Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can Toni Morrison describe Spring? Oh, I think she can manage to find the words. . . .

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

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “The Last Frontier”, by Howard Fast

“He thought of his long line of troopers as a blue, steel-studded whip.”

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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.

New One-Act Play in Hollywood

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

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

“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.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren

“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.

Nelson Algren, 1956

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.

“A Cottonwood Stand” is now an AUDIOBOOK . . .

FRIENDS —

Actor Michael Butler Murray does such a beautiful job narrating my novel “A Cottonwood Stand” that, as an AUDIOBOOK, it comes alive in ways I never expected. For those of you who have already read the book in paperback or ebook, I simply want to express my deep gratitude to both of you. . .

BUT IF you have never listened to audiobooks, I would be honored if “A Cottonwood Stand” were your first selection! HERE is the link to an upcoming blog tour and other information about the new audiobook, where it is available, etc. :  https://audiobookwormpromotions.com/a-cottonwood-stand/

OR here is where you can find it directly on Audible: http://cottonwood.press/audiobook

Thank you!

A book we can all learn from. . .

It’s clever and smart and creative in every way. Inspiring for all ages.

Operation Frog Effect, by Sarah Scheerger (https://www.sarahlynnbooks.com/) is a beautiful portrayal of young hearts and minds trying their best to cope with life’s problems and do the right thing when faced with hard choices. The novel is a “novel” look into the private thoughts of eight young students in a progressive classroom who are torn by conflicting friendships and rivalries. Each of these bright young people must overcome their self-concerns, along with family issues, to forge a cooperative culture in which together they can learn, solve problems, and even make a positive difference in their school district.

Click to download Sarah Scheerger's author photo

With deep insight into adolescent psychology, Scheerger has created a sweet, enriching surprise for any middle grade reader who sits down on the family room couch, puts their feet up on the coffee table, opens the colorful cover of Operation Frog Effect, and beholds the story that leaps from its amazing pages.

Almost 500 pages but worth it

The Bailiff’s wife looked at him as if half expecting that he was about to ask her for something, whereupon the soul within her receded like a star, far out into the frozen wastes of infinity, and only the cold smile remained on earth.

Halldór Kiljan Laxness 1955.jpg

Independent People, by Halldor Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, 1955), is one of the foremost sagas of rural family life. It is the life and times of Bjartur, an Icelandic peasant who becomes a landowner and a human metaphor for mankind’s struggle against nature, hunger, and human evolution itself. Written and translated with such poetic realism, the book makes its reader feel like an honorary Icelander—and not a city-dweller but a citizen of the endless, inhospitable moors.

Interview last night on “The Writer’s Block”

It was an honor to have a chance to be interviewed last night on LA Talk Radio’s show “The Writer’s Block”.

Host Jim Christina and co-host Russ Avison kept me laughing and talking about my book “A Cottonwood Stand”. Here is the link to the podcast. Thanks!

https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.latalkradio.com%2Fcontent%2Fwriter-022819%2520%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR1IJzmgMA44tVQQfSzWm269y1YFvQ-Wd_tOyvtZ8l7OYAU_Rb6QKbvwEGU%23audio_play&h=AT1v5rmY083kFhFH7AJm3btS5t9jkDOT6mofNj1zwlvX7pr6VI1Ot6mFyKH6oznavl-x-d5rQJw9GZczqNeATnGzRHroPU03DiPOtecf5gYIh1lub_bJ3e5K8yfz5tPJOgE

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

I Slept In Hitler’s Bed by Jay Balter

Excellent review. . . Sounds like an excellent book.

Daniel Casey

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I Slept in Hitler’s Bed 
Jay Balter 
Mandorla Books, 2018

♦♦♦♦
4 Stars

I Slept in Hitler’s Bedis a glimpse into the personal history of Jay Balter and part of a larger memoir to be titled Memoirs of a Middle Class Man. It is not so much inspirational (although it certainly has that element) as aspirational, a tale told to provoke readers especially young men and teens into seeing there is an alternative to violence. Balter is writing a book of conscience, exploring how and why he made the decisions he did as he lived through some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.

While this may sound rather rote for autobiographical works, Balter has put together a stunning first installment. With an amazing knack for zeroing in on the events that most charged his life, Balter is able to transmit to readers not so much the…

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles would understand

I’m an evolved human. I don’t like to acknowledge it. But I need milk to feel good. For protein and calcium milk is the best. Not from factory farms but from contented cows. From Flossie and Bossie down in the dell with cowbells on, who are milked, by gentle milkmaids, only when they need it. And who live a better overall life than I do. That’s the kind of milk I want.

Where can I find it?

Health and Wellness

It’s obvious to me that the only natural way to get whiter teeth is through diet and nutrition. Therefore, I am going on an all-white diet. I will only eat white foods: yogurt, white bread, white potatoes, cauliflower, egg whites, mozzarella, hominy grits, white chocolate, and jicama. 

I made a delicious white rice, white bean, and cottage cheese casserole. I expect to see visible improvement up to three shades whiter in just 7 days. Or my money back. . . . Just kidding. 7 days is an arbitrary number. Make it 10.

Could it have been San Tropez? Or maybe the 99 cent store on 10th Street.

Lately this odd thing has been happening: people look familiar to me in many places that I go. Not everywhere and not every face. But even in places I have never been before, seeing people I know have never crossed my path, I seem to instinctively recognize certain faces from some prior place and time, yet without a clue as to where or when.

The Face Is Familiar - title.jpg

Is this because (a) my brain is going, (b) my eyesight is going, or (c) I’ve lived so long that I really have seen all these faces (or near-lookalikes) somewhere before?

I’m kind of hoping it’s (c). (a) and (b) are the types of things that make you want to stop going places. I like going places.

It makes the world go round

The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.

We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.

Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.

The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.

Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.

An Intimate Journey

In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.

It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.

Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.

Not my “Favourite”

I was expecting farce, but I wasn’t expecting gratuitous sex and violence. The farce would have been fine, but it was despoiled by the constant intrusions of sex and violence, neither of which was portrayed with any real human reactions, like love or compassion.

The Favourite” was meant to be a farce about the British monarchy, in a turbulent period, around 1700. It shows the pettiness, the hypocrisy, the double-dealing, the ineptitude of the monarchy. These are all appropriate themes for farce.

Sex and violence, however, are many things but are never funny. They cannot be made farce of. When I say sex, I don’t mean love, romance, or even infidelity. I mean the sex acts themselves that most people prefer to keep private. Violence? You know what I mean.

Crudities, obscenities, grotesqueries, these can be necessary elements if they’re related to the characters or the story. In that case, they deserve to be treated seriously. “The Favourite” gave us crudity and grotesquery in almost every scene, but for no apparent cinematic reason other than trying to make us laugh at things that are inherently unfunny. The producers have, I suppose, succeeded in creating a sensation and padding their box office receipts, though.

Oh, the picture will win lots of awards, despite being (in my opinion) mostly trash. But go see something better, infinitely better: go see “The Green Book”. That remarkable film had disturbing violence and even some sexual themes, but there wasn’t a single word or image that didn’t belong there and there was nothing to diminish the film’s impact, its mission. When the final credits came on I wanted to stay until the very last line. And savor.

I can’t say that about “The Favorite”: I wished I had walked out after the first thirty minutes.

“Thank heaven, for . . .”

Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.

We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.

So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:

Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.

The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.

*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.

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.