Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wednesday's Western: I, TOM HORN by Will Henry

There is an iconic scene in the 1969 movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Paul Newman and Robert Redford keep looking back over their shoulders at the posse they can't seem to shake.  They ask each other, "Who are those guys?"

The historical answer is, they were the enforcers hired by the rich and led by the man most renown for "reading sign," the scout Tom Horn.

In January, 1975, Will Henry's novelization of Tom Horn's life appeared in bookstores.  It followed the historical record but did so creatively, aiming for truth rather than fact, in the form of a long lost autobiography which Tom Horn wrote in jail.

It is not a conventional western, as the lines between right and wrong are blurred with moral and legal ambiguities.  What favors the rich wins out, as it usually does--in life if not in conventional westerns. 

On the flap of the first edition dustjacket (scanned below), Will Henry is called "the dean" of western novelists, having already won five Spur Awards, and it proclaims this as his most important novel.

 Listen to the riff of a few opening paragraphs:

"If Jesus himself had of come down and swore for me, they'd have got it struck from the record and bought him a free ticket out of town on the next train.'

"But that's all washed down the river now.  It can't be roped and towed back upstream again.  Yet a man has to try.  He has to set it right if he can.  He has to say how the times were that ended him in the Cheyenne jail.  What the laws were and what they wasn't.  How justice failed.  The way witnesses lied under vow.  How judges turned stone deaf and juries went blind.  And oh how different the rules read when twisted to convict the innocent.  It has to be remembered, always, what happened to the law out there."

"Out there, a man took the law to be as good as his own word.  Which he gave straight-out, with no tangles in the mane or tail of it.  He neither whined nor tucked his rump when lies and libels rode him down.  Nor did he burn over his brands once he put them into the hide of his testimony.  Whatever he done, or said he done, he stood by it.'

"But sometimes a man wouldn't get his entire herd to the railhead the first drive.  Sometimes there was trail going on  past where he believed he had all his cattle safe-loaded on the stock cars.  He didn't see it at the time.  It's afterwards that it comes to him.  Like when the drive crew's been paid off and the dust of their ponies has settled into the prairie twilight south toward Texas.  That's when a man would look the other way, north, to Wyoming, and his eyes would slit down and he would say to himself, and loud soft, "Damn."

"For what he saw up there, God help him, was the rest of his life's track, and it made him shiver hard in the gloom.  He knew that he must tell the truth about that last dark part of the trail...the part John C. Coble had not wanted into the book."

"Well, maybe that story would work for Mr. Coble, but it sounded wrong somewhere.  It had an off ring to it.  Like a horseshoe on a fouled anvil.  Coble's story would run only up to the edge of the real hell that Tom Horn rode into in Wyoming.  It would rear up short and shy off, where the dark part began."

The Steve McQueen movie adaptation was overly long and should have been edited better, yet it certainly had its good scenes and it presented the historical tragedy well.  It is a worthy parable turning on the evil done in the name of goodness.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday's Book Art: A Walk On The Wild Side and Tropic of Cancer


The poster announces the upcoming reading by authors Peter Joseph and Rick Wallach.  They are reading Ginzberg's "Howl" too, but they might be reading a number of things.  An event not without humor, I suspect.

Rick Wallach, author and editor of a large number of books and articles, is a longtime leading Cormac McCarthy scholar and formerly an associate of the famous mythologists Joseph Campbell and Marcia Eliade.

Henry Miller wrote of the working man, as did Nelson Algren.  Not many authors do that these days.  I believe in the ideas set forth in Dan Bern's song, "Marilyn Monroe Should Have Married Henry Miller."

Making the rounds on the internet this Bloomsday was Eve Arnold's 1954 picture of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce's Ulysses:

This week, when discussing the use of the cat as a symbol of the mankind's animal nature, I recalled the opening of the film version of Nelson Algren's A Walk On The Wild Side.  You can see it on youtube at this link.  

You can also find the ending segment there, which has Brook Benton singing the jazz lyrics to the Elmer Bernstein's majestic theme.  One night of praying, six nights of fun.  The odds against going to heaven, six to one.

That doesn't sound like Algren's novel, but it does sound like the movie, which is something else again.  The book differs and is much better, but even the novel was altered from Algren's original vision before publication.  One deleted segment was later published as a short story in the Nelson Algren edited anthology, Nelson Algren's Lonesome Monsters.    

