Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I LOVE Westerns, be they movies or books. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for great Western stories. Two of my favorite are True Grit by Charles Portis and Josey Wales: Two Westerns : Gone to Texas/The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales by Forrest Carter.
As a fan of the movie, True Grit, I absolutely had to buy the book when I saw it on the bookstore shelf. That proved to be a good choice. As much as I loved the movie, the book was better. To begin with you get more character development, which I guess is true of most books that were later made into movies. But the characters in this book are characters you realy want to know more about, especially Rooster Cogburn. Besides telling an entertaining story the book was simply a pleasure to read. Charles Portis employs an elegantly simple, some would say a uniquely American/Southern, style of writing that is very enjoyable to read. In fact the language does a great job creating just the right atmosphere.
If you liked the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales then run, don’t walk, to buy this book. First of all you get two books for the price of one. Second, you will be treated to some great stories. In the character of Josey Wales Mr. Carter has created what amounts to the definitive Western hero as warrior character. Josey Wales is not the traditional laconic cowboy who simply uses horse sense and homespun wisdom to get him through. He is the natural born warrior visiting death, destruction, and vengeance on his enemies. Nevertheless, don’t let the above description lead you to believe that these books are just mindless action stories. These stories deal with very real issues such as loss, love, duty, honor, redemption, and choosing a meaningful life over a nihilistic existence.
I am not a professional book critic so I am sure the above reviews lack much. As a wise man once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Nevertheless, don’t be put off by my pedestrian efforts to describe these great books. Check them out for yourself.
A quick Iraq story, to lay over the following email from our old friend JarHeadDad. Last week, LTCOL (Ret.) Oliver North was here. He was telling me how -- as a boy in Virginia -- he and all the other boys brought their deer rifles to school on the bus on the first day of the hunting season. Then, at the end of the day, they'd walk home and go out in the woods and hunt.
Colonel North would have been a boy in about the time mentioned here.
SCHOOL 1957 vs. 2007
Scenario: Jack goes quail hunting before school, pulls into school
parking lot with shotgun in gun rack.
1957 - Vice Principal comes over, looks at Jack's shotgun, goes to his
car and gets his shotgun to show Jack.
2007 - School goes into lock down, FBI called, Jack hauled off to jail
and never sees his truck or gun again. Counselors called in for
traumatized students and teachers.
Scenario: Johnny and Mark get into a fistfight after school.
1957 - Crowd gathers. Mark wins. Johnny and Mark shake hands and end up
2007 - Police called, SWAT team arrives, arrests Johnny and Mark. Charge
them both with assault, both expelled even though Johnny started it.
Scenario: Jeffrey won't be still in class, disrupts other students.
1957 - Jeffrey sent to office and given a good paddling by the
Principal. Returns to class, sits still and does not disrupt class
2007 - Jeffrey given huge doses of Ritalin. Becomes a zombie. Tested for
ADD. School gets extra money from state because Jeffrey has a
Scenario: Billy breaks a window in his neighbor's car and his Dad gives
him a whipping with his belt.
1957 - Billy is more careful next time, grows up normal, goes to
college, and becomes a successful businessman.
2007 - Billy's Dad is arrested for child abuse. Billy removed to foster
care and joins a gang. State psychologist tells Billy's sister that
she remembers being abused herself and their Dad goes to prison.
Billy's mom has affair with psychologist.
Scenario: Mark gets a headache and takes some aspirin to school.
1957 - Mark shares aspirin with Principal out on the smoking dock.
2007 - Police called, Mark expelled from school for drug violations. Car
searched for drugs and weapons.
Scenario: Johnny takes apart leftover firecrackers from 4th of July,
puts them in a model airplane paint bottle, blows up a red ant bed.
1957 - Ants die.
2007 - BATF, Homeland Security, FBI called. Johnny charged with domestic
terrorism, FBI investigates parents, siblings removed from home,
computers confiscated, Johnny's Dad goes on a terror watch list and is
never allowed to fly again.
Scenario: Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee.
He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort him.
1957 - In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.
2007 - Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She
faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy.
Okay, my mind is on fiction tonight and it's all Joel's fault. On my way home last time, and on my way out this time, I found and reread one of the true classics of heroism and leadership in the English language. I am referring, of course, to Watership Down.
