22 February 2009

Nature Girl

It took all of three days for me to read this book. I point that out in case the following review seems at all negative (which it will).

I love Carl Hiaasen's work. I've read all of his adult books, to include his collections of columns and his polemic against the Disney company (which was somewhat frightening, actually), with the sole exception of Strip Tease (it's on my list; also I think I've missed one other one, Skinny Dip maybe.) I have enjoyed them all, some more than others. Nature Girl is no exception.

Nature Girl is set in the Ten Thousand Islands, near the Everglades coast south of Naples. I love the area; I've written my own essay about the area and it is frankly a natural (no pun intended... well, maybe a little) setting for fiction of all sorts. This is a good story that makes good use of the setting. But something was missing here.

I can't put my finger on what was missing. I finished the book a week and a half ago and have been trying to do so since then; but I'm tired of waiting to write this review. Part of what I like about Hiaasen is how nicely he skewers Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the rest of South Florida. It's urban, and realistically that's what I thought was missing here. About the only "skewering" to be done of Everglades City is of the tendency of the local leadership to get involved in the drugs trade, a point made but not belabored here (it would get dull quickly). Instead the... um... quirkiness of small backwater towns is on the skewers here, and to be perfectly frank, that's been done a thousand times by a hundred people. The only special thing here is the setting, and Randy Wayne White's made a whole career out of setting crime novels in the Ten Thousand Islands. In other words... what makes Nature Girl special?

As a part of the Hiaasen library, the setting is unique. Beyond that, honestly, nothing makes it special. This is not to say that the book reads like a Doc Ford mystery (Randy Wayne Wright's protagonist) or could have been written by anyone. It bears several of Hiaasen's stylistic marks and there are familiar characters here; it's a Hiaasen novel. And like I said I enjoyed it and think it's totally worth your time to read. What really bothers me is that the last two Hiaasen novels I've read--this one and Basket Case--have both been, shall we say, subpar among his efforts. Is the well running dry? Like I said, I haven't read Skinny Dip yet, which was published just before this one, so I can't judge. It's just a feeling I have--and maybe not fair. How many books can I expect the man to write about Miami? This one at least is set in a real place (which was the problem with Basket Case and perhaps I should be happy simple that Hiaasen is branching out and will be able to continue writing novels I can enjoy reading without being stuck in the same setting all the time. Hell, the man lives part time in Montana, and what's wrong with a Montana setting? Perhaps that's coming next. It won't be Miami, but that won't make it bad.

The Book of General Ignorance

This book is plenty of fun. The only problem with it--as, apparently, with all trivia books--is that you can't be 100% sure it's all accurate. Right? Is everything in there correct? After all, if so much of the trivia here contradicts the conventional wisdom... well, where did the conventional wisdom come from?

Probably best not to get an answer to that question. But it probably is best to keep a copy of this book at your desk or nightstand or wherever you can read a bit of it when you have a couple minutes to kill.

20 February 2009

Living the Simple Life

I read most of Elaine St. James' Living the Simple Life aloud to Smittywife while we were on vacation over Presidents' Day weekend; she has since been rereading it over the past week, in case you were wondering whether we thought it was a worthwhile read.

Simplifying--the Thoreauvian Imperative I like to call it--has been on our minds a lot recently, since the wedding and move certainly if not before that. We have too much stuff. We both would like to make better use of our leisure time (no wisecracks about my level of leisure time right now, please), and spend our money more wisely. Elaine St. James has written three books about the topic, and though they are more than a decade old now (and occasionally show their age) the tips and techniques she shares for finding more time in the day and overcoming our materialism and inability to keep our time scheduled the way we'd like are timeless.

It's worth pointing out here that Mrs. St. James and her husband are not sell-everything-and-move-to-a-cabin-in-the-woods people. They live in a condominium near a major city, and both work. They're not Unabomber freaks, anti-technology Luddites, or zero-carbon hippies. They're just normal people, living their lives more simply than most of us. And most of us, if we ever took the time to sit and think instead of filling every waking hour with activity, would agree a bit more simplicity would be a good thing. Smittywife and I agree wholeheartedly. We're always looking for help in the matter, and this book was very good for that. Enjoyably written, not particularly preachy. The only problem I have with it is that several parts of the book are clearly meant for people who are much, much busier and more stressed than we currently are. That's actually rather comforting, though.

