A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 31, 2009

"The Gift of Obviousness"

Rachel Maddow and Sen. Bernie Sanders do a bang-up job of explaining why health care reform is urgent and how it might be achieved.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Killing the Mood

Everybody who's taken a foreign language has encountered the dread subjunctive mood. We anglophones can pretty much dodge it -- we get tripped up by it only in forms of the verb to be. I learned the rule as "condition contrary to fact" -- you write, "If I were king" instead of "If I was king," unless at one time in your past you really ruled the land. As Jan Freeman observes, “ 'I drove fast' and 'If I drove fast' use the same verb, and we have no trouble telling indicative from subjunctive." But as Jan shows in her latest column, it's not always easy to decide whether you want to write "was" or "were." And then she goes on to spread the good news -- it really, really doesn't matter which you write. Or at least it won't for much longer. The subjunctive is on its way out, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. (Now if they'd only get rid of "whom," I'd be happy.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Eke and Eye

John McIntyre on the cliche beat:
Two articles in this morning’s Baltimore Sun reach for the same cliche with reference to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy:

BOSTON — In an extraordinary outpouring of public emotion, thousands of people in Massachusetts solemnly lined highways, overpasses and city streets Thursday to pay their last respects to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the last patriarch of America’s most storied political dynasty.

And:

And with the loss of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and his storied ability to eke out bipartisan compromises, lawmakers are eyeing those consensus proposals. ...

The advice sometimes given to aspiring writers that they should avoid adjectives is like a fad diet — Atkins or South Beach — that rules out a whole class of foods. But it is true that some adjectives are empty calories, and storied is surely one of them. Like prestigious and legendary, two other adjectives that crop up in the work of unimaginative writers, it says merely, “I’m writing an important story about somebody you should have heard of.”

Of course, the first example is constructed almost completely from prefabricated material. Extraordinary outpouring of public emotion turns up whenever a crowd gathers, especially if they are outdoors to pay their last respects. And if this storied figure is also a patriarch, then he must be part of a dynasty.

It pretty much writes itself.

The other article — after revealing that Mr. Kennedy was a Democrat from Massachusetts — refers to his storied ability to eke out compromises. The phrasal verb to eke out, which originally meant to supplement by meager increments or to stretch out a small supply, has come to mean to accomplish with great difficulty, and no one has any business insisting on the older sense. But I thought that compromises were hammered out in the smithy of the Congress.

Sometimes the writer reaches for the wrong cliche. But eyeing, at least, is pure journalese.

Why I Worry So Much

Have we forgotten the schoolchildren who cheered when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated? Or maybe you never knew about that; after all, it was two generations ago -- people now in their mid-40s were infants in 1963. It's us old farts who remember the climate of hatred back then.

But then the hatred seemed to be localized primarily in the South. Now, there are pockets of it everywhere. And the reason, I think, is that we now have media devoted to ginning it up -- talk radio and Fox News. There are people all over the country credulously hanging on every word spewed by Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and the increasingly loony Glenn Beck.

Here's Beck's latest, as reported by Steve Benen:

The good news is, nearly four-dozen advertisers have now pulled their sponsorship of Glenn Beck's deranged Fox News program. The bad news is, Beck's ratings have gone up, in part because he's acting like an even bigger lunatic than usual, and clowns doing funny dances tend to draw a crowd.

Yesterday was especially astounding. He argued on the air, for example, that President Obama intends to create a "civilian national security force," which will be similar to Hitler's SS and Saddam Hussein. Apparently, this has something to do with AmeriCorps, which Beck initially said has a $500 billion budget. (He corrected himself later in the show, though his guest didn't blink when he originally made the claim.)

Towards the end of the show, after scrawling on a variety of boards and pieces of paper, Beck summarized his key observation. On a chalkboard, Beck had written the words, "Obama," "Left Internationalist," "Graft," "ACORN Style Organizations," "Revolution," and "Hidden Agenda." If you circle some of the first letters of these important words, Beck says, it spells "OLIGARH." Beck told his viewers there's only one letter missing. If you're thinking that letter is "c," you're not medicated enough to understand Beck's show.

The missing letter is "y," because the word he hoped to spell is "OLIGARHY." No, that word doesn't exist in the English language, but that's probably because the dictionary was written by some communist community organizer who wants to keep Glenn Beck and his viewers down.

The quote of the day, however, came towards the end: "I'm tired of being a sheep. I'm tired of being a victim. I'm tired of being pushed around. You know what? The gloves come off."

Glenn Beck is a "victim"? Why is it that disturbed right-wing nuts always feel sorry for themselves? Beck is very well paid to say crazy things on television.

What's more, his minions take his insane tirades seriously. Whatever Beck says on Monday gets repeated by unhinged crazies on Wednesday.

Beck is getting worse. I can't help but worry that it's only a matter of time before he hurts someone.

Actually, I think it's more likely that the "unhinged crazies" who follow him, and Limbaugh and Savage and Hannity and their ilk, crassly spewing all manner of ideological filth, will hurt someone. They've already hurt political discourse in this country, turning a major political party into a rabble of know-nothings. Physical violence is the next logical consequence.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Man of Steel vs. Michael Steele?

(Click to enlarge)

Thanks to Oliver Willis.

Three Thrillers by Dan Fesperman

The following review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE ARMS MAKER OF BERLIN

By Dan Fesperman

Knopf, 384 pp., $24.95

“Intelligent thriller” is almost an oxymoron, given that the whole purpose of the genre is to ... well, you know, thrill. I mean, nobody reads Dan Brown for serious insight into the history of Christianity and the politics of the Roman Catholic church. (Well, they shouldn't, anyway.) All that ingenious plot-twisting and hair's-breadth-escaping from deadly intrigue tends to annihilate anything like thought.

