Monday, September 18, 2017

Constitution Day, 2017

The Whites of the Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History – Jill Lapore

Jill Lapore is a professor of American History at Harvard.  As a historian, Lapore defends her profession’s critical inquiry into history against historical fundamentalism. That is the tendency to venerate the Founding Fathers with religious zeal and fanatically regard the Constitution and its originalist interpretations as sacred writ. Lapore also criticizes the reverent nostalgia that can’t and won’t cope with the realities of the past such as race-based chattel slavery and the ill-treatment of vulnerable members of society such as women, the old, the young, the poor, the sick and afflicted, and the insane.

Lapore’s argument is that people on both the left and the right practice historical fundamentalism when they refer to the Revolution to advocate for their particular points of view. They misuse history to validate their own positions and promote their own agenda.

For instance, she examines how in the 1970s left-leaning profs and activists viewed the events of the American Bicentennial rather askance. She writes, "Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn't offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business." By “other people” she means people who were offended by those who would be skeptical about the Revolution or the motives of figures such as neurotic crank Samuel Adams or smuggler extraordinaire John Hancock.

During the first couple years of the Obama administration, at rallies and get-togethers in taverns, she talks to members in the Tea Party about their use of Revolutionary garb (tri-cornered hats) and patter (“No taxation without representation”) in anti-tax, anti-bailout, anti-Ocare protests.

In the spirit of David Lowenthal’s title The Past is a Foreign Country, Lapore emphasizes that the 18th century has become a very very long time ago. So it behooves us to think hard to see it as it was, not as a golden age that we may wish it to be. She criticizes members of the Tea Party for not appreciating “the distance between the past the present.” Reverence in approaching the past, she says, is not as important as imagination and creativity.

Lapore’s prose is clear, her tone isn’t snarky. The organization suffers a little because she will meander with her juxtapositions of the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I’d recommend it to readers who, like me, want a starting point before getting into heavier deeper scholarly works.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Eighties: Best Tunes

Kids these days are forever being snarky about music in the 1980s.

They can get lost.

The early 1980s had me janitoring, the middle saw me in grad school, and from 1986 to 1992 I was teaching English in Okinawa and listening to the Far East Network, a much more diverse station than the armed forces radio service in Tokyo. When I think of the 1980s, I think of these songs. 

·         Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins. Hypnotic hook.
·         Electric Avenue - Eddy Grant. Dance, I told you, Dance!
·         Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics. Dubious generalizations re human nature but compelling song.
·         White Wedding - Billy Idol. I'm told Billy was a nice guy until two hours before show time and then he'd start sneering a lot, putting on his show face.
·         Flying in a Blue Dream - Joe Satriani. Whadda hook, stay in your frickin’ head all day.
·         West End Girls - Pet Shop Boys. Languid boredom but peppy, an odd combo.
·         Kyrie - Mr. Mister. Another hypnotic hook which saves kind of a lame song. How do the English do it?
·         Everybody Have Fun Tonight - Wang Chung. Everybody up-chuck tonight! At the end of the working day by the elevators to get the hell out,  I sometimes ask people if they're going to wang chung tonight. Yeah, I get stared at.
·         Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N' Roses. No escaping this song the year it was released.
·         She Drives Me Crazy - Fine Young Cannibals. Intense, calling to mind Motown but better.
·         Walk Like An Egyptian – Bangles. Fun.
·         Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley. Never had a big problem with this groovy little tune until y’all made it so ironic and all.
·         Circle in the Sand - Belinda Carlisle. A guilty pleasure.
·         You Make Heaven a Place on Earth - Belinda Carlisle. The only artist here twice. I feel really guilty now. But there's no denying the Abba-type wall of sound
·         How Will I Know - Whitney Houston. Lotsa energy and she's so pretty too.
·         Material Girl - Madonna. She says it's the bucks but she still leaves with the poor producer Keith Carradine who wins her with a little romancing.
·         Little Lies - Fleetwood Mac. Only cuz it reminded me of Rumours.
·         Heat of the Moment – Asia. Another ditty from which there was no escape.
·         Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Tears for Fears. More dubious generalizations, but haunting. A good song to shoot baskets by.
·         Girls Just Want to Have Fun - Cyndi Lauper. In grad school, I knew a guy that looked just like the dude with the moustache and glasses. 
·         Dancing in the Dark - Bruce Springsteen. A good song to spin by nowadays.
·         Sharp Dressed Man – ZZ Top. Classic video, classic guy's song.
·         Addicted to Love - Robert Palmer. Still hear this one at least once a week somewhere.
·         Human - The Human League. Cool synth pop. Still works for me but I'm a romantic.
·         Call Me – Blondie. Early Eighties, yes? A rocker.
·         Harden My Heart - Quarterflash. Lotsa style.
·         Take On Me - a-ha. Best video ever; both leads very 1980s good-looking. So how this song became a joke is beyond me. I don’t even want to know why. I don't want to understand people who weren't around at the time!

