CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

John McPhee and Immersion Journalism: The Survival of the Bark Canoe

John McPhee’s greatness lies in his ability to make the real world and its inhabitants as interesting as if they were fictional…

The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee (image courtesy Goodreads)

Here’s one from the 2014 reading list that I’ve been looking forward to reading. I have been a John McPhee fan since I was an undergraduate. My composition class “reader” had an excerpt from Oranges about fighting a frost in Florida with smudge pots that hooked me on his approach to nonfiction.  (Some of the more hoary of you working through this piece may remember those books called readers. They were books of essays by great nonfiction writers assigned in 1st year composition classes to provide “writing models” to callow 18 years olds in the quaintly delusional hope that some of the greatness of an E.B. White, Lewis Thomas or John McPhee would enter our heads and come out through our pens back in those halcyon days when we rode dinosaurs to classes.)  The use of these has been widely discontinued – an act, I suspect, owing as much to the despair writing teachers feel of ever encountering a writer who could, to borrow a metaphor from Rogers Hornsby, at least “carry the bat” of a White or Thomas – or McPhee – as to changes in the pedagogical approach to teaching writing.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe is a brief book, only 114 pages. That is often the case with McPhee; he does not write long pieces because he actually writes pieces suitable for inclusion in magazines. The magazine he is most closely associated with is the same one that E. B. White and his contemporary James Thurber helped make famous: The New Yorker.  Given that magazine’s history for stellar writing – and occasionally writing that manages to be pompous and precious at once – one can easily jump to the conclusion that McPhee has that ironic, wittily condescending style many associate with the nation’s premier “high brow” mass market magazine (though these folks might disagree with that assessment). Nothing could be further from the truth – and therein lies McPhee’s greatness. His ability to immerse himself in the stories he explores and bring to life their characters draws readers along as if they were reading fiction. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain: War and Peace for middlebrows…

Frazier’s historical novel was a great success even though it is rather indifferent both as history and as a novel…

Rivers Parting by Shirley Barker (image courtesy Amazon)

A confessions of sorts.

I have always been something of a fan of the historical novel. My interest began probably with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in my early teens and has been primed occasionally over the years with the occasionally discovered tasteful or tasteless gem (many courtesy of my late and dearly missed Aunt Barbara). Through her taste for middlebrow lit I wound up reading (without parental consent, of course) Forever Amber which led me to Moll Flanders and then to A Journal of the Plague Year (I’d read Robinson Crusoe years earlier as a child).  So in a weird way, the same woman who’d schooled me in serious lit by constantly forcing me to take another volume from the Harvard Classics each time I visited her (she sometimes had me read from the works to her after I’d finished mowing her yard and was enjoying a glass of lemonade or iced tea) also, in passing along her old book club selections to my mother gave me an introduction into what Middle America found fascinating reading from the 1950s through 1970s. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: The Price of Ignorance by Fred Skolnik

Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived': popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

For your consideration: Jimmy Carter on ending the war in Gaza

An article from Foreign Policy

Ending this war in Gaza begins with recognizing Hamas as a legitimate political actor

I know. Right off the bat, even the idea of recognizing Hamas rankles. Here’s the thing, though. In 2006, as a result of a thoroughly monitored election, the people put Hamas in power. That is the definition of self determination. That is the definition of legitimate political actor. The hazard of democracy, especially when it works, is that we won’t like who the people put in charge. If we can’t live with those outcomes, then we just need to accept that we really don’t care for democracy at all. Further, that what we do believe in is hegemony of one people, one culture, over others. Naturally, that would mean ours and not theirs. This, in spite of the fact that anyone would be hard pressed to seriously and legitimately make the case that we are one people, one culture, and that our chosen version of that should be the one that calls the shots.

Continue reading

40 years ago today: where were you when Tricky Dick Nixon resigned?

You know those events where people always remember where they were? Like Kennedy’s assassination. The Challenger disaster. 9/11.

