James Lee Burke

Cimarron Rose is the first book I’ve read by Louisiana native, James Lee Burke. Thoroughly enjoyed it, though the content was a bit raw and gruesome at times. I would not recommend the book to those who are invested in the culture of “trigger warnings.” For everyone else, go for it!

Like all writers worth their fame, Burke has strong characters driving the plot. And like all good writers of his genre (suspense/crime drama), that plot is very carefully crafted. But Burke’s signature element for me is style – a muscular prose style of the sort sometimes associated with Hemingway but adapted to the genre and the regional setting (small-town Texas and west Louisiana). It is a style paradoxically very sparse and very vivid. Tight sentences with words and images chosen with great efficiency. It reminds me a bit of the way Clint Eastwood created a richness of character in the spaghetti westerns with a few facial gestures and fewer words.

Her arms looked strong, her stomach flat under her breasts. Her black gunbelt was polished and glinted with tiny lights…

His skin had the unblemished smoothness of latex stretched over stone…

Outside the window I could see trees of lightning busting all over the sky.

This style of Burke’s colors all other elements – the sense of place, the characters’ psyches, the pace of the story and of life in the universe of the novel.

If I ever make it back to Burke’s hometown, New Iberia, Louisiana, the place itself might be a little more colored in by this brush with his personality via Cimarron Rose.

(Click for links)

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The Nation’s Apology for Carlson-Wee

The long-established progressive magazine, The Nation, recently created a stir by publishing an Anders Carlson-Wee poem about homelessness, and then apologizing for doing so on the grounds that the poem contained inappropriate language (i.e., language that might be offensive to those demographic groups among the homeless that Carlson-Wee tries to identify with in the poem).

As a long-time liberal, it is demoralizing to see what liberalism has become. God forbid that a poet should use language deemed inappropriate by the cultural police. God forbid that artists should ever creatively identify with people of backgrounds other than themselves. God forbid that any one of us should ever try to put ourselves in the shoes of other races or demographics. Guard those boundaries between races and other demographic groups! Where Bull Connor conservatives failed, today’s liberals may yet succeed!

The whole event is a nice, tight summary of where liberals went wrong and gave up the moral high ground on matters of race. Or, as my grandmother used to say (my brackets added), “When you drive the devil from the front door [Bull Connor], he comes in the back [identity politics].”

Links in

The Atlantic

The New York Times

The Nation 

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A Second Chance at Dancing

Review of A Second Chance at Dancing, Michael T. Tusa Jr.

From the first page of A Second Chance at Dancing, we get the sense that Michael, the first-person narrator, is about to open up an inner emotional landscape that’s been long hidden. Too old for “coming of age” and too young for a “mid-life crisis,” Michael nonetheless occupies one of those transitional moments where all values seem up for grabs as he comes to terms with the existentialist meaning of life (or lack thereof). While the existentialist musings give an intellectual scaffold to A Second Chance at Dancing, the emotional weight is also full and authentic. If you want a conventional plot with good guys and bad guys and a ticking clock, this might not be for you. If you want something that leaves you thinking and feeling more deeply about human characters and the human condition, this book does that very, very well.

second chance

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Strolling through Ulysses

Robert Gogan’s one-man show, “Strolling through Ulysses” (ongoing at The Stag’s Head pub and other venues, Dublin) is ideal for anyone from the James Joyce scholar to the intrepid reader who found the work impenetrable. The former will be engaged by how Gogan highlights certain layers – especially the potentially humorous ones – of that manifold work, and the latter will be delighted to find a perfectly accessible presentation of Ulysses as a piece of entertainment. Even those who have never tried the tome will have no trouble following the plot and pleasures of Gogan’s show.  Mainly, for those of us who read the novel with a mixture of admiration and frustration, Gogan brings back the good memories without triggering the bad.

Probably the lynchpin of the show is Gogan’s delivery style – the facial expressions, the rhythm and pace, the lingering on key phrases from the book (e.g., “scrotum-tightening sea”) that are pregnant with humor and with deeper meaning at the same time. Part of the story’s pace is driven by the erratic transitions (“ok, let’s get back to…”; “anyway…”). This is no oversight but a reminder that perfect continuity was never the point in Joyce’s writing. Gogan teases us into enjoying the associative flow without getting anxious about “losing the thread.” That, indeed, might be the best learned secret to enjoying Joyce’s longer works.

If any improvement could be made, Gogan could perhaps use props and dynamic movement to better distinguish the characters. One could picture a bit more color and prancing about. The second act is more polished in this regard, especially in the excellent segments on Gerty and Molly. Gogan’s epilogue of contemporary criticism fit well and could even be extended a bit for my taste. But as I press to think of how to pull out more potential, even that pressure is a sign of the show’s strength. As in Ulysses itself, part of the richness lies in the sense that there are always, no matter how many readings you give, more hidden opportunities to be dug out of the text.

 

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Sonnet from Year of the Butterfly

.                       Such a half-lit room as I now share
.                       with no one I once shared with you, your color gold,
.                       eyes of sand, a glass tips over, a smell of hair,
.                       drips, drops of honey, wine, a tale half-told.
.                       Twenty years since in the reckless world I went
.                       traveling their trains and fields of sweet rose bay
.                       and silver-lined cities, nor do I lament
.                       the years not spent in your soft sway.
.                       For those twenty years are as a glass to hold
.                       that spot of time, you upon the marble red
.                       of Keats’ urn, forever young, forever bold
.                       upon the kiss, not broken by life’s procrustean bed.
.                         I too struggle in the urn-imagined light
.                         for a moment, then a flash, a color, icy black.

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Sexual desire and cosmic consciousness

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
   increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of
life.
(
from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

Sexual desire seems so human to us. Sure, we know animals do it, and even plants, but their experience seems different, alien. So much emotion in the human drive. But if we call it a “drive,” we seem to risk reducing it to just an animal/vegetable thing devoid of higher meaning, devoid of love. But what if it works the other way? To recognize our sexual desire as an instance of the same force that drives the animal and vegetable kingdoms, does that not make the whole thing more meaningful and emotion-rich? Look at the way plants push toward their own physical fulfillment – all the little sprouts and turns and small daily efforts.

Photo credit: Bob Mulligan

The beauty and love we associate with our sexual desire is there already, moving forward the whole system all the time, entangling and driving through our own species as one turn in the much larger road. Our consciousness that seems so special is just a temporary human expression of the great consciousness that rolls through all things.

At least I think that’s what Whitman is getting at, with an assist below from Wordsworth.

. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(from William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)