Monday, January 23, 2017

The current whining, grieving, hyperbolic, violent, pouting, useless, dumb, loud, pathetic, tearful, overwrought, sorry, graceless, inarticulate, slanderous, and hysterical public reaction of the left to its Electoral College loss is the inedible regifted fruitcake of the Sixties.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Is It with the Clintons and Words Starting with "Is"?

If yesterday’s pronunciamentos proceeded from any mouth other than the one belonging to H.R. Clinton, I would accuse myself of overanalyzing her utterances in the shadow of the Orlando horror. But since it is precisely H.R. Clinton who used the phrase to be examined below, I feel comfortable accusing her of verbal chiseling. 

The phrase she would not use, and still has not, is "radical Islam" - an association of Islam itself (whether erroneously interpreted or not) with the radical philosophy at work in the worldwide evil we're witnessing.  (Permit me to add here that, for the time being, I'm on the fence as to whether some form of mainstream Islam is the procuring cause of the bloodshed we all condemn.)  The phrase she used yesterday was "radical Islamism," pairing it with "radical jihadism," the latter an obvious and useless redundancy.

But so is "radical Islamism." "Islamism" has been used for some time now as something distinct from the religion of Islam itself, to describe ISIS-style comportment and political philosophy. What is my authority for this? Nothing less than the AP Stylebook, which pretty much single-handedly created the distinction with "Islam" in public discourse in 2013: An "Islamist," it ruled, is: 

"An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

"Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations:  al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc.  [This was in 2013, before ISIS came to the fore -- SL]  Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians, to militants known as jihadi."

This distinction, between "Muslims" and "Islam," on the one hand, and "Islamists" and "Islamism," on the other, was, according to this article in Slate, "framed as a victory for activists -- in this case, the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR]," which promotes a conservative interpretation of Islam (the veil, for example) and has come under suspicion of promoting Sharia.  Omar Ahmad, CAIR's founder is  reported to have said:  "Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant.  The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth." 

I can hear you saying out there -- no, really, I can hear you -- "Oh, come on, Steverino, you're imputing to Mrs. Clinton a meaning she could not possibly have intended.  Islam, Islamism, eh.  No one thinks she used that term in a deceptive or hair-splitting fashion."  You may be right about the perception of her remarks; I haven't found any commentator who has called attention to her use of the word.

Don't you believe it.  Does anyone think for a picosecond that those remarks were not vetted with a scanning electron microscope for their effect, interpretation, and escapability before Mrs. Clinton took the stage?  It is exceedingly odd that she used a phrase that no one is accusing her of not having used.  (Actually, Mr. Trump, in one of his sporadic astute observations, called attention to another dodge:  she didn't actually "say" it in connection with anything of substance -- she only said she was OK with saying it.    Maybe it's that metallic bray that makes her evasions seem so much more obvious than Mr. Clinton's.)   

Nope; nope.  Veteran dissembler Hillary deliberately chose "Islamism" over "Islam."  If she's ever called on associating the slaughters with Islam, she has left open her ability to claim that she was only describing ISIS types, you know, "Islamists." 

Condemning "radical Islamism," in other words, describes as "radical" something that is already radical:  Islamism, the establishment of government based on the Koran.

Or, to put it more bluntly, she has said – or has said that she will permit herself to say – nothing.

I’ll say this – when it comes to rhetorical legerdemain, stringing together syllables that vanish into thin air, she learned from a master.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Darwin's Darlings

Yesterday's ride:

There are only so many places to go within biking distance of the house.  When I start out on a ride, small camera in the behind-the-seat pouch, I think I'll likely not see anything I haven't seen before.

But the roadway and its margins always seem to have something astonishing in store.

A favorite segment is the unnamed road between Peaceful Lane, home to the old, neglected Bethel Cemetery.  Not neglected by everybody.  A plot or two will sport a spot of color where someone has laid some flowers.  And the rain hasn't forgotten it, either, as it has washed away the names on so many of the old markers.

