Music Monday: “Laughing with God” by Regina Spektor

September is in full swing. Autumn has arrived… and whether we like it or not Winter is just around the corner.

I  liked “Laughing With” the very first time I heard the song, I was leaving work on the way to one of the many obligations that seem to fill my life these days and it came on the Current.

When I finally got home that evening, I googled Regina Spektor and the song and downloaded it to my iPod.



Book Review: Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan

Trout-Fishing-in-AmericaIn the summer of 1984, I drove my brother’s 1964 Galaxy 500 (Deluxe Sport Coupe) 1713 miles from Dillon, Montana to Saginaw, Michigan with only one companion – a beat up paperback edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. The radio was original with the car. In eastern Montana and western North Dakota I could seldom pick up stations. I entertained myself by pulling over every once in awhile and reading a chapter or section of Trout Fishing in America. It was the perfect kind of book to do that with.

26 years later, I have another battered edition of Brautigan’s classic – the same faded salmon border, the black and white photo of Brautigan and a friend in front of the Benjamin Franklin statue. Reading it is like hearing an old song you once listened to on AM radio… I am carried back to that summer and the trip east from the mountains and streams of Montana to the failing heart of the American Rust Belt.

To call Trout Fishing in America quirky is to considerably understate the point. It is part short story collection, part prose poem, and part 1960s time capsule. The very name “Trout Fishing in America” morphs from character name, to hotel name, to book title, to the very act of fishing itself.

I tried several Brautigan books in the years immediately following my Trout Fishing in America summer. But none ever measured up. That is understandable… because nothing could ever measure up. The other Brautigan books always seemed like pale attempts to recapture youthful magic.

Rereading Trout Fishing in America in 2010 at the age of 50, some things hold up well, other parts fall altogether flat. Some parts that seemed to me once magical creativity now have the characteristic of gimmicky oddness. It remains, however, a book everyone should have on their resume. At least everyone who has ever been young, trout fished, and lived in the West.


Book Review: A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano

HanoNFL Football is a sport that is much better on television than in person. The concentrated bursts of action between long periods of inactivity are enhanced by instant replay, color commentators, and beer commercials featuring scantily clad women. Anyone who has ever watched an NFL football game in person knows that  inevitably fans at the game end up watching the game on the stadium jumbotron as if they were home in their livingrooms anyway.

Not so with baseball which is best experienced in person. (The next best option, of course, being radio.) Television ratings for the two sports bear this truth out.

In 1954, writer and editor Arnold Hano took in a baseball game and wrote a book about it. The fact that the game he went to was Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, that Willie Mays made “The Catch,” and that Hano is a wonderful and observant writer, has created one of the 10 best books about baseball ever written– a true “classic” in every sense of that over-used word.

From his perch in the bleachers, Hano gives an inning by inning narration of the first post-season game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. In Hano’s capable hands the game takes on mythic proportions with all-time great Willie Mays and his catch of Vic Wertz’s long, long drive taking center stage.

Like a novelist, Hano lets us get to know the characters of the drama that enfolds before him: Mays, Wertz, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Sal Maglie…. His understanding of baseball is thorough, his prose is wonderful and evocative, his insights about the game enlightening, his passion for both the nuances and the grand gestures of a game quite evident.

In A Day in the Bleachers, one great game in 1954 with the greatest of all great catches has clearly found its great witness.


Book Review: Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann

“There’s nothing wrong with the Little League World Series that locking out the adults couldn’t cure.”  ~Mike Penner, Los Angeles Times

DohrmannIn 2000 George Dohrmann wrote a series of articles for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that ruined University of Minnesota basketball for me and a lot of Gopher fans… while winning for himself a Pulitzer Prize. In Play Their Hearts Out, Dohrmann has done the same thing now for amateur youth basketball, following a team of kids from Southern California and their monomaniacal coach over a number of years to write this highly readable and compelling book about a game that had to stop being fun for most of the participants well along the way.

