Book Review

Book Review: The Mullet Manifesto

July 28th, 2015 20 Comments

Mullet Manifesto


On the copyright page of every work of fiction published in America, down at the bottom, there is always a disclaimer intended to stymie and frustrate the kinds of lawyers who advertise on television and steal money out their mother’s purses: “This is a work of fiction. All names, places, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination…” Etc., etc.

One of the first things I thought when I finished Roger Pinckney’s latest novel, The Mullet Manifesto, was, “Oh, please, don’t let that be true.”

Pinckney’s characters, every last one of them, are so real, so singular, so engaging that they get in amongst your heartstrings in much the same way that your own children do: you love them desperately, even as you wonder why you didn’t drown them in a bucket at birth.

The protagonists of The Mullet Manifesto are three teenaged boys seen variously through the eyes of one of them, and through the eyes of the man that boy has become. These are the kinds of boys whose parents have every reason in the world to grope for the bourbon bottle come sundown: not bad, just… Just teenagers, groping their uncertain way toward adulthood back in the last days of true childhood freedom.

It’s hard for today’s younger generation to comprehend the freedoms that were possible for children fifty or sixty years ago, especially in small towns and rural areas. A boy wandering down the railroad tracks during deer season with a rifle over his shoulder would bring in a SWAT team today; back then, he elicited nothing more than a smile and a wave from the engineer. An older woman who seduces a teenaged boy today would be branded a pervert and thrown in prison. Back then, she was just greatly appreciated and is remembered with happy affection by the man looking back from his fireside chair.

And the man who looks back from that chair writes in one of the most unique voices of any American writer since Faulkner. It’s a voice that both echoes and evokes the southern coastal lowlands as richly as Cormac McCarthy caught the voice of the Southwest in No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy. Listen to the protagonist both recreating and commenting on his friend’s speech:

“But I ain’t mean to shootum. I pull the trigger real slow.” Cuffey smoked Prince Albert in his beat-up briar, fired with kitchen matches he struck on his thumbnail. When he blubbered Geechee around both sides of his pipe, you’d wish he came with sub-titles.

Ostensibly a novel, The Mullet Manifesto is a loosely stitched pastiche of short stories that follows the boys through the arc of adolescence from their first restless stirrings through the final and inevitable breaking away from their world. And what a world it is! The fragile, vulnerable lowland country between Charleston and Savannah, from the ACE Basin to the islands that gave Sea Island cotton its name, a world of marshes and duck hunting, shrimp boats and coastal fishing, Gullahs and oyster beds, bourbon and Baptists, a world where wild young boys can misbehave to their hearts’ content, up to a certain point. Pinckney evokes that world so vividly that the marshes and coastal barriers and tidal pools become characters in their own right. There is a plot, of sorts, but it is rightly subservient to boys and old black men, to handmade boats and makeshift cars, to beloved old shotguns and vintage rifles, to tides and fishing, to seasons and inlets, to ducks and deer. And chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes.

James Thurber, who knew a little about writing humor, once made a comment (I can’t find the exact quote right now) to the effect that he preferred to evoke the bittersweet rather than tears. There is an element of the bittersweet in The Mullet Manifesto, as there must always be in any story that touches on the end of things—of childhood, of freedom, a beloved hunting shack, a way of life—but it resonates precisely because there is so much humor. My wife came out of the bedroom in the wee hours and asked me to either close the door to the library or laugh silently.

The Mullet Manifesto is that good.


Book Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

July 7th, 2015 18 Comments

Wolf Hall first


Movies based on books rarely live up to the magic of the book. That’s not a condemnation of movies or the movie industry, but rather a reflection of greatest source of magic of all—man’s imagination. No reality ever lives up to my best fantasies.

Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.

Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.

Mark Rylance


Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance (above), the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.

(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because they were formerly Church lands. When Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)

After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just about everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.

In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.

Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.

And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?

I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.

The other half is Mantel’s writing.

To quote Rudyard Kipling:

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

And every single one of them is right.”

Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.

Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.

Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subjugated in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:

“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”

And so on.

Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.


How Not to Sell Your Book

February 4th, 2015 13 Comments



One of the revelations I had about publishing books was that I was supposed to be the one responsible for all the laudatory dustjacket stuff. You know, all that garbage you read on the inside of the dustcover at the bookstore, the fluff intended to make you buy the book: “A fast-paced, nail-biting thriller that will keep you panting on the edge of your seat, this incredibly brilliant, trenchant, magnificently written, moving, and insightful study of the high-stakes dangers in the day-to-day life of a small town tax preparer…”

That stuff. The author of the book is the guy responsible for all that high-falutin’ gobbledygook. He is expected to be one who gets you to buy his book, which is a convoluted way of saying the author is expected to be a professional salesman.

