Category Archives: Books

I’d like to find some more books like ‘Sapiens’ to read

The most impressive bit of prehistoric art I’ve ever seen, from the Cave of the Hands in Argentina.

Or to spread it more broadly, like that — by which I mean Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari — and like some other, similar books I’ve read in recent years. They include:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann.
  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, the sequel to the previous.

Remember how I said my New Year’s resolution was that I would finally start reading all those many fascinating books I had put on my Amazon list in recent years, and my loved ones had so kindly given me? I said I would start with the ones I received for Christmas (pictured on the post), and go on from there.

In that post, I mentioned that I had just finished, on New Year’s Eve, reading Sapiens. And stated my intention to charge forward and spend the whole year reading other interesting new books that would broaden my mind, instead of rereading things I’d read multiple times before, such as the volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novel series.

So what have I been doing? Well, the last few days I’ve found myself rereading Sapiens. And I’m again being thoroughly fascinated by all the interesting things I had already forgotten, even though I had read it so recently. (An aging thing, I guess. I never had trouble in school remembering things over summer vacation. But I guess I don’t retain things that easily now, being less “impressionable.”)

Just this morning, I was reading again how we humans messed up our lives with this whole Agricultural Revolution thing. And how we couldn’t help ourselves. But this time I took time to leaf to the back to check out a footnote, and found it was referring to… Guns, Germs and Steel. Yeah, I thought I had read something else that told me giving up hunting and gathering was a raw deal… not that we can do anything about it.

There’s a connection here somewhere to my decreasing interest in the “news” of the day, and the same stupid, overly simplistic arguments about what’s going on around us being offered by “both” sides — you know, the ones and zeroes people. (Not that I ignore current events entirely. For instance, this morning I learned a lot from a piece in The Wall Street Journal about the shadow war being conducted between Israel and Iran — something I had known next to nothing about.)

More and more, I’m interested in the Big Picture. I’m more fascinated, for instance, by how sapiens outlived (and quite likely of course, killed off) the Neanderthals — except for a few bits of DNA that I and other people of European ancestry are anachronistically carrying around. That interests me more than, say, how the billionahuhs are exploiting the proletariat — or, if you prefer the “other” interpretation (among the two and only two that we’re allowed), how the job-creators are building a better world.

I’m not sure that what I’m talking about here is “Big History,” which I’ve heard a good bit about recently. A lot of that has to do with all those billions of years before our ancestors came along and started walking on two legs. And those eons seem a bit… sterile… to me. I’m more interested in the last few million years — and particularly the millennia between what Harari calls The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution (between about 70,000 and 10,000 years ago), and what happened in the few millennia after that, shaping the world we now live in.

The books I’ve listed at the top of this post fit right in that sweet spot. So, to some extent, does one of those books I asked for for Christmas: The Discovers, by Daniel Boorstin. I started to read it long before I developed this recent interest, and remember being impressed at his description of one of the greatest bits of “progress” that has ever oppressed us: the measurement of time. But before I finished it, I misplaced my copy, and have been wanting for all this time to get back to it.

I also want to read those novels in that small stack as well. I mean, I know what happened to Thomas Cromwell, but I’m interested to find out how Hilary Mantel tells the tale.

But I want to read more in what I think of as the Sapiens category — the story of how humans got from hunting and gathering to where we are.

I’m particularly hoping Lynn Teague reads this, and has some good ideas. She’s the only archaeologist I know, and these books fit largely within her field…

Was the rest of Steinbeck’s writing that good?

Our friend Bryan retweeted this the other day, with a very brief comment: “Dude could write.”

Yes, he could, I thought as I read it. And then I thought of something else: Was any of his other, more familiar, writing this good? Or was he even better than usual when trying to be ingratiating to Marilyn Monroe?

First, I admit that I haven’t read a whole lot of Steinbeck. I hate to admit that, seeing he was, as Wikipedia asserts, “a giant of American letters.” I never quite finished his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The only two books of his I know I’ve read all the way through are Of Mice and Men (more than once, I think) and the somewhat less celebrated The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. So, you know, I’m not even qualified to draft a Steinbeck Top Five List.

Those were good books (even though, let’s face it, Mice and Men was a downer). But did it have passages that grabbed you as insistently as this does: “He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.” (And you know he’s not exaggerating, because this is, you know, Marilyn Monroe.)

Poor kid. It would be a rough obsession to have, being that age at that point in her career. I was only 8 when she died, so the effect was different.

Anyway, yeah, I know, I need to finish Grapes of Wrath. I truly feel obligated to do so, sort of the way I feel about Moby Dick. But the thing is, I’m already fully convinced of its greatness, and it’s import as a slice of American life at a critical moment in a critical place. But come on, despite all these years of not letting myself see the movie until I’d read the book, I already know how it ends. And not to give anything away, but it’s kind of a bummer, too.

I’ll try. But I might finish Moby Dick first. I know that has some pretty engaging writing in it

Oh, one last thing: Given what he says in the first graf, do you think the nephew actually exists? I dunno. Great writers can be mysterious…

Here’s the kid’s other problem. Assuming he existed…

Bonhoeffer and the stupidity factor

You know how I have made this resolution to finally start reading all the good books around the house that I have asked for over the years? I don’t know how many there are, because they’re all over the place and I haven’t done an inventory.

But there’s one I need to move up on the list: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.

I say that because something about the martyred theologian has been brought to my attention a couple of times in recent days.

It’s the fact that he considered stupidity to be more dangerous than evil. And in my book, when a guy who stood up to the Nazis and was executed for trying to rid the world of Hitler says something like that, we should sit up and take notice. Because he knew a thing or two about evil.

Here’s a quote:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

This addresses a question I’ve been pondering a good bit over the past six years — since, you know, 2016. I haven’t written that much about it, because I don’t feel like I can answer my own question — and raising it just gets people so upset. So what’s the point?

Oh, I’ve referred to it in passing. Deep down in a post, you can find me saying things like, So which is it: Is Trump evil, or stupid? Or rather, since he’s obviously both, which is the main problem? What are we dealing with?

Then, of course, the next logical step is to ask the same question regarding his supporters. Because Trump isn’t the actual problem. Trump was an idiot, and a slimeball, for decades, and we all knew it. He was famous for these characteristics. But no one took him seriously. He was just some gross clown at the edges of our society. Sort of a Kardashian, or one of those people on Jersey Shore.

Then, in a complete reversal of American political history up to that point, people started voting for him. So the question becomes, what happened to them — these voters? Yeah, we’d had a long buildup of gross, mindless partisanship for two or three decades leading up to it, and a lot of it was ugly, but what caused it all to go off a cliff in 2016?

I’ve written a good bit about that. But I’ve generally avoided that one question that keeps occurring to me: Is it evil, or stupidity?

Whenever I’ve been about to tackle it with some determination, I dismiss the question as itself being stupid: Obviously, both things are at work. There’s a lot of foolishness out there, and a lot of plain, rotten meanness.

And does it matter what label we put on it? Well, yes, I think so, at least on a moral plane. Being stupid doesn’t make you a bad person, does it? And yet, people often get more offended at being called stupid than evil, don’t they?

So why go there? These folks seem angry all the time anyway; why make it worse? The thing to do is try to think of something to do or say that would make things better, not just increase the massive heap of ill feeling in the world.

In fact, that’s the last thing I want. I want to turn down the temperature, calm everything down, get people to stop being furious and start listening to each other and learn how to live together. To stop thinking in terms of ones and zeroes, and start seeing each other as fellow humans.

But the fact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these things makes it worth trying to understand better what he was thinking. He wasn’t some idiot Twitter partisan sniping at the “other side” to elevate his own side (“You people are stupid!” “No, we’re not; you are!”). This was a thinking, spiritual man willing to wrestle with moral complexity, and to give everything in that cause.

