Book Review: Three-fer

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If you’re starting to think longingly about killing fourteen or fifteen people with an ax just as an activity to get you out of the house, chances are you’re coming down with cabin fever. It’s one of the nastier side-effects of Wuhan virus, always assuming you don’t actually have the virus, in which case, from what I understand, there isn’t anything much nastier.

There are only two ways to take your mind off your current troubles—the world’s current troubles. One is to read or watch something that makes you laugh; the other is to read or watch something that makes you realize your troubles maybe aren’t as bad as they could be.

I’ll cover the “watching” part some other day. Right now, I want to very briefly review three old books I have only recently read as part of my Wuhan-virus-isolation-forget-the-world prescription. Two have been around for forty or fifty years, the third one was published, and highly praised, about fifteen years ago. One is humorous in the cozy, gentle British manner. The other two will make you feel glad and lucky to be isolated in your home, rationing toilet paper, and watching reruns of the Jerry Springer show. All three of these books should at least take your mind to other realms.

The humorous one is The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus, by Irish-American novelist, playwright, screen writer, and film critic Mary Manning, not to be confused with any number of contemporary authors, painters, and illustrators with the same name.

I probably shouldn’t even bother to mention this book to you, because the odds of your finding a copy are slim to none and Slim’s left town. It’s one of those gently wacky books that come out of England and Ireland as regularly as rain, peopled with a cast of eccentrics who range from the kind of person you’d love to have a pint or a glass of port with (port refers to the Anglo-Irish eccentrics, obviously) to the kind you’d happily schedule a root canal just to avoid. The plot revolves around the increasingly desperate efforts of some of the more loveable eccentrics to stop the planned raping and pillaging of the local countryside in the name of quick profits by an industrialist incapable of recognizing beauty when it’s under his nose, even when it’s his own daughter. Nothing turns out as expected, for the eccentrics, the industrialist, or the reader; in fact, it wouldn’t be untrue to say the denouement comes as a bit of jolt. Ballyfungus is not up to the level of Sommerville & Ross, P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, or Roddy Doyle (The Barrytown Trilogy, of course, not his more serious, but coruscatingly brilliant Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, a Booker Prize winner,or his incredible and compelling study of a battered woman, The Woman Who Walked into Doors) but it is the kind of book that will take your mind off the Wuhan virus, especially when read with a cup of tea in hand.   

The Unforgiven was written by the great Western novelist Alan LeMay who also wrote another classic Western, The Searchers. And right now would be a good time to say, by all means watch The Searchers, starring John Wayne; it’s a great film, one of the greatest Western films of all time, based on a fabulous book. On the other hand, while The Unforgiven is an excellent, harrowing, hair-raising book, the movie is… Well, let’s put it this way: the scuttlebutt from Hollywood insiders is that director John Huston got so fed up with the production company and with their insistence on great stars who were totally inappropriate for their roles (seriously, do you buy Belgian-born, British-raised, Dutch Baroness Audrey Hepburn as a barely educated half-breed?) that he, Huston, turned the directing over to his assistant director and spent all his time in the local Mexican town, Durango, drinking and gambling. I hope he won at the tables, because the movie lost money and is best not seen.

So much for the film. The book, however, is a first-rate page-turner. Mr. LeMay knew his craft, and from the opening pages, where the young heroine is looking out the window of the fortified sod home, “…low and lonely, backed like a badger into the hill…” and sees something, the tension never lets up.

“Just as she turned away from the lookout, something out there changed, and she looked again without knowing what she had seen […] It looked a little like a scorched rock; only it had never been there before. She tried to see it better by looking beside it, instead of straight at it; she looked away and glanced back; she moved her head in circles, as an owl does, when it is trying to give shape to something unknown.”

That perceived but unknown threat is just the beginning of a high-tension Western yarn with a serious riff on racism, specifically as directed against Native Americans, yet no one in the book, Native American or Anglo Saxon, comes away with clean hands.

