Archive for June, 2012

You know, sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover, more or less. Case in point – “Shalom on the Range” by Michael Katz.

I mean, yeah, you can glance at the cover and guess its subject matter easily enough. Jews in the Old West. It features a guy in cowboy garb, wearing a Star of David in lieu of a sheriff’s star. And the title’s not exactly subtle.

But that intentional lack of subtlety is crucial. Both the cover art and the title promise a fun ride. And the book delivers.

Let’s face it. Jews on the American frontier? That subject matter could all-too-easily veer into Important Book territory. Oprah-endorsed, middle-brow, local-library-book-discussion-group-fodder. Soon to be an Oscar-nominated film that your girlfriend insists you’re somehow obligated to watch on a Saturday night even though you’d just as soon see “Shaun of the Dead” again.

I’m thinking newspaper book section reviews along the lines of …

“’Broken Windows,’ by Michael Katz: The title derives from the Jewish proverb ‘If God lived on earth, people would break his windows,’ and references the spiritual uncertainty that awaits the protagonists at every turn. Fleeing oppression in their native Europe, a group of Jewish settlers seeks a new home on the American frontier. With the existential emptiness of the plains serving as a stark backdrop, they embark on both an inner and outer journey as their ZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Huh? Wha… Sorry. Just nodded off for a second there.”

Fear not. “Shalom on the Range” is nothing like that. It starts out with a harrowing and vicious train robbery. Then it follows railroad detective David Goldstein on his mission to find the bandits responsible.

David’s a tough, canny and resourceful sort, but the American West is not his home turf. So he’s got to find a tour guide, in the person of bounty hunter Red Parker. Along the way, they encounter all the situations you’d want and expect from a pulpy Western – barroom brawls, shootouts, and … well … more shootouts.

Here’s the sneaky thing about it, though. The book is actually educational, too.

The plotline, an outsider getting indoctrinated into the ways of the Old West, gives Katz lots of opportunities to work in little details about his characters’ way of life. I’m no expert, but I’ve read some books on the history of the Old West, and it seemed pretty accurate to me.

The book also recounts an angle of Old West history that you don’t hear much about. If I’d ever given it any thought, I would have figured there were Jews in the Old West. Gentile that I am, though, it never occurred to me before I read Katz’s book.

In between the barroom brawls and shootouts, he works in some genuine history about the Jewish experience on the frontier, and even includes some cameo appearances by real historic figures. Yes, he does mention the anti-Semitism of the time, but doesn’t get overly preachy about it. (And as he makes clear, it’s not like the Chinese or Indians were treated like rock stars either.)

So give it a read. Yippie-ki-ay? No, my friends. Yippie-ki-OY!

I have no doubt that every single science fiction geek with a blog is spending this evening banging out a tribute to Ray Bradbury, who died today at the age of 91. So I guess I don’t have much to add. But what can I say? I just can’t help myself. I loved the guy too much.

So I’ll try keep this brief. I can probably restrict it to two points.

1) He changed my idea of what writing — what art in general — could be. But he did it subtly. Gradually. See, I can’t say I loved him unreservedly when I was a kid. As a young sci-fi geek, I wanted adrenaline-pounding stuff. Giant alien monsters. Laser-gun shootouts. Hot babes in metal bikinis. Ray Bradbury gave me none of that, to my frequent disappointment.

And yet … I couldn’t stop reading his books. They got under my 12-year-old skin in a way I couldn’t understand. If you’d asked me what I wanted out of a book, I would have said something like “hot babes in metal bikinis having laser gun fights with giant alien monsters.” I sure as shit wouldn’t have said “surreal and elegiac meditations on the loss of childhood innocence.” And I would have considered anyone who actively sought out subject matter like that to be an irredeemable lame-ass.

But it turns out that WAS the kind of thing I wanted to read, whether or not I was aware of it at the time. I owe you one, Ray.

Interesting note: When I went to Penn State back in the day, I openly feuded with a literature professor who told us on the first day of class not to bother reading science fiction because it was all garbage.

In retrospect, I still think the guy kind of had his head up his ass on that score. (Kurt Vonnegut? Hello?) He apparently thought I was some airhead blinded to the merits of truly great literature because I’d spent too much time immersed in infantile fantasies of … well … laser fights, giant monsters and babes in metal bikinis. Hell, I guess we were both partially right.

We finally bonded to some extent over a science fiction writer we both admired, and who even he had to admit had genuine literary merit. Yep. You guessed it. Ray Bradbury.

2) Most of the news stories I’ve seen about Ray Bradbury’s death mention “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” as his defining works. And no question, both are brilliant.

But hands down, my favorite Ray Bradbury book was “From the Dust Returned.” That actually started out as a collaboration between TWO great 20th-century American artists — Bradbury and Charles Addams.

Addams, of course, was the cartoonist whose works inspired “The Addams Family.”

In 1946, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “The Homecoming” for Mademoiselle Magazine, and Addams contributed an illustration. It concerned the Elliotts, a family of ghosts and monsters living in middle America.

Bradbury wrote a series of related short stories about the Elliots in the years ahead, which eventually combined to form the novel “From the Dust Returned.”

From that description of the story, you’ve probably inferred that there’s a lot of overlap between the Elliotts and the Addams Family. The book basically comes across as a series of vignettes about the Addams Family, written by one of our great literary stylists.

It’s got everything that made the Addams Family so great — mainly the humorous juxtaposition of the characters’ monstrous nature, and their loving, happy family life. But it’s all rendered in achingly beautiful prose, which finds emotional depths in the material that the Addams Family never reached.

Man! Remember at the beginning when I said I’d keep this short? I just realized that I could go on and on here. I won’t. So in closing: Goodbye, Ray. Thanks.

Sonny Nardone III works as a stage hypnotist and decorates human skulls. But hey … who doesn’t? Yep, Sonny’s a very interesting guy. And my delightful and talented friend Carlette Norwood Ritter was kind enough to let me sit in (metaphorically speaking) on an interview with him for her blog talk radio show, “Lette’s Chat.” Check it out here: