Tidewater Review April 2006

Annapolis Autumn: Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, by Bruce Fleming. New York, London: The New Press. 274 pages. $24.95. ISBN 1-59558-002-6
      Bruce Edward Fleming was born in 1954 and raised in Salisbury, Maryland, is a son of Salisbury State University professors, a graduate of Haverford College, and a civilian professor of English at the U. S. Naval Academy. And in his new book, Annapolis Autumn, Professor Fleming has – in very good English – given that Annapolis training school for future Navy and Marine Corps officers, the most thorough civilian spanking I’ve ever seen.
      As I read his book, the professor scolds the Academy training as mediocre, the Academy grounds as a morbid panoply of monuments and tombs celebrating death, some of the military-officer teachers as psychologically wrong, and some of the midshipmen-students, notably among those recruited as athletes or those admitted to enhance cultural diversity, as too naturally incompetent to be in college.
      Fleming has already been punished a little bit for publishing such judgments: Academy officials wouldn’t allow him to sign copies of Annapolis Autumn at the campus bookstore. Fleming, however, has taught at the Academy for over 20 years and thus has tenure, which is probably his best protection against being fired.
      Navy officers at the Academy apparently insist that motivation must precede every important action taken by a Navy or Marine officer. Fleming, however, had his students read and discuss literature by great writers, such as, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a novel in which World War I German soldiers, motivated by patriotic rhetoric, are blown to bits in the trenches. Fleming recalls that one of his apparently typical student-middies said the story “doesn’t motivate you to charge.”
     “But so what?” the professor notes. “Even the military would probably admit, in an unguarded moment, that what they say (war is worth it, we can achieve our goals) isn’t an accurate description of the world.”
      Great literature, much of it quite negative, makes a better guess at what’s real and what isn’t, according to Fleming. But, he notes elsewhere in the book, that contempt for civilians, including writers and taxpayers who finance the Naval Academy, is widespread among career Navy personnel, especially Marines. And midshipmen? He has been shocked, the civilian professor says, when he hears young middies refer to the middle-aged tourists who smile at them on the streets of Annapolis as “civilian scum.” And he has pity for Academy plebes (freshmen) who are required to wear uniforms that resemble the sailor suits worn by very young children.
      And yet – English Professor Fleming concludes: “I think the Naval Academy offers most of our students what most of them want: an exciting ride on a roller coaster that never lets them down, that’s enough of a challenge that they have to hold on with both hands to keep from falling off, and that gives them a sense of accomplishment when they once again set foot on the ground four years later.”
      So? Annapolis Autumn is a grippingly critical read. I’m not sure though, what the “Autumn” means in the title.

Each Little Bird That Sings, by Deborah Wiles. Orlando, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London: Gulliver Books/Harcourt, Inc. 247 pages. $16.00. ISBN 0-15-205113-9
      Here’s a beautifully written story and a National Book Award runner-up. The author is Deborah Wiles, of Atlanta, who also wrote Love, Ruby Lavender, which won five other literary awards that are often described as coveted.
      The publisher of Each Little Bird That Sings classifies it as recommended for readers age 8 to 12, but that may be described as an incorrect limitation. Each Little Bird That Sings is a bit of witty, charming fiction for juveniles age 8 to 18, as well as adult readers age 45 to oh, about 95. As for people age 18 to 45, forget ‘em. They cannot be expected to read books any more; they’re watching television, which is now, to the dismay of TV critics, designed to entertain the baby boomer generation.
      Anyhow...Each Little Bird That Sings has a lot of old-fashioned class. For example, the names rival some of Charles Dickens’ inventions. The setting is a small town called “Snapfinger,” Mississippi. The heroine (and narrator) is “Comfort Snowberger,” the 10-year-old daughter of the town’s funeral home director, “Bunch Snowberger.” Her best friend is another 10-year-old girl, name of “Declaration.” Her beloved pet dog is named “Dismay.” And her allergic, cry-baby cousin from Atlanta is an 8-year-old boy named “Peach” who strikes me as being almost as unattractive as the shrewish wife named “Peach” in Larry McMurtry’s Wild West novel, Lonesome Dove.
      The book’s title is based on a song lyric written by a real man, Cecil F. Alexander (1818-1895). It’s entitled “All Things Bright and Beautiful (and Terrible!)” and is “slightly and lovingly updated” at the beginning of the book by fictitious Comfort’s fictitious great-uncle “Edisto Snowberger.”
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
How resplendent are their
How magnificent their wings!

