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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Best Thanksgiving Story - Thanks to Richard Russo and Stephen King

This is a Thanksgiving story you no doubt missed, but one that you'll be delighted to read.

It comes to you by way of The Best American Short Stories of the Year 2007, selected by Stephen King.  The story itself is entitled "Horseman," and was written by Richard Russo.  It begins with part of a nursery rhyme from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the moon is high,
All night long through the dark and wet
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

The poem easily adapts into a song, and Shawn Colvin has recorded a version of it with just those words.  The poem becomes an earworm for the protagonist, a graduate student, after her husband begins reading it to their child every night.  We aren't told her interpretation of the poem, but in the first paragraph we're told that this earworm runs through her mind even when she is jogging in the woods behind her New England college, making her as melancholy as if she were "jogging not through the woods but through an endless cemetery."

End of paragraph one.

It is two days before Thanksgiving, with the bare November tree branches swaying all over campus, the nearest branch "scratching insistently, like a memory" against the protagonist's office window.

The protagonist is confronting one of her male comp students whom she has caught in flagrant plagiarism.  She shows him the evidence, and he responds like a belligerent jerk.  It is a beautifully written scene.  We see her mixed feelings, but we also see her restraint, despite the macho arrogance of the student.

"A moment before she had been feeling both anger and self-righteousness.  These were easy, unambiguous emotions to which, in the present circumstance, she felt entitled.'

"She was angry, and rightly so, that students cheated more often in her classes than in those of her male colleagues, just as they were more often tardy, more openly questioning of her authority, and more often gave her a mediocre evaluation at the end of each term.  Even worse, the fact that they held her to a higher standard was unwitting.  Had anyone asked them if they were prejudiced against their female professors, not one would have answered yes.  Hooked up to a lie detector, every one of them would pass."

The story then goes into italicized flashback, with the protagonist being confronted by her professor.  A parallel situation in a way yet nothing of the sort, as the professor is only criticising her for being too withdrawn, too formal in her writing, for not putting enough of herself, of her own passion, into her work.  Although this only makes her angry at the time, eventually she comes to see the truth of it, that she has distanced herself--not only from work but from other people as well.

We see her transform through her reading, as well as through her contacts with other professors and students, all of them flawed in their own ways.  She decides to avoid condemning the plagiarist and instead she gives him another opportunity to write his own essay, a chance to redeem himself.  We don't see how it turns out.  Perhaps the student is just going through an adolescent phase and will learn better, or perhaps he is a psychopath who cannot be reformed.  No matter.  The teacher tries to do her job; she tries to teach him rather than punish him.

She reconsiders empathy; she reconsiders forgiveness; she reconsiders gratitude.  She even invites a lonely obnoxious old professor to have Thanksgiving at her house with her family.

The story has a hopeful ending.  It is a parable, but unlike so many parables that we see on television during the holiday season, this one seems less sentimental and more real, truer to life itself.  You should read it yourself; my synopsis of it here does not do it complete justice.

There is a flashback in her memories to a beautiful scene at a bar where the professors take turns nominating the greatest lyric poem ever written.  When it is her professor's turn, he recites Stevenson's "Windy Nights," the poem above.  When asked for an explanation, he replies, "Because when I speak those words aloud, my father is alive again."

This professor also recognizes that literature gives us the chance to see what life is like for someone else.  What it feels like.  Literature.  Life.

An appendix to the volume gives each author a chance to comment on the writing of his selected story, and Richard Russo's comments must be read.  He says that the protagonist is loosely based upon a fellow academic, a woman who was smart and attractive, but also "guarded in the extreme, the way academics can be."

"In the language of Star Trek, she'd diverted all power to her shields, which was probably why I was so startled one night when I saw her with her defenses down. . ."

"It came to me--slowly, the way these things do--that she was like many academics I'd observed over the years.  You'd think that the life of the mind, especially the liberal arts, would make us better if not happier people.  But too often it doesn't.  The study of literature had what I believed to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder.'

"Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but as I've gotten older I've come to wonder if this is what reading all those great books is really for--to engender and promote charity.  Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end if not compassion?"

Indeed.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Let Us Be Thankful for Stephen King Today 11/22/2011

Search Google to find some lists of the best Thanksgiving movies.  The darkly humorous comedy, The House of Yes, appears on many of those lists, though it has little to do with Thanksgiving.  It does have to do with an obsession with a Thanksgiving time, in particular the Thanksgiving of 1963 when the country reeled with JFK's assassination and its immediate aftermath.

