Posted on August 2, 2015
I’m always curious about old books I find all by themselves at tag sales held by people who are manifestly not bookish.I once found a volume of Yeats in a driveway littered with things ordered from TV ads – vegetable dicers, sandwich makers and nordic traks. It was in a box with Babysitters Club books — obviously a bookish daughter had moved away.
I found a copy of Queed at a tag sale like that, and something about it caught my eye. What was it doing there? Must have belonged to Grandpa.
Queed was actually quite popular in its day, back in 1911. It tells the story of a young man of unknown parentage who is raised by the New York City policemen by the name of Queed. The young man becomes a brilliant, self-educated scholar, who achieves success as a writer and embarks on a grand work of evolutionary sociology.
He moves to an unspecified Southern city. I first guessed Baltimore, but then it became the site of a grand review of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the author mentioned it had battlements all over the place, so I concluded it had to be Richmond, rightly as it turns out.
Anyway Queed, at first devoted to intellectual pursuits, learns the value of, in no particular order, exercise, friendship, and public service. At first he grudgingly takes precious minutes away from his great work to help his landlady’s daughter Fifi with her homework. Fifi has a cough, so you know she’s going to die tragically.
H.L. Mencken called Harrison a “merchant of mush,” but I’m much more tolerant of sentimentality. Indeed, I opine that sentiment, and more specifically love, is the only thing worth writing about.
Anyway , Queed, the overly intellectual 98-pound weakling becomes a robust, compassionate guy with lots of friends, and I found the process edudicating. It would spoil everything to say he also finds his father and gets the girl, but I have the feeling that the chances of any of my readers actually reading it are slim to none.
If my grandfather had left me a book of this kind, I wouldn’t be selling it at a tag sale with veg-o-matics and craft supplies.
And Miss Charlotte Lee (Sharlee) Weyland, the girl he gets in the end, is really something, a trailblazing feminist character, who founds a reformatory for young women who have been led astray.
Posted on July 20, 2015
Driving my scooter home from my favorite pub, I saw a paperback in the road. It was a book by Judy Blume, and my daughter is a big fan of hers; and I saw from the blurb on the back that it’s set in Martha’s Vineyard, where I and my cousins used to visit my grandmother in the summer when we were kids.
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume is a great read. It’s about the friendship between two young girls in Santa Fe, one rich, one not.
The rich one, Caitlin, invites the poor one, Victoria, to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her and her father and stepmother. They become fast friends and go back every year.
We hear all about their adventures growing up, sometimes in great detail, which was interesting for me because I grew up in a family with three brothers, and girls and women were always a big mystery to me.
Vixen and Cassandra, as they are known, become known as “double trouble” and explore the world of teen romance with two islander brothers they meet at the Flying Horses, the famous carousel in Oak Bluffs.
The author introduces lots and lots of characters and paints them all very realistically, even the minor ones. We even shift into the point of view of each of them for short vignettes: the ancient countess that Victoria’s mother takes care of, the sour-faced aunt who’s waiting to inherit from Caitlin’s grandmother, the brother, the brother’s friend, the stepmother, etc. etc.
All in all, this is really a great read, a wonderful slice of life, by a real master of the art, with a lot of hot sex scenes thrown in for good measure.
I’m going to send it to my daughter, who wants to read it, but I hope I don’t get a visit from the postal inspectors for sending prurient materials through the US Mail.
Posted on July 2, 2015
I’m having a rollicking good time reading John Allen’s autobiography: Marmite Cowboy. Or perhaps I should say a bollocking good time, since John is well-known hereabouts as the founder and lead singer of the Big Bad Bollocks, a wildly popular pub rock band that toured the US and the UK for 20 years and now performs occasionally.
Marmite Cowboy is a delightful picaresque (“the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero described in a series of humorous or satiric episodes”) that traces John’s travels from the small village in the North of England where he was born, to the Liverpool Art College (where Lennon met McCartney), to the good old USA, “a Land of Oz imagined from TV shows, movies, comic books and Camel cigarette packs.”
I’ve learned a lot about England, especially the divide between the grebos of the North and nobs of the South. John grew up in the shadow of Gibbet Rock, which was where the nobs dealt with anyone who refused to be the cannon-fodder of empire.