Silly me. I thought it was my job to write the damn thing and then go on to the next project.

Just to put this in perspective for you, when I was first trying unsuccessfully to create an acting career for myself in New York, there came a time when I began to weary of waiting tables, catching shoplifters, working for a moving company, driving a taxi, all while starving to death. With some help from my sister I got a job selling advertising space for the trade magazine division of a publishing company. Unfortunately, the magazines were all intended for the manufacturers of ancillary items in the women’s “foundation garment” (think underwear) industry, items like the little metal thingies (“thingies” is a technical term) used to fasten old-fashioned brassieres; zippers; little trim pieces for the edges of garter belts or something.

I bow my head to no man when it comes to my prurient desire to see pretty girls in scanty clothing, but the individual portions of that scanty clothing, without the pretty girls inside them, is not exactly entrancing. Beyond that, I was the world’s worst salesman. After six weeks of not selling a single inch of advertising space, the company politely suggested my talents might lie in some other field. Any other field but theirs.

The point is, I was not, am not, and never will be a good salesman. I’d be hard-pressed to sell bottled water to stranded travelers in Death Valley on the Fourth of July. And selling myself is out of the question. I was raised in a family where it was considered proper and in good taste to downplay one’s accomplishments. If you won the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the PEN/Faulkner, and the Booker, all on the same day, it was considered in good taste to shrug it all off with a self-deprecating, “Oh, yes. A lot of nonsense, of course. John Dough’s novel about the small town tax preparer really should have won. Much better.”

What’s more, when you write a book, when you finally type, “The End” at the bottom of page 972, you’re much too close to the thing to be able to see it with anything even remotely resembling objectivity. It’s why writers are constantly alienating everyone they know by asking them to read their latest and to then provide intelligent feedback. You can always tell when a writer has finished a book because his family members and friends all quietly slip out of town, cancel their internet service, and have their phone numbers changed.

All this was brought painfully home to me the other day. I got an email from the lady who does the PR and marketing for Range magazine. I recently wrote an article for an upcoming issue of Range ( and the PR lady, casting frantically around for anything positive to say about me, went onto my book page on Amazon. She quoted some reviews of my last book, Changing Earth, Changing Sky, and sent them to me.

It hadn’t occurred to me to go on my Amazon page. My normal routine is to hit the computer first thing in the morning, try to get as many words out as possible before my eyeballs begin to slide down my face in viscous streams, and my brain turns into tapioca. Then I go off to do other things.

So I was a little stunned, and very thrilled to see the following:

Anne wrote: “…much grittier than I anticipated…not your typical romance, not your typical western… combines the best of both genres into one action-packed story that’s difficult to put down….”

Sue commented that it is a “…fantastic read by a talented author. As a girl I was a fan of Jameson Parker, the actor, and now I’m a fan of his writing. …a riveting story with many small moments that drew me in and tugged at my emotions.”

Mary Doebler noted the dangers and romance were both realistic: “…as I read the book I could not wait to see what happened next. I enjoyed the book immensely.”

Judy wrote that: “…the characters will stay with you when you’ve finished the story.”

Well. I mean to say. Golly.

But what really made me question this nonsense of the author doing his own PR was a review by T.D Bauer, who wrote: “I recently found some time to sit down with “CHANGING EARTH, CHANGING SKY” and planned on reading just the first few chapters, and once I started it I had a hard time putting it down.”

That’s very nice, very kind, very kind of all of them, but then T.D. Bauer went on to summarize the novel like this: “Kay is a young woman in a bad marriage. Her husband is a cheating scumbag. How does she deal with it? She drives far away and finds herself in Nevada where her soul searching begins in earnest, and where she starts to heal. In Nevada she meets Finn, a modern rancher who has some problems of his own. …a moment of violence brings them together, and … well, that’s all I am saying.”

Take a moment to read that again; then go to my Amazon page and read the pretentious tripe I wrote myself about my own book. You’ll have to read it there because I’m too embarrassed to reproduce it here. Which description makes you want to read the book? It sure as hell ain’t mine.

Maybe I’ll go back to selling pieces of women’s underwear.


