Monday, September 30, 2013

A little arsenic with your tea?

The final countdown has begun with the Senate expected to reject the House's revised budget, which no longer defunds "Obamacare," but rather delays the mandates and cuts out the medical device tax, which has been one of the more amusing sore points for the Republicans.  And, of course, the GOP'ers squeezed the Keystone XL pipeline in there for good measure, as if to stick one up the ass of the Democrats.

Cruz has been pitching this latest spending bill as a "compromise" on the air waves, but was called out on Meet the Press by David Gregory for just throwing another monkey wrench into the process.  Of course, the smarmy Texas Senator slithered his way out of defending his position.  Meanwhile, Boehner tries to stand tough, when once again he took a back seat to the Tea Party caucus, which is now driving the Republican clown car.

Fearless Ted seems to be invoking the 1995-96 shutdown, claiming at a recent Heritage Foundation event that the shutdown Newt Gingrich engineered actually benefited Republicans in the long run.  He seems to have conveniently forgotten that Newt lost his seat over that shutdown, as did many Republicans, not able to regain their momentum until two years into George Bush's first term.  But, I guess Ted figures he's in this one for the long haul, and if he can ride out the shit storm he is helping to create then he will be the better for it in the end.  After all, I think there is nothing the TP caucus would love more than to oust Boehner and McConnell, which they view as long past their expiration date.

Just about every blog is abuzz with this story, as it provides added drama to the proposed opening of the health care exchanges on October 1, which of course the Congressional Teabaggers would love to postpone indefinitely.  The irony is that Texas is one of the states that stands to benefit the most from these exchanges, as residents would pay some of the lowest premiums in the country.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Winchester's America

This book sounds like a homage to his adopted country.  I have enjoyed Simon Winchester's books, especially his on mapping the world.   Seems he looks at a number of periphery figures in this book, including topographers, which brings to mind Pynchon's wonderful Mason & Dixon.  Will add the book to my wish list.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Price of Proxy Wars

Michael Burleigh focuses mainly on the British experience, but as you can see from the image, the American experience figures heavily into his new account of Small Wars, Far Away Places.  Burleigh offers a catalog of failures and a handful of qualified "successes" in what has been a very long Cold War since the end of World War II, linking past and present regimes and the support they have received from one side or the other (in some cases both) along the way.

The current situation in Syria is a vivid example of the lingering manifestations of the Cold War, as the Cyrillic lettering on the stores of chemical weapons dates back to the Soviet era, and Syria's foreign minister has expressly said that these weapons weren't meant as a deterrent of American-backed Israeli invasion.  As a result, the current Russian leadership had to step in and essentially offer the Assad regime a way out of the impasse, since its predecessors has essentially created the situation.

Of course, the US, Britain and France have found themselves in similar situations since the Cold War ostensibly ended with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the repercussions are still felt in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses with thwarted independence bids like that in Chechnya, and the divisions created when NATO interceded in the Balkan Wars.

Burleigh focuses mainly on the past (1945-65), recapping proxy wars fought during the Cold War, and hopefully shedding some light on current conflicts.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Reconstructing Lincoln

It seems there is no end to discoveries.  This was quite a find for the former Disney animator who is working on a painstaking animated reproduction of the Gettysburg Address.  The Lincoln-spotting has yet to be authenticated, but given the tremendous effort Christopher Oakley has put into this project, you have to figure he knows Lincoln when he sees him.

When trying to create a three-dimensional image every photograph counts.  I've discovered this in trying to reconstruct historic buildings from photographs, often having to work with poor resolution photos so that you have to rely on classical proportion systems to make up the differences.  But, with a human face it must be exceedingly difficult.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Cruz Missile

Ted Cruz, the outspoken Senator for the Great State of Texas has undertaken an epic filibuster (17 hours and counting) on the spending bill placed before the Senate, because the Democrats have the audacity to take out the de-funding for the Affordable Care Act with a simple majority vote in the second round.  Apparently, dear Ted didn't initially know that this was standard procedure, until he was called out by Chris Wallace on Fox "News."

There seems to be a lot of things Ted doesn't know, like the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose a government shutdown over "Obamacare," which is what would happen were Ted actually able to stall a vote on the spending bill.  I guess his unspoken hero is Wendy Davis, who was able to beat the clock on an anti-abortion bill in Texas, only for the state legislature to reconvene and pass the bill anyway.  One can only assume he too is wearing a catheter.  But, the reality is this fake filibuster has no consequence on the vote.

Mitch McConnell and other ranking Republicans had asked Ted to cease and desist in his folly, but Ted refused to back down.  He saw how Rand Paul's filibuster last Spring vaulted him to the top of the Teabaggers' Presidential Ball, and he wants to join this dance before it is too late.  But, even Rand seems to be sitting this one out.

