Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four books

Four novels I recently read, each worthwhile...or better.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris - If you can buy the premise - a successful dude who suddenly finds himself in the throes of a condition which forces him to walk enormous distances, without regard to weather, terrain, obstacles or reason, which departs as suddenly as it came on, and recurs at irregular intervals, this is a damn good read.  I bought it.  I didn't quite buy how he and his wife decided to cope with it, but not being able to keep things under control is essential to the narrative.  Basically, what we're shown is a mind literally at war with a body.  Some good food for thought there.  Incidentally, the writing in the last scene is off the charts good.  If you only read one Ferris novel, I'd still go with Then We Came to the End.  Definitement worthwhile for book groups.

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter - Part of this novel about a reporter who loses his job and tries to keep afloat by selling marijuana made me laugh aloud.  But there's a deeper element at work than mere stoner romp, and you may find yourself coming to care about the characters.  Not an especially good book for discussions, but a great way to pass the time.

Love and Summer by William Trevor - Trevor's one of my all time favorite novelists.  His writing  - and there's a whole lot of it - consistently demonstrates an uncommon economy and grace.  Love in Summer is a simple story about an young Irish woman tethered more by obligation than love to a marriage and farm.  The narrowness of her life is exposed to her by what begins as a chance encounter with a photographer from another town.  Ultimately, there's a choice to be made.  But whose choice and whose consequences are less clear.  I've read more than 10 of Trevor's novels, and there's not a poor one in the bunch.  But unlike Fools of Fortune (my favorite), The Silence In The Garden, and Felicia's Journey, I don't think Love in Summer is prime fodder for book group discussions.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy - Nobody writes like McCarthy.  I don't know how he does what he does, but what he does works for me.  It's stark, apocalyptic, and shocking.  It's also dazzling to the point of forcing me to reread passages just for the thrill of hearing the words in my head again.   Here we have a story about a loner who has no moral boundaries.  He lives for his urges.  The narrative is straightforward and immensely compelling.  In the end, it may be regarded simply as a tale well told (albeit an extraordinary tale, extraordinarily well told), in which case book groups should pass it by.  On the other hand - and this is true those other novels of his that I've read - there are deeper themes at play.  If your group functions on that level, I'd recommend this to you.   I'd also (and more strongly) recommend Outer Dark, the McCarthy novel I find most similar.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terrific book(s)

Just finished Charles Baxter's Feast of Love.  Gotta say, I was quite taken with it.  If you're a fan of character driven novels, you probably will be, too.  Unless you don't read it.  But that's not my problem, now is it?

Here's what I dug about FoL.  First, it's quite a writerly accomplishment, built around an eponymous author, Charles Baxter, who's thinking of his next novel.  He doesn't yet have a solid idea of what it's going to be about.  Taking a walk one night, he runs into Bradley, an acquaintance and fellow insomniac.  Bradley give him an idea for his book along with a working title, "The Feast of Love."  What we end up with is love seen through the eyes of four major characters: Bradley, his second wife, Diana; his employee, Chloe; and his neighbor, Harry.  We also get a mercifully brief take on love from Kathryn, Bradley's first wife.  Each voice is distinctive, and each adds to the universe of love's meanings and nature.  Kathryn's love is homosexual, Diana's narcissistic, Chloe's lustful and idealistic, and Harry's parental.  With one exception, the voices are authentic to my ear, which is the second quality that makes this a standout.  Third, it takes on some big issues while remaining true to the characters.  Harry's a philosophy professor, which provides a character to give voice and context to those ideas.  Finally, it moves along quite well.  The writing's straightforward and, in it's own way, elegant.  There's an appropriate dramatic climax (emphasis on appropriate, as opposed to contrived) and a more than satisfactory ending.

So what's not to like?  Only one thing, really.  Kathryn's character's voice.  Kathryn herself is pretty damn unlikeable.  She leaves Bradley for a woman, which is cool.  Her attitude toward men, which covers the expanse between condescension and contempt, is cool, too; I don't have to like a character to appreciate a well-drawn one.  But Kathryn's voice is just too authorial, too excruciatingly precise, even accounting for the idea that we're reading the fictional Charles Baxter's rendering of it.  Unlike everyone else, though, Kathryn's only given one chapter.  Twenty or so pages and we're done with her.  Maybe the real Charles Baxter felt the same way.

Diana is also unlikeable.  Beautiful, smart (but clearly not as smart as she thinks she is), and strong (she never seems to tire of complimenting herself on her strength), she's too taken by her own self to have much room in her heart for anyone else.  But she's well rendered and believable.

Harry, the philosophy prof, is there mainly for his ideas.  He and his wife, Esther, are (to put it mildly) estranged from their son, Aaron.  Though Harry's parental issues are marginal, they're touching.  His struggle reminded me of a similar one in Russel Banks's The Sweet Hereafter (another excellent read).

I expect that most readers' take on this will be aligned with their feelings toward Chloe.  She's an employee at the coffee shop Bradley owns.  Young, street smart, rompingly lustful, her character has the most to say.  That's good, because she's delightful.  Frankly, I'd go further and say she's unforgettable.

Bradley himself will probably elicit a mixed bag of opinions.  I think that's meant to be.  Everything revolves around him and his love life, but we don't really see into his soul.  I found him easy to root for, though I wonder if men and women will, in general, line up on different sides.

Book clubs should have fun with this.  Uncomplicated as it is, it's easy to get and get through.  On the other hand, there's lots of room for discussion about the novel's characters, its structure and the issues raised in its exploration of love.

I've got three more books deserving at least brief mention, and I'll get to those next time.