Which may be why novels like Dan Fesperman's are so rare – or at any rate not as popular as Brown's, or James Patterson's, or any number of other masters of the nonstop page-turner. Fesperman just can't help drawing on his experience as a journalist covering foreign conflicts, most recently for the Baltimore Sun. And that experience puts the meat on the intricate bone structure of his thriller plots. You come away from a Fesperman novel not only abuzz with the exhilaration of the chase, but also aware that you've absorbed something of the complexity of the world's conflicts, grown more keenly aware that they're are a lot more complicated than politicians and ideologues make them out to be.

Fesperman's “The Prisoner of Guantánamo,” for example, gave the reader a glimpse of the culture of that notorious place of incarceration, more vivid and subtle than anything you'd find in news reports, and it did so in the guise of a murder mystery and a spy chase. “The Amateur Spy” took us to a crossroads of Middle Eastern terrorist intrigue and discovered something that's easy to forget: Human beings with the essential traits of being human – hopes, ideals, needs, desires, as well as cruelty and weakness and fallibility -- dwell there.

The typical Fesperman hero is a guy with a certain amount of expertise and often a shadowed past who finds that experience and expertise aren't always quite enough to keep him out of trouble. Usually, as in any good thriller, there's a beautiful woman involved, one who is almost certainly not what she seems. So it is with with “The Arms Maker of Berlin”: Nat Turnbull, mild-mannered history professor, finds himself in cahoots (and bed) with a mysterious and alluring German woman, Berta Heinkel, as they try to locate some documents that may have led to the death of Turnbull's mentor, a retired, alcoholic and recently disgraced historian.

These documents are not just a Hitchcockian McGuffin, the gimmick that drives the plot, but they're also a portal into the history of Germany in the twentieth century. They have to do with the dark past of Kurt Bauer, a German industrialist best known to the public as a manufacturer of household appliances but also ... well, the title kind of gives it away. And what puts Turnbull into thriller-style jeopardy is not only that Bauer, described by one character as “a man whose little black book could help someone build the next nuclear weapon,” may be aiding and abetting some bad guys (i.e., Iranians), but also that the United States intelligence agencies have a pretty strong interest in not letting the truth about Bauer be known. As a historian, Turnbull is dedicated to uncovering the truth, but the FBI, which hires him to lead them to the documents, would just as soon keep it covered, alternately abetting and thwarting Turnbull's search.

While the story of Turnbull's sleuthing unfolds, Fesperman also flashes back sixty-odd years to the story of young Kurt Bauer, who at 17 falls in love with a pretty girl, Liesl Folkerts, who belongs to an anti-Hitler group known as the White Rose. For Bauer, love trumps politics, and that leads him to do something that has grave consequences, an action recorded in the documents Turnbull is looking for. Both stories – Turnbull's and Bauer's – are deftly told, the fiction underpinned with historical details and populated with real human beings such as the German anti-Hitler theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the American spymaster Allen Dulles. And Fesperman's fictional characters, particularly Kurt Bauer, are smartly imagined and subtly drawn.

But what truly animates the novel is Fesperman's awareness of how the calamitous history of Germany in the twentieth century continues to inform current events. From Turnbull's point of view – and Fesperman's – the “cast of players” is “Modern Germany made flesh, in all its macabre and tragic grandeur.” “The Arms Maker of Berlin” doesn't have quite the breathless immediacy and headlong action of Fesperman's ripped-from-the-headlines terrorism tales, “The Prisoner of Guantánamo” and “The Amateur Spy”, which makes it less successful as a thriller. But on the intelligence side of the “intelligent thriller” conundrum, it's a stronger and subtler, and perhaps more satisfying book.


Since I mentioned "The Prisoner of Guantánamo" and "The Amateur Spy" in the review, I'll append my reviews of them, too:


THE PRISONER OF GUANTÁNAMO

By Dan Fesperman

Knopf, 336 pp., $24

The problem with writing a novel whose story is ripped from the headlines is that the headlines keep coming after the novel is published. Obsolescence sets in.

But Dan Fesperman knows something about headlines: As a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun he was responsible for quite a few of them. And he knows something about novels: He's one of the best writers of intelligent thrillers based on contemporary events working today.

So even though headlines about Guantánamo keep coming, Fesperman's novel The Prisoner of Guantánamo hasn't lost any of its edge and urgency.

Set in the summer of 2003, before the hubris in the phrase "mission accomplished" was fully evident, the novel centers on Revere Falk, an FBI interrogator whose fluency in Arabic has gotten him assigned to Guantánamo, a place he knows well, having been stationed there as a young Marine. Falk's "pet project" is a young Yemeni, Adnan el-Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan. Falk has gradually earned Adnan's trust, and one day the detainee decides to give him a "great gift": the name of a key figure in Adnan's al-Qaeda cell. Falk initially hears the name as "Hussein," but Adnan insists that it's "Hussay" – which confuses Falk, because it's not a common Arabic name. The interview is interrupted before Falk can probe further.

Meanwhile, the Cubans have discovered the body of a soldier stationed at Guantánamo washed up on the shore on their side of the fence. Falk, the son of a Maine lobsterman, is an experienced sailor, and he knows that if the soldier had drowned while swimming, the currents around the bay would make it impossible for the body to drift toward the Cuban side. A boating accident seems equally unlikely. So Falk gets involved in the investigation of the death.

The Arabic-speaking interpreters and interrogators are regarded with suspicion on the base, especially by the rank-and-file soldiers, who "tended to hear from their officers 24/7 that each and every one of the detainees was a hardened killer and an experienced terrorist, who in at least some way shared responsibility for 9/11. It was part of the effort to keep them motivated and boost their morale." So when a translator working for a security contractor at Guantánamo is arrested, and there's a sudden influx of investigators from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Falk gets wary. He's also surprised that one of the investigators is an old friend, Ted Bokamper, from the State Department.

