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Stephen Siciliano "the highway scribe" (Los Angeles, CA USA)

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The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
The Heart Of A Dog (Vintage Classics)
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.30

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 3 Jan. 2011
One of the most delightful aspects of Bulgakov's work, which was banned until well after his death, is the success with which he presents the workings and concerns of a dog's mind.

Here's how the dog learned to hunt for food in post-revolutionary Moscow without a proper education and reading lessons:

"After that, his learning proceeded by leaps and bounds. He learned the letter `t' from `Fish Trust' on the corner of Mokhovaya, and then the letter `s' (it was handier for him to approach the store from the tail end of the word, because of the militiaman who stood near the beginning of `Fish').

"Tile squares set into corner houses in Moscow always and inevitably meant `cheese.' A black samovar faucet over the word indicated the former owner of Chichkin's, piles of red Holland cheese, beastly salesmen who hated dogs, sawdust on the floor, and that most disgusting, evil-smelling Beckstein.

"If somebody was playing an accordion, which was not much better than `Celeste Aida,' and there was a smell of frankfurters, the first letters on the white signs very conveniently added up to the words `no inde...,' which meant `no indecent language and not tips.' In such places there were occasional messy brawls and people got hit in the face with fists, and sometimes with napkins or boots.

"If there were stale hams hanging in a window and tangerines on the sill, it meant... Grr.... grr... groceries. And if there were dark bottles with a vile liquid, it meant...Wshi-w-i-wines...The former Yeliseyev Brothers."

You get the idea. The charm of "Heart of a Dog" lies in the simple sci-fantasy chosen by the author to regale us with true portraiture of life in the time and place with which it concerns itself, without ever appearing episodic, preachy, or issue-driven.

The four paragraphs abstracted above move the story along, maintaining the humor (and pathos) involved in mapping a dog's mind, but also telling us something of the moment's popular music, of the behavior that could be witnessed on the city streets, and rendering a street economy that one would assume is a thing of the past.

But the narrative, in the end, is not entitled "Mind of Dog." It is "Heart of a Dog," and soon we move beyond the concerns of the canine, to those of the larger cast assembled by the author to make certain points about the reorganization of Russian life into soviet structures and concepts.

Truly revolutionary.

The dog is taken in off the street by Doctor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky who, even in the leveling times he was tapped to live, is a man of prestige and means.

"Heart of a Dog," falls clearly into the category of satire and, as such, spares no one.

Preobrazhensky is up to no good with some scary eugenic operations that are enhancing the vitality and sexual capacity for some of Moscow's wealthier denizens. When the communist housing committee comes to bust his chops about the size of his apartment and the new times which the doctor must reconcile himself to, he makes a call to one of his patients, influential in the recently imposed Bolshevik order, that results in the committee delegates leaving his place with tails between their legs.

But Philip Philipovich's time will come.

The dog, whom he and his helper Bormenthal have dubbed "Sharik" is startled from the peaceful life in the too-big-apartment he could hardly believe luck had placed him, to have the brain stem of a deceased common criminal grafted onto his own.

The experiment goes awry and Sharik slowly morphs into a man; a complicated man with opinions, desires, and an appetite for cats - a man with a dog's heart that the doctors Preobrazhensky and Bormenthal are ill-equipped to control.

He smokes, has no sense of social correctness, hits on the resident young girl Zina, and has a wise-guy's mouth to boot. "An exceptional scoundrel," in Preobrazhensky's words.

Disdained and pushed to the margins by the bourgeois technicians who created him, Sharik does what came naturally to people (or dogs) in those days. He becomes a communist and gets "papers" attesting to his officially recognized existence as Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharik.

He gets a good job in the municipal department, purging cats, and finally forces the hand of Philip Philippovich by again springing the local aparatchiks on him over the size of his apartment and the way its space is apportioned.

Pushed to the brink, the doctors do something to Sharik, it is not clear what, that returns him to the state of grateful mongrel in which he originally entered the premises.