I will admit, also, that over the last couple days as I've been unpacking the last of the book boxes, I've been able to put far books in the sell/donate pile than I would have thought possible before I read this book; reading about how another book freak managed to make the decision not to own every book in the world has been helpful. I recommend this book for anyone looking to simplify their own life (even parents), but if you don't at least partially buy into the notion that you may need to simplify, this won't convince you otherwise.

19 February 2009

Bail Me Out!

I read a few articles in Florida newspapers this morning about the mortgage bailout plan and how it will affect Florida homebuyers. I don't claim to be an expert here, but I did buy a home in Florida just a few years short of the top of the housing price bubble, in autumn 2003. I did four things correctly: I bought as much home as I needed, not 1000 sf more because my realtor* talked me into it; I paid less than I could afford to for a home instead of maxing out my available financing and then some because my mortgage underwriter said I could; I paid less than my home appraised for instead of getting into a bidding war with other buyers and paying grossly over what the home was worth in the hopes that it would appreciate; and I made paying down the principle on my home a priority with my extra money instead of spending it on $10,000 overpriced home entertainment systems and $3200 overpriced Ethan Allen sofas to go with my overpriced home.

Now some of my tax money is going to be spent bailing out people who did NOT do those smart things I did. But you know what? I'm okay with that (especially considering that this year at any rate I didn't pay any taxes (apart from a few bucks to the state of South Carolina, not even enough for them to change a light bulb in a traffic signal). Our government encouraged people to become homeowners, but failed to regulate the people writing the mortgages to prevent what was already clearly by 2003 an unsustainable asset-price bubble in the real estate market (in Florida, certainly; maybe not here in SC) from developing into the situation we have now. I'd love to blame mortgage companies for this but many of mortgage underwriters and realtors who misbehaved over the past five years are out of jobs now so they're getting theirs.

I do think we need to bail out certain homeowners, but let's not go overboard here. I made smart decisions when I bought a home and I bought during the bubble; making smart decisions meant that when I sold my home, after the bubble had burst, I actually still made money on the deal, enough to pay of my mortgage and pay down some of our other debt. Thus I will never see a dime of bailout money even though, frankly, smart people like me are the ones the government should be helping. People who got caught in the bubble are not the same as people who played a part in the bubble.

So let's be honest here. Let's say you bought a home on an interest-only mortgage. Ouch. That was stupid. I mean, that was really stupid. I have a lot of trouble saying any interest-only mortgages should be refinanced by the government, because, frankly, you shouldn't have bought one. What annoys me is that I know people who have such mortgages, and I know they knew better. But let's go ahead and say if you meet other requirements below and are in danger of losing your home to foreclosure we might consider bailing you out after the other people who were smarter about their loans get their money first.

Let's say you bought a home for more than it appraised for at the time you bought it. Nowadays of course no responsible lender (that is to say, credit unions or USAA) would give you a mortgage for more than the appraised value of the home, but during the bubble such mortgages were being written right and left because the people who should have known better decided to count on continued 20+% annual home price inflation, leaving it up to the consumer to back off and be the intelligent one. This annoys me; I dislike stupid people, but finance and real estate are complex fields and when the so-called experts in those fields are telling you to go for it, I can't really blame people for doing so. As long as they didn't overdo it; finance may be complex but I'm not going to absolve you of failing to budget your own money. Anyway, so if you bought a house that appraised for less than you paid for it at the time you bought it, I have no interest in helping you at all. But if the appraisal came in higher or equal to what you paid, okay. You certainly can't be faulted for paying what something was worth.

