Book Review

Book Review: The Lessons of History

December 27th, 2013

 

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I inherited much of my father’s library many years ago, including the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant. Included in the set was the single slim volume they wrote afterward by way of an introduction, The Lessons of History. Over the years I have frequently dipped into individual volumes of the main text for research, but I never read any entire volume until my wife came bouncing into my office one evening and thrust The Lessons of History under my nose and said, “Read this chapter!” I read it, and immediately wondered why the hell I hadn’t read the whole thing long ago. I have now rectified that. Not the whole eleven volume set, but I have read that one-volume introduction and I was blown away by it.

The Lessons of History is intended to be both an introduction and a survey of human history as a product of the human experience, of man’s essential evolutionary nature. The Durant’s do not judge; they do not say this system is better than that, or peace is better than war. They do not even bang the drum of George Santayana’s often misquoted maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What they do stress is that man will, in fact, continuously repeat the past because he cannot help himself. Man has evolved to be a particular organism with particular needs and desires and drives and responses and those are the things that influence his behavior, over and over again throughout the millennia. It will be many a long day before the lion evolves into a critter capable of lying down with the lamb, and it will be just as long before man evolves into a critter not driven by, “acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride.”

So what The Story of Civilization chronicles, and The Lessons of History summarizes, is the sequence of patterns of behavior that have been repeated continuously since the first known civilization(s), with “civilization” being defined as a social order that promotes cultural creation. But it is the laws of evolution that limit civilization, so that man’s natural instincts of competition (for food, mates, power), selection (some men will always have better competitive skills than others, and so there will always be inequality), and reproduction (influenced, obviously, by competition and selection) will always be the limiting factors that cause a civilization to rise and fall. And the rise and fall of civilizations—all civilizations that have been or are yet to come—is a given. None will last forever, and the speed with which they appear and vanish can depend on a variety of factors: geological, climatological, biological, or even political. Do you doubt that last one? Consider Communism. Primitive communism, meaning a society based on communal sharing, actually worked in hunter/gatherer societies that were constantly on the move pursuing game, but those are precisely the societies that have neither the leisure nor the wherewithal to pursue the cultural creation that defines a civilization. The moment a society depends on continuous labor to feed itself with provision for the future (as in agriculture, for example, as opposed to hunting and gathering) selection comes into play, along with its concomitant concept of private property (this patch of earth is more fertile and productive than that patch) with some men being more successful than others, and communism ceases to be an effective tool for societal survival. After all, if everything is going to be shared equally, I might as well just kick back here a take nap and let you do the heavy lifting.

Competition between individuals means I run faster, fight harder, or outwit you. In a society, that translates into war, and since man is what he is, wars will continue as long as man exists. To quote the Durants (writing in 1968): “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” The only silver lining in that dark cloud is that war does stimulate the tool-using animal’s creative impulses, and occasionally those instruments designed for destruction are converted to creative and beneficial uses. Reproduction among individuals means, well, I hardly think we need go there, but in a society, it means pretty much that he who has the most children wins, which goes a long way to explaining why there are currently 7,132,780,410 people on earth, and that number will be over 7,132,800,000 before I finish this blog. (7,133, 415, 700 at time of posting.)

But it was the repetitive evolution of different political structures that really caught my eye. The Durants used China under Wang An-shih (1068-85 AD) as an example of the failure of socialism. Wang An-shih decided the state should own and control everything, commerce, industry, agriculture, and “[succor] the working classes [by] preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” For a while, everything was hunky-dory, with great feats of engineering, pensions for the elderly and unemployed, an overhaul of the educational system, governmental boards in every district to administer every damn thing in the world. Sounds a little like America today, doesn’t it? But it fell apart (the Durants cite as reasons high taxes, an enormous army, and bureaucratic corruption, also much like America today), as socialism always has throughout all of history because, to quote the late Margaret Thatcher, “Sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” That’s me quoting her, obviously, not the Durants. Instead, they wrote: “The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.”

As I was reading all this, I happened to watch the movie, Meet John Doe, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and its theme of Christ’s message in today’s world, and I started thinking about America today. In the movie, the success of the John Doe Clubs that spring up across the nation is due to people and communities coming together to create work for their less fortunate neighbors. Not once in the movie is there any mention of a handout or any form of money given away as opposed to earned.

The Lessons of History stresses that selection and the inevitable superiority of some people means that there will always be inequality, but not necessarily inequity. There are two forms of equality that no society can ignore without fatal consequences: equality under the law; and equal opportunity for education, because education provides the opportunity for every man to rise according to his ability. However, even if the law and educational opportunity are available for all, if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, and if there is no bridge of middleclass with which the poor can hope to overcome that gap, violent redistribution of wealth will inevitably occur. It’s one of the lessons of history.

