Book Review: It Doesn’t End With Us

August 31, 2008

It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal

By Allison Hantschel

Published 2008

Heritage Books

250 pp.

ISBN 0-7884-4447-0

Reviewed August 30, 2008

A bit of personal history. My journalism career began in 2003, when (as an inexperienced freshman who thought writing was the only thing he could do for a living) I walked into the fall organizational meeting of The Daily Cardinal. Choosing it over its rival The Badger Herald based on its age (110 at the time) and clearer format, I provided my information not knowing what to expect. That next week, I became a campus news reporter.

I left the paper four years later, having served on the news, arts, features and copy desks at various intervals, and knowing writing was all I’d do for a living. I’d been the literature columnist my junior year (a column this blog takes its name from) and served as the Page 2 editor. I’d made dozens of friends and worked for a professional publication thanks to a Cardinal contact. It was tense, exhausting, and the most fun I had at college – in fact, I sometimes think it was worth more than my diploma.

For all the fun I had at the paper though, I never really took the time to learn about its history beyond some war stories – a history that Allison Hantschel chronicled with “It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal.” Touching on the conflicts and growing pains that have roiled the paper since its birth, Hantschel puts together not just a solid history of one paper but an account of what people will do to keep an institution alive.

Hantschel goes all the way back to the Cardinal’s founding in 1892, when William Wesley Young, a student hungry for valid newspaper experience and chafing at the skepticism of his professors, scraped together funds and started publishing a daily paper. Defying expectations, the paper grew to tens of thousands of copies, giving hundreds of students a journalism education better than the school and making itself a voice on war, politics and the errors of the university.

The Cardinal comes from rebellious origins, and it’s through this maverick prism that Hantschel views the paper’s history. Events covered are the stories the Cardinal would’ve send reporters to if it wasn’t happening to them: Editors are accused of being Communists and lambasted daily, but stand by their editorial policies. A Cardinal writer is tried for the bombing of a building and the editors try to give money to his defense. A rival editor uses little-known bylaws to take over the Cardinal’s board, and another loophole lets loyalists dissolve and reform to get it right back. These stories are united by the common thread that the players are student journalists – by definition prideful and naïve – but they care deeply about keeping the paper alive, a passion that only gets stronger as it gets older.

There’s always an implicit danger of editorializing whenever a history is written by someone involved, but Hantschel manages to avoid that even in the conflicts she participated in. Editor-in-chief of the Cardinal in 1994 prior to its seven-month shutdown from budgetary issues, she doesn’t try to remove herself from her faulty decisions, admitting her inexperience and ready to credit others first in putting the paper back together.

This doesn’t mean that the book is unbiased, however – Hantschel clearly wrote this book in large part because she loves the Cardinal, and that affection colors all the written history. Introduction and conclusion both are full of almost flowery language when students are working, and while the text regularly shakes its head at stupid moves by students there’s more unconcealed pride at what they’ve done.

Perhaps to temper that voice a history of the paper should be written by an outsider, but the stories Hantschel is telling would suffer if they weren’t written by someone who didn’t share the Cardinal passion. The last few chapters go to a long list of groundbreaking stories, writers who would win Pulitzers and hold top reporting jobs – all details normal researchers would get, but which Hantschel supplements with stories of long-time friendships and romances the paper created. They seem thrown in at the end, but put an exclamation point on the Cardinal’s impact on people rather than the other way around.

It’s a passionate story rather than a cold history, but passion is something that’s formed the paper to begin with and Hantschel – like any good reporter – has done the research needed to back it up. Staffers of the Cardinal, and indeed staffers of any student or professional daily would do well to read this for inspiring stories of young journalism – and also some cautionary tales about knowing what the hell you’re doing.


Book Review: Capital City

August 15, 2008

Capital City

By Mari Sandoz

Published 1939, reprinted November 2007

University of Nebraska Press

352 pp.

