Category Archives: Books

Insight into our modern polarization over guns

The Wall Street Journal today published an excerpt from a interesting-sounding book called The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, by Pamela Haag.

After asserting that in the early part of our history, guns were not so much romanticized as seen as tools that a lot of people needed, the account gets to the point when marketing came into play:

BN-NR025_guns_JV_20160421123914Though some Americans always loved their Winchesters and Colts, many others saw guns as dowdy, practical tools. They would shop for them by perusing advertisements in farm-focused periodicals like the American Agriculturalist or the Rural New Yorker.

As the frontier was settled and U.S. cities grew, fewer Americans even needed guns as tools. By the turn of the 20th century, the industry had embraced the emerging science of marketing. Gun companies began thinking about how to create new demand for their products. In this respect, their business was no different from the stove or soap business.

Having started with customers who needed guns but didn’t especially love them, the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them. In the late 1800s, gun companies were innovators in advertising, among the first merchandisers to make extensive use of chromolithography, an early technique for producing multicolored print. Their calendars and other promotional materials were works of art, depicting exciting scenes in which gunmen faced off with bandits or beasts….

I like that bit about how “the industry now focused on those who loved guns but didn’t especially need them,” which helped encourage many people’s emotional attachment to these items.

The piece concludes:

Gun-industry advertisements began to invoke the “natural instinct” to own a gun or a “real boy’s” yearning for one. A 1920 ad in Literary Digest neatly summarized this spirit: “You know [your son] wants a gun. But you don’t know how much he wants it. He can’t tell you. It’s beyond words.” Gun marketing had moved from describing how guns work to describing how guns make their owners feel.

This period, before the outbreak of World War I, saw the birth of today’s American gun culture. Within a few decades, as guns became more prominent in criminal activity and suicides, an antigun culture also began to rise. Many Americans recoiled from these new forms of everyday violence, even as others increasingly cherished their firearms and the personal meaning they found in them. The U.S. was on a slow spiral toward the modern, polarized politics of guns.

And here we are, a nation split between people who are appalled by the existence of guns and others who would rather die than relinquish them.

 

Halcyon days, when Americans were Americans

By that I mean, when Americans were Americans first, as opposed to seeing themselves as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives or Tea Partiers or what have you.

This fit of nostalgia was prompted by reading a book review in The Wall Street Journal today, of a book titled Harry & Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World. After noting that upon the death of FDR, many (including the new president himself) doubted that Harry Truman was up to the job, the review continues:

Watching from the Senate, Republican Arthur Vandenberg wrote to the new president with words of encouragement. “Good luck and God bless you,” he said. “Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.” In his diary, he was more pensive: “The gravest question-mark in every American heart is about Truman. Can he swing the job?” To which the optimistic answer came, “Despite his limited capacities, I believe he can.”download (2)

Those words seem extraordinary today. The Republicans had not won a national election since 1928. Roosevelt had ridden roughshod over them in Congress with his New Deal, broke the tradition of serving only two terms and fashioned a liberal Supreme Court. After 12 years of humiliation and defeat, FDR’s death could have provided Republicans with an opportunity to get on the front foot, to take advantage of an inexperienced and uncharismatic new president. And yet here was Vandenberg, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate, saying not only that he believed the man could overcome his limitations but also that he would do everything he could to help him.

Lawrence J. Haas’s “Harry & Arthur” is thus a story of bipartisanship at work. The subtitle, “Truman, Vandenberg and the Partnership That Created the Free World,” seems at first sight hyperbolic, at least concerning Vandenberg, but Mr. Haas makes an excellent case that Truman’s worldview could not have been implemented without the senator from Michigan. The two men shared a vision for America in the world and over the next six years, until the senator’s death from lung cancer in 1951, set about putting it place. Even a short list demonstrates the revolution in global strategy that would take place during the Truman years: the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, the U.N. Charter, not to mention the creation of the CIA, the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force.

Those were indeed the days, when such alliances were possible…

Bryan enjoyed Master and Commander, and you would, too

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Bryan Caskey, having read the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels, has posted a glowing review on his own blog, Permanent Press.

As he wrote to me upon finishing Master and Commander:

I enjoyed it immensely, even with having to wade through the nautical lingo. It was sort of like reading Shakespeare in that it’s sort of confusing at first, but if you keep plowing through, you get used to the writing, and eventually you don’t have to focus so much on figuring what the heck is going on. One nice thing about the Kindle is that you can touch any word, and the Wikipedia entry for it comes up, so it’s a breeze to look up all the odd words. This was also my first time reading a Kindle, and I’ve enjoyed the lightness of not carrying around a heavy ol’ book. The one-touch lookup also saved me from dragging around some sort of Royal Navy dictionary.

The end battle was sort of odd, with JA not participating. The battle against the Cacafuego was shorter than I hoped, but I enjoyed how afterwards Harte tried to minimize the action by complaining about all the supplies that JA needed from the yard after the battle. Hopefully, JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions.

I liked the Court-martial bit toward the end in addition to all of JA’s interaction with higher-ranked naval officers. Throughout, the descriptions of the ocean and how ships cut through the water are wonderful. I now understand the title of the second book Post Captain, as it’s a rank – not something to do with the mail. I’m guessing he makes the rank of Post Captain near the end of the book, setting him up to really “let every stitch of cloth fly” in the next book – to use the vernacular.

