Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Favorite Versions of Auld Lang Syne and Other Music

Scottish poet Robert Burns got the traditional part from an old man he once heard singing it, then he improved upon it, writing verses three and four.  The part we like best is an ancient toast, then.  We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for Auld Lang Syne.

The playlist below is simply grand, full of versions you'll want to play again and again.

1.   I like to start off with John McDermott's very masculine version, in an Irish accent.  Subdued and very deliberate, and then there is that lovely violin solo.

2.  James Taylor.  My favorite American version.  Acoustic guitar and piano and laid back vocal.

3.  Yo-Yo Ma's version, in duet with Chris Botti's muted trumpet.  Botti draws the last notes out sadly, as if this were taps on a bugle.  Yo-Yo Ma's track title is "Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)," but the heart of it is Auld Lang Syne.

4.  Manheim Steamroller plays it slowly, a chorus humming then singing in the background.  Thoughtful and sad, it is.  I think my wife and I could dance to this one.

5.  Susan Boyle.  I really like both this arrangement and Boyle's phrasing.  For one thing, she contracts "my dear" into "m'dear," and it is very nice that way.

6.  Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller, two different big band versions of the traditional song you usually can't hear for the fireworks.  Lombardo is given credit for making the song so popular in America.  Icons fade in the popular memory, but the song of remembering goes on.

7.  Dan Fogleberg.  "Same Old Lang Syne," the same only very different.

8.  Chris Issak.  Another one I like a bit, although it is slow and quite short, using only one verse.  And he says "my friend" instead of "my dear."

9.  Kenny G.  Another good one to slow dance to, or at least to move from side to side on a crowded dance floor.  A sad saxophone.  Seems to me I've heard it hundreds of times, but mostly at the end of Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne."

We drank a toast to innocence,
We drank a toast to now,
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how.

We drank a toast to innocence,
We drank a toast to time,
Reliving in our eloquence
Another 'Auld Lang Syne.'

10.  A downloaded version sung by Susan McKeown will sound different to you in a good way.  A splendid arrangement that sounds somehow traditional, even if it isn't.

11.  Maria Carey.  Disco, and very loud disco.  Good for dancing, but not for singing or thinking about old times.  It includes a countdown to midnight.

12.  Marc Anthony or Bobby Darin.  "Christmas Auld Lang Syne," which changes the lyrics entirely and makes the year revolve around Christmas and gratitude to God.  Some other artists have covered this since, and I like it more every time I hear it.
When mistletoe and tinsel glow
Paint a yuletide valentine
Back home i go to those i know
For a christmas auld lang syne

13.  I can't leave out the live version by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in duet.  These two are both as dead as Jacob Marley, and their lively voices remind us that it was not so long ago that they were among us, and that it will not be so long until we are dead too.  We need to remember that and to cherish each day like New Year's Day. 

Other music natural for New Year's Eve:

1. I Understand (Auld Lang Syne) by Herman's Hermits.  A love unrequited song I liked when I was young.  "Auld Lang Syne" is sung in the background as a counter melody and it works.

2. My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year) by Peggy Lee.  This is the older, experienced Peggy Lee, and she is a delight.  Much my favorite version of this song.

3. My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year) by Regina Spektor.  This version features the sound of guns and warplanes in the background, giving the lyrics a less general meaning.  In the last verse, she substitutes the word "young" for "kind," excluding those kindly but old.  No matter; Spektor's little girl voice is a part of her charm.  It's as if Spektor and and Janet Evancho got their voices switched somehow back at the factory.

My dear acquaintance
it's so good to know you,
the strength of your hand
that is loving and giving
and happy new year
with love overflowing
with joy in our hearts
for the blessed new year.

Raise your glass and we'll have a cheer
For all of us who are gathered here.
And happy new year to all that is living,
to all that is gentle, kind, and forgiving.

