Thursday, May 28, 2009

Billy Graham: Friend of Republicans

Ross Douthat weighs in on Stephen P. Miller's new book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Douthat, whose political leanings generally tilt differently than my own (read, conservative), nonetheless, was a regular stop during the last presidential election to take the Republican pulse, and also to witness some rare, nuanced conservative views on Obama, McCain, and the daily machinations of presidential politics. He was one of several bloggers at The Atlantic (like Megan McArdle) that I respected as writers, even if I didn't always march in lockstep with. Sadly, Douthat stopped blogging for The Atlantic in April (he now is a regular op-ed contributor to the NY Times).

His review is solid, like most of what he writes. Douthat, btw, also has a book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, which came out in 2008.

Looks like I'll need to add Miller's book to my growing list of summer reading material.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Aimee Semple McPherson-Fundamentalist Queen

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Long before megachurches and names like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen became commingled with American Christianity, Aimee Semple McPherson was America’s key religious figure, representing fundamentalism and old-time religion in America between the two World Wars. She was America’s most famous and certainly flamboyant minister, during the 1920s, 1930s, and even into the early 1940s. Given the scope of her influence, and thorough remaking of the country’s religious landscape, it is unfortunate that so few within, and without the confines of American Christendom know about “Sister Aimee” today.

While there have been books detailing McPherson’s life before (both Edith Blumhofer and Daniel Epstein produced solid works about McPherson) Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America is the first book that places her firmly within the cultural, political, and religious milieu of her era.

The book, which came out in 2007, avoids some the traps of previous treatments of McPherson’s life—the stereotypes and caricature so often attendant with this early 20th century religious icon.

Avery does an excellent job of highlighting the context of the period when McPherson’s star began to rise. From simple beginnings on a farm in Ontario, McPherson would utilize the new media of her day, particularly radio, to draw upon the burgeoning appeal of popular entertainment, and the development of modern day Hollywood.

Raised by a strict mother, McPherson’s religious underpinnings were forged by the conservative theology of the Salvation Army. Later, she would meet an itinerant Pentecostal evangelist and fiery preacher, Robert Semple, when he came to Ingersoll, her hometown, for a revival. Later, the two married and after a brief time in Chicago, the newlyweds were off to the mission field in China. Semple later contracted malaria, and died, leaving Aimee stranded with her young daughter. She would return to the States, enter into another relationship leading to marriage to Harold McPherson, a successful businessman. This one would fail mainly due to McPherson’s inability to forego preaching, for domestic chores and duties.

It was as an evangelist that McPherson began to find her true religious calling. After a transcontinental journey in her “Gospel Car,” which was painted with the slogan, “Where will you spend eternity?” and holding meetings from the farflung reaches of the northeast in Maine, down the eastern seaboard into Florida, and across America’s heartland, in the Midwest. From there, McPherson headed west, arriving in Los Angeles in December, 1918, with mother and children in tow.

While there is no doubt that McPherson would have attained a measure of fame and notoriety regardless of where she put down roots, the city of Los Angeles during the 1920s was the perfect place for someone with McPherson’s gifts, charisma, and sexual aura to be living. It is Avery’s ability to place McPherson within this context, and his understanding of its importance that makes his book the standout that it is.

Los Angeles in the 1920s had been transformed from a sleepy agricultural town, to the place where 500,000 Americans descended over the next decade, lured by train to an Edenic paradise with its fabulous climate, marketed by legions of real estate developers and other civic opportunists. Score of Midwesterners—retired farmers, grocers, Ford agents and others—would sell out their farms and businesses to settle in California, and in particular, the “City of Angels.” It was from the bulk of these folks that McPherson would build her following from.

Civic leaders were thrilled that McPherson chose to build her magnificent Angelus Temple in sunny Los Angeles. They saw her choice as vindication of their city, and would serve as a magnet for tourists, and it wasn’t long before these leaders saw the economic bump that McPherson provided.