I like the book cover with the two brick walls, the human figure clausterphobic and perhaps fearful, facing his own monster shadow in the alley.  The first hardcover edition of Lonesome Monsters had a vortex or spiral as in the logo for the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo.

The cat sequence is the most memorable thing about the movie of A Walk on the Wild Side.  Barbara Stynwyck and Anne Baxter seem to suffer through their roles.  A fresh-faced Jane Fonda makes her appearence as the new girl at the brothel.  When asked what she is doing there, she replies, "I run the candy concession."

Here are some more cat images for A Walk on the Wild Side, including the foreign film poster on which the movie was retitled, The Black Cat.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE GHOST OCEAN by Richard Benke

The first edition dustjacket is beautiful, the telephone poles, front and back, being symbols of man's intrusion into the natural world.  There is a fine foreword by one of my favorite western novelists, Max Evans, whose works I plan to discuss some Wednesday soon.

This is a murder mystery first, but as in a lot of the books I recommend, it it not a simple case of whodunit rather but a novel of ideas.  The murdered girl is discovered in the opening chapter.  The suspects include bandits, smugglers of drugs or of illegal immigrants, ranchers, miners, loggers, or either side of the ecological war--including liberal ecologists who want to reintroduce the wolf to the country and desparate ranchers trying to preserve their way of life.

Bureaucrats have their own political interests to protect, and all the suspects here have a thoughtful mix of motives and complicity making the reader reconsider the greater morality and necessary practicality in the issues at hand.

I read the book right after it came out back in 2004 and recommended it at some other booksites across the web.  Just now, I looked it up at Amazon and see only one review of it there, a one-star flame by a wildly disgruntled reader.  Good grief, I'll have to add my review there, for this is certainly an excellent if already forgotten novel.

The murder mystery drives the plot and the ideas are discussed on the surface, but the novel also works as a parable.  The protagonist, Will Mann, is like Keith Heller's George Man that I discussed last month (link), an everyman just trying to do the right thing.

Things get complicated in the The Ghost Ocean, probably why that lone reviewer at Amazon didn't like the book.  When rereading it this week, it made me think at times of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing and Rick Bass's The New Wolves and The Ninemile Wolves.  But it also made me think of  David Baron's The Beast In The Garden.

Then there is my own experience with wild things.  I'm liberal and an animal lover, and when they talked about increasing the deer population here in Kentucky, I thought it might not be a bad idea.  So they did, unfortunately by importing deer from the west, and this has had unintended consequences.  Now there are deer all over the place, a hazard to farmers and drivers and, although you might not think so, to the human population at large.

So hazardous have the deer become to traffic, the Kentucky bureaucrats decided to do something about it.  They started importing coyotes from the western states.  Although coyotes won't take down an adult deer, they explained, they will go after the young and newly born, thus helping to curb the deer population.

It wasn't long until the city fella who farms on weekends across from our place knocked on our door.  Said something must be done about our dogs, they were killing his calves.  I had to inform him of the coyote problem.  I told him he need only come around at night to hear them yip and see them run across his fields.

But the coyotes were not the worst problem.  The deer and coyotes brought something else, a danger to us all.

When I was growing up, most of the ticks we saw were what we called dog ticks.  We easily de-ticked our dogs and only rarely found one on one of us.  With the increase in deer population, suddenly deer ticks were all over the farm.  Deer ticks are small, sometimes pinhead size, nasty little devils that are not so easy to find on your dog or on yourself.

The not-so-easy-to-diagnose diseases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease have now struck some of our neighbors, and thus the small ticks have become an everyday threat.  Just this month,  we see where our local hospital is being sued for not diagnosing a case of the tick-transmitted disease in time to prevent someone from extreme suffering.

As I said, The Ghost Ocean is a splendid murder mystery.  Life and literature go hand-in-hand, and life gets complicated.  We ought not live in denial of the complications.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wednesday's Western: HELL IS EMPTY by Craig Johnson

Wow!  HELL IS EMPTY is a tour-de-force, a cross-genre literary parable, something to shout about, and I'm shouting as loudly as I can.  This is seventh in Craig Johnson's series of mystery/westerns, and while the others are very good cross-genre yarns, this one is something else again.

In this blog, I often discuss the use of the trinity in literature, that universal so eloquently described by Emerson--including  (here)(here), and (here). 

