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“Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas,” By Stephen Harrington

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on April 16, 2020

Having not lived in Texas for almost 20 years now (Has it really been that long?), though I still make frequent visits, I have been going through a period of nostalgia for my adopted state, with the result I have read three books about Texas in rather rapid succession: God Save Texas, by Lawrence Wright, Goodbye to a River, by John Graves and Big Wonderful Thing, by Stephen Harrigan. All three are excellent reads, but Harrigan’s book is a tour de force.

Harrigan acknowledges that when he was approached to write this book by the University of Texas Press, he was not at all sure he was the right man for the job, not being a professional historian.

It turns out that Harrigan is perfect1y suited to the job. He is an excellent historian, as is vividly obvious from the book. Also, he has a great deal of personal knowledge about Texas, having been writing magazine articles about it for Texas Monthly and other publications for years. He has interviewed many of the characters covered in the modern-day era of the book. Most important, Harrigan is native born and a Texan through and through, with a deep understanding of the culture.

(Is there such a thing as a professional historian? I know there is such a thing as a professor of history, but is history itself a profession? Napoleon called it “a lie agreed to.”

I wasn’t sure at first whether I wanted to read this book or not, but I was hooked in the opening chapter, about Big Tex, the gigantic automated cowboy greeter at the annual Texas State Fair in Dallas – by far the largest state fair in the country. I couldn’t put it down. (At 830 pages, it wasn’t easy to pick up either, but Harrigan’s writing style helps it along smoothly and enjoyably.)

Big Wonderful Thing is a very credible history of the state, spiked and spiced with an anthology of events, celebrities, villains, clowns, cultural icons and absurdities. (I’ll let you decide where George W. Bush belongs.) Its title is part of a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe’s description of Texas when she first moved to Canyon, Texas to teach art in 1916.

Though it is obvious the author is deeply and abidingly in love with Texas, he doesn’t shy away from its flaws. He addresses them straight on, including Texas’ greatest ones: rampant racism and extreme xenophobia. He evokes Faulkner, who loved and despised the South simultaneously. I’m like these guys, only without any of the writing talent. I love Texas, but I despise its racism, xenophobia and blood culture.

Harrington also has thoughts about the contradiction of two disparate Texas characteristics: valor and arrogance, though he acknowledges the obvious that valor is in decline and arrogance is ascendant.

The blood culture is understandable, though inexcusable. Texas has experienced turmoil, conflict, war and revolution throughout its history, between and among Spain, Mexico, American immigrants, America and Native American Indians, particularly the Comanches, up to and beyond the Civil War. (Texas fought on the side of the Confederacy enthusiastically and was enthusiastically punished for it after the war.)

One of the minor themes I enjoyed reading about was the shift in political dominance in Texas from Democrat to Republican. I saw the exact same thing happen in Oklahoma when I was attending the University of Oklahoma. (Every Oklahoman secretly wants to be a Texan and thinks he or she basically is, except for the second Saturday in October when Oklahoma plays Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.)

The funny thing about this change of party is that there wasn’t really any change at all. Both states are pathologically conservative, so, when Democrats became Republicans, their politics remained the same.

(This conservatism may be changing in Texas. Some think the state is turning purple, trending to blue. You can’t have three major cities without absorbing some cosmopolitanism. A major influx of Hispanics has had an influence also, which state politicians seem to be resisting like at the Alamo.)

Like the rest of America, Texas is a land of immigrants. It has been fought over by continuous streams of immigrants of various sorts, nationalities and motivations, fighting to hold and to live on it. (Think Six Flags Over Texas.) But, regarding immigration, Molly Ivins’ observation applies presciently that “Texas is just like the rest of the country, only more so.”

Harrigan sums it up thusly: “People viewing Texas from the outside have always recognized that there is something different about it, not just in its expanse but in its attitude, also, in its annoying, ineradicable mythic presumption. But it’s hard to live here and not feel a little of that presumption stirring inside you…there is … a hard-earned conviction that the word “Texan” belongs to you as righteously as it does to anyone else.” I certainly feel that way.

