Thursday, October 29, 2020

Godric by Frederick Buechner

"How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it's how monk Reginald will tell of mine." 

This line from late in Godric gets at the main tension in the book. Saint Godric of Finchale is reflecting on his life and telling the story to a monk named Reginald who tends him in his old age (roughly 100 years old). Reginald did, of course, write just the sort of hagiography that Godric is worried about. Because Godric understands that he is indeed a sinner; he is not a good person. Or rather he is a mix, in his words: "Perhaps, since nothing human's not a broth of false and true, it was the two at once."

Like The Moviegoer and Till We Have Faces, this is one of the books I’ve read at least 12 times as an adult. All three were on my annual reread list for years. I rotated them out after 2017, and returned to them over the past couple of weeks to see how they hold up after a nearly 3 year break. All three hold up well, but this is likely my favorite of the group and the most likely to get back into the yearly rotation.

All of Buechner’s work carries that tension between the holy and the profane and between doubt and faith. As much or more than any other believing author I’ve read Buechner treats doubt as the serious subject it is and presents it as inescapable even as he himself is a genuine believer. I don’t share the faith any more, and Walker Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer) he is a writer that worked in the reverse for me than he apparently did for others; he is often cited as a gateway into the faith, but he was one of my gateways out. Still I appreciate that a believer is so honest about the consistent presence of doubt. I also really appreciate his insistence that people are at least as bad as they are holy. That “snarl of false and true” is the human condition, which I think holds whether God exists or not. 

But all of those themes alone would not make me love the book. It is Godric’s voice. Buechner’s prose is never less than elegant in the dozen or so books I’ve read by him. Always funny. And Godric’s voice is the best expression of both his eloquence and his humor. And it is the best vehicle for his thematic concerns as well. It’s compelling all the way through. It’s moving without schmaltz. It earned the tears that came up on the last page as they did all previous eleven times. Another of the books that I thought of as automatically in when I conceived this blog as building a personal canon.


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 26/35

Readathon 4/4

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis

The strongest argument for God in the face of evil is that from Job, and I honestly don’t find it compelling. That argument as I understand it, God’s response to complaints about evil and injustice in the world is simply, “I’m God and I’m so far beyond your comprehension that to question me is silly, like a flea questioning the motives of the herd of buffalo that tramples it.” That argument was convincing to me once, and honestly I think the greatest expression of it I’ve encountered is presented in the second part of Till We Have Faces. But I’ve come to wonder how that argument to justify human suffering is substantively different from the madness inspiring Old Ones of the Cthulhu mythos. It just doesn’t square with the idea of a loving god. But despite ideological drift and no longer finding the central argument Till We Have Faces presents convincing, I love this book. If I were ever to be swung around on that, this would be the book to do it.

The novel takes the form of the retelling of the myth of Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche's sisters, Orual, who is presented as a Queen in a small (fictional) realm that shares the world with the Ancient Greeks. It is written as her complaint against the gods. Why did they bring Psyche into the world only to be sacrificed to them? Why are they so cruel to Orual herself? The first part lays out the story, and in the second half she is answered, to her satisfaction, by a variation of the Job argument: “I ended my first book with the words 'no answer.' I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”

This is at least my 12th time reading the novel, and someone might reasonably ask, why, if you don’t find the Job argument convincing would you keep reading the book over and over?  There are several answers to that question. One is that I find her complaint against the gods pretty convincing. Lewis, in the 20 or so books I’ve read by him, was only this raw and questioning in A Grief Observed, the published form of the notebooks he kept after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, who is reported to be a heavy influence on the writing of Till We Have Faces. Another is that despite not being convinced by the argument about the gods, in talking about them Lewis is incredibly effective at evoking the awe that science fiction, fantasy and mythic stories are touted for, a sensation akin to worship. Another is that it is very smart about the way that religious people and irreligious people (represented in part by the priest of Ungit (Aphrodite) and Orual’s teacher The Fox, who aside from being a well drawn character represents Greek philosophy) in many cases do not understand each other on a fundamental level. Another is that it is incredibly written; for my money it’s far and away the best thing that I’ve read by Lewis. 

