October, 2013

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…

At the Barbershop

October 16th, 2013

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“Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.”

To An Athlete Dying Young, A. E. Housman
I went into town the other day to take care of some mindless chores and errands. You have no idea how much fun it is to be able to do mindless chores and errands after so many months of being housebound! Part of my schedule for the day included a much-needed haircut, so I swung by the little barbershop I use and pulled up in front. The owner and the girls who work there are so used to seeing me in one state of breakage or another that they have a running bet as to how long it will be before the next time I hobble in on crutches or in a wheelchair or with a sling. I glanced over at the window to make sure the neon “open” sign was turned on. It was, but propped up against the side of the building next to the window was a four-by-eight sheet of plywood with hand-painted words on it: “We Love You, Barry.”

Barry is the proprietor. He is a stocky, handsome, muscular man, one of those trim, broad-shouldered guys who look like natural athletes. And he is seriously sports obsessed. He only recently bought the business from an elderly lady who had it decorated—if you can call it that—with a combination of toy trains, stuffed toy birds, dust, and photographs of hairstyles left over from the fifties. I always used to look for a picture of Ed Byrnes running a comb through his hair: “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!” Barry has changed the motif to reflect his obsession: the mirrors are framed with baseball, basketball, and football cards; there are autographed eight-by-tens of various professional athletes; jerseys of famous athletes are carefully displayed up high, out of the reach of childish hands, backs out so the names and numbers may be seen: McGwire, Bettis, Bryant, Stafford, Manning. There are flags for various teams, signs announcing, “Reserved Parking: Yankee Fans Only,” or “Dolphins Fans Only,” and one that proclaims the space to be the “Packers Locker Room.” It’s the kind of barbershop where men come in and happily chew the fat for hours with Barry about the latest steroid scandal, about which professional athlete has been traded to which team, which local high school in our county is most likely to make the finals, or sometimes about who is restoring what car, where obscure motorcycle parts can be found, or who is selling what car or motorcycle.

In contrast to the relentlessly masculine tone of the place, there are three young ladies, girls really, who rotate haircutting duties and happily take turns teasing Barry mercilessly, to his delight and the delight of his customers. It’s a comfortable, small-town barbershop. Barry is a single parent, and clippings from the local newspaper with accounts of his son’s prowess on the football team and the basketball team are pinned up on corkboard by the coffee machine. Prominently displayed in the middle of the shop, between the gaudy mirrors and above the little table (with its stacks of Field & Stream, American Hunter, Guns & Ammo, Car & Driver, Dirt Bike, and the local mountaintop magazine designed to tell us all of the latest festival, the coming rodeo, the next game against a traditional rival school, the local gossip), and above an autographed photo of a basketball star whose name means nothing to me, there is a framed color picture of Barry and his son, looking almost like brothers, the boy in his football uniform, a very professional night shot, taken after a recent game, both of them looking happy and proud. I know from overheard conversations that Barry and his son go dirt-biking (if that’s the correct terminology) together. I know too that when the boy was younger, he would call or text his father to find out if Barry had started home yet, and then he would hide somewhere in the house and leap out to scare Barry. In most of the photographs of them together, they have their arms around each other’s necks.

“We Love You, Barry.” It could mean anything. It could be the tail end of some latest on-going bout of teasing. It could be a genuine expression of affection to a nice man on the occasion of his fortieth birthday or something. It could be that he had dumped his motorcycle and broken a leg or a collarbone. In the short distance from my truck to the door I had settled on the broken bone theory, but I made inquiries of the young lady who was free.

As an actor, you train yourself to constantly observe your own reactions and the reactions of other people so that you can use those reactions as needed in various performances. Writers do very much the same thing, though they’re more disposed to steal words. (Remember Shakespeare in Love? Remember Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, walking past Speaker’s Corner where the loonies get up to rant, and he hears a crazy man yelling, “A pox on both their houses,” and Shakespeare nods appreciatively and files that line away for future use?) So I remember very clearly that when she said, “His son passed away,” it stopped me physically in the middle of the little shop, as if I had walked into a glass door.