I’ll try to get through Post Captain before I go on vacation so I can enjoy HMS Surprise while I’m actually on vacation in the Dominican Republic.

All in all, a wonderful read that is a nice easy transition from all the non-fiction I’ve read. While this is fiction, it has a decidedly non-fiction tone about it.

The most non-fiction thing about that first book is that it is based so faithfully upon the early career of Lord Cochrane, upon whom Jack Aubrey is in part based.

In reality, the astounding Sophie-Cacafuego battle depicted in the novel was between Cochrane’s real-life Speedy and the Spanish xebec-frigate Gamo — down to the smallest detail, including the parts you assume must be made up.

As for JA being sidelined during the battle of Algeciras — well, that’s what happened to Cochrane, so it happens to Lucky Jack as well.

But as to Bryan’s hope that “JA will not continue to sabotage his career with these sorts of personal indiscretions…” Well, Jack is a lion at sea, a man perfectly in his element. But he has a lot of trouble knowing how to behave on shore, which will cause further problems. Just so you’re forewarned. Dr. Maturin is the opposite, a lubber who will never lose his land legs. Which is good, as Bryan notes: “O’Brian nicely uses the device of explaining everything to Maturin (who knows nothing about sailing), as a way of explaining everything to the reader.”

Folks, if you haven’t read these books, you’re missing out. There’s no better historical fiction anywhere. But aside from literary merit, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will become two of your best friends. Their world, that of Nelson’s Navy, will become yours, and you’ll want to spend all your time there.

Fortunately, there are 20 novels in the series. I envy Bryan that he still has all but one still before him. I envy him, but wish him joy nonetheless…

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I’m on my quarterdeck attending to duty, I assure you, sir…

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Bud, and then Bryan, raised the alarm yesterday over my absence. Bryan wrote:

No, I haven’t heard from him at all. I even asked him for a book recommendation on the Aubrey-Maturin series, and he never responded.

I hope he’s okay.

That sounds alarming, indeed. But come on, y’all know that I frequently fail to post on the weekend, and yesterday I had business in my hometown of Bennettsville and didn’t get back to the office until 4:30 or so — at which time I promptly gave y’all an Open Thread with more topics than ever before.

But yeah, there was a lot going on over the weekend in politics, so it seemed weird for me not to be commenting, but I assure you I was attending to duty, for the most part, and am now back aboard, pacing the quarterdeck and scanning the horizon for a suitable prize.

Oh, and as to Bryan’s question:

I’m picking out my beach reading in advance. I’m thinking about starting the Aubrey-Maturin series. (Yeah. I’ve never read those books. Hangs head in shame.)
Which three would you recommend starting with, and in which order?

Here’s my response — and I hope others among you will be interested as well, because I’m always glad to have someone else to discuss the books with:

Start from the beginning. They are chronological and sort of like one super-long novel, although O’Brian didn’t intend it when he started out:

  1. Master and Commander — Nothing at all like the movie, which was actually based very loosely on the 10th book, The Far Side of the World. It starts with Lt. Jack Aubrey being assigned to his first command, the 14-gun sloop Sophie, and meeting his soon-to-be best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin. The actions that sloop engages in track closely with Cochrane’s with the Speedy, including the memorable fight against the Gamo, renamed in the book the Cacafuego. Which you’ll recognize as scatological if you talk foreign, which Maturin does and Aubrey doesn’t. (O’Brian would later say that if he had known the series would go on so long he would have started earlier, with Jack as a midshipman. It apparently didn’t occur to him to go back and write prequels after the series gained a following. He was scrupulously careful to keep to a realistic time frame from the first book to the final fall of Bonaparte.)
  2. Post Captain — This one is in parts weirdly like Jane Austen, in which our heroes, stuck on shore during the brief peace with France, try their hand at being country gentlemen and become romantically entangled with a family of young ladies reminiscent of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, but with interesting variations. But don’t worry, lads — there’s still a good bit of action here and there — and quite a lot of character development important to later books. This and the first book are the two longest, and if there’s one in the series that will seem perhaps a tad too long, it’s this one, but be patient — the pace quickens after this. And the good bits are very rewarding. Be advised that the relationships with the ladies severely test Jack’s and Stephen’s friendship. (A constant theme of the books is that Jack is far better off at sea, well out of the sight of land and away from such complications — while Stephen, ever the lubber, is least at home aboard ship.)
  3. HMS Surprise — For the first time Jack commands the frigate he will love the most for the rest of his career. You also learn more about Stephen’s secret life — he is something more than an accomplished physician and respected naturalist. This is one of my very favorites in the series, chock full o’ action and human drama from Port Mahon to Bombay.

So, there you have it. Get busy reading — quick’s the word and sharp’s the action.

I’ll expect a full report upon your return. Before you have your clerk write it out fair, have Stephen look it over — he’s a learned cove.

Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril…

WWII: The experience that everyone shared (and yeah, I know that’s a huge cliche)

Everyone, that is, except me, people around my age and of course, those much younger.

And yeah, I know the ubiquity of the war experience is pretty much a cliche, but I keep getting reminded of it in ways that make the notion seem fresh.