ISBN 0-803-26031-8

Reviewed June 10, 2008

Originally reviewed in:

Originally published in 1939, Mari Sandoz’s “Capital City” fits into the many novels reacting to the poverty and politics of America during the Great Depression. Drawing on personal experience and the archives of Midwestern newspapers, Sandoz crafted the fictional state of Kanewa, home to an elite circle of families and an ever-widening circle of the disenfranchised. Her aim was to use fiction to depict the bitter competition driving the families, the anger working people felt and the rise of fascist thought in the Great Plains.

Does she succeed? Well, yes and no – the book certainly contains ample instances of hedonism, elitism and short-sightedness, showing Sandoz certainly did her research on the area’s culture. The problem is that Sandoz, considered the definitive historian on Plains Indians and the Lakota chief Crazy Horse, feels ill-fitted writing a work of fiction. Used to a scholarly audience, her literary work never quite grabs the reader’s full interest.

The chief culprit in holding the book back is its slow, almost dreary pace. The first third of “Capital City” is all exposition, setting up the framework of the city’s “nobility” – a genealogy on par with Mafia families or royalty who barter their children for political alliances. Every character has a backstory, every business has a political history and everyone seems to be against someone else. It’s a tangled mass almost requiring an organizational chart, especially since they spend half their time scheming against the others.

Once the book develops narrative it gets more interesting, since the city is full of complicated subplots. A firebrand farmer running a long-shot Senate campaign, the death of a city official during a grand elitist celebration, a university professor whose novel is excoriated by the town for its brutal honesty (a foreshadowing of Sandoz fleeing to Denver after “Capital City” was published) – all are factors in the city’s restless agitation. But those plots don’t make up for a slower start, every development paired with three pages of exposition.

This is not to say that “Capital City” is as painfully dry as the Great Plains. Sandoz is one of Nebraska’s preeminent writers for a reason, and her skills are repeatedly exercised when describing the Depression’s attitude. There are frequent allusions to the city and her residents as whores and parasites, and the term “capital city” is written with the sort of fear and vitriol that matches the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s “1984.” Her characters fit a variety of descriptions, ranging from straight and aged as smokestacks to old crows on the fence waiting for carrion.

One particularly noteworthy passage attributed to the novel’s protagonist shows Sandoz’s grasp of prose writing: “He was like those others born in Franklin, mere followers, his brother and all the others here, content with the feel of money flowing under their hands, their mothers’ money, or their grandmothers’, or somewhere much farther removed; even exhilarated by the movement, as though it were their own making, like the blanket of green plantlets rising and falling with the pulse of a turgid stream.”

As a historical piece of fiction “Capital City” is certainly a strong look at Midwestern politics during the Depression, and its techniques earn it a place among the early works of new journalism. Sandoz has a great deal of frustration at Midwestern culture and uses many of the right words to express it, and it’s a frustrating thing that the book never truly lights afire.

Book Review: The Lighthouse at the End of the World

August 15, 2008

The Lighthouse at the End of the World

By Jules Verne, translated by William Butcher

Published September 2007

University of Nebraska Press

210 pp.

ISBN 0-803-26007-5

Reviewed May 6, 2008

Originally reviewed in:

A new novel from Jules Verne? The mere idea should be enough to send readers into a frenzy – “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” are seminal works of literature, uncannily prophetic pioneers of the science fiction genre. Of course, it’s also an idea made more problematic by the fact that Verne died more than a century ago and not even he foresaw a way to bring someone back from the dead.

There is a new novel from Verne in a sense, however, thanks to the University of Nebraska Press and William Butcher’s recent translation of “The Lighthouse at the End of the World.” Printed in France after Verne’s death in 1905, the manuscript is now enjoying its first English translation, a crisp if occasionally dry tale of greed and heroism in an inaccessible climate.

“Lighthouse” takes place on Staten Island, an island off the tip of Argentina, home to a lighthouse recently established to protect vital trade routes. Unknown to the builders however, the pirate chieftain Kongre has made his den on the island as well and plans to use the lighthouse for wrecking and looting ships. Only Vasquez, the courageous lighthouse keeper, is in a position to bring help and foil Kongre’s plans.