We can view this story as a commentary on the open-ended fear the aspirations of science and modernity imposed upon people at the turn of the last century. It can also be savored as a parable on Soviet life as it seemed shortly after the revolution.

Okay, the scribe doesn't really know what a parable is, he just wanted to sound lit-critical for a second.

Perhaps the better expression is "analogy" or even, "metaphor." the scribe thinks that these words along with `simile' and a few others only serve to slice the same ham a lot of thin ways and that they should come up with a better, all purpose, word to meet the utilitarian tone of our times.

In any case, it's clear Bulgakov had an ironic view of the Bolshevik order and the underlying idea of sweeping away all that had come before to replace it with something more egalitarian. We don't get a sense he was against it on principles, rather that he was mortified by what happened when it was applied to a giant and backward czarist peasant state.

the scribe's sense is that he is saying a dog's a dog, and a prole's a prole, regardless of what rational experiment, social or scientific, you expose them, too.

There will always be, Bulgakov seems to be saying, complicated matters of the heart that surpass the grasp of even our most enlightened and talented citizens.

Post-revolutionary Russia is now a ways off. We do not know what song the doctor is always singing, "from Granada to Seville..." and so we miss its cultural significance and what it means to come out of Preobrazhensky's mouth as well.

Still, the literature transports us.

The version read by the scribe (Grove Press) is translated by Mirra Ginsburg. Translations are always tricky. We can only hope they approximate what the original language was cleverly employed to convey. Ginsburg recreates an over-the-top type of nineteenth century idiom in the tone of, let's say, G.K. Chesterton ("The Club of Queer Trades").

"My good sir, I will not be made a guy of with this preposterous..."

Maybe, hopefully, that is what Bulgakov had in mind. To be sure, the high-flown pompousness of his hosts certainly contrasts with the low-flung desires and needs of the proletarian dog.

Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 31, 2013 9:42 PM GMT

Manhattan '45
Manhattan '45
by Jan Morris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 3 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Manhattan '45 (Paperback)
Jan Morris does such a great job of recreating New York City - Manhattan - in its golden moment that a fun exercise for a writer would be to draft some characters and weave them throughout the structure of this entertaining text and see what comes out.

Morris establishes a framework for her study, a Manhattan that is the last great city standing in the wake of World War II, the product of a recent building boom and sturdy enough to handle the business of two continents rather than one.

Intelligently broken up into novel but digestible categories such as style, system, movement, race and class, Manhattan '45 manages to tell a story while not getting lost in the complexity of its remarkable topic.

Morris writes light and breezy like some of the newspaper columnists of era mentioned and one can't help but wonder the extent to which the place and era have come to infuse the writer's technique.

Reeling through the '40s requires a certain degree of listing. The listing of names, the listing of places and eateries, the listing and Manhattan's less-that-evocative grid of numbered streets and avenues, but Morris drops in just enough prosody to make it work as in the passage about the nightlife so typical of the work:

"The Beau Nash of Manhattan, though, was Sherman Billingsley of the Stork Club. Where but the Stork Club could one see Cobina Wright, "the city's loveliest debutante" in the same room as H.L. Mencken, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor or the Ernest Hemingways? Billingsley, known to his often fawning customers as 'Sherm,' at once basked in their reflected fame and vigorously exploited it. He employed two teams of press agents, one on day shift, one on night, and he assiduously cultivated the friendship of newspapers columnists like Walter Winchell (the King), or Leonard Lyons, of the 'The Lyons Den,' who were by then celebrities themselves. Some said he had actually invented Cafe Society; he had first advertised his club in college newspapers, and given publicity to suitably prepossessing and sufficiently moneyed students as "prominent members of Cafe Society."

The author's passion for Manhattan shines throughout and is so infectious even the odd reader who picks up the book because nothing else is at hand may catch the fever.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 26, 2011 12:50 AM GMT

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
by Maria Rosa Menocal
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 3 Jan. 2011
"Ornament of the World," asserts that the history of modern life passed through medieval Andalusia and does a good job of making the case.