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Book Review: A Sportsman’s Library

October 20th, 2013

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I had one of those inexplicable brain farts recently. Stephen Bodio (http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com in my links) asked me to write the forward for his latest book, A Sportsman’s Library (Lyons Press). I was delighted to be asked and delighted to do it, but when the book came out, for some reason I thought it would be inappropriate for me to review a book which has my name on the cover. I pulled my copy down the other day to look up something and it suddenly struck me: Dummy, this ain’t your book. Go ahead and review the sucker.

A Sportsman’s Library is subtitled, 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader, which pretty much sums it up, with two notable omissions. Each of the selections is a unique, well-written book in its own right, but what the title doesn’t tell you or even hint at is the extraordinary range of this volume. Only Steve Bodio could have written a book that encompasses the best books on hunting and fishing—and sometimes cooking what you have hunted and fished for—from Emperor Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (which I’m sure you all immediately recognize as translating to The Art of Hunting with Birds, more commonly translated and known as The Art of Falconry) written sometime before the Emperor’s death in 1250, to Brian Plummer’s very funny late-twentieth century Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man. Think about it for a moment: that’s over seven centuries worth of literature. Who else, other than Steve Bodio, could possibly have the knowledge to be able to write intelligently about seven centuries worth of sporting literature? God knows I couldn’t.

The other item the title doesn’t hint at is Steve’s own writing. Each selection is introduced by him, and as singer-songwriter and writer Tom Russell says in his blurb on the back cover, “Steve Bodio is not only one of our finest ‘sporting’ and ‘nature’ writers, he is one of our finest American writers. Period.” Each of those introductions is why the book is worth owning and reading even if you have zero interest in hunting or fishing. I don’t care how much you know or think you know about Hemingway or Faulkner or Theodore Roosevelt or T. H. White or Isak Dinesen or any of the other writers he covers in this beautifully illustrated book, each of Steve’s introductions will gracefully introduce you to a new facet of that person’s life, a new way of thinking about that particular writer. Of course, for the most part, Steve introduces us all to writers we’ve never even heard of, and he does it so well and with such compelling grace, that the temptation is to empty the checking account buying up copies of books by people we didn’t know existed. All in all, it is a remarkable book, and one I highly recommend.

And if you need another reason to buy it, I happen to know there is a rather amusing forward written by…by, hold on, it’s…no, don’t tell me…damn, the name escapes me at the moment…

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Book Review: Three Anthologies

October 9th, 2013

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I have been on a short story kick. For the past two months I have bounced back and forth between three anthologies simultaneously: The Oxford Book of Short Stories, 1981 edition, edited by Sir V.S. Pritchett; The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, 1989 edition, edited by William Trevor; and The Best American Short Stories of the Century, 1999 edition, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison.

If these seem somewhat dated today, that’s an accurate reflection of my reading habits. It’s also an accurate reflection of my reaction to the selected stories and to much of modern literature generally.

The two Oxford anthologies cover an enormous swath of time. The generalized collection includes authors from practically all the English-speaking countries, beginning with Sir Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers, written sometime prior to 1827, and ending with John Updike’s Lifeguard, written in 1961. The Irish collection goes back even further. It officially begins with Oliver Goldsmith’sAdventures of a Strolling Player, probably written sometime around 1760, but it actually begins with an introductory sampling of the traditional folk tales that were the bread and butter of the Irish seanchaí (storyteller) back when snakes were still such a great nuisance to the inhabitants of Ireland, tales that reflect the everyday influence of fairies and ghosts and mermaids and other, more sinister beings. The American collection is restricted, as its name implies, to the twentieth century and begins, appropriately enough for a nation of immigrants, in New York with Benjamin Rosenblatt’sZelig, written in 1915. It ends in San Francisco with Pam Houston’s The Best Girlfriend You Never Had, published in 1999.

Let’s get the basics out of the way: all three of these anthologies deserve a place on your shelves, and all three deserve to be read closely, cover to cover, and all three will repay you with laughter and tears and delight. And in all three you notice changes that reflect the societal changes of the passing eras. The most obvious examples are the stories that reflect the influence of psychiatry, explorations of influences that wouldn’t have been explored a few generations earlier; racial issues, primarily in the American anthology; the Irish “troubles,” both those of the early years of the twentieth century and the later troubles that occupied the last forty years of that century, in the Irish anthology; the worldwide cultural changes that came with the sixties; and the worldwide cultural changes that have come with new waves of immigration. Those last two are to be found in all three volumes.

