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

WordsDay: Literature

The Judgment of Paris and the Rise of Impressionism…

“Time gives every human being his true value.” – Ernest Meissonier

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King (image courtesy Goodreads)

Unless you are a student of art history, you have probably never heard of the author of the quote above, Ernest Meissonier. At the time of Ross King’s history of the rise of Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris, Meissonier was the most famous painter in the world. Now, 150 years later, Meissonier is forgotten and his rival who spent the decade being ridiculed, Edouard Manet, is one of art history’s titans. King’s book explores one of the most famous and volatile periods of art history, Paris in the 1860’s, the decade that saw the peak of Meissonier’s career, the decline and fall of the 2nd Empire, and the rise of a group of artists, a group King calls the “generation of 1863”- Manet, Whistler, Henri Fantin-Latour – and their younger contemporaries – Renoir, Degas, Monet.

By comparing the far different struggles of Meissonier and Manet, King is able to illuminate one of history’s continuing problems: the resistance of the established power structure to new ideas. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing: an appreciation of John Gierach

…we fall into that class of fishermen who fancy themselves to be poet/philosophers, and from that vantage point we manage to pull off one of the neatest tricks in the sport: the fewer fish we catch the more superior we feel. – John Gierach

Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing by John Gierach (image courtesy Goodreads)

It’s called “the quiet sport” and to those of us who practice it, as I have written about numerous times, perhaps most poetically here, it is part mysticism, part addiction, part that thing which my friends laugh at.  Fly fishing, especially fly fishing for trout, is a complicated, though deceptively simple, activity that involves a good bit of gear, a good bit of luck, a good bit of neurosis. John Gierach’s book of essays, Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing is one of my favorite works on the subject, and, since it’s part of the 2016 reading list, I dove into it immediately after finishing Catherine Heath’s social history of the 70’s and 80’s, Behaving Badly mainly because I am avoiding reading fiction right now as I finish my latest book.

The book is a series of essays that look at those elements of fly fishing that I mentioned above – gear, luck, and neurosis – in about equal parts. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Catherine Heath’s Behaving Badly: the novel in its time…

Don’t you think it’s magnificent? A kind of splendid behavior really. A trusting of the future, a daring kind of love. Isn’t it, in a way, splendid? – Catherine Heath

Behaving Badly by Catherine Heath (image courtesy Library Thing)

Catherine Heath is a novelist I stumbled upon through my wife Lea’s interest in and admiration for the actress Judi Dench. In looking around for a present for her (anniversary, Christmas, I forget), I came across a British miniseries called Behaving Badly starring the aformentioned Ms. Dench.

As we watched the miniseries I became interested in finding out more about the author, a British novelist of the 1970’s and 80’s who only developed her career as a novelist in early middle age and who died relatively young (66) of cancer. So I found and bought a copy of the novel Behaving Badly, the work upon which the television show was based.

Having read Heath’s novel, I can offer a couple of observations about which I will elaborate later. The first is that Heath, like most British writers, is deft, witty, and thoughtful. The second is that like any number of fine British writers she may be ignored for long periods. The second of these may actually be a hidden boon to her long term literary reputation. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: A Rising Tide of People Swept Away by Scott Archer Jones

How will we respond to the children? – Scott Archer Jones

A Rising Tide of People Swept Away (image courtesy Smashwords)

We live in a world of diversity, of change, of uncertainty. The new novel by Scott Archer Jones, A Rising Tide of People Swept Away, explores what Dr. Johnson might call the “interstitial vacuities.” A small boy from a troubled family, a family part Hispanic, part Anglo, becomes the “adopted” child of a group of troubled people in the Albuquerque Bosque area. The story of how he is saved while they are lost is the focus of A Rising Tide of People Swept Away.