B/t/w - FoL was made into a movie.  I haven't seen it, but I'm prepared to believe it's terrible.  I'm not sure why that is (except for the general rule that Hollywood ruins 95% of the good books for which it buys the movie rights).  The only hard clue I have comes from the montage of stills from the flick on the paperback's cover.  There's one of Chloe and her boyfriend, Oscar, and it shows her with long hair.  Chloe can't have long hair any more than Richard Nixon can wear an Afro.  Not possible.  Just plain wrong.  She looks entirely too wholesome.  If they screwed that up, they probably fucked up a whole lot more.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Supremes take on the new health care law

We all know it's inevitable.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that Obama signed into law in March 2010 is on its way to the Supreme Court, come hell or high water.  Something about the individual mandate to buy insurance gives some people problems.  Especially if they're Republicans or Tea Partyers.  Or Libertarians.  Or if they just hate Obama.  Or if they're faux Democrats.  Probably bothers some reasonable people, too, but not nearly as much.  Anyway, as a public service, I thought I'd save everyone the trouble of anticipating what the Supremes'll do and just tell you.  Even better, I'll offer a glimpse into their "deliberations."  How can I do this?  Because, thanks to Googleleaks (what, you haven't heard that Google bought Wikileaks?), I have an enhanced transcript.  Check out Hyper-Optimized Transcripts - Forwarded in Advance of Real Time and Searchable  (HOT-FARTS)  on Google's site.  It'll be there soon.  I promise.

What follows is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  So help me.  (No, really, I'd like some help.  Typing this stuff is a bitch.)

(A conference room done in green leather and mahogany.  Small piles of documents cover much of the table top.  A pitcher of water and, in front of each justice, a glass.  In front of one justice, in addition to the glass, a Coca-Cola bottle.)

Roberts:  Well, ladies and gentleman, we've all read the briefs and heard the arguments.  It's time to make our decision.  Tony, let's start with you.

Scalia and Kennedy:  Well...

Roberts:  Anthony, you're Anthony.  Please remember.  Antonin is Tony.  Tony?

Ginsberg:  (whispering to Kagan)  "Antonin" sounds like a part of speech. (giggles)

Kagan: (whispering to Ginsberg)  Or a drug.  (guffaws)

Alito: (sneering at Kagan)  Ahem!

Scalia:  Okay, John.  The way I see it [legalese ... "tax" ... more legalese ..."unwarranted intrusion"  ... more legalese ... "framers" ... more legalese ... "Federalist Papers"...  more legalese ... "original intent" ...] clearly unconstitutional!  (savage grin)

Breyer:  (smiling wanly and thinking to himself - "Scalia killed me when we had our debates, and he's gonna kill me again unless I can talk him out of it and get someone else for this summer's tour.")

Roberts:  Good.  Very good.  Clarence?

Scalia: (subtly nudging Thomas)  Clarence, wake up!  You're on!

Thomas:  Uhhhh.  (pause)  I agree with Tony.  (makes eye contact with Scalia, hoping for a nod of affirmation)

Roberts:  Is that all, Clarence?  Isn't there anything you'd like to add?

Thomas:  Uhhhh.......oh, yeah.  I had one of my clerks google the Constitution and do a word check.  Y'know what he found?  (dramatic pause)  The phrase "patient protection and affordable care" isn't anywhere in the document.  Not even the amendments.  Obviously, the law is unconstitutional!  (glances proudly at Scalia)

Ginsberg:  (thinking to herself - "Oy vey!  Please God we don't have an affirmative action case anytime soon.")

Breyer:  (smiling placidly while thinking to himself - "Oy vey!  What a schlemiel!   I could out-debate HIM, no sweat!  I certainly hope we don't get any affirmative action cases this term.")

Kagan:  (thinking to herself - "Oy vey!  What a douche!  If we get any affirmative action cases this term, we're fucked.")

Sotomayor:  (thinking to herself - "Ay, pendejo!  What happens if we get an affirmative action case?")

Alito: (sneering, thinking to himself -  "Ooh, just give me one shot at affirmative action!  Just one!")

Kennedy:  (thinking to himself - "Remarkable!  How can I side with that idiot without losing my humanity?  I wonder if we'll have a chance at affirmative action this term.")

Scalia:  (thinking to himself - "That's my boy!  Affirmative action here we come!  Wheeee!")

Roberts:  (thinking to himself - "I bet I can get us an affirmative action case pretty soon.  Hmmm, I should be able to come up with one of my typically ingenious legal theories that would allow us to use Clarence as prima facie evidence showing it doesn't work.  And Tony''ll be able to get him to go along with it.")

Roberts:  Thanks for your , uh, insight, Clarence.  Anthony?

Kennedy:  I'll defer for the moment.  Is that permissible?

Roberts:  In light of your seniority, Anthony, of course.  I'll let you go last, if you'd like.

Kennedy: Thanks.

Roberts:  Ruth?

(cell phone rings)

Scalia:  Uhhh, Dick, this isn't a good time ..... I know you're lonely .... Yes, I'll go hunting with you again .... Just promise not to shoot me in the face, ok?  (chortles) .... Yes, I'll give them your regards .... No, I have to include the Jews, sorry .... Oh, really!  Dick, that's great.  I'll tell them .... Yeah, speak to you later.

(pause as everyone looks at Scalia)

Scalia:  What?!  He was president - I mean vice president - I HAD to take it.  Anyway, he sends his regards to each of you.  (skeptical nods from Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan)  He told me they've finally found a heart donor that looks promising.  With any luck, they'll be able to do a transplant next week.

Ginsberg;  He's gone all these years without one, why does he need one now?

Alito: (sneering at Ginsberg)  That's not true!

Breyer:  (smiling)  What luck finding a match!  It's just remarkable that they could find a cold, hard one that works.

Alito: (sneering at Breyer)  That's not true!

Roberts:  Thanks, Tony.  Give my best to Dick.

