Book Review

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

May 15th, 2016 26 Comments

How_the_Irish_Saved_Civilization

 

I missed this somehow. It was first published in 1995 and someone gave me a copy more than ten years ago, but I got distracted by other things, by life, which seems so frequently to get in the way of my plans.

Thomas Cahill’s subtitle for his book is: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. That’s accurate, but it tells you far less than the book offers. History can be little more than a dusty recitation of facts (I once had a professor of Greek and Roman history who could make me yawn until my jaw creaked) or it can be a magical transportation back across millennia, a process of bringing long dead worlds, long dead cultures, long dead people vibrantly alive again, and that process of resurrection takes both imagination and a capacity for telling a story. What a good historian does is approach his topic not solely as history so much as a tale to be told by a turf fire in a stone cottage on a dark and stormy night; in other words, a good historian transforms himself into an Irish seanchaí, and Thomas Cahill, son of Irish-American parents, knows his craft. And more than simply telling the tale, Cahill also provides a context for fifth-century Ireland that creates a mirror for today and tomorrow. All history is both mirror and signpost, but not all historians provide that context.

Part of Cahill’s skill lies in his ability to weave seminal figures (St. Augustine of Hippo, for example) together with people so obscure they almost—but not actually—qualify as fictional (his humorous extrapolation of character from a tiny thumbnail self-portrait of a scribe on a 1600-year old illustrated manuscript), using both to lay the foundation for historical facts and to give those facts life and interest. What do we actually know about Saint Patrick? Not much, based on what is traditionally considered to be historically factual, but when we search for the character of the man in his own writing, and compare that to what is known about him (birth, death, kidnapping, his life as a slave, seminal accomplishments, seminal failures—for failure can be both as instructive and revealing about a man as accomplishments) a portrait comes to life of a specific and compelling and very human saint, one about whom we long to know more.

And by bringing these men and these times alive, Cahill tells us about the extraordinary burst of creativity that occurred, improbably, on a remote island on the outer fringes of the known world, a burst of creativity that preserved both religious and secular classics, for the early Irish Christians seem to have been remarkably free of the religious prejudices of the Roman Catholic Church. Both the creativity and the lack of prejudice were due in part to St. Patrick, and in part to the Irish tongue, a Gaelic that has sadly almost vanished from the world, in large part due to the thousand-year long rapine and narrow-minded arrogance of the rulers of the British Empire. The Irish have always been known for their addiction to words and language and story-telling; perhaps the loss of Gaelic has diminished that somewhat, but then again, perhaps not. Consider some of the recent geniuses of Irish literature—William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Brian Friel, Maeve Binchy, Frank McCourt, John Banville, Seamus Deane, Iris Murdock… And those are just living ones whom I happen to have read. (Well, Iris Murdock has died, but I still count her as a current contemporary.)

There is one other living contemporary Irish writer who deserves mention here. Okay, okay, if you want to be a stickler for facts, Thomas Cahill was actually born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, but he clearly inherited an Irish love of words and how to put them together even as he relates past to present, and present to future. Remember that he wrote this back in the early nineties, and consider the following:

“Rome’s demise instructs us in what inevitably happens when impoverished and rapidly expanding populations, whose ways and values are only dimly understood, press up against a rich and ordered society. More than a billion people in our world today survive on less than $370 a year, while Americans, who constitute five percent of the world’s population, purchase fifty percent of its cocaine. If the world’s population, which has doubled in our lifetime, doubles again by the middle of the next century, how could anyone hope to escape the catastrophic consequences—the wrath to come? But we turn our backs on such unpleasantness and contemplate the happier prospect of our technological dreams.”

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Book Review: American Gun

April 12th, 2016 20 Comments

Turnbull 1911

 

Chris Kyle was the Navy SEAL who wrote the autobiography American Sniper which in turn was made into a blockbuster movie starring Bradley Cooper. Both the book and even more the movie generated a firestorm of controversy, most of which consisted of mean-spirited and hysterical snarkiness from the usual suspects, self-proclaimed liberals who—and I’m taking this from a consensus of the comments I have read in both mainstream press and online—felt it was wrong to portray the killing of men and women (and in one case—almost—a child) all of whom were trying to kill American soldiers.

