14 December 2013

The Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan

An audio book.

This is non-fiction, a collection of essays and short works by Amy Tan.

“Thanks to my mother, I was raised to have a morbid imagination. When I was a child, she often talked about death as warning, as an unavoidable matter of fact. Little Debbie's mom down the block might say, 'Honey, look both ways before crossing the street.' My mother's version: 'You don't look, you get smash flat like sand dab.' (Sand dabs were the cheap fish we bought live in the market, distinguished in my mind by their two eyes affixed on one side of their woebegone cartoon faces.)

The warnings grew worse, depending on the danger at hand. Sex education, for example, consisted of the following advice: 'Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.” 

At one point, the author discovers herself in Cliff Notes.

The last essay relates the author's battle with Lyme Disease. It's interestingly written, and probably should be required reading for all medical people, as well as anyone likely to become exposed to the right kind of tick.

The Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges

An electronic book, borrowed from the PC Library.

Inverted totalitarianism.

From The Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges, Ch. II, “Permanent War.”

There is no national institution left that can accurately be described as democratic.  Citizens, rather than authentically participating in power, are [sic] have only virtual opinions, in what Charlotte Twight calls “participatory fascism.” They are reduced to expressing themselves on issues that are meaningless, voting on American Idol or in polls conducted by the power elite. The citizens of Rome, stripped of political power, are allowed to vote to spare or kill a gladiator in the arean, a similar form of hollow public choice.

“Inverted totalitarianism reverses things,” Wolin writes…

How does this compare to or work with McLuhan’s laws of media, where a medium reverses?

Reversal: Every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics.

Hedges on Chomsky: 
Chomsky is one fo the few intellectuals who challenges the structure and inequity of corporate capitalism and our state of permanent war...Chomsky is deeply reviled by the liberal class...combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp of detail, and a searing intellect. He curtly dismisses our two-party system as a mirage orchestrated by the corporate state...

"It is very similar to late Weimar Germany," Chomsky said when I spoke with him. [footnote to Noam Chomsky, Interview, New York]..."tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system..."
"The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen..."
"...There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegla immigrants and the blacks...We will be told we have to defend ourselves...And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany...the right-wing Republicans...will sweep the [November 2010] election."
Hedges: "[Chomsky] reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive."

Liberal class has supported war, in this way remaining in the "circle of the power elite." Viz: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq -- all supported by liberals as necessary. The argument against Vietnam was not so much that it was wrong, but that we were losing. Warning about Iran, same BS being peddled.

Michael Moore's speech when he accepted Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine" in which he shamed Bush and characterized both the war and the presidency as "fictitious." "Moore was portrayed as a 'far-left' radical who needed to be escorted off the premises."

"...America's liberal armchair warriors are the 'useful idiots' of the War on Terror." [footnote to Tony Judt, "Bush's Useful Idiots," London Review of Books 28:18 (September 21, 2006), 3-5]


$345B approved for Afg. war
foreign aid to Afg since 2002 total $17B

WWI: rise of mass propaganda, defeat of populism
Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee & Schenectady before war

Freud: emotions are not subject to reason

"The great muckraking journalists, artists, and progressives, who had used their talents to expose abuses of the working classes joined the [WWI] war effort."

Espionage Act, Sedition Act

Eugene Debs imprisoned after making anti-war speech in 1918.

"Vigilante groups, roused by the enflamed war propaganda and nationalist call to arms, physically attacked and at times lynched war opponents."

"The former socialists and activists were, perhaps, the most susceptible to Wilson's utopian dreams...their combined effort to sell the war corrupted the liberal class."

Propaganda did not stop with the end of the war. Techniques learned and acquired were quickly adopted for other uses by government and business interests.

Edward Bernays, Freud's nephew, 1928. Father of modern PR. "It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace." (Quoted by Hedges from Bernay's 1928 book Propaganda)

"The Hun...was supplanted by the Bolshevik...it was corporate advertising, rather than government witch hunts, which would prove the most deadly. News had to do battle with huge, sophisticated and well-funded propaganda campaigns. It would also be denied the tools of emotional persuasion perfected by mass propaganda. News would be restricted to fact, to balance and objectivity. The powerful techniques of appealing to emotion, of creating pseudo-events that a public could confuse with reality, of constantly taking the pulse of the public through surveys and opinion polls to appear to give people what they desired, would be left in the hands of the enemies of truth. The public would be trained, as Bourne wrote, to communicated in a language in which 'simple syllogisms are substituted for analysis, things are known by their labels, [and] our heart's desire dictates what we shall see.'"