My dear acquaintance,
a happy new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Still Christmas Week: James Joyces' THE DEAD; Christmas Epiphany

e·piph·a·ny  (-pf-n)
n. pl. e·piph·a·nies
1. Epiphany
    a. A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as
        represented by the Magi.  Three Kings Day.  The Twelth Day.  Also, Twelth Night, the Eve
        before the Twelfth Day according to some traditions.
    b. January 6, on which this feast is traditionally observed.
2. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.
3. a. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.
    b. A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization, as with the
        Buddha's enlightenment..
Here in the United States, when Christmas falls on Sunday as in this year, we also take Monday as a holiday.  Most businesses stay closed, just as most opened up today, Tuesday.  But not everyone is done with Christmas yet.
The first day of Christmas, as in the song, was Monday, also called Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen, when your love provides a partridge in a pear tree, and when the snow lays round about, deep and crisp and even, and when Good King Wenceslas traditionally plays Good Samaritan.

The Feast of the Epiphany does not come until January 6th of the New Year.  James Joyce's "The Dead" takes place on this day in 1904 at a party in Dublin.  It is a dinner party, a gathering of family and friends not unlike our own gatherings in any year, a mix of people of different ages whose capacity for love and empathy has evolved to different degrees.

The original story is easy to find on-line, and there is a published play of it, and John Huston's excellent movie adaptation has been on television this season.  Most people enjoy the music associated with the story.  You can hear Susan McKeown's excellent rendition of "The Lass of Aughrim" at this youtube link.

The rather egotistical main protagonist has arranged a special romantic interlude with his wife for this holiday, his wife played in the movie by Angelica Houston.  When Houston's character hears that particular song, it triggers her memory of her first love.  A bit later, as the couple are preparing for bed, she confesses her sorrowful memory of that lost love to her husband, which spoils the mood for their lovemaking but creates an epiphany in the protagonist.

Readers differ greatly in their interpretation of this, but a lot of Joyce scholars think that the lady was regreting the loss of her own child which was the result of a connection with her dead lover.  No other reason is given for her admission into a convent in her youth.  Whether the child died in a miscarriage or was given up or lost for some other reason is a bit beside the point.
The protagonist, hearing her story, feels pity for his wife for the first time, and perhaps for the first time loves her with a love that is not possessive but rather empathetic, an unconditional love not based upon sexual gratification or physical appearence.

Joyce expands the metaphor at the end of the story, and in the film this is given in a voiceover.  Again, different readers interpret this differently, depending on their own ideas about epiphanies, awakenings, and the meaning of the title.  You'll have to decide for yourself.

Some scholars have pointed out that this story is autobiographical, and surely it is, but like all great authors, Joyce parlayed his own experience into the symbolically universal.

Christmas Spirit Stays On: Connie Willis' "Adaptation"

After Musing about the different adaptations of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL on the holiday, I took Connie Willis' Miracle and Other Christmas Stories down from the shelf and reread her very excellent story entitled "Adaptation."

The story begins with an epigraph from Sir Walter Scott's Christmas poem, Marmion

Heap on more wood, the wind is chill;
But let it whistle where it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still.
The male protagonist, a clerk in a bookstore, narrates the story in the first person.  He begins by detailing the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol that the store carries, and the various commercial ways that the original story has been exploited.

The protagonist is a book lover, and we take it that he cares about literature and is a bit miffed by the public clamoring for cheap imitations and showy materialism.  His wife left him and and has remarried up, and she has custody of their daughter.  As the story opens, he is looking forward to her visit on Christmas Eve.  This is complicated by the surprise visit to the store of a best selling author, signing copies of his book, How To Make Money Hand Over Fist.

How to spend quality time with his daughter?  That's the question, now fraught with uncertainty due to the manipulations of his boss, the store owner, the flippant attitude of the visiting author, and the constant fluctuation of his ex-wife's own holiday plans, which take precedence over his own.

The store hires temporary help to assist him with the autographing session and until the holiday.  He sees them as the Spirits of Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come.  He thinks that they are there to turn the visiting author, a grasping materialist.  But they're not, as he finally sees at the end of the story--they are there to help him.

