Monday, August 15, 2016

Balls and Instincts: "Two Things Money Can't Buy and You Can't Teach"

by: Michael Drosdowich

Isn't the Internet a fascinating intelligence?



There are people I know whom I've never met, and books I've read that aren't in print. There are shouting matches that are silent, and voyages around the world taken via cell phone.

This book is one of these odd creatures: a self-published electronic book (or paperback, if you prefer), the author is an acquaintance I've never met face to face. Letting it be known than I'd edited a book or two, I was challenged to read this one, though it was too late to truly edit.

As I dug in, I immediately started making line edits in my mind: "Aint needs an apostrophe. He's changing tense from present to past and back to present - gotta fix that. The narrator is preposterously lucky and/or talented: he falls into a business-cum-romantic relationship with Hawaiian royalty? Impossible."

Somewhere along Chapter 4 (each chapter has a title, which I have to admit I enjoy - it's a carry-over from novels I read as a child, and I like the hint of what the chapter will contain), I stopped critiquing and found myself just riding along with the wave of the narrative.

Which is not to say that the book is all those hackneyed descriptives: "a page turner," "can't put it down," "was completely carried away in prose...."

No, it's more like it is Itself and Nothing Else, and after a while, you stop fighting for it to be another book written to a formula, and according to the rules of grammar and story arcs and character development, and you simply allow it to take over and lead you where it will: drugs, deals, thugs, who-is-the-good-guy?, graphic "love" scenes (ok, more like the S-word writ large), murders, mayhem, and mischief.

The biggest question I had is: it's written in the first person as if it's a memoir, but it's also hard to believe anyone would acknowledge the kinds of activities the main character engages in. My guess - though at some point I stopped caring whether it was "real" or "make believe" or somewhere in between - is the author knows whereof he speaks, but perhaps more as an observer than a participant.

But as noted, ultimately it isn't important. More interestingly, I found myself second guessing my line editing: perhaps this book, to be what it is, is written exactly as it should be: rough, wrong, direct, sometimes even deep. It's written in the voice of an original, and that's what makes it readable and fun. The narrator isn't going for poetry or the perfect word; rather it's the drive forward that carries the novel. "I got up and did this and went here and did that and ate this and met her..." all at a relentless pace that simply keeps you moving with it.

One of the things I dearly loved about Ira Levin's writing in "Rosemary's Baby" was the detail: what they ate, how something smelled or felt or looked, the ordinary details of the day-to-day life of the characters. It built suspense and made the unbelievable believable. If they weren't so ordinary, who'd believe witches in an apartment in New York City could be breeding the Child of the Devil?

So with this book, if I weren't getting the details of how an Hawaiian cook learns how to make proper Italian meatballs, how would I believe our hero just stumbles into dealing serious drugs simply because he won't back down from a fight? That is, the ordinary details lure you into the extraordinary story line without too much resistance.

And thus my final conclusion that the grammar and the plot line and the other details of "cleanup" on this book should simply be avoided here. Why would you rewrite a story written for a child by a child? It's exactly as it should be. In this book, we're being told a story of a way of life by someone living that life - or at least, the writer has adopted that voice successfully - and therein lies the enjoyment of his story. If it were perfectly punctuated and artfully written, it would be just another thriller. This book is something else.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

World's Fairs In a Southern Accent

by Bruce G. Harvey

I have to be honest and say that this book is not my usual (ahem) fare - which made it all the more interesting!

Essentially the thesis of the book is a relatively simple question, with a richly rewarding answer: what can we learn about the story of American cities as reflected in three of its earliest World's Fairs? The period covered is 1895-1902 - and right there, you have learned a lot!

Post Civil War America was booming. Post Civil War Southern America had something to prove - that it was competitive, that it was a place to do business, that it was modern and technologically advanced.

In truth, World's, and other large Fairs are all about just that: demonstrating what is new, exciting, different, advanced. I portrayed a character in an OHA Ghost Walk whose husband made a fortune because he attended a National Exhibition in Philadelphia where he learned about a little thing called a typewriter. That device, as my character says, changed the way business was done, and opened up careers in business for women.

Fairs have a long and fascinating story - though that is not the immediate subject of this delightfully well-researched book. Fairs have long been a place where people met, learned about new things, hired others, sold goods or bought them. What began as a way for people in a region to meet and market widened their boundaries and broadened their scopes. Now we have State Fairs as well as County Fairs, but for a period of time, the World's Fairs were the bronze ring of fairdom. In their heyday, they were a way to prove that your city was on the map. Between them, during this period, America, and the South, had a great interest in proving both.

Harvey's book explores this world by examining three southern cities that desperately needed the exposure and business boost a fair would bring - and the stamp each would put upon the ongoing culture of World's Fairs. It's a unique proposition: what can fairs tell us about our culture, and what do such fairs do to change or influence culture?

In the 1890s the South was, of course, laboring under the aftermath of the Civil War. There was much to labor under: destroyed property, demolished cities, the racial aftermath of slavery and emancipation, not to mention the relative backwardness, industrially, of the area - and a demoralized public.

To gain the prize of a World Exposition was an achievement; but the goal for Atlanta, Nashville, and Charleston was to not only put their cities on the map, but to put paid to the Northern, and even world ideas that the American South was poor, ignorant, impoverished, racist, and not a good place to do business.

I won't go into all the details - in truth, it would be impossible to know where to start! This is a book that will be like a gourmet meal for an historian (amateur or professional), but of interest to a more casual reader, as well. It is chock full of detail, facts, figures and most importantly, insights.

Harvey doesn't just list dates and facts - he draws the inferences and helps a non-scholarly reader see why these facts lead to this conclusion - the cause and effect, the significance of a community taking action, and the usefulness of the results.

To someone interested in World or US History, this book is sure to reward. But to someone more parochial - who would like to learn about the machinations of local business interests, and how they can be handled successfully (or not), this book also has a lot to give. Going even a step further - I would make it recommended reading for civic committees - it's that useful as a tool for understanding how publicity, image, and the cohesion (or disunity) of business interests can shape the fate of a community. Yes, that's all in this book for the reader to mine. This is a book you could enjoy on a long summer evening out on the patio - or verandah, as they'd say in the South.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

My Love Affair with Mystery Series

It was many years ago now.

A friend suggested I read - I think because I was a "cat person" -  a mystery series known as "The Cat Who" books.  Each book was entitled "The Cat Who..." (did something) and featured a cat with preternatural intelligence who would solve mysteries - typically murder - for his owner, a nouveau riche newspaper writer who, because of the requirements of his vast inheritance, has moved to a smallish city somewhere in what might be UP Michgan or might be Maine.

The books are delightful.

And I had discovered "cozy mysteries."

What is a cozy? Well, usually it involves a quirky individual in a smallish community who solves grizzly murder mysteries. Along the way, you'll be treated to meals eaten, community events attended, quirky friends, a quirky romance or two, and the inner workings of a quirky job or hobby or lifestyle: reporter (that one is popular), minister, coroner or doctor, teacher - you get the idea.

They're called "cozies," I suppose, in that they resemble that delightfully British invention, the "tea cozy." A tea cozy is a typically quilted wrapper that goes around a tea pot to keep the water warm while the tea steeps. So,in their way, cozies wrap you in a world, a place, a time, and people and the whole effect is - well, cozy. Not to mention a great many of them are based somewhere in Great Britain.

I read (and listened) my way through all of The Cat Who - to the point of sorrow when the original writer passed away and was replaced with a writer who simply didn't understand the style or the characters. This, of course, is an occupational hazard for series writers.

The Cat Who, should you be so inclined, is an American series that features Jim Qwilleran, a crime beat reporter from a big city who has a drinking problem. He inherits - through murder - two Siamese cats, Koko and YumYum. He then inherits - through regular old death - a not-so-small fortune, but, to collect on it, must move to a small city in the middle of somewhere indefinable, but utterly likable. There, he turns the mansion he inherits over to the town for a museum, and remodels an apple barn into his summer quarters, and lives in a townhouse in the winter. He makes friends, joins civic organizations, attends parties, visits the local diner, finds a girlfriend (or two), and solves an inordinate number of murders for such a small community.

But along the way, we are introduced to a variety of fun and lovable characters who become real for us, so that we look forward to each new meeting. And of course, there is the other necessary element for any cozy mystery: you must have many of the clues the main character does so you can start guessing whodunit as you read.

Having run out of The Cat Who I then discovered Hamish MacBeth.  Hamish lives in the Highlands, Scotland, in a wee town where everybody knows everybody's business, so everybody knows that Hamish is sweet on the daughter of the Laird, has a cat and a dog, and needs a wife, for Heaven's sake. There are a pair of oddball sisters, and the occasional visitor from elsewhere, but as Hamish is a handsome, if slightly unreliable, officer of the law, his many encounters with death and deception are to be expected.

The stories are full of Scottish lore and location, and are thoroughly fun. And there are lots them, so you will have a long, winding footpath of a read through this series.

The final series I'll mention - and there are too many to do justice to the many fine series there are - is another Highland series (if you detect a pattern here, you're a good sleuth - my mother, from whom I borrowed these,  has a thing for Scotland!) - the common thread being the author, A.D. Scott (of course!).  This series features another small town in the mid-fifties, and a female reporter for the town's little weekly. She is in an unhappy marriage when we first meet her, but has much in store for her as her life, and various dark deeds, unfold. I'm only on the second of a set of about eight that my mother let me have. And while cozies really deserve to be read in the winter when the sun sets early and there's a fire in the fireplace, there's nothing wrong with a Tiki torch and a lawn chair, either!