Falk owes a lot to Bokamper. When Falk was a Marine stationed at Guantánamo, he was curious about the Cuba just over the fence, so he made an unauthorized trip there while on leave and fell into a trap set by Cuban intelligence, who blackmailed him into passing along information about the base. But Falk had a powerful friend to help him out of this bind. Panicked, he got in touch with Bokamper, whose mentor at State, Saul Endler -- "One part Kissinger and two parts alchemist" -- recognized that it could be useful to know what sort of information the Cubans wanted Falk to provide. Bokamper and Endler helped set up Falk as a double agent. Later, Bokamper helped Falk get a security clearance to join the FBI, which doesn't know that Falk has also been spying for the State Department

So now, along with Adnan's cryptic revelation, the soldier's mysterious drowning and the translator's arrest, Falk gets word that his Cuban contact wants to meet with him. Something's going on, but what? In the course of figuring it out, Falk will learn the wisdom of the adage: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If, that is, you can tell which is which.

There's some standard thriller plotting here, with the usual shadowy alliances and betrayals, a bit of action and some hide-and-seek chases, and the ending has something of an anticlimactic feeling. But what makes the novel work is the attention to detail, especially Fesperman's evocation of Guantánamo – a.k.a. Gitmo -- itself. He gives us the physical layout -- the 45 square miles of swamp, six square miles of which is habitable; the barracks and the detention facilities; the fences and the sea; the soldiers, American and Cuban, keeping a steady eye on one another – but he's even better at creating the emotional atmosphere, the tedium and the tension, the paranoia and the boredom.

It's the right setting for a thriller, but the trick is not to let the sensations of fiction trivialize the reality. It's pretty clear where Fesperman stands on the controversy over Guantánamo, which he views in the light of Abu Ghraib and the subsequent debate over torture. The novel's principal female character, Pam Cobb, Falk's girlfriend and fellow interrogator, has been successful enough with conventional methods that she has avoided the orders to "attempt to get information from detainees by sexually humiliating them. One of Pam's shapelier but less fortunate roommates ended up stripping to her bra and panties in one such attempt. … The subjects only retreated deeper into anger and silence. The interrogator … locked herself into a restroom for an hour, sobbing in shame."

And Fesperman obviously has no use for neoconservative hawks, "out to save the world one conquest at a time," for the novel hinges on the possibility of another "splendid little war" – as the one in Iraq was thought to be in mid-2003. He's also snarky about the jargon of power-players like the guy from Homeland Security who says things like, "Other than Iraq, Gitmo's the single most important front right now in the GWOT." The more cynical Falk interprets this for another new arrival: "Global War on Terrorism. Gitmo acronym 12-b. You'll know 'em all within forty-eight hours. I'd urge you to start using the word 'robust' within the next twenty-four."

Back in the early '90s, there was some naïve speculation that the end of the Cold War had made the thriller irrelevant, that the moral angst of John Le Carré and the flag-waving technolatry of Tom Clancy would go out of style. But the world remained scary and violent, as Fesperman himself demonstrated in his earlier novels set in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Observant, thoughtful, witty and concerned, he has robustly adapted the thriller to the age of the GWOT.

THE AMATEUR SPY

By Dan Fesperman

Knopf, 384 pp., $23.95

Got plot?

It’s the one thing a thriller writer has to have, and the one thing a reviewer must not reveal very much of. Which makes reviewing thrillers difficult because, frankly, most thrillers don’t have much of anything else.

Dan Fesperman has two good plots in his new novel, “The Amateur Spy.” Here are their setups.

Freeman Lockhart, a retired United Nations aid worker, is blackmailed into spying on an old friend. He doesn’t even know which country he’s spying for, or what his handlers, who seem to be American, hope to find out. He just knows that if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do, he risks the exposure of a secret from his past and that of his Bosnian-born wife, Mila.

Aliyah Rahim, an Arab-American woman, learns that her husband, Abbas, a prominent surgeon in Washington, D.C., is planning to do something terrible. The suspicion and surveillance they’ve experienced since 9/11 has caused him to act more and more erratically, especially after the death of their daughter. Aliyah agrees to help Abbas with his plans, hoping that she can somehow prevent them from taking effect.

The paths of Freeman and Aliyah will cross in Amman, Jordan. But their plot lines won’t entangle until the final pages of the novel, in the usual breathless rush of a thriller’s climax. If plot is all you ask of a thriller, “The Amateur Spy” has plenty of it. In that respect, the novel sometimes feels as formulaic as a cliffhanger like TV’s “24.”

But Fesperman’s novel transcends the formulas. He uses suspense to draw you into the world in which his characters live, which unsettlingly happens to be the one we live in. As a foreign news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman witnessed his share of the world’s conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. And he has carried his reporter’s techniques and insight into a series of novels – this is his fifth -- set in those lands and elsewhere. His most recent novel, “The Prisoner of Guantánamo,” did more than most mere journalists have done to shine a light on that dark and troubling place.

Every action of “The Amateur Spy” is rooted in a locale, whether it’s Amman or Jerusalem or Athens or Washington. And his characters are acutely sensitive to the place and the moment. Aliyah, for example, arriving in Amman for the first time, “hadn’t expected all the hills, with their crowded, blocky architecture, everything rendered in watercolor shades of tan and off-white. Or so it seemed in the slanting light. The air had a strange smell, which stirred a vague familiarity. It was the dry, smoky character, she supposed, which took her back to distant times she hadn’t revisited in ages.”

