Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: COURTING DISASTER by Julie Edelson

I came across this forgotten book while seeking out seasonal reads for Thanksgiving week.  Published back in 1999, it was quickly forgotten and is now sadly out of print.  I bought it used, in part, off this synopsis:

"By taking Tolstoy's famous dictum that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and bending it to the service of the black-comic, Southern neo-gothic novel, Julie Edelson creates an extended, inspired riff on the lure of chaos, and the necessity of order.  ...All of it comes crashing down in the course of one frenzied, turbulent, but hilarious Thanksgiving week."
The only crime in the novel is the growing and distribution of marijuana, and it is indeed a comedy about a dysfunctional family.  Thanksgiving novels typically involve such a family in an always familiar crisis where children rebelling against their elders mix teenager angst into the already befuddled mid-life crisis of their parents while in the awkward presence of growing grandparent fragility and senility.
A traditional family circus which puts the traditional dread into "the dreaded feast."
Edelson here throws gender and ethnic issues into the mix, and the result is often very funny.  I read several other fine Thanksgiving novels in November including May We Be Forgiven? by A. M. Holmes (which runs Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving) but of them all, Edelson provided the most extraordinary use of language.  
The author's use of metaphor and general wordplay (such as the unacknowledged use of familiar song lyrics), is constantly fresh and apt and surprising.  Such as the description of a young television reporter, "glazed like a doughnut with ambition" and the description of the husband's reluctance to touch his estranged wife: "Does she want something from him?  A touch?  Where?  How? Her body is a haunted house."
And there is genuine humor here in the novel's play with political correctness, of stereotype versus reverse-stereotype, of the peeling back of illusions to get to the next illusion so that you can peel that back too.  The idea of living in the moment is good, but these characters delude themselves into thinking that they are free--when all the time they are chained to their addictions.  To coveting things, to smoke, to drink, to drugs, to sexual conquests--always in the effort to escape the moment in which they perceive themselves living.
Identity is history and the reflection on that history, which gives us a sense of direction.  Free will is rare but we can find it in the act of choice, a conscious changing of course toward the building of a new better history based upon love and responsibility.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The best Thanksgiving Novels And November Movies

Fall is the season of dying.  The year dies metaphorically, the leaves flame, fall, and die.  When the frost is on the pumpkin, Halloween celebrates death, the nightmare before Christmas and rebirth, New Year's Day.

Betwixt death and rebirth, we have that holiday of feast, transition, bardo grace and gratitude:  Thanksgiving.  President Lincoln first designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and yesterday we recommended the movie, Lincoln.

This year, we highly recommend Michael Dibdin's novel, Thanksgiving. We also liked Truman Capote's The Thanksgiving Visitor, the humorous essays in The Dreaded Feast, Jennifer Vanderbes' Strangers At The Feast, Julie Edelson's Courting Disaster, Suzanne Berne's The Ghost at the Table, and Richard Bausch's Thanksgiving Night. 

November is a time to be mindful of our own short existence and be grateful.  Grateful for love, not just for the love we receive but for the love we are able to give, sometimes appreciated, sometimes not--but love given unconditionally.  We recommend the original Sweet November.

November has a designated day to remember our fellow veterans and we should abstain from the commercialism that mocks them.  We recommend Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

I am secular and tend to discount organized religions, yet I am glad to see them sponsor missionary kitchens with free dinners for the poor.  Volunteers hand them out and even deliver them to shut-ins this time of year.  Amen to that, I say.

November is the month for celebrating our ancestor pilgrims, and at the same time, this is also Native American Heritage Month.  We should be mindful of past transgressions while vowing anew to act with responsibility, to stay on the right path.  We recommend Christina Ricci's monologues in The Ice Storm and then again in Adams Family Values: link.

To some American Indian nations, post-harvest fall was "Indian summer," the time for sport and expeditions.  November is still a time for hunting dog stories, big cat stories, and a time for the sport of football, that "little brother of war."

We usually have our first tracking snow in November.  John Williams' Butcher's Crossing is a perfect November read for its cautionary riff on the irresponsibility of greed, the anticipatory wonder of the first snow and the changing of the season, and the naturalism by which we are all governed.