But the thing that pulls me to the book more than anything else is that it is profound about the difference between self and self perception. About self deception. Like the ants sorting seeds in Psyche’s task, Orual’s sorting out her own motives “was a labor of sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext." The first part of the story is Orual telling her story, and like so many people making things about herself when they are not. In the second section she goes back over the story with the perspective she’s gained from her first attempt at it. It’s the difference between being good and appearing good. “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, "Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words." A glib saying. When the time comes at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words." Lewis takes this on to the previous statement about the god of the mountain himself being the answer to the questions. 

While I can’t follow Lewis that far, I find the book absolutely compelling as a story and as an invitation to self examination. I like that Lewis lets himself doubt here. The fact that he wrote a narrator who is a (relatively) believable woman may owe to his marriage to Davidman. There is speculation that she, not Lewis, wrote the book. I don't buy that, but I’m certain she had a lot of input. Like Godric and The Moviegoer, this was once an annual reread to which I returned after not reading it since 2017. Like those, despite my ideological drift, I still love the book and it is firmly in my canon.

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 25/35

Readathon 3/3

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Back in 2018, a science fiction/fantasy book discussion podcast I listened to recommended Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties highly, in tones that put her on the same plane as Kelly Link or George Saunders. And that high praise was earned; while I may prefer those other two, Machado is playing on the same field and even the stories that didn’t immediately work for me won me over by their endings. But the standout of the bunch, for me, was Especially Heinous in which she took the episode titles for the entire run of Law and Order SVU and used them as titles for recap-like mini chapters that became a perfect horror story. That the story was written during the events depicted in this memoir and the disjointed narrative matched her then current experience only made me appreciate it more.

In The Dream House is as good as that excellent story collection. It’s a heartbreaking memoir about Machado’s relationship with an abusive ex, and also an examination of the way abuse in lesbian relationships is perceived and reported to the extent that it is at all. The silence of the historical record on this is not something I'd contemplated before. Machado talks about “the violence of the archive” or “archival silence” on queer relationships in general, and their having an abusive component in particular. That concept really shook me. The idea that whole groups of people are just left out of the record is something I knew, but this brought it home more powerfully. I think of someone like my favorite writer, Herman Melville. I would be very surprised if he considered himself queer in the sense that it’s used today, that is, building an identity around it. But I would be even more surprised, having read several of his books, if he hadn’t had a lot of sex with men, especially during his years at sea. I need to read a biography of him before I make claims about the record of his experiences, but it wouldn’t even be a conversation if he hadn’t once been a bestselling writer and a later work reclaimed as a classic long after his death. But what about people with similar experiences who didn’t write a late acknowledged masterpiece? Machado does an excellent job teasing out the implications of this both in terms of the violence done to people and the way denying this part of human nature is problematic in its own right. Machado’s case was one of emotional violence unaccompanied by physical violence and the archives, according to her research (very thorough by the looks of the suggested additional reading list) is particularly silent in such cases. And yet it must have happened. Machado’s account of her own experiences is convincing and harrowing.

 And oddly, given the heaviness of the themes, it's very funny in places. It’s absolutely compelling. Like her stories, it is structurally innovative. Each chapter is labled “Dream House as _____” which allows her to jump from the personal narrative to the broader conversation by means of various tropes and metaphors. There’s a running gimmick (used in the positive sense) in which her reactions to the abuse are compared to tropes from a specific book on folklore. The prose is consistently very good. All in all an excellent memoir and book. I think I like it even more than her stories.

Highly Recommended 

Library Books and Everything Else 2020 24/35

Readathon 2/4

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Black Helicopters by Caitlin Kiernan

Back in 2018 when I first read this I said “If you could somehow find the midpoint between Lovecraft, Joyce, Le Carre and Lewis Carroll you might be on similar ground but this is no pastiche. It's a tough read but so worth the effort.” That’s not a terrible summation. I thought this was a sequel to the first Kiernan book I read, Agents of Dreamland, but a version of this was written first and published as a chapbook, then she rewrote it after writing Dreamland. Like its prequel, it is told in a nonlinear style. As I said then it’s often a tough read. There’s a chapter in which the dialog is all in French. On my first pass, I googled every phrase and got the gist, only to find the chapter with translated dialog as an appendix. The book makes the reader work to figure out what is happening, but once it’s pieced together, it is genuinely horrifying.