In this story, as with It's A Wonderful Life, the materialistic Mr. Potters of the world get their way, again and again, many of them giving lip service to religion, monetary pillars in the church expecting to buy redemption.

But we should not sink to their level.

Instead, we should have the will to maintain good cheer and the spirit of giving and gratitude, no matter what.  We can usually be about as happy as we make up their minds to be.  We find a way through adaptation.  The guiding examples are there in the classics of our literature, including Scrooge's nephew, Fred, in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

And that Christmas Spirit is always there to remind us of what we can do everyday, throughout the year.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, Mr. Scrooge

We watched "It's A Wonderful Life," this week, which ends with wheelchair bound Mr. Potter/Dick Cheney again getting the best of the "chumps" trying to give their fellow men a helping hand.

To jump or not to jump, the question that is coldly reprised after a fashion in Cormac McCarthy's SUNSET LIMITED, is again settled here because George Bailey realizes that, even if he loses his material possessions, even if he goes to jail, he still would not lose the capacity to love, that love makes life worth living, even if the greedy, power-hungry psychopaths and war-profiteers--like Mr. Potter--win again and again.

We also watched Ralphie in CHRISTMAS STORY, and THE REF and THE ICE HARVEST. And we caught the George C. Scott version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Like most of the adaptations, they added here and subtracted there. It rather amazes me that they took out two of the best lines in Dickens' original text:

Scrooge refuses to be wished a merry Christmas and says to his nephew, "What right have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

To which his nephew responds, "What right have you to be miserable? You're rich enough."

Christmas is commercialized, perverted so that it even sanctions greed and war. The real lesson is that even in the face of all of this phony horror in tinsel, the attitude of gratitude and love itself redeem each day, including this one.

A toast: Peace on earth and good will toward men, even to the Dick Cheneys and Newt Gingriches and Mr. Potters, and especially to those deluded and manipulated by them.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Some of the most significant non-fiction books published this year concerned consciousness and free will.  David Eagleman, whose comic and cosmic Tales of the Afterlives was one of my favorites last year, soared even higher in my estimation with INCOGNITO: THE SECRET LIVES OF THE BRAIN.

I also read and admired Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self, and Michael S. Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

Gazzaniga says that free will only occurs in an individual's relationship with others, which of course is what the classics of literature have been telling us all along.  Free will only develops with empathy.  Ego-driven Man is a slave to his own fears and desires. 

During the year, I enjoyed Charlie Rose's continuing series of interviews with brain scientists, as well as his interviews with physicists such as Lisa Randall, author of Knocking On Heaven's Door.  I also read The Four Percent Universe by Richard Pansk, The Fabric of Reality by Brian Greene, and The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow.

This year's Most Remarkable Tandem Read Award goes to the duo of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Rick James' Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.


Another significant book this year shook us into a new icy awareness.  Jon Ronson's THE PSYCHOPATH TEST was an enlightening read, pointing out that many of those in power are biologically psychopathic, unable to feel empathy, manipulating all of those around them for self-serving ends.  This was certainly one of the best books of the year.

Other important books included Lawrence Lessig's Republic, Lost; Barry Estatrod's Tomatoland; and Robert H. Frank's The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.

The Non-fiction Most Fun To Read Award 2011 goes to:

Jonathan Lethem's THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE.  A hearty collection of sharp insights and humor.  There are 437 pages of miscellaneous Lethem items, including an interview with Bob Dylan, insightful ideas about Philip K. Dick (whose new book he helped edit), reviews of music, books, and movies, and random humorous pieces.  A few weeks ago, I blogged about his essay on postmodernism and Liberty Valance--at this link..

The runner-up was Grant Morrison's surprising Super Gods, rather astonishing to this reader for its depth, wit, and humanism.  I'm certainly not into comics, but Morrison ties well known comic icons with universal myth and offers sound psychological insights into the communal culture that touches us all.

