Monday, December 26, 2011


Fourth in an annual series…

Books that are half-read gather dust on my shelf and generally have a bookmark still placed at their point of death. More often than not, these are works of fiction: stories poorly told, too frequently told or stories written for a denominator different than my own.

Some books this year, however, were completely and eagerly read – and some reread. I am surprised to note that most are non-fiction – although they read as though an entertaining novelist plotted them – and most were written by journalists. It seems a good reporter tells a good story. Here are some examples:

WEST OF THE WEST. Mark Arax (formerly of the LA Times.) New York: Public Affairs. 2009. $15.99

As a native son of the Golden State, I once inquired about supplementing my Geography major with a minor in California. In my twenties I enjoyed the diversity of the geology, wild land, climate, histories, peoples, ways-of-life and constant change. I knew I would be intrigued by whatever “research” this study might involve. The university advisor was kind enough not to laugh. “People don’t do that,” he said. At least not for credit.

Arax pulled it off. West of the West collects eleven essays based upon stories Arax reported. Not limited to column inches, he invites readers into the world that is our state, allowing us to embrace the everyday characters we might otherwise only pass on the street: cops, drug dealers, organic farmers, military parents, immigrants, business people and barkeeps. Although personally rooted in the agricultural regions surrounding Fresno, Arax ventures north to the Humboldt, south to the Salton Sea; from the ‘burbs of LA to the dusty valley bergs like Oiltown and Taft. He examines who we are in these places and where we came from. He outlines how systems built to protect the system serve to destroy the individual and how individuals in California survive in spite of it.

He makes us examine the ironies we seem to accept: We are more than happy to pay the same $5.00 we paid in the 1990s but give little thought how that trickles down to the farmer and his field hand. And this contradiction extends to the farmer himself, who votes for the politician who wants to bar the Mexicans and then complains that his fruit is rotting on the vine because of a shortage of Mexicans. [Page 171]

California’s angst, I would conclude, we own.

THE BIG BURN: TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE FIRE THAT SAVED AMERICA. Timothy Egan (currently with the New York Times.) New York: Mariner Books. 2010. $15.95

I appreciate all that is done to preserve the woods for my enjoyment. A day off will find me discovering some passage into Gold Rush history on a barely-maintained road. My imagination calls me to think that maybe I’m the first one ever to see this place – ignoring the fact that I am indeed traveling on a road that was built by someone.

The combined vision of President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot allows my fantasies to exist. In a time when a burley America was resolute on subduing the resources of our vast, open west – Manifest Destiny style – these men understood the finite nature of that which seemed infinite. Egan recounts how Roosevelt faced down a Congress bought and paid for by industrialists, railroad men, mining interests, and timber corporations. A rag-tag group of college boys, farm hands, and drunkards – our first rangers – set to the forest to protect the watersheds, trees and wildlife, much to the chagrin of those who’s fortunes rested in exploiting the virgin west. The political intrigue is palpable.

Then, after a series of drier than normal winters, a fire erupts across the Bitterroots.

…Hollinghead knew at least one thing about wildfire, a retreat strategy the Indians used: it will never burn the same ground twice. So the young forest guard led forty men at a run back through the fire to get to a clearing that had just been overrun by flame. The dash cost them – burns on hands, face and hair afire… [Page 181]

Heroism, tragedy, cowardice, and fate play roles in a work that reads like a novel but invites the reader to visit the landscape upon which the story unfolds.

History repeats, I note, upon closing the volume: corporate interests today seem to have regained the run of the House. And Senate.

NICKEL AND DIMED – ON NOT GETTING BY IN AMERICA. Barbara Ehrenreich (Harper’s, The Nation, Time, the New York Times.) New York: Holt. 2008. $15.00.

A Facebook “friend” raged, “Do you know that more than forty percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes! Before we tax the business man, let’s see about getting them to pay their fair share!”

Then, at my nephew’s suggestion, I read Ehrenreich’s book, which had been initially published in 2001. Ehrenreich went “undercover” taking on the tasks and lifestyles of those who serve us, waiting tables at a coffee shop in Florida, cleaning houses for the well-to-do in Maine and stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She attempted to live on what she earned making rent payments, buying food, and covering all the costs we generally absorb without much thought. Along the way she met honest people who, though possessing next to nothing, would share that which they had. She observed cultures where in management sold services those employees were instructed not to deliver quite so well. She worked for the big corporation and for the littlest of Caesars. Although the reader knows she survives to tell the tale, at times we find ourselves wondering if she will. Hunger. Bodily breakdowns. Living quarters with no heat and or working locks – when not sleeping in the car.

I conclude: The forty-plus percent of the people who do not pay income taxes in this country do so because they don’t earn enough income to pay taxes on it.

EDWARD R. MURROW AND THE BIRTH OF BROADCAST JOURNALISM. Bob Edwards. (Formerly of NPR.) New York: Wiley and Sons. 2004. $19.95

Principles. We are exposed to so few of them in the media. Why? Because those who have found there is more money to be made if principles are ignored have convinced their viewer/listener base that only they have principles. Everyone else is lying. It’s a liberal media.

Two questions: What does the media have to gain by exposing corruption? What do the corrupt have to gain by controlling the media and its message?

Bob Edwards – a journalist who knows more than a little bit about delivering truth to power – reports: Nothing scared Murrow – not bombs, dictators, generals, members of Congress, sponsors, corporate executives or Joseph McCarthy. Murrow could not be muscled, bullied, bought, corrupted or intimidated. [Page 155.]

Edward R. Murrow looked evil in the eye and stared it down. Too few of us expect that from our news sources today. Too frequently we are convinced to concern ourselves with the labels someone else pinned on him, whether the candidate wears a flag on his lapel, whether his name sounds like the kid who sat behind us in Junior High, and what scandal our favorite media outlet has congered up. Morrow would have nothing of it. Morrow insisted that his boys report only the truth.

IN THE SECOND DECADE of the 21st century, we’ve been told we cannot trust the liberal media – interestingly almost all the time from one major media (well, cable media) source.

Poppycock. If Americans today:

• Lack the critical thinking skills or the simple will to see beyond the smoke screen;
• Care for preservation of personal well-being even in the face of evidence that our actions are leading to our own demise;
• Decide we cannot believe anyone who purports to deliver the news; and
• Convince ourselves that there is a man behind the curtain who cannot be trusted…

…then we deserve the decline in which we find ourselves.

Truth be told, print and broadcast journalists are honest folks like Mark Arax and Tim Egan and Barbara Ehrenreich and Bob Edwards. Each has a story to tell. Each does more than a day’s work to get the story out. Indeed, they are our country’s invaluable fourth estate.

But there is a “man behind the curtain” telling us otherwise. Like in Oz, we can almost glimpse him turning and manipulating and pushing smoke into our eyes – then he turns toward us and says, “Ignore that many behind the curtain.” Ed Murrow would find out who the bastard is, tear down that damnable curtain and expose him. Then, as a country, we could all stare him down.

And we’d be better off.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

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