And there he was, face-to-face with the greatest evil of the past century, if not of all history. And he sat there in his prison cell and wrote that as bad as evil was, stupidity was the greater danger.

Of course, some of why he did this is self-evident: Nazism was stupid. It was an ideology for brutish, ticked-off people, for brawlers battling in the streets, outraged at their lot in life between the wars and wanting something that would show the rest of the world how wrong it was.

But of course, it was also evil as all get-out. Which parts were mainly evil, and which parts mainly stupid? And what was the relationship between the two factors, as they worked together to make horrors happen?

Seems worth exploring. So I need to read that book…

Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

Gadi and Charlie visit the Acropolis…

It’s not the best le Carré ever, because we have to face the fact that the Alec Guinness version of George Smiley is out there, in both “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

But if you consider only adaptations of the non-George novels, I think this is the best.

And I wasn’t expecting that — at all. In fact, when I heard they had remade The Little Drummer Girl as a TV series back in 2018, I was, as usual, irritated. Why mess with success?

The 1984 version, starring Diane Keaton, wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty great. She was good as Charlie, Klaus Kinski was just as good as Kurtz, and Yorgo Voyagis — of whom I had never heard before or since — was very impressive as the conflicted, lugubrious Israeli hero Gadi Becker.

Yeah, they messed with it. For instance, they turned Charlie into an American. Because, you know, Diane Keaton. But beyond that, I was well pleased.

But still, when I fell victim recently to a come-on from AMC+ (a free week! which of course wasn’t enough to get me through this one show without having to pay!) I immediately had to go check it out.

And then, I had to watch all the way through. These last couple of days with COVID helped me get it done.

And from the beginning, I realized, “This is better.”

Especially if you appreciate dramatizations that are true to the book, in every possible way. And of course we don’t see that nearly enough. I had had high hopes for “The Night Manager,” which is probably my favorite non-Smiley le Carré. But you couldn’t get more than a few minutes into it before everything was turned this way and that. Worst of all, they updated it (shudder). As le Carré reacted at the time:

But a novel I had written nearly a quarter of a century ago reset in present time? With none of Pine’s trip to northern Quebec in the story? None of Central America? My beloved Colombian drugs barons replaced by Middle Eastern warlords? No zillion dollar luxury yacht for Richard Roper? A new ending to the story, yet to be discussed? What did that mean?

One change worked: Jonathan Pine’s handler was changed from a man to a pregnant woman. I’m still not sure whether that was an improvement because of the maternal aspects of looking after an agent in the field, or simply because the actress was Olivia Coleman. Probably both.

But the other changes didn’t work. Especially not the new ending.

But this was true right down the line. Time, place, characters and plot. Which is great because it’s a fantastic story, filled with delicate features and contradictions that could be thrown completely off with the wrong changes.

The moral ambiguity of the story is doubled, partly because of the extended time format. And that’s essential. No one — not agent Charlie, not her handler, not anyone — is supposed to be entirely sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this counterterrorism story.

And then there’s the casting. The unknown (to me) young woman who plays Charlie is just what the role demanded. She’s supposed to be an unremarkable little actress who feels she’s never been able to realize her potential. Now I realize: How could that be Diane Keaton, who at 38 was such a big star that they’d change the main character’s nationality to get her? She needs to be someone you look at and try to figure out and decide whether she’s up to the overwhelming task.

And you do. She makes you do that. A lot of women should love her in this. First, she’s not a willowy supermodel type like Ms. Keaton. Her figure — as you discover when the head of the terror cell makes her strip to her underwear as a safety precaution — is at best “average.” And yet, she has this quality that draws men’s eyes. You completely believe the thing you have to believe about Charlie — that she can bewitch everyone from her fellow actors to international terrorists.

They had to do the same with Gadi Becker. You had to believe that he could enthrall Charlie, and that it was so obvious that Kurtz, head of the Israeli team, could bank on it. And yet it was something Becker himself did not value.

As for Kurtz: Klaus Kinski was perfect, but if anything — if you’ll allow the logical impossibility — Michael Shannon is more so. An American, of course, but one who can really act, and makes this intense Israeli real. But what has Shannon ever done that wasn’t great, from Elvis to the cop in “Boardwalk Empire?” His characters are always bigger than life. And kinda scary.

Anyway, I recommend it…

Michael Shannon as Kurtz.

Is Sapiens smart enough to survive?

I saw the above image when Samuel Tenenbaum shared it on Facebook, and it reminded me of the book I am finally almost, almost, almost done reading, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It reminded me of something I keep thinking of while reading the book. I keep thinking, Yeah, maybe we’re the homo that is the most sapient, so the name of the species works. But are we really smart enough to keep going?

I suppose you noticed a day or so ago that, thanks to Omicron, the United States just set yet another record for new COVID cases in a day.

This, despite all the free vaccines and boosters. This, despite the fact that it’s perfectly obvious how to avoid passing on infections, which create new, more contagious (and more likely to overcome vaccines) variants as they reproduce through the population.

We know what to do. We — as a total population — just don’t do it in sufficient numbers to snuff this thing out.

A virus is about as stupid a life form as you can imagine, if you even want to call it a life form. It doesn’t even form cells, much less anything remotely resembling a brain, in contrast to the huge hunk of gray matter than homo sapiens has been blessed with.

But over and over again, it keeps outsmarting us.

So maybe, in Darwinian terms, it’s the one that deserves to win out.

I don’t believe that. I really don’t believe it at all. I’ve got a lot invested in this big-headed species to which I belong. I know we can do better. In fact, I keep getting kind of ticked at Yuval Noah Harari as I read his book, because again and again, he declines to give our species the kind of respect I think it deserves. Or that I at least want to think it deserves.

But time and time again, we just don’t do what we know how to do. It’s like we’re trying to shove ourselves toward extinction. Which ticks me off. And really, really disappoints me…

It’s artificial, all right, but let’s not call it ‘intelligence’

not smart (2)

As y’all know, I worry a good bit about what the internet is doing to us. But I don’t worry about “artificial intelligence” taking over the planet in some deliberate, organized way like in “The Matrix.”

That’s because I don’t see it as intelligent, either in a bad way or a good way. Oh, it’s capable of some impressive tricks. Some of them, like Google Maps, I think are pretty wonderful. But intelligent? Nope. I worry about the things it does that are the opposite of intelligent. And I worry about how it’s making us dramatically less intelligent. That’s what all those “Rabbit Hole” posts are about.

And on the good, useful side of intelligence, I’m never going to trust it to operate any car that I or people I love are riding in — or driving next to. Yep, it can react more quickly and often more logically than a human to many situations. But it is so very, very far from being able to see and understand everything we do.

My email today provided two examples that brought all this to mind for me, yet again.

First… I recently wanted to re-read Post Captain, the second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, for the first time in years. But I had lost my copy of it. I figured if I bought another, I might lose that, too. So I bought access to a Kindle version, which I can read on my iPad’s Kindle app.

And now, using the “brilliant” capabilities of Amazon’s recommendation code, it sends me invitations to read some other books in the series, having no clue that all of those are sitting, well-thumbed, on my bookshelves.

OK, you say, that seems reasonable. A clerk in a bookshop could make the same mistake. Seeing me buying Post Captain, he might reasonably say, “Hey, if that interests you, have you read the other 20 books in the series?” And I wouldn’t think he was stupid at all.

But that clerk isn’t the vaunted, imperial technology of Amazon, which supposedly has instantaneous access to everything about me that’s on the Web, and possesses an uncanny ability to process all that information and act effectively upon it, even to the point of planting (with my help!) two spies — my Echo devices — to listen to everything I ever say in the privacy of my home.