My history classes in school never got around to the war, even when it was right there, near the end of the textbook. I always sort of figured it was a low priority for my teachers because in their minds, well, “we all lived through it, right?” So I had to read about the events that most immediately shaped the world I grew up in on my own.

In typing my mother’s childhood memoirs, I’m reminded yet again of how the war shaped the lives even of those who never went overseas.

So I know all that, and have known it since childhood, but every time I run across by-the-way mentions of the war experiences of various famous people, I’m reminded that, unlike Vietnam and definitely unlike the War on Terror, pretty much everyone who was eligible did go.

61t3in9FBcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last night, I started reading one of the books I received for Christmas, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. (It was sort of an ironic experience, opening that present and seeing on the cover the beleaguered soldier in the snow — on a Christmas Day in the 70s.)

On the second page, I had another of those “Wow, everybody was in this” experiences. The author was explaining how, in August 1944, things were still unsettled in newly liberated Paris, which is why Eisenhower was pretty much ignoring FDR’s wishes and showing support for de Gaulle, who he believed could stabilize things in his rear while his troops moved on to Germany.

Within that context, I read this, in the middle of a paragraph:

…Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes….

I mean, think about it: This guy was a famous recluse my whole life. We all knew two things about Salinger: He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and he was a recluse. You didn’t see him anywhere. And yet here he is popping up in the middle of things in Paris during the war.

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Months later, in the battle that this book is about, Kurt Vonnegut would be captured, along with my father-in-law — both soldiers in the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, that new unit of green troops who had been placed at the center of the line, where things were supposed to be quiet.

I’m not a student of Salinger — if I were, I’d be well aware of his extensive experience in the war — but it immediately occurred to me that maybe experiences such as that one in Paris help explain why he turned into such a hermit. And sure enough, I see that he was hospitalized for a few weeks with “combat stress reaction” — although he waited until the Germans were defeated to have his breakdown.

Anyway, it’s just a small thing, a footnote, but such things interest me….

Check my back, OK? I think there’s a Russian following me…

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OK, yeah, I know; I shouldn’t make jokes about people’s nationalities.

It’s just that this guy started following me sometime in the last 24 hours, and I tend to click on new followers to see who they are, and I was intrigued by (what I take to be) the Cyrillic text on his feed. (In fact, he may not be Russian at all. I’m too ignorant to tell. Can you tell?)

Then I tapped on his avatar (this was on my iPad), and got this super grainy, black-and-white image that immediately reminded me of the blurry surveillance image of Karla that George Smiley kept on the wall of his office.

And then, the image moved. It stretched and distorted itself to become more blurry, then popped back into shape, then did it all again. I checked; it wasn’t a GIF. It was a PNG. Can PNG’s do that?

I’m not making this up. Look at his feed and watch the avatar on one of his Tweets, just for a few seconds. See it jump? Roll your mouse pointer over it. Does it do it now?

So who is this guy? According to Facebook, he’s a cipher, a complete question mark — unless I ask to be his “friend.” Yeah, right — I do that, and next thing you know I show up on his expense reports to Moscow Centre as a new agent. Then, the next defector we get tells the boys at Langley or MI6 that they’ve turned me, and I’ve got a permanent cloud over me. I’m not falling for that.

And what’s that background image on Twitter? Is that a raven? Is it saying, “никогда больше?”

Again, sorry. I’ve just started reading The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6, by Gordon Corera, and I’m in the chapter about Vienna right after the war, when everybody was trying to recruit everybody else, and so I’m, well, I’ve got this sort of thing on the brain.

Sorry. (If I say “sorry” a couple more times, I think I’ll have established my cover as a Brit.)…

artem

Linking the flag and Atticus Finch

Samuel Tenenbaum — who goes to Publix each morning to by The New York Times because they refuse to deliver it in Lexington County, where he and I live — brought to my attention this piece from that paper, which notes the parallels between the Confederate flag we just got off our lawn and Atticus Finch:

FOR as long as many Americans have been alive, the Confederate flag stood watch at the South Carolina capitol, and Atticus Finch, moral guardian-father-redeemer, was arguably the most beloved hero in American literature.

The two symbols took their places in our culture within months of each other. The flag was hoisted above the capitol dome in April 1961, on the centennial of the Civil War during upheavals over civil rights. Atticus Finch debuted in July 1960 in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that British librarians would later declare the one book, even before the Bible, that everyone should read. Given life by Gregory Peck in the 1962 Oscar-winning film, Atticus Finch would go on to be named the top movie hero of the 20th century.

Nearly at once, both icons have fallen from grace in ways that were unimaginable just months ago…

I just pass it on in case you’re interested. I’m not crazy about the way it ends up — suggesting that we should embrace this “new” Atticus as a way of coming more truly to grips with who we are and have been. I’m of the “Atticus is still a hero” school. But I pass it on nonetheless…

Take it easy, y’all — Atticus is still Atticus

Atticus

Over the weekend, there was a national (and international) cry of pain as folks heard that, in the long-lost Harper Lee novel Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch turned out to be a cranky old segregationist.

Don’t worry. Atticus is still Atticus.

I’m an editor, and as an editor — although not a book editor, I’ll allow — I understand why a book, or a column, or a news story, doesn’t get published: Because it wasn’t good enough.