This is not the place for a debate about whether or not America was justified in going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, what stunned me was to read hysterically angry reviews and comments from people who seemed to have no problem with vastly greater body counts in movies about superheroes and galaxies far, far away, or even inner-city drug-dealing gangstas happily shooting each other in a variety of bloodthirsty and barbaric ways. What seems to have offended so many liberals about American Sniper was the political context of the movie. One writer for Rolling Stone actually began his review by mentioning that he went into the theater primed to hate it. The same writer then defended his own admittedly biased and negative review by saying it was more important for him to be a liberal than to be a journalist, a comment that once upon a time would have gotten any self-proclaimed journalist immediately fired from any self-respecting magazine, which perhaps explains why he writes for Rolling Stone. (To be fair, another Rolling Stone writer, the movie critic, praised the film.) The point is, if a creative work of art (movie, play, book, poem, concert, ballet, painting, sculpture, whatever) can only be judged by how it makes us feel within the framework of our own ideology, then we’re no better than the barbarians who destroy art and antiques that conflict with their distorted religious beliefs, or the pampered little college cupcakes who get hysterical whenever someone disagrees with their personal opinion.

With this in mind, any reader who is not interested in firearms would be well-advised to stop reading now.

Before he was murdered, Chris Kyle was working on a book called American Gun: A History of the United States in Ten Firearms. The book was published posthumously and probably actually finished by his co-author, William Doyle, and his widow, Taya Kyle, but regardless who finished it, it is a very engaging and informative work.

The subtitle is more than somewhat disingenuous in that it has little to do with the history of the United States and much to do with the history of firearms development in America. But that history is fascinating, a combination of an intricate linking of various factors: need; painful learned experience; the natural inventiveness of man and his ability to improve on what already exists; and occasionally a flash of genius that seemingly comes out of the ethers, uninfluenced by anything that already exists. (A good recent example of this would be the Glock, not an American gun, but one that Kyle pays deserved tribute to for both its own merits and its transformative effect on modern pistol design.)

Kyle does many things gracefully in this book. He links one development to the next, showing how A led to B. He lays out just enough history to help us understand the need for improvement that inspired each new step forward. He provides a wealth of fascinating trivia that forms both a background and a context for each progressive step. He shows how each new invention helped the men for whom it was intended, or—in too many cases—how it would have helped the men for whom it was intended if it hadn’t been held up by paper-pushers in Army Ordnance who didn’t have a clue about battlefield realities.

(As an example of fascinating trivia, one of the Army Ordnance deadheads who completely missed the boat on firearms advancement, and thereby contributed immeasurably to the loss of American lives at San Juan Heights and Kettle Hill, was none other than Stephen Vincent Benét, grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of the same name.)

A large part of what makes this little book so enjoyable is the presence of Kyle himself in the words. I have only seen Kentucky long rifles or Spencer rifles in museums, and I’ve never fired an M16 or even held a Thompson machine gun, but Kyle has the ability to convey the perfection of those tools for their specific tasks. Yes, it helps that he and I clearly share certain prejudices (specifically for the Colt Single Action Army .45 and the M1911 .45 Army pistol), but he manages to make understandable the passion that others have for other tools. And more: he makes you feel that you would have greatly enjoyed knowing him. Of course he would be your first choice to stand at your back in a gunfight (or maybe for you to stand behind his back and let him do the heavy lifting) but he also comes across, not just as a hero, but as the kind of guy you would have loved to have a beer with, share a steak and some stories, the kind of decent and courageous guy we could use more of in America.

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A Sort of Book Review

March 31st, 2016 21 Comments

Sense and Sensibility

 

After watching Emma Thompson’s movie and realizing I had never read the book, I ordered a copy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have no intention of reviewing or critiquing or even praising Jane Austen’s masterpiece—it certainly needs no pat on the back from me—but I was so impressed by the edition I got that I do want to review that.

