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Showing posts from October, 2013

The Decider

Hard to tell from this review in the New York Times how deep Days of Fire goes into the relationship between Bush and Cheney.  This appears to be the cornerstone of Peter Baker's 800+ page telling of the House of Bush.

David Frum's point that Bush was "his own man" is more likely his own than that of Baker, although he references a quote from the book made by a lifelong friend of Bush.  The consensus opinion is that Bush relied heavily on Cheney and Rumsfeld in his first term, but when things started to come undone in the second term, he reached out to other advisers, notably Condi Rice.  Cheney's deteriorating health no doubt contributed to this.  Rumsfeld was forced out of the administration, with Robert Gates coming in as the "clean-up" man.

I'm sure Peter Baker goes into all this in copious detail, which should make for an interesting read for those so inclined.  Baker covered the White House throughout the eight years, and had access to all t…

Jefferson's Bourbon

Some enterprising whiskey maker has tried to cash in on Jefferson's name, if not his legacy.  From most accounts, Thomas Jefferson was a wine drinker, not a whiskey drinker.   He had a particular fondness for Madiera.  Fortified wine traveled better than typical fermented wine.  He also liked Sherry and Italian sparkling wines like Nebbiolo.  The good folks of Monticello took the time to compile a list of his journey entries on the subject.

So, why bourbon?  The first distillery was recorded in Virginia in 1783, although home batches were probably being distilled long before.  This was before Kentucky statehood in 1792, as these sour mash whiskeys have long been associated with Kentucky and Tennessee.  I suppose one could argue that Jefferson probably had a taste of this quintessential American drink, but apparently never recorded his impressions.

Whiskey was indeed popular throughout the country, which is why Hamilton's tax on distilled spirits wasn't very well received,…

Noah: The True Story

It seems the concept of history is becoming ever more subjective given this leaked tagline,

"The epic story of one man and the most remarkable event in our history"

It seems Darren Aronofsky and Paramount Studios want us to believe in the event that transpires in their new film Noah due out in March.  The leaked preview is rather murky, since it appears to have been captured on a cell one of the screenings of the film.  Paramount is desperately trying to get Aronofsky to make some edits so that the film will be more palatable for the religious folks it foresees coming to this movie.

It seems Americans are the most gullible when it comes to believing the events presented in the Bible.  According to this Gallup survey, no less than 30 per cent take the Bible literally, which has dropped a little over the years, but still represents a very sizable market as far as film studios are concerned.  Religious epics generally do well, as long as they don't stray too far fr…

A closely watched governor's race

The Virginia governor's race has gotten nasty, very nasty, with Ken Cuccinelli putting all his eggs in the Tea Party basket, hoping that it will energize the base of the Republican Party to carry him past Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic party chairman.  McAuliffe has built a sizable lead in the month leading up to the Nov. 5 election, which has led to desperate measures on Cuccinelli's part.

The current state attorney general is a Tea Party favorite, but like other Republican candidates the past year had tried to move more to the center of the party.  However, that didn't seem to work and now he is calling in Rick Santorum and other arch social conservatives to mobilize the rural base of the GOP in hopes of offsetting the strong appeal McAuliffe has in the Washington DC metro area of Virginia.

The state appears more divided than ever.  This is a state that previously split in the build-up to the civil war, with West Virginia becoming a new state in the Union.  Now,…

More Letters from Hemingway

Not to be outdone by the ongoing Mark Twain Project, we have the second volume of Hemingway's letters (1923-25), written largely from Paris, where he was in the process of finding his voice.  Judging from this review in the Kansas City Star, we read a "relaxed, playful, impulsive, solicitous, boastful and indignant" young Hemingway, pretty much covering the spectrum of emotions.  He was only starting to garner attention for short pieces like Soldier's Home, which oddly enough referenced The Kansas City Star.  He had moved well beyond being a cub reporter for the newspaper and was now looking back at the war and his Midwest roots.

