The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), by Gretel Ehrlich
I recently discovered Gretel Ehrlich, not that she isn’t well known by others. The discovery merelyThe Solace of Open Spaces (1985), by Gretel Ehrlich
I recently discovered Gretel Ehrlich, not that she isn’t well known by others. The discovery merely reflects my ignorance...and yet, I get great joy from finding new food—someone whose words I immediately want to absorb. I found the book in a used book store. The title alone intrigued me—one who thinks that soul nurturing places, solitude and silence are the final luxuries. And her essays are about Wyoming, my neighbor state and our least populated one—to me, a feature, not a bug. Also, two of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard and Edward Abbey, who I’ve re-read multiple times, gave her high praise. I expect to read more of Ehrlich.
In the preface, she tells us that she “suffered a tragedy and made a drastic geographical and cultural move fairly baggageless,” but she wasn’t losing her grip. She added:
What I had lost (at least for a while) was my appetite for the life I had left: city surroundings, old friends, familiar comforts. It had occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort, reference points, a disguise for what will always change...For the first time I was able to take up residence on earth with no alibis, no self-promoting schemes.
In her first essay, she writes of John, a sheep man who put her to work—extended hours of it, which she says woke her up:
The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute indifference steadied me...Because ranch work is a physical, and these days, economic strain, being ‘at home on the range’ is a matter of vigor, self-reliance, and common sense. A person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.
Later, she quotes someone but can’t remember who, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are only consequences.” Yep, “absolute indifference.” And even later, “There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality an invigoration...Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are....”
The solitude in which westerners live makes them quiet...Sentence structure is shortened. Descriptive words are dropped, even verbs...What’s behind this laconic style is shyness. There is no vocabulary for the subject of feelings. It’s not a hangdog shyness, or anything coy— always there’s a robust spirit in evidence behind the restraint...The silence is profound. Instead of talking, we seem to share one eye. Keenly observed, the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.
As the book continues, she writes of Wyoming’s history, the changes caused by fences and isolationist conservative people who believe that “honesty is stronger medicine than sympathy, which may console but often conceals.” She also tells us about hermits, madness, cabin fever, extended drunks, suicide, sheepherders as “outsiders,” and people so ornery that they’d “rather starve than agree on anything.”
She says, “Disfigurement is synonymous with the whole idea of a frontier. As soon as we lay our hands on it, the freedom we thought it represented is quickly gone.” She writes of some very strong women and the effects of brutal “smooth-skulled winters.”
Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures...The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.
She explains all this, and tells us about men, something other than the romanticized Marlboro man version: “If he’s ‘strong and silent’ it’s because there’s probably no one to talk to.” There is an effect of “geographical vastness,” on “emotional evolution” but also a “true vulnerability in evidence...”
Ehrlich delves into the unsentimental relationship with animals—they must produce. And:
Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how are bank accounts describe us. What’s obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us...we’re transparent to them and thus exposed—we’re finally ourselves.
She writes about water, or the lack thereof: “We can drown it it or else stay buoyant, quench our thirst, stay alive.” And she tells us about “farmer’s work” of irrigation vs. ranching. She gets married, buys a ranch, tells us about the National Finals Rodeo, then held in Oklahoma City. (It’s now in Las Vegas.) She writes about her attendance the “Crow Fair” and a “Sun Dance” and ends the book as poetically as she began it—beautifully written, insightful—a wonderful book.
Slouching Toward Nirvana is my first foray into the strange nihilistic and unpretentious world of author Charles Bukowski. In his poem called, "the cuSlouching Toward Nirvana is my first foray into the strange nihilistic and unpretentious world of author Charles Bukowski. In his poem called, "the curse," he writes of the unfortunate consequences of fame—the ultimate fragility of Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Celine, Ezra Pound, Hamsun, Ambrose Pierce and van Gogh. He ends with: "we are hardly ever / as strong / as that which we / create." In a long poem called "The Tide," he writes: "most of what we learn / in this crazy life is /what to avoid...like, say, / a fancy ending / to this poem." A sense of humor here.
What is most interesting is the man himself—his anti-lit reputation, his popularity, his easy narrative style, and his rage. A number of his books have been published since his death in 1994. And after tasting this one, I am spurred to read more. A review of Slouching Toward Nirvana by Matthew Firth , written in 2005, is illuminating. It gives a good account of the man.
Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), published 1935
This is one of those Hemingway books I’ve always wanted to read but it was welGreen Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961), published 1935
This is one of those Hemingway books I’ve always wanted to read but it was well down the list and being generally unavailable, it was easily forgotten over the years as even being on the list. Several years ago, I found a yellowed copy in a used bookstore for $3.50 so I bought it. It’s a non-fictional account of a safari in East Africa with his wife and assorted other characters during the winter of 1933-34.
In the forward, Hemingway explains: “The writer has attempted to write an absolutely true book to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.” My assessment is that, at the very least, this writer could. What struck me early in the book was the wonderful flowing Hemingway paragraphs full of the conjunctive and, and the descriptions of country and actions and setting that drew a pretty clear picture for me. The book exceeded my expectations.
Early on, he conversationally acknowledges that there are those who do not like the idea of killing wild animals but he goes about his business anyway, not attempting to explain himself until much later. In Hemingway’s view, the true crime of hunting was doing it badly—like wounding an animal that gets away and dies slowly or maybe is eaten alive by hyenas. “Since I loved to hunt I resolved that I would only shoot as long as I could kill cleanly and as soon as I lost that ability I would stop.” Later, he is angry with himself over losing a prize bull sable: “I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly, they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns. But I felt rotten sick over this sable bull…I was a son of a bitch to have gut-shot him. It came from over-confidence in being able to do a thing and then omitting one of the steps in how it is done.” While the incident bothered him, I’m not sure he made good on his promise.
Hemingway’s desires were quite clear in 1935; he wanted to hunt and fish, write and read books. He also enjoyed his German beer and whisky and good conversation and I enjoyed his occasional comments on literature, writers and “being literary.” It is obvious (to me) that he worked at being descriptive and truthful. He didn’t ignore the social tensions that occur on such excursions, with other people in close quarters, and he displayed a gift for humor. His description of the hyena, gut-shot at a distance, was graphic: “the classic hyena, that hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating them with relish… Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic, self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, fowl, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain, looking back, mongrel dog-smart in the face…the hyena was a dirty joke.” I was never particularly fond of hyenas before but now I know I don’t care for the awful beast. ...more
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924); written 1898-1899
First of all, I cannot imagine anyone, let alone four people as in this story, being able to listen to Marlow’s telling of this adventure in one sitting without ever engaging in conversation. At the minimum, one would think that one of them would at least ask a question. If this seems an unfair criticism, I’ll just say that I don’t personally know anyone who could resist interrupting him. It’s a compelling tale; then why no response from those hearing it? Without response, how could anyone go on and on as Marlow does? On this second question—after thinking about it—I’ve known a few people who could go “on and on” to the point where the listener falls into a glassy-eyed stupor, whose primary desire is to exit. But I remain convinced that most people would find a way to break up the windbag's speech.
In the introduction of John O’Hara’s 1953 Modern Library addition of Appointment in Samarra, he noted his discovery from Lardner that “if you wrote down speech as it is spoken truly, you produce true characters, and the opposite is also true; if your characters don’t talk like people they aren’t good characters.” Marlow does not talk like “people.” O’Hara also said that writing good dialog is “almost totally lacking in the British.” This book is a good example of not even attempting good dialog. (Conrad was actually Polish but learned English in his early 20’s and became a British subject at age 29.)
Some have said that this classic novella of an excursion up the Congo River needs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its true meanings—they’re deeply embedded—very deep. Oh? Is that the reader’s problem or the writer’s fault? I realize that this is like the sophomoric criticism of studying Shakespeare—one has to understand the time and place the work was written. Okay...let me just say that I prefer reading good literature where people behave, think, and sound like people. Perhaps at my advanced age I’ve become conditioned to the crisp dialog of Elmore Leonard, and others like him, to fully appreciate Joseph Conrad.
My annoyance at Conrad’s style aside, this is a book worth reading. I am told when initially published, the critics did not at all see it as controversial. It condemned adventuring, the taking advantage of the opportunities presented by imperialism, or it was a sentimental reinforcement of Victorian values. Only later was it seen as a more profound study of moral confusion, doubt and the hypocrisy of imperialism. Men, not just Kurtz, behaved badly in Heart of Darkness. Some say it’s the natural result when people operate outside any social or moral constraint, especially when greed and the desire for power have totally corrupted them.
Heart of Darkness is quite an indictment of colonialism and European behavior in carrying it out. It’s full of cruelties, casually referenced, and meaningless acts—such as the French ship shooting their big guns into the jungle, not knowing what, if anything, they were shooting at. It’s full of symbolism (e.g. fog), mystery, unanswered questions, folly, and absurdity.