Which should not make it hard for it to know that I am a compulsive blogger — something not hidden at all, since the blog bears my name — who bores the ever-loving crapola out of all my readers by mentioning my Aubrey-Maturin mania over and over and over again, for years on end.

No, again, I’m not saying a human couldn’t make the mistake. But if a human being was in touch with all that information, and was able to process it constantly with superhuman speed, he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I haven’t read HMS Surprise. (The Stasi wouldn’t have made that mistake in even a casual effort to manipulate me, and East Germany ceased to exist well before the rise of artificial you-know-what.) So he would just suggest something else.

No, Amazon isn’t stupid for doing this. It’s just utterly failing to impress me with its supposedly amazing intelligence.

OK, I sense I’m losing you on that one. The example doesn’t come across as sufficiently stupid to you, even after I explain why it drew a snort of contempt from me.

So here’s another one. My Ancestry app has recently stopped defaulting to my tree when I open it. I have to tell it I want to open the tree after it has shown me various offers of really cool stuff that’s supposed to make me super-impressed at what Ancestry has to offer me.

And the one it keeps offering first is something it calls “your Photoline.” And there’s one of my great-great grandfathers, along with his son my great-grandfather, my Dad, and me.

I infer that Ancestry expects me to react like this:

Wow! That’s me! And there’s my Dad when he was young! I wonder who those other, old-timey guys are! Am I related to them? Can Ancestry really tell me amazing things like that? Where did it find all these pictures?

And so forth.

But here’s the thing: Ancestry has these pictures because I put them on my tree. Every single one of them. I not only scanned them, but I recognize the way I cropped them in Photoshop. I remember wondering whether I should remove that streak across the picture of me, and deciding to leave it because the streak is part of the story of the picture.

(That’s a mug someone at The Jackson Sun shot in the newsroom’s studio in 1985 to go with a story for the business page about the fact that I, the Sun‘s news editor, was leaving to become news editor of the Wichita paper. The streak is there because the Sun had recently started trying to save photographers’ time by shooting such routine mug shots with a Polaroid camera. They’re quicker, but often they leave streaks like that — which I suppose makes them sort of like “artificial intelligence.” I’ve always liked the picture anyway, including the cocky grin I had, because I didn’t know yet what an awful place to work the Wichita paper would be.)

There’s some human stupidity here, too. A human thought this would be a great way to pull people into Ancestry, and wrote (or caused to be written) the code that would automatically skim the database for such pictures, and match them up. And it might have impressed someone utterly clueless, like those celebrity guests on that PBS show who are so amazed to learn who their grandparents were.

But why doesn’t this brilliant code know where it got the pictures, which was from me, the guy it’s trying to impress? It doesn’t seem like that would take many ones and zeroes at all. It seems like the one thing it ought to know the most easily. Even a pretty dumb human would know that.

Anyway, I’m not worried about this kind of intelligence taking over. Oh, it can perhaps destroy society, by destroying our ability to think clearly. But it can’t run the place… or drive a car to my satisfaction, either…

IMG_0492

Oh, and don’t even get me started on referring to a single person as “them.” Of course, plenty of human do that, unfortunately…

Kent Babb, Coach Fink and the Karr Cougars

We were the Karr Cougars!

We were the Karr Cougars!

Any of y’all remember Kent Babb, who used to cover sports at The State? He was very good at it. Y’all know I don’t really follow sports, but I used to read his stuff whenever I noticed the byline, because it was that good.

Anyway, he’s at The Washington Post now, and you may be interested in reading a piece he wrote recently about youth football culture up the road in Rock Hill. The news peg was the horrific Phillip Adams story, but Kent went deep into the culture Adams grew up in, one in which football is everything, and when it’s over, young guys tend to get lost.

That’s the part of the post that might interest some of y’all. The rest just interests me, most likely.

Apparently, Kent made a similar, even deeper dive into prep football in a whole other place, and has written a book about it, as I discovered recently on Facebook:

Throughout the 2019 season, I embedded with the Edna Karr High School football team in the West Bank of New Orleans. It’s a story about a championship program and how its head coach, Brice Brown, is a football savant who just sees the moving parts of a complex game in his mind.
But more than that, it’s about how Brown teaches life and survival skills to a group of at-risk kids in a city besieged by gun violence. This is a city where, in 2016, an 18- or 19-year-old Black male was 56 times more likely to die by gunshot than the national average. It’s a place that has big dreams but not much hope. The main player character, a soft-spoken linebacker named Joe, desperately wants to get to college. But “college” is something he can barely imagine; he has only seen references to it in movies. Joe’s mother is in prison, and Joe used to be her lookout, begging her to come inside at 3 a.m. If not for football, it’s very possible Joe wouldn’t have reached his 18th birthday….

Well, that dug up some memories for me. I commented:

Wow, Kent! I attended Edna Karr when it was a junior high, 1965-67. I didn’t even know it was a high school. Did anyone in the book happen to mention the legendary Olaf Fink? He was my PE coach in 8th grade, and he was also a state senator…

I guess it was the fact that this was about sports that made me think of Coach Fink, rather than other educators who made an impression on me back then. Kent replied:

Man, I didn’t know that. I don’t remember Olaf Fink’s name coming up, but Karr and the West Bank have undergone many dramatic changes since Katrina. It’s not a magnet school anymore; it’s a citywide charter that became a huge melting pot in 2006 because it was among the only schools in New Orleans that sustained minor or zero damage.

I saw that this morning, and wrote back:

“Since Katrina” doesn’t mean that much to me, since I went there from 1965-67. 🙂 According to Wikipedia, it was still a junior high until 1990. And when you look it up now, it’s apparently in a completely different location, near the river. Confusing. Wikipedia shows it in the old location. Better yet, Coach Fink is the one individual person mentioned in connection with the school. Famous in his day, but I’m not surprised people don’t remember him now. I learned from my brief research that he died in 1973.

Wow, Coach Fink. My old buddy. I was the scrawniest kid in his P.E. class. I didn’t get my growth until a year or two later (and was still super-skinny after getting my height). Coach Fink took notice of this one day when we were doing gymnastics and learning to tumble. He had this safety device that consisted of an adjustable leather belt with ropes attached to both sides. When we tried to do walkovers or whatever, we’d wear the belt while two other guys held the ropes to hold us up and keep us from breaking our necks.

Problem was, the tightest, skinniest holes on the belt left it still too loose to hold me. I reported this, and Coach scoffed, saying that was impossible. So I showed him it was possible, and he was impressed. From then on, I had a new name. Coach Fink called me “Sego,” which I suppose means nothing to younger people, but everyone got it back then. Sometimes he said “Metrecal,” but eventually settled on “Sego,” and that stuck.

From then on, I was sort of Coach Fink’s pet. He decided to make me a leader in the class. He deputized me to be in charge of various things. At the start of class, when we had just gotten dressed out and before he and the other coaches went back into the coaches’ office to smoke and watch game films and whatever else coaches did, he’d say, “Sego, run ’em through calisthenics!” And I’d tell the guys to line up — and they would, perhaps amused at the little guy being in charge but totally accepting that Coach had delegated his authority to me — and I’d stand in front of them and lead them through jumping jacks and such before we went out and played ball or whatever. Like the other boys, I just accepted this as my role; I don’t remember questioning it. After all, Coach had named me “Sego,” and that’s who I was.

Looking back, I suppose that experience helped boost my self-confidence. So you can blame him! But seriously, my ego was already pretty big in the academic classes, and now I had this added thing. Which was nice, for a kid who got picked last for games on account of being the little guy and having unremarkable (at best) athletic skills for overcoming that. (No one ever said admiringly of me, “Yeah, Sego’s little, but he’s an amazing playmaker at point guard!”)