But what especially lifts Fesperman’s thriller above the confines of its genre is the author’s empathy for those caught in the crossfire of the world’s conflicts. That he makes his narrator-protagonist a former UN aid worker, a would-be neutral, is no random choice. The operative irony of the novel is that Freeman (whose name is only a couple of consonants and a little anagramming away from “Fesperman”) wants to be a free man – one without a country -- because he has seen what harm can be done by the zeal of patriots and ideologues. But when he arrives in Amman – “a city of loose talk and stealthy listeners” -- he is instantly reminded how difficult the neutral pose can be. When he orders a Coke, the waiter tells him, with “a remark that from him sounded like an admonition,” that the restaurant serves only Pepsi. And then Freeman remembers an old rumor in the Arab world that the Coca-Cola logo said “No Mohammad, No Mecca” if you turned it backward. “I had forgotten what it was like working in a place where even your most innocent choice might be held against you.”

Worse things than a waiter’s scorn happen to Freeman and Aliyah and others in the novel, but the author’s alertness to such smaller tensions makes “The Amateur Spy” come alive. Fesperman has mastered his genre, but he often breaks out of its confines. You can sense him trying to move away from Tom Clancy and John Grisham and toward writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, writers with a nuanced and ambivalent vision of the world and its conflicts. (Aliyah’s plight is reminiscent of that of Winnie Verloc, the anarchist’s wife in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” although Aliyah shrugs off the passivity in which Winnie was trapped.)

Throughout the novel, Fesperman reminds us that the world is a lot more complicated than the TV pundits, politicians and lockstep superpatriots would have us believe. Sometimes he does it with sly wit, as when Freeman hears a group in a hotel bar celebrating their release from the daytime fast of Ramadan: “The revelers began clapping to the beat, drowning out the muezzin, and the band broke into the disco standby ‘I Will Survive.’ Interesting to think of it as some sort of Palestinian anthem.”

And more than once he reminds us of the world’s pain, as when Aliyah reflects that she can’t tell her friend Nancy “that sometimes it gave her comfort to see news footage of American mothers grieving for their lost soldier boys, killed in Iraq. It wasn’t that she took pleasure in the deaths. It was that she thought her country needed this kind of sorrow to keep it humble, because that was how it worked in the rest of the world.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Things That Make My Blood Boil

One of them is Republican Senators whose heads are not screwed on straight.

Another is lunatic right-wing preachers.
And then there's the stupidity of some in my age cohort.

And egregious liar Betsy McCaughey.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The House of Mirth, Book Two:

Why do we care about Lily Bart? (If you don't, make that "I.") After all, in her own words, she's "a very useless person."

As one character observes of Lily, "sometimes I think ..., at heart, she despises the things she's trying for." Exactly right. But what else has her social milieu given her to try for except a rich husband? Lily learns the flaws of society the hard way. After her betrayal by Bertha Dorset she realizes that even the truth can't save her: "What is truth? Where a woman is concerned it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her." The truth is what's convenient -- a Whartonian spin on pragmatism.

And so Lily descends the social ladder, first down a rung to the bohemian set of the Gormers -- "a kind of social Coney Island, where everybody is welcome who can make noise enough and put on airs." She develops a carapace against social misfortune -- "a hard glaze of indifference was fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities, and each concession to expediency hardened the surface a little more." (And there's that word "glaze" again.) With the Gormers she travels to Alaska -- an adventure I wish Wharton had given us more of, perhaps as a contrast of the newest part of the New World with the Old World intrigues of Europe -- but Lily realizes that she has become "of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child." The glaze is beginning to crack, admitting some of the "dinginess" that she has been brought up to contemn.

There is still, of course, the possibility of marrying Rosedale. A friend commented to me that he wasn't ready to forgive the anti-Semitism in Wharton's references to Rosedale, but I may have overstated them in my earlier post. Or perhaps Wharton herself was inspired to draw back from them, for she begins to soften Rosedale in the scene in which Lily spies on him playing with a child -- "something in his attitude made him seem a simply and kindly being." And by the end of the book he presents an almost welcome alternative to the desperation into which Lily has plunged. Still, though he is capable of kindness, Rosedale is a man without scruples, and he presents to her the book's key moral choice -- to save herself by revealing the letters between Bertha Dorset and Lawrence Selden.

And so Lily's moral center becomes evident -- she decides not to use the letters to shame Bertha, and she decides to endure hardship so she can pay back the money that Gus Trenor has given her. And to do so, she takes another step down the ladder -- one that once again earns Selden's disapprobation. She enters, as a social secretary, the garish nouveau riche circle of the divorcée Norma Hatch. "Through this atmosphere of torrid splendour moved wan beings as richly upholstered as the furniture, beings without definite pursuits or permanent relations, who drifted on a languid tide of curiosity from restaurant to concert-hall, from palm-garden to music-room, from 'art exhibit' to dress-maker's opening."

The trouble for the contemporary reader is that it's hard to distinguish this louche stratum of society from the upper-crust layer that Lily is accustomed to -- both seem to us equally empty and frivolous, and its denizens can be similarly poisonous. We have to take it on Wharton's word that, "Compared with the vast gilded void of Mrs. Hatch's existence, the life of Lily's former friends seemed packed with ordered activities." And obviously there is a difference, for Lily takes flight from Mrs. Hatch's set, choosing to plunge into the life of a laborer in the workroom of the milliner Miss Haines.

By the novel's end, it becomes evident that the real villain of the story is not Gus Trenor or Bertha Dorset, but Selden, "an emotional coward" who flees "from an infatuation his reason had conquered." Every time he gets a chance to set things right, for himself and more especially for Lily, he backs off. "He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her." Selden sees clearly the meretriciousness of society in which Lily shines forth -- "her grace cheapening the other women's smartness as her finely-discriminated silences made their chatter dull." He scorns "the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dullness of the talk, ... the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance." But he takes no action to prevent her being a victim of the circle in which she moves. He chooses instead "the sense of relief with which he returned to the conventional view of her."