Penner’s quote about the Little League World Series (that was once upon a time limited to just the championship game being broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but has this summer (2010) become a daily staple on ESPN) applies equally well to the youth basketball Dohrmann followed from the inside for a number of years to research this book. Youth basketball would be much better for those who play it if adults– parent, coaches, and corporate sponsors– were locked out of the gyms.

Sports is big business. Maybe more so at the amateur level than even the professional level. Shoe companies and colleges lavish gifts on amateur coaches and player representatives. The goal is to find the next LeBron and the millions that go with him. The methods used Dohrmann learned are all too often intimidation, manipulation, and exploitation.

Basketball is a simple game. That is the myth. It is popular in the inner-cities because it is so cheap to play. You need hardly any space or equipment, only a ball and a hoop and blacktop heroes are born.

The reality is much more complicated. Sports have always been seen as the “way out” in America for the underclass. In the early part of the 20th Century the sport was baseball. The sons of coal miners and share croppers fought cleat and nail to get out and make the show. Before Jackie Robinson, of course, it was a color-divided dream they chased….

The youth basketball that Dohrmann describes is born of the same desperation that has always given America its sports heroes… and is tainted with the same under and overtones of race and class.

Dohrmann has done a great service with this book. Whether it will make a difference when so much money and hope is on the line… only time will tell. We can only hope.

Music Monday: Coltrane and Getz

John Coltrane and Stan Getz


Jazz like everything good in life is an acquired taste: coffee, beer, bourbon, members of the opposite sex. You need time to grow into certain things, to acquire the attitude and maturity necessary to discriminate and appreciate things with edges.

I came across this video of Coltrane and Getz playing together. As far as I can discover with my minimal research (a few hours one afternoon), it is the only somewhat decent recording of these two saxophone giants on one stage.

It is grainy, but keep your eye on Stan Getz as he listens to Coltrane, an artist appreciating art.

Book Review: Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes

tales-from-ovid-191x300At first blush, the marriage between Ovid that most latin of poets and Ted Hughes would seem as unlikely a match as any you could imagine. Not in ability, of course, but in language and temperament.

Hughes as a poet has always seemed to me one of the most earthy, physical, and Anglo-Saxon of all contemporary poets. Classical Ovid and the dactylic hexameter (the poetic meter form used in classical epic poems such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, often called the “heroic” hexameter) would seem to be polar opposite of Hughes. Yet Hughes pulls it off, creating one of the best books of poetry I have read in a very long time.

When I think of Hughes I think of poems like “February 17th” which is about a farmer struggling to help a still-born lamb to be delivered to save the mother. Such lines as these seem so earthy, so removed in style and substance from what we think of when we think of the heroic:

The corpse that would not come. Till it came.
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups –
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

Yet in these lines we also see what Hughes does best, perhaps better than anyone ever: he sees and gives voice to the natural and nature in a way simultaneously factual and mythic.

In Tales from Ovid, Hughes picks and chooses which of Ovid’s many stories he wants to translate and re-tell. His choices include some of the most violent and disturbing stories that Ovid wrote: ‘Echo and Narcissus,’ ‘Bacchus and Pentheus,’ and ‘Jove’s rape of Semele’. But in the same way that the language of “February 17th” transfigures the brutality and tragedy of a still-born lamb, in Hughes’s poetry even Ovid’s most violent stories and images become transcendent as in these lines from the story of Semele:

Her eyes opened wide, saw him
And burst into flame.
Her whole body lit up
With the glare
That explodes the lamp –

In that splinter of a second,
Before her blazing shape
Became a silhouette of sooty ashes
The foetus was snatched from her womb.