Book Review: Memory of a Large Christmas

January 13th, 2015 6 Comments

Memory of a Large Christmas


My sister liked my blog about my memories of Thanksgiving and sent me a copy of a slim and magical volume, Memory of a Large Christmas, by Lillian Smith. I think my sister intended it as a sort of appreciative gift, but I choose to think of it as payment for the blog, because looked at it that light, it makes me the highest paid writer in the world.

I had never heard of Lillian Smith, and from what I can tell, she seems to have fallen out of fashion with today’s readers. She was a Southern lady, a social activist, fighting and writing against segregation in the Jim Crow South, and her fiction is apparently all written with that theme running through it. With segregation no longer an issue in America, she appears not to be read as much as she once was. I hope that is not the case with Memory of a Large Christmas, and if the rest of her work is as charming and evocative and beautifully written as this little volume, Lillian Smith needs to be rediscovered in a big way.

Let’s begin with beginnings. When it comes to Christmas memories, Tolstoy’s famous first line, “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is only true to the extent that a certain spirit of love and joy runs through all Christmases, but—to paraphrase Betjeman—many changes can be rung on the bells of love and joy and Christ’s spirit, especially when those things and that time are seen, as they should always be seen, through a child’s eyes.

Some leap right into the eggnog and holly and festivities: “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Some begin in fruitcake weather with the sweet anticipations and preparations that make all looked for events so special: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

Even the movie, A Christmas Story begins with a slow, loving look back through Ralphie’s eyes at a drab working-class neighborhood in Cleveland made beautiful by snow and love and memory.

Lillian Smith’s affectionate, bitter-sweet look back begins with the essence of her home seen through her very young eyes, which is to say the essence of every home and every Christmas: “Everything about our family was big: there were nine of us and our mother and father and a cousin or two, and Little Grandma when it was her turn to stay with us, and Big Grandma when it was hers, and there were three bird dogs and four cats and their kittens and once a small alligator and a pet coon. And the house took them all in. And still there were empty corners and stairways and pantries, and maybe the winter parlor would have nobody in it, but if it did you could go to the summer parlor, or if you felt too crowded you could slip in the closet under the stairs and crawl on and on until it grew small and low, then you could get down on your stomach and crawl way back where things were quiet and dim, and sometimes you liked that.”

Her Christmas memories, unlike Dylan Thomas’s or Truman Capote’s or Jean Shepherd’s do not look back at a specific Christmas, nor do they look back through a specific, first-person-singular voice. She utilizes a style quite unique, shifting from the second-person singular to a third-person singular identified as Miss Curiosity to first-person plural, shifting too from various pre-World War One Christmases in the vast, rambling house in the opening quote, to a smaller cottage in the mountains of northern Georgia, shifting also in age and clarity of memory, much like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, mixing and melding times and people and events into an impressionistic pastiche of celebrations and activities that are now as irrevocably vanished as the people themselves. Consider her description, seen through very young eyes, of the aftermath of the terrifying and upsetting but vital ritual of a hog-butchering:

“And now, in an instant, ALL THE WORLD turned into a Good Place with a Good Father and Good Mother and a Good Granny who made good sausage, and a Good Jaspers who said, Little Sister, come here, Old Jaspers will show you how to cut a pork chop.

“You went to him: and the big black hand covered the small white hand, and holding firmly to the long steel knife, the two together pressed down on something, then Jaspers whispered, Hold tight! and you did, and he lifted your hand and his and the knife and came down hard—and lo, the two of you had cut a pork chop. And he was saying softly, I sho do like pork chops, don’t you, Little Sister? and you whispered back, I sho do, Jaspers. And the two words had changed the whole world.”

It is not fashionable in today’s world to write or speak about such things, things that were common in an older time, relationships that were common in that older time between old black men or women and young white children. The time has rightly and deservedly gone, just as hog-butchering has gone as a seasonal ritual, but I too remember those relationships and black hands and the past cannot nor should not be revised, but rather seen for what it was, both good and bad. Snooty young people who know better than you how the modern world should be run will reduce the object of that love to “a mere domestic,” as if a child’s love had anything to do with social standing or job or race or sex or age or anything other the mysterious synchronized beating of two separate hearts.

And it is that beating heart that runs through this Christmas memory, a child’s heart in a child’s time, until, in that final north-Georgia Christmas she evokes the essence of Christ’s spirit in what must be the most extraordinary Christmas dinner in the history of man.

