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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Secretariat, Vonnegut, Law

November 16, 2012 | by

To my own amazement I have been reading a handbook entitled The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes To Win, by one David Berg, Esquire. For a manual published by the American Bar Association, The Trial Lawyer is extremely entertaining. (Berg on cross-examination: “If you are funny, be funny. If you are smart, be smart. If you are neither, consider the judiciary.”) My favorite chapter title is “Voir Diring for Dollars.” Even though you may expect never to conduct a voir dire, or depose a witness, or file a motion, Berg tells you how to do these things in such plain English that you feel you could, if the need arose. He even makes it sound like fun. I just wish the ABA had provided a brown paper wrapper... —Lorin Stein

With Armistice Day remembered this week, I’ve been rereading one of my favorite war poets: Rupert Brooke. That said, while he is now best known for his World War I sonnets, I prefer his earlier writing, which reveals a more cynical, vitriolic writer. In “Menelaus and Helen,” Brooke envisions an aged and gruesome Helen who “weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent; / Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.” He reserves equal scorn for his contemporaries, from the “noise of a fool in mock distress” who came and “quacked” beside him in a tranquil wood to the girl who left him for an older man, envisioning her future of

A foul sick fumbling dribbling body and old,
When his rare lips hang flabby and can't hold
Slobber, and you're enduring that worst thing,
Senility's queasy furtive love-making.

—Charlotte Goldney

I mistrust books of collected letters, because I figure that even the most brilliant writer has surely produced a thousand dull excrescences for every “Birmingham Jail.” But the recent publication of Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, humbles me a smidge. Wakefield includes the big important correspondences, certainly, but the deep cuts are just as cutting, and wry, and truthful. From unsolicited advice to Norman Mailer (“Listen: I have an anecdote about you which you should use in your next book about you.”) to a letter for his alma mater’s alumni magazine (“My experiences at Cornell were freakish in the extreme . . . ”), there is a remarkable dearth of disappointment for so vast a collection. No matter how sardonically Vonnegut resists apotheosis, the brilliance of Letters indicates that the man who called himself “an American fad—of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop” will remain canon fodder for some time. —Samuel Fox

When Secretariat sealed his 1973 Triple Crown victory in a poetic thirty-one-length victory at the Belmont Stakes, thousands in the crowd, from track junkies to complete neophytes, wept. Lawrence Scanlan’s The Horse God Built makes the idea of grown men and women shedding tears over a horse race seem perfectly reasonable. Scanlan does an excellent job of rendering all the power, glory, and, most importantly, emotion that thoroughbreds charging around a dirt oval can inspire both man and beast. —Graham Rogers

The past few weeks have been quite a whirlwind, what with Sandy, Athena, and Romney/Ryan sweeping through. At demanding times like these, I always turn to the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, who has been a beacon of transcendence since I stumbled upon Island, his 2000 story collection, at a used bookstore in Montpelier, Vermont. Whether I reread one of the stories in that collection, or sit down and savor No Great Mischief, MacLeod’s words, as powerful as a Gaelic song, and his isolated characters, all with a strong sense of history and community, never fail to move me. As one character states in Mischief, “Music is the lubricant of the poor all over the world. In all the different languages.” We are in this long fight together, and we should never forget it. —Justin Alvarez



  1. robert reinhardt | November 16, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I loved the Secretariat book, The Horse God Made. Sports Illustrated voted Secretariat the Athlete of the Year in 1973. Not through with the Vonnegut Letters, yet. But am really enjoying Sinatra and Me, The Very Good Years.
    Tony Consiglio travels with Sinatra for years, they even played hookey together.
    Amazing first person account and lots of never seen photos. This book must have gotten lost in the shuffle.

  2. Joe Carlson | November 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Anyone who doesn’t cry viewing Secretariat at The Belmont is inhuman. Used to be a circulating factoid that an autopsy revealed Secretariat’s heart to be twice as heavy as a typical thoroughbred. Anyone know if the book addresses that?

  3. Eric Banks | November 19, 2012 at 5:55 am

    One truly wonderful thing about Scanlan’s book is the focus on Big Red’s groom, Eddie Sweat. It’s all but impossible to surpass Bill Nack’s earlier Big Red of Meadow Stable–all else on Secretariat is a long footnote–but very few books on horse-racing spend as much time and space on grooms. Sweat was the unsung hero of Secretariat’s great 1972-73 campaign (it was he who figured out that Big Red had an abscessed tooth leading up to the Wood Memorial, the final prep for the Derby, where Secretariat ran a poor fourth). Scanlan does a terrific job in giving this man his due.

    The anecdote about the enlarged heart, discovered during Secretariat’s necropsy, was I think first mentioned in Nack’s article in SI in 1990. ESPN quoted it in its lovely documentary on Secretariat in the mid-1990s.

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