Here’s what happened: A wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript, and an editor took a look at it, and said, essentially, This is not the novel you want to publish. The novel you want to publish is in these flashback passages. Dig into those, make those into your novel, and then you’ll have something.

He saw the truth in those passages, when Scout was just a girl. So, the editor did what I did when a piece just needed way more change than I had time to give it in the editing process — he kicked it back, gave her the chance to redeem herself as a writer, to write the great book that the editor saw in her.

No one has said this, but I strongly suspect that the editor had had his fill of novels by young folks who had come to New York, donned a mantle of self-conscious sophistication, gone home to visit their small-town homes, and then thought they were being terribly original by coming back to Manhattan and writing about how small, provincial, narrow and stultifying their home towns were. When really, they were being painfully trite.

He wanted Nelle to dig into the true story that she had in her, the one before all that, when she and Scout were unspoiled by the world, and yes, her Daddy was a hero.

And of course, being the editor, he was right. What he directed her to write was perhaps the best-loved American novel, one that was true, that spoke to people, that hit them where they lived, that said something about the American experience and its central conflict that needed to be said, and needed to be said in precisely that voice. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the two great, profound American novels that examine the narrative of race in this country — this and Huck Finn — are both told from the perspective of a child…)

I plan to read Go Set A Watchman, and I expect I’ll enjoy parts of it, here and there — it will be nice to hear that voice again. But I’m not going to get upset thinking something happened to Atticus. I know the real Atticus. This isn’t some sequel revealing some new, shocking side to him; this is just an imperfect, throwaway, first draft of him. And I know how little first drafts may be worth, before an editor gets ahold of them.

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The Golden Age of Television Overload

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Pope Francis recently disclosed that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Which means he’s like way behind on “Game of Thrones.” Among other things.

I’m beginning to think His Holiness is onto something. I’m feeling… a bit out of control with my own binge-watching lately. Wouldn’t I be a better person — more productive, more attuned to the needs of those around me — if I stopped watching Netflix, HBO NOW, the downstairs TV, the upstairs TV, the Roku, the Apple TV, the iPad and on very rare occasions, actual broadcast television?

The Pope has enough on his plate keeping up with matters relating to this world and the next, much less Westeros and all those other fictional universes out there.

Today, the front of the Arena section of The Wall Street Journal raises the question, “How Many TV Series Can Your Brain Take?” An excerpt:

“Game of Thrones,” which will leave multiple story lines dangling for a year with Sunday’s season finale, is notorious for befuddling even ardent fans with its many clans, lands and simmering subplots. But it’s just one of many shows taxing the memories of audiences who have been flooded with complex story lines and crowded character ensembles.

“Orange Is the New Black,” which returns Friday for a third season on Netflix, uses more than 20 characters to populate a fictional women’s prison with inmates and staff. On “Orphan Black,” finishing its third season on BBC America this month, lead actress Tatiana Maslany plays six different characters, all clones, in a sci-fi conspiracy story. New viewers have to absorb dense mythologies if they hope to jump aboard returning shows such as CBS’s summer series “Under the Dome,” which, in its coming third season, might finally explain why a bubble is encasing the town of Chester’s Mill.

The deluge of compelling shows means fans have to be good at time management to keep up with the best offerings. But they also are grappling with the limits of memory. How many shows (and knotty plots and twisting character arcs within) can we keep track of at once? In a binge-watching world, where we aren’t limited to weekly installments of network TV shows, is there a limit to the number of narratives we can keep straight?

Actually, I don’t think that frames the question correctly. Binge-watching doesn’t cause the problem of having trouble keeping up. What I find is that failing to binge-watch makes it harder to know what’s going on.

Dramatic series are written for binge-watchers, not for people who watch an episode, walk away and lead real lives, then come back in a week or more to try to pick up the thread again. That is part of what makes the new breed of shows so absorbing — they pull you into a complicated world, and if you can’t stay there until the season (at least) is over, you’re likely to be disoriented when you return.

For instance — when the third season of “House of Cards” came out several months back, I did what I had with the first two seasons. I started watching to see what everybody was talking about, then got fed up with it and quit, and then, when curiosity built up enough, came back and pushed through the rest of it.

SPOILER ALERT! Consequently, when I saw the season finale the other night, I was somewhat at a loss: Why was Claire leaving Frank? Yeah, they had been slightly weirder together the last few episodes — which means five percent more than their usual standard, which is creepy as all get-out. But what precipitated this blow-up? Surely nothing that had happened recently had showed her anything she didn’t know about her husband. Not to mention that she’s no bargain herself on the decent-person scale.

If I’d watched it all straight through, I think I might have a good feel for it. But as things stand, I don’t.

Not that it matters, right?

Last year, David Carr wrote in The New York Times about the problem of “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” I could really identify:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy….

And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of “House of Cards” (Netflix), have caught up on “Girls” (HBO) and am reveling in every episode of “Justified” (FX). I may be a little behind on “The Walking Dead” (AMC) and “Nashville” (ABC) and have just started “The Americans” (FX), but I am pretty much in step with comedies like “Modern Family” (ABC) and “Archer” (FX) and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how “True Detective” (HBO) ends. Oh, and the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” (HBO) starts next month.

Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media….

