Category Archives: Books

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


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.)…


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


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.


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


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!



“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?


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:




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?


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…

Revisiting an intriguing proposition: Hillary Clinton as LBJ (rather than MLK or JFK)

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I was interested to read, in today’s excerpt of Jim Clyburn’s book in The State, the congressman’s account of his disagreement with the Clintons just before the 2008 SC presidential primary:

That charge went back to an earlier disagreement we had about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s suggesting that, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had done an excellent job promoting the issues of civil and voting rights for black people, it took a sensitive president such as Lyndon Baines Johnson to have the resolution of those issues enacted into law. In a New York Times article referencing an interview Mrs. Clinton had with Fox News on Monday, Jan. 5, 2008, she was quoted as saying “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The article went on to say that Mrs. Clinton thought her experience should mean more to voters than uplifting words by Mr. Obama. “It took a president to get it done,” Mrs. Clinton said.

It was an argument I had heard before while growing up in the South, even from white leaders who supported civil rights reform. It took black leaders to identify problems, but it took white leaders to solve them, they said. I had accepted that argument for a long time; but in 2008 it seemed long outdated, and it was frankly disappointing to hear it from a presidential candidate. When the reporter called to ask my reaction, I did not hold back…

Actually, Clinton is misrepresenting what Hillary Clinton had said. I don’t think he’s doing so intentionally. I believe he truly remembers it that way, in those black-and-white terms.

But then-Sen. Clinton didn’t really put it in terms of black leader vs. white leader. Basically, she put both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy in one category — that of the inspirational figure — and Lyndon Baines Johnson in the contrasting role of the less-inspirational leader who nevertheless follows through and gets things done.

I found her proposition intriguing at the time. She was posing the question, What do you want — inspiration or results? I wrote a column about it at the time, which ran on Jan. 20, 2008, just six days before Barack Obama won the SC primary.

Now that we’ve had several years in which to evaluate the kinds of results that Mr. Obama has produced as president, and as we look forward to a 2016 election in which the Democratic nomination is Mrs. Clinton’s for the taking, I think it’s interesting to revisit that column. So here it is:

BARACK OBAMA and Hillary Clinton decided last week to put their spat over MLK, JFK and LBJ behind them. That’s nice for them, but the rest of us shouldn’t drop the subject so quickly.
Intentionally or not, the statement that started all the trouble points to the main difference between the two front-runners.
And that difference has nothing to do with race.
Now you’re thinking, “Only a Clueless White Guy could say that had nothing to do with race,” and you’d have a point. When it comes to judging whether a statement or an issue is about race, there is a profound and tragic cognitive divide between black and white in this country.
But hear me out. It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”
She wasn’t insulting black Americans — intentionally — any more than she was trying to dis Irish Catholics.
To bring what I’m saying into focus, set aside Dr. King for the moment — we’ll honor him tomorrow. The very real contrast between the two Democratic front-runners shows in the other comparison she offered.
She was saying that, given a choice between John F. Kennedy and his successor, she was more like the latter. This was stark honesty — who on Earth would cast herself that way who didn’t believe it was true? — and it was instructive.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Master of the Senate when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1960. If he wanted the Senate to do something, it generally happened, however many heads had to be cracked.
LBJ was not made for the television era that was dawning. With features like a hound dog (and one of the most enduring images of him remains the one in which he is holding an actual hound dog up by its ears), and a lugubrious Texas drawl, he preferred to git ’er done behind the scenes, and no one did it better.
Sen. Johnson lost the nomination to that inexperienced young pup Jack Kennedy, but brought himself to accept the No. 2 spot. After an assassin put him into the Oval Office, he managed to win election overwhelmingly in 1964, when the Republicans gave him the gift of Barry Goldwater. But Vietnam brought him down hard. He gave up even trying to get his party’s nomination in 1968.
But he was a masterful lawmaker. And he did indeed push the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law, knowing as he did so that he was sacrificing his party’s hold on the South.
He brought into being a stunning array of social programs — Medicare, federal aid to education, urban renewal, and the War on Poverty.
So, on the one hand, not a popular guy — wouldn’t want to be him. On the other hand, President Kennedy never approached his level of achievement during his tragically short tenure.
You might say that if Sen. Obama is to be compared to President Kennedy — and he is, his call to public service enchanting young voters, and drawing the endorsement of JFK’s closest adviser, Ted Sorensen — Sen. Clinton flatters herself in a different way by invoking President Johnson.
They are different kinds of smart, offering a choice between the kid you’d want on your debating team and the one you’d want helping you do your homework.
Sen. Obama offers himself as a refreshing antidote to the vicious partisanship of the Bush and Clinton dynasties. That sounds wonderful. But Sen. Clinton has, somewhat less dramatically, formed practical coalitions with Republican colleagues to address issues of mutual concern — such as with Lindsey Graham on military health care.
Sen. Clinton, whose effort to follow up the Great Society with a comprehensive health care solution fell flat in the last decade, has yet to live up to the Johnson standard of achievement. For that matter, Sen. Obama has yet to bring Camelot back into being.
As The Washington Post’s David Broder pointed out, in their debate in Las Vegas last week, the pair offered very different concepts of the proper role of the president. Sen. Obama said it wasn’t about seeing that “the paperwork is being shuffled effectively,” but rather about setting goals, uniting people to pursue them, building public support — in other words, about inspiration.
Sen. Clinton talked about managing the bureaucracy and demanding accountability.
Sen. Obama offers a leader, while Sen. Clinton offers a manager. It would be nice to have both. But six days from now, South Carolinians will have to choose one or the other.


Tonight on ‘Fresh Air,’ Brigid talks about her new book

Remember a couple of months back, when I told you about the new book by my friend and colleague Brigid Schulte?