The third book is The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. No true and honest soldier’s memoir about war, any war, makes for easy reading, but John Crawford is a hell of a writer. His account of his experiences during the invasion of Iraq made me very grateful a broken back kept me out of the Army during the Vietnam era. And his descriptions of the unending filth reminded me of something my friend the German dog breeder and trainer, the late Bodo Winterhelt, once told me about fighting on the Russian front during World War Two. Bodo said it wasn’t the Russian soldiers, or the cold, or not having the right equipment or the right uniforms or the right weapons or even the supplies that might have kept those things functional, it wasn’t any of that that beat them; it was, he said, “the goddamned lice” that undermined morale and will more than anything else.

Crawford manages to capture the macho camaraderie of soldiers in combat, the insane and irresponsible behavior young men engage in under those circumstances, the contempt of proud young lions for the donkeys that lead them, and the unrelenting stress of a life that combines the maximum of boredom with the maximum of danger. More than that, he manages to capture the anguished guilt too many of these young men have to live with later, precisely because they are still alive.

He also captures some of the negatives that frequently get ignored, negatives just as damaging as physical wounds, sometimes more so.

Back in America he writes, “I went to the gas station yesterday to buy some cigarettes. An Arabic man was working behind the counter. He turned when he heard the door chime and gave me a broad smile. I walked out. I never wanted to hate anyone; it just sort of happens that way in a war.”

Talking of his aimlessness after returning, drifting from apartment to apartment, crashing with friends, he dreams, “My wife was on my arm, telling me that no matter what, she loved me. We would have children soon, and the rest of my life would be wonderful…[ ]…In my dream, my wife never told me that things would have been better off if I had just never come home. In reality, I agree with her.”

Fortunately for Mr. Crawford, he, unlike so many of his contemporaries, had a skill set that allowed him an outlet. 

“We all did things at one time or another that defied logic. Sometimes you start to feel like someone is just in your head screaming at the top of his lungs so that you can’t think. Whatever stops, or at least muffles it, is worth a try. This book is a direct result of my attempts to stop the screaming.”

Stay safe, stay healthy, wash your hands.

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: Three-fer”

  1. I live in south Dakota and our governor seems to think we cant stop the virus only slow it down so she wont do a state shutdown. My job say i am essential. Now i am a Welder and make parts for Rock crushers. I think the world could live without use for a few weeks. I understand Roads are VERY important but half use die we will be farther behind then if we take a few weeks and stay home!!. Someone i work close with might have the virus but my plant is keeping it hush hush so the rest of use keep coming to work. I feel trapped. What i wouldnt give to have cabin fever right now!!! You Rock JP!! Love you

    1. Lori, my thoughts are with you. I am very concerned for my fellow humans who are put in the position of potentially exposing themselves to danger or losing their job. One of my clients notified me just hours before they were to come into the office that they had been officially diagnosed with COVID-19. The only thing that saved me was that I hadn’t seen them in the last 14 days previous. Prayers for your safety and a quick resolution to all of this.
      Michele

  2. Your opening sentence made me cackle. I do have a question for you, one that is sincere and not intended to provoke any controversy: why do you consistently refer to COVID-19 as the Wuhan virus?

    1. Two reasons. First, I’m old enough to think of infectious diseases as they were referred to in the old days, which is by place or source (think swine flu) of origin. The Spanish flu is a misnomer because it didn’t originate in Spain; it originated in China, but it was first reported in Spain so people assumed it had started there and the name stuck. The second reason is because there is more and more evidence that the Chinese government has been lying and jumping through hoops to make itself look incredibly competent and medically advanced, lies that included minimizing the severity of the disease and it’s ability to spread, information that might have saved lives in America and around the world, so I think they should own their dishonesty. For those who think that racist, it is not. It is a reflection on the Chinese Communist government, not the Chinese people. The 1918 pandemic is still called the Spanish flu and no considers that racist or xenophobic. And identifying this pandemic as the Wuhan or Chinese virus is no more racist than identifying a restaurant as a Chinese restaurant.
      JP