Coach Fink. The first time any of us heard the name, we’d laugh, because this was at the height of the Rat Fink craze. (Let’s hear it for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth!) That his first name was “Olaf” only added to the effect. But that was when we’d heard of him but not yet met him. He was an imposing figure, and his natural authority loomed over that of the other coaches. Also, we heard that he was a “state senator.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but it sounded important, which seemed fitting.

Anyway, Kent and I wrote back and forth a bit more about Karr Junior High (unfortunately, I was unable to help him on the origin of the name), but that part of the conversation kicked my memory into gear, and I thought I’d share.

Sorry I haven’t posted lately. Things have been crazy. I’ll try to get back to it soon…

Top Five Fictional Detectives

detectives

– “Who is your favourite person from history?”
– “Sherlock Holmes.”
– “Well, he’s fictional.”
– “Whoa! I think you’d better check your facts there. Fictional? Who took care of the business with the giant dog that was eating everybody? It wasn’t Watson. Don’t tell me, I suppose he was fictional too? Maybe there was no giant dog….”

— The IT Crowd

I was kind of excited, initially, about the interactive feature I found Sunday on my Washington Post app.

The headline was “Pick the best fictional detective,” and it was presented in an interactive graphic meant to evoke the NCAA tournament “brackets” that everyone (even I, despite my lack of enthusiasm for sports) filled out mere days ago.

So, you know, if you enjoy both mysteries and sports, it was extra fun. A cool idea.

But this is no proper way to figure out even who you, yourself, think are the best detectives, much less who the best actually are. (For instance, say two of your five best detectives face each other in the first round — that means one of your top five gumshoes won’t even make the top 32, assuming you’re starting with 64. That’s not right. No way it’s right. It’s a false system of selection. With basketball, it works. Not with detectives.) Another problem is that too few of my fave detectives were even on the bracket in the first round.

The only professional, scientific way to determine the top dicks is to draft an actual Top Five list, and then argue about it with everybody. Stands to reason. The immemorial custom of the blog, and so forth…

Coming up, I was never a big fan of mysteries. I wasn’t an Agatha Christie enthusiast. Nor was I into Conan Doyle, even though I always enjoyed the Basil Rathbone movies. I just wasn’t that much of an admirer of formulaic fiction. Just as I’m not big into blues, or reggae. To me, the songs just sound too much alike. One is fine, but not a whole album. I mean, you know, a blues progression is a blues progression.

Even with Edgar Allen Poe — I preferred the horror stories to “The Purloined Letter.” I got into Poe when I was about 10, and we 5th-graders shared the stories to chill each other’s blood. And “she was buried alive!” does that way better than “the letter was in plain sight!”

But then, things happened. I started reading books that broke the mold, such as Martin Cruz Smith’s wonderfully original thriller Gorky Park and Len Deighton’s alternative history novel SS-GB. And you know what a le Carre fan I am. Well, his first books about George Smiley cast him as a Christiesque amateur solver of mysteries.

And then, along came streaming, and my wife and I got hooked on a range of British murder mysteries and police procedurals. And entirely new forms, such as Nordic noir, and, believe it or not, Welsh noir.

Anyway, here’s the list. I’m sure I’m leaving out somebody awesome, but let’s get the party started:

  1. Arkady Renko — The only Russian in the bunch — almost the only non-Brit, come to think of it — he just blew the doors off the genre when he arrived in Gorky Park, and kept it up over the next few novels. I love a book that puts you in an unfamiliar place and makes it real, and that novel made you feel you were actually in the middle of the Soviet criminal-justice system in the middle of the Cold War — even though Martin Cruz Smith had never been there (just as Patrick O’Brien had never been aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Napoleonic Wars, but he could absolutely put a reader there). I also think highly of Renko’s American counterpart in the novel, William Kirwill, but it would be cheating to put him on the list, too. Just please don’t picture William Hurt from the movie when you think of Renko. That was a horrendous instance of miscasting. For Renko, you need a Daniel Day-Lewis, to invoke my last Top Five list. He would have been perfect, when he was about 35. Kirwill, however, was perfectly cast — when I was reading the book long before the movie, I was sort of picturing Brian Dennehy.
  2. Sergeant Gerry Boyle — OK, I don’t understand the Irish Garda system all that well, so I’m not sure that Boyle technically is a “detective.” But he’s a good copper, anyway. And again, I’ve got my last Top Five list on my mind, because this was the wonderful, deeply flawed character brought to life by  Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard.” The other night, I watched a few minutes of “48 Hours” — which frankly is about as much of the film as I ever could stand. Anyway, you know the rumpled, interesting character Nick Nolte is trying to play? Gleeson does it right in “The Guard.”
  3. Detective Chief Inspector Gill Murray — The cop show we’re currently obsessed with is “Scott & Bailey,” but I couldn’t choose between Rachel and Janet. Of the two, of course, Janet is the grownup (usually), but I still didn’t want to choose. Anyway, even though she sort of gets third-place billing and isn’t even in the 5th season, Gill is far and away the best cop on the show. Possibly because the actress, Amelia Bullmore, actually wrote some of the episodes, but her character just gets smarter and smarter.
  4. Christopher Foyle — This is the star of “Foyle’s War,” a cool series in so many ways. It’s historical. It’s about WWII. It’s about how life on the home front was affected, and not in the usual way, like folks saving tin cans or whatever. Also, it’s got Honeysuckle Weeks in it, and the fact that Foyle has her as his driver should qualify him alone, if only on the basis of her awesome name.
  5. George Gently — OK, I really debated whether to put this one in the Top Five, but I’m doing it out of frustration as much as anything. It really ticked me off that Prime let us watch the first season “free,” and then cut us off. I hate that. And I’m anxious to see the rest. But he also makes the list because he’s probably the best of a type that you see so much in these productions: the world-weary old hand, filled with almost as much irony and cynicism as investigative skill — of which he has plenty. I just think he does this better than Morse, or Lewis in his modern-day iteration, or Tom Barnaby, or Foyle, or any of those guys. I also think Lee Ingleby — whom Aubrey fans will remember as Hollom in “Master and Commander” — does a great job as his troublesome young assistant.

HONORABLE MENTION (or, to be honest, the next five, because I couldn’t stop)

  • Gene Hunt — There are lot of reasons to say Gene is not a good detective, even the opposite of a good detective, and Sam Tyler mentions most of them at great length, and repetitively, on “Life on Mars.” That’s sort of Sam’s thing, other than being confused about whether he’s a time traveler or just a guy in a coma. But Gene has certain rudimentary, atavistic skills, such as fairly decent gut instinct. And awful as he is, fans of the show eventually get to enjoy Gene as a guilty pleasure. A very guilty pleasure, because he is awful. In fact, he’s so awful that I think it’s kind of a libel on the world of 1973 to say senior cops were like this and got away with it back then. But if you get picky, you won’t enjoy the show anyway. I should also add that this is kind of a Jayne Cobb thing. I call Jayne my favorite character on Firefly because as a grandfather I don’t want to admit it’s really Kaylee. In this case, for Kaylee, substitute Annie Cartwright. She does get to be a detective late in the series, but most of the time, she’s a WPC. I think this picture is of the moment when Sam asks her first name, and she says “Annie!” Which is when the viewer starts to love her.
  • John River — This is my first entrant from the world of Nordic noir. And the ways in which it qualifies as Nordic noir are confusing. It’s set in London. River is a London cop. But he’s played by a Swedish actor. Of course, what makes it noir is the tone. River, you see, talks with dead people, and they talk back. All the time. Which can be an advantage when you’re a cop, if not a fun one. Also playing a key role is Nicola Walker. She’s not a household name — I had to look it up right now — but when she pops up in any role she’s impressive. Here she is as a guest star — playing a pivotal role — on “Scott & Bailey.”
  • Jimmy Perez — This is the protagonist of “Shetland.” I went back and forth on whether to choose him or the semi-hero of the Welsh noir (it was actually originally in the Welsh language, but then released in English) “Hinterland,” Tom Mathias. Both are cops out in the boonies, trying to do a tough job under trying circumstances. Ultimately, I go with Jimmy because he’s more stable.
  • Jimmy McNulty or Bunk Moreland, you decide — I just had to get someone in from what may be the best American cop show of all time, “The Wire.” I thought I’d go with McNulty since he was kind of the star, and because his bend-the-rules detective work got the ball rolling in the first episode. But “McNutty,” as Bubbles, unquestionably the best fictional snitch ever, called him, was a screwup. So I’m offering his partner Bunk as an alternative. Of course, he could be a screwup, too. But they were great together.
  • Douglas Archer — Just to pull someone in from the weird world of alternative history. I initially read this as a Len Deighton (The Ipcress File) fan, but this kind of stands out from his other books. Archer of the Yard is a classic British detective, who in 1941 finds himself working for the SS because the Germans went ahead with their invasion of Britain, and it was successful. And because you still need to catch bad guys, right, even when you’re working for worse guys. This was a great tale — way better than weirdly similar stories like Fatherland (Detective Xavier March, a 1960s cop working in a Germany that did not lose the war, is a sort of combination of Archer and Arkady Renko). I’ve never seen the TV series, because it’s on the premium level of Hulu, and I’m just not going to pay for that. I’ll just say that the actor playing Archer doesn’t look right at all, based on photos I’ve seen.