Anyone expecting a scientific romance on par with “20,000 Leagues” will be disappointed, or at least have to settle for the clear fascination Verne has with how the lighthouse works. This book is a psychological thriller, focused on the isolation of being at the tip of the world and how that isolation drives men to greater fears and motivation. As such, the action moves quicker, Captain Nemo’s elaborate Nautilus tour replaced by hurried repairs and moonless scouting sessions

But this change is an easy adjustment, chiefly because even without vision Verne is an amazingly readable author. His books are entertainment with a fine grasp of language, descriptions that are rarely too dense and a storyteller’s habit of offering asides to his reader. Butcher’s translation is thankfully the inverse of his last name, preserving Verne’s voice: concise and clear scenes that follow a compelling narrative, a prose that may be old-fashioned but with many hints of elegance.

For long-time fans of Verne’s work, Butcher has also strengthened the text with supplemental research, literary analysis on word choice and an introduction showing how the book fits into the Verne canon. The research is interesting but not presented ideally: all notes are sorted into an appendix, and rather than numbering each note asterisks inform readers which page has a comment. It would have been more accessible to organize the research by footnotes, or create an appendix for each individual chapter.

What the organization does do, though, is keep the research from breaking the narrative – a tremendously important thing to do, as Verne would be nothing without a well-told story. His novels were the paperbacks of a century ago in terms of popularity, and “Lighthouse” is yet another reminder that here is an author who has stood the test of time.

Book Review: Midnight Assassin

August 15, 2008

Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland

By Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf

Published August 2007

University of Iowa Press

296 pp.

ISBN 1-587-29605-5

Reviewed April 22, 2008

Originally reviewed in:

The interesting thing about murder is that the longer one goes unsolved, the more interesting it gets. New evidence comes to light, new theories are propounded and the media gets more and more time to beat it into the ground. This fatalistic fascination is well served by “Midnight Assassin,” by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf, the revisiting of an obscure murder well over a century ago.

The victim in this case was John Hossack, a well-respected farmer and landowner whose head was split open by an axe on December 1, 1900. His wife Margaret, who slept right next to him but apparently heard nothing, was immediately the prime suspect. An all-male jury and a history of domestic disputes let to her conviction, but a retrial and eventual acquittal was granted based on insufficient evidence and alternate theories.

Bryan and Wolf do not try to solve the murder, but rather perform a full reconstruction of the events. Drawing on a truly impressive body of research they reconstruct the actions of every member of the family, discussions held by neighbors and the lively arguments ofs opposing lawyers. Documents are quoted regularly: the diary of a housewife similar to Margaret gives us a picture of their hermetic lifestyle, while newspaper articles offer first-hand accounts of the trial (and some amusement at clearly biased, old-fashioned reporting).

Structurally, the book is very similar to Truman Capote’s landmark “In Cold Blood.” It begins with the last day of the victim’s life, walks through each step of the investigation, follows the accused to prison and concludes by seeing where the parties ended up. Unlike “In Cold Blood,” however, “Midnight Assassin’s” language is short and straightforward – less poetic than Capote, but in many ways better suited to the simple setting of the prairie Midwest.

Writing style is an important choice here, as “Midnight Assassin” is very focused on the circumstances surrounding the murder. Bryan and Wolf examine how the insular quality of farm life meant neighbors chose not to get involved in arguments between Margaret and John, and gender relations meant Margaret’s first trial came from “a jury of her husband’s peers.” The book doesn’t accuse anyone, but the implication is clear that culture contributed to John’s death.

The language choice certainly helps get the point across, but luminous language like Capote’s would have filled the book’s gap of no visuals. Beyond one illustration of the Hossack home there are no photographs of key players, no images of evidence or replicas of newspaper front pages. Even one or two entries would have helped readers picture the crime – particularly during the occasionally dull recounting of the trial.

It may be blank is some places, but “Midnight Assassin” is both a well-researched true crime novel and an interesting study of 18th century Midwest culture. Dead men may tell no tales, but they can certainly keep things stirred up after they’re gone.

