Book Report: Book to put down, pick up again

In the old days I would have called the following book a great “outhouse read.”  It’s the sort of book you can pick up and put down at your, er, leisure, without ruining its continuity.

Bill Bryson is an accomplished travel writer, having written such books as “I’m A Stranger Here Myself,” “A Walk in the Woods,” and “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

In his new outing, “One Summer: America, 1927” (Doubleday, $28.95) Bryson takes us on a trip through the Jazz Age, focussing on 1927, when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, the sexually promiscuous Clara Bow starred in “Wings.”

It was the year supposed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson and Chicago, starring another Al (Capone) rose to prominence.

President Calvin Coolidge took a three-month vacation that year and Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney duked it out at Soldier Field before 150,000 fans.

There were murders galore and a sex and violence crazed media that dished it out and our ancestors lapped it up.

My father was one of the lappers.  He was a high school senior in 1927 and often bragged that the only book he ever read from cover to cover was “The President’s Daughter,” published in 1927, in which Nan Britton described her sexual escapades with President Warren Harding in a small closet in the White House.

Of course, most of this data you can find in any historical chronology in any encyclopedia.  But Bryson treats it differently, injecting a healthy dose of outspoken cynicism and his trademark good humor.

And the humor of Jazz Age commentators like Dorothy Parker, who reviewed a novel about Bow with her and her hero vibrating away like steam launches.”

He describes Henry Ford as “an automotive titan and an anti-Semitic crackpot,” who introduced the Model A in 1927, which almost led the company into bankruptcy.

Soon to be president Herbert Hoover he describes as “uncannily able and insufferably pompous.”

Hoover, he writes, would attend any public gathering, “even if it were an opening of a drawer.”

Several years ago I reviewed a novel “Truth and Bright Water” and interviewed the author, Thomas King, a the time an English professor at the University of Minnesota.

What a guy!  He was so funny, even when dealing with problems faced by Native Americans such as himself, and so lucid I wondered what he was doing at the U.

Then he disappeared from my outmoded radar screen, only to appear recently with a new book, “The Inconvenient Indian”  (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95).

Turns out King escaped Minnesota to Canada to teach at the University of Guelph, where he also hosts a CBC radio show, “The Dead Dog Café Hour,” which I’m going to look up on our next trip to Canada.

King’s trenchant comments about the place of Native American history in the environs of the U.S. and Canada is a sheer delight.

Sure, he’s an academic, but one with his own ways of approaching the subject.

He admits he likes fiction better than history. He admits he doesn’t like footnotes and elicits several laughs as he interjects the commentary of his partner, Helen Hoy, also a Guelph professor.

For instance, she says something to the effect that “you’re going to write another book? Do me a favor and don’t start with Columbus.”

So King kisses off Columbus in a few paragraphs and goes his merry way.  His mode is to come in from the back door, talk about something that seems to have no bearing on his chosen subject matter.

He begins by writing about Ed Wood’s notoriously bad movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” a science fiction movie supported by 12 Baptist churches who demanded that all cast members be baptized.

“Michael Medved hailed ‘Plan 9’ as the worst film ever made, but when I look at the movie with its cheap sets, its dreadful script, its pedestrian acting, its incompetent direction and its rumors of mandatory conversion, it reminds me a great deal of North American Indian Policy [because]  it was a low-budget affair with a simplistic plot: politicians, soldiers, clerics, social scientists, and people of unexamined goodwill dash about North America, saving themselves from Indians by saving Indians from themselves.

“But unlike ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space,’ [Indian policy] didn’t include the option to get up and leave the theater…..So long and thanks for all the fish.”

See what I mean?  Self-satisfied do-gooders would do well to read this book.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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