Well, 40 years ago today was another big one: on August 9, 1974 Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office, finally bowing to pressure in the wake of the Watergate scandal. And yes, I remember where I was: Continue reading

Obama-Nope

President Obama thinks you’re sanctimonious for insisting torturers be charged with felonies

The President of the United States still shows no signs of seeking justice against war criminals

The President of the United States, by way of giving the world a Friday heading into the weekend presser in hopes that we’ll miss it and just ignore it to death, finally leveled exactly the kind of allegations we’ve been waiting for for six years now. Then he clarified his position by saying that we shouldn’t be sanctimonious, but let’s see it in his own stammering words:

I understand why it happened. Uh, I, I think, ah, ih-, it’s important, uh, when we look back to recall how afraid people were, uh, after, uh, the tow-, twin towers, uh, fell, and, and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know, ah, whether more attacks were imminent, uh, and there was enormous pressure, uh, on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this, uh, and um, hyuh, i-, i-, i-, it’s important for us not to, uh, feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those have and a lot of those folks, uh, wuh, uh, were s-, s-, working hard, ah, under enormous pressure, and are real patriots but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that repor-port reflects, and that’s the reason why, after, uh, I took office one of the first things I did was to ban, uh, some of the, in-, extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.

 

Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

Book Review: Jupiter and Gilgamesh – A Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones

Jupiter and Gilgamesh is a story about life decisions – good, bad, and inexplicable – and how those decisions add up ultimately to – a life well lived…

Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones (image courtesy Goodreads)

I have an empathetic affinity for the genesis of Scott Archer Jones’s latest novel, Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jones states that the genesis of his book came partly from a high school English teacher who made him read The Epic of Gilgamesh – and that the character of Gilgamesh was so intriguing (probably compelling is a better word) that he’s read the poem multiple times since that first encounter.

In the vernacular of our time, I feel you, Scott. My first book came partly from my experience of a couple of related works first read at the behest of teachers: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The power of literature draws us on, it seems, like the song of the sirens until some of us begin to “sing in our chains,” as the poet said.

That singing in one’s chains thing is a key theme in Jupiter and Gilgamesh. The main character is one Matthew (Matt) Devon, a gifted advertising man who owns a very successful ad agency in Amarillo, Texas. When we meet Matt, however, (I’ll ignore the novel’s prelude for now) he is living – hiding out, really – in an old grain elevator that he is having remodeled in a small farming town a short distance from Amarillo), trying to run his business via phone conferences, and has taken to calling himself Jupiter. Continue reading

“Hang Obama!” Is that always racist?

Correlation, causation, race, the President, and hanging

Once upon a time not so long ago, someone on the Internet expressed an opinion. I found my umbrage and took all of it. And, thinking I’m the Deathmonger Whisperer, I took it upon myself to gnaw on another huge leg of futility. I was fresh out of lamb, you see.

As one might gather from the title, the opinion expressed was none too subtle. One might even divine which side of the partisan divide excreted this little gem. Of late, I’ve taken to trying to engage rationally with those with whom I disagree…with tact and diplomacy. I know. I know. “Who are you, and what have you done with Frank?!” It’s only an exercise in futility if I actually hope to persuade someone to change their mind on an issue. Failing that, I’m learning a great many valuable things, not least of which is to vent expletives into the room instead of through my keyboard. It accomplishes just about as much, but it leaves the door open to genuine discussion.

The specific opinion expressed was that Obama is guilty of treason [citation needed] and should be hanged, as per the Constitution. Never minding for a moment that the Constitution only calls for Congress to determine the punishment without expressly stating how it should be carried out, much less that it should be death, much less that it should be capital punishment by hanging, I went with what to me (and a great many others) was the apparent (if not actual) racism implicit in the suggestion. To that end, I replied much as follows: Continue reading

LGBT

Tony Dungy is the Clarence Thomas of football

When he goes to bed tonight, Tony Dungy should offer a prayer of thanks that the US isn’t at the mercy of people like him.

Tony Dungy wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam. But not because he’s gay! No, no. Because things will happen. You know … things.

Three thoughts.

1: Look! Look! See, Michael Sam is on TV being interviewed about non-football issues. He’s being a DISTRACTION! And why? Because … well, because Tony Dungy is in the media talking about how Sam is a distraction.

Don’t start no distraction, won’t be no distraction. Just saying. Continue reading

Conservatives

American conservatives: some of the most important history you’ve probably missed

Racism or abortion? You decide.

