Category Archives: Books

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…

Edward Snowden, displaying his utter lack of perspective, declares lack of privacy today is worse than Orwellian

Through an “alternative Christmas message” broadcast on British television (“alternative” as in, a message other than the Queen’s official one) and a Washington Post interview, Edward Snowden reveals his immaturity, paranoia, irrationality and utter lack of perspective.

I can’t find an embed code for the full video, but here’s a link to it.

Here’s a sample of his “reasoning,” as he explains why he thinks we’re worse off than Winston Smith in 1984:

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” he said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

So… according to him… a cellphone, a private possession that you are in no way required to own, certainly not by the government, a thing you can throw away the moment you want to drop off the grid, is somehow worse than being watched and listened to 24 hours a day by a malevolent government that does so for the express purpose of controlling your thoughts, a government that has reshaped language itself to prevent you even from being able to form thoughts that are not to its liking.

But wait — there’s more:

Recently, we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do.

No, we have learned nothing of the kind. I have seen nothing from his “revelations” (although I give him props for not congratulating himself, but using the relatively passive “we learned”) that indicates that either this government or any other or any other is doing anything at all that comes anywhere close to “watching everything” I do.

There’s apparently a record of phone calls I have made, and everyone else has made. Not the content, but who we called and when and for how long. A record that doesn’t even begin to be the tiniest, most hesitant intrusion on my privacy unless there is something about the pattern of my calls that draws attention to them. My own privacy is protected by the sheer volume of data of which my calls form an infinitesimal part.

I have no reason to believe that this or any other government has taken the slightest interest even in this tiny corner of my life — whom I have called and when — which is a drop in the ocean of “everything” I do.

This is rich. Let’s listen to some more:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.

Really? Golly, I’d certainly like to see a little bit of evidence to back up those wild assertions. I’m even going to be charitable and ignore the number disagreement between his “a child” and his use of “they” and “themselves.” First, it would help if he had any evidence whatsoever, any reason at all to think that this hypothetical child would never know a “private moment.” I see zero reason to believe that. As for “no conception” — well, that takes us far beyond lacking the experience of even a “moment” of privacy. In fact, only in an Orwellian universe — given its careful paring of unacceptable thoughts from the language — could a child lack such a conception.

As for “an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought” — what reason do we have to believe that this child’s very thoughts would be recorded and analyzed, much less all of them? The only thoughts being shared with government, to my knowledge, are those we choose to make public through social media or other means. Or over the telephone, in which case the only way the goverment hears these thoughts is if its traffic analysis has produced probable cause for a specific subpoena to listen to a specific individual’s calls, which will never happen to far, far more than 99 percent of the population. And I say this on the basis of what Snowden himself has revealed.

Let’s delve further into the thoughts — which he is voluntarily sharing — of Edward Snowden:

And that’s a problem because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

I’m not going to respond to that, because I don’t even follow what he’s saying. I thought “who we are and who we want to be” were things that were determined by a combination of unavoidable circumstances and choices we make. Perhaps privacy plays a key role in that, but he neglects to explain how. It’s just one of those pronouncements that probably sounds profound to people who are predisposed to agree with him, and puzzles anyone else who actually thinks about it.

His big finish is a call to action:

End mass surveillance, and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.

His tone indicates he thinks this is a real zinger.

I find myself marveling. So… that’s what he thinks NSA collection and analysis of metadata is about — finding out how we feel? What has he or anyone else disclosed that even comes within the same galaxy of indicating that? Gee, I kinda thought it was oriented toward finding out whether certain communications are happening between certain individuals, with an eye to catching warning signs not of feelings, but of the likelihood of certain actions.

I mean, seriously — can anyone show me a link to a single report that would make any reasonable person think that any of these government programs are aimed at taking our emotional temperatures, or our opinions?

Wow. The more you learn about this guy, the more you see just how twisted his perception of reality is…

But thanks, Edward, for the Christmas wishes. Although I must say, I think the Queen’s made more sense. But then, she’s a grownup.

Saying goodbye to my very favorite store, Barnes & Noble on Harbison

The purists who didn't like the floor space that Toys & Games took over in recent years may be gratified to see that area as one of the first cleared out.

The purists who didn’t like the floor space that Toys & Games took over in recent years may be gratified to see that area as one of the first cleared out.

Here we are in the very last days of my very favorite store on Earth, the Barnes & Noble on Harbison.

Its last day of operation is Tuesday… Dec. 31.

The Harbison B&N is more than a store to me. Or perhaps I should say, something other than a store. I certainly made far more purchases at other stores over the years — Food Lion, Publix, Walmart and the like.

But for me, this store was the ultimate “third place.” That’s a term I knew nothing about until recently, when I was getting ready to help conduct a brand workshop for an ADCO client, and I happened to read up on the branding strategy of Starbucks, which has from the start striven to be a “place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home.”