Unless, of course, you paid what the home was worth but it was way outside any rational budget of yours. Realtors and mortgage brokers definitely are guilty of trying to put people into more home than they could really afford, and mortgages were written that would stretch peoples' budgets simply because people let themselves be convinced that they were making an investment whose value would grow at a ridiculous rate so that the 40+% of their gross income they were paying to service their mortgage wouldn't seem so bad when they sold it at immense profit a few years later.
We don't teach basic financial literacy in schools. Didn't when I went to school, or when Smittywife went to school, and we don't do it now. Maybe if your kid's lucky they'll get one financial literacy assembly taught by a friendly credit union employee during 11th grade or something, but that's hardly enough; and the fact is, since most people are financially illiterate, their kids end up that way, too.

But I'm not going to blame the schools. I'm going to blame us. We need to be smarter about our finances, all of us, every American; if we were we might not be so impressed by the willingness of our government to rack up a debt that will be close to 100% of our annual GDP by the time this recession is over (this is the point at which your government's sovereign debt becomes a "bad risk," barring 3+% annual GDP growth (which we don't have right now). We're heading that way quickly. I leave it to your imagination what the results of this will be; but I don't support GOP efforts to paint the stimulus package as a budget-buster, since they had six years of untrammeled power to do something about the debt and what they did was make it significantly bigger; you can't claim a "principled stand" when you clearly only have those principles when out of power)

Anyway. People need to understand their budget, where and how they spend their money, and how much of anything they can afford. It takes little more than basic math skills to do this; you know how big your paycheck is each month, and you know how much your bills are. You can buy a calculator at the dollar store that will do the subtraction for you if you're not good at math, and that's all it takes. Subtract what you know you pay from what you know you make, and see what's left. Figure out how much house you can afford, then buy less. It's not hard. But most people failed to even consider this. So let's face it. If when you bought your house, you were paying 40% or more of your gross income on housing, you bought too much house. The fact is that your house may now be worth little enough that, with a government bailout and refinance, you could actually afford the payments.

Let me be clear: if that's the case, I want bail you out. I want you to stay in your home, I want the mortgage to be refinanced so it's no longer "toxic," no longer a negative on a bank's balance sheet and a cause of potential bankruptcy to either you or the bank. The more foreclosures that go on the deeper and longer the house price slump will continue to be, and that's not going to help the economy. Throwing you out of your home and forcing your bank to take a loss--thousands of such losses--are not good for the economy. They're not what we should be doing in this country.

But I don't like the idea. We're rewarding your stupidity and the bank's greed and lack of concern for your ability to pay your debts. I don't want to reward your stupidity. I don't want to reward the bank's venality. No one learns any lessons that way and the next asset-price bubble will be just as bad. Yet I feel that for the health of the economy, for the sake of recovery, we need to do it. And that's what they're going to do, that's what this bailout will do (although I understand it's only for mortgages written by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which while helpful doesn't seem to be enough to really fix the damage in the credit market).

But dammit let's have some regulation! Let's require that everyone who gets a bailout must attend a six-week financial literacy course at their local community college (and yes, let's fund that; it won't cost very much and the benefits will be enormous). And let's put it into law right now: in future, the U.S. government will not bail out homeowners who purchased homes that were too expensive for them to afford. Live within your means, in other words; don't look to the nanny state for help. And let's regulate the hell out of the mortgage industry: no interest-only loans for owner-occupied housing; no adjustable-rate mortgages that will adjust by more than a certain percentage of the monthly payment; no sub-prime lending at all without requiring the borrowers to attend credit counseling and financial literacy courses and limit their payment to 30% or less of their monthly income; and so on. I'm sure people who are actually qualified to come up with such regulations could do better than me, but clearly such people either A) don't exist, or B) were MIA during the housing bubble, which is a serious concern. As soon as there's a buck to be made the responsible people vanished, it seems, if they were ever there.

Anyway. I felt like rambling about that. We do need to bail out some mortgages, but I'm going to reiterate that it's smart people who did the four things I did when I bought my house who really deserve government help, not stupid people. It's cruel to say it, but people don't learn from getting government bailouts (well, they do, but they learn the wrong things); they learn from screwing up and getting foreclosed on. Sucks to be them. The key is to ensure that the ones who did at least some things right don't lose everything because of other peoples' greed.