Book Review: Desert Gothic

August 15, 2008

Desert Gothic

By Don Waters

Published September 2007

University of Iowa Press

152 pp.

ISBN 1-587-29624-1

Reviewed April 20, 2008

Originally reviewed in :

The winner of the 2007 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Don Waters’ “Desert Gothic” is a collection of 10 stories set in the deserts of southwest America. Depicted as a near no-man’s land where the isolation is as prevalent as the heat, Waters has envisioned prime examples of the people who live there and the psychic anchors holding them in place.

Waters’ stories are first and foremost character studies, focused on how disadvantaged Southwesterners eke out a living. Their jobs range from esoteric to illegal, but all seem to involve transporting something: chauffeur for a cathouse, Mormon missionaries in cheap motels and smugglers of prescription drugs from Mexico. Several of them have hidden motives as strange as their work, be it earning enough to get two custom Bowie knives out of hock at a cheap pawnshop (“Blood Management”) or fixating on a hair dye model while building a desk (“Little Sins”).

These stories are certainly not cheerful – loneliness is a common theme, and at least three of the main characters have had their lives offset by cancer. Rather than inspire with heroism, Waters takes the route that their virtue is survival in an inhospitable world, finding a niche to thrive in. Live in a retirement community before middle age? Take a job fetching medication for your neighbors in Mexico (“Mr. Epstein and the Dealer”). Work cremating bodies but have an artistic streak? Idle away hours painting on abandoned urns (“What to Do with the Dead”).

It helps that Waters’ writing style is perfect for his setting, bringing a more arid feel to the minimalism seen in authors like Raymond Carver and Chuck Palahniuk. His sentences are short and sharp, giving the full picture of the scene without unnecessary details. “Dan Buck” has some of the most characterful descriptions, following a long-distance runner through a series of colorful hallucinations and “so much chafing between … thighs that they look syphilitic.”

Personal favorites among the stories include “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer,” which shows an atypical relationship between a drug dealer and his client; and “Mineral and Steel,” a very personal story centered on an aspiring writer living in the mountains and dodging his stepfather.

On the other end, “Sheets” wins the title of weakest story thanks to a lack in momentum, focusing on the moods of a jilted lover oddly fixated on bedding.

“Desert Gothic” is a wonderful collection of dysfunction in the Southwest, stories that never quite state their point and filled with characters whose motives are hidden but always clear. It’s a bleak and dry world he shows us, and yet also an oddly inspiring one. Archive #2

August 15, 2008

Now that I’ve worked my way through all the express reviews that I considered worthy of adding to my archive directly, I decided it now seems like a good time to conclude the archiving project I began with this post. Below please find links to all my remaining express work. Mostly serviceable books, but avoid Voice of Conscience and Recreation as they are pure garbage.

The River, By Moonlight by Camille Marchetta, reviewed September 24, 2007

Messages to Me: Words Collected on the Road to Silence by Margaret Coyle Irsay, reviewed October 1, 2007

Having Nasal Surgery? Don’t You Become an Empty Nose Victim! by Christopher Martin, reviewed October 3, 2007

Rachel and Aleks: A Historical Novel of Life, Love and WWII by Sylvia Smoller, reviewed November 27, 2007

Joshua Greyman by Maeve Sidhe Fitzgerald, reviewed January 21, 2008

Resonance by AJ Scudiere, reviewed January 28, 2008

Voice of Conscience by Behcet Kaya, reviewed February 6, 2008

The Music Master Ensemble Book by Graham Bennett, reviewed February 6, 2008

A Beckoning Hellfire by JDR Hawkins, reviewed February 18, 2008

Smiling at the World by Joyce Major, reviewed April 3, 2008

Remember Westville by James E Bryant, reviewed April 3, 2008

Sandlot Summit by Rick Fishman, reviewed April 6, 2008

Recreation by Gary Brandt, reviewed April 7, 2008

Cardinal Column #15: The Final Countdown

August 14, 2008

(Editor’s note: This was my final column for the Cardinal, written hoping to get a better sense of closure to my project and talk about two of my favorite books. By picking the two, I was – as I said in my writing – genuinely surprised and pleased to find common links and be able to elaborate onto them. Not much else to say here as this was a column written as my own reactions, so I have no other reactions to add to those.

