In Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.
“Remember, my dear, religion makes murderers of saints.” – excerpt from Ken Wohlrob’s No Tears for Old Scratch
Ken Wohlrob’s writing has matured since Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. The narrative voice in No Tears for Old Scratch is not only grittier with hard-hitting one liners, but the novel itself is laden with tension and conflict. Quirky is how one might describe his beautiful contemporary narratives with bouts of smart-ass dark humor. He sets each scene by trying to stimulate multiple senses at a time, depicting everything from the the scent and humidity of the atmosphere to the taste and grit in the air. All in all, he has great function in his form:
“A solitary woman sat in 9B…Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.”
In No Tears for Old Scratch, we follow Biff, a melodramatic fedora-sporting Briton—with all his mentions of “wankers” and “bloody hells” and “piss offs” and “cunts,” he’s from across the pond—on his (homeless) holiday through Upstate New York. There, he stumbles upon a quaint community of people struggling with the usual stuff: poverty, divorce, and boredom, only they inhabit what they refer to as “the Holiest Town in America.” (The town is home to The Graveyard of the Innocent, which is a “monument to the unborn babies killed by abortions performed on teenage mothers in New York State every day.”)
Wohlrob’s developed the feel of small community well by illustrating a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and people bump into each other at the library by day and strip club by night. Though the dichotomies are sometimes puzzling—Biff is well-spoken and mannered (in most ways), but is a thief, accomplice to abduction and murder (somewhat), and spouts existential ramblings and antagonizing insults—they work well for the storyline. While referring to someone as “madam,” he might rattle off a slew of offenses:
“Your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”
The middle section of Biff’s adventures is a tad dry, and there are times when I have no idea what the hell is going on. Random personalities are always coming and going, saying and doing nothing particularly interesting, and he frequently makes random mentions of an old man with rabbit teeth and the lifecycle of earthworms.
In the end though, he ties off most hanging ends, and stepping back, we see that Biff is a vagabond who blows into town looking for absolution in this small community, but disrupts the balance with his sociopathic demeanor, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him: a violent demise similar to The Lottery (sans the actual lotto), and after being such a haughty dick—accomplice to murder, stealing from a collection plate, punching a priest—I was almost rooting for the angry mob. As he goes down against the pavement, a few of Biff’s words sear in mind:
“I take no issue with the dead. It is the living whom I find so irksome.”
Suitably titled, No Tears for Old Scratch is a great read for this summer.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.
My review of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between is available at Monkey Bicycle.
Jacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.
The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.
There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.
Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.
With a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.
Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.
Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.
Told through the eyes of young harpest Silent Sam Stamps, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a fanatical tale about the spirit of Delta blues, and what it takes to stay true to the music in a modern society plagued with a short attention span and a lust for mainstream pop.
Together, Brother Ben—the Last Delta Bluesman—and his protégé Silent Sam Stamps climb into an old Caddy Brougham and tour the nation performing songs off their chart-topping album. Hardly a stereotypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the duo upholds a strict respect for themselves, each other, and their art. They live modestly, doing coin laundry, sharing hotel rooms to reduce costs, and shrugging off scene temptations, commercial exploitation, and crass audiences who pressure them to perform songs like “Soul Man.”
The story bursts with eccentric and original character. Williams sets his tale in contemporary society where grande coffees and Kinkos exist, “jooks” have high-priced paraphernalia on the walls, and the duo pays their bills with a gold Corporate Amex. Brother Ben, real name Wilton Mabry, tries up uphold his image of “smoking dynamite and drinking TNT” by leaning on a stage dialect and a stage cough, and habitually swigging from a flask. In reality, he’s an articulate health nut who eats well, exercises, maintains an intense vitamin regiment, and keeps his flask brimming with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper.
As the tour wears on, Silent Sam finds himself increasingly conflicted by the style of music he’s performing alongside The Last Delta Bluesman:
“I’m pretty sure the only recording we’d make would be for a commercial. Maybe even under Kent Bollinger’s direction. For the United Negro College Fund, perhaps. Or a fried chicken franchise.”
The quieter of the two—think neutral narrator Nick Carraway-ish—Sam keeps his head to the ground and his mouth shut, and focuses on perfecting his craft, playing with heart, grit, groin, and gut, and searching for the right audience that would truly understand his music. The duo’s fan base often consists of college professors, health-food storeowners, and “all others who graduated but never found reason to leave Missoula, Ithaca or Athens, GA.”
“I look out in the crowd every night and never see just what I’m looking for,” Silent Sam says. “What we’ve got tonight are young, Soloflex types, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight’s crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy… a payphone is getting as rare as black blues fans.”
It’s easy to get lost in Williams’ crisp narrative, and burn through the novel from cover to cover. Details unfold naturally, and I never found myself straining to re-read a sentence, cringing at an awkward passage, or cutting around fat to get to the meat of his message. Take the opening line:
“It’s said that when Robert Johnson arrived in a new town, the first thing he looked for was an ugly woman who owned her own house. That way, Bob could depend upon a place to sleep, food on the table—he’d supply the liquor—and a bed partner likely as starved for affection as he was.”
Williams lays the story to rest with one of the most extraordinary and well-written conclusions. Never cliché or predictable, we come to learn how powerful and unbreakable the bond is between the two bluesmen, and how it perseveres in the face of tour stressors, musical infidelity, and even retirement. The curtain will rise again for Silent Sam Stamps and Brother Ben in one form or another, and together, they’ll fight to keep Delta blues alive and authentic in an ever-changing contemporary society.
Released in February of 2014, this title is available for purchase over at Curbside Splendor.