I think this is a significant book for a couple of reasons. First, it is a novel that addresses what is happening to too many in our country: people who are pawns in the machinations of government working in concert with wealthy forces interested in increasing their wealth do their best to fight back against adds that are so stacked against them they are doomed from the start. Second, and this is the real story and power of Jones’s novel, this is a story of how human love and kindness persist in the face of the forces mentioned in the first reason. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Bulwer-Lytton and the art of bad writing…

“Let the past perish, when it ceases to reflect on its magic mirror the beautiful magic which is its noblest reality, though perchance though but the shadow of its delusion.” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (image courtesy Wikimedia)

It has been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything. There are explanations – reasons, if you will. None of them will please everyone, but remember what Lincoln said….

Reason #1: I have waded through a large pile of books as a judge for the Florida Authors and Publishers Association annual book awards. This task has some elements comparable to the 12 labors of Hercules. Part of the task has been like overcoming the Nemean Lion. Part of it has been like pursuing the Hind of Ceryneia. Part of it has been like cleaning the Augean Stables.

Yes, well…

Reason #2: I have started – and stopped (gasps from those who know my “if you start a book, finish it” mantra) a couple of books. Whether this comes as a result of some sort of reading fatigue brought on by #1 or whether it is the result of other causes, I am yet to learn. And so, it would seem, are you. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Paul Kantner and his brainchild, Jefferson Airplane: a personal appreciation

Life is change/How it differs from the rocks… – Paul Kantner, “Crown of Creation”

Paul Kantner, rock star (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The recent series of rock star deaths  in these first months of 2016 has had me, not unlike many Boomers, pondering how to feel about the passing of my era and its music. I took a stab at explaining how it felt after three major figures – David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Paul Kantner – passed away in quick succession and thought I’d reached a satisfactory, if not satisfying conclusion: rock and roll may not be here to stay.

Writing about those figures who played such an important role in my life was cathartic. Saying goodbye, however painful that process may be, is always a good way to achieve closure. It’s a mature, psychologically and emotionally, response to the sense of loss.

Which is psychobabble, of course. And to which Kantner might say, in his own inimitable fashion, that it “…doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”

We mostly connect to our famous heroes because we admire them, because we desire them, because we want to be them. But once in a while we connect to a writer, an artist, an actor, a musician, because we can sense we’re like them.

I’m a guy like Paul Kantner. So sending some love to his brainchild Jefferson Airplane feels like a good way to say thanks to him for giving me so much. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross – to strive, to seek… not to yield…

“So it’s futile to regret a good deed… for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand.” – Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross (image courtesy Goodreads)

The final volume of Sigrid Undset’s three part saga of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, known by its individual title, The Cross, completes the story of its eponymous heroine and ends with her death during the bubonic plague pandemic of what Barbara Tuchman called “the calamitous 14th century.” Having lost her husband, Erland, her friend, brother-in-law, and secret admirer Simon Andresson, and four of her eight beloved sons already, one would expect that she is worn out by life’s heartbreak and suffering. But that is not the case. Kristin’s death comes as a result of her caring for the body of a plague victim after having saved the woman’s child from human sacrifice – an attempt by villagers near the convent where Kristin has become a nun to appease the evil spirit that they believe has brought the pestilence upon them.

Kristin remains to the end, then, Kristin: vibrant, tormented, beautiful, troubled, striving, frustrated.

But we’re ahead of ourselves. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Review: Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Miss Grief Misguided”

There’s no gentle way to put this: the best thing Constance Fenimore Woolson could have done for her writing career was keep the hell away from Henry James….

Women Artists, Women Exiles: Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson (image courtesy Barnes and Noble)

As I mentioned a few posts back in my essay on Constance Fenimore Woolson, I had ordered a copy of Miss Grief and Other Stories through a favorite used book vendor. The edition I bought is not the edition currently being widely reviewed and discussed. It is an equally reliable edition of Woolson’s stories published in the late 1980’s as part of a series called “Women Artists, Women Exiles” from Rutgers University Press.

Having now read Miss Woolson’s stories (though I read “Miss Grief” twice, having found a pdf – they have this thing called the Internet – of the story which I read for my earlier essay on her career and sad end), I can say with assurance that the current furor over her “rediscovery” is justified. She is a fine writer, and her work shows depth of understanding both of the characters and themes that she explores as well as of her personal literary heritage and of literary history.

Tradition and the individual talent I think some guy called it.

Continue reading