It reminded me of "Spring and Fall:  To a Young Child" (Hopkins, 1918, but written in 1880); all mourning does:

Margaret, are you grieving
 Over Goldengrove unleaving?
 Leaves, like the things of man, you
 With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
 Ah! as the heart grows older
 It will come to such sights colder
 By and by, nor spare a sigh
 Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
 And yet you will weep and know why.
 Now no matter, child, the name:
 Sorrow's springs are the same.
 Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
 What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
 It is the blight man was born for,
 It is Margaret you mourn for.

 *     *     *
Back to the ride's surprises:

(1)  I have never seen a salamander or newt in Texas, and can't remember the last time I saw one in the wild anywhere.  At first, I mistook this guy for a dying or dead centipede in the middle of the roasting gravel road.  I got off the bike and still thought it was centipede until I gave it a nudge and four little legs popped out.  I haven't been able to identify him or her -- probably a juvenile, no markings.  But plenty slimy despite the dry roadway on which it found itself.  What was it doing there?  Heaven knows there's plenty of wetland hereabouts after our recordsetting rains in May.  It made no move to escape and I easily picked it up and put it on the seatbike for its portrait.  But when I picked it up thinking I'd find a better place for it than the sure-to-be-fatal roadway, he squirmed out of my hand and into the roadside weeds.

(Photo is somewhat misleading -- bike seat and 'mander both black.)

(2) I pulled up to a stop light on Panther Creek on the way to Little Elm.  I happened to glance down and saw what appeared to be a rolled-up t-shirt or other garment.  And on it, a green moth caterpillar of some type.

And I thought:  miles and miles of greenery and this moth larva finds the one item of clothing on which to feast.  The world, I guess, is really just one big closet.

(3) Most of the time, roadkill isn't flat.  But sometimes  .  .  .  .

(4)  I'm fascinated by the funnel web spider, which appears sometimes to be called the grass spider.  This one let me get close enough for a spectacular shot as it decided to stand its ground rather than scuttle off to safety.

(5)   Why do bad things happen to good birds?  If you saw a sheet with a picture of every American bird, your eye would be drawn instantly to the painted bunting.  I've never seen one before.  And I guess I've still never seen one, as this unfortunate specimen was lying in the road on County Road 23, another of my frequent stops.

I felt very bad about this bird, which made me wonder why I feel any worse about this bird than I would about any old grackle that improvidently crossed a hot gravel road one fine day.  There's a lesson there somewhere but I don't know what it is.  My head started to hurt so determined that was quite enough for one ride. 

Keep looking down!

Saturday, February 7, 2015


So for over twenty years -- almost as long as he's been well-known -- I've been told I look JUST LIKE this guy.

I remember the first time: After I'd moved to San Diego a acquaintance called me from Chicago and said "I'm looking at you right now on television."  I had no idea who she was talking about.

Starting about then, his newsmedia star began to rise.  It was back when people actually watched MS-NBC.

And people I knew and people I did not would come up to me and say man, you look just like  .  .  .  and usually they would have trouble coming up with the name.  After awhile I knew who they were talking about and I would help them out.  Yeah!  Yeah!  That's the guy.  You look JUST LIKE him!

I was once accosted by a woman in a saloon who refused to believe I was not this person and demanded that I show her my driver's license.

Even after all these years and all these pounds and all these square inches of visible scalp strangers still remark at the resemblance at least a dozen times a year. I can't see it, but then, I have a natural prejudice favoring my own uniqueness.

But here's my question:

Why, out of all the notable people in the world that I could look like, even out of all of the fibbing quasi-intellectual media/showbiz hypocritical elitists I could look like, do I end up looking like a guy WHO LIES ABOUT GETTING EXPLOSIVE BLOODY DIARRHEA WHILE CURLED UP IN THE FETAL POSITION DURING HIS COVERAGE OF THE GREATEST NATURAL DISASTER IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICA?


Monday, January 12, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: How to Get More Enjoyment Out of Viewing "Inherent Vice," if Not Actual Enjoyment

NO SPOILERS.  You can't spoil a plot no one can understand.

I can't recommend "Inherent Vice," but neither can I say that, on balance, I did not enjoy it.  I did; not a lot, but it passed the looking-at-my-watch test.  (That is, I didn't.)  Only a couple of the .few viewers at an early showing walked out.

The movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon.   I suppose I could stop the review right there, because any film attempting to capture Pynchon's, shall we say, oblique approach to plot is going to face some challenges.  Interestingly, however, the novel is reputedly one of the writer's more conventional efforts.  Strange then that the movie is so baffling.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles.  He smokes a tremendous amount of dope, and there is scarcely a character in it that is not stoned or worse a fair amount of the time.  His former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) visits him to request his assistance in extracting her from a plot involving her current lover, a real estate magnate (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts, seen only too briefly) and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover.  What that plot actually was, we never learn, to my ability to discern, and eventually we discover that the plot dissolved without any intervention by Doc.   Along the way, we encounter a murder, the murdered guy's widow (Belladonna), a maritime lawyer who helps Doc out (Benicio Del Toro), drug importation, a shady new-age anti-communist drug-rehab center, a mystery ship, an ex-con who seeks Doc's help in collecting some ill-gotten gains (Michael Kenneth Williams), a saxophone player who faked his death and is involved either in either communist or anti-communist activity or maybe first one and then the other (Owen Wilson), a gorgeous and buttoned-up district attorney who in real life would have nothing to do with a lowlife like Doc but who dates and drugs with him when she's not dismissing him in public (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful Asian woman who runs a cunnilingus operation (Hong Chau [no pun intended]),  some nose-picking FBI agents, a crooked lawyer (Martin Donovan) and his wayward daughter (Sasha Pieterse) who Doc once tracked down for him, some other really bad guys (Keith Jardine and Jack Kelly), Maya Rudolph as a receptionist at the office suite where Doc has a cubicle (and which, indeed, seems to have some medical connection, which may or may not have something to do with his nickname and access to nitrous oxide), and, most prominently, an LA police detective known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) who either loathes Doc or loves him.  All of it narrated, unreliably, by a young woman friend of Doc and Shasta named Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who appears in a few scenes -- or does she?

Sound like a lot of fun?  Maybe funny?  Well, try to imagine all of those items connected to a single plot in very unclear ways -- in fact, as becomes clear (the only clear thing in the show), in intentionally unclear ways.  That are not funny.

But I must say the movie did have some intrigue and enjoyable moments.  Here's a guide to having a better time at this film:

First:  Do not try to understand the plot.  Do not feel bad about yourself if you are quickly lost in the film's cannabis haze.  I got most of the connections for the first half hour, then started not getting them, and eventually realized they were irrelevant.  Plot lines are not resolved; the information conveyed in certain scenes turns out to be completely unnecessary, or at least unnecessary to the plot.  So don't even worry about what actually happens in the movie.

Second:  Fight the urge to look at the characters' eyes, as you would if you were listening to a normal human being speak.  There is a lot, I mean a lot, of mumbling in this show.  I thought I was watching a Robert Altman movie for a minute there, with this movie having the advantage of people not talking over one another too much.  (After I wrote this, I noticed that the reviewer for "The New Yorker" mensions Altman in the first paragraph of his review.)  But a lot of mumbling, and a lot of drug-addled mumbling that you will never understand if you view faces as your instinct tells you to.  Instead, look at the characters' mouths.  That will help.

Third:  Sit way back in the theater.  Anderson likes close-ups of faces, and those famous pusses fill the screen.  Makes the lip-reading easier, though.

Fourth:  Ignore publicity describing this as a comedy, or a comedy-drama.  It has almost no laughs and doesn't seem to be asking for them.  The theater was almost completely silent in the showing I attended.  More on this below.

It's long, too long, but I will concede that I was mostly engaged during its 2.5-hour running time. There were several scenes that added nothing to the plot, such as it was, and the camera lingered far too long on large faces that were not saying anything or otherwise conveying information pertinent to the proceedings.  If Clint Eastwood had directed this, it would clock in at about 17 minutes.  I will say that one of the longer unnecessary substories does give us the opportunity to enjoy Martin Short as a coke-fiend dentist who runs an organization that -- hell, I have no idea what it has to do with the plot.

