Nonfiction Reviews 2009: Sheehan James

Nonfiction Reviews

Sheehan, a James Beard award–winning food writer at Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper, knows the tradition he’s working in: he walked up to the
editor at one of his first writing gigs and introduced himself as “your Anthony Bourdain motherfucker.” Before that, he’d spent years bouncing around from one restaurant kitchen to the next—first in upstate New York, then in a disastrous move to Florida, and back to New York before heading out west to reunite with the woman he met during his failed one year of college. Sheehan’s memoir is emphatically not about “the glam end of cooking” or celebrity chefs, but about “a straight blue-collar gig,” where the kitchens are staffed by the kind of guys who get off on the fact that the work is insanely grueling. As Sheehan puts it, “I was being paid to play with knives and fire.” The war stories are as profane and outrageous as you’d expect, and Sheehan finds just the right balance between bravado and humility. There’s a subtle shift in emphasis once his personal life (and, eventually, writing career) gains traction, but the kitchens where the best stories take place are never far from sight. (July) As a media-stoked panic about immigrant youth gangs flared across the U.S. in the 1990s, national violent crime rates were actually plummeting, suggesting that “reports” of internationally networked Central American gangs invading idyllic American suburbs masked more than it revealed. Moreover, the image anticipated the post-9/11 panic over foreign terror cells that dovetailed with a renewed backlash against undocumented Latino immigrants. In this engrossing case study of suburban gangs in Long Island’s Nassau County, investigative journalist Garland demystifies the sensationalist rhetoric and simplistic media coverage stemming from the economic and demographic transformation of suburbia. Garland humanizes her subject through long-term, in-depth interviews with current and former gang members extensive footwork across the U.S. and Central America and a formidable command of relevant foreign and public policy decisions. While offering a detailed look inside such notorious gangs as Mara Salvatrucha and its self-styled affiliates, Garland makes a persuasive case that her subjects’ attraction to gang life had less to do with what gangs offered than with “what America did not.” (July) Three decades after publishing a novel on the Battle of the Crater, Wesleyan professor emeritus Slotkin offers a historical analysis of an event meant as a turning point in the Civil War but remembered instead as one of its greatest failures. Most accounts focus on the slaughter of hundreds of black Union troops Slotkin takes a broader perspective. The Crater was intended to draw on the Union’s strengths, like the mastery of industrial technology, and the physical energies liberated by black emancipation. A regiment of coal miners dug a 500-foot tunnel under a Confederate strong point and packed it with four tons of blasting powder. A division of African-Americans was to exploit the blast to open the way to the Confederate capital, Richmond. The Civil War might have ended by Christmas. Instead, Slotkin describes a fiasco. “Jealousy, intransigence, incompetence, and even cowardice” among Union generals resulted in “a combination massacre and race riot,” as white Union and Confederate troops turned on the blacks. Slotkin depicts all this and the army and Congress’s subsequent whitewashes with the verve and force that place him among the most distinguished historians of the role of violence in the American experience. (July 21) Anderson (The Moon Reflected Fire) has led an amazing life—before, during and after his 1967–1968 tour of duty as a navy corpsman with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. He has been a jazz drummer, a playwright, an actor, an alcoholic and son of an alcoholic, a college dropout, a college instructor, a drug abuser, a PTSD sufferer and a poet. In his first book of nonfiction, Anderson tells his story in inviting, poetic prose. He begins with his dysfunctional childhood in Memphis, then offers an evocative depiction of his service in Vietnam, which included a firefight on his first day in the field and more than his share of closely observed horror. He shows the hell of war as he went through it. Only in recent years did Anderson stop drinking, find meaningful work as a poet and teacher, marry and make a life-changing trip back to Vietnam in 2000. Yet what Anderson dubs “Snakebrain” (the demons inside him) remains a part of him. His beautifully