Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bill Morris: Motor City Burning (2014)

Bill Morris' Motor City Burning, a 320-page novel, (2014) immerses readers in the taut milieu of 1968 Detroit. Chronologically, it generally follows the contours of the Detroit Tigers' season from opening day -- delayed because of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis -- to the Tigers' final victory in the World's Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. If one looks at a 1968 calendar, that covers from April to October. The baseball season is part of the novel's structural backdrop; the effects of the Detroit Riot during the "Summer of Love" (1967) are also prominent in the unfolding of its noirish plot. Morris focuses on two dudes -- Frank Doyle, a Detroit detective, and Willie Bledsoe, a disillusioned civil rights activist from Alabama. Willie and his brother, a veteran sniper back from the US-Vietnam War (evidently suffering from PTSD), were in Detroit together during the '67 riot; they are somehow both connected to an unsolved homicide. Much drama ensues.

Interesting details peppered throughout the novel are worth the whole shebang. Along the way, one catches the '68 Detroit vibe, race-tinged interactions, class differences and structural changes in the city and suburbs. And then there's the just cracking gender code in the age of Mad Men

The only hokey thing about Motor City Burning: the two main female characters, one involved with detective Doyle and the other with Bledsoe. They are fantasy figures, the kind you might expect in a James Bond tale -- only not as lethal. There's a third woman who is a spitting image of Mrs. Robinson, which may be an inside joke since The Graduate was still playing in American theaters in 1968. 

Motor City Burning is much better at showing male interactions within the Detroit police department and among people facing them on home turf and in business establishments (including blind pigs and other underground facilities). The "big four" police attack squads are something right out of the harrowing FX crime series, The Shield; their activities and other dodgy practices and belief systems go a long way in shedding light on racial and class tensions in Detroit and elsewhere in the USA, then and now. 

Today's Rune: Strength.          

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Paul Thomas Anderson: 'Inherent Vice' (2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014), an adaptation of the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same title, is a milieu film set in 1970 Los Angeles, California, and thereabouts. Ronald Reagan is the governor, Richard M. Nixon is the president and the US-Vietnam War is still dragging on and on.  Hippies and squares vie for shrinking karmic space on the West Coast.  

As Doc Sportello, stoner private eye, Joaquin Phoenix fits right in, as does Doc's frenemy, the other key character in this tale, flattoped LA Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). 
Inherent Vice: it's the ouija board, man! Obvious comparison points: the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski (1998) and A Serious Man (2009); Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974); and so on. 
Inherent Vice: It's the fog, man!  Anderson proceeds at his usual grinding, discomfiting pace. Not as evil here as in There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012), still there are in Inherent Vice scenes both long and slow -- even unnerving. Overall, it's not as "heavy" a trip as the aforesaid flicks, not by a long shot -- which is a merciful thing. 
Inherent Vice: Can you grok this, 1-Adam-12? 

Today's Rune: Partnership. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Final Assault on Fort Fisher: 150th (1865-2015)

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here's a snippet from the Fort Fisher site overview, North Carolina Historic Sites (and National Historic Landmark):

Until the last few months of the Civil WarFt. Fisher kept North Carolina's port of Wilmington open to blockade runners supplying necessary goods to Confederate armies inland. By 1865, the supply line through Wilmington was the last remaining supply route open to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. When Ft. Fisher fell after a massive Federal amphibious assault on January 15, 1865, its defeat helped seal the fate of the Confederacy . . . (for much more, including detailed maps: see this link).
On January 15, 1865, Fort Fisher's entire garrison of about 1,900 men was killed, wounded or captured. Of the POWs, nearly half subsequently died of wounds, illness or a combination -- including Major General W.H.C. Whiting, who'd graduated first in the West Point class of 1845; he was forty years old when he died.  On the Union side, out of about 12,000 troops participating in the land assault, 1,000 ended up killed, wounded or missing. 

Image above by Timothy H. O'Sullivan taken in January 1865, after the last battle. "Fort Fisher, N.C. View of the land front, showing destroyed gun carriage in second traverse." The details are clear: these sandbags, the sawhorse and wood planking could just as easily be from 2015 as 1865 (Library of Congress).

Today's Rune: Possessions. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Crazy Little Thing Called News


I remember how excited I was as a kid seeing raw news coming off the wires, tick tick tick, well before the internet took hold. The Associated Press (AP) or United Press International (UPI) cabled eclectic updates, sending news items by telegraph, telephone, radio, courier . . . using technology, combined with rail and auto, that had created sports as we know it, ups and downs of stock markets, currency exchange rates and stylized formats for presenting the news that we still recognize and rely on. 

Back then, I often looked at 3D globes and paper maps. From the perspective of the East Coast of the USA, I sometimes wondered what was happening in places like Zanzibar, Inner Mongolia, Bolivia or Ghana. Now -- and for the past two decades, really -- with the internet, it's much easier to find out for oneself -- and fast. 

Multiple language filters are less of a challenge, too, thanks to instant (if still a little clunky) electronic translations served up with the click of a mouse. (They were called "machine translations" when I worked in Public Documents & Maps).

In this so-called 21st century, with even basic curiosity and imagination, anyone with high speed access to the internet and rudimentary information literacy can customize their own approach to "the news." 

What is "the news?"  Even the word "News" is slangish, when you think about it.  That which is new? But not all news is new -- in fact, much of it's old hat. (Usage of  the word "news" is nothing new, either: it goes back more than six hundred years). 