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Snapping of the American Mind

by David Kupelian

If you can tolerate strong political opinions, right or left, keep reading.

If you can't, and you're right of center, keep going. If you're left, stop now. You will find little, if anything, to like, much less agree with, in this book.

However, if you're willing to weigh and consider, you may want to give it a try - if for no other reason than to explore the "American Mind" that Kupelian refers to.

For after all, we each of us, considers ourselves to be the model of the American Mind. Nowhere is this so apparent than in what passes for discourse on social media. The screeching, screaming back-and-forth that passes for discussion on FaceBook and Twitter: "You're an idiot!" "So's your old lady!" "GFY!" and so on, in ever more angry invective, while under cover of anonymity.

However, if one is willing to explore a little, read and not immediately react, a great deal can be discovered by reading the strongly held opinions of those with whom we might naturally agree, or disagree - especially the latter.

Kupelian is an opinionated author. He is an old-school Liberal, modern Conservative, disagreed-with Jerko. In fact, though, he has some things to say.

Like many of his like-minded friends, Kupelian wonders where "his" country - his philosophical kinsmen - have gone. Believe it or not, it is a question worthy of the asking. After all, "America," as it came to be following the revolution against monarchic Great Britain, was not much more than an idea born of the Enlightenment: the astounding idea that we, as individual human beings, got our value and rights not as granted by a ruler or rulers, but from a higher power (a God, if you will, Nature's God if you prefer) that granted that we were all "born equal," and that nobody and no-one could take these rights from us unless we agree to cede them to a limited government - whose limits we described, not the other way around.

Hey, don't yell at me - it was not my idea, nor even Kupelians, but the men and women who decided that Medieval Divine Right of Kings was nonsense, and that we should rule ourselves, for good or ill.

In fact, America (for all that it may have been birthed as a consequence of conquest), was an experiment in whether people could, perhaps even should rule themselves - if they had that capability.

And that, is perhaps, the crux, of Kupelian's argument that the experiment is over, and has failed.

That people lack the skill, the will, and the (okay, I'm rhyming, but it makes sense) thrill garnered from calling their own shots, and sometimes, in fact, often, failing, to do a decent job of self-governing.

Kupelian suggests that we simply haven't hit the mark; we don't want to do the hard work; and we haven't come up with the "stuff" necessary to have our government obey us, but have settled down to agreeing to obeying the government, in return from the largesse it doles out, in what it considers to be fair helpings. And worse, perhaps we have been ruthlessly set up - drugged, lied to, hypnotized, over-fed and paid off - to fail.

Naturally, from neither the point of view of the Right nor the Left does Kupelian's exploration actually work. From the point of view of the Right those who put forth the effort have had their rewards taken from them; from the point of view of the Left the oligarchs still take far more than they're worth, and hand out pitiful shares to those who do the actual work. Both would agree with Kupelian, however, that neither side is making out very well in the deal - except for the very, very  few with an immense amount of power.

Kupelian errs, if err he does, on the side of the Right - though the reader ends up feeling more as though both sides have a valid point, and that the better solution would be closer to the original idea of individual effort and individual reward.

As with most books of its kind, this book won't convince you if you already have a contrary opinion, and will reward you if you are already on "his side." But he does an excellent job of quantifying the loss of that which we once considered "American," and considering what, exactly, will replace it. And what that will mean to you, and your children.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Journals and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian

A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion
1773 - 1774
Edited by: Hunter Dickenson Farish

History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.

These days, it seems that history is not just written but re-written as the demands of the times warrant.

I continue to be shocked how much "the story" changes from one generation to the next, depending upon who is in favor, and who is out, both in a scholarly sense and a political one. Take The Crusades, for example. What you "know" about them depends upon your politics, age, religion, and general outlook on life, rather than anything we know or don't about those times. And of course, because it is so far back in time, the story is even more hazy than something that occurred 10-30 years ago. Even then, my mom is fond of saying, "Wuz you there, Charlie?" I'm not exactly sure who originated the expression, but at least in my family it means, "I lived during that time, and you didn't, so don't presume to tell me something I know to be false."

It will be interesting to see what happens to "history" going forward, given the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras, video tape, and Internet publishing. (More about this subject of what is "real" in video will be dealt with in my computers and technology column for this month!)

I have a friend who studied (for reasons I will never quite understand) "old" Spanish, translating texts from a Medieval form of the language to modern English, and learning about the history of Spain from, as it were, those who "wuz there."

And in truth, for me, this is the only way to read history: from those who were writing about their own lives and times.

Granted, we all carry with us the prejudices and biases of our native country, language, social class, and other factors - and even though you may be reading something written at that time, it may still have a slant. But it's as close as we're likely to get to "what really happened."

In this case, the "story" is the diary of a young man who, upon completing is own education, accepts a position as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Virginia planter. The year is 1773-1774, just before the Colonies declared independence from England. And, in fact, one of the more interesting parts of the volume is that it contains little to nothing about the brewing anger and rebelliousness of the Colonials. What it does deal with in great detail is the young man's life, times, and fortunes. As he relates them, he reveals a great deal about the times. (And perhaps, the fact that the simmering rebellion is not mentioned is telling in an of itself.)

Young Philip Frithian is not exactly a fun sort of young man - and a good deal of that is explained by the fact that he is quite religious, and is only interrupting his study for the ministry with his brief sojourn as a tutor.

Philip has studied Latin (Lattin, occasionally) and Greek; he knows mathematics and rhetoric and music - all the things a well-brought-up young man of his era should, and, as he is studying for a life of prayer and preaching, he is in a position to impart some of his learning to his young pupils.

The young people in question are both boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 or 7 to the teens. They live in Virginia on a wealthy plantation, to which place Philip travels, noting his expenses (very specifically) and accommodations along the way.

Before leaving his hometown of Deerfield, Philip dithers about taking the position: it will delay his entry into the ministry; he will have to leave his "Laura," a young woman who has caught his fancy;  he is not certain he will like the less sophisticated life on a southern plantation; he is not certain he likes or wants to be engaged in tutoring young people at all.

Finally, he agrees to test the waters, and sets out on his adventure.

Travel at that time isn't for sissies. Time on the road is dirty, disagreeable, uncomfortable, and evidently, no cheap. (Money is still accounted for in the old English system of pounds, guineas, and pence, and Philip takes great pains to keep a record of how much and to whom he must pay: oats, bed, meal, drink, ferry boats, and so on.)

But the inducements of the job are significant: he isn't a man of great fortune or family, and like his female counterparts (well brought up but not wealthy) he finds he must do something to earn his keep (women typically became governesses if they needed to support themselves in a genteel manner). The position allows for a room and meals, a horse "kept," as well as pay - which, despite most of his physical needs being cared for, he must piece out to servants and tavern keepers, launderers and haberdashers.

What else do we learn from Philip's diaries?
 - Ill health was not uncommon, and people fretted over even a slight cold, as anything could lead to a mortal affliction;
- People kept hours not unlike ours - he "arises" at 6 or 7, and "to  bed" at 10-11;
- Meals were not like ours either in terms of when (breakfast might be a 9-10, even after arising at 6 or 6), and dinners were often late; or what: they seem to have been a bit larger than what we are accustomed to now - but then, people walked and rode (horses) great deal more than today, and even dressing was a chore;
- Entertainments were often supplied by the family itself for one another, and one of Philip's jobs is to help especially the young ladies with their musicianship;
- Letter writing was a common employment - and again, not as easy as it would be now if we still wrote letters, as pens had to be sharpened and in came in wells rather than disposable pens;
- Church going was along the lines of an entertainment, with Philip often remarking on the quality of the sermon, and the rather lack-luster sermons of the Southern preachers as compared to the hell-fire of the North;
- Young men could be intrigued by a pretty face, though ultimately a young lady's fortune and manners were the deciding factors when choosing a wife;
- Weather then, as now, took up a significant amount of people's interest and time.

There is a great deal more, though another thought that occurred to me while reading this work was how boring life must have been then as compared to now - we have so many things to distract us, while these people whiled away hours walking, in conversation, playing cards, and reading books.

As noted, Philip doesn't seem to be much taken up with the political scene, nor with the chance of a rebellion - even when he is in Virginia, where young George Washington had a plantation himself.

He comments on manners; behavior (one of his charges is a very spoiled and willful young man) and the necessity for chastisement of his young pupils; music; health and weather; clothing and appearance; Godliness; and to whom he dedicates his toasts (usually one of the better looking young ladies). He details visits to and from others in the area, both for an evening or for a week or more: having new company and conversation was very important in a life lacking in much in the way of diversion.

He also mentions the "Negro" slaves, a thing he disapproves of, being a Northerner, yet comes to accept as he finds they are not ill-treated in general, or at least, on this particular plantation. And he adjusts to the idea that a measure of a man's wealth is partly displayed by his servants and how well he treats them.

It is in these passing details that one discovers the history of a time - learning how something as heated as the subject of slavery was to become, and continues to this day to be, was tolerated and even somewhat ignored by the wealthier classes. How religion figured so much more in the day to day life of a Northern man than a Southern one (Philip learns that skipping Church on Sunday is not nearly as much of a social error as it would have been in Deerfield). And how arbitrary spelling was - almost as arbitrary as spell-check is today.

This is, of course, a "sipping" book - meant to be read in small doses daily rather than a page-turner that will keep you up at night. Nothing much happens. The joy of it is strictly in the ordinariness of the details that teach us how people lived, what mattered to them, and through what lenses they observed the world around them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

IF....


Another old-but-always-new book for you this month; it was a gift from a friend.


The book is actually about 20 years old, but I heartily recommend you pick up a copy (or several) and share them with friends and family.