All this grandstanding leads one to ask what the Republicans are hoping to accomplish by defunding the Affordable Care Act, gutting food stamps and slashing education.  It's like no Republicans are on the dole or need public health and education.  They seem to exist in an alternative reality, like the town of Pleasantville where everyone pulls his own weight and women are tame housewives and children cite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer before the start of each day of school.

But, Ted is a Harvard grad and obviously knows a thing or two.  He's no innocent, that's for sure, but a shrewd, calculating politician who has his eyes on the top political prize in 2016, knowing that Teabaggers love nothing more than a Congressional martyr, and he seems more than willing to carry their cross if it will give him the Republican nomination.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Too Long a Time

After Ann and Nancy Wilson's beautiful tribute to Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center, I found myself looking back on Heart.  All I had on CD was a Greatest Hits collection, which quite frankly didn't do them justice. I since remedied that by purchasing the box set Strange Euphoria, a highly personal collection of songs plus a classic live performance from 1975.  And, now, I discovered there was a book published last year as well.

Their passion for Zeppelin runs deep.  They actually covered Stairway to Heaven back in the 70s, as well as other songs by Plant and Page.  What made their tribute especially sweet was the appearance of Jason Bonham, who tours with the current Heart band.  The bowler hats were a great touch. and I imagine is what brought tears to the old boys' eyes.  John Bonham is missed.

Heart's legacy certainly doesn't match that of Led Zeppelin, but they were a pioneering band in many ways, not least of which their many literary allusions.  It is great to see them getting the credit they deserve.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Crime noir comes to Harlem

I found myself digging through the Chester Himes collection at amazon.  He is now included in Penguin Modern Classics,with a half dozen titles re-released a couple years back, including his debut novel, For Love of Imabelle (1957), better known as A Rage in Harlem.  I'm not sure if he was the first African-American crime writer, but his books hold up well over time.

Before the lurid crime novels, Himes wrote an account of his prison life in Yesterday Will Make You Cry.  It was greatly edited and reduced to pulp fiction in its original edition, Cast the First Stone in 1952, but has since been restored and re-published by Old School Books.

It surprises me that the Library of America hasn't released an omnibus edition of his work, especially since it has recognized other crime writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and David Goodis.  But, Mario Van Peebles took it upon himself to re-release Grimes works in omnibus editions back in the late 90s, after the success of the film, A Rage in Harlem.

Probably Grimes' most famous work remains Cotton Comes to Harlem, largely because of the highly successful screen adaptation with Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jaques as Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, who featured prominently in many of his novels.  The movie was more played for laughs than grit, including Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little. The lead characters actually date back to early magazine pieces he wrote for Abbot's Monthly in the 1930s, the time which many of his stories are set.  

Grimes took pulp fiction to an extreme that few other writers have been able to match.  His colorful crime novels prefigure blaxploitation films of the 70s and the exploitation films by Quentin Tarantino in the mid 90s. You figure Mario Van Peebles came to Chester Himes through his father Melvin, who directed a film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, which is arguably the best film of the genre.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Dude Abides

Found this wonderful little segment from American Masters.  It seems Jeff Bridges has become almost as big a cultural institution as has his character from The Big Lebowski.   The shop, known as The Little Lebowski no doubt benefited greatly from his visit, but I imagine had no trouble attracting fans before.

For better or worse, The Big Lebowski has become the Coen Brothers signature piece of work.  They have done better films, but none more memorable, or as entertaining as this bittersweet take on the American dream.  In one way or another all their films seems to be a study of the American dream, from Great Depression Americana in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? to growing up Jewish in A Serious Man.  There is something Rothian about their films, for lack of a better description, which draws me back to them time and again.

I think their best film remains Barton Fink, which gives a wonderful period look at a budding Hollywood screenwriter, and the pact he makes with the devil.   In addition to John Turturro's great performance, John Mahoney is wonderful as a drunken caricature of William Faulkner.

Bridges film career dates back to The Last Picture Show, in which he played Duane Jackson, a good ol' East Texas boy with his battered old pickup truck and dating the prettiest girl in town, before going off to the Korean War.  He's enjoyed a lot of great roles over the years, but he is now known principally for his role as the Dude.

There is something about the Dude that is exceedingly hard to resist. I found it amusing that Bridges felt a few qualms about playing the role, and asked his young daughters for their opinion at the time he was first approached by the Coen Brothers, who apparently created the character explicitly for him.  I think he had little idea this film would garner such a grip on so many persons' imaginations.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Portrait of a Lady

I'll have to watch the movie after reading the book.  Quite a star studded cast!  All though I would have probably cast Malkovich as Ralph Touchett, not Gilbert Osmond, even if Malkovich is more Osmond's age.  I'm not convinced of the casting in general -- Richard E. Grant as the dashing Warburton?  Christian Bale as the insecure Edward Rosier?  Kidman wouldn't have been my first choice either.  It also seems that the movie focuses largely on the second half of the novel, whereas I was more interested in the first half.

