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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On Guns and Eleanor Roosevelt

Somehow, given the household I grew up in, I never really became a gun guy. To put a finer point on it, when my dad gets a new car, the NRA sticker goes on it before the registration one; yet aside from shooting a .22 in hunter safety at maybe 12, I managed to go until my late twenties without firing one of them. Now I sometimes go shooting with him -- pistols and shotguns, mostly -- and as things that make a loud noise and put holes in targets, I think they're kinda cool. I like the kick the flash and the immediate disintegration of clay targets. I've got to say that yeah, on some sort of evolutionary boy level, I kinda get it now.

That's not the motivation, though, for the book I've been reading for the past few months that has essentially held you all back from hearing about new books from me. It's The Gun, and it's by C.J. Chivers.

Not since World War Z have I read a book that is so good, yet so hard to talk about without making me seem like sort of a nut job. Quick aside: while interviewing for a job once, I was asked what book I had most recently finished reading. Instead of saying The Road, which was the second-most recent read and would have probably been met with nods of approval, I dropped the zombie bomb. I think I backed it up pretty well, saying that it wasn't really about zombies, rather the way the world's societies would react to some kind of world-wide apocalypse, but I imagine there were weird looks. It was a phone interview, with like 10 people on the line at once. Also, I didn't get the job.

Anyway, I find myself in the same situation when people ask what I'm reading now. "It's about the history of the AK-47," I say. And then they politely talk about literally anything else in the world. "No," I say, "It's not, like, about the gun. I mean, it's in the title, but it's about the history of modern war. And industrialization. And the parts of the Soviet system that worked. And let's be honest. When that thing was doing what it was best at? It was the best at it." Like all good history books, The Gun tells a story with a consistent narrative instead of just listing facts. The only difference between it and other epic, multi-generational stories, is that its main character is possibly the most deadly weapon in history.

It's a rough read, though. I had to take quite a break after the World War I bit, for example, because guys, World War I was horrible. There is a reason that all you see in movies is filthy people slowly dying of disease as they ran around in trenches, occasionally being shot right through the helmet anytime they were talking to the main character. It's because that's what it was. Well, aside from the charges. In the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million troops died, with the British suffering almost 60,000 casualties on the first day. Turns out you don't march with bayonets against machine guns. Those are the kinds of lessons you get from The Gun. I haven't even gotten to the terrorist and child soldier parts yet.

So yeah, I take breaks. During the most recent one, I read Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack GantosIt's fun, this book.

Norvelt, it turns out, is a real place. And hey, you know how people like to point out that the location of a story is as much a character as any of the living characters are? And how they act like they're the first to say that? Well Norvelt, Pennsylvania is as much a character in this story as any of the living characters are. Eleanor Roosevelt (Nor-Velt, get it?) decided that laid off miners needed a place to live that wasn't super crappy. Her husband and his advisors had laid out a plan for a bunch of shacks that folks could build themselves and live in, pitching in together to build different parts and then paying them off by working their own land and a community plot. She pushed for New England-style houses instead, and at least for a while, it worked pretty fine.

By the time Jack comes to age, though, it's a little shabby. That first generation of miners have all died of the black lung by the 60s, and it's hard to tell if the town itself or those miner's widows are dying faster. Jack, grounded for the whole freaking summer, only has one reprieve from digging his commie-fearing dad's planned bomb shelter, and that's writing obituaries as dictated by an old lady. As you can tell this is a very funny book. I actually mean that. It made me laugh quite a bit, and the writing is sharp and fun and it made me forget, however briefly, about guns that harness the recoil and gas expansion of an exploding bullet and use it to feed the next round into the chamber in fractions of a second. So thank's for that, Dead End in Norvelt.

I'm looking at my stack of books, and I realized that Mailer's World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead is next. I'll be honest, that one might get put aside for a bit.     

Check back tomorrow, by the way, cause I think I've got another one of these things brewin'.