The subtitle to Maria Rosa Menocal's engaging volume is "How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain," but that doesn't say the half of it.

Which is fine, because the subtitle that can do justice to this alternately sweeping and efficient book probably doesn't exist.

In fact, the featured period of tri-partite harmony is but a brief one in the book, shattered by the kinds of antagonisms that sustain our state of violent tension today.

In those days of European ignorance and atavism, Menocal writes that, "Arabic beckoned with its vigorous love of all the things men need to say and write and read that not only lie outside faith but may even contradict it -- from philosophy to erotic love poetry and a hundred other things in between."

Menocal explains how the prophet Muhammad would not perform miracles, given that the Quran, the book off God's revelations, was the true miracle.

Latent in the Arab's linguistic passion was a respect for the Christian and Hebrew reliance on scriptures.

Pagans subjected to the Arabic invasions covered in this book were required to convert, while the two "Peoples of the Book," were granted religious freedom under a covenant known as the "dhimma".

Under the prescriptions of the visionary Abd al-Rahman, founder of Al-Andalus (Arab moniker for the region of southern Spain),"the Muslims did not remain a ruling people apart. Rather, their cultural openness and ethnic egalitarianism were vital parts of a general social and political ethos within which the dhimmi could and did thrive."

If it doesn't sound much like the Afghani Taliban you know only too well, that's because there are Muslims, and then there are Muslims.

The good ones were the Umayyad.

How they became the faction they did (descendants of Muhammad's brother-in-law's sister's mother or something) is not so important as the fact another faction, the Almoravids, did them in on behalf of an Islamic intepretation more in-line with that which mystifies today.

The authoress maps out the rising tide and recession of ambulant Islam, the countercharge of Christian warriors, the religiously confused alliances of enemies when battles of family succession and greed intervened to rent the otherwise clear lines of battle asunder.

And the point of these events, for Menocal, is how the cultures involved were affected and transformed.

"Ornament of the World" is mostly about an assortment of intellectuals, dreamers, poets, and philosophers who informed these transformations, mostly forgotten, but sometimes lionized down the years.

"Ornament" details the Jewish intellectual Hasdai's rise to the exalted position of foreign secretary in the Cordoban caliphate because he, "spoke and wrote with elegance and subtlety, and because the 'vizier' possessed a profound knowledge of everything in Islamic Andalusia culture and politics that a caliph needed in his public transactions."

Much the same happened to a wealthy merchant of Malaga now known to history as Samuel in the taifa of Granada. Another star of Arabic letters, his appointment as The Nagid established him as leader to the city's Jews.

South and West of Granada, in the hamlet of Niebla, lived Ibn Hazm, a contemporary of the Nagid, and an exile from the Almoravid sacking of Cordoba's imperial city, Madinat al-Zahra.

Ibn Hazm remained dedicated his countless writings to the tolerant glories of Umayyad Cordoba, where he had thrived in younger days.

Considered alternately by scholars as embittered or sad, "He was, in any case, an astounding intellectual, his life a fitting tribute to and a noble and melancholy end point for the caliphate he never ceased to long for and lament, as if it had been a lost lover."

That caliphate fell to a malevolent force that, Menocal writes, "was often rooted in what they considered the Andalusians inappropriate relations with the Jews and Christians."

Which is not to single out Arabs as the sole possessors of intolerant habits.

Upon the Christian conquest of Granada, the famed Ferdinand and Isabella granted dhimma-like rights to their Muslim subjects. But they turned out to be paper promises.

Unfortunately for us, hundreds of years on, the results are still being reaped.

Menocal demonstrates the cultural contortions involved in this subjugation by dissecting Miguel de Cervantes' strange set-up to "Don Quixote" as the work of an Arab historian, found in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, and translated for him by a Christian Arab.