The Best Anthology of the Year:  DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, nicely edited by Declan Burke.  A collection of sparkling essays and short fictional pieces commenting on the nature of Irish crime fiction, often very literary and insightful and always entertaining.

The runner-up anthology in this category was Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns, edited by John P. Avlon.

Best Memoir By An Author 2011:  Tim Parks' reluctantly transcendental TEACH US TO SIT STILL.  Honorable mentions go to Pat Conroy's My Reading Life and to Katharine Weber's The Memory of All That, both excellent.

Best Memoir By A Musician: JUDY BLUE EYES by Judy Collins.  Honest and interesting.  It gives me a deeper understanding of the music of the time.  I read it in October and reviewed it with my other Halloween reading.  I also reread the late Suze Rotolo's memoir then.

Both Collins and Rotolo talked about the abortions they had back when it was still illegal.  I thought about them again this month when reading Hillary Jordon's novel, When She Woke.

Best Memoir By An Actor:  THE GARNER FILES by James Garner.  I've read many interviews with the man but never understood his argument with Warner Brothers until I read this one.  He was helped on this book by Jon Winokur, editor of Zen To Go and The Portable Curmudgeon, books I'm glad to have in my personal library.

Best Memoir By A Film Critic:  LIFE ITSELF by Roger Ebert.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best Novels of the Year 2011

The Best Novel of the Year was Alex Shakar's LUMINARIUM, which is a hell of a story and smartly technological, neurological, and metaphysical at the same time, the big ideas in witty, sharply written prose.

Good tandem reads were this year's The Spiritual Doorway In The Brain:  A Neurologist's Search For The God Experience by Kevin Nelson, M.D., and last year's My Stroke Of Insight by Harvard scientist Jill Bolte Taylor.

Luminarium was also my year's Best Book About Brothers, with Patrick Dewitt's darkly humorous western, The Sisters Brothers, runner-up in this category.

Best Literary Westerns of the Year:  Susan Froderberg's OLD BORDER ROAD, Craig Johnson's HELL IS EMPTY, Patrick Dewitt's THE SISTERS BROTHERS, and Denis Johnson's TRAIN DREAMS.

Best Literary Mystery/Thrillers of the Year:   Craig Johnson's cross-genre HELL IS EMPTY (which is also a runner-up for the Track of the Cat Award), and Declan Burke's dark and funny ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.  A longer descriptive list of the year's ten best crime novels will appear here later this week.

The Best Time Travel Novels of the year 2011, from a banner crop, were: Stephen King's 11/22/63, Felix J. Palma's THE MAP OF TIME, and Thomas Mullen's splendid thriller, THE REVISIONISTS.

These three reminded me of all the great time travel novels and movies:  Jack Finney's best work and the Back to the Future trilogy, Richard Matheson's Somewhere In Time, Audrey
Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, and several other good ones dealing with time and fate.

The one anachronism I noted in Stephen King's novel was when the gatekeeper calls the protagonist the "mf" epithet, this in 1958. That ugly term did not enter common vernacular until a few years later when Richard Pryor and some other comedians started using it. I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so.

Perhaps it was merely a clue that the drunken gatekeeper of the rabbit hole (who reminds me of Shakespeare's gate porter in MacBeth) is an out-of-time character.  Later, the protagonist talks with another gatekeeper whose name is something like a play on Auld Lang Syne.

These three time travel books are not to be missed.  A Map of Time also reminds me a bit of the movie Time After Time, starring Mary Steenburgen and Michael McDowell, as H. G. Wells.

And speaking of H. G. Wells, the Best Biographical Novel of the Year goes, hands down, to David Lodge's A MAN OF PARTS.  Lodge illuminates the darker, sexier, least known parts of Wells' biography with an informed and well-imagined light.  The runner-up in this category was Ann Napolitano's novel, A Good Hard Look, which featured events in the life of Flannery O'Connor.

This year's Track of the Cat Award, going to the best literary work featuring a big cat in a symbolic way (fiction or creative non-fiction) goes to Tea Obreht's elegant fable, THE TIGER'S WIFE.  A worthy book to rank with the stellar past winners in this category such as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, and last year's The Tiger by John Vaillant.  HELL IS EMPTY takes second-place here in this category.