Ovid’s stories are of change, metamorphosis. In the late 20th and early part of the 21st century, it is a theme that seems most relevant… and obviously one that attracted Hughes the poet/prophet. But beneath the theme of change runs the deeper current of love. Ovid, even in the most violent and brutal of his stories, is always writing about love. It is after all love (sometimes broken and warped love in the form of lust and jealousy) that creates the action between the gods and the people in these familiar stories. Certainly in the late 20th and first part of the 21st century the theme of love remains as relevant as when Ovid first penned these stories centuries ago.


Book Review: Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell

connellIn 1969, I watched the moon landing with my mother’s family including her grandfather who was in his mid 90s at the time. When he was born in the early 1870s (I don’t recall the exact year) steam locomotion was still a new technology, and the First Transcontinental Railroad was very recent history. In his lifetime he saw the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, and finally rockets to the moon. He remarked that day that seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon was the highlight of his life.

A few years later I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield for the first time. Sometime during walking around the battlefield it dawned on me that my great-grandfather had been alive when Custer, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull fought where I was now standing. Within his long lifetime, the Montana I knew and lived in had gone from being true wilderness to a place with interstates and television.

It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn that any other battle in history. The obvious question is why? Why does a battle in the small corner of present day Montana still matter to people?

Like the Battle of Isandlwana (present day South Africa, January 22, 1879), the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 continues to capture our imagination precisely because it represents ultimately the last violent confrontation between wilderness and modernity. At both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn the native people won… but their victories ultimately meant their complete and utter defeat.

Because there are so many books about Custer’s Last Stand, it has taken me decades to decide which one to read. I wanted to read the best one, the definitive one. At last, I recently settled upon Evan S. Connell’s now classic Son of the Morning Star, and I am glad I did.

Like Stephen Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan, Connell brings narrative power to history. It is clear that his research is broad and deep, but it is the way he tells the story that keeps you turning pages. Son of the Morning Star was first published in 1984. I read  2001 edition from History Book Club with a “new” introduction. Sometimes “new” introductions written for older works seem pointless, like changing floor mats on an old car and selling it as new. But Connell’s brief “look back” at his work 20 years down road is illustrative and adds to the pleasure of the book.

The site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is the stark and empty plains of eastern Montana. When I was young, I thought that Montana should end where the mountains end… somewhere around Laurel, Montana, or maybe Billings. I had no time for the great, empty plains. “Give it to North Dakota” I said. As time has passed, I have grown to love eastern Montana and western North Dakota as much as the mountainous West. There is a spiritualness to empty spaces that grows on you. That sense is heightened as you walk Custer’s battlefield and remember what happened there. Having now at last read Son of the Morning Star, those feelings will no doubt be more pronounced for me next time I visit The Little Bighorn Battlefield.


The Fine Line

2005_fishing_stamp2-230x300I do not get to fish as often as I would like, but I can still read and collect  quotes about fishing. Fishing, like baseball, lends itself to great writing. The pastoral nature of the pursuit in its purest form leads inevitably to contemplation. And contemplation leads inevitably to expression.

Here are some of my favorite quotes about fishing. Enjoy!

The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing. ~ Babylonian Proverb

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. ~ Henry David Thoreau

The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.  ~ John Buchan

Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.  ~ Ted Hughes

Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers. ~ Herbert Hoover

If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles. ~ Doug Larson

A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work.  ~ Author Unknown

The fishing was good; it was the catching that was bad.  ~ A.K. Best

It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.  ~ John Steinbeck

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.  ~ Author Unknown

Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.  ~ Paul Schullery

Three-fourths of the Earth’s surface is water, and one-fourth is land.  It is quite clear that the good Lord intended us to spend triple the amount of time fishing as taking care of the lawn.  ~ Chuck Clark

You must lose a fly to catch a trout.  ~ George Herbert

A trout is a moment of beauty known only to those who seek it.  ~ Arnold Gingrich

Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary.  ~ Patrick F. McManus

You know when they have a fishing show on TV? They catch the fish and then let it go. They don’t want to eat the fish, they just want to make it late for something. ~ Mitch Hedberg

There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot. ~ Steven Wright

Book Review: The Ruthless Range by Lewis Patten

“For the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one’s personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time.” ~ Ford Madox Ford

RuthlessRange1The distinction between literary and genre fictions (mysteries, westerns, fantasy, and is largely an artificial one. Those who still insist on making anachronistic literary distinctions do it for the same reason that all snobs make such declarations, self-aggrandizing assholery.

