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Monthly Archives: April 2019

Book review: Marcus, Ben, “The Flame Alphabet.” Vintage Books, New York, 2012




Treasures or Terrors?

Is raising children the most fulfilling thing we can do? Or is it the biggest disappointment? Do we love our children like crazy every minute, or do we just hang on because we feel guilty? Are our families draining away our will to live?

Ben Marcus wrote a book in which the downside of families tips the scale down far enough to call it a horror novel. Or you could call it sci-fi, or maybe fantasy, or maybe just stream-of-consciousness rumination on how the American family, once the pillar of stability, is becoming a madhouse of anguish.

In some stereotypes, we hear mothers, sometimes with the backs of their fingers on their foreheads, tell their children, “You con’t know how you hurt me when you talk like that.” But in Marcus’ book, the words of children literally kill their parents. All language is toxic. Only children can bear to talk at all. Adults die from language. All communication is cut off and only hermits, and then only the hermits who never think out loud, have any future.

And yet, people still want to be with each other, and with their children, even though it is sure death. There is a whole book about this. It’s all agony. To me, even reading it was agony. Marcus lambaste’s the very idea of language, but he uses some of the best writing I’ve ever endured to criticize language. If everybody in the world he creates is suffering, he makes sure the reader feels it, too.

Art is art because we interact with it and it changes us. It doesn’t owe us any pleasantries. I recommend this book because I can confirm it’s art, but certainly not because it’s going to make anybody feel good.

As I endured my way through the pages of examination of contemporary family life, I also wondered how well it would fit with the changing nature of all things. After all, the United States was primarily an agricultural country until World War II. Families were different then.

I also wondered if Marcus’ view would fit even today with all classes of people. I think his view was primarily a middle-class view. Rich people probably don’t suffer such total ambiguity toward their children. They know how to groom their assets and minimize their liabilities. Many working families nowadays don’t even have time to raise their children, let alone anguish over them.

Nevertheless, Marcus’ book treats an important contemporary development in the way modern people survive. Read “The Flame Alphabet” at your peril, but read it anyway!

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9AM every Saturday Central Time. If you may be curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

Movie Review: “The Public” written, directed, and starring Emilio Estevez. 122 minutes



Estevez Does a Solid for Libraries and for homeless men

On a freezing cold night, a large group of homeless men organize a sit-in at the Cincinnati Public Library. The librarian who deals with them every day faces a quandary because he knows they may freeze to death if he helps throw them out. The police and the mayoral candidate don’t want to be seen as the bad guys.

My movie buddy and I thought the plot was a little bit unlikely, not because people don’t freeze to death every winter and not because keeping a library open might save them for at least one night; but because we don’t believe anybody today could organize that many homeless men. If the homeless were organized, they could get what they want and they wouldn’t be homeless. But we’re moviegoers, suspending credibility is our specialty!

We really liked the movie. We thought that libraries and libraries came out looking really good. We thought John Steinbeck, one of our favorite authors, and “Grapes of Wrath,” one of our favorite books, came out looking really good. I particularly liked the set design that included a big library sign with a picture of Poet Percy Shelley and one of my all-time favorite quotes:

“Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you/Ye are many/they are few”

If you’re in favor of investigating the far-reaching problem of homelessness in America, you have to root for this movie. If you’re searching for a solution, maybe you won’t find it here, but at least you’ll be searching, and that’s a whole lot better than ignoring this gigantic American problem.

-Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site