Obreht's novel is chock full of animals, and just as you might say that the book's real literary familiar is Kipling, the literary familiar for Johnson's Hell Is Empty is Dante.     

I read three fine novels by Irish author Alan Glynn this year:  WINTERLAND/THE DARK FIELDS/BLOODLANDThe Dark Fields was made into the movie, Unlimited, which I also reviewed a while back.  Winterland and Bloodland share some of the same characters, so I suppose yet another ----land novel is in the works, making a trilogy.  Bloodland has been named Irish novel of the year and deservedly so, but there were so many excellent Irish crime novels this year that a dozen of them each could have won it. 

The Best Civil War Fiction Award goes to William S. Kerr's THE SHIELD THAT FELL FROM HEAVEN, a novel of ideas which presents a creative alternate view of the generally accepted political lay of the land.

The Best CountryNoir/SouthernGothic/BlueCollar Story Fiction Awards go to VOLT: STORIES by Alan Heathcock, THE OUTLAW ALBUM: STORIES by Daniel Woodrell, and CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA: STORIES by Frank Bill.    

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach won for Best Baseball Novel of the Year.

Contending novels worthy of mention here include Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, the author of the wildly comic and worthy Man Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger.  A bit too wordy in this one, but Adiga again demonstrates his grasp of situational power politics with a keen sense of human nature, illustrated with off-edge comic irony.  Recommended.

Another solid entry was Jim Harrison's The Great Leader.  On the surface, Harrison's flawed Janus-faced protagonist chases his own shadow/animal self.  I loved its inspired nuances and little quirky moments, all of which add up to the usually great Harrison novel.  Read Pete Dexter's funny review of it at this link.  But I liked it much more than he did.

You might seek out Rohan Wilson's The Roving Party, which was touted as Blood Meridian-like.  I loved it, though it is not nearly as deep (nor as dark) as McCarthy's masterpiece.  It is similar in surface plot, attitude, punctuation, dialogue, cadence, and vocabulary, though not in philosophy nor symbolism and it is based upon an entirely different history.  I'll review it at length one of these days, when the mood strikes me to read it again.

Most novels being compared to Cormac McCarthy are no such thing, of course.

Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone and other good ones, when asked (in this interview) about the reviews which compare him to Cormac McCarthy, replied:

"Well, I've certainly read and admired Cormac. However, the books that influenced him also influenced some of the rest of us who are always getting hit with that 'sounds like Cormac' thing. I've read Shakespeare and the Bible and Hemingway and Faulkner as well, and so if that means I have echoes that sound like Cormac it doesn't necessarily mean it comes from Cormac. It comes from the original source. I don't think I'm that much like him, to be honest, but it does come up a lot."

There are two other novels I've recently read that are especially worth mentioning.  Both of them would have made my best lists if I'd been lucky enough to read them when they first came out.  The first is Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, which brims with spacey humor and lovely poetic turns of phrase.  The second is Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil, which I passed on last year, probably because it was a trade paperback and I wanted to read it in hardcover.

These two are not to be missed in any format, both of them charming, insightful novels.  Detailed reviews of them are not hard to find, but with these, the less you know ahead of time, the better.

This year's winner in the general Best Book Art category was Felix J. Palma's novel, THE MAP OF TIME, dustjacket, frontispiece, title page, and choice of fonts.

The Best Dustjacket or Cover Art of the Year winner was Patrick Dewitt's comic western, THE SISTERS BROTHERS, which has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.  Runner-up here is Adiga's Last Man In Tower.

Christmas Eve:  My selections of the year's best non-fiction are at this link..

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Martha Grimes' JERUSALEM INN

Today's Friday's Forgotten Book is one I've posted about before, Martha Grimes' Jerusalem Inn, one that I like to revist during the Christmas season.