I really enjoyed the interplay between Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton and Isabel Archer, with the looming presence of Ralph's parents.  The second half becomes too prosaic in my mind, with Isabel making what appears to be the wrong choice in Gilbert Osmond.  Really hard to figure out what she sees in him, given the unknown narrator's description, other than he appears to give her the room she desires, whereas Warburton and Goodwood appeared to smother her with their love declarations, and Ralph was too fragile a person to fulfill her desires.

Anyway, it will certainly make for an interesting discussion, as Henry James offers a painstaking analysis of each character, although he seemed to keep Gilbert Osmond at a distance for reasons that I hope to discover later.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Raising the Dead

It seems that gun advocates are waking more of the dead in their ongoing battle with gun control legislation.  The most recent "zombie" quote comes from William Burroughs no less,

"After a shooting spree, they always want to take guns away from the people who didn't do it."

Well, Burroughs shot  his wife in the head over a game of "William Tell," but that doesn't seem to matter.  As long as the statement has a "truthiness" gun advocates can identify with it is fair game for a meme on facebook, where I saw this one pitch up.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has expressed concern over their coffee shops being used as a bully pulpit by gun advocates in states that have open gun laws, which is virtually every state today.  Of course, Schultz hasn't gone so far to ban guns, but he has politely asked customers not to bring guns to his shops.

For some reason gun advocates see no potential danger in allowing persons to openly flaunt their guns in public.  Not so long ago, Ted Nugent's wife conveniently forgot she had a pistol in her purse while checking in at an airport.  "My bad," you could hear her say, as it seems airports are one of the few place exempt from these open gun laws.  Yet, you can go into a shopping mall with a gun despite the shooting sprees that have taken place over the years.

Ohio even passed a law in 2011 allowing persons to carry guns into bars, but the Cincinnati Bengals have yet to allow guns in the football stadium, so it seems private enterprises can establish their own policies despite state legislation.  It would seem that William Burroughs can rest in peace.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Writer Looks at 80

I guess you might call this a birthday present, as Philip Roth celebrated his 80th not that long ago at the Billy Johnson Auditorium at Newark Museum.  He appears to be the pre-eminent American author today, although you could probably make a case for the reclusive Thomas Pynchon as well.

I've read a handful of Roth novels over the years, most recently his tale of growing up middle-class Jewish in New Jersey, American Pastoral, and the moral cost of this affluence.   I guess my favorite remains Goodbye, Columbus.  I suppose it was because it was more personal, and less ambitious than his later novels, which struck me as having a bit of a false note. The short stories were pulled together into a great film.  He loved to poke fun at the Jewish experience, which often ran him afoul of Jewish critics.

The book is due out in late October, which is shaping up to be quite a month for history and biography books.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Go Tell It On The Mountain

There are a lot of handsome box sets available these days, but Goodbye, Babylon has to be one of the nicest.  The recent Bob Dylan release of Another Self-Portrait had me looking for other roots and blues sets and I stumbled across this one put out by Dust to 2004.  Apparently, Dylan thought so highly of it that he gave a copy to Neil Young, who raved about it on Weekend Edition.

A set like this calls to mind James Baldwin's classic Go Tell It On The Mountain, where young John finds his calling in a mesmerizing short novel that captured the spiritual depths of growing up in an impoverished Harlem.

This beautiful collection is quite literally packed with music -- over 160 songs -- and includes a 200-page companion volume to help you decipher the music.  Not missing a beat, the producers padded the cedar box with cotton, further lending to the air of authenticity.  I really enjoy these labors of love.

War ... what war?

Safely enshrined as the "Good War,"  authors Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn explore "those angry days" that led up to WWII, when emotions ran deep as to whether the US should intervene in what was largely seen by Americans as a "European war."

Americans have long wanted to keep themselves apart from conflicts abroad, even when it effects the continent most of us have roots in.  It's not surprising that American industrialists were sympathetic toward Nazi Germany, as companies like Ford were actively engaged in helping Hitler rebuild his industrial base following the much maligned WWI.  Even when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, many American businessmen refused to accept the ominous nature of his regime and urged the President to stand pat.  It would be nearly two more years before the United States took an active role in the war, although Roosevelt found numerous ways to aid Britain and France during this time.

The principal subject of Olson's account is Charles Lindbergh, who felt Britain was doomed and the US should accept the Third Reich.  Like Ford, Lindbergh was a notorious anti-Semite, and had little sympathy for the appalling reports coming out of Germany.  He too seemed to feel that the Jews were the real enemy.