A colleague of mine used to tell this joke about himself. He was recruited to our advertising agency in Dallas from one in Chicago. For the first six months he lived in Texas, he looked down on it. Within 12 months, he had bought a pick-up truck, and within 18 months, he had a shotgun hanging on a rack in the back seat of the pick-up. That’s what Texas does to you.

Preacher

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly, Uncategorized by EloiSVM42 on August 31, 2019

For my money, the most interesting show on television these days is Preacher, which is in its final season, because of its absolute weirdness. It is AMC content (Seth Rogen is one of the producers). Start with the pilot. It’s a good yarn how the three protagonists get together and their characters are established.

Like almost all content today it seems, this show is based on a comic book (there is no such thing as a graphic novel; it is a contradiction in terms), but this one is on top of the character weirdness heap, even by comic book standards, yet improbably more realistic, within the bounds of our Judeo Christian heritage. No improbable spider bites or secret formulas gone horribly wrong.

Zombies are a glut on the market and werewolves have no dialogue, so they’re useless. Vampires endure, so Preacher has one, even a coven (?) of them in season three, briefly.

Preacher, as you might expect, has God; but also competing gods; God wannabes; SAG scale God actors; a dog who may be god; a direct descendent of Jesus Christ, a potential Messiah, who, spoiler alert: is a bit of a disappointment to the established church; a god corporation; and the actual Jesus Christ.

We have angels of different stripes and allegiances. We have the Devil and some of his various and sundry minions, including his enforcer, who is not to be trifled with.

There is a contraband market in souls, which evoke loose nukes.

Action takes place in the present and occasionally the past, on Earth and in Hell (Hitler is there, and a young, unfortunate man who doesn’t belong there, which complicates order in the universe), as well as rural Texas, New Orleans, a Deep South plantation, and the Australian outback (apparently the lead actor is from there.) I’ll leave you to decide which is the most hellish.

The protagonist is Jesse, the preacher himself, who can speak with the voice of God, which comes in handy in many, but not all, situations.

Through it all, is a true love story, which at the bottom line is required to hold my attention in any television show or movie.

Check it out.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly, Uncategorized by EloiSVM42 on August 29, 2019

OI watched and recommend this latest Quentin Tarantino movie. It is basically a nuanced buddy movie starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, with allusions to the Sharon Tate murder spree by Charles Manson’s murderous, mindless minions.

Tarantino takes liberties with the Tate story. Spoiler alert: It ends differently than in real life, but who among us does not wish it had ended differently?

I read a good review of this movie by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, which had two ludicrous observations at the end about something that happens in the movie, and the audience reaction to it that freaked him out. The first was the “sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women.” What the hell is he talking about? The women in question were homicidal maniacs. They deserved everything that happened to them, and more.

“The other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.” Of course they did. Everybody wishes the events on Cielo Drive on August 9, 1969 had ended differently.

The Islamic Enlightenment

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly, Uncategorized by EloiSVM42 on November 21, 2018

Christopher de Bellaigue, author of The Islamic Enlightenment, begins his book by proclaiming it has a startling and controversial thesis, namely that all through Islamic history there were reformers trying to bring the religion and the territory, for they are one and the same, into modernity.

To this startling and controversial thesis, I say Duh. It’s not the least startling. I am perfectly willing to accept it. There are always some people, however small a minority, who are trying to move forward from ignorance toward the light. There’s nothing controversial about that idea at all.

It doesn’t help de Bellaigue’s thesis that at the end of the book, he is compelled to admit that all the reformers failed. In fact, it begs the question why “enlightenment” is even in the title.

This does not mean, however, the book is not worth reading. There is a great deal of interesting and well written history of the Middle East in it. I read it for that reason, gained more knowledge and insight about the subject, and found it well worth the effort.

“God Save Texas,” by Lawrence Wright

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on November 1, 2018

The complete title of this book is: God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. It is equal parts political commentary, travelogue and memoir, but the primary theme is the iniquity and the willfully squandered opportunities that make Texas what it is today.

Lawrence Wright is a particular kind of Texan, my favorite kind. He is steeped in Texas but thinks and feels more broadly (Wright writes today for The New Yorker). There are many such Texans, just not quite enough quite yet.