This is certainly a genre novel, one of her long-running series published more than a quarter of a century ago back in 1984.  I love the way this book opens, the cinematic feel of it, the images which invite interpretation:

"A meeting in a graveyard.  That was how it would always come back to him, and without any sense of irony at all - that a meeting in a graveyard did not foreshadow the permanence he was after.  Snow mounding the sundial.  Sparrows quarreling in the hedges.  The black cat sitting enthroned in the dry birdbath.  Slivers of memories.  A broken mirror.  Bad luck, Jury.'

"It was on a windy December day, with only five of them left until Christmas, that Jury saw the sparrows quarreling in a nearby hedge as he stood looking through the gates of Washington Old Hall.  The sparrows--one attempting to escape, the other in hot pursuit--flew from hedge to tree to hedge.  The pecking of one had bloodied the breast of the other.  He was used to scenes of carnage; still he was shocked.  But didn't it go on everywhere?  He tracked their flight from tree to hedge and finally to the ground at his feet.  He moved to break up the fight, but they were off again, off and away.

"The place was closed, so he trudges about the old village of Washington in the snow now turning to rain.  After three o'clock, so the pubs were closed, worse luck.  Up one village lane, he found himself outside the Catholic church. Feeling sorry for yourself, Jury?  No kith, no kin, no wife, no . . .  Well, but it is Christmas, his kinder self answered.

"This depressing debate with himself continued, like the fighting sparrows, as he heaved upon the heavy door of the church, walked quietly into the vestibule, only to find he'd interrupted a christening in the nave.  The priest still intoned but the faces of the baby's parents turned toward the intruder and the baby cried.

"His nasty sparrow self cackled.  You nit.  Jury pretended to be in a brown study before the church bulletin board, as if it were important to convey to the people down there that the information posted here was absolutely necessary for his salvation.  Nodding curtly (as if they care, you clod!) at nothing, he turned and left.  Unborn again.

"That sparrow self was with him in the church cemetery, sitting on his shoulder, pecking his ear to a bloody pulp, telling him that no one had forced him to accept his cousin's whining invitation to come to them at Christmas ("But we never see you, Richard. . .").  Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  What a bloody awful place in the winter.  A nice walk among the gravestones, that's what you need, Jury.  And in the snow, too.  Peck, peck, peck, peck.
That was when he saw her."

His meeting with the woman in the graveyard is then beautifully described.  They talk casually for a long while, and she invites him for a drink at her place, which is nearby.  Grimes gives this an entirely natural feel as her characters become genuinely interested in each other, each with the growing prospect of a surprisingly wonderful holiday ahead of them.  The reader is rooting for them to get together, and indeed it looks as if they will.  But then the last sentence of the first chapter is,

"The next time he saw her she was dead."

Well, what did you expect?  This is genre fiction.  It follows a formula.  The perpetual loner, Richard Jury, now has personal reasons for investigating the case, even though he is away on vacation.  We know the theme, but each genre novelist gives us a different variation upon it, and hopefully a creative one.
This book involves death--this is a murder mystery after all--but there is also a pregnant woman at the Inn and symbols of rebirth.  The year dies but a new one is reborn.  Life, death, rebirth, and always the potential for love and the milk of human kindness.  A mystery for the season.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cover Picture of the Month: Jack Sorenson's COWBOY CHRISTMAS EVE

One of the sad things behind the diminishing of the printed novel is the parallel reduction in printed book covers and dustjackets.  Less books, less book art.  But there is yet plenty of great art around.

Artist Jack Sorenson has long made his living by his western art, being widely featured in print and magazine articles over the years.  This month his "Cowboy Christmas Eve" is the featured art on the cover of Western Horseman Magazine.  His prints can be found at many on-line institutions across the web including Elegant Horse Pictures at this link.  His original art can be found at the Joe Wade Fine Art Gallery in Sante Fe.  Here's the link.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Native American Lore: Egerton R. Young's Algonquin Indian Tales

Today is the last day of November, which is Native American Heritage Month.

