6/29/12

Okay for Now: A Teen Novel, or Just a Good Book?

Okay for Now.
Gary Schmidt
New York: Clarion Books, 2011.

* * * *

Joe Pepitone, Aaron Copeland, and James Audubon are three names that are unlikely to occupy a lot of space in the average teenaged consciousness. Given that all three are major tropes in Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, one wonders whether it’s accurate to call it the “young adult” novel it’s marketed to be. I’d say probably not, but it’s a pretty gripping story no matter how one labels its genre.

The novel is set in 1968, the year fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck and his family are uprooted from their home on Long Island by their shiftless father and plunked down in the hamlet of Marysville in the Catskills. Doug’s old man is a violent, hard-drinking, no-account loser, as is his bad boy middle brother, a petty thief and fulltime sadist. Older brother, Lucas, is in Vietnam–one of the many working-class poor kids sent as jungle fodder for American imperial ambitions. Relocation to “stupid Marysville,” as Doug calls it, removes him from two of the three things he loves: his closest friends, and the hope of attending a game at Yankee Stadium. Young Doug is a diehard Yankees fan whose one moment of glory in an otherwise dire teen life was a chance encounter with first baseman Joe Pepitone, who gave Doug his hat. (Which his brother stole and destroyed.) Call Doug’s worship of Pepitone a metaphor for Doug’s life–the chronically underachieving Pepitone was the face of the franchise of really, really bad Yankees teams of the mid- and late-60s. (He hit just .251 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs in 1967, the year of his fictional encounter with Swieteck.) The other thing Doug loves is his mother, a kindly woman who tries her best to insulate Doug from his father’s wrath and bears the marks of his violence. Doug also literally bears a cruel stigma of his affection for his mother, not to mention the scars of delayed educational and social development.      

It would be a gross understatement to say that Doug doesn’t have much going for him. As it turns out, though, “stupid Marysville” has some surprises in store. Despite his father’s brutishness and class-based oppression psychosis, Doug will encounter some people who will change his life–his father’s paternalist boss, a gym teacher with demons of his own, an eccentric writer with a fondness for art and music, and a caring teacher. Above all, he’ll find Lil Spicer, who becomes a serious 7th grade crush, and a librarian who introduces Doug to the works of John James Audubon. In sketching Audubon’s birds Doug finds hidden talents, a positive outlet for his long-suffering patience, and metaphors for his life.

As I said, not exactly the sort of fare one would expect the average young person to consume.  I would, however, expect teens to relate to Schmidt’s prose. He simply nails the attitudes, language, and carriage of burgeoning adolescence. Schmidt’s ability to paint a portrait of the interior of teenaged minds rivals that of novelists such as Mark Haddon, Muriel Barbery, and Nick Hornby. He also describes Marysville and the Audubon prints with such clarity that they animate and become characters in their own right. This would be a wonderful book to read and discuss with a young person. It would take some adult input to explain (and perhaps mutually explore) some of the references in the book, but adults will also admire this book and parts of it will take them back to their own frightful junior high days. (The junior high principal alone will make your skin crawl.) High marks for Schmidt for writing a book that’s equal parts tough and hopeful, smart and easy to read, compelling and real. 

6/27/12

Flynn Cohen Guitar Album Strikes the Right Chords

FLYNN COHEN
Fierce Modal
Deadstring Music
* * * *

Flynn Cohen’s nine-track guitar solo project is a true delight. Cohen, perhaps best known for his work with Annalivia, is a man of many influences, including progressive rock, medieval dance tunes, bluegrass, and Celtic. But rather than trying to force fit his loves into arrangements, he has the good sense to let the proper mood dictate style rather than vice versa. “The Good Part,” for instance had a decided Celtic flair with just a hint of old-time music peeking through the seams. “Poor MicheĆ”l,” has a bridge inspired by Yes, but it’s a march in the style of the man it honors, the late MicheĆ”l o’Domhnaill. When it’s appropriate, as on “Don’t Spare the Horses,” he lets loose with a galloping pace that evokes a field of wild stallions. (He also showcases his mandolin prowess on that one.) But he also knows when to slow down. The next track, “Crop Circles,” is mysterious and dreamy, as befits a tune named for such unexplained phenomena. He follows with two galliards–16th century Renaissance dances–the first with ambience of something arranged for a recorder consort, the second in tribute to the newborn son of friends Matt and Shannon Heaton and thus more lullaby-like. And what better to finish than with “Dougie’s Trip to Heaven,” a bluegrass tune supplemented by Duncan Wickel’s fiddle? Overall a crisp album that hits all the right notes, sets all the right moods, and it exactly the right length to keep us fully engaged.-- Rob Weir

