Monday, January 1, 2018

Cluster Critiques

Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few by Diana Finlay Hendricks

“(Delbert) has the advantage of never having ‘made it’ so to speak. Roy Orbison said he felt like he was dragging this legend around. Elton John hated playing a new song because he knew everyone would leave to go to the bathroom. Delbert’s audience doesn’t believe he is only as good as his last hit.” T Bone Burnett (paraphrased)

I’m standing in the middle of the dance floor of Soap Creek Saloon, March 1979. Delbert McClinton is on the stage, and although the dancers and music are swirling around me, I’m in a quiet, still bubble – frozen in an existential connection with something that might be genetic imprinting. I’d never heard anything like Delbert McClinton, and never would again.

In Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few, Diana Finlay Hendricks tells McClinton’s life-story (so far) with a soulful rhythm (not unlike McClinton’s music), keeping it off the too-typical biographical treadmill of “he did this, then he did that, then that” - a testament to her journalistic and writing skills, and maybe to the character of Delbert McClinton. The narrative flows smoothly around truly interesting characters and milestones, like when as a child Delbert heard 'Honey Hush' by Big Joe Turner and instantly knew his life dream was to become a musician/singer and play that kind of music.

Of course, there’s plenty of back story, including McClinton being one of the many famous musicians born in Lubbock, and the history of the “shady” side of Fort Worth which incubated Delbert’s ambitions and skills, and fascinating radio and music label history and characters. There’s plenty of family drama too; multiple marriages and kids, serial infidelity and drug use, and an eventual “jackpot” marriage to the woman who “straightened” Delbert out (maybe because he was too old and tired not to straighten out). And there’s no shortage of sham record deals, shyster music executives, and bankrupt labels. There’s even the juicy story of Delbert’s involvement in the famous Fort Worth, T. Cullen Davis/Priscilla Davis murder scandal.

Four final tidbits: (1) I loved that Delbert uses the Socrates quote "Speak, so that I may see you" as a tool for measuring character; (2) Delbert and Bonnie Raitt have leaned on each other, and helped get each other out of musical and financial jams for years; (3) Are you sitting down? Delbert McClinton is 77 years old; and finally, (4) If you like Delbert McClinton, or if you like the country/rock/blues music he sings, or if you have some Austin music history yourself, or if you like to read books about musicians, or if you have a pulse, you’ll enjoy Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Driving to Marfa for a short stay at the beautiful and hip Hotel St. George was just an excuse to swing by the grandkids’ ranch to drop off Christmas gifts, and to listen to a good book while on the road. When I researched “best of 2017,” for a book for our trip, Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke kept popping up, so I took the leap, with fingers crossed, and purchased and downloaded the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird is about the seemingly connected murders of an African American Chicago attorney and a young white wife and mother in a small East Texas town, and the racial tension that surrounds their deaths, as well as the investigation of their deaths by a flawed but ethical African American Texas Ranger, Darren Matthews. Locke does a pretty good job creating a compelling story, creating conflict and questions and making us wonder why two seemingly disparate characters, seen together just prior of their deaths died, and who could want them both dead.

Although I do recommend this book, and think you will enjoy it, I won’t rate it as highly as some. Locke never fully developed several characters and side stories that filled a lot of dialogue and type, but never seemed important to the story and ended up just feeling annoying and confusing (i.e., the Chicago attorney’s wife, and the Texas Ranger’s wife, and another murder case in which the Texas Ranger was involved). Locke also never made us feel any emotion for the two murder victims. If we’d liked them more we might have cared that their murders be solved. And finally, and I see this mistake made so often in books, all the small-town, white characters are ignorant, immoral, “hayseed,” shady characters, and all the small town black characters are wise, moral, oppressed, people of good character. Profiling doesn’t work any better in literature than it does on the streets. I get that that is the theme of this story, but “all the white people are bad” and “all the black people good” doesn’t work any better than “all the white people are good” and “all the black people are bad.”

Although we were happy enough with Bluebird, Bluebird to stick with it beginning to end neither me nor my husband said, “Wow! I loved that book” or “That book was really great!” We did however say, “That was a really good book.” But as you probably understand, there’s a pretty vast chasm between a good book and a great one. Read it.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

I discovered Harari’s Homo Deus (Latin for Man/God) last spring when it was first released in English, but when I realized it was the sequel to his other best-seller, Sapiens, I put it aside to read Sapiens first (see my review here). Although Sapiens wasn’t the first version I’d read of how humans gained dominance over the world, it was the first version I’d read that didn’t feel driven by a religious, political or scientific agenda, and it aligned pretty much with my own theories.