 As in Walter Van Tilburg's  The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series), the trinity is often stylized with a spiritual man, an animal man, and a middle man, torn between the extremes of his spiritual/animal nature.  All three are one, the human condition.

Some literary works place a duality on top of the trinity, splitting them, Zeus-like, into two trinities, one light and one dark.  The three in the light are the better angels of our nature, while the three in the shadow self are the furies.

The furies appeared in Virgil’s work, as well as in Dante’s INFERNO, and they were a trinity composed of Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera (blood vengeance, righteous anger, and jealousy). The furies represent the shadow self, the repressed animal nature of man.  Sopholcles used the furies in the Oedipus plays.

At one of the links above, I pointed out how Joseph Conrad used the furies in Victory, and about how Austin Wright used the furies in Tony And Susan, and about how Cormac McCarthy used the furies in Outer Dark.  All of these furies are also trinities--dark animal man, dark middle man, dark spiritual man; you might see them as a stylized shadow side of id, ego, and superego.  All also used the cat as a symbol of our dark or animal nature.

Along comes Craig Johnson's Hell Is Empty.  I was expecting a high quality genre novel.  It's that, but like the three novels mentioned above, it is also a literary parable about the nature of man.

We are introduced to the furies in the first chapter, a dark threesome headed by the dark spiritual man, a pathological animal man.  When you look into the darkness, the darkness looks back, and the protagonist recognizes some of his own nature in this animal man whose name is aptly, Raynaud Shade:

"I'd been distracted by my thoughts for only a second, but when I paid attention again his pale eyes were studying me from under the dark hair.  He had this unnerving ability that whenever you refocused your eyes on him, he was there with you--like a cat in a cage."

The book is highly ambitious and although I might wish that it was a bit more subtle in its references to Dante's Inferno, I cannot fault it at all.  It is a towering achievement.  Bravo!  A genre western/thriller on the surface with literary nuances galore.  How rare is that!

I've long been a supporter of Craig Johnson's writing, and now even more so.  You don't need to have read Dante or Austin Wright or Joseph Conrad or Cormac McCarthy.  If you haven't read Craig Johnson yet, do yourself a favor and send for Hell Is Empty while it is still available in first edition.  You won't be sorry.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday's Long Quote For The Last Day Of Spring

Spring leaves today, summer begins tomorrow.  We go from morning freshness to the heat of the day.

Here's a good June quote, the opening of Ivan Doig's novel, English Creek:

That month of June swam into the Two Medicine country. In my life until then I had never seen the sidehills come so green, the coulees stay so spongy with runoff. A right amount of wet evidently could sweeten the universe. Already my father on his first high patrols had encountered cow elk drifting up and across the Continental Divide to their calving grounds on the west side. They, and the grass and the wild hay meadows and the benchland alfalfa, all were a good three weeks ahead of season. Which of course accounted for the fresh mood everywhere across the Two. As is always said, spring rain in range country is as if halves of ten-dollar bills are being handed around, with the other halves promised at shipping time.

And so in the English Creek sheepmen, what few cowmen were left along Noon Creek and elsewhere, the out-east farmers, the storekeepers of Gros Ventre, our Forest Service people, in just everyone that start of June, hope was up and would stay strong as long as the grass did.

Talk could even be heard that Montana maybe at last had seen the bottom of the Depression.  After all, the practitioners of this bottomed-out notion went around pointing out, last year was a bit more prosperous, or anyway a bit less desparate, than the year before.  A nice near point of measurement which managed to overlook that for the several years before last the situation of people on the land out here had been godawful.

I suppose I ought not to dwell on dollar matters when actually our family was scraping along better than a good many. . .It gravels me every time I read a version of those times that makes it sound as if the Depression set in on the day Wall Street tripped over itself in 1929.  Talk about nearsighted.  By 1929 Montana had already been on rough sledding for ten years.  The winter of 1919--men my father's age and older still just called it "that sonofabitch of a winter"--was the one that delivered hard times.  Wholesale.

. . .Trouble never travels alone, so about that same time livestock and crop prices nosedived due to the end of the war in Europe.  And right along with that drought and grasshoppers showed up to take over dry-land farming.  Anyplace you looked you saw people who had put in twenty years in this country and all they had to show for it was a pile of old calendars.

Then when drought circled back again in the thirties and joined forces with Herbert Hoover, bad progressed to worse. . .Cattle rancher after cattle rancher and farmer after farmer got in deep with the banks. . .And then foreclosure and the auctioneer's hammer.  At those hammered sales we saw men weep, women stricken as if they were looking on death, the children bewildered.