She turns something most of us shrug and pass over into a stark political statement on Cervantes' part, and necessarily alters one's consideration of "El Quixote." It is worth the price of the book.

Cervantes' literary arrangement demonstrates how, in the end, the Catholic monarchs, "chose to go down the modern path, the one intolerant of contradiction. The watershed at hand was certainly the rise of a single-language and single-religion, a transformation that conventionally stand at the beginning of the modern period and leads quite directly to our own."

Mad Ones, The
Mad Ones, The
by Tom Folsom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 21 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Mad Ones, The (Paperback)
"The Mad Ones," suffers from the limited trajectory of its subject.

In the same way Joey Gallo's life never really took off, neither does this book.

"The Mad Ones" is a guilty pleasure read for those who like a good Mob yarn. It is also a great portrait of the era in which its anti-hero leaves his bloodstained mark.

Here is a tale about a low-grade, psychotic guy who sallied forth into Greenwich Village just as the sixties were taking off and willingly let some of its rebellious patina rub off on him.

After getting introduced to the scene by his future wife, Jeffie, "Joey decided to make a go for it in the Village. He took up painting, like the abstract expressionists brawling at the Cedar Tavern, a few blocks from the pad. His portrait of Jeffie burst with animal energy, an uncanny likeness painted completely from memory during a brief stint at Rikers Island. Joey was clawing his way up from the bottom, unlike Jeffie's first husband, jazz icon Gerry Mulligan."

Which is all well and good, but, as it turns out, it's the "Rikers Island" reference that does a better part of the foreshadowing.

In his "My Last Sigh," the surrealist film director Luis Bunuel meditated upon the implications of Spain's Civil War and concluded that, "all the wealth and culture on the Falangist [right wing] side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture."

The point being (other than clumsy erudition) that Joey Gallo read Camus, was enthralled with Nietsche, but was, in the end, still a cheap punk.

The storyline, such as it is, follows the Gallo boys through mishap after mishap in their effort to reign supreme on the big Mafia family scene befuddling New York City at the time.

Gallo's bohemianism isn't really that pronounced. He's more of a classical night club and cocktail guy from the prior era. And we have to take the word of those whose testimony author Tom Folsom has gathered or researched as to the extent of his vaunted charisma.

And that's because he is a rotten person with a rotten pedigree, up from the juke-box industry, as it were:

"Joey was a little guy, listed by the NYPD as 5 feet 6 inches. Small, like the toughest guys in the B-pictures, Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, the steely henchman in the original gangster epic, 'Scarface.' In his teens, ruling the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street as King of the Cockroach Gang, Joey flipped a silver dollar, Raft's signature move. Joey wasn't going to be stealing copper piping from Brooklyn brownstones for the rest of his life. He was going to make it to the big town. Give big lunks the score.

"'I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drug Store,' said Joey, 'but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?'"

Colorful, sure, but rotten.

His attempt to shake down a "two-bit check casher" named Teddy Moss will horrify anybody who makes an honest living, feeds a family, and doesn't employ a personal bodyguard. It is rendered pathetic by the fact Gallo botches it and ends up in jail.

For "The Mad Ones," Folsom adopted a clipped, noir-ish style that makes for great fun, and does not limit his erudition or ability to transmit hard-earned information. But he also opted for a fragmented, back and forth manner of laying out the story, which confused this reader.

The author's gumshoe prose might have been better matched with a simple linear narrative or clearer delineation at the necessary points of digression.

At some point in this somewhat mushy timeline, Gallo gets it into his fevered head to take on the Colombo family, even though they have more men, bigger guns, and a legitimate claim to the "businesses" at stake.

And so Joey and his "Barbershop Quintet" of thugs hole-up with a lot of firearms and spaghetti at the President Street headquarters in Brooklyn to await a big shootout with the Colombo clan, or some clan made up of Colombos.

The stage is set, the police are on edge, trigger-fingers itching and....nothing happens.