Harari’s sequel, Homo Deus, didn’t fit me quite so well – probably because Sapiens was a lot of deduction/interpretation based on what we (as a society/humanity) know about ourselves (recorded history), and is behind us. Homo Deus, however, is predictive, and that challenges the future we see for ourselves, and is therefore scarier – especially as predicted by Harari, who starts this book with this charming observation:

“For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”

And it goes downhill from there, setting the foundation for Harari’s prediction of where humans are collectively headed, and causing me to walk away every 50 pages or so to stop my brain from spontaneously combusting. Harari says:

  • Humans live within an "intersubjective reality" that exist only in the human mind and are given force through collective belief (countries, borders, religion, money and companies), all created to enable large-scale, flexible cooperation between different individual human beings;
  • Humankind's immense ability to give meaning to its actions and thoughts is what has enabled its many achievements (human algorithms);
  •  Humanism is a religion in which humans are framed as the dominant, “godlike” beings (Homo Deus) - with ethics and values derived internally, within each individual, rather than from an external source (traditional organized religion); and
  • That “humanism religion” is generating “super/techno-elite” humans with the capacity to master the environment (no more war, hunger, disease, environmental degradation), but which is threatening the continued ability of humans to give meaning to their lives.
All this leads to Harari’s theory that some human’s will eventually become gods, and those who don’t will be rendered economically useless and die off. Fun stuff huh? But dystopian forecasts (The Handmaids Tale, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Homo Deus) are not supposed to be fun. Homo Deus is a fascinating but heavy read.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Dominika, beautiful daughter of a high-up Russian politician wants to be a ballerina, but her father dies and she suffers an injury, both of which limit her future options and render her vulnerable to an uncle who offers to help her and her mother if Dominika will become a “sparrow” – a seductress spy, and sleuth out a Russian traitor by bedding an American spy. So many clichés there – beautiful Russian ballerina, seductress, bedding the American. Couldn’t she just be a smart, clever spy like the male characters? 

OK, I know “sex” sells, but come on.  On the flip side, the sexy parts are pleasantly sexy, and the story is fun, so I let it slide, and enjoyed Red Sparrow

I also enjoyed it because it is a spy novel with a female protagonist, and those are rare; the story was complicated enough to keep me interested, but not so complicated I ever felt lost; and finally, Matthews is a gifted writer – in that he is a 33-year CIA veteran, lending huge believability to the spy narrative, and gifted in that he is an exceptional writer of dialogue and characterizations.

Read Red Sparrow.

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton

We know a lot about Cowboys and cattle. Right - John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Rawhide, George Strait? Not really. What we know about cowboys mostly came from Hollywood and Nashville, and is highly dramatized and substantially inaccurate.

In Cattle Kingdom, journalist Christopher Knowlton shines a spotlight on the historic origins of the legends, providing a vastly expanded context for understanding more about the world that produced cowboys. What we learn is that much of the development of the cattle/beef industry in America that gave birth to the cowboy developed from a strangely irrational source, the English law of primogeniture, which defines an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.

Up until the late 1800s, the American cattle industry was barely a bump on the map of US development. But then a couple of eastern seaboard journalist wrote about the western lifestyle and the life of “cowboys,” dramatizing them to the point that although most of what was written was far from the truth, the image and image worship persists more than 100 years later. For example, although the “six-shooter” and gun fights are typically associated with cowboys, Knowlton clarifies that very few cowboys in the 1800s had the money or a reason to own a pistol. He also burst the “romantic” bubble of the cowboy life, re-defining their lives by long work-hours, harsh weather, almost no pay, danger and loneliness.

But back to primogeniture. When life on the western front was romanticized, it drew the attention of several wealthy English families’ second sons, who were desperately looking for a way to establish their identity outside of primogeniture. They didn’t have the title or wealth inherited by their older brother, but they did have access to significant potential investors, and the west represented an exciting opportunity to attach themselves to a lifestyle that had captured the imagination of the wealthy English gentry.

Within a couple of years, owning large and growing cattle ranches in Wyoming, Dakota Colorado and Texas became super trendy, creating an industry that produced cattle drives, plush ranch homes, bustling cattle towns, refrigerated cattle cars, luxury steak restaurants and clubs of wealthy ranchers and an even more inflated image of cowboys and gentleman ranchers. Unfortunately, it also produced land-wars and other criminal activity, financial devastation for most of the investors (who pretty much knew nothing about cattle ranching), and a colorful chapter and many colorful characters (one of which was Theodore Roosevelt), adding to the history of the development (and conservation, thanks to Roosevelt) of the American west. 

If you like cowboys and/or history, Cattle Kingdom is an easy, well-written, interesting read.

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