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 sci.fi.) 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.

The One That Got Away

Every summer we spend a week with my wife’s extended family in Wisconsin. It is a week of fishing, family, and relaxation. The past couple of summers we have been staying at a place near Hayward, Wisconsin, on Big Chief, part of the Chippewa Flowage.

Those who know their fishing records know that the Chippewa Flowage is prime muskie country. Since we have kids running ages 4 to 18 (this year’s ages) we do not fish for muskie –  primarily crappies and blue gills. But the muskies are there, and so are big northerns.

Heron

This year my daughter Dylan and I talked grandpa Dan into driving the boat for us while we fished weed lines for our favorite prey, bass. Dylan inherited her mother’s good looks but she inherited my restless preference for casting and moving while I fish. (Her mother and sister prefer the more sedate and patience-requiring “bobber” fishing.) Since Dan likes his family and likes to be out on a boat on sunny, warm days… it was not a hard sell.

It was a picture perfect afternoon for casting, watching herons fish, and for getting sunburned… it was not, however, a good afternoon for catching fish. Dan was game though and Dylan was patient, and so we soldiered on. Over the afternoon we transitioned away from weed lines and bass to whatever came our way: a perch here, a blue gill there.

When it was time to head back-in for dinner and something colder to drink, Dylan tried one last cast to a spot I had already tried a few times myself, a small, sandy patch  between a weed line and an old tree that had been in the water for a few seasons at least.

I was in back of the boat putting gear away with Dan, when we heard her excited scream, I turned toward her in time to see the rod bend quickly and hard. This was not just another sunny.

By the time I wrestled the net back out of the hold where I had just put it, she had the big fish up next to the boat. By the time I got up to the front of the boat, the Northern was just breaking the water, shaking its big head and teeth. She screamed again and the line broke.

For a few seconds she sat looking into the water where the fish had disappeared. Then she looked at me and said, “my hands are shaking.” Dan and I laughed.  The northern may have got away, but I will remember that moment and that afternoon for the rest of my life.

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Book Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

The-Outlaw-Josey-Wales2-185x300In summer we often gravitate to “lighter” fare, summer blockbuster movies, quick-read novels. What is it about long days that make us want to shy away from heavy lifting?

The movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable westerns – great characters, memorable lines (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”), and great scenery.

In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood arrived as a true western star, in Josey Waleshe fully completes the work of art. In the spaghetti westerns the rough outline is there, but like the scenery of those films Eastwood as western star and the West as a place of grandeur and limitless vistas is greatly diminished, cramped and small, a European’s vision of the West and the western myth. Eastwood directedHigh Plains Drifter and Josey Wales so they are two of his first real Westerns. In the end, only an American can direct a true western, for the western hero, or western anti-hero, is the most American of all icons.

The movie The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a the book that was originally called something like Gone to Texas. The story of its author, if Wikipedia is to be believed,  is almost as interesting as the book itself and mirrors the story in many ways.

Forrest Carter (Asa Carter) like his fictional outlaw was apparently an unrepentant confederate. A Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace, Carter fought against integration and the Federal government for years. Finally like Josey Wales he fled to Texas and tried to put his past behind him, something he was for the most part able to do. The book now called The Outlaw Josey Wales was his first novel.

As a western novel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very satisfying. In story and tone the movie follows the book very closely. Most of the great lines from the movie come from the book, except the best line, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy” (here a screenwriter or Eastwood made a great decision).

In the movie, the female love interest is played by willowy and wimpy Sondra Locke. Carter’s love interest is more Spillanesque (for those not fluent in Mickey Spillane, read that statuesque), the picture is of a dreamy Velma. For Carter, one theme stressed in the book is of men and women big enough for Texas, big enough to live in the West. The pale and sickly looking Locke would be only big and strong enough for a cramped and tiny eastern state like Rhode Island.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the movie and the book –are worth spending a few summer evenings with. Settle into your favorite chair, pour yourself a few fingers of good bourbon, and enjoy. This is, after all, what summer is all about.

Music Monday: “Jerusalem Tomorrow” by Dave Olney

Dave Olney is another musician that my friend Bob introduced to me via cassette tape. Olney is from Nashville, that is where Bob first met him. Emmylou has sung some of his songs, as well as a number of other country greats.