I particularly liked the ending when Marlow visited Kurtz’s naive intended. Instead of telling her, his true last words, “the horror, the horror,” Marlow told the prissy Victorian bride-to-be who “knew Kurtz best” as an admirable man, that her name was the last thing on his mind. This lie symbolizes all that is right with Heart of Darkness.
I decided to find, then read High Water (1954), by Richard Bissell because an author I admire, Elmore Leonard said this about Bissell: "When I decided to become a writer, Hemingway was my model, his spare prose and realistic dialogue. But he had no sense of humor and I discovered Richard Bissell who did." Leonard then listed High Water as one of his ten favorite books. I just had to read it. ￼ This is the first-person story of Duke Snyder and a motley crew of riverboat men traveling up the Mississippi in a tug, the Royal Prince, pushing eight barges full of coal—too many barges—during a particularly bad flood. Bissell himself was a seaman on the Upper Mississippi and the Monongahela rivers, with a mate's and a pilot's license, so he wrote about something he knew here.
I had a little trouble getting into the story, given that the story isn't driving the book—it's more about the characters and their interactions—and it soon started to roll. I particularly read it to notice the writing style, the narration, the character development, the dialog, and the humor—all good. These few samples perhaps indicate why Leonard liked Hemingway and Bissell:
"You can beat some son of a bitch over the head uptown and get no work out of him but give him a job on the water and he will do the damnedest things in order nobody will think he is a quitter. You can tell anybody to anything, nearly, on a boat, and they will do it. They figure they have to break their neck for the team for some reason, which it says is Psychology in the Correspondence Course and maybe it is. Whatever it is, you can drive a man harder on a boat than you can anyplace on the shore." (page 49)
"Age creeps up on us when we are not looking, when we are doing a lot of things that are a lot of miserable foolishness such as taking correspondence courses, reading up on how to make yourself a swell backyard barbecue fireplace, turning the pages of True Confessions magazine, or working all day and being too tired in the evening to do anything but argue. You play and join the Eagles or the Moose Club, and you get your hair cut, and the seasons change and it rains and snows and the birdies go tweet tweet; then you find yourself in the men's room of some forty-nine cent Middle West night club, inhaling the perfume of the West Disinfecting Co.'s urinal deodorant, and when you look at yourself in the mirror as you arrange your curly locks with an Ace pocket comb you realize that you are old, and mean as hell, and you wonder where the years went so sudden." (pages 50 and 51)
"When you are out on the boats you think a lot about things that are over on the land, things you never think about at all when you are there. The girl problem, for one thing, becomes something you live with, and think about, and talk about. Oh man, the millions of hours that have been spent since the Egyptians or somebody invented boats, by men and boys sitting around on deck and in messrooms and bunkrooms and engine rooms talking about girls." (page 68)
"Long days and long nights on the river, a couple of centuries in boxcars and looking at the cold stars from alleys where you go to piss or throw up, a hundred light-years of reading about politicians in the newspapers as leaves drop and the sleet begins to cover the sidewalks and tar-paper shanties, all of eternity with a free lunch thrown in and you will never find out anything definite on anybody. They are all slippery as Mississippi mud. All the brains...put together can't seem to improve the natural orneriness of the human race or predict where the hell it is going to break out next." (pages 91 and 92) "I used to stand out on the barges in the evening, after I gave up roaming throughout the Great Western Plains area and became a sober, righteous, and God-fearing Steamboat Man, and look across the river and into the tress and through the scraggly littler islands and wonder a lot of things about life, liberty, and the pursuit of a living wage, but there was never an answer in the sunset and I would return and lie down in my bunk among the other deck hands as they lay snoring their guts out in expectation of the next call on deck." (page 94)
On page 113, there is this little recap following the sinking of one of the barges, number 36, which also points to the great flood that must be reckoned with: "So Grease Cup had his Milly and Kennedy had his stomach about to be removed and the Kid's old man had run off and left them all behind to look after themselves; Casey was in bad with the company on account of sinking number 36 and Ironhat was scared over the flood and I had punched Jackoniski and knocked onto the galley floor; and upriver there was more water coming down at us than anybody had ever seen before steamboats began."
On page 135, the crew saw a girl on the roof of a house with only her jeans on. They rescued her and learned that she had lost her parents, her brother, all the farm animals—and her shirt from waving it to possible rescuers—to the flood. The rescue entailed some humorous moments dealing with "a nice young maiden passed out cold and with nothing on but a pair of blue jeans." But soon came the big wreck: the steering had broken so the tug had no control. They abandoned the barges but the river swept them into an bridge abutment smashing the boat and killing most everyone on board. Duke saved the girl, Marie Chouteau, and saved himself not knowing until later that she was okay. There is a happy ending.
One of the great things about this book is that early on, the reader realizes the the protagonist of the story tortures people. This is not your typicOne of the great things about this book is that early on, the reader realizes the the protagonist of the story tortures people. This is not your typical main character of a novel. His name is Clay and he is an interrogator for the “agency,” a part of a totalitarian government that appears to be the United States at some future time, mainly because the characters speak “American.” It’s a place where people that disagree with the state disappear, where dead bodies are thrown in trucks and discarded, never to be heard from again. The author, Brian Peters, doesn’t clarify where or when this is, or whether it is a right-wing or left-wing dystopian world, but history tells us with great clarity that totalitarianism can come from both ends of the spectrum, so it hardly matters. When people are treated as property in service of the state, and anyone who disagrees is the enemy, to be dealt with by any means necessary, you’ve got totalitarianism.
Also interesting is that the victim in this chapter-less book, Maya, becomes the main character that could possibly bring redemption to Clay, a man with serious “issues,” a man whose humanity is in question. How could he not have issues, given his personal history? After all, he wrote the book on the best methods to secure needed information—in Maya’s case, “data” of unknown content, but obviously significant in the suspenseful story that unfolds. Over time, we get a sense of the deep psychological damage done to Clay, by his chosen profession.
There are minor characters revealed, but we never know much about them, only that which helps move the story along.
The book is only two-hundred thirty-eight pages long and it is crisp writing, sparse in details, and with sharp dialog—a quick read. The title is an excellent choice, and its sparseness is what I liked about the book. The author treats the reader as an adult and allows one to fill in the pieces that aren’t clarified...to use one’s imagination. And I thought the ending was as it should have been. For a quick suspenseful and very different novel, Brian Peters’ first novel is worth a look. ...more
Tony Judt, a British Jew educated at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, was a renowned scholar, historian, teacher, and intellectual. And he wrote this lucid memoir while dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He had to dictate much of the book, and the early descriptions of being a prisoner in his own body were straightforward and chilling:
“The salient quality of this particular neurodegenerative disorder is that it leaves your mind clear to reflect on the past, present and future, but steadily deprives you of any means of converting those reflections into words. First you can no longer write independently, requiring either an assistant or a machine in order to record your thoughts. Then your legs fail and you cannot take in new experiences, except at the cost of such logistical complexity that the mere fact of mobility becomes the object of attention rather than the benefits that mobility itself can confer.
“Next you begin to lose your voice…By this point you are almost certainly quadriplegic and condemned to long hours of silent immobility, whether or not in the presence of others.
“For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge.” He then describes what is gone from his life, but without self pity. To cope, he focused on a life of the mind, recalling and writing stories in his head. He wrote, “Doubtless I was seeking oblivion, replacing galumphing sheep with narrative complexity to comparable effect.”
In the essay Night, he is “prepared” for bed: “...and there I lie, trussed, myopic and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.” Later he says, “I suppose I should at least be mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most people only read about...But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving...My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.”
In Part One, he moves into his specialties—commentary on culture and politics. In the essay on Austerity, he says, “The wealth of resources we apply to entertainment serves only to shield us from the poverty of the product; likewise in politics, where ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness.”
Writing about British food, he says, “Just because you grow up on bad food, it does not follow that you lack nostalgia for it.” He writes about his home town, Putney, Citroens, the Green Line Bus, the Lord Warden ferry; and in the essay, Mimetic Desire, he writes with affection about trains: “As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained about people, my family in particular. Solitude was bliss, but not easily obtained. Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled, something amiss. Becoming, on the hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.”
Part Two begins with an essay about a tough teacher, Joe Craddock, a man who “put the fear of God” in him; but he has affection for him because was the best teacher he ever had. He ends the commentary on Joe with,”...being well taught is the only thing worth remembering from school.”
As a youth, his experiences as a Zionist, and then living in an Israeli Kibbutz was revealing for the leftist Judt. He says, “Before even turning twenty, I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” He was thus “immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left” and remained “suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all.”