(snickers from Kagan and Thomas)

Roberts:  Let's resume, please.  Where were we?  Oh, yes.  Ruth?

Ginsberg:  What?!  I have cancer and you think I should vote to find the new health care law unconstitutional?  What?!  Are you serious?!

Roberts:  Ruth, you know that as justices of our nation's highest court, we're supposed to rise above personal prejudices and self-serving ideology....

(Loud laughter from everyone except Alito, who's sneering at Ginsberg, and Thomas, who's dozed off.)

Roberts:  No, really.  (pause)  I'm ser... (trying to stifle a laugh)  ser... (cheeks puffing out) serious! (pause followed by paroxysmal guffawing)  Sorry, Ruth.  I have to say, though, that we all have terrific health insurance, so the new law doesn't matter to us.  Or shouldn't matter.  Or won't matter.  Or... what's the matter, Ruth?

Ginsberg:  I'm dying, and it's not supposed to matter?  That's what's the matter.  You're such a putz!

Roberts:  Putz?  I'm not familiar...

Ginsberg:  It's Yiddish.

Sotomayor:  For "Republican."  (winks at Ginsberg)

Alito:  (sneers at Sotomayor)  That's not true!

Roberts:  Well!  Moving on.  Steven?

Breyer:  Tony and I discussed some of the issues that come into play here during our debates a couple of years ago, and ....

Scalia:  And I whipped your ass.  (smiles broadly)  Even the groupies liked me better!

Thomas: (eyes open upon hearing "groupies")  Huh?  Any videos? ......... Of the uh, debates, I mean.

Kennedy:  (excitedly)  Groupies?  Were there many of them?

Roberts:  Ahem!

Kennedy:  (animatedly)  What were they like?  Were they fresh?  Were they pretty?  (panting a bit)  Were they (becoming breathless), were they (closes his eyes and pauses) YOUNG? (quivers briefly)

Thomas:  (muttering to himself as he begins to nod off - "Long dong silver, awaaay!")

Breyer:  (thinking to himself - "Nope.  I would NOT stoop that low.   There's GOT to be someone else I can look good against.")

(Kagan begins humming Jim Croce's "Roller Derby Queen" to herself)

Roberts:  Please continue, Steven.

Breyer:  As I was saying, there are complex issues at play here, but after careful consideration [legalese ... "commerce clause" .... more legalese ... "expansive" ... more legalese ... "general welfare" ... more legalese .... "Hamiltonian" ... more legalese .... "precedent" ....] clearly constitutional.  (smiles weakly)

Kagan:  (lip synching while nodding in time)  "Round and round, oh round and round..."

Roberts:  Thank you, Steven.  Sam?

Alito:  (sneering at Breyer)   I agree with Ronald Reagan.   Obamacare is socialized medicine and....

Ginsberg:  (dope slapping her forehead)  Ronald Reagan is DEAD!  Understand?  Capisce?  Reagan.  Is.  DEAD!  He died well before this law was even contemplated!  His existence is immaterial, irrelevant and.....whatever! (coughs)

Alito:  (sneering at Ginsberg)  That's not true!  And even if it is, his spirit lives on, and....

Breyer:  (smiling)  Frankly, Sam, I fail to see what our debate has to do with Ronald Reagan's spirit.

Alito:  (sneering at Breyer)  Of course you would.  You and all the other commie terrorists....

Breyer:  (smiling serenely)  I take umbrage...

Kagan:  (singing almost inaudibly to herself - "....five foot six an' two fifteen / A bleached blond mama wit' a streak of mean. / She knew how to knuckle an' she knew how to scuffle an' fight...")

Roberts:  Please, everyone, no interruptions.  Sam, you may have crossed the line a bit there.  Please continue.

Alito:  (sneering at Roberts)  My point is quite elementary.  Our constitution does not permit SOCIALISM!  (con brio)  This law MANDATES socialized medicine!  (agitato)  UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!  (vehemently)  PERIOD!!  (belligerently)  Ronald Reagan WARNED us!!!  (eyes rolling back in his head)  MEIN FUHRER!!!  (right arm straightens and begins to rise)

Scalia:  (grabbing Alito's arm)  Easy does it, Sam.

Alito:  (sneering at Scalia)  Was ist das!  Wer bist du?  (pauses; recovering himself, looks around the room and slowly lowers his arm)  As I said, unconstitutional!  (sniffs contemptuously)

Breyer:  (smiling, thinking to himself - "Maybe I could handle HIM in a debate.  Hmmmmmm.  But what if he goes off when we're on the road?!  Oy, oy, oy.   Such tsuris I don't need.")

Kagan:  (resumes singing to herself - "And the roller derby program said  / That she was built like a 'frigerator with a head. /  Her fans call her 'Tuffy' /  But all her buddies call her...")

Roberts:  Elena, I don't know what you're muttering, but it's time for your.....

Kagan:  (abruptly pounds table)  Spike!  (pounds table again)  Call me "Spike!"

(Alito sneers at Kagan)

Roberts:  Elena, I...

Kagan:  Spike!  Unless you want me to call you ..... (smile spreads across her face) "J-Bobs."

Sotomayor:  (enthusiastically)  Cojones!  Brass cojones!  You go, girl!  (grins)

Roberts:  Very well, Ele..... (glare from Kagan) ...Spike.

Kagan:  Right-o!  This thing has got to be constitutional.  I was solicitor general when we drew it up.  And even if Congress fucked it up....

(Alito's eyes bug out as he sneers at Kagan)

Kagan:  Sorry, guys.  Even if Congress,  errr,  took certain liberties...

Ginsberg:  (quietly)  Congress is great at taking abortion.

Sotomayor:  (quietly)  And the Patriot Act.

Kagan:  ...certain liberties with the language, our intent remains clear.  And I'm not gonna rule my own law unconstitutional.  Now don't bother me any more.  (resumes lip synching)  Round and round / Oh round and round....

