Monday, December 30, 2013

BooksFirst January 2013 NaJuReMoNoMo

Books Bought

Books Read
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Too Close To Miss by John Perich

Books Heard
A Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers

When I was in college, knowing I was never going to get a decent literature background, I made sure to read 'good' books on my quarter breaks. I started with Crime and Punishment because I had never gotten through it when it was assigned in high school. In a couple of years, I had managed to fill out my reading list pretty well with Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Updike and more. But there were still holes in my self-education so for National Just Read More Novels Month I took a $20 Groupon down to the local used book store and stock up. And while I didn't get through everything (The Picture of Dorian Gray stopped me dead in my tracks), I now feel at least as well read as the typical high school sophomore.

I first read any Steinbeck at all when my son was in high school and he was assigned The Pearl. Just recently on a trip I read Travels With Charley (reviewed here) but I felt I was missing the essence of Steinbeck. Not wanting to tackle The Grapes of Wrath, I decided on Of Mice and Men which was a good call. I found the story gripping and a fascinating character study.

The book is quick and breezy but not simple. There is plenty of nuance. And the ending is, of course, heart breaking. The relationship between George and Lenny is one of the more complex ones for a book this short. The protectiveness over the mentally challenged lug is misunderstood by the other characters.

And of course it has one of the saddest, most tragic ending in literature. Often parodied, the original work is just heart-wrenching.

Of the books that are immediate metaphors, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea is one of the most famous. The entire book, novella really, is all about Perhaps the most widely read book I have never read, in places it reads almost like Hemingway parody. Or perhaps this is the genius of Hemingway.

The titular old man goes fishing and snags a huge swordfish. The rest is an exercise in irony. Is it a spoiler to say that the fish doesn't make it back to the beach.

The story is compelling but it just seems so completely over the top with machismo in today's society. Perhaps this was blunt and new when the book first came out but now it seems dated and silly.
To Kill A Mockingbird is by far the biggest omission from my middle school reading list. I'm not sure how one gets a high school diploma without having ever read it but I did. The appeal of this book to English teachers is how brain dead simple it is to write an essay about. Everything, and I mean everything, is literally black and white. The good guys are great and the bad guys are genuinely evil.

The Harper Lee novel is more interesting as a historical document. Like another classic Southern novel, Gone With The Wind, it was the sole notable work of a woman describing a particular era. In the case of To Kill A Mockingbird it is the Civil Rights era South rather than the antebellum version. It deals in a revealing way with the casual segregation and racism is way that seems dated to the modern reader. What was obvious to the reader of the 1960s is now perplexing.

Also is the odd literary coincidence that Harper Lee's childhood friend and inspiration for the character of  Dill Harris is noted writer in his own right Truman Capote. Much speculation has been done on how much, if any, influence he had on the book. Not having read any Capote I suspect that it is some but not a lot.

Decades ago I read The Electric Kool Ade Acid Test by Tom Wolfe which is the New Journalism take on Ken Kesey's role in the formation of 1960s counter-culture. Surprisingly, I have never read One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the book that catapulted him to fame.  Like all the previously mentioned book so far, it is imposible to not know of this particularly in light of the equally famous Jack Nicholson movie.

Having never seen the movie either (much like To Kill a Mockingbird) I was able to read the book with a minimum of prior prejudice. While I knew the broad outline and the characters, the book exceeded expectations. In particular the framing device of having the story told by The Chief. It adds a certain hallucinogenic quality to the narrative. 

And of course, Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are two of the best characters invented. One a joking trickster and one a controlling authoritarian of the highest order. The conflict between the two sets up a war of wills. 

John Perich is one of the contributors to the website Overthinking It and Too Hard To Handle is his second book, a sequel to Too Close To Miss. Mara Cunningham is a Boston-based photojournalist whose deadbeat criminal brother comes back to town. Soon a cop is dead and her brother is seen on surveillance tape.

This leads Mara on a hunt to find her brother before the cops do. But the story is more complicated and there are secrets people don't want uncovered.