This last week we watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade which had the annual float presented by the Oneida Nation, though it seemed multi-tribal, featuring New York Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain, of the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk tradition.

Todd Mason, at this link, collected last week's Friday's Forgotten Books which were to feature Canadian authors, and I missed my chance to then blog about one of my favorites, Egerton R. Young's Algonquin Indian Tales.

Young wrote with insight about collected American Indian lore and he also wrote tales about his own experiences in the Canadian north.  Jack London based the dogs in his own marvelous work of fiction, The Call of the Wild, upon those featured in Young's autobiographical work, My Dogs in the Northland.  The sled dogs in the movie, Eight Below, seemed to reflect both works in the names of the dogs (see my review at Amazon, link).

I suspect that Native American traditions get more accurate play in American fiction today than ever before, at least compared to earlier mainstream novels and movies.

Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, James D. Doss, and a few other sharp novelists have crafted mystery series involving American Indian characters in a generally accurate and sympathic fashion.  Not to mention what many literary novelists such as Louise Erdrich and Jim Harrison have done. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cormac McCarthy As Ransom Stoddard; Jonathan Lethem's Postmodernism As Liberty Valance

Among the many delights of Jonathan Lethem's new book, The Ecstasy of Influence, is a comic philosophical essay entitled "Postmodernism As Liberty Valance."

Lethem says, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an allegorical western that I am now going to totally pretzel into an allegory for something else entirely," namely, the relationship between modernism, high modernism, and postmodernism.  And more.

"The chewy center of TMWSLV is a gunfight.  A man (Jimmy Stewart/Stoddard) stands in the main street of a western town and (apparently) kills another man (Lee Marvin/Liberty Valance).  The victim--for this is, technically, murder--represents chaos and anxiety and fear to all who know him, and has been regarded as unkillable."  After his death, the witnesses lavish praise on the killer (Stewart/Stoddard) and put him up for public office.

Not all praise him--his political opponents denounce him for shooting a leading citizen (Marvin/Valance) down in the streets.  Hearing this preys on Stoddard's conscience (despite the obvious self-defense rationale) and he considers withdrawing his candidacy until John Wayne/Tom Doniphon explains to him that he did not actually kill Valance, that he (Wayne/Doniphon) shot him with a rifle from an alley where he was hidden from sight.  Stoddard then gets back into the race and becomes a successful politician.

"The film allegorizes the taming of the western frontier, the coming of modernity to the form of the lawbooks and the locomotive, and memorializes what was lost (a loss the film sees as inevitable)." 

Before giving us his own interpretation of the film, Lethem presents several definitions of postmodernism from several critics, which of course vary since no one seems to agree on exactly what it is.

"...the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U. S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, John Hawkes, and a few others, many of them one another's friends, and many of them influential teachers. . .This clan, when Barth and Pynchon were scooping up major prizes, rode high enough that they seemed worth knocking down.  This is the epoch John Gardner tilted against in On Moral Fiction.'

"True, this tribe once had the effrontery to imagine itself the center of interest in U. S. fiction, but if you still hold that grudge your memory for effrontery is too long.  To go on potshotting at these gentlemen is not so much shooting fish in a barrel as it is shooting novelists who rode a barrel over Niagara Falls twenty or thirty years ago.  Or the equivalent of the Republican Party running its presidential candidates against the memory of George McGovern.  (Of course, both are done routinely.)  We'll call these guys Those Guys. . .' 

"I'd like to suggest that the killing of Liberty Valance in order to preserve safety and order in the literary town is a recurrent ritual, a ritual convulsion of literary-critical convention.  The chastening of Those Guys, and the replacement of their irresponsible use of Free Power with a more modest and morally serious minimalist aesthetic sometime in the late '70s, was a kind of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a point of inception for the ritual.'

"Who first played the role of Stewart/Stoddard, the true-of-heart citizen shoved into the street to take on the menacing intruder?  Was it Raymond Carver?  I think Raymond Carver might have been the original man who shot Liberty Valance.  Who's played the role recently?  A few:  Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy..."

