Worst of Times, Best of Times

Staying Sane & Entertained While Forced to Hide from the Coronavirus

Charles Dickens likely did not have a deadly global pandemic in mind when he wrote the “best of times, worst of times” opening for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He was contrasting life in profitable, peaceful London with grim life in revolution-torn Paris at the end of the 18th century.

With most Americans now being told to stay away from their jobs and remain sheltered for weeks in their homes or apartments, people are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: How do we keep ourselves sane and entertained while contained within four walls almost around the clock?

What follows are short reports from five people in different parts of the United States. They describe how they have responded thus far to being confined to quarters. They have not complained of feeling like people under house arrest or like space passengers practicing for a long, mundane cruise to Mars.

For some, at least, the pandemic response has been a time for reflection and reinvention, as well as frequently seeking and needing entertainment.

“Shadow Horse” – Photo by Si Dunn, sidunn@sagecreekproductions.com

Erin J., a Boston college student, is still recovering from coronavirus-like symptoms. She has been staying in a small living space for several weeks since her university closed and put its classes online.

“Well, I wasn’t tested for it, but I can say that the first week I slept for 16 hours a day and didn’t care much for entertainment. I’d put on anything to have noise. The second week was a little better, but I still slept most of the day and night but had midterm exams to prepare for. Took me four days to write a paragraph. I started consuming more media as a means to stay distracted and try to figure out what was going on. I found movies that were like comfort food and almost played them on loop. By about the end of the second week I started feeling human [again] and was more interested in doing schoolwork, and became more aware that I was stuck inside.

“I’ve stayed entertained by trying to find comfort in media that reminds me of the world I knew.”

***

Terry P., a writer and entertainer in Long Island, N.Y., has chosen a positive and pragmatic approach to coping with the current economic and health disaster:

“Planted a bunch of seeds and ordered a compost bin, planning a vegetable garden. Also taking piano lessons and writing a book for self-employed entertainers about how to kick start their businesses when this all ends. And watching Netflix, of course.”

***

Linda B. is a PRN (pro re nata – “as the situation demands”) worker in Austin, Texas, who currently is not doing much work, but filling time with many other activities.

“Slowly reading a serious book, What the Eyes Don’t See, about the Flint water crisis, by the pediatrician and activist who didn’t stop until the story was told and changes made. Making bread for my neighbors. Cooking new recipes. Using FaceTime, learning Zoom and What’sApp to see and talk to people I love. Staying up-to-date on happenings for my work which doesn’t need an ‘as needed’ PRN employee right now. Walking with another neighbor or [doing] something for exercise most days. Learning what it feels like to see the world “non-24″ by going to bed when I feel like it and staying there 7-8 hours no matter what hour that is. Today, 6 am – 3 pm. Recording the local news in case I’m doing something more fulfilling at the time; then watching without ads. Doing the same with movies and documentaries so that when I choose to watch TV, I can see interesting things or delete it. Learning after three weeks that I can live without touch for today. I may crack tomorrow, but for today, I’m at peace working on the ‘Mindboggler 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Carpathian Mountains’ I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books months ago.”

***

Musician and retired teacher Pamela F. lives in a small-ish town north of Austin, Texas, and avoids boredom by staying active on several fronts:

“Walking twice a day. Sometimes walking with the seven-year-old son of my next-door, single-parent neighbor. Trying to learn Zoom. Writing music. Using FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to see friends and relatives. Eating, and then eating some more. Small projects like cleaning out a drawer or a closet. Napping. Continuing my physical therapy regimen. Playing piano and accordion. Keeping up with friends on Facebook. Reading. Quiet time.”

***

Joe S., a Dallas-area journalist, is taking a more focused approach to using his sheltering-at-home time:

“Reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.”

That’s a 547-page work of history subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Sounds appropriate and inspiring for coping with current times.

***

Catherine B., an Austin, Texas, university librarian (her school has gone to online classes) also is focusing on a central task, but is taking breaks to pursue other, more entertaining activities:

“I have been reading manuals and a glossary for a new integrated library system, the thing behind the scene that runs the online catalog. In my free time, I am sewing quilt blocks. I got excited when I found the perfect elastic for making masks. [And] Tom and I watched ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series and the movie, on DVD. We started that in early March before the social distancing. I have also made 20-second videos of rain and birds singing.”

***

Many things can be done while stuck indoors, including taking online classes, watching yoga or tai chi how-to videos, reading books previously ignored on your bookshelves, starting a home-based business, baking bread, or taking up new or lapsed hobbies. The possibilities are vast, and the time to get started currently is abundant.