The internet has replaced the independent corner bookstore for many people, and while I find that a lamentable thing generally, I have to admit it is a boon for those of us who live out in the boonies. Looking for a copy of Sense and Sensibility, I mulled over the many possibilities on the market (new, used, collectible, rare, hardbound, paperback, and many further permutations within each of those categories), and being an inquisitive type who enjoys learning, I decided to get an annotated edition. I selected one edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks of the University of Virginia, and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

I don’t know exactly what I thought I might be getting, but it certainly wasn’t this. For one thing, the book is very large by today’s standards, ten inches high by almost ten inches wide. To call it a hardbound book is understating the thing considerably: it is hardbound the way books used to be hardbound a century ago and the way all good books worth keeping ought to be bound today, which is to say it is bound to last and endure, with heavy cloth covers and real, honest-to-God stitching. It has subtly watermarked endpapers (if I get some of the terminology wrong, forgive me: I am not a bookbinder) and the pages themselves are of heavy and durable bond paper. Even the dust jacket is heavier and more substantial than on any book I have seen for many a long day.

The volume is profusely and magnificently illustrated with, primarily, appropriate contemporary art (think William Blake, Sir David Wilkie, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, a watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, some of the illustrations done for early editions, that sort of thing) all of it carefully chosen to illuminate either references in the original text or commentary by Ms. Spacks.

And Ms. Spacks knows her stuff! Much of the effect of Jane Austen’s writing relies on her observations of the habits and customs of her day, and sometimes there were subtleties of behavior in 1800 that no longer exist. As an example, when Lucy Steele tells poor Elinor that she, Miss Steele, is engaged to Edward Ferrars, Elinor is able to cling to disbelief until the moment Lucy Steele shows her a letter written by Edward to Miss Steele. It is not the content of the letter that is of any importance—in fact, we never learn the content—it is the fact of the letter that is so momentous, because in those days a gentleman simply did not, could not, write a letter to a young lady unless he intended to marry her. It is that kind of subtlety I might have missed, but for Ms. Spacks.

Another reason to get this annotated edition is because language is a mutable and constantly evolving thing, and words are used in different ways to mean different things today than they were two-hundred years ago. I admit that I’m at least as arrogant as the next fellow: I flatter myself that I am reasonably well-read; I rarely have to look up a word or an unusual usage of a word when reading Shakespeare, say; and I certainly didn’t expect to learn as much as I have from Ms. Spacks’ commentary. To take the most obvious example, both the words “sense” and “sensibility” had slightly different and far more complex implications of meaning than we are used to, differences that have a profound influence on how we understand what Miss Austen was saying.

Finally, I’d like to compliment Emma Thompson. As Ms. Spacks points out in her commentary (quoting an earlier critic of Jane Austen), Edward Ferrars is probably the weakest character in Sense and Sensibility. The reader must believe that Elinor loves him, but because Austen has used the plot device of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele that causes him to be depressed and dispirited, the result is that Edward is unable to reveal his real persona to Elinor and so becomes a sort of pale watercolor of a figure, with the result that the reader is left a little confused as to why Elinor loves him to the exclusion of all other possible men. In her movie version, Emma Thompson very cleverly solved this problem in part by casting the offensively handsome and charming Hugh Grant as Edward, and also by showing Edward interacting with the youngest sister, Margaret, in ways that make him very appealing. (Elinor catches him discreetly pushing a large atlas under the table where Margaret is hiding from her mother; he subsequently starts a lovely piece of nonsensical conversation with Elinor about the source of the Nile—“I think it’s in Belgium.”—to finally draw the little girl out from her hiding place; he sends the atlas to her later as a gift; a wonderful scene where he is observed by Elinor fencing with Margaret, using wooden swords, and losing badly.) I normally quake at rewrites of masterpieces (I believe it was the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that famously included the credit, “additional dialogue by…”) as being the result of the febrile arrogance of fools, but in this case, Ms. Thompson was exactly right (or write, take your pick). She identified a problem, and provided a charming and graceful remedy.