No Duran Duran is not an oversight. So shoot me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

This is a unique travel book by Redmond O'Hanlon, who is famous for his books about Borneo and the Amazon. The dangers faced by miners make the news, but we don't hear often about the hazards in a day's work of loggers and commercial fishermen on trawlers. Without really knowing what he was getting into (as usual), O'Hanlon starts the trip with descriptions of evolution and fish, his main interests. But soon it becomes an account of pain, fright, and anxiety. Redmond and the crew suffer from sleep deprivation, which leads to mood swings, mean spiritedness, delusions, and a profound sense of claustrophobia. During the huge storms, the physical risk is braining yourself after being tossed against a wall or down stairs. The last part is told in a stream of consciousness style that cannot be read easily. Recommended.     

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mount TBR #45

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Money from Holme – Michael Innes

Up and coming painter Sebastian Holme was killed in an African revolution. So says the catalogue for the exhibition and sale of his paintings on behalf of the widow, Hedda Holme. The art dealer is Hildebert Braunkopf, whose “injured innocence” act is a hoot. Readers of One Man Show (an Appleby mystery) will be pleased by more examples of the scamp Braunkopf’s malaprops: “Aha, with this authentink criminous fraud, you have met your Paddington, my friend.”

Holme, however, turns up at the sale disguised in a beard. Mervyn Cheel spots him and forces him into a conspiracy.  Cheel, as failed painter of abstract pointillist pictures, has taken to writing art criticism for provincial papers. Cheel is cunning and devious besides being an entitled Tory and bottom pincher. He totally gets what he deserves by the end at the hands of hustlers about as bad as himself.

This 1964 novel is not really a mystery but rather a crime novel. It’s slim, good reading for a plane, a hotel room, or waiting room. The vocabulary is erudite, the allusions right up the alley of an English major. If a reader liked the Michael Innes novels listed below, she’ll like this one.

Click on the title to go to the review.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mount TBR #44

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Who Killed Zebedee? – Wilkie Collins

This volume collects an 1881 short story “Who Killed Zebedee?” and an 1874 novella “John Jago’s Ghost” a.k.a. “The Dead Alive.” Both are examples of detective fiction pioneered by Collins in his more well-known long novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. These are well-worth reading for fans of Collins who enjoy his realistic settings and dialogue, melodramatic plots, sympathetic treatment of women and vulnerable members of society, and jabs and thrusts against hypocritical conventions.

Where to find them:

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day, 2017

It's Labor Day, a holiday. Let's loaf around. Be idle.

Chuang Tzu – translated by Burton Watson (0231105959); by Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly (014045537X); and by Lin Yutang

The world has looked sick, sad, and falling down a rabbit hole from time immemorial. In traditional China, Confucius advised people who were into examining life to adapt ways to achieve morality in private and public relationships. In his practical and utilitarian philosophy, he recommended developing one’s sense of righteousness and benevolence by performing rites and ceremonies in the correct manner.