For the sake of history and truth, this might be the most important thing you read in quite a while.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right @ Politico

Short version: evangelical “community organizers” (recognize that dig?) and bearers of false witness initially tried to fire up the right wing evangelical “moral majority” (currently only approximately 26% of the US population…hardly a majority of any kind) in support of racially segregated schools. Patron Saint of the new GOP, Ronnie Reagan, who committed treason to win the 1980 election by interfering with the release of US hostages held by Iran (somehow omitted from this article), trotted out support of racial segregation but got punched in the political junk for it and backed down. Bob Jones University, the school that took the issue all the way to SCOTUS, eventually lost, and with the case any hopes of regaining its tax-exempt status in an 8-1 decision. That’s one helluva SCOTUS decision. The one justice that supported racial segregation? Ronnie’s SCOTUS appointee Renquist. Continue reading

Fear mongering for sex traffick? Surely that’s not what the GOP is about, is it?

I’d like to think even the GOP has limits, but sometimes I have my doubts

Lately the right-wing fear-mongering machine has been making much of news that 16 teen members of MS-13 have been identified in an Arizona border processing center. Let’s assume for a moment that this claim is 100% true. Further, let the curious reader check the Google search results for themselves to see if this is news peculiar to one side of our partisan divide here in the U.S.

There will be bad actors in every sufficiently large crowd. In this case, that’s 3 bad actors (hell, even especially bad) per 10,000 or 0.03% if we go by the commonly reported 52,000 child immigrants between October 2013 and June (less than a year). Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Sinclair Lewis imagines American dictatorship: It can’t happen here … can it?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). Continue reading

Media

Amusing ourselves to death: new Sciencegasm meme nails it

The public interest is what the public is interested in, bitches.

Thanks to Facebook, we all see new memes every day. Some of them are funny, some insightful, and a lot are of the preaching to the choir variety, which even though they’re right as rain, they occasionally get tiresome. Like a lot of us, frustrated as hell with the sorry shape of our society and the deteriorating condition of our planet and the sheer hopelessness of mounting an assault against the mountain of cynical, corrupt cash standing between us and a solution, I guess I suffer from bouts of what we’ll call Fact Fatigue. If we’re intelligent, I fear, the truth is too much with us.

Every once in awhile, though, somebody sends one around that’s so on-point you can’t ignore it. Today, for instance, it was my friend Heather Sowards-Valey (she of Fiction 8 fame) sharing this one from Sciencegasm: Continue reading

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

Warriors suffered from PTSD in the Middle Ages, too

After the Norman Conquest, bishops devised an ingenious way to deal with the component of PTSD known as moral injury.

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

PTSD and moral injury are as old as mankind. (Image: Public Domain)

Often a component of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, moral injury is defined thusly by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations.

Continue reading

20 years ago today: OJ’s famous ride

Remembering one of the most bizarre moments in American popular culture history.

JFK’s shooting. The Challenger explosion. 9/11. Where were you?

Our history occasionally presents us with events so iconic, tragic, traumatic, or perhaps flat-out weird that we can always tell you where we were when they happened (or when we found out). June 17, 1994 was one such moment for many of us: OJ Simpson’s 60-mile, low-speed chase through LA in the famed white Bronco. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the tale – or the teller?

Gaiman’s work owes something to Vonnegut, something to Douglas Adams, something to Sir James Fraser, and probably something to Hitchcock – and Monty Python…

I offer the following quote from a Wall Street Journal piece by Lev Grossman I cited last fall in an essay on storytelling and the Modernist tendency to force readers to struggle with artist’s literary experiments:

Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

In an essay about current reading habits and the disappearance of “serious literature,” I offered the following advice from Henry David Thoreau, a serious literature kind of guy:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

At the behest of several friends I’ve been moving away from my stodgy, comfortable literary fiction tastes and trying new writers strongly recommended by family, friends, and colleagues – among these have been the delightful Douglas Adams and the interesting, though not as interesting as I’d hoped, Terry Pratchett.

Neil Gaiman has been an oft mentioned choice  as someone “you really must read, Jim.” And so, having come across a copy of his 2005 novel Anansi Boys at a local second hand book store, I decided to give Gaiman a try. And while I can honestly say it’s a delightful and enlightening novel in many ways, I could not make a case for Anansi Boys as great literature.

The novel revisits characters from Gaiman’s (thus far) magnum opus American Gods.  In this book Mr. Nancy’s (Anansi, a mythical character who is a spider – the weaving of webs of story, communication, ideas is an integral part of the novel) sons, named Charles (called “Fat Charlie” for most of the work) and Spider, discover that they are brothers. This knowledge leads to complications involving embezzlement, murder, and romance. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end – Fat Charlie becomes Charles and discovers that he has some of the magic of a god within himself while Spider, who is part brother, part bother, part doppelganger, part bon vivant (like his father) finds a humanity he didn’t know he had. This realistic part of the narrative is interpolated with African-Caribbean mythology that both provides overview of the “human” story and allows Gaiman to play with magical realism while at the same time gently poking fun at that style of narrative. I am not entirely sure if Gaiman means to poke fun at magical realism. Perhaps he is exploring its possibilities within the fantasy framework. But if he is having a giggle at MR’s expense, I like him the better for it.