But what struck me most was the tone of the later, most modern stories in all three anthologies, stories that might be classified as—take your pick—postmodern, surrealistic, or deconstructionist. (That last term was applied frequently to Donald Barthelme, but when I asked his most famous and most successful student and protégé, Thomas Cobb [Crazy Heart, Shavetail, With Blood in Their Eyes] to define the term, even he couldn’t.) There were some that still retained the traditional storyteller’s quality (Annie Proulx’s The Half-Skinned Steer contains elements of the deliciously terrifying ancient Irish folktales; it comes from her 1999 collection of stories, Close Range, that included Brokeback Mountain as well as a cowboy re-telling of the traditional Irish folktale, The Cow that Ate the Piper) but many of the modern stories did away with any kind of traditional plot structure, taking instead an almost documentary approach to a traditional literary form. This is not new. Again, the short stories of Barthelme (his A City of Churches is included in the American anthology) are a good example, but these techniques are very much a question of taste as well as a test of the skill of writer. Some are profoundly moving, while some made me wonder, as I do frequently with some of our most critically ballyhooed modern novelists, what the hell I was wasting my time for.

You can do away with some of the traditional elements of story-telling (plot structure, narrative arc, character development) just as you can do away with some of the traditional visual elements of art (minimalism is a good example) or the traditional auditory elements of music (John Cage once wrote a piece that consisted of a full orchestra sitting in absolute silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, something that would have made me ask for my money back) or some of the traditional elements of movie-making (think of Barry Levinson’s Diner), but it takes a skilled artist to successfully get away with such breaks with tradition. Some pull it off. Some do not. Curiously enough, some of the earliest Irish folktales also lack traditional elements, but they make up for it with religious or moral admonitions, and clearly were intended for those purposes as much as to entertain.

You can tell I am an old-fashioned, hidebound traditionalist. I would rather read Oliver Goldsmith than Donald Barthelme any day, but given the scope of all three of these anthologies, if you can’t find stories here to love, stories that delight and give pleasure, you won’t find them anywhere.

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Book Review: With Blood in Their Eyes

April 14th, 2013

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Thomas Cobb is one of America’s grotesquely underrated national treasures. He is the author of Crazy Heart, which was made into a movie with Jeff Bridges (who was also an underrated national treasure until Crazy Heart, when he finally won a long overdue Academy Award, one of two for the movie, and one of the three nominations the movie received), and the almost unheard of novel Shavetail, which is about as close to perfection as a novel can get. A possible reason why Cobb is not as well-known and revered (and rich and famous) as he should be is that he that he breaks a lot of rules in his story-telling, and judging by some of the negative customer reviews he has gotten, this rule-breaking is caviar to the general. I’m not sure why. Faulkner, Steinbeck, McCarthy all broke (break, in McCarthy’s case) a lot of rules, and I believe all of them ended up affluent and well known.

With Blood in Their Eyes is a paradigm of rule-breaking. The story opens with the dramatic climax and bounces backward and forward from there. The heroes are unlovable villains, the villains are on the side of truth and justice and the American way (at least as the American way was in 1918) and the most sympathetic character is killed on the first page. If you want William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy triumphing over the forces of evil sequentially from A to Z, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want a meticulously researched account of a historical miscarriage of justice, transformed into unforgettable fiction by a master, sit back and enjoy.

The Power Brothers’ shootout was the single bloodiest shootout in Arizona history, an event that left the entire Graham County Sheriff’s Department dead and resulted in the largest manhunt in Arizona history. That’s the surface story of With Blood in Their Eyes, but it is the story behind the facts that Cobb brings so deftly to life. History is always written by the victors and our view of events is shaped by them. Cobb’s careful research reveals a different point of view, one far more complex and compelling than the basic historical facts, and his ability to breathe life into all his characters, lovable and unlovable alike, results in an unforgettable novel of courage and endurance and the ambiguity of right and wrong.

In case you are put off by references to Faulkner or McCarthy, I should point out that while Cobb’s plot structure is fluid and bounces back and forth in time, his writing is much closer to Steinbeck in his straightforward use of language. Straightforward, but immensely evocative:

“There was a clatter and ringing of bells as horses rushed past them. McBride threw himself to the side of the trail and let the horses get by. They must be Power horses, he thought, spooked by Haynes, who had fallen behind him. ‘Throw up your hands,’ McBride heard, and knew that it had all gone bad.”

Thomas Cobb understands both the mythology and the reality of the place and time we call the West. He also understands that our vision of the reality of the past is touched by its mythology and made bigger by it, unforgettable. And oh so readable.