A long lived woman named Ptolema, currently working for a government agency that investigates supernatural crises meets with some shifty members of a group that is involved in a less clearly stated way. She is in search of one of a set of twins, Bete, and the Psychiatrist who has been running an experiment on them. The other twin, Ivoire, is in New England, coerced into joining a fight against what appears to be the initial phases of the awakening of a Cthuhlu like creature and his minions. There are dips into the past and into the far future. There are literal and metaphorical chess games (I definitely thought about Nabokov at times while reading this). The Signalman, the main agent in the prequel, makes a cameo.

The horror is equal parts cosmic and psychological. The mood is both awe-evoking and oppressive. "Eris plays a mean game of chess,"  Kiernan says at one point. Eris is the Greek goddess of chaos and strife; chaos and uncertainty are the major themes here, and the source of much of the horror. In dialog: "I'm certain of that sir.’ ‘Ptolema, my dear, no one is ever ----ing certain of anything. In all the wide world, there is not a scintilla of certainty.’ And later translated from French: "Ma'am," says Babbitt, not daring to raise his head. You are certain you will obtain the desired results?".... "Babbitt,  I have never in all my life been certain. Which is the point." 

This is the kind of weird fiction that works best on me. Maybe my favorite of the Kiernan books I’ve read, and definitely my favorite of the ones I’ve read twice (though a third read of The Drowning Girl could change that). A literary horror novel/weird tale of the highest order.


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 23/25

Readathon 2/2

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

If there is a book that has had a stronger effect on me over the long term, that is that it introduced me to ideas that eventually led to a complete shift of world-view, I can’t think of one. That paradigm shift was not in the direction that Percy intended; his project, as far as I can divine it from having read all his books, most of them multiple times, is to use existentialism and semiotics in the context of often ironic stories to convince people to convert to Catholicism. That’s not entirely fair, he was a novelist first and it’s only in his last novel that the ideas completely overwhelmed the story (though, starting with Lancelot they started tending in that direction). His world in which it’s hard to figure out how to live as a person on a Tuesday afternoon now that everything has been explained satisfactorily by philosophy and science was my real introduction to existentialism (though I had read excerpts here and there previously), and eventually one of the stepping stones out of the Christian faith. 

"Everydayness is the enemy" was my aspirational and poorly adhered to mantra for years. Much of the novel deals with Binx Bolling’s, the narrator, search. The search is what everyone would do were they not "sunk in the everydayness of their own life." The theme that crisis or disaster situations can snap people out of that everydayness is one Percy returned to over and over again in his work. “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." By the ending of the book, Percy has hinted at solutions but ultimately claims the right to uncertainty, at least in what he’s willing to say: “As for my search,  I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority to, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than the edifying. For another thing, it is not even open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself-- if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification." That quote gives a good feel for both the humor and the philosophical aims of the novel.

Binx, at the novel’s outset, is about to turn thirty. He spends his time making money in his uncle’s financial advisory company and dallying with his secretaries.This is where the existentialist themes get complicated. People’s actuality doesn’t always match their self perception. Some of Binx’s older family members “coincide with themselves,” but not his father, and not Binx. The way Percy addresses race in the book reads a little uncomfortably in the context of current discourse, but I think he is making a good faith effort to understand the way black and white people interact in the time he lives and in light of the history there. It seems logical to extend the uncertainty of self to people of radically different identity, but that conversation was not happening in those terms then. But he does try. I’m less comfortable with the way he writes his women characters. There’s a fratty aspect to the first quarter or so of the book that I was never entirely at home with. It’s like he brought the  Sartre and Camus to an American context, but not De Beauvoir. De Beauvoir is rightly remembered as a feminist, but her subject/object divide was conceived in existentialist terms and her work should be considered alongside theirs. There are several women in the book who do receive their due (Binx’s Aunt and Kate Cutrer (a distant cousin and love interest) in particular, and to a lesser extent his mother), but there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right with his interactions with his secretaries. I think the strengths of the novel overcome this, but if someone brought a strong feminist critique of this aspect of the book, that would be entirely fair. 