      1. Thank you for your reply. I think I may be more on the front lines of daily experiencing human recklessness and cruelty than most, given my occupation as a trauma therapist. I think we have to consider – especially in the light that our current administration gives no thought to – how our speech and terminology may be interpreted by dangerous half-wits who then hurt others. Asian Americans are being attacked, in ways that range from being cursed at to spit on to stabbed, by people who mistakenly believe that somehow they are responsible for this plague. I personally know Asian Americans who are afraid for their safety, not just from coronavirus, but from their countrymen, as a result of these very real attacks. It’s my opinion that referring to coronavirus by another label can lead to endangering them further, so I refrain. Additionally, if I referred to coronavirus as the Wuhan or Chinese virus in front of an Asian American, I suspect they would not feel safe around me. In a just and rational world, calling it the Wuhan virus may not be racist or xenophobic, but we are far from living among rational beings.

        I doubt (although I may be wrong) that you read any liberal based media, but there actually has been discussion of the term Spanish flu as being racist because it was a misnomer. And in mainstream media, Dr. Fauci has publicly stated that he will never refer to coronavirus as a Chinese virus because that would be incorrect.

        I think we have to consider whether age is a valid reason for doing something. My parents used to tell me that it was perfectly acceptable for them to refer to African Americans using the “N word” because that was the only term used when they were growing up (in the sticks of post-Depression northern Georgia) and therefore it wasn’t racist. The only reason they ever stopped using the term was because they didn’t want to put up with my scolding. They never gained any insight into the matter. I suppose, looking back, this was mainly because they didn’t care to.

        I appreciate your sating my inquisitiveness and apologize for the side-tracking from the original subject of your post. None of this was intended to be a criticism; I value your opinion and appreciate the exchange. Stay well.
        Respectfully,
        Michele

        1. Michele, Those are good and valid reasons, thoughtful and well-expressed. I hadn’t realized we were having anti-Chinese hate crimes, but in a world where sub-human morons deny the holocaust and strut around pretending they’re Nazis, for God’s sake, I’m not surprised. I’m a little flabbergasted that anyone would consider “Spanish flu” to be somehow racist. And I cannot equate either “Chinese” or “Wuhan” with the N-word. Both are identifiers, not slurs, and if for a moment I thought of them as slurs I wouldn’t use either word. However, having said that, if we really are having hate crimes directed at people of Chinese descent, I’ll stop using either if only to take fuel away from the mentally negligible among us, though I suspect anyone that stupid is capable of reading anything beyond a Men’s Room sign.
          JP

          1. I am glad Michelle asked that question as I had the same one myself. For me it seems more logical to attach a name to the scientific type of virus rather than location of origin so I will stick with Covid-19. I suspect this will be how it is known in future history references.
            China is not the only one hiding information and I wonder what is really going on in Russia, North Korea and Iran and many other such countries. This is the time for global cooperation and setting aside of political motivation. Perhaps the most salient point is that there is so much that we humans simply do not know.
            As far as cabin fever goes, as a rural resident, I am happy that the power is still on, the furnace is working, the well is providing water and the driveway is not drifted in with snow. We even have a good Internet connection and we always keep an emergency supply of food on hand anyway.
            I am grateful for my good fortune and feel great concern for all those untold numbers of people around the world who do not have these things.

            I had no trouble locating a copy of “The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus” as I have ordered from Abe books several times. They ship from the UK and a lot of their books are discarded library books. The books often cost much less than the shipping fee.

          2. Thank you, JP, for your reply. After I posted my first reply I thought (but there is no option for editing, as there is on a Facebook comment) to clarify that I also did not equate “Chinese” or “Wuhan” with a racial slur, my point there was regarding any terminology that could be once acceptable in the past. And most Caucasians, I think, do not stop or care to discern between varying ethnicity of Asians. It’s not just Chinese people who are in danger; it is Asians of any ethnicity in America (and possibly other global locations). I know a family of Korean descent who are afraid for their safety, with good reason, after someone spit towards them. Here is a link to a stabbing earlier this month in Texas, in case you had not seen it previously.
            https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/stabbing-of-asian-american-toddler-and-family-deemed-a-hate-crime_uk_5e858761c5b6927805077fe5?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACqs3pm6VuH5kGEEwgqpgvAKOHli7OlABl5KlaC_-hu-x-ODvJRjwFK9yS5TZwGcPqsjXqzlVE0Ok_Qu969Bf8LTv5Rd4uSAjKe8PzTd7BL8DEF0ufIuchnX0w2gLI_vMrxsDmO1mZBVLEWE7WL9V7rBPYdyNeklFSsLBSfXjL9j