They hang around eating. A few missions are aborted. The police run periodic and preemptive raids to keep them off-balance. Worse, the guys' wives start complaining about lack of money. The army which served as fodder for Jimmy Breslin's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," grows fat waiting.

Meanwhile, Joey goes to jail for a few wasted years, reads a lot, befriends black revolutionaries, and dreams up a strategy for heroine in the streets of Harlem based upon the novel stuff he's been learning in The Big House.

He gets out and rejoins the boys who are short on strategy, resources, and street smarts. One of them, or maybe not, shoots Joe Colombo who goes into a coma. An old-style "gangland" war breaks out and few of the Gallo crew are murdered in exchange for a few of the other team's. Nobody is asking who started it.

Joey, ever the man about town and artistic wannabee, charms certain of the Manhattan literati and entertainment types, but mostly Jerry Orbach who had just played Kid Sally in the movie version of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." You might remember Orbach from "Law & Order."

Anyway, "The Godfather" was being shot (okay, not the best choice of words) on the streets of New York as a gangster chic took hold in the culture and elevated Crazy Joey's status with Cafe Society.

Aspiring writers will sigh at learning that he had a book deal with a prominent publisher and was garnering invitations to speak on big media panels with people like Gore Vidal.

But they kept PULLING HIM BACK IN! So that whatever Gallo thought he could be and was building toward....doesn't happen.

Instead his dreams are snuffed out in a hail of gunfire over a very late-night repast at Umberto's in Little Italy on the lower East Side.

And there is your story with the old-time moral that crime doesn't pay (unless you're really good at it).

The opening quotation is from Jack Kerouac: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the one who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn, burn, burn."

But the Beat poet waxed about something different than what "The Mad Ones" covers. This petty gangster's name, in the end, was not "Mad," but "Crazy" Joey Gallo.

And he earned it.

Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City
Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City
by Micheal A Lerner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.95

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 21 Dec. 2010
"Dry Manhattan" tells you a lot about New York, a little less about Prohibition, and somehow gets the mix right.

The Eighteenth Amendment, if author Michael Lerner's research and interpretations are correct, was birthed by the boozy saloons of New York City's immigrant quarters and foundered upon the same immovable rock of intemperance.

Protestant folks in middle America couldn't abide by the sin-soaked goings-on in the Big Apple and other urban centers. In the end, making something almost everybody approved of a matter of general disapproval did not present the property recipe (if ever one existed).

Lerner dissects William H. Anderson's stealth effort to make alcohol illegal in New York and the lackadaisical response of local politicians and citizens to his ultimately successful campaign.

It is a fatalistic march marked with the same strange inertia that led to other historical debacles like Hitler's rise to power, the South's secession from the union, or George W. Bush.

"Dry Manhattan," is a story about how Manhattan was never dry at all, even when defying the law landed a goodly number of people in jail or ruined lives.

In the end, there was something stuffy, Anglo, and very 19th Century about the Eighteenth Amendment that quickly wore out the efficacy of its most persuasive arguments.

Prohibition didn't make America better. It made it much worse. Especially through illegal mafias that sought to accumulate windfall profits associated with the risk of moving such contraband around.

Crazy innovating entrepreneurs! They're as American as the Martini.

More than anything else, Lerner's book details how the cool crowd (yes, even then) was able to infuse illegal drinking with a cachet all those Mabels and Myrtles from the Women's Christian Temperance Union could never combat.

And most importantly, there was New York and its drinking habit, alone atop the country's media circus. It was not the only place America looked to for pointers on style and novelty, but the dry folks could hardly expect help from the wacky western pole that harbored Hollywood.

"Cosmopolitanism" is what Lerner sees as a key to the Wet counter-reformation on alcohol. And what place was more so than Manhattan?

The book resuscitates the name of New York Governor Al Smith and discusses how his losing campaign for president actually laid the groundwork for a national Democratic coalition that would reign supreme over five decades; on-and-off, and more-or-less.

Non-fiction, foot-noted, and scrupulously researched, "Dry Manhattan" manages to go down pretty easy.