This book mirrors What’s the Matter with Kansas, by Thomas Frank, in a way. Both describe a hidebound political environment. They differ in that what the matter is with Kansas is ignorance and stupidity. What the matter is with Texas is ignorance and meanness.

Texas’ politics are a bigger influence on the nation than Kansas’ because Texas is, well, bigger. Texas is in a terrible place politically, and it is warping national politics with its influence. Texas is gaining population rapidly and with it more legislative representation. As Wright observes, Texas is “moving further rightward and dragging the country with it.”

But Texas’ population growth can be a good thing. I’d like to think that its politics will change with this growth, particularly among minorities and in-migration from more liberal states. I’m hopeful about this, because I need to be. We shall see.

An aside: Texans are already more enlightened and liberal than their government. We can blame rural/urban legislative imbalance and Gerrymandering for this. Gerrymandering is the most insidious form of voter suppression, because you can vote, and think your vote counts, but it doesn’t because of where it has been recorded. With other forms of voter suppression, you know you are being cheated.

I like Frank’s writings, but Wright is the better writer. (That was an odd sentence.) I enjoyed the writing in this book enormously. On the other hand, I think Frank looks at the political problems of his state, equally as odious, more squarely in the eye. Wright is sentimental toward his home state in a way Frank is not toward his erstwhile one.

Having lived more than half of my adult life in Texas, I agree with the subjects Wright has selected to explain Texas, among them: oil, Dallas, Houston (the city and the man), Austin (the city and the man), Big Bend Country, birds, Molly Ivins and Willy Nelson. They resonate with me also.

I think Wright characterizes Sam Houston correctly, but shortchanges Stephen F. Austin. He criticizes Austin for bringing slaves to his colony, and so slavery to Texas, which cannot be denied. However, were it not for Austin’s enterprise, bravery and diplomacy, there wouldn’t be a Texas, only a larger Mexico. Austin set the table for Texas. He is its most important founding father.

Thinking of Robert Browning

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 18, 2018

When I was young, and first read Robert Browning’s lines, “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be,” I assumed it was a love poem to his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Spoiler alert: the poem is more complicated than that.)

Since Browning and Barrett were known to have a true love – they married secretly in 1844 against her father’s wishes, she was disinherited, and they left England to live in Florence – I took his supposed thesis on good authority.

As Cynthia and I were together into our 60s and me into my 70s, I interpreted the prescience of these lines clearly and personally.

What that couplet doesn’t convey, however, about graying, loving couples, is that for one of the parties, the worst is yet to be also.

At some point, one will die before the other, and the remaining lover will be left alone to grieve over the loss of a love that was growing deeper and richer with the years. It follows that the greater the love, the greater the grief.

It turns out that Browning wrote the poem on a more metaphysical theme and about the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167). It was published in 1864, not to Elizabeth, but three years after her death in 1861.

Robert and Elizabeth did not really grow old together. They were married 17 years when she died at 55, a little less time than Cynthia and I were together permanently. Browning lived another 28 years without her, until his death in 1889.

Still, I think that, though Browning’s poem may have dealt ostensibly with theistic paradox, his heart and mind were wistfully on Elizabeth when he wrote that first couplet.  His last 28 years had, I suspect, a mournful undercurrent.

 

 

John Wayne Movies

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on August 26, 2018

I’ve been thinking about John Wayne movies. Well, actually I’ve been thinking about Cynthia, which led to thinking about John Wayne Movies. Cynthia didn’t care for them. She thought he wasn’t a particularly good actor and that his movies were dated and politically incorrect. And, she was no big fan of westerns. She was right about all this, of course, up to a point.

Probably alone among John Wayne fans, my favorite of his movies is Donovan’s Reef. I love that movie. But talk about dated and politically incorrect. It is so much so that in the ending scene, Wayne puts his love interest over his knee and spanks her. And, of course, there is the obligatory, improbable, barroom brawl scene.

On the other hand, the movie makes a subtle but clear anti-racism statement, and takes a hard poke at Puritanism.

Plus, it has some interesting supporting cast members, including Lee Marvin, Dorothy Lamour, Cesar Romero, Jack Warden, Edgar Buchanan, some, but not all, playing against type. Patrick Wayne has a small, uncredited role as an Australian naval officer, butchering an Aussie accent.