 The Moviegoer is smart about place, and how people find their ways in it. The idea that one could be a “somebody somewhere” versus an “anybody anywhere” took me a few reads to wrap my mind around. But one of the greatest strengths of the novel is the way it critiques an America already becoming a consumer wasteland. There are passages that rival the best of Vonnegut on the subject. Binx’s search is rooted in the history and context of New Orleans as a place. It matters very much where one is “catheterizing a pig” and who one is while doing so, in a particularly grotesque example. Percy is smart (writing in 1959!) about how a place is “certified” by its depiction in film or the presence of celebrity. An early sighting of William Holden gives Binx the opportunity to talk about how people’s experience was already being mediated to an unhealthy degree through its depiction in nascent pop culture. If Percy could only see Facebook.

The prose is excellent, often hilarious. Despite the nearly cynical humor, though, it often evokes a sense of wonder. Even having read it twelve times now, I’m sure I don’t get every bit of the philosophy in it. But the book is deeply ingrained in my mind, hopefully in good ways. My favorite theme in all literature is uncertainty, and this novel, along with the films of the Coen Brothers, may have been the initial source of that. When I conceived of this blog as recording my personal canon, this was one of the books that was already solidly in. I would no longer claim it to be without defect, but I love it warts and all. 


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 22/35

Monday, October 19, 2020

Middlemarch by George Eliot 2020 Reread

 2020 Reread:

I’m pasting my review from last year from my first readthrough of Middlemarch below. I stand by what I said then. Now that I’ve reread it, I’m more than happy to claim it as a favorite and make it canon. On this reread a couple things really stood out. 

Eliot is so smart about how people never choose to end up in a bad place. There are a million small compromises. Here are a couple of examples: "There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind." and then again: "...and it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain." 

Eliot is also very smart about class and the ethics of making money. It’s hard to map this content directly onto modern discourse, but she clearly understood that class was a major driver in people’s lives and that fortunes are often made off the backs and at the expense of others. You see characters wrestling with this throughout, and in the climax a character abandons a fortune and the dubious source of another’s fortune ruins a reputation. While it is difficult to make one to one comparisons with current thought, it does force the reader to contemplate class. I think Eliot is more effective at examining this than I remember Austen being. Parallel to the discussion of class is the idea that debt can drive a person’s life and it is best avoided.

Finally, coming back to the book a little over a year later, I was surprised at how different the characters were from my memory of them. And then I saw a masterclass in characterization as nearly all of them had a recognizable and believable arc. Again I was impressed at the dialog and at how funny it is. 


Annual Reread 3/8

Rereads And Everything Else 2020 21/35

2019 Review upon first reading it:

Middlemarch kept popping up in different places for me recently. A few people in an online book group I’m in praised it to no end. Then I read Jo Walton’s book on rereading. It was mostly about science fiction and fantasy novels, but she included this. Then I found out it was my sister’s favorite novel (I knew it was Eliot, but I thought it was Silas Marner). So finally I broke down and read it. I don’t claim a book as a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice, but I’d be shocked if this didn’t join my yearly reread list. It’s a masterpiece that deserves its reputation.

Walton said that Middlemarch proved that George Eliot could have invented science fiction. Having now read the book I take her meaning to be that Eliot gradually builds the reader’s understanding of the fictional town of Middlemarch bit by bit without clumsily placed details. You know what you need to know as you need to know it. Eventually the town lives in your mind, like Vandermeer’s Ambergris. While I would gladly read an Eliot scifi book, I’m hard pressed to think that she could improve on the world building here.

