Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

The Crowded Hour:  Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

by Clay Risen

Scribner

book review by Christopher Klim

“Strictly speaking there is no single San Juan Hill.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, before America entered Europe to join the WWI campaign, the US was an isolationist country healing from the great war of the previous generation when its north and south did all but completely tear the union asunder. It had pushed to the California coast, claiming the nomadic plains from Native American tribes as well as Mexico’s Spanish legacy. The scars of battle were fading, but the mythology of the Wild West was taking hold. Both a romanticism and dread of the past competed in the American psyche, as it headed into a bold and fearsome future.

Meanwhile, the long reach of Spain, one of the last European empires, loosened if not entirely retracted. It’s holdings across the globe were no longer strictly under its control, and where Spain could, it kept the people in line through colonial brutality at the tip of a bayonet. Cuban was one such place, blown-up and divided via a series of indigenous revolts spread over more than one hundred years. For Cuba, independence was at stake. For Spain, the loss of its final new world foothold, including significant financial benefits, hung in the balance. Eventually, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, which may have been a military accident and not Spanish aggression, mobilized the US to Cuba’s side, thus beginning America’s longstanding policy of global intervention for freedom.

There exists periods in history when a man is born for the times. Theodore Roosevelt was one such man. Revered by many for his frontier exploits and often reviled by those in higher offices, Teddy Roosevelt had the capacity to charm, repel, lead, and recoil men. While benefiting from a privileged upbringing, stoic might be a primary word to describe him, but he wasn’t a quiet man. He lauded the selfless deeds of others, while booming his dissatisfaction with the military’s general lack of preparedness. As an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, he pushed for an increase in naval forces. While many in power lingered in the terrible memories of the Civil War, Roosevelt asserted that weakness in fact attracted outside aggression. After the Maine and against recommendation, he resigned his post to assemble a special force for the looming engagement with Spain.

This is the evolution of Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, a throwback cavalry ranging from greenhorns to seasoned adventurers, war veterans, and frelance cowboys who volunteered on horseback to avenge the Maine. In fact, they were the country’s first volunteer cavalry. Every bit of the American spirit and experience seemed to assemble outside San Antonio, and at first blush, Roosevelt wondered if they’d ever get this regiment of around one thousand men into working order. They were lean and rugged, and many barely operated with a sense of discipline. Order had to be maintained, even while rules were bent to accommodate those who’d spent a lifetime demonstrating the essence of liberty and independence on the frontier.

While the entire campaign is outlined in this book, the turning point, as well as one of Roosevelt’s personal high water marks, is superbly detailed during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In breadth, length, and barbarity, the battle fails in measure against any involving US troops before or after, yet it remains iconic in American history. Perhaps this was because the troops themselves were somewhat iconic even before they set sail from the Florida coast. For months, Roosevelt feared that the conflict might conclude before they reached Cuba, and although his troops eventually did land and see action, when the famous moment arrived along a rise known as Kettle Hill, he rushed forward with his charge almost out of a sense of overall frustration as much as his concern to protect his men. For the most part, the battle was paced and labored, gathering many casualties, not the storming uphill gallop depicted in art and lore.

In The Crowded Hour, eponymously named from Roosevelt’s battle description at San Juan Hill, journalist and author Clay Risen narrates a pivotal moment when the US rejoined in the aftermath of the Civil War and western expansionism and turned outward to launch its mandate of spreading democracy around the world, or at least pause the succession of imperial, dictatorial, or socialist growth.  As is always the case, motivations are never pure, and Risen does well to identify both the genesis of our actions and the naivety of the times.  He also dedicates significant pages to establishing the assembly of the troops and the attitudes surrounding them and those of their peers and countrymen. In many ways, these noncombat aspects are more important than following a roughly two-month “war” in the Caribbean. In the end, a maturing country had finally chased the last vestiges of the old world from the new world, while beginning a global policy that exists until this day.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Howard Stern Comes Again

Howard Stern Comes Again

by Howard Stern
Simon & Schuster

book review by Christopher Klim

“I thought, What if I could listen to my guests the way my therapist listens to me?”

Over the decades, media personality Howard Stern has evolved into one of the finest live interviewers. He has reined in his legendary narcissism—actually employing it as a tool—to disarm his subjects and reveal the perplexing conundrum of humanity that is common to us all. From rising stars to established veterans, from the average Joe experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame to the ruthless and infamous plying their trades, many have found their way onto Stern’s interview couch. Some of the best of these can be found in this compendium, which includes commentary and annotations from the author.