I enjoy both of those places, but between the two, I prefer B&N. There’s only so much you can do in a Starbucks. Noise is often a factor in the coffee shops, while B&N had a more library-like feel to it, except right around the cafe portion, where the sound of the grinder could be intrusive. And then there are all the books to browse through, which to me has always been a sort of foretaste of heaven.

I loved browsing in B&N even before I started drinking coffee in 2004. (Long story behind that. From the time I turned 30 until my 50th year, caffeine drove me nuts. Then, when I was at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, I started drinking coffee to deal with the 20-hour days — there was, after all, a Starbucks on every corner. And I found that it didn’t bother me anymore. In fact, it did what it was supposed to do, keeping me from dozing off and creating a nice, creative buzz.)

But to browse through those books for a couple of hours on a Saturday, enjoying my first (and second) coffees of the day — that was awesome. And if I took along my laptop and did a little blogging while I was there, well, all the better.

And yes, I did occasionally buy something. In fact, I buy most gifts there. I find it easier to imagine what sort of book someone will like than any other sort of gift, and I make a point of buying them at the actual store to show my appreciation for all the good times it affords me. Buying the gift also makes me feel less of a self-indulgent sensualist as I browse.

Anyway, I was there a couple of times over the last week or so before Christmas. The first time, I bought a book for my Dad — a biography of Omar Bradley. When I got to the counter to pay for it, the clerk asked whether I was a member. I said yes, and offered my card. It had expired (yeah, I think it was around the holidays when I renewed last year). She asked whether I wanted to renew. No, I said sadly, thinking, What would be the point?

The second time, on Christmas Eve, I found myself in Harbison with a little time on my hands, and just went in to browse once more. For nostalgia’s sake, I even put sugar in my coffee, even though I’ve been drinking it black for years. I used to use a lot of sugar back in the day, such as when I wrote this.

I was wandering through the DVD section, seeing if there were any last-minute gifts that would strike me, when one of the booksellers asked whether I needed help. I said no, but as he turned away, I asked him to wait.

I asked when the store would close. He told me — New Year’s Eve.

I asked why it was closing. He said because B&N couldn’t afford the lease, and the new tenant, Nordstrom, could.

Apologizing for intruding, I asked what he, who had worked at B&N quite a few years, was going to do. He said he might be working at the store at Richland Fashion Mall, and he urged me to come there. I said yeah, that store was OK, but it had no audio/video section. He noted pragmatically that that was the first part of the store he would expect to close, since everyone downloads music now and streams movies online.

But, feeling like an advocate trying to save a client’s life in a hopeless trial, I argued that Netflix didn’t have the high-quality, hard-to-find movies that you could buy at B&N, such as the Criterion collection of fine films. He pointed out there were other places you could get those, although no local, bricks-and-mortar location had as large a Criterion selection as B&N did.


I got a B&N gift card for Christmas, so I’ll probably be in their one more time before it closes for good. Maybe I’ll see you there. Maybe we can have a coffee together, with several sugars to counteract the bitterness…

This year’s One Book: Conroy’s “My Reading Life”

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year's selection.

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year’s selection.

Last night, I dropped by Richland Library for the unveiling of the chosen book for the 2014 “One Book” program.

It’s My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Everyone was pretty pumped about it, in part because the author himself will be participating in the program.conroy

I look forward to reading it myself, and joining in discussions of it. As you may recall, I moderated a discussion at the library for this past year’s selection, A.J. Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August, a book I enjoyed much more than I had thought I would.

Which I suppose is kinda the point of participating in a program that gets you to read something you might not have. It’s broadening to get pulled away, however briefly, from my obsessive re-reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (I’m currently on about my sixth trip through some of the books — I still haven’t allowed myself to read the very last two in the series).

Now, to digress…

After the announcement, I got involved in a discussion of the strong-mayor referendum with Mike Miller, Tim Conroy (the author’s brother and a longtime Columbian), and City Councilman Sam Davis. All of us, except Mr. Davis, had been deeply disappointed by the outcome. He listened patiently to us, and we listened patiently to him, but I don’t think any minds were changed.

We were joined late in the discussion by our old blog friend James D. McAllister, a writer and owner of Loose Lucy’s. He was against strong-mayor, but Kathryn would probably discount his opinion, since, like me, he doesn’t live in the de jure city.

Anyway, back to the book… maybe we should all read it and have a good discussion of it here on the blog. Whaddya think?

No, that is NOT me. That's Mike Miller with Tim Conroy.

No, that is NOT me. That’s Mike Miller with Tim Conroy, later in the evening at First Thursday on Main.

My favorite store in the universe is closing!

As y’all know, one of my very favorite leisuretime activities is to go to Barnes & Noble, get a cup of coffee, and browse. And sometimes blog — it’s one of my favorite remote locations for that.