Where is the past?  Long gone, or at least stuck at that particular grid of space/time while all those reading this have moved on.  In Stephen King's new one, 11/22/63, he uses time travel and the assassination as devices in an epic novel about the nature and relative importance of history, destiny, casualty, memory, moral responsibility, and love.

It also incorporates some of the author's personal history, in an artsy way, and I'd have to say that it is my favorite Stephen King, though I'm always prejudiced toward the last Stephen King I have read for that honor.  I tend to overread them, but that's my perogative as a reader.  It scarcely matters what King consciously had in mind.

We share some of the same memories, King and I, and many of his songs are my songs.  King's protagonist delivers his own soundtrack in this novel which travels back to 1958 and then waits for an opportunity to change history for the better.  Or  can it be changed?  And if it is changed, will it be better?

You should read this one even if you've read many of the other novels that involve similar time leaps--Stanley Shapiro's A Time to Remember, say, or Barry Malzberg's The Destruction of the Temple.  Some of the other related works are at this link. 

After finishing the book, I came on line to read the reviews and the interviews with King, talking about this novel.  I'd advise you to do the same, and sooner rather than later.  We should all be thankful for each moment, especially for each moment we have to share with loved ones.

Life turns on a dime.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thanksgiving for Two

Thanksgiving is a time for families, and most Thanksgiving movies are of families reuniting around the holiday feast.  There are exceptions, like the memorable Thanksgiving I mentioned earlier this month in the original movie of Sweet November.

But I suspect that there are many couples celebrating Thanksgiving together, just two adults separated from the rest of their families by military service or work situations.

My heart goes out to any couples separated by such situations, but they'll find that the love in their hearts will endure.

Friday's Forgotten Book: Stephen Greenleaf's BLOOD TYPE

"Among other things, I'm a drinking man.  Not an alcoholic, mind you--I don't imbibe until I pass out, or go on weekend benders, or wake with the shakes and shivers, or lose blocks of time in which I've done things I'm ashamed of when apprised of them--but I do take a drink most nights of the week.'

"I like the places my mind visits when it's been primed with a half-dozen ounces of scotch and I like the person I become when my congenital tethers are loosened up a bit--I'm friendlier and funnier in such a state, less prone to the charms of gloom and doom.  That I've been able to stay a drinking man rather than descending into a drunk is due less to my character than to my genes, the experts tell me..."

"In my experience, drunks are arrogant, assertive, and antagonistic; drunks are loud, lewd, and lecherous; drunks are dumb, dull, and demoralizing.  Drunks demand excessive sympathy and dole out excessive blame.  Drunks love the bottle more than they love themselves, and themselves more than they love anything else but the bottle.  If my only alternatives were to spend my time surrounded by drunks or give up drinking altogether, my choice would be the latter.  Luckily, there is a third option, which is to find a drinking man's bar..."

A description of the bar follows, and a description of the drinking crowd that gathers there.  One night Tanner's closest friend among them begins to relate his troubles with his wife, a torch singer at one of San Francisco's high-priced nightclubs.  She is apparently having an affair with Richard Sands, a married, rich, corporate raider who has become enchanted with her singing.  Tanner's friend turns up dead,  and Tanner is drawn into an investigation of his death.

That's basically Stephen Greenleaf's opening, but he does it beautifully, with charming off-hand empathy.  We either identify with Tanner or have empathy with him in his description of the siren call of the bottle.  He drinks almost every night, but he honestly doesn't see his drinking as a problem or even as an addiction.  He recognizes his problems, all right--for instance, he hasn't been able to deeply love a woman, nor to live by a commitment, in thirty years of drinking.  But he doesn't see any connection between his restless sense of emptiness and his drinking.

This is a very subtle sleight of hand, which makes the novel worth reading again and again, closely.  Greenleaf is more aware than his protagonist, much aware of the "siren songs" of addiction.  Like Greenleaf himself was then, the protagonist is an ex-lawyer, filled with disgust for lawyers.  At the time of this novel, the first Gulf war is going on, and Tanner watches it on television and comments about it as the case unfolds.

Tanner bats from the left side and tells it like he sees it:  "Switched from CNN to ABC.  Learned the Supreme Court had just decided to allow coerced confessions to be used against criminal defendants.  Fixed another drink.  Thought about the demise of the once proud court. . .In this brave new world, the Constitution is less a bill of rights than a bill of lading..."

This is a detective yarn with Ross MacDonald-like twists, a conspiracy novel written in an endearingly intelligent voice that remains fresh every time I read it.  It is satisfying on all levels and understatedly psychological.  It comments on the politics of our time with asides of social criticism appearing here and there like comic relief.  Its deepest themes are played with empathy and humanism, for those with ears to hear them.