     Philosophical Great Uncle Edisto dies during the story, but not before he advises Comfort to write “life notices” instead of “death notices” for the town newspaper about people whose survivors patronize her family’s funeral home (both monopolies in Snapfinger).
      One such notice includes “Tips for First-rate Funeral Behavior,” e.g.:
     “You don’t have to wear black to a funeral....just don’t wear a wedding dress or your torn shorts....
     “The deceased (a fancy word for the person who died) will wear more makeup than all the mourners combined)....
     “Here’s what to say to the family during the viewing, visitation, and funeral time: ‘I’m so sorry.’ That’s all. Then move on, Don’t say, ‘He’s gone to a better place,’ or ‘You must be relieved....’”

     The newspaper, whose editor is a friend of Comfort’s father, nevertheless doesn’t publish any of her “life notices” until she writes one about her dog Dismay after he is presumed dead in a flood caused by heavy rain on Snapfinger Creek that almost drowns both Comfort and Peach.
      That’s all of the plot I’m going to reveal. Each Little Bird That Sings is a sentimental story that nevertheless makes some clear social comment without wallowing in sex or human violence. And, I repeat, it’s beautifully written.

Is Rock Dead? by Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York, London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. Index. 184 pages. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN 0-415-97034-2
      I confess I was a little surprised to learn from the publisher of Is Rock Dead? that the book’s author, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education. A college professor with nerve enough to ask the question, Is Rock Dead? And guts to answer, “No.”
      By “rock” Professor Dettmar means “rock & roll,” which is how, as he explains at some length, he prefers to see it referred to in print – in lower-case type divided by an ampersand. He prefers that to “roc’ n’ roll,” “rock and roll,” and to just plain “rock.” Which makes it surprising to see Rock all by itself in his book’s title.
      Anyhow, he asks, is rock & roll (or whatever you call it) dead? The answer, in my opinion: Of course rock & roll isn’t dead! It is still thriving as the lowest common denominator in American popular music history. It has almost strangled ragtime, hot jazz, swing and cool jazz – what’s left of them. It is still contaminating rhythm and blues and country and western, not to mention the lesser music forms like Cajun music, French and Italian street songs, square dance music, polkas, mariachi, rhumba, radio and TV sound effects – possibly every form of American popular music played in the last 100 years.
      Dettmar quotes and refers to numerous rock & roll critics and scholars, including some who refer to it as “rock” and some who – since the mid-1950s – have now and then mistakenly declared it dead simply because they want it to be. “They only say it’s dead –” the professor concludes – “they only want to kill it – because it’s so obviously threateningly, joyously alive.”

The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. London and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. 1077 pages. $45.00. ISBN 0-415-32495-5
      Do you, for some reason or other, need, or think you need, to learn what Socrates, Plato, Hume, Wittgenstein, Kierkgaard and your other philosophical heroes were talking about? This baby (4 lbs. 8 oz.) may be the shorter (but at 1,077 pages, no midget) new encyclopedia of philosophy for you.
It’s packed with 2,054 entries! From A posteriori (“...signifies a kind of knowledge or justification that depends on evidence, or warrant, from sensory experience....”) to 3,000+-year-old Zoroastrianism (“...the worship of Ahura ‘Lord’ Mazda, creator of the world and source of all goodness.... The influence which this religion has exerted on classical philosophy and the thought and practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is being reappraised by scholars....”)
      How about that? I confess I never knew before that Zoroastrianism was being reappraised. Is nothing sacred? Hey, the 1,000+ scholars who produced this Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy are, according to the Introduction, many of the same folks who produced the critically approved Routledge Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the just-plain 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published in 1998. Hey, hey! Philosophers philosophize when tyrants fear to tell us whom to bow down to and how high to jump.