Category Archives: Reading

The Searchers

Recently finished The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. Though the book is primarily about the 1956 Western The Searchers, the book is extremely wide-ranging, touching on the Texan-Indian wars; the history of Indian abduction of whites and “captive narratives” as popular story; the tragedy of Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches as a girl and “rescued” by whites as a married woman with children; her son, Quanah Parker, who became the one of the most famous and influential Indians in the US; the novelist Alan LeMay, who used Cynthia Ann’s story in his novel The Searchers; the making of one of the finest Westerns ever (even though it is terribly racist); the career of John Ford, the complex, brilliant, bullying film director who was kind to Indians while depicting them as savage cliches; the career of John Wayne, Ford’s long-bullied friend, who gave perhaps his best performance in the movie; and, finally, the legacy of Quanah in the white and Comanche branches of the Parker family today. Whew.

Underneath it all is a thread about the racist ideas whites held of Indians, and the fictions created to justify their treatment. Notable is an idea that is so clear now, though as a kid it went over my head: the Fate Worse than Death (being raped by Indians), often shown as a white saving a last bullet for suicide or mercy killing before the savages arrive.

Best piece of trivia I knew half of: Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison saw the movie and wrote a hit song based on a line Wayne says four times in the movie: “That’ll Be the Day.” The coincidence is that their hometown of Lubbock, Texas is in the heart of Comancheria, the tribal lands where the story took place (though Ford shot the movie in Navajo lands because of his love of Monument Valley).

Book buying flowchart

Courtesy of Explore, this fine diagram from the Paris Review:

The Freddie Stories

I recently read the latest Lynda Barry collection, The Freddie Stories, a reissue of a story thread from the ’90s with some new material and previously uncollected old material added in, part of Drawn & Quarterly’s reissue series.

Freddie is the younger brother of Maybonne and Marlys, and his life alternate between wonder (because he has a big heart and loves the world) and terror (because he is a magnet for bullies, who call him a fag, get him in trouble, and treat him badly). The mother of all three kids is a horrible shrew, and Freddie eventually has a break with reality, gets put into special ed classes, and generally has a hard time of it.

As always, Barry channels the thinking and language of these kids with uncanny accuracy and empathy. The drawings are in her earlier, rougher style, which might be off-putting for some but have a great quality that adds something important to the stories. I don’t know about Barry’s own story, but I feel her knowledge of these dysfunctional lives is likely all too personal, and she is a treasure for sharing them with us.

The Swerve

SwerveHaving read all the magazines I brought along to New Orleans, I was forced to purchase something for the trip home, Fortunately, I found The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

Though Greenblatt tells his story in a much more engaging manner, I'll put this in a chronological order I can understand:

Building on the work of Democritus, who died a century before, Epicurus (d. 270 BC) founded a school of philosophy (Epicureanism) that is based on atomism, the idea that the universe is built from fundamental and invisible building blocks of matter flying through the void. (This some two millennia before the ideas could be tested in any form.)

Based on random "swerves," these atoms come together and apart to form everything from stars and planets to animals and humans. Nothing is eternal except these atoms, and no one form — say, humankind — is more important than another. They are not controlled by any external forces; i.e., gods. Thus, the gods — though they may exist — don't concern themselves with human actions and they do not reward and punish good and evil, which leaves humans to choose for themselves how best to live. For Epicurus this meant to seek pleasure and avoid pain, not in a hedonistic sense but by living a good and just life.

Jump forward a couple hundred years to Lucretius (d. 55 BC), who is basically known for one long Epicurean poem, De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. Almost nothing else is known of Lucretius's life or works, though his poem is held in high regard by his contemporaries. 

The ideas in Epicureanism and On the Nature of Things are not held in high esteem as the world turns toward Christianity, and many classic works are forever lost both through suppression and neglect. The Christian authorities discredit Epicurus and Lucretius, inventing scandalous stories and creating the idea that Epicureanism entails an immoral quest for pure pleasure, a connotation still attached to the word 'epicurean'. In turn, the works are not copied by scribes and most of them disappear, their only existence brief mentions in other ancient works.

PoggioJump now again to the early 15th Century, when the scribe and classicist scholar Poggio Bracciolini leaves his post as the pope's secretary in order to pursue his obsession: scouring the deteriorating libraries of European monasteries to find the few remaining works from Greek and Roman authors and arrange for their copy and distribution, thus helping to promote humanism. Poggio is the hero of The Swerve, but some of Greenblatt's stories are conjecture — he possibly visited this monastery and likely spoke with that friar and probably found On the Nature of Things there, perhaps not even recognizing its importance. 