I’ve done this in lots of Barnes & Nobles — such as in Memphis; Myrtle Beach; New York; Florence (SC); Charleston; Harrisonburg, Va.; Camp Hill, PA — but my favorite, my essential, my default, has always been the one in Harbison.

I wrote one of my favorite early blog posts, headlined, “The Caffeine Also Rises,” at a Barnes & Noble. An excerpt from that over-stimulated ramble in 2005:

This is blogging. This is the true blogging, el blogando verdadero, con afición, the kind a man wants if he is a man. The kind that Jake and Lady Brett might have done, if they’d had wi-fi hotspots in the Montparnasse.

What brings this on is that I am writing standing up, Hemingway-style, at the counter in a cafe. But there is nothing romantic about this, which the old man would appreciate. Sort of. This isn’t his kind of cafe. It’s not a cafe he could ever have dreamed of. It’s a Starbucks in the middle of a Barnes and Noble (sorry, Rhett, but I’m out of town today, and there’s noHappy Bookseller here). About the one good and true thing that can be said in favor of being in this place at this time is that there is basically no chance of running into Gertrude Steinhere. Or Alice, either.

I’m standing because there are no electrical outlets near the tables, just here at the counter. And trying to sit on one of these high stools and type kills my shoulders. No, it’s not my wound from the Great War, just middle age….

There’s nothing like writing under the influence of your first, or second, coffee of the day. Especially back then, before I had built up resistance.

But the best of all was at the B&N at Harbison. It just had the perfect feel to it. I wrote this and this and this there.

The one at Richland Fashion Mall (or whatever it’s called now) is OK in a pinch, but not the same. Maybe it’s that there’s no video and music department; I don’t know — but I’ve never been inclined to spend much time there.

Anyway, you get the picture. So you can imagine how dismayed I am at this:


COLUMBIA, SC — Barnes and Noble on Harbison Boulevard will close at the end of the year, leaving the Irmo area without a traditional bookstore selling new books.

A manager answering the phone at the store Monday morning said she could not give details to the media. Efforts to reach a spokesperson Monday morning were not successful.

However, employees are telling customers that the store at 278-A Harbison Blvd. will close at the end of the year because its lease is not being renewed….

If I were a guy whose favorite recreation was jogging in the park, and the park got paved over, I couldn’t be more upset.

This is just wrong.

Maybe I should have bought something now and then when I was there browsing. Or maybe I shouldn’t have fallen into the habit of buying my coffee at the actual Starbucks across the parking lot before entering the store.

But surely I’m exaggerating the impact of my own behavior — right?

Is this just a meaningless little coincidence, Jeeves?

When I saw this in the WSJ this morning:

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa.—Atop a hill at the end of a road called P&G Warehouse Way sits a warehouse stocked with Pampers diapers, Bounty paper towels and other items made by Procter & Gamble Co. It also houses an ambitious experiment by Inc.

I initially read the boldfaced part as “P.G. Wodehouse.” Not a name I think of very often.

Then, within an hour, I was reading this, from an email from The Trinity Forum:

Happy Birthday, P.G. Wodehouse!
October 15, 1881 – February 14, 1975

Coincidence? Yes, I suppose so.

Anyway, if any of y’all want to explore the author beyond Bertie Wooster, Trinity’s offering a deal on one of Wodehouse’s books.

I’d wish him a Happy Birthday, but, since he died in 1975, I doubt he’s on Facebook…

Colonel Cathcart raises our ‘Walk for Life’ goal


Col. Cathcart, Lt. Col. Korn, and Major Danby.

You remember Col. Cathcart, don’t you — from Catch-22? (And if you haven’t read Catch-22, you should.)

Here’s a reminder of who he is:


His main function in the plot of the book is to keep raising the number of missions that the men in his bomb group must fly before they can rotate stateside. He does this to curry favor with his superiors. He lives for “feathers in his cap” and lives in horror of “black eyes.”

This repeated raising of the number of missions is a key driver in Yossarian’s constant, growing anxiety, especially since the colonel always raises the number just before Yossarian reaches it:


Well, it seems that Col. Cathcart has slipped out of the pages of the novel and somehow gained access to our Walk for Life team profile, and raised our goal — much as Yossarian slipped out of his tent one night and moved the bomb line on the map to above Bologna.

And I’m happy to report that I — I mean, Col. Cathcart — ran into Samuel Tenenbaum this morning, who is sort of the General Dreedle of Palmetto Health Foundation, and told him that our goal has been raised from $1,000 to $3,000. He was most pleased. I think this is quite a feather in my, I mean Col. Cathcart’s, cap.

And I’m sure, men (like Lt. Scheisskopf, I enjoy addressing you as “men” in a clipped, military voice), that you’ll be happy to keep flying missions until we exceed the new goal. Failure to do so would result in a black eye for me, your colonel, and I’m sure none of you men want that.