My sister said that Eliot understood people. I agree fully. In Middlemarch the gap between self and perception of self is rendered as well as anyone I’ve read outside of Nabokov. And she does it without the unreliable narrator device! She goes back and forth between omniscient and limited third person. Each person’s self deception is revealed, oftentimes to hilarious effect. But never cruelly. Eliot manges to be savage (and savagely funny) in her critique of human behavior, while still being kind and forgiving of her characters’ faults. This is an amazing trick to pull off. She never loses sight of human failure and deception. Yet she seems to really believe, in the words of Dorothea towards the end of the book, that “people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” This double vision seems the perfect antithesis to current online discourse wherein, to paraphrase Hitchens, when you see your opponent’s worst possible motive, you’re sure you found the only one.

Every page is quotable. The prose is consistent, as is her aforementioned understanding of people. She understood the futility of the prediction game long before Nassim Taleb: "Let him start for the continent then without our pronouncing on his future. Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous." She understood people’s need to hear what they want to hear: "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid. What believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime." She understood the all too human impulse to be right all the time: "There was occasionally a little fierceness in his demeanor, but it was directed chiefly against false opinion, of which there is so much to correct in the world that a man of some reading and experience necessarily has his patience tried.” She understood the need to blame outside forces for our own faults: "No more was said: Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper and to behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind conscience of the society around her." (This is not to say that she doesn’t understand the pressures that society places on the individual. She illustrates well people caught up by events they can’t control. This understanding extended to the effect of class on people’s lives.) She understood the complexities of human motivation: "Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers; but dressed in their small wardrobe of notions bring their provisions to a common table and mess together feeding out of the common store according to their appetite." Yet the book is no mere parade of aphorisms. It is a well knit whole rendered in perfect prose.

Eliot’s dialog is top-notch; hilarious and revealing. Consider this early exchange between Fred and Rosamond Vincy and their mother:

"...rather a prig, I think."

"I can never make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosumund.

"A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions."

"Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy, "What are they there for else?"

"Yes, mother their opinions are paid for, but a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."

Later when Fred accuses them of slang:

"There is correct English, that is not slang"

"I beg your pardon, correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”

This is a great character introduction. It’s also hilarious. I was expecting a very good book, but not a book as funny as it is.

Middlemarch is an all around delight, the best book I’ve read for the first time this year (eclipsing The Goldfinch, Generation Loss and (to my surprise) even Wise Children). I will be returning to this often. I don’t make books canon until I’ve read them at least twice; I’m tempted to reread it immediately so that I can go ahead and make it official (though I’ll probably wait until next year).

Friday, October 16, 2020

Come Closer by Sara Gran

I read all six of Sara Gran’s novels in 2018. I sought her out after seeing her name on a list of writers who might succeed Elmore Leonard at the top of the crime genre. And her crime novels are, while not really being similar to Leonard’s, incredible. The standalone novel Dope is as mean a noir as can be imagined. And her Claire DeWitt books have become favorites, especially the first one, City of the Dead. But when I went to the bookstore to find her work before I read it, I found this, her horror novel, first. 

I love an unreliable narrator, and Amanda, an architect who is slowly being possessed by a demon is a great one. Then again she’s unreliable enough that the gradual part may be in doubt. She and her boyfriend begin hearing sounds in their remote loft. Soon she’s dreaming of a particularly creepy imaginary friend from childhood and behaving in increasingly hostile ways. But again, the unreliability; she was pretty hostile in the very first chapter. But Gran uses that unreliability to incredible effect creating tension for the reader as Amanda gradually loses her grip on reality. A very good and convincing thriller. Having read her crime fiction (and her excellent debut mainstream novel) the bleakness of this is recognizable. It’s more akin to Dope; that is, it is not cut with the zen existentialism of the Claire Dewitt books. It’s chilling. If I like the Dewitt books more, it’s no slam on this, but a testament to those.