It's this importance that Greenblatt wants us to understand, because he sees On the Nature of Things as a key work to spark the Renaissance, infecting the essays of Montaigne and possibly the plays of Shakespeare. Lucretius's beautifully written philosophy, you see, imagines a world free from religious fear, and entreats us to enjoy a pleasant life of good works, unconcerned with a highly scripted afterlife of eternal pain or reward. It is a signal work to help us break from years of church oppression and appreciate the universe in all its splendor, a place of beauty and art and ideas and happiness. Greenblatt even posits a link to Thomas Jefferson, who owned several copies of Lucretius and managed to write (the pursuit of) happiness into the Declaration of Independence.

Along with the journey of On the Nature of Things into the modern psyche, we learn about the life of Poggio, his navigation of some nasty politics in a time of three warring popes, the work of a medieval scriptorium, Poggio's importance to modern lettering style, even the construction of papyrus rolls and codexes. It's a great trip, and Greenblatt makes it an engaging tale. 

Special Exits

SpecialexitsOvernight I read, in two sittings, Joyce Farmer's Special Exits. This is a graphic novel (or memoir, though the names are changed) about Farmer's father and stepmother who grow old together, deteriorate, and die. 

Sounds good?

Okay, maybe it doesn't. But it really is, and not in a heartwarming, sage-elders-teach-philosophy manner. It's honest, and revealing, and unromantic. It's messy. And it is unrelentingly real: this is how it is, or, at least, this is how it was for Joyce Farmer and even if the specifics vary, there is much here to help prepare all of us for the inevitable.

Joyce Farmer was a pioneering feminist cartoonist, and her pen-and-ink work has an old-school quality. There's none of the modern techniques of comic-making here, no varying frame sizes, nothing but story conveyed in a straightforward manner. And all of Farmer's characters and spaces have depth — the furniture has cat hair, the garages are filled with boxes, and the humans are complex and frustrating. Here's a sample:



Dersu Uzala

Dersuuzalaposter-large Twenty years ago or more, I saw Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Uzala. Filmed on an epic scale, it’s the story of V.K. Arseniev, a Russian captain in charge of surveying the extreme eastern territory of Siberia, and Dersu Uzala, a native Goldi who is at one with the taigá, the Siberian forest. He reads the tracks of animals and man and predicts the weather. Through death-defying adventures with tigers, frozen lakes, and more, Dersu and Arseniev become great friends, even when Arseniev’s expeditions are separated by several years. Dersu saves Arseniev’s life more than once, and Arseniev takes him back to his home in the town of Khabarovsk to live when Dersu grows to old to hunt for himself.

I’ve seen the movie a few times over the years, but it wasn’t until I was reading Ian Frazier’s Travels to Siberia that I realized Dersu and Arseniev were real people. Frazier is a writer for the New Yorker who crossed the 5800 miles of Russia a couple times in a van, writing about Russian people, history, and culture in his trademark manner of wry and insightful observation. As he approached the Pacific coast, I wondered if the subject would turn to the movie, but Frazier mentions carrying Arseniev’s book, and his intention to locate Arseniev’s house in Khabarovsk! It turns out that the story of Dersu and Arseniev are quite well known throughout Russia, though the expeditions took place 1902-1907. (Kurosawa’s movie was a Russian production, using a Tuvan actor in the part of Dersu.)

Dersuuzala Then, quite recently, I went through another great book: John Vaillant’s The Tiger (which I just wrote about). Vaillant discusses Dersu and Arseniev in great detail, and notes that a small town in the area is named after the explorer. He especially describes how much of Dersu’s (and other natives’) behavior around tigers is still modeled by the people who live in and around the taigá. The native people call the tiger Amba, a word that also means “devil,” but carries much more respect and honor — even when your life is threatened:

“Why you go behind. Amba? What you want, Amba? We go our way, you go yours; you no bother us. Why you keep come behind? Taigá big place, room for us and you, what?

That is from the book I just finished, Dersu the Trapper, the English translation of Arseniev’s classic. In that scene Dersu and Arseniev are, as always, walking through the forest when Dersu realizes a tiger is watching them. He sees a tiger track in the path behind them, and, distinct from the other puddles on the ground, it has no water in it — very fresh! Dersu yells at Amba and apologizes and after a few minutes the beast is heard from no more and the men continue their journey.

Dersu Dersu the Trapper is a great story that ought to be more widely known. It’s a scientific journey, not unlike Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, in which Arseniev gives careful and attentive descriptions and bird, plants, trees, animals, and the customs of peoples he encounters, like the native Nanai and Udehé, the Old Believers and the Koreans, and the ever-encroaching Chinese. He also decries the coming exploitation of the region that he can see is not many years in the future. But all this is mixed with a thrilling adventure narrative starring a clever, resourceful, and memorable type of man who has now all but disappeared from the earth. Facing bandits and bears, starvation and injury, severe weather and impassable obstacles, Dersu achieves his goals without losing the honorable connection he has with his beloved taigá.

