Current Distractions, July 2016 Edition

As usual, I've done a pretty terrible job of keeping track of what I've been up to this month that has prevented me from reading. And believe me, I've had a major reading slow down in July compared to June. A lot of that has been work-related, but I think it'd be safe to blame the rest of it on the fact that it's summertime and I've been socializing a lot more than I've been reading. I spent the first week of the month in northern Saskatchewan, and since then I've been back home, attending parties and bridal showers and weddings and going to the beach and getting sunburned.


I went to a local production of an all-female Julius Caesar adaptation called J. Caesar, which was great. Of course I also read the play to prepare to see the show. And the play is great on its own!


I gave up on Bloodline season two. I ended up not watching the show for a while and didn't really miss it, so I just decided not to continue it. On a somewhat related note, I haven't even started watching Orange Is The New Black season four. I'm not sure if anyone I know has watched it yet either. So instead of watching anything new, I'm now attempting to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, while also being more excited to do a rewatch of Star Trek: The Next Generation now that all of Star Trek is on Netflix. And speaking of that...

Star Trek Beyond was a marked improvement over the previous film, but I have to say it didn't really blow me away. It was just fine. But on that note...


Holy hell. I have been waiting for a new Star Trek television show for years and years and years. Since exhausting the existing canonical works (with the exception of a lot of TOS and a little of TAS) and experiencing a complete lack of success finding something to fill the Star Trek-shaped hole in my heart, I've been feeling the need for new Trek even more.

But Star Trek: Discovery is coming, and I doubt I can put into words how much I'm looking forward to it. I've already watched this dumb teaser (which is just the ship coming out of some weird space dock) more times than I care to admit.

(Hopefully the embedded video continues to work, I had a hard time finding an official one. Will replace if necessary/I notice it's not working.)

Saskatchewan is A Thing: Reductress

Welcome to Saskatchewan is A Thing, my compilation of all of the random references to Saskatchewan, which I believe is over-represented when it comes to random references, chasing some of the greats like Timbuktu and Tripoli. If you know of a Saskatchereference that I haven't featured yet, please leave a comment!

It's been forever since the last time I did one of these!

I'm always pleased to see a Reductress article cross over one of my various timelines/feeds/whathaveyous because they often get the perfect mix of too real and too ridiculous in their articles.

A friend sent me this next article shortly after it was originally posted, but thanks to the way I have my blog posts scheduled, I'm just now getting around to sharing it:

This article was written by Nicole Boyce, and while there isn't any information about her on the Reductress site, I felt a bit of a twinge reading it and decided to look her up. I found this Nicole Boyce, who seems like she must be the person although at time of writing, the web page doesn't include this article among her list of works. So if the writer is indeed Calgary-based, the reference is less random than the usual Saskatchereference, but I'm including it anyway because I guarantee that the Reductress readers aren't exclusively western Canadian.

Saskatchereference Tally: 3
Saskatchereferences per Saskatcheresident: 1/380 857 (3/1 142 570)

R41. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Can I also just quickly mention that "lonesome" is one of the most gorgeous words in the English language? -M.R.

Year Published: 1985
Pages: 858

First Sentence: When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry | Two Hectobooks

I didn't even realize that I was doing this, but I guess I've slowly been working my way through the books that inspired the various great miniseries of the 80s, none of which I've actually seen. Shogun only got a blurb, but The Thorn Birds got the full review treatment. We'll see what I get to next. The one I read most recently was Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. I enjoyed this more along the lines of Shogun than The Thorn Birds, and in fact I think I liked it better than Shogun.

The book follows the journey of a pair of ex-Texas Rangers driving a huge herd of cattle from Texas (well, Mexico, really, where they stole the cattle), to Montana. This is a gross oversimplification, because it seems like the two of them are rarely together in most of the book, and there's a whole lot more than that going on. The book is full of pretty much everything that you want from the Old West: skulls and sunrises on empty prairies, coming of age, Irish immigrants singing to cows, horses with personality, sudden violence, beautiful prostitutes with big dreams, and the kind of hard people that are increasingly rare or extinct in North America, willing to sleep on the ground for weeks and skip bathing, too. With respect to that last, while it's not something that I want for myself, it's something that I can admire nevertheless.