* Why is realtor supposed to be capitalized? We don't capitalize real estate; nor do we capitalize property developer, or lawyer, or mortgage broker, or high school teacher, or military officer, or fireman, or soldier, or astrophysicist. What makes realtors so damned special? I refuse to capitalize it. The NAR says Realtor implies a member of their organization, who must be licensed, and is more than simply someone selling a house; but since in most states you must be licensed to sell a house (and to practice law or medicine or education), all realtors must legally be Realtors. Lawyers are just about the most self-important career group I can think of and even they don't argue that simply because they pass the bar exam and join the state Bar organization they should be called Lawyers. It's a sales gimmick, nothing more, and a pretty stupid one at that. Besides, no group who had as direct a hand in creating the current economy as realtors did deserves any sort of special grammatical treatment.

13 February 2009

Three Things

I checked this book out of the library when I lived in Valdosta. I don't remember the name of it but it was something along the lines of Finding Happiness in America or some such (editor's note: he has no idea, he just made that title up). Some years later I read a book called Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, and the two books had similar purposes and frankly similar messages; I suspect both were written by Jungians.

Anyway. One of the points in that book--not the focus of it, but about the only real point I remember--was that an adult needs to have some things that are personally important that he or she does every day (or tries to). The notion is that you find three things (that's the number I remember, but it may have just been a suggestion) that matter a lot to you and you find a few minutes every day to do those things.

The point was that the things should not be spending time with your kids, or with your spouse, or networking, or anything like that; they should be things that are purely for you, for yourself. Me time, in other words. Seems part of the problem with people not being happy is fear or guilt about self-indulgence. The point was not to become a hedonistic jerk, but simply to remember that mature adults are not purely creatures of their society, work, or relationships, but that to be complete they also need to have things they do just for themselves.

I mentioned Finding Meaning etc above because the message was similar, and I actually remember more about that book, but a couple days ago the notion of "three things" returned to me. Now that I think about it, it may have been that you should find time every day to do at least one of the three things, or something. And of course I assume the three things are changeable, I mean, one of your three things may become less important to you. And I don't think the point was to set aside two hours a day, I think the point was that if you spent even five minutes on your three things you'd feel more complete and, importantly, be better able to project yourself positively in all the other areas of your life.

It sucks that I can't remember any more about this book because I'd like to look it up again. Anyway. I've decided what my three things are, at least for the time being. It's not that I feel the need to shout about what they are, but one of them of course is writing, and I was initially saying that I wanted my writing time to be spent necessarily on one of two projects I'm toying with. But some days, today being one, I only have a few minutes (I'm six minutes into this post so far and so should be wrapping it up, actually), and I think blogging is a perfectly good substitute for more substantive writing. Perhaps that is what this blog can be good for. Or, maybe I'll come up with something else. Anyway. So this was my writing me time today.

I think having three things is good. For someone in my position it actually is working opposite to the way it's intended; I figure I should spend my personal time--there's rather a lot of it--on these three things only, and spend the rest of the day working for other people--for my wife, say, or at Habitat for Humanity. Or being serious about job searching. And since writing is the only one of the three things likely to take longer than twenty minutes by itself I can spend a lot of time doing that on days where it makes sense to. Hey, wow. Organization for my structureless life.

This is why I read. You never when something you read eons ago in a book you can't even remember may come back to you and actually be worthwhile.

11 February 2009


A.J. Langguth's Patriots was published in 1989, and I've had it on my bookshelf almost that long (not really, but it's been at least five years). The great thing about history is that it really doesn't change much and a well-written popular history, barring new scholarship, is still going to be interesting 20 or 50 or 100 years after publishing. Patriots is well-written popular history.

Which is not say everyone will fall in love with it or that it's the greatest book ever on the subject. For starters not everyone enjoys reading history (I blame teachers for that. I have a theory that there is nothing inherent in anyone's personality that will make them like or dislike history; instead it's the teachers you have the first couple years you have to take history in school. Doesn't matter what age, whether you first take history in fourth grade or seventh grade. If at least one of your first two teachers makes history interesting you stand a chance, but if they both suck you'll never be able to get into it, no chance. Anyway), although this at least is fun history. Really, what American can't at least sorta get into a story about the Revolution?

