What can beat bricks warming up to the sun? The return of awnings. The removal of blankets from horses’ backs. Tar softens under the heel and the darkness under bridges changes from gloom to cooling shade. After a light rain, when the leaves have come, tree limbs are like wet fingers playing in woolly green hair. Motor cars become black jet boxes gliding behind hoodlights weakened by mist. On sidewalks turned to satin figures move shoulders first, the crowns of their heads angled shields against the light buckshot that the raindrops are. The faces of children glimpsed at windows appear to be crying, but it is the glass pane dripping that makes it seem so.
Toni Morrison, Jazz
“He thought of his long line of troopers as a blue, steel-studded whip.”
BOOK? . . . The Last Frontier, by Howard Fast
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Western fiction, realism, social issues
ABOUT WHAT? . . . The fateful, heroic 1878 trek of Dull Knife’s starving band of Northern Cheyenne from the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) northward toward their ancestral homeland, while an entire country and its army demonized and pursued them.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Published in 1941, when the world was paying too little attention to racial extermination in Europe, the book was a reminder of past genocides even in this land of “freedom”. The 1964 movie “Cheyenne Autumn” was inspired in part by Fast’s book, but also by Mari Sandoz’s novel which gave its general plot and its title to the movie. The movie was one of the first big films to portray Plains Indians in a sympathetic light.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, if you have any interest in the Old West, the pioneer days, and the tragic situation of the Indian tribes in the late 1800’s.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Howard Fast wrote some pretty impressive books, including among his several dozen novels, The Immigrants, Spartacus, and The Dinner Party. He was skilled at weaving history with fiction, and his writing style is more eloquent than many who write historical fiction.
“In Conclusion:”, which reopens the most notorious murder case from Prohibition-era Chicago, is a brilliant exploration of a human rights issue that has divided America for two hundred years: capital punishment. Written, staged and performed with exceptional insight and artistry, realism and dark comedy, the play probes the inner struggles of the main players in the case: the twisted, tormented minds of the two murderers, and the equally tormented, idealistic minds of the opposing attorneys. With startling urgency, the play forces the audience to ask itself where it really stands on the death penalty. The audience must confront the issue as a matter of principle and not just a foregone “Conclusion” from yellowed tabloids and dusty old law books.
**Part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the final performance of “In Conclusion:” can be seen this Thursday night in Hollywood. Go to the following: https://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6189?tab=tickets
“I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence.”
Book? . . . The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
What kind? . . . Novel
Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism with some mystical elements, social issues, historical family saga
About what? . . . American Baptist preacher and his wife and daughters go to the Belgian Congo in 1959 to do missionary work in the “heart of darkness”, the dense interior jungle of central Africa. Their experiences highlight the political and cultural conflicts that began with European colonization centuries earlier and continue to plague Africa today.
Significance? . . . A beautifully constructed historical family saga, about a subject that most readers know too little about (me included). Characters are developed brilliantly. Apt and memorable metaphors. A vivid exposé against colonialism in general and evangelical religion in particular, this is a story that had to be written. Fortunately, it was written by an author with depth, eloquence and heart.
So should I read it or what? . . . Sure it’s fairly long, but, weaving history, politics and family turmoil into a cohesive story, I believe it is the best historical family saga I have read.
You got anything else to add? . . . Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees is a very good novel, worth reading if you want something shorter, simpler and lighter than her masterpiece The Poisonwood Bible.
“The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments.”
Book? . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren
What kind? . . . Novel
Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism, social issues, urban, slum fiction, anti-establishment, muckraking
About what? . . . Chicago, post-WWII, poor working class Polish neighborhood. A back-room poker dealer named Frankie Machine. Crooked cops, tough times. And brown stuff that nowadays we call Opioids.
Significance? . . . Some of the sharpest, smartest street-vernacular dialogue ever. How he did it I’ll never know. Characters are developed as well as you could ever ask for. Story gives you goosebumps, if you really think about it. Whitman-like eloquence, especially his use of similes comparing the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings with their surroundings. A great Chicago book, right up there with The Jungle, Sister Carrie, Native Son, and Saul Bellow’s stuff which I really haven’t read much yet.
So should I read it or what? . . . Hey, you’re not puttin’ that rap on me. Sure it’s fairly long and full of poetic language, and may be a little outdated in style and the way he weaves characters’ dreams into it. But Nelson Algren was a great writer and led an interesting life himself. Maybe his life and his books are a chance you don’t want to miss out on. What kind of gambler are you, when the chips are down?
You got anything else to add? . . . Well, it’s not easy to find his books. They don’t seem to be very common in libraries. Online, they’re expensive, even used ones. Probably mostly out-of-print. He was once very well-known, but then was sort of forgotten by time. Making a slow comeback, I think. That’s a good bet.