Highly Recommended

Rereads And Everything Else 2020 20/35

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand

Earlier this year, halfway through Last Summer at Mars Hill, her first short story collection, I realized that Elizabeth Hand is my favorite living writer. Glimmering just confirmed that. It is her Dhalgren, her House of Leaves, her Palimpsest, her Dead Astronauts; her big sprawling novel that is as much an experience as an artifact. It is an elegy to the 20th Century in all its madness, to the victims of the AIDS epidemic and to civilization or even humankind both of which seem to be closing in on their demise in the book. It’s not a mainstream literary novel, nor is it exactly science fiction, fantasy or horror. It is a glorious mixture of those techniques and moods. It is apocalyptic in tone, as bleak in points as Cormac McCarthy, but like the way more recent Dead Astronauts or the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, it sees the cruel beauty of the ebbing of humanity’s tide (to paraphrase Jeffers) and it’s characters are capable of moments of joy. 

The book begins with a couple page rundown, news report style, of a weird confluence, in the late 1990’s, of an epochal methane explosion with the onset of persistent solar flares. The world is permanently changed. There is a worldwide cloud cover with an eerie nearly permanent northern lights like display, the titular glimmering. Electrical power is intermittent, as is phone service. Large corporations still operate, and life ekes along for everyone else. Jack Finegan, scion of a department store fortune that was already fading before the glimmering, and owner/editor of a minor New Yorker competitor has gone into full blown AIDS as the glimmering begins. Trip Marlowe is a young Xian (a group of christians who have co-opted the pagan name for their religion) singer who has risen to prominence just as the glimmering begins. His final song, an apocalyptic number, becomes a hit despite the lack of world infrastructure. Their lives intersect eventually, of course, but their story is the foreground to a world which has irrevocably changed and a civilization that is crumbling. Finegan’s friend Leonard Thrope, whose mori photography (pictures of the dead and dying) prefigure Hand’s noir character Cass Neary, is a bit of a trickster figure, a nihilist of sorts; a distant, postmodern, queer cousin to McCarthy’s Judge. I’ve heard some people describe this as cyberpunk or postcyberpunk, and it does have aspects of that mood, particularly in the fashions and visual palette of the piece. But it is no more dominant than the other genres at play. 

In his wanderings, Trip Marlowe ends up for a while in the Mars Hill Spiritualist community and meets a couple of characters who were in the title story of the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. You could enjoy the novel without reading the story, but reading the shorter work first would deepen the significance of the actions of one character in particular.

It’s not going to be for everyone; Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, and Kirkus called it depressing and pointless. The latter is unfair and missed the point. It is bleak in some ways, but is beautiful. Given the themes of societal and environmental collapse and epidemics of multiple diseases, there is a heaviness to the material. But given those givens, the book does not despair. It is a powerful work, among Hand’s best. I’m certain to return to it.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 77/75

Thursday, October 8, 2020

When The Women Come Out To Dance by Elmore Leonard

I think of Elmore Leonard primarily as a novelist with books like Gold Coast, The Switch, Tishomingo Blues and Cuba Libre among my favorites. But I was introduced to him by a short story, and I was immediately hooked. Leonard’s seemingly effortless cool, his pared down prose, and unerring ear for dialog fit the short form as well they do the longer. This is the second time I read this collection, later republished as Fire In the Hole when Justified, the pilot episode of which was based on the new title story. The whole thing is great, but the back half is loaded with great stories. 

Sparks- This could be an excellent one act play. An insurance fraud investigator interviews a woman whose house burned down in a fire. Highly Recommended.

Hanging Out At The Buena Vista- An elderly man courts an elderly woman in their retirement community. Highly Recommended.

Chickasaw Charlie Hoke- This was later absorbed into one of my favorite Leonard novels, Tishomingo Blues. The title character is a fast talker and former baseball player who talks his way into a hosting gig at the hotel that provides that novel’s setting. I might like this even more if I didn’t know how great the rest of the story around it is. Highly Recommended.

When The Women Come Out To Dance- A mail order bride with a secret helps an ex-stripper married to a rich man in a tough situation. Highly Recommended.