The essay on bedders (maids for the lads in school) was culturally educational (for me) and I found his criticisms of French intellectualism a learning experience as well. In Revolutionaries, he writes of the 60s and real work going on behind the Iron Curtain. He ends the essay with a clear recognition of naivety: “In our own eyes at least, we were the revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.”
In Meritocrats, he complains about the dumbing down of education in the name of equality, he sounds almost conservative: "Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state a system of enforced downward uniformity."
He concludes his essay on Words with, “No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic, not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.”
In Part Tree, he shares his impressions of traveling in the U.S., briefly mentions divorcing his first two wives, describes his efforts to learn Czech and that it led him to Czechoslovakia and Czeslaw Milosz. He writes with some disdain of the new feminism, sexual harassment (or race, ethnicity, class) taking center stage, and says, “Why should everything be about ‘me’? Are my fixations of significance tot eh Republic?...What on earth does it mean to say that ‘the personal is political?’” And he quotes Gertrude Stein: “Not everything can be about everything.” And then: "We—the left, academics, teachers—have abandoned politics to those for whom actual power is far more interesting than its metaphorical implications. Political correctness, gender politics, and above all hypersensitivity to wounded sentiments (as though there were a right not to be offended): this will be our legacy."
And later on he writes more on the dangers of identity politics, the uneasiness of labels, and that it was all alien to him: “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.”
His last chapter is about the Swiss chalet where his family spent time during his youth, in the village of Mürren. It was for him, “the happiest place in the world.”
Judt wrote that America’s three strongest assets were Thomas Jefferson, Chuck Berry and the New York Review of Books. Therefore, I’ll close with this comment from Timothy Garton Ash, who reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books: “There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of polemical intellectuals. There are those for whom the taking of controversial positions is primarily a matter of personal peacock display, factional or clique positioning, hidden agendas, score-settling, or serial, knee-jerk revisionism. Then there are those who, while not without personal motivations and biases, are fundamentally concerned with seeking the truth. Tony Judt was of the latter kind.”
Born in Denver, Colorado, Fante's early years were spent in relative poverty. The son of an Italian father, Nicola Fante, and an Italian-American mother, Mary Capolungo, Fante was educated in various Catholic schools in Boulder, Colorado and briefly attended the University of Colorado.
In 1929, he dropped out of college and moved to Southern California to concentrate on his writing. He lived and worked in Wilmington, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles, California, various residences in Hollywood and Echo Park, and Malibu. In 1955 Fante developed diabetes, which eventually blinded him and two years later he would have his legs amputated. He continued to write despite this though, by dictating the stories to his wife.
Such is the interesting background of John Fante (1909-1983), novelist and Hollywood screenwriter.
Ask the Dust is one of four novels referred to as "The Saga of Arturo Bandini." In this one, Arturo is a youthful struggling “Eyetalian” writer living in a cheap Los Angeles hotel who falls in love with Camilla, a waitress of Mexican descent. She discourages him, mocks him, and generally makes his life miserable In his frustration, he vacillates between love and expressions of hate while she really loves Sammy, a man dying of tuberculosis. She’s quite unstable, becomes a pothead, ends up in a mental institution, but then gets out and finds Arturo. He has just published his great novel and is now on his way to wealth. Is a happy ending coming? Read it and see. It’s good. They also made a movie of it with Salma Hayek and Colin Ferrell. (I haven't seen it, but it got mediocre ratings.)
This book is poetic; and one reviewer compared Arturo to Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, published six years after Ask the Dusk. And I loved some of Arturo’s rants, which often resulted in a complete change of mind. Note the short punchy sentences and his choice of words in this example on page 22:
Here was the Church of our lady, very old, the adobe blackened with age. For sentimental reasons, I will go inside. For sentimental reasons only. I have not read Lenin, but I have heard him quoted, religion is the opium of the people. Talking to myself on the the church steps: yeah, the opium of the people. Myself, I am an atheist: I have read The Anti-Christ and I regard it as a capital piece of work. I believe in the transvaluation of values, Sir. The Church must go, it is a haven of the booboisie, of boobs and bounders and all brummagem mountebanks.
Arturo, on his knees inside the church, then bargains with God—a prayer, for sentimental reasons: “...Make a great writer of me and I will return to the Church.” And shortly thereafter, he mentally constructs an interview with a reporter prior to his departure to Sweden for his Nobel Award. Youthful delusions and contradictory feelings abound.
A passage of particularly elegant prose, this time with longer sentences. It's a commentary on Southern California in the '30s:
I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along the dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from boston, and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep the illusion that this was paradise, that their little paper-mâché homes were castles. The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.
In the introduction author Charles Bukowski called Fante his “god” with a lifetime of influence on his writing—for his “distinct way of writing.” In the little I’ve read of Bukowski, I’d say he tried to honor Fante by copying his style, but so far in my recent explorations, Fante holds the higher acclaim. This was the first Fante book I've read. I’ll read more of him. ...more
The Art of Learning - A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence, by Josh Waitzkin (2007)
My wonderful guitar teacher, Brian Lewis—whom I haven't seen in mThe Art of Learning - A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence, by Josh Waitzkin (2007)
My wonderful guitar teacher, Brian Lewis—whom I haven't seen in months, but I still call him "my teacher"—recommended this book:
Josh Waitzkin was a boy chess genius, winning his first national championship at age nine, then was the subject of his father's book Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was turned into a 1993 Hollywood film. Following his stellar chess career, at age nineteen he took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands and became world champion. It is indeed remarkable that this bright young man excelled at a world class level in two very different disciplines. He says, "I've come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning."
Early in the book, he describes how some developmental psychologists distinguish theories of intelligence—between entity and incremental theories. Simply put, "children who are entity theorists, that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner—are prone to use language like 'I am smart at this' and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability...Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning...are more prone to describe their results with sentences like ‘I got it because I worked very hard at it’ or ‘I should have tried harder.’ A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped—step by step, incrementally, the novice can become a master." The author describes how fragile the entity theorists can be under pressure, even though gifted, compared to the incremental theorists. "The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety."
Waitzkin addresses the caveat about being process oriented to the point of not caring about results—that winning or losing doesn't matter. It does matter and losing hurts, but it can also be a valuable learning experience. "While a fixation on results is certainly unhealthy, short-term goals can be useful developmental tools if they are balanced within a nurturing long-term philosophy. Too much sheltering from results can be stunting. The road to success is not easy or else everyone would be the greatest at what they do."
He discusses the problem of distractions, the random unexpected events, the "mini-earthquakes that afflict all of our days" and the need to "flow with whatever comes" and "to use whatever comes to our advantage." To actually accomplish this, one has "to attain what sports psychologists call The Soft Zone." A good way to explain it is to define The Hard Zone, a state of mind that "demands a cooperative world for you to function." But the world is not always so cooperative. The Soft Zone is quiet, intensely focused, relaxed: "You flow with whatever comes, integrating every ripple of life into your creative moment. This Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds." One has to learn to deal with bad conditions. Brian learned how to achieve this state by playing in bars for fifteen years —he concentrated on the playing, not the obnoxious drunks, the fights, the noise, or other distractions of the environment. One learns to tune it out; and it is a learned discipline. Most people cannot just will it, including the author. Waitzkin says, “Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously...I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable."
Waitzkin tells the story of how he ultimately became frustrated with chess. I won't go into the details but he says, "I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition...it is critical to integrate...new information in a manner that does not violate who we are," which gives a hint of why he moved on to other things. Later, finishing up on the last years of his chess career, he says, "To my mind, the fields of learning and performance are an exploration of grayness—of the in-between. There is the careful balance of pushing yourself relentlessly, but not so hard that you melt down...A competitor needs to be process-oriented...but it is also important to keep on winning enough to maintain confidence...Vibrant, creative idealism needs to be tempered by a practical, technical awareness." In other words, it is a tricky balancing act requiring self-awareness.
As he explains the genesis of his martial arts career, Waitzkin gives some insight to his thinking by giving kudos to Jack Kerouac's On the Road and The Dharma Bums, which probably influenced his dabbling in Zen Buddhism. My book review of The Dharma Bums gives a slightly different perspective than Waitzkin (on both books), but I won't dwell on this aspect of his book. I just found it interesting that he gives credit to Kerouac's influence.
In a chapter called, Making Smaller Circles, the author delves into the theme of "depth over breadth." He says, "The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick. Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture" bombarded with a "constant supply of stimulus" which has a devastating effect on our learning...unless we can keep our focus on working on the micro fundamentals of our endeavor, incrementally refining the simplest of movements and thought. This is a key point stressed by my guitar teacher—get this one simple movement perfected, then this one, then add them, then another, and build a pattern of sound that is built on these small perfected technical movements. The author writes of "subtle internalization and refinement" as being more important than trying to learn everything...It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set. Depth beats breadth...because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential."