If you love Jane Austen, buy this book. Hell, even if you don’t, go ahead and buy this book. The illustrations alone are worth it.

 

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First Lines

March 10th, 2016 51 Comments

Old bboks

(Photo courtesy of Goucher.edu)

We watched Sense and Sensibility the other night. I’m talking about the 1995 movie, which I believe is the only movie version ever made, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and the late, great Alan Rickman. It’s about the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but it’s so good it deserves to be watched repeatedly. I’ve never read Sense and Sensibility, but I was so impressed with Emma Thompson’s script that afterward I went into the library to get a copy so I could dive in and compare Jane Austen’s book to Ms. Thompson’s adaptation. Instead, by accident, the first volume I grabbed was my father’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, and like all confirmed, hardcore, unreformed booklovers, even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I automatically opened it.

There on the flyleaf was my father’s name in his queer, old-fashioned, elegant script, written with a fountain pen (what else?) at the ascending angle he always used putting his name in books. As it always does, just the sight of his writing, and knowing his hand had been on that page, took me rushing back to the golden days when he was alive; he really was the most extraordinary and wonderful man I will ever know.

But then I turned to the first page and saw Jane Austen’s first line of her second major book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Well, I mean to say! The genius of all great first lines is that they capture within a few words both the reader’s interest and the tone and essence of the book to follow. And that thought started me thinking about great first lines.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” which brought to mind a cartoon The New Yorker ran many years ago showing one of those arrogant, self-satisfied editors all writers would love to choke looking across his desk at Charles Dickens and saying: “Come, come, Mr. Dickens! Either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times; it can hardly have been both.”

Actually, Dickens had a lot of great first lines:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

“Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

And J.D. Salinger played off that opening for the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

John D. MacDonald’s first line of his very first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, set the stage and the tone for an entire series: “It was to have been a quiet evening at home.”

The second volume of what will eventually be Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell opens with: “His children are falling from the sky.”

With “I did it—I should have known better; I persuaded Reginald to go to the McKillops’ garden-party against his will,” Saki (H. H. Munro) sets the humorously resigned tone of disaster for all his “Reginald” short stories.

“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Edgar Allan Poe draws you into the horrors of The Tell-Tale Heart instantly.

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame draws you into the gentle joys of The Wind in the Willows.

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his body of work, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And his Love in the Time of Cholera opens with: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s first line of Anna Karenina is possibly the most famous first line of all.

The Leper’s Companions, by Julia Blackburn: “One day in the month of September, when the low autumn sun was casting long shadows across the grass, she lost someone she had loved.”

“I lost my own father at 12yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is written entirely in the late eighteenth century Australian working-class slang of a semi-literate (or semi-illiterate) career criminal, which makes it sound almost inaccessible, but not so, not so; it’s as uniquely compelling as everything Carey writes.

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, set in Ireland in the terrible days of World War One and the Troubles, begins: “He was born in the dying days.”

Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche takes a lighter approach: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, arguably the greatest thing Hemingway ever wrote.

There are many, many more great first lines, but what is probably my favorite of all time comes from M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote primarily about food and did it better than anyone else. From Consider the Oyster: “The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”

Tell me your favorites.

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Book Review: Brushstrokes and Balladeers

December 30th, 2015 20 Comments

PickinUpANewPairOfHeals37x37

 

Brushstrokes and Balladeers is the first volume of a two-volume set compiled by C.J. Hadley and published by the Range Conservation Foundation and Range magazine. The second volume is Reflections of the West and both books cover the same territory, a compilation of poets and painters associated with the American West. And that covers a lot of ground, you should pardon the expression, in every way you can think of. I will write about both volumes as the single set they are.