Consider this approach to the news from nearly three hundred years ago. The "tag-line" for The Pennsylvania Gazette pictured above: "Containing the freshest Advices Foreign and Domestic" (spelling modernized -- it's from the year 1729 after all).  This was the first incarnation of The Pennsylvania Gazette as published by Benjamin Franklin.

In the right-hand column, the "editorial" asserts: 

There are many who have long desired to see a good News-Paper in Pennsylvania; and we hope those Gentlemen who are able, will contribute towards making This such. We ask Assistance, because we are fully sensible, that to publish a good News-Paper is not so easy an Undertaking as many People imagine it to be. The Author of a Gazette (in the Opinion of the Learned) ought to be qualified with an extensive Acquaintance with Languages, a great Easiness and Command of Writing and Related Things clearly and intelligibly, and in few Words; he should be able to Speak of War both Land and Sea; be well acquainted with Geography; with the History of the Time . . . and so on. 

"Breaking" news is another strange concept when you think about it. What is it breaking against -- time? Tranquility? Complacency? Boredom? 

In future, I'd like to spend a little more time considering language differences in concepts and names regarding "the news." 

Isn't it funny how many quirky names there are for various "news" publications?  Like the names of ships, storms and sports teams, naming conventions are bizarrely universal.

How do you gather or receive "news?" Have you changed your approach through time?   

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune. 



Thursday, January 08, 2015

Battle of Dove Creek, Texas: 150th Anniversary (1865-2015)

Dove Creek, Texas, January 8, 1865. In the waning months of the American Civil War, a combined force of Texas State and Texas Confederate frontier troops, about 500 men, attacked a band of Kickapoo led by No-ko-aht traveling from Kansas Territory (with some Pottawatomie) toward Nacimiento, Coahuila, Mexico, where they'd been granted land by the Mexican government in exchange for protection of the area. 

In a report following the ensuing Dove Creek fiasco, Brigadier General J. D. (John David) McAdoo, commander of the 2nd and 3rd Frontier Districts, Texas State Troops, noted the recklessness of the attack:

The two commands halted but a few minutes, during which a brief conversation was had between the two commanders [Henry Fossett and S.S. (Silas S.) Totten], after which, without any formation of a line of battle, without any preparation, without any inspection of the [Kickapoo] camp, without any communication with the Indians or inquiry as to what tribe or party they belonged to, without any knowledge of their strength or position, the command 'forward' was given, and a pell-mell charge was made for three miles.

The Kickapoo had sent out truce parties to both commands, an elderly man with a hunting pass, and a squaw -- both were allowed to parley and then shot dead, one by Fossett and the other by Totten. Fossett's words: "We take no prisoners here." Totten's men then made a frontal assault on the Kickapoo camp while Fossett's wheeled around its flank, aiming to capture as many horses as they could.

The Kickapoo band, with about 500 fighting men (probably including escaped slaves) and an equal or larger number of  women and children to fight for, laid down a withering fire on Totten's men, killing four of his lieutenants and about a dozen men in the first major exchange of gunfire. Meanwhile, Fossett's men grabbed horses and ponies and began taking them off the field, but a Kickapoo detachment recaptured most of them and drove the attackers away in a running gun battle that turned into a Texas Confederate rout. That night, it snowed hard, three feet in some places; Fossett and Totten's surviving men huddled together, trying not to freeze to death. No-ko-aht's band continued on toward Mexico, not in the least amused.

"Remember Dove Creek:" surreal fight between Texas Anglo Confederates and migrating Native Americans. 

Sources: McAdoo's report of February 20, 1865, in The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 48, Part 1.

"No-ko-aht's Talk," edited by George A. Root, Kansas Historical Quarterly, February 1932 (Vol. 1, No. 2), pages 153-159.

Chalmette 200: The Battle of New Orleans, 1815-2015

Chalmette plantation: today's the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, fought at the very end of the "War of 1812," which might better have been named the War That Began in 1812. Or, Another Human Folly Played Out in North America.

After British, Canadians and First Nations (aka Indians) fended off an ill-conceived, half-assed American invasion of Canada earlier in the war, the British high command thought it would be fun to bag New Orleans for the Empire. On January 8, 1815, the "poor bloody infantry" charged with this task -- as "boots on the ground"  -- were ordered to launch a frontal assault against a fortified American defensive position that covered the approach to New Orleans, under the command of Andrew Jackson (who became a national hero.) 

This date, which also happens to be the birthday of Elvis (USA) and David Bowie (UK), became a national holiday in the USA after 1815 -- a big drinking day full of toasts and boasts. Besides July 4 -- Independence Day -- there wasn't much else to celebrate yet.   
At Chalmette/New Orleans, the British had about 10,000 troops, the Americans, half that number -- but behind a canal and barricades. The attackers, out in the open, lost some 2,000 casualties, including many officers, while the defenders lost maybe 300. 

Some of the surviving British soldiers made it through this nightmare only to die, about six months later, at the Battle of Waterloo. 

Today's Rune: The Self. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle (2005)

I'd love to compare notes about Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle: A Memoir (2005). Have y'all read it? I know closely three people who have, for sure -- four, if you include me. 

The title comes from Rex Walls' detailed ideas for building a Glass Castle, but it also may work to remind readers of that proverb about stones and glass houses.

The book details the peregrinations of Rex and Rose Mary Walls and their four kids: Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen. There is movement and there is place - in the American West, in Welch, West Virginia and in New York City. There are social interactions and there's environment. One can't help but compare and contrast geography, culture and social psychology -- at least I couldn't. Above all, it's an absorbing read. Can you dig?

Today's Rune: Signals.