Lillian Smith’s father, aging, in financial difficulties, with all his children out on their own, saving Lillian and her younger sister who have come back from their own lives in other places to be with their parents, has invited the prisoners on a local chain-gang to have Christmas dinner with them:

“When Mother said she was ready, our father asked ‘Son,’ who was one of the killers, to go help ‘my wife, won’t you, with the heavy things.’ And the young man said he’d be mighty glad to. The one in for raping and another for robbing a bank said they’d be pleased to help, too, and they went in. My sister and I followed, not feeling as casual as we hoped we looked. But when two guards moved toward the door my father peremptorily stopped them with, ‘The boys will be all right.’ And ‘the boys’ were. They came back in a few minutes bearing great pots and pans to a serving table we had set up on the porch. My sister and I served the plates. The murderer and his two friends passed them to the men. Afterward, the rapist and two bank robbers and the arsonist said they’d be real pleased to wash up the dishes. But we told them nobody should wash dishes on Christmas—just have a good time.”

It is axiomatic that if you write about a specific person or a specific event or emotion it becomes universal; the reverse, obviously, simply becomes a mess. It may seem strange that a very specific and somewhat eccentric family in a very specific house in a specific part of America in a very specific time so long ago, a time that ended with the coming of World War One, should be so completely accessible and understandable to today’s readers, so that there are those magic moments where you think, Yes, that’s just how it is, but that’s the magic of great writing. This little memoir deserves a special place on your shelf of Christmas classics: The Night Before Christmas; A Child’s Christmas in Wales; A Christmas Memory; Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep; whatever others you know of that sing to you. It’s one of those books you’ll want to go back to over and over again with the coming of “fruitcake weather.”


Book Review: A Christmas Carol

December 28th, 2014 11 Comments

Arthur Rackham, Christmas Carol

On Christmas day I took a break from my current history obsession (a much needed break, as I am in the throes of reading about the dark ages when all of Europe seemed intent on butchering all the rest of Europe) and reread A Christmas Carol. I had forgotten how wonderful Dickens is and how especially wonderful A Christmas Carol is, both in its message and its writing.

What was interesting was to learn that Dickens considered A Christmas Carol and the rest of his Christmas books (The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Chimes, The Haunted Man) all to be rather sketchy things dashed off to make money:

“I never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits [of space], believing it would not succeed. My purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humor of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.”

Would not succeed? There isn’t an author alive today who wouldn’t happily sell his mother into slavery and his soul to the devil to be able to create characters half as colorful and memorable as Scrooge, Tiny Tim or any of the Cratchit family, the spirits who haunt Scrooge, including Marley, or even such ancillary characters as old Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Yet Dickens apparently considered them barely limned.

Part of what makes them all so memorable for the reader is their kindness, their loving humanity, their good humor, their capacity for forgiveness, which is another way of saying what makes them memorable is the spirit of Christ within each of them, which is, of course, what Dickens was trying to express.

But another part of what makes them all so memorable is the skill of Dickens’ writing, the visual aspect that Dickens manages to convey so charmingly. Consider his description of the beautiful, nubile daughter of Scrooge’s lost love, playing with her much younger brothers and sisters:

[She] soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to grow round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

If that doesn’t make you fall in love, you have no heart within you. And that is just the briefly seen, unnamed daughter of a barely named lost love! The narrator, obviously, is Dickens himself, and I suspect Dickens, like all writers, was guilty of falling somewhat in love with even the least of his creations, and passing that love on to his readers.

(I do have to admit that much of the visual power, for me, also comes from the illustrations almost as much as from the words. Dickens’ work was most associated during his lifetime with the illustrations of Hablot Knight Browne—known as “Phiz”—first and foremost, George Cruikshank, John Leech, Robert Seymour, and Fred Barnard, and to a lesser extent with George Cattermole and S. L. Fildes, but the edition I read this past Christmas day was a late printing [1948] of the Arthur Rackham edition first published by William Heineman in 1915. Arthur Rackham, as immortal as Charles Dickens, is one of the most evocative artists ever when it comes to capturing the alluring innocence and grace of young girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, and his children all inhabit the wonderland somewhere between fairies and flesh-and-blood. His painting of the happy battle between the oldest daughter and her boisterous young siblings is a masterpiece of high-spirits and beauty, chaos and grace.)