"...Civil and political discourse became poisoned by loyalty oaths, spy paranoia, and distrust of dissent. This manufactured fear...[persuaded] the country [to] devote...half of all government spending to defense following World War II, and ... billions more into its intelligence service..."

"...corporate and government propaganda sharply narrowed the parameters of acceptable debate..."

"...nearly everything...disseminated from ...corporations such as Viacom, Disney, General Electric, and Murdoch's News Corporation..."

Dwight Macdonald: "American radicalism was making great strides right up to 1914; the war was the rock on which it shattered."

re-interpretation of reality: propaganda, mass culture

Embrace of simplification: Macdonald warns against slogans, clichés. (Sound bites)

The Dies Committee, root of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

Federal Theatre Project (WPA) suppressed

The disappointment of the Beat Generation -- quote from Malcolm Cowley:
Whatever course they followed, almost all the radicals of 1917 were defeated by events. ...talk about revolution gave way to psychoanalysis. 
In truth: I ran out of gas and didn't finish this book. It's quite a sermon, and I suppose I grew weary of that. Nonetheless, a great summary that tells very well the story of how we got to where we are in the First World today.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf 2011

An electronic book, from the Pierce County Library.

An unusual story, narrated by a character named Tony Webster. It begins when he is an adolescent, becomes friends with a young man named Adrian, and falls in love with a young woman named Veronica. The story is told from Tony's old age. He is retired, perhaps seventy years old. He tells how he fell out with Veronica, who went on to form a partnership with Adrian, which he very much resented.

This is a story about consequences, remorse, and regret, but it is not a depressing novel.

Life does not reward merit, Tony Webster tells us.

13 December 2013

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Dedicated to Christopher Hitchens.

An e-book, from the PC Library.

copyright 2012

"My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing."

These are the first two sentences of the novel.

This took me less than two days to read. It was entertaining, and quite clever. My only criticism is that it might just be a bit too clever: I'm not sure that the "trick" of this work doesn't overshadow the rest of it.

But I don't regret reading it, and may try McEwan again, just to see what else he does, if he does indeed do anything else?

10 December 2013

Body of Evidence, by Patricia Cornwell

An audio book.

Kay Scarpetta is the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Virginia. In this novel, Scarpetta is drawn into the case of the murder of a young novelist and her mentor. The setting is mostly the Richmond VA area, and some in Key West.

Good commuting entertainment.

The time setting is approximately late 80s. It's interesting to note the lack of cell phones, and the non-ubiquity of computers, although computers are used to some degree by the law enforcement agencies. The FBI is involved.

07 December 2013

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt; by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco illustrates and enhances this book with graphic storytelling.

Native Americans in Pine Ridge, SD. Prisoner of War camp. Alcoholism, deprivation, destruction of a civilization.

Camden, NJ: a sacrifice zone.

Florida: slavery persists.

We...have undergone a coup d'etat ... by our largely anonymous corporate overlords... We have now entered the era of naked force. The internal security and surveillance state, justified in the name of the war on terror, will be the instrument used against us. ...[W]e can all be denied habeas corpus. The warrantless wiretapping, eavesdropping, and monitoring of tens of millions of citizens, once illegal, is now legal. The state has given itself the power to unilaterally declare U. S. citizens as enemy combatants and torture or assassinate them, as Barack Obama did when he in September 2011 ordered the killing of the American-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. [footnote] The state can deny U. S. citizens suspected of what it vaguely defines as 'terrorist' activities the right to a trial. It can turn these citizens over to the military, which can hold them without charges indefinitely. ...[The U. S.] will be no different from other totalitarian regimes throughout history. Police forces ... have been transformed into paramilitary units ...[I]f the pressure mounts...these...forces will become ubiquitous and people will be killed.  (Page 240)

Hedges & Sacco have written an effective and inspiring indictment of the current socioeconomic repression in the "First World." 

19 November 2013

A Cold Heart, by Jonathan Kellerman

An Alex Delaware / Milo Sturgis novel. This was an audio book. Published in 2003.