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The artists C.J. Hadley has selected range from familiar old masters of the American West, such as Remington, Russell, and Dixon to modern masters most of whom, thank God, are still very much with us today: think Tom Quinn, William Matthews, Karen Myers, Tom Browning, Jason Rich, Nancy Boren, the recently deceased Bill Owen, Don Weller, S.C Mummert… I’m tempted to go on, because there are so many fine artists represented here, but instead I will just say that Hadley’s choices wisely cover all aspects of that vast and varied area that runs from the high central plains to the Pacific, and from Mexico to Canada, the area that is home to a lifestyle that is the best part of America. Most of the paintings show glimpses of cowboy and ranching life, from the iconic (gathering cattle in all kinds of terrain and all kinds of weather; a tired cowboy and his horse both drinking from a stock tank; mending fence) to smaller and more intimate moments of the same lifestyle (a cowboy whose eyes and mind may be focused elsewhere, but whose hand is absently stroking the ears of the dog who makes his job possible; a group of ranchers sharing memories and gossip over coffee at the counter of their local breakfast joint) but there are also portraits of men and women, cattle and horses, as well as the exquisite portraits of wildlife captured by Tom Quinn’s extraordinary brush. And through it all, dominating it all, is the magnificent, breathtaking, unforgiving landscape of that part of America many of us are so proud and happy to call home.

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And while these volumes are intended as a celebration of the American West, Hadley has wisely expanded her choice of poets to include some who captured part of what our West means even as they lived in other places and other times. The great Persian poet, Omar Khayyám never even dreamed of America a thousand years ago, but he managed to express some of what we find here today. Andrew “Banjo” Patterson never set foot in America, as far as I know, yet some of his famous poems sing of the cowboy experience as evocatively as if he had been born and bred pushing cattle out of arroyos filled with prickly pear.

There are some famous names here, men and women who are well known as cowboy poets (Red Steagall, Baxter Black, Wally McRae, Waddie Mitchell) and there are also some names that might surprise you (Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Pulitzer Prize winner and United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser), but it is the new poets—new at least to me—that really caught me by surprise. I had never heard of Bill Jones, but his Five Days Home affected me like a punch in the stomach. I had never heard of Joel Nelson, even though he lives in my favorite part of Texas and has been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, but his The Breaker in the Pen is the only cowboy recording ever to be nominated for a Grammy. I had never heard of Wyoming Poet Laureate Patricia Frolander, but her Married Into It captures two entire lifetimes in forty-eight lines. I had never heard of a dozen others, award winners, Hall of Fame inductees, poets laureate past and present, men and women hailed by the Smithsonian, NPR, PBS, and—more importantly—by a public better educated than I.

And that’s the point of buying anthologies like these: these paintings and poems will give you insight into a world most people only think they know from movies, and they will give you infinite pleasure, reading or looking.

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Book Review: Of Human Bondage

December 16th, 2015 18 Comments

Somerset Maugham

 

I’ve been reading practically nothing but history lately and I realize now that compulsive focus seems to have colored my thinking, for I’ve written very little on my website except about the fripperies and follies of modern politics and the stupidity and violence that pass for world affairs these days. But I took time away from the equal violence and stupidity of the Reformation (and if you haven’t studied it, you would be amazed by some of the parallels between the excesses of that religious upheaval and much of what ISIS is doing today) to reread Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

“Reread” is a relative term. Technically, I have read the book before (the handwriting of my name on the title page tells me it must have been when I was about fourteen or fifteen; the capital “P,” the “k,” and the “r” all hint at the Germanic penmanship smacked into my head and hand in a grey classroom in a small German town long, long ago) but half a century makes it a new and fresh read. And what a read!

I’m a big fan of Somerset Maugham’s short stories (I think Mr. Know-All is one of the most perfect short stories ever written) but I’ve never read any of his novels other than The Moon and Sixpence and, obviously, Of Human Bondage when I must have been far too young to understand or appreciate or even remember it. It wasn’t until well along, about the middle of the book, when I suddenly had a flash of absolute certainty of what was going to happen that I realized I had been there before. So I can write about it now as if it were a completely new experience.

Somerset Maugham was an astonishingly versatile writer. Mr. Know-All is a scant six pages, without a single extraneous syllable, yet at the end you know more than you would have believed possible about three different people, and all three of those people have changed radically from what they presented themselves as at the beginning. Of Human Bondage, on the other hand, meanders leisurely on for over seven-hundred and fifty pages, following Philip from orphaned child too young even to really understand at first what orphaned means, to a man in full (as Tom Wolfe might use that phrase), a man who has passed through the manifold furnaces, great and small, that shape a man and give him, if he is wise enough to look at himself honestly, an understanding of who he is, what he needs, and what he needs to do.