The film is oddly lit, and kind of fuzzy in places.  Claustrophobic -- even the scenes in open spaces gave off a kind of suffocating vibe.

Director Anderson ("The Master," "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood") also wrote the screenplay.  What is he getting at?  I've seen it written that it is an effort to portray the paranoia of that period of time.  Or its uncertainty.   Maybe -- several of the characters seem to have dual personalities, dual loyalties, dual interests.   Here's a quote from the Wikipedia page on the movie:  "Anderson has said he tried to cram as many jokes onto the screen as Pynchon squeezed onto the page and that the visual gags and gimmicks were inspired by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-style slapstick spoofs like Police Squad!, Top Secret!, and Airplane!  Anderson also used the underground comic strip Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as what he described as an invaluable 'research bible' for the writing process."

Boy, did he fail.  As noted, there is scarcely a laugh in the show.  There are some ridiculous moments that stick out, that have little to do with what surrounds them.  But when you don't know if you're watching absurdist subversive dadaesque comedy or a movie made by someone who doesn't actually have a sense of humor who believes he is making a really funny movie, you're in for a struggle.

Here's what I imagine:  A director popular with actors got a bunch of those actors together, they all smoked a lot of dope in front of and behind the cameras, and let those cameras roll.  When he'd yell "cut," they'd all laugh uproariously at the hilarity they'd committed to film, and when it all got printed and edited and spliced together and they ran the whole thing, they smoked some more dope and watched it and almost passed out with laughter.   Can you believe what he just did?  Oh, man, I remember that little improv thing they did there, we just about died laughing.  This thing is going to absolutely kill! 

Then they released it to sober audiences.

But the movie does have its charms.  It's full of people we recognize and like to look at.  One of them is really cute and naked (next).  But the show is really Doc's.  I believe he is in every scene.  Joachin Phoenix is surely one of our finest actors, and he is quite good in this.  If you're going to have a quirky movie that goes on too long, I can hardly think of a gigantic face I would rather spend it with than the one belonging to Joachin Phoenix.  And the other performances are mostly very good.  I had my misgivings about Brolin's Bigfoot, but the part is overwritten and one-note and cartoonish (and not in a ha-ha cartoon way, but in a not-so-amusing cartoon way), so I don't hold him responsible.  

As Shasta, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) isn't asked to do much and while she's cute in a Renee-Zellweger's-former-face-lemon-sucking kind of way, I didn't think much of her performance. She is getting notice for a spectacular nude scene which devolves into a most peculiar and topologically unconvincing voluntary deviant sexual encounter.  But we've all seen beautiful young naked women before.  If you haven't -- you're reading this on the Internet and are mere seconds away from some. That scene, the first part watchable as it may be for the male half of the audience, does not justify the fare for entering the theater.  Doubt Sam enjoyed it.

Quibbles:  The movie does not get 1970 quite right.  The cars are too old.  The National Geographic someone is reading in an office is not in the format those mags were displaying in those years -- again, too old.  The Neil Young songs played on the soundtrack, notably "Harvest," were released a couple of years later.  Quibbles.

I can't tell you to go see it, because if you go and hate it, you'll blame me.  But I do have a sneaking hunch that there are pieces of this movie that will stay with me, and I can't even say that about movies that I liked at the time.  So it's a thumb's-up, but only in the privacy of this blog.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Big Picture

A little perspective is an aid to understanding. I got on the Schwinn and pedaled out to Prosper, Texas, to see how my neighbor Deion Sanders was holding up after his public, messy, and very noisy divorce from Pilar. 

Okay, house looks as magnificent as ever, that's good. 

I'll just pull back a bit and -- oh, dear. 

Well, it's so: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and the wife's legal team can force you to share stuff. Besides, women don't care about the size of your house, but only the size of your heart and the gold of your personality. 

Maybe the size of the house a little bit sometimes.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Today's Ride: A Gratifying Encounter for the Gentleman Cyclist of Mature Years

I tend to be weary on Saturday afternoons.   I stay up late watching crime documentaries on You Tube, and I'm usually up early for a bike ride or errands or work or other things that weekends require.  But today, I happened to view the famous Bob Newhart "Stop It" video --

-- and it energized me to deny my nap and get on the Schwinn Moab 3 armed with my Canon S80.