He moved in a great circle of writers which included Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, and seemed to enjoy taking swipes at fellow American writers like Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather.  He apparently held Stein's opinions in high regard and badly wanted her to review his collection of short stories, In Our Time, but Stein refused, earn…

Hiding behind a Fortune

It seems Bill Dedman stumbled upon a great story when he saw a mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut marked down more than 30 per cent.  It was still out of is budget at $24 million but he sensed a great story, and indeed he was right.  What followed was a string of empty mansions owned by the mysterious Huguette Clark, who he ultimately tracked down in Beth Israel Medical Center.

Here was a 103 year old heiress spending her last days in a hospital, screening the out the world as best she could, content to watch the Smurfs and the Flintstones and revel in her doll collection fitted with Christian Dior dresses.  As Janet Maslin noted in her review, Dedman and co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., could have reveled in all her oddities, but instead they tell a fascinating tale of wealth gained and squandered for the most part, but with still enough left to keep Ms. Clark in relative comfort.

They managed to capture her story the best they could before she passed away the following year, re…

Age of Dissent

It is time to start thinking of our next reading group, and I can't imagine a better subject than free speech.  Thomas Healy, a former federal appeals court law clerk has written an account of the landmark case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes changed the course of history.  The Great Dissent has received sterling reviews and at a little more than 300 pages can be easily digested in the course of a month.

Also worth noting is that Holmes was a great friend of Henry and William James.  He came out of the strong intellectual ferment of Boston.  Was an active abolitionist at a young age, enlisted in the Massachusetts militia, suffering wounds at Antietam and Chancellorsville during the Civil War.

In his dissent of the verdict reached by the Supreme Court on the Abrams case, Holmes seemed to go back on his earlier Scheneck decision, but he didn't see the pamphlets being distributed by Abrams as representing a clear and present danger to the United States.  This paved the way for m…

Torpedo on Wheels

It has been fun following Elon Musk's bid to build the perfect electric car.  His Tesla Model S scored a near perfect rating in Consumer Reports, and since then his stock has soared in the business world, much to the chagrin of the big automakers and Forbes magazine, which continually rants over what it sees as overpriced stock.  Yet, Musk seems to be weathering the storm, thanks to his patented electric drivetrain and other components, which he sells to Mercedes Benz and Toyota.  This is clearly a man with a vision.

He reminds me a lot of Preston Tucker, who created one of the most innovative cars in 1948, nicknamed "The Torpedo on Wheels."  It had a great number of features that would become standard in the automotive world, but were seen as too revolutionary at the time, and his fledgling auto company was buried under an avalanche of negative publicity, largely put out by the "Big Three" auto companies.  Francis Ford Coppola paid tribute to The Man and His …

"I Got Overrun"

The Heritage Foundation and its benefactors, the Koch Bros, have made it adamantly clear the fight over "Obamacare" isn't over.   It was nice seeing the Wall Street Cheat Sheet offering a relatively unbiased assessment of the Affordable Care Act and health insurances exchanges thus far, piecing out the high blown rhetoric we have heard the last few weeks.  It seems that the Republicans' worst fear has come to life with an estimated 600,000 persons already signed up for "Obamacare."  But, I well imagine we can expect another showdown in January, despite Mitch McConnell's assurances to the contrary.

Once again, it doesn't seem the Republicans learned anything from this debacle.  At worst, they deem it a tactical mistake.  Some are even declaring victory and expecting the issue to propel them to midterm gains in Congress. It is this type of wishful thinking that seems to have buoyed the GOP since last November, ignoring the electoral thumping they too…

Making slaves of us all

12 Years a Slave sounds like an enormously big undertaking for Steve McQueen, mining American history and pulling out of it a searing tale of slavery as told by Solomon Northup.  McQueen's film was a big success in Europe and has received rave reviews in its American premiere.

