ArtSunday: LIterature

James Hilton, WP Kinsella and The Bettys: writing to remember, writing being forgotten…

There are two motivations for writing – one pure and one not so much.

“There’s only one thing more important… and that is, after you’ve done what you set out to do, to feel that it’s been worth doing.” – James Hilton

Goodbye Mr. Chips and Other Stories by James Hilton (image courtesy Goodreads)

Goodbye Mr. Chips and Other Stories by James Hilton (image courtesy Goodreads)

This is about being a writer.

The motives for someone wanting to do more than write, to become that person that others refer to as a writer, may be so individual as to be specific to very single person who aspires to that moniker. But I doubt it.

My suspicion is that there are two motives that drive writers, one fairly – shall we say pure? One, not so much. The first, purer, motive is that writers are blessed (or cursed, I can never decide) with the desire to preserve that which they have known or known about or would have liked to know. That act of preservation is part of the title of this essay: one might call it writing to remember. When done really, really, really well, it gives us lines like this:

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

Then there’s that other motive, the – less than pure one, shall we say. That’s the desire for recognition: fame, money, respect in one form or another, either because of critical success or financial reward (I have met famous writers who were humble and I have met famous writers who were smug enough to deserve a boot up their asses). It may be of interest only to me that the humble famous ones were far less rich than the smug famous ones. Maybe Ms. Lauper pegged it when she intoned, “…money changes everything….” Continue reading

Book-Review

John Ehle’s The Widow’s Trial: a pure woman…

“I was tired now, the weight of the memories was heavy as lead.” – John Ehle, The Widow’s Trial

The Widow's Trial by John Ehle (image courtesy Amazon)

The Widow’s Trial by John Ehle (image courtesy Amazon)

Reading a John Ehle novel is one of those rich experiences like eating Belgian chocolate or drinking fine cognac.  It’s an experience to be savored, enjoyed in a leisurely fashion.

That said, I raced through this Ehle novel in a couple of days.

For readers who think of Ehle in terms of the finest of his work, The Land Breakers or The Road, this novel from much later in his distinguished career may seem – slight is not exactly the word, such a word could probably never apply to Ehle’s work – but it is, one might say, a work of its time.

Its time of publication, the late 1980’s, was the height of a period known in serious literature as the era of Dirty Realism. Ehle is certainly a contemporary of (and probably knew) an originator of this style of fiction, the great Carson McCullers, so he certainly could justify a foray into this type of fiction. And because John Ehle is such a great writer, he certainly owes me, you, nor anyone else any explanation for a damned thing he does artistically. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Book Review: Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett

“History written by men reveals no cowards except those of the enemy, tells of great deeds of worth and cause, but shows only one face, and fails to distinguish the testimony of those consumed by its passing.” – Michael Kinnett

Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett (image Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Apalachicola Pearl by Michael Kinnett (image Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Michael Kinnett’s Apalachicola Pearl is clearly a work of a lover of history. This tale of one Florida city’s role in the Civil War is based on Kinnett’s  research into the annals of the city. In his preface, Kinnett claims that his novel is based upon “journals I found hidden beneath a floorboard in the attic of the Orman House Museum.” Whether this is true or the author’s invention is a matter for reader conjecture. If true, Kinnett is indeed fortunate to have found such a trove of material; if it is a literary invention, it is a wonderfully clever one.

The novel is a melange of two forms: while it purports to be the journal of the main character, one Michael Brandon Kohler, it eventually evolves into a historical adventure. Further – the character who gives her name to the title to the novel, LaRaela Retsyo Agnusdei, known to both characters and readers as Pearl, appears only briefly in the novel near its beginning and at its end.

Either of these choices on the part of the author might seem to jar the reader enough to make the novel an unsatisfying read, but the narrative is packed with so much action and historical information that one is carried along by the quick pace and the wealth of detail about 19th century Florida life that Kinnett offers.  Continue reading

Book-Review

Jose Saramago: Our Doppelgangers, Our Selves…

The Double is, ultimately, a meditation – on who we are and, more importantly, on why we are.

