Monday, August 31, 2009

Oh, Johnny

Jim Lehrer

This is the nineteenth novel by Jim Lehrer: yes, that Jim Lehrer, the host of The News Hour on PBS. In it, Lehrer brings back a couple of his favorite themes; the Marine Corps; Lerhrer was a Marine, and buses, the Greyhound and Trailways kind. I know from hearing him interviewed on the radio that Lehrer owns an old reconditioned bus and occasionally takes it out on the road near his country home outside Washington DC. Johnny, the central character, is the second Lehrer protagonist, after The One Eyed Jack, to become a bus line ticket agent, a job that Lehrer once held himself.

Oh Johnny asks the same question that I did, or intended to, in my review of to Ken Robinson's The Element. What happens when a person pursues a dream, to do something that he loves and is very good at, and yet he fails? In reality this is an all too common occurrence. As in real life Lehrer's answer is "not much."

We meet Johnny Wrigley as an 17 year old Marine on a troop train headed west to go fight the Japanese in WWII. Because of the war he has missed a chance to play minor league baseball. The team that offered him a tryout has, along with the rest of the league, suspended operations for the duration of the war. Johnny is convinced that some day he will be a star center fielder in the majors.

Stopping for a 30 minute layover in Wichita Kansas - Jim Lehrer's birthplace, incidentally - Johnny meets and falls in love with a young girl he meets on the station platform. After some truly horrible experiences in the war, which Lehrer gets us through with minimal fuss, Johnny returns, to find that he is unable to locate his dream girl. Returning to his home in Maryland Johnny does get into the minors but injures himself by running into the center field wall and is no longer able to play.

The book revolves around Johnny's "shell shock" or PTSD, as we would now call it, his inability to find his Betsy and his disappointed attempts to become a professional baseball player. At one point he does eventually find the girl he met but finds that she is a completely different, and less attractive, person than he had thought. Professional baseball reveals itself to be a hard life in which one mistake can end your career and in which no quarter is given, even by one's own teammates.

Johnny's expectations are dashed at every turn, throughout the book, yet he finds a sunny optimism, based on the idea of luck, which carries him through the war and through his attempts at professional baseball. Betsy, the girl on the Wichita platform was his good luck charm. When he finally meets Betsy he learns how false his good luck has been.

There is a dramatic scene in which Johnny's life turns around involving a baseball field. I won't give it away any further than that. In the end Johnny settles for a life as a bus line ticket agent, married to someone other than his dream girl. He leads a normal mundane life and is just fine with it. His is not a life of quiet desperation.

It is possible that Jim Lehrer eventually settled for a life as a national evening news host and a novelist when his dream was to drive a bus.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival #25

The twenty fifth Book Review Blog Carnival is available for your reading pleasure at This Girl's Bookshelf. Stop by and take a look at the 30 reviews listed. Be sure to leave a comment, even if it's just to say hello and please link to the carnival from your own blog if you have one. Help us spread the word.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon

This new novel by the author of Gravity's Rainbow and V is written in the style of a hard boiled detective novel. It is also classic Pynchon. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1969 with a central character who is a pot smoking disillusioned hippie turned private invvesigator, a veteran of the early 60's surfer scene, named Doc Sportello. Sportello's bete noire is L.A. Police detective Bigfood Bjornson, an aggressive, rule bending, Dirty Harry like figure who turns out to be a henpecked husband with a sentimental streak.

Pynchon's ever present themes of paranoia, conspiracy and corruption are to be found in Inherent Vice. As in his earlier novels there is a secret society, this time called "Golden Fang," which is introduced as the name of a schooner which slips in and out of the harbor at night on mysterious errands, but is also an investment group run by dentists, a drug cartel, the owner of a run down casino in the wrong part of Las Vegas, a real estate development company, a right wing political group and a rehab clinic.

Sportello wanders in a marijuana induced haze, through the streets of Los Angeles searching for clues into the disappearance of developer Mickey Wolfmann. He is given bits and pieces of information by a wide variety of characters, heroin addicts, surfers, the saxophone player in a psychedelic surf band working undercover as a police informant and political provocateur, a former teenage runaway and her dentist/lover. Each revelation makes the plot more convoluted but seems to lead toward a hoped for but never revealed resolution. Doc Sportello is as clueless at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. There is never a denouement where Sortello reveals his clever solution to the crime. He does get paid, though, by the conspirators themselves but in a plausibly deniable way.

Although Pynchon uses themes from film noir and the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and makes references to John Garfield movies, this is not a mystery novel in the classic sense. It is a rambling, paranoiac Thomas Pynchon novel. As in all of Pynchon's work, the confusion and sense of pointlessness you are left with are the whole point of the book.

Thomas Pynchon has made somewhat of an enigma of himself. He does not allow himself to be photographed and keeps his whereabouts a secret, as though he were one of the characters in his novels. Rumor has it that Pynchon is up for a Nobel Prize in literature. All he needs to do is reveal himself as a female writer from a third world country and he's in like Flynn.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Element

Ken Robinson, Ph.D.
with Lou Aronica

According to a popular myth there is a calling for each one of us, something that we are so good at and love doing so much that it doesn't feel like work at all. Ken Robinson advocates for the existence of this perfect occupation. He calls it being in one's "element," and recommends looking for that element in our own lives and pursuing whatever calling it presents us. Unfortunately, Henry David Thoreau's often quoted "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" is more true now that when he wrote Walden in 1854.

Robinson never mentions this, but I believe that finding such an "element" for each and every person on Earth would be a good argument for the existence of a personal, omniscient and ever present God. Who else could organize the world in such a way that every single person would born with such a perfect fit to one or more pursuits? The evidence is not in favor of this hypothesis, though, as Thoreau has pointed out. Very few people ever find an "element."

Robinson uses examples, such as Paul McCartney, Julia Child and one of my favorite people, physicist Richard Feynman, to illustrate his thesis. Each of them did find something to do that was eminently suitable to his talents and each of them enjoyed his job immensely, not to mention making a pretty good piece of change at it. These very talented, very lucky people were able to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and they all created careers for themselves doing what they loved doing. Most of us are just not that talented, or that lucky.

Dr. Robinson wants to encourage each of us to find our "element" and to help our children find theirs.I found his argument against the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, the core of "No Child Left Behind," to be highly cogent. As Robinson says, "I doubt there are many children who leap out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise the reading score for their state." His basic thesis, however, I find to be messy, new age claptrap. Not that I am against people pursuing their dreams, but I think it's important to have a fallback position in case it doesn't work out.

After reading The Element I am ready to quit my job in order to pursue my dream of becoming a rock star. Or maybe not. He did mention being good at it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Twenty Third Book Review Blog Carnival

The twenty third edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival has been posted at Bart's Bookshelf. Bart has done a bang up job, even tracking down cover art for all 29 books reviewed by the carnival participants.

If you review books and would like to participate you may submit a review for the next carnival at Blog Carnival, which handles the submission process. Inkweaver Review will host the next carnival on August 16th.