Bonus: here is a fascinating and thorough Polish website devoted to all thing Dersu Uzala. Book covers, posters, museum exhibits, Arseniev’s map, and more — it even details the existence of an asteroid named after Dersu and includes an essay that compares him to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha!

The Tiger

Tigerbook I've just finished as exciting a book as I've ever read, all the more remarkable because it's nonfiction: The Tiger by John Vaillant. Subtitled A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, it tells the story of a poacher killed in 1997 by a tiger near a remote village in extreme eastern Siberia, and of the tracker who must take action. 

Written with the careful unfolding of a detective story, it is filled with elements of an adventure yarn, a travel guide, and a history book. We learn about a wild region, the Primorye, and its people: some (like the Nanai) live off the forest in a way that hasn't changed for hundreds of years; others have been stranded since the fall of communism and live bleak existences, lightened only by sardonic humor and vodka. Poaching is common; China is relatively close, and has a large appetite for illegal tiger parts. Surprisingly, the tiger has its champions and protectors as well. 

Amur Amur tigers — also called Siberian tigers — are remarkable and awe-inspiring animals, essentially unchanged for hundreds of millennia. As we learn in the book, they are excellent hunters, able to stalk their prey with an unmatched cunning and fierceness, and they are perfectly adapted physically to reign supreme in the "boreal jungle" of the taiga

To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grossly muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons of a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at  the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.

Vaillant's writing is consistently vivid and compelling, his asides providing illuminating background that give the characters depth and context without overwhelming the central story or its thrilling conclusion. Vaillant's extensive research and interviews provides detailed recreations of places and events that allow us — almost — to enter the minds of the experienced woodsmen who eke out their rough years at the margins of a dense northern forest where temperatures often reach 40 below zero, and of the tigers with whom they maintain a careful and usually distant rapport. 

Art Minus One

Lyndward One of the gifts I got this year was the lovely two-volume set of Lynd Ward's wordless stories. Made using woodcuts inspired equally by German expressionism and Albrecht Durer, Ward's "graphic novels" were made between 1929 and 1937. This set from the Library of America collects all six novels, and the title of one, Song Without Words, put me in mind of artworks that are similarly constrained. I have other wordless books, such as Laurence Hyde's Southern Cross and, um, well maybe that's the only other one I have.

Clift I've long been drawn to songs without words. Not just classical, jazz, or jam-band type rock, but actual instrumental rock and pop songs that manage to be catchy and even hot the charts without words. Some are cheesy pop, like "Popcorn"; some are ambitious, like "Classical Gas"; and some are just downright great, like "Sleep Walk." (Funny to listen to Popcorn again and hear it as a precursor to electronica.) "Taps" is a wonderful example of a well-known instrumental — nearly everyone can hum it, and it manages to retain its emotional impact. (This scene in From Here to Eternity, in which Montgomery Clift's character honors his dead friend, conveys the mournful feeling so well. That's Al Hirt playing.)

What else can you remove from music? A cappella groups dispense with instruments. Brian Eno's ambient music presents textures of sound that proceed without discernible rhythm. Early Steve Reich works used rhythm without harmonic or melodic development.

Goldsworthy-1 What's the visual art equivalent? Expressionist painters (some of them) used shapes and color instead of recognizable figures. Jackson Pollack painted without brushes; artists like Christo or Andy Goldsworthy create ephemeral visual works without canvas or paint. Man Ray created his "ray-o-grams" using photographic paper without a camera. 

Films began as "moving pictures" without any sound, so we have to find other essential elements to delete. Chris Marker's La jetée from 1962 is a 28-minute montage of still images (with one brief exception), its science-fiction story told only in narration. Early surrealist experiments like Un Chien Andalu did without plot, and there must be many versions of character-less films like Koyaanisqatsi.

I'm sure I'm missing other examples.

(By the way, the title here comes from an old set of LPs for musicians to practice over, Music Minus One. Oh, it looks like they still exist!)

McSweeney’s 36

36-2 There are few things that make me as consistently happy as opening the shipping box that contains the latest issue of McSweeney's, and #36 has one of their best packaging efforts yet.

This issue is contained within a cardboard head illustrated by Matt Furie. Opening it reveals several booklets, including the magazine proper, a play by Wajahit Ali, an "oral history of resistance in Burma,"  and an excerpt from Adam Levin's 1000-page novel, The Instructions

One piece is a plain brown wrapper containing a screenplay and a cover letter, explaining that the script is intended for a new Mike Myers/Dana Carvey vehicle. The most elaborate booklet collects four chapters from a "wrecked" Michael Chabon novel titled Fountain City, encased in a jacket that unfolds to reveal a map of a (partially submerged?) city.

There is also a four-part postcard series of a fish.



On Writer’s Block

Passing on from the blog of my friend Bob Sutton, “The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of ‘writer’s block’,” by Dennis Upper, a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis in 1974.