Yeah, I know — all white guys, except for one lady-type person, and Bunk, who I know you’re already suspecting I snuck in for diversity’s sake. (But I didn’t. Bunk’s awesome.) Yeah, well…. I just couldn’t get into “Luther,” as great as Idris Elba is. Speaking of Bunk and Elba — the thing about “The Wire” is that the best characters were not the cops. In fact, by far the best character in the show was an armed robber. And Omar was not only black, but gay, if you’re keeping score. Unfortunately, this is a detectives list.

And I considered a bunch of women, and almost put Marcella on the list. She’s fascinating. But man, that series really took Nordic noir (although it was set in England) to some weird places, and we got to where we couldn’t watch anymore. And while I’m somewhat intrigued by Chloé Saint-Laurent on the French cop series “Profilage,” she’s technically not a detective, and I’ve only seen her in two episodes so far, so I don’t yet know how good she is.

And no, Jackie Brown, about whom I thought for a second, wasn’t a detective. If I were doing a Top Five Flight Attendants List, she’d be a great candidate. Along with Elaine Dickinson

Oh, but wait! Back to “The Wire”… “Beadie” Russell was awesome! And she sorta became a detective during the course of the series, right? There are just too many fictional detectives out there for me to know where to stop. If I did this again next week, my Top Five might be five completely different people…

Top Five John le Carre novels, and further reflections on the passing of my favorite living author

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

About this time of year, various publications — The New Yorker comes to mind — publish lists of best thises or thats during the past year. And when I see the “best books” lists, I tend to feel somewhat alienated.

Nothing against the books they list, exactly. The thing is, I haven’t read them, and don’t plan to read them, although I suppose anything’s possible. I look at books this way: I only have time to read a certain number in my life, and over the centuries since modern literary forms in English have arrived so many have been written that I want, and even feel obligated, to read. But the odds are against any of them having been written in the last year, or having made such a list.

Also, I’m not a trendy reader. My tastes don’t tend toward the latest, hottest thing.

Truth be told, in my lifetime I’ve only been interested in reading a few writers who have been among the living. But that doesn’t mean there have been none. Until the year 2000, Patrick O’Brian was still alive, and y’all know how I love him. (Although I’d never heard of him until after he had died.) And there are still people out there such as Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle — both of whom are so “living” that they are actually younger than I am.

But until he died over the weekend, my very favorite living author was John le Carré, which of course was the workname of David Cornwell. You know, the way “Ellis” was the workname of Jim Prideaux.

Not that I loved everything he ever wrote (The Mission Song, and a couple of others, left me flat). But there was a stylistic mastery and an insightful glimpse into being human even in his weaker work. Here’s where I should stop and give you a good excerpt, but I’m not going to because there are so many thousands of great passages, and I fear forgetting to give you one of the best ones.

And I’ll confess I didn’t get around to reading some of the last few. I was sufficiently disappointed in A Most Wanted Man that I sort of stopped there. Prompted by his death, I went and put Agent Running in the Field and A Legacy of Spies on my Amazon wish list. After all, the latter one has Smiley in it!

But we all have more productive periods in our lives, and it had been awhile since le Carré had done his best stuff.

It’s not just that the Cold War ended. Two of my very favorites came after the Karla Trilogy, and weren’t even in the same fictional universe (near as I can recall) as George Smiley. I should explain. I guess here is where I should give my Top Five Best list, so you know what I’m running on about:

  1. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold — Here, I’m being coldly analytical. This is not my personal favorite. The next four would come ahead of it on that score. But it’s the best book he wrote. It is the ultimate, textbook, perfect book about espionage in the Cold War. You can and will be fooled by this one. You go in thinking, OK, classic Cold War spy tale, starts with someone trying to cross the Wall in Berlin. And then Control has a chat with Leamas, asks him whether he’d like to get the guy who got his agent, and Leamas is like “Hell, yes,” and we’re off. But where to? Leamas thinks he knows, but he doesn’t. All the moral ambiguity, all the betrayal, all the darkness and — that word again — the coldness — of the secret world, at its most plainly brutal. It’s perfect. Just don’t plan to go away in a good mood at the end. But you’ll be impressed. This is the one that made le Carré, enabling him to quit his job with the spooks and become a novelist full-time. Because it was just that good, and the world could see that.
  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — The best of the ones I really love, the first volume of the Karla Trilogy, the first one in which our hero George Smiley — the short, fat, cuckolded scholar of German literature — fully appears. Sure, he had been the star of those two Agatha Christie-type books before the big one named in the top position here, but this is the first, full-fledged, George Smiley spy book. This is the one full of characters you’ll love — Smiley, Connie Sachs, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, Toby Esterhase. Read it, and enjoy.
  3. Smiley’s People — The whole gang is back for the denouement of the Karla saga. All the best of them, anyway — there’s Smiley, Connie, Peter and Toby, and of course the nemesis himself, Karla. And some fun new people, such as Otto Leipzig. This one’s for all the marbles. And of course, while he pursues his quarry, George is conflicted about it, because that’s our George. It wouldn’t be satisfying otherwise. George even goes back into the field in this one, as he probably hadn’t done since the war — because there’s no one else he can send, no one else who’ll do the job just right. There’s just one great bit after another. One of my favorites — the snatching, interrogation, burning and turning of Grigoriev, the small but essential piece of the puzzle. Very instructive, if you want to learn how to interrogate a hostile potential asset.
  4. The Night Manager — This may be my very favorite, which makes me feel disloyal to George and his People. It’s totally unrelated. No Soviets, no Russians, even. No Circus, no Moscow Centre. Just a decent guy with some gifts who undertakes to go deep to try to bring down the Worst Man in the World — a global superstar of an arms dealer. You just really care what happens to Jonathan Pine, a volunteer on a moral quest. He’s the night manager, you see. Did you see the series that was made for AMC? It was excellent, but it didn’t satisfy me, because it just wasn’t nearly as good as the book.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl — This is another that totally leaves the Cold War track, and it’s wonderful. It’s about a carelessly lefty actress recruited by the Mossad to penetrate a Palestinian terror cell. What’s best about it? I think it’s the recruitment of Charlie, the agent. It goes on and on for some time, but it’s all wonderful. It’s the heart of the book. Smiley himself couldn’t have done what Kurtz did in turning this Palestinian-leaning semi-activist into a fully committed asset for Israel. And she goes deep, all the way, and as unlikely as the premise seems, it works — you believe it. By the way, the movie with Diane Keaton is great, even though they had to make the British Charlie into an American, on account of her being, you know, Diane Keaton.

