7/13/18

Josh Ritter Makes You Feel Special


Josh Ritter
Live from the KCD Theater in Louisville, KY
NoiseTrade

This week I'm featuring people who uplift us, and singer songwriter Josh Ritter is one of the best at doing that. NoiseTrade has recently made available some of his back catalog material, as performed live show in Louisville in March 2011.

The 41-year-old Ritter hails from Idaho, where he still makes his home for part of the year (along with Woodstock, New York). There's also a Western Massachusetts connection; Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds in Northampton put out Ritter's 2000 album Golden Age of Radio, his first national release.

Ritter was weaned on Dylan and Johnny Cash, and is a superb songwriter in his own right. What makes him sizzle is his work ethic; few performers work leave it on the stage like he. Nor do they enjoy what they do as much. Ritter has a charm you'd be tempted to label goofy, were it not so genuine. He engages his audience, thanks them over and over, and—when he's with his Royal City Band—makes sure you know the name of the musician who took the lead on a given instrumental passage. He grins his way across the stage with an I-can't-believe-how-lucky-I-am demeanor that makes you believe it—the brooding artist need not apply. I've seen him quite a few times, and on each occasion he made the audience feel as if they were the most-amazing group of people he's ever encountered.

The NoiseTrade offering contains 21 tracks, so let me simply highlight a few things that I think make Ritter such a beloved figure. Fans debate which is his best song, but conversation usually begins with "Bright Smile," a quasi-folk song that is, whatever else you call it, is a gem. It lends itself well to times in which he performs as a solo acoustic artist. So too does "Lark," a simple little ditty with a faintly bluegrass vibe. Also in the deeply personal category is the poignant "Change of Time." And you know an artist is uplifting when he can offer "Folk  Bloodbath," and make you smile. The title is tongue in cheek, as it's actually his version of the public domain song "Stagolee," the tale of an 1895 murder.  

Ritter is really in his element when he's with his Royal City Band. It takes confidence and trust in those in the seats to be a little silly. Check out this performance of "Wolves," another audience favorite because, who can resist a group howl? If I had to pick a single example of how Ritter can transform a big crowd into a personal living room of joy, I'd go with "Kathleen." Watch this amazing clip from a 2010 Dublin concert. Gaze upon the faces of strangers belting out the words and swaying in ecstasy—as if somehow this lad from Idaho was the brother who returned from exile.

If you know Ritter, download Live from the KCD Theater. (Don't forget to leave a tip.) If you've not yet been baptized, jump into the water with this one.

Rob Weir

Note: I have chosen tracks from other shows to offer how Ritter performs in different settings, and because video clips from Louisville are poorly lighted. The audio quality is superb, though.

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7/11/18

Won't You Be My Neighbor: How Things Should Work



Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Directed by Morgan Neville
Focus Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13
★★★★

I was a teen when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on National Educational Television—the old name of PBS—in 1968, so I never watched the show. (Nor, would I hasten to add, would I have gone anywhere near NET back in my working-on-my-attitude days.)  But I think I know why the show remained a staple for children from the day it first aired as local show in Pittsburgh in 1963, to the day Rogers finally left his cardigan and sneakers in the closet in 2001.

As a fine new documentary on Fred Rogers (1928-2003) shows us, one key was that what he did was delightfully old-fashioned. Rogers recognized early on that kids were so over stimulated that their imaginations often got stifled. Even by the standards of  pre-f/x days, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a throwback. He used ratty-looking puppets such as Daniel Tiger, Owl, and King Friday XIII, never even tried to throw his voice, favored obviously flimsy sets, and was so low-key that, when he had turtles on the show, it was even money who moved slower, Rogers or his reptilian guests.

Parents often hated the cheesy production values of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet the same folks will tell you that their kids adored the show. And why not? Rogers made a point of telling kids that his neighborhood was make-believe—a simple act that encouraged them to use their own minds to fill in gaps between fantasy and reality. How unlike so many of today’s video games, Websites, toys, and entertainment formats in which outside creators script the outcomes. In a word, Rogers took children seriously.

