Book Review

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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Under Milk Wood

June 20th, 2014 15 Comments

250px-Dylan_Thomas_photo

 

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

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

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Lessons of History

December 27th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: A Sportsman’s Library

October 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Three Anthologies

October 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: With Blood in Their Eyes

April 14th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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