Book Review

Book Review: The Hounds of Heaven

June 27th, 2016 11 Comments

Bodio's dog


Steve Bodio is one of America’s greatly underrated treasures. He writes like an angel about a wide range of fascinating topics; he is one of the most widely-read and well-educated men I have ever come across, a twenty-first century version of an eccentric Victorian polymath; when he writes about topics close to his heart, he has the rare ability to weave emotion and objective scientific observation together; and he knows (or has known—time has thinned the ranks) practically everyone worth knowing, famous and obscure, rich and poor, artist and scientist, from New Mexico (where he lives physically) to Kazakhstan (where he lives spiritually).

We live in a time when polymaths are rarer than honest politicians and, whenever one does float to the surface of public perception, he is regarded with deep suspicion. Everyone and everything has to be quickly and easily pigeonholed in our Age of Single-Minded Experts: if you’re an artist, you can’t possibly be a scientist; if you’re a naturalist, you most certainly cannot write fiction; if you’re a cynologist, what the hell can you be expected to know about paleontology? When obvious exceptions such as Peter Matthiessen do arise, they are explained away as anomalies: Well, after all, how can you expect anything else from someone like Matthiessen when he was really a CIA agent all along? But Steve Bodio is a genuine polymath without being a CIA agent. As far as I know.

So what do you do with a book like Hounds of Heaven? Really now, is it about dogs or is it about falconry? Is it about pigeons or paleontology? Is it about hunting or is it about cultural anthropology or is it about genetics? And if it’s supposed to be a serious work, why is it so funny? Where the hell in the bookstore do we stock the damned thing?

I suspect some or all of those specious and asinine arguments will be voiced.

The fact is, the book is about all those things and more, it is indeed a serious work that will make you laugh out loud, and my recommendation is to stock it everywhere. It’s that good.

On one level Hounds of Heaven is about a quest, a search for an almost mythical beast that takes Bodio from a vodka-soaked apartment in Brooklyn to an unexpected and interrupted life in New Mexico, to that vast, high, central Asian region dismissed by a former presidential candidate as, “all those –stans,” where once Tamerlane and the Scourge of God and Marco Polo roamed, a region still inhabited by fierce and independent men who love deeply their horses, their eagles, and above all their dogs. It may be that Africa was the cradle of man and Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization, but the rugged steppes and mountains of central Asia were probably the cradle of man’s best friend, and very certainly the cradle of that unique variety known as sight-hounds.

And on another level Hounds of Heaven is a love story, for no matter how useful or scientifically intriguing dogs may be, ultimately our relationship with them is based on mutual love, and anyone who has ever shared his life with a dog will admit he has learned at least as much from his faithful friend as his friend ever learned from him.

Finally, several years ago, before Steve ever started this book, I asked him to vet an article I had written for a magazine in which I posited the theory that the only way to save virtually every dog recognized by either the AKC or the UKC was to outcross to related, but genetically different, breeds. In other words, if you want to return the German shepherd, for example, to the healthy, long-lived specimen it once was, open up the gene pool and go back to some of the distantly related breeds that prior to the end of the nineteenth century used to be lumped under the loose category “sheepdog.” Try a Malinois or Groenendael or Tervueren, try a Kuvasz, hell, try an Anatolian. If those don’t work, go farther afield, but for God’s sake stop breeding crippled, short-lived beauties to crippled, short-lived beauties. I’d rather have a German shepherd that looks like the vaguely mutty ones von Stephanitz had, that was capable of living its full twelve or thirteen years free of the more than fifty heritable diseases man has bred into and concentrated in that noble breed.

It turned out Steve had been studying (of course) and thinking about this very issue, and he kindly corrected some of my errors and told me to sic ‘em. Steve goes into this issue in depth, but very readable depth. If you love dogs, or even if you’ve ever loved just a single dog, you will love Hounds of Heaven and its cast of unusual, eccentric, and passionate characters, two-legged as well as four-legged.