A Christmas Carol was the first of the Christmas books, written in part for mercenary reasons, and in part to revive his own flagging self-confidence. Martin Chuzzlewit hadn’t sold as well as he had hoped, and Dickens was apparently going through a variety of personal crises, not least of which was a case of what we would today call writer’s block. A Christmas Carol swept that block away like a flood bursting through a ruptured dam: Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Child’s History of England, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, not to mention a host of lesser works, editing a weekly magazine, multiple public readings and tours, all took place in the twenty-seven years between A Christmas Carol and his death in 1870. What other writer has ever produced that many enduring masterpieces in a lifetime, let alone less than three decades?

While A Christmas Carol was very well received when it was written, acclaimed by Thackeray as a “…national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness…” it appears that The Cricket was somewhat more popular during Dickens’ lifetime, and though I may be misinterpreting a childhood memory of Eleanor Farjeon’s (herself an author of children’s stories and of the hymn Morning Has Broken, made into a popular song by Cat Stevens), I don’t think it became anything other than a popular literary hit. The Cricket on the Hearth was adapted for the stage as early 1845, while A Christmas Carol had to wait until after the turn of the century. Since then, of course, it has made up for its late start and has been adapted for stage and film and radio in countless productions and variations and misinterpretations ranging from the unspeakable to the delightful.

But none of the many theatrical adaptations, not even the best of the best, equal the book. The reason, primarily, is because none of them make full use of the main character, who is Dickens himself. It is Dickens who takes us by the hand and leads us through Scrooge’s past and present and possible future; it is Dickens who leads us through the lives of the characters with whom Scrooge interacts, past and present; it is Dickens who leads us through London, through glimpses of rural England, from inland farms and villages to a ship at sea, much as the spirits lead Scrooge. And of all of it is done with Dickens’ unique capacity for showing us the worst of humanity even as he presses home the point that there is far more good than evil in the world, always—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To paraphrase an author I read once (and can’t remember now), when Dickens gives us a pill, he concocts it out of spices and sugar.

It is that rare capacity for hope and Christian charity and goodwill, even in the face of evil and despair, that makes Dickens so unique among authors, that makes his voice so compelling in each of his tales, and that dooms any adaptation of his work that does not make use of his most singular voice.

Consider the following:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.”

God bless us everyone.


When Man Becomes Prey

November 8th, 2014 20 Comments

When Man Becomes Prey


I have never met Cat Urbigkit, but she contributes to a blog I follow (Stephen Bodio’s Querencia) and she and I have communicated by email from time to time over the years. She knew that I had survived a bear attack and asked me to write a blurb for the book cover of When Man Becomes Prey. Normally, this would mean an advance copy would be sent out that I could read, and then write my blurb accordingly. In this case, however, Cat was pressed for time, so she emailed me a copy of the manuscript. I was duly impressed with her writing, as I have always been over the years, and I wrote that in my blurb. What I didn’t realize was how well and beautifully illustrated the final product would be. Those are her photographs in the book, ladies and gentlemen, and hers alone, and that by itself is reason enough to buy the book. It’s an extraordinary achievement.

Beyond that, however, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As cities and suburbs metastasize over the American landscape, more and more people live, wittingly or unwittingly, in close proximity to wildlife. Most of the time, this is a benign source of pleasure: deer strolling across your lawn and nibbling on your roses; woodchucks and squirrels making free with your vegetable garden; that sort of thing. But where prey animals go, predators will follow, and the inevitable confrontations between man and large carnivore will occur, with equally inevitable and unhappy results.

What Cat does so well in When Man Becomes Prey, is not only to point out the potential dangers, but to give the reader tools to recognize when things are sliding down from chance encounter to something more sinister and potentially deadly. Most of us are smart enough not to walk up to walk up to a grizzly or a mountain lion and offer it our leftover hamburger, but what most people do not understand is the significance of simply seeing a predator. The rule of thumb, as Cat points out, is that if you do see a predator, and that predator does not immediately take off running, you have a problem in the making, because when a predator becomes habituated to humans and their presence, the next step is to regard those humans as dinner. And sadly, too many otherwise reasonably intelligent people think it is cute and exciting to have wildlife around their home, and they do remarkably stupid things–such as putting out food and water–to encourage said wildlife. Apart from the potential danger to humans, the usual result is death for the animal. Yes, I know the Fish and Game experts are always quoted as saying that the predator in question will be relocated, but relocation would really mean creating a dangerous problem for someone else in some other part of the state, and so “relocated” becomes a code word for “destroyed.” It is not usually discussed, because ignorant animal lovers and so-called animal rights advocates get hysterical when they think of anything being killed, but what choice is there? If that coyote didn’t actually kill your child, it will certainly try—and may succeed—with the next child in the area where it is relocated.