The trouble with the relationship of Selden and Lily is that each reinforces the other's passivity. Lily has her own emotional cowardice. Rather like Micawber confidently expecting something to turn up, she remains content to "worry along, as she had so often done before, with the hope of some happy change of fortune to sustain her." We learn from Carry Fisher that Lily blew her opportunity to marry a rich Italian prince and in the process caused a scandal: "That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic." (The reference to oversleeping is a bitterly ironic anticipation of the novel's ending.)

And so the novel culminates in an epiphany for Lily, perhaps unfortunately sentimentalized in the form of Nettie Struther's baby. Lily realizes "that there had never been a time when she had any real relation to life." It's a didactic moment, revealing that Wharton doesn't yet fully trust her readers to draw their own lessons.

So why do we/I care about Lily Bart? Because Wharton does, of course. The question is whether Wharton cares about Lily as a person or as an idea, a victim of of society's materialism or the embodiment of a moral dilemma. The answer is, naturally, a bit of both, and it's Wharton's ambivalence that weakens the novel -- not fatally, but significantly.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mad Mannion

Lance Mannion's take on "Mad Men" here is provocative. But lots of works -- Shakespeare's romances, the plays of Chekhov and Beckett, the fiction of Kafka -- can be played or read as both comic and tragic. Criticizing "Mad Men" for not being played as a comedy seems to me to miss the point -- we do laugh at it. (Well, I do, anyway.) To assume that its creators intend it to be taken seriously because the actors are playing it straight is to miss the genius of the work. And to reduce Don Draper to just "a jerk" is to miss the devastating portrayal of the compartmentalized life.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The House of Mirth, Book One, Chapters X through XV:

As the novel nears its midpoint, Wharton becomes less Jane Austen (analysis of social mores) and more George Eliot (moral earnestness). She begins to indulge more in Eliotic commentary: "No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity; and the sense of being of importance among the insignificant was enough to restore to Miss Bart the gratifying consciousness of power."

Now, I love both Austen and Eliot, but when forced to choose, I go for wit over gravitas, and prefer showing to telling. This is not to say that Wharton doesn't often mix wit into her commentary, e.g.: "It is less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness." That observation could have come from either Austen or Eliot.

Wharton also shares Eliot's mistrust of the beautiful. Lily resembles the fatally selfish Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda more than she does the icily destructive Rosamond Vincy of Middlemarch, but all three characters manipulate others with their beauty to no good end. Lily's beauty is apotheosized in the tableau vivant at the Wellington Brys, and it ensnares Lawrence Selden, who, we are told, has inherited "the Stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them" -- a dangerous blend. He witnesses "the touch of poetry in her beauty that [he] always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. ... [H]e seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part."

But disharmony is to follow, in the form of Gus Trenor's proposition and Simon Rosedale's proposal, and Selden's fatal glimpse of Lily fleeing from the Trenors' town house. Having reached a pinnacle, Lily can only fall from it, becoming prey to her pursuers and to the viciousness of Society: "The winged Furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea." Lily has had a glimpse of the world that lies outside of Society, in Gerty Farish's charitable work, but its full reality has not thrust itself upon her: "She had always accepted with philosophic calm the fact that such existences as hers were pedestalled on foundations of obscure humanity. The dreary limbo of dinginess lay all around and beneath that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter's night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers." It's easy to sense here that Lily is about to find out what is beneath her pedestalled existence.

It's also easy to sense the threat that Lily poses not only to Selden, but also to Gerty, whose infatuation with Selden is dashed when he comes to her sitting room -- "where they fitted as snugly as bits in a puzzle" -- only to talk of nothing but Lily: "There had been a third at the feast she had spread for him, and that third had taken her own place." Selden's talk of Lily inspires Gerty to an unaccustomed bitterness: "When had Lily ever really felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences: she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory." And yet Gerty swallows her resentment when Lily presents herself in distress on her doorstep.

Wharton shares one other thing with Eliot: a difficulty when it comes to writing about men. (Austen solved the problem by presenting men as her women saw them.) The key sexual confrontations -- between Lily and Trenor, and between Lily and Rosedale -- teeter precariously on the verge of melodrama, largely because Wharton is unable to bring either Trenor or Rosedale to life -- to make them as fully dimensional as Lily. (We can overlook the casual prejudice of her time in Wharton's references to Rosedale -- described by one character as "the little Jew who bought the Greiner house" -- as presenting "the instincts of his race," but they certainly don't add depth to him as character.) Trenor's proposition and Rosedale's proposal come from cardboard villains, not flesh-and-blood threats. Wharton's attempts to characterize them through the coarse slanginess of their language -- e.g., Trenor's "Gad, you go to men's houses fast enough in broad daylight -- strikes me you're not always so deuced careful of of appearances" and Rosedale's "But why ain't you straight with me -- why do you put up that kind of bluff?" -- come across as stagy.

And so a novel that had begun with such brightness grows dark. Is the tonal shift in The House of Mirth a bug or a feature? I'm not sure yet.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Plain Sense of Things

The Plain Sense of Things: In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler reviews the first edition of Wallace Stevens’s work in 20 years, edited by John N. Serio. Stevens has always been one of my favorite poets, and Vendler's review inspired me to re-read a poem from which I have always managed to derive a strange sustenance:

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly around us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one ...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

The Guns of August

Frank Rich's Sunday column, The Guns of August, deals with the violent talk and action on the right, an elaboration on what he said on Rachel Maddow's show, i.e.: "The simmering undertone of violence in our politics seems to be getting darker."

The prevailing fear of the government that Rich touches on in this column is disturbing. During conservative regimes -- Reagan, the Bushes -- liberals seem to be able to handle their lack of power better than conservatives do when the Democrats (not to call them liberals) are in charge. I recently saw this at work when an old high school friend, with whom I had got in touch in connection with my class's reunion last year, commented on one of my Facebook posts that she was appalled at the liberalism in the link (to a Daily Kos item, I think) it contained. I responded that I appreciated her point of view, but that I naturally disagreed with hers.