Stern begins by essentially interviewing himself regarding the construction of the book and the Stern-esque intimate details of his cancer scare. From there it launches into transcripts of favorite interviews, including Stern’s thoughts regarding his subject as well as post-interview reflections. Word is out. When you sit on Stern’s couch, it’s going to be deeply personal, exposing both the subject and his/her creative or working process. Many resist, but most allow Stern to push in a door or throw open a window in places. At worst, a Stern interview is entertaining. At best, it’s stunning and memorable.

You’re not going to find a Stern-like interview on late night television and other outlets. Others serve up mere advertising pitches for whatever the subject is pushing at the moment. Perhaps you’ll encounter a single laugh or insight, but typically you won’t with the myriad talking heads on almost as many channels. A Stern interview is a different animal. He comes across as loose and playful, but he is profoundly serious in his approach. He jokes. He probes. He uncoils enough rope for his subject to tie himself into a corner. Stern isn’t satisfied until he’s unearthed nuggets of gold.

If you’re an avid listener, you’re not going to discover much new material, although Stern’s commentary is insightful with the occasional anecdote. It also doesn’t include any of the spontaneous interviews, such as Charlie Sheen calling in during his ignominious 2011 meltdown, which was like witnessing a live detox session. Instead what you get is a beautiful near-coffee table book full of famous people going on the record in ways they’d never imagined when they entered the room, even though they probably expected something akin to that. Stern’s office hours are open and his couch is waiting. Come inside.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency

by Akiko Busch
Penguin Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Exposure is an inevitable by-product of the connectivity so many people today find vital.”

The conundrum of being unseen in a world that lauds and demands visibility is explored in Busch’s thoughtful series of essays. It’s too simplistic to say that some people and things are overexposed, while others create an enigma. An inclusive or disruptive formula arises in all appearances. Through her poignant writing, Busch explores various ways people and things present themselves and achieve new interpretations.

The approaches here are more vast than you might imagine, covering the entire karmic spectrum of body, mind, and spirit, as well select nonhuman elements of the Earth. Busch effortlessly proceeds from her invisible friends of childhood and the concept of self-awareness and existence through the philosophical and psychological aspects of identity across cultures and landscapes. Identity is more than our self-perception. It relies on external factors, such as association, impact, and even where we place our feet on the planet. Ironically, the more we reveal ourselves to the world, the more we lose ourselves, increasing our invisibility in plain sight. For example, this reviewer is an author, at times in the bulls-eye of various public forums by necessity of trade. Most authors are well aware of the game afoot, cloaking themselves for privacy and security yet remaining in-part authentically exposed to the audience.

While there is a fundamental need to shelter our more valuable and vulnerable assets, there simultaneously exists a need to exploit them for advantage, which for some has reached a psychosis stage of “look at me.” Much of this is observed through digital media, although artists have been employing funhouse mirrors and other screening devices for years. For example, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan simply manufactured their histories and lived forward and still exist through the prism of a celebrated popular view. In a way, we all revise our childhoods wrought sometimes painfully through circumstance in order to thrive by a more self-described version of ourselves in the present. To various degrees, we dream of alternate futures, where we look, feel, and move differently. This commotion roils below the surface and hides within dreams, eclipsed from the naked eye. In effect, everyone’s true self is invisible, sometimes even to our own consciousness.

At times, Busch’s essays read like ruminations, more intent to span the colors of thought through numerous examples rather than land on a singular point. While this method inspires debate, a blurred image is the seed of invisibility: to resist understanding or at least skew perception if not outright manipulate it for effect. It’s all camouflage in the end. We want to be appreciated for who we truly are, yet we offer skins to the world that we think are better suited to preference, success, and survival. In the modern world of endless surveillance and staring, it might be increasingly harder to become unseen, even hold onto ourselves.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Catch, Release

by Adrianne Harun
Johns Hopkins Press

book review by Christopher Klim & the Eric Hoffer Book Award

“It didn’t occur to us then how we carry the terrors of civilization within us.”

With this wonderful collection, Harun has accomplished two rare feats. First, she’s taken the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize with a work of adult fiction for the first time in its history. Second, and no less important, she’s delivered a cohesive story collection, when so many today seem hurried and uneven. Instead, Harun appears to be a master of the form. She threads interior monologue, which in longer works can become an endless slog, to reveal superb insight—instead of, well, just too much information.

“It’s all about loss,” the narrator of the title story announces. Flashes of humor balance heartbreak as the author explores tragedy: A wife tries to find her dead husband in the memories of a manipulative crone while her teenage daughter plots to teach her mother that “death can’t be called back.” A mother mourns her embattled relationship with her murdered fourteen-year-old daughter. Young sisters perish of an inherited blood disease, as their brother endures in exacerbation. A middle-aged bachelor struggles with losing his sister and his childhood friend to marriage. Parents wallow in self-absorption, leaving their teenage sons to struggle with maturity on their own. A gifted young African man immigrates to a new reality as a tissue donor to a dying child in London. Each story creates unforgettable impressions and memorable lines in a microcosm illuminated by the beauty and complexity of human emotion.