It's a deceptively simple little book, presented in a small square and less than an inch thick. But its contents are anything but simple.

All it is is questions; propositions. But they are some of the most difficult and intriguing questions I have ever mulled over.

If you could spend a night alone with anyone living, who? Anyone who is no longer living? If you were granted just one wish, what would it be?

What if you could pull a Steve Allen and invite a group of people from the past to dinner - who would they be?

This is the type of book that young couples contemplating marriage might want to delve into - or perhaps a couple who has been married many years and has lost than sense of discovery about one another. Families could discuss a topic with children at the dinner table (minus the ones that are "adult themed," of course!). This is not a book to give to younger kids, though there are many questions parents could safely present to their children to help initiate a conversation. For that matter, it would be an interesting conversation starter for adult children to spend some time with their older parents, who can often feel that they have much to share and no one to share it with.

Because in the final analysis, the little book is all about, as its subtitle says "Questions for the Game of Life."

Some of them, on the face of it (all puns intended) seem silly -  "If you could only use one cosmetic item for the rest of your life, what would you choose?" - yet actually make you thing about what part vanity and comfort play in your life. Others would require, for some of us, a lot of thinking "If you had to choose the best book in history, which book would get the prize?" Oh, please, don't ever make me really choose!

Still others could provoke some fun and laughter - or maybe some hurt feelings: "If you had to pick the worst meal you've ever eaten, what would it be?" (I know that answer: I cooked it!)

And yet other might encourage you to do something: "If you could change one things about your home, what would you make different?" Maybe you can act on this one!

I'll leave you with this one, because I have often said the inverse: if I were going to sell my soul, it wouldn't be for that! So this question is: "IF you had to sell your soul for one thing, what would it be?"

Think about it.

This great little book, and it's sequel, are available at Amazon, and more than likely many bookstores still.

And by the way, MD, thanks!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War On You



By: Greg Gutfeld


No, this book isn't for everyone. Unless you, like me, enjoy reading polemic books because there are always nuggets of truth to be found, however much some of it may be off-putting, you may find this book annoying.

Greg Gutfeld is a self-described libertarian, and I would add, contrarian. He enjoys stirring the pot. Probably, literally.

He is a featured player on "The Five" on Fox News, so I'm sure that will give you some immediate insight, and he loves to go toe to toe with that show's nominal Liberal, now Juan Williams. (Previously it was Bob Beckel, who, following back surgery, did not return - though under less than friendly circumstances.)

Gutfeld is outspoken, sometimes out-of-left (or, far right?)-field, and some would say, outrageous. He doesn't hide his opinions, and sometimes opts for a laugh at the risk of sounding outright silly.

Still - as I said, you can find wisdom when you're looking.

Gutfeld's premise is not exactly original: we all want to be cool, and Cool will always be "owned" by some group or another. Therefore, if you express opinions that are contrary to that Book of Rules, you will be considered Un-cool, and you will be refused the company of The Cool.

To an extent, he's right. Er, correct.

Grafitti was found on the walls of buried Pompeii. Which means, there were people writing protests and nasty verses and silly comments on walls way back in 79 A.D. (or, to be cooly PC, 79 C.E.). That is to say, there have always been "people who consider themselves rebels and tastemakers for all that's edgy."

Going further, he makes a statement that I heartily applaud: "They (the cool) are now in control of defining the 'conversation,' - of deeming what is good and what is bad."

Not long ago, I read an excellent essay about who owns the Moral Authority, and what effect that has on particularly our political discussions. It seems there is an arc: you are the outsider, so you get to say whatever you want. You can be offensive, you can be outspoken, you and picket and chant and whine and object. You are the ignored and the marginalized; you are not what is "commonly accepted." Bit by bit, you gain ground, and eventually, you replace the old guard. For a while, all is new and exciting and you're quite sure that this is How It Will Be. "We" are the ones we've been waiting for! Until we've been around a little too long, and a new We is nibbling at the edges of The Establishment, because, while you weren't looking, what was once "hipster elite" (in Gutfeld's parlance) has become Establishment Boring. The new Old Guard.

Don't believe me? Read The Great Gatsby. Read On the Road. Watch videos of Elvis, The Dave Clark Five, or see The Rolling Stones (mostly) live. All so quaint, so old-fashioned. Once, each was, however briefly, the very epitome of Cool.

This particular essay went on to say that in many ways, he who owns the Moral Authority is also The Target. You can shoot darts at him with impunity, because he does own it. Looking back, in the 40s and 50s, that authority was owned by the jocks, the religious, the family guy, the work-a-day everyman. Lurking in beat bars and sleazy Village apartments were beatniks and rebels. Then one day Ed Sullivan featured Elvis. Soon thereafter, The Beatles. The toe in the door cracked open a little wider. By the 60s, the counter-culture was banging the drum so loudly it was difficult to hear the voices of parents and preachers, and eventually, the world turned and the counter-culture became the Common Culture. 

Gutfeld is, as I noted, a self-proclaimed Libertarian. So that means that the Left would consider him ultra-right, and the Right would consider him strange. Either way, he can't really be pinned down as a political entity, and he seems to be if not an equal opportunity offender, then surely not a Right Wing zealot.

It's his contention, however, that the world has turned so far that that Moral Authority I mentioned above has shifted center utterly, so that what was once Bad is now Good, and if you oppose these things, you are very, very un-Cool.

For now.

So, who, or what, in his opinion, is the New Cool? Or, the Existing Cool - as we are in a constant state, it seems to me, of shifting Central Coolness.

Gutfeld says that Cool is the so-called Liberal Elite. For starters, you don't want to be a banker, minister, executive, plumber or electrician. A social media director, app designer, song writer, or social activist  - any of these is a much better choice.  Don't be ordinary, by any means - be a misfit, an outcast, and have a geeky or nerdy period (even if you are now gorgeous and accomplished).

It's cool to be in jail for certain crimes (or when, according to popular culture, you have been wrongfully arrested), but not cool to be a policeman. Or, policeperson.

You don't want to be Billy Graham (rest his soul), Doris Day, or any Republican. But it's cool to be Che Guevara, Sean Penn, or a Democrat. You might want to be Lena Dunham or Dzahokhar Tsarnaev, but not Michelle Malkin or Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Be Melissa Harris-Perry, but for heaven's sake, don't be Greg Gutfeld!

Yes, the book can be over-the-top, and exaggerated to the point of pointlessness. And to the point of seeming like he's attempting to be - heaven help him - cool.

But underlying some of the hyperbole is an argument he makes, quite literally and calmly from time to time, in favor of finding your own cool and being true to it, rather than jumping on someone's else's bandwagon. And there, he has a point.

The other point-well-taken is his insistence that just because we right now find something cool because it is edgy and was unpopular (teen pregnancy, for example), it's still not necessarily the best choice for long-term happiness.

Ultimately, we will live with the choices we make. Some of them simply make us cringe some years later - like a bad haircut from the 80s, or perhaps a photo of those leggings you really shouldn't be wearing now because Facebook is Forever. Others can impact your life for good or ill for its duration, and that of others as well. Some choice need one's head in the game as well as one's heart.

Over the holidays I had a chance to watch a number of old movies on TCM (Turner Classic Movies, in case you haven't had the pleasure). I'm always captivated by not just the clothing and the lighting and even the plot lines, but also by the speech patterns. Once you've tuned your ear to it, you can identify the decade in which a movie was made simply by the accent, leaving aside the specific dialogue. It seems every ten or so years we speak English a new way - a little faster, a little more laconically; we adopt a faux Southern style or today's popular up-talk (you know? That speech pattern in which everything is a question? Even when it's not?); we deliberately choose words and usages based on social issues (today it is popular to "identify," and to ask for a new acquaintance's "pronouns" rather than assume them). In these shifting sands of speech we can watch the waves of Cool eroding from the shoreline here, adding to it there.

I'm amused to see that while Hippie was once cool, that has been over for a long time - yet there are people who still enjoy that lifestyle. The "real" Hippies, if you will. Luckily for me, about the time I figure out what's Cool, it's already on its way out, so I have given up chasing it. And perhaps, in the final analysis, that is Gutfeld's point, and why you would take the time to read his book: it's a reminder that Cool isn't forever. Enjoy it if your style happens to hit "Cool" in your lifetime. (Or feel slightly offended at all the poseurs trying to appropriate your culture, if you prefer.) Otherwise, don't worry about it. Because whatever it was then, it won't be soon.

But then again, right now, Authenticity is Cool. So, be it. Be cool.

Friday, December 18, 2015

33 Questions About American History



You're Not Supposed to Ask
by: Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


What better way to start the New Year than with an Old Book about really Old Stuff that's Politically Incorrect?

Ok. Let's start with the writer. He specializes in politically incorrect books - but, his C.V. reads much like another famous person's, though not necessarily in the same order: B.A. Harvard, M.Phil. and PhD., Columbia. Oh, and he's a libertarian, small l. Other than that, I can't attest to his scholarship.

The book is a publication of sub-title of Random House, so, again, reasonable though not guaranteed scholarship.

And, full disclosure (I love that expression): I did not go through and check each item against other publications on the topic but merely read for amusement, entertainment, and inquiry.

Now, to continue that disclosure: I was not educated, in the formal sense, in the last 20 years. And I do think that makes a difference. An FB Friend mentioned that his dad had a habit of reciting a long and rhythmic poem, and that put me in mind of a man I knew who did the same. I realized they'd probably both been educated at around the same time, when recitation was still done in some schools - kids were expected to learn a poem or reading "by heart" (what a wonderful way to put it!) and then stand and recite it in front of their appreciative elders, as kids today will... oh, never mind.