He also spoke their language, a vernacular that was calm, concerned, and caring. Rogers detested violent cartoons, loud noises that jarred children, and people who scolded and hectored. The characters on his show—such as Lady Aberlin, Officer Clemons, Handyman Negri, Postman Newell, and Rogers himself—were helpful and exuded “love,” the quality that Rogers believed the only transformative force in the universe. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, even conflict was resolved quietly. He literally got on the same level as children, always bending down and leaning in. Yo-Yo Ma tells the charming tale of how his younger, nervous self was intimidated by Fred Rogers, who addressed him on air a literal three inches away. Who cannot smile at the idea that Yo-Yo Ma might be the only person on the planet ever frightened by Mr. Rogers?

One of the film’s revelations is that Rogers tackled what was happening in the world outside the make-believe world. The show's educational TV debut came just months before Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Rogers taught kids what the word “assassination” means—as well as how to deal with sadness. 1968 was also a year in which segregationists doused swimming black children with pool chemicals and treated adults far worse. In a landmark act of kindness, an episode of the show featured Mr. Rogers cooling his bare feet in a kiddies’ pool and inviting Officer Clemmons—African American opera singer François Clemmons—to join him and sharing the same towel. Rogers also dealt with traumas such as the Challenger tragedy and 9/11.

Some might recognize the swimming pool scene as a reenactment of the ancient Christian rite of mutual foot washing. I say this with all humility: One of the things that made Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood work was that Fred Rogers—an ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican—was a man who took his faith so seriously that he actually practiced what others merely preached. In his neighborhood, there was no need to proselytize; actions spoke louder than words. 

The documentary is filled with remembrances, testimonials, and archival footage. A sequence with the gorilla Koko is especially touching, as was another with Rogers chatting with a paraplegic boy, Jeff Erlanger (1970–2007), as if he was the most important kid in the world. Interviews with Rogers’ widow Joanne poignantly remind that Mr. Rogers wasn’t a character; it was who he was. This was echoed by show director Juniel Li. Clemmons, who grew up mostly fatherless, came to see Rogers as a surrogate dad—once the two got over the fact that Clemmons is gay.

Another nice thing about the documentary rests with Rogers confronting his own bias; that is, the film backs gently away from sanctifying Rogers. When he died, some right-wing faux Christians protested his funeral, and held aloft signs placing Rogers in hell for his embrace of anything their small minds found distasteful. They are, of course, the immoral equivalent of jihadists—those so blinded by their own sanctimony that they could not see Fred Rogers for what he was: a decent human being. Someone in the film—if memory serves it was Li—remarked that being a good person is the way the world should work. It doesn’t, but in times such as our own in which ego, greed, and nastiness abound, what a refreshing thing it is to consider that goodness can prevail. Forget the lack of glitz and sheen, who would not wish to reside in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Rob Weir

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7/9/18

RGB A Surprise Cult Hit


RBG (2018)
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Magnolia Pictures, 97 minutes, PG
★★★★



When I saw RBG a few weeks ago, my first thought was that liberals should pray that 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg remains in rosy health. Then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, which begs the question of whether the composition of the Supreme Court can be changed in this generation. Kennedy's bombshell takes some of the feel-good luster off this fine documentary, but you should see it nonetheless. Let me add, you should do so even if you are a conservative, because Justice Ginsberg is a remarkable person, no matter your politics.

The film is full of revelations, so let me mention just a few. Today, Ruth Bader Ginsberg looks like one of those people who was born old—and I mean that in a good way. She exudes the kind of wisdom that comes with experience, and her bearing is that of a sophisticated elder. So the film's first reveal is a look at her youth. We would expect a future Supreme Court judge to have been smart, but Ginsberg was extraordinary. Her parents were Jewish immigrants and, if she seems a bit too buttoned-down at times, consider that her sister's death was a pall hovering over her family, and that Ruth's mother died the day before she graduated from high school. Nonetheless, her path took her from Brooklyn to Cornell and Columbia Law School. She was also vivacious and knockout attractive, though as serious as a tomb when it came to her studies. She married almost immediately upon graduating from Cornell, and followed her husband Martin to Oklahoma, where he was an ROTC officer, and she worked for the Social Security Administration. RBG had a one-year-old daughter when she started law school—first at Harvard and then Columbia.