The writing is excellent, the story is engaging, the characters are well-drawn, the literary and historical references are tastefully used (Adams loves a good quote from Wellington), and the author makes excellent use of real dialects and invented language (Lapine) - just enough to give the book charm and flavor, not enough to distract. But what really makes the story for me is the picture of heroism and leadership it gives. Hazel-Rah isn't the one who always has the answer, always guesses right, always knows what to do, and always gets his way from his subordinates by means of a personal magic. He isn't the smartest warrior in the band, he makes mistakes, and he is struck with self-doubt at exactly the times you or I would be, but he knows his weaknesses and compensates for them. He's got a good staff, some with better experience, to help him plan; but he shows enough bravery (and knows he needs to show it) to inspire them to follow him. He may be struck with doubt, but he makes himself go on thinking - and he keeps his resolve when the temptation to surrender is strongest. His archenemy, Woundwort, in many ways is the more remarkable leader and effective field commander; but he lacks Hazel's strategic vision - and while he can inspire his own troops with his strength, courage, and ruthlessness, he lacks Hazel's moral qualities that make others want to follow him. Hazel also has a good second - Thlayli, a braver and more eager warrior, with a gruffer style of leadership (this, I have seen, can be an effective combination; a nice guy as top leader and an "enforcer" as deputy or top enlisted man - Woundwort, by contrast, is ruthless and encourages all his officers to be the same; and whichever way you go it is fear or material rewards, not the joy of serving).
Because of his flaws and the way he meets them, Hazel is in some ways a more convincing character than Dick Winters in Band of Brothers - despite the fact that Winters was a real person, and Hazel is, well, a talking rabbit.
P.S. - Skip the movie; it's not badly made but the things that make the book remarkable don't make it in. This is a good story for young people but I appreciated it more later in life.
Joel's recent post on The Golden Compass and the general webwide chatter about it got me to thinking. I read the His Dark Materials trilogy (this is the first part of it) back in the 1990's (I don't read much fantasy these days - but it was different then). What struck me about it is how stale the stories felt.
The basic idea - the Revolt of the Angels wasn't quite the good-versus-evil struggle we've been taught - was already done, much better, over ten years earlier by Steven Brust in To Reign in Hell (Heinlein did a much cruder and duller job in Job, which for some reason remains a staple of airpport booksellers - I haven't read Anatole France's Revolt of the Angels and can't comment on it). A historical or semi-historical or alternate-world fantasy where the main villain is based on intolerant Catholics of the medieval kind - well, Robert Shea did that, and Michael Moorcock before him, and (so I'm told) Sir Walter Scott even earlier.
For the rest, he had some beautiful visions to share, but they had a tired feel. Heroic fantasy has been showing us beautiful visions since the genre began, and there was nothing to compare with The Worm Ouroboros or The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - both over 70 years old. Among Pullman's visions, my personal favorite was the Armored Bears, with their spiritual link to their armor, and the fight for the kingship - but even that felt like something Tarzan, or the Grey Mouser, or one of Moorcock's Eternal Champions would've met 2-3 generations ago (in what would surely have been a much better story). The parallel worlds thing has been done a thousand times over, and while some of the themes are eternal (basic heroism in the face of danger, the call of love versus the call of duty), Pullman's books didn't do anything for me that other and older tales hadn't done better a great many times. I felt cheated of my time when I finished the trilogy.
Grim recently linked to a Commentary article on artistic Modernism and brought back to mind something Derbyshire once said - after admitting he didn't enjoy modern poetry much, he asked, but what else were modern poets to do? They couldn't go on turning out Pippa Passes or A Shropshire Lad for another hundred years - if they were going to write it at all, they had to do something else, but what they ended up doing didn't seem to have much staying power. I don't want to say this has happened with heroic fantasy - some of the last fantasies I read were by authors who were creating fascinating worlds that had never been seen before, and were at least making an effort at adding a believable political or economic dimension. But Pullman's stories, however much attention they get due to the movies, aren't the ones that have moved on.
About a week or so ago, I actually got a few hours off during the daylight. I'd seen some hyenas wandering around at night. A Navy LT who was here last spring caught one.
They're cute. I saw the pups last night, who are even cuter.
I decided to go see if I could track them. The dust in Iraq is perfect for tracking.
Turns out they were denned up in among some construction materials out in an empty quarter by Route Irish. There were also some abandoned trailers out there, which the hyenas enjoyed.
I did find the den and the female, but the others were out hunting. I had to climb into the T-walls to get to the den, and she spotted me as I got within a few feet of her. She was better at wiggling around than I was, so by the time I got clean and got my camera on her, she was fifty yards away and moving.
Ah, well. Sorry about the picture, but it was fun. Most fun I've had since I got here, in fact.