Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Reviews

A Childhood by Harry Crews (also re-read: Florida Frenzy.)

Harry Crews is probably in his seventies, a professor of writing in Florida, and grew up among the rural poor of north Florida and southern Georgia.A Childhood is his memoir of that. Somebody in the NYTBR said that it is "..about a part of America that has rarely, except among books like this, been properly discovered." I am tempted to say "by NYT readers", but although hog butcherings, to give an instance, are not alien to me, Crew's world is just enough removed in space and time from us to have a mythic quality. It is a world of stoicism and bleak poetry, where one can be hexed by spitting birds or witness a suicide by knife.Crews' world does not have the nightmarish hillbilly Gothic and Biblical cadences of early Cormac McCarthy-- his is a simpler, harder prose. I like both, but I never said of McCarthy "this is how it was."

Florida Frenzy is a collection of essays by Crews, many published in Esquire in the seventies, and a few excerpts, including one from The Hawk is Dying, a movie recently made into a film. Most haven't made the cut in previous collections, not because of any lack of quality but because they depict such activities as running fox with hounds, 'gator poaching, cockfighting, and even dogfighting, in unflinching prose. He doesn't so much defend them as to portray them as parts of the culture he belongs (belonged?) to, now fading but still worthy of a moment's attention. Who would ever have known that a fighting bull wags its tail?

And who would ever publish such today? ESQUIRE??

(Thanks to Matt.)

Wolves at our Door by J. P. S. Brown.

Wolves takes up the stories of Jim Kane and Aidan Martinillo, old Brown protagonists (Aidan of my favorite Brown book, Forests of the Night, on which I have blogged before) as they get caught up in the border wars of the early 21st century. This a is both a subtle and a violent book; Joe Brown is the most knowledgeable chronicler of the borderlands alive today, having ranched in both Arizona and the Sierra Madre, and he has little patience with easy slogans-- neither "Minutemen" nor WSJ free- traders will find much comfort in his portrait of an old, permeable border with a distinct culture of its own, under fire from a violent Sierra Madrean society warped in recent times by drugs and even terrorism. It would make a great movie (with heroic parts for old men-- the best Jim Kanes are dead but I'd take Sam Neill)-- but it is probably far too un- PC.

(Apropos of nothing-- Joe, who is in his eighties, used to smuggle cattle across the border with an old Magdalenian rancher whom I knew slightly. Joe told me a yarn about Fred's refusing to remove his boots in a bordello down there. When I read the book I asked his great granddaughter, who tends bar at the Spur, if this sounded right, and she said "That was Fred!")

Thanks to MDMNM of Sometimes Far Afield-- don't know at this point if you got me this one or his memoir The World in Pancho's Eye but I'll get to that one soon!

SF/ Alternate worlds: S. M Stirling's The Sunrise Lands. My favorite in the "Change" series (where advanced technology ceases to work) so far. But you must at least read Dies The Fire, the first novel in the first trilogy-- this is the first in a second-- to understand it. Libby is doing so and says it works. Actually all are varying degrees of good if you have the time, as is Stirling generally. I have one from another series on my wish list.

Natural History. First, Mean and Lowly Things by Kate Jackson, a book about doing herpetology amidst physically and culturally difficult conditions in the Congo. Isaac, who sent it, was not enamored of the book- I think her account of difficulties, including those inevitable ones that come of working with another culture, put him off. I liked it better, as I tend to do with such stuff. Though I am more prone to freezing than sweating, I have been there so to speak, one reason "difficulties" play such a large part in my own Eagle Dreams-- they inevitably DO. The old narratives passed them over for the most part, except for occasional breakouts like William Beebe's aside, in a caption about "The Shooter of Poison Arrows" in Pheasant Jungles, that he had shot and killed the Burmese crossbowman pictured a few nights later, for shooting into Beebe's camp with bad intent! Better the warts- and- all tales like this and -- soon-- Jamie James' Snake Charmer, in which our blog friend Chris Wemmer plays a small part, mediating between the egos of the protagonist, the late Joe Slowinski, and mammalogist Alan Rabinowitz, who apparently thinks he owns Burma's wildlife.