Roberts:  Hmmph1  I believe our discussion here deserves a more formal tone.  Justice Sotomayor, what have you to say?

Sotomayor:  (glaring at Roberts)  It's not Soto-MAY-jor!  My name isn't an army rank!  For the umpteenth time, it's soto-mah-YOR!  (pause) Screw it up again, gringo, and I'LL be calling your ass "J-Bobs!"

Roberts:  I apologize, Sonia.  I occasionally have some difficulty remembering esoteric nuances of phraseology.

Scalia:  (grinning broadly)  Yeah, like the presidential oath of office.  (pause)  Sorry, John, I couldn't resist.

(Alito sneers at Scalia)

Roberts:  Tony, it only appeared that way.  It was actually a rather clever ploy, if I do say so myself.... And I do.  I used my responsibility to administer the oath of office as an opportunity to test our new president without him having a chance to prepare.  I simply changed the wording a bit, knowing he knew the actual text by heart.  When I appeared to make a mistake, he had the opportunity to repeat that mistake or affirm what he knew to be the truth.  We all saw him follow my lead.  And I must say, that little drama has been quite the bellwether.  Wouldn't you agree?

(Scalia smiles and nods.)

Alito:  (smiles)  Well done, mein chief justice.  (right arm quivers)  That's just how Ronald Reagan beat the commies!  (sneers at Sotomayor)

Breyer:  (forcing a smile, thinking to himself - "Not even if he begged!  Not even if he let me have all the money!  Not even if he let me have all the groupies!  It just wouldn't be worth the humiliation.  Too damn clever!  Not that John'd ever go on tour in the first place.")

Scalia:  Oh boy, I can't wait to tell Cheney.  It'll cheer him up more than a new heart.

Roberts:  Please do, Tony.  I'm rather proud of it.  (pause)  Now, back to you, Ms. Soto...ahh...Sonia.

Sototmayor:  And another thing.  I was here before Elena.  You should have let me go before her.

Alito:  (sneering)  You're lucky you're here at all.  If it weren't for affirmative action....

Breyer:  Please, Sam.  Please, Sonia.  Can't we all just get along?  (smiles)

Roberts:  Sorry about that, Sonia.  I confess to having been beguiled by Elena's muttering.  Or humming.  Whatever it was.  Please go on.

Sotomayor:  It seems to me that only the most cold-hearted, unfeeling person could fail to see all the good this law does.  And it does so for the people who need it most.  As a diabetic, I feel their pain.  As a woman, I feel their pain.  As a minority, I feel their pain.  As a somewhat overweight, late middle-aged...

Alito:  (sneering)  The constitution doesn't care how you feel.

Sotomayor:  As I said, only the most cold-hearted, unempathetic person...

Alito:  I may not be empathetic, but I AM smart!  (sniffs loudly, sneers)

Sotomayor:  You may be smart, but you're not WISE!

Alito:  (still sneering)  I may not be what YOUR people call "wise," but I AM American.

Sotomayor:  And what is THAT supposed to mean?

Alito:  Soto-mah-YOR?  (sneers)  Doesn't sound American to me.  Sounds foreign.  Sounds immigrant.  Sounds ILLEGAL immigrant.

Sotomayor:  That would be almost funny, coming from someone with a last name of ALITO!

Scalia:  Hey!

Alito:  Papers please!  (grins, then sneers)  You weren't even appointed by a LEGITIMATE American president!  (con brio)  How does it feel, sitting there knowing you owe your job to some foreign born, (agitato) MUSLIM PRETENDER (vivace) who pals around with TERRORISTS?  (face turning red, foaming at the mouth)  Huh?  (uses sleeve to wipe spittle from chin)  MEIN GOTT! (right arm straightens, begins to tremble)

Ginsberg:  You're a putz, Sam, you know that?

Sotomayor:  Thanks, girlfriend!

Roberts:  Sonia, please go on.  Sam just goes off sometimes, but he's a good guy.  Really, he is.  And please don't take what he said about the president seriously.  If Obama says he's American and that's good enough for Boehner, it's good enough for me.  And the constitution probably allows Muslims to be president, so you're ok there.

Sotomayor:  Constitutional!  The health care law is constitutional!  I'm done.  (glares at Alito, who's just finished tidying up his chin and is inspecting his sleeve)

Roberts:  Very well.  As things stand now, we're four to three in favor of letting the law stand.  (smirks)

Thomas:  (suddenly alert)  But....but...... (looks down at his fingers) but four to three, that doesn't make nine!  (looks pleadingly at Scalia)  Does it?

(Scalia shakes his head, mouths a "no")

Thomas:  I knew it!  (sits back in his chair, smiling)

Roberts:  Thank you, Clarence.  We have a couple of innings left.  As I said earlier, Anthony will go last, which means it's now my turn at bat.  After listening to all of you, it's my opinion that this decision must turn mainly on (dramatic pause) precedent.

(Gasps from all, except Kagan, eyes closed and still lip synching, and Kennedy, self-absorbed.)

Roberts:  I believe we each invoked our fidelity to stare decisis - the great weight which precedent is given, Clarence - at our confirmation hearings.

Thomas - (fondles the Coca-Cola bottle in front of him, then picks it up and appears to inspect it)  No one asked me about that at my hearing.  All they cared about was whatever her name had to say.  (appears to have found something stuck on the bottle, which he lifts off daintily with thumb and forefinger, holds up to the light, then puts in his mouth)  Mmmmmmmmmm.  (swallowing)  Things go better with Coke!

(Alito sneers at Thomas.)

