S&R Honors John Lennon

S&R Honors John Lennon – a great writer, a great composer, a great man

Despite every attempt to marginalize and discredit him, John Lennon still matters and always will.

” I can’t wake you up. You can wake you up. I can’t cure you. You can cure you.” – John Lennon

John Lennon (image courtesy Short List)

John Lennon (image courtesy Short List)

Mark Twain once described his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”

Twain’s quote sums up the complex personality of our newest Scrogue, John Lennon – a sound heart often in collision with a deformed conscience.

Lennon’s achievements as a songwriter and musician are indisputable. With his songwriting partner (and lifelong friend) Paul McCartney, he is arguably the premiere composer of the 20th century. As a solo artist he left a body of work that is alternately brilliant, haunting, and petulant. As a writer he is an experimenter of the first order, playing with language in ways that rival Joyce and Beckett.

Even as we enter an age of not just indifference but open hostility to artistic achievement, his genius is undeniable. “If there’s such a thing as a genius – I am one. And if there isn’t, I don’t care” he once said of himself.  Continue reading

books

Book Review: Goldhead by J. Haviland

Goldhead is the best kind of novel of its genre – it is a novel that provides a great ride even as it reiterates a great lesson.

“People start acting stupid when a lot of money is involved, even people you think you know.” – J. Haviland, Goldhead 

Goldhead by J. Haviland (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

Goldhead by J. Haviland (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

J. Haviland’s novel Goldhead is a couple of things at once: it’s a caper story (the modern thread of the story follows a group of WWII vets hired in 1959 by a shady tycoon to find a lost Spanish galleon’s treasure); it’s a history lesson (Haviland creates a fictional explorer’s journal similar to that of Bartolomé de las Casas that tells a parallel story of  a 16th century conquistador’s expedition driven aground on the Florida coast by a hurricane that ends in disaster for all but the chronicler). Overarching both these narratives is the lust for gold – a fortune in gold from the Spanish colonial era that drives the behavior of the conquistador and his crew as well as that of the WWII vets and their crooked boss.

The novel is composed in alternating chapters and alternates between the Spanish expedition and the 1959 treasure seekers. Two things become obvious for the reader as this alternating plot structure unfolds: Haviland handles this plot structure beautifully, and avarice and greed separated by 430 years act in exactly the same way upon 16th and 20th psyches. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

The true story of The Beatles: Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness…When They Were Boys by Larry Kane

“In Liverpool, no one ever really walks alone.” – Larry Kane

How much do stars owe to those who helped them become stars?

When They Were Boys by Larry Kane (image courtesy Goodreads)

When They Were Boys by Larry Kane (image courtesy Goodreads)

That is the central question in Larry Kane’s latest book on The Beatles, When They Were Boys. Kane has the credentials to ask such a question – he traveled as part of the press entourage attached to The Fabs during their entire 1964 and 1965 tours (and most of their 1966 tour). In that period he met many of the key players in the background of what is historically called Beatlemania: Brian Epstein, the record store executive who became their manager and paternal figure; Tony Barrow and Derek Taylor, two brilliant journalists and PR experts who helped the rising band become a media tsunami; Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and Tony Bramwell, local Liverpool mates who served as protectors, gofers, and confidants for the guys at the center of the maelstrom; and an array of former supporters, promoters, and club owners/managers ranging from Alan Williams (who died on the last day of the heinous 2016) to deposed Beatle Pete Best’s mother Mona to Sam Leach, a promoter who helped The Beatles gain better engagements and expand their reach beyond Liverpool to Manchester and other cities.

Each has a story to tell – and an ax to grind. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Chekhov: Lost in the Steppe

“In sheer impotency he returned to the house, greeting with bitter tears the new unknown life which was now beginning for him…. What will that life be?” – Anton Chekhov

Sometimes even a great writer runs into the wall.

Anton Chekhov (image courtesy Biography.com)

Anton Chekhov (image courtesy Biography.com)

As I mentioned in my last essay, I’d been working my way through the Everyman Library edition of Chekhov’s stories. The longest story (really a novella) is called “The Steppe” and is, perhaps, something of an autobiographical work. Unlike most Chekhov works, it is a rambling, discursive narrative, episodic, at times slightly incoherent, yet ultimately satisfying a much for its insight into the workings of a great writer’s mind as it is for the work itself.