I live on the opposite side of a mountain from a small community where there are, unfortunately, a lot of remarkably silly people who think it is fine to break the law and put out food and water to attract wildlife. The completely predictable result is dogs killed in their yards, human/predator encounters of varying degrees of potential danger, certain canyons closed off to equestrians for long periods of time due to mountain lion sightings, and—more personally—my friend Dan Bronson (one of the most peaceable and kindly men in the world) doing his jogging with a can of bear spray in his hand. I only wish every single person in that community could be compelled to read When Man Becomes Prey.

Beautifully illustrated, and with well-researched and well-described true-life encounters, this a must-read for anyone who lives anywhere near wildlife.


Stephen King: On Writing

August 13th, 2014 23 Comments



I haven’t written any reviews lately because I’ve been on an ancient history kick: the first three volumes of the Will and Ariel Durant series, The Story of Civilization; Herodotus, The Histories; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Polybius, The Histories; bits and pieces of Suetonius, Xenophon, Lucretius, occasional forays into Ovid and Homer to remind myself of this, that or the other, additional brief dips here and there into even more obscure and tangential associations:

Cruel, but composed and bland,

Dumb, inscrutable and grand,

So Tiberius might have sat,

Had Tiberius been a cat.

It’s been fun, and I plan to keep marching along down the highways and byways and shady lanes of man’s consistent folly and brutality and his occasional bursts of brilliance and magnificence, but I have no intention of reviewing the likes of Herodotus and Polybius. I may not be the brightest bulb in the tanning bed, but I’m not that arrogant a fool.

However, I took time out recently to read Stephen King’s On Writing, an interesting pastiche of a book, partly a combination of instructions on the craft of writing and partly a memoir. It is, in fact, accurately subtitled, A Memoir of the Craft.

I suspect many writers, probably most, have lives that are duller than dirt. After all, a writer of fiction spends most of his time sitting inside his own home, inside his own office, inside his own head, a sequence which may make for ecstasies of excitement among the readers of his books, but one which is not calculated to cause the average observer to do much other than doze off. The only notable exception to this rule who springs to mind is Hemingway. No matter what else he might have been, or what you may think of his writing (uneven, ranging from the best of the best to the worst of the worst) he combined a naturally adventurous spirit, enormous personal physical courage, and a capacity for marrying well that allowed him to indulge in various adventures such as safaris and deep-sea fishing. Couple all that with the fact that he also wrote as a war correspondent, and his life makes for great reading. He is, however, the only post-World War Two writer I can think of about whom that is true.

Since Stephen King is, by his own admission, severely, chronically, and habitually anal compulsive about his craft, it is proof of his genius as a writer that On Writing is as entertaining as it is.

I had forgotten how good King can be. On Writing is, to be honest, the first book of his I’ve read in a long, long time, but it brought back my own memories of the first of his books that I ever did read, back around 1980. It was The Shining, and I read it in the safety and security of my own tiny little hillside home, my very first house, in the Hollywood hills overlooking the back lot of Universal Studios. I was training for my second-degree black belt and thought I was a lot tougher than I really was; the house was buttoned up for the night; my wife and son were peacefully asleep in their beds; and that damned book scared me so badly I sat up until three in the morning to finish it, and then had to go from light switch to light switch to make it the bedroom. Oh, yeah, I was a tough guy alright.

But that’s good writing.

On Writing doesn’t provide the thrills and clammy sweat of most of his work. What it does is provide a very candid glimpse into his personal history and his triumphs in overcoming a childhood of grinding poverty, and an early adulthood of chronic alcoholism and drug addiction. Perhaps all this is known to his legions of fans, but it both caught me off-guard and inspired me, which is, of course, why he chose to tell his story the way he did. If he can overcome that degree of alcoholism and addiction (he claims to have no memory of writing Cujo) then by golly, Junior, you too can get your life in order regardless what your problems might be.

Woven through the personal inspiration theme are his comments and observations and suggestions for those people who have succumbed to the writing illness. (It’s like addiction, only different.) Most of it is very, very good advice, and like Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it combines practical nuts-and-bolts advice with humor, charm, and encouragement. If I have a criticism (and who the hell am I to criticize Stephen King?) it’s that he tends to assume his work habits and goals will work for everyone. He talks about making sure you don’t leave your desk until you get your daily two-thousand words down. Say what, Steve?! Two-thousand words? I go through periods where I’m lucky to get two-thousand words down in an entire week.