Roberts:  Ahem.  Now, in light of our regard for precedent, the claim for this law's constitutionality would seem to be on firm ground.  BUT... even from before I got here, in Bush v. Gore, to my first major trium.... er, decision, Citizens United, it ought to be clear that THIS court has set a precedent for IGNORING precedent.  And THAT is the precedent to which we must adhere.  In a case of such importance, in a case with such consequential consequences, failure to follow our own precedent for ignoring precedent would be (pause) unprecedented!   Clearly, we can't allow ourselves to set such a poor precedent.  (self-satisfied smirk)

(Scalia smiles broadly.  Thomas appears puzzled,  glances at Scalia, then smiles.  Alito smiles, then sneers in Sotomayor's direction.  Ginsberg shakes her head, takes out a handkerchief and coughs into it loudly and deeply.  Sotomayor pats Ginsberg's back, appears to give Alito the evil eye.  Breyer smiles weakly, gazes up at the ceiling.  Kagan opens her eyes, notes others' expressions, gives Roberts the finger, closes her eyes and resumes lip synching.  Kennedy appears lost in thought.)

Sotomayor:  John, I think Ruth needs to use the bathroom.

Roberts:  We're almost done.  Ruth, you can hold it.  Well, now.  It seems to be up to you, Anthony.

Kennedy:  John, why don't you go ahead and let Ruth go potty.  I'm still mulling this over.

Roberts:  Very well, Anthony.  Ruth, you're excused.

(Ginsberg and Sotomayor both rise)

Roberts:  I said Ruth could go.  I didn't say both of you could.

Sotomayor:  I have to help my sister here, something you white men apparently don't unders....

Roberts:  Watch it, Sonia.  What we white men understand is power!  And I'm not ENTIRELY certain that your appointment to this bench is legitimate, so if you know what's good for you........ (Ginsberg coughs loudly)  Oh, what the hell, go ahead.

Kennedy:  (eyes closed, thinking to himself - "Let's see here.  On one side we have a good argument against constitutionality.  But then I'd be aligning myself with Clarence.  Again.  My kids told me they'd stop speaking to me if I kept on doing agreeing with that bozo.  Besides, the argument for constitutionality is also pretty good.  And Breyer's almost smart enough to make it.  Except Tony's smarter, so I've got some cover on that side.  But I just don't feel it's right to.....)

(cell phone rings)

Scalia:  'S up, Dick? ..... It's ok, we're kind of taking a break .... Oh? ... Oh? .... I'm sorry to hear that .... No, no firm plans right now ... A whole month is quite a stretch, but.... The Federalist Society'll pay for the entire thing? ... I'm just not sure I can ... I know you're lonely ... Yes, you did save us from WMDs when you were presiden.... No, I do care... Really ... A lot ...... Dick, please don't threaten, it's not.... Do I hear a "please"? ...... Uh huh.  Pretty please? ..... Uh-huh.  And with sugar on top? ...... C'mon, Dick, with sugar on top?? ....  Well, in that case, sure, I'll do it .... You're really positive that the Society'll pay, right?  I mean more positive than you were about Saddam and those WMDs ....  Ok, dude, you got a deal! ... Yeah, see ya' soon.

(everyone looks at Scalia)

Scalia:  Dick.... I mean presid.... I mean vice president Cheney just found out that his heart transplant is a no-go.  Seems like the doctors decided his chest cavity isn't large enough for a normal heart.  Instead, they told him to spend a long while resting.  He's invited me to spend a month with him at the Federalist Society's summer camp.  I'm gonna be jurist in residence.  How cool is that!  (pause)  Oh, Steven, that means I won't be able to whip your ass again on the debate circuit this year.  Sorry about that, but I'm sure you can find someone more, uh, suitable for your, er, talents.  (chortles softly)

Breyer:  (smiling brightly)  Tony, you gotta do what you gotta do.  I'm hopeful there'll be SOMEONE here who wouldn't mind a not-so-little bit of CASH and the chance to look smart in front of live audiences.  (slowly looks around the table)

Kennedy:  (eyes still closed, still thinking to himself - "....What was that?   A 'not-so-little bit of cash,' eh?  More money would be nice.  I mean, we haven't had a raise since, well, last year.... But still.  Hmmmm, if I vote FOR Breyer's side, why would he debate me?  Who'd wanna see a debate between people who agree?   But if I vote AGAINST him, wouldn't he HAVE to  consider me?  John would never do it, and, besides, he's too smart.  Clarence spends his summers in his RV, and, besides, he's too dumb.  Gotta wonder about Sam, though....... Buuuuut,,,,,,, Y'know, all it would take is one Hitler salute and the whole thing'd blow up.  Yeah, Breyer MUST understand that...") 

(Ginsberg and Sotomayor return, quietly sit down)

Kennedy:  (eyes still closed, continuing his thoughts - "...Geez, he's GOTTA pick me.  So it comes down to money.  I suppose it's probably not good form to ask now, but it would take quite a bundle to compensate for having my kids shut me out of their lives forever ....... Darn, I just hate having to make a choice based on incomplete information .... And I love my children ..... A-and following one's conscience isn't a bad thing ............ Oh well,  even if the money's good,  it's probably for the best...")

Scalia:  And don't forget the groupies!

(Breyer nods, still smiling)

Kennedy:  (eyes pop open, displays a twenty-four tooth shiteater)   Unconstitutional!  UNCONSTITUTIONAL!  (beginning to pant)  REALLY UNCONSTITUTIONAL!  (stands) TOTALLY REALLY!! (flushed and nearly breathless)  UN!  CONS!  TIT!  (snicker from Thomas) U!  TION!  (hoarsely)  AL!  (plops down into his chair, seemingly exhausted, and thinks to himself as his eyes gradually close - "Ahhhh, Groupies!  Fresh!  Pretty! Young!  GROUPIES!  Fresh!  Pretty!  YOUNG!  GROUPIES!  Fresh!  PRETTY!  YOUNG!  GROUPIES!" )

(everyone staring at Kennedy)

Kennedy:  (beginning to sit up straight)  FRESH!  PRETTY!  YOUN... (opening his eyes)  ...uhhh... mmm... errrrr...... I believe ..... my .... uh ... position is .... clear.

