Monthly Archives: October 2015

“Crow Hollow” by Michael Wallace

I don’t know how this book got onto my Kindle. Well, technology just gets the better of me now and then! Fortunately, Crow Hollow was a good read.

Crow Hollow is set in colonial Massachusetts, which sounds like a dismal place, although the food was better and more plentiful than that available in England then.

Several historical shifts are in play. The King of England wants to reassert his control over Boston, Connecticut and Rhode Island. And the previously congenial (or at least tolerant) relationships between colonists and the indigenous population are strained by (guerilla) warfare, misunderstandings and greed.

The protagonists are an agent of the King and a young widow who survived months of captivity with the local Abenacki tribe. She believes that her daughter is still alive, adopted by an Indian woman.

This novel is fast paced and includes adventure and romance. Good beach reading!

There is food for reflection in the descriptions of the “praying Indians” and their long period of peaceful coexistence with the colonial settlers, who would probably not have survived without the their help. I can’t help but wonder, what if? What if colonial and indigenous people had continued to live comfortably in their parallel communities? What if the indigenous people had not be driven from New England? I don’t know the answers, but there’s a good deal more history available than was hinted at in my high school American History class.

“The Shepard’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape” by James Rebanks

This autobiographical book is magical! Rebanks was born into a sheep farming family in England’s Lake District. Farmers and their livestock (mostly sheep) are tied to their land by intense historical and cultural bonds. The sheep are raised on land too steep and rough for other agriculture (and possibly for other human use). Most of the sheep fend for themselves several months of the year, taking advantage of summer pastures held as “common” land, now generally owned by the British National Trust. Sheep are raised for meat, though much of their economics is determined by their breeding value. I was surprised to learn that wool no longer has much market value. The sheep must be shorn for their own health, but sometimes the wool is discarded, not being worth transport to market. I wonder if wool may regain its value in the future.

Rebanks builds his narrative around the seasons. Winter in the Lake District sounds brutal. It would be hard even if one wasn’t keeping livestock out of doors.

The Shepard’s Life was not written as a critique of the English educational system, but it can and should be read as such. Local teachers, no doubt with good intentions, told farm kids they should “think big”, consider careers off the farm and out in the “wider” world. The cumulative impact of these statements was to devalue the lives and business enterprises of the farm families.

Of his school’s headmistress, he says “The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her”.

Children became alienated from school by the time they reached their early teens, and they “acted out” with rudeness and delinquency. Rebanks stopped attending school before the age of 16. He was completely determined to follow in the footsteps of his beloved grandfather, who taught him “sheparding”, a way of life on the land handed down through generations and generations of farmers.

Rebanks’ father was “semiliterate” and scornful of education, but his mother wanted him to finish school. She valued reading. Once out of school, Rebanks became an avid reader. Eventually he attended night classes to prepare for university. His interview with Oxford included a heated argument with a tutor. Most of the time that he was enrolled, he returned home regularly to work on the farm.

Sheep farming in the Lake District provides only a subsistence income. Like many farmers, Rebanks has worked at other jobs in order to keep farming. He serves as a consultant to UNESCO on ecotourism. He jumped into the social media scene with a Twitter account in 2012. It was a surprise runaway hit, leading to an article in The Atlantic magazine and then to the book. Does this mean I should join Twitter?? (No… too little time!)

The lifestyle occupied by the Lake District sheep farmers occupies an interesting “niche”. It’s not “indigenous”, like that of the Inuit and other far northern people. It’s a little less secluded than the Amish. It carries all kinds of cultural implications, but doesn’t involve bilingualism.

In using a freely available biological resource, there is some resemblance between Rebanks’ sheparding and the cattle raising described in Bryce Andrews Badluck Way. (See my blog entry dated April 17, 2014.) But the cattle ranching in the American West lacked any cultural context. It was a desperate attempt to wring a profit from a dry, harsh landscape. No wonder Andrews only worked on the ranch for a single year. Nonetheless, each of these farmers has a complex relationship to a landscape and its ecosystems. I would love to hear a conversation between the two of them!

Read this book, brush up on William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, and if you get to England, put the Lake District onto your itinerary.

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Last Words” by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra)

Published in 2009, 294 pages.

Another book brought to me by my son! Thanks for continuing to broaden my horizons! If you bring it, I will read…

I wish this book had been published with its working title (discussed in the introduction) of “sortabiography”. I like that. Last Words sounds Biblical, and not very Carlin-esque.

I like the early chapters of this book the best, when Carlin describes his childhood, with emphasis on his friends and neighbors. After all, I also come of Irish stock, though my family didn’t pass through New York City and wasn’t Catholic. (I envy the former, but not the later.)

George Carlin was a rebel from his earliest days. His mother had the strength and good sense to leave an abusive marriage, but his older brother had already suffered terribly and his mother’s efforts to get cooperation and conformity from George were completely unavailing. At age 17, with his mother’s consent, he entered the Air Force. He was discharged on vague grounds after two courts martial and other infractions. I’ve heard the expression “not suitable for regimentation”. Sounds like George.