Book Review: The Noise of Time

June 20th, 2016 10 Comments



Somewhere, I now forget where, I stumbled across the following quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize-winning author of, among others, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more—we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

It’s worth keeping that quote, that sentiment, in mind when reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. Barnes’ novel about Dmitri Shostakovich opens with the composer standing by the elevator in his apartment building all night long, with a small overnight bag at his feet, smoking endless cigarettes as he waits for Stalin’s security officers to come take him away. Those who were unlucky enough to drift into Stalin’s vast (seven million or more dead) and frequently merely peripheral web of disfavor were invariably taken away during the night, and Shostakovich’s standing by the elevator is his personal act of courage, his desperate effort to save his wife and children.

I am not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to appreciate this novel from a musical perspective, but it doesn’t matter because what it really is about is courage, not the great, courageous stroke of the hero, but the small and varying courage it takes to live—to endure—for decades in fear. You cooperate here, resist a little bit there when you dare, bow low and weigh your words carefully this morning, then try to recoup a tiny fraction of self-respect by taking a small stand this afternoon. The subtle stands of resistance—a musical masterpiece like the Fifth Symphony—are offset by the capitulations that breed self-loathing and regret for the opera not written. Courage, under Stalin, had to be used by the teaspoon. Shostakovich recounts the experience of a friend, a violinist who expected to be arrested. Instead, the secret police came, night after night, and each time they arrested someone else in the violinist’s apartment building, gradually working their way up, night by night, apartment by apartment, floor by floor, until at last the entire building was vacant except for the violinist. And that gradual, casual murdering of everyone else, of totally innocent people whose only crime was to have lived in the wrong building, made the violinist completely, utterly compliant. Fear is a powerful weapon, more powerful than death, because after all the dead are immune; nothing more can be done to them.

Barnes has an odd writing style, a detached, cerebral style that in the only other book of his that I’ve read, Flaubert’s Parrot, I disliked. It’s as if he uses his own writing to keep all emotion at arm’s length. (In Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator is so cold and emotionally detached that the result is there is no one in the novel for the reader to identify and empathize with. I found myself thinking of Herman Melville’s comment in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, discussing the relative value of emotion versus intellect in art: “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!”) Yet here, in The Noise of Time, that same distancing of emotion works, in part because the only way a man can find the courage to stand, night after night, by an elevator, waiting to be arrested, is by distancing himself from emotion. And by showing us a man who will sacrifice himself to save his wife and children, you have automatically presented someone the reader can empathize with, not a hero, not even a consistently brave man, but one who, like most of us, screws his courage to the sticking place when he can, and hates himself when he can’t.

Readers with more musicality than I may get more out of this book, but its universality lies in its harrowing portrayal of what it’s like to live in fear, not for a day or a week or a year, but for decade after decade, and then, at the end, to look back and to think of what one might have done, might have accomplished if only one hadn’t been afraid. If only. If…if.

It’s a lesson to be kept in mind.


Book Review: L.A. Noir

June 3rd, 2016 14 Comments

LA Noir


A year or so ago, my lady wife and I stumbled across a series on TNT called Mob City. It was an excellent, stylish tip of the hat to the classic film noir productions of Hollywood’s golden era and to the kind of movies that came out of that era, movies that emphasized a world-weary, cynical view of life, where moral ambiguity reigns and the hero typically loses more than he gains in his Pyrrhic victory over evil. Think of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum in film adaptations of novels by Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain directed by John Huston or Howard Hawks. I’m over-simplifying terribly, but you get the noir picture.

I was tottering around a bookstore recently with my friend Dan Bronson, a retired screen-writer and former professor of English and American literature, and we stumbled across the book upon which Mob City is based. To my surprise, the book, L.A. Noir, by John Buntin, is a non-fiction account of the Los Angeles Police Department as it grew and developed in response to, and in conjunction with, the growth and spread of organized crime in America.

