Book Review: The Dog of the South

The Dog of the SouthThe Dog of the South by Charles Portis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South has something in common with Don Quixote. Several of its main characters are driven to some extent mad by reading. The narrator, Ray Midge, has read too many (“four hundred volumes”) military history books. The con man Midge meets in Mexico, Dr. Reo Symes, has himself been conned by a writer of what we would now call self-help books, John Selmer Dix. Even the minor figure bail bondsman changes dramatically after a few days in prison:

“This didn’t sound like the Jack Wilkie I knew in Little Rock who had a prism-shaped thing on his desk that said, ‘Money Talks and Bullshit Walks.’ It was my guess that he had been reading something in his cell. Two or three days in jail and he was a big thinker!”

Curiously, Jack’s spoutings – “There was altogether too much meanness in the world, he said, and the source of it all was negative thinking.” – sound similar to the summaries of Dix we get from Symes and Midge.
And while Symes has his Dix obsession, Midge is devoted to a cassette recording of a Civil War lecture by Dr. Buddy Casey, which he finally recovers.
Midge realizes too late that in his devotion to his studies he has neglected his wife (“I had to get on with my reading!”), and the book opens with the discovery that she has left Midge for a former coworker named Dupree. The book, like Portis’ second novel True Grit (1968), purports to be a first-person account of the narrator’s adventure written after the fact, Also like True Grit, the narrator is meticulous with details and always insists on being in the right, yet is ultimately a flawed and very naive narrator. With his intellectual pretensions, Ray Midge has more in common with A Confederacy of Dunces’ Ignatius J. Reilly than Grit’s Mattie Ross.
But the similarities between Portis’ two novels are uncanny: in both novels the narrators arrive at a key location in their respective quests and then dally for two days. Both protagonists await money from home. Both are annoyed by nosy and overbearing innkeepers.
And both books are extremely funny. But The Dog of the South, written 11 years after True Grit, has an edge that the earlier novel lacks. Like the movies of Wes Anderson, darkness lurks just beneath the glittering surface of The Dog of the South. Midge’s quest for Dupree (and his car and his wife) is more profound than Mattie Ross’ quest for her father’s killer. Both novels end poignantly, with the inglorious end of Rooster Cogburn appropriately symbolizing the lost American West that he represents, and Norma leaving Midge after a brief reconciliation. While both novels are very much American, The Dog of the South belongs to the world. Like Don Quixote.

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Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American ChristianityPower, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity by James C. Burkee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t quite the book I was looking for. I wanted an overview of the Missouri Synod spilt and Seminex. This book was a detailed – almost painfully so – look at the conservative side. It becomes somewhat depressing to read of the infighting, posturing, politicking and mudslinging.
Still there are some interesting insights on the connections between confessional purity and anticommunism. This book makes me want to read some of George Marsden’s work on fundamentalism.
Meanwhile, if someone can recommend a general overview of the Missouri Synod/Seminex crisis, I would appreciate it.

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Civil War letters posted

I have posted five letters written by my great-great uncle during the Civil War.

The letters were written by Francis A. Pettibone, who apparently lived in the Solon, Ohio, area before the war. After the war he married and settled near Ashtabula, where he practiced law. His son Edwin married my great aunt Rosalynd “Rose” Raible, and they settled in Rocky River, Ohio.

The letters are posted here. I used Twitter Bootstrap 3.0 for the layout and effects.

Feedback is welcome; please use the comments field below.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph AvenueTelegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TA is a novel about endings and beginnings: the end of vinyl records and the independent record store; the end of midwifing; the end of funk and prog rock. And perhaps, more hopefully, the end of racism (Barack Obama makes a cameo appearance as a then-unknown state senator). It’s a moving book about the passage of time, which is vividly “telegraphed” with a character known as Mr. Nostalgia.

We live in an age of ephemera. Telegraph Avenue neither celebrates nor laments that fact. It just documents it. The cover of the book is designed like a record. And through the hole in the record you see silver. Now I don’t want to overanalyze this – and I know the author isn’t necessarily involved in the cover art – but that silver looks to me like a CD.

Telegraph Avenue doesn’t seem to be making a huge splash. The libraries I frequent each have plenty of copies on their New Releases shelves. The reviews on Goodreads and Amazon have been pretty tepid. Perhaps we can hope for a competent director to make a movie based on the book. It’s extremely filmable and might get people to appreciate what a wonderful story it tells.

I’ve never read anything else by Michael Chabon but I will now. I loved this book. It’s sweet, funny, well-written. Writing a book with almost all African American characters is a risky effort for a white guy.I believe Chabon pulls it off. The voices strike me as authentic and without stereotype.

One more thing: it’s nice that 40-somethings are getting their own coming of age literature. There was Super 8, which perfectly captured what it was like to be 13 in the late 70s. Now we have this. At one point he mentions “some movie where a shark-toothed devil doll was biting Karen Black on the ankles.” I totally remember that movie.

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Mark Bowden on modern warfare

The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin LadenThe Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aside from a lengthy digression about the evolution of Obama’s foreign policy views, this book moves quickly and tells the story well.

The Finish seems to complete a kind of trilogy that began with Black Hawk Down and continued with the Desert One section of Guests of the Ayatollah. The running theme through all three is the heroism of America’s armed forces – tempered by the dangers of overconfidence in military technology.

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Anatomy of a Verizon bill updated

I previously described my Verizon bill. Here’s how it shakes out with my LG Enlighten.

Month Minutes Texts
Sept/Oct 397 7,819

Here’s the breakdown.

Nationwide TLK&TXT Share 1400 $ 100.00
5 lines @ $9.99 $ 49.95
2 GB Data plan $ 30.00
Verizon Wireless surcharges $ 11.13
Taxes, governmental surcharges & fees $ 11.93
Total $203.01

One complaint: While I do love my Android powered smartphone,  the 2 GB is way more than I need. There just aren’t that many times that I’m not near a internet-connected computer. And when I’m not, I’m probably driving.