In Dunn's account, Wendell Wilkie gets a lot of credit for challenging the Republicans' isolationist views, and that even though he lost to Roosevelt in the 1940 election, he helped the President turn isolationist sentiment in Congress, and lend support to our allies in Europe before we became directly involved in the war.

Of course, the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything, and Roosevelt had little difficulty shifting public sentiment in the wake of this notorious air strike.  But, it is good to see two noted authors tackle the year(s) of indecision that preceded it.

Interesting to note that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was an outspoken supporter of the war and drew over 400 editorial cartoons for the New York newspaper PM between 1940 and 1948.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In the Shadow of No Towers

I think we need to put 9-11 behind us.  Not that we forget those who died in that horrific event, but that we quit looking at ourselves as martyrs in some abstruse "War on Terror" that has stretched into its 12th year, with our military activities in Afghanistan yet to be drawn to a close.

If these 12 years have taught us anything, it is that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.   It is time we quit creating Boogeymen, and deal with pressing foreign policy issues in a diplomatic, not military, way.  This is a good time to completely rethink our FP approach, getting away from the Cold War paradigm that has dominated American politics ever since WWII when the Soviet Union rose up to challenge our global hegemony.

We've had many opportunities to step away from the brink of war, but yet we continue to fight proxy wars in the name of "peace."   Carter probably came the closest to rewriting American foreign policy, but then found himself embroiled in Afghanistan and Iran, fighting the same old proxy wars with the Soviet Union.   It seems to be very hard to escape this cycle, but one hopes that with a new resolution on the Security Council table, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to put this "War on Terror" behind us and move on with life.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Method Writer

I've always wondered if Jack London took on his many and diverse experiences for their own sake, or because of the fodder they would provide for subsequent novels.  I think the latter, hence "the method writer," one who has to experience before he can write about something.

Earle Labor has long been a devotee of London, so one expects a largely sympathetic biography, although the short description says "not uncritical."  London's energy appeared boundless, and he took great interest a great number of causes, notably the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  He was a major proponent of labor reform in America, which ran him at odds with establishment views.  No matter, Jack was an iconoclast if nothing else, and role model to many writers who followed in his wake.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Meandering Stream

We haven't had a good meander lately. This one is from Greenland.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The story continues ...

I haven't even had a chance to read this first volume of Mark Twain's epic autobiography, but have pre-ordered the second volume just the same.  It is due out in October.  Interesting that this is a much younger Samuel Clemens on the cover, after the first volume depicted an older Twain.  Always reminded of Chartres whenever I think of Mark Twain, as she was such a big fan of his.  Here is a link to the Mark Twain Project, sponsored by the University of California Press.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Reluctant War President

President Obama finds himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place over Syria.  He drew his line in the sand last Spring when he threatened military action that Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in a recent attack outside Damascus.  The 2-1/2 year civil war has long turned ugly, but the US has not been able to get Russia from arming the Assad regime, so it seems he is capable of carrying this war on indefinitely against the poorly armed rebels.  All though, if he has resorted to chemical weapons, as US intelligence agency insist, it sounds like the Assad regime is on the ropes and Obama sees this as a propitious moment to take him out.

He has become a reluctant war president, having had to take over two wars from his predecessor, and provide back-up for British and French forces in Libya, which he was roundly criticized by Republicans in Congress for doing so without Congressional approval.  So, it seems Obama will honor a Congressional decision this time around on Syria to avoid the impression that this was a unilateral decision.

Obama's argument seems to be that the UN is paralyzed to take action because of Russia's veto power in the UN Security Council, which Putin has vowed he would use.  NATO is out because Britain is out.  Parliament voted against going to war in Syria.  Could a "no" vote by Congress be a convenient "out" for Obama, who finds himself battling with Democratic and Republican hawks who insist the US will lose credibility if it does not strike Syria?

It seems that Senators McCain and Graham, the most outspoken Republican advocates of military intervention are looking beyond Syria to Russia and Iran, who have both aided Assad.  It's the old Cold War paradigm with Syria essentially a proxy, as the US has little strategic interest in this country.

From Obama's perspective, he doesn't want to risk losing ties with Turkey, which has long been frustrated with the spill-over of the Syrian civil war into its country, and would support the US in an attack on Syria.  Obama has also received the support of Israel and France and the tacit support of Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia.  Strange bedfellows to say the least.  But, is this a good enough reason for going to war, as it seems that the limited missile strikes Obama is proposing would only serve as a punitive gesture, having little impact on Assad's hold of the country.

This is the basic conundrum of being President.  Whatever high-mindedness one might have when seeking the highest office in the land is soon put to the test by thorny international problems that Obama has found himself wrestling with for the better part of five years.   For those on the sidelines, like McCain and Graham, the decision is easy, but for Obama he risks jeopardizing the next three years of his administration over a highly questionable war.