I blogged about Stephen Greenleaf earlier in the year.  This marvelous novel is out-of-print, but used copies were available at Amazon last time I checked.

Greenleaf changed publishers several times but could not find a formula for commercial success, in spite of his high critical reception.  Dustin Hoffman once bought the rights to The Ditto List, a stand-alone novel, but the movie did not get made and Hollywood never came calling about his smart Tanner detective series.  Greenleaf reluctantly quit fiction and went back to being a lawyer.

You can read an interview with him at this link.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fall Hunt, Hunter's Moon, Seeking Enlightenment,

Closing in on the last quarter of the Hunter's Moon. 

The middle of November is a time for hunting stories, dog stories, nature stories.  The hunting or tracking yarns often are simply quest or self-discovery stories told with universal symbols and featuring a meditation or reassessment of our true divided nature.  First we hunt for sustenance, then we hunt for enlightenment.

We sense the fall naturally.  The days get short.  There is an invigorating zip in the air.  The middle of November can be a time for Indian summer, it can be either unseasonably warm or unseasonably cold, and often it brings the first tracking snow, at least here in these Kentucky woods.

Much of my annual November reading returns to my consciousness unbidden much like yearly holiday carols, earworms for the season.  Jack London passages committed to memory long ago.  Robert Frost:  Whose woods these are I think I know.  His house is in the village though; he will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow.

Last year at this time, in the weeks before starting this blog, I went on a tour of nature-related reading, with a few of the many books that use the cat as a symbol of our animal nature.  Such works as:

Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Track of the Cat and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard:

Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature by Gary Thorp. The author goes on a quest to see a cougar in the wild. He seems to be more of a formal Buddhist than either Jim Harrison or Gary Snyder.  A smaller book and a lighter read than the others here.

The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs.  The strikingly beautiful picture of a cougar in the snow graces the dustjacket.  Childs is a great story-teller.

 The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator's Deadly Return to Suburban America by David Baron.  On the first edition, it carries the same dustjacket picture as The Animal Dialogues but stylized and darker.

Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion, edited by Susan Ewing and Elizabeth Grossman. A treasure-chest of essays on the elusive cat (lion/panther/puma) quest, including Pam Houston's "Looking For Abbey's Lion."

Water Witches by Chris Bohjalian. A fine ghostly catamount quest novel (among other things) that I read in first edition long ago.  The epigraph is from Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." About the frozen leopard found high in the mythical house of God. "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

I greatly prefer hunting stories with a sense of reverence for nature, a sense of gratitude.  As I've said before, I think that fall is the ideal time for Halloween with its recognition of death, the nightmare before the winter solstice and, for many of us, the rebirth of Christmas.  In between, in this country, we celebrate Thanksgiving, our national day of gratitude.

This is as it should be. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday's Books in Brief

I'm thankful for many more new books than there is time to review in depth here.  My compliments to:

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.

Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.  I've hardly begun this one yet and may review it at length later.  There are 437 pages of miscellaneous Lethem items, including an interview with Bob Dylan, reviews of music, books, and movies, and random humorous pieces.  A keeper, no doubt.

Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, nicely edited by Jann Wenner.  We caught Johnny Depp doing his terrific imitation of Thompson last week on television too.  A natural.

Novelist Katharine Weber's interesting memoir, The Memory Of All That, especially for the sections concerning Cole Porter, but as a former member of Readerville, I know the lady is somehow related to nearly everyone.  Six degrees of separation from Katharine Weber, we used to say.  She writes beautifully.

Jim Harrison's The Great Leader.  On the surface, Harrison's flawed 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.

Mark Bowden's Worm: The First Digital World War.  The author of Black Hawk Down is always worth reading.  Crazy hacking terrorists.

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 books I've recently 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.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chris Hedges vs. Christopher Hitchens: On the Ten Commandments

You.  Who are on the road.  Must have a code.  That you can live by. --"-Teach Your Children," Crosby Stills, Nash, and Young

In Christopher Hitchens' newly published collection of essays, entitled Arguably, one nine-page essay is devoted to the idea that the Ten Commandments include no such code.  Allowing only a fundamentalist interpretation to argue against, the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything wastes no time in dismissing the first commandments.  

Hitchens says that Thou shalt have no other gods before me only implies that God is jealous and that there are other gods to worship, and that Thou shall not make a graven image "appears to forbid representational art."  Hitchens gives us no enlarged discussion of false idols but instead allows only  a minimalist, fundamentalist interpretation.  

