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Straight's new novel, "Between Heaven and Here," will be published next month.
"Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology"
A Harvard man who moved back with his parents, Bulfinch never married and became a bank clerk so he could focus on his true passion: giving the world classic tales of myth. The Greeks believed their kingdom was the actual center of the earth, and all other nations were only considered in relation to them. Their major and minor gods and goddesses have fantastic, fanatical confrontations with themselves and with humans over land and love, etc., etc. And reading — or rereading — these will help the candidates remember how unimaginative and neurotic these battles continue to be when self-absorption rules.
"Fools Crow" by James Welch
Every time I give people this book, they say it changes the way they look at America. It was not America to Fools Crow, a young man from the Pikuni tribe — later his people would be called Blackfeet, and the land he knows by landmarks such as Woman Mountains and Singing Grass Creek, with gods like Coldmaker, and a distant, vague president called "White Man in Chief," is being taken away treaty by treaty, acre by acre, with the guns every man, no matter what language he speaks, wants. The legends of this country, when there were not even states yet, are wondrous and melancholy and bitter in the foretelling.
"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" by Ernest J. Gaines
Jane is 9 when the Emancipation Proclamation is read, and though she's then free, her life is worth nothing because she isn't property. Her epic journey takes her only about 50 miles in a hundred more years, but her deadpan and often hilarious voice recounts the story of American history At a Reconstruction political rally that might remind the candidates of town halls now, Jane watches: "Most of the talk was about the Fedjal Gov'ment …The Democrats wanted the Yankees to get out so we could build on our own. The Republicans wanted the Yankees to stay. The Democrats said we wouldn't have peace till the Yankees had gone. The Republicans said we didn't have peace before they came there. The Republicans said every free man ought to have forty acres and a mule." Illuminating, no?
"Winesburg, Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson
Here's the land cleared and planted with cornfields where farmers work and grieve, where lovers lie in secret, where unhappy small-town men dream, the land when brick buildings are erected to make the small towns and big dreams, the streets where people hold onto their guilt, their burning need to be someone bigger, to leave the small town which is still held up as true America. When politicians talk about "real America" and "small-town values," they might read this and realize how reductive that seems, how small towns are not "flyover" space but have their own mythologies.
"Between Two Worlds: The People of the Border" by Don Bartletti
Times photographer Bartletti's book chronicles through photos taken during the 1980s and '90s the people from Mexico and Guatemala who gathered at the border waiting to cross, the lives they left behind and their existence at the edges of the wealthiest communities in Southern California. The men live in "spider holes" and caves at the edges of strawberry fields, and on terraces above freeways strung with night headlights. Has anything changed, or are the strawberries still red and waiting in the furrows, and the hands still pulling open plastic sheeting to reveal dawn?
"Dream Street" by Douglas McCulloh
"Dream Street" begins with a strawberry field in inland Southern California, cleared for a new housing tract, and really it is the best way for the candidates to end their reading. In this book we see how land becomes money, and a house becomes an investment rather than a home, built by an underpaid army of single-task workers who endure nails through their palms and employ their own 11-year-old sons to climb the rafters installing AC ducts. This is America right now. This is part of how we got underwater, as a nation, the distillation of every myth we believed in, and the idea that we could own any ground, how strawberries turn into foreclosure when nothing is really about home.
August 16, 2012