Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard : Big Sur

A musical and lyrical marriage made in heaven, two of my favorite singer/songwriters singing a song heavily inspired/partly written by Jack Kerouac who is one of my most-beloved writers.

The original version of Big Sur can be found on the Jack Kerouac tribute CD/DVD project One Fast Move Or I’m Gone (Music From Kerouac’s Big Sur). Not sure if that is even available anymore (it was released in 2009), but it’s got a very special place both in my heart and book/CD/DVD shelf.

Sherman Alexie : Reservation Blues

Sherman Alexie Reservation Blues book cover

Reservation Blues revisits the characters of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, first written about so memorably in the 1993 short story collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (read my review here). In Reservation Blues, long-dead and legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson somehow makes his way onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and quickly disposes his famous guitar into the hands of angry (and mostly drunk) Victor Joseph, who from that moment on, plays a mean guitar.

Together with his best buddy Junior and Thomas, he starts Coyote Springs, a band that after some rocky beginnings manages its way off the reservation (‘’anywhere off the reservation,’ Thomas said ‘ ,is along ways from the reservation’’), first to the Flathead Indian Reservation and later to Seattle, eventually landing in New York City. In between they get helped and/or distracted by a variety of imaginatively conceived characters, such as Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water and Seattle New Agers Betty and Veronica, who briefly join Coyote Springs only to leave both the band and the reservation because ‘it’s nuts here’. Also always lurking in the shadows are the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota and Big Mom, a mystical figure living high up on Wellpinit Mountain where she is joined by Robert Johnson. Things take a decidedly turn for the worse after the audition in New York City goes less than ideal and the hoped-for path to stardom curtailed. Back on the reservation, Junior takes his own life and the band gets scattered with the wind.

Things of course don’t go by without a myriad of complications and hiccups, such as various little and big tiffs between various members of Coyote Springs, beautiful Checkers Warm Waters falling in love with the reservation priest Father Arnold, and the continuing struggle with money worries.

The writing is once again wonderfully unique and steeped in mystique, such as in the last sentence of the book ‘Checkers and Chess reached out of their windows and held tightly to the manes of those shadow hoses running alongside the blue van’.

I wasn’t that totally captivated by his writing style as when I was reading The Lone Ranger And Tonto… but that might only because the short story collection was the first book I read by Sherman Alexie and his writing style was brand new to me then.

As in that book, the humdrum tragedy of life on an Indian reservation are very much in the focus of the book, as witnessed in conversations such as this one by Father Arnold and Checkers Warm Waters: ‘Does everything have to be about money?’ ‘Of course it does. Only people with enough money ever ask that question anyway’.

Speaking for Sherman Alexie is the fact that none of the often rather serious subject matter is written in an educational or preachy way. On the contrary, he manages to convey the things he wants to say in an often downright hilarious, even wacky way, without sacrificing his messages or diluting the comments and observations of the harsh realities of life on an Indian reservation and the continuing struggle Native American society is experiencing. Which is one of the main reasons endearing his work to me so much. Reservation Blues is an extraordinarily well-conceived story featuring a great cast of memorable characters. All of which are written about with loving attention to detail, culled both from reality and the inventive mind of Sherman Alexie, who as a mixed Spokane/Couer D’Alene is uniquely well-adapted to write about these things. As for my attraction to his writings and all things Native American, that attitude of the ‘white man’ gets addressed numerous times in the book too, such as in the scenes with Betty and Veronica, so that’s given me a chance to reflect on my motivations, which is making his books particularly relevant to myself and a lot of other people reading them.

Sherman Alexie : The Lone-Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven

Lone Ranger And Tonto Cover Jpeg

I first heard of Sherman Alexie in connection with the brilliant film Smoke Signals which is based on various characters and stories fund in this collection of 22 short stories, first published in 1993. Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, also the main characters in the film. They, like Sherman Alexie himself live on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, so I suppose it’s fair to say that many of the people, their life circumstances and stories described here are based on his own experiences growing up there. The often troublesome circumstances in which Native Americans live on (and off for that matter) reservations in the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st are permeating pretty much every sentence in these stories.