Which brings up another small criticism. King recommends getting the story down as quickly as possible (two thousand words a day quickly) and worrying about the polish later. That’s fine for him, but as even he points out, some authors prefer to polish as they go, reworking each sentence before they go on to the next one. The point is, each of us works differently, and what works for Mr. King might not work for you or me or Malcolm Brooks or Donna Tartt.

King also does a very funny send-up of writing classes, the frightfully serious and studious kind of instruction where students read each other’s work and criticize it for the—theoretically—edification of the writer. King’s advice (and, for what it’s worth, mine) is that such classes are complete waste of time. First of all, who made the guy or gal at the next desk God and gave him or her a pipeline to the taste and Weltanschauung of the reading public? More importantly, who taught Homer to write? Who taught Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner? The only way to learn how to write, as King points out, is to write and read, read and write. Do it obsessively, do it constantly, and then read and write some more.

And one of the books you should read is Stephen King’s On Writing.


Shameless Self-Promotion Redux: Changing Earth, Changing Sky

July 2nd, 2014 47 Comments



I have released another book for your reading pleasure, your literary satisfaction, your general edification, your artistic amazement, your… Oh, never mind. I have released another book.

Changing Earth, Changing Sky (the title comes from an incredibly obscure poem by an even more obscure poet—the official poet to the court of Henry VIII—that I stumbled across somewhere and have been unable to find since; but the phrase stuck in my head) is about a young lady determined to change her life, every aspect of it. But like so many of the plans we make, the changes that occur are not necessarily the ones she had in mind.

I had no intention of writing a book when I began the thing. I started it for myself primarily as an academic exercise, the kind of thing you might be assigned at one of those writer’s workshops, to see if I could write from a woman’s point of view, just a handful of pages to see if I could pull it off. But more or less by itself, without any real volition or control on my part, a handful of pages turned into a hefty chunk of pages. That’s not surprising, really—I can’t even sign my name to a check in less than several hundred words—but what did surprise me was finding I had done the Pygmalion thing and fallen in love with my creation.

I admire people with spunk. I am bored by what the Germans’ colorfully call a Waschlappen, which literally means a washcloth, but figuratively means a spineless invertebrate who can be walked over and taken advantage of. And as I wrote, that desire for spunk came out in my creation, and the more it came out, the more I found myself drawn to it and writing more to see what she might do next.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he talks about where story ideas come from, how out of the blue a thought pops into one’s head that might, by itself, have no significance or inspiration, but it pops in just as one happens to see something completely unrelated, and the two things come together and sort of juxtapose themselves, and the next thing one knows, one is off writing, either about an interesting girl looking for change, or about oneself using the arch abstraction of “one.” Fortunately, I chose to write about the girl. But some of the things that happened as I wrote were that random, that unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated images and events. I don’t want to give too much away here, because I want you to spend your hard-earned dollars and read the thing, but in the course of doing some chores in the nearest big city, I saw some gang-bangers, the kind of men who radiate danger and contempt for everything and anything, and without my really intending it, they ended up muscling their way into the book. With interesting results…

A reader who stumbled across the book on Amazon took me to task—very nicely, very gently—for not doing anything to publicize the book or even announce that it was in existence. I plead extenuating circumstances. First, I had trouble with my website, which apparently decided it didn’t have to take orders from anyone as computer/internet illiterate as I, and began to misbehave disgracefully. I had to call in the big guns, in the form of my website administrator to figuratively take website out behind the woodpile and give it a good talking to. Then I had trouble getting a copy of the cover with the right number of pixels or whatever they’re called. And then work reared its ugly head in the form of various deadlines, and—in short—what with one thing and another, the book went public before I did. I apologize. You can find it under my “Books” tab, and that will take you to Amazon.

As always, if you like it, please give it a good review and a “Like” on Amazon. If you don’t, please maintain a diplomatic silence.


Under Milk Wood

June 20th, 2014 15 Comments



Many years ago (never mind precisely how many; suffice it to say it was back in the days when the 33&1/3 LP was king) I was browsing through a record store (Yes, children, there used to be stores, just like bookstores—remember those?—where one could browse through vinyl records and… What? You don’t know what a vinyl record is?) and I stumbled across a Caedmon recording of Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. The fact that there is a recording at all is something of a miracle: it was recorded at the last moment, as an afterthought, when an unknown someone, who deserves a front-row seat in Heaven, placed a single microphone on the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York during the first reading of the play, the only reading ever that included Dylan Thomas.