Some talking points on the library bond vote

I haven’t seen a lot out there about the Richland Library bond vote on the Nov. 5 ballot. So I thought I’d pass on this memo I received from folks who are pushing for a “yes”:

Dear Friends,


Did you know the Richland Library bond referendum will be on the November 5 ballot?  Below is some basic information.  If you would like more details or how to be involved in Vote For Our Libraries, contact us!  803-233-2414

Richland Library


Since 2007, the library has had a capital needs plan that calls for renovations and additions to all library facilities based on the changing ways we serve and advance our community.


Key Facts:


Why is the Library Requesting a Bond Referendum?

Voter approved bonds are the only way the library can obtain substantial funds for building and renovations. The goal is to update all library locations by adding and reconfiguring space, technology and resources to better fit the way customers need and use the library today. The capital needs plan was developed in 2007 and is reviewed each year. The only new buildings are Ballentine and Sandhills. Following green building guidelines and sustainable practices will mean substantial energy savings for all locations.


Why now?

It’s been 24 years since the last bond referendum in 1989, and most of our facilities haven’t been significantly improved or updated since then. Interest rates are at an all-time low – it costs half as much today for twice the value added in 1989.


What will it cost the taxpayer?

Estimates indicate the maximum impact on taxpayers to be $12-14/year for a $100,000 home. For as little as one cup of coffee each month, we can ensure access to needed resources and technology, as well as the opportunity to share information and exchange ideas.


Why spend money on libraries when everyone has a smartphone/tablet?

Technology has made libraries more essential to their communities – not obsolete. In fact, many people in Richland County rely on the library for access to technology, computers and the Internet. Even if you may not use the library, your friends, family and neighbors are most likely relying on its services.

What’s on Hank and Marie Schrader’s bookshelf?


Last week, I thought I had finally found an aspect of “Breaking Bad” that no one else had delved into.

I should have known better. As into the series as I am, I knew that there were people out there who apparently have no lives whatsoever, and they’re always going to be several steps ahead of me.

But here’s my post on the subject anyway…

Volumes have been written (although probably not yet actually assembled into physical volumes) about the main characters, such as this one last week wondering if Hank Schrader was turning into Walt White. Or rather, into another Heisenberg.

But how do you really get to know somebody? Well, you go to his house, and you look at what he’s got on his bookshelf. (Or, if you’re Rob Fleming in “High Fidelity,” you look at his records, and then judge him unmercifully.)

Last week (the episode before last night’s, that is), we got a look at Hank’s and Marie’s bookshelf. Jesse Pinkman walked over and idly picked up a copy of Edmund Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. I half-expected Jesse to remark on it, but he didn’t. (If he had, what would have had said, yo?)

Since Jesse said nothing about it, I froze the screen and looked at what else was there. A sampling:

  • They’re into Stephen King; I see four books by him.
  • There’s The Final Days, except it doesn’t look right. That WoodStein classic should be thicker, and have a white background rather than a maroon one. Turns out it’s actually this later book, which has the subtitle, “The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House.” Which gives us a different impression, but one more suited to what we know of Hank and Marie.
  • Western themes are amply represented — Horse Sense, The Body Language of Horses, Crazy Horse and Custer, The Indians’ Book, Black Range Tales, and so forth. We Easterners suppose Westerners spend their time thinking about such things. There’s also a DVD set of “Deadwood.”
  • Tom Clancy makes an obligatory appearance with Rainbow Six, which you would also find on my bookshelf. One of his lesser-known works, centering around John Clark rather than Jack Ryan, but the one that launched a family of first-person shooter games. Which, I like to speculate, is how Hank got into it. After all, the game was released before the book.
  • One is not surprised to find books based on, or collecting, works of Paul Harvey and Lewis Grizzard.
  • There are various business self-help books, including not one, but two copies of Who Moved My Cheese?
  • I’m intrigued by Citizen Lazlo, by Don Novello. (You know, Father Guido Sarducci.) I’m even more intrigued that Amazon says that people who viewed that also viewed Cold Mountain, which can also be found on Hank’s and Marie’s shelves. I don’t know what the connection might be.

Anything else jump out at y’all as revelatory?

I love details such as this. I’ve always thought I’d love to work in movies (or good television). I’m fascinated by the people who come up with these little obsessive details to put in the background, details that reveal character subtly, or which reflect an era accurately — when done right.


The joys of a real bookstore

There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:

The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.

I wish he’d come by.

Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.

In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….

Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.

First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.

Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.

Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)

Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.

Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.

I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.

But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.

Pope Francis is right: Read all the Dostoevsky you can

You may have heard by now what the Pope had to say on the plane flight back from Brazil, and he’s absolutely right: He told the reporters they should “read and reread” Dostoevsky.

