25 February 2013

Book Review: “After Visiting Friends.” Family Secrets. A Son’s Story

Family Secrets

Family Secrets

If you wish to purchase this book, please consider buying it from Battenkill Books of Cambridge, N.Y, where I work as book Recommender-In-Chief, or from your local independent bookstore. You can call Battenkill at 518 677-2515, e-mail Connie Brooks at [email protected] or visit the store's website. They take Paypal and ship anywhere in the world and if you mention me or this review, you will receive a free gift along with the book. Thanks for buying local and supporting a great independent bookstore.

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"After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story" is a non-fiction memoir (Scribner) written by Michael Hainey, now the deputy editor of GQ Magazine. Hainey was born in Chicago and on the day he turned six his  uncle turned up at his home early one morning and told the family that his father Robert, a copy chief at the Chicago Sun-Times, had been found dead on a dark Chicago street far from home or work. The cause of death, the uncle said, was a heart attack. He died, Hainey was told, "after visiting friends." Robert was a much loved rising star in Chicago journalism. Bob, like most journalists of the time, was a heavy drinker and bar hopper.  Newspaper people worked under great stress and late at night, and invariably capped their workdays in bars with pals. Robert's death shattered the family and obsessed Michael for much of his life.

The story his uncle told never really added up. Robert had no friends in the neighborhood where he was found, and had no reason to be there. There were curious discrepancies in the obituaries of his father's death. No "friends" came forward to say they expected him to visit them or were with him when he died. None were ever found. His mother, a former journalist herself (she met her husband at the Chicago Tribune), refused to ever discuss his father's death with Michael.  She never said a word about it. Many years later, Michael is now a savvy reporter himself, and he decides to find out what really happened to his father. From the first, he finds it impossible to believe his father's newspaper buddies didn't know what had happened to the friend they loved.

Hainey's work takes him around the country tracking down his father's fellow journalists. It also takes him deep into the secrets of his father's life, guarded resolutely by  family and by the clannish newspaper community that loved his father. Hainey takes on a network of denial, and  he never really wavers, peeling back layer after layer of lies and confusion to get, finally to the truth. It is a story about the power of reporting, the strength and courage of a mother and wife, and above all, about redemption. About some broken hearts, too.

The book is  perfectly done and works on a number of different levels. It is a wonderfully written memoir of a family and a life,  it is a gripping detective story, and it is a poignant and richly detailed account of the lost world of the pre-Internet, pre-corporatized newspaperman, members of a tribe that saw too many things, drank too much and protected one another unto death. I have to confess I was one of them. When Hainey gets close to the truth, the terror he feels is not from the tough streets of Chicago, but from fear of confronting his mother and others in his clannish family. It is a story about family secrets.

Hainey is a terrific reporter as well as a powerful writer. His digging evokes Smiley in the LeCarre novels. His search for the truth about his father took him years of burrowing into records and accounts, prodding wary family members and trying to match wits with hard-bitten reporters who he is sure know the truth, but who mislead and avoid him at every turn. The very rich world of Chicago journalism is an ever present backdrop. As a former journalist, I found Hainey's descriptions of the newspaper life very evocative and he uses it well. Chicago is a fascinating city on its own, but it was also a center of American journalism – the city had five papers at one time – and many legendary reporters, columnists and editors.  Newspaper towers lined the Chicago river, and the city's reporters shaped the city's culture and politics. The book's portraits of that era, the heyday of American journalism, as it turned out, are as fascinating as a son's search for the truth about his father.

I just loved this book, couldn't put it down and I recommend it highly. It has absolutely everything a good book ought to have – writing, plot, suspense, emotion.  I am dazzled by the depth and quality of the books I am reviewing. Publishing is alive and well and turning out some wonderful stuff, and I am on a reading roll. Michael's dogged search for the truth is just what great journalism used to be about. I found the portraits of journalism sad, but that is a personal thing for me. There was no better job on the earth than being a young reporter for a big paper in a big city. I loved every second of it, and I honor the passing of that world. I'd put this book in the must-read category.

Remember, if you can, please order from Battenkill Books. Bookstores must not go the way of newspapers. 518 677-2515. [email protected]

Posted in Writing

The Rural Landscape

The Rural Landscape

The Rural Landscape

The rural landscape is eerily beautiful to me, in part because it is rarely presented in a truthful way. If you see a beautiful farm up here – Bedlam Farm too – you know that a real farmer doesn't live there. Real farmers, like real animals, do not live pastoral, beautiful, well-organized and trouble free lives. Their farms never make it onto calendars and postcards. Real farms are spare, dirty, almost never repaired and there is a powerful beauty in their stark landscapes. They are almost all de-nuded – animals live in mud and destroy grass, the buildings open to the elements and hanging on, all kinds of equipment scattered everywhere, homemade fences barely upright.

I have come to love the true nature of the rural landscape, in my photography I see it as beautiful, evocative, poignant. Every real farm is a struggle, the struggle is the emotion I always seek in my photos. I felt it today on Route 68 near Vermont. I passed this farm and then pictured this very photo 20 miles later and turned around and came back.

Posted in Farm Journal, General

Yellow Barn At Dusk. Route 22

Barn At Dusk

Barn At Dusk

Yellow barns are precious to me, there are so few of them, I always try and stop and say hello and bring a camera. I am told they were more popular once than now. This one is on Route 22 south of Cambridge, N.Y.

Posted in Farm Journal, General

Afternoon Meeting Topic: Humans Are Dumb

Hot Topics

Hot Topics

So the new thing at Bedlam Farm – I have to say I just love living with animals, they never cease to catch me eye and make me wonder – is the afternoon meeting, called to order every afternoon by Strut, our rooster, the hens and the barn cat Minnie. Minnie has always loved to hang out with the chickens, I think she thinks she is a chicken. Chickens have a wonderful quality of looking grave and serious, pompous even, as if they have the most serious business in the world to conduct when they are usually just looking for a good perch and a worm or bug. Like politicians, I suppose.  Strut marches up and down, crowing every now and then, Minnie seems to be listening. I imagine they are talking about the longer days – more light – the appearance of some growth in the pasture (more bugs and seed) and perhaps bitching about the corn feed and the dry meal worms.

I imagine they are discussing a takeover of the farm,  taking over management of the place from these foolish, impulsive, pompous and disorganized humans,. We could make it work, says Strut. Humans are nice sometimes, says the hen, but they are dumb. They have to buy the things they eat, and are always driving off in a rush to buy things they often don't need and can't be used or re-used.  They worry about everything and accept nothing. They even get hysterical about the weather. Humans are surrounded by animals, but all of the animals are smarter than they are. They don't quarrel, eat unhealthy things, pay taxes, go to Congress, argue on cable TV channels, spend hours in front of a TV screen. No self-respecting animal would watch human news for a minute. One day, says Minnie, when I come into money, I'll build a no-argument,  no-kill shelter for these people and let them live out their days in peace. All this worrying about money, Facebook, e-mails and chopping up wood – it's just going to kill them. See you here tomorrow.

Posted in General

The Intelligence Of Sheep

Intelligence Of Sheep

Intelligence Of Sheep

I got in trouble recently for writing that chickens are dumb. It was a poor choice of words, and I don't even believe it. Chickens are like Labs, they are very smart at what they need to be smart about – eating bugs, working hard, staying off the road. Now, sheep, this is another matter. I won't say sheep are dumb, but they don't often seem as smart as chickens are. They don't stay out of the road, they run into walls and trees, they are incapable of individual thought and action.

This doesn't make them dumb, but now that I think about it, they are probably not as smart as chickens.

Posted in General