In the chapter, Using Adversity, Waitzkin delves further into performance psychology and says there are three steps in a "resilient performer' s evolving relationship to chaotic situations." (1) "First, we have to learn to be at peace with imperfection." (2) "We learn to use that imperfection to our advantage." (3) We need "to learn to create ripples in our consciousness...to spur us along, so we are constantly inspired whether or not external conditions are inspiring."
The author debates the question of intuition and whether it exists, concluding that it "is our most valuable compass in this world." He gives a summary: "For much of this book I have described my vision of the road to mastery—you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point. The question of intuition relates to how that network is navigated and used as fuel for creative insight." He refers to chunking which "relates to the mind's ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles..." As one evolves in their endeavor, he or she discovers organizing principles of information and "new patterns of movement. This new information gets systematized into a network of chunks that" can be accessed with increasing ease as one's "navigational function improves." He further says, "Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered... the idea is to shift the primary role from the conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide." Brian considers the great jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, a good example of someone utilizing this process; he has boiled down playing music to its simplest forms—into chunks of basic approaches that are filled with huge amounts of information learned over the years but are buried within his mind; not lost, but known to him as bits of critical information that have been put together in such a way that allows him to see much more with less conscious thought. The author would say," So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot." And guess what? "The key, of course, is practice." Indeed.
He writes about presence, and the critical nature of it in "solitary pursuits, such as writing, painting, scholarly thinking, or learning" where "we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often our best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if 'going through the motions' is the norm of our lives...Those who excel are those who maximize each moment's creative potential...The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage...Presence must be like breathing."
There is also great value in understanding the sport's psychologist's concept of Stress and Recovery—a player's ability to completely relax in brief moments of inactivity. The best I ever saw able to do this—up close and personal—was tennis great Pete Sampras, a remarkable athlete that the author mentions. There are many more in the sports world who learned this and learned it well—those who have become completely attuned to the qualitative functions of their thought processes because they fully understand what it means to their performance. Also, on a personal level, from my marathoning days, back in the 1980's, I knew full well the value of stress and recovery in my training, both the physical and the mental, i.e. it is not a foreign concept. (I was clearly an amateur. In my forties then, my best time was 3:13:30 or 7:23 per mile in the San Francisco Marathon, 1987.) The author, however, suggests that one should incorporate "the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of...life." In other words, apply interval training approaches to everything we do, making it a habit, so we can become "a resilient dependable pressure player...To have success at crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. The real power of incremental growth comes to bear when we truly are like water, steadily carving stone. We just keep flowing when everything is one the line."
The author discusses channeling anger and mentions unethical chess players, like the guy who kicked him under the table repeatedly during critical moments, or the few dirty Tai Chi Chuan competitors. It isn't about denying one's passion at such moments; it is about channeling the anger to achievement rather than self-destructing behavior. I remember one of his examples well because I watched it many times on television: Huge New York Knick's fan and movie director Spike Lee would sit on the sidelines and taunt the Indiana Pacer's Reggie Miller unmercifully during NBA games at Madison Square Garden. Reggie responding by draining shot after shot; he fed off of it. It didn't bug him; it inspired him! The best thing Lee could have done was shut up. "The lesson learned—don't piss off Reggie."
To bring this to conclusion, Waitzkin says, "When I think about creativity, it is always in relation to a foundation. We have our knowledge. It becomes deeply internalized until we can access it without thinking about it. Then we have a leap that uses what we know to go one or two steps further. We make a discovery... There is a connection between that discovery and what you know—or else you wouldn't have discovered it—and you can find that connection if you try." One has to "figure out what makes the 'magic' tick" on his own—to take our "pyramid of knowledge up" to another level, solidifying a "higher foundation from new leaps."
Like many have said before: "Practice, man, practice." Or as coach Vince Lombardi once said: "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."...more
The Searchers by Alan Le May (1899-1964), published 1954
I had been curious about this book for a long time, having never read it, but knowing that I've seen the movie enough times over the years to know some of the lines, I thought it was time to look at the source. So, roughly fifty years after the book was published, I read it.
Amos Edwards (not Ethan Edwards, as in the movie) is the Captain Ahab of the book, in this case, a man driven by an all-consuming quest to wonder all over the desolate West, rather than the ocean. The Civil War has ended and the Texicans are on the edge of wilderness, trying to protect their pioneer life (seen as the beginning of civilization) in the midst of terror from the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. When a group of the pioneers are lured away from their homes to find some stolen prized cattle, the Comanche’s raid Amos’s brother’s home, killing his family except two daughters, which they steal. The book traces the search for Lucy, a teenager, and Debbie, “goin’ on 10,” by the protagonists, Amos, who was in love with his brothers wife, Martha, and Martin Pawley, an 18 year-old raised by the Edward’s as their own after the Pawley’s were massacred many years before. The love between Martha and Amos, the fact that he gave her up for a more stable life married to his brother, and Amos dealing with finding her hacked apart by the Comanche’s, sends him on a mission fueled by hatred and guilt.
After Lucy is found killed along the trail, the two press on to locate Debbie, for almost six long years. As the novel progresses, Amos’s hatred for Comanche’s, his desire for revenge, becomes more important to him than finding Debbie alive, while Martin learns the ways of living on the plains and continues the quest for his own reasons. Their relationship is strained, yet they carry on; their partnership is built on necessity. Martin eventually becomes the mature member of the two, and he ends up taking over the leader’s role, e.g. he becomes the more capable one in speaking/negotiating with the Indians. He stays with Amos, rather than striking out on his own, to protect Debbie from Amos. But then, Martin has his own demons, feeling guilty about giving inadequate attention to Debbie the last time he saw her.
The Indians are cast as villains in Le May’s book but they aren’t inferior human beings; they are pictured as valid defenders of their land. And their acts of brutality are no more barbarous than those of Amos or other white men. One could argue that it was a fairly balanced view; there was no demonization of the Indians in justifying Amos’s racism. We know why Amos hated the Comanche—because they killed everything he loved. (One could argue that the movie was not a balanced view, that it was more openly racist. Also, the 1950’s were a bit early in our culture to see Indians as New Age Environmentalists. That twaddle came about sometime in the ‘60s and ‘70s). The brief commentary on the history of the Texas Rangers, the pacifist Quaker’s running the Indian agencies and their relationships with the Army was interesting; and it left the pioneers rather vulnerable. It made me wonder if it were true.
The book carefully identified the psychological and practical effect of leaving home, as Amos tries to tell Mart: “…Pretty soon it’s too late. Longer you’re out, the more you want to go back—only you don’t know how. Until you don’t fit any place any more. You’ll end up a Squaw man—you can mark my word. You see why I tried to leave you home?” And later, when they stopped by the Mathison ranch: “…they went home only because all leads very soon staled and petered out in the part of the country where they were. Otherwise, they probably would have stayed and carried on. They had lived on the wild land so long that they needed nothing, not even money….It never occurred to them that their search was stretching out into a great extraordinary feat of endurance; an epic of hope without faith, of fortitude without reward, of stubbornness past all limits of reason. They simply kept on… following out one more forlorn-hope try.”
The book’s beauty is in the well-written details—the hardships of the journey are relentless—the cold, the blizzards, their management of tiring horses, wooden and gaunt faces, living with filth, the smells, scant food, descriptions of the vastness of the land, the miles crossed, heartbreaking wasted effort in the wrong direction on flimsy leads, their relationship with the Texas Rangers, Laurie, the precarious life on the plains.
It’s noteworthy that these characters came alive in a different way than my understanding of them from my movie preconceptions. They took on more interesting characteristics and I could visualize them in new ways compared to the film. Also, the book’s ending is far different than the movie. But then it wouldn’t have been right to kill John Wayne and miss that famous final scene.
Every book I read these days is an opportunity for me to evaluate writing styles. And when I think back on all the crime thrillers, suspense novels, aEvery book I read these days is an opportunity for me to evaluate writing styles. And when I think back on all the crime thrillers, suspense novels, and noir fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years, it’s the punchy dialog, the brevity of words, and “the short declarative sentences,” as in reference to Hemingway, that I liked. This was often coupled with poetic prose that gave these books a contrasting feel—where one can get a sense of the author’s soul.
I’ve only recently been introduced to authors John Fante and Charles Bukowski, and although their subjects are depressing, they’re style is somewhat similar. It’s unfair to say that Mark SaFranko’s Hating Olivia is exactly like them, but as Dan Fante, son of John Fante, said in the introduction, “Hating Olivia is fresh meat, a gift tied together with a bloodstained bow.”