Or maybe you missed it. Most of the news stories about his informal papal bull session have been about what he said about gay priests. That didn’t seem as newsworthy to me, but then unlike much of the world, I didn’t think that the church hated gay people. What those remarks told us is that this pope is personally very different from the last pope, which is a good thing. In terms of style and orientation and emphasis, we’ve gone from a Grand Inquisitor to a parish priest, with all the best things such a pastoral role suggests — loving, welcoming, kindly, caring deeply about the “least of these.”

As we go along, I expect a lot of people who think the church is hateful will be pleasantly surprised. For me, it will be pleasant, but less of a surprise.

Here’s another prediction — this pope is going to get good press, so he’s going to seem like a nicer, friendlier guy, whatever he says. Why do I say that? Because he’ll walk to the back of the plane or bus or whatever and bat the breeze with the media types, no holds barred. John Paul II did that, and you know what good press “John Paul the Great” got. Whereas Herr Benedict only took prepared, screened questions. Reporters love a guy who’s generous with access, and spontaneous. It has always puzzled some people why the press was historically so kind to John McCain. He did the same thing, long before there was such a thing as the “Straight Talk Express.” And the press loved him for it.

The WSJ story was headlined, “Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests.” It probably would have captured him in a nutshell if it had just said, “Pope Signals Openness,” period.

But while I was sort of kidding about the Dostoevsky thing as big news, I’d like to know more of what he said about that. This pope has made news mentioning Dostoevsky previously, in a recent encyclical. But since that document was put together on the previous pope’s watch, no one knew for sure whether it signaled a particular interest in the Russian master on the part of Francis.

The Holy Father says, read more of this guy.

The Holy Father says, read more of this guy.

Anyway, his comment — however sketchily reported — about reading Dostoevsky does what the previous pope was so good at. It’s made me feel guilty. I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov when I was in college (the first as a class assignment, the second on my own), but haven’t reread either since then, and have never gotten around to such other masterpieces as The Idiot (which was specifically mentioned in the encyclical).

I suspect the pope recommended such reading because Dostoevsky is way, way deep on moral issues. Which is why I should have read him more by now. Yet I haven’t, while reading O’Brian’s novels about the Napoleonic Wars over and over and over and over (on my fifth time through the earlier novels now). Ditto with John le Carre.

What’s really awful is that I go around citing Crime and Punishment all the time, thereby giving an artificial impression that I’m way, way deep, too. Or maybe not. People can probably see through that…

But I hereby resolve to do better. I downloaded The Idiot to my iPad this morning. That counts for something, right? I feel more serious already, almost profound.

Isn’t it cool how, in ebook form at least, all the greatest literature is free now?

Snowden spills his guts, again

My old roommate John peers out from our room in Snowden just before the Honeycombs were torn down.

My old roommate John peers out from our room in Snowden in 2006, just before the Honeycombs were torn down.

“Snowden” is one of those names that sticks with you. Or with me, anyway. It was technically the name of the particular one of the Honeycombs I lived in that one semester I went to USC in 1971 — although I seem to recall that a lot of people called it by a letter designation. Was it “J”? I don’t know. Maybe. “Snowden” sticks better.

That’s probably because I was so hugely into Catch-22 at the time. I had first read it the summer before my senior year of high school. Then, at the start of the senior year, our English teacher, Mrs. Burchard, let us pick several of the books we would read. I pushed, successfully, for Catch-22. (not just because I’d already read it — I looked forward to discussing it) We also read Cat’s Cradle and Stranger in a Strange Land, at the urging of some of my classmates. Mrs. Burchard did make us read several of Ibsen’s plays, which I enjoyed — especially “An Enemy of the People” (“A majority is always wrong” seemed so true to me at that early age.)

Snowden, of course, was the pivotal character in Heller’s novel. He only appeared in one scene, but that scene was repeated — or rather, portions of it were repeated — over and over in the novel. All he ever had to say was “I’m cold.” But that was enough.

The novel is structured around that incident, until the very end. The plotline keeps looping around back through time, flashback after flashback, and Yossarian’s memory keeps returning to the incident with Snowden. Each time, that memory is unfolded a little more completely, toward the final, full, horrible revelation that changes Yossarian permanently.

“I’m cold,” said Snowden.

“There, there,” said Yossarian, tending the wounded gunner back toward the rear of the plane. Even after Snowden had spilled his terrible secret, that’s all Yossarian could say.

Anyway, that’s what goes through my mind as I read the name of the guy who took it upon himself to reveal the NSA’s programs. He’s a guy who looks like he could be Yossarian’s Snowden. He certainly looks young enough, unformed enough. Yet he’s a guy who’s taken on a self-righteousness akin to Ibsen’s Thomas Stockman, someone who’s decided he knows better than everyone else, and is prepared to take the burden of revelation upon himself.