Unlike Tarrantino's pulpy Django Unchained, this isn't "grindhouse" fiction, but a true story laid out bare on the screen that has made audiences wince with pain.  McQueen's roots are in the British West Indies, so for him this is a story close to home.  Not something to be triffled with.  
I've always liked Chiwetel Ejiofor, and this appears to be his breakthrough role.  McQueen also introduces a Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong'o, as a young slave girl sadistically tortured by her master, played by the ever-compelling Michael Fassbender. The only tip of the hat to Hollywood is Brad Pitt pitching up at the end to save the day, but it doesn't seem like McQueen is content with a…

The Trouble with Gatsby

It seems that portraits of novels are all the rage.  I found a sample version in my amazon vine box.  It will soon be released in the United States.

Sarah Churchwell takes a lens to The Great Gatsby, and judging by this review in The Guardian does a reasonably good job of presenting the "Careless People" that surrounded F. Scott Fitzgerald, he included.  But, Gatsby is one of those books that has been endlessly explored since it was first published in 1925.  Judging by the review, Churchwell doesn't add anything new to the mountain of research that has been done, but instead offers a picturesque story of the Roaring Twenties.

More interesting perhaps is this stage production of The Great Gatsby by the Calgary Theater.

a fiddling meander

From @darth via the Guardian

How we learned to love the atomic bomb

Eric Schlosser pulls the lid off the supposed safety precautions that guarded American nuclear weapons in his new book, Command and Control.  Disquieting to say the least to read this review by Walter Russell Mead. One can only hope that safety has improved over the years.  Schlosser gives one more reason why nuclear disarmament should be a top priority, especially with so many nations wanting to join the "nuclear club."

The Good Ol' Days

Bill Bryson has always been fun to read for his anecdotal observations but now he turns his lens on history, One Summer: America 1927, in particular.  According to this review in The Guardian, the style is pretty much the same, reveling in a cast of characters and events that range from Babe Ruth to the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, with about everything you can imagine in between.  He particularly revels in pop icons, calling out Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs, while treading lightly and erroneously on American expats like Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  Odd, given that Bryson himself was, and is again, an expat, now chancellor at Durham University.  But, I suppose he felt a little homesick for the American past and decided to gambol through the Roaring Twenties.

Mad Dogs and Congressmen

There is something Orwellian about the situation in Congress.  Boehner and his fellow GOP leaders no longer seem able to control their mad dogs, as they chomp at everything in sight.  As I noted before, the House Tea Party caucus only numbers 47 persons, yet because of it "ideological purity" has apparently intimidated the GOP.  This was their chance to rein in their dogs, but instead the Teabaggers are running wild, pulling the party in all sorts of directions it doesn't want to go.

I'm reminded of "Animal Farm," where the pigs used the dogs to keep all the other farm animals in line. In this case the pigs are the conservative corporate interests which are using the Tea Party to keep the GOP in line.  Odd, considering the Tea Party was supposed to be a "grass roots" movement with no leaders and advocated a decentralized government.  Hmmm, wasn't that what Communism was originally about?

One can almost imagine Ron Paul as "Snowball,"…

Our Chekhov

After what seemed a rather obscure set of Nobel prize winners, the award for literature comes close to home in being granted to Alice Munro.  James Wood, in The New Yorker, callls her "Our Chekhov" and says it is "deliriously incredible" that she should win the award after so many years.

Not so long she announced her retirement. Famous for her sets of short stories that read as organic wholes, Munro has developed a devoted following over the years. Not so long ago, she handpicked a selection of 17 stories for Everyman's Library entitled Carried Away.  Several collections have come out since, including Dear Life, which apparently was meant as her last words.

The rumor mill was rife, with many expecting either she or Philip Roth, who also recently announced his retirement, to nab the award this year.  Munro is a bit of a surprise because she seemed to disdain politics, which the Nobel committee generally gravitates toward.  This year, the Nobel committee gave t…

Rolling thunder

Sounds like Brenda Wineapple may have used Bruce Catton's The Coming Fury as a jumping off point for her brave new book, Ecstatic Nation, in which she examines the tumultuous nation in the throes of disunity, offering up the many disparate forces at work.  There have been many positive reviews, including this one from the New York Times.  Wineapple takes her narrative through the Civil War and Reconstruction, which should make for very interesting reading.

