September 6, 2016
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”
He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.
I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.
August 24, 2016
Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.
I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.
I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.
January 13, 2016
Shakespeare apparently knew exactly what the political climate would be in our 2016 election:
“The dullness of the fool is the whetstone of the wits.”
As You Like It, Act I, Scene 2
December 27, 2015
I do not want a future generation of world scholars to have to write books with titles like “The Rise of Fascism in America”. But the subject matter for such books is happening before our eyes, and such history cannot be unwritten.
If a major political party cannot manage its own organization, how can it expect to manage the country? If that party allows a dangerous fascist (dangerous because of his money and his cult following) to run for office under its banner, then that party may someday become a party of armbands.
The Republican Party needs to oust Mr. Trump from its membership list, and bar him from its primaries. I don’t believe there is any legal reason why it cannot do exactly that. He can run independently, if he wishes. This is America.
If the Republican Party does not expel Mr. Trump, I don’t see how it can be respected or taken seriously, let alone continue as a part of our central government.
Perhaps this is a good time to think about whether we want to begin moving away from partisan politics altogether. Maybe our system of government would function better if there were no parties or labels, only ideas and individuals. Could such a change be the silver lining of this whole scary episode? Could such a lovely reform be the final, happier chapter of those books that a future generation of scholars will be writing?
December 25, 2015
“Mollycewels an’ atoms! D’ye think I’m goin’ to listen to you thryin’ to juggle Fluther’s mind with complicated cunundhrums of mollycewels an’ atoms?”
Is there just something naturally poetic about the speech, and the lives, of the people of Dublin? To my untrained American ears, it seems that there is indeed. I know I’m not the first to ponder the inordinate number of amazing writers who passed through Dublin’s “streets broad and narrow”: Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lever, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Christy Brown, Maeve Binchy. Oh, and a clever lad named James Joyce. They were born with extraordinary talent, no question, but the alleys and shops of their youth may have added that extra flavor and color to their work.
One of the great poets of Dublin was playwright Sean O’Casey. I chose to read a three-play collection, comprised of Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars. In this trio of powerful plays, O’Casey managed to create characters who waxed poetic in both mundane and life-changing situations and yet retained their earthiness and authenticity. A well-honed gift of gab is almost universal among his casts of characters, but seems entirely appropriate and natural in them.
There are certain allusions and issues in O’Casey’s plays that I might have better understood if I knew more about the politics of Ireland in the 1920’s, the turbulent era depicted. But the power and poetic sensibility of his characters as they face violence, deprivation and loss are absolutely clear and universal. O’Casey told stories that needed to be told during those tragic years, and the spirit of Dublin that flowed through his veins enriched the pages of his plays for the generations of drama-lovers that came after.
But—who is Charles Lever, you ask? I’ll have more to say about that prolific Dubliner in an upcoming blog.
December 13, 2015
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Donald Trump.”
“Is it the hair?”
“It looks more natural on television.”
“Where are you from?”
“So you’re a Muslim.”
“No, I’m Christian.”
“How do I know that?”
“Half my village was murdered by ISIS.”
“You might be a terrorist pretending to be a refugee. There’s something about your eyes that I don’t like.”
“I haven’t eaten or slept in days.”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to try some other country. Maybe Texas.”
“I think Syria might be safer.”
“Boy you get all kinds. What’s your name?”
“You gotta be Muslim with a name like that.”
“You look more Middle Eastern than the last guy.”
“I am Middle Eastern. So what?”
“So you’re not coming in.”
“Mr. Trump, are you familiar with Crimes Against Humanity?”
“Is that that new reality show?”
“No it’s—oh nevermind. Jerusalem suddenly sounds very peaceful to me.”
“Next? Stand up please. Oh, you are standing up. How old are you?”
“Do you have a name?”
“And you’re from Iraq?”
“I think so.”
“And you’re a Muslim little girl, aren’t you? Don’t just shake your head, sweetie, I need an answer.”
“That some kind of Islam thing, right? Well, you can’t come here, sweetie. You might grow up to be a terrorist. You don’t know what that is? Guns. Killing. Bang, bang.”
“I’m afraid of guns.”
“I’m not. You should see my collection.”
“Please don’t send me back, mister. Those bad men took me and, and—. Please don’t make me go back there.”
“Now, now. This is a very expensive suit, sweetie, I can’t have it water-spotted. Somebody take this little girl to the return line. Name, sir?”
“So why are you coming from Istanbul?”
“International human rights conference. I’m a U.S. District Court Judge.”
“You’re Muslim, and this time I’m not listening to any alibis.”