I’ve explored this topic before with one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen, and to discover this same struggle with a work in another writer whose canon status is inviolate is a pleasurable surprise. Not because I’m looking for feet of clay in a great writer, but because discovering a great writer working to overcome a writing difficulty. In Austen’s case it is that she tries to write her usual comedy of manners with a heroine more suited to a novel by one of the Bronte sisters. In Chekhov’s story, the problems – well, let’s get to them, shall we? Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The consolations of literature…

 

Life is a jest; and all things show it/ I though so once; but now I know it. – John Gay

It’s just words, folks, just words…. – Donald Trump

John Gay (image courtesy Wikimedia)

John Gay (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Friends ask me with some regularity why it is that I spend so much of my free time reading and contemplating and writing about literature. I forswore writing about politics several years ago. (I think it was about 2010 that I gave up trying to say anything useful on the topic. I may have let slip the odd veiled or not-so-veiled reference in the essays I write about literature, but my active days as a critic of this, that, or the other political activity or politician are over.)

Great days – or if the Chinese curse is more apt, interesting days – are upon us, however, and while I can and do find comfort at times in Lord Byron’s flippancy:

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were passed away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

I find that as I contemplate the changes likely to be wrought in my country with the election of the author of one of the epigraphs that begin this essay, that I must find more – and healthier – consolations than the one the 6th Baron of Newstead Abbey proposes.

And so I turn to literature.  Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 7: Women

“It was almost a miracle, her kind of death, because out of all that jam of tonnage, she carried only one bruise, a faint one, near the brow.” – Fannie Hurst

“I love her like a madman, and I would kill myself this instant to rejoin her, if she were not to remain unknown to me for eternity, as she was unknown to me in this world.” – Alexandre Dumas

Fannie Hurst (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Fannie Hurst (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Volume 7 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories is devoted to women. The ten stories in this collection seem to be efforts to find a theme that explains who women are. The various tales depict women as self-destructive, as self-sacrificing, as helpless victims, as brilliant tacticians. And yes, the collection also gives women the all too familiar Madonna/whore treatment.

At least one reason for this particular set of views of women may come from the authorship of the stories. Of these ten stories about women, only two are written by women.  One is by the redoubtable Fannie Hurst, one of the great “women’s authors”of the 20th century (she is the author of great pot boiler melodramas such as Imitation of Life and Back Street, both have which have been filmed multiple times with stars ranging from Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne to Lana Turner and Susan Hayward. The other is an author named Bernice Brown about whom there is scant information, though she seems to have written for magazines such as The Century and, if the example from this collection is an indication, is an interesting proto-feminist.

So, we have a volume of stories that mainly tell us how men saw women in the early 20th century with a couple of women authors trying to tell us how women saw themselves.  Continue reading

Book-Review

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume V: Drama

“The world was full of men and women like Luke and Kit. Some had given up great hopes because they were too good to tread down others in their quest. Some had quenched great talents because they were too fearsome or too weak or too lazy to feed their lamps with oil and keep them trimmed and alight. Some had stumbled through life with no gifts of talent, without even appreciation of the talents of others or of the flowerlike beauties that star the meadows.” – Rupert Hughes

Rupert Hughes (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Rupert Hughes (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This fifth volume of the collection (volume 1 here, volume 2 here. volume 3 here, volume 4, here) I’m working through, The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, focuses on the theme (I really should be using the word topic rather than theme, I suppose, but there we are) Drama. That term drama certainly gets a workout in this volume. The reader gets a taste of melodrama, naturalism,and psychological drama; even the classic twist of fate gets a workout in a couple of stories.

As has been usual in this collection, this volume is a mixture of writers now forgotten (or barely remembered now though popular in their time) and writers whose place in the traditional canon of literary stars is secure and likely to remain so. Thus one reads a story by the (in her time) highly popular Kathleen Norris, then a story by canonical stalwart Stephen Crane or a story by once popular but now forgotten Rupert Hughes (pictured), then one by one of the literary giants, Leo Tolstoy.

Hawthorne, Dickens, and Balzac are represented as are lesser but still noted literary figures like Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant (about whom I’ve written recently).  Continue reading

Book-Review

The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 3: Mystery

“…silent was the entire dark, deserted house.” – Leonid Andreyev

Leonid Andreyev (portrait by Ilya Repin - courtesy Wikimedia)

Leonid Andreyev (portrait by Ilya Repin – courtesy Wikimedia)

This third installment in this series of essays (volume 1 here, volume 2 here) of this Grant Overton edited collection called The World’s 100 Best Short Stories focuses on the theme, mystery. Something that I have been particularly pleased with in these collections (there are ten volumes, each with ten stories) has been that the editor has avoided conventional definitions of each of the genres of writing covered in the series.