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Book Review: Shavetail

December 30th, 2012

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The period between Christmas and the New Year is traditionally supposed to be a time of reflection, when we all look back at the things we’ve done, the various screw-ups we’ve committed, and resolve to do better. Since I might well die of old age before I could list all my screw-ups, I decided to simplify things and go straight to step two. I resolved to take reasoned and practical steps to boost my book sales. I decided to start by taking the advice of someone who was doing better than I.

I had a marketing brainstorming session with a successful self-published author of romance novels who told me, among many bits of excellent advice, that my blog should focus on certain key subjects designed to attract potential readers of my books. (She said it all much better than that; I’m just putting it in baby talk for purposes of simplification.) It is, actually, advice I’ve been given before, and it goes along with the advice given to me, both by my romance writer friend and others, to stick to a single genre with my books. Build up a reputation as a Western writer, or as a mystery writer, or—presumably—a romance writer, or whatever. It’s sound advice, and the proof is reflected in statistics of book sales by category.

So, just to show that I have absolutely no business savvy whatsoever—or practical commonsense, or the good sense to accept good advice, or even the strength of character to stick to my own resolutions—I intend to branch out even further. I’m going to start reviewing books that I especially like. I’m not going to try and mold myself into a critic. I won’t review books I don’t like because if I really don’t like a book I almost certainly won’t finish it, so why bother saying anything negative about something I haven’t bothered to read? But going on the premise that people who read this blog are almost certainly people who like to read, why not tell them which books have really excited me?

With that in mind, I’m going to start with Shavetail. I don’t remember how I stumbled across Thomas Cobb, but I wanted to see how he had handled something in one of his books, and I ordered With Blood in Their Eyes, his chilling and meticulously researched fictionalized account of the bloodiest and deadliest shootout in Arizona history. I’ll review With Blood in Their Eyes later, but for the nonce, suffice it to say I liked it so much I ordered his other two novels, Shavetail, and the one he is most famous for, Crazy Heart. That one I’m sure you’ve heard of because it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie with Jeff Bridges.

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It’s a wonderful thing to discover a writer whose work is so compelling that you can’t wait to lay your hands on everything he’s ever done. That’s how good Thomas Cobb is. It’s like the first time you read anything by P.G. Wodehouse: you steal money from your mother’s purse and rush out to buy everything he ever wrote which, in the case of P. G. Wodehouse, means you have to steal quite a lot of money. Wodehouse was prolific and lived to be ninety-three, writing right up to the end. Thomas Cobb has only written the three novels, so I didn’t have to mug any of the local elementary school children to buy his books. I’ve already written a review for Amazon, so I’ll just copy it here:

Shavetail has been characterized as a Western, but to paraphrase the great Duke Ellington, there are only two kinds of books, the good kind and the other kind. Shavetail transcends the good kind to peak in the rarified air of great novels. This is a story of redemption and coming of age in a brutal world where all the romance and mythology of the West have been deconstructed into a reality as confused and uncertain and frequently terrifying as today’s news. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Unforgiven, this novel takes place behind the façade of honor and courage and legend. Writing in exquisite prose, both lean and elegiac, Thomas Cobb gives us unforgettable characters, all of them running away from those things that can never be run away from. It takes place in some of the harshest land in the West, in 1871, and there are heroes and villains, cavalry and Apaches, horses and a girl, all the ingredients of the traditional Western, but in Cobb’s hands those things become mixed with the ambiguity of reality, so that nothing is what it seems. The line between good and evil is as blurred as life is, where good intentions and bad intentions frequently have the same result: “If the United States can’t kill someone with a twelve-pound howitzer, they’ll throw money at him until he’s dead. It’s the way the government does business, and all that the government does is business. Look around at what’s here. What ain’t spoiled is what the government hasn’t had the time to spoil. And you know what we are? We’re the spoilers…”

It’s hard to say if the themes that parallel some of today’s issues were intentional or a subconscious choice by an author who grew up in the Vietnam era, but two things are beyond dispute: All of Cobb’s characters—his young hero, the well-intentioned men his young hero admires, the ill-intentioned man he fears but must work with, even characters who never actually appear in the story (I don’t want to give too much away)—are as real and far more unforgettable than any you have read about in a long time. They are so singular and so memorable that they achieve a kind of Dickensian, prototypical stature.

The other indisputable thing about Shavetail is that you will not be able to stop turning the pages. To quote the great character actor Pat Buttram, who became famous as Gene Autry’s sidekick in a very different kind of Western: “If you don’t like this, you don’t like chocolate cake.”

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