There’s another thing: Mr. SaFanko has written a “hundred short stories, fifty of them already in print. A box full of poetry and essays. And ten complete novels, eight of them yet to hit the bookshelves. A dozen plays, some produced in New York and others staged in Ireland. SaFranko writes songs too, a hundred and fifty so far.” So, unpublished old guy that I am, I’m intimidated before I’ve finished the introduction!
One gets the sense of where the book is going early on. It’s written in the first person where the protagonist mostly tells the truth about himself. Max is a flawed character. He drinks and smokes too much, quits jobs because he’s bored or somebody pissed him off; debt and hitting the bars when he has a little cash is a way of life. He wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t write. He is obsessed with beautiful women, at least having sex with them. About one he said, “Like a beggar who covets the palace of the kingdom, I wanted what I couldn’t have....” Self-analyzing his general state of affairs, he says, “When I contemplated what a man had to endure in order to get along in this world, it turned my stomach. Nevertheless, an undefined guilt dogged me. Why was it I detested all things conventional and bourgeois? My head was in the clouds, for sure. Or up my ass, as my blue-collar old man liked to say...Worst of all...I never listened to anybody.”
Note the style and the tone here: After visiting an astrologer who wanted his phone number so she could follow-up on getting paid, he writes, “I wrote it down. She saw me to the door. The street was as quiet as a morgue. As lots of people said, Brooklyn was a place for nonbelievers. And, as someone else wrote, it was only known by the dead.”
Max meets Olivia in a bar. “We were to take the plunge together into the subsoil of raw concupiscence, from which both ecstasy and madness spring, and forgo the dusty, worthless upper strata of passionless habit and duty that most humans know. I would come to live for fucking Livy.” The reader knows that this "love story" is not going to go well. The title alone tells you that.
He moves in with her. He’s not even sure who she really is, but he’s stuck. “I had the growing sensation of being caught, like a fish swimming blindly into a seine....” Olivia spends money they don’t have. Max see a shrink and self talks: “And what did I have to feel lousy about, after all. Wasn’t I merely the victim of my own laziness, my own ability to cope with the world as it was? And whose fault was that? Nobody ever asked me to think of myself as an “artist,” nobody had forced me at gunpoint into a ditch of debt. I was young. I was healthy. I could work. Most of my life lay before me—maybe....And, too, I had Olivia.”
They have to get work because they can’t pay their bills. Max joins the corporate world and offers some interesting insights into its bureaucratic absurdities. (Since I came from that world, I could argue that it isn’t as bad as described everywhere, but I've been places where it is.) Max thinks about suffering and misery. He can’t take it. He quits. Max and Olivia fight—slammed doors, vile oaths, screaming an yelling, pots and dishes are thrown. Still, they go to bed and screw. The author writes some beautiful prose through this and speaks of the sheer misery of her god-awful beauty.
They’re headed for another collapse of their finances. They talk of doom. We’re more than halfway through the book and I’m not going to spoil it with further descriptions. It’s not so much a happy or terrible ending as a reconciled one. The path to the end is very much worth reading. You get the sense—you hope—that, in spite of the obsession with Olivia, the poor choices, the degradation, Max is going to be okay. Yes, Hating Olivia is quite good. It grabs you. I poured through the book, but had to stop every once in a while to savor how the author put together a thought or an act. The writing is crisp and well organized. I enjoyed the book immensely because SaFranko told the story so well.
When I read a book like this, I wonder if I could write like the author—a sign of admiration, it there ever was one. I didn’t live the kind of life depicted, but could I write it? Writers of crime thrillers never killed anybody (most, anyway), but they know how to put a good deal of murder and mayhem on paper—for example, one of my favorites, Elmore Leonard. Author Zadie Smith wrote, “You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.” My as yet unpublished novel isn’t like Mr. SaFranko’s book. It’s more mainstream. But I think I’ll start with a short story—see where it goes.... ...more
The psychological drama was first published in 1955 in French, then in English in 1964. On the first page it begins wThe Blue Room, by Georges Simenon
The psychological drama was first published in 1955 in French, then in English in 1964. On the first page it begins with “Andrée naked still on the ravaged bed, her legs apart, a few drops of semen clinging to the dark hair, shadowy between her thighs.” In their love-making, she had bitten Tony’s lip, hard enough to make it bleed. Oh, those crazy sexy French! It’s in the “blue room,” at his brothers hotel. We see that he’s either reminiscing or telling a psychiatrist and the Examining Magistrate his story under interrogation. He’s under arrest, for what we don’t yet know. Tony and Andrée are both married to other people and they’ve secretly met like this eight times. The critical questions are less from the magistrate and the psychiatrist, although they certainly help the story move along. Rather, they are the questions Andrée asks Tony during this tryst, fed slowly by the author:
“Do you love me, Tony?”
“I think so”
He said it teasingly, though without a smile, for he was still dabbing his lower lip with a damp towel.
“Aren’t you sure?”
He turned to look at her, and noticed with pleasure the drops of semen, his semen, recalling the intimate union of their bodies.
“Could you spend the rest of your life with me?”
The words scarcely registered... “Of course...” [Later] It was the way it was said that counted, the tone of voice. He had not meant it. The words were without substance. In the blue room, everything was insubstantial, unreal. Or rather, it had a reality of its own, distinct and separate, incomprehensible to anyone outside...they had never been anything to each other outside that room, except for the first time when they had made love among the long grass and nettles on the edge of Sarelle Wood.
“Can you be so sure? Aren’t you a little afraid?”
“What is there to be afraid of?”
“Can’t you see us together, day after day?”
These words, too, would return, so lighthearted today, but a few months from now, so menacing.
“Tell me Tony...If I were free...? Would you get your freedom too?”
Her husband shows up at the hotel, and with a little help, Tony escapes unseen.
The official questioning is getting to him:
How to put into words the difference between living through an experience, and stripping it bare layer by layer afterwards? Feelings and motives were imputed to him that he did not recognize. He was losing his bearings....
Later, he again wonders about these repeated questions:
Were there really people whose lives were devoted to self-examination, to gazing at themselves in a mirror, as it were?
Tony is likable; and there are other interesting characters in the book—the two spouses, Andrée’s mother-in-law, Tony’s young daughter, the small role Tony’s brother plays. Tony tries to break it off. He does, in fact, not see Andrée in such a manner again. But then there are Andrées brief but damaging letters to Tony...and two deaths, in fact, murders. There’s public opinion to deal with, and a trial. Simenon unfolds all this brilliantly, interlacing, current moments with past thoughts and past conversations. It all builds tension as you find out what really went on. Hint: Andrée did not interpret their conversation in the blue room as casually as Tony did.
A short book, easy to breeze through, full of good dialog and inner reflection—also an interesting plot—I liked it. It made me think of James M. Cain. ...more
The author, a distinguished Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology (SMU) says in the preface, “Wesley clearly has a distinctive theThe author, a distinguished Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology (SMU) says in the preface, “Wesley clearly has a distinctive theology.” It is Abraham’s thesis that this theology is an “intellectual oasis lodged within the traditional faith of the church enshrined in the creeds.” I must admit that I was hooked right there because I enjoy rational inquiry into things not necessarily rational, remembering Wesley’s famous dictum, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity," as guide.
His life: John Wesley (1703-1791) was heavily influenced by his mother Susanna, and steeped in the Anglican Church. “While he led a renewal movement…he never wavered in his own sense of loyalty.” At Oxford, he joined his brother Charles in a small-group ministry that became the “nucleus of his Methodist Societies.” Until he sailed for the New World in 1735 at age 32, he had spent most of his life in “Anglican educational institutions” thus inheriting “a rich theological tradition.” The author notes that, “He learned well how to articulate and defend his ideas even when they were daft and irregular” having developed “an abundance of skills and self-assurance.” In other words, he was a good rhetorician and might have made a good 21st century politician.
His commitment, diligence and spiritual discipline as a missionary in the New World was remarkable—a man obsessed perhaps, “on a quest for real Christianity.” But he was never truly settled spiritually at this stage and failed as a missionary—a matter of being too rigorous with a mixed bag of immigrants and a failure in his love life. (He had to sneak out of the country for “misconduct” having to do with retributive actions on miss Sophia Hopkey, who much to his chagrin married a rival.) And he failed “in his own search for a truly inward relation to God.” He had been in Georgia for all of twenty-two months.
Back in England, German Moravian Peter Bohler “introduced Wesley to a vision of the Christian life that put enormous emphasis on personal, inward certainty about forgiveness and victory over sin here and now…that is was possible to experience the love and power of God as something tangible….” This was not easy for Wesley but on May 24, 1738 he had his Aldersgate experience—he had met God for himself and he came to a clear understanding of justification by grace. “The Aldersgate encounter with God was more than some sugary, pious experience; it was a profound spiritual and intellectual reorientation.” He had found assurance in God’s love, acceptance, and wanted to share what he had discovered but recognized the need for “effective forms of new ministry.” (Perhaps his failure as a missionary in Georgia had an influence on his attempts to find effective means for religious awakening, i.e. evangelism.)
