Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It's a Warren G. thang

now finished:  The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times by Francis Russell
now reading: The Return of the God of Wealth: The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China by Charlotte Ikels

now also reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
now sick of typing: all these overly long subtitles that silly non-fiction books insist on having

THE PROJECT:  Read a biography  of every U.S. president, in order, to see where we went wrong: a project obviously conceived and named during the Dubya administration

THE PRESIDENT:  Warren G. Harding (it stands for "Gamaliel") (no, really), the 28th person to hold the office, in the 29th presidency (because we're post-Grover Cleveland here, so the numbering is all f***** up)

This was a big one! For PREZ BIOS #32, I have completed Francis Russell's tome. Just what exactly is the "shadow of blooming grove"?  I'll get to that in  a moment. (And why have I read 32 books about only 28 presidents? Because multi-volume bios. Thanks for asking.)

Here are just a few topics that I didn't know all that much about before reading The Shadow of Blooming Grove:  Edward Doheny (despite my having lived in and driven around L.A. for seven years), Albert Fall, the international disarmament conference in D.C. during the post-Versailles/League of Nation rejection years, Harding's alleged African-American ancestry and the weird attempts to reveal it to the nation, Harding's affairs (we're talking Bill Clinton levels of womanizing), and the town of Marion, Ohio.

And that's only part of the endlessly fascinating story detailed in this bio. It's a big one, to be sure, but absolutely absorbing. It covers a really interesting lifespan:  Warren (or "Wurr'n" as the author insists Harding's wife pronounced it, all Midwestern-drawl-like) was the first president to be born after the Civil War, but only about five minutes after (well, OK, seven months). And he died in the 1920s. It's mind-boggling to think about the transformation of the nation during his lifetime. And he died kind of early -- probably because the holy hell of his administration was all about to break loose, and I really think his brain just kind of imploded on him.

Fun(?) fact: He died in a hotel in San Francisco, after visiting Alaska, then still a territory.
Fun fact: As a young adolescent, he worked as a "printer's devil" in the newspaper/press office, and after a long night doing an important rush job for a client, his boss gave him a 13-em makeup rule ("the craft sign of a full-fledged printer" according to the book) and he carried it around as a good luck token for the rest of his life.
Fun fact: With friends like his, you most certainly would not need a lot of enemies.

A thankless, sorry bunch. Ohio politics, it has to be said, are possibly the foulest of them all, even more than Buchanan's Pennsylvania politics and the New York politics of Van Buren/Garfield/Cleveland Or at least the weirdest. From the madhouse, Warren emerged from his small-town newspaper, where he liked to jabber with all the folks and adopt a stray dog to hang out around the office, and ended up in the state assembly and later became a real live U.S. senator. And then, in a particularly insane Republican convention in Chicago (think: the birth of the smoke-filled rooms legend), they finagled a presidential nomination for him by making him everyone's second choice, as the story goes.

Why did Russell choose to put "the shadow of blooming grove" in the title of this book, the "shadow" being the alleged and doubted and rumored Negro/colored ancestry of the Harding family? Granted this was the early 20th century when Harding entered politics, and I think that characterizing "was your great-grandmother or wasn't she?" questions as a "shadow" more or less captures the feeling. But, it just didn't really seem to be that big of a part of Warren's political career. So why title the book that? The author sees this "shadow" hanging over the family's head as something that trailed Warren throughout his life, from schoolyard scraps to scurrilous campaign tracts, contributing to his lifelong insecurity. But I think he just didn't have as schmoozy and ambitious of a personality as the other Ohio politicians with whom he hung around (and who nonetheless propelled him to the top).

Of far more concern seem to be the affairs with a)his best friend's wife ("the long black veil of Blooming Grove," perhaps? except this particular woman wasn't ready to carry the secret to their respective graves) b)a gal who was a high school student in town when she first began to crush on him as he ran for office (ewwwww) (they didn't hook up 'til later, but ewwww).

President and puppy
However, despite his flaws (the womanizing being the main one) and despite his being completely and totally out of his element in the White House (he called it "hell" and a "prison" and asked why he was there and lamented to friends that he wanted out), our boy Warren comes off as oddly likable. He was friendly to pretty much everyone all his life, kicking back in the Marion, Ohio, newspaper office with his feet on the desk and talking to everyone in town. And he liked animals! And even better, he didn't like people who were mean to animals, and he said so. He took in a stray dog that wandered into the paper's office and it became their pet there for years, plus he had "Laddie Boy" in the White House, who was famous and popular throughout the land, and I like to think the puppy remained untarnished in citizens' eyes even as the administration went down in scandal and disgrace for the remainder of the '20s.
Harding's dog: classier than Harding?

I'm sort of proud of Warren for being at the top of the predictions when I type "Warren" into Wikipedia's search box, above Buffett, Beatty, Zevon, Ellis (I had to check who that even was-- a comics author, apparently), and Burger. I mean, Harding's definitely one of the more obscure presidents, and his most famous thing is probably Teapot Dome, which really wasn't even his doing. Truth be told, my memories of the scandal from AP History class were cloudy, so this book was a good refresher. But I think Warren was more oblivious and gullible and trusting than anything.  Albert Fall and Doheny on the other hand...they definitely got up to some stuff, in pursuit of oil and money. Outright swindling and bribery...who knows? Now, I feel a small connection to Teapot Dome, because the rock and oil fields in question are in the land of my birthplace, Natrona County, Wyoming, north of Casper.  It's a little known fact that I was born in Casper, in Natrona County Hospital (we moved to Arizona by the time I was two, though).  So I'm not opposed to anything that brings fame or even infamy to my native land...but unfortunately, as with so many of these mountains and geological formations in the West that "look like" something, Teapot Rock doesn't look all that much like a teapot. Apparently the "handle" and  "spout" have been eroded away or something.  What do you think?
Teapot Rock, of Teapot Dome fame