told story is one of redemption, but also one without a happy ending. (July) This true crime caper by Heidenry (The Gashouse Gang) of a 1953 Kansas child kidnapping gone bad carries a solid punch. The young victim, Bobby Greenlease, the six-year-old heir of wealthy businessman Robert Greenlease, never had a chance when Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady—both formerly wealthy ne’er-do-wells making one last stab at making their fortune—botched the snatch and demanded a ransom of $600,000, the largest ever in U.S. history up to that time. Heady took Bobby from his Catholic school, claiming to be his aunt and that his mother had had a heart attack. Bobby inexplicably went quietly with the strange woman and met his violent end. Heidenry, a contributing editor to the Week, aptly describes Hall, the down-on-his-luck playboy Heady, the former horsewoman turned prostitute Robert Greenlease, the woeful car magnate and a sordid cast of supporting players, including coldhearted mobster Joe Costello and the two corrupt cops who stole much of the ransom. Heidenry neatly tells this harrowing tale and its impact on all involved. 8 pages of b&w photos. (July) Breakups are hard to forget, and this collection—surprisingly restrained yet full of emotion—is equally memorable. Patty Van Norman’s two-frame graphic story “Dear Ugly, Dear Fatso” (other graphic entries are from Lynda Barry and Emily Flake) resonates like a quick punch to the solar plexus. Josh Kilmer-Purcell writes of the lover who could only perform with Wonder Woman on the television. George Singleton urinates a bellyful of beer into his ex’s kitty litter box. Maud Newton tells of a sex- and rage-filled relationship, wondering: “was he the abusive one, or was I” Taeckens, publicity director at Algonquin Books, anthologizes modern heartbreak in stories replete with contemporary commentaries (e.g., using to express a new relationship status). In a book full of hits, Amanda Stern’s “Scout’s Honor,” about camping in the Washington Cascades, stands out. The collection’s material could make one feel a bit voyeuristic, but throughout this tender book one instead feels like a privileged confidant. (July 28) The conflicted, ultimately tragic experience of an American soldier in Iraq is explored in this moving homage. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Skip Griffin saw heavy fighting during several tours in Iraq before he was killed by a sniper in Baghdad in 2007. His father’s memoir portrays Skip as a thoughtful man (he read Plato at age 13) imbued with a skeptical patriotism despite his deep misgivings about the war, he volunteered to cut short a yearlong break to return to Iraq. Skip’s own perceptions emerge through extensive excerpts from his e-mails, blog and other writings. In these he criticized the Bush administration’s reasons for the war, deplored the failings of American counterinsurgency strategy and the woeful performance of the Iraqi armed forces, and evinced a growing weariness, edging toward despondency, at the carnage around him. Darrell Sr. overquotes his son’s grandiose and not always cogent ideas about religion, philosophy and politics. But when the book sticks to Skip’s everyday impressions of the conflict, it presents a harrowing, unsanitized vision of the war and the toll it takes on our soldiers. Photos. (June 29)
Nehring’s opening assertion that she “argues by provocation” and aims “to anger” reveals the rhetorical nature of her argument that our tepid age needs a return to true Eros. Just what she advocates is unclear, since her examples range from the chaste passion of Emily Dickinson through the frenzied sexuality of Edna St. Vincent Millay to the open relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Nehring does regret the collateral damage of this last pairing (“a couple of cases of insanity” and one suicide among their other lovers) and acknowledges that most of her case studies demonstrate excesses not to be emulated. That reduces her call for boldness in love to familiar clichés: absence makes the heart grow fonder play hard to get and defy social conventions in love (what is more of a postmodern cliché than advocating “transgression”). Nehring, who has written for Harper’s and the Atlantic among others, is a keen, empathic reader of literary texts, drawing attention to undervalued love writings like the letters of Horace Walpole and Madame du Deffand, and offering an astute reading of Dickinson’s much-debated “Master letters.” But overall, she is more preachy and patronizing than provocative. (June)
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