Consultation No.2: With James Joyce

We were very excited to, through the magic of imagination, talk with James Joyce about his writing, how he climbed down from the rarefied atmosphere of a classical education to wallow in the morass of humanity, as he put it over the telephone during our first contact with him for this talk. We were able immediately to divine that he didn’t suffer fools, so we tiptoed cautiously into his life and writing.


GFB: We understand that you were something for a rebellious student. (He held his cane between his legs as he considered the comment.)

JJ: Naughty, rather. Hardly rebellious. We would have bloody well felt the headmaster’s cane across our bums had we been outright rebellious.

GFB: There’s a difference, then.

JJ: Of course. We boys had no vision necessary for rebellion. We were simply feeling our oats, as you might have it, expressing without an objective, you see?

GFB: Yes, I think so, although I’ve never thought about the difference between the two as significant.


JJ: Such ability to discriminate is the difference between a cultured intellect and robust ignorance. One of the few benefits we gained from our approach to learning at the time.

GFB: I see. So let me skip ahead and ask you, when was it that you first came to view literature as a vehicle for personal rebellion?

JJ: What? Are you daft? I never came to view such a thing. I assume – or shall I – that you’ve read my Dubliners stories? (He began to twirl his cane, as if agitated.)

GFB: Sure have. As have almost every secondary school student of my era.

JJ: (Here, he relaxed and offered a weak smile.) And there you’ve struck the correct note. My era is different from yours, yours will be from the subsequent one. It’s the persistence of social habits that drives later generations mad. And so we writers challenge modes of thinking in what we put to the page.  If we didn’t, and later generations saw much change in attitudes, habits, and education, then our children’s children would go mad. That’s the trouble with religion, as I see it.

GFB: Trying to fit old ways of thinking into new social circumstances?

JJ: Quite so. We of dawning generations must feel something, and were we to stick with the tried and true, we would be known only for our madness.

GFB: Certainly no writer wishes that.

JJ: It’s a human trait to need something to believe in, and when the gods of our beliefs decay and turn to dust, we become caricatures of human beings. There’s no life in us, then.

GFB: Thank you so much, Mr. Joyce, for your insights. You have indeed been a giant in twentieth century literature.

JJ: Balderdash! The times compel us to do what small things we do. Were we not to accept our lot, what would come of us? Of our world?


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LBJ – The President Who Would Be Loved



Why the near-wholesale absence from blogging? Where have I been? A changing world demands changes of me, too, it seems, changes I can barely describe, and far  beyond the scope of this blog, this post in particular. The same can be said – in spades – of those chosen by whatever device to the leadership of nations.

Times and the events that create them either season the men and women involved in them  – or they destroy them. Such can be said of Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ, 36th president of these United States, who ascended to the vice-presidency at the request of John F. Kennedy and became president upon the assassination of that beloved president.

Movies about persons at the forefront of history are difficult. Such people  are complex and their movement through historical events is uneven. They make mistakes. Sometimes they’re metaphors for series of events beyond their control, and sometimes events occur by the force of these persons’ will.

Oliver Stone gravitates toward subterranean elements of history: conspiracies, psychological failings, personality weaknesses. Rob Reiner on the other hand takes a gentler tack, as he did with Primary Colors, the Clinton takeoff on that couple’s ascendence to power. His vision of LBJ is cut from that same cloth.


Woody Harrelson gives an inspired performance as Johnson, eclipsing the subtler but still fine performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh as his wife Lady Bird (yes, that was her name), Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell, and Jeffrey Donovan as John Kennedy.

The conflicted Johnson rose from the “Solid South” of that era, a group of states underscored by the Civil War, and ascendence at the beginning of the Civil Rights era supported by Kennedy. Harrelson’s foil wasn’t Donovan’s Kennedy in LBJ; Georgia’s Senator Russell was. Friends and fellow southerners, these two men grew apart over Civil Rights, quarreled famously, but LBJ became that legislation’s prevailing instrument.

Perhaps Harrelson’s finest moment in this film  is one he shares with  JFK’s brother Bobby. “Your brother loved me,” Johnson proclaims (I’m paraphrasing here), “why do you hate me? Why don’t you love me, too?” Alongside Harrelson’s dominating presence, Michael Stahl-David’s (Bobby’s) rebuttal that LBJ wasn’t on the right side of history, pales to a whisper. But John Kennedy had been on history’s correct side, and Johnson knew it.