Snowden 2

Top Five TV Shows about the Cold War (I’ll stop now)


Alex Guinness as George Smiley.

Just to beat the topic from yesterday totally into the ground, here are my Top Five TV Shows About the Cold War:

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – The Alex Guinness version, of course.
  2. Smiley’s People – The sequel to Tinker, Tailor. I have both series on DVD at home.
  3. Game, Set and Match – A series cobbled together from the first three novels in a Len Deighton trilogy of trilogies. It took some liberties, and I seem to recall hearing that Deighton hated it. This is possibly because the character that Ian Holm created for the series was quite different — a more tormented, stressed-out character — from the Bernard Samson in the novels. But I enjoyed the series anyway.
  4. The Missiles of October – Worth watching if only for Martin Sheen’s version of Bobby Kennedy.
  5. The Day After – A huge TV event at the time when it came out. Sort of the Cold War equivalent of “Roots.”

There’s sort of a lack of variety in this list, I’ll admit — the first three are spy series, and two by le Carre with the same chief protagonist. But I have to work with what TV gives me. And I really believe the first two are among the best things ever made for the tube.

"The Day After" -- nuclear apocalypse in Kansas.

“The Day After” — nuclear apocalypse in Kansas.


Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies

The Spy Who ... (Richard Burton)

Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”

Bryan Caskey has drawn up his Top Five Cold War Movies over at his blog, and I feel compelled to answer it. My perspective is a little different from his, because I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, giving me not only different cultural touchstones, but a different feel for the Cold War itself.

Here’s my Top Five:

  1. The Spy Who Came in from The Cold — This defines the genre. Starts and ends at the Berlin Wall. A lot of bad movies were made from good books in the ’60s, but this wasn’t one of them. It did a great job of capturing the atmosphere, the moral ambiguity and the deception-within-deception-within-deception plotline of LeCarre’s book.
  2. Dr. Strangelove — I was torn between this and Fail-Safe, which was the same story without the comedy. But this was such an awesome piece of film-making, it had to go on the list. Strangelove got us to laugh at the things that caused our hair to stand on end in Fail-Safe. The link is to my favorite scene: “Now, then, Dimitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…”
  3. Our Man in Havana — I’m going for satirical again with this spoof of the spy genre. Both Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs. How do you beat that? Based on Graham Greene’s most enjoyable “entertainment” (which is what he called his less serious novels), which inspired le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama.
  4. The Mouse That Roared — Yes, I’m going for the more obscure reference because Barry in High Fidelity (the ultimate authority for the science of Top Five lists) would sneer at any Top Five list that didn’t have one that no one else would think of. I’ll even admit that the movie wasn’t very good — although I enjoyed the book. This is about a tiny country with a medieval military capability that becomes the world’s greatest power by stealing a Doomsday Machine from the U.S. For Strangelove fans, this also has Peter Sellers in multiple roles.
  5. The Manchurian Candidate — Paranoia is a huge part of what the Cold War was about, and this is the classic of that genre.

Another Five, in case you’d like a Top Ten:

  1. Seven Days in May — In a way not really about the Cold War, except for the paranoia thing.
  2. Fail-Safe – I initially had this in the Top Five, trying to be cool by picking on the less-obvious choice. I was going to say that “Awesome as it was, Strangelove was more about a sort of smartass 60s cultural sensibility than it was about the way real people felt about nuclear annihilation.” But I changed my mind.
  3. The Ipcress File — Perhaps the all-time best Michael Caine vehicle, based on Len Deighton’s very best novel. Deighton’s book is breezily ironic, very hip, yet far more realistic than Bond.
  4. The Lives of Others — A look at what life was like on the other side of the curtain.
  5. WarGames — More of a movie about the then-new phenomenon of computer hackers than about the Cold War, but it still fits in the genre. Ferris Bueller meets Fail-Safe.

Also-rans, in no particular order:

  • The Third Man — This might have made the list, but I think it’s more about postwar black-marketeering than about the Cold War proper.
  • Stripes — Great fun, but too silly to make the Top Five list.
  • The Right Stuff — Not what you think of as “Cold War,” maybe, but what was it all about? Trying to prevent the godless Russkies from being able to drop nukes on us from space, like rocks from a highway overpass. An amazing job of turning a book that is mostly about the narration into an engaging film.
  • Red Dawn — A high school kid’s fantasy of World War III. I mean, wouldn’t every adolescent boy like to see the boredom of school interrupted by a shooting war in which he is the hero?
  • Twilight’s Last Gleaming — Didn’t we see Burt Lancaster play this character before, in “Seven Days in May”?
  • The Quiet American — The jaded European view of Americans as blundering do-gooders.
  • Blast from the Past — Bomb-shelter anxieties transformed into romantic comedy.
  • 2010 — The sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this one wrongly guessed that we’d still be goin’ toe-to-toe with the Russkies nine years later. Best parts: Both Dave and Hal show up.
Ernie Kovacs playing minibottle chess in "Our Man in Havana."