Lao-tse founded Taoism. He granted the importance of righteousness but derided Confucian rites and ceremonies as useless wastes of time. Some assert that it was a Taoist monk who coined the maxim popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr "Strive to develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Another Taoist, Chuang Tzu, seconded the idea that we have to accept people, places, events and situations that have no remedy. The ideal life revolves around simple pleasures, whatever we take them to be, but pursued in such a way that they don’t shorten our allotted span of years. Writing for scholars who were either fed up with running petty fiefs or drummed out of their administrative jobs in disgrace, Chuang Tzu advocated keeping a low profile in order to avoid trouble with fame, the vexations of office, and arbitrary superiors , since all of these (and more, endlessly) tend to upset self-control and level-headedness.

Anticipating Carl Rogers’ idea of unconditional positive self-regard and Albert Ellis’ concept of unconditional self-acceptance, Chuang Tzu suggests that we go easy on ourselves and quit demanding that life be anything other than what it is or that other people be smarter or more ethical than they can possibly be. If there were such a thing as ethics between human beings, said mystery writer Craig Rice, there would be no need for lawyers. Chuang Tzu has such cynical expectations about human behavior that he feels profound compassion for us people that can’t help being what we are, especially in terms of greed, lust, and anger. Not so much "Forgive them for they know not what they do," but "Bless their little hearts for they know not what they do."

It’s fun to read Chuang Tzu. He’s got a sense of humor, which makes him a rarity like Epictetus, i.e, a funny philosopher. He is irreverent about the limitations of logic and language, and power and the nitwit bullies attracted to ruling and leadership. He deflates the pompousness of the Confucians. He feels a merry derision for conventional wisdom and received opinions. He also bluntly advises us outsiders, misfits, floaters, nonconformists, seekers, malcontents, beatniks, and grouches to be slackers: "Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely."  One of his translators into English, Lin Yutang, said:

Culture . . . is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing.  From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise.  The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.

Sure, so-called realists could argue, “Yeah, well, who the hell are you, you taker, to hold our makers and leaders in such low esteem? What if everybody just shrugged and said, ‘How the hell does all this work do me good? Who cares and what’s it to me?’” I too wonder who will do the dishes when the party’s over. But somehow I think in the US at least the driven, the obsessed, and the ambitious are hardly on the endangered species list.

Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton says: “I simply like Chuang Tzu because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or anyone else.”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Plunder of the Sun

Plunder of the Sun – David Dodge

In this 1949 crime adventure novel, PI Al Colby accepts a job from a mysterious, wheelchair-bound Chiliean. Colby has to smuggle a small package from Chile to Peru. As an American tourist with coveted Yankee dollars, his luggage won’t be tossed by customs officials like his employer’s would. But often assignments that easy are on the face are not easy in the execution. A dead body. Two beautiful women lead him down the garden path. Colby is lambasted and sees stars. Greedy gunmen menace him. A crafty villain steals the small package. The rousing climax has Colby and greedy guys on the hunt for a treasure of Incan gold in Peru.

Cripes, with the South American locale, noir atmosphere and non-stop action, it would be crass to ask for more. Dodge’s other job was travel writer so his descriptions feel accurate. Like this: “There was a tremendous snow-capped volcanic cone rearing up behind the town but looking so close in the thin mountain air that it practically kept me company while I ate.”

At times the travel writer and the noir writer get along real well: “The [train] car stank with the smell that exists only on the desert side of Peru, where the population is heavy and water is too valuable to waste on washing. It was a dead, rancid smell that even the breeze from the open windows wouldn’t blow away.”

At other times it’s pure noir: “She was done up like a Christmas tree – over-ripe mouth, beads of mascara thick on her eyelashes, green eye-shadow, a hat with a trailing drape that wound twice around her throat and hung down her back. The only thing missing was a man on a leash.”

David Dodge’s most famous book is To Catch a Thief because it was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Plunder of the Sun was also made into a movie with Glenn Ford, but apparently Hollywood, in its typical ham-handed way, screwed it up so badly that nobody remembers it.

The novel, though, is terrific reading courtesy of its crisp and vivid writing, wild pace, and unpredictable plot twists. The series character Al Colby is tough-minded but good-hearted in that he doesn’t exploit the vulnerable and takes the side of the underdog. Besides, my inner 12-year-old is partial to buried treasure stories.