I think back to a time before all this. Say, the ’80s. In that whole decade, I can remember watching only one dramatic series on television that in any way compares to the shows I’m juggling now: “Hill Street Blues.” There was that, and maybe “Cheers” — both on the same network on the same night. I was very, very busy with a demanding job in the daytime and a family full of young children at night, and entertainment wasn’t high on my list — which made the lack of high-quality options a good match for my lifestyle. And “Hill Street” was written for people who only visited that world weekly. There were continuing story lines, but everything was episodic. One episode held you for a week.

Lately, I’m juggling, off and on:

  • Blue Bloods” — My only current show written in that old fashioned episodic form, and the only one coming from commercial broadcast television. But I’m watching it the new way. I had never seen it before a couple of months ago, when I started the first season on Netflix. It’s the perfect length for a workout on the elliptical. I’m not quite as obsessed with it as I was with “The West Wing” last year, but I do like it.
  • Foyle’s War” — Watching this on two temporal streams. We just finished the current season of new ones on PBS last night. Meanwhile, we’re almost done with the previous seasons on Netflix.
  • Game of Thrones” — ALMOST caught up. I’ve got one more episode to watch (last week’s) before this Sunday’s season finale. And I’ll be glad to be done with it for awhile. I wanted to be up on the cultural phenomenon, and now I almost am. I don’t find it very satisfying.
  • The Wire” — The best of the lot right now. I’m trying not to spend it all at once. I’m past the halfway mark in the second season.
  • Orange is the New Black” — We were really into this, but my wife and I sort of lost interest during the second season, and didn’t get more than a few episodes into it. With the new season out today, will we get back into it? I don’t know.
  • Daredevil” — Probably the best adaptation of a Marvel franchise ever to appear on television. I’ve only got one episode left in the Netflix season, still waiting to see him in the red superhero costume. The series is taking the origins thing at a stately pace.
  • True Detective” — Got started on this and got sidetracked. Want to finish the season before the new one comes out.
  • Mad Men” — Lost interest a couple of seasons back. There’s just so much moral vacancy one can take. But my wife and daughter say the last season was as good as the early ones, so I’m going to take it back up soon.
  • The Walking Dead” — Haven’t watched it in months, but I do want to get back to it and catch up. I just want to know one thing before I do: Daryl doesn’t die, does he?
  • Justified” — It’s as good as some of my friends here say, but since the only way I can see it is on DVDs from Netflix, I only get back to it periodically. I’m only up to the second or third episode in the second season.
  • Better Call Saul” — Since we don’t get AMC (the only station I miss from cutting back on cable), I bought the season on iTunes when it first came out. So since I paid for it, I really must get back to it and watch the rest of the season at some point. It’s good, but it’s not as compelling as “Breaking Bad.” I’ve just got this investment in it.

It’s over now, but for a few weeks there, we were really into “Wolf Hall” — which we’d watch on Apple TV the night after each episode’s release, because I didn’t want to stay up past 11 on Sunday night. (One good thing about this — it forced me to go ahead and finish reading Bring Up the Bodies in order to stay ahead of the show — which I shoved aside The Guns of August in order to push through.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Netflix releases a new series daily, and some of them are bound to be good. It’s just ridiculous.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to read The Guns of August, a really compelling history book, for months. But if I read a chapter in a sitting, it’s unusual. And it was interrupted first by the trip to Thailand, and then by Bring Up the Bodies. Mostly, it’s a couple of pages over dinner. And talk about losing track of characters and story lines — of course, books are supposed to be that absorbing and complex. TV never was before.

Yeah, it’s true, and it’s appalling: I’ve only finished on new book so far this year.

The Pope has the right idea. I just need to summon the self-discipline…

"Daredevil:" Matt Murdock still hasn't fully donned his superhero persona.

“Daredevil:” Matt Murdock still hasn’t fully donned his superhero persona.

What does this picture have to do with reading books?

It seems like I’ve written in the past about those come-ons you see online that say something about, “Discover the shocking secret of youth” or something, with a picture of a very attractive young woman dressed to show off her most dramatic assets.

Some of them are there to promote treatments for low testosterone, which makes me wonder, If it’s that low, why would this grab your attention?

Others, strangely, allege to be enticing you to learn a foreign language — which seems an odd juxtaposition.

But few are odder than this one I saw today at Slate:

books sex

The picture is SO tiny that you almost don’t know what you’re looking at. But it does pull the eye. Curious, I clicked.

Here are the five books. If any of them has anything to do with a woman flashing thigh while getting out of a car (I think), I can’t tell.

Oh, and by the way, the headline on the teaser was misleading, too. It was “5 Books to Read in Your 30s,” not “before you die.” Although, I suppose, one hopes that that would be before you die…

Your humble malchick hath become a grumpy starry veck, munching our zoobies together, o my brothers

malcolm

When I went to YouTube to seek a link to “A Day in the Life,” I ran across the above ad, showing this grumpy old man in a cardigan and his top shirt buttoned, and when you moved the pointer across his face, he grimaced in a way that looked like his dentures weren’t seated right.

About the second time I made him grimace, I realized — that’s Malcolm McDowell!

Yes, the very figure of uncontrollable, raging, violent youth, turned into the sort that Alex and his droogs would single out in the night, smeck at, tolchock a bit, then leave moaning in his red, red krovvy.