The Gaudi Key
The Gaudi Key
by Esteban Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 21 Dec. 2010
This review is from: The Gaudi Key (Paperback)
"The Gaudi Key" (La Clave Gaudi) possesses the grandiosity of its subject's architecture, but lacks his whimsy.

Sometimes you can concoct a literary triumph yet not tell a story so well. Such is the case with Esteban Martin and Andreu Carranza's novel.

"The Gaudi Key," takes Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," moves it to Barcelona, and then attempts to transform a potboiler into big literature. But the authors fail to match Brown's talent for penning the page-turner, and instead weigh their piece down with interesting, but unnecessary information.

Any story affirmatively linking Barcelona, its most famous architect, and the second coming of Jesus Christ is going to have a lot of explaining to do, and the resulting expository writing generates a book of considerable heft (430 pages).

The set-up involves a vicious conflict between the diabolical Men of Mensula and the Knights of Moria; the latter being an ancient Catholic order of warrior friars with which Gaudi was associated.

The knights are engaged in an age-old quest of squiring a surviving rock sliver from Solomon's temple to its final resting place in the Gaudi-designed Sagrada Familia cathedral, as preparation for Christ's return to earth.

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. And if it doesn't sound complicated, it still is.

And although the authors successfully guide the narrative's baroque machinery to a successful conclusion, the exquisitely embroidered scheme ends up stepping all over a story that is not uninspired in its origins.

Detailing the history and competing philosophies of the Mensulan and Morian orders is tackled via long character dialogues best omitted or at least reduced to something more essential and dramatized through story action.

Parsing them is a slog and their presence is augmented by the presence of still more as these well-schooled scribes hold court on all manner of esoterica, Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism, 20th-Century anarcho-syndicalism, and the Shinto religion (to name a few).

"The Gaudi Key" never practices what it preaches. The famed architect's hallucinatory vision and transcendent approach to life and art are lost in a tome that is constantly over-reasoned and overwrought, robbing the marvelously chosen topics of all their inherent magic.

Sister Carrie: Jennie Gerhardt ; Twelve Men (Library of America)
Sister Carrie: Jennie Gerhardt ; Twelve Men (Library of America)
by Theodore Dreiser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.70

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 21 Dec. 2010
Theodore Dreiser's works hold up well as storytelling while offering the added advantage of being timepieces.

"Sister Carrie" and "Jennie Gerhardt" are similar tales of young girls whose youthful sexuality aid their flight from poverty.

Carrie and Jennie are sympathetic, nonetheless, because their climbs up the social latter are propelled, not by their own guile, but by that of the wealthy men who would deign to enjoy their youthful bounty.

Both attain fates that are only satisfactory and we will leave it at that so as not to spoil either novel's end point.

Dreiser wrote in a smooth style with more than a touch of density to it. He often erred on the side of expository writing, describing events and also telling you what they meant, rather than hitching them to action.

Nonetheless, the tales can hook you and make for engrossing reading because of the writer's thoroughness and the extreme polish he gave the prose.

The "Twelve Men" portion of the book is lengthy as either novel, without the advantage of narrative continuity, but still offers much. The characters are colorful, but unique mostly as products of a time that has passed and therefore impossible to duplicate or find in contemporary types.

Althought he lived well into the 1940s, these works are essentially post-Civil War works rendered by a younger man of German family reared in Indiana. His America is that of the Industrial Revolution. It is that bygone America where the beehive of industry is clustered along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Its gritty capitals are Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland. Their supporting casts are the smaller towns of his home state, Illinois, and Ohio. Railroads are king and the poor loiter around tracks looking for spare bits of coal that drop from hopper cars to warm their homes.

His New York is the New York of Broadway when Broadway was alone and uncontested by the film business for supremacy in the world of spectacle. It is the New York of the horse-drawn carriage and mule-driven dray, of the great Gilded Age fortunes.