With some dramatic results.

(1)  Darwin's Darlings 1:  a juvenile bullsnake who failed to heed snakemama's warnings about suspicious concrete expanses.

 (2) Darwin's Darlings 2:  A baby tarantula, or maybe a baby wolf spider, whose many legs did not carry him through the Perils of Preston.

(3)  Who doesn't love a classic mud puddle?   I imagine that life on earth formed in a pool very much like this one, except that this one is full of dirty water instead of a stew of complex proteins and hydrocarbons just itching to hook up and reproduce themselves, sits beneath a nitrogen-argon-oxygen atmosphere instead of one dominated by carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and ammonia, and also seems to have tire tracks heading into it, suggesting the presence of wheeled vehicles and knuckleheaded adolescents for which there is no evidence from four billion years ago.  

Ho hum, dead little animals and a mud puddle.  Same stuff that always catches my eye.  Then I heard the thrum-bum-bumma-thrum of a bass-heavy music system up ahead around a bend or two on the gravel backroad.  Mm, I'm thinking, I hope no one brought any gifties of methamphetamine to that party.  So I'll pedal slowly up to the bend and --


I stopped; they noticed me. the young woman, long-leggedy and impossibly callipygous (look it up), who was mostly turned away from me, modestly put her forearm over her backside, which sort of seemed to defeat the purpose of a thong bikini.  I waited, thinking he was taking some sequence of shots he wanted to complete, but he stood up and they both smiled.  I pedaled past, they said something about being sorry for blocking the road, I said pleasure's mine, and we all had a good laugh.  When I'd traveled a decent distance, I turned and took a snap to prove my account -- the photographer is not visible, but you can see the young woman preparing to toss her hair back for the next pose.

This tends to direct the mind away from the vagaries of evolution and the origins of life on earth.

(5)  There's nothing in this picture, but I'm telling you, I heard something back there.

(6)  Every guy loves a train.  Hey, it's almost here!  I swear, when I was preparing to snap this, the engineer flashed his brights at me.  A man never outgrows his childhood fascination with choo-choos.

(7)  After nearly a decade of start-and-stop construction, the massive home constructed at the corner of Fisher and Rogers appears to be completed, save for some landscaping details.   Its owners may be the nicest folks in the world, and I have heard that they have worked with Rogers Elementary across the street.  But it's cartoonishly out of place in its neighborhood and has been an eyesore for years.   My eye is always drawn to the home's many lightning rods, none of which seem to point quite straight up, and, if anything, would seem to invite a strong electrical rebuke from the heavens.

I'm glad it's done and I'm not offended by its architectural inconsistency with its surroundings.  Gives the neighborhood a spot of interest.  But what caught my eye today was its Halloween decorations.  In front of this opulent, massive structure, bespeaking unimaginable affluence to your casual cyclist, sat two lonely, uncarved pumpkins.

Imagine going up to ring that doorbell.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "Freedom" and the Revival of (My Interest in) Modern American Fiction


I've had an interesting history with this book.

Almost two years ago, I got up a post that was a review of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.   (Read it here.) In it, I discussed my gradual loss of interest in contemporary American fiction, giving up on it some short way into Susan Minot's Evening.  At the end, I mentioned that someone whose taste I respected had given me Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, his award-winning novel, universally praised as one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years.  I promised the gifter to read it and intended to.  Franzen's prior novel, The Corrections,  won the National Book Award and was famously selected by Oprah as one her Book Club selections (an honor in which Franzen refused to participate).  In a cover story, TIME mag called him "The Great American Novelist."  At the end of the prior post, I wrote:  "It's next on my list.  I'll give you a report."

 Two years later, this is it.

All I knew about the book is that it was about a modern family.  Frankly, I didn't think I was going to like it.  I thought it was going to be a long sneer at middle-class values, a tiresome attack on the hypocrisy of the life of affluent Americans.  Sure, those values can sometimes use some work and there's a streak of hypocrisy in the life of the best of us.  Even the title, Freedom.  Yeah, yeah, it's how the freedoms our American society affords us ultimately entrap us with our prosperity and make us miserable, etc. etc. etc., yawn.  Let's flip to the back  .  .  .  562 pages.  I was weary of it before I cracked to page 1.