The Temple was located a few miles from downtown, at the corner of Sunset and Glendale Boulevards. I visited the church a few weeks ago, when in Los Angeles, and it is a magnificent building even today. It had to have been a spectacular attraction nearly 90 years ago, when first built. Avery points out that famed California journalist and historian Carey McWilliams believed that McPherson’s timing for establishing her church, and its location “were perfect.”

McWilliams wrote, “The postwar period, so full of restlessness, with its craze for entertainment and passion for frivolity, had already given birth to the Jazz Age. The flapper had arrived, a little tipsy, with short skirts and bobbed hair. It was time for petting and necking; for flasks and roadside taverns; for move ‘palaces’ and automobiles…and Aimee was determined to lead the parade on a grand detour to Heaven.”

Attendees would parade to the Angelus Temple en masse during McPherson’s heyday, with church officials counting weekly attendance at between thirty and fifty thousand people, as the church was packed almost nightly and on weekends. They came to hear McPherson’s sermons, and theatrical delivery of her biblical message.

Avery clearly makes the case that it was McPherson who deserves credit for the megachurch movement, and the political strength exhibited by the religious right, and figures such as James Dobson.

Eighty years ago, fundamentalism was floundering. It was on the ropes, after taking an uppercut to the jaw from the Scopes Trial, and repeated attacks from liberal theologians like Fosdick, making claims that modern science invalidated the fundamentalist theology. McPherson and her allies reshaped the “old-time religion” and found new ways to promote it and connect it to changes happening in mainstream American culture.

Avery’s book is well-researched, without being overly pedantic, or unnecessarily scholarly. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold up well as a strong source of historical documentation.

He takes a very even-handed approach to an important 20th century figure, one that is sadly underrepresented in the 21st century, and should be, given the importance of who she was, and what she represented, particularly her role model for women, as a religious and cultural pioneer.

The book should appeal to anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of America and early 20th century history. It also is a very strong work on the phenomenon of urban growth in the last century, particularly Los Angeles, and its ascendancy to becoming one of the nation’s great cities.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Writing about dogs

Mark Doty is a fine writer. Equally at home writing poetry, as well as prose, my first contact with his work was via his wonderful memoir, Dog Years.

The book was one of many that I jammed into my backpack while readying for our summer vacation, in August 2007. Mary had found what looked like a delightful, rustic cottage along Maine's rocky coast, in Steuben, about an hour east (or Down East, if you prefer) of Mount Desert Island, and removed from the tourist Mecca of Bar Harbor. Granted, we were working from a picture and description from a guide to Maine camps and cottages (put out by the Maine's Office of Tourism , I think), but we decided to take and chance. I'm glad we did.

Bernie, then 12-years-old, was beginning to show the first signs of aging. Occasionally, after he would run chasing balls in the yard, or aggressively exert himself running, his rear haunches would shake and quiver. I wondered if he was showing the first signs of a possible genetic hip condition that Shelties are prone to have.

Steuben became a magical week away from television, cell phones, and computers. It was a week filled with early morning walks in the fog, exploring the shoreline at low tide. We met a local clammer, 82-year-old Reny, who kept us supplied with the freshest clams for the rest of the week, for a pittance of what we'd have paid in Portland. Mark, our son, and his girlfriend, Gabi, would arrive midweek, and share the cottage for the remainder of the week.

One night, we had Sandy Phippen, Maine writer extraordinaire, over for dinner. Phippen and I had struck up a relationship over the phone over the past few years, and I thought it would be great to have him by, since he lived nearby in Hancock. His homespun Maine humor and stories kept us all in stitches throughout dinner and afterwards.

I read Doty's book in a day and a half. Without giving away too many details of the book, the ending, where Doty eloquently conveys the passing of one of his two beloved 70-pound labs, Beau, touched an emotional resevoir, as if my own canine friend, Bernie, had passed away. Little did I know that less than two years later, I would personally experience the loss of my own friend.