(Breyer, smiling more brightly, pauses in mid-fist pump, slowly lowers his arm and equips himself with a suitably sober expression.)

Scalia:  No doubt about THAT!  (laughs heartily)

Roberts:  Anthony, that was.... that was..... quite a..... remarkable... display... of...... legal reasoning.  (pause)  Well now, I'm pretty good at calling balls and strikes, and it looks to me like five to four for the good guys.  (grins meaningfully at Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in turn)  Game over!  Thanks to all of you.  Mmmmm, I'll assign myself to write the majority opinion.  But I suppose you already knew that.  Fellow justices, we stand adjourned!  See you next week.

(A flutter of murmurs, as everyone stands, gathering papers, except for Thomas, who holds only his Coke bottle.  With all deliberate speed, they begin to filter out.  Alito is through the door first, striding briskly, exuding an air of self-importance.  Abruptly, he glances back and sees Sotomayor, who has her arm around Ginsberg's shoulder.  Alito sneers and turns back around.  Ginsberg, her shoulders heaving a bit, holds her handkerchief up to her mouth as she and Sotomayor make their way out.  Behind them, Breyer can be heard talking to Kennedy as they head to the door)

Breyer:  Anthony,  I was wondering if you've made any plans for the summer.   You know, (voices fading) Tony and I .... debates ..... easy money ..... groupies.... (voice fades out; Kennedy is seen gesturing vigorously)

(Kagan and Scalia have paused in the doorway)

Kagan:  .....regular poker game at my place.  Every Tuesday.  Plenty of cigars and scotch.  Lotsa fun, Tony.

Scalia:  Sounds delightful, Spike.  I'll bring some munchies.  By the way, 'd you hear the one about...

(Voice fades out as they turn and resume walking.  Thomas, Coke bottle in hand, trails at Scalia's heels.  A burst of laughter from Kagan is heard.)

Roberts:  (now alone in the room, finishes gathering his papers, reaches the door, turns around to survey the scene one last time)  YES!!!!  (flicks off the lights, turns back around, strides off with the door still open)

(about five minutes later)

Disembodied male voice singing:  (gradually growing louder)  Gonna tell you a story that you won't believe, / But I fell in love last Friday evenin' / Wit' a girl I saw on the bar room TV screen. / I was just gettin' ready to get my hat / When she caught my eye an' I put it back, /  (Roberts comes into focus, approaching the open conference room door) An' I ordered myself a couple o' more shots an' beers. / The night that I fell in love wit' a roll-er derby queen. / Round an' round, oh round and round. / The meanest hunk o' woman / That anybody ever seeeeeeen. / Down in the arena!/  (Roberts closes the door, turns,  proceeds back down the hall)  Round an' round, oh round an' round. / Round an' round, oh round an' round. / (voice fading)  Round and round, oh round an' round.... (begins whistling; hall lights go off; sound slowly fades away)



Sunday, January 30, 2011

Another book

Before I can tell you about The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris, I have to tell you about my daughter.  Not all about her.  Not even a lot about her.  Just one episode, in fact.  One day, when she was about 15, I picked Sarah and her friend, Arianne, up after school.  "Dad, what is up.  I mean, what is up."  Arianne chimed in, "Yeah,"  And so on for the next 20 minutes or so.  Neither of these teenagers was ever close to valley-girldom, so I attributed their fascination with this one phrase to a mild, peer-borne infection of something or other and hoped it was brief.  It was, and it was.  I'm mentioning it now because I want to convey how striking it was to hear a normal question, what's up, transmuted into an entirely different sort of element simply by undoing the apostrophization and exercising the option of changing it from a question into a statement.  Keep that transmutation in mind when you read the next paragraph.

So, the bottom line on The Unnamed is that it's great, if you 1) buy the premise, and 2) accept the characters' response to dealing with said premise.  The premise is a sudden occurrence of a disease/condition that requires Tim to walk, regardless of circumstances.  There's no precedent to be found in the medical/psychological literature.  I could buy that.  How the family members - Tim, his wife and daughter - choose to cope with it will strike some as implausible.  I don't know if it'll ruin the book, though, because there are some arresting issues addressed, mind vs. body and the nature of love and spousal duty being the most significant.  I had some difficulty with #2, but loved the book anyway.  You have to care about the characters, and the writing's superb throughout.  Especially at the very end.  Not to spoil it, but nothing happens.  (Reread paragraph one if necessary.)

I'd bet that most people who've also read Ferris's first novel, the darkly comic Then We Came to the End, will prefer that one.  As much as I enjoyed it, my vote goes to his new book.

FYI - I'm presently in "'sup" mode.  As in, "Dude, 'sup?"  "Yo, 'sup."  Does away with meaning altogether, reducing the utterance to mere acknowledgment of another's presence.  Punctuate it any way you want, depending on how much you're interested in having a conversation.  And there's no danger of having one's teenage daughter and her friend go apeshit saying, "Is up." to each other for the better part of an hour.  At least there better not be.  Hmm, when Tim was first struck by his walking compulsion, his daughter was about Sarah's age when the "What is up"  episode occurred.  Could it be that his daughter came home from school one day and besieged her father with an extended riff on that phrase?  Why didn't Ferris reassure me that that's not what happened?  What's up with that?  I mean, what is up with that.  Wait, I guess it's "what is up with THAT?".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals and Santa Claus

Dear Editor,
Thank you for answering my question about Santa Claus.  Now I have another one.  I get confused about all these British rock bands, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Animals.  How do you tell them apart?
Virginia O'Hanlon

The letter was dated December 22, 2005.  Who knew that Virginia ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus") O'Hanlon was still alive?  A bit more than somewhat addled, perhaps, but still kicking.  Through a protracted and excruciatingly bizarre set of circumstances (involving the US Postal Service, a typo on my change of address form, Blackwater, a congressperson whom I can't name, and the Internet), the letter - and the responsibility for responding - fell into my hands early this month.   My reply is below.  Sensitive as I am, and Virginia being THAT Virginia, I thought it best to withhold a few - but only a few - details.  I mean, after you've told her what you told her about Santa, you're supposed to break the news of John Lennon's assassination?

