Speaking Volumes
3:00 am
Mon August 5, 2013

Finding Meaning in Frivolous Times

Pittsburgh City Paper editor Chris Potter takes his social commentary with a little ironic distance and a healthy dose of the absurd.

Credit Josh Raulerson / 90.5 WESA

Chuck Palahniuk, "Lullaby"

Reporter Carl Streator discovers the song’s lethal nature while researching Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and before he knows it, he’s reciting the poem to anyone who bothers him. As the body count rises, Streator glimpses the potential catastrophe if someone truly malicious finds out about the song. The only answer is to find and destroy every copy of the book in the country. Accompanied by a shady real-estate agent, her Wiccan assistant, and the assistant’s truly annoying ecoterrorist boyfriend, Streator begins a desperate cross-country quest to put the culling song to rest. Written with a style and imagination that could only come from Chuck Palahniuk, "Lullaby" is the latest outrage from one of our most exciting writers at work today.

-Amazon

George Saunders, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline"

George Saunders has seen the future of America and it is funny. Bleak, yes, and sad and toxic and greedy — and very, very weird — but funny, too. With today's malls and theme parks and ecological disasters as their foundation, these stories build a tomorrow inhabited by fat executives in despair, genetic mutants in servitude, virtual-reality merchants in Chapter 11, and American Dreamers everywhere in trouble. A lot of this book's business is business in an America whose culture and economy are falling apart, business on the fringes, business on the skids. The marginal entrepreneurs who people its pages hawk everything from glimpses of a living see-through cow to raccoon meat to old ladies' memories. Deregulation rules and brigands thrive. But at the center of George Saunders's fiction stand those hapless souls who suffer most keenly. the injustices and inequalities that a Free Market dishes out — the guys who just can't make it or run into plain old bad luck. A self-abasing minion at CivilWarLand suggests a way to rid the premises of the teenage gangs that prowl the grounds at night, only to find the cure far more dangerous than the disease. Another poor sap, who runs a wavemaking machine, allows himself a moment of underling's vanity and accidentally kills a kid frolicking in the artificial surf. And in the picaresque novella "Bounty," a futuristic descendant of Huckleberry Finn with claws for feet travels across the ramshackle country to rescue his sister, also a mutant, who has been bought by a Normal for pleasure and, possibly, profit. These astute stories recall not only the work of Mark Twain but also such diverse figures as Jonathan Swift and Kurt Vonnegut. At once cautionary and, in their humor, entertaining and redemptive, they help us see our society and ourselves in new and startling ways.

-Random House

Jack Metzgar, "Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered"

Combining personal memoir and historical narrative, "Striking Steel" argues for a reassessment of unionism in American life during the second half of the twentieth century and a recasting of "official memory." As he traces the history of union steelworkers after World War II, Metzgar draws on his father's powerful stories about the punishing work in the mills, stories in which time is divided between "before the union" and since. His father, Johnny Metzgar, fought ardently for workplace rules as a means of giving "the men" some control over their working conditions and protection from venal foremen. Striking Steel's pivotal event is the four-month nationwide steel strike of 1959, a landmark union victory that has been all but erased from public memory. With remarkable tenacity, union members held out for the shopfloor rules that gave them dignity in the workplace and raised their standard of living. Their victory underscored the value of sticking together and reinforced their sense that they were contributing to a general improvement in American working and living conditions. The Metzgar family's story vividly illustrates the larger narrative of how unionism lifted the fortunes and prospects of working-class families. It also offers an account of how the broad social changes of the period helped to shift the balance of power in a conflict-ridden, patriarchal household. Even if the optimism of his generation faded in the upheavals of the 1960s, Johnny Metzgar's commitment to his union and the strike itself stands as honorable examples of what collective action can and did achieve. Jack Metzgar's "Striking Steel" is a stirring call to remember and renew the struggle.

-Amazon

Robert McCloskey, "Make Way for Ducklings"

Mrs. Mallard was sure that the pond in the Boston Public Gardens would be a perfect place for her and her eight ducklings to live.  The problem was how to get them there through the busy streets of Boston.  But with a little help from the Boston police, Mrs. Mallard and Jack, Kack, Lack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack arrive safely at their new home. This brilliantly illustrated, amusingly observed tale of Mallards on the move has won the hearts of generations of readers.  Awarded the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children in 1941, it has since become a favorite of millions.

-Barnes and Noble