You may have noticed something missing from my list above, because I wanted to try to get into it more than just as part of a list. I also need to add the usual caveat that I am not an expert, and also white, and therefore could be way off track. I think you can probably see where I'm going with this now, which is the whole "Cowboys and Indians" aspect of the story. I'm not going to delve too deeply into this, because the more I say, the greater chance that I'll make a fool of myself. Anyway.

Being that I'm a Canadian citizen and, again, a white person, I have a vested interest in decolonization not being a thing. At the same time, I've been learning and thinking more over the last few years about just what happened in North America at the time of white settlement. This includes many specific things, good and bad, but at least one of those things was a genocide that no one seems to be willing to acknowledge (try explaining residential schools to a German woman who just attended Remembrance Day services in Ottawa and see how you feel about Canadian history after that).

Right from the beginning, we learn that Gus and Call (the central pair, where Gus is the jovial blabbermouth and Call is the taciturn, dignified one) have basically given up rangering in the wake of the subjugation of the Comanche and control of the American border with Mexico. My knowledge of Texas history and the Comanche is almost non-existent, but a quick look at Wikipedia suggests that the Comanche were quite warlike and formidable around this time, although it's still not clear to me whether the Comanche that Gus and Call fought with and killed were actively murdering people or just existing. The point, I suppose, being that from a modern perspective, these people were defending their territory, and it was European settlers who were in the wrong. This has proven to be very hard for white North Americans to swallow, though. I guess we just haven't managed to muster the cultural courage it would take to admit that, even though this was something that happened before any number of more recent morally repugnant events (or was it?), it was still extremely wrong. In short: Cowboys vs Indians is pretty much engraved in our cultural mythology at this point, although I think that we're finally starting to acknowledge the issues with that.

A lot of Old West narratives manage to skirt this thorny issue by simply ignoring it and focusing on the settler characters (see: Angle of Repose). Lonesome Dove doesn't quite do that, because the "Indians" are mentioned pretty frequently although seldom depicted in any detail. What really got all of this from the back of my mind to the front of it was an incident that happens halfway through the book. A young prostitute named Lorena ends up semi-accompanying the cattle drive, although her camp is away from the main one, and one night she gets kidnapped by a man named Blue Duck. He's the only native person in the book who gets any characterization, and that basically amounts to evil (there are white and black people that are also depicted as being just bad people, but for them it's contrasted with people who are brave and/or good, rather than faceless masses, though certainly not all of the natives are shown to be cutthroat menaces). Blue Duck takes Lorena and "sells" her to a group of Kiowa and a couple of buffalo hunters (white ones), who do about what you'd expect.

To be clear, I didn't exactly find this episode objectionable, it was just what really got me thinking about what I was reading. Is reading a book where the cowboys are the heroes anything like reading a book where SS officers following orders are the heroes? Or is it more like Roman soldiers are the heroes, people at sufficient remove and with such superior firepower that we can't help marvelling at what they accomplished, and forget the death and misery? Obviously many of the people who came to live in North America were not bad people, to the point that some of them could probably be considered refugees. But that doesn't give anyone the right to ignore what then ended up happening to the people who already lived here. Human history is full of conquest and if everyone had just stayed put after settling various parts of the world, things today would be very different. So do we or don't we need to bring an understanding of this to any or all of our narratives? Ultimately I don't think that I've really come to any specific understanding about all this, which in itself might be a symptom of my privileged perspective. As usual, I welcome any additional input.

The book has some ambiguity in its perspective, too, that I'd be remiss to not point out. This could be considered lip service, but at least one character talks about how the land that they're on belonged to others before, and that those others had a right to defend it. It's critical of Manifest Destiny and how pointless and deadly that idea was, in a way that was subtle enough that I literally didn't realize it until someone else pointed it out. (See, for related reasons: Gone with the Wind, another book with a questionable stance on its period of history, which I didn't think to mention when I reviewed it.)