This book begins with the murder of a blues guitarist named Baby Boy who has just come out of rehab and is on the road to making a comeback with his music. As Delaware and Sturgis become involved, as well as Det. Petra Connor and a new character named Det. Stahl, it becomes evident that this murder is related to others, and the mystery deepens.

I was a bit worried about Detective Eric Stahl, as he seemed doomed from the beginning of the story, similar to the joke about the nameless character you've never seen before in any given Star Trek episode, but he turned out to be a bit more multi-dimensional.

It's a good mystery with decent denoument. Kellerman is a master of the form.

At this stage of the series, Delaware is not living with Robin, and has a new woman-friend named Allison, who is also a psychotherapist. Milo is still with Rick, Petra is single. Eric Stahl's story is revealed near the end of the book.

This recording enhanced many miles of commuting.

14 November 2013

The Story of English, by Robert MacCrum and others

A fascinating accompaniment to the PBS TV-series that aired in the early 1980s.

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

Susie, at age fourteen, is raped and murdered by a neighbor, Mr. Harvey. For the rest of the book, Susie narrates the story from her vantage point in heaven.

While this is almost too poignant, it is handled fairly well. We see the effect that Susie's death has on her family and friends, and follow them for several years afterward.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia, at the beginning of this novel, heads up into the hills near her home to meet a lover. She is, instead, waylaid by the sight of thousands, if not millions, of monarch butterflies clinging to the trees. She returns to her home and family, and her life is changed.

This book has feminism, environmentalism, religion, the people and culture of Appalachia, the nature of families, and the love of parents for their children.

It may have been a tad too simple, a bit maudlin, but mostly I enjoyed it.

08 November 2013

The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L. Carter


This is an audio book.

I just read (actually, listened to) a very entertaining and, I think, well-done novel entitled The Emperor of Ocean Park,  by Stephen L. Carter. This is basically a mystery, with political, legal, and racial issues mixed up in it. The mystery is pretty good, with the requisite unexpected twist(s) of plot. There are sufficient red herrings. The characters are all very good, to my mind.

One thing about Ocean Park that makes it extra-interesting is that the main character is an upper-middle-class African-American,  a law professor whose father had been a Federal Court of Appeals Judge. The father dies early in the story, and there is suspicion about his death. I won't try to tell the whole thing, I doubt that I could, but it's a really absorbing read. And through all of it, one gets the impression of having a really unique point-of-view, that is, if one does not happen to be an African-American.

More than once I felt that the author beat certain political drums unnecessarily. His issues happen to be abortion (he's against it) and charter schools (he's for them). Since I disagree with his positions, these drumbeats rankled particularly, and I don't think I failed to notice any. My opinion here could be suspect because of my politics, but I think Carter could have left all of that out without harming the story at all. 

If economy is to be celebrated in writing, removing anything that is not necessary to the work is an obvious goal. I wonder, however, if Carter would not disagree with me. He may have felt that including these issues was important to setting the scene or tone, to providing insight into what is (at least to me) a little-known stratum of American Society: the Middle Class, even professional,  African American. 

I keep a blog of (some of) what I read. I don't always write much about a given book, but I try to include enough to at least jog my memory if I'm trying to remember what it was about. This email is going to do double-duty, as I'm going to use it as my blog entry for this book. 

Now that's economy.


14 October 2013

The Golden Orange, by Joseph Wambaugh

Starring Winnie Farlowe, ex-cop with a bad back, who becomes entangled with a very unlikely woman in another of Wambaugh's wonderful Southern California police-related novels. Great plot, very entertaining, with lots of local color. Set mostly in Newport Beach.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

This was an audio book.

An interesting story, well done, that deals primarily with a human trafficking case in which several would-be migrants to the USA lose their lives. The bad guys include a Ukranian and Korean gangster who have formed an unlikely and unholy alliance, and a low-level hustler from San Pedro who, in becoming their lackey, has found himself seriously out of his depth.

There is a central character, Dinko Babich, of Croatian ancestry, a young man who lives in San Pedro with his widowed mother. He falls in love with a young girl who has been illicitly transported from Mexico to work as a stripper. She is in deep trouble with the above-mentioned gangsters.

Woven in and out of the plot are a group of wonderful LAPD characters. There is the story of these police officers, that of the gangsters, the young Mexican girl, Dinko and his mother--and all of these stories play out together, rushing in and out of the focus of the novel like the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

And one mustn't forget Hollywood. Hollywood is all over, and all through this book. There are the super-hero impersonators, the stars in the pavement, and the insanity that is, in the words of the cops, "fucking Hollywood."