So it was time hope showed up. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Best Book Diary: Jon Ronson's THE PSYCHOPATH TEST

Jon Ronson's thought-provoking The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry is certainly one of the best new books of the year.  Though not the first to make these revelations, the book is one of the best on the subject, journalism structured in such a way to create a tension in the narrative, to make the outcome seem in doubt.

Then at the end, Ronson makes readers question what they have read--so that they can come to their own conclusions.  Can psychopaths be cured and taught to feel empathy?  Probably not in this lifetime.  Are those damn ruthless CEOs psychopaths?  Those who lay people off gleefully while they ruin their companies, their employees, and their stockholders?  Probably so.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: AS HOT AS IT WAS YOU OUGHT TO THANK ME by Nanci Kincaid

This is a little known gem of a novel, a southern gothic noir, a coming-of-age novel, a fable of the blossoming of Edenic desire, and a period piece of the 1950s.

The protagonist tells it in the first person, looking back, and the writing is insightful and charming.

The main mystery and the central noir tension in the book is the disappearance of her father.  He disappears under mysterious circumstances during a storm, a hurricane which spawns a tornado which spawns a flood and ravages the lives of the people in this small southern community.

 After the water has receded, her mother wants to search for the missing man, but the neighbors say that the road is washed out.

"The neighbor men were down off our roof now and circled around Mother.  I think they recognized she was a woman with her mind made up.  The kind of woman that can scare men--especially when the men are in a pack and in full agreement on the right thing to do.  One man can argue better than a group of them.  A group of men goes silent when a woman insists on something."
"They looked at her like she was crazy. But there was no use in trying to change her mind. The next think we knew, Mr. Burdett was in the truck with Mother and Sowell beside him, trying to start the engine, but it wouldn't turn over at all. It didn't even struggle to start. "Battery is wet." He got out of the truck, slamming the door behind him. He walked around to the front of the truck and popped the hood. "Lord God!" He stepped back like a man who'd seen the devil.'

"Sowell got out of the truck too, and Mother did. Wade and Rosemary and I ran over to join them. Rosemary screamed when she saw what the men were staring at. Snakes. It looked like hundreds of them, knotted like a ball of yarn all around the engine.'

"The rain washed them out of the ground," Mr. Ingram said. "They seeking higher ground."

"It was an awful thing to see, like ropes that tie themselves, then forget how they did it and can't undo it.  It looked like a baseball when you peel the skin off of it and underneath are all those strands circling into a big knot.  These were not matching snakes.  They were every variety, rattler, rat, racer, black, garden, coral, corn, cottonmouth, any kind you could think of.  Harmless and harmful joining forces."

"Jimmy had run to his yard and looked under the hood of their sideways car and shouted, "There's snakes under here too."  We went to see, yet, snakes, but not as many.  Like people at a sideshow we went sloshing from automobile to automobile.  Every engine made people scream.  Every engine was strangled with snakes."

We know that this is an older, wiser consciousness looking back because there are such paragraphs as this:

"This made Mother laugh. She laughed like you get a lawn mower started, just a couple of sputters at first, but then one of those sputters catches, fires up, and soon the motor is roaring. That was how mother got started laughing -- Jewel Langmont too. It was like they went crazy laughing, couldn't hardly breathe, gasping for air like a couple of fish, slapping their hands on the table top... It would be years before I understood the way laughing substituted for crying when women were being watched."

Books fail to reach their potential readership for a number of reasons.  Sometimes the first printings are simply too small to reach a tipping point of influential readers.  Sometimes the book is marketed to the wrong set of readers.

The decision was made to market As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me to a YA audience--at least that is the section of the bookstore where the first edition was shelved.  And they published it as a trade paperback rather than as a first edition hardcover, which usually means that they don't take the book too seriously.

But the publishers did some good things to promote the book as well.  Previous to its publication, the novel was well reviewed and well blurbed.  At the rear of the book, the publishers placed a useful Reader's Guide and some essays by the author including a splendidly annotated list of the author's own reading.  She also told how much of this book is autobiographical.

I'm not sure who chose the cover picture and the title, a line from the book, but surely there were hundreds of more fitting pictures available and there are certainly many lines in the novel which would fit better and probably sell better as well.  Sometimes it is the little things that keep a novel from reaching its tipping point.