Thanks for reading this effort to make creative use of some of my own inside time. And please feel free to add comments. Something posted here may someday end up in somebody’s sociology book, history book, graduate thesis, movie, or novel about these treacherous times. Who knows?

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Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, novelist, screenwriter, book reviewer, and journalist. His books include Dark Signals, Jump, and Erwin’s Law.

Joe Biden’s ‘Promise Me, Dad’ #bookreview #2020Election

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose

Joe Biden

Flatiron Books

If you are leaning toward Joe Biden and wondering if you will want to back him in the 2020 presidential election, Biden’s 2017 book, Promise Me, Dad, can give you some good insights into his character, values, and long record of service in American government.

Promise Me, Dad is Biden’s first-person story of family life: losing his oldest son, Beau, to cancer; serving as an active and engaged Vice President in the Obama Administration; and juggling several international crises, all while trying to decide if he would run for President, against Hillary Clinton, in 2016.

Wikipedia:Featured picture candidates/File:Joe Biden official ...
Former Vice President Joe Biden

“Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache,” Biden writes. “But I have always believed it was worth the effort.”

When the deadline arrived for him to choose whether or not to run for President in 2016, he was dealing with Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, with ongoing U.S. investments into “the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador,” and with trying to help hold together and provide support to a coalition of Shia and Sunni fighters battling ISIL in Iraq.

At the same time, he says, he had “learned first hand, the hardest way possible, that facing down cancer is a frightening and costly ordeal in the best of circumstances, for the strongest of families.”

Beau Biden’s death had left Joe Biden deeply grieved. And, no matter how hard he tried, he could not bury his sorrow beneath the duties of state and the myriad necessities of political campaigning. Grief’s cycles would not be denied; they would have to be allowed to run their course. The presidency would have to wait.

As fall 2019 approaches, we are already in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the most important, contentious, and acrimonious presidential elections in American history. As this sentence is written, Joe Biden is holding onto a double-digit lead in early Democratic polling. However, the field of candidates remains large at this point, and many unexpected things can happen between now and November, 2020.

Nonethess, Joe Biden currently is on track to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 ticket. And, like any other veteran politician, he will bring a wide array of experiences, qualifications, sensitivities, talents, supporters and funding sources to the race, along with baggage, detractors, and lingering questions.

A fair reading of Promise Me, Dad can provide more insights into Biden’s character, qualities, quirks, and question marks than you likely will encounter by using social media to try to figure out whom to support.

Si Dunn

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

Tinsley Harrison, M.D., Teacher of Medicine: An inspiring biography of a dedicated physician – #bookreview

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine

James A. Pittman Jr., M.D.

(NewSouth Books – hardback, Kindle)

Dr. Tinsley Randolph Harrison is an important figure in 20th-century American medicine, and both his legacy and his influence live on in 21st-century health care.

Before his death in 1978, Dr. Harrison taught medicine for 54 years and was fond of telling medical students and other doctors: “Learning is more a matter of the heart than the brain.”

Dr. Harrison also was a medical researcher, and he wrote and edited the first five editions of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, which, by some estimates, has been the best-selling medical book of all time. During his long career, Dr. Harrison served as dean at three medical schools: Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, Tex., and the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

This well-written and inspiring biography not only traces Dr. Harrison’s young life and his rise to prominence as a seventh-generation physician. It also presents sometimes shocking looks at the state and practice of medicine in the Deep South during the racially segregated 1950s and 1960s, as well as some of the significant improvements that have occurred in recent decades.

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine can be enjoyed by physicians, medical researchers, medical administrators and medical students, as well as by fans of biographies in general. The book gives good insights into how some successful people choose their careers and how they work their way to success and prominence in their field.

Si Dunn

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel – Imagining French mathematician Sophie Germain as a young teen – #bookreview

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel
Dora Musielak
(Math Association of America, hardback)

The Mathematical Association of America recently has published the second edition of this intriguing “mathematical novel.” Its story is built around a fictional diary and a real-life French mathematician, Marie-Sophie Germain.

The well-written tale imagines Ms. Germain writing down her thoughts and experiences while coming of age and learning mathematics amid the social turmoil that is roiling 18th-century Paris.