In Lethem's interpretation, John Wayne represents the critic who sets up the author of high modernism to stand against the low-life postmodernist Liberty Valance, order versus chaos.  Lethem's arguments are witty, much more involved, and run several pages--you should grab his new book and read it all.

I'd now like to offer my own take on his take.  Cormac McCarthy is indeed a classical author who represents high modernism well.  I don't see Those Guys as much different from McCarthy, especially since Lethem includes Pynchon as one of them.  I do see the divide between High Art and low art, and I am content to let Charlie Sheen, late of 2 1/2 Men, represent low art, chaos, superficial id-dominated ego.

In my interpretation, looking only at this trinity in the story and not the other parts, John Wayne/Doniphon would represent, not just literary critics, but the entire population of readers who have learned to appreciate High Art, the domain of human universals, of empathy, compassion, of true love rather than self-aggrandizing possession.

To go back and use the body, mind, and spirit analogy in the original story, Lee Marvin/Liberty Valance is the id-dominated body, Jimmy Stewart/Ransom Stoddard is the mind-dominated one, and John Wayne/Doniphon is the super-ego dominated spirit guide in this trinity.

Or, if you prefer, Liberty Valance is a laissez-faire Republican; Stoddard's a bleeding-heart liberal Democrat; Doniphon's an independent existentialist/libertarian and the more evolved man.

I previously discussed Dorothy Johnson's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" at this link.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR by Judith Rossner

Charlie Rose interviewed Diane Keaton this past week, as Keaton is promoting her new memoir, Then Again, which I also read earlier this month.  Keaton starred in the 1977 movie version of today's Forgotten Book:  Judith Rossner's novel, Looking For Mr. Goodbar.

The book, a noir crime novel, became a best seller in its day but never achieved the critical respect I think it deserves.  The movie also had a great soundtrack, as dead as disco these days.  The movie is now out of print in VHS and not yet released on DVD or Blu-ray.

The book reveals the killer first thing, making the flashback plot about how we got from point A to point Z.  The movie keeps you in suspense until the very end.  Until then, the movie audience believes that any of the men in the story might be capable of killing her on any given night.

Judith Rossner based the novel on the real New York murder of a school teacher by a man she met at a single's bar.  Her protagonist is crippled when young, scarred by her experience.  As a result of the disease, her spine is crooked, though when her naked body is seen from the front, her twisted nature does not show.  Symbolic.

Keaton plays her beautifully, perhaps even naturally.  She's a material girl.  Movie-goers at the time might have said a liberated woman, but the picture below/right is telling.  She is addicted to material things, to smoke and to drink and to the pleasures of promiscuous sex.  Hedonistic, you might say; I say, a materialist at odds with the spiritual and humanist side of her nature.  She tries to fill her emptiness with material things, but it is a bottomless void, a hungry ghost.

She is constantly after more, in pursuit of some greater thrill that will fill the emptiness inside her briefly, until the addiction cries out for more again.  Or until she finally destroys herself, which of course she does.

Keaton hardly mentions Looking For Mr. Goodbar in her new memoir.  Of course she won the Academy Award that year for her performance in another movie, Annie Hall.  How much of Diane Keaton was in the characters she played in her movies?  Charlie Rose asked her that, but I don't think that Keaton knows herself well enough to say.

She sometimes teeters on the edge between then and again, but always falls off on the ambitious materialist side, quoting Cher on the importance of young good looks; and choosing men--Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino--because, she says, "Talent is so damn attractive."  Yet she allows that she has misgivings and would do some things differently could she do them again.

If so, I'd like to think that she would choose love over anything--over talent, over good looks, over money, over career advancement.  But there's the rub.  She says that she "never found a home in the arms of a man" because she chooses her career over love and everything else, time and time again.  And, at age 65, she claims that it is too late to find love.

Little does she know.

Anyway, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the 1975 novel, is still a splendid piece of noir.  And if you haven't yet seen the movie, do yourself a favor and find it somewhere.