There was a lengthy procedure, prescribed by centuries of tradition, whereby they were hanged until nearly dead, then their entrails were extracted and burned before their eyes, and then they were suspended in a human-shaped cage and left to die as an example to others.
When we watch Prince William and Princess Kate and their offspring, we ought to remember what their way of life is based on.
We learn a lot about America, too. The slices of life we read about are not tourist destinations, but real ones — a country club in Ohio, a mafia bar in Michigan, a hippie farm in Georgia, and many others, where we meet a fascinating array of characters, from catamite clerics to paranoid gangsters.
In the early chapters of Marmite Cowboy, we also build our word power with terms like balbriggan, gobsmack, grebo and Shimmygog.
And we learn about John’s unique destiny. He shuttles back and forth between his native and adopted countries like Henry James, always wishing for the one when he’s in the other.
Finally he travels back to England with this funny hat with wings on it, and gets ridiculed at every stage of the journey, but most of all back in his home village, and it all becomes clear to him.
“By the standards of local troglodytes I did look like a twat in that hat, but I didn’t want anyone telling me that I couldn’t look like a twat if I felt like looking like one.
“My role in the village had always been ‘the nonconformist’. Just like Vicar, the Headmaster, the Butchers, the Builders, the Village Idiot, etc.
“I had a role, and part of my role was that one day I’d have to leave and turn my back on the place I was born — a bittersweet destiny to be sure.”
What makes this book a great read is its scathing honesty. There are parts that a lesser soul might have wanted to leave out, but the author decided to let us have it all, unedited, unexpurgated, in all its wild and crazy glory.
And its humility. There’s a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but not a trace of boasting or pretension, which would poison a work of this kind.
The truth has an unmistakable ring to it, and that’s what distinguishes a feel-good memoir from a real work of art, and a ripping good read.
Posted on May 31, 2015
For the last three weeks I’ve been lost in a feverish bout of flu, and what better companion could I ask for than Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.
The protagonist is a registered sex offender known as the Kid who, we eventually learn, is a virgin. In fact he’s never even been kissed. His crime was making plans to have sex with a man posing as a 14-year-old girl in a sting operation like the ones you see on “To Catch a Predator.”
As a sex offender, the Kid wears an ankle bracelet location device and he is forbidden to live within 2500 feet of a school or playground or anywhere else that children congregate.
If you draw 2500-foot circles around all such places, there are only two places in Calusa County where he can legally live.
One is under a highway underpass with a colony of other sex offenders, and the other is in the corner of a state park in the Great Penzacola Swamp.
So if you’re drifting in and out of fever dreams, this is the book for you!
I was looking at the blurbs on the cover, all very complimentary, of course, when my eye settled on one from the Washington Post Book World:
“Russell Banks knows everything worth knowing… and much, much more.”
Is that overly effusive praise, or a subtle dig? Either way, it’s pretty funny. And how did it get on the cover? Did the publishers miss the irony, or did they notice it and include it as a wry twist on the usual blurb? My fevered brain could not decide.
In this wonderful book, Russell Banks tells you everything worth knowing about Felchers, teabaggers, obese professors, and the history and geology of southern Florida… and much, much more!
Russell even makes an appearance in person, as a character known as ‘the Writer’ who befriends the Kid and helps him sort out the issues raised by the apparent suicide of the obese professor.
At one point the Kid tells the Writer he doesn’t want him (the Writer) to tell his (the Kid’s) story.
Russell takes the opportunity to poke fun at his reputation as a writer of grim tales.
“Who’d want to read it,” the Writer replies, “Kiddie porn and child molestors, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus!”
“Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people.”
It is a fact that nothing good has ever happened to a character in a Russell Banks novel since Bob Dubois got a blowjob in Continental Drift, and even then he (Bob Dubois) wasn’t sure if he’d gotten laid or not.
In this (yet another) brilliant book, Banks invites us to remove the titillation factor from the justice system and to discriminate between the Kid, who has done nothing, and another character, the Shyster, who raped prepubescent girls with the connivance of their mothers.
In the interest of full disclosure, Russell Banks is my former father-in-law, who has doted on my fairy princess daughter and given her a vision of her potential as an actress and a writer.
I remember when he took her to a writers’ convention when she was 12 years old, and she told me she’d met a “nice lady” named Judy Blume.