The only distinctions that can legitimately be made in literature are between good writing and bad writing and good stories and bad stories. When a work of fiction takes hold of your imagination, when the language continually invites you to turn pages the writer has done his or her job. When the book haunts you and you can remember it years and years later, the writer has written a masterpiece.

Having said all that, and believing all that to be true, I nonetheless make the following self-consciously ironic statement: The Ruthless Range by Lewis B. Patten is fully and completely a genre-fiction western in both its execution and delivery. It is not great literature by any stretch of the definition, but I did enjoy it as I enjoy all Lewis Patten books.

Patten writes in the western noir style. His stories are not as bleak as H.A. DeRosso’s but they are also not as sunlit as L’Amour. His characters are haunted and hunted men. They are driven by fate and circumstances, they are broken and break others. Violence touches them and touches those they love.

In The Ruthless Range, a gunfighter longs to hang up his guns. But in every town he goes to there is someone who wants to prove that he is faster. Shot to hell and pursued into the mountains by a crooked posse the main character, Jase Mellor, is rescued and put back together by a rancher. When the rancher is murdered, Jase has to save the ranch from the many people who want to destroy the ranch and kill Mellor. At stake are the lives of his ex-wife who had been forced into a  life of prostitution and the life of the ranch widow who has become Mellor’s love interest.

In the story there is nothing new that is not in a hundred westerns. It is Patten’s style and the grim, relentless pacing that makes the book, makes any Patten western, worth the reading. Patten does not give his main character or his reader any chance to rest. Like Mellor we move with grim fatalism and no sleep from violence to violence, from defeat to defeat. The end result is a highly readable western with icons and cliches just edgy enough for us to sink our teeth into.

On Reviewing Poetry

yeats1-226x300Reviewing a volume of poetry is much different than reviewing some genre of prose work. It is so difficult that many literary publications have stopped doing poetry reviews all together. The difficulty is usually presented as four-fold.

First, to use mere prose to talk about poetry is an extremely difficult task. With few exceptions (Edward Hirsch) the best practitioners of this kind of cross-species translation are poets: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia. To be fluent and articulate in two mutually exclusive kinds of language usage is as rare as a five-tool prospect in baseball.

Second, it is almost impossible to define your audience. How can you possibly write about poetry in a way that would make people who currently do not read poetry (outsiders) want to pick up the particular volume you are highlighting and at the same time talk meaningfully to those who already regularly read poetry (insiders).

Third, unless the reader of the review is a frequent and habitual poetry reader (and how many people truly are?) there is the very real problem of shared experience and language. Any novel reader knows what a reviewer is saying when he writes, “the characters are multi-dimensional and their quick-paced dialog moves the story well.”   But only a “poetry insider” understands when a reviewer says of a poem, “the Alexandrine lines fit the elegy forms the poet has chosen well.”

Fourth, and finally, there is in poetry that indescribable “personal” quality that makes objective standards difficult. Since a poet routinely creates and breaks his or her own rules and since so much of modern poetry is so “personal” in theme, criticism is seen as extremely difficult. I do not “like” this kind of poetry and hence it is bad. I “like” this other kind of poetry and so it is good.

While the first three difficulties are legitimate. The last one is not. Art has standards. If I were to compose a piece of music and Henryk Górecki composed a piece on the same theme and we compared them it would be objectively clear which piece was truly music. While it is admittedly more difficult in poetry, it is clear that what Seamus Heaney writes and what a 7th grader writes for language arts class are as different as oceans and mud puddles. We do not need to be shy about making the same kind of distinction in poetry as we do in music.