My point being, I grew up with a certain set of stories about American History - you know, like "In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," as opposed to "Columbus was an Oppressor from Europe who sailed to the New World bent upon the destruction of the Indigenous Peoples who had never done anybody any harm and were living in Eden." Ok, perhaps that's over-stating the dichotomy, but you get the picture. What kids are taught in school has a lot to do with what is popular culturally - history be damned. And neither story is necessarily "correct."

Every day, we re-interpret history; sometimes this is based upon new things that turn up (Kinnewick Man, for example), or upon a new way of "reading" things right before our eyes (is the Confederate Flag the secret sign of slavery, or a symbol of a rebellion, or both - depending upon who you are?).

What fascinates me is the information that you either must dig for, or that appears based upon some scholar digging into original (source) material (a friend spent his graduate days in dusty volumes of Early Spanish, learning what people like Columbus were writing about their adventures at that time) and trying to make sense of it in the context of all the other material that has surfaced.

Then, there are writers, like Woods, who try to popularize this information - that is, make is "available" to both the intellect and the education of the average person. And do so, I believe, honestly.

For I do get the impression that Woods, while, as a libertarian-small-l, he may have a smallish axe to grind, he is intellectually honest. He seems to bat both ways, though, depending upon whose darling is being killed, he will seem to be on "the other side."

I have a friend with whom I fight the Civil War, endlessly. I have to admit to having lost as many battles as I have won, but what's of great interest to me is that perhaps the people who were living in those times were as certainly-uncertain of why they were going to war as we who try to figure it all out are today.

Woods deals with that in the question of Virginia's State Constitution and Jefferson's idea of "state's rights," and whether this was, or was not, a defining issue of the Civil War. (See Chapter 19, and how and when and under what conditions Virginia agreed to ratify the U.S. Constitution.)

For each point of debate, you can read "The Myth" (the popular idea of the subject) and "The Truth" (or his reformation on the subject).

As I said, it's important to read each subject with the necessary grain of salt - and do some research of your own. If he'd perhaps divided his chapters into "The Common Story," and "The Uncommon Story," I would have felt less nervous about accepting the stories with which I agree with him, and dismissing the stories with which I disagree.

What's fun is, the book will make you think. And the fact that it was published a few years ago (and I'm just getting around to it, which tells you a bit about my pile of reading!), because so much of the history is relatively old (heck, even Bill Clinton, whose presidency is one of the issues, is 20-odd years ago), the issues he raises, as they have not been settled yet, are unlikely to have been settled by the time you get to reading this book.

For your consideration, some of the topics:
Did Martin Luther King Oppose Affirmative Action?
Were The American Indians Environmentalists?
Was the "Wild West" Really So Wild?
How Does Social Security Really Work?
What Really Happened in the Whiskey Rebellion?

And on it goes.

For your reading, and arguing, pleasure!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Book For Christmas

When I was a child, I had some great-aunts, whom I don't recall ever meeting, but they had a lovely tradition: they gave us children books for Christmas. It was always something unusual - a book I'd never heard of, unlike, say, my beloved Nancy Drew series, or even The Black Stallion books.

No, these were tales of children who lived on a remote Scottish island with puffins for pets, or a collection of poems with illustrations so beautiful I'd pore over them for hours, tracing ever line, and imagining myself in the painting.

There was nothing quite like opening Aunts Paula and Hannah's gift each year, and eventually, as Christmas dinner was cooking, settling down in the sleepy silence between gift opening and dinner to read.

There have been many traditions in family gift giving - the child who wanted a Harley, so a toy Harley was presented each year; or the ornament and pair of socks in the Christmas stocking; the "surprise" gift that Dad would pick out by himself each Christmas to present to us children - but none that was quite the same as that book each year. I'm sure I still have most of them, and I'm also quite sure I read a few of them to my own kids.

One of them I remember very clearly was a book called The Rabbit's Umbrella. It was written by, of all people, George Plimpton, that peripatetic man of all seasons - a man who enjoyed his wealth as I would, were I to be so lucky. "American journalist, writer, literary editor, actor, and occasional amateur sportsman. He is widely known for his sports writing and for helping to found The Paris Review. He was also famous for "participatory journalism" which included competing in professional sporting events, acting in a Western, performing a comedy act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and then recording the experience from the point of view of an amateur."

In other words, he did it all.

But I digress. Back to The Rabbit's Umbrella - the book centers on a big, wonderful dog named Lump. He's brought home as a pet by Mr. Montague for his son, Peter. Mrs. Montague, a social climbing lady who lunches, expects a dainty little poodle, similar to those of her friends, who delicately receive bits of cucumber sandwich from the hands of their mistresses at tea parties. Instead, Mr. Montague falls in love with a big, lumbering, lump of a something-dog - and Peter names him Lump.

Meanwhile, in a haunted house on the other side of town - just a soon-to-be-decommissioned streetcar ride away, live three burglars: Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely. These three unlikely criminals rob houses, but never make much of a go at it as Punch is fond of whipping up a meal out of whatever he finds in the refrigerators of the unsuspecting householders. Usually, the owners will awaken - or return home - to find the remnants of some elegant meal in the kitchen, and little if anything taken.

All the elements for a great tale are in place: boy, dog, save-the-streetcar, and three bumbling burglars.

It's a chapter-book, as one young reader I am very fond of likes to call them. That means that while a young reader of a certain age can read by him or herself, it's the kind of book that mom and/or dad will also enjoy reading with children - one delightful chapter per evening.

Will Mrs. Montague let Peter keep Lump? Will the streetcar be abandoned in the name of progress? Will the burglars invade the Montague home? And most of all, will Mrs. Montague ever learn to put her car in reverse?

For a very young reader, don't forget the Richard Scarry books. These find the object stories are so full of detailed pictures a child - and a parent - can get lost for an hour on a single two page spread: scenes of perhaps a simpler time, but with happy, friendly, fun and filled frames of pigs and hippos and trucks and farmers and towns and railroads - it's designed for mom and dad to ask the little one,"Can you find the tractor?"

Perhaps there is a common thread in that both writers haled from a simpler time themselves, though both saw action in WWII.

Scarry's (an Irish name properly pronounced Scar-ee, but typically pronounced "Scary" by Americans) most famous series of books was about Busytown. Scarry's characters were almost always anthropomorphic animals.  But for a certain type of child, it is the detailed accuracy of how things work that will provide endless examination and enjoyment. One little boy I know was quite fastidious in his critique of things that work - and if the drawing would not work as promised, he wasn't reluctant to say so. But Scarry's illustrations never disappointed. His trucks and trains and tractors and gadgets would actually deliver - to this little fellow's delight.

For an older reader - why not go ahead and get a collected works of Dickens, or even Sherlock Holmes? It's a sad thing that, with so much to take up our time, we miss out on the drawn-out, detailed immersion of Charles Dickens and Conan Doyle. It was from reading writers like these that I learned to let the "movie" of the book play in my mind.  To this day, when I revisit Bleak House or The Speckled Band, I still see the same rooms, the same characters, and hear the same voices. Because in the days that these books were written, imagination of necessity filled the role that television, film, and even illustration now occupy, the reader's own vision of events became the story. I can still see the lights across the moors; the busy streets of London; the shabby Victorian rooms of Holmes or the Cratchits- the same way that I saw them the first time I read The Hound of the Baskervilles, or A Christmas Story.

So go ahead - start a Christmas gift tradition, for your own or someone else's kids. Or for anyone you want to delight. Find a book that will be a surprise.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Year with G. K. Chesterton

365 Days of Wit, Wisdom, and Wonder
edited by Kevin Belmonte
2012

This isn't a book you'll need to - or want to - read all at once. It's that after dinner mint of a book; just one (or maybe two) entries read per day. Then you think about them, enjoy them, mull them over. Digest them.

Chesterton was a turn of the century (the last century, that is) writer, lay theologian, poet, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist.

Don't let that throw you off, though. Chesterton can be read without any specific reference to religion or theology - particularly this volume - and his observations needn't be read in the light of Christianity.

Chesterton was an odd-appearing man by age 62, though perhaps more so as seen through the lens of 100 years. Well-fed, in the manner of men of the Gilded Age, with a riot of waving hair and spectacles on a chain. Even as a young man he looked intense and deeply engaged. By all accounts - and certainly from reading this book - he was a man of prodigious intellect and spirituality. He counted among his closest friends C.S. Lewis and Hillaire Belloc. He has been accused, with some merit, of antisemitism, though that hardly squares with his strong anti-eugenics stance. He joined the Church of England, but then felt that as long as he was going to delve in, he might as well go for the original and was baptized a Roman Catholic. In short, he was a complicated man.


The editor, evidently an intellectual and thoughtful man himself (he wrote the screenplay for the film on William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace), organized the book as a daily diary of readings, each day containing a Biblical verse combined with a reading from Chesterton's own work or works (he wrote poems, biographies, critiques, essays, plays, and novels) and then perhaps a note about an event or publication that occurred on that date.

Among Chesterton's many other accomplishments, he is credited with reviving an interest in Dickens, of whom he is supremely fond. As I read passages from his writings on Dickens, I was reminded of something I never knew I was aware (which is something Chesterton might himself say!): how achingly lovely Dickens' view of mankind was. How charitable he was to the meanest of people; even his villains were to be pitied rather than merely scorned, though the villains who preyed upon children were, of course, mostly scorned.

I became intrigued with Chesterton when I read this observation:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

I have remembered that, and thought about it, many times, and realized that it is not just a clever thought, but a brilliant observation.