Dear Virginia,

Man, it sure took you a while to get around to thanking us.  You're welcome. 

Francis Pharcellus Church, the guy who responded to your Santa Claus inquiry, is a bit under the weather.  He's asked me to respond to your question about telling apart the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.  I hope the question/answer format I've chosen makes things clear.  By the way, everyone calls them "the Stones" now.

How many members?
Beatles (B) - 4.
Stones (S) - 4 or 5.
Animals (A) - 5.

Trademark album cover?
B - The White Album. (It's all white, Virginia; you don't need a picture.)
S - Sticky Fingers.
A - The Animals.

Trademark anatomic feature?
B - Hair.
S - Tongues. (Especially Mick's and Keith's.  Together.)
A - Zits.

Representative hit song (G-rated/definitely non-subversive)?
B - All You Need Is Love.
S - Jumpin' Jack Flash.
A - N/A.

Representative hit song (not G-rated/subversive possibilities)?
B - Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
S - Live With Me.
A - House of the Rising Sun.

Most appropriate city in which to hear them.?
B - Liverpool.
S - New York.
A - Rotterdam or Detroit, whichever's closest.

If they were an author, they'd be?
B - Dostoevsky.
S - Hemingway.
A - Mailer.

If they were a disease, they'd be?
B - Tuberculosis (popularity plus a romantic/tragic aura)
S - Malaria (popular, worldly, and it's got staying power)
A - Grotesque acne or herpes.

Most closely associated bodily fluid/secretion?
B. Semen.
S - Semen.
A - Semen.

OK, that didn't work; second most closely associated bodily fluid/secretion?
B - Tears.
S - Sweat.
A - Pus.

Selected career highlight?
B - Getting fucked up (that means smoking marijuana, Virginia) at Buckingham Palace before meeting the Queen.
S - Altamont.
A - Staying out of jail.

Drug of choice?
B - Marijuana (just noses out LSD).
S - Things go better with coke.
A - Heroin.

I meant drug of choice for the fans.
B, S, & A - So did we.

What to wear if you're going to see them in concert (excluding footwear)?
B - Your brand new mod outfit.
S - Designer jeans and a tee.  A clean tee. 
A - Anything you don't mind getting vomit on.

What footwear?
B - Cool leather boots.
S - Anything you can dance in.
A - Anything that'll protect you when you step on used syringes.

If the group were a female singer, it would be?
B - Ella.
S - Lady Day.
A - Janis.

If the group were a male singer, it would be?
B - Elvis (bet you thought I was gonna say Chuck Berry).
S - Chuck Berry.
A - Jerry Lee Lewis. 

Archetypal lyric (G-rated/sanitary/totally non-subversive)?
B -
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
(All You Need Love)
S - 
But it's all right.  I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, 
It's a Gas!  Gas!  Gas! 
(Jumpin' Jack Flash)
A - N/A.

Archetypal lyric (?)?
B -
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
(Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds)
S - 
I laid a divorcee in New York City
I had to put up some kind of a fight
The lady she all dressed me up in roses
She blew my nose and then she blew my mind
(Country Honk)
A -
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
(House of the Rising Sun) 

Initial emotion/thought upon hearing your daughter's dating a band member?
B - Happiness  /  "But please, God, not Ringo."
S - Concern  / "Please, God, not that Keith one."
A - Fright  /  "God, how could you do this to me!"

Initial emotion/thought upon hearing your daughter's engaged to a band member?
B - Elation / "But please, God, not Ringo."
S - Ca-ching! + residual concern / "Thanks, God.  It's not that Keith one, now, is it?"
A - Catatonia / "-----------------------"

All the best,

Steve Teich

P.S.  Uhhhhhhhh, Virginia, by now you know that Santa doesn't really exist.  I mean, you learned that a long time ago, right?  Right?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two books

I just finished two books, both of which are more than notable.

W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz is a novel for all lovers of serious fiction.  It's got the traditional Sebald touch - a few photos to spice up the narrative.  But the story itself, about a man coming to terms with his forgotten/ignored early childhood, is a startling examination of memory and its power over us.  Along the way, there are more than a few provocative observations on time and architecture.  And even though Austerlitz is translated from German, it's not at all stilted.  I should tell you that fans of paragraphs and chapters will probably be disappointed.  Paragraphs can go on for ten pages or more.  There are no -  as in zero - chapters.  To be fair, there are a couple of what might be called sections.  To be fairer, some sentences run to half a page, so that kinda more than cancels out the sections thing.  This is a can't miss choice for book groups that refuse to dabble in genre or popular fiction.  B/t/w - one of my friends (she teaches literature and also has good taste) finds Sebald's writing too somber.  Somber yes, but too somber is up to the reader.