When the opportunity arrived, beginning in 1739, Wesley launched into a new phase of his life as preacher, spiritual leader, organizer, administrator, and clear-thinking theologian. He traveled England, Ireland, and Scotland for five decades preaching the gospel and developing institutional resources. The term “Methodist” suggests a “readiness to be methodical in all things spiritual.” One method was “the gathering of seekers into societies, bands… and recovery units that were truly effective in providing informal spiritual direction among friends.” Although he had the leadership style of “a benign dictator” and had an “arrogant cheek,” he learned over time to listen to good advice from others, although he went to war publicly with George Whitefield over their differences about predestination.
The author says that the 1740’s and 50s, was “a period of organization, of mob persecution, of theological conflict, of intellectual self-defense, and of fundamental theological consolidation” and he saw “the world as his parish.” He created new services of worship with singing, trained lay preachers, and gathered a “crucial group of coworkers.” By the 1750’s, he had “established an evangelical order within the Church of England.” He published a Christian library—fifty volumes between 1749 and 1755—that was rarely used by others. He married a 41 year-old widow, Molly Vazeille, but the marriage was a disaster since Wesley’s first priority required travel and taking care of business, that is, managing all things churchy. Much of the business involved factions—those wanting to separate from the Anglican Church, which he rejected; and those who were so self-assured in their perfection, having a corner on truth, that they got into the prediction business. Wesley “sent them packing.” He also had differences with Calvinist colleagues and his use of a woman “exhorter” (a preacher by another name) did not advance his attempts at unity for renewal and reform. The split with Calvinism over the issue of predestination became final and unalterable in the 1770’s.
“Methodism grew like a weed, not the least in the New World,” but the War of Independence sent “shock waves throughout the whole church scene.” (Wesley was not sympathetic “for the rebel cause.”) In 1784, he set up organizational structures and ordained bishops (Coke and Asbury) for North America separate from England— “he had crossed the line and invented a new Christian denomination.” He was an “incurable workaholic,” his marriage failed in the 1760’s, and his brother Charles died in 1788. John Wesley died on March 2, 1791. “From the age of thirty-six he had traveled 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons, some to more than 20,000 people.
Development of a Theology: He was a small fry—a folk theologian— compared to those who provided a “systematic ordering of Christian teaching.” The author wants to give him his due, however, and discusses the Enlightenment, the road to modernity, and standard perceptions of Wesley in relation to those events. He then offers a different perspective:
“Wesley lived in a world where there was a confessional state…to be a political somebody or to get anywhere in…English society…one had to believe in the Trinity and…be part of the Anglican establishment.” There was a sign-on fee for making it in the church… “Accepting the official practices and beliefs of the Church of England.” “Wesley was the product of a university system that was shamelessly confessional in orientation.” “Wesley’s day was profoundly Christian in its intellectual orientation,” not overtaken by Enlightenment thinking. Five watersheds in Wesley’s intellectual journey:
He developed a passion for holiness, influenced by reading Jeremy Taylor and William Law… “Holiness of heart and life is the heartbeat of Christianity…inescapably inward and spiritual…the gospel changes people from the inside out and turns the world right side up.” His entire life was “a restless quest for authentic spirituality.” Aldersgate in 1738—the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by grace accompanied by the experiential encounter with God. Wesley’s publication of “official doctrines” in 1764 were “the essentials of true religion as he saw them.” The publication of Conference Minutes in 1770 whereby he addresses predestination and the idea that personal “moral transformation made an emphasis on works inevitable.” The launching of a new church in North America in 1784. His primary commitment was “to the spiritual welfare of his people.” Wesley’s strengths and insights were in the “theological materials he puts in place for his work as an evangelist and spiritual director” with nothing particularly “new’ to say on several Christian traditional concepts. He was more a medieval theologian than a modern one, a traditionalist. To Wesley, the “Reformation was not a fresh start but a course correction.” He was “committed to the ancient doctrines…and unashamedly supernaturalistic.” And “he challenged the nominalism and complacency that are the sins of all establishments not with liberal revisionism but by a radical retrieval of lost ideas and practices.” He is important for our day because he stressed a “combination of ancient commitment and present passion.” He showed us that “doing theology is both exhilarating and risky.” It is a “quest for a clarity that is never complete.”
Examining Sin and Grace: The author covers the nature of God and man noting “we were created for love” but that “we suffer from the effects of original and ongoing sin in our lives…egocentric to the core…In reality we are blind to the truth about God, the world and ourselves.” A “grim picture of the world is pivotal in Wesley’s theology as a whole….Wesley is convinced that it is only by recognizing the depth of human sin that we can fully grasp how deep God’s love and grace are.”
“Prevenient grace is the initial help God gives to everyone to see how grim things are and to form the first intention to get help.” But there is a theological problem when examining “freedom and grace.” The author explains it well, considers the options, and shows how Wesley juggles four distinct and conflicting convictions; but Abraham also finds Wesley’s solution to the problem as “less than compelling” and rethinks it. The author then comes back to Wesley’s theme but ducks drawing a conclusion.
Justification and Regeneration: Abraham faults Wesley for his occasional inconsistency, partly tied to his work as a preacher—“ sermonic hyperbole gets in the way of systematic clarity.” On the subject at hand though, Wesley is committed “to a vision that embraces both forgiveness and radical personal transformation….In justifying us God pardons and forgives us our sins….In regeneration, or rebirth, we get to make a fresh start in life,” i.e. sanctification. “God gives us power to live a life of love toward God and neighbor.” Wesley was certain we needed both elements—pardon/forgiveness/justification and rebirth/regeneration/sanctification.
“Wesley insisted that we need to use all the means of grace at our disposal rather than just sitting around waiting for God to zap us.” Wesley stressed the importance of good preaching as one of the means and he had no patience for weakness in this area. It is faith in God, “not some wishy-washy, sentimental thoughts about forgiveness and mercy that bring relief… Our conversion is inescapably personal.” But unlike Catholics, with a mediator, “the individual is left at the mercy of subjective feeling and discernment.” (That is, there is a problem of assurance and uncertainty.)
Wesley “is totally opposed to any vision of justification that will open a door to the denial or neglect of the moral law.” Here is where he combines the necessity of faith and works, love of neighbor, love of God. “Faith that fails to express itself in inward disposition and outward behavior is mere assent, mere dead orthodoxy….” In other words, “faith and works are inseparable.” To believe that grace is dominant is mistaken. Wesley does not see grace as some “syrupy, schmaltzy license to give up on the quest for virtue.” Transformation and action are required. “True freedom is not freedom from law [moral law]; it is freedom to be and become all that moral law requires of us in the good purposes of God.” It is, for Wesley, a “quest for integrity.” (A digression about integrity, not in the book: The Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—does not mean that because I want others to honor my demands, I should honor theirs. The “want,” in Christian terms, infers wanting others to minister to our saintly needs, not to our foolish, retributive, or corrupt desires; and our obligation is to treat others in the same way—as children of God—a matter of uprightness, being aligned with God’s plan.) We have misunderstood the meaning of freedom (with its tendencies toward nihilism) and see discipline to the moral law as a hindrance to liberation. But for Wesley, “integrity can be born again.”
With God all things are Possible (as opposed to “with American ingenuity, all things are possible,” or “by Presidential or legislative decree, all things are possible,” or “any country that can put a man on the moon can…you name it.” I’m editorializing here about man’s hubris, looking to other gods): “Wesley believed that it was possible to achieve spiritual perfection and genuine certainty about God in this life,” a matter that doesn’t wash with modernity. But Wesley was in search of the idea of “purity of intention,” recognizing a lack of knowledge, confusion and other constraints that do not allow for “absolute perfection.” The author delves into the details, the issue of “assurance,” our spiritual presumptions, our capability (or lack thereof) to discern. Wesley had to work out this witness of the Holy Spirit in his own life (as I presume most of us do.)
Abraham calls Wesley “something of a theological oddball” because he picks up pieces of many Christian denominations but also says he had an admirable and “unique vision of the Christian life.” (A syncretist but within the tradition?) Abraham then offers some interesting thoughts on the “complexity and simplicity of the Christian life.” (See pages 103-106)
The Church: Wesley had complaints about the stagnant church; he saw it as a “means to an end [rather] than as intrinsically significant…what mattered first was that people find God….He never really reconciled this with his high-church background and sensibilities.” (The Bible has other ideas; and I wonder of Abraham is correct here.) Abraham does comment on Wesley’s sound views on the universal church. (One of Wesley’s best sermons: “Catholic Spirit.”)