But beyond his technical versatility, Maugham was a many-faceted man (doctor, World War One medic and ambulance driver—if I have the story right, he proofread the galleys for Of Human Bondage while he was waiting to be evacuated at Dunkirk—art connoisseur and collector, spy, playwright, screenplay writer) who traveled the world restlessly, gleaning everywhere he went a unique understanding of the human animal in all his many and varied aspects, both good and evil. For most of his adult life those travels, and more importantly, those gleanings were in the company of, and facilitated by, a much younger male companion whose vivacity and gregariousness made up for Maugham’s shyness and apparently taciturn personality.

Much has been made of Maugham’s homosexuality, his irascibleness, his propensity and skill for hurting people savagely with his comments, but I don’t think it is ever productive to judge the artist by the man or the man by the artist. Much has also been made of his propensity for using autobiographical material in his work, particularly in Of Human Bondage, but that too I think is unproductive. Louis L’Amour made use of stories he had heard and characters he had met while working on different ranches. Hemingway once sold as a short story a letter, untouched and verbatim, he had received from a fan. I’d be willing to bet much of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction had its roots in things seen and done and experienced by the author on this planet.

It is not an easy novel. We follow the physically deformed (club foot) Philip as he endures the cruelties of childhood, loss of faith, incredibly self-destructive relationships (the human bondage that comes from not balancing the longings of desire and the reality of the desired object, the balancing of emotion and self-control—though that same loss of self-control is ultimately instrumental in leading him to the happiness he seeks), through his flailings as he attempts one profession after another, his attempts to regulate his ambitions by the limits of his life and circumstances, setbacks of various kinds, and primarily, his search for an understanding of what life is supposed to be about. How is one supposed to reconcile life’s opposites, particularly good and evil, if one has “freed” oneself from the bondage of faith? A friend gives Philip a small Persian rug, telling him it holds the secret of the meaning of life, but it takes Philip many years to discover the secret is neither as complex as the design of a Persian rug, nor as simple as the making of one, but that the meaning is a little of both.

Again, it is not an easy novel, but it has never been out of print, and is regarded as one of one hundred best novels of all time, an encomium that relies more on Maugham’s story-telling ability than his actual writing. Don’t look for the breathtaking sentence, the memorable quote, the way you might with, oh, Dickens, Faulkner, Wodehouse, McCarthy, McEwan, Doyle, Trevor, Mantel… The list goes on, but does not include Somerset Maugham. What it does offer are moments that resonate. Twice I came to upsetting scenes that so closely paralleled events from my own life that I had to put the book down and turn to other things. Consider now that this is a book written over one hundred years ago (it was originally published in 1915, but actually written several years before that). Consider too how little man changes through the centuries that the actions of men and women in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period can still cause distress in a small ranch house in the mountains of California in the twenty-first century.

Finally, having criticized Maugham’s syntax (in my next column, I’ll give God a few tips on how to run Heaven) I would point out that the book is bracketed, at its opening and at its close, by some of the most evocative writing you could hope for. This is the bleak opening that sets the tone for Philip’s childhood:

“The day broke gray and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains.”

Now contrast that to the joyousness of his description near the end of Sally, one of the most comfortable and comforting of all heroines, with her calm common sense and her down-to-earth earthiness:

“She stopped and came to the stile, and with her came sweet, clean odors of the countryside. She seemed to carry with her scents of the new-mown hay, and the savor of ripe hops, and the freshness of young grass. Her lips were soft and full against his, and her lovely, strong body was firm in his arms.”

Oh, yeah. That’ll do.

 

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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.

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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.

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How Not to Sell Your Book

February 4th, 2015 13 Comments

changingearthchangingsky

 

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 (http://rangemagazine.com/) 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.

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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.”

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