But I wanted to give this shining example of modern fiction a shot.  I started it earlier this year.

On rare occasions I'll start a book, tire of it or otherwise fail to become engaged, put it aside, pick it up again, and love the darned thing.  A recent example is Saul Bellow's masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, which confused me in its first few dozen pages, and there were several hundred more to go.  I picked it up again months later, started over, worked a little harder at keeping the characters straight and kept on going.  I ended up finishing it quickly and was astounded by the extravagant beauty of the thing.

I started Freedom this spring.  Indeed, at first I did find it irritating, but not so much for its story or content.  It was the writing that was giving me some trouble.  (More on that next.)  But it did interest me; and I did realize that my prediction of its theme was, if not entirely wrong, pretty wrong.  Eventually, though, I put it aside about a hundred pages into it.  But I didn't put it back on the shelf.   I put the dust cover back onto it and put it on a table where it rebuked me daily.  I hoped I would remember the characters and what had happened so far if and when I picked it up again.

Eventually, I did, and I did.  And I started liking it better, despite its flaws, and blasted on through to the end.  When I was done, I was sold:  Freedom is a fine novel that repaid my hours of reading.  Maybe better than fine, maybe great, but the technical issues I'll get to in a moment are holding me back on the g-word. 
The novel takes Walter and Patty Berglund from their college years and courtship, through their years in St. Paul, and eventual relocation to Washington, D.C.  Central to the book is the relationship of each of them to indie musician Richard Katz.  They have two children, the precocious and obnoxious Joey, who gets a lot of ink, and better-girl Jessica, who is almost invisible in the story.   Neighbors, colleagues, friends.   Over the course of the book, the emphasis shifts from Patty's unhappiness to Walter's as they age, change, deceive themselves and one another, and reach for meaning.  I read it closely, without skipping (except for the final two-thirds of some of the dialoguey encounters), and ended up loving it.

But first  .  .  .  some misgivings:

I have to depart from the majority of critics who liked the book, and some who didn't, who praised the writing.  (See the Wikipedia entry for Freedom.)   The question I continued to ask myself as I read was:  What has happened to the Great American Editor?  Did Franzen's celebrity intimidate whoever got assigned to redline this behemoth?   It is true that Franzen can put together marvelous-sounding sentences.   But there was a lot, and by that I mean a lot, of writerly showing-off in this book, prose that said look at me more than it illuminated the thoughts and feelings and actions of the characters.   There were also passages that were much to jokey, Franzen giving the reader a nudge in the ribs as if to say that was a good one, wasn't it?  A good editor would have gotten some of this under control.   

And some of that self-conscious scribbling was just plain clumsy.  One need not look far for an example.   It is one of those myths of writing that happens to be true is that first sentences are important.  Books have been written about the art of the first sentence.  The first sentence of Freedom, however, was very bad:
"The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times."

Of course we're going to meet Walter and Patty in a bit.  But right off the bat, the reader is confused rather than intrigued.  The dash-bracketed insertion then both over- and underexplains about these characters we don't know.  If people who were gone only two years "meant nothing to St. Paul now," they probably never did, which thus does not explain why "the news about Walter" was not "picked up locally" (it takes a moment to figure out that "local" means "St. Paul").  And what does it mean for people to "mean something" to a city?  Finally, the two negatives in the last phrase are very hard to figure out ("not so loyal to their city as not to read" – very clumsy) and, when finally parsed, expresses the rather silly thought that loyalty to a city discourages one from reading The New York Times.   

Editors exist to fix writing like this.

They also exist to cut.  This book needed it.  The leading candidate for reduction were the dialogues, which repeated themselves from encounter to encounter, and each of which went on and on with the characters continuing to say the same things to one another over and over.  Good skipping territory.

Large sections of the book are taken up with an "autobiography" written by Patty Berglund.  Problem:  She writes just like Jonathan Franzen.