Wesley articulates his views on the “means of grace” but also includes works of mercy as good for the soul—a focus away from self and our religious activities. The means of grace do not provide “any ground for merit. We approach them in a spirit of trust….What God has promised is grace upon grace.” Wesley insisted, “God was not limited in his use of means. God is above all means.”
Making Moral Sense: The quest for holiness was at the heart of his theology but Abraham suggests that Wesley was more interested in the “production of morality” than any questions of the “meaning of morality.” It is a focus on transformation with Jesus as the “moral center of gravity.”
A dilemma worth examination: Wesley said, “Is a thing… right because God wills it? Or does he will it because it is right? I fear this celebrated question is more curious than useful….Tis hardly decent for man to call the supreme God to give an account to him.” Abraham’s interpretation of his answer (condensed): “The will of God is God himself.” And “we cannot know the difference between right and wrong independent of God.” It is “a robust theory of conscience as the foundation of moral judgment.” “Love is the prior virtue to justice, mercy and truth.” Wesley’s vision of ethics was “Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God….”
Politically, Wesley was a “High Tory” committed to traditional arrangements in England. But…at no time did “Wesley allow his ideas about politics to be cut loose from his fundamental convictions about sin, repentance, justification, sanctification, and the like. The root of all evil goes back to alienation from God, hence any solution to problems of human behavior and society will have to take into account conversion and growth in grace.”
Different People Sin Differently: Much of his theology “is devoted to addressing this dilemma.” Abraham examines some of the false trails: (1) spiritual fanaticism, (2) bigotry, (3) sectarianism, (4) spiritual depression, and (5) money, all worthy of scrutiny.
Providence and Predestination: (Closing with the easy stuff?) The author asks, “Is God’s action confined to the soul? Is God not at work in creation and history?” Wesley was cautious “of the place of human reason in theology” leaning toward divine revelation as the basis—we should stick to what has been revealed, stay close to the text of Scripture. He was also cautious about what we can truly understand about God. (God is other than we are.) For Wesley, “God was intimately at work in every event that occurred in space and time.” (Omnipresence.) But “the manner of God’s presence is incomprehensible.” And he does not deprive humans of freedom, the ability to make choices.
Wesley was not the great foe of predestination (determinism) as typically characterized, according to Abraham. He had a view of “double predestination!” Abraham says, “This God is no wimp…making up the rules as he goes along.” He knows from the outset what is going to happen; He is running the universe, not humanity. And God is totally committed to healing a fallen world. Two elements: “God has decreed that one group will be saved and another will not.” Because of free will—to accept or reject the “mercy of God in Christ”—the predestination involved is “conditional.”
Concluding Remarks: Abraham says, “All human beings are designed to be intoxicated with the love of God and neighbor, so we should stop fooling around and get with the program.” It sounds like something Wesley would say.
Our Culture, What's Left Of It—The Mandarins and the Masses, by Theodore Dalrymple (2005).
Dr. Dalrymple is a writer and medical doctor that has practiOur Culture, What's Left Of It—The Mandarins and the Masses, by Theodore Dalrymple (2005).
Dr. Dalrymple is a writer and medical doctor that has practiced in third-world countries, worked in prisons and inner-city hospitals, and has generally seen a good bit of life's tragedies "at the bottom." His more famous book was titled, Life at the Bottom—The Worldview That Makes the Underclass. (2001)
In Our Culture..., a collection of essays, the author writes of the necessity of maintaining boundaries if humanity isn't going to descend into barbarism. He blames, in part, the modern intellectual’s attitude that being "unconventional" or "breaking taboos" are considered high virtues; and they are what is rewarded within the inner circles...without ever questioning the consequences of the unconventional. In the preface he says, "And the prestige that intellectuals confer upon antinomianism [heretic Christian view that one is released by grace from the obligation of observing moral law] soon communicates itself to nonintellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient—the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement." In other words, the selling that all morality is relative in meaning and application, has broad negative implications.
Dr. Dalrymple regards "intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculable practical importance and effect." He quotes economist John Maynard Keynes: "Practical men might not have much time in theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economic and social philosophers." Dalrymple agrees; except that he would "now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it." (Emphasis mine.)
Since all of these essays were published by City Journal from 1996 through 2004, they can be found in the archives of the Internet. I'll not review them individually. I'll merely make them available for perusal and future reference:
Arts and Letters
The Frivolity of Evil - Autumn 2004
A Taste for Danger - Summer 1998
Why Shakespeare Is For All Time - Winter 2003
Sex and the Shakespeare Reader - Autumn 2003
What's Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks? - Summer 2003
The Rage of Virginia Woolf - Summer 2002
How - and How Not - to Love Mankind - Summer 2001
A Neglected Genius - Winter 2004
The Dystopian Imagination - Autumn 2001
A Lost Art - Spring 2001
Gillray's Ungloomy Morality - Winter 2002
Trash, Violence and Versace: But Is It Art? - Winter 1998
Society and Politics
What We Have to Lose - Autumn 2001
How to Read a Society - Spring 2000
Why Havanna Had to Die - Summer 2002
The Uses of Corruption - Summer 2001
The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations - Autumn 1997
The Starving Criminal - Autumn 2002
Don't Legalize Drugs - Spring 1997
All Sex, All the Time - Summer 2000
Who Killed Childhood? - Spring 2004
A Horror Story - Spring 1996
The Man Who Predicted the Race Riots - Spring 2002
When Islam Breaks Down - Spring 2004
The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris - Autumn 2002
The Los Angels Times called Chump Change “passionate, obscene and quite wonderful.” It is passionate and obscene...and well written, but wonderful? IThe Los Angels Times called Chump Change “passionate, obscene and quite wonderful.” It is passionate and obscene...and well written, but wonderful? I must admit that my brief forays into Charles Bukowski and John Fante, the author’s father, have taken their toll. I keep remembering that one of my best friends in college, a bright and for a time successful businessman, ended up a derelict on the streets of Cleveland. He died too young because of alcoholism and left his wife—a friend also—and daughter in a pretty rough financial state. I used to drink with him while in college—never saw it coming. I knew when to quit drinking and could. He didn't and couldn’t and it killed him. So when I read about the utter degradation of what an alcoholic goes through, such as Dan Fante skillfully put on paper in Chump Change, I somberly think of my old pal and what might have been—except for the booze.
The book is confessional-autobiographical. The protagonist is named Bruno Dante, the son of a screenwriter and novelist who is dying. The story is about Bruno traveling with his wife (who hates him) from New York to Los Angeles and his experiences there around his father’s failing condition and death.
Early in the book, Bruno says, “I was decomposing from within, like this preposterous town. L.A. was the right place for me after all. I belonged here with the killers of my father: the mind-fucking twenty-two-year old movie producers and distribution gurus who’d dictated the course of his life. I was a true son of L.A.
“This was perfect. In a drunken sexual frenzy, I had disgraced myself, then cut my wrists in jail, and now I would show up to shake my brother’s hand and kiss my mother’s cheek.
“Standing there I made a decision. I didn’t care....”
In a conversation with his brother: “I had not planned to be crazy, I said. Arrests for lewd practices in public were things that happened when I drank. I’d not planned to be a degenerate. Life got away from me. Out of hand. I couldn’t figure it out either.”
He ends up with his father’s old bull terrier, Rocco, also dying. The feeding and care of Rocco becomes part of the story. Bruno particularly likes Mogen David Mad Dog 20-20 for its numbing effects. He meets a pimp, McBeth, who ditches his whore, Amy, after taking Bruno’s money. Amy is about fifteen, flat-chested, horse-faced, skinny like a young boy, and she stutters when she’s not drunk. She likes Mad Dog too. The whole Bruno-Amy relationship is funny in a sick way. It doesn’t last.
Bruno reminisces about his father and life as a child when he sees his old house, close to Paramount. His father couldn’t make it as a novelist and sold out for money as a screenwriter. I found this attitude interesting, as though there was something wrong with screenwriting. Who knew?
But...”Sometimes a Mad Dog run could last two or three days, sometimes weeks...Now , my mind out of THE DOG, self-judgement stabbed at me and ripped my guts until it would be impossible for me to exist in my thoughts. Without the wine, my head remembered only evil...A pimp junkie had stolen my money. I had allowed myself to get fucked by an absurd, handicapped child. My cowardice in leaving the hospital the night before and not facing my father’s death was completely selfish and without conscience. I’d stolen my brother Fabrezio’s car. I was a degenerate, with an insatiable capacity for perversion. Incapable of change. I could do anything except not drink.”