Marie-Sophie Germain is remembered primarily for her number theory work that offered several “novel approaches” to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Si Dunn

Eight recent books of fiction, nonfiction & poetry – #bookreview

Here are eight recent books to consider, whether you prefer fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  

Midnight Movie
By Tobe Hooper, with Alan Goldsher
(Three Rivers, paperback, list price $14.00 ; Kindle edition $0.99) 

Fans of Tobe Hooper’s horror movies, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, likely will relish this experimental first novel. It is written in a fake documentary style that also blends in some fictional blog postings, fake tweets, fake news articles and fake testimonies.

In the book’s bizarre plot, a movie that Tobe Hooper made as a teenager and lost is somehow rediscovered and shown in Austin, Texas. That event unleashes a killer virus on the world that only the filmmaker himself can stop — if he can just figure out how. (This book is not recommended for readers who faint easily at the sight of blood, zombies…and over-the-top literary excess.)

Rawhide Ranger, Ira Aten: Enforcing Law on the Texas Frontier
By Bob Alexander
(University of North Texas Press, list price $32.95)

After lawmen gunned down the notorious outlaw Sam Bass at Round Rock, Texas, a young man who lived nearby, Austin Ira Aten, decided to change his career aspirations, from cowboy to Texas Ranger.

Aten joined the Rangers in 1883, soon after he turned 20. He then became, over time, “a courageously competent lawman…favorably known statewide…a high-profile Ranger,” according to the author of this well-researched biography.

While performing his Ranger duties, Ira Aten also became “directly linked to several episodes of Texas’ colorful past that scholars and grassroots historians have penned thousands—maybe millions—of words about.” And Aten’s well-regarded law-enforcement career continued long after his Ranger years, Alexander’s excellent book shows. 

Ciento: 100 100-word Love Poems
By Lorna Dee Cervantes
(Wings Press, paperback, list price $16.00) 

This handsome, enjoyable volume from San Antonio, Texas-based Wings Press keeps its subtitle’s promise. A widely published poet has accepted a difficult challenge and penned a hundred 100-word poems focused on love.

The poems deal with love at direct levels. So you’ll find no easy hearts and flowers here. The images include “steamy matinees”, “sensuous leanings” and “exquisite private views,” to mention just a few. 

Battle Surface!: Lawson P. “Red” Ramage and the War Patrols of the USS Parche
By Stephen L. Moore
(Naval Institute Press, hardback, list price $34.95 ; Kindle edition, list price $34.95)

Stephen L. Moore has written several books on submarine warfare. Battle Surface! blends superb research with a writing style that rivals good fiction. Moore recounts the true story of a U.S. Navy commander who defiantly charged his submarine into the midst of a huge Japanese convoy and stayed on the surface, dodging enemy fire and sinking several ships with torpedoes.

One superior decried the action as “dangerous, foolhardy, and of too much risk.” Others higher up, however, thought differently, Moore notes. They awarded Cmdr. “Red” Ramage the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories
Edited by Judy Alter and James Ward Lee
(TCU Press, paperback, list price $19.95)

 “Walrus hunter.” That was one of the civilian jobs the U.S. Army recommended to Elmer Kelton when he was discharged as a “rifleman, infantry” following World War II. Kelton became a journalist, instead, and a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction books before his death in 2009.

This engaging, warm collection of essays and remembrances celebrates Kelton’s life, his personality, his love for the American West and his “straightforward and clean” writing style. In the words of one of his friends, Felton Cochran: “I tell people Elmer Kelton didn’t write ‘westerns’—he wrote western literature.”

Rudder: From Leader to Legend
By Thomas M. Hatfield
(Texas A&M Press, hardback, list price $30.00 ; Kindle edition, list price $30.00)

Earl Rudder could have kept working in a small-town Texas drugstore after high school. He exhibited little ambition and had no money for college. But this excellent biography shows how a chance encounter soon led him to college athletics, coaching and the Army Reserve, and then to D-day heroics, Texas state politics and, finally, the presidency of Texas A&M University’s statewide system.

This excellent biography shows how Gen. Rudder guided A&M through major upheavals that included desegregation, admitting women, and making the Corps of Cadets voluntary.

Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West
By Sandra K. Schackel
(University Press of Kansas, hardback, list price $24.95)

Women do not just “keep house” on a ranch or farm in the modern American West. This well-written book shows that they have long been doing virtually anything they can to help keep their rural lifestyles viable and afloat in tough economic times.

Sandra K. Schackel interviewed more than 40 women in New Mexico, Texas and other states and found them actively wrangling animals, running machinery, creating summer camps and bed-and-breakfasts on their land, and even holding jobs in town to help support their spreads and their families.