It turned out that she had been participating in tea party and town hall protests, and she seemed to be terrified that the White House would find out and somehow punish her for it. (Evidently, she and her husband had once been audited by the IRS.) She wrote that she was discontinuing our Facebook connection -- "defriending" me -- and that she would prefer that I not contact her again.

I'm certain that she would never do anything violent, but it's clear that the merchants of fear had found in her a ready customer. I only wonder what other customers they have sold their brands to.

It's About Time

I don't usually count on Time magazine (which we get because someone once gave us a gift subscription) for anything but conventional wisdom skewed to the right. But this short review of T.R. Reid's book about American health care put in a very few words what's wrong with it, and why reform is so damn essential. Boldface is mine:

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care By T.R. Reid; Penguin; 288 pages

The U.S. health-care system is in a remedial class by itself. In no other industrialized country do 20,000 people die each year because they can't afford to see a doctor; nowhere else do 700,000 a year go bankrupt because of their medical bills. When it comes to health-care policy, an economist tells T.R. Reid, the U.S. is the "bogeyman of the world." The question Reid poses, however, isn't, What are we doing wrong? It's, What are other countries doing right--and how can the U.S. learn from them? A Washington Post correspondent with a nagging shoulder injury from his Navy days, Reid traveled the world to see how other countries' health-care systems would treat him. From Germany to Canada to Taiwan, he finds several different models for success, all with one thing in common.

When considering whether a government has a moral obligation to provide access to health care for all its citizens, Reid notes, "every developed country except the United States has reached the same conclusion."

Friday, August 21, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The House of Mirth, Book One, Chapters I-IX.

Such an elegant setup in the first chapter: the introduction of Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden, the neatly handled exposition, and the seemingly incidental detail of the charwoman on the stairs. Maybe naming Selden's residence "the Benedick" is a shade heavy-handed -- that she is Beatrice to his Benedick is obvious on its own.

The point-of-view shift at chapter's end, from Selden to Lily, has an abruptness that might get a reprimand from a creative writing teacher. But we need Selden's awareness of Lily's skill at creating an image -- that both her discretions and her imprudences "were part of the same carefully-elaborated plan"; that her hair may have been "ever so slightly brightened by art"; that "she must have cost a great deal to make"; that "a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay" -- to set up her regret that "one could never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice." For Lily can't "do a natural thing" -- it is forbidden to her by the society in which she lives, the more so because of her lack of money.

The depth with which we enter both Selden's and Lily's consciousnesses also serves to highlight the shallowness of the other characters, such as Percy Gryce -- the superrich and ineffably dull collector of Americana on whom Lily decides to take "the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life" -- and his mother, "a monumental woman with the voice of a pulpit orator and a mind preoccupied with the iniquities of her servants." Wharton's epigrammatic descriptions of her characters are brilliant: Mrs. Dorset is "like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room." "Mrs. Peniston thought the country lonely and trees damp, and cherished a vague fear of meeting a bull."

"Misfortune," Wharton tells us, "had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one." But it has also made her self-centered, a rebel without a cause other than her own, who "had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations." She is forced to put her trust in the one thing she believes she can rely on: "Her beauty itself was not the mere ephemeral possession it might have been in the hands of inexperience: her skill in enhancing it, the care she took of it, the use she made of it, seemed to give it a kind of permanence. She felt she could trust it to carry her through to the end." But as all of Western literature has drummed into us, beauty is not to be trusted.

It doesn't help that "poor Lily, for all the hard glaze of her exterior" -- there's that word "glaze" again -- "was inwardly as malleable as wax." Her problem lies in whether she will allow the right person to take advantage of that malleability. As she tells Selden, when she re-encounters him at Bellomont, "the people who find fault with society are too apt to regard it as an end and not a means, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over[.] Isn't it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?" The trouble is that Lily doesn't use either society or money with great intelligence.

Lily is almost immediately punished for her decision to forgo church -- and therewith Percy Gryce -- and to enter into a conversation with Selden that turns into a beautiful Beatrice-and-Benedick duel of wit and emotional brinksmanship. And in her need for money, she makes an uninformed decision to trust Mr. Trenor, for which the punishment is likely to be even greater. She mistrusts Selden "because his presence always had the effect of cheapening her aspirations, of throwing her whole world out of focus," when that's precisely what needs to happen. For her aspirations are cheap: "She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Reasons to Be Scared


It occurs to me, watching this exchange between Rachel Maddow and Frank Rich, that a lot of you whippersnappers are too young to remember what it was like before the Kennedy assassination. Rich himself alerted me to this in the clip, when he talks about how he sort of recalls the political climate in which the assassination took place.

Well, I remember it clearly, and a lot of the right-wing gabble of today reminds me of it -- chillingly. Kennedy's death turned him into a hero, and neutralized all of the vitriol. But when he was killed in Dallas, I wasn't surprised, because I knew what Dallas -- and the South in which I grew up -- was like in the early '60s. Visceral hatred of Kennedy was widespread -- irrational hatred, to be sure, given that Kennedy was a moderate, even center-right politician. In fact, the things that are said in public about Obama are mild, compared to some of the things that were said about Kennedy.

But there's another element that has changed: In the early '60s, the Republican party had a substantial and lively complement of moderates like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. And the Democrats included fire-breathing right-wingers like James Eastland, Orval Faubus and George Wallace. In short, the political parties were less polarized than they are now. All of that would change after Kennedy's death and especially after the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation -- with some support from Republicans. In other words, bipartisanship was possible then. I don't think it is now.

So I'm scared, deeply scared by the tumult and shouting. And by the fact that no one in the Republican party has the courage and the conscience to try to put a damper on it. Those who do, after all, get mocked and smeared by talk radio and Fox News. These times remind me of the times of my youth. And that's not a good thing.

What I'm Reading

I've never read Edith Wharton. Not even that bane of high school English students, Ethan Frome. I saw and admired Martin Scorsese's version of The Age of Innocence, but that's about the extent of my Whartonizing. So I took down the old volume of The House of Mirth that's been yellowing on my shelves lo these many years. (Don't know where or when I got it. Maybe in graduate school, when I figured I needed to read something by her.)

Lately, I've been "doing" American lit. Twain, as you know, if you've been following these posts. And before that Henry James's The American -- one of those early James novels that true Jamesians regard almost as juvenilia. (I've never been much of a Jamesian. I foundered in my attempt to get through The Wings of the Dove.)

One reason for my current immersion in Am Lit is my lately heightened awareness of the ongoing oddness of America's relationship with the rest of the world, as well as the current squealing on the right about the loss of "the America I knew," as some of the participants in the town halls have put it. No profound insights into that as yet.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ch-ch-ch-changes

A rather amazing morph job of movie stars from Fairbanks (I think) to Clooney. I put my IDs in the comments. If anyone can identify my gaps, please do so.

What I'm Reading

The desire for the actual, the unmediated experience drives Twain in his travels. He never achieves it, of course, always finding his experience forced through the sieve of reputation. When it comes to art and architecture and landscape, he sometimes resorts to irony and mockery to sweep away allegations of grandeur and greatness. He is thwarted in his accounts of traveling in the "Holy Land" by a reluctance to mock the pious, and yet we can usually sense his impatience with superstition in his sly treatment of the ubiquitous venerated relics, the duplicitous guides and guidebooks, and the rock-chipping avidity of souvenir hunters. Here he sums up his own awareness of the difficulty of writing the truth:

It is easy for book-makers to say "I thought so and so as I looked upon such and such a scene" -- when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate, yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience.

One pious cliché of travelers particularly draws his fire:

The commonest sagacity warns me that I ought to tell the customary pleasant lie, and say I tore myself reluctantly away from every noted place in Palestine. Every body tells that, but with as little ostentation as I may, I doubt the word of every he who tells it. ... It does not stand to reason that men are reluctant to leave places where the very life is almost badgered out of them by importunate swarms of beggars and peddlers who hang in strings to one's sleeves and coat-tails and shriek and shout in his ears and horrify his vision with the ghastly sores and malformations they exhibit. One is glad to get away. ... We do not think, in the holy places; we think in bed, afterwards, when the glare, and the noise, and the confusion are gone, and in fancy we revisit alone, the solemn monuments of the past, and summon the phantom pageants of an age that has passed away.

Strung Out

I don't really understand this, but I sort of see where it's going.

Thoughts While Waiting for the Kettle to Boil


We call it "dog food" and "cat food." So why do we call it "chicken feed"?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Strange Death (Maybe) of Health Care Reform

Rachel Maddow and Matt Taibbi on what went wrong:

Thoughts While Waiting for the Toast to Pop Up

Do cats count?

I mean, yes, they matter. (At least in our household.) But do they, you know, enumerate?

It occurred to me to wonder this morning which was the primary human achievement: mathematics or language? As a word person I of course give the top spot to language. But then it occurred to me that both numbers and words are abstractions from experience. The capability to do that -- to turn what we see and do into words or numbers -- was a great evolutionary leap forward.

But cats speak. They use sounds to say I'm hungry, or Get away, or That's mine, or Keep rubbing that spot, 'k? Thanks. They express themselves on issues of the quality of life. But do they concern themselves with matters of quantity?

It does occur to me that cats do some pretty sophisticated calculations -- distance, trajectory, momentum -- to enable them to leap from the back of the chair to the top of the china cabinet. (I once had a cross-eyed cat who would make those calculations and then miss the mark, often with disastrous results to the curtains but never to the cat himself. But even he eventually learned the flaws in the data and adjusted the variables accordingly.) But are there other examples of feline numeracy?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I'm Reading

Twain and the pilgrims have reached the Holy Land, and the skeptic's distaste for the pious begins to seethe, particularly when his companions decide that the rather pathetic horses they're riding should be spurred to move faster.

Properly, with the sorry relics we bestrode, it was a three days' journey to Damascus. It was necessary that we should do it in less than two. It was necessary because our three pilgrims would not travel on the Sabbath day. ... We pleaded for the tired, ill-treated horses, and tried to show that their faithful service deserved kindness in return, and their hard lot compassion. But when did ever self-righteousness know the sentiment of pity? ... Nothing could move the pilgrims. They must press on. Men might die, horses might die, but they must enter upon holy soil next week, with no Sabbath-breaking stain upon them. Thus they were willing to commit a sin against the spirit of religious law, in order that they might preserve the letter of it.


At Ephesus, however, Twain at least has the pleasure of seeing the souvenir-hunters in his party get their comeuppance:

After gathering up fragments of sculptured marbles and breaking ornaments from the interior work of the Mosques; and after bringing them at a cost of infinite trouble and fatigue, five miles on muleback to the railway depto, a government officer compelled all who had such things to disgorge! He had an order from Constantinople to look our for our party, and see that we carried nothing off. It was a wise, a just, and a well-deserved rebuke, but it created a sensation. I never resist a temptation to plunder a stranger's premises without feeling insufferably vain about it. This time I felt proud beyond expression.


And has anyone ever delivered a better description of a camel?

When he is down on all his knees, flat on his breast to receive his load, he looks something like a goose swimming; and when he is upright he looks like an ostrich with an extra set of legs. Camels ... have immense, flat, forked cushions of feet, that make a track in the dust like a pie with a slice cut out of it. They are not particular about their diet. They would eat a tombstone if they could bite it. A thistle grows about here which has needles on it that would pierce through leather, I think; if one touches you, you can find relief in nothing but profanity. The camels eat these. They show by their actions that they enjoy them. I suppose it would be a real treat to a camel to have a keg of nails for supper.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scrap It and Start Over?