He needs a job and the story of his experiences selling for a video dating service is good writing. The job doesn’t last either. But the book actually ends on the upbeat. Bruno is thinking...about loving his father. He’s written a poem...and he’s gone one whole day without a drink. ...more
The premise of Antler Dust, Colorado resident Mark Stevens’ first novel, is enticing. It’s about Allison Coil, a female hunting guide working the bigThe premise of Antler Dust, Colorado resident Mark Stevens’ first novel, is enticing. It’s about Allison Coil, a female hunting guide working the big elk hunts in the Colorado Flat Tops Wilderness and two killings—of humans—on the opening day of hunting season. One death involves the “creative suicide” of Ray Stern, an animal rights activist with the group FATE—Fighting Animal Torture Everywhere. The second killing involves another guide. It’s not a whodunit. We know who did the deeds. It’s more about Allison, since she saw something, and her private investigations beyond what the police are doing. They seem preoccupied with PR issues.
There are a cast of characters—outfitter and pilot, George Crumley, who caters to fat-cat hunters that fly in on their private jets. George insures trophy winning results. His wife, Trudy, has a medical condition causing occasional seizures, which requires someone to baby-sit her all the time. George is happy to provide a constant guard. One of them gets a little too close to Trudy. Allison, who works for a competing outfitter, and Trudy become friends and both play important roles in the story's ultimate outcome. Dawn Ellenburg is the head crusader of FATE and is going to milk the public relations benefit of the killing of one of her group for all its worth. She gets national coverage. Dean Applegate is the newly converted hunter-guide who now sees the error of his ways, joins FATE, and makes speeches—a dream fulfilled for Ellenburg. Then there is Slater, Allison’s Forest Ranger boyfriend, seemingly a nice guy.
Allison is a likable protagonist. She’s smart, capable and courageous, but not so perfect that she strains credulity. How did she get into such a business? She was a survivor of a commercial jet airplane crash into Long Island Sound. After that life defining moment, she dropped out of her previous corporate-city existence and was fortunate enough to get hired by Weaver, an outfitter of integrity. She learned on the job.
About Allison, early in the book:
A group of animal rights protesters had set up tents at the base of the mountain that morning. She had not given much thought to them until now. She imagined that most of them were like the men she had left back at the hunter’s camp, city dwellers out on a lark. But with the coming snowstorm, they just might learn the hard way that Mother Nature was indifferent to the rights of everyone and everything on this planet. You might as well protest earthquakes, fires, floods, and falling airplanes.
Allison—a rational realist. Perhaps that’s why I liked her from the beginning.
Later, contemplating the airplane crash:
Two years now in the mountains, and she was beginning—barely beginning— to consider that notion that she had, in fact, been lucky. Another few seconds further down that runway and the drop would have been an exponentially greater slam to reality. A few seconds more and 31 dead could have been 119 dead....Death, she had learned, is simply a corpse you carry around underneath your skin. Until one day it pops free.
The narrator in Allison’s head...about Slater while in conversation with him:
Coil with a cop-like guy? The idea was a constant source of amusement. It wasn’t necessarily forever, but nothing yet made her think that would be unbearable. He didn’t seem to have the typical government mentality. Also, he was strong and straightforward. Coil had never before been with a man who could be classified in the “straightforward” category. Slater was a trim six-footer with an engaging face, dark eyes over a slender nose....Coil liked the way he moved and talked, all careful and in control, but he could flip over to relaxation mode without much effort.
And later, more on Slater:
The last full-fledged boyfriend she’d had, after the airplane accident, was hung up on every mystical song Van Morrison had ever sung. He was a mental drifter, a searcher, who calculated the price of belonging to every structure or organization as some sort of personal sacrifice.
Not Slater. He was somebody who saw his place, or at least knew how to pretend he did. As a result, the picture of comfort and suggestion of stability was strangely inviting.
I chuckled at that bit because while I'm am not a drifter—mental or otherwise—I tend to agree that "the price of belonging to every structure or organization as some sort of personal sacrifice." And I learned how to "pretend" in the corporate world. Another significant conversation with Slater:
"Indoctrination. That’s the city life too. It wears you down. Conform or else,” said Coil.
“Really? I thought the city was where all the weird folks could hide, do their own thing. I thought non-conformity was the point and why people liked living in the city to watch it all go down.”
“Conformity at the corporate level, I suppose, said Coil. “Wear certain suits, read certain books, hang out in just the right places, say just the right things.”
“Well, you fit in here, too,” said Slater. “Half the folks in the mountains out here are runners, anyway.”
“I didn’t run from anything.”
“I just needed trees and sky. And I knew I’d never fly in an airplane again.”
“So you needed a new home. I’m no philosopher, but isn’t that all of us? Either happy with our homes or looking for something better?”
FATE leader Ellenburg and hunting guide Allison Coil in conversation:
“Sorry,” said Ellenburg. “But how exactly do you sit there and watch these beautiful animals being killed and carved up?”
Actually, I don’t sit there, I show them exactly how to gut and quarter.
“Probably not a good idea to get into it,” said Coil. “I think we can just agree to disagree on that one.”
“No seriously,” said Ellenburg. “These majestic, beautiful creatures. Slaughtered. and you think it’s okay? You seem like a woman with a bit of a world view, If I’m not mistaken. It’s just a hunch but you seem smarter than the average local up here.”
“I’m from the city, originally, it’s true,” said Coil. “I respect what you’re doing and I respect your point of view. It’s just not mine. The fact of life today is that you can’t let the elk and deer population explode unchecked. There are just too many. And hunting is older than the wheel. It’s just the way it is. You can’t go back and undo the fact that human beings have the ability and the desire to hunt. It’s an animal instinct.”
Ellenburg shook her head slowly.
“You think people—societies, whatever— have no control over their future?”
“I think reality is reality,” said Coil. “That’s all.”
Some people die accidentally. Some people die because they are hunted and killed in war. They all end up in the same situation. Hunting is part of human nature.
Coil took a tentative step back. She knew this was headed nowhere but ugly.
There is more on hunting. The title has meaning, but the reader doesn't know where it fits until near the end. And there are interesting references to FATE as a political commune, the easy manipulation of the news with “visuals,” government as a dangerous servant and fearful master. The few sex scenes are skillfully written, which is to say they are not at all crude and they help explain the nature of the characters. They weren't just thrown in. Slater is not who he seems....
I’m not going to spoil the story with a plot analysis. Just know that it is full of turns, surprises and dangerous times for Allison Coil and a few others who don’t fare as well as she does.
An author bio from Stevens’ website says,
The son of two librarians, Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts, graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and, four years later, from Principia College in Illinois. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles, covering a variety of events and issues from the economy, commercial fishing, the environment, politics and all the colorful people and events of southern California. Following a move to Denver, he worked for The Rocky Mountain News, covering City Hall for three years. When he learned that The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour was expanding its production he was lucky enough to be invited to join the team – they were actually looking for somebody with no television experience, which suited him perfectly. For six years, he produced field documentaries across the United States and Latin America. He covered the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, NASA’s space shuttle disaster, a volcano eruption in Colombia, political upheavals in Nicaragua, and mudslides in Puerto Rico. His “master of disaster” title, he was told, referred to the stories he covered, not the quality of the reports. After tending bar for a year on a self-financed sabbatical (and to write fiction), he joined The Denver Post to cover education. Those five years of reporting led to a position as Director of Communications with Denver Public Schools for more 11 years and then with the school district in Greeley for a year. He now works in communications with the state department of education. Stevens lives near Congress Park in beautiful downtown Denver with his wife, Jody Chapel, and two daughters, Ally and Justine.
So author Mark Stevens is a city guy with a history in journalism and public relations. The background helps—the references to PR and news management evidently come from experience. He also knows how to build tension and write a darn good mystery. He adhered to Elmore Leonard’s rule number ten: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I thoroughly enjoyed Antler Dust and am looking forward to his next book.
The Great Gatsby is known as Fitzgerald’s finest work. Some have said it is possibly the “Great American Novel.” It’s written spare rather than over-done, yet rich in language and well plotted. While I can honestly say I don’t personally know any idle rich Eastern effete snobs living very well off inherited or illegally earned money, I believed I got to know these characters. That’s a pretty good trick for an author.
While I could not directly identify with them, I could identify with their obsessions: greed, money, lust, ambition, success, shallow living, though I make myself feel better about it by saying, “to a much lesser degree, of course.” This is a book about “careless people… they smashed up things … then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
It’s a book full of such great descriptions:
Nick, “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.”
The two girls in white dresses, “… their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire”.
Tom, “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
Mrs. Wilson, “… there was an immediate perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering.”
Nick, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Jordan, “The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something – most affectations conceal something…”
Nick, “but I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…”
And, “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines…”
Or, “There are only the personal, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”
And, “I tried to go then, but they wouldn’t hear of it; perhaps my presence made them feel satisfactorily alone.”
And Nick referring to guilt, “… and it occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”