Some reviewers have called Anansi Boys a combination of Douglas AdamsP.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. It’s more – and less – than that. Gaiman has obviously knows his mythology, and much of Anansi Boys provides lesson for readers about non-Western mythologies. He does so, too, in ways that both entertain the reader and that make sense within the narrative and offer gloss to the text that helps readers understand that, for example, the villain is a recurring character who will appear again and again in stories because it is an archetype. This he does always well, sometimes brilliantly – and for the astute reader who grasps the implications of what Gaiman is explaining about good and evil, this glossing infuses the tale with the creepiness of a great fairy tale.

Where the novel is not always pleasing is in the comic “realistic” narrative that drives the entire book. Fat Charlie – who does learn (that he has godlike abilities like his father and brother); who does meet a helper (Daisy Day, a beautiful cop who also becomes his love interest); who does gain a “magic sword” (his father’s Fedora) – who becomes a hero in the best Proppian tradition – is a clear riff on Arthur Dent (with some Bertie Wooster thrown in – likable enough, slightly doltish, maddeningly tolerant of mistreatment despite his protestations otherwise. And Spider owes a good deal to Zaphod Beeblebrox. So there’s that. There are jokes galore (some laugh out loud funny) and silly situations worthy of a Python skit. But it all seems done before. And as well or better elsewhere.

There’s also another problematic element (and maybe this is just me), one that occurs often in work with recurring characters/themes (the dreaded “series” that every science fiction and fantasy author seems intent upon). I spent the last 50 pages or so sensing that Gaiman was “setting up” the next work wherein these characters will appear. Now Gaiman is deft, indeed, a brilliant writer in many ways, and this was subtly and skillfully done. But I’m an astute reader and a pretty clever writer myself. So this bugged me. It was more noticeable in a work from a writer of Gaiman’s reputation – and skill – than it should have been.

Ultimately these flaws seem to me to make Anansi Boys fall short of the giddy heights of a work like Stoner by John Edward Williams. That is not to say that Gaiman is not a brilliant writer and that Anansi Boys is not a superior read. It means this: Neil Gaiman is indeed a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading further in his oeuvre. What it means is that for me, Anansi Boys is not one of those treasures Thoreau mentions above.

But Gaiman may a member be of Thoreau’s “natural and irresistible aristocracy.” Proving that will require, however, further investigation.

ArtSunday: LIterature

Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg is All About the Love…

 Gottfried reminds us that love is complicated – and, we can assume, chemical, too….

Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (image courtesy Goodreads)

Back to  the 2014 reading list again. After taking a break from heavier (and, in one case, more depressing) works to read a little about fly fishing in my home state, I’m back to the sort of “serious” literature you’ve come to know and be bored out of your skulls by that I, ever needing to scratch the scholarly itch, adore wading through. And so we return to medieval literature.

If you remember, the last time we visited this area was to discuss Christine de Pizan’s remarkable The Book of the City of Ladies, a tour de force of proto-feminist argumentation against the deplorable depiction of women in the late 4th-early 15th century (Pizan’s work was published in 1405).  For this essay we jump backwards a couple of hundred years to the early 13th century and look at one of the great courtly/chivalric romances, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: the South’s stories, demagoguery, history…

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Clansman by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We leave the 2014 reading list in this essay to consider a classic American novel of dubious repute that I read as a substitute last week when I was traveling and had forgotten my current book from the list.

Sometimes it is easiest – and wisest – to begin with a cliché. So here’s one about the place I am from and love with all my heart:

All Southerners are born storytellers….

This oft repeated claim has, as do all clichés and truisms, its basis in fact. Southerners seem to find in storytelling a needful way to explain the world and how it works. This is not to say that other regions of the United States do not feel this. But Southerners, more than people from any other region of America, are noted for their propensity to offer stories as explanations for “the way things are/were/will be/should be.” Leave it to Southerners, too, to take religion and make that all about storytelling. Continue reading