Finally, these very unappealing characters are given some very deep, detailed, complex, and rather florid thoughts to think.  An unappealing person can have deep and florid thoughts, but Franzen's description of them (in frequently very striking prose) contrasts jarringly with the very pedestrian lives and intellects he has crafted for them.

 *    *     *

So far, I've barely said a nice thing about this book.  So why did I end up liking it so much and why did it leave me with a good feeling about the future of fiction?

The foregoing stylistic accusations aside, I did enjoy the music of Franzen's prose.  It was such a pleasure after decades of minimalism and Iowa Writer's Workshop crap to feel the evocative and almost physical power of the English language, wielded by a master.

Franzen also makes a real effort to wrestle with the issues that upper-middle-class Americans have faced since the Appalling Sixties:   Ennui; balancing commitment with family; wrestling with the contradictions of the sexual revolution; negotiating the DMZ between principle and compromise. 

The characters, while unanimously unappealing, were vividly and consistently sketched.  I could see each one of them.  It would be both a cliché and untrue to say that I "cared" about them, but I was interested in seeing what was going to happen to them.  Which, I suppose, is a way of saying that once I got past some of the Franzian flash, I got immersed in the darned story of the thing.

The book is fair-minded.   I had expected it to be strongly political, and strongly leftist, but I found it pretty agnostic on political matters.  So I was surprised when I read in the book's Wikipedia entry that "[m]ost lukewarm reviews praised the novel's prose [see?], but believed the author's left-wing political stance was too obvious."  I don't think so.  All the main characters, to the extent they could be tagged at all, were pretty obviously liberal (one, and only one, moves unattractively rightward later in the book) but even more obviously deeply flawed human beings.  I certainly didn't peg Franzen as a conservative.  I pegged him as an artist.  He was seeking to tell the truth about the private life of people with certain identifiable public beliefs that I, at least, associated with taking today's liberal arts education too seriously.   The same book could have been written about a Tea Party family.  A charge of political bias diminishing the book is factually wrong.

Although I complained about the prose sometimes overwhelming the slightness of the characters' moral architecture, in the end I admired the acuity of Franzen's insights into human nature, and their incorporation into a grand family story.  The novel cannot be called inspirational -- the most positive thing about the fate of the characters is that they've more or less resigned -- lifted my spirits and made me think maybe I've been missing something in recent fiction. 

I'm looking forward to getting back to exploring what modern writers have to say.

But that Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace has been sitting on my shelf for quite awhile  .  .  .  . 
*     *     *



Friday, September 26, 2014

Blessings On -- and In -- This House

According to enough Internet sites that I am confident that I am not deceived by a renegade Internet editor, in Hawaii the residents believe that the "household gecko" brings good luck to the home.  If that is correct, The Memsahib and I are blessed several times over. 

When darkness falls, one, two, or three geckos – interestingly, never more than three – crawl out onto the underside of the eave that extends over our patio.  When I turn on the patio light, they're exposed and usually will hang around for awhile before they scurry – actually, more of a serpentine waddle – into the cracks where the eave meets the brick.  I read that they're looking for insects.  I've never seen one other insect within gobbling distance of one of these guys on the barren ceiling, but there they were, night after night.

Last night, for the first time, there were four:

They appear to be Mediterranean House Geckos, one of two species found in Texas that tend to make their homes in, well, homes.  I was delighted at first, but that fourth gecko  .  .  .  obviously, I was dealing here with more than a happy household of mama, papa, and baby gecko. 

In fact, they're prolific little reptiles.

Which inspired a vision of a growing, then teeming, colony of concupiscent little geckos with nothing better to do during the day than make lots more geckos.

When I was a lad, I was deeply influenced by the growing menace represented by the increasing number of "The Birds" in Hitchcock's classic.  Then, suddenly, I saw it.  I would be out on the patio, chewing on a stogie and reading a cheap mystery on my Nook.  A creak – a crack.  And the eave would open up and an avalanche of geckos, accompanied by untold tons of gecko poop would rain down on me.

But they are cute little fellas.

Wish me luck.