This was a terrific novel, of course, which provided a lot of boredom-relief on my commute for a few days.

07 October 2013

Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke

A Hackberry Holland novel.

This one got a little bit long. For the first time, I noticed that I was getting impatient with Burke's flowery language and excessive descriptions. Holland's character, and that of his deputy, are noble and attractive, but after a while perhaps just a bit too good to believe.

But still, after all is said and done, I read the whole thing.

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Bosch, post-9 Dragons. A fabulous read, another great Bosch adventure, and yet another reprieve from the impending retirement of the great detective. Michael Connelly does not disappoint.

Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer

This is a book about memory, and about memory-champions.

Very readable, and interesting. Foer delves into the world of memory contests, a thing of which I was unaware. These competitions are more popular, and on a higher level, in Europe.

Foer describes complicated "memory palaces" and other mental devices where one may "store" items for future regurgitation. While the methods he describes seem to work well for him, and others, I can't imagine attempting to furnish my brain in this way. Not only does it strike me as improbable of success, the prospect of this type of mental effort bores me in advance and gives me an impatient headache.

Nonetheless, Foer has written a fascinating-enough book that I read from cover to cover in a short time.

Not long after reading this book did I encounter an article in the 24-31 December 2012 New Yorker by Foer entitled "Utopian for Beginners," an account of the constructed language Ithkuil, and its creator, John Quijada. I read almost the entire article before discovering who the author was. This article is worth finding and reading, also, if only for its very strange ending.

Utopian for Beginners, link to www.newyorker.com

USA Memory Championship home page.

23 August 2013

The New Centurions, by Joseph Wambaugh

This book, which was published circa 1970, is quite dated, but nevertheless I devoured it. The writing pulled me into seamy early 1960s Los Angeles, seen through the eyes of three young policemen. The story begins in the Academy, and progresses through five years of experience, through the Watts riot of 1965.

My friend Marshall loaned me this book, a very old paperback copy with extremely dark and brittle pages. This was not a shortcoming, it lent to the ambience of the story, taking place in a dim, smoky, black and white world of heat, humidity, and uncomfortable clothing.

So many cigarettes, cigars, and pipes were smoked that I was suffering from literary bronchitis by the end. It's odd how, in 2013, one recoils at the use of the word "Negro," once considered a respectful term for an African-American person. At least, as a white person in that time, I was taught that it was respectful. I don't believe that it's considered to be so anymore.

What an excellent novel, and a terrifically entertaining read. It's the first Wambaugh I've read, and I look forward to many more.

Watts Riot, Wikipedia Page

11 July 2013

The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly

Mickey Haller, aka "The Lincoln Lawyer," has been out of commission for a couple of years. When he decides to begin practicing again, he's surprised by inheriting the caseload of an old friend, Jerry Vincent, who has just been murdered. Haller finds that, among other cases, there is a high-profile murder defense of a Hollywood film mogul. As he delves into this case, it becomes very complicated, and dangerous.

Connelly is a master of this type of writing. I've enjoyed a few other of his novels, and ripped through this one at speed. Harry Bosch, the taciturn LAPD detective, figures importantly in this book, and plays a role in the interesting denoument.

Here are the opening words of this book, which are repeated at least twice later on:

Everybody lies.
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The vicitms lie.

25 June 2013

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

This book contains four stories:

  • 1922 -- Murder on the plains, and its consequences.
  • Big Driver -- a writer returning from a public appearance has bad luck on the road.
  • Fair Extension -- in which one of literature's more classic characters makes an appearance.
  • A Good Marriage -- a wife finds out more than she would like to about her husband.
Stephen King is someday going to be known as a great writer of our time. Unfortunately, I think he's been given short shrift by the literary community, probably considered a "genre" writer, and isn't seriously considered to be among the current greats. No matter: I have spent some genuinely wonderful hours reading King's work, and this book was everything I could have hoped it to be. 

King has perhaps matured, or cooled down, or become a little less fantastic in his storytelling; but I wish to say that such great works of fantasy as "It," "The Stand,"  "Salem's Lot," or "The Shining" lose nothing by their inclusion of forces and beings from dimensions not normally experienced in reality. For that matter, "The Shining" was not driven by fantasy so much as alcoholism, and a terrible dementia no less real for having been vividly described. 