Doty's book has a much greater depth than the popular Marley & Me. That's not to say that the latter isn't fine for some tastes, but for me, Doty's writing is much more grounded in the harsh complexities of life's realities, with their joy, pain, heartbreak, and the inevitable death of loved ones, both animal and human that all of us must come to terms with.

This is only the second day without Bernie, but his departure has left an almost palpable emptiness in our home. This void has much less to do with the absence of Bernie's 35-pound physical frame, and much more to do with his larger than life spirit and personality that filled rooms, and always elicited a smile. He was a dog that truly loved everyone he was ever with, as long as it was human, and not a fellow dog (an association that I don't think Bernie ever was comfortable with).

I know that both Mary, Mark, and I will ultimately come to terms with the loss of our dog, but in the short-term, it's just really hard to cope with, just as Doty was able to convey in his wonderful memoir.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Writing awards for Mainers

In book news that has virtually gone unnoticed in her state of birth, former Maine resident, author Elizabeth Strout, won a coveted Pulitzer in fiction, for her latest novel, Olive Kitteridge.

Ironically, it was the LA Times where I learned of this. Back in 1999, Strout had scored the newspaper's Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle.

While much of the Pine Tree State seems to be oblivious to Strout's award, Carolyn Kellogg of the Times' Jacket Copy blog, wrote a nice post featuring Strout.

Strout's prior novel, Abide With Me, captured accurately, I think, life in a small Maine town, like few other books I've read. While Strout's lived away for several years, she's obviously still connected to her Maine roots.

In an interview done a few years ago, Strout, a Bates College grad, touched on the small town way of life that still characterizes some of the state's more remote areas, although it's disappearing rapidly.

"I come from Maine," Strout says, "and both my parents come from eight or nine generations of Maine people. Even though I've been in New York for so many years, there's something deeply familiar to me about that kind of small town. There is a way of life up there that's disappearing. I did not set out to do it. Not at all. But the pressure inside of me was asking me to write about these people, and it occurs to me that I am sort of documenting the end of an era."

Strout isn't the only native Mainer garnering a recent award for their writing.

Wilton resident Kathy Lynn Emerson was awarded the 2008 Agatha Award for Best Non-fiction Book at the Malice Domestic conference in Washington, D.C.

The Agatha Awards are named after noted mystery writer, Agatha Christie, and are awarded annually to writers working in the mystery genre.

Emerson is nothing, if not prolific, having penned 40 books over the past two decades, averaging two published books per year.

While Stephen King is the name most likely to crop up in conversations about Maine writers, both Strout and Emerson prove that there are other writers with Maine roots worth taking notice of.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Laying it out, 140 bits at a time

Saw this at both Jacket Copy and The Elegant Variation, this AM.

Dispatched (as in "canned) writer, Dan Baum, is using Twitter to regale his followers about his tenure with The New Yorker.

Gawker had a piece about this, yesterday, also.

One bit that I found particularly interesting, was Baum lamenting life as a freelancer--it took him seventeen years of pitching stories to finally break through with the magazine.

From Baum:

First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. "Staff writer" is a bit of a misnomer, as you're not an employee, But rather a contractor. So there's no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. It's Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I Loved it. More later.

I freelanced. I never even came close to landing a gig like Baum's, at The New Yorker. Still, I can appreciate the tenuousness of that life, and it's one of the reasons I have a f/t day job to pay my bills, and pursue my own writing/publishing in my "free" time.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Taking the scenic route

If you like author interviews (as I do), then you'll enjoy this Mark Doten interview (via Bookslut) with Binnie Kirshenbaum, talking about her latest book, The Scenic Route.

The next to last question is an interesting one, about the pigeonholing of authors (particularly female authors). Kirshenbaum's honest response, particularly related to the difficulty that authors have in getting their books into the hands of people that would most appreciate reading them, highlights an issue that most writers face--all but the handful of matinee, best-selling types--the ones that non-writers assume are the norm, which then perpetuates the false romanticism about writing.

BTW, Kirshenbaum is also the chair of Columbia's Creative Writing program.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Content is still king

I have have been pondering this for awhile. I think that content still matters. Maybe this thought is a 20th century idea and I am holding onto a world where print and hard copy still matter. I hope that's not the case.