Let me give you some perspective. The LAPD is considered one of the elite and premier law enforcement agencies in the world, the very best of the best. For many decades they took a sort of cynical pride in the fact that they were the smallest police force relative to the population they served anywhere in the civilized world. I believe that statistic may still be true. Due in part to the small number of officers, versus the large numbers of people in a vast amount of square miles of territory, they made a virtue of necessity and pioneered techniques that allowed them to get the job done, techniques that are now studied and imitated by law enforcement agencies around the world. There is a reason why retired LAPD officer (former SWAT-team member and firearms and tactical instructor for the elite Metro division) Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars is the go-to place for training for such entities as Navy Special Warfare Team Six and Army Delta Forces, as well as elite law enforcement agencies from around the world. Men and women who make their livings doing the dangerous things that allow the rest of us to sleep quietly at night train with the best, and that’s Scott Reitz. That’s the LAPD.

To call this book scholarly is an insult. I was still living in Los Angeles back during the Rodney King riots, and because I had and have friends in law enforcement, I was privy to a few details about those riots that were not commonly known. I was a little stunned to see some of those details in the closing pages of L.A. Noir. If Mr. Buntin was that thorough about all the research he did for the entire book, than this is more than merely scholarly; it practically qualifies as obsessively well-researched.

But it is also an insult to call it scholarly because that word—at least to me—carries the implication of dusty and jejune pedantry, and L.A. Noir reads like a Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain thriller. Mr. Buntin has the technique of the best of best investigative reporters, really of all good writers of non-fiction (think of Jared Diamond or the late Marc Reisner), finishing each chapter with a sentence or paragraph that leaves you desperate to find out what happens next.

Having said that, Buntin employs, very logically, the technique of (for the most part) using Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen to drive his story, alternating back and forth as he follows their respective careers and how they intertwine. But look back at that sentence. “…Chief William Parker and legendary gangster Mickey Cohen…” If L.A. Noir has a weak spot it is due to William Parker. Yes, he was a brilliant, innovative police chief, but in his personal life he was about as exciting as yesterday’s mashed potatoes, and the chapters that focus on him pale in comparison to the chapters that focus on the flamboyant, volatile, unpredictable, and always deadly Mickey Cohen. Think about it: if you’re walking through your backyard and you suddenly see a garter snake on one side of you and a rattlesnake on the other, which one are you going to focus on?

Because Mickey Cohen was the colorful character he was, and because gambling was an important part of their operations, he and Bugsy Siegel both crossed paths, directly or indirectly, and in some cases mingled easily with, a who’s-who of household names from that era: George Raft, Robert Mitchum, Columbia Pictures boss and despicable wannabe gangster Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg, Darryl Zanuck, Lana Turner (with her gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, who once made the mistake of pulling his tough guy routine on real-life tough guy Sean Connery and got knocked unconscious for his pains), Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Hecht, evangelist Billy Graham, and many others even as they crossed swords with Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Mike Wallace…

The list goes on, and I’m not even bothering to mention the forgotten names of the ruthless and bloody gangsters who were the Shorty Guzmans of their day.

The result is that L.A. Noir, while touted as, “a struggle for the soul of America’s most seductive city,” actually becomes a study of the rapine and venality not only of gangsters outside the law, but of the “respectable” gangsters who stayed inside the law and used their lawyers to pervert justice to their own ends. In short, L.A. Noir is a brilliant, fascinating, beautifully-written, and eminently readable portrait of a city and paradigm for an unchanging country.

There is one bad mark against this book, and that goes to the publisher of the paperback version, Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. I’ve taken the time to write out their full name because they should be ashamed of themselves. In an effort to be mingy and pinch the buffalo, they have made the print so preposterously small that it will almost certainly turn off all but the very young (who don’t read books anyway) or fanatically devoted book lovers like me who refuse to succumb to Kindle. I understand the publishing industry is in turmoil, thanks to a combination of mergers, e-books, declining reading habits, printing costs, and probably a bunch of other factors of which I am blissfully unaware, but for God’s sake, if you’re going to commit to publishing an actual printed book, then cowboy up and print a book worth buying, especially if it is as worthy of reading as L.A. Noir.


Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

May 15th, 2016 26 Comments



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.”


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.


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.



First Lines

March 10th, 2016 51 Comments

Old bboks

(Photo courtesy of

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.


Book Review: Brushstrokes and Balladeers

December 30th, 2015 20 Comments



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.



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.



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.


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.



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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