Ginsberg walking down the street.  The video lasts a little over five minutes, a silent clip of home-video showing Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac walking down a Manhattan street in 1959, but all I care about are those first six seconds.  There's something infinitely cool about the way he swings his arms, his lazy smile, his whole beat poet swagger.  I don't love it as much as I love hearing him read his poem "America," but there is a lot of that poem in those few slow-motion seconds of film.

My scobbles might say differently, but it feels like the only song I've really heard for the past few weeks now is the mellow and naive R&B of Donnie & Joe Emerson's "Baby."  The story of how their one album was recorded, forgotten for decades, and then re-discovered in a second-hand shop and given new life is so sad and weird it's funny, but there is nothing funny about this song.