I have seen him twice in person. Both times he performed alone, just him and his acoustic guitar. Once was at the Fine Line in downtown Minneapolis. The other time was at a dinky little coffee shop in St. Paul. In St. Paul, Sue and I had the best seat in the house: a front row love-seat that was the only padded furniture in the room. Most of the small audience had to stand.

“Heading to Jerusalem” is my favorite song he does.

Book Review: Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

“…there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.”  ~W.H. Auden

Parades-End_Ford-Madox-Ford1When I was in college, I had to make a choice one semester between taking Romantic Literature or Victorian Literature. Knowing just enough about everything to get myself into trouble, I chose to take Victorian Literature. Romantic poetry did not sound like something a Montana kid grown up on Hemingway would want to read. Only much later, years and states away, would I discover how wrong I was….

The Victorian sensibility that pervades Arnold and Browning – the interest in the ordinary and common day, the moral purposefulness, the unmooring clash with science, the search for the Victorian ideal – seemed cloyingly myopic and dark. I admired much but was never able to get my sea legs.

Years later on a whim, walking through a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan,  I picked up a copy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The big paperback caught my eye because of the size and the price, $1.00.

By then, I knew a little about Ford: his relationship with Conrad, his literary influence, his reputation for untruth (though hardly a vice in a writer), his bad relationship with Hemingway. I knew of, but had not read, The Good Soldier, his most celebrated and read work. I think, but cannot be sure, that I may have read by that time some of his literary reminiscences, which (whether “embellished” or not) remain in my mind some of the best of that genre ever written.

I put the book on a shelf and carried it for a few moves. Through years of reading the once neglected Romantics, through expanding my familiarity with Irish poetry beyond Yeats. [In those days, before kids and domestic distractions, I created, as I continue to do, my own courses of study but, of course, had much more time to concentrate and ruminate.] Finally, one dark winter day in my little studio on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul I picked up the big book and began to read.

Parades End has been called the last Victorian novel. And I suppose it is. So much that is Victorian is in this book, and yet… there is something of the lost generation in here also. It is in my mind a transitional novel, the last hurrah of the Victorian and a first tentative peek at the modern. Or more properly perhaps, the first description of the Modern by a Victorian: “No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades.”

Ford, always an admirer of Henry James, lived by the credo: why say it in 4 words when 24 will do better. His is the anti-Hemingway style. His sentences and paragraphs go on for pages… and yet, I found myself enthralled in the same way that James enthralls me. So exotic does their language usage seem that I feel I am reading another tongue altogether. A language at once more ornate and expressive and beautiful than I could even dare to imagine – the term baroque comes to mind (although unlike baroque music, James and Ford are almost always satisfying).

The four separate novels that make up Parade’s End (Some Do NotNo More ParadesA Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) tell the story of Christopher Tietjens, a man struggling to survive personally and publicly. His  wife is unfaithful to him, he is betrayed by friends and colleagues, and the modern, post-war world is changing everything he once thought he knew.

Those who have read The Good Soldier will recognize some familiar themes, but in Parade’ End will enjoy Ford at his most expansive. Why Ford has fallen so out of favor, and this novel in particular has been all but forgotten, is one of those peculiarities of taste and time.

Ford himself once said, “Only two classes of books are of universal appeal; the very best and the very worst.” It is certain that Parade’s End belongs in the former class. Certainly it will again be “rediscovered” by some generation of writers. It’s quality and execution demand it.

Music Monday: “Martha” by Tom Waits

Visiting Montana again has made me feel nostalgic, for times and people now long gone. “Martha” by Tom Waits is as melancholy and nostalgic as any song I can think of.

I was introduced to Tom Waits by my friend Bob. This was back in the days when you would make tapes of favorite music for others and send it to them. I wore the tapes out. One of the first things I did when I got an iPod was to buy all the Tom Waits that I no longer had.

On a melancholy Monday, Tom Waits is just the thing.

Music Monday: “Unemployed” by Michael McDermott

In 2001, I was laid off from the best paying job I had ever had, and still have ever had. The evening of the day I got news that I was unemployed, Sue and I went to see Michael McDermott at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

The Cedar Cultural Center is a small venue but a nice place to watch a concert. I was drinking a Summit beer and doing my best to enjoy the evening, but I was having a hard time not feeling sorry for myself… until McDermott started singing this song. It has been one of my favorite songs ever since.

It isn’t much of a video… but the song is great.

Enjoy!