The Road to Roma
By Dave Kuhne
(Ink Brush, paperback, list price $15.95)

This book’s seven well-written short stories are mostly set in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, and they reflect the writer’s strong sense of place and character. The stories previously have been published in a variety of literary journals, and their focus is on the deeper, sometimes transformative moments that occur in ordinary people’s lives.

 Si Dunn‘s latest book is a novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, all available on Kindle.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving – #bookreview #writing #screenwriting

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
By Dan Fante
(Harper Perennial, $14.99, paperback; $9.99, Kindle)

Italian-American novelist and screenwriter John Fante wanted his son Dan to become a plumber or electrician, not a writer or worse, an actor.

He had strong and bitter reasons behind that desire, as Dan Fante movingly notes in this dark and painful, yet ultimately uplifting and triumphant family memoir.

One of John Fante’s novels, Ask the Dust, had been published in 1939 with great expectations and is still respected as a classic look at life in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Yet it was not a commercial success at the time, largely because the publisher, Stackpole Sons, could not afford to publicize it.

Weirdly, the publisher had “made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf without the author’s permission,” Dan Fante writes. “The promo money that should have gone to publicize Ask the Dust was spent in New York City courtrooms fighting a protracted lawsuit with the Führer.”

So, to support his family, John Fante returned to writing Hollywood screenplays, including, nearly three decades later, Walk on the Wild Side, and “considered himself a failure as an artist.” His other outlets included too much drinking, too much golf and too much gambling, often in the company of novelist and short story writer William Saroyan, “a loose cannon,” particularly around dice games, Dan Fante notes.

Also: “Pop’s nasty mouth and rages were taking a toll on his life,” to the point that he sometimes punched out movie producers for whom he had been writing or rewriting scripts.

In his brief attempt at college, young Dan Fante had discovered that he was “a fairly decent actor.” But: “…John Fante had utter contempt for the profession, as he did for agents and TV writers and film directors and almost all movie people.” He’d tell his son: “You’re no genius, kid….Get yourself an honest career. Work with your hands.”

Much of the rest of this memoir focuses on Dan Fante’s strained relationship with his father and other family members and on Dan’s attempts to find himself after leaving home and hitchhiking to New York City, hoping to study theater.

Once there, he descends, instead, into a dark, urban hell relentlessly driven and wrecked – over and over again –by alcoholism, drugs, an often uncontrolled sex drive and numerous moments where he goes right up to the edge of committing suicide.

Dan Fante recounts how he tried many different schemes to survive, and some of them, such as working in the limousine business, briefly made him rich and brought him into the company of famous and powerful clients —  but only when he was able to sober up and stay focused.

Ultimately, he hits bottom too many times and finally can’t get up again. In the meantime, he loses his father and older brother to alcoholism, as well.

But he does, at least, reconcile with his father shortly before John Fante’s death: “We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart.”

At age 47, Dan Fante finally went home again in utter defeat, lugging three garbage bags “filled with all that I owned up the front walkway of my mom’s house.”

What happens next is a tough but inspiring true story of how a writer finally was able to find his voice, his focus, his legacy and his stability in life. It is a story rich with lessons and messages for almost anyone currently struggling to succeed as a novelist, screenwriter, writer of nonfiction or practitioner of virtually any other creative endeavor.

Si Dunn

Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story – #football #biography #bookreview

Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story
By Jim Dent
(Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99 hardback; $12.99 Kindle)

In my one and only fall semester as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I went to a couple of football games and watched Freddie Steinmark play safety for the Longhorns. I sat high up in the cheap seats and gazed down upon players who appeared to be about two inches tall. Football has long been a big deal in the Lone Star State.

Steinmark was good, very good, and he had a great reputation for hustling, hitting and knocking down opponents’ passes.

However, several other members of the Longhorns team also were getting good press. And the Horns were striving to recapture a national title. So, like many other fans, I didn’t focus much on one player.  I was more into watching the overall X’s and O’s and trying, mentally, to help drive the pigskin down the field.

Unknown to us all, tragedy would strike down Freddie Steinmark in just a few weeks. And, over the next two years and beyond, he would become a nationwide symbol of personal courage and inspiration.

When Steinmark moved to Austin in 1967, he was fiercely determined to play football for the University of Texas Longhorns. He was fresh out of high school in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and he weighed just 150 pounds. Many observers and coaches initially considered him too small for big-time college football.