Full Dark, No Stars contains almost no ghosts. The gentleman in "Fair Extension" may be fantastic, but his existence has been fairly well accepted by human beings for many centuries. Instead, this book has, in King's own words, "ordinary people in extraordinary situations." (from the Afterword) 

I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes ... may sometimes be vain. ...nobility ... resides ... in trying to do the right thing ... when we fail ... hell follows. (ibid)

I know from other readings that King has a background of New England Protestant religion, and whether or not he personally believes in Hell, I know that its geography is familiar to him. King is a journeyman writer, who has literally written more books than I have been able to read, and I admire him beyond measure.

I can't recommend this book strongly enough. Go get it, and read it. Enjoy.

18 April 2013

To Read; 25 March 2013

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (began reading on 13 Dec 2013)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos.

All That Is, by Janes Salter

Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City
by Robin Nagle  [Barnes and Noble Link]

Poets to read: Weldon Kees, Kathleen Rooney
Cynthia Huntington
Nikky Finney

Sara Miller:

I wish I could keep my thoughts in order
and my ducks in a row.
I wish I could keep my ducks in a thought
or my thoughts in a duck...

“Countermeasures,” by Sara Miller

Short stories: Carol Shields

Mary Roach 

I suppose that's enough for now.

18 April 2013 

13 February 2013

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, by Lucia Perillo

Poetry. Copper Canyon Press. 978-1-55659-397-0

I have seldom read a book of poetry from cover to cover in less than 2 days, but I plowed through these. What pleasure. I read about Lucia Perillo in a copy of The Nation magazine and thought she sounded good. She is.

From "My Father Kept the TV On:"

while the books lay open, scattered facedown
like turtles sunning, the jackets hunched, with a little
hump in the hunch from the trough of the spine...

If I'm going to choose my nostalgia, it is a no-brainer
that I'm going to side with books, with the days
before the lithium-ion battery, but after
Philip Roth and John le Carré were born books not too
highbrow or too low, but sometimes thick
and overdue. Books the fathers read to escape us...



V. S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness
various stories

All of Us, by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver's collected poems, maybe all of them, are in this volume.


Delights and Shadows, by Ted Kooser

I first encountered Ted Kooser when someone on a poetry forum mentioned his name and a book called The Poetry Home Repair Manual. In that book, Kooser, one-time Poet Laureate of the United States of America, gives plenty of plain advice to aspiring poets, including an admonition not to take too much advice. One important principle of the Manual is that poetry is communication. Kooser teaches that the poet's job is to reach directly into the reader's "heart," to touch her or him in a way that nothing else can.

Delights and Shadows is a book of poems that brings the reader into Kooser's world, and connects her or him in such a way that, although the location is unmistakably the flat, agrarian Great Plains, and the people are his neighbors and relatives, there is no difference: Kooser connects as a human being who has worked, loved, hated, won, and lost. He has been young, and is growing old. He has lived around people of great wisdom, and people of low intelligence; great hearts, and seemingly no heart at all.

From "Creamed Corn:"

"...these Jamaicans were different.
They kept to themselves, in loose clusters,
and knives flashed from the shadows
when they picked their teeth or scraped
Iowa from under their pale, perfect nails...

...Word got around
that out of pure spite and meanness,
sometimes they peed in the creamed corn
...Years later,
wherever we've gone, whatever we've come to,
our ignorance spoils the creamed corn."


Available Light, by Marge Piercy

I've mentioned my discovery of Marge Piercy elsewhere. "Available Light" is a collection of poems that I have found to be eminently readable, entertaining, and just what I want from such a work. Piercy's personality (or at least the one she wishes to project) comes through loud and clear. She is a feminist, in love with her husband (Ira Wood), and a Jew.


Poetry Foundation entry: Marge Piercy

Tag Man, by Archer Mayor


A detective novel set in Vermont, part of a series.  3-1/2 out of 5.

01 February 2013

Allan Cheuse on NPR notes

Alan Cheuse recommending some winter thrillers. They are "The Rage" by Gene Kerrigan, "Ratlines" by Stuart Neville, and "The Third Bullet" by Stephen Hunter.

NPR All Things Considered 31 January 2013