Who, me?

It seems no one wants to take the blame for the current government shutdown, no longer even the Tea Party, which manufactured this current crisis with a little help from their friends.

As this graph shows, Pres. Obama has already come down quite a bit from his original proposed 2014 budget of $1.2 bil to $986 bil, which is only $19 bil different than Paul Ryan's 2014 budget.  As I see it, Obama and the Democrats have met the Republicans much more than half way, but here is the GOP quibbling over 2 per cent when they got the President to shave off 18 per cent off his original budget.

Since sequestration, we have seen spending cuts across the board.  A sequestration the Republican party refuses to own up to, much like their current shutdown.  In their minds, it is Obama's "intractability" that is the cause of these actions.  It really defies all credulity, especially when you look at the numbers.  Yet, the blame game persists.

The polls seem to have swung in favor of …

The Man Comes Around

Many have tried, but it seems someone has finally succeeded in penning a biography of Johnny Cash.  Robert Hilburn certainly has the credentials, and judging from the advance reviews the intimacy as well to approach a complex man and tell his story.

A few years back, James Mangold tried to capture the Man in Black on screen, but the result was a lurid portrait that went after his insecurities and not the charm that elevated him to the top of the country music world.  Joaquin Phoenix certainly gave all his intensity to the role and there are some sterling moments.  However, the film fell flat in my mind.

Of course, the idea of trying to capture a person who is larger than life is a major undertaking, especially so soon after he had passed away.  Cash had reached completely across the musical spectrum, covering songs like Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode and Hurt by Nine Inch Nails in his final recordings.  He never ceased to amaze, and made Personal Jesus into a personal anthem.

This w…


Day 3 of the government shutdown is capped with a shootout on Capitol Hill, as a woman in a black sedan ran into the bollards in front of the Capitol after a chase down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Apparently, she had first tried to storm the gate at the White House.  The woman had a one-year old child in the car with her.

Of course, one can only speculate (which the news media so much likes to do these days) that maybe her reason was that WIC had been stopped due to the shutdown. The identified woman, Miriam Carey, seems to have been unemployed and suffering from post-partum depression.  The story has been run all over the world, and is symbolic of the effects the shutdown is having on a great number of Americans, while Fox pundits call the shutdown no big deal.

This Fox op-ed piece calls it a "slimdown," even though the shutdown is costing Americans an estimated additional $12.5 million per hour, since the spending bill will eventually be passed.  Of course, there have been gra…

Ten Freedom Summers

I've been listening to Wadada Leo Smith's breathtaking tribute to the Civil Rights movement in Ten Freedom Summers, recalling the years 1954-64.  It is a fantastic opus from a man who was part of the movement and has contributed greatly to the body of jazz music.  There is an air of improvisation in these compositions, and I imagine don't sound quite the same way twice on stage, but you can listen to them at Grooveshark.

Portrait of a Novel

Michael Gorra starts with an elderly Henry James in his adopted home of Rye, sitting down at the table, taking his pen to the pages of Portrait of a Lady and working through the text anew.  Apparently, James was an unsatisfied editor, never content with his work, and reshaped his 1881 novel considerably in 1906.  So much so that it appeared new to American readers.  
Of course, many persons probably hadn't read it the first time.  Portrait of a Lady did well in publication, but mostly in Britain, where James spent the greatest part of his life outside the United States.  You can see him a little bit like Prospero in his library.  A man now well into his 60s looking back on his earlier days.  
Gorra takes the 1881 edition as a starting point for his study of what many consider to be Henry James' greatest novel.   It isn't a novel in the classical sense, as he explores his characters with a degree of depth rarely seen before.  To many critics, it is the advent of the modern …