So don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Margaret Atwood: “Russell Banks tackles hard subjects with verve and courage.”
Amen to that. Anyway, now I’m hucking up stuff, and that’s a good sign.
Posted on April 22, 2015
I can’t say I’m having a lot of fun with Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. I keep feeling like I’m missing something, and I’m not sure I care what it is.
It’s about a colonel in the US Army occupation forces in Italy who, we gather, is not long for this world due to a heart condition.
He goes on a duck shoot with a bunch of people and then we flash back to the previous two days which he has spent in Venice with his girlfriend, who is nineteen years old (he’s 50) and a contessa from one of the city’s oldest families. They have a palace.
The reader gleans this information bit by bit from a sparse narrative and a lot of dialogue, and it takes a lot of work, especially since a lot of references that Hemingway might expect his readers to get at the time are now dated.
The main theme of the book seems to be the fact that the colonel used to be a general, but is not anymore because he lost a regiment or a battalion or some large portion of an army, due to misguided orders which he had to obey.
He and the contessa stroll and dine and shop around Venice, and there’s some heavy petting aboard a gondola (I think. The text is ambiguous.)
And since they both know the town well, there’s a lot of amusing banter with the bartenders and waiters and the manager of the hotel, the gran maestro, some of whom served with the colonel when he was in the Italian Army in World War I.
And she keeps asking him about the war (the second one) and the lost regiment, and I think the idea is she wants him be at peace before he dies.
But mainly, I guess, it’s about two people making the most of what they know is a short amount of time.
So they often say how much they love one another until it’s a little like Jerry Seinfeld and his girlfriend calling each other ‘schmoopie,’ but you can kind of skip over that, and it does reach a certain level of poignancy.
A lot of it is funny, too. He teaches her to speak American, so after breakfast she offers her hand to the gran maestro and says, “Put it there, pal. This grub is tops.”
Then she asks the colonel how they announced breakfast back on the ranch when he was a boy. He says the cook would say, “Come and get it, you sons of bitches, or I’ll throw it away.”
“I must learn that for in the country,” she says, referring to the family’s chateau. “Sometimes when he have the British Ambassador and his dull wife for dinner I will teach the footman, who will announce dinner, to say, ‘Come and get it, you son of bitches, or we will throw it away.'”
The colonel and his buddies have this funny club called the Order of the Knights of Brutadelli, named for a war profiteer from Milan who publicly accused his young wife of having “deprived him of his judgment through her extraordinary sexual demands.”
There are a lot of jokes about Brutadelli throughout the book, and near the end the colonel tells the contessa the order’s “Supreme Secret”:
“Love is love and fun is fun. But it is always so quiet when the gold fish die.”
I get it. Sort of.
Posted on April 16, 2015
When I was in sixth grade, more than half a century ago, the man who brought the news of President Kennedy’s assassination to my classroom was The Reverend Francis Caswell, headmaster of Dexter School from 1938 to 1964.
Rev. Caswell was a beloved teacher and mentor to hundreds of Dexter graduates over the years, including President Kennedy and his older brother Joseph, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee.
Rev. Caswell took on the extraordinary task of sending a postcard to every Dexter graduate on his birthday, hundreds and hundreds every year.
These postcards, duly forwarded by my mother, found me in all the different places where I resided throughout my life and served as a cheery reminder of this warm and caring educator.
Rev. Caswell — he was actually known to us as Mr. Caswell — taught us Latin and Social Studies, and I still remember a mnemonic device he taught us for remembering all the members of the U.S. president’s cabinet: St. Wapdiacl.
(Secretary of State, Treasury, Welfare, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor).
I can attest to the effectiveness of this mnemonic device, because I still remember it after more than fifty years.
“But,” you might ask, “what about the Department of Education and the Department of Energy?”
These two departments were not included in Mr. Caswell’s mnemonic device because they didn’t exist at the time.
The Department of Energy was created in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.
Posted on March 19, 2015
We had a very active season at the birdfeeder this year, with four pairs of cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, and countless sparrows, chickadees, juncos, tufted titmice, bluejays, and pigeons.
Then one day I put out the sunflower seeds and nobody showed up. I guess it was the hawk, tentatively identified as a northern harrier. Well then we found the poor hawk’s body next to the driveway, dead of unknown causes, and we’ve seen quite a few of the birds return, but there seems to be only one pair of cardinals left. I guess the others perished or skedaddled.