This is not a YA novel, but an adult fable, the snakes being symbolic of the rise of desire, the quicksand Fall, and the awareness of adult denial and rationalization.  The epigraph is from Nietzsche: "The lie is a condition of life."  The protagonist herself muses, ""Maybe all the truth really was, was everybody agreeing on something, like saying it enough made it so."

The atmosphere is noir and understated.  The absence of the Father (with a capital F) is the yearning ache that carries the novel.  At the end, the protagonist tells us, "Sometimes the missing part is the glue that holds everything else together."

Even that would have made a more fitting title.

To see today's other entries in the Forgotten Book Friday series, go to Todd Mason's website, at this link.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ulysses: James Joyce, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha

Well, it is that day.  Again.  Bloomsday, the James Joyce equivalent of Groundhog Day.

I used to despise the chore of having to read a James Joyce novel.  Not only that, I despised people who went around pontificating about the greatness of his works.  I read them as-at-gunpoint in college.  And years later, as an older man and with the best critical works at hand, I occasionally tackled one of his books again along with a reading group.  Eventually I became somewhat of an expert on the book and the critical literature.  I could see its value as a work of art, but my heart just wasn't in it.

That all changed when I discovered John P. Anderson's FINDING JOY IN JOYCE:  A READERS GUIDE TO ULYSSES (2000).  This non-academic (a recovering lawyer) explained the novel in a way that seemed miraculous to me, in a line-by-line interpretation.  I went on to read his multi-volume study of FINNEGAN'S WAKE, as well as his other critical works.  All of his books are now well-worn treasures on my "most-beloved" shelf.

From Anderson's introduction:

"The principal issue in this novel is creating individual meaning in modern life.  This continues to be the principal issue for human kind as the 21st century opens.  Stephen Dedalus, a character in the novel representative of the young Joyce, has the modern disease of the spirit, narcissism.'

"Joyce's medicine for the diseased spirit is a custom blend of self-realized individuality combined with a detached respect for the human unity.  This blend combines Jesus and Buddha, not as they have been marketed by institutional religions but as they lived their lives as humans.'

In Joyce's blend, the respect for the unity does not limit human possibilities.  Indeed, Joyce's Way to the eternal is for each individual to maximize his or her own human possibilities within recognition of the unity.  Founded on his own personal experience of the human condition, Joyce's existential medicine can provide spiritual health in the 21st century.'

"The sublime joy in Joyce is the art by which the levels of existential meaning are brought forth.  Many consider Joyce's art as seminal for modern literature.  He enlarged the possibilities of prose with revolutionary techniques and methods of coherence.

And his methods carry meaning.  In Joyce's Architecture, the material is cyclical and the part implies the whole.  These patterns bear the imprint of Joyce's views of historical and ultimate reality:  history is cyclical, and the human condition implies the nature of the powers that be.  Joyce's art is, in my opinion, one of the wonders of Western civilization.  My purpose is to make its power and beauty accessible to you.'

"But readers beware:  reading Joyce can fundamentally alter your entire outlook on life.  This is what Joseph Campbell, pre-eminent mythographer and life long Joyce reader said:

"When you are reading Joyce, what you get is radiance.  You become harmonized, and that is what it is about.  It is not teaching you a lesson.  It is feeding you, giving you spiritual balance and spiritual harmony."

When I first read Anderson's introduction, I thought it a great conceit.  I had already read the most acclaimed critical works and some minor ones as well, and I was always skeptical of anyone who saw religious ideas in the work.

But, as it turned out, he was right.  His book awakened in me a different way of seeing, a new mode of interpretation--at least for this reader.  With the help of Anderson's study, I am now able to see the universals that were there in the work all along, symbolic connections to what Emerson called "the Oversoul."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The Monsters Are Due At The O. K. Corral

Over at the site of Cowboys & Indians Magazine, there is a fine article on science-fiction westerns (link).  And the newstand version features the new Harrison Ford movie, Cowboys And Aliens, which we are anxious to see.

Lots of big names are associated with the movie.  Besides Harrison Ford, the movie stars Olivia Wilde, Daniel Craig, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Sam Rockwell, and Adam Beach.  The big-budget movie is being produced by Steven Spielburg and Ron Howard.  Director Jon Favreau is quoted as saying that it is "a traditional western" in spirit.