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.” ― José Saramago, The Double

The Double by Jose Saramago Image courtesy Goodreads)

The Double by Jose Saramago Image courtesy Goodreads)

The use of doppelgangers in literature is a common enough  device. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” explore the idea of a double who shares an intimate relationship with the protagonist.  In novel form Dickens treats the idea in A Tale of Two Cities and Dostoevsky explores it in The Double. Of course the device has been given permutations, the most famous of which is likely Robert Louis Stevenson‘s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wherein the doppelganger idea is blended with an exploration of chemically induced multiple personality disorder.

The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago (whose Baltasar and Blimunda I wrote about last year) offers a postmodern spin on the doppelganger. Saramago’s The Double is both a story of a man who accidentally encounters his human duplicate while watching a video and a meditation on identity, self-hood, and the power of language. Continue reading

CATEGORY: CrimeCorruption

Book Review: Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley

“Rape is a violation of personal sovereignty and the basic principles and values of a free society.” – Samuel R, Staley

Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

Unsafe on Any Campus by Samuel R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

One of the sad truths about life on college campuses over the last several years has been the rise of what is sometimes called “rape culture.” Professor Samuel Staley of Florida State University has a new book that tries, humbly and intelligently, to address this sad and terrible cultural phenomenon.

Professor Staley became interested in the subject because of his involvement in working with students at Florida State University in self-defense classes. His work led to his becoming a confidant to a number of female students who had experienced sexual assault of one form or another and who grew trustful enough of him to share their stories. Moved by their pain and their search for self-esteem and ways to move beyond their trauma, Sately began researching the topic. An economics professor specializing in public policy, Staley approached the topic in scholarly fashion, conducting both primary and secondary research on campus sexual assault, and Unsafe on Any Campus is larded with direct quotes from leading scholars in the field as well as tables, graphs, and other  representations of the data he gathered on the topic. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Leiber and Stoller: behind the music

Jerry Leiber is gone now but Mike Stoller is still with us. And thankfully, we have Hound Dog – the story of one of pop music’s greatest songwriting teams told in their own words.

Hound Dog: the Leiber and Stoller Autobiography [with David Ritz] (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“…we were… part of the rhythm and blues and rock and roll revolution…. we found ourselves by sheer coincidence or exceptionally good fortune, smack dab in the middle of the action.” – Mike Stoller

My Aunt Mary Ann, my mother’s youngest sister, was only eight years older than me. What that meant was that she was a teenager in the later 1950’s. Like any teenager of the period, she had a portable record player and a huge stack of 45’s. I spent every visit to my grandmother’s house when I was six-seven-eight listening to those records. I heard Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Duane Eddy, The Drifters, The Coasters, and, of course, Elvis.

I don’t know how many other kids my age were falling madly in love with rock and roll and rhythm and blues. But I did, and I’ve never fallen out.

So when a friend of mine surprised me with Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography as a birthday present, it was like being that second grader all over again. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

I love Beach Music: the heart of darkness

Rick Simmons’ Beach Music sequel is part oral history, part encomium, part bullshit – but it all works.

“I didn’t like ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie.…'” – Jay Proctor, Jay and the Techniques

So my sister gave me this book for my birthday….

Carolina Beach Music: The New Wave by Rick Simmons (image courtesy Goodreads)

Somehow, my sister has the impression that I might like the fusion of R&B, soul, rock, and dance pop that is known in the Southeast as “Beach Music.” Well, I love music, so she was half right. For anyone who grew up in the Carolinas over the last 60 years or so (both North and South, though perhaps SC has the greater claim to the genre since they have all the relevant beaches name checked in beach music songs [chiefly Ocean Drive and Myrtle Beach]), Beach Music (and it really should be capitalized, I suppose), is a regional genre that, while well past its peak, persists even now. Its roots lie in classic R&B, though it has incorporated elements of rock, soul, and dance pop in its long history.

Rick Simmons, a historian at Louisiana Tech (and a native South Carolinian) has written two books on the genre, Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years and Carolina Beach Music: The New Wave. My sister’s birthday gift this year was a copy of the latter, so I’m going to talk about that here. But first, as I am wont to do, I’ll share an anecdote…. Continue reading

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Book Review: Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait

“Review a little history and you’ll see that creators seem to find inspiration in adversity.” – Gavin Chait, Lament for the Fallen

Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait (Image courtesy Goodreads)

On the surface Gavin Chait’s debut novel Lament for the Fallen seems to have a classic sci-fi plot: an alien comes to Earth, interacts with humans, reveals remarkable super human powers in helping his human hosts/friends, then returns to his home, humans having been taught an important lesson or two. If it seems that this plot line that has been used with remarkable success in the genre, it’s because it has. While it is well known among my friends and critics that I am not a fan of science fiction books (which I noted again very recently), I am a fan of sci-fi films. Besides the ubiquitous and just okay behemoth E.T.: the Extraterrestrial, other films that have explored the genre interestingly include The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Starman.