What’s this cal? What grazhny bratchny is responsible for this, o my brothers? Our former malchick, ever dressed in the heighth of fashion in his platties of the night, reduced to this starry, drooling veck?

It’s made worse by this video in which he is shown amongst the young, failing to pony the latest version of Nadsat.

This is not horrorshow. This is baddiwad. This is making my gulliver hurt. It’s like a kick in the yarbles. O, that I should have lived to viddy this with my very own glazzies, my brothers!

alex

 

“I’m tired of states’ rights”

“The thought had occurred to him on the day that he took it, that this would make a lovely burying ground for the Union soldiers who had fallen, or were still to fall in the battles hereabout, and almost before the smoke of his involuntary assault on Missionary Ridge had cleared, he had a detail at work on the project.

When a chaplain, who was to be in charge of the project, inquired if the dead should be buried in plots assigned to the states they represented, as was being done at Gettysburg, where Lincoln has spoken a couple of weeks ago, the Virginian lowered his head in thought and then shook it decisively, and made a tumbling gesture with his hands. “No, no. Mix ’em up, mix ’em up,” he said. “I’m tired of states’ rights”.

That’s from the second volume of The Civil War. I’m currently listening to it on Audible, and that passage appealed to me. The Virginian General is Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. Here’s what the place looked like in 1895.

I’m trying to get you to engage in crimethink

Off in my corner, out of sight of the telescreen, writing down my subversive thoughts...

Off in my corner, out of sight of the telescreen, writing down my subversive thoughts…

Back on my post last night expressing horror at the number of South Carolinians (49 percent!) who voted straight-party on Tuesday, Lynn T. posted this thoughtful comment, to which I responded, and I thought the exchange was worth its own post. Lynn’s comment:

The parties have successfully sold the idea that they stand for a consistent set of values and priorities. Anyone who watches actual votes and decisions knows better, but few citizens do. First we have to set aside the cases in which consistency isn’t a reasonable goal because pragmatic lawmaking requires compromises. Even excluding those cases, the variation is substantial. One Democratic senator campaigned on his 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce, normally more closely associated with the Republican Party. At the same time, his environmental record was not nearly as positive as that of some Republicans, who are usually perceived as more inclined toward business than environmental preservation. There are Republicans who support no-excuse early voting without adding “poison pill” restrictions, and others who take a very different direction. The diminished resources of the press in this state are a serious problem because the press is the closest thing we have to a reality check. If The State had as many reporters on the State House as on Gamecock football it would be fabulous. But then if more citizens cared about their government as much as they do about Gamecock football, it would be fabulous.

My response:

What the parties — and the media, and interest groups, and practically everyone whose profession has to do with politics — have successfully sold is the binary paradigm.

Almost all of the people who write or talk about, or otherwise deal with politics for a living, talk about political decision as being a choice between two options, and two options only. Either-or. Left-right. Democrat-Republican. Black-white.

And because that’s the way THEY talk and write about it, the rest of the public does the same. Why? Because they lack the vocabulary to speak or think about politics any other way. It’s a very Orwellian situation. The point of Newspeak in 1984 is to eliminate all words that express concepts that would free people’s minds. If they don’t have words for a concept that would be a thoughtcrime, they can’t engage in crimethink.

Too many people just can’t think beyond the notion that good people like me vote THIS way, and only this way, and that people who vote that other way are bad.

The way rank and file voters react to Nikki Haley offers a good example of this phenomenon. Among in-the-know Republicans — the Inner Party members, carrying forward the 1984 analogy — have never liked her much, although I sense a lot of them have now warmed to her.

But among the great masses of people who think of themselves as Republicans, if you criticize Nikki Haley, then you are a liberal Democrat. This, to them, is a truth that cannot be disputed. There can be no other explanation for your criticism.

I know this from personal experience. I actually have missed out on getting a job because the boss was convinced I was “left of center.” Why? Because I’ve criticized Nikki Haley. That was the entire explanation. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I knew I’d have trouble working for someone who didn’t think any more clearly that that, so sour grapes.

Cindi Scoppe and I both got that a lot over the years. And the idea that either of us is a liberal Democrat is risible to anyone who looks and listens and thinks. But otherwise bright people who don’t think about this stuff all the time believe it as a matter of course, because their paradigm admits no other explanation.

Back when Jim Hodges and Bill Clinton were in office, we caught similar hell from Democrats. Their notion that we were right-wingers was equally laughable, but you couldn’t convince THEM of that. (I’ll never forget one through-the-looking-glass experience I had speaking to a small group of academics back when Hodges was in office. They sat there with these stony looks of hostility on their faces. They finally let me know that, because I was opposed to Hodges and his “education lottery,” I was an enemy of public education — despite the fact that we had written FAR more over the years as champions of the schools than we had written about Hodges and his plan. They could not be moved. They sat there and informed me I had never lifted a finger for education. They were adamant in their absurd belief.)

As you say, Lynn, “Anyone who watches actual votes and decisions knows better, but few citizens do.” Posts such as this one are part of my campaign to gradually wear away at the bars of the average citizen’s mind prison, which was largely created by my colleagues in the media…

I do not think Hemingway would do listicles, do you?