In both the Boston setting and the gritty realism, the world of Dennis Lehane is evoked. There is a reason that most thriller series feature people in jobs which brings them into contact with  the underworld. In trying to expand the Mara Cunningham series, the problem for Perich it to come up with additional plots which raise the stakes while creating  a sense of intrigue.

In the realm of Southern Gothic literature, A Member of The Wedding by Carson McCullers is one of the of archetypal works. Working in roughly the same small town milieu as To Kill A Mockingbird, it is the story of tomboy Frankie Adams whose brother is getting married. Like Mockingbird, there is a black housekeeper and a junior sidekick cousin. However, the story is much more nuanced and complicated. The first part of the book is all about Frankie buying a dress for the wedding. While wandering around town, she meets up with a soldier on leave who is unaware how young she is. When she later meets the soldier at the bar and he takes her up to his room, her naivete about the situation she is in becomes extremely uncomfortable.

 It's an oddly disturbing book featuring an unreliable juvenile narrator. The wedding itself is only described in flashback. This particular audiobook was narrated by Susan Sarandon who adds a delightful southern lilt to the story. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Suzi Parker's Thin Skin

There is a 'Sarah Palin joining al Jazeera' spoof story which is making the rounds. The story originated in Onion manqué The Daily Currant. It's just truthy enough to pass a first glance. It did take in Suzi Parker, a freelance writer who contributes to WaPo's 'She The People' blog (and the patronizing sexism of that catchall is a rant for a different day). She wrote a whole article on Palin on that premise only to have to retract it. The defanged story with the embarrassing correction is still live but Parker has not contributed any new articles to the blog since that one.

This was back on February 12th, so I went to find out what and where she has been writing since. A google search for her is just flooded with results mocking her error so I went to her twitter feed which is at the bottom of her articles only to find out that I've been blocked by her. Now I understand her anger at some like Michelle Malkin who took this gaffe and ran with it with a hashtag game called #SuziParkerScoops. Even Sarah Palin got in on the mocking and that has got to hurt. As tempting as that was, here was the totality of all my tweeting on the issue:
I set up the item, give a link, and then make a joke at Palin's expense. So why am I being blocked? Is Suzi Parker really that thin-skinned? I'm a nice guy. Honest. But when someone makes a gaffe that big they need to own up to and shake it off. And not block everybody who calls attention to it. That is no way to build a following.

Perhaps she needs to talk to Gene Weingarten about what a sweetheart I am in real life. I called him an 'asshat' and we buried the hatchet.

Gene Weingarten and his bête noire.

So what gives, Suzi? Give me another chance.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Incivil Order

As a Psuedonym-American I get nervous anytime that people start calling for Real Names as the catch-all answer for online incivility. For some reason people think that if people had to sign their names to online comments all will be sunlight and rainbows. Now as anyone who has waded into a Facebook political discussion, this is risible. And this assumes that people think that everybody on Facebook is a real person. Facebook has one billion users. And I'm three of them.

The latest person to wade into this morass in a attempt to drain the swamp only to find himself up to his ass in alligators is Patrick Pexton, the outgoing and final ombudsman for the Washington Post. In his valedictory he says this:
I think The Post should move, as the Miami Herald did recently, away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook. It would reduce the volume of comments but raise the level of discussion and help preserve The Post’s brand.
This caught the attention of Hardball guest host Michael Smerconish who used that as a jumping off point for this piece:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

If you didn't blink you may have caught a pithy comment by yours truly. Here is the full unedited tirade of mine: 
 It's not the anonymity that creates the bile. It's the inadequate and ineffective moderation. Where standards are fairly and uniformly enforced people behave themselves.

Requiring 'real' identities (and many of us have long traceable histories under our online identities) of people only enables cyberstalkers and other malicious elements. 
 And since I just got quoted on MSNBC, I'm a little glad I do use an online alias. I have been a member of several online communities over the years and the key is engagement and reinforcement. When people genuinely talk to each other rather than at each other, hostility tends to evaporate. And it works whether people use their 'real' name or not.