Finally, the movie was shot in Kauai, Hawai’i, so the scenery is beautiful.  What’s not to like about that?

Another of my favorite Wayne movies is McClintock, an admittedly pedestrian western with a truly over-the-top brawl in a mud hole. Cynthia hated this movie and couldn’t understand why I liked it. Well, for one thing, Maureen O’Hara was in it, and Chill Wills. Plus, the movie takes a hard view of the mistreatment of American Indians, particularly on the part of government officials who were supposed to look after them. In those days, Indian Affairs officials were a loathsome, incompetent and corrupt lot.

The Quite Man is, without question, a truly, flat out great movie (also with Maureen O’Hara). And I liked Rooster Cogburn (but, boy, Glenn Campbell was a terrible actor). The rest of the John Wayne movies, including the acclaimed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, are to me take ‘em or leave ‘em, and I wouldn’t argue with Cynthia about them.

Book Review – The Stephanie Plum Novels

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 22, 2018

I’m about to lay a harsh criticism on the Stephanie Plum mysteries, written by Janet Evanovich, but they are not that bad if you like this sort of thing, so I feel obliged to tell you some good things about them first.

The Stephanie Plum Novels are a typical mystery series, with a protagonist – in this case Stephanie, of course – some continuing characters, a mystery plot or two running simultaneously and sometimes intersecting, some romance and a dollop of sex (there can’t be lot of sex like you find in series with male protagonists like, say, the James Bond novels, or Stephanie would come off as a slut, which she is not). She has a shtick. And, of course, she always gets her man….eventually.

That this is a series is unmistakable, because the titles each include a number in sequence: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to get Deadly, and so on. And, these books, like all such series, can be numbingly repetitive. The background and shtick has to be explained over again in each installment, because the author never knows which book the reader will pick up first.

Stephanie’s shtick is that she is a bond enforcement agent (bounty hunter), and an accidental one at that. She was an undergarment buyer at a small department store until being laid off. She wheedled a job with her cousin Vinnie, who runs a bonding company.

In other words, Stephanie is a rookie, green as grass. She wouldn’t have lasted long, or perhaps even survived, if it weren’t for two friends and mentors – a police detective to whom she lost her virginity at 18 and loves off and on again, and an alpha-male bounty hunter super star named Ranger, who is her mentor, temptation and occasional indiscretion.

Stephanie lacks some of the killer instincts useful in the bounty hunter trade. She doesn’t like guns – she keeps hers in her cookie jar except on rare occasions, and generally away from her bullets, when she remembers to buy some. Her other useful bounty hunter gear – stun gun, pepper spray, handcuffs – is jumbled up in her purse, not easily accessible when needed, and she doesn’t prepare ahead well for her take-downs.

Evanovich describes Plum as being “incredibly average, and yet heroic, if necessary.” I would inject only if mortally necessary, which it can take her a long time to determine. But Stephanie has a good heart, and a natural ability to attract and accept a number of oddball characters, who over time form a group of friends, posse and support.

These books individually can be very entertaining. Hell, Evanovich has sold a ton of them. I think it is not offensive in this case to state the obvious that these are “women’s books.” Men who like this genre will enjoy them too, but most of the best, funniest and most insightful scenes occur between women, who will appreciate them more. There is a mall scene in the second book, which only women could initiate, and that is one of the funniest I have read in a long time.

Now, here’s the rub. Since Plum’s shtick is that of being a novice bounty hunter, she must make the same beginner mistakes in every sequential volume. After reading eleven volumes and counting, as I have done (don’t ask why), since she hasn’t learned anything, she now comes off as exasperatingly stupid.

How many times can she stand at the door of her FTA (failure to appear) target to take him in, and have him say, “Sure, give me a minute to get my jacket,” her to say, “OK,” and him run out the back door and get away, before she catches on?

How many times can she have her pepper spray or her stun gun in her purse or pocket when approaching an FTA, and not be able to get it out in time when he charges her?