Having said all this, I suppose I should make a clarification. Lament for the Fallen is not about an alien visiting Earth. It is about a human who has lived his life in a “space city” (think colony – that’s important to the themes of this work) visiting Earth and doing some of those remarkable things mentioned above. To miss this might cause one to miss important themes and ideas that this book explores.

As I find I must say too often in my role as crusty old professor, read more closely, students. Harrumph…now to this excellent book… Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: Crossing the Blue Line by William Mark

Crossing the Blue Line should be on your “beach read” list.

“All hell broke loose the last time we sat on a deck like this drinking beer, contemplating doing something stupid for the right reason….” – William Mark

Crossing the Blue Line by William Mark (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

William Mark’s Crossing the Blue Line is the sort of book that some magazines would put into their lists of “great beach reads.” It’s a fast paced, high energy narrative about crooked cops – on both sides of what is known in police jargon as “the blue line.” What sets Mark’s book apart from most such novels is that he gives us crooked cops who take the law into their own hands for the right as well as for the wrong reasons.

Dylan Akers and Beau Rivers, the heroes of Mark’s previous work in this emerging series, are both on thin ice with their superiors at the Tallahassee PD when the novel opens. Both have been demoted and moved to backwater assignments (Akers, a top homicide detective, has been made head of a dead end division of the department; Rivers, the epitome of the “loose cannon” type, has been given an even more dead end assignment) as punishment for having committed a crime that can’t (seemingly) be proven against them: the execution of two criminals who raped and murdered Dylan’s young daughter. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

On reading a book one doesn’t like…

“There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject; as there is room for more light, the brightest day and more rays will not interfere with the first.” – Henry David Thoreau

Books – I like them (image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, I am one of those people who feels a weird sort of moral, ethical or, most likely, neurotic need to finish books that I begin reading. As a reviewer, it seems to me that it is a courtesy writers deserve. As a writer, it is a courtesy I hope – but don’t always get the feeling – that reviewers give me. As a bibliophile and avid, perhaps compulsive reader, it seems to me that books and their writers deserve my attention – and possibly my affection.

The problem with a weltenschauung like this is that it compels one to wade through books one doesn’t particularly like. I am doing just that at present.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Jorge Ferretis

“He would never wish to see his son as he himself had been once, living discontentedly amidst men at the beck and call of masters.” – Jorge Ferretis

Jorge Ferretis (image courtesy Enciclopedia de la Literatura en Mexico)

I’ve finally made my way through the lengthy collection of stories A World of Great Stories, I’ve found a number of the selections rather creaky (likely a fault of older translations) or by authors who are obscure outside their own countries. (I see this as a positive since it introduces American readers to talented authors they might not otherwise encounter.) There is a sincere effort by the various region editors to include representative work from most of the world – the U.S., British Isles, eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Africa is not represented, an omission one feels more keenly now than might have been felt when the collection first appeared in 1948. Still, it is a collection that has reminded me about – or introduced me to – writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Rudyard KiplingRhian Roberts, Lauro de Bosis, Karel Capek, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, writers who represent all the previously mentioned geographic regions except Latin America.

This essay on Jorge Ferretis, A Mexican author you may, like me, not be familiar with, completes the full tour of all the geographic regions covered by the story collection I’ve been blathering on about. He’s a good choice because he allows us to talk about Latin American literary history a bit. Continue reading

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Peter Thiel and Ambrosia: A modern-day Dracula reboot for self-absorbed rich people

Transfusing youth, 21st century style…

(At the sound of wolves howling) – “Children of the night: what music they make!” – Dracula (in Tod Browning’s Dracula, 1931)

Dracula, Lugosi style (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Several recent news items from reliable sources have explored the research of scientists into the benefits of blood transfusions from young persons to old ones. If you are like me and find this at its best macabre, at its worst Mengelean, then the following is, as a writer and TV host used to say, “submitted for your approval….”

