Thursday, July 17, 2008

the reading pile

Maybe just the act of putting my true emotional state in this forum kick-started me right out of the Swamp of Inertia that seems to be sucking at my knee caps these days. Or, maybe it's just the gallons of caffeine I've been drinking tonight while the rest of my family takes in the midnight showing of The Dark Knight. Either way, I've mustered up enough energy to put something together for this blog.

Book Review - All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg

Over our recent two-week vacation, we got the paper everyday. It became a kind of short-lived tradition. Each morning, while I slept in, Brian would walk the dog down to the corner paper stand carrying fifty cents in one pocket and a wad of wal-marty-plastic bags in his other pocket (for Dutchy's sidewalk deposits). Once he returned he would put the coffee pot on and move to the front porch. Eventually, I would stumble downstairs and there he'd be --rocking away in our wal-marty-white rocking chairs doing the daily crossword puzzle. This is new territory for us as a married couple; this porch-sitting, rocking-chair sitting, crossword puzzle-doing, coffee-sipping life. While Brian scribbled away on his puzzle with his dull #2 pencil, I would skim the paper.

It was on one of these mornings before the kids needed us -- or, rather, before they needed the chauffeur service we represent -- that I was reminded how much I love reading the obituary page of the paper. I always thought it was kind of strange that my Grandma so faithfully read this page, but here I was morning after morning looking it up, folding back the innards of the Press and creasing it just so. Then, it dawned on me that I wasn't reading for the usual reason - the gruesome who, what, when and where of someone's final day on earth. I was reading it for the story of a person.
I am fascinated by the story, written as so many concise lines in black and white Times New Roman. Even better are the stories with pictures. And then there's the line after line after line of names - family, friends, beloved pets. The jobs and awards and education and causes represented by this life. This particular fascination always leaves me heavy; and not for the death reason again. It's the story. Someone's whole story as we could hear it and know it and recite it is being rolled like some kind of final credits on the obit page.

I feel weighed down with the story of the family around me. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles have these ridiculously complex and beautiful and hilarious and redemptive stories. And knowing this almost kills me.
All of this to say that when my mother loaned me this book toward the end of my vacation, I was excited to see that it was a memoir. I spent the day home in bed nursing off a sinus infection and found this to be the perfect day to dig into the life of Rick Bragg and his momma, Margaret, who raised him in the cotton fields of the Apalaching foothills in Alabama. Rick ends up becoming a highly acclaimed journalist covering heart-breaking, life-and-death stories in places like Miami, Birmingham and Haiti and eventually is awarded the Pulitzer Prize while working for the New York Times. But his growing up in poverty and fatherlessness is the true heart of this story; that and his momma's selfless, back-breaking, gospel-driven determination to care for her three sons.

Bragg is, in fact, a very good writer. He mixes sentimentality and cynicism equally into an easy-to-read book. I only wish that he could have translated his deep gratitude toward his mother and his amazement at what he calls a lucky life into a recognition of his true Father. Not only would it change his life, but I think that relationship would even improve his writing which at times slipped into a sloppy sentimentality.

Who knows? Maybe he still will.
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