Well, she’s going to be talking about it this evening at 7 on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

That’s all. Just wanted to give a heads-up, particularly to any of y’all who remember Brigid from when she worked for The State, before her long stint at The Washington Post, where she still works when she’s not writing books…

Remembering teachers for what they did to (I mean, for) you

Had to reTweet this item from The Onion today:

Unemployed, Miserable Man Still Remembers Teacher Who First Made Him Fall In Love With Writing

AUBURN, CA—Explaining that she introduced him to the literature that made him the man he is today, 41-year-old Casey Sheard, an unemployed and fundamentally miserable person, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that he still fondly remembers the high school teacher who first inspired him to fall in love with writing. “Mrs. Merriman was the one who put a copy of The Sound And The Fury in my hands when I was 16 years old, and it totally changed my life,” said Sheard, who has reportedly been unable to hold down any semblance of well-paid, full-time employment, constantly struggles to stay financially afloat, has thus far failed to make a living off of writing as a career, and has frequently spiraled into long periods of severe depression and unhappiness….

A couple of other word guys liked that. Mike Fitts just added, “Yep.”

Robert Gates, the quintessential national security professional, judges ex-boss Obama harshly

Coming from the source it comes from, this is pretty devastating:

In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”Gates cropped

Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”…

The source is someone for whom I’ve always had the utmost respect, as I’ve written in the past. Other political appointees come and go, but Gates has always seemed to me the real-life version of what the fictional George Smiley was in John le Carre’s world:

Mr. Gates is a Smileyesque professional. He was the only Director of Central Intelligence ever to have come up through the ranks. He had spent two decades in the Agency, from 1969 through 1989, with a several-year hiatus at the National Security Council. He received the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal (twice) and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal (three times).
I trust professionals, particularly those who have devoted themselves to national service. Not in every case, of course — there are idiots and scoundrels in every walk of life — but if all other things are equal, give me the pro from Dover over someone’s golf buddy every time…

You know the real-life “golf-buddies” and campaign contributors and hangers-on. The fictional counterparts to them, in the le Carre world, would be Saul Enderby and, to a lesser degree, Oliver Lacon.

It’s one thing for Republicans and other professional detractors to attack the president’s national security seriousness. For Robert Gates to do it is quite another thing.

So, how did Brigid Schulte find the time to write a BOOK?

Congrats to my long-ago colleague Brigid Schulte, who just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly for her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:

51FQv8OfA7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_On her quest to turn her “time confetti” into “time serenity,” journalist Schulte finds that, while it’s worse for women and hits working mothers the hardest, what she calls the “Overwhelm” cuts across gender, income, and nationality to contaminate time, shrink brains, impair productivity, and reduce happiness. Investigating the “great speed-up” of modern life, Schulte surveys the “time cages” of the American workplace, the “stalled gender revolution” in the home, and the documented necessity for play, and discovers that the “aimless whirl” of American life runs on a conspiracy of “invisible forces”: outdated notions of the Ideal Worker; the cult of motherhood; antiquated national family policies; and the “high status of busyness.” The result is our communal “time sickness.” Schulte takes a purely practical and secular approach to a question that philosophers and spiritual teachers have debated for centuries—how to find meaningful work, connection, and joy—but her research is thorough and her conclusions fascinating, her personal narrative is charmingly honest, and the stakes are high: the “good life” pays off in “sustainable living, healthy populations, happy families, good business, [and] sound economies.” While the final insights stretch thin, Schulte unearths the attitudes and “powerful cultural expectations” responsible for our hectic lives, documents European alternatives to the work/family balance, and handily summarizes her solutions in an appendix. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Mar.)


Brigid Schulte

Brigid was the reporter I hired as Lee Bandy’s successor in The State‘s Washington Bureau. My memories of her sort of illustrate the theme of her book. First, there’s the way we met. I went to Washington in January 1993 — there was snow on the ground of the Mall around the booths set up for the first Clinton inauguration, which was to occur a few days later. I had set up interviews with a number of candidates, using an empty office in the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau as my base. But Brigid was out of town, and wasn’t getting back until almost exactly the moment my returning flight left.

So we met in the airport, as she was coming and I was going. I was sufficiently impressed to bring her down to Columbia for further interviews. We ended up hiring her. About a year later, she got drafted by the KR national staff, and not long after that moved on to The Washington Post.

Another quick anecdote: She was covering the round of BRAC hearings that led to the closing of Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. The climax of the process occurred on a Sunday afternoon. I happened to have the desk duty that day, and Brigid was having to wait for it all to happen, then write the story and somehow catch a train on which she was to depart with her then-new husband on vacation. This was before cellphones. She filed the story (on a Radio Shack TRS-80, I guess) at a time when it seemed physically impossible for her still to catch the train. Of course, I wasn’t going to let her go until I had the story.

Then there was the matter of calling in to answer my questions after I had read it. She did so, literally breathless and a bit dazed, from a phone on the train — which in those days was a technological marvel. “I’m on the train!” she shouted. “I’m on the phone, on the train! I’m calling you from the train! I made it!” That’s wonderful, I said. Now, here are my questions…

Of course, life has become even more hectic since that time. I mean, she didn’t even have kids back then.

So, I have to wonder: How did she find time to write a book? I always wonder that — I marvel that anyone finds time in a lifetime to do that — but I particularly wonder, given that she knows so well how insane modern life is. Well enough to write a book about it.

But she was always well-organized. She used to carry two notebooks — one for the live stories that day, another for enterprise stuff she was working on for later. I suppose that, while working on this book, she carried a third. Or the electronic equivalent of a third…