Chris Hedges, on the other hand--in his book, Losing Moses On The Freeway--takes a secular approach.  He sees the Ten Commandments as a guide to the way we should live, here on this material road.  To Hedges, God is love, a spiritual force rather than the material god that Hitchens argues against.  Hedges sees Americans errantly placing material riches above spiritual love, worshiping the almighty dollar, bowing to the gods of money, power, and celebrity.  False idols.

"It is the unmentioned fear of death and obliteration, the one that rattles with the wind through the heavy branches of the trees outside, which frightens us most, even though we do not name this fear.  It is death we are fleeing.  The smallness of our lives, the transitory nature of existence, the inevitable road to old age, are what idols tell us we can avoid."

We lose ourselves to the addiction to material things in an effort to seek control over death.  The more we obtain, the more we covet in a futile effort to fill the bottomless emptiness inside.  If only we had a different car, or a different house, or a different spouse.  Or we try to escape into drink and drugs, subordinating our free will to animal compulsions.  "These impulses, carefully manipulated, intoxicate us with patriotic fervor and a lust for war.  They lead us to support certain candidates or to buy certain products or brands.'

"Politicians, advertisers, social scientists, television evangelists, the news media, and the entertainment industry--all have learned what makes us respond.  It works.'

"We follow the idol and barter away our freedom.  We place our identity and our hopes in the hands of the idol.  We believe we need the idol to define ourselves, to determine our worth.  We invest in the idol.  We sell ourselves into bondage."

Hedges says, "The commandments are guideposts.  They bring us back, even as we stray, as we all do, to the right path.  They are our protection against the siren calls of glory, wealth, and power..." those illusionary idols that take us away from what is real and eternal.  Love itself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday’s Forgotten Book: SOME DEATHS BEFORE DYING by Peter Dickinson

Happy Veterans Day to fellow veterans out there, especially to you grizzled old conscripts who risked your lives or at least gave up a goodly chunk of your youth mostly as a result of the lies, blunders, and self-serving interests of politicians in step with the demagogues’ drumming of jingoistic propaganda all around you.

Peter Dickinson’s Some Deaths Before Dying concerns the lingering damage done to some veterans of World War II.  It is an English murder mystery--that is to say, a drawing room mystery, a puzzle.  It is also a period piece of a very different time and place, manners and customs having greatly changed over the last fifty years.

The story is told in the third person but from rotating perspectives.

Mostly paralyzed and hence bedridden, 90-year-old Rachel Matson discovers that one of a set of dueling pistols that she gave long ago to her now dead husband is missing, having turned up on television on the Antiques Roadshow.

With the help of her nurse, she seeks out the mystery and discovers other mysteries unsought in a marvelously plotted novel that reminded me of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.

Under the surface story, the novel is a reflection on time, which we experience differently at different moments.

Time speeds up as we get older, and the meanings of the past take on a parallex view.  Although not all of the characters in this novel are old, this novel also qualifies as geezer lit, blessed with Peter Dickinson's well aged asides and insights into human nature.

I prefer the American mystery to the English mystery, but now I may have to give some of Peter Dickinson's earlier works a try.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tom Waits' "I'M THE LAST LEAF ON THE TREE": An Analysis

There's a wonderful Charlie Brown comic where Snoopy watches a lone leaf fall toward the ground.  Well, the first falling leaf of the season, he thinks.  The first leaf to make the courageous leap!  The first leaf to depart from home!  The first brave leaf to plunge into the unknown.  As he walks away, another thought comes to him:  The first leaf to die.

The fall season is well-named.  Fall is the end of the life cycle, the dying of the light, the twilight of our days before we are kicked out of paradise, in a metaphorical and biblical sense.

This song, like Waits' "November," is a last stand against the darkness.  It is a positive thinking, a reaffirmation of life  and consciousness that, by the end, becomes ethereal:  If they cut down the tree, I'll show up in a song.

I'm the last leaf on the tree
The autumn took the rest
but they won't take me.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.

When the autumn wind blows
they've already gone.
They flutter to the ground
cause they can't hang on.
There's nothing in the world
that I ain't seen.
I greet all the new ones
that are coming in green.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.

The autumn took the rest
but they won't take me.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.
They say I got staying power
here on the tree.
I've been here since Eisenhower
and I've outlived even he.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.

The autumn took the rest
but they won't take me.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.
I fight off the snow.
I fight off the hail.
Nothing makes me go.
I'm like some vestigial tail.

I'll be here through eternity
if you want to know how long.
If they cut down this tree
I'll show up in a song.
I'm the last leaf on the tree.