Book Review

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.

december-sundown

 

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.

black-white-and-cold

 

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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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.

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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.

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Stephen King: On Writing

August 13th, 2014 23 Comments

stephen_king

 

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.

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Shameless Self-Promotion Redux: Changing Earth, Changing Sky

July 2nd, 2014 47 Comments

changingearthchangingsky

 

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.

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