Check out some samples at http://www.flynncohen.net/recordings.cfm  

6/25/12

Bad Math: Why Obama Is Unlikely to Win Reelection

It’s late June, the economy remains stuck in low gear, and the only thing edging upward is Barack Obama’s job disapproval rating (49%; just 43% approve). With each passing day, a Mitt Romney presidency appears more likely.

Forget Obama’s foreign affairs triumphs, Bill Clinton got it right: it’s the economy, stupid. There are 19 weeks left before Election Day (November 6) and Obama would have to break with conventional economic wisdom to eek out victory.  Pundits generally say that an incumbent is in trouble if the economy hasn’t rebounded by March of an election year; 2012 figures were dismal. Unemployment stood at 8.2% that month, and it remains mired there, despite Obama’s ludicrous gaffe that the private sector “is doing fine.” Even worse, it’s .6% higher than when he took office.

The odds are increasingly long that Obama can beat Romney, which places the president in the uncomfortable position of hoping that Romney beats himself. That’s not out of the question; Romney is an arrogant, unprincipled flip-flopper whom people tend to like less the more they get to know him. He’s also the sort of greedy and rapacious investor who caused the current financial mess. That said, Obama was elected to clean up Romneyesque-like messes and has failed utterly to do so. As the man in charge, he (rightly or wrongly) gets pinned with the blame for bad news. Liberals are simply delusional if they think the American Heartland is going to overlook the tepid economy and applaud symbolic triumphs such as the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Shepard-Bryd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, or the repeal of DADT. His key domestic achievement, health care reform, stands a good chance of being shot down in a few weeks. Unless something truly unforeseen happens, a Romney meltdown is Obama’s most hopeful road to reelection.

If we go beyond the surface, the electoral math is in Romney’s favor. Latest polls reveal that Obama has a solid 198 electoral votes to Romney’s 133. That’s not as good as it sounds. It takes 270 to win and the remaining 72 will be as elusive for Obama as economic recovery. A mash of the six top polls breaks down the 207 electorals that remain in play. Of these, 42 are considered “likely” Democratic states. That still leaves Obama 30 votes shy. The same polls note 39 “barely Democratic” states. If Obama holds on to those, he wins, but only a fool would guarantee an Obama victory in the latter states: Colorado (9), Oregon (7), Wisconsin (10), and Virginia (13). Obama clings to a 1% lead in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker is back in the driver’s seat, and less than 1% in Colorado. Count me among those who’d call his 4% lead in Virginia “soft.” In fact, I’m not terribly convinced that his 8% lead in Michigan or Pennsylvania is solid either. I just returned from a visit to Pennsylvania and I’ve got to think that Obama must be very popular in the greater Philadelphia area, as I didn’t hear a single positive word about him from anyone living west of Lancaster County. I should also point out that Romney’s father was a popular governor in Michigan and that the Wolverine State has a higher unemployment rate (8.5%) than the US average.

Romney, by contrast, has strong leads in states offering 58 electorals, and is leading in those accounting for another 39. That puts him at 224. The only state showing a tie is–gulp!–Florida, with 29 votes. For sake of argument, let’s say those go to Romney by hook or crook. Suddenly, he’s just 17 votes away from the White House. Boil it down and it means that Obama must run an error-free campaign; one slip in a state in which he’s currently leading, including those he leads by 4% or less, and Romney wins.

The math looks bad–very bad–for Barack Obama. I’ll grant that a lot can happen in 19 weeks, but right now I’d say that those on the East Coast can make the following plans for November 6: if Obama loses any one of the following– Pennsylvania, Virginia, or Wisconsin–you can go to bed early as it’s all over except the weeping and gnashing of liberal teeth.