Chris also turned me on to the delightful The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishry, an account of the history of the conservation of the Indian rhino, especially in the Terai of Nepal, by a Nepali conservation biologist. It is subtitled "A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Samans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros", which about sums it up. Most is fascinating, funny (often rudely), and gradually hopeful, but murder and politics intervene and the book ends on a dark note. Will the Maoists in power NOT do what Maoists have always done? I get the feeling Mishra is whistling in the dark a bit. Libby doesn't want to go back, and she loved no place better.

Dog Man by Martha Sherrill is a Zen Buddhist dog book (if one buys Gary Snyder's assertion that Buddha forbids nothing to the good hunter). It is the story of Morie Sawataishi, an old man who lives in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido and who is responsible for saving the old working type of Akita through the deprivations of that hard countryside through the war and after. It reminds me of Asian poetry and ink calligraphy and the photos that Life magazine ran of hawking in the snow there in the sixties. It is also a favorite of the Atomic Nerds, who know their way around Akitas.

Though David Zincavage may not be a Dino man he knows I am, and sent Feathered Dragons: Studies in the Transition from Dinosaurs to birds. Lots of good Dino- wonk stuff-- think Tet Zoo but by more contributors. My favorites were a paper hypothesizing that flight feathers may have evolved as features for brooding, illustrated by many photos of modern birds and diagrams of such fossils as Oviraptor, and a paper by the too -elusive Robert Bakker improbably titled "Dinosaur Crime Scene Evaluations: Theropod Behavior at Como Bluff, Wyoming, and the Evolution of Birdness", complete with his inimitable illos. More Bakker please!

More to come...


Matt Mullenix said...

Great! Was looking forward to some feedback on these titles.

Matt Mullenix said...

Googling Sunrise Lands and the Change series recalls my just-read McCarthy title The Road.

In The Road, technology doesn't so much fail as become obsolete because the means to refurbish it is lost in some massive global catastrophe (we are not told what but evidence suggests to me an asteroid strike).

At the opening of the story, some years after the terrible event, few people remain alive. Most of them evidently have fallen to cannibalism and other brutalities, the most successful of them having formed small, rag-tag armies.

Though at least two good people remain (the father and son protagonists), they seem a vanishing minority in a quickly dimming world.

If you're a father of young children, it is an especially moving read.

mdmnm said...

Steve- Not me on that Brown, but rather "T-W-I-P-E".

Thanks for the reviews! I read a couple of excerpts from Crews' "A Childhood", then read his "All We Need of Hell" and liked it, but by the time I got through "Car", "A Feast of Snakes" and "Body" I was kind of done with him. Now I want to read the whole of "A Childhood".
Ditto for the Brown.

Matt- that Stirling series starts off with a sort of a McGuffin, an unexplained failure of all technology relying on electricity or compression of gases above a very low threshold. The first book starts right at the failure. They read to me almost like alternate history, rather than post-Apocalyptic.

Mark Churchill said...

I read Martha Sherrill's Dog Man after seeing a review in Newsweek (link here) but haven't yet got around to posting a review of my own. Maybe I'll take another shot at it. As soon as you mentioned Life, though, I knew the issue you were referring to: August 1, 1969, with Ted Kennedy on the cover for a story on Chappaquiddick. I have a copy right here, courtesy of my friend Donna Vorce. The photographs are credited to T. Tanuma, but the falconer isn't identified. I think it's quite likely Kutsuzawa Asaji, one of the last people in Japan to fly the kuma-taka or mountain hawk-eagle. Asaji-san did have an apprentice in the late '70s, but last I heard that gentleman was flying a golden eagle due to Japan's current prohibition on taking native raptors.

LabRat said...

By what was certainly a coincidence, Kang started mowing through the local wildlife at a vicious clip around the same time as I finished Dog Man. I may not be taking her out after bears, but Little Miss Sunshine still has all her instincts...

Oh, and if this is what you're like when you don't feel like writing, I'm jealous.

Steve Bodio said...

Mike: these two and "Hawk" are my favorite Crews. Like early (more then late) Cormac it is possible to read too much Crews, but these two are especially good.

Mark: right magazine, cover, photographer, falconer-- worth getting a copy if you have interests in Japanese art, Asian falconry.

Labrat: thanks, but I feel like I am working with no energy or original thought at all. OTOH, maybe that means if I can get some I'll be productive. But your one essay I linked has more in it than this. I just read a lot.

Anonymous said...

I remember the falcon photos - thank you for mentioning which edition of the magazine. You can read more here: