Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pulitzer Project: The Executioner's Song

It's confession time. I could not read this book. It wasn't just the subject matter either. The book stinks. It is a steaming pile of fecal matter. Or worse.

I have absolutely no idea why the Pulitzer committee thought this thing qualified for the prize for fiction. It reads like a rough draft, a bunch of only semi-connected notes. It felt like the author had just dumped a bunch of jumbled pieces of wadded up paper covered with scribbled comments -- the preliminary sketches a writer might do before getting down to actual work -- on a typist's desk and asked to have the mess transcribed into one long document. Did the committee fall for it because the events were so recent? Was it the force of Norman Mailer's personality? Or did they confuse quantity with quality? The book does run over 1,000 pages in the hardcover edition I tried to read.

In any case, the choppy, disjointed style, the stand alone paragraphs separated by wide swaths of white space (triple spacing between the paragraphs? Why, dear God, why?), the writing that seems to be targeted toward readers who are stuck at about a third grade level, . . . it's a mess. I know there has always been a tendency of critics to love literary works that are so bad the critics get suckered into thinking they're good*, but surely someone on the committee must have realized that Mailer put this mess together while so drunk he was doing good to remember how to spell his own name. Or maybe he was stoned. The '70s were, after all, when the literati discovered hippies and weed.

As for the book's subject matter, the narrative is a loosely constructed description of the last few years of Gary Gilmore's life. Gilmore gained national attention in the 1970s after being convicted of homicide. There was never any question about his guilt; Gilmore was a remarkably inept criminal. Gilmore himself requested the death penalty and asked that a firing squad carry out the sentence. When Mailer wrote the book he took a lot of heat for trying to make a psychotic jerk look good, but I'm thinking no one who actually read much of The Executioner's Song would come away with a positive image of Gilmore. It doesn't take very many pages in for a reader to pick up on the fact that Gilmore is totally self-centered, has no clue how to behave around anyone who isn't a fellow ex-con, and is so quick to anger that he's pretty scary.

I did feel a little sorry for the bastard -- somewhere along the line in his childhood he went off the rails -- but about the only positive thing I can say about Gilmore is that he had enough balls to decide enough was enough. He'd spent most of his adult life behind bars, had been thoroughly institutionalized and could not function as a normal human being outside a prison, and he knew it. He also knew he didn't want to spend the rest of his natural life as a guest of the state of Utah.

Given that I've deemed this book unreadable, I think it's obvious what my recommendation would be: avoid this sucker. Life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Next up on the list: A Confederacy of Dunces. No surprise. It's another one that's going to be an Interlibrary Loan Request.

*James Joyce supposedly once confessed that much of the idiosyncratic spellings and creative word choices that critics praised in his writing was actually the result of him being a terrible typist. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

So what's new at the museum you ask?

Nothing dramatic.

We volunteers (the few, the proud, the underappreciated) continue to plug away at the renovation project. It''s one of those things where if we hired a contractor it could have been finished in a few days, but when it's dependent on volunteers it's taking all winter. One of the guys took care of spackling the numerous nail holes in the hallway as well as doing the taping and mudding where the drywall got cut and patched as part of cutting the opening for the new door. Yesterday the S.O. got one side of the hall painted and made a good start on the other. Sometime in the next 7 days he'll finish painting, and on Saturday, March 3, we'll get a large cabinet moved.

The cabinet we move, which is indeed substantial in size (5 feet wide and close to 7 feet tall), will be used to permanently house the museum's rocks and minerals collection. We've got a lot of rocks -- different types of iron ore, chunks of float copper, fossils from the local area  (which always surprises me; there's so much granite around here I don't expect to see chunks of limestone with obvious coral) -- but haven't displayed them in awhile. I am told that back before I started volunteering the museum did a rocks and mineral exhibit, but that was a decade or two ago. We're going to get the cabinet moved, one of the volunteers who actually knows something about rocks and minerals will make sure all the chunks of whatever are properly labeled, and if all goes well no one will ever to worry about them again except to maybe do some dusting.

After the cabinet is moved, we'll take advantage of it being gone to paint the drywall behind where it is now. Theoretically that section of drywall should be close to pristine (I can't picture that cabinet having done much dancing around in the museum before being placed where it is now), but you never know. Maybe the reason the cabinet is there is that at some point someone screwed up and punched a huge hole in the wall. The one sure thing with doing any project at the museum is that there's always an unpleasant surprise of some sort lurking in the wings.

The reason the hallway had a gazillion nail holes in the walls is there used to be a gazillion historic photos hanging there. Some of those photos will be going back up; others are going into a new display system. We are giving serious thought to putting up picture molding so we'll never have to put a hole in the wall again. As part of tweaking the hallway, we're also going to do one other thing that apparently got put on hold and forgotten: hanging the door for the file room. Not sure why that door never got hung when it's been sitting out in the storage building with all the hardware on it for years, but that's a pretty minor mystery compared with some of the stuff I've stumbled across in the past five years. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why civilized dialogue doesn't work

I've been getting sucked in some odd debates on Facebook lately. I know I shouldn't because it's generally a total waste of time, but I'm still enough of an idealist (aka naive idiot) that I believe that if the reasons why something is an obvious fake are made clear someone may have one of those dope slap moments, that brief instance of clarity, where they go "Fuck, how could I have been fooled by that?!" And having realized one fairly meaningless meme was actually a photoshopped piece of crap they'll be a little more critical the next time they see something that's a little too good to be true. Yes, I know I'm dreaming, but still I try.

Yesterday was a classic. The item in question was a badly photoshopped supposed official State of Texas marker that commemorated the Second Amendment. It included what purported to be a quote from George Washington. It was so wrong on so many levels that from the viewpoint of someone whose career (and personal inclinations) included spending a lot of time looking at real books-on-sticks ranging from the vintage wayside signage in cannonball parks to brand new historic markers put up by various states it was flat out laughable.

To begin, the only thing the fake marker got right was the general shape of a typical State of Texas historic marker. The underlying template was probably a photo of a really old marker -- maybe. The really early metal markers in Texas had a circular seal at the top with the outline of the state in the middle and 3 stars at the bottom but they changed pretty quickly to including two phrases in the border of the circle: Texas Historical Commission at the top and Official Historical Medallion at the bottom. Note illustration to the right. There may be some old examples standing that don't include the medallion as shown, but that gets us to the next clue.

That clue was the reference to the Second Amendment. Although it can seem at times like American society has been arguing about the Second Amendment forever, it hasn't. It's actually a recent debate. The National Rifle Association didn't start stirring up shit on this issue until the 1970s. Gun manufacturers were experiencing dwindling sales so the NRA (which exists to support manufacturers and not gun owners) begun pushing the importance of self defense. I'm not going to try outlining recent history, but trust me on this one. No one cared about the 2nd Amendment 50 years ago. It was not a hot political issue. After Lee Harvey Oswald used a mail order rifle to shoot John F. Kennedy, the federal government passed regulations making it harder to get guns that easily, but you didn't have high profile celebrities posturing about guns being taken from their cold dead fingers (that speech happened a mere 18 years ago).

In any case, supposedly commemorating the Second Amendment on a state marker is pretty bizarre in itself. That's clue number 3. It would make sense if it mentioned something that happened in Texas that had to do with the Second Amendment, but it doesn't. It's just weird when it comes to the general category of books on sticks. It makes no sense.

Clue Number Four: The purported George Washington quote and its anachronistic phrasing. It referred to "arms and ammunition." This is one of those points that a nonhistorian probably wouldn't pick up on, but back in the George's day that phrase would have been considered redundant. Arms were ammunition. So was everything else used in a military campaign. The word was still evolving; it hadn't yet come to narrowly meaning only what went into the guns.

Clue Number Five: Two different fonts were used -- one for a brief phrase about the Second Amendment; one for the George Washington quote.

Clue Number Six: The extreme brevity of the text. It is amazing just how many words the people who put up the markers can fit on to one of the books on a stick. The people who write the content manage to cram a lot of information on to one metal slab. If you see a photo of a supposed marker that has less than 100 words on it, it's a fake.

Anyway, this was a case of attempting to have a dialogue with people where I didn't even get into the Second Amendment debate at all. I just pointed the photo was a badly done photoshop. Holy wah. First I got told that the reason the text was so terse (and badly written) was space considerations. Pshaw. I countered that one with a photo of a genuine State of Texas book on a stick. The response to that was that it was different because it was newer. So then I found one from 1962.

End result of this useless exchange? The person who was so insistent the marker was real trotted out his ultimate argument: he's almost 70 and used to live in Texas. He's seen a bunch of the markers by the side of the road so he knows for sure what they look like.

That's when I figured out it was pointless. The dude is so locked in to believing something that he saw on Facebook that even if it's something that doesn't really say anything at all he still refuses to believe it's not genuine. I guess it's true. You can't cure stupid.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

El Morro National Monument

And yet another extremely belated post in the ongoing series "How I Spent My Winter Vacation."

El Morro is an interesting little park in northern New Mexico. It's located on what used to be the main route between Albuquerque and points west because it has year-round water. The water is a natural pond formed by run-off from a bluff. No doubt in times of extreme drought the water could dry up, but in general the sheltered location -- not much direct sunlight and protected from the wind -- would slow evaporation. There was an ancient Puebloan village on the top of the bluff, and the site quickly became known to the Spanish explorers.

The rock bluff itself with its vertical walls and soft sandstone had become a favorite spot for graffiti long before European explorers arrived in the Southwest. Native peoples carved petroglyphs into the rock, some of which may have had symbolic meanings and some of which were no doubt the equivalent of "Kilroy was here." I tend to believe that a lot of what archaeologists attempt to read deep meanings into when they're studying ancient rock art today is actually the equivalent of doodling, people sitting around killing time before the evening meal or heading out to go hunting, and had no more significance at the time of its creation than the doodles I used to create while trying to stay awake in staff meetings.

I also tend to believe that's why so much of the ancient rock art that is found includes lot of "fertility symbols.*" Just think about high school for a minute or two and recall what the perpetually love-starved adolescent males used to doodle in notebooks when they should have been doing algebra problems. A biological imperative is a biological imperative. Lust is lust. And sometimes a fertility symbol is one person's fixation on getting laid and not an entire culture's expression of goddess worship. But I digress.

We stopped at El Morro in late February on our way back to Safford from Grand Junction. We decided to take a different route south than we had north so had aimed for Gallup, New Mexico. We spent the night there and then I suggested we check out El Morro as part of heading down to connect with US-180. It was a cold morning and had snowed during the night. When we checked in at the Visitor Center, the ranger warned us that the trail was pretty slick. We took our time in the Visitor Center to give the sun a little more time to work on melting the ice and snow and then walked the trail loop backwards to avoid having to go down a fairly steep hill. The trail loop is paved so once the sun hit it the snow and ice melted fast. Still, given a choice between sliding down an ice-covered sidewalk and crawling up one, I always figure the crawling up is safer. The only drawback was, of course, that we saw the interpretive signage in reverse order. Was that an issue? Not really. 

There are actually two trails from the Visitor Center. One goes down to the water and then along the base of the bluff past the gazillion rock carvings; the other goes up to the ruins of the pueblo on the top of the bluff. The snow and ice on the trails convinced us the smart move would be to save the pueblo trail for another time.

The carvings themselves are interesting. Some have become weathered almost to the point of being unreadable; others still look really sharp. A few experienced damage from well-intentioned but misguided attempts at preservation. The carvings go back hundreds of years with many predating the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico. Once the Spanish did arrive, being typical arrogant asshats the first carving they did was superimposed on ancient carvings. Visitors to the site kept right on carving on the rock until the site was declared a National Historic Monument and what had been a normal cultural practice for centuries turned into vandalism. I'm not sure exactly how recent the last "historic" carving is. The first Spanish one makes an impression; the last American tourist is a bit more obscure.