Hemingway

At first, I was pleased to see that Ernest Hemingway was following me on Twitter. It made me feel good, in the way that thing that are clean and true make a man feel when he is a man.

But then I perused the feed, and felt less good.

There were things that were true and right, such as:

But then there were the things that ruined it. You know the kind of things I mean. Things such as:

I do not believe the real Hemingway, the true Hemingway, would post such things. Do you?

Patrick O’Brian’s depiction of the Yazidi, a.k.a. Dasni

Y’all know, from my frequent mentions, that I am a Patrick O’Brian fanatic, reading his novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin over and over again. You know, the ones set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The best historical novels ever written.

Something that is much in the news the last couple of weeks rang a bell, so I went back and found the relevant passage in The Letter of Marque, the 12th novel in the series, and one of my favorites.

Here it is. It depicts a brief conversation between Maturin, a Catholic, and his good friend Nathaniel Martin, an Anglican clergyman:

Dasni1

Dasni2

 

I checked, and my hunch was right: The Dasni are the very Yazidi people whom we are trying, with our air strikes in Iraq, to protect from ISIS. Wikipedia, under its Yazidi entry, cites this description:

Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680–683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Iraq, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

So you see, my obsessive study of these novels is actually educational.

O’Brian was obsessive about detail, and took a certain delight in depicting interesting, little-known religious practices. You see a reference above to the Sethians, of whom I had never heard. They play a significant role in two or three of the novels, making up a significant portion of the crew of Surprise during her time as a private man of war.

But as obsessive as he was about detail in depicting real-life naval battles, such as Cochrane’s victory in the Speedy over the Gamo, or Broke’s in the Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in 1813, he would sometimes invent entirely fictional places. For instance, the Sethians (a real, though obscure, gnostic sect — the apocryphal Gospel of Judas is considered a Sethian document) who serve under Aubrey are from the fictional town of Shelmerston.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the Dasni are for real.

Who’s actually going to see all of these Hobbit movies?

Hobbit

I just saw a trailer for the third Hobbit movie, titled “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” (Here’s a link; I didn’t find the embed code right away, and wasn’t interested enough to keep looking.)

And I had to wonder, not for the first time: Who is paying to go see all three of these things?

I watched the first one — after it became available on Netflix. It was… about like the beginning of the book, only dragged way out.

Haven’t seen the second. But what I’m wondering is, where is Peter Jackson getting all the material? From that one slim little book?

It’s been many years since I read the book, and here’s what I remember: The Hobbit gets pulled into an adventure against his inclinations, and it involves dwarves and orcs and trolls and some giant spiders. He and the dwarves are on a quest to get something back from a dragon. The eventually do that, and go home. The one significance of the narrative to the imaginary history of Middle Earth is that Bilbo runs into Gollum, and obtains the One Ring, thereby setting the stage for the trilogy.

I don’t remember anything about a Battle of Five Armies. That sounds more like something out of Return of the King. It was a small story, an intimate story. Not a spectacle involving a CGI cast of thousands.

Basically, this just seems ridiculous. The three “Lord of the Rings” movies made sense. There were, after all, three books. But this was one book, one little adventure story, and I don’t see how it sustains three long films.

I like Tolkien. I’m not one of the fervent fans, but I like his stories. I’ve been a Martin Freeman fan since the original “The Office.”

But come on, people. What’s next — The Silmarillion, stretched into nine movies?

How could Huck Finn not top any list of Great American Novels?

Thomas Hart Benton's depiction of Huck and Jim

Thomas Hart Benton’s depiction of Huck and Jim

A piece in The Washington Post this morning on the new book about living next door to Harper Lee mentions the status of To Kill A Mockingbird as a, if not the, Great American Novel — and casually links to a list.

The list isn’t explained. I don’t know who compiled it, or what the criteria may have been.

But of course I’m drawn in. The list extends to 358 books (which requires straining the definition of “great”), but let’s just examine the top ten:

  1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  5. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  6. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  9. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
  10. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

OK, first, it’s just not right for Steinbeck to get three out of the 10. Especially since — confession time — I’ve never read the first two. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those novels I’ve meant to read for most of my life, and I will (my wife finds it utterly incredible I still haven’t). East of Eden, not so much.

And, to confess further, despite having started it again to great fanfare, I’ve still never finished Moby Dick. It just seems to start to drag after they go to sea. (Yeah, I know that’s pretty early in the book.) Which is weird, because that’s when seafaring tales generally get good.

I think all the other works are deserving of the top ten, although I might move up some of my faves from the second ten (On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fahrenheit 451).

But my main beef is this: How could any list of the Greatest American Novels not start with Huckleberry Finn? Hemingway famously said, ““All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” And I agree, except that I would delete the word, “modern.” It’s superfluous. All American literature, period.

It’s THE American novel. It’s episodic, picaresque structure is quintessentially American. Huck Finn, the freest character in literature, untainted by the history or culture of the Old World, couldn’t be more American. Huck can be anyone he wants to be, and slides in and out of identities throughout. And the central conflict in the novel is about the deepest, most profound issue of our history — in the sense that it has a central theme. Remember the author’s warning:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Which is a very American sort of warning — notice in no uncertain terms that pretension will not be tolerated.

