LBJ – The President Who Would Be Loved

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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.

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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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Humanizing A Legend

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The Kid, by Ron Hansen

Over the years Ron Hansen has been perhaps my favorite contemporary writer, and as far as I know, I’ve been a loyal reader, having read every published piece he’s written. Even met him years ago in Atlanta, had the opportunity to chat briefly with him that evening. The thing about being so familiar with another writer’s work: the other’s writing – both the good and the not-so-good – becomes glaringly obvious.

Hansen’s work has been largely historical fiction, from other legendary western heroes to Hitler to somewhat contemporary religious personalities. Most fiction these days virtually requires saturating the writing with historical data from the book’s era, and Hansen seems to have the best historical resources of any contemporary writer. The danger in using such amassed research material, though, is in overusing it, and Hansen seems increasingly liable in this regard. Another danger, and this is merely the other side of the coin in using research material to that extent, is in allowing the characterization and storyline to suffer because of it. This too seems to be an indulgence that Hansen owns, although reviews indicate he gets away with it.
In the case of The Kid, the author seems compelled to use every bit of minutiae at his command, particularly the brands of clothing, including and especially hats. The operative rule here is generally “Does this information help depict the story’s landscape? Does it help set the story’s mood and aid in allowing the characters to come alive?” In this novel, for perhaps its first half, the narrative flow bogs down from an excess of such detail, as if the reader must assay these story characteristics through a microscope instead of enjoying them in panorama.

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But invariably, as in this novel, Hansen’s work planes out and the writing gains its necessary use of the author’s “camera” in negotiating close-ups and panoramas, in exposing Billy the Kid’s true character, and in pacing the story. And, as in other of his works, Hansen’s insight into the import of his subject’s place in history always seems unique, provocative and, more than likely, ultimately accurate. As I continually state, no piece of writing, especially fiction, is perfect, and while sticking with Hansen’s books sometimes takes patience, that patience is always rewarded.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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When Is A Story Not A Story?

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A friend who is an avid reader read an in-progress manuscript of mine recently (bless those who volunteer to be beta readers), and as with any constructive critique, I learned from the reader’s side of the story. Readers, he reminded, want to engage with the characters – if not to like them, at least to care whether they live or die. And so as I dug into that in the context of stories such as mine and expanded on it, here’s what my takeaway from what that valuable experience tells me.

Many things can carry a story. Mine is a period piece, set in the heady years of the ‘sixties, with a large cast of characters, whose lives cross others, and cross again. To write about that most dramatic decade is a challenge – you know – what to leave in, what to take out. Here’s just a quick spin through that decade’s events and experiences to consider:

  • rebellion
  • drugs
  • Vietnam
  • the pill
  • family
  • the workplace
  • interpersonal relationships
  • assassinations
  • counterculture
  • music

So the test here is what defined this decade, and how to capture those things in the lives of characters. As a writer, you have to honor your audience. Some will be reading for the historic feel, for instance, others will seek out characters they can superimpose over their own personalities to perhaps learn about themselves. And others, as a witty fellow, once told me, “…don’t give a damn if it’s true or not, long’s it’s a helluva story.”

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I’m finding that much of postmodern literature, especially of the domestic (USA) variety, tends to give short shrift to character as the paramount object in that form of the novel. Instead, it’s used to amplify setting, historical era, or other social perspective the author wants to express in story.

 

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Read a Banned Book Today

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Books speak quietly. They’re full of ideas-and stories representing concepts that can’t seem to be transmitted any other way, except perhaps in pictures. But throughout history, books have been banned.

Why?

Societies put limits on the behavior of their people, for one thing. This is often necessary for a society to function. The rub is when societies become permeated with lies, lies that have nothing to do with a society’s well-being as much as to empower certain persons.

For another, the history of societies is often written in lies that favor one group of people over another. History, it seems, is always written by the winners of wars, not the losers, and these histories are often constituted through lies, lies that distort the reality of those societies.