And don't forget last year's recommendations:

  • Native American Lore: Egerton R. Young's Algonquin...
  • Cormac McCarthy As Ransom Stoddard; Jonathan Lethe...
  • Friday's Forgotten Book: LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR b...
  • The Best Thanksgiving Story - Thanks to Richard Ru...
  • Let Us Be Thankful for Stephen King Today 11/22/20...
  • Thanksgiving for Two
  • Friday's Forgotten Book: Stephen Greenleaf's BLOO...
  • The Fall Hunt, Hunter's Moon, Seeking Enlightenmen...
  • Monday's Books in Brief
  • Chris Hedges vs. Christopher Hitchens: On the Ten...
  • Friday’s Forgotten Book: SOME DEATHS BEFORE DYING ...
  • Tom Waits' "I'M THE LAST LEAF ON THE TREE": An Ana...
  • Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Kris Kristoffer...
  • Tuesday's Forgotten Film: SWEET NOVEMBER, with San...
  • NOVEMBER, as sung by Tom Waits

  • Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    LINCOLN: the movie; the Best Thanksgiving Songs

    LINCOLN is worth watching.   Lots of yawns among the small Kentucky audience, just a few miles from Lincoln's Homestead State Park, but spontaneous applause at the end.   Tony Kushner focused the script on the arguments over the passage of the 13th amendment and the legalities involved, which was a good choice.   They should have streamlined it even further.

    Lots of nice performances.   Hal Holbrook stands out. Daniel Day-Lewis got the Kentucky accent right, or nearly right, somehow.   I never thought he’d be that good.   Sally Field plays a rather demanding role, gained 25lbs for the part, has lost it now and looks great for her age, 10 years older than Day-Lewis, twenty years older than Mary Todd Lincoln was at the time. Amazing.

    David Lee Jones was also good.   As were James Spader and lots of others I knew but couldn’t name offhand.


    Ever since Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day, the holiday has needed some appropriate music.  What we usually hear is that church song:

    We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
    He chastens and hastens His Will to make known.
    The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
    Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His Own.

    That doesn't do it for us, and although other songs of gratitude, such as Louis Armstrong's "It's A Wonderful World" and Perry Como's "There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays" are frequently played, none of them are particularly connected with Thanksgiving Day.

    But now there is one appropriate song to be heard at our house, and that is Mary Chapin Carpenter's lovely "Thanksgiving Song," from her Come Darkness, Come Light CD.

    Here are the lyrics:

    Grateful for each hand we hold
    Gathered 'round the table
    From far and near we travel home
    Blessed that we are able

    Grateful for this sheltered place
    With light in every window
    Saying welcome welcome share this feast
    Come in away from sorrow

    Father, mother, daughter, son,
    Neighbor, friend and friendless
    All together, every one
    In the gift of loving kindness

    Grateful for what's understoood
    And all that is forgiven
    We try so hard to be good
    To lead a life worth living

    Father, mother, daughter, son,
    Neighbor, friend, and friendless
    All together, every one
    Let grateful days be endless

    Grateful for each hand we hold
    Gathered round this table

    Amen to that.

    Friday, November 16, 2012

    Friday's Forgotten Book: Michael Dibdin's THANKSGIVING

    This week's Forgotten Book is that spectacular work, Thanksgiving (2000),  by Michael Dibdin, who is justly famous for his crime novel series featuring Aurelio Zen (made into a PBS Masterpiece Mystery series).

    Thanksgiving is a crime novel too, one of the most intelligent literary murder mysteries in existence.  The writing is extraordinary, the narrative by turns raunchy, crisp, ethereal, understated, and witty--the ending tender.  The tale is told by an endearing narrator whose reliability must be redetermined again and again as the novel progresses.

    It is just 182 pages with lots of dialog, a quick read, yet one that expands after it ends, becoming much larger than the sum of its parts.  Its most lasting themes are forgiveness and thanksgiving, even if you don't know to Whom you should be grateful.  Gratitude as an attitude.  Heck, even Christopher Hitchens said his favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. 

    This is more of an analysis than a review, and there are definite spoilers ahead with examples of the prose style. The best way to experience this magnificent novel is completely cold, free of any expectations. So if you're looking for a peak reading experience, stop reading this now and go buy the book.

    The book is dedicated to Katherine, who is undoubtedly K. K. Beck, the mystery author Dibdin fell in love with on a trip to a writers conference in Spain--and whose witty wordplay with the author may actually be featured in the airplane section of the novel.  She became Dibdin's last wife and widow.  It makes you wonder how much of this is autobiographical, at least in a figurative sense.

    A murder mystery and a Thanksgiving story too?  Just wait.

    The opening section is entitled "Lucy In The Sky" which conjures up the Beatles song but also has ethereal implications concerning the narrator's late wife, Lucy.  The protagonist longs for his wife so much that his world has become as empty as the desert highway landscape in the opening of the novel.

    Suddenly a light looms up ahead in the darkness.  As he gets closer, the light transforms itself into the misty form of a sexy woman in bright lights, a modified neon sign attached to a high tower advertising a desert cafe.  This tower represents his wife's material history before they met, and it is owned by her first husband.  The two men then engage in a heated and raunchy discussion of Lucy, the dead woman of their respective dreams.

