Sunday,
April 20

 
CULTURE

Riding and writing with Villa in 'The Hot Country'

The Hot Country, by Robert Olen Butler. Grove/Atlantic, 2012War correspondents can generally be lumped into one of two categories: heroic carriers of battlefield truths, or complicit tagalongs who function as de-facto propagandists for governments. There is a third mode, less depicted, of the participatory correspondent who sides with the rebels, along the lines of John Reed in both Russia and Mexico. Official journalism doesn’t like this because it’s an affront to their cherished illusion of objective reporting.

But the third path is exactly the one taken by Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb in 1914 Mexico as presented in The Hot Country, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler’s fast-paced entrée into adventure tales. Add a little Indiana Jones and you get the picture: a smart guy also handy with his fists and firearms, burdened with a dedication to finding out the truth no matter how it lies. Which it does.

The story starts in Veracruz as the U.S., under President Woodrow Wilson, carries out a half-hearted and trumped-up invasion that also puts it in conflict with Imperial Germany, at that time looking for potential allies against the U.S. in what shortly would become World War I.

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Southern Crooking: Creole Belle and The Lost Ones

A few years ago on an author’s panel at Gemini Ink, I recommended a new James Lee Burke novel as one of my guilty pleasures. I could see the rolling eyeballs and upturned noses among some of my colleagues, but out in the audience there were plenty of approving smiles. No need for division, though, because in his steady exploration of the flawed and tormented lives of New Iberia deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux and wingman Clete Purcel, Burke has created a compelling, morally complex world sufficient to absolve any guilt, other than the pleasurable kind. There’s a good reason our cultural fascination with the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, black flag pirates, swashbucklers, Japanese rodin and just about any outlaw-hero imaginable leads to the Bayou Teche and the hardboiled Big Mon.

Creole Belle is 19th in the Robicheaux series, including two that became decent-enough movies. While some of his other character-driven works, such as Feast Day of Fools, which uses Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland as the Robicheauxvian (Robichavian?) protagonist, are also good reads, Burke’s real stuff comes from the demimonde of southern Louisiana.

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The unsustainable parade

Every July 4 and November 11 we let the reality of what it means to be a powerful nation-state leak through the white noise of ideology and consumerism and we do our best to say thank you to our military, our veterans, our fallen. But as James Wright observes in his timely study, Those Who Have Borne the Battle, “These are not sustainable moments.” We go back to forgetting.

Wright’s goal, a balanced mix of the personal, historical and analytical, is to explore America’s deeply fractured attitude toward our troops and their mission. It is an uncomfortable journey. Popular and official sentiment waivers even on the most basic level — whether veterans (i.e. survivors) of national conflicts deserve more than patriotic lip-service once the shooting has stopped.

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Clerks in the corporate office: a history of Miramax

Consciously and unconsciously, I am a child of 1990s cinema. Even if I didn’t see many of the most iconic films of the ’90s until I was older, I am irrevocably shaped by the film and pop-culture sensibilities of my childhood. Specifically, I am a product of what Alisa Perren calls the “cinema of cool,” films that traffic in irony, nontraditional narrative structures, and an intertextual interest in other films, both the greatest works of film history and the worst. A disproportionate number of these “cinema of cool” films — Clerks, Pulp Fiction, and ironic genre films like Scream — were released by a single company: Miramax.

Perren’s Indie, Inc., a UT Press release subtitled “Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s,” is all about Miramax, from its inception in the 1980s to 2010, when it was shut down and sold off by Disney.

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Washed in the blood: Starnes' 'Fall Line'

The relentless naturalism of Fall Line pushes out of an anger ultimately rooted in a source that, like Joe Samuel Starnes’ novel itself, is of another time; but also, and equally relentlessly, of our own: class hatred. Consider this train of thought from the protagonist, rural Georgia failure Elmer Blizzard, whose final day on earth, Dec. 1, 1955, is spent trying to alert people about to be inundated by a new dam northeast of Atlanta –and plotting his revenge against those who created it:

He finished the cigarette and got up and flipped over the Ernest Tubb record and started it playing and sat down in his armchair in the den. He lit another cigarette and listened to the twang and thud of the music, Ernest singing about mean women — There’s lots of mean women on almost any street — a fact Elmer knew to be true right here in Lymanville, but he wondered why Ernest didn’t have any songs about the legions of conniving sumbitches that roamed the Earth.

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