A new company called Ambrosia is willing to offer customers trial participants a series of blood transfusions from 16-25 year old donors. Recipients must be older than 35 to qualify for the deal trial. The purpose of these transfusions is to combat aging, particularly by improving brain function and muscle strength.

If you followed either of the links for the clinical trials, you’ve noticed that there are a ethical issues galore related to doing this kind of research and these kind of clinical trials, no matter how noble the aims might be.  One of the issues causing real concern in the scientific community is that those who wish to participate in the trials are being charged $8,000. Yep. $8,000.  Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

“Of course, problems in practical morality are different from the production technique pointed out by Strindberg, But there was something in the hint he had received from the passage that was disturbing…. Bushido and its mannerism–” – Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Ryunosuke Akutagawa (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa are highly esteemed in Japan, and one of that country’s highest literary awards, the Akutagawa Prize, is named in his honor. Most American readers, however, likely know him through the adaptation of one of his stories, “In a Grove” by the master Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa into the cinema classic Rashomon.

A tormented soul, like so many short story masters, Akutagawa took his own life at 35. He left behind a body of work that is fascinating in its questioning of Japanese cultural and philosophical thought, particularly of philosophies such as the above mentioned Bushido. Highly influenced by his study of Western literature (as a student at Tokyo Imperial University he translated works by both William Butler Yeats and Anatole France), Akutagawa sought to reconcile Eastern and Western thought and culture in his works. The tension in his stories arises, almost always, between the truth that the individual perceives and the facts of any incident. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Writers of slender acquaintance: Karel Capek

Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like dry leaves. Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.” – Karel Capek

Karel Capek (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The Czech writer Karel Capek, in terms of being a writer of slender acquaintance, falls somewhere between Rudyard Kipling, a Nobelist remembered now only for children’s stories and Rhian Roberts, a Welsh writer of great promise who published a few short stories and then disappeared. While he is often (erroneously) credited with having coined the word for a creation that may haunt the 21st century,  was nominated for the Nobel Prize numerous times, and even has literary awards named for him, Capek is not widely read now.

He should be. His central themes – the ability of technology to overwhelm and destroy humanity, the dangers of rampant consumerism, corporatism run amok, the evils of authoritarianism of both left and right political persuasions – will resonate powerfully with contemporary readers. Given that Capek died in 1938, his prescience about the power of these forces in our lives makes him a writer who should be widely read and discussed. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Lauro De Bosis

Award-winning Italian writer lost his life protesting the fascism of Benito Mussolini.

Lauro De Bosis (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“Every regime in the world, even the Afghan and Turk, allows its citizens a certain amount of liberty. Fascism alone, in self-defense, is obliged to annihilate thought.” – Lauro De Bosis

This week’s writer of slender acquaintance is less a mysterious one like Rhian Roberts and more a tragic one like – well, like many artists who oppose and are destroyed by repressive regimes. As I mentioned last week, I am meandering through a massive collection of short stories called A World of Great Stories. As I made my way through the Italian section (and came across one of the worst edited “story” selections I have read so far in this volume – and that’s saying something – an excerpt called “The Travelers” from Ignazio Silone’s The Seed Beneath the Snow), I encountered De Bosis and a piece (it’s not really a story, it’s a heartfelt autobiographical essay about and against Mussolini and Italian Fascism) he wrote before his last flight (De Bosis was an amateur aviator). Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Rhian Who…?

“It is therefore only right that we should all turn out to make our farewells.” – Rhian Roberts

A World of Great Stories, eds. Hiram Haydn and John Cournos (image courtesy Goodreads)

I haven’t mentioned my reading in the last couple of essays. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading (don’t be silly), but because I’m dividing my time between a couple of works. One of these is a crime fiction novel by an author I have reviewed before, William Mark (my review of his latest, Crossing the Blue Line, will appear sometime next week.

The other, whose cover is pictured at right, is called A World of Great Stories and contains 115 “stories” (more on why the quotation marks used shortly) by authors from around the world. So far I’ve finished the American/British section (which includes not just the U.S. and England but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and am into the section on Europe which starts, quite naturally, with the French who are after all right across the Channel.

The Welsh representative is the Rhian of this essay’s title. Her name is Rhian Roberts and if there were ever a writer with whom one’s acquaintance is going to be slender, it would be she.

