Ellison, Watergate, brains, Annapolis

Books of the Region

May 19, 2002|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

An even 50 years have gone by since the publication of Invisible Man. Eight years ago, Ralph Ellison died. With this much perspective, the question may be put impartially: How did the African-American author of a single major novel attain the literary heights?

The best answer, of course, is to read or reread the book -- and to mingle with people across the racial divide. Still, what manner of man was Ellison, successively this Oklahoma City boy, Alabama college dropout, 15-cents-an-hour menial worker, veteran of the New York culture wars and, ultimately, friend of the famous?

Lawrence Jackson presents sound, careful answers in his biography, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (Wiley, 498 pages, $30). The book, emergent from a Stanford Ph.D. dissertation, gains from being on a common wavelength with its subject, one of whose achievements was to leave behind the white-model Tuskegee Institute of the 1930s and to become a prototype of the modern black intellectual.

Ellison's biographer, a Baltimorean, teaches at Howard University. His historical judgments are quiet and persuasive; not always easy, for those turbulent Communist-Nazi decades. In this volume, Jackson carries the story through 1952's first-ever National Book Award to a black author -- Ellison.

Ralph Waldo Ellison had few Baltimore connections, but the subject of his first piece of published writing (and the first of his many book reviews) was These Low Grounds, by Waters E. Turpin, novelist and Morgan State English professor. Its theme is Eastern Shore oystering. Ellison faulted the book for "one-dimensional characters" but liked its "regional authenticity of folk culture."

Has a whole generation really gone by since Watergate? Do today's readers grasp the intensity of those Page 1 stories about Deep Throat and the Oval Office voice recordings? For the forgetful, or the lately arrived, Roy Hoopes of Bethesda offers a fast fill-in with his crime novel, A Watergate Tape (Forge, 285 pages, $24.95).

The night before he is to testify in Washington, Tom Cranston, shot dead, lies on the sand just above Ocean City. His old friend Ray Hartly, doing a magazine piece on the break-in at Democratic National Committee offices and the ensuing White House cover-up, stays ahead of the police as he develops leads.

The trail has stops at Memorial Stadium, Kent County restaurants, Great Falls. In his earlier novel, Our Man in Washington, Hoopes had H. L. Mencken and James M. Cain solving a Harding-era crime. This time, the main figures are less prominent and, if that be possible, talk even more. It gives away nothing to mention that the Republicans lose.

However modern and lively it feels, here in this new millennium, nonetheless we're all forever older. Some people may "seem to glide through the second half of life," but most of us, putting it lightly, face "troublesome changes."

The quote is from Guy McKhann of Johns Hopkins and Marilyn Albert of Harvard, in their book Keep Your Brain Young (Wiley, 296 pages, $24.95). For a healthy body, the one best asset is and remains a mind in good working order. Specifics? One daily alcoholic drink, then put the bottle away -- period, stop, end. And be careful how and where you step -- by next May, one person in three of the nation's over-65s will have had a serious fall.

Your Brain sorts through ambushes awaiting the elderly, from frontotemporal dementia to giant-cell arteritis; its longest chapters are on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's (today, stroke is a decreasing danger). Causes, when known; treatment, with approval for acupuncture but a lifted eyebrow toward herbals; future possibilities, thanks to laboratory experiments and survey studies.

McKhann, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute, and Albert, who heads gerontology research at Massachusetts General, present all this candidly and informally. An educated reader who finds their book hard to understand probably ought to arrange for a physical and mental checkup.

To the Roger Miller shelf of oversize color-photo Maryland (Baltimore, historical markers, Ravens stadium, the whole state), add United States Naval Academy Annapolis (Image, 168 pages, $39.95), text by Linda Foster, foreword by Jimmy Carter, '47. Miller, transplanted here from New York in youth, by now has more than half a million camera shots on file; some of the best are in this book. Besides the standard parades and sports, it does well by classroom and lab.

Linda Foster's text is lucid and straight-arrow. As for the first academy graduate to become president, those middie years glow rosily now. He could do 94 pushups.

The Amelia Peabody Club will please settle down and be still. Yes, this year's book is just out -- silence! Or the chair will start quoting language from Amelia's husband, Radcliffe Emerson, the eminent archaeologist, known to his Egyptian workmen as the Father of Curses.

The new title is The Golden One (Morrow, 429 pages, $25.95), and it brings the total to 14. As always, the byline is Elizabeth Peters but of course we all know the author to be Barbara Mertz, in her farmhouse outside Frederick. Let's have a show of hands: How many of us have read every one, since Crocodile on the Sandbank in 1975? Very good!

Sir, aren't you in the wrong meeting room? Given that deerstalker, you belong with the Baker Street Irregulars, down the hall to the right.

So. World War I still goes on, but in the background. Yes, Sethos is back -- Emerson's shadowy half-brother. But the opposition this time is some new people named Albion. We are on the edge of the Western Desert, at the tombs of the Wives of the God Amon, near a shrine to Hathor, the Mistress of All That Exists, the Golden One.

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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