The second revelation is her law career before she entered the SCOTUS. Perhaps you assume that a Supreme Court justice must have done some very impressive things, but it staggers when the details of Ginsberg's accomplishments are highlighted. If you think Congress is responsible for the gains of women in American society, think again. Laws are often not worth the paper upon which they are printed until they are battled in the courts; Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legal acumen helped write those laws and assured that intent became content. In her work with the ACLU, Ginsberg took on over 300 discrimination cases. She also made six trips to the SCOTUS and won five of them. Her tactic was unique; her Supreme Court cases usually hinged on discrimination situations that applied to men as well as women—which took the wind from the sails of would-be chauvinists. Although her tone was generally moderate, Ginsberg was a quiet spear-bearer for feminism.

The biggest reveal of all, though, is the film's portrait of Ginsberg's late husband Marty (1932–2010). He was the embodiment of the Yiddish word mensch. He was happy to advance his wife's legal career over his own, and he was not afraid to see her as more ambitious and brilliant than he. Marty Ginsberg was a guileless male feminist at a time (1950s/60s) in which such ideas bordered on the unthinkable. He also provided balancing levity to his wife's steely seriousness. RBG has a sense of humor, but it's not her strong suit; Marty was the Groucho Mark to her Margaret Rutherford. And there was nobody on the planet that was a bigger cheerleader of Ruth's accomplishments. He teased, but he reminded all of his wife's capacious intellect.

We also gain insight into some of RBG's other qualities: her love of classical music and her considerable skill as a pianist, her amazing workout routines, and her improbable but sincere friendship with Anton Scalia. If you find it hard to imagine that Ginsberg could enjoy the company of a political arch rival, it is a testament to her character that she compartmentalizes so expertly. Would that more Americans—including our feckless and reckless commander in chief—could respect those with whom they disagree. Besides, is it any less imaginable than the fact that RBG is a cult icon among the young? The last of these is another revelation. Ruth Bader Ginsberg as pop culture icon? You bet your gavel!

I can't say that directors West and Cohen redefine the documentary style in RBG, but they do present us with a lovable, admirable figure. That such figures are rare these days is both poignant and sad.

Rob Weir


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7/6/18

New Book on Prohibition Gangsters Lurid and Lively


PROHIBITION GANGSTERS: THE RISE AND FALL OF A BAD GENERATION
Marc Mappen
Rutgers, 2018, 258 pages.
★★★

There’s something about outlaws that many people find attractive—even when those outlaws are bloodthirsty murderers. Maybe it’s because they appeal to the darker impulses of law abiders who dream of setting their own ids free to roam. Or maybe it’s the lingering suspicion that laws and economic systems are not really designed for the prosperity and well-being of the proverbial Average Joe, so we admire those who machine gun their way fortune and infamy. Still, public curiosity is odd given the fact that most gangsters and outlaws were not Robin Hood types that shared their ill-gotten wealth. For every Pretty Boy Floyd, there were dozens of Mafiosi more likely to run protection rackets on Joe than to look out for his interests.

By nature gangsters thrive on vice, which is why historians usually see the Prohibition era (1920-33) as the golden age of American crime. The great Western experiment with outlawing booze quickly shed its utopian skin and revealed the inner sinners. In the United States, urban officials and journalists such as H. L. Mencken warned as early as 1925 that the 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, transportation, or sale of alcohol was a failure; had Al Smith won the 1928 presidential election, it might have been repealed five years earlier. As it was, many cities only half-hardheartedly tried to enforce Prohibition. Who could blame police and politicians—even those not on the take—for treading warily? Much as in the case of battling today’s gangs and drug kingpins, law enforcement was out-gunned. Consider the cast of characters that come to mind when we think of Prohibition era gangsters: Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Bugs Moran, Frank Nitti, and Bugsy Siegel are enough to strike fear into any heart. Moreover, as writer/editor Marc Mappen argues in a chapter titled “Smaller Cities,” the famed crime waves we associate with Chicago, New York, and Atlantic City were merely the tip of the iceberg.

As Mappen notes, many gangsters lived short and brutish lives; their partners in crime often meted out what passed for justice. However, he also draws our attention to the fact that just one Prohibition era crime racketeer, Louis Lepke Buchalter, was executed for his crimes. A few, most famously Al Capone, were brought down by methods that did not involve mano e mano battles between cops and gangsters; Capone went to jail for tax evasion and several others fell prey to new racketeering laws. For the most part, though, those who survived inter- and intra-gang violence died in their beds. As Mappen puts it in his concluding chapter, “For them, crime did pay” (213).