Such is the case with the theme of mystery. There are classic examples of the genre, to be sure: Edgar Allan Poe’s “tale of ratiocination,” “The Gold Bug,” is included, as is a classic Wilkie Collins mystery, “A Terribly Strange Bed.” There are “contemporary” examples (remember the publication date, 1927) such as “The Doomdorf Mystery” by Melville Davisson Post and “The Bamboozling of Mr. Gascoigne” by E. Phillips Oppenheim. All of these are entertaining (if slightly creaky in spots) as classics of mystery detection, thriller, or caper account (the Oppenheim story recounts a classic con game, for example). Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The world’s 100 best short stories, sort of…Vol. 1: Adventure

“The percentage of fiction which can hold its place with succeeding generations is, I believe, much smaller than critics suppose. Every generation has a right to insist that its own enjoyment of of experience is in one respect the best enjoyment, because the most complete.” – Grant Overton, editor-in-chief,  The World’s 100 Best Short Stories

Richard Connell, author of

Richard Connell, author of “The Most dangerous Game” (image courtesy Wikimedia)

You can find some good books at the library. A couple of years ago Lea and I were at our local library donating some books and ran one of those periodic sales libraries have when they get rid of perfectly wonderful books for no reason at all. So, because I’m no fool, I grabbed some good buys.

I bought a set of ten leather bound volumes – first editions, mind you – called The World’s 100 Best Short Stories. Published by Funk and Wagnalls in 1927 and edited by a newspaper editor, writer, and critic named Grant Overton, the set is organized thematically to allow readers to sample stories according to their interests. Besides the “Adventure” theme in Volume 1, there are volumes themed “Romance,” “Mystery,” and “Humor,” for instance. The range of authors goes from popular short story authors of the time of these volumes’ publication like the pictured Richard Connell to classic members of the literary canon such as Victor Hugo to figures who straddled both the popular and literary worlds such as Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a terrific collection of enjoyable (and enlightening) reading for any mood.

What dd this nifty collection set me back, you ask? Two bucks. $2. Two hundred cents.

Yeah, I got a deal. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Being Queen Elizabeth…the First

Did Elizabeth lift England to greatness or did England make Elizabeth the great queen she became?

“Through all her [Elizabeth’s] wavering and inconstancy, her hesitation and uncertainty, there was one faithful element – her sense of responsibility to her position.” -Katharine Anthony

Queen Elizabeth I (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Queen Elizabeth I (image courtesy Wikimedia)

My latest foray into reading is a classic biography that I found in an antique store. In the mid 1920’s Literary Guild was founded as a competitor to the successful Book of the Month ClubCarl Van Doren, a noted biographer and critic was selected as the first chairman of Literary Guild. Katharine Anthony’s Queen Elizabeth was a best seller for Literary Guild in 1929.

It’s easy to understand why. Anthony writes with the fluidity and ease of a novelist. Though Queen Elizabeth was a quick read, it never felt under researched or careless. Tudor scholars would probably dispute some of the facts as Anthony presents them given that new information about Elizabeth and the Tudor dynasty has likely been discovered. But for compelling narrative, Anthony holds her her own with luminaries such as the aforementioned Carl Van Doren, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin. 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WordsDay: Literature

H. E. Bates and the pleasures of fine writing…

H. E. Bates writes about war, romance and that delightful thing we know as English eccentricity with equal facility and with skill that makes one understand what is meant by the term “fine writing.”

H.E. Bates (image courtesy Wikimedia)

As I have made clear, I am a great fan of the writing of Somerset Maugham. He represents a school of English – and American – literature that daintily dances along the line dividing deliciously readable middle brow fiction of the sort I’ve written about here and here. Whether he’s detailing the muddle between high brow and middle brow literature or skewering a self-proclaimed “magic man,” Maugham delivers eminently readable, often profound observations on the human condition. He also inspired a number of younger writers to follow in his footsteps.

One of the best of these “sons of Maugham” is H.E. Bates. Best known to the American audience, perhaps, because of Masterpiece Theater’s broadcasts of London Weekend Television’s adaptation of his novel Love for Lydia, an adaptation well known for helping launch the careers of actors such as Jeremy Irons and Peter Davison, among others.

I was fortunate enough to find a copy of New Directions Publishing’s re-issue of Bates’s A Month by the Lake and Other Stories recently at my favorite used book shop. As I hoped, it is a delight. Continue reading