Ernie Kovacs playing minibottle checkers in “Our Man in Havana.”


Vincent Sheheen kicks off 2014 campaign, apparently…

sheheen book

This came in about an hour ago:

Sheheen Kicks Off “Back on Track” Tour
State Senator will discuss ideas for moving South Carolina forward and his new book “The Right Way” in three-week statewide tour
Rock Hill, SC. – Today, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen kicks off the Palmetto State “Back on Track” tour at Sun City in Rock Hill to rollout his new book “The Right Way” and discuss his ideas for how to move South Carolina forward with local residents and leaders around the state.
“This short book is not meant to propose solutions to all of our state’s problems. It’s a revolt against the status quo. This book proposes ideas for us to consider and debate to try to get our state back on the right footing and shed the inanities of the past few years,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen. “More than anything, this book of ideas is an attempt to promote more rational political discussion and policy making. Ultimately, we will still need committed citizens and leadership on many fronts to make it so. I look forward to meeting these leaders in the coming weeks and discussing how we will all move forward together.”
The Back on Track Tour will run from March 11th through March 30th holding lectures at universities, listening sessions with local families and leaders, and press conferences and discussions with media about the vision laid out in his book for creating jobs, improving education, restructuring the government, and creating a more prosperous future for the people and businesses of the Palmetto state. The tour kicks off today at noon in Rock Hill, before making stops in Conway, Myrtle Beach, Florence, Columbia, Aiken, Charleston, Fairfield, Beaufort, Greenville, and Spartanburg throughout the next three weeks.
Sen. Sheheen’s book is free and available online here, or as a hard copy at each of the event stops on the Back on Track tour.
Below is a selection of key quotes from Sen. Sheheen’s book, “The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track.”
We must do better for South Carolina… the right way
“This book is not about me. It’s about our South Carolina—a South Carolina we know can exist if we join together in a common vision with leaders who actually care about our state. We are better than what our government has looked like in recent history. We have been better before. We deserve better now. It’s up to us to engage and change. We must do it again…the right way.” — p. 110
“Somehow, however, we have let the naysayers gain the upper hand over the last couple of decades in South Carolina. You know who I am talking about—the people who tell us what we can’t do instead of what we can do. These are folks who believe nothing will ever get better and that things just are what they are. I am not one of these people. I do not believe that the South Carolina I know is made up of people like that either. From Camden to Charleston, Aiken to Horry and Due West to Denmark, the people I know and meet in South Carolina believe we can do better than what we have experienced in South Carolina’s recent government. In fact, we must.” — p. 108
“But we also need more than just ideas. We need ACTION—action that turns the status quo of the negativists on their heads. It is almost too late. But together, we still have time. If we don’t quickly get South Carolina moving again, our children and grandchildren will pay the price for decades to come.” — p. 109
Total change needed
“We have suffered embarrassment after embarrassment caused by our leaders’ unethical behavior and boneheaded statements and we have become the butt of late night television jokes all too frequently.  This downward spiral in our government should surprise no one. Why? Because we have elected leaders who proclaim a belief that government is always part of the problem. Once elected, they prove their theory correct by making our state’s government a dysfunctional embarrassment that is incapable of efficiently meeting the demands of core government functions.”  — pp. 1-2
“Future success for South Carolina’s workers—as well as the entire state—requires more education, not less.  Unfortunately, South Carolina’s recent leaders don’t have a good record in making smart investments in education to ensure that our children will have the training they need to get the better-paying jobs of the future. I believe it’s time we turn that abysmal record on its head.  Simply put: How can the students of today expect to hold the jobs of tomorrow if they don’t have enough knowledge? — p. 8
“Accountability in South Carolina’s government has been missing for more than a decade. In the end, a government can be successful and accountable regardless of deficiencies in its structure if it has strong, responsible and effective leaders.  However in South Carolina, a combination of ineffective leaders and confusing structure has led to our government being ranked one of the most dysfunctional and unaccountable in the nation.” — p. 27
“I am not opposed to healing our government incrementally.  I am, however, skeptical that our current leaders will finish the job with that approach. I believe that when a government has reached such a level of dysfunction and disintegration as South Carolina’s, it is time to return the power to the people.” — p. 48
“Through weak leadership in recent times and a governmental system confusing to virtually everyone, South Carolina’s government has arrived at a low point. We have a choice:  To continue with the same poor leadership and same poor system, or break with the past and make dramatic change.  We can’t afford to wait on current crop of political leaders to make the changes our state needs and deserves. We must take things into our own hands and force change. Either through incremental or dramatic change, we must alter the trajectory of South Carolina’s future. My children and yours deserve our best efforts.” — p. 50
Forward, to a path to prosperity
“One of the greatest obstacles to robust economic growth in South Carolina is our state’s broken and dysfunctional tax system. Furthermore, a special-interest-controlled tax code means that general taxpayers will end up with fewer core services that they say they want. Sure, in good times of budget surpluses, politicians will spread the wealth to make all appear rosy. But all they’ll be doing is bandaging a broken system, which will unravel once again when they cut what they recently added during downturns. It’s a seesaw system of government that leaves us all up in the air.” — p. 54
“The goal of tax reform should not be to raise taxes. To achieve true economic success, our state must reform how it taxes goods so that it can reduce the rate for everyone. That’s something we should all be for.” — p. 67
“Like most South Carolinians, I believe in hard work. I believe we should expect everyone who is physically able to have a job. I don’t believe in handouts. But I also expect that our state government will do all it can to ensure that opportunities exist for our citizens to find a job. It’s in all of our interests for the state to provide a hand-up in the form of job training, economic development, good education and support for small businesses.” — p. 85
“What is excluded from most local economic development offices’ services is support to startup companies and entrepreneurs.  This reflects, in part, a lack of expertise in the area but also recognition that the failure rate of these types of companies is high. A handful of groups around the state provide services to startups and entrepreneurs, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The S.C. Department of Commerce has a department that provides access to resources for small businesses, but there is little affirmative effort by the state to assist small business.” — p. 98
“Our state needs a multipronged approach to saving our rural areas and small towns. Failure to meet this challenge will doom many communities to a low standard of living and even non-existence. North Carolina has met this challenge head-on and invested heavily in the strategies and infrastructure for its rural areas. We should do the same.” — p. 102
“Our leaders are pricing the middle class out of a college education. The alternative has become hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt incurred by our future workforce. This is a dumb policy. We should dedicate a decent portion of future budget growth to stabilizing college tuition. And when the state funds higher education in a reasonable manner, colleges and universities should be required to keep tuition increases low.” — p. 106