Mappen gives context for Prohibition era crime, but the deep background is not the main focus of his book. He is clearly one of those who are fascinated by gangsters. That’s not to say he admires them; as his subtitle suggests, he sees them as part of a “bad generation” driven by greed and violence. But he’s also a chronicler of the minutiae that surrounds his central figures. If, like me, the details of who attended what syndicate conference and who pulled the trigger on whom does not satisfy some innate curiosity, you may find yourself skimming sections of the book. As a social historian, I was more drawn to themes that are largely glossed in Prohibition Gangsters, such as the fact that Jewish and Italian mobsters often assumed Irish surnames in twisted assimilation attempts. I also wanted much more discussion of race and gender, two topics that were (if you will) little more than drive-bys in Mappen’s study. In like fashion, I found his suggested connections between pre- and post-World War Two organized crime to be more dotted lines than solid ones. I was left unconvinced that the links are as straightforward as he suggests, but maybe he has more in mind than he showed in discussions of postwar mobster figures such as Frank Costello and Vito Genovese.

These, however, are critiques of Mappen’s fascinations as refracted through my own. If you share his desire to peel the inner lives and details of infamous prewar thugs, Mappen is a go-to source. His text is concise and lively, and his research is sound. He doesn’t glamorize his subjects, but he does make them interesting. That alone is a delicate balancing act upon the running board of a speeding car.

Rob Weir   

7/5/18

Do You Want to Win, or Do You Want to Whine?




Bill Clinton drove me from the Democratic Party. I sometimes call him the most-effective Republican president of the post-World-War II era. NAFTA and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, drove me away; the first was a middle finger to labor unions, and the second kicked poor people into a litter-strewn pile of nostrums. These were just two of the goodies Bill Clinton handed to Republicans—things they weren't able to secure during Reagan's presidency.

I am a democratic socialist. But do I want the Democrats to overthrow Republicans in the midterm elections? You bet your soul I do. I'm very skeptical that they will. Democrats have become tone-deaf. This isn't the party of FDR or LBJ.

I have criticized them for that. If I have commented less often on the Republicans, it's because there's no point; they have descended to such levels of greed, meanness, and malice as to be irredeemable. A "good" Republican politician is like sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker. (Though Charlie Baker might be one.)

"What's your plan?" I hear. That's ironic, because my beef with Democrats is that they have no plan. Okay, so here's one, though I can tell you that insider Dems won't like it.

Some of it isn't stuff I actually want, but it's stuff the Democrats need to do so they're not renting their garments again in November.

1. "Stop Trump" is not a plan; it's an objective.

Stop focusing on him. He's a monster, but when Democrats fire salvos, they simply fire up his base. Anger is not a blueprint. Democrats need to develop policies that counter the GOP. Trash the anti-Trump rants and focus on a vision for America.

2. Treat the Clintons as toxic.

They are. There is political hay to be harvested in criticizing both on the campaign trail. Is this is "unfair?" Puh-leeze—this is politics! The Clintons have high negatives and unless Democratic candidates repudiate them, Clintonian errors—real and perceived—will make office-seekers vulnerable. The Clintons should not be allowed anywhere near key races.

3. Give measured praise to Trump.

Even fools are right on occasion. Knee-jerk rants send the message that anyone who voted for Trump is the enemy. Basic math, folks: Just 30 percent of voters are registered Democrats; 42–45 percent are independents. You want a goodly portion of the latter to rally to Democrats, not circle the wagons. Here are some places where Trump might be right—even if it's for the wrong reasons.

            a. North Korea: Was Trump suckered by Kim Jong Un? Maybe, but in the short-term, tensions have been defused, and that's a good thing on the volatile Korean peninsula. Let's be realistic—any president takes a risk when dealing with authoritarians. Reagan got duped by numerous Latin American dictators, Bush I and Dubya got tricked into two useless Gulf wars, Clinton badly misread Islamic fundamentalism, Obama got played by Hamas, Trump looks like a child up against Netanyahu and Putin, and the Saudis hoodwinked everyone. But Trump might have North Korea right, and rapprochement should be encouraged.

            b. Free trade really is a farce.