I suppose you could adapt Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" into a western just by setting it in the west, as long as it had the same play on human fears, prejudices, vanities, and emotions.

We'll see.

Reading now: Craig Johnson's new Walt Longmire mystery/western, Hell Is Empty.  Johnson dedicates it to Joe Drabyak, the legendary bookman who died last year but who lives on as a character in a number of books.  Perhaps in this one.  Johnson's characters are always good company.

Not to be missed: what mystery/western author Tony Hillerman said in a 2008 interview by outstanding western author Johnny D. Boggs, at this link.  Here's a choice quote:

"What made you want to write?
Well, I always enjoyed reading.… I got in the Army, got in a rifle company…well, everybody in my company decided when the war was over we were going to circulate a petition, ask Congress to abolish West Point, tear down all the West Point buildings, salt the ground so it wouldn't spring back up and then get Congress to enact a Constitutional amendment banning people who could not pass a fourth-grade intelligence test from gaining a commission in the United States Army.'

"We had been screwed up by West Point officers. We were at a little town in France, close to the German border. The Germans held the other side of the stream, and we held our side. And the West Pointers decided they wanted us to go to the other side and capture two Germans.… We got ready to go, and they called it off. The next morning, they decided we would go that night. By now, everybody on both sides knew we were going over there. We got up to the front, and one of the guys said: "Surely you're not going over there. The Germans have been working all day—we've been watching them—and getting ready for you guys.'

"Boy, were they ready. We just got the hell kicked out of us. I got blown up in a barnyard. The first guy who carried me back got shot, but the next guy dumped me in the creek. Anyway, I got back. I couldn't see much—the Army still rates this eye as blind—both of my knees were broken, and my left foot had been rebuilt so that I still have to buy shoes two different sizes. But I was sitting in a wheelchair, thinking that the Army doesn't have any use of me anymore, and I knew I didn't want to farm. I started thinking that maybe I'd like to write, and I started writing a short story in my mind. It wasn't very good. In fact, it's pretty bad, but I finally put it on paper, got it published and that encouraged me."

You should click on the link and read the entire interview.  Hillerman is gone, but Boggs and Johnson and some other bright minds continue to turn out amazingly good westerns.  Hollywood should take note.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Julie Smith's THE AXEMAN'S JAZZ

This novel, published two decades ago in 1991, was the second in Smith's Skip Langdon series.  The book draws on the legend of a true New Orleans serial killer whose letters to contemporary newspapers taunted the police and offered the twist that anyone playing jazz music during the night was exempt from being murdered.

I read it long ago and thought it disappointing; I reread it just last night and found it well worth endorsing here.

The protagonist/narrator police investigator describes herself as six feet tall and about twenty pounds overweight.  Her social-climbing mother still says that she is "fat as a pig," a phrase that grates on her daughter in the night.  But she has no difficulty attracting men of any size, it seems.

That first time around, long ago, I found the book unpleasant company, overly chatty with too little narrative tension.  Last night I found it to be witty, nuanced, and insightful.  The book hasn't changed, but I have.  My empathy has grown.

The killer frequents various 12-step programs in the city, and Skip goes in search of him, allowing us to see how Overeaters Anonymous and such other programs work.  The protagonist has an eye for the value of such programs as well as the way manipulative adults use them.  She especially skewers author John Bradshaw's "codependency" programs.

Smith uses both psychology and anti-psychology, she seems anti-stereotype while endorsing such types as "southern belle," something her protagonist rags about again and again.  Such flights of direction make it hard to pinhole the novel one way or the other, and that's a good thing.

This is a very fine book, but it could have been so much better.  Despite the title and the legend behind it, there is nary a reference to jazz, not even at the Axeman parties in New Orleans.  The atmosphere cries out for a jazz theme or reference, but none is provided in here.

You can read about the Axeman, truth and legend, at this link,  and the wikipedia link is here.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wednesday's Western: A Rundown of the Best Western Novels Not Nominated

Two weeks ago, I left my rundown of western novels with the year 1973.  I mentioned Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1971), but neglected to mention both Allan W. Eckert's The Frontiersmen (1972) and Winfred Blevins' Give Your Heart To The Hawks (1973), both of them highly influential on this reader's thinking at the time.