    The first section is a two man duel in British/American dialog on the order of Sleuth, and indeed that's what the first part of this novel resembles. Take your pick, the Michael Caine vs. Lawrence Oliver version or the Jude Law vs. Michael Caine remake. It is murderously ribald here and full of twists and turns.  It will have you wondering which man is the more compulsive stalker, the greater psychopath, the more self-destructive.

    There is an ominous bit about Chekhov's gun too, and the complete lyrics of the stalker/obsessive Van Morrison rock song, "Here Comes the Night," are given--something that is reprised for symbolic effect later in the novel.

    Go get yourself a copy of this wonderful book, and read it before Thanksgiving.  Don't read on.  I'm going to reveal the ending.  Draw the line here:

    Well, if you're still here, I may not have convinced you.  So, first, some examples of the writing style.  His neighbor offers him her condolences on the death of his wife:

    "I know it's hard to accept, but it must be God's will," Allie concluded, heading back to her own porch.

    Allie was a fundamentalist Christian of some variety who frequently mentioned God in a casual, highly resigned way, as though He were CEO of the company in which she was an underpaid, put-upon secretary.

     Such tidbits of social commentary abound in here.
    Dibdin dealt in humor rather than comedy.  The dirty jokes traded between husbands in the first part of the novel are openly macho, meant to be sadly humorous rather than comic, but to judge by the reviews around web, some reviewers dismissed the novel for its male crudeness then and did not finish it, while others thought that the first section was the only strong section of the novel and that it went downhill from there.

    How could they so misunderstand this masterpiece?

    Listen, the first section is the animal id of the novel, not the spiritual heart.  Lucy's first husband "loved" her only in that possessive, material way that sadly passes for love in the hardcore capitalistic culture of these United States.  Which is why he can only talk about her in a misogynist, sexual way.  Which is why he is obsessed with all those old movies and nude photographs of her.  The stalker's obsession is not love.

    The protagonist, on the other hand, loved her.  The high point of the book is not the macho pissing contest in the first section; the high point of the novel occurs on page 160:

    I had not loved Lucy for those things, which might still consolingly linger on in some archive of photographs, videos or tape recordings, but for something that could not be captured and had now vanished forever.

    I had never really been that interested in seeing pictures of the twenty-year-old Lucy, or in finding out what she'd been like in bed then, or even speculating about the children and the life we might have had together if we'd met decades earlier.  That wasn't the Lucy I was grieving for; it was the one I had fallen in love with, just as she was, no substitutions accepted.

    So now we can see what the narrator has been telling us through the symbols and nuances.  That he has been so shocked by her unexpected death that it has taken him some time to find his way back to coherency.  The question of murder fades into the past along with the psychopathic first husband, revealed as a trick of the mind, a self-destructing McGuffin unable to outdistance love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

    The end has the protagonist agreeing to make Thanksgiving dinner for Lucy's daughter, Claire, and her son, Daniel, even though he knows little about the American celebration of Thanksgiving.  He makes his way through the awkwardness and the pain.
    Remember that indelible scene from the 2011 George Clooney movie, The Descendants, where Clooney hugs his soon-to-be-dead wife and says, Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joyGoodbye.

    The ending here is a bit like that, but the novel's last words are words of Thanksgiving:

    "...I'm talking to someone I don't know who isn't even there.  Thank you, I'm saying.  Thank you for Lucy, thank you for Claire and for Daniel, thank you for this cold and this blood and this pain.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you."

    Hey, you can see this week's other Friday Forgotten Book selections at the Pattinase Blog at this link.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Tuesday's Forgotten Film or A/V: FIREFLY Tenth Anniversary Reunion of the Serenity Crew

    Sunday night on the Science Channel, they aired a documentary on this year's Tenth Anniversary of Firefly, which premiered on the Fox Network, never received good ratings, and was canceled after three months.

    The show always had its ardent fans, but after it was cancelled and reruns of the show appeared on satellite and cable, that fanbase grew and grew.  My wife started watching it and soon clued me into its intrinsic quality.  I normally trust my wife's judgment, but I was at first only mildly impressed.

    Then she insisted that we see the full-length movie, Serenity, which was made after the show was cancelled--and now I am indeed a fan of the series.

    It works because it is sci-fi but not just sci-fi.  It is in part a western in which the New Frontier, as Kennedy dubbed space exploration, does indeed become the New Frontier.