One of the quotes on the book jacket is focusing exclusively on the humoristic side in some of the stories, but don’t let that fool you. While there certainly is humor present that claim is as least overdone if not downright misleading. The wrong that has been (and is) done, and all the problems arising from it, to Native American tribes and their people is never far away in all of those stories.

Take The Only Traffic Signal On The Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore, in which Victor and his friend Adrian are watching proceedings on the reservation from their front porch. The story centers (if from afar, he’s only spoken about) on Julius Windmaker, a talented 15-year-old basketball player. The guys wonder if he’ll make that hoped-for by all on the reservation career or, if he, like many equally promising players before him, will fall prey to drinking. The latter is sadly the case, as, in the last paragraph of the story, he’s crashed out sleeping on Victor’s living room floor after a basketball match which he played drunk, looking ‘puffy around the edges’. A glimmer of hope however is on hand however as an apparently equally talented 3rd grader called Lucy is seen by Victor and Adrian walking with her friends on their way to a game. One can’t help but wonder what happened to her.

One of the very best stories in here is called Because My Father Always Said He Was The Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It’s a touching story about the stormy marriage of Victor’s parents, ending in divorce, with his dad leaving the family and the reservation to live in a number of large cities in the Western US. It is told full of childish wonder, Victor’s admiration for his dad and his infamous past and hurt.

This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona is equally heartbreaking and forms the nucleus of Smoke Signals. In it, Victor and his former friend Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, so wonderfully played by Evan Adams in the film, fly out to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s dad. It’s told in bittersweet words, with two friends/cousins having lived through so much together but now being somewhat estranged, making this trip together as Victor needs Thomas’ money and Thomas blacklisting him to take him with him. Obviously it’s very sad too, not only because of Victor having to drive from Phoenix to Spokane with all that’s left of his father. But it is made even more so, because of Thomas’ sad life and the abuse he’s had to endure, not least at the hands of Victor who once beat him up drunk, when they were both 15 in front of their friends. The dignity with which Thomas is mastering his life as an orphan and storyteller nobody wants to listen to anymore is admirable and touching. He’s managing to stay compassionate and friendly even to Victor, knowing full well that Victor can’t be nicer to him even if he wants to, as ‘I know your friends would give you too much shit about it”. Moreover he’s always good-natured and seemingly devoid of any hard feelings with a big dose of humor to boot.

Jesus Christ’s Half Brother Is Alive And Well On The Spokane Indian Reservation is marvelous too, charting 8 years in the life of the narrator (Victor?) taking care of a little child he not quite rescued from a burning house in which young James’ parents both die (the story gets used in Smoke Signals too). He fails to catch the boy who falls to the ground but miraculously survives and people quickly decided that he has to raise the little boy by himself. James turns out to be a slow-developer, but when he finally does start to talk is turning out wisdom after wisdom.

Imagining The Reservation is a free-form story, I couldn’t honestly tell you what it’s about, but the imagery used throughout the story put me into an almost trance-like state of mind for the few minutes it took me to read the rather short story. Impressive.

A Good Story is rather light-hearted compared with the serious subject matter that is at the very core of most other stories in here. The story told by the narrator to his mother ends with the sentence: “Uncle Moses sat down in the story chair and told this very story’ which shows you a great deal about how inventive Alexie’s writing style is, if you think about it.

What I liked especially about these stories is their language. They are interspersed with sentences that don’t really seem to make sense. I guess that’s the influence of Native American storytelling, to me as a ‘white men’ it’s very appealing and greatly contributes to making this book a wonderful experience to read.

It’s an important book, touching on so many contemporary issues affecting Native Americans at this day and age. That it’s wrote in such an entertaining way and such a singular language makes it only more commendable and outstanding.