With the posting of past columns completed, don’t think this will mean I have nothing else to say – I hope to move onto printing new content fairly soon, once my relocation to Portland, OR gets sorted out. Stay tuned for more than partial excitement!)

Les is no more: a tearful farewell to our book worm

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, April 26, 2006

As Mr. Fitzgerald put it, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past …” Yes dear readers, the time has come for my final chapter, and the last installment of “The Lesser of Two Equals.” Next year, I move on to greener pastures (or at least sleeping Monday nights with no deadline) and my deviant typist photo will be retired.

I thought long and hard about this final column, and doing justice to the best writing experience of my college career. First, I thought I’d list off my favorite books and authors and be culturally relevant, but my fellow columnist Pudas beat me to that idea—and even took the closing line I wanted. First he makes me overdose on gin, and now this.

Then I decided to turn to the old reliable of addressing readers’ concerns, except for the sad fact none of you seem to have any. In 14 columns I’ve received five e-mails, most of which were, instead of personal questions and literary debate, bitching at me for not being harder on the lying author Nasdijj and praising my knowledge of “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

There are two questions, however, that I’ve been asked before this column started and increased during publication: what was the first book you ever read, and what’s your favorite book? I tend to give evasive answers to these questions (i.e. bullshit my way out) because my book collection is ludicrously difficult to decipher, but for my denouement I thought I should try to answer them both.

My first book (cue tender music) was a children’s book by Marilyn Sadler, called “It’s Not Easy Being A Bunny.” In it, P.J. Funnybunny grows tired of being a bunny and takes off to live with other animals, ranging from birds to beavers to skunks. However, when he learns he can’t fly or work hard or stand the smell, he realizes he’s happiest being a bunny and goes home to the family burrow.

Hearing this at a tender young age, free from college cynicism, was one of my best youthful experiences and I both read and had it read to me many times. In addition to a simple format—P.J. moving from one animal to another, rejecting each one and building up a list of past efforts—it had a gentle theme of finding yourself and appreciating what you had. Additionally, the image of a tiny rabbit making moose calls is still one of the cutest things ever.

Keeping to my sympathetic side, this book still holds a close place to my heart—on my desk back home in Brookfield, where it remains safe from my college excess. Even now on vacations, I still pick it up late at night and peruse its well-taped pages, harkening back to the days when my vocabulary had 20 words and being you mattered most.

After remembering this from 15 years ago, I was struck by the radical shift to my favorite book (cue orchestral crescendo) and the only book I own multiple copies of: Hunter S. Thompson’s drugged-up epic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I first read this on a drive to Indianapolis, and the trip we were taking to a gaming convention was quickly displaced by a head-trip of literature.

Beyond the fact that this was the first book to make journalism look like a cool profession—Raoul Duke and his attorney driving around in convertibles, loaded on amyls and acid and not paying for any of it—it was also one of the few books to jar me into alternate perspective. Not only was it original, but its fluid, stream of consciousness format passed my ultimate test: I not only wanted to read more of this, I wanted to write like this.

Making these two choices was difficult, but it also birthed a startling question—how did I go from a white rabbit with bird aspirations to an acid-fried attorney demanding “White Rabbit?” Were these themes of brazen individuality, trips saluting the fantastic possibilities of life somehow connected? Did reading P.J. Funnybunny make me more receptive to Raoul Duke, and did this mean Sadler was inadvertently guilty of corrupting the youth?

Personally, I see it as a salute to the tangled web of literature that is out there. We’re all drawn to common elements in the books we read, and finding what those are elements is one of the best parts of developing our reading style. When we look back and find these threads, it’s not only an amusing coincidence but a sign of how our reading tastes are birthed very early in life.

Thanks for following along with me this year, and if you see me perusing in a Madison bookstore or library, don’t hesitate to say hello.