Overall, this collection is as it should be—deft, deliberate, dashing, delicious, and direct—but again all too rare in the form today. Harun makes sense of both the small and large issues of life through turns of language that at times bring us into confidence and during others refuse entry. It’s a lot like a conversation with someone we badly want to know—plain truths and blind alleys of understanding that require close attention yet an openness to enjoy the moment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

by Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Their subsequent conversations, gathered in an interview for an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts.”

Why do legends exist? Perhaps to capture the boldness of a moment in time. Perhaps to whitewash its dirtier element. Or perhaps to underscore the human desire to become bigger than we are. Sometimes a person of unique caliber intersects with the right moment in time and the stories of their adventures take on a life of their own. They transform into an enduring legend.

Wild Bill Hickok is one such legend. Born at the dawn of the great American western expansion, his above average height and looks, as well as his cool demeanor and superior shooting skills, cut the image of a remarkable man. He was the first American gunfighter, or shootist as they were called. He could fire with either hand and punch lead through your heart before you raised your gun very far from its holster.

Spending time as a military scout on the frontier during the Civil War, he learned the ways of wagon trains, cattle drives, and Indians. He knew the front trails and back trails and even served time as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down criminals but mostly military deserters escaping miserable conditions. He loved various women—Calamity Jane being the most famous—and was loved by women, more than he’d know. And of course, he savored the occasional whiskey and a good card game for stakes. It’s the type of life that many a man tries to recapture even today, but the lawlessness and landscape are gone forever. Any man who tries appears like a cheap and cowardly criminal and is quickly extinguished. Hickok himself would be gunned down in the end, because that’s where the tracks run afoul for every man who lives by a pair of six-guns at his side.

Author and historian Clavin brings us through it all. He tells us that Hickok wasn’t exactly the legend we know today, although the famous gunslinger did little to deny the tall stories circulating in his name. Americans wanted to believe in the luster of the great move west. They needed to. The reality of traveling through and settling in the harsh landscape was much different, deadlier even. Still, the tales of Hickok ran close enough to the facts that the man and legend soon became difficult to separate, and in the end, even Hickok passed those stories as his own.

Clavin is not a flowery writer, but engages as storyteller who might keep you rapt around a campfire or across the bar with subtle, wry commentary. With on-point side excursions into western lives, he covers not only Hickok but those tangent to his biography. In doing so, he paints a wider image of perhaps the widest American landscape in history. Well done.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Milk Street: Tuesday Nights

by Christopher Kimball
Little, Brown and Company

book review by Christopher Klim

“…for those raised on classic American cookery, heavily influenced by the cuisines of northern Europe, this is a watershed moment.”

After never having published a cookbook before last year—surprising in its own right—Milk Street stuns us again within a second offering in a year. This time the Kimball gang in Boston focuses on flavorful, modern, and quick recipes for the working class. Except for the perhaps top 1%, we’re all working class, and we’re all hungry after work.

Cleverly organized by fast (45 minutes max), faster (30 minutes max), and fastest (twenty minutes or less), the cookbook is further bolstered by how we think about regular meals: salad plates, one pot meals, and of course dessert. Other sections offers “easy” additions, pizzas, and “roasts and simmer,” which breakdown larger dinner concepts into more approachable efforts.

Kimball hasn’t turned his back on European cooking. He’s taken a tactical approach to preserve the ingredients and recipes that satisfy the weekday requirement for speed and ease, and added a boatload of what was once considered foreign ingredients that probably or should occupy your cabinet. For example, Frittata and Carbonara hit the mark, while Lemon Grass-Coconut Tofu and Turkish Scrambled Eggs join the daily meal ranks. He’s dotting the globe for dinner, sometimes mentioning the person or place that inspired the dish. Who can wait to try the Benne Seed Cookies, featuring black and white sesame seeds and upscale sugar?

Kimball’s motto—there is no such thing as ethnic cooking, just a meal served somewhere else in the world—stands tall within these pages. The range of spices and ingredients span continents, but can be locally found and assembled without much trouble. Often the recipes feature a small handful of ingredients or even just one primary. The ease and simplicity of these meals almost demand that we expand our palates. And if someone doesn’t have great ingredients nearby—a notion to be seriously doubted—an internet connection leads to everything desirable.

To keep us out of the restaurants and takeout joints from Monday to Thursday, cooking during the week needs to be flavorful and simplified for time’s sake. This will depend on a home stocked with contemporary equipment and global spices, oils, etc. It doesn’t take much effort to accomplish this. Kimball’s previous cookbook will help get your kitchen in order, while this latest will satisfy your taste buds every day of the week.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review