But I fell in love with Chesterton when I came across this segment of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:

"Lady, the stars are falling pale and small,
Lady, we will not live if life be all,
Forgetting those good stars in heaven hung,
When all the world was young;
For more than gold was in a ring,
and love was not a little thing,
Between the trees in Ivywood,
when all the world was young."

I loved this poem for no reason, really, other than that it was like a fairy tale, told partly for a purpose, and partly just because it delighted the imagination and was full of magic and mystery and wonderful words strung together.

That's one of the delights of Chesterton that is discovered with this 365 days sampling: that he can be both practical and poetical; insightful and whimsical. Sometimes, I pondered the quotes and ended up nowhere. Not for nothing is he called the king of paradox.  And he appears to have equal admiration and disdain for the ends of the political spectrum, as well:

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution."

Of course, when I began the book it was not the first of the year, but I was determined to read each passage on its own day. Still, I couldn't help finding my birthday and reading that passage immediately. I wasn't disappointed:

"Only in our romantic country (England) do you have the romantic thing called weather - beautiful and changeable as a woman. The great English landscape painters (neglected now, like everything that is English) have this salient distinction, that the weather is not the atmosphere of their pictures: it is the subject of their pictures. They paint portraits of the weather."

It seems the genius of Chesterton was his ability to observe, and find meaning in the meanest thing. Or no meaning at all - simply the act of observing. It is really up to you, the reader, which is what makes this thoughtful collection all the more delightful. My best guess is, I will read it again and again each year, til the pages are worn out, or until I have figured out a meaning for each entry. So, other than with a recommendation that you pick up a copy immediately - no need to wait for the new year - I leave you with this observation in a political year:

"It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem."

Friday, September 25, 2015

Yeats's Ghosts


 

The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats
by Brenda Maddox
published in 1999


When I first read the poem, "The Second Coming," in high school, I was captivated. It was the first time I had sat and pondered the words and meaning of a poem for hours; memorized it so that I could pull it out of memory at will; and felt that somehow the poet had found a way to combine words that was literally magical. If you've not read it, I'll quote it here:







The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

After reading this book, I'll admit to a little disappointment in the actual man - though he is fascinating - but I have also learned that even artists eat, drink, and well, you know. We have to allow for their humanity, even when their words or pictures are sublime.

But Yeats, like Byron, is in a category of strange that is all by itself, or at least that is what the research of author, Brenda Maddox, seems to suggest.

Yeats was an Irishman, and liked to think of himself as having some noble blood through the Butler family. He lived a bit more like the bards of old, at the largesse of those who admired him.

And he evidently had two significant issues: he believed deeply in the occult, and he had a problem with sex.

One might say, as has been written brilliantly by, I believe, Joseph Conrad, "funked women." Perhaps that is too heavy-handed: he did not exactly hate women, but he did appear to fear them.

He seems to have had a fascination with young girls, though there is no indication that he necessarily acted on it, and he had lengthy love affairs with women who were unobtainable (married) or inappropriate (too old or too young). His frustrated love for Maude Gonne (and no, the name is not invented!) is the stuff of much speculation and romantic fancy, and much of his poetry is supposed to reference her. It is certain that she fed into his Irish Nationalism and idealization of all things Irish - particularly its legends and mythic figures.

His personal journals, according to Maddox, reveal his struggle with his own sexual urges, and even ambivalence toward these urges. But ultimately, it was up to him as the single surviving boy of the family to have an heir. So he marries Georgie Hydes-Lee, a clever and very young woman who appears to know exactly what she's bought into, and how to manipulate her man.

And this introduces what is the greatest part of Maddox's book: Yeats' fascination with, even thrall to, the occult.

It appears that Yeats was involved in several metaphysical organizations, such as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, as well as Eastern religions and spiritualism. In this, he was not alone during this period. This part of the state experienced a spiritualist surge, which survives to this day in Lilydale, New York - a spot where mediums gather and the curious visit to peer into the future.

Medium is what Georgie purported to be, though it is Maddox's theory that Georgie was using her "powers" in order to control a gullible Yeats. Through automatic script - another popular activity of the period, along with tea leaf and card reading - she channels a number of "guides," among whom "Thomas" figures most prominently, but all of whom seem to give Yeats' detailed instructions on how to treat his wife, where they should live, when and how to have sex (often, apparently), and when to leave her alone.

There is much, much more in this richly detailed and very personal book - unlike many a biography, the writers interjects a great deal of interpretation and speculation, even wry commentary, as she examines her subject and his brilliance, antics, silliness and passions.

I still love Yeats' poetry, though I do find, having read the book, that I have to deliberately put the goofy, gawky, petulant fellow that she has exposed out of my mind and concentrate on the shimmering imagery and unexpected word choices, and merely relish the music of it. So reader, beware. He's only human.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Pay Lots of Attention To That Man Behind the Screen!

Once upon a time, there was a writer who imagined a world populated with wizards, flying monkeys, invisible bears, good witches and bad, even baby dragons chained to their dens so that they wouldn't get up to mischief while their mom was away hunting.

Of course the author is Lyman Frank Baum, and while we're all familiar with movie based on his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is so much more about this fascinating writer that I never knew until I sat down with Kathleen Sorbello Di Scenna, Executive Director, The Lyman Frank Baum Foundation, Inc.

But first things first: the reason she got in touch with me is because the Foundation is launching an effort near and dear to the heart of anyone who loves books and writing: a Writers Program. The object of it is to help writers from the CNY area, particularly those who write in genres similar to L. Frank Baum's, get started, get critiqued, edited, and ultimately published!

Now here's the surprise: while many of you knew that L. Frank Baum wrote more than one Oz book, did you know that he wrote 14? I thought I had read them all, including a couple of my favorites, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and Ozma of Oz,  but I had no idea that the man was so prolific.
Displaying Professor H.M. Wogglebug T.E..jpgDisplaying Woggle-Bug+1.jpg

Then Kathleen went on to explain that I didn't know the half of it - or better put, the tenth of it.

The writer was responsible for hundreds of works, including 55 novels in total, plus four "lost works", 83 short stories, over 200 poems, an unknown number of scripts, and many miscellaneous writings, including a form of "augmented reality," which included film, actors, and live music.

Here's another surprise: when Baum and his illustrator, William Denslow, approached George Hill & Co., in Chicago (Baum's publisher) with the first in the beloved children's series, they were prepared for the answer: "No." And they were prepared with a plan: they would front the money to publish the book themselves if Hill would market it.

When, several months later, Baum - upon the urging of his wife - went to Hill to see if there were any royalties, he was given a check which he assumed would be pocket change, folded it without looking, and tucked it in his pocket, forgetting about it until his wife, the estimable Maud, asked him about it. He, again without looking, handed it over, and she let out a shriek. $3000 in royalties - at the time, 1900, was a princely sum.

Needless to say, the book - the entire family of books - has gone on to create a mini-industry in books, movies, cartoons, merchandise, and children (not to mention adults) reading late into the night to find out what happens next to Dorothy, the Wizard, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow - all of those wonderful friends we came to know so well.

Much like the story itself, Baum's tale of the "humbug" wizard that is a tale within a tale (and characters within characters) Baum borrowed much of his story from the people and events of his own life and times.

Baum, with his peripatetic career, is most likely the model for his Wizard. Born in Chittenango (which holds its yearly festival), he was raised in Mattydale on a beautiful estate called  Rose Lawn. He and wife Maud lived on Onondaga Street in Syracuse for a time, and while they lived in many places over the years, there is an enduring legacy here in the Central New York area.

There is oh, so much more - curiouser, and curiouser! And you will have at least one opportunity to learn more as the Foundation presents a small event called Munchkins Remembered - Anniversaries, Authors and Autographs.

To be held at the War Memorial in Syracuse, Saturday September 19 from 10am to 6pm, the event will feature costumes, displays, munchkin memories (the actors recalling their experiences on film), and  the unveiling of The Lyman Frank Baum Writer's Series. It's mascot is (H)ighly (M)agnified Professor Wogglebug (T)hourghly (E)ducated.

"We would like," Kathleen explained, "to both bring in CNY authors (like Baum was) and to help foster and empower new book writers as well as support those who have already published works, offering help from beginning to end of a work and money provided to get the work published in the event a publisher cannot be obtained."

Individuals and organizations offering related goods and services are invited to buy tables ($30 each, draped and set up). Kathleen reminded me that since Baum wrote a little bit of everything, and did a little bit of everything from acting to dry goods, it would be difficult to find many organizations that couldn't find a way to relate to the man who is, quite possibly, Central New York's most beloved author.

Feel free to come dressed as your favorite character - there will be plenty of real magic on hand!

For more information contact:

The Lyman Frank Baum Foundation, Inc.415 North Salina Street
Syracuse, New York 13203
315-200-6129

Friday, June 19, 2015

Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story

by: Michael Walker
 


I have found myself fascinated lately by the period of the sixties/early seventies, and all that was happening culturally and in the music world.

Last month's book review, Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll by Douglas Brode, focused more on the transition from the fifties to the sixties. This book spends its time on the sixties into the seventies - the Flower Power, LSD, Drugs & Hippie culture that grew - believe it or not - out of a little canyon tucked into the hills of Los Angeles, and home to not just the flower children of the sixties rock 'n' roll scene, but before that, the wild children of the early movies.

What was it about this odd little canyon - featured in several songs of the era - that drew the creative misfits and seemed to encourage a hedonistic, even self-destructive lifestyle?