Langguth frankly admits in the acknowledgements that Revolutionary history suffers from a lack of, shall we say, academic agreement on what actually happened. To some degree all the writer of history can do is pick the least unlikely of the available options. We know Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree; what we don't know beyond a shadow of a doubt is what he did do. At least he left a lot of letters.

I've read a bit about the Revolution. Founding Brothers was great. One of the things I liked about this was Langguth's decision to cover James Otis and Samuel Adams as heavily as he did. Unfortunately the focus on Massachussetts meant I kept wanting to know more about what was going in the South. I'm sure there's a book out there like that, but the thing is, going in, I had heard the name James Otis once, but knew nothing about him, and all I knew about Samuel Adams was that he was a brewer (it turns he was not, in fact, a brewer. He made malt, but never actually brewed beer; also, he didn't really make much malt, either, and was usually broke). Following them was great; I had no idea how important Samuel Adams actually was to the early movement for independence.

It's a really big book, about 600 pages. If that's not daunting it's worth your time.

05 February 2009

Dark Star Safari

This is the first time I've read Theroux. It will not be the last.

I think the sheer audacity of the trip Theroux proposes--from Cairo to Cape Town over land--is the most attractive aspect of the book, to me. I'd love to do something that foolhardy, that crazy, but I couldn't possibly leave my wife and family and go off to do that and not feel guilty about it every single day. Theroux has been doing it for decades.

After reading, what stays with me though is not just the fact of this absurd journey, but the imagery Theroux uses. I was completely taken with his writing, his use of the language, and throughout regardless of how I felt about his commentaries on various things the writing was just wonderful.

The trip is certainly worth taking. Theroux visits parts of Africa few Westerners ever visit, and does so via means rarely if ever taken by outsiders; I was reminded of Jeffery Tayler's canoe trip down the Congo when Theroux decided to take a boat downriver from Malawi into Mozambique; who does these things? I want to talk to these people; where do they get such a crazy notion and why is there no one around to talk them out of it?

The book, perhaps the traveller himself, is strongest when he is able to be with someone strong enough to strike up an actual relationship, however brief. In Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and elsewhere Theroux spends several days with one person or a group of people and it is here that we get the best insight into Africans themselves; other conversations with former political prisoners--Theroux notes that a great many men of a certain age in Africa have been in prison, often for a fairly long time, a comment I'd heard in Djibouti but never considered--are equally illuminating. Theroux by himself tends to fall into a Brysonesque tendency to pick on people, though in fairness in Egypt he's picking on people who probably deserve it.

The book has received some press coverage and commentary for Theroux's strong comments about the international aid effort in Africa. Some of his complaints are petty and I think personal--he consistently complains that aid workers in their shiny new Land Rovers never stop to pick him up when he's looking for a ride; yet at the same time he knows full well how dangerous the areas he's going through are, and why should an aid worker believe his story and give him a ride when there are no doubt dozens of Africans who'd like the same favor? Theroux never considers that or, if he does, he doesn't write about it. Seems petty and I was a little annoyed with it by the sixth or seventh time he complained about it.

Theroux's main argument about aid is that the Aid For Africa industry--and it is an industry--has done nothing to improve the lives of everyday Africans, employs no Africans, involves no Africans in its decision-making, and works almost entirely to further the goals of other nations and the careers of the aid agencies themselves. Some of those criticisms are certainly fair, not the least of which is that all the millions or billions of dollars spent in Africa by aid agencies over the years has led to precisely zero improvement in the lives of Africans; things are indeed worse than ever. And a lot of aid programs are tied to requirements from the home country--the project must use a certain contractor or purchase materials from certain places, instead of everything being done in Africa by African suppliers and companies. Part of the reason there's no corporate infrastructure in Africa to speak of is that most government budgets are aid, and most aid requires projects to use international contractors, so local contractors can't even get work from their own governments and thus cannot build local wealth.