Where Reiner’s view of Johnson’s presidency fails is in its giving short shrift to  Johnson’s legislative skills, which made Kennedy’s view of America’s new direction a reality. Still Reiner has assembled a fine cast and their portrayals of these persons’ roles in that era sparkle.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars


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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak


I’m afraid I’ve become jaded.

Rarely do the newest of fiction and nonfiction books, and even poetry, speak to me as they once have. Lately I’ve had to force myself to read them, something you might glean from the rare reviews I’ve been posting. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I simply read too many books with recurring structures, the same-old character types, the obvious conflicts and resolutions?

Or is there something lacking in these recent, highly publicized books? Is this why reading them doesn’t excite me as they once did?

As a writer I’ve been on a crusade to adopt what I deem the most workable of the postmodern structures, but I will forever maintain that the story is paramount, whatever other tinkering I allow myself to do. We should realize that the term postmodern signifies a belief that modernity is ending, as far as literature goes, but that it says nothing about what replaces modernity in the society that literature reflects.

So am I being a curmudgeon when I diss a lot of the latest acclaimed writing? I don’t think so, really. I read other reviewers reactions to these novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc. What has been slowly emerging is a respect for the technicality of these literary efforts. Along with that, however, is a palpable dissatisfaction with some perhaps intangible thing in the books they try so hard to like and rave about.


So, what to do?

My answer is to go back to the masters of the past century. Mine is not a sentimental desire for what once was – although there’s a lot of that in the sensibilities that surround us these days. But I don’t think Twain, James, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, et al, would have us dwell too long on the past. They didn’t, for the most part. But in reading those early works of modernity, you get a feel for the energy of their time, the way that energy affected lives. That’s what’s missing, I think; the passion of the moment in which we live.We writers need to be able to translate that energy, that passion, into characters and structures that all but dictate the story of our time.

And so what you’ll see of me here will for a time be my consultations with the mothers and fathers of twentieth century literature. I’ll write about their stories, but I’ll also try to speak to their underlying energy, the things that propelled those magnificent stories.

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A Modern Desultory Philippic


There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.


All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.


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Wars of the Annunaki, by Chris Hardy – Part 2


My last post on this book, written halfway though the reading posed a lot of questions, some prescient, some unwarranted, some remaining unanswered. First let me set the stage for Professor Hardy’s project here:

  • She has examined texts of both Sumerian language and the later Akadian tongue favored in ancient Babylonia against multiple translations of the book of Genesis, most likely first written in an antiquated version of Hebrew.
  • The story goes beyond Adam and Eve’s alleged fall from grace to include the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot and the destruction of five major cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • She leans rather heavily on the instructions of semantics, particularly in discriminating informational passages from moral ones (here meaning how moral phrases either confirm or distort the actual historical events as written and passed down  for centuries.)

And so how do translations of Sumerian and Akadian tablets diverge from the much later versions of these events as written in Hebrew? Without reproducing Hardy’s tale altogether, Eve and Adam grew beyond simple vassal status to the so-called gods (the Annunaki) to gain self-reflection and -determination, which threatened the status of the gods. This instead of being tempted by Satan to commit evil – a much later distortion of the Sumerian/Akadian writings on this subject.

And the story of Lot in the later texts, when examined through the lenses of semantics and logic, bears little representation of a real life situation. First, in the oldest texts, the primary “god” Enlil, sought to destroy all of humanity because he considered humanity a failed experiment (with some weight given to the idea that human self-determination threatened his status and enraged him personally.) Depictions of the Annunaki in these texts awarded them no cause for concern over the moral questions later Hebrew texts used as a rationale for destroying this embryonic civilization. A war of the kings ensued, fully documented on some thousands of translated tablets. Enlil, victorious, now had the elbow room to destroy humanity from Palestine to western India. Geologic and archaeological investigations throughout this area found radioactive skeleton fragments and vitrified rock, indicating the possibility of weaponry from the gods with the potency of our modern nuclear bombs, rockets, etc. A simple example of later versions of Lot’s story’s questionable events: If God told Lot’s family not to look back, because if they did, they’d be turned to salt, then who looked back to note the nature of Sarah’s demise? How was this possible, anyway? Was this person also turned to salt? Or was this simply an assumption of her death because she fell behind and disappeared? The Sumerian texts claim she fell far behind and was vaporized in the weaponry explosions.