            Regarding “Spanish Flu” as being regarded racist, I heard an entire show on NPR today in which this term was consistently used, so perhaps it is only the far left that has engaged in this discussion.

            Michele

          3. Thank you, Michele for your thoughtful and cogent explanation of why calling COVID-19 anything but that is incorrect and potentially dangerous for the Asian American community.

            Mr. Parker, I am very surprised that you ‘hadn’t realized we were having anti-Chinese hate crimes’ and ‘if we really are having hate crimes directed at people of Chinese descent, I’ll stop using either if only to take fuel away from the mentally negligible among us, though I suspect anyone that stupid is capable of reading anything beyond a Men’s Room sign.’

            Prior to being under lockdown, I would take public transportation and have fellow commuters move away from me.

            I have chronic sinusitis and often need to clear my throat by coughing. Although I am wearing a mask, the reactions I have received are examples of the expression of ‘if looks could kill’.

            I don’t think any of these people are ‘mentally neglible’. It’s a frightening situation and people often react badly when they are afraid. They saw me, an Asian American, as a threat.

            That being said, it doesn’t have to be classified as a ‘crime’ to be harmful. For me, each incident is like a paper cut on my soul. One nick, possibly a drop of blood, the skin heals. More cuts and soon it’s a deep gash, streaming blood. Yes, it can be stitched together, but there’s always a scar.

            Words matter.

            Today is National Siblings Day. I posted the following on my social media page to shine a spotlight on one of my siblings:

            He immigrated to the United States in 1955 at age 5 from China/Hong Kong along with my parents and two other brothers. They were REFUGEES.

            ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ was the first phrase he learned in English. Twelve years later, he was high school valedictorian and received a full scholarship to one of the top-ranked universities in the country. After attaining a BS, he attended another top-ranked university for medical school.

            For the past forty years, he’s been an emergency/trauma physician LITERALLY saving lives in additional to training and mentoring countless more doctors.

            If you hear of someone referring to COVID-19 as the CHINESE VIRUS, think about this CHINESE PERSON who is risking HIS LIFE to save others regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or social-economic background.

  3. Herr Parker, vielen Dank für den kleinen Einblick in die Bücher. Ich lenke mich heute abend von der Corona Krise mit einem Simon & Simon DVD Abend ab. Das waren tolle doch relativ sorgenfreie Zeiten für mich. Vielen Dank auch dafür, ich schaue gern zurück in diese Zeit … meistens mit einem weinenden und einem lachenden Auge ….(nur Schade, dass diese Zeit nie wieder kommen wird ) …. Ihr seid einfach ein tolles Duo gewesen , als AJ und Rick. Bleibt gesund. Gottes schütze euch ….. Viele Grüße Manuela

  4. Good morning. Have you read Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket, The Bottoms, and Edge of Dark Water? Beautiful, lyrical writing. I don’t care for his Hap and Leonard books and haven’t read any of his horror novels, but I really liked the first three I mentioned. A Confederacy of Dunces is another good one John Kennedy Toole.

    1. I have read “A Confederacy of Dunces” (and loved it), but I have never even heard of Joe Lansdale. I shall look him up.
      JP

      1. I hope you like Lansdale. “Dunces” is an acquired taste; not everyone I know liked it but I have read it a couple of times. Take care and stay safe.

  5. So as i am Home schooling my 14 year old son and he is complaining about having to learn about what has happened in the past he asks me about the Black plague and how long it lasted and how it went away. Do you have any answers for me JP?

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