While many trumpet the death of print, and even the written word, and with an ever-expanding stable of devices and social media applications, all seemingly devoted to the least common denominator regarding content, one can understand the tendency to heed the siren of doom, particularly as it concerns the state of words and writing.

When I was in LA, I had lunch with a friend, and former writing colleague. We met in Koreatown, as I had never experienced Korean BBQ before. The culinary experience was worthwhile, but even better, in my opinion, was the conversation.

My friend is attending Annenberg’s Master's program in communications. Our conversation started with what we’ve both been up to, and gradually drifted to all things media, and journalism, in particular.

It was McLuhan that famously uttered, “the medium is the message,” and all too often, I think that might be true. Twitter is a case in point. Given its 140 character limit, and the moniker given it that it is a “micro-blogging” platform, lends greater credence to it than I think it deserves. But how much can really be conveyed in 140 words, or less?

The point my friend made, and one that I've considered for some time, is this--newspapers, and other media outlets that have primarily been invested in print are making a mistake in the transition, online. Rather than ensuring that their content remains the focus of their efforts, all too often, newspapers and magazines have opted to "dumb down" their content thinking that somehow, by doing this--aiming for the lowest common denominator--they could preserve their readership, transitioning to a new medium. In the process, they've lost readers, like me and newspapers (I no longer subscribe), instead of preserving something meaningful, and figuring out the new model of publishing, have opted to publish drivel, calling it news.

Interestingly, my friend, who is nearly 20 years my junior, validates the idea that others are making--content still matters.

I plan on periodically highlighting print models that appear to be working, from small press book publishers, to hybrid models of journalism.


Friday, May 01, 2009

California readin'

Corresponding with my trip to Los Angeles, I made sure that the books I stuffed my back pack with also had a connection to the city.

On the flight out, my reading choice was Post Office by Charles Bukowski. I finished it, and began another book by one of my favorite writers, Joseph Wambaugh.

Wambaugh's books are basically a version of cops and robbers, LA-style, but if your tastes run to that region, Wambaugh will rarely disappoint. Ever since I first read The Glitter Dome, back in 1983, I've been hooked on his books that capture the grittiness of urban police work. I've read most of books, since then. I had hoped to get into the Festival of Books' panel that he was on, but unfortunately, I wasn't able to get tickets.

I started Hollywood Crows (A "CRO," is a community relations officer, so the title is a play on that acronym) on my flight out to LA, but put it aside during my nine days, tooling around greater-LA, while on vacation. I actually read another book, while staying with my son. He recommended I read his copy of Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, by Matt McCarthy.

McCarthy, a Yale grad, spends a summer in Provo, Utah, playing for the Angels' Single-A Rookie League team. This is an honest account (I think), of the side of professional baseball that doesn't get much recognition. The rigors of playing baseball everyday, instead of the much less demanding college schedule McCarthy and other college draft picks are coming from, is detailed. McCarthy also shows sides of baseball people that aren't always flattering. I'll probably return to this book at a later point, as McCarthy's portrait of life in the minor leagues is a worthwhile one. After McCarthy's one ill-fated season that was the fodder for his book, he went to Harvard Medical school and is now a first year intern at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, in New York, illustrating that there is life after baseball.

Back to Wambaugh's 2008 novel (he just released another book, Hollywood Moon, this year, the third in his Hollywood Station trilogy), the fine officers of LAPD are once again the subjects of his book, and Wambaugh continues to provide readers with an honest portrait of the men/women that wear the badge, and promise to protect and serve.

Long before David Simon was giving us his own version of law enforcement, ala Baltimore, Wambaugh was drawing upon his experience as a former LAPD detective, to write provocative fiction, based upon the lives of the real men and women that make police work their vocation.

If you enjoy The Wire, or other cop dramas, I'd recommend that you check out Wambaugh's books. I think you'll find them enjoyable, and grounded in reality.