As for how to eliminate the rancor on WaPo, there is little a massive purge wouldn't solve. I'm talking Biblical deluge. The system is broken and I am actually looking forward to the cleansing effect a paywall might have even though I am likely to lose a lot of good imaginary friends in the flood.

I am reminded of a saying that goes: 
If you take a barrel of sewage and add a teaspoon of wine, you get a barrel of sewage; if you take a barrel of wine and add a teaspoon of sewage, you get a barrel of sewage. 
And there is no shortage of sewage in the series of pipes that form the internet. It takes a lot of work to keep the wine unsullied. But it can be done without infringing on people's privacy and anonymity.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Golden Globes 2013: A New Hope

The Golden Globes is my favorite awards show. By mixing movie and television stars with lots of alcohol all sorts of good natured fun can be had. One tradition I have is to give out my annual Miss Golden Globes award. But this year was a bad year for that high and tight look with the more daring celebrities, hostess with the mostest Amy Poehler included, going for necklines plunging down to about the knee.


In the case of J.Lo, her dress seems to be composed entirely of a fungal infection. She should have a botanist take a look at it.

In another runner-up award, Lucy Liu sewed up the It's Curtains, Scarlett Award with her upholstery inspired get-up.

Michelle Lea, whose bezoms I have seen in person back when she was being sexually assaulted nightly (and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays) in Spring Awakening, must have misunderstood the point (or lack therof) of my award and emphasized the 'golden' part of the phrase. She had such an auric glow that she made Selma Hayek look like Jessica Chastain. Close but no cigar (and no, that wasn't a backstage with Bill Clinton joke).

But in the end, the starlet most willing to raise her exposure level was Modern Family Girl-Gone-Wild Sarah Hyland who decided to steal some attention back from her much younger (and much more demurely dressed) sister costar. So without further ado, we say adieu to Ms Hyland's sense of modesty as we crown her with this year's double-orbed trophy.

But the real highlight of the night was Jodie Foster's stream of consciousness (or lack thereof) Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award speech. While many seemed baffled by what she either trying to say or not trying to say, two items were clear to me:
  •    At age 50, she's just two years older than me.
  •   She is back on the market.
My possibly unseemly obsession with the Yale grad is well documented, but this puts a new light on matters. And just to cement my hope, take a look at her red carpet dress:

Yes, she made it out of duct tape and chain mail. That can only mean one thing. She's a nerd just like me. And while there are perhaps a million nerds out there, she still might cast her eye on me. So what if the odds are only a million to one. As Jim Carey says in Dumb and Dumber, "So a million-to-one? That means I have a chance."

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Photos From The Past

The Library of Congress has a Flickr page where they posted several hundred amazing color photographs from the 1930s and 1940s. Not only were they rare full color pictures, but they were deep insights into how this country lived seventy years ago. As i looked through the over 1600 photos I began to have a sense of deja vu as I had been to many of these places or seen things like them. Here are some of the more jarring juxtapositions with one photographer in particular:

This photo by Jack Delano shows a woman painting the scenery along the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah mountains. 

Seventy years later the place is just as popular for the scenic artisl.

 The Chicago lakefront was once a bustling railyard with skyscrapers overlooking them as shown in this photo, also by Jack Delano..

Now this area is the site of Millennium Plaza and the Art Institute of Chicago even though the train tracks still run through. Can you find Metropolitan Tower in both photos?

 Many of the photos in the archive are of industrial settings or trains like this one by Jack Delano taken in Chicago as well.

Now these trains just sit in museums and train graveyards like this one in New Mexico.

I found it odd that I kept being drawn to the photos of Jack Delano. Delano eventually moved to Puerto Rico where he took this street view.
 When I went to San Juan, the streets were the same only with fresher paint and newer cars.

I seem to have found a kindred spirit in Jack Delano who worked for the Farm Security Administration Photography program during the Great Depression taking photographs of simple working folk all over the country. He died in Puerto Rico in 1997 but somehow I feel as if his soul still lives on.