    It works because the cast is terrific and representatively diverse.  That trinity which Dorothy Sayers claimed every work of art should appeal to--body, mind, and soul--is well represented in the series.  It is by turns brutal, logical, sexy, altruistic, existential, and spiritual, but not particularly defined by any one of these elements.  The dialog is witty, its comic relief astute, the crew's ultimate espirit d'corps endearing.
    The Serenity's sweet engineer, Kaylee

    The crew exists on the fringes of the global bureaucracy.  They are independent entrepreneurs in opposition to both the totalitarian bureaucrats and the Reaver savages.  Humanity betwix forced order and chaos. 

    At the reunion, there was some interesting talk about where the writers and directors might have taken the thread of the series.  I would not be surprised if a reunion movie is made or if the series is not somehow otherwise revived.

    Sunday, November 11, 2012


    It is Veterans Day here in these United States, a day that has become long on ceremony and short on genuine human feeling.

    This is addressed, to a considerable degree, in Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, though the book features the halftime of a Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving rather than Veterans Day itself.

    Folks should be mindful of their military veterans, but they should also be mindful of the way the psychopathic war-mongers have of manipulating common men into serving their selfish political/material ends.  Reading Ben Fountain's novel, you're aware of all the hype and commercial trappings making a mockery of the very real service of men and women trying to do the right thing.

    This next week, I'll be posting my Best Novels of 2012 list.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk will be on it.

    Meanwhile, Happy Veterans Day to all those other veterans out there.

    Saturday, November 3, 2012

    Friday's Forgotten Book (a day late): HEAVEN'S KEEP by William Kent Krueger

    I started to read Heaven's Keep a couple of years ago, or so it seems.  Somehow the timing was not right, and I placed it back on the shelf.  This week, the timing is right.  The timing for a good November read superseded the timing for the posting of Friday's Forgotten Book.  I'm not a bit sorry.

    Heaven's Keep begins with a prologue showing how a plane went down, with the protagonist's wife aboard, in a snowstorm.  So we know what's coming.  Then Chapter One starts off on a calm November day:
    "She looked away out her window at the gorgeous November sky and the liquid sun that made everything drop yellow..."

    "In Aurora, Minnesota, things got quiet in November.  The fall color disappeared.  The stands of maple and oak and birch and poplar became bone bare.  The tourists lost interest in the North Country.  Deer hunting season was nearly finished, and the orange vests, like the colorful foliage, were all but gone."

    "There were still fishermen on Iron Lake, but they were the hardy and the few and came only on weekends.  In town, the sidewalks became again the province of the locals, and Cork recognized most of the faces he saw there.  November was usually a bleak month, days capped with an overcoat and brooding sky, but the last week had been different, with the sun spreading a cheerful warmth over Tamarack County.  Cork wished some of that cheer would lighten his own spirits."

    Cork O'Conner is Krueger's Irish/Ojibwe series protagonist in his tenth book.  O'Conner is trying to do right by the land, fighting a mega-corporation which wants to develop the lakefront.  The corporation offers small businessman O'Conner 1 1/4 million dollars for his lakefront grill, and when he refuses, their lawyers use the law to put him out of business, to get him to sell.

    O'Conner is trying to get back on with the sheriff's department in order to be able to afford lawyers who might be able to fight the corporation in court.  He does this in a short-sightedly obsessive, compulsive manner, neglecting his wife and his marriage--as if forgetting the MOST important things in life.

    Some reviewers consider this Krueger's worst book.  Of those that I've read, I consider it his best, a deserving entry in the Forgotten Book Friday field, no matter what day you happen to read it.  It might be interesting to compare the issues in this book with those of the George Clooney movie, The Descendants, which I reviewed a while back at this link, continued from here..

    Hey, you can still see the list and links to this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, selected by a number of authors and bloggers, at this link.

    Thursday, November 1, 2012

    MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens - Last Year's November Links

    Above are the headlines to last year's November blogs.  Christopher Hitchens was still very much alive when I wrote a bit on his debate with Chris Hedges.  He died a month later, on December 15th.

    His last memoir, Mortality, published this year, strikes me as an incomplete work.  The text is a quick read, with a foreword by Graydon Carter and a redemptive afterword by his widow, Carol Blue.  Redemptive is the right word.
    Carol Blue and Christopher Hitchens

    Redemptive is the right word because the text has Hitchens, as usual, railing against fundamentalist evangelical ideas on life, illness, and death, and it is at times humorous and logical, but it lacks love and gratitude.  His widow says that his death, when it came, was unexpected.  That they did not believe that the end was so close.  And she speaks of the man in ways not revealed in the text.  For instance, she says that his favorite holiday was Thanksgiving.

    If that's a telling detail, then I'd like to believe that Christopher Hitchens might have yet written about his love for his wife, or indeed, about those things for which he was grateful, even if that included only his friends and family.