There are few words

14 Sep

image via Syndetics

MacKinlay Kantor seems like he was a pretty great guy.  While growing up in Iowa, he added an “a” to his middle name, McKinlay, because he thought it made it more Scottish; during WWII, while riding along on some bombing missions on assignment for an L.A. newspaper, he asked to be trained and allowed to use the plane’s turret machine guns (you know, just in case); and then, there’s this picture.

Levity aside, Kantor seems to have found his experiences in WWII quite formative.  Present at the liberation of the  Buchenwald concentration camp he was convinced to try and tell the story of an American “concentration camp”, Camp Sumter, a.k.a. Andersonville, bane of Union troops during the American Civil War.  There are few words.  Andersonville the prison was a living nightmare.  Extant images of survivors defy imagination.  Simply put, the design, execution, and maintenance of the camp was an atrocity visited upon mankind that has few peers.  It cost one of the Confederate officers in charge, Henry Wirz, his life for war crimes.

Kantor’s writing about the subject has a simple outward structure, yet is entirely compelling.  His characters live and breathe and have a piquant amount of human sensuality.  He is generous to many, even Henry Wirz, giving the lie to easy answers about responsibility for the evil that was Andersonville.  He is able to bring stories he heard face-to-face with Civil War veterans during his boyhood into play within the narrative, humanizing all sides of the conflict.  And he knows when to provide his readers with a miracle.  Contrary to my title for this post, Kantor uses many words in his story of Andersonville.  Some of the details are so overwhelming and the breadth of the book so great, readers could easily begin to lose hope of ever reaching the end or having any reason to.  A miracle (or two!) in the narrative leaves us with a residue of hope by the end and a reason to bother reflecting upon the history that contains such a happening.


Suggested (m)use: JEFF the Brotherhood

17 Aug

image via Syndetics

With a distinct hard rock bent, Wasted on the Dream, JEFF the Brotherhood’s latest album, feels to be channeling some quite well-known rock acts including but not limited to Ozzy Osborne and Jethro Tull, (BTW, not just channeling, that eyebrow raising flute riff on the title track: ACTUALLY Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull…), not to mention (and I really wish I didn’t have to) Kid Rock (icky) and, uh, Yellowcard? (meh).  Now, I listened to this album for the first time pretty early in the morning and I was a little strung out on coffee.  That said, I really wish Karaoke, TN and Coat Check Girl had not happened.  I don’t get it, that’s all.  Was it some sort of intellectual, rock music survey album gimmick?  Do the Brotherhood really appreciate lyrical cretinism and teenagey, melodramatic vocals?  Can JEFF and I still be Facebook friends!?! … Absolutely.  They’ve really put together quite a great album.  I mean, IAN ANDERSON!

Suggested Use: Feeling rowdy?  Need a little simultaneous stimulation of your intellect and your baser nature.  Pop this disc in and take your evening (or morning) to the next level.  See disclaimer below.

Utilize with caution.  Guaranteed to influence your inner twelve-year-old towards misbehavior.

William Faulkner!

13 Aug

image via Wikipedia

I’m gonna have to read more of this dude.  And not just because he’s got another Pulitzer win coming up in a decade or so of Pulitzers.  But because in about 35 pages of this first Pulitzer win of his from 1955, A Fable, he put to rest any real doubts I had about him as a writer I could appreciate.  Look, I read As I Lay Dying in college and that stream-of-consciousness stuff is not so much for me, and since that was the only Faulkner I had ever read I was worried that he might not have any range beyond achingly annoying, pseudo-insightful internal monologues.  I stand with anxiety assuaged.