You’ll notice that I list two of the three Karla-Trilogy books, but not the middle one. That’s because it, well, doesn’t fit. It was like le Carré decided to write a higher-toned version of a Bond novel, with shoot-’em-up violence and exotic locales. The Honourable Schoolboy didn’t work, and the author went back to what we all loved in Smiley’s People.

There are other bits and piece in his other books that sometimes exceed a lot of what you see on my list. For instance, the opening of The Russia House, the opening chapter, is a completely severable tale that sets up the longer one and then ends, and it’s perfect. But I’m not nearly as fond of the rest of the book.

Now I’m going to make like one of le Carré’s least-lovable American characters and air one of my complaints about his later career. Toward the end, he started reminding me of Bill Haydon from Tinker, Tailor, of whom it was said, “He hated America very deeply.” At one point, Haydon explained, “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything… Partly a moral one, of course.”

With Haydon, that worked. Haydon didn’t suffer fools, and the Americans were so unsophisticated, so muscle-bound, so offensively puritanical and sure of themselves. And MI6 was just so much better, and yet they’d missed their chance. As Connie said so sadly of Bill and the rest, “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then, George.” (During the war, she means.)

And now they had to play second banana to the “cousins” across the pond, and it was cruelly grating. Reading it, and being the Anglophile I am, I could sympathize. As a fan of the genre, I certainly knew that English spy literature was better. (They had le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene. What did we have over here? Tom Clancy?)

This worked in the early books. It was all part of the moral-ambiguity thing. Sure, the Bolshies were bad, but was our lot all that better? George Smiley was never entirely sure of that, but he did his best and soldiered on, believing that as awful as we might have been, liberal democracy was the way to go. More or less.

But later on, it got sort of ridiculous. In The Tailor of Panama (which had some good bits, but I preferred the original), and worst of all, in A Most Wanted Man. In the climactic scene of the latter, the Americans who swoop in and ruin everything might as well be wearing T-shirts that say, “Here Come the Bad Guys!” It’s cartoonish.

But there are still bits to love in those books as well, even though our man seemed to have gone a bit overboard on his distaste for us fools across the pond.

And he was still, no doubt about it, my favorite living author. Until Saturday…

Here I am a decade ago, at dusk, outside George Smiley's house on Bywater Street in London. I don't think George minded.

Here I am a decade ago, at dusk, outside George Smiley’s house on Bywater Street in London. I don’t think George minded.

Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

Thoughts on the new ‘Dune’ trailer?

One of my kids asked me if I’d seen it, and until moments ago, I hadn’t realized it was out.

Anyway, I just saw it.

I’m not going to say what I think until I hear what y’all think, except to say this: So far, it looks much better than the abomination David Lynch unleashed upon the world in 1984. That, of course, was the worst large-budget motion picture in history.

Worse, it was the most significant betrayal ever of a ready, eager, trusting fan base. All those millions of people who (like me) ran to the theaters and bought tickets — finally, we were going to see Arrakis ourselves! And then to watch that nightmare unfold before our eyes. Frame after frame, Lynch must have stayed up nights screaming to himself, How can I screw THIS part up? And it’s got to be more extreme than the frame before it!!!! (Imagine him doing this in a voice like Bobcat Goldthwait.)

Don’t agree with me? I have two words for you — “weirding modules.” Enough said.

Oh, as for the made-for-TV series that came out in 2000… that wasn’t bad. I liked that they called it “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” to distinguish themselves from David Lynch’s horror. Probably the biggest letdown in that was the casting of William Hurt as Duke Leto, but then Hurt has been miscast in everything except “Altered States” (he was totally believable as that guy) and maybe “Broadcast News.” But it wasn’t bad. Still, in those days, TV wasn’t yet the medium it is now. So we’ve waited another 20 years for something to be attempted on the grand scale.

Which means at this point, my expectations are unreasonably high. I know this.

Anyway, tell me what you think of the trailer, and we’ll discuss…

Dune still

Bob Woodward’s book

Rage_(Bob_Woodward)

Hey, if you thought the Five Points picture fully illustrated how messed up our world is, check out this tweet, which was brought to my attention by Chad Connelly:

I think he was serious. I think maybe this guy actually thinks a “fantasy baseball” list of candidates for nonexistent SCOTUS vacancies is more interesting and newsworthy than the bizarre things POTUS said on the record about REAL policy actions in a series of 18 extraordinary interviews with one of the two journalists most credited with bringing down Richard Nixon.

Really. I think he means it.

I mean… why didn’t Trump release a list of candidates for openings on the Court a century from now? He won’t get to nominate those, either.

You want something else to worry about? That guy has 279,300 followers, all of whom presumably live on the same planet as you.

Anyway, the Woodward book

I haven’t read it. I’ve just read about it. But here’s enough points to get you started:

  • As the headline in the Post reported, “Trump says he knew coronavirus was ‘deadly’ and worse than the flu while intentionally misleading Americans.” I mean, you know — he doesn’t want us to think he was stupid or something. Because he’s a real stable genius.
  • Two days after forcibly clearing Lafayette Square so he could wave a Bible around (but not open it, of course), Trump called Woodward to boast about it. When Woodward suggested maybe white men such as themselves should try to better understand “the anger and pain” of black Americans, Trump said, “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
  • The Hill pulled this from the book: “Trump lashed out at generals, called them ‘a bunch of pussies'”… So… do you think that meant he wanted to grab them or something?

Oh, regarding that last item about disrespect toward the military… for those of you sufficiently detached from reality to dismiss the report the other day in The Atlantic about the gross things Trump has said about dead American heroes (ones other than John McCain) because the sources declined to be named, well… there are some unnamed sources in this one, too — I guess because Woodward wanted to get some perspective from people with normal, functioning brains. But a great deal of the book comes from 18 on-the-record interviews with Donald John Trump. As noted above, sometimes, Trump called Woodward to say these things.

How’d you like to be this guy’s campaign manager?

I’m really enjoying rereading this — and no wonder, I now see

Rose 1

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had this fatigue thing going on since my stroke. So maybe once a day — twice on a bad day — I’ve left the desk here in my home office to go lie back in the recliner in the same room and take a snooze. Which usually, but not always, refreshes me wonderfully and enables me to get back to work.

On one of these days, I looked across at the bookshelf several feet from the chair, and noticed a book I’d read several times, but not in quite a few years — Rose, by Martin Cruz Smith.

Ever read it? You should. If you don’t read another novel, read this. It’s not what Smith is best known for, but as much as I love his Arkady Renko novels — especially the first three — this may be my favorite.

And I’m rereading it now, and loving it.

No wonder.

I discovered how long it had been since I’d read it when I looked at the quote from a review on the back. See it below? When I saw it, it kind of blew me away: It’s from Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, or the “Master and Commander” books, as some might call them. I had never noticed the review before. Why? Because apparently, it’s been so long since I’d read this book that the last time I saw it I had never heard of O’Brian — who now may be my favorite novelist. Y’all know how much I read and reread his novels.

I think I started reading about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin more than 15 years ago. So it’s been awhile, Rose.

Of course O’Brian loved this book. Because in their own, very different and individualized ways, he and Smith were both masters of the same thing: They were capable, to an extent I’ve never seen anywhere else, to take their readers to an alien place and time and make them feel like they are really there.

That’s how Mike Fitts first told me I would enjoy O’Brian’s novels (something for which I will always be grateful). It’s a little hard to explain to the uninitiated why these books are so wonderful, but Mike got there by telling me that these books were about a Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, and they recreated that world with such living, breathing detail that you feel like you’re really there.

