Our priorities . . .

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One Flew East, One Flew West

“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”

Counterculture icon Ken Kesey

I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.

And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.

So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”

Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.

Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.

In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.

Where have you been all my life?

“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”

Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.

Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.

“Trip Wires”, a new story collection by Sandra Hunter

“She drowsed and wakened. Surely someone would find them. Was it better to be shot than to watch her child starve? In the cold, she held him close, and he slept and woke through the night, sucking at her dry breasts.”

In her new story collection Trip Wires, Sandra Hunter has an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of ordinary people caught in the widely-scattered wars that have defined, tragically, the beginning decades of this millennium. These are the ones who can get out and the ones who can’t. These are ordinary people who, in desperation to survive, do extraordinary things.

Their stories are disturbing. With harrowing realism Hunter shows us their poverty, their scars, their journeys, their nightmares, their courage. And sometimes their humanity. The above excerpt comes from the story “Borderland”. That story is a full-force punch to the gut, depicting a young mother fleeing a nameless war in a lifeless land. But the young mother discovers human kindness in places and proportions that no one could imagine.

These stories are not for the faint of heart, and it is natural for us to avoid emotional “trip wires” that unleash the shocks and horrors of war. But the suffering is real and, lying just beneath the surface of our world, we can’t avoid it forever. Maybe, with the insights of authors like Sandra Hunter, we can learn why we need to urgently defuse those senseless conflicts that have booby trapped our present and maybe our entire future.

If My Heart Had Wings by Nadine Taylor

Misanthropester

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If My Heart Had Wings
Nadine Taylor
Taylor-Fox Publishing, 2018

♦♦♦♦
4 Stars

“Well,” she sighed, “I guess I always knew I was going to have to tell you girls someday…”

When a child discovers there’s more to their parents than what they know, the experience can be earth shattering. So it was with Nadine Taylor as she discovered one day her mother lived a life before she had children. For any child (young or adult), it is difficult to imagine your parents existing as their own individuals, as persons outside of yourself or, at least, in no relation to you at all. Learning about who your parents were before you can and often does make your parents more real, the deeper and fuller human beings they’ve always been. When Taylor discovers a photo of her mother in a wedding dress from her first marriage, she pulls the veil away…

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