I’m happy to think that my enjoyment and esteem of this novel, this “fable” would have made Faulkner very glad.  He seems to have considered it his masterpiece though the world of critics has given it the status of only a “lesser novel” (and now I am driven to arrive at my own conclusions).  I suppose A Fable could be seen as a little pedantic, perhaps lacking some subtle element of humanity that exists in other works, and yet I found it so much less pretentious than his cluttered, jerky, unceasing stream-of-consciousness gimmick.  Again, sure, I could have gone in for shorter sentences, better antecedents, and less use of the word “myriad” in A Fable, but overall I was delighted to be holding such a work in my hands, absorbing its intellectual and visceral examination of war and power, belief and memory, all against the backdrop of one of the bloodiest, most miserable international conflicts the world has ever seen; WWI.

So, though I’ll clearly be avoiding As I Lay Dying (hopefully the stylistic exception and not the rule for Faulkner’s catalog) this post is really all about the good news of my new found hope in William.  I thought I might need some new or just some different eyes to be able to jump on the Bill Train, but I have found that the eyes I have are adequate, and I’ll be coming back to Bill.  He has shown me his soul and I have found it exceptional, even if a little vain.

Advice for flatlanders

30 Jul

image via syndetics

I felt that the frenetic, hard-boiled prose in the opening pages of James Ramsey Ullman’s 1954 Near-Pulitzer (the last of the six for ’54!  Yay!), The Sands of Karakorum, was an interesting reflection of his subject matter and the times.  Set in China during the Communist revolution, in the far lung of that great conflict we call the Cold War, it was a time of perceived absolutes (East vs. West, i.e.); melodramatic speech-making; frenetic, hard-boiled, film noir prose, etc.  To Ullman’s credit he doesn’t continue long in this vein of propagandic pageantry, but soon ventures into the strange, near-fever-dream qualities of a pilgrimage across the great central wastes of Asia and a battle for humanity’s soul.  To Ullman, or at least to some of Ullman’s characters, man’s world is crumbling.  Communism is a failure, Christianity is a failure, mankind sits on the threshold of nuclear annihilation, and the only hope is in a leap of faith into and from the rubble of twentieth century institutions and their predecessors.  If Ullman had lived long enough to take in the many films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator I think he would have really gotten something out of them, though, perhaps, not what many of us come away with.  (Namely, an intense adrenaline rush.) Things certainly did look grim through much of the central portion of Ullman’s life (Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China), it’s perhaps little wonder that he spent so much of his time climbing mountains (first Pulitzer-associated author I’m aware of that has “mountaineer” thrown in among his descriptive life roles) and getting away from and above it all.  If a book about that sort of thing (mountains, that is) sounds appealing to you consider checking out Ullman’s 1945 book, The White Tower.  Sources say it might be his best.  If you’re more into the impending doom sort of stuff, check out this book, The Sands of Karakorum.  It’s quite a ride and mostly worth taking.  That said, perhaps you don’t find yourself with much time for reading.  Let me recommend a movie.  Summer 2015 has brought us a new Terminator movie, and though the reviews are less than congratulatory, with Arnold being back and all, well, we probably don’t have to abandon all hope yet.  A little adrenaline high to help take one’s mind off of things could do us all some good.  We’ve all got to find a way to get “away from it all” one way or another.  Not everyone has access to mountains.

Suggested (m)use: Mumford & Sons

21 Jul
wilder mind

image via syndetics

They went electric!  I guess that’s a big deal…  I like acoustic and electric instruments both so I don’t know.  I do think, however, that I’m wearying of this band’s commitment to histrionic musicality and uber-dramatic lyric delivery.  No one is this serious and intense all of the time, and if someone is, it might be because they’re a little bit too in love with themselves, which is, at the least, off-putting.  So, this certainly may be true of Mumford, but I hold out some hope for my ability to listen to an album beyond this latest, Wilder Mind, because I have witnessed signs of an endearing, creditable unsurpassed-ardor coming from deep within for what they do so well as a band … namely, make and perform music.  Unfortunately, to witness these “signs” I had to dig pretty deep by listening exclusively to the deluxe edition of the album before Wilder Mind, Babel, and by really paying attention to those last 2 or 3 bonus tracks.  And therein lies the rub. If your love for music is that buried, maybe, like I said before, you’re really in love with something else.

Suggested Use: Preparatory music for going shopping at the mall.  Just like the massive amount of screen printing and distress applied to t-shirts and jeans at the several stores along the widest of public walkways, this album will encourage you to rationalize a weekday shopping spree while also enabling tragic reflection upon it.

The only ones who truly sleep are the dead

10 Jul
Alarm_clock, By Jeff ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

image by Jeff via Wikimedia Commons

What a nice ending.  That’s all I can say.  To say more would be spoiler-ing.

On to what I can say.  Wright Morris is the author of this next to last Near-Pulitzer for 1954, The Deep Sleep.  He hailed from Nebraska. He lived to be 88 years old.  He was also a photographer.  He won the National Book Award twice during his lifetime and, as I’ve said, nearly won a Pulitzer.  Nearly.  What a sad word, but then, it’s a lot closer than I’ve ever been to acknowledgement by Columbia University.  And in all seriousness, now, I want to read more Wright Morris.  See, I rather liked this book with its wry yet mature treatment of difficult characters and its overarching generosity to the true believers (the dogmatic, the exacting) among us.  Morris wrote over 30 books … plenty of choices.  Very exciting.

So that title.  I found it rather intriguing.  The Deep Sleep.  Does it refer to the deceased individual who’s at the center of Morris’ book? Does it refer to the trudging wife of the deceased who seems to live in her own exclusive world?  Perhaps to the hired hand who is so passive he’s like a sleepwalker?  Or maybe to the son-in-law dozing off within the walls of his cynicism?  Or is it a reminder to us that “to sleep” is ultimately where we are all going and we might as well be kind and helpful to those we meet on the way?

A thoughtful novel that takes place in exactly 24 hours, you could set your watch by the character of the grandmother, just like the Judge used to.  Oops.  Have I said too much?  Nooooo.  I guess not.  Actually, I’ve said too little for that “Judge” reference to be clear, but that’s okay.  Just read the book … or one of Morris’ many other novels.  Did I mention he won the National Book Award twice?

I totally liked this book more than it sounds

16 Jun
image via Wikimedia Commons

image via Wikimedia Commons

We now stand on the downhill side of the Near-Pulitzer year of 1954, having earned this moment to catch our breath and enjoy the bird’s nest view of the surrounding geography.  This moment of survey and meditation is much like the bookend moments of Jack Farris’ Near-Pulitzer, Ramey, in which the 12 year-old Ramey looks down from the high country fringing his hometown of Bentfield, Arkansas.  The book between those bookends tracks the course of Ramey’s change from boy into man through the acquisition of his first real job and an immense bout of suffering and crisis of faith.  I wonder if the reading of Farris’ novel changed me in any degree comparable to the change his main character goes through.  To be honest, I hope not.  The pain contained in this story is more than I’d like to bear.  But if I’m not careful I’ll say too much.

At our story’s opening, Ramey’s father is a preacher of the Baptist persuasion,  his mother is a constantly laboring homemaker, his little sister is sickly, and Ramey is about to become the owner of his first squirrel rifle.  The Depression-era logging town of Bentfield is a place where life can be cruel and explosively violent, but also a place kept vital with deep-running … loyalties?  Yeah, that’s probably the right word, but the truth is, to be able to have found the right word I probably needed to be drawn into it all more.  See, the novel didn’t really get going until page 175, about 75 pages from the end, and by then … “too little too late”?  Yeah, that seems like the right cliche.  That said, much of the story does ring satisfyingly true with details surely supplied by Farris’ own boyhood in Texas and Arkansas, and I have been entertaining some high hopes for another of Mr. Farris’ books, Me and Gallagher, which deals with vigilantism in 1860s Montana.  Farris seems as if he might write about such a topic in an interesting way … as long as he can keep from becoming too torpid and lachrymose.  But then, I suppose that’s a challenge for all of us.  Life can wear you out … sometimes.  Or perhaps that’s only me.
“Craig is reading all of the Pulitzer-prize winning novels in chronological order.  See the origins of this journey here.”