This Library of America collection offers a view of these bygone eras and the people who strove in them through the skilled writing hand and practiced journalist's eye of an American literary stalwart.

The Battle of Tomochic: The Battle of Tomochic Memoirs of a Second Lieutenant (Library of Latin America)
The Battle of Tomochic: The Battle of Tomochic Memoirs of a Second Lieutenant (Library of Latin America)
by Heriberto Frias
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 18 Dec. 2010
If "Tomochic" were released as a new novel today, we'd be calling its author, Heriberto Frias, the "next Cormac McCarthy."

We could say the Mexican Frias, in his conjuring of a terrible military campaign against rebellious Catholic mystics in 19th-century Chihuahua, is "reminiscent" of McCarthy.

But Frias was not conjuring anything. He was an actual soldier-participant in the mission, which led to the slaughter of some 150 crazies with guns and the Virgin Mary for muse in the mountain hamlet of Tomochic.

By way of background, Frias first published chapters of his account in a short-lived newspaper called "El Democrata" in 1892, and was promptly tried for certain crimes against the regime of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

The editor of the newspaper stood for him, claiming he wrote the installments, not Frias, and everybody walked.

highwayscribery read "Tomochic" in Spanish, but if this translation is good, and if you've read McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," strong parallels may become apparent.

Like McCarthy (or vice versa), Frias renders a stark mountain desert landscape in gorgeous pastoral terms that contrast beautifully with the crude reality of his battle portrayals.

"Tomochic" follows an unfolding tragedy through the eyes of a misbegotten second lieutenant who falls in love with a maiden on the enemy side.

It's a loose narrative with just enough development to keep the story from slipping into a straight, if poetically tinted, account of a military campaign. The narrative does not have a classic structure to the extent it is journalistic and life often follows less convenient rhythms than storytelling begs of us.

There is an opening battle in which the lieutenant's company, and comrades from other outfits, are largely routed by the defenders of Tomochic and the mayhem described is enough to send any draft-aged American sprinting for the Canadian border.

It is worth pointing out here that the people of Tomochic are not indigenous victims of criollo (white-European) expansion, but folks of good Iberian stock who take up their cudgels against what, ensuing events will confirm, is a brutal national government.

The rebels' ferocious initial stand aside, the Army gets enough booze and food into its boys to proceed in crushing the remaining band - women and children included - with a machine-like mindlessness.

That's not a spoiler. "Tomochic" is sold and packaged as the story of brutal repression in the Mexican hinterlands.

Frias doesn't go into a ton of editorializing. He takes no sides, sees heroism in the army youths sent to do a pointless job, sees nobility in the steadfast guerillas, paints the ironies of a Mexico where Pima Indians help federales put down a revolt of Catholic devout.

The author's loyal and detailed accounting of the military's actions are condemnation enough.

At a certain point, there are too few surviving Tomochitecos to harm anyone. But the army stays on partying, killing slowly, burning villagers alive in their homes and church, piling battlefield cadavers into bonfires that are then fed upon by swine roaming the impromptu death camp.

There is little in the mop-up job to recommend the dictatorship, the Mexican Army, or any other modern killing machine for that matter.

There is only a foreboding sense that humanity hasn't advanced one wit since Frias' picturesque cavalry road into the valley of Tomochic, blind, dusty, and blood-lusty.

The Day the Cowboys Quit
The Day the Cowboys Quit
by Elmer Kelton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 18 Dec. 2010
It's the rare western book that invites a Marxian analysis, but Elmer Kelton, who died recently, was the rare western writer.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," takes place at the intersection of rugged American individualism and the collective efforts of the undercapitalized to improve their lot.

The book renders a cowboys' strike - a fascinating concept - that actually happened, on ranches in the Canadian River region of west Texas circa 1883.

By Kelton's lights, the strike occurred in the crucible of corporate encroachment upon the cattle industry that brought an end to the free range. Rationalization and greater efficiency in the beef business left the liberty loving cowboys with a beef of their own and they struck in response to it.