Robert Caro 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is, without qualification, without question, without a doubt, the best biography of all time.  And that's in spite of the fact that vol. 4 - the one that covers his entire presidency - hasn't been published yet.   (I'm praying that Caro doesn't kick off before he's done, but it could be close.)  I was waiting a long time since vol. 3 (2003) for a fix for my Caro jones.  The problem is that he's only written one other bio (he was a journalist before becoming a biographer), and that was in 1975, before he started in on LBJ.  But I couldn't hold out and had to take on The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  Its 1162 pages (not including notes, index, etc.) of massivity make it difficult to read in bed and nearly impossible to carry around waiting for the opportunity to sneak in a few pages.  On the other hand, it's the second best biographical work of all time.  Especially if you're from the New York City/Long Island area.  In that case, you will learn an amazing amount about how your surroundings became your surroundings.  (What, you thought that someone saw an expanse of sand and declared it Jones Beach?)  But even if you've never set foot in New York, this book is a close to a must read as any biography can get.  First, Robert Moses was no ordinary urban planner.  Take all the baseball players elected to the Hall of Fame up until now and put them together.  Comparing that composite to any single player is like comparing Moses to any single planner.  And, even better (unless you lived in NYC/LI), both he and his legacy were deeply flawed.  That story makes for terrific reading.   Best of all, though, is what you'll learn about power.  Especially how power works at city and state levels.  Caro's journalistic background is evident in his writing.  It passes any reasonable academic muster while remaining almost compulsively readable.  If you can lift it, read it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beards - pt. 3

As promised/threatened, time for partial-face beards.

The Lincoln.  An authentic Lincoln, requires sideburns connected with chin whiskers.  Cheeks may be partially, but not entirely shaven.  You won't find many of these outside Amish communities.  The good news: insofar as it works, the Lincoln's ok for older dudes.  In fact, it's only for older dudes.  The bad news: insofar as it works usually isn't all that far.   It shows, or so the non-Amish wearer may fancy, a certain individuality and a regard for history.  If done inappropriately, by someone under 50, let's say, it also shows an inability to face facts about one's individual face and/or a disregard for contemporary times.  The most promising non-Amish Lincoln hunting grounds are college campuses.  Philosophy, literature and physical sciences departments, specifically.  And no, physical sciences do not include athletics.

The PPM.  PPM stands for Peter, Paul and Mary.  Mary shouldn't count, but that's understood.  PPMs come in varying length and enjoy the widest spectrum of users.  Any age, any body type.  Unfortunatement, they are quite popular among groups that you probably don't wanna be associated with.  Like right wing, ignorant, tea party assholes.  Like right wing, ignorant Rush Limbaugh dittoheads.  Like angry, anti-government, gun toting ignorami.  Like neo-Nazis.  But they're also popular with normal people.  Generally, the idiot fringe who choose PPMs tend to wear them clipped awfully close.  A lot closer than PP&M ever did.  Well, a lot closer than P and P.

The goatee avec barbet/soul patch.  Like the PPM, but sans moustache.  For artsy types who don't wanna be taken for right wing idiots.  Advanced age not a problem.  Same for advanced girth.

The chin scraggle.  Take one of those cocktail hot dogs.  Slice it lengthwise twice, so you're left with a thin, flat strip from the middle.  Now paste it on your chin, making sure that some of it goes under said chin.  There ya' go!.  This is probably the hippest beard going.  That means you gotta be young; otherwise the look is glory days/trying too hard.  What makes the chin scraggle cool is that it's both minimalist and a representation of the wearer's interpretation of mimimalist.  That interpretation is played out in density, size, shape and over-chin/under chin ratio.  It's a scraggle, so too much density is no good.  If you see a dense chin scraggle, you may assume that the wearer doesn't really understand.  Sorta like reading about sex when you're twelve.  Or a priest.  So it's mainly about the other three elements.  (Wait a minute, forget what I said about priests.)  Size won't tell you much, other than you don't want it too big.  It's not a goatee.  And because it's a scraggle, the shape isn't terribly important, as long as it comes across somewhere more shaped than totally random but less shaped than topiary.  In other words, roughly symmetrical.  But over-chin/under-chin ratio (oc:uc) is signficant.  Tending toward a high oc:uc is common.  As such, it's less hip than a low ratio.  Generally, something under 1:1 is good.  The smaller the ratio, the hipper you probably are.  Just make sure you keep something above the chin line and don't let it get too far down the underside.

The turtleneck (or neck beard, if you prefer).  The t-neck means nothing above the jawline.  This is for two - and only two - types of dudes.  First, young, thin and European.  It tends to give them a hungry, vulturish look.  And I don't mean that in a good way.  The second type is older and stout.  What comes across is a certain vibe of prosperity.  Retired businessman/banker prosperity.  What also comes across is a look that says fur-covered storage area.  Different people will have different takes on what it is you're storing - nuts, diamonds, bon-bons, lice - but they'll all think you've got something up your neck.  Beware.

Now that my beard overview is as complete as it's going to get, what do you think?  Did you create pictures in your mind?  Did the pictures of the beards come with pictures of the wearers?  Did the pictures of the wearers come with associations?  Associations regarding the ages/body types I indicated?  And did those associations include character, lifestyle, and other non-distinct qualities?
I hope so.  And I suspect so.  And the reason I suspect so is stereotyping.

We're human.  (At least most of us are; I have to wonder about Ann Coulter.)  As humans, we are inferential, inductive creatures.  Try going a day without making an inference based on incomplete information about someone or something.  Try surviving without using inductive reasoning.  Cannot be done.  So I have not much sympathy when people whine about stereotyping.   Those complaints are nearly always lodged against unpleasant stereotypes - the avaricious Jew, the dumb blonde, the black criminal - but the argument is made against stereotypes in general.  Do we hear complaints against the positive stereotypes?  Hardly.  So argue against caricature or simplification, if  you like, but please don't call some representation you don't like a stereotype and expect to win your case simply on that assertion.  Having said all that, I understand how important it is to judge individuals individually.  Which means ignoring stereotypes.  Ignoring stereotypes is difficult.  It's probably a good deal more difficult if you can't admit to having and using them, so why not cop to that fact.  Then try.  Practice on beards.