This is absolutely true. And it’s also what Martin Cruz Smith is famous for. He earned this reputation with his breakthrough, landmark novel Gorky Park. It was stunning, and if you haven’t read it, go do so right now. It was a story about a Moscow murder detective, written in the middle of the Cold War, told from that man’s perspective, and it magically makes the reader think he is actually in that world. I was stunned, years later, when I read that Smith had never been to Russia before writing the book. (Did I dream that? I had trouble confirming it on the Web just now.) It seemed impossible.

That’s his famous one, but Smith has done it time and again, particularly with his other Arkady Renko books.

But with Rose, he takes the reader to a very different place and time from any Renko ever visited. Specifically, the dark and dirty coal-mining and manufacturing town of Wigan in Lancashire in 1872.

Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the premise:

Jonathan Blair, a mining engineer, returns from Africa’s Gold Coast and, on finding his native England utterly depressing, falls into melancholy and alcoholism. Blair wishes desperately to return to Africa, so, in exchange, he agrees to investigate the disappearance of a local curate engaged to marry the daughter of Blair’s patron….

Which doesn’t even begin to tell you anything about Blair, or what he finds in Wigan. But I assure you, you feel that you are really in the place and time among people who are of the place time. And these people are worth getting to know.

I won’t say anything more, except to note that when O’Brian mentions “the last, most satisfying page,” he knows what he’s on about. I can’t wait to get back to it myself. And I know that in the days I get to it, I’ll go back and read that page several more time, to experience the satisfaction.

It’s pretty great…

Rose 2

Friedman idea no. 1: the Team of Rivals

It worked for Lincoln.

It worked for Lincoln.

Earlier today I mentioned that Tom Friedman had a really good column today in The New York Times.

I noted that he said that if we are forced to choose “between a self-proclaimed socialist and an undiagnosed sociopath, we will be in a terrible, terrible place as a country.”

Very true. The nice thing is, he offered a way out of that.

It’s far-fetched — it would require a very diverse groups egos to set aside their personal ambitions for the good of the country — but at least it’s an idea that would work if they did. And I think Friedman’s not exaggerating when he says, “Dems, You Can Defeat Trump in a Landslide.

Basically, it’s this: form a Team of Rivals, as Lincoln did in a previous time of national crisis. Put all those Democratic candidates, those still running and some of those who have dropped out, on the team. Bring all their strengths together and let them compensate for each others’ weaknesses.

It’s a great idea now as it was in Lincoln’s day (although when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, I kept wishing for a time machine so I could go back in time and slap Salmon Chase upside the head — that guy was a major pain).

Friedman got one thing wrong: He supposes the head guy would be either Sanders or Bloomberg. I’m still holding out for Joe. But he also assigned Cabinet positions to Sanders and Bloomberg, since he hadn’t made his mind up on which is president.

And he made a call that supports my position: He picked Joe for secretary of state, because “No one in our party knows the world better or has more credibility with our allies than Joe.” Absolutely, which is why he needs to be president — because nothing in the POTUS job description is more important than dealing with the rest of the world.

This is a variation, and elaboration, on an idea I put forward several months ago: I suggested that Joe persuade Barack Obama to be his secretary of state, and tell the country that right away. It would clarify things in Democrats’ minds — and in other people’s as well.

But yeah — if you couldn’t have Joe as president, then secstate would be the job for him.

Anyway, the overall idea is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

That’s one idea from the Friedman column. The other is less uplifting, but must be faced. And it’s important enough that I’m writing a separate post about it.

No. No. No. Rob Gordon CANNOT be a woman

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

OK, I’m a little upset now.

I sort of heard on the radio this morning that Nick Hornby was going to be on Fresh Air tonight. I got a little excited about that, being such a huge fan of High Fidelity and all.

So I went looking to confirm what I’d heard. And I ran across this.

It seems that “High Fidelity” is being rebooted for Hulu. And in this version, Rob is female.

No. Way.

Why do I love High Fidelity? Well, for one thing, it’s hilarious. And the pop culture stuff is fun, especially the Top Five lists. But those aren’t the reasons why I think it’s one of the most profound books written by a living author.

My reverence for the work stems from the fact that no one else has ever come close to expressing something essential about the relationships between men and women in the slice of history in which I have lived and had my being. In other words, it is to my time what Jane Austen’s work was to hers.

Rob’s problem — an inability to see that what is truly important in life is our relationships with other human beings — takes a form that is particular to young (and, perhaps, old) males in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Rob cares about, and devotes most of his mental and spiritual energy to, pop culture. Specifically pop music, but movies and other manifestations as well.

It’s a problem that feeds on itself when similarly emotionally stunted young males gather, such as when Rob, Dick and Barry stand about in the usually empty record store arguing about their Top Five lists — while women are (presumably, since we don’t see them in this venue) off somewhere actually living life.

That’s the problem he has in his relationship with his typically far more emotionally mature girlfriend Laura.

SPOILER ALERT: One incident in the book illustrates the dichotomy beautifully. After their spectacular breakup (which finally was so painful that finally makes Rob’s Top Five list of worst splits), Rob and Laura are trying to make a go of it again, and whether they will succeed remains very much in doubt — on account of, you know, Rob.

They go to have dinner with some friends of Laura’s, a couple Rob doesn’t know. During the initial stages of the evening, Rob is really impressed. He likes these people. Laura observes this.

Then, when the couple is out of the room, Laura urges Rob to indulge his habit of inspecting his hosts’ record collection. And he is appalled. Their taste, in his exquisitely refined opinion, is horrible.

Laura knew this would be his reaction. And she watches to see if there will be an epiphany.

There sort of is, as Rob admits, but only to himself:

… that maybe, given the right set of peculiar, freakish, probably unrepeatable circumstances, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that’s important. I’m not going to be the one who explains to Barry how this might happen, though.

And feckless Rob, who is feckless in a particularly male sort of way, takes a tiny step toward maturity. But grumbles about it, accusing Laura: “You did that deliberately,” he says on the way home. “You knew all along I’d like them. It was a trick.”

It’s not that every male is like Rob, and every female like Laura. But the conflict between them, the gap between them, was colored by an essential difference that stated impressively true things about the relationships and differences between men and women.

Listen, sometimes it’s OK to change the gender of a character. It worked in the TV adaptation of The Night Manager, when Jonathan Pine’s case officer — who was a man in the book — is played by Olivia Colman. There were other changes that didn’t work, but that one was a great move. It gave the case officer/agent relationship an extra something that it didn’t have in the book.

But that book wasn’t trying to say something deep and true about the relations between men and women, and ways in which they are different.

High Fidelity was. (Actually, I don’t know that Hornby was trying to do all that, but he did. When I recommend the book to friends, I always describe it in those terms. That’s what’s impressive about it.)

I’ll try watching it, if it’s on the level of Hulu that I can get. (Some things, including some things I’d really like to see, aren’t.) But I suspect I’m not going to like it. It was a big enough leap that the original movie made the characters American instead of English. But it still worked because American males can be just as stunted as British ones, and in the same ways.

But with this change, that remains to be seen.

Don’t go changing things around on the foremast jacks

Screen-Shot-2016-07-09-at-8.39.46-AM

Only Bryan and Mike Fitts are likely to appreciate this, but I share it anyway…

I get a ridiculously large number of unsolicited offers to supply this blog with content, and pay me to run it.

Most I ignore. But this morning I was feeling more sociable than usual, so I responded by saying:

Not interested, thanks.

Well, that was a mistake. Because instead of going away, this person wrote back:

I can do $50 for 1 permanent (one time fee) article publish [article content of your choice of topic] with do follow link to sports betting or casino site.Will supply unique content as well.
Let me know.
Note :1.Article must not be any text like sponsored or advertise or like that
2. we can only pay by paypal.