But, as author Jim Dent points out in his well-written and poignant new sports biography, Courage Beyond the Game, Steinmark’s small stature had not stopped him from being a standout in every major high school sport. Off the field, he had been an academic leader, as well.

At UT-Austin, his determination and drive quickly convinced many that he might succeed after all, both in the difficult field of chemical engineering and as a player for one of America’s top gridiron teams.

Steinmark was “the golden boy from the moment he walked onto the campus,” writes Dent, whose five previous books include a New York Times best-seller, The Junction Boys.

Dent quotes one of Steinmark’s teammates, wide receiver Cotton Spreyer, as stating: “No one was better than Freddie. He could run like a deer and he was quick.”

Darrell Royal, UT’s head football coach at the time, once praised Steinmark by calling him “as focused a young man as I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But a dark time soon — too soon — was coming, and Dent’s book smoothly moves beyond the traditional paeans of sports biography. It becomes a cautionary tale about placing too much trust and faith in the power of physical toughness.

Dent notes: “In the 1960s, a code existed that said players worth their salt did not complain about pain. You were expected to play through the bleeding, bumps, and bruises even if they did not subside in a reasonable time. Each afternoon, Darrell Royal and his assistants walked through the training room for the purpose of counting heads and identifying the players they considered ‘malingerers.’”

Steinmark had arrived at UT with a physical-toughness reputation that stretched back to early childhood. “In the midget leagues,” Dent reports, “he played an entire quarter with a broken arm. In high school, he played three quarters over two games with a broken leg. As a senior, he decided against seeking medical attention when he broke his right hand.”

The ethos of toughness was well embedded in Freddie Steinmark’s personality and values.

In his first season, Steinmark became a starting safety on UT’s freshman team. By the next fall, he was the Longhorns’ pass defense captain and co-leading the Southwest Conference in pass interceptions. He continued making top grades in his classes, and he continued dating his high school sweetheart, who now was attending UT, as well. 

He was “golden,” indeed. Prominent sportswriters now were labeling him one of America’s best and brightest football players.

His world suddenly spun a different way his junior year, while the 1969 Longhorns fought to regain college football’s top national ranking. He developed a pain that grew to feel “like a hot poker had been stuck into his left thighbone just above the knee.” Steinmark now limped in workouts and games but did his best to hide it. He also refused to tell his trainers and coaches for fear he would be pulled as a starter.

 Dent details how Steinmark continued the excruciating ruse all season until “the Game of the Century,” UT versus Arkansas, in Fayetteville, with President Nixon in the stands and the national championship on the line. The game also celebrated the 100th anniversary of college football.

In the great game’s last quarter, the worsening pain finally left Steinmark unable to cover pass receivers. Coach Darrell Royal sent in a substitute, and Texas held on to win 15-14.

 What happened next to Freddie Steinmark is movingly described in Jim Dent’s bittersweet and engaging book. Bone cancer — osteogenic sarcoma — was dicovered, and it took the young man’s leg but not his spirit. For the next year and a half, Freddie Steinmark was able to bounce around full of life on crutches, becoming Dent says, both an inspiration to other cancer patients and “a national symbol of courage” in the game of life.

Mack Brown, the Texas Longhorns’ current head coach, was a high school football player the last year Steinmark played. He watched “the Game of the Century” and the scrappy junior safety on TV. He never met the junior safety, but he hasn’t forgotten that Steinmark had his leg amputated, then showed up on the UT sidelines just three weeks later, on crutches, to watch Texas play Notre Dame in the Coton Bowl.

“In recognition of that courage,” Brown states in the foreword to Dent’s book, “to this day we have the players touch a picture of Freddie with the Longhorn salute before they go down the ramp to the field. Armed with the pride of the All-Americans, and in honor of the courage of Freddie, we ask them to go out and play as hard as they can.”

Si Dunn

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 – #bookreview

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
(Counterpoint Press, $28.00 hardback; $20.00 Kindle)

As a child, I liked and respected the King James Bible. But I hated religion. I had been born into a “Christian” demonination that tried incessantly to pound hellfire, damnation and, sadly, white supremacy, into my young head. And it used the King James Version as its grim hammer.

Some of my less-educated relatives, in fact, believed not only that the King James Version was the literal Word of God but that it had come directly from God, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in English.

Once I turned 18 and moved away, I abandoned that denomination quickly. But I took a King James Bible with me. And, 50 years later, I still keep one close by and sometimes refer to it — not always as a writer’s reference.

Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books is a magnificent work of religious and historical scholarship, adroitly timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first publication in 1611. His book is eye-opening, entertaining reading and full of surprises as he pulls together startling examples of the King James Bible’s powerful and pervasive reach within English and American culture. 

 “You may be a Christian. You may  be anti-Christian, or of any other religion, nor none. You may be an athiest fundamentalist and think the Bible is monstrous, a book to be dismissed or derided,” Bragg writes. “But whoever you are in the English-speaking world, I hope to persuade you to consider that the King James Bible has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in the most unanticipated ways.”

His 370-page book smoothly covers an amazing amount of religious, historical, political and cultural ground, both in England and the United States. And he makes the compelling case that America owes much of its language, government, literature and national values to the King James Bibles that accompanied the early colonists and settlers to the New World. 

“There has never been a book to match it,” Bragg states. “It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations.” In his view, “everyone. even athiests, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.”

Not all of its consequences have been good, of course. “It was the consolidating voice of two world empires [Great Britain and the United States]. It unleashed and motivated philanthropic movements of a size and effectiveness which bettered the lives of ordinary people throughout the English-speaking world.” But it likewise encouraged a “ferocious sense of mission” that “transformed and sometimes destroyed native cultures.”

Also: “For centuries the King James Bible fed some of the finest thinkers and artists and men of science and politics; others it persecuted.”

For me, one intriguing aspect of Bragg’s book is its examination of the King James Bible’s strong influence on American literature all the way into the 20th century and beyond. Writers such as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding,, John Steinbeck and many others composed novels and short stories with strong echoes of Bible stories no doubt heard and learned in childhood from the King James Bible.

Bragg also examines how America’s Civil War was “a war of the Bible,” for both sides. “The King James Version provided the intellectual and emotional structure for the politics” of that devastating conflict. He notes: “It would be overly simplistic to conclude that the Bible alone ’caused’ the Civil War. But: “The Bible was the gate through which the thoughts and passions of the majority were marshalled.” 

Bragg’s well-honed skills as a novelist and nonfiction author help enrich The Book of Books as a reading and learning experience. He keeps his focus carefully centered on demonstrating the impact of the King James Bible and does not wander off  into wider examinations of Christianity and its myriad controversies.

Si Dunn

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity – #bookreview

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity
By Glen Sample Ely
(Texas Tech University Press, $34.95, hardback)

Many eyes are on Texas once again now that Gov. Rick Perry is running for President.

Of course, he’s now being slammed even by members of  his own party (including former officials in the George W. Bush Administration) for trying to be too much of a simplistic shoot-first, ask-questions-later Texas “cowboy” on the election trail.

So what is it about Texas and its Wild West reputation that stirs up so many arguments, passions, conceptions, misconceptions and occasional hatreds?

In Where the West Begins, Fort Worth, Texas, writer Glen Sample Ely valiantly grabs and wrestles with the electrified third rail of Texas identity: Is Texas a Southern state, or is it a Western state?

He starts with his own city, Fort Worth, which often bills itself as “Where the West Begins.” He calls Cowtown “representative of Texas as a whole,” and uses it to launch into the bigger topic of how the state’s various and varied geographical regions have contributed to its long-ongoing identity conflicts.

“Texans,” Ely cautions, “may want to consider carefully before augmenting their Lone Star lineage with either a southern or western identity, because both of these regions, like Texas, have confusing and conflicted legacies and plenty of historical baggage.”

For example, cotton, not cattle, used to be king in Texas, and one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought in Texas weeks after that conflict was officially over. Indeed, some parts of  Texas tended to be closely allied with the Confederacy and had sent cavalry units and soldiers to fight Union forces in other states. Yet other areas of the state had Union supporters mixed in — often violently — with supporters of the South. And West Texas had an “astonishingly high” level of disloyalty to the Confederacy, Ely reports, because it had long been heavily dependent on federal funds and U.S. Army forts and outposts for economic survival.

Today, many residents of West Texas identify themselves as living in the West or Southwest, not in the American South, he says. Yet many in East Texas still ally themselves with the Deep South.

Ely’s book is nicely researched and well-written, and it has a thick bibliography and notes collection.

It may possibly help you understand the enigma that is Texas a bit better. And it may possibly give you a few insights into the roots of Rick Perry’s “cowboy” mindset as his campaign gets underway and he tries to find traction with voters in 49 other states — many of whom remain openly suspicious of Texas after Lyndon Baines Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Si Dunn