Spring, trying to arrive


“With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.

In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

– A Moveable Feast

Just a couple of days back, I noticed how the azaleas next to my driveway were budding, and even blooming in some places. Below, you see a tree blooming in my backyard.

Anyway, I wonder if it’s going to last, or is this like the false springs in Paris that Hemingway wrote of? If the latter, it will be a shame, but I won’t take it as hard as he did. I don’t see the fall the way he did, either. I feel like things are coming alive when the leaves turn and the air turns brisk.

One thing I really don’t like about the spring, especially this one. I really resent that I’ll be robbed of an hour tonight. I don’t like anything about Daylight Savings Time, and it really bugs me that it’s taking up more and more of the year…


Yes, public schools should teach Bible as literature

An op-ed in the WSJ today made the case for putting the Bible into the public school curriculum, as a foundational work (or rather, body of works) of Western civilization. The authors were educated in Europe and were taught the Bible as a matter of course. But that reckons without the reflexive horror the suggestion of doing so engenders in this country:

Teaching the Bible is of course a touchy subject. One can’t broach it without someone barking “separation of church and state” and “forcing religion down my throat.”

Yet the Supreme Court has said it’s perfectly OK for schools to do so, ruling in 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp) that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

The Supreme Court understood that we’re not talking about religion here, and certainly not about politics. We’re talking about knowledge. The foundations of knowledge of the ancient world—which informs the understanding of the modern world—are biblical in origin. Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president known more as a cigar-chomping Rough Rider than a hymn-signing Bible-thumper, once said: “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

I agree entirely, totally apart from all the phrases with which scripture has enriched the language, or the fact that Shakespeare makes 1,200 biblical references.

I think there are other things we should have to read as well. I’ve always felt sort of ignorant that I’ve never read the Iliad, preferably in the original Greek. But that’s peripheral, compared to having a thorough understanding of such allusions as Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Jonah and Judas Iscariot. Those are basic.

And it’s not just the stories or the language. As an overview of different forms of ancient literature (poetry, allegory, history, etc.) it’s a treasure trove.

Before someone misunderstands me — nothing that I’ve said gives anyone any reason to, but Kulturkampf in this society being emotional rather than rational, someone will — I’m not an advocate of mandatory prayer in public schools. Although people should be (and are) free to pray there as well as anywhere else.

The authors of this piece, if anything, underestimate the objections such a suggestion will meet. For instance, they neglect to anticipate the objection that other religions’ texts, say the Bhagavad Gita, should be given the same status in the K-12 curriculum. But of course, that work is not foundational to western culture. It’s a great subject for upper-division college electives, but there’s no more reason to make it part of everyone’s education than, say, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums as opposed to Huck Finn. One is enrichment; the other is basic.

Anyway, since these folks brought up the subject, I say yeah: Put Genesis and the rest in there with Shakespeare. They are still reading Shakespeare in the schools, aren’t they? If not, I give up…