Even the novel’s weaknesses are very American. Such as the uneven tone — starting out with farcical comedy that is an extension of Tom Sawyer, moving to tragedy with the Graingerfords and other incidents, the slapstick and menace of the Duke and the Dauphin, and ending with the broad comedy of Tom’s insistence on throwing flourishes from literature into Jim’s escape from the Phelps farm — itself a deadly serious matter, which nearly leads to Tom’s death, and does result in Jim’s recapture (as a result of his own selflessness).

Sorry, that was a confusing sentence. But you see what I mean. The novel was no more constrained by a particular tone than life itself. Very free, very American. And certainly great.

OK, off the top of my head, my own list:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  5. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  8. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  9. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
  10. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Some runner-ups:

  • The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  • Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
  • City Boy, by Herman Wouk
  • The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth
  • The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
  • God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

Better stop there, as my quality was slipping a bit at the end there (Heinlein is fun, but is it literature?).

I’ll come back and explain those choices a bit another day. Gotta run now…

Barton Swaim on Sanford and the public apology meme

Two recent posts — this one about Mark Sanford and this one about a public apology — remind me that a couple of weeks back, I meant to mention this book review in the WSJ, written by Columbia’s own Barton Swaim.

Yeah, I know — you click on the link and can’t read the review. I have the same problem, ever since my subscription ran out and the WSJ has refused to offer me terms anywhere near as reasonable as those they offered me in the past. (By contrast, I recently took advantage of an awesome, one-day deal offered by The Washington Post — $29 for a year of total access across all platforms, including the most important, my iPad. I’ve been enjoying it. The WSJ, unfortunately, wants almost that much per month.)

Anyway, it’s a review of Sorry About That by Edwin L. Battistella. It’s about public apologies, and I started reading the review with Mark Sanford in mind. Because I’ve heard more such apologies from him than from anyone. (While I’ve seen nothing that looks like actual contrition, no indication that there is anything that he did that he is truly sorry for.)

So I was startled when I got to this paragraph:

Apologizers’ attempts to avoid naming their offense, says Mr. Battistella, often make their apologies sound inauthentic and self-exculpatory. Instead of repeating or even paraphrasing the unwise remarks that prompted the apology, they will refer to “a careless, off-handed remark” or “insensitive words”; embezzling funds becomes a “mistake,” adultery a “poor decision I deeply regret.” I have a vivid memory of my former boss, Mark Sanford, in the days after his adulterous affair was revealed to the public. (Mr. Battistella devotes a brief section of his book to the governor of South Carolina, as he then was.) He would often refer to the affair in a grammatically bizarre way: “that which has caused the stir that it has.”…

Voldemort was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Sanford’s long-lasting lapse was “The-Sin-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

You know what? Bemused, jaded-wounding observations like Barton’s cause me to have the following thought: I’m not sure that anyone who worked for Mark Sanford as governor forgives him to the extent that he, Mark Sanford, believes he should be forgiven.

OK, well, just how graphic IS it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to the foofooraw over “gay-themed” books at the College of Charleston and USC Upstate, but something I saw at the top of this morning’s story did give me pause:

The College of Charleston assigned students to read “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir about the author’s struggle with family and sexual orientation. The University of South Carolina Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” about being gay in the South…

Hold on — graphic? How graphic? I hadn’t seen the word, “graphic” before.

At this point, I supposed I could channel Woody Allen in “Sleeper” and offer to go off and study the material in detail and give you a full report later. But let’s just discuss it in the abstract first.

In this story, critics of the reading lists are couching their objections in terms of objecting to “pornography” at public institutions. Which seems to me a legitimate objection, if you’re one of the people expected to appropriate money for it. That is, if it is pornography. Having not yet conducted that in-depth study, I can’t say.

But if it is, I wonder — with all the fantastic literature that most undergraduates will never get around to reading in their entire lives, why does the curriculum need to have anything in it that a news story would matter-of-factly describe as “graphic.” It’s not like these kids don’t have access to porn websites. In what way is graphic material of any sort providing them with knowledge they can’t get without paying college tuition?

I tried to think of anything that I was assigned to read in school that was “graphic,” back in the licentious early ’70s, the days of “Deep Throat” and Plato’s Retreat.

The best I could come up with was Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I vaguely recall one dispiriting passage describing an adulterous liaison engaged in by Harry Angstrom. I don’t think anyone would call it “graphic.” It probably wouldn’t earn an “R” rating today (although the sequel, Rabbit Redux, which I read after college, certainly would have). It wasn’t nearly as prurient as God’s Little Acre, say.Caldwell172-GodsLittleAcre-frontCover

We read it because Updike was supposedly one of the great fiction writers of his generation. In that same class, we also read Crime and Punishment. Needless to say, the latter made a much deeper impression on me. I found Updike mostly… depressing.

I don’t feel deprived for not having studied anything “graphic” in school.

Thoughts about this? I mean, set aside the “gay-themed” bit that makes headlines. Let’s say we’re talking pure hetero. Is there any need for public institutions to use “graphic” reading material outside of a public health class?

My own gut reaction is to say “no,” although I supposed I could also without straining myself mount an argument that Erskine Caldwell‘s books are at least culturally relevant to South Carolina.

Such a discussion won’t lead to a resolution of this particular controversy, but I find the question intriguing…