But more on Ms. Roberts anon. First, a few words about this book. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Writers of slender acquaintance: Rudyard Kipling

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” – Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Another in the series I began last week about writers who have become neglected. This week’s choice is one whose literary reputation has been as high, as low, and as controversial as any writer in the history of literature. Rudyard Kipling has been revered – and reviled – by authors as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, R.K. Narayan, and George Orwell – who noted that Kipling:

…sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.

For those who know Kipling – and that’s almost everyone – only for “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” or The Jungle Book or Kim – Kipling is a dimly remembered writer of exciting stories for young readers. But he was a complicated figure who produced a wide range of work with interesting themes. Continue reading

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Writers of slender acquaintance: Sherwood Anderson

In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were truths and they were all beautiful. – Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This is the beginning of acting upon an idea. Whether it will be a good idea only time will tell, but here is a beginning.

As anyone who reads my essays knows, I read a lot of books. Some of the books are newly issued works of promise, some are long remembered, well known classics, some are oddities that for one reason or another have captured my attention and imagination for a least a brief time.

Because I read many books, I encounter many writers. Some of these writers are famous, known by most of the American public even if only as a name that they know.  Some have had great recognition and renown but are not known to much of the American public at all. A few have had some recognition and appeal but deserve more.

As I have thought about this, especially since reading my most recently completed book, Robert E. Spiller’s overview of American literary history, it has occurred to me that someone ought to write a series of essays that look at one other group: writers whose place in the world of literature might be seen as precarious, writers whose work should be “discovered/re-discovered” by a reading public who may be hungry for something a little deeper and more challenging than the standard fare that gets the most attention these days.

Here I go, violating one of the military’s truisms: Never volunteer. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Robert Spiller’s American Literature for old fogeys…

Robert E, Spiller’s classic of literary history, The Cycle of American Literature, still holds insights for the serious reader even though he occasionally creaks with quaintness…

The Cycle of American Literature by Robert E. Spiller (image courtesy Goodreads)

Pulled this wonderful old critical monograph on the history of American literature off the shelf a bit ago and have just completed a re-read, my first of this text in, oh, I don’t know, about 40 years, I’d say.  First published in 1955, The Cycle of American Literature is Spiller’s personal, sometimes idiosyncratic (as all good scholarly writing should be) critical survey of the emergence and evolution of American literature as we know it.

Readers old enough to remember the training one received in literature prior to the scholarly culture revolutions of the last several decades which have seen cultural shifts such as the removal of one time bastions of literary study from the curriculum as their places are taken by more “relevant and inclusive” author selections will read this lovely chestnut of “old school” critical thinking with a satisfying “hmm, yes, that’s how we were taught to think about literature.” Those trained since the revolution that made criticism more important than the literature it is supposed to be critiquing may find it shocking at first to have a scholar/critic actually write about writers and their work as if those writers and their work actually matter and are not just products of deep psycho-social structures that reduce the literary artist to a cipher, a tool, an outlet for the historical and cultural forces of his/her time will scratch their heads and say, perhaps, “slightly benighted, but certainly some interesting stuff here.”

As Mr. Vonnegut observed, “So it goes.Continue reading

Book-Review

Guy de Maupassant and the pain of brevity…

How strange and changeful is life! How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us! – Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”

There must have been something in the water.

Guy de Maupassant (image courtesy Wikimedia)

If one considers some of the great short story writers of the late 19th-early 20th century – Chekhov, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, better known by his pen name Saki, and Maupassant, one must note two things: they gave us some of the most remarkable short fiction ever written (Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog“) and they all died in their forties. If one adds in the brilliant American Stephen Crane, who died at 29 and who gave us “The Open Boat,” the average lifespan for a master of short fiction in this era works out to be roughly 40. That’s the lifespan of a medieval knight.

It’s as if short fiction genius comes with the price of a short life. It’s a literary artist’s version of Achilles’ choice: faced with the prospect of a long but uneventful life and dying forgotten or doing work that would bring them immortality but a brief temporal existence, they all chose option B.

I have long been divided about whether I thought Chekhov or Crane the greatest of short fictioneers, to borrow a term from my friend the gifted short fiction writer Teresa Milbrodt. Having recently finished reading The Tales of Guy de Maupassant, I find myself needing to consider adding a third contender to my deliberations. Continue reading