"Beginning in the mid-1960s, a string of successful rock bands emerged out of Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood of Los Angeles tucked away in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard. From the success of bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, and singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Webb, Walker proposes Laurel Canyon as rock's answer to Jazz Age Paris. It's a plausible concept, but one he stumbles to elaborate past the length of a magazine feature. The journalist, who lives in Laurel Canyon, delivers strong material on some of the musicians he cites, particularly in early chapters about Crosby, Stills & Nash and Frank Zappa, but offers little about other equally significant acts. Instead, he pads the story with lengthy sections on groupies and the music scene in other parts of the city, the Altamont concert (which was hundreds of miles away) and a digression on the history of cocaine." - Publisher's Weekly

Well, I can't say I agree wholly with this review, as the author offered an apology up front for digressing from time to time from both the chronological  order of events, and even from his theme, as he attempts to bring all the influences and influencers into the tale of the Canyon.

For anyone who was a child of that era, or those who missed it altogether, Walker brings insights into the bands, their ideas, the hidden meaning of the lyrics, and the drug culture that both fueled their creativity and brought about ultimate disaster.

And for anyone who was not tuned in to the nuance of "who was who" in the music of the era, much of what Walker writes brings "wow" moments: how deeply influential David Crosby was (and deeply troubled); the almost mythic quality of Mama Cass Elliott (and her strange power to bring together artists who would change the course of music history - and oh, by the way, she didn't die choking on a sandwich); the power Frank Zappa had in shaping much more rock history than he ever made with his own music or band.

More than that, the story of Laurel Canyon extends back to the early film days, when, originally developed as "Bungalow Land" (an effort to compete with "Hollywood Land") it became home to Wally Reid, Tom Mix (Zappa lived in his "log cabin"), Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Norman Kerry, Ramon Navarro, Bessie Love, and, some believe, Harry Houdini. Wild orgies and mysterious goings-on have been reported from its earliest days, and many of these early Hollywood notables were as disturbed and rebellious as the Rock 'n' Roll icons who came to the Canyon years later.


Reading through the Amazon reviews, it's hard to know whether the nay-sayers have knowledge Walker lacks (the biggest criticism is factual error, but given that this was the era before the Internet, it's much more difficult to find sources and piece together everything he says in this jam-packed book), but one thing stands out: Laurel Canyon is one of those places that rightly inspires interest and carries with it a mystery.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll: The Evolution of an American Youth Culture (Popular Culture and Everyday Life)

by: Douglas Brode



This book is somewhere between a text book and popular non-fiction - it's scholarly in its sheer weight of information, and fun to read in its reference to popular culture, and if you're old enough to have lived through these eras, a grab-bag of fond (and not so fond) memories.

Brode's thesis is simple: the kids born in the earliest part of the post-war baby boom (say, in 1945 or 1946) grew up to become something that had never really mattered before: teenagers. And this, as the saying goes, changed everything.


Where people who have noted this phenomenon before have always referenced music, and the power of not just radio, but high-wattage radio (radio that could broadcast in New York City and be picked up in the plains of the midwest, uniting the generation across miles, means, and milieus) Brode believes it all started at the movies.

To be fair, he gives his first chapter to the genesis of the "big beat," and the rockabilly roots of Rock 'n' Roll, which did define the entire generation - they definitely danced to a different drummer, and with small, individual radios (transitors) now available, they could listen without their parents interference (or guidance). This was the first major rift between parent and child, and a real establishment of a group that was no longer children, but not quite adult.

At some point, Brode says, movie makers got the bright idea that they were missing the boat with a group of paying attendees. Those teenaged kids who were looking for a way to get apart from their parents, and carve out some space on their own.

Movies made specifically for the kids were certain to bore the parents, and where movie-going had been a family entertainment in the past, now movies aimed at a teenaged audience not only tapped into an audience, but also modeled behavior and ideas in a group of impressionable kids who could easily be convinced they were "all that."

Brode spends quite a while on the "JD" movie, or "juvenile delinquent" "flick," as he retrospectively calls them. The bad kids, the disturbed kids, the hidden homoerotic messaging in the films aimed at the confused kids - these replaced the Andy Hardys of yesteryear.

There were many influences, and many privileges, that made the "teenager" possible: an economic boom that allowed young people to stay in school where in previous years they'd had to go to work - often leaving home to start their own homes and families while still in their teens; a notion of family life that included an extended period of time in the "nuclear" family (all puns intended); the growing conviction that education, first high school, then college, would be the making of the young person.

What interests the writer, however, is how the popular culture of the teenager was formed - you might even say "deliberately" formed by the influence of films and music, which either led or followed what was going on in the growth and social development of the teens.

Whether the films reflected the social trends, or they modeled them for a generation nursed on movies, TV and radio, Brode does an incredible job of walking us through the various genres of (mostly) movies that seemed to follow the restless seeking of the Baby Boom generation - through the nuclear age monster movies, the surfer movies, the spy films, the evolution of the female persona in films, the "druggie" movie, even the "British invasion" as a genre.

While none of this is new territory - I think if you lived through it you were well aware, even subliminally, of the ideas that were either being sold to you, or reflected back at you - Brode's accomplishment is the sheer volume of documentation: he has encyclopedic knowledge of films you've most likely forgotten (and clearly, he not only know about them, but has seen them), or perhaps missed when they were out. Another accomplishment is his ability to link the films to one another, or to a larger social issue that in some films was not as evident as in others.

When my daughter was young, and first interested in popular music, we'd listen to the radio as we traveled. A song would come on, and I'd ask her, "Who is that?" My contention was, if you're going to like current Rock 'n' Roll, you're going to know where it came from. That way you can appreciate it more. So we played our game, and she won - that is to say, she was able to identify obscure songs by bygone but popular at the time artists, simply by the sound or the nature of the lyrics. She understood, and could appreciate, the "sound" of an era.

So I would recommend this book not just to Baby Boomers who will revel in the recollections (and get a deeper understanding) of their lives as referenced in film, but to young people who want to understand not just their elders, but their heritage. Popular culture, particularly as reflected in movies, TV, and music, doesn't just appear out of nowhere. It evolves, taking cues and clues from what went before - even re-making the same old stuff but with the eyes - and ears - of a new generation.

This book will certainly become a textbook for a course in the history of film, but I would suggest that anyone interested in the "why" of our lives take a dive into it. You'll have many an "aha" moment, and most likely a daydream or two of your own growing up years, and what "that song," or "that movie" meant to you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The New Class Conflict

By: Joel Kotkin

I don't know if you, like me, have noticed an increasingly embattled exchange in our public arena.

Some of this, I know, is due to social media. At first it was Twitter's tendency to slide into what more resembled the old Flamewars of BBS days, a series of increasingly angry if terse and occasionally clever barbs aimed at "the other side." So I quit it.

Then I began to notice that good ol' Facebook, that happy place of kitties, puppies, children's photos and funny platitudes had become more and more political; more and more nasty; less and less interesting. I find myself spending less and less time with it, if for no other reason that to get to the end of the day without feeling oddly angry.

Still, when a book like this one comes along, I can't help myself, and I want to dive in.

The story is simple: class warfare will always be with us, it just morphs. What was good was bad, what was "done" simply isn't any more; what was proper and decent is laughable and dated. The foreward sets the tone by reminding us of that great snark, H.L. Mencken, who sat and "observed the scene," usually with a decent amount of hauteur and humor.

Now Kotkin, explains foreward writer Fred Siegel, perhaps more earnest and scholarly, is stepping into similar shoes in this book, pointing out that, having hovered somewhere near "true north" for a while, our "contemporary political compass is broken. The standard assumptions that fill our 'quality dailies' and their aural offshoots are guided by presuppositions about what constitutes right and left that have been eclipsed by the changes of the past quarter century."

I recall reading about "pole shift" some years ago - the idea that once every so many eons the poles, north and south, shifted polarity, causing enormous disruption. Or supposedly this happens. No one, certainly, has lived to tell the tale, though there are indicators that it has happened. Certainly, however, we only have to look back as far as the Civil War to know that it was the Republican Party that sponsored the Abolitionist movement, and the Progressives who some years later sponsored Prohibition. Things do flip flop, Kerry and several other politicians or no.

Kotkin's primary thesis is that all the labels we have assigned to various roles in society, and the influence they exert, have lost meaning, should be trashed, and he has come up with a new, possibly more accurate way of organizing our American brand of "castes."

He is hardly the first to point out that the Robber Barons of the early industrial age had nothin' on the very wealthy of our age. "In 2013 alone," he writes, "nine private equity investors took home over $2.6 billion in compensation just by themselves, an amount unprecedented for such a small group. In addition, there has been a rapid increase in compensation to corporate management; since 1978, pay for CEOs rose a remarkable 725%, more than one hundred times the increase in worker compensation."

See, I told ya! I can hear that now. What might be different, however, is the degree to which the "growing alliance between the ultra-wealthy and the instruments of state power" has cozied up. "Too big to fail," while not utterly new as an idea, was once the bete-noir of government trust-busters, even at the risk of putting the lowest paid workers out of a job.

Moreover, Kotkin points out, contrary to what might be expected, it's not just the Republicans "with their long, historic ties to Wall Street and laissez-faire ideology" who are accepting of such inequity. Much as the recent administration and its populist voice has expressed disgust at the "one percent," it is perhaps the makeup of that one percent that is surprising, as well as the fact that "95 percent of the income gains during President Obama's first term have gone to barely one percent of the population, while incomes have declined for the lower 93 percent. As one writer from the left-leaning Huffington Post put it, 'the rising tide has lifted fewer boats during the Obama years - the ones it's lifted have been mostly yachts.'"

It is the "discrepancy between rhetoric and reality" that interests Kotkin, and that motivate much of his vision of the new class structure.