There follow many chapters about Carlin’s family life and his evolution as a performer. I feel that his writing in this book suffered from lack of editing. Once you get famous, you don’t get edited. (I first heard this from a Pulitzer prize winning poet.) NOBODY was really going to edit George Carlin. His co-author Tony Hendra (listed on the cover in itty-bitty print) is a better writer than Carlin, at least based on Last Words. (I haven’t read Brain Droppings and Carlin’s other best selling books.)

What Carlin and Hendra have in common is the satiric outlook on life. In Carlin’s case, this can get pretty dark. At one point, he contemplated an HBO special to be entitled “I Love it When Lots of People Die”. This was changed due to bad timing – September 11, 2001, came and went, and even Carlin knew it wasn’t funny any more. But you know, in a weird way, I get it. I have a close friend who roots for every hurricane that comes up the Atlantic coast. It’s not that he really wants people to die, but sometimes he really wants the storm to win. Many of us root for the forces of chaos on occasion.

I have a particular fondness for Tony Hendra because of how much I enjoyed his book Father Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul (2004). See my blog entry of January 21, 2014. A “sortabiography” of great wit and charm.

At the end of Last Words, Carlin circles back to consideration of his childhood and discusses his desire to write a musical about it, which he proposes to call “New York Boy”. A good idea, and I wish it had happened. I wonder if he was thinking of the book Boston Boy by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff was a jazz critic, scholar and political commentator, a decade older than Carlin, and still writing at age 90. “Boston Boy” could be the backbone of an excellent musical, but I can’t find evidence that anyone is working on it.

Carlin says that he identified more with the rebel musicians of the 1960s (and earlier) than with his comedy peers. He probably knew and admired Hentoff.

So… If you are a Carlin fan, a student of contemporary America or a comedy lover, read this book!

“A Carlin Home Companion – Growing Up With George” by Kelly Carlin

Published by St. Martin’s Press, September, 2015. 322 pages, with photos.

One of my favorite book categories is “books recommended by my son”!  And this was not an ordinary recommendation. Robert told me about Kelly Carlin’s book weeks before the publication date, which he marked on his calendar. When it came out, he went straight to the book store and bought it. He read it at light speed and handed it along to me. A high priority read!

This is a wonderful memoir! It reminds me of why I like non-fiction better than fiction. If you made this stuff up, it wouldn’t work. Kelly Carlin comes across as authentic, energetic and lively.

I’m amazed that George Carlin and his family survived the amount of drugs they did. His wife was an alcoholic who, after years of heavy drinking, went to rehab, got sober and stayed that way. George consumed marijuana and cocaine with abandon (and LSD on occasion), and the cocaine may have contributed to his heart attacks. Considering what happened to performers like John Belushi and Richard Pryor (not to mention the “27 Club” musicians), Carlin and his family dodged tragedy with intelligence and a good deal of luck.

So the first part of this book, about Kelly’s early childhood, is very sad. The cover photo is sad. Anyone who works in drug/alcohol abuse counseling knows the story – Kelly tried desperately to be the adult as her parents’ lives became increasingly chaotic. Amazingly, the adult Carlins managed to pull back from the brink.

Kelly Carlin writes engagingly about her struggles and adventures, including, in adulthood, her need for spiritual context and exploration. After her mother’s death in 1997, she says:

“Death was the scariest thing I knew, and I wanted to be able to learn to sit with it in a more conscious way. Zen and Buddhist practitioners had been facing death with great wit and aplomb for millennia. I was appalled at how mentally and emotionally checked-out I’d been with my mother during the five weeks between her (cancer) diagnosis and death. I wanted to do better when it came to my dad’s death. And I hoped to do better when it came to my own.”

This is a voice worth hearing.

In part due to her wealth and connections, Kelly Carlin was able to undertake graduate studies and professional training in Jungian psychology. Some of her happiest times were when she was a student.

What about George Carlin? (After all, who is this book about?!) I’m not a connoisseur of comedy, and Carlin didn’t particularly appeal to me, except for his “bit” about baseball versus football. But the man I met in the book was intelligent, loyal and intensely loving. The book made it much easier for me to understand the devotion of his colleagues and fans, and the emotion that surrounded his posthumous receipt of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, awarded by the JFK Center for the Performing Arts.

The Wikipedia entry on George Carlin lists his “subjects” (look it up!) and I think he had lots in common with Mark Twain. Not Twain’s novels, but consider his short story “The War Prayer”, which was withheld from publication until after Twain died. Carlin, too, was a harsh critic of American politics and policy.

Of course, as I approach retirement, I resonate completely with one of Carlin’s most popular routines, “A Place for My Stuff”!

This book should be read by anyone one interested in comedy as an art form, or in contemporary American life.

Thanks, Robert, for leading me to this book. I just found a copy of Last Words by George Carlin and Tony Hendra, and I’m already several chapters into it.