ELMO is located west of El Malpais National Monument, a park created to preserve and highlight its interesting geological features. We did not drive the few miles east to see ELMA, too, but may check it out the next time we're in New Mexico. It's not that far from the Interstate so would be an easy side trip.

In addition to the Visitor Center and interpretive trails, ELMO includes a small rustic campground. We did a drive through, and to me the sites looked small. It struck me as being a good place for tent camping or with a small RV or travel trailer. It's definitely not designed with Class As or humongous 5th wheel trailers in mind.

The pool is tucked in behind the fence where the people are standing. 

*Usually representations of female genitalia because they're easy to draw. 

Pulizer Project; The Stories of John Cheever

Back in the 1960s I read The Feminine Mystique, the book by Betty Friedan that became part of the feminist canon. Friedan talked about the problem that had no name, suburban housewives going quietly crazy and zoning out on Valium and Seconal. If you ever wondered what all the zombified suburbanites looked like from the male perspective, wonder no more. John Cheever gives us the answer: lots of alcohol and unhappy men musing silently about why their wives don't appreciate just how good middle class life was in the days when families could still afford servants, at least part-time. Turns out the men were just as wretched as the women except they were self-medicating with gin and adultery.

The Stories of John Cheever includes stories spanning about thirty years, from just after World War II up into the 1970s. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression the Pulitzer Cheever received for this anthology should have been labeled "Lifetime Achievement Award." By the time the collection came out, Cheever had published several novels and short story collections, all of which had been well-received, and had become one of the Grand Old Men of American literature. He'd even hit the point where he was spending a fair amount of time in Italy. He'd gone from getting drunk in New York to getting sloshed in Rome. There is a reason alcohol plays a prominent role in Cheever's fiction. It played a prominent role in his life.

Although Cheever's stories share many common elements -- suburban life with middle class people worrying way too much about keeping undesirable and nonconforming residents out of their neighborhoods, men silently sipping gin while contemplating banging the babysitter, white collar couples putting on a front while gradually drowning in debt -- there are changes in tone and connections with reality. Cheever dipped into surrealism occasionally, as in "The Swimmer" where the protagonist decides to take an idiosyncratic route home and what to him feels like a long summer day turns into several years passing for everyone else. He could also be wryly amusing, although not  often enough. More typically he describes unhappy people who end up even more unhappy by the time he wraps the story up a few pages later.

Overall, I had a rather mixed reaction to this book. I found myself thinking that Cheever could write -- the book never turned into a hard slog, and I actually whipped through it fairly quickly -- but, wow, the so called professionals Cheever describes were a sleazy, misogynistic bunch. Some of them make the sexist weasels depicted in "Mad Men" look really good in comparison. I really did not have a whole lot of sympathy for men who decided to screw around on their wives and then had to live with unpleasant consequences, and I also didn't particularly enjoy reading about them.

So where does this book fall on the Pulitzer quality spectrum? Well, it didn't totally suck. The writing is decent even if the subject matter wasn't especially engaging. I'll give it a 5. Middle of the pack. Maybe. I'm not sure "it could have been worse" really positions anything quite that high on the scale.

Would I recommend it to other readers? Not really. The stories are competently written but definitely dated and lack the period charm you occasionally find in older works. One or two of the stories might not be a bad way to kill time, but 600 or so pages of Cheever was a little too much.

Next up on the list is a book I'll probably dislike even more: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. I never cared much for Mailer, and knowing that the book is a fictionalized account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore makes it even less appealing.

Holy wah! It was part of a series

There's cultural appropriation and then there's this:
I no longer believe that mass produced kitschy dream catchers are the worst example of trivializing a culture's heritage. I have seen Chief Runs With Paws. 

On the flip side of the advertisement the text notes that Chief Runs With Paws has complete ceremonial dress that includes a turquoise necklace. For a mere $29.99 plus shipping he can be yours. 

Once again I am both amazed and appalled.  

I'm also already starting to wonder just exactly what type of weirdness will be in the next set of advertisements to land in the mailbox.