At the topmost rung he places "The New Oligarchs."  The digital economy, "manifested in the shift of physical products and services into cyberspace, has engendered the emergence of what I will describe as a new, and potentially potent, Oligarchy, with influence that extends into the media and political world."

This post-industrial economy has given pride of place to the professional and technical class, decreasing reliance on labor, both skilled and unskilled. Even pixel workers, the line-workers of the modern era, are fungible resources. Unplug that one, jack another one in.

Moreover, "over the coming decades, the nwe Oligarchs impact will be enhanced by the fact that so many have achieved their fortunes at an early age; tech Oligarchs, mostly from Silicon Valley, represent the lion's share of billionaires under forty who are not inheritors of family fortunes. In 2014 alone at least ten new billionaires emerged from this sector."

So not only are they young (and potentially immature even for their years), but their influence could extend over decades as they continue to live, thrive, and buy influence.

And they are, according to Kotkin, inordinately interested in influencing the shape of the country's future direction. Like the industrial barons a century earlier, they want to protect their interests, but they are also cause-directed. But Kotkin warns that "today's 'philanthrocapitcalism' differs markedly from the philanthropy of the past. Instead of helping hospitals, building libraries or supporting soup kitchens, the new Oligarchs have risen to what author David Callahan calls "affluent super-citizens,' able to use their money to craft their own solutions to social problem." In other words, a "do-gooder" steeped in the needs of the poor, the uneducated, the needy, doesn't apply to the Oligarch for support of his or her charity. The Oligarch has a plan of his own for how to "fix" things.

Moreover, these new Oligarchs "depend on mass consumerism, (but they) base their fortunes primarily on the sales of essentially ephemeral goods; media, advertising, and entertainment. These products and services consume time and leisure more than physical space; they are less reliant on low-cost domestic energy sources, as their products are either software or built elsewhere. Indeed, many of the new Oligarchs have profited through investment in very expensive renewable energy sources that have enjoyed often lavish public subsidies."

And here is the devil in the details: "these industries (in which the New Oligarchs are engaged) employ relatively few Americans.

Kotkin now moves on to the "Clerisy," or those who dwell in academia, media, government and the non-profit sector. "These groups have expanded," he writes, "as much of the middle class has declined... (their influence stems) from persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society. This has particular impact given that the vast majority of the Clerisy are increasingly uniform in their worldview, especially in political matters, their approach to environmental issues, and their social values. In practical terms, such as in their support (for the) Democratic Party, they are both broadly allied with the tech Oligarchs and are themselves becoming a huge center of power and influence, much as the clergy was in medieval and early modern times."

I considered that statement above, particularly in light of the tendency for "discussions" on Comboxes (comment boxes) on political websites, or politically-oriented posts on Facebook and other social media to devolve to "Your (sic) dumb!" "No, you are a retard (libtard, wingnut, fill in the blank)!" I realized that indeed, the Clerisy sees itself as having "the secret knowledge," and to admit to not sharing in that belief is tantamount to admitting not ignorance, but stupidity verging on being backward, and to heresy.

The next group to be considered are the poor Yeomanry. Once the backbone of the nation, these are the great unwashed, the erstwhile Middle Class. Once a flourishing bastion of votes and buying power, courted by everyone, this group has shrunk to a pitiful remnant, clinging, whether bitterly or not, to its attempt to move up. "Even at the height of the latest economic expansion," warns Kotkin, "the typical middle-class American saw only one percent income growth, adjusted for inflation, compared to six percent in the period from 1995 to 2000. Throughout at least the last two decades, economic change has benefited top workers at financial services companies, technology firms, and the highest-end businesses, while incomes for the middle and working classes have suffered as low-wage job have proliferated."

And of course the "fading Yeomanry threatens to create a more bifurcated soceity, with an increasing number of formerly middle-class people becoming, in a sense, proletarianized." This is doubly painful as many of this group are educated, and had higher expectations, unlike the serf class of the middle ages, and "the ability of less-skilled workers to break into high-wage work has slowed, trapping many in a kind of permanent status as working poor. Increasingly these workers are older and better-educated than low-wage workers in the past."

"Rather than be helped in the new economic order," warns Kotkin, "the once-independent Yeoman class is expected to accepts its new role as home care providers, hairdressers, dog walkers, and toenail painters for the 'innovative class.'"

I won't give away the surprise ending - but suffice to say Kotkin asks the question, "Will the Middle Orders Revolt?" and then launches into a discussion of how decentralization, dispersed intelligence, and a break in the old patterns and orthodoxies, while difficult, has often meant a new period of Enlightenment and growth, and that the smoke-filled back rooms of yore frequently come equipped with a smart phone camera to share the discussions held therein.

No matter what your political persuasions going in, Kotkin will surprise you with an even-handed approach to per-conceived notions and comfort you with an essential belief in our ability to rise to the occasion and reinvent our political parties, our belief systems, and ourselves.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pendragon Book Eight: The Pilgrims of Rayne

by D. J. MacHale



I have an odd habit of reading certain books in little bites.

By that I mean, I'll read a particular book only while eating lunch, for example. So I might read ten pages, perhaps a chapter. Or another I'll read just before going to sleep - but again, just a handful of pages. Not one of those all-night sessions of "can't put it down - just one more chapter before I fall asleep!" Just enough to keep the story fresh in my mind.

Typically those books are not my "usual suspects." Not the historical novels or sci-fi staples that I am so fond of, and generally have piled up comfortingly in the "to be read" pile beside my bed and next to my desk, now on my Kindle. Those books are found at flea markets, on a friend's "finished go ahead and borrow" bookshelf, or intriguing enough in the BJ's hardcover bin to be worth the discounted price.

This book was one such. In this case, it was a flea market find. It came in a box of other dog-eared paperbacks, and is actually YA fiction. But it is a form of sci-fi/fantasy, so I had to pick it up and start. And so it also goes without saying (which is an odd expression, as what follows will be saying it) - it's not a new book. This book was published in 2007, but is still available.

And I have to admit, while I wasn't exactly hooked, I also find the time to read several pages at least each day, and it does keep me going. As YA fiction, it makes that pick it up, put it down reading pattern a little easier than it sometimes is, because the plot line is aimed at the 12-15 year old reader, and as such isn't terribly complicated.

It takes place in a not-quite-Earth of both the past, present, and future, in which certain young people can move through time by accessing something called a "flume." It has something in common with Harry Potter's 9 3/4 Platform in that you aren't really aware of it unless you can use it. You simply step into it, and rather like, again, Harry's flu network, you state your destination, and off you go. Except in this case, you aren't just traveling through space, but time as well.

Turns out there are several "Earths," and Travellers (as these time travellers are known) can affect the fate of the various Earths (so much for the temporal paradox). The book is written in a series of journal entries by our hero, young Pendragon (a teen-aged boy), and regular narrative focused on the recipient of his journals, and evidently something of a love interest, Courtney.

He and Courtney are separated on missions to stop Saint Dane, the Arch-Villain, intent upon the Destruction of Humankind. There has to be one of those in these types of books, or what's the point? Still, it makes for fun reading.

What is immediately fascinating to me is that  I have not read the preceeding eight books, yet I am still finding this one interesting enough to keep me involved. The writer has done a credible job of catching us up on the important stuff, while not re-writing every book leading up to this one. So while I don't have all the details, I do have enough information to make it worth my while - and make me want to find the other books and plow through.

The principle action of this story takes place on an island isolated somewhere in a tropical paradise, in which the inhabitants are curried with everything they could possibly want: food, benevolent climate, entertainment, peace and a quiet kind of prosperity. Ruling over them is The Tribunal, who keep the peace, but most importantly, keep the keys to this kindly prison.

Under their noses but not their thumbs is a band of Lost Kids - a motley assortment of Neo's who have woken up to the notion that maybe life isn't so much fun when it's so easy, and they want to find out what "else" is out there.

Every so often, it turns out, flotsam and jetsam wash up on the beaches of this little paradise, leading this little band of teens (who calls themselves The Jakills - nice wordplay, that) to understand that there is more than they are being allowed to see. And in the manner of all humankind, they want to find out what it is. And there's your story.

You, too, want to find out what it is. Add to that the family detail that the leader of the Jakills is also the son of one of The Tribunal, and you have a story that is sure to intrigue any YA reader - or any reader who can become YA while reading it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

South of Rising Sun


Genre: Western
By: J.D. McCall
By Guest Reviewer, John Sposato



I don't read a lot of westerns - but I have a friend who does. So I invited him to read and review this newly published novel about the Old West. From what I could observe, he buried his nose in the book for a solid three days, so it must have been purty good.