But it never would have become the greatest pre-Watergate presidential scandal without such a nice ring to the name, of course.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book for those who want to delve into an interesting life while learning a bit of history, indulging in nostalgia about turn-of-the-century Americana, and marveling at what politicians get up to in those smoke-filled rooms.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A literary realist, a philosopher, and a crime novelist (walk into a bar?)
Or, 2014: So Far

now reading: The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times by Francis Russell

Yes, yes, we're back. 2014 is going to be a year full of reading projects. No, this blog was not updated at any point in the latter half of 2013, a fact I most regret. But let's not dwell on the spilt milk, am I right? Let's pour ourselves a fresh glass - soy, if you please - and get cracking on all the books that are fit to read for 2014, which stretches so nicely ahead of us.

2014 reads so far

The trio with which I've opened the year are three oh-so-very different books.

The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
I've gone on a bit of a Henry James tear of late, not for any real reason other than that I had a collection of his novellas sitting around. I believe I got this packed-to-the-gills edition while I was at USC, but I also believe that I blew off some of my Henry James reading back in the American Lit major day, because I don't recall a thing.  Or is he just that unmemorable? The latter may be all too true. After mildly enjoying a few of the novellas/short stories (espcially "The Aspern Papers") (but that really is a short story, wouldn't you say? I think only Beast and The Turn of the Screw seem long enough to be novellas) I read this Beast last and thought it the most overrated of all. I've been hearing all my life about the homosexual subtext of this thought-provoking masterpiece and I've gotta say, I just didn't see it (neither the homosexuality, nor the provoked thoughts, nor the masterpiece). What on Earth happened between Archer (was that his name? I've already forgotten) and May Bartram?  Oh wait, Marcher. I knew Archer didn't sound right. Well anyway, what was that all about? These two might have the weirdest unconsummated relationship in all of literature, or maybe the weirdest of any relationship. Apparently Mr. James was trying to grapple with/tell us about fate and loneliness. So he has this guy who's convinced something big is going to happen to him and blah blah blah, but how does he get HER to join in with him waiting for this stupid fate? Why can't she wait for her own fate? This book blows me away by how unrealistic it is. Who lives like this? Literary realism, my foot. Anyway, it's over quickly enough, at least.

The Philosophy of Aristotle
Meanwhile, my philosophers project still hasn't really got off the ground, so I've decided to reframe it. I was going to read one philosopher per month each month of 2013, but instead all I did was read a bit about Thales online, then read The Dialogues of Plato (for Socrates) and Republic (for Plato) and then, wouldja look at that, 2013 was over. SO: we'll just say that doing the ancient Greeks was priming the pump, and now that I've done those guys AND Aristotle -- whom, surprise, surprise, I relate to the most (minus the misogyny) -- I will jump into a year of reading 12 philosophers, one per month, as soon as I'm ready to commence that project, which I think will be later this summer. (Because: so many other reading projects to get caught up with in the meantime.) I have to say that reading some of ol' Aristotle's Metaphysics and Logic can be tedious, but Poetics cheered me right up. And really, the guy was a genius. Except for the whole slavery and sexism, ugh, WHY?

212 by Alafair Burke
Aaaaand, a mystery. Mostly because I didn't read my yearly Alafair Burke in 2013 (I didn't set out to make it a yearly tradition, but the last three years living abroad in three different places, I've acquired three of her books on my Kindle for PC (because I have YET to see her paperbacks on sale in any bookstores in Asia; what gives?) and happened to electronically read one in each ESL-teaching-abroad apartment...and though I didn't get to one in China in 2013, everybody knows that even though it was January 2014 it wasn't the new Chinese year yet, so I was still safe. 212 is the third in her Ellie Hatcher series, the spunky Manhattan detective, and there's actually a fourth already out that I will get around to in some future summer. 212 came out a few years ago, I think while I was living in Chicago. As always, reading her books makes me miss living in New York City. This one was all right: interesting banter, really interesting characters (who make terrible choices) (yes, I am judging what some gals choose to do with their lives), and lots of different things going on.  However  SPOILER ALERT!!!   *spoiler spoiler go on to the next paragraph if you don't want a spoiler*  I think that what's-his-name the former cop should have been given more to do --perhaps more banter!--because he was kind of lurking in the background but he was so pivotal, helpful, and involved with different characters in different ways that it made it kind of obvious that he was the bad guy. However to my however, that didn't actually ruin the reading or anything because you still don't quite know how it all fit together. STILL SPOILERING HERE !!!! I also wasn't sure how I felt about the #ambiguousI'mnotambiguous climactic shooting. It was definitely "kind of shady, morality-wise," as Skinny Pete (or was it Badger?) would say. And finally, throughout the novel there are some paragraphs that pop up in which somebody talks too long, uninterrupted.  I often think about this myself, when writing dialogue.  You don't actually write dialogue exactly as people talk, obviously, but you can't cross the line into the place where it's JUST an explanation/rant/showing off of wisdom and no longer resembles real conversation flow. (Are you listening, William Styron in Set This House on Fire?) It might sound like I'm criticizing the book, but I actually just compared Alafair Burke to the great and mighty Styron, so there's that.

Is it interesting that I warned you away from the above paragraph if you don't want spoilers but feel under no obligation to do so, on this blog at least, for Henry James?  Hmmmm.

And now, you ask? Why, I'm reading a prez bio of course.  Stay tuned; in my next post we'll check in with the status of my bio-of-every-prez-to-see-where-we-went-wrong(a project obviously conceived and named during the Dubya "administration").