Abraham Lincoln A Biography (Book review)

Abraham Lincoln A Biography cover

Abraham Lincoln A Biography

Benjamin P. Thomas (1952, Knopf/Southern Illinois University Press)

 I first became interested in Abraham Lincoln after stopping off in Lincoln, Illinois on a trip through the Midwest in March of 2013. During some dismal weather I found out about the Postville Courthouse and the Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College – both located in Lincoln and both proved to be very interesting. Lincoln used Postville Courthouse as he traveled the Eight Circuit as a young lawyer. The Lincoln Heritage Museum features a wealth of Lincoln’s private possessions, such as furniture, stationary and even a lock of his hair. When I visited the museum, it was still located in a somewhat cramped and dark room, but apparently they will be using new, improved facilities in the near future. It was still fascinating, with an exhibition dedicated and introducing all American Presidents amongst all the Lincoln related stuff, which was very welcome to me as for me as a European my American history knowledge is still rather sketchy.

Lincoln christened the new town in August 1853 (see photo below)

Abraham Lincoln marker in Lincoln, IL

After returning from my trip I searched for a biography about him, as I was reluctant to watch Steven Spielberg’s film, as I am not very fond of his films. However, I guess that I will be catching up on that at some point, I asked the person working at the Lincoln Heritage Museum what he thought about the movie and in his opinion it’s not that badly made and fairly accurate about the facts, and I am sure Daniel Day Lewis’ did a great job on portraying Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search revealed this biography to be something of a standard and is reported to be the best one, so I decided to purchase it. As I knew very little before I started reading the book, I wasn’t aware of Lincoln’s troubled nature with dark moods he encountered a lot of times during his life for example. I was especially captivated by the first chapters describing his upbringing which can only be called humble, in an America in its early stages – an intriguing insight into an US, drastically different from the one we experience in the 21st century. What struck me most where the multitudes of work lines people at that time tried to make a living with, very different to the world I come from, where you more or less stick to the job you decided early on in your life, and possibly only change your career one or two times in your life at most. What I also found amazing early on in the book, was his almost complete lack of formal education (he visited school for less than a year), and that you could study law by reading books alone, lying on a pile of wood for example. (As I found out reading on, it was not that uncommon, but still).

Somewhat of a disappointment for me though for me was the realisation that his stance towards the issue of slavery and the treatment of black people was not as clear as I assumed it was. As far as I can tell it was always in him, but as President and throughout his political career before that, it was probably not always very wise to profess to his beliefs openly – an explanation maybe, but still something to be frowned at in my opinion. Being white and European, I am by no means an expert on these matters, and they aren’t THAT near to me heart, but it is of course not a question that all people are equal, whatever their colour. Reading for example that he thought that the white and black race were better off apart at some point, or that he tried to ship them off to middle America to build up their own country, made me shudder on a few occasions (chapter ‘… Piled High with Difficulty’).

However, especially towards the end and throughout the war it became increasingly clear on a number of occasions that he was a man full of compassion, he granted parole to a lot of soldiers for example during the war and was in favor of rebuilding the nation instead of punishing the South – which made me respect and like him a great deal.

I still don’t claim to be much of an expert on his life, the Civil war or American history after reading Abraham Lincoln A Biography, but the book gave me something of an insight into all these things, and encouraged me to try to find out more about them in the future. The writing is quite accessible, a lot of name-checking making understanding a little bit difficult at times, but it’s still not too hard to follow the going ons, so I would recommend the book to anybody wanting to find out more about a person perhaps shaping US politics and the country as a whole more than anybody else, during what was definitely a challenging time, both for him (he also had the loss of one of his young sons to cope with on top of everything else) and the country.

The book also encouraged me to go and find out more about his life and I plan to visit places such as Springfield,IL and New Salem at some point in the future.

Postville Courthouse (914 5th St, Lincoln, IL)


Site of Deskins Tavern, opposite Postville Courthouse


Lincoln Heritage Museum (at Lincoln College)