But a lot of aid work is done by Africans, and there is a glaring problem with Theroux's anti-aid bias: he never talks to an aid agency. He talks to a couple of Catholic nuns, and a handful of teachers, but not to anyone in a leadership capacity; indeed, he'd rather sneer at the people driving the Land Rovers than try to engage them, although in fairness they don't seem interested in engaging him.
There are people more learned than I about the topic who have criticized Theroux's statements, and I'll let you look those up if you're interested; a good bit of the criticism seems to be picking nits, though, and most impartial observers are coming to agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the international aid is handled in Africa. Whether he's right in all the details, Theroux's complaints about aid are not unique and certainly should be food for thought.

Controversy aside, the book is a wonderful read, and there's just not anything else out there like it. Travel writing about Africa tends to be either limited in scope or of poor quality in general; this book is certainly neither of those. Now if there was just something of this quality about west Africa...

Romantic Dinner?

I just had an ad pop on gmail while I was reading a message from Smittywife. It said
Live Maine Lobsters
Romantic dinner for two delivered right to your front door!

Seriously? Live Maine lobsters? Is lobster romantic? More to the point, is boiling a live invertebrate to death romantic? I mean, I like lobster; we might even make some lobster bisque here soon, but I would never consider whole lobster a romantic dish. Would you?

04 February 2009

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

I admit, I'll pick just about any book about Africa, and perhaps such books don't thrill the general audience (see, for example, A History of Post-Colonial Lusophone Africa). I don't really care. When a book is this good it doesn't matter. Peter Godwin's When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is without question the most deeply felt book I've read in a long time.

That does not mean it made me weep openly, or laugh out loud (certainly not that). When I picked it up, I was looking for something about the recent crisis in Zimbabwe, maybe some background on what might have changed in Robert Mugabe that he no longer about his country and only himself, and perhaps maybe a look inside the country at what it's like for the ordinary folks there. I was, I will admit, a bit disappointed that Mr. Godwin, whose picture appears on the back, is white. For shame, Smitty, for shame.

This is not a backgrounder on the crisis or even on the country, although Godwin includes good doses of history. This is a personal memoir, and, as those go, it is remarkable. During the years covered in this memoir, Mr. Godwin settled down and married and had children outside his home country, set up house in Manhattan, lived through 9/11, saw his mother become impoverished and his homeland destroyed, learned a long-held family secret and was forced to reconsider his own history, and lost his father. This was certainly an intensely emotional time, and writing about must have been difficult. Layered over these personal issues is the unyielding decline in his home, Zimbabwe, the country of his birth. Watching the rule of law dissolve in the place you grew up in and still cherish as home, watching the people there slide into poverty, crime, and open conflict, must be a terrible thing. To be able to do nothing about, that's even worse.

When I put the book down I was casting about for exactly what it was about it that made it so good. This is not like any other memoir I've read. It isn't just the combination of events Godwin relates, or his smooth writing style. There's something more, and I can't say exactly what it is. But after I'd thought about it, it occurred to me that at some level this book is simply filled with emotion, moreso than anything else I've read recently. The book just makes you feel. It's generally sad, but there are moments of joy and happiness. It is so well-crafted, though, it's not that reading the sad parts make you feel sad; it's that the full weight of the sadness Godwin feels is there, on the page, and instead of trying to manipulate your emotions he's simply writing his own. He's just doing it better than anyone I can remember reading. That's remarkable.

This is not always an easy book to read, but it is worth it. If you are interested in Zimbabwe at all, don't miss it.


If you came here having read the previous note on Smitty's World about that blog shutting down, and were for some reason disappointed to read that... don't delete that bookmark just yet. The shutdown announcement may have been premature.

A bit premature, perhaps

Maybe the previous post was a bit premature. Smitty's Library is up and running, but perhaps it was too early to give up on this blog just yet.

