BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times April 25-May 1, 2007
by Philip K. Jason
What does a book columnist do for pleasure? Why, read books of course. Over the last several months I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy several top-notch books on a variety of subjects. Below, in no particular order, are three “Best Bets” for your enjoyment and illumination.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper Collins) is a widely acclaimed narrative about the author’s quest to discover the fate of six relatives from the small Ukranian town where his maternal grandfather’s family had flourished for generations. There had been mostly silence in the author’s youth about his uncle, Shmiel Jaeger (the grandfather’s brother), whom he was said to resemble. And there was a great mystery about exactly how Shmeil, his wife, and four daughters died. Daniel Mendelsohn became committed to finding the answers and telling the story. His journey takes him not only to the town (called Bolechow by its Polish-Jewish residents) and its neighboring communities, but also to Israel, Sweden, and Australia. In these far-flung places, Bolechow exiles, survivors of the Holocaust, hold the bits and pieces of information that Mendelsohn seeks.
The narrative is effective in combining factual and emotional detective work. Mendelsohn’s style is majestic, especially when meditating on the meaning of discovered fragments of fact and when describing the places that he visits. What he has to describe is not very pleasant: the unspeakable horrors that the Jews of this small town had to face, the complicity of neighbors who were thought to be friends, the tortured memories of those from whom the sought information is – sooner or later – revealed. Another aspect of Mendelsohn’s style, self-consciously developed, involves a shuttling back and forth in time and often moving by association rather than chronology. In this way, he reproduces how the searching mind operates in the process of discovery.
A unique aspect of this book is Mendelsohn’s interlaced series of meditations on the famous stories in the book of Genesis. Sometimes interesting in themselves, these sections do not illuminate the moral dimensions of the Holocaust material, as Mendelsohn no doubt intends. But on the whole, this is a powerful achievement, its focus and particularity still allowing it to serve as a microcosm of the larger Holocaust catastrophe. The urgency of Mendelsohn’s quest cannot be missed. There are fewer and fewer people left to answer the questions of life and death during the Holocaust and to breathe life back into vanished communities.
When I saw the title of Robert Stone’s new book, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (Ecco), I knew I had to read it. Why? First of all, Stone is one of my favorite writers. Of his seven novels, four rank high on my contemporary American fiction list. These are Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, and Damascus Gate. The other reason is that I’ve become a sixties junky awaiting the energy flow that will bring forth my own memoir of that exciting decade. Maybe reading Stone’s book will help.
Indeed, the maps of our lives during those years had some places in common, Greenwich Village and environs being the most important. Also, we were both aspiring writers, though Stone – about five years my senior – had turned the aspiration to solid reality by the decade’s end.
Like Mendelsohn’s, Stone’s descriptions of places are superb. Not only are locales rendered with sensory power, but perhaps more importantly, Stone captures the nuances of the kaleidoscopic cultural environment. We visit New Orleans, Mexico, California, New York, Vietnam, and London – following Stone in his pursuit of his craft and his themes. Too often, unfortunately, we must tolerate the drug culture that he recalls with dangerous authenticity. This is the downside of the creative stew simmering through those years, somehow making the creative volcano possible.
We follow Stone’s relationships with individuals like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, already cultural icons when Stone entered their orbit. We see Stone take on Grub Street jobs to make a subsistence living as a writer while pushing his first novel, Hall of Mirrors, along. We encounter him as a young husband and parent, balancing the needs and responsibilities of art and life. We re-enter the maelstrom of attitudes that swirled around the Vietnam War.
In the end, the book leaves a taste of betrayal and disillusionment. Stone writes, “Life had given Americans so much by the mid-sixties that we were all a little drunk on possibility. Things were speeding out of control before we could define them. Those of us who cared most deeply about the changes, those who gave their lives to them, were, I think, the most deceived.” The rest of this paragraph (on p. 161 of the book) stands as a marvelous encapsulation and assessment of the times.
Bill Belleville’s Losing It All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape (University Press of Florida) is also a book most notable for its author’s descriptive power. This searingly beautiful work, at once plea and elegy, confronts what we have sacrificed for residential-commercial development and short-term convenience. It is at once a teaching text in which we learn about the ecosystem that we have so thoughtlessly and rapaciously undermined and a personal story of one individual’s confrontation with loss.
Belleville is unabashedly emotional, as well as logical, in his response to the sprawl that threatens to turn Florida into a desert. His sojourns in the remaining protected areas in and around Seminole County are pilgrimages to holy places. They are also journeys back in time to a unique and glorious landscape and a spontaneous unfolding process of renewal and adaptation. Belleville literally worships unspoiled nature, and he shares his reading of what it reveals much like a priest exploring scripture.
Bill Belleville teaches us to appreciate the integrity with which Cracker architecture raised domiciles whose design did not attack the hot and swampy environment, but rather took advantage of it by working with it. He patiently explains the price of progress, how the paving over of our state not only creates unmanageable runoff of poisons but also undermines the delicate balance of rain, natural water storage, and natural water flow that allows this peninsula to exist. Dry wells, sinkholes, and impoverished flora and fauna are consequences of greed and irresponsibility. And much worse is to come.
In the final stages of the book, Belleville describes the damage wrought by hurricanes to the Sanford area he has come to love. But such natural forces are nowhere near as destructive, both spiritually and materially, as the proliferation of asphalt and the countless temples to vapid consumerism that violate a once-glorious wilderness.
Losing It All to Sprawl is a mighty and moving achievement, a telling antidote to the pro-growth boosterism that shapes the decisions of all too many private and public leaders.