Eleven volumes in, she should have her stun gun in hand, zap her targets the instant he or she opens the door, cuff them and drag them back to jail before they even cone to. She always gets her quarry, but often through just dumb beginner’s luck.

Stephanie Plum can’t learn, and that makes the series for me a frustrating read.

Reviewing the National Press Club Dinner and other Media Foibles

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 19, 2018

As I have written recently, I am very proud of the media these days. They are performing heroically in very difficult but important times. There is little about them of which to complain. Little, but not none.

After the National Press Club Dinner, the whole point of which is to celebrate freedom of speech and the press, many Press Club members were critical, again, of their invited guest comedian – Michelle Wolf – for telling jokes about them. I didn’t watch the dinner, but I went back and listened to Wolf’s roast. It was overall wicked funny stuff, and like all good comedy, contained a lot of truth.

Among the funniest bits to me was when, sensing her audience squirming, Wolf said, “You should have done a lot more research before you got me to do this.”

I am off-put by the hypocrisy of press members complaining about a comedian’s language. With a nod to President Donald Trump, you knew she was a viper tongued wit when you invited her.

I am particularly disappointed in Andrea Mitchell, a generally credible journalist, for saying Wolf owes Sara Huckabee Sanders an apology for what Wolf said about her. Perhaps Mitchell said that because she is afraid Sanders will stop leaking to her. Nobody owes Sanders an apology. Sanders stands into front of the press every day and lies to them through her teeth. And, she is rude, arrogant and condescending doing it. She is of a piece with her administration.

By the way, I have watched a few of those press briefings and the press’ questions are often as lame as the answers are offensive lies.

I think the press club would be better off doing without a professional comedian speaker. Keep the dinner serious and on point. The fact is, the press doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, and can’t seem to take a joke, even a good one, about themselves. Reminds me of Trump.

And then there is the overwrought coverage of North Korea. The press vacillates between overhyping a possible peace agreement between the U. S. and North Korea and a war between the U.S. and North Korea, like it’s a either or game, when, in fact, neither is going to happen, least of all a war, because it is the last thing either side wants (with the exception of John Bolton).

Kim wouldn’t dare start a war with us, because he knows he would be obliterated. Trump won’t start a war with North Korea, because if his staff or Congress won’t stop him, China will. Trump started this circus himself with his bluster, and he’s riding now in part because the press let him, and now we’re off on this insane farce of a nuclear agreement negotiation.
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“Shithole”

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on February 10, 2018

I’m pretty proud of the Fourth Estate these days. The media is taking its responsibility seriously. The newspaper war between the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for scoops about the Trump administration is absolutely thrilling. It’s amazing how many reporters each paper has put on the beat, and it is paying off with great stories and increased circulation, which translates directly to advertising revenues.

That said, the media’s treatment of one story went off the rails in a way that, except for being serious, was rather funny. When President Trump displayed his racism and xenophobia by referring to Haiti, and African countries broadly as “shithole countries,” the media stumbled all over itself about how to handle Trump’s comment. Shit is one of the seven words you are not supposed to say on television.

Some wrote “S***hole” or said “S-hole.” Others just wrote or said it was a “vulgar term,” or “something that can’t be said on the air.” One news network said “Shithole” but then backtracked to “S-hole.”

Chaos doubled when one of Trump’s defenders said Trump didn’t say the word at all (he did), and redoubled when some moron defender said he said “Shithouse” instead, giving us the dictionary example of a distinction without a difference. (Samantha Bee, of course, said Shithole right off the bat, which for her is mild anyway.) Eventually, most media outlets worked up the courage to quote what Trump said directly.

With a nod to Bill Maher, New Rule: when a word is used in a quote, use the quote. Don’t try to soften it. That’s not only too politically correct, but it distorts the intended emphasis and sounds silly. This is especially true for the President, whose words, for better or worse, speak officially for the government.

For example, the word “nigger” is one I would never use…unless I was doing a public reading of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In that context, it is a quote. It is his word; Twain chose it deliberately, in this case to strengthen his pointed opposition to slavery. (“The difference between a word and just the right word, is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug”.” – Mark Twain) I cringe or scoff every time I hear or read “the ‘N’ word.” It’s so, so precious and pusillanimous.