The story here is one of this poor, huddled mass of humans, including Adam and Eve, as pawns in an epic conflict between Enlil and another of the Annunaki, Enki, who had in fact done the DNA tinkering that gave humanity the possibility of accelerated evolution. Enki, perceiving humanity’s possibilities as a race, sought to preserve them, while Enlil sought to destroy what he considered a failed experiment.

Seen in this light, if there be a thread of truth through the Sumerian and Akadian texts and their subsequent translations, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Enki archetype, whomever might personify the archetype, for preserving a fragile, new race of creatures. This despite the paradox of war and destruction no doubt built into human DNA along with its preservation and protection.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars


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Dangerous But Beautiful


If you’re a writer, has your writing seemed milk-toasty at times? Or if you’re a reader, has a book disappointed because it is, well, milk-toasty?

Then if you have access to the January/February issue of Poets&Writers, Jan/Feb 2016, turn to Tom Spanbauer’s essay, Dangerous Writing. I’ll leave it to you to discover from his essay what dangerous writing is. But there’s a rather unsubtle hint in a paragraph on the third column of page 41.

Basic to Dangerous Writing is the belief that by going on this journey from blood to bone, by laying out hard truths, through our own intelligence, intuition, and ability we will make a personal discovery of reality. The discovery will be something that is ancient, but because it is we who have been on the front lines, this discovered reality is truly personal—completely fresh and new.


This is the reality of literature, I believe—it takes ancient truths and spins them out in the context of the time and the author. This has been the truth of literature, more particularly of our modern, secular literature than of any writing throughout the ages.

But what does this mean? What does it say to humanity?

We live in a superficial age. This bouncing about on the surface of life allows us to hide behind style, posturing, the confidence of knowing too little, especially about ourselves. But by participating  in Spanbauer’s delving, we discover, first, something enduring about ourselves, not just as a storyteller but as a human being. Then we discover how that personal something finds its place in the human condition as a whole.

It may frighten, dear writer, and it may hurt peeling away those superficial confidences, but think of the story you are deep within. Think of its value to your readers. In that light, it’s not dangerous at all, is it?


As a postscript, I had to dig deep to write a story as provocative as the one advertised on page 134 of this edition of P&W, “We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.” If you haven’t read it, take a chance with it. I believe it is at least one version of our time. If you have read it, please let your reading friends know about this book. Thanks.

Losing Faith in Democracy


Democracy In Retreat:The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, by Joshua Kurlantzick

This is more of a treatise than a piece of literary nonfiction, and as with most such pieces of writing, the overlong title virtually tells the story. The author has done an admirable job of collecting data and anecdotes to support his thesis here, which is one of high hopes dashed.

The U.S., he writes, has been the primary nation actively trying to export democracy, and perhaps too zealous in doing so. His concern isn’t our misadventures in Vietnam, South America and more recently, Iraq. Instead, it’s our more peaceful efforts to create democracies around the world. However, there has been altogether too much emphasis on the various electoral processes in doing so, and too little emphasis on policies, including the educational, to support permanent democratic reform. As a result, many democracies of the twentieth century have failed, returning those countries to oligarchies, dictatorships, or other, more repressive forms of representative government.

The poor, of course, have borne the primary disappointments here, but in many countries, it’s the middle classes that have become disenchanted with the democratic process. In all too many cases, upsetting the status quo has shrunken and disturbed the middle classes, which were both part of the ladder of societal ascendance and a buffer between poor and rich, between the disenfranchised and the powerful. Much of the frustration, in the author’s opinion, has been that more repressive societies, such as China, seem to achieve economic success while many democratic countries founder economically due to the decision-making inefficiencies of most democratic states.

To this reader, the author spends too much time citing one case history after another and too little trying to map our way out of this quagmire. Still he does a service in tacitly insisting that perhaps democracy is a product of social evolution – little more than a mere accident in the establishment of the U.S.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars


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