I do like the flashy, colorful big birds, but I really put the seed out for the chickadees and sparrows and the other little guys. I always wondered how they make it through a cold winter, and the answer is they often don’t.
I was pleased to learn that a study in Wisconsin showed that black-capped chickadees with access to birdseed had a survival rate of 69 percent, compared with 37 percent for those without it.
Posted on March 9, 2015
Just lately I was amused to see my hometown mentioned in a Swedish murder mystery.
I was rereading Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and found a reference to the Sacco and Venzetti murder trial in Dedham, Massachusetts.
The Sjowall/Wahloo mysteries feature detective Martin Beck, who knows a lot about everything, including the first use of ballistics evidence in a murder trial, which, it turns out, was in Dedham at the Sacco/Venzetti trial.
It was a cause celebre at the time, with people all over the world protesting the conviction, but modern historical research indicates that while Venzetti was probably innocent, Sacco seems to have a connection to the murder weapon.
The whole truth will probably never be known.
I heartily recommend the Martin Beck mysteries, even though I always end up thinking the murderer did us all a favor and ought to go free.
But I’ve become attached to the characters in this series, as I mentioned in Martin Beck’s Loveless Marriage, just as I have with Kinsey Milhonne in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.
Nowhere in literature will you find a better description of the pain of love than in Kinsey’s Second Marriage.
“The hours creep by. From time to time, you hear a car, but it’s never his. By 4:00 a.m., it’s a toss-up which is uppermost in your mind — wishing he would come home or wishing he were dead.”
Posted on March 3, 2015
Back in the ’80s, my brother Paul wrote a song called ‘Say It Ain’t So’ that went “Say it ain’t so/ When I tell you to./ I’m getting used to having my own way.”
It was written during the Reagan Era, when people got tax breaks for buying SUVs and alternative energy was a hippy pipe dream.
Another couplet went, “Light the fire,/ Turn up the air conditioning …ing …ing …ing./ Me and Nancy gonna stay inside all day.”
The song was about Reagan and climate change, but I was just thinking it also applies to Benjamin Netanyahu and the slaughter in Gaza.
Here’s yet another guy with millions of people who will say it ain’t so when he tells them to, even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — ouch!
As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, any member of the U.S. Congress who stands up and says Palestinians have rights like everyone else will not get reelected. That kind of talk is simply not permitted. You remember Jimmy Carter. He put solar panels on the White House. Reagan took them down.
Anyone who points to the dead bodies in the streets of Gaza and says that those who fired the rockets and tank rounds that caused the explosions that caused them not to be alive any longer were responsible for their deaths… is guilty of treason, of siding with the terrorists.
And guilty of the blood libel of saying the Israelis kill children. With lifeless children lying in the streets of Gaza, I’m going to leave that irony alone.
Say it ain’t so/ when I tell you to.
I understand Israel’s difficult position in the Middle East, I feel much as they do about their neighbors and I consider myself a friend of Israel, but as Socrates pointed out, a true friend is not necessarily someone who approves of everything you do.
And I’m getting the sense that the only two groups who are actually allowed to criticize Israeli policy — American Jews and Israeli citizens — are getting a little tired of seeing brutal undeniable facts and being told to say it ain’t so.
If these groups lead the way, non-Jews and politicians will follow and support a sane policy toward the occupied territories that doesn’t involve a two-tiered system of citizenship that leads down the Primrose Path to apartheid followed by Israel’s erstwhile ally, South Africa.
If this were just what I think, it would be hardly be worthy of note, but it is what Ariel Sharon said, and what many other friends of Israel have said — friends in the true Socratic sense.
I view the conflict in the Holy Land as a struggle between those on both sides who want war and those on both sides who want peace.
War helps those who want to continue the inexorable pace of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, and it also helps fanatics maintain their control over Gaza and the West Bank.
If the Palestinians had leadership committed to the policy of non-violence, and if Israel had a humane policy toward the people, if not the leaders, of Palestine, we could at last see a way toward peace in the Holy Land.
But don’t take my word for it. Go to the video page of Fotonna.org and watch the video made by the Austin Stone Community Church. If you aspire to be a follower of Jesus, as I do, I believe you will get a new insight into this conflict.