How American Health Care Killed My Father is a long and provocative article about the mess our system is in, and how currently proposed reform, even single-payer, won't fix it. A sample quote:

[H]ealth insurance is different from every other type of insurance. Health insurance is the primary payment mechanism not just for expenses that are unexpected and large, but for nearly all health-care expenses. We’ve become so used to health insurance that we don’t realize how absurd that is. We can’t imagine paying for gas with our auto-insurance policy, or for our electric bills with our homeowners insurance, but we all assume that our regular checkups and dental cleanings will be covered at least partially by insurance. Most pregnancies are planned, and deliveries are predictable many months in advance, yet they’re financed the same way we finance fixing a car after a wreck—through an insurance claim.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What I'm Reading

In one house (the only building in Pompeii which no woman is now allowed to enter,) were the small rooms and short beds of solid masonry, just as they were in the old times, and on the walls were pictures which looked almost as fresh as if they were painted yesterday, but which no pen could have the hardihood to describe; and here and there were Latin inscriptions -- obscene scintillations of wit, scratched by hands that possibly were uplifted to Heaven for succor in the midst of a driving storm of fire before the night was done.
Twain writes around what he was not permitted to write about ("no pen could have the hardihood to describe"): the erotic art of Pompeii. It's too bad we don't have an unfettered Twain here. It's likely he could have produced something more eloquent than this mixture of moralizing ("hands ... uplifted to Heaven") and prurience ("no woman is now allowed to enter" -- wink wink, nudge nudge).

So after that, it's nice to turn to Twain in a more characteristic mode, the democrat irreverently tempted to an act of lèse majesté at a reception for Tsar Alexander II at Yalta.

To think that the central figure in the cluster of men and women, chatting here under the trees like the most ordinary individual in the land, was a man who could open his lips and ships would fly through the waves, locomotives would speed over the plains, courtiers would hurry from village to village, a hundred telegraphs would flash the word to the four corners of an Empire that stretches its vast proportions over a seventh part of the habitable globe, and a countless multitude of men would spring to do his bidding. I had a sort of vague desire to examine his hands and see if they were flesh and blood, like other men's. Here was a man who could do this wonderful thing, and yet if I chose I could knock him down. The case was plain, but it seemed preposterous, nevertheless -- as preposterous as trying to knock down a mountain or wipe out a continent. If this man sprained his ankle, a million miles of telegraph would carry the news over mountains -- valleys -- uninhabited deserts -- under the trackless sea -- and ten thousand newspaper would prate of it; if he were grievously ill, all the nations would know it before the sun rose again; if he dropped lifeless where he stood, his fall might shake the thrones of half a world! If I could have stolen his coat, I would have done it. When I meet a man like that, I want something to remember him by.
But nicely, Twain maintains a sense of his place in the scheme of things:

We spent half an hour idling through the palace, admiring the cosy apartments and the rich but eminently home-like appontments of the place, and then the Imperial family bade our party a kind good-bye, and proceeded to count the spoons.

R.I.P. Obamacare?

Has health care reform been swiftboated to death? It's sure beginning to look like it. Number-cruncher Nate Silver is worried, as is Paul Krugman. (I wish the usually estimable Krugman hadn't resorted to the "only time will tell" cliché, however.) John Cole comes out and says flatly, "health care reform is over." Of course, that's just the view out here in blogworld. Anyone in the real world care to talk me down from the ledge?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Guess He Wrote It on One of His Hikes

I got a stack of book catalogs for Winter 2010 today, and was particularly interested in this title, from Sentinel (a subsidiary of Viking):

Within Our Means
By Governor Mark Sanford

Both as a congressman and now as governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford has fought to reduce the size and scope of government and the tax burden on hardworking citizens. He made national headlines by refusing $700 million in federal stimulus money....

Uh, I seem to remember some other headlines the governor made.

A Teachable Moment

Lawrence O'Donnell's interview with a town hall protester provided one of the most revealing moments in this whole foofaraw. He gets at an essential truth: Most of the protesters and tea-partyers are responding to a generalized angst. Many of them, like the young woman being interviewed, are clueless about what's at stake. All they know are slogans.

Disarmingly, O'Donnell admits that Medicare and Social Security are "socialism." Gasp! We on the left need to remember that ideas we take for granted are completely alien to a large part of the populace. And too long we have left the task of educating people to economic and political reality undone, allowing people to fall into the hands of the Limbaughs and O'Reillys and Glenn Becks.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

But the Dog's Not Blue

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this.




On reflection, it seems to me a pretty apt metaphor for the way the Republicans have been training their followers.

I'm Back

Well, actually, I haven't been anywhere. Except Facebook, which is where I've been doing a lot of posting and commenting lately. But I've decided that here is where I belong, especially in this long hot summer of our discontent with one another. I'm talking about the health care "debate." (Irony quotes intended.)

The thing that seems most obvious to me is that the Republicans are terrified -- and rightly so. They're terrified that the Democrats might actually produce a health care bill that will work -- lower costs, increase coverage. And if they do that, the GOP game is over. People love the benefits -- Social Security, Medicare -- that the Dems provided them over fierce Repub opposition.

So we get lots of lies about "death panels" and mandatory sex-change operations and a lot of other hooey. Which leads to noisy mobs shouting down one another. Some of the people shouting at these town halls are shills -- planted there by well-funded groups opposed to any progressive legislation. But some of them are genuinely scared people, whom no amount of rational argument will assuage. I only hope when the shouting is over that those who inspired the shouting, who lied and distorted, will be exposed to the scorn they deserve.

Starting with Newt Gingrich.

And Chuck Grassley.