I was—and still am—a big Dylan Thomas freak. Miserably unhappy at my first boarding school (in Switzerland) I turned to poetry as an escape. Literally. Or, more accurately, as part of an escape: I would take a book of poems and walk away from the classes, away from the shabby building, the sadistic students jockeying brutally for dominance, teachers who thought their students were despicable and who expressed that thought regularly by slapping faces and boxing ears and kicking backsides, from the food that put at least one student into the hospital, from the ridiculously and artificially structured and meaningless discipline, from all of it, up into the vineyards that lined the hills above the school, and looking out at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English) I would read poetry out loud to myself and for the edification of the grapes. Those vineyards that year probably produced the worst wine ever to come out of Switzerland, and that’s saying something. I called this keeping my sanity; the school called it running away, and I was eventually thrown out for it. But one of the poems I had recently discovered, and that I read out loud to sour the grapes, was Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…

Oh, yes; I can still do much of it from memory. But in that record store so many years ago (I was in college at the time, Beloit College, or perhaps on suspension) I was thrilled to see the LP, with Dylan Thomas’ fleshy, pug-nosed face on it, looking as if he were trying unsuccessfully to hide pain with a veneer of arrogance. I had never even heard of Under Milk Wood, but I snapped it up. And I was transfixed, transported, mesmerized by those lyrical, lilting, rambunctious, randy, rollicking words; by Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary voice—vintage-port-in-a-seaside-pub made audible—by the performances, all of them (only Sada Thompson might be still remembered today, for her work on the TV series Family), by the sly humor and pathos of it, and most of all by the naked love expressed in those words.

It is described as a play for voices, but it is by any standards an odd play. Structured loosely—and much more briefly—along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which Thomas almost certainly had never heard of, it is a portrait of small Welsh fishing village seen through the dreams of its inhabitants, and through the words of the dead and the dead past brought to life by those dreams. It takes place in a single day in the village of Llareggub (and if you read that name backwards, you will get a hint of Thomas’ sometimes schoolboy humor) as the inhabitants gradually wake and go about their business, until night, “bible-black,” gradually closes down once more around the town.

It is, as all the best of Dylan Thomas is, rich, evocative, incomparable in its playful use of language, moving, funny, bawdy, and—like all good art—it lingers with you long after you’re done.

I hadn’t read it in forty years, but something Darleen said prompted a memory and I pulled my copy down the other night. I had planned to just dip into it, a passage here, a fondly remembered speech there; at one-thirty, the whole thing savored slowly, I staggered happily off to bed.

Many people don’t read plays. I think this is, in part, an unconscious realization of the truth of Stanislavski’s famous epigram: “People don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written. People go to the theater to see what the playwright has not written.” I suspect most people do want a director and actors to flesh out the bones strewn upon the page, that most people don’t have an imagination that is geared to that particular process. This is not, and is not intended to be, a pejorative statement; it just takes a certain way of reading, one that actors must, of necessity, develop. And even then, a good director can transcend anything even the best imagination can come up with. I had read Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times in an ecstasy of passionate adolescent delight when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was there.

But Under Milk Wood is, as Thomas described it, a play for words (it was intended originally for radio broadcast only) and so it qualifies as a very short epic poem. Or perhaps as just a long narrative poem. Or perhaps just as a damn good poem of any category or description. And as such, it can be very effectively read all by itself. Like any poem, it should be read out loud, and like all of Dylan Thomas’ work it should be read out loud with great relish and uninhibited enthusiasm. Don’t worry about “understanding” it; poetry isn’t intended to be understood in an intellectual way any more than a painting is intended to be understood. It is intended to evoke an emotional response, and if there are occasional words you don’t know (a “courter” is either an archaic variation of courtier, or one who courts, but I had to look it up) don’t worry about it. Get the overall emotional ebb and flow of the piece, let the words wash over you like music, and worry about understanding later.

But get your hands on a copy and read it. Get to know blind Captain Cat, and affectionate, erotic, kindly Polly Garter, the feckless and would-be-murderous Mr. Pugh, Rosie Probert, Gossamer Beynon, Sinbad Sailors, get to know all of them. Get to know a Wales that may never have been, but that will never cease to exist.


Book Review: The Lessons of History

December 27th, 2013



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.

Top of Page