Here, then, is his review:

Those of us who are from my generation (and from reading this you will be able to guess just what time frame that is) grew up sitting on the floor watching TV.  For a long time, we had only two channels to choose from—then it was like going to heaven when we obtained a third.  As a young boy, my favorite shows were the westerns.  I was awake every Saturday morning by 7am to watch “Western  Jamboree,” which was a rebroadcast of western movies from the recent past, usually “B’s.”  All during the week we were treated to Gunsmoke, Paladine, Wyatt Earp, Maverick, The Rebel, Bonanza, and many others.  It seemed for a while that Westerns dominated the airwaves.  None of these shows glorified the criminal or outlaw, but rather the lawman or another type of good guy.  Basically it was always the formula of good over evil, the winning and restoration of law and order over lawlessness— that crime does not pay and that the bad guys always get caught.  South of the Rising Sun brings me back to that time.  The main character, Federal Marshal Al Taggert, represents the hero that we had easily recognized so many times within a familiar story.
The story takes place in a town called Lecompton in the recently-admitted state of Kansas; the time is at beginning of The Civil War. There is animosity between the free-soilers and the pro-slavery factions and the general populace is concern about the war reaching that far west.  Taggert has a dilemma: he is a federal marshal who must uphold federal laws, including The Fugitive Slave Act, and he feels he must do what his consciences deems best.  He happens to become involved in a situation where he has to enforce that unsavory law, but instead chooses to help a runaway become a free citizen in Canada.  This scenario reveals the author’s point of view, while providing us some pleasant relief from the main story line, and later a tragic event.
Taggart has been become engaged with the pursuit of cattle rustlers at the request of the victim rancher.  Taggart becomes increasing more perplexed with his investigation with the lack of evidence and with things seem illogical. He often becomes distracted with other situations that requires his immediate focus and further hampered by other illogical obstacles like the weather and hostile animals. The story evolves in an unusual manner, especially when we learn how the crime has been committed, who is behind it and how it is solved. I doubt that this novel will ever compete with those of Zane Grey, but the author neatly ties all of the story lines together in the end. Throughout the book Taggart gives Jerome (the runaway slave he is harboring), and Ben (the son of the crime victim/host), many lessons about life through his philosophizing, moralizing and story-telling.
Taggart pays a dear price as he chases the criminals, which eventually leads to the solving of the crime and their capture, but with that exception, the story is a pleasant tale of episodes and happy dialogue (a bit lengthy at times - though my personal jury is out on this; people did speak at more length and with more eloquence 100+ years ago) and ends happily for all with Taggart riding off in the horizon.
  
While, as I noted, the writer won’t necessarily knock Zane Grey off his perch, it is a pleasure to return to those days of yesteryear, and relish a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys tale, set in a well-researched and well-realized Old West. Not a bad way to spend a couple of chilly winter evenings by the fire.        

Monday, December 22, 2014

Some Rules of the Road

As you must have guessed, I read. A lot.

I have always had a wide-ranging appetite for the written word, fiction and non-fiction, romance and sci-fi, biography and crime cozies. In fact, I've often joked that I'll read a cereal box if there's nothing else around.

As a result, I have witnessed such a rapid degradation in our ability to communicate by the written word that I have to speculate why? And where are these emerging flaws most evident?

Of course, language changes over time. The lingua franca (bridge language) right now is English, for better or worse. But it was not always so. Latin prevailed for a long time among the educated, and of course for a greater part, it is still the language of science as knowledge of Latin wasn't restricted by national origin. So Latin, and to an extent, Greek, are most frequently found in anatomical terms, astronomy, and botany.

And within a language there are adaptations as new words are added to the vocabulary, and old words adopt new meanings. Languages are, it has been postulated, living things.

While I agree, and I enjoy the creative use of a word or phrase, I have to object to outright — pardon my French — bastardization of a language, especially in written form. When speaking, we take liberties and have fun with words and sentences, in part because we can add physical cues — facial expressions, hand gestures — that make clear our meaning.

It's pretty clear that the culprit in all this is the computer, in particular our smart phones. Unfortunately, the feedback from these devices has resulted in the deterioration of all of our writing.

I'm working with a writer presently who has adopted the elipsis to cover all manner of pauses in his writing. He was confounded when I changed many of them. Why? he wanted to know.

So, I decided to devote this article not to a book review, but to writing in general, and cover some of my pet peeves. That's one of them right there — catch phrases. We use them often, perhaps too often, and now I find that people don't even bother to use the right words (typically they use a homophone or even a made-up word), and they certainly don't understand where the expression originated.

Many of our common expressions came from — somewhat strangely, I think — sailing terms.
Above board
Keep abreast of
Adrift
Aloof
Armed to the teeth
At loose ends

And those are just some of the "A's." (Or more properly, the As, though I generally fall on the side of the apostrophe in this case, to distinguish the letter A from a word formed by adding an "s," such as "as.") Understanding where these phrases comes from, and knowing what the word or phrase really is, makes a world of difference in our writing.

Moving right along (she said, using a catch phrase): loose. This is a (with intended sarcasm) pet peeve of mine. Lose, loose. Lose is a verb, always. Lose is to fail, not win, be unable to find. Loser is one who loses. Loose can be an adjective: a loose sweater is one that is not tight. It can be morals, as in "loose" morals. It can also be a verb meaning to set free — he "loosed the dog" (untied the dog and let it go — the deeper implication is that the dog was straining to get loose).

Back to my friend's difficulty - oh, but wait, how about the apostrophe, which I just used? It's used in contractions (it is becomes it's; not the frequently mistaken its, which is the possessive). I grant that  typically the possessive is formed using the apostrophe, as in "Dan's pencil," "Louise's paper." But when the word ends in an "s," this rule changes to merely adding the apostrophe — Phyllis' notebook. The plural is formed just by adding an "s" to the word, except in the cases of a word ending in s, when most of the time we add "es."

Finally, back to the pause as indicated in the written word. Remember, all writing is an attempt to communicate, and punctuation is just a set of rules that were actually relatively late-comers to writing, as was spelling. Part of good writing is helping the reader "get" your meaning.

To communicate a pause in writing, we have several choices. Each one is used to direct the reader in comprehending our meaning.

The comma, first. The poor comma. In older writing, commas were used frequently, perhaps even too frequently for modern readers. At some point, newspapers found that they could save enough money to make it worth their while to eliminate some of them (it saved on ink). So the serial or "Oxford" comma was excised. Thus, when writing a list of things: "She took her coat, her hat, and her notebook" became "She took her coat, her hat and her notebook." As a reader, I much prefer the addition of commas to indicate a slight pause in the sentence. The serial comma makes a distinction between the actions or objects in a series. "And," because it's a conjunction (a joining), can sometimes refer to the final two (or any two) items in a series having a special relationship, or simply finalize the series. The comma before the finalizing "and" makes it clear that all the items in the list have the same relationship.

The famous example of the failure to use a comma, and the failure of a sentence is: "Eats shoots and leaves." "Eats shoots, and leaves." "Eats, shoots, and leaves." Either of the first two let you know the eater is not also a killer.

The comma is the first level of pause in a sentence. A brief break in a thought. (And yes, that's a sentence fragment; once a definite no-no, they are now accepted as adding emphasis to an idea.)

Next, the dash. Specifically the em-dash. If you don't know the keystroke combination to create an em dash, it's "alt 0151" (on the keypad only); in Word it can be accomplished by typing two regular dashes (en dash or hyphen). The dash is used to interrupt a thought with another, usually returning to the next thought. So I might write: "I went for a walk — taking my umbrella in case of rain — and got a little air." A comma just won't do here because the phrase I'm adding isn't really necessary to my main sentence, and as such it's not just a slight pause but an actual interruption in my thought.

Then we have the semi-colon. ";" (I am using the quote marks as "literals" the way a programmer would: what is inside them is to be used as a fixed thing. This is a word that has been tortured of late with our political figures insisting that something is "literally thus and such," when it's not at all, it is merely tending toward something.) The semi-colon separates two distinct but related sentences, but not so much as a period would. The important rule here is that each sentence be complete with its own subject and predicate, noun and verb. However, they are closely linked, hence the semi-colon.

Now, a colon is usually used to introduce a list of things, and each thing in the list is separate by a semi-colon, not a comma. The things in the list can be phrases or words, so such a sentence might read: "They prepared for Christmas: they bought a tree; they baked cookies; they practiced Christmas carols; they decorated the house."

And on to the elipsis. "..." This poor creature gets greatly misused these days, largely, I think, because of texting. In texting it stands in for one of those dangling sentences so frequent in conversation. When we chat (face-to-face), we will often start to say something, but not finish because the remainder of the thought is understood by the listener. It's often used to indicate a joking tone, or when a facial expression completes the thought. So in texting we've adopted the elipsis to indicate the dangling sentences, the ironic intent, the raised eyebrow, the smirk.

However, people are now using the elipsis in writing in place of an em-dash, or even a full stop (period).

My recommendation is to read the sentence out loud. Does the speaker really trail off, or is it an interrupted thought? Is it a completed thought that deserves a period? Perhaps it's two closely related thoughts that should be separated by a semi-colon.

Then there is the parenthetical phrase: the phrase set off by parentheses. Again, this is typically an addition to the sentence that isn't necessary to complete the thought, but adds related information. It is an interruption of the main thought, and can be removed without changing the main body of the sentence.

A little trick of punctuation that will make you stand out as knowing what you're doing: if a sentence ends with a quote, the final punctuation mark goes inside the quotation mark. I know it seems counter-intuitive, and I always thought it was outside (and, in fact, British English does do it that way).  I'm pretty sure my error was a result of reading too much Jane Austen, but nevertheless, just remember, "If you are quoting something, and have to end a sentence, even though the quote is contained within another sentence, the punctuation mark goes inside the quote." Like that.

Now, a word about the hyphenated word.

It's just this simple: "He set up the tree." "The set-up of the tree was difficult." If it's a verb, no hyphen. If it's a verb made into a noun, add the hyphen. Hyphens are also used for compound words, such as heavy-set.  Some compound words are simply two words mashed together, but again my simple rule is: what makes its easiest to understand? 

In general, that's all grammar and spelling really are, and it's why rules have been created. We want to communicate our thoughts as clearly as possible to others, and when we have a simple set of rules to follow, we can be sure that anyone who knows these rules is going to be able to understand our meaning.

It is possible to break all the rules and still be understood — think of the book, The Road, and its complete lack of punctuation. But in general, it's a difficult trick to pull off and requires a masterful writer. Easier by far to stick to the rules and be reasonably sure of being understood.