“I am Muslim. Non-practicing. But I’ve been thinking about becoming more observant.”
“Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the bleeding hearts back in Istanbul.”
“Hey, you can’t—I have a full docket tomorrow, I have to pick my robe up at the cleaners!”
“Get him outa here, boys. One less troublemaker. OK. Let’s have the name.”
“British passport, Mr. Jones?”
“Let’s see. You’ve just come from Pakistan.”
“With a stopover in Libya.”
“I trust you had a pleasant holiday.”
“Splendid, actually. Business and pleasure, you know.”
“Wonderful. What business, may I ask?”
“Oh, I’m a group organizer, also an internet strategist. And I do a little munitions acquisition as well.”
“Ah, a man after my own heart. Now, please forgive me, Mr. Jones, but I have to ask this question, purely routine: are you now or have you ever been a person of the Muslim persuasion?”
“Mr. Trump. Do I look like a Muslim?”
“That’s the answer I was looking for! Welcome to the U.S., Mr. Jones.”
“Thank you awfully. Say, I wonder if you might help me. I would love to find the nearest wholesale/retail weapons emporium. Would you by any chance—”
“Mr. Jones, there’s a wonderful outlet not three blocks from my penthouse. Here, take one of my cards. You tell em Donald sent you. They’ll give you 15% off. Plus free delivery within a ten mile radius.”
December 6, 2015
In truth, the entire winter passed as peacefully and leisurely as a python digesting a Valium addict. — Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All
November 29, 2015
What ISIS is is the world’s largest street gang: made up, like all street gangs, of wayward and disaffected youth exploited by a handful of megalomaniacs. ISIS is simply the 18th Street gang gone viral; the Mara Salvatrucha with a Middle Eastern flavor.
Where there is poverty, there will be fertile ground for the cultivation of such groups. Where feudalism or unbridled capitalism create such disparities between rich and poor, haves and have nots, a violent discontent is often the chief economic product. As long as poverty rampages, so will its youth.
This concept may not provide much insight for dealing with ISIS in the short term, but is it possible we might want to use a little foresight as well? When ISIS is old news, who will be the new bully on the block? Who will be the new boyz in the hood?
November 28, 2015
Buddy Winkler was a preacher who needed a regular pulpit the way a toilet needed a regular flush. — Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All
In lieu of writing complete blog posts at this busy time, I’m going to just post occasional snippets from Tom Robbins. My daughter loaned me the above book, and I am still chuckling over his amazing wordplay. . . More soon.
September 25, 2015
We were visiting the Seattle Public Library recently and walking down its amazing Spiral of Books, and it made me try to think deeper about what our society is doing to our children and grandchildren. If you are a parent, are you raising your children to read and write primarily on paper? Are you limiting their use of electronic devices, making such implements secondary to books and handwriting? Every year and every time a new thought-controlling device is unloaded upon the public, it gets harder for old-schoolers like me to sit back and not start ranting about Big Brother and Fahrenheit 451.
I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy, but books have dignity, identity. That book sits or, more correctly, stands on your shelf. It stands for something. The voice of its author is undying, and is ready and waiting to tell its story to a new audience. How many other readers have touched that book? How many times has that book returned the favor?
A book can lie on your desk, open to an important page. You can write your name in it and pass it along to family, friends. Give it as a gift. You can run your finger down a page. Feel the paper. Books and paper might be our most noble invention. And one of our highest art forms. A book is a permanent record, an original document. It is evidence. It cannot be clicked away, can’t be deleted, cannot be powered-off.
Toddlers everywhere are delighted when picture or story books are put in their little hands. They also delight in anything electronic, with buttons to push. That’s what worries me.
August 30, 2015
We quickly understood each other and became friendly, because I am not capable of true friendship. — Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer. — Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)
. . . it seems to them the friendly memories of that year and of their whole long life winged visibly through the transparent blue. Herman Hesse, Beneath the Wheel (1906)
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. — G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
He grabbed the nickel and legged it away as fast as he could kelter, Molly’s shrill laughing pursuing him as though it ran on feet. — Jack Conroy, A World To Win (1935)
When a man’s overcoat is whiter than flour, why should his shadow be blacker than soot? — Vladimir Korolenko, The Day of Atonement
Not I, old man; nothing that crawls the earth is for my sport. — James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.” — Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets
It was a torrid morning, hazy, the sky veiled as if with medicinal gauze. — The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda
On another small table stood Zuleika’s library. Both books were in covers of dull gold. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)
You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)
It is not love that is blind, but jealousy. — Lawrence Durrell, Justine (1958)
. . .the shining city of the disinherited—a city now trying softly to spread the sticky prismatic wings of a new-born dragon-fly on the night. — Lawrence Durrell, Clea (1960)
He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the erring of his own race. — Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson
We must make a stand, not for the penny, but for justice. What is dear to us is not our penny, because it’s no rounder than any other penny; it’s only heavier; there’s more human blood in it than in the manager’s ruble. That’s the truth! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)
They’ve turned men into weapons, into sticks and stones, and called it civilization, government! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)
Luka: If you believe—he does. If you don’t—he doesn’t. Whatever you believe in, exists. — Maxim Gorky, Lower Depths (1902)
Our emotional life is shared with the animals; we flatter ourselves that human emotions are so much more complicated than theirs. . .We have to wonder. — Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975)
July 19, 2015
Sure. Look at your phone. Don’t look at the cars that could run you over. Look at your phone. That’s more important. Don’t worry that a big Mercury sedan is bearing down on you as you cross the busy unregulated roadway at the mall (you’d have no way of knowing that the way I drive, that Mercury has never borne down on anyone).