Fire in the Hole- The basis for the pilot of Justified. In the aftermath of the “justified” killing of a gangster at the end of the novel Pronto, Raylan Givens is sent to his home ground of Kentucky and runs into an old flame, an old friend (now his boss), and an old coal digging buddy (now a criminal). The latter, Boyd Crowder, became one of the all time great TV characters. It’s hard to separate this story from my love for the show, but I feel pretty confident that I love it. Canon Worthy.

Karen Makes Out- Out of Sight seems to be the consensus choice for best Leonard adaptation, and I certainly agree. Karen Sisco, one of the main characters of that novel, is the main character here. While it’s technically a prequel, it feels like a dry run for that novel. I think it’s just as entertaining. Canon Worthy.

Hurrah for Captain Early- My favorite Leonard short story (with the possible exception of How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman, later absorbed into The Hot Kid, the first thing I ever read by him). In 1898 Bo Catlett, a black veteran of the Spanish American War visits a small fictional Arizona town called Sweetmary where Captain Early, a “hero” of the battle of San Juan Hill is early awaited. Catlett knows that Early was no hero, nor were TR and the rough riders. Rather they were well intentioned people in way over their heads. Catlett is refused entry to the hotel and when he goes to a bar runs afoul of some people who are not happy with the way he punctures the myth of San Juan Hill. It plays out perfectly. Canon.

The Tonto Woman- Ruben Vega, a Mexican outlaw runs into Sarah Isham, the wife of a local baron who lives in complete isolation. She was kidnapped by Native Americans who gave her face a distinctive tattoo, and her husband is ashamed of her. I don’t want to spoil where it goes from there. Canon Worthy.

Tenkiller- The protagonist of this story is the grandson Virgil Webster from Cuba Libre and the son of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid and Up In Honey’s Room. He is a former rodeo rider and a stuntman in Hollywood. When his girlfriend, a stuntwoman, dies in an accident, he goes home to his family pecan farm only to find that some criminals have leased the place and let it nearly go to rot. I love the way this one ends. Canon.

Overall Collection: Canon Worthy

Rereads And Everything Else 19/35

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Extremism by JM Berger

Extremism by JM Berger is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge series of short books hitting on critical issues and technologies. These books give definitions and give a brief overview of a topic. It’s similar to the Very Short Introduction series. This is the first of the series I have read, though I plan to read more.

This particular volume couldn’t be more timely. Berger talks about online extremism in his chapter on radicalization, but it is not a major focus of the book. Still, in a world in which extremist rhetoric is amplified and algorithm-ized, the insights in the book are all the more vital.

He defines Extremism as referring “to the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action towards an out-group” and that it can be “the province of state or non-state actors” the latter of which distinguishes it from terrorism. The hostile action is not necessarily physically violent, though it certainly can be. It can be verbal harassment or discrimination.

Extremism is not a new phenomenon, and Berger goes into historical instances. And he does not pretend that extremism is a phenomenon common to only one group. Any ideology can spawn extremists. Overall an excellent overview of the subject, and a sobering read.

Highly Recommended

Library Books and Everything Else 2020 17/35

Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is well on his way to becoming my favorite poet. I first read him (aside from the odd poem here and there) this year, and this is the second collection I’ve read, after Station Island. This is on par, or just a little behind that one in my estimation. A couple more this good and he's there.

The atmosphere of Heaney’s poems is just a couple degrees off of the best nature or horror writing (at least as I’ve experienced them). There is a constant mist and the sense that the past lives in the peat bogs and will likely crawl out of the ground and possibly harm you. But there is wonder there as well. And the sense that the Irish troubles of the late 20th century are happening just outside of the scenes he depicts. While Heaney is no stickler for form, there is a music to his language that really works for me.

Standouts include Bog Oak, the five poem cycle Northern Hoard (especially the fifth poem, Tinder), Cairn Maker, Augery, Wedding Day, Summer Home, Maighdean Mara and Limbo. There were only a few that didn’t work for me, and I should probably reread those to make sure. All in all another magnificent collection which I will be returning to often.

Canon Worthy
Library Books And Everything Else 2020 18/35