Books, particularly the ones written as fiction, are the antidotes to society’s lies and false justifications, and that makes them a danger to the powerful. So books properly written can challenge a reader’s thinking, about the makeup of the reader’s world. This is why, in the ‘sixties, when so-called radicals were burning campus buildings, author James Mitchener begged them , PLEASE! don’t burn the libraries.

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You can stand on a street corner and proclaim your angst. You can rant on TV, but  books are much more powerful statements than any such posturing. If, in the future, you come to find a book that’s ever been banned, pick it up, take it home. Read it. It will change the way you see the world.

 

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A German Interlude

 

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The House By The Lake, by Ella Carey

Genre blending is the new passion in writer land. We’re mixing non-fiction with fiction, memoir with fiction, fictionalized essays, and perhaps more I can’t think of at the moment. The skill in writing such blends into a cohesive whole is no small feat, and Ms. Carey has done a good job, in her case, of merging history with fiction.

The story is in two parts, alternated. First, grandfather Max asks Anna to go to his old home in Germany and retrieve a mysterious object that’s suddenly grown dear to Max. The rest of this part of the story has her doing so, with the help of German lawyer Wil. The second part is essentially a series of flashbacks to Max’s early life in Germany prior to WWII, and his love affair with a now-mysterious woman, Isabelle.

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The book is at its base a romance novel, easy fodder for reading groups and clubs. Still, Ms. Carey structures her story well and steers fairly clear of the romance cliches. The manner in which she alternates in time takes some getting used to, but the separate parts begin to cleave to one another as the story progresses. This is Ms. Carey’s second novel, and it shows the skills necessary to develop strong characters and blend them into fictionalized history.

My rating: 17 of 20 Stars

 

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Language and the Limits of Being Human

 

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Everyone feels that we’re in unique times, but as a writer, I have to wonder what we’ll write as the world and its people traverse these interesting times.

  • Will history take off in some unexpected direction?
  • Will we head into space, explore the “final frontier?”
  • Will human nature itself change?

Having spent the decades of my life – as an ancillary exercise – in trying to plumb life on planet earth, in learning what is to be expected from human nature in the throes of massive change, I feel a bit weak in the knees in trying to put words to it.

But the writer in me does relish such a prospect. Because, you see, none of the things that might change – the potential morphing of human reality into some new and strange creature and direction, for instance, can be made corporeal until subjected to the limits of language.

This may sound contradictory and perhaps downright wrong, but that’s always been the relationship between humanity’s strange, part corporeal, part transcendent reality and our attempts to reflect that reality through story.

We writers may stumble over our own words as we do this, but eventually we’ll leave a damn good picture of this era’s evolving human for the future’s even stranger versions of humanity to contemplate.

 

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Cannibalism in Iambic Pentameter

I’ve given poetry short shrift over the past few years in this blog, partially, I believe, because modern poetry is at a crisis point. While there are a few excellent poets today, some to be remembered through time, the craft itself has fallen into nasal whining on the one hand and into a morass of technicality, which can’t be justified, since no advised structure has come to the fore for today’s compulsion to free verse.

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But one book of poetry bears mention, one coming to the fore a second time in forty years, because, as I continue to harp, that “the story’s the thing.” I’m thinking here of George Keithley‘s book-length poem, The Donner Party, which reacquaints us with America’s only recorded case of cannibalism. Too, I’m surely not the only one in thrall to this work; it was republished in revised form in 2012. But if you aren’t familiar with the story here it is in brief:

A party of wagon trains leaves the midwest for California in an ill-advised season, and almost to their destination has to detour, trying to escape winter weather. Finally stranded, and without food, many members of the wagon train die, and, so legend has it, they’re eaten by the survivors.

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This story – and the book – is part history, part literary imagining, based on author Keithley’s deep research into the subject. Keithley leads us on, as a novelist might, in traditional iambic pentameter (for the most part), letting the story tell itself though his poetic gifts. To me, this book is perhaps more compelling that a linear dispensation of the party’s history. Whether you find the original book in the library (you may not), or buy the new version, you’ll find this tale of Americana’s dark reaches compelling. I’ll mention more on the subject early next week.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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