This novel is a beautifully paced, tightly constructed page-turner that manages to treat deeper afflictions in the American condition for those who want to see them, without boring those who just want a good western yarn.

Here's an exchange between the central protagonist, Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock and the Kansas City corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk, who notes that:

"If I invest my entire fortune in a bad venture and lose it, nobody guarantees to take care of me the rest of my life. When a man gets on one of those bad horses he knows the risks: he implies his willingness to accept that risk when he agrees to the job."

[Hitch] "He accepts the job because he's partial to eatin'.'
"The same reason I take a risk and invest capital."
"There a difference between a man's limbs and his money."

A political writer might take pages to explain this naturally occurring friction so skillfully dispatched in a few terse exchanges by Kelton.

What do the "big ranchers" want? New rules forbidding the use of a company horse for personal affairs or keeping one's own mount without management's consent; the expulsion of "tramps and idlers" from the cowboy camp's traditional protective care; and the outlawing of a ranch hand's, "owning cattle in their own brand less than two fences away from the ranch where they worked, which in the Panhandle's open range country effectively canceled out their right to own cattle anywhere."

Each of these, if you're not familiar with late 19th-Century western ranch life (and who is?), comes with a back story Kelton fills in easy as an Arkansas maiden in an Dodge City cathouse.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," treats the labor action with surprising sensitivity for a manuscript packaged as pulp fiction. Kelton had a deep comprehension of the strike psychology, of the ambiguity that plagues supporters and opponents alike.

He paints those too sure of themselves in a less flattering light than those with doubts. The pioneering, don't tread on me individuals opposing the strike are slaves to the American winner-take-all mentality and obsequious to those with more money simply because they have more money. They lack a dissident and skeptical spirit.

The strikers are scattershot in their efforts; too closely identified, and easily taken advantage of, by the cattle thieves and drifters littering the fast-closing frontier.

The author aptly develops the unspoken reasons behind labor actions that actually prop up the prosaic demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

And speaking of prosaic, Elmer Kelton has a fine ear for plain-spoken dialogue between down home folk while investing his narrator with an-all-too-familiar, but no less colorful klatch of colloquialisms that move his story along like bulls through a brier patch.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," alternately delivers on resolutions that leave a reader satisfied, without tying every loose end so that the story finishes in an uneven fashion that comes mighty close to looking like life beyond books.

To a God Unknown (Penguin Classics)
To a God Unknown (Penguin Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A highwayscribery Book Report, 18 Dec. 2010
Purple and brown, dusty wine shot through with wheat-colored sun.

John Steinbeck's, "To a God Unknown," is both love letter and a Dear John to his native Northern California countryside.

The author lingers often and long on the Salinas Valley landscape, now a land of milk 'n honey, moist, juicy, dashed with clover; now a dry and crusty graveyard frozen beneath a foreboding moon. These pastoral passages can transport. Steinbeck looks at the same places and renders them differently with each new encounter.

The protagonist is grafted by his creator to the land, and Steinbeck is an avid guide, reading the topography and its changes like a mood-ring, drafting his American rustics to rise and fall depending.

Steinbeck's dialogue, at this point in his life, was not as strong. The exchanges between country people, makin' butter and castrating cows, seems like they're chatting from the couch about their inner swoonings. But you move along with a sense of the things that are agitating them.

As Golden State portraiture, we can see how past is prologue. After Burton, Joseph's holy-rolling brother, leaves the farm in disgust with the devil's presence, the protagonist tells his wife: "We'll try to get along without another hand. If the work gets too much for us, I'll hire another Mexican."

Oh brother.

It is a dark and brooding book, mostly tragedy with redemption only in death. Steinbeck's characters shrink before the enormity of nature. Christians new to the heathen west are bent on exploiting and controlling the wilds. Others are more ready to make love with them.

Earthy stuff.

There are many ways to read "To A God Unknown," and with some work, you might find your own.

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