Smittywife and I had a come to Jesus talk last night. (Actually, she did the talking and I did the listening, and Jesus wasn't part of it at all. There must be a similar phrase in use in non-Christian countries, but I don't know what it would be; a come to Vishnu talk doesn't really make sense.) I won't go into it. She did make mention of the fact that there must be something wrong with me if I can't even think of anything to do with the blog anymore. A fair point, certainly.

After such a talk I would have expected that I'd spend most of the night awake in bed, thinking. But I didn't. Instead I got a really solid night's sleep, which was odd but a pleasant surprise. And I thought, when I got up, that maybe a good way to keep myself motivated on other things is to use the blog as a kind of daily journal of what I've done each day to be... useful. To get out of the house and do something, to spend time out, in the community, and not just here at the house.

And if I'm in the habit of blogging about that it should keep me motivated to do it; otherwise what would I have to do?

I would like to say, maybe, I could post in the morning about the previous day or at night about that day, depending. And maybe as time goes on I'll feel more like posting about other stuff, too. So maybe this blog isn't dead quite yet. I'm not dead yet, after all.

03 February 2009

The American Home Front

This is one of many books I've had in the house for a while but never bothered to read. It's a shame I let it sit so long.

I have a number of books by people who've attempted to travel the entire breadth of the United States to... I don't know. Find America, usually. Sometimes there's a conceit--in the case of The Cannibal Queen, it was that the traveling was done in a 1941 Stearman biplane (my kind of conceit). In Lost Continent, the conceit was the in the author's attitude to everyone he came into contact with. In other cases, there's a specific reason driving the journey, as in Haynes Johnson's Divided We Fall, a tour of America during our last (real) recession in the early 1990s (a depressing but relevant book). I enjoy the genre, but I find that there's not usually anything terribly new in it from one book to the next, once you get past the conceit or the reason. You might go to a different place, but America is America, and as Bill Bryson pointed out just about everywhere has become Anytown USA.

That makes Alistair Cooke's The American Home Front: 1941-1942 rather interesting, as he made his journey before Levittown was built, and before the rest of the country started to look like it. Cooke was a Brit sent to America by the BBC to report on America to the British. He earned his citizenship in 1941, just before the war, and embarked on this journey primarily to give the good folks back home a look at America on the brink of war. The places he visits, even those that are intimately familiar (Jacksonville and Tampa, for example), are hardly recognizable, the America of Yesteryear, yet presented without nostalgia because the book was written in Yesteryear.

Needless to say I enjoyed it immensely, because I do like the genre. But like almost every book in said genre, it was a bit too long. America is very big. You can travel around America and notice things for about 200 pages before you need to wrap it up. Really. And you can't possibly see the whole country in that time, so you have to limit yourself... or not, as no one respects the 200-pages notion. So the books always drag by the last quarter. It's not that the writing isn't as good nor the insights as fresh, it's just that, well, nothing new is happening. Change in setting is not enough to maintain interest when everything else remains more or less the same. I can't think of a book I've read of this sort that wasn't too long; even On the Road was too long. It's a shame, because either you get sick of the book and the writer, or, as in this case, you're tempted to skim parts of the last quarter, and those areas of the country last on the itinerary you're less interested in reading about.

So. I like this genre, and anything well-written in it is going to be appealing. And the greatest fault of this book is the same as that for any other in the genre, namely, it runs a bit too long. Why read this one instead of any other? I could go on about Cooke's writing, which is very nice, or his observational abilities, which are excellent as one would hope for a journalist. The truth is, though, this is an America you can not go back to. And not only that, anyone today who tries to tell you what America was like in the 1940s, even from personal experience, is going to get a lot of things wrong. We are nostalgic creatures, and nostalgia colors our view of the past. You can't change that. The only way to get a sense of a historical place is to read a contemporary writer who was deliberately trying to write about the here and now. And that is exactly what Cooke was doing.

Some travel-across-America books do not wear well, for various reasons; the writing may be substandard, the conceit may hinder readers' interest. Others will still be read decades from now. I hope The American Home Front is in the latter category. It deserves an audience, and before long there will be few people left who can even offer clouded remembrances of the era. As a historical document then, as much as anything, this is a great book. How nice that it's also such an enjoyable read.