Reading: A Heavy Lift

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. I’m blaming that on Trump (I blame him for everything: locking myself out of my house, walking into a glass door, the mess on my desk). Blame — praise? — goes to another president, Grant, whose 959 page biography by Ron Chernow kept me from reading anything else for three months. When I’d put it down — in any life there’s some dull spots — I felt like I was cheating on Grant. What a man! 

We all think we know a lot about Grant: as a general, he won the Civil War for the north. He served twice as president. He lost all his money to a charlatan. He’s buried beside his adored wife, Julia Dent Grant, at a tomb that overlooks the Hudson River. 

There’s so much more. Grant suffered greatly as a young man after attending West Point and fighting in the Mexican-American war. (He was such an ace horseman that, when needed, he could ride sideways into battle.) His early misfortune came from drinking too much and being swindled. At one point he had so little money he had to choose between food and a night’s sleep. Later, in St. Louis, he sold fire wood door to door. Men who’d served with him during the Mexican War were astonished by his fall. 

From there, we follow him and the country into the Civil War. The man who had failed in every day life dazzled in the military. I’d forgotten so much of the war and its battles that these pages riveted. Too, the reign of Andrew Johnson was a fresh reminder that Trump is not the first despot in this nation. Another appreciation: throughout his military and political career, Grant fought for blacks’ rights. It’s a sadness that his work to ensure voting rights is still under attack. 

Finally, Grant spends his later life in New York City, where he loses a fortune and suffers from throat cancer. I wept reading the pages of his last gruesomely painful days and the throngs of people who stood outside his home to honor him. 

If you’re up for a good long read, I highly recommend. 

When I was “cheating” on Grant (so heavy I couldn’t take it out of the house) I picked up and read others, including:

Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark, a masterful telling of the hunt for the Golden State Killer (rape/murder/burglary) who terrorized communities in northern and southern California for more than a decade in the ’70s and ’80s. Yes, this read gave me nighthmares. He raped more than 50 women and murdered at least 13; McNamara brings us into these crimes. Even so, I couldn’t put this book down. (Wait: I did! For Grant.) McNamara’s obsession with the case is the work of an investigative reporter. We are with her as she meets with and works alongside retired detectives who can’t shake the case. McNamara died before she’d finished the manuscript (husband Patton Oswalt, a comedian, hired writers to piece it together) and before the perpetrator — finally! — was arrested, in April of this year. 

The Battle of Lincoln Park by Daniel Kay Hertz is another unsettling read. It’s the story of gentrification in my neighborhood. He begins in the 1940’s with the people who always settle first: artists. From there, white professionals in the ’50s and ’60s transformed Victorian housing stock into single family homes, displacing apartment dwellers. At the same time, areas of the North Side were bulldozed (Clark Street, North Avenue, Larrabee Street, the area that is now Oz Park ) to create middle-class housing and green space. Forced out: black, Puerto Rican, Appalachian whites, independent shop keepers. When I first picked up this book I thought “battle” was hyperbole. Nope: murder, firebombs, death threats. I love the green of Oz Park: at what cost? An important piece of history and an engaging read. 

Finally, and I haven’t read all of it: Florida, by Lauren Groff. I wasn’t a fan of her celebrated novel Fates and Furies — it was overwrought, unbelievable and too long — but I’ve always loved her short stories, which run in the New Yorker. I’m instantly sucked in to her characters’ rich, dramatic, everyday lives. Her storytelling and use of language is fluid, first rate. The stories in Florida are a wonderful collection.

That’s all for now. Happy Halloween!

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