Because you HAVE to read that email. Right now. You cannot wait five seconds until you cross the road. Unthinkable. You need to read that email RIGHT NOW. It’s on your phone and you want to read it NOW. What’s more important afterall: that there may be some big motor vehicle hurtling down upon you? OR, that you might have to postpone reading that fascinating email for five whole seconds?
Go on . Don’t give it a thought. Read your email.
July 11, 2015
Recently we saw the new feature animation film Inside Out, and it’s not only one of the cleverest things I have ever seen, it’s also a work of beautiful insight into child development and psychology. Every high school student should be required to watch the film before going out in the world and making babies. It should be part of every parenting class, for it’s such a magical portrayal of what makes children tick.
The film should be seen and then talked about, in depth. I laughed (a lot) and I cried (enough). I hope you are able to catch it while it’s in the theaters.
June 15, 2015
Fact #1: My favorite piece of music in the whole world has always been, and I suspect always will be, Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.
Fact #2: I’ve been wanting to read Joseph Heller’s “other” novel, Something Happened, for quite a while. I’ve also been wanting to read some of Henry James’s shorter works, like Daisy Miller, etc.
Last night we were walking past a thrift store and noticed large stacks of books for sale in the front aisle, something I hadn’t noticed before in that store. We browsed, and there were only a few books of fiction, most were art books. Among the few items of fiction were: Something Happened, by Joseph Heller, and a collection of short works by Henry James, including Daisy Miller. I bought them both, fifty cents each.
Today we got in the car, I turned on the radio, and the announcer was just beginning his introduction of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and we were able to enjoy the full recording as we drove across town.
I don’t think I really believe in fate, in a mystical sense, but oftentimes there it is, in living color, too actual and improbable to ignore. How otherwise do we explain these things?
Maybe, before the day is out, I should buy a lottery ticket.
May 15, 2015
“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.”
I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.
Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.
Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.
I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.
April 3, 2015
Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?
But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.
And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.
But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.
Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:
Group A: Room at the Top; Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Group B: Lost Horizon; Teahouse of the August Moon; The Ugly American
Group C: To Have and to Hold; To Have and Have Not
Group D: Samuel Johnson; Samuel Richardson; Samuel Butler
Group E: The Power and the Glory; The Sound and the Fury
Group F: Rebecca West; Nathanael West; Jessamyn West
Group G: Thomas Wolfe; Tom Wolfe; Tobias Wolff
You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.
March 20, 2015
No matter how much she gives you that look, no matter how devastating or gut-wrenching her frown, do not, under any circumstances or under the influence of any intoxicant or undue social pressure, take your wife to see Fifty Shades of Gray (now festering in a theater near you). I walked out half way through. I should have made my exit during the opening credits.
Even if the movie (book too, I presume) had had nothing to do with sex, it would still have been a worthless piece of tripe, with almost no literary quality. The story, the dialogue, character development: pure pulp. But the sexual content made it twice as offensive, and I am shocked that that movie was not plastered with an XX rating. 17-year-old kids should not be seeing that kind of disturbing content.
And it kills me that I paid good money to subject myself to such punishment. And that the money goes into the pockets of the people who created the monstrosity.
But I really shouldn’t overstate my case and thereby foster some kind of sympathy for the poor, misunderstood film, or book. So I’ll be fair: it was only the second worst film I’ve ever seen in my life.
Now, once you’ve withstood your wife’s sad pleas and pouts, try to discourage her from seeing it with her girlfriends. No one should pay money to see this film. It’s a free country and we’re all entitled to our own thoughts and tastes. And you’ve just heard mine.
February 22, 2015
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”
That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.
His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.
The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.
Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.