My sister lost a son a few years ago. Darleen lost a son long ago, before we even met, but I know from living with her for twenty-two years that there are some things no one ever gets over. You go on, you discover different ways of living and being, but you never really get over it. It is the ultimate horror for any parent.

I stood in the middle of the little shop, staring at this young lady, a mother herself, as a part of my brain catalogued all the possibilities, all potential means of death for a healthy, vigorous young man: car or motorcycle accident, aneurysm, freak sports injury, drug overdose.

“What did he die of?”

“He killed himself.”

The actor in me was stunned to observe the real me cover my mouth with both hands. Such a girlish, ridiculous response. Yet not so; it was completely natural to instinctively try to muffle the vocal response that might come. Finally I caught my breath.

“What!?”

“His girlfriend broke up with him two days ago and he went home and got a gun and shot himself in the head. A neighbor called Barry here in the shop.”

And after that there was nothing more to say. I, who make my living with words, could think of nothing. After all, what is there? Two lives were ended in that little shop that afternoon. Barry may go on—he will go on; he is strong enough to go on—but his world will never be the same. He will spend the rest of his life repressing the natural instinct to start a sentence (“Hey, remember when we…” “Hey, do you want to…”) with someone who isn’t there. He will spend the rest of his life trying to repress certain sensory memories, the smell of the shop, the song that was playing on the radio when the telephone rang, the slant of light in whatever room of the house where he had to clean up the blood, trying too to remember certain things that are gone forever, the smell that lingers on clothes, the tone of a voice that once made his heart leap with joy or swell with pride. After my father was killed, I used to go to that empty house and stand in the doorway to his closet so I could inhale the scent of him. It faded finally from his clothes, but it has never faded from my memory.

I went to the funeral. It was held at a brand-new evangelical church, possibly the largest structure in our little town, certainly the largest church. I don’t enjoy large crowds, especially in confined spaces, so I got there early to stake out a spot by the door, where I could breathe. It didn’t work. Not only was there no more seating available, there was no more standing room available in the nave. I was able to find a spot in the doorway between nave and narthex (think lobby) easily enough, where I stood with my back to the wall as more people flowed in behind me, as family members and teammates in football jerseys were escorted past to reserved seating, ushers moving back and forth with a curious balance of hurry and decorum, but the overflow was so great I ended up standing in a crowd anyway. Finally Barry arrived, wearing dark glasses and his son’s athletic jacket. In the narthex, propped up on an easel, there was a large photograph of the boy, an action shot taken during a game, slamming through defending players from some other school, football clamped tightly under one arm, the other pushing off a rival player, his face clearly visible inside the masked helmet: determined, focused, young, invincible. Barry stopped for a moment and looked at the photograph, blown-up to roughly life-size. Then he walked forward around the corner and into the doorway to the nave. Suddenly he crumpled as if he had been shot in the stomach, his knees buckling, bending forward at the waist, his hands clutching at his sternum, his mouth open. The man walking with him grabbed one arm and held him up. Another man who was moving up to greet him stepped forward and grabbed the other arm and the two of him helped him down the center aisle, still bent, mouth still open, silent. He looked like a man who has been badly beaten in a fight, being helped away by his friends. For a moment I thought it was the sight of the casket covered with flowers, or perhaps another photograph on one side of the chancel, or the framed football jersey, number thirty-three, on the other side. Then I realized it was none of that. It was the people. Barry was caught off-guard by the sheer numbers of people who had responded to his tragedy. He hasn’t lived up here even as long as I have, yet it seemed as if most of the town had downed tools to share the grief of a man who lost his best friend, his greatest love.

If all potential suicides could only know how many other lives will end with theirs it might dissuade them.

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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