I mean, set aside the fact that I have zero interest in promoting gambling, and that even if I were persuadable, an amount as small as $50 would just be insulting.

So I just responded,

I generate all my own copy, and that’s what my readers expect.

I had to hold myself back with both hands to keep from adding:

It is what they are used to, and they like what they’re used to.

Which always makes me smile whenever Patrick O’Brian says that about the foremast jacks in Jack Aubrey’s ships.

It makes me feel fond of them, fictional characters though they all are…

Throw something new at the foremast jacks, and they're likely to look at it like this...

Throw something new at the foremast jacks, and they’re likely to look at it like this…

This one’s going on my Amazon wish list

Hope 1

You may have already heard of this book — actually, it appears to be one of a series — but I had not when I happened to see it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

In this hot weather, I’ve taken to walking in the nearly deserted — but still-air-conditioned (at what cost, I know not) — Richland Mall during my daily exercise breaks. I allow myself the indulgence of doing a full sweep of B&N during these circuits. On this occasion, I was whizzing through the fiction section, went “What!?!” and had to turn on my heel and go back for another look at what I’d just passed.

Yep, it’s a murder mystery in which the parts of Holmes and Watson are played by Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And as with the Conan Doyle original, they are told from the perspective of Biden:

It’s been several months since the 2016 presidential election, and “Uncle Joe” Biden is puttering around his house, grouting the tile in his master bathroom, feeling lost and adrift in an America that doesn’t make sense anymore.

But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies in a suspicious accident…

OK, you’ve got me! I’ve gotta read it. It’s going on my Amazon wish list right… now. I might even rip off the cover and frame it.

Sure, it’s a gimmick, like this same author’s previous Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. But the gimmick works — on me, anyway — and I’ve gotta hand it to the huckster who came up with it…

Hope 3

Setting the record straight on ‘The Dirty Dozen’

Can you name them? Not these guys, the ones in the book...

Can you name them? Not these guys, the ones in the book…

I love it when I find out that someone somewhere has, at least for a brief moment, obsessed about something trivial that had obsessed me.

It makes me feel… almost normal. Or at least, human.

In the past, as an illustration of the perverse way that my brain works, I have bragged/told on myself for remembering the names of all the characters in The Dirty Dozen, which I read when I was about 13.

The book, mind you. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to name the 12 in the movie, because the movie doesn’t fully introduce them all.

Oh, and the list is different. This is partly because, for whatever reason, Archer Maggot — played by Telly Savalas — was a mashup of three very different characters from the book. Maggot was a redneck career criminal from Phenix City, Ala., a really malevolent, violent guy. Calvin Ezra Smith was a prison convert who constantly quoted Scripture. Myron Odell was a shy little rabbit of a man who was scared of women, and supposedly had killed a woman who came onto him sexually (which he vehemently denied).

I’m not sure why they combined those three into one, but somehow Savalas pulled it off, so hats off to him. But then they had to make up a couple of names of characters to replace Smith and Odell. Then there was the fact that Jim Brown’s character was nothing like the one black character in the book, so they changed his name from Napoleon White to Robert Jefferson. White had been an officer and an intellectual (he and Capt. Reisman have debates about the writings of T.E. Lawrence), which I guess they thought didn’t fit Brown, so they made Charles Bronson the ex-officer.

They went on to change several other characters’ names — sometimes just the first names — for reasons that would only be understandable to a Hollywood producer.

Anyway, I’m going on about this because today, while looking for something totally unrelated, I ran across this Los Angeles Times story from way back in 2000. And it contained this paragraph:

Can you name all 12? Roll call: Charles Bronson as Joseph Wladislaw; Jim Brown as Robert Jefferson; Tom Busby as Milo Vladek; John Cassavetes as Victor Franko; Ben Carruthers as Glenn Gilpin; Stuart Cooper as Roscoe Lever; Trini Lopez as Pedro Jimenez; Colin Maitland as Seth Sawyer; Al Mancini as Tassos Bravos; Telly Savalas as Archer Maggott; Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley; and Clint Walker as Samson Posey.

Wow, I thought. There’s someone else on the planet who has wasted gray cells memorizing the names of the Dirty Dozen! Worse, memorizing the names of the ones in the movie, not the real ones!

It gave me a fellow-feeling, if only for a moment, for this Donald Liebenson who wrote the piece…

Anyway, the real names, from the 1965 E.M. Nathanson novel:

  1. Victor Franko
  2. Archer Maggot
  3. Calvin Ezra Smith
  4. Myron Odell
  5. Glenn Gilpin
  6. Ken (not Seth) Sawyer
  7. Napoleon White
  8. Samson Posey
  9. Roscoe Lever
  10. Luis (not Pedro) Jimenez
  11. Vernon Pinkley
  12. Joe Wladislaw

dirty

Anna Karenina and Goldilocks

Something I was working on this morning for ADCO — it had to do with family court law — got me to thinking about Tolstoy.

Congratulate me, because I managed, through great exertion, to restrain myself from quoting the first line of Anna Karenina in the copy I was writing for the client:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

I knew that line, although I didn’t know it was in Anna Karenina. We were supposed to read that novel in one of my high school English classes, but I never did (although I can tell you what it’s about — I may have escaped reading it, but I couldn’t escape the class discussion). But I knew the line; it’s just one of those things you pick up over the years.

And I’ve always thought Tolstoy had it backwards. And Tolstoy’s own next paragraph (which I looked up just now) supports my position better than his:

Tolstoy

Tolstoy

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was so sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Nicely written, but what a trite situation! This family is not “unhappy in its own way.” If you tried to come up with a cliche for how a family becomes unhappy, this would be it. It’s the very first thing anyone would think of. Infidelity. How original.

Whereas I think happy families have to find their own way to being happy. No family is perfect, so each person in it has to negotiate around all the things that are “wrong” in order to achieve harmony. Each person makes adjustments in his or her expectations; they make peace with the complexities of interpersonal relationships. And all those complex factors make for unique paths to happiness.

Of course, I suppose all that could be summarized simply with a word such as “forbearance” just as one could sum up the Oblonsky’s unhappiness with “infidelity.” But still, my point is that there’s no greater sameness among happy families than among unhappy ones. Among each set, there are both common and uncommon factors.

Now if he’d said, “Unhappy families are more interesting than happy families, if you’re a novelist,” I’d have gotten his point. Plot calls for conflict. But that’s not what he said. Or at least, that’s not the way it’s been translated.

The line is a good opener, like “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” or “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I’ve just always thought it was wrong.

Others are more impressed by it. In fact, I learned today, it is the basis of something called “the Anna Karenina principle.” (Maybe I’d have learned it back in 1970 if I’d read the book. Or maybe not.) According to Wikipedia, it goes like this:

In other words: in order to be happy, a family must be successful with respect to every one of a range of criteria, including sexual attraction, money issues, parenting, religion, and relations with in-laws. Failure on only one of these counts leads to unhappiness. Thus, there are more ways for a family to be unhappy than happy.

In statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significance tests: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesisand only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.

This principle is in fact used to explain all sorts of things. But I noticed something odd… there was no mention of “Goldilocks planets,” or the lack of such hospitable places. It seems that the rarity of planets that could sustain human life would be the perfect illustration of the Karenina principle: Everything has to be “just right” — gravity, temperature, atmosphere, chemical composition, distance from its star — to produce a “happy” planet where we could live. All planets that support human life would be remarkably alike. But fail in any one of a list of key criteria and, unhappily, you can’t live there.

Right?

Anyway, I failed to find on Google where anyone had pointed out the relationship between the two concepts. So I thought I would.

That’s all. I’ll go away now…