Both were intelligently entertaining historical narratives in the manner of Dee Brown's work, highly researched but not exactly histories, despite their careful notations and bibliographies of sources.  Both of them might better fit under the subgenre of 'frontier and mountain man novels,' more akin to the early western narratives than the formula novels that were later churned out by mass market publishers.  Also, they are both spiritually linked to the school of thought called naturalism--or as Walter Van Tilburg Clark had it, as "sacred naturalism."

Eckert, then writing scripts for television's Wild Kingdom, had been a part of the Florida group of writers that met weekly for lunch in Sarasota on Siesta Key in the 1950s.  The group contained legendary mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, Charles Willeford, MacKinley Kantor (who won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Andersonville), and other good ones.  Eckert told me that he and Peter Matthiessen were then the junior members of the group.  

Both Allan Eckert and Win Blevins continue to write narratives of the frontier.  Eckert, many times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize himself, most recently wrote Dark Journey (2009), a narrative of the Donner Expedition.

Win Blevins, now several times a Spur Award winner, continues to write mountain man sagas.  Earlier this year I caught up with his impressive 1998 western novel, The Rock Child, which will be the subject of this blog sometime before winter.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Transcendental Tuesday: THE BROTHERS K by David James Duncan

Not exactly a little known gem, this novel certainly has a devoted following.  But, in my opinion, the book is a true American masterpiece and deserves a much wider audience.  It first appeared in 1992, its handsome dustjacket (scanned above) featuring four baseballs, the one with the bird atop also included on the wide spine between author and title.  It is a hefty book of 645 pages.

THE BROTHERS K is a comic family saga which uses THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV for some of its comparative metaphors.  Like Dostoevsky's classic, it also deals with history and religion and family relationships, but in the droll American hyperbole best examplified previously by Mark Twain.  It is ultimately a uplifting spiritually humanist book.

All of that, but at the same time, THE BROTHERS K is one of my favorite baseball novels.  When the narrator is a child, he watches the ballgames on television with his father.  The hilarious Dizzy Dean/Pee Wee Reese play-by-play is both historical and enhanced by the author's imagination.  The author uses the last words of Henry David Thoreau as a chapter epigraph and then constucts a fitting baseball parable worthy of Mark Twain himself.

The book is subdivided into six book sections, each with three chapters or more.  Many of the chapters could stand alone as short stories, but the entire work interconnects.  For a text of this size, it is astonishingly easy to read.

I recommend all of the author's other books as well.  You can read several interviews with him across the web, including this one (link) in which he goes into his ideas on spirituality.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June is a love song, sweetly sung.

June is in what the Algonquins once thought of as the full strawberry moon, while in Europe it was the rose moon.  In astrology, it is the Gemini, the twins, two bodies because the first one lies in spring while the second one lies in summer.

Carousel (1956 Film Soundtrack)June is a love song, sweetly sung, as the Carousel song has it.  You can see it in the trees, you can smell it in the breeze.  Even old timers can recall the Junes of their youth, that feeling of being freed from the tedium of school to embark on summer jobs, summer adventures, and summer romances.

It is a time for clarity, this early summer feeling before the sultry, sticky, dusty dog days come around.  Now is the time for beach music and surfing safaris, girls in their summer dresses wearing bikinis underneath.  If you're old enough, it is still Debbie Reynolds singing "Tammy's In Love,"  Bing Crosby singing "Blue Skies."  Never saw the sun shining so bright.  Never saw things going so right.

Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal JourneyThe tarot card associated with the month is the sun card with the twins on it, according to some schools of thought.  Sallie Nichols, in Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, gives it a fittingly June-like Jungian interpretation.  Some say the twins represent Adam and Eve in an Eden where it is always June.

June conjures up the sweet smells of new-mown timothy hay and alfalfa, at least to former farm lads.  There are strawberries galore.  Our entire garden looks beautiful and still perfect (later the deer and raccoons will raid it as they do every year, when it starts to look good to them).  But this is always a time of honeymoon optimism.

If more marriages take place in June, it follows that more honeymoons take place at this time.  You might say that June itself is the marriage between spring and summer, a sweet honeymoon lasting no longer than thirty days.

A time for picnics and cookouts, and walks in the sweet evening air.  We itch to get out of the house, and so it is the worst time for sitting still, the worst time for reading and posting thoughts on the internet.

Nonetheless, I've read a great many more wonderful books than I've had time to write about in the first five months of the year.  I intend to finally sit down at night and review them here, this month.  My stack of books to be reviewed may just be high enough to block out the moon.