After saying all that, though, I have to admit that I liked this book a lot. Did I say that already? I loved so many of the characters, and the way their relationships were portrayed. I've honestly been pretty indifferent toward cowboys for a long time, but McMurtry was very effective in his descriptions of their work, where something like twelve men can get thousands of cattle to walk thousands of miles. Women were rare in this landscape, but there were a surprising number of good female characters in the book at least. McMurtry even cowrote the script of Brokeback Mountain, so although I don't know anything about his personal politics, I would guess that he's one of the more progressive of the various Old West aficionados.

The book is a bit of a monster (hence this monstrous review), but doesn't feel overlong, and there isn't a lot of filler in it as far as I'm concerned. The bulk of it deals with the cattle drive, with some diversions. It's basically just a slice of things, leaving a few loose ends, in a good way. And yet, I'm not sure that I'll read anything else from the tetralogy that this book begins. I enjoyed this sampling of the Western genre, but if it's going to give me gigantic crises of conscience, I think it's unlikely that I'll be abandoning sf as my preferred go-to genre anytime soon.

TL;DR? I liked it but it made me think pretty hard about some things. That's never a bad thing, though.

- - - - -
"It's alright, though," Augustus said. "It's mostly bones we're riding over, anyway. Why, think of all the buffalo that have died on these plains. Buffalo and other critters too. And the Indians have been here forever; their bones are down there in the earth. I'm told that over in the Old Country you can't dig six feet without uncovering skulls and leg bones and such. People have been living there since the beginning, and their bones have kinda filled up the ground. But it's just fellow creatures, it's nothing to shy from."
- - - - -

Five Years Ago This Month: July 2011

Five years ago this month...

...I reviewed Brideshead Revisited. Apparently there was a bunch of homoerotic stuff in it that I completely didn't pick up on, and it hasn't made a lasting mark at all. Hurray?

...I was distracted. I took a trip to Montreal, and it was so hot that I still never want to return.

Montreal Botanical Garden, July 2011 | Two Hectobooks
The botanical gardens in Montreal were really great, though.

60. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Year Published: 1961
Pages: 241
First Sentence: This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy | Two Hectobooks


Seeing this book coming up next caused me to take another long break from The List. I attempted another one of Walker Percy's books, Love in the Ruins, a few years ago, and ended up simply giving up on that one. I like the man's titles better than his prose, I've found.

A lot of this will simply be due to taste, and yet I'm not going to urge anyone to try the work for themselves. When it comes to wounded people finding comfort in one another, The List offers several superior examples (A Room with a View comes to mind immediately, but the book I'm really thinking of is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which of course isn't on The List at all).

Binx Bolling, Korean War veteran and stock broker (or something of that nature) is our hero. He lives in New Orleans and he seduces his secretaries. The scene is set in the days and weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, and it's the early 60s. Binx is undoubtedly suffering from some sort of PTSD. He seems to have issues with respect to his dead father as well, and his mother has remarried and had a whole raft of kids. Also, I forgot to mention that Binx is about to turn 30. I'm interested in a lot of these things but I had a terrible time connecting with Binx or anything going on in his life.

The novel's chief concern is actually Binx's relationship with Kate, his cousin-by-marriage, who suffered a tragic loss in her past, and who is still suffering badly. The novel's best parts are between the two of them.

Alas, the rest of it is such a slog that I can't recommend it. You may also note that I haven't really mentioned anything about movies, and that's because there are very few movies in the book at all. I know I've read books with more movies in them than there are in this one, although of course I can't think of any of them right now to back up that assertion. Maybe Augie March?

I've conquered Walker Percy now, though. I'll say one thing for him, which is that if there was ever a writer who could depict heat, it's him. That's something I remember more from his other book that I attempted to read. New Orleans shines here, too, although I've never been there, and wouldn't've known what a "krewe" is if not for an episode of Stuff Mom Never Told You that I listened to during the Mardi Gras season before I read the book.

- - - - -
     "If I could be sure you knew how frightened I am, it would help a great deal."
     "You can't be sure."
     "Not merely of marriage. This afternoon I wanted some cigarettes, but the thought of going to the drugstore turned me to jelly."
     I am silent.
     "I am frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I'm not frightened is when I'm with you. You'll have to be with me a great deal."
     "I will."
     "Do you want to?"
- - - - -