Trump plays the anti-free trade card so he can grandstand without doing much, but he's not wrong that free trade is unfair. Here's why: Labor isn't free. We have a global system in which goods and services can move across borders, but people can't. Those who fear job loss have reason to worry. If labor can't move across borders but capital can, jobs will always flow to the bottom of the wage tank. Trump doesn't give a damn about workers, but there's plenty room to his left to articulate linkages between trade, wages, environmental concerns, etc. .Call it "fairness" on the stump and don't be afraid to peel back bad treaties. It will take more finesse than Trump has, but a slow pullback from China is definitely in order. Anyone who thinks China engages in free trade is delusional.  

            c. "American jobs" is electoral gold.

Democrats used to own the working class—until they forgot who they are. Let's hear more about building jobs here. Obama's Reinvestment Act was a good idea; he simply lacked the stomach to battle for it. Draw new plans, which will be criticized as "too expensive," but then do as the GOP does—stay on message. Just keep saying "American jobs" and bash back. Accuse the Republicans of not caring about "American jobs." Keep saying that phrase. Promise to bring Harley-Davidson back to Illinois!

4. Simplify.

The "American jobs" mantra brings up another crucial thing. Fox News is the most viewed of all TV news shows. Instead of whining about that, learn why. Fox is brilliant at reducing things to the lowest common denominator. So, yes, I suggest Democrats "dumb down" their campaigns. It's elemental: Most Americans don't read a single book in a year, and they are not going to read an online policy white paper. It. Won't. Happen. Dust off your best slogans and make 'em short and snappy: "The rights of all Americans," "Respect for women," "Privacy," "Don't let the government tell you what to do," "Invest in America," "Get tough on all criminals," and "Everyone should do their fair share."

You know why? Because these things will lose votes if you frame them in ways other than above: transsexual rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, government job programs, cracking down of white-collar crime, raising taxes on the rich…. There's a world of difference between shouting "gay rights" and saying that sex is a "privacy issue." Democrats should be for everything on the list, but if they can't frame them, they can't sell them.

A lesson from 2000: Al Gore's lackluster presidential campaign had two big upward spikes: When he planted a wet kiss on then-wife Tipper, and when he attacked "Big Pharma." He should have kept on those tracks. Do you think the electorate's capacity for detail has grown since then? I wish!

5. Get younger, darker, and more ideological.

By 2040, but probably much sooner, the USA will be a minority majority country. The party that prepares for that will be in the driver's seat. Of all the dead-end streets Democrats like to visit, the "move to the middle" is the deadest of them all. Americans don't fear big ideas; Senator Sanders has polling data going back decades on support for infrastructure improvement, single-payer healthcare, workplace rights, affordable college, a millionaires' tax, etc. It's all about how you package it. The rush to the "middle" is a road to … just a word without substance that inspires few.

Democrats need to be seen as people of vision, not as elites, and certainly not as whiny and stale.

6. Immigration reform.

 This will anger those who think our borders should be wide open. Sorry—it doesn't work that way anywhere in the world. Look, I could cite chapter and verse on how the once-open US borders got closed, but that would get us nowhere. Trump is absolutely right—again, for all the wrong reasons—when he says US immigration policy is broken. Democrats should lead on reform—but in ways that will make Trump tear out his orange hair. A few ideas:

            a. Set a reset date. Admit that we can't fix the past. Announce a new policy that, when put in place, will be absolute from that date forth.

            b. Issue non-forgeable ID cards to all who request them and can prove current residency in the United States.

            c. Put in place severe sanctions against any employer hiring non-documented workers after the reset date. Let's talk six figures plus jail time. This takes care of a current loophole. Illegal immigrants can always find employers who won't ask questions. In a new plan, if a card isn't in the database and you hire, you pay the consequences.

            d. Raise the annual quota. What a load of hooey we hear from Trump. If unemployment is as low as his administration claims, how exactly are immigrants "stealing" US jobs? Sell higher quotas as "Building the economy."

Does this plan sound mean? I think not. If more immigrants were legal and the border flow slowed, the US could take in more emergency refugees and political asylum seekers. (A long-term project is for the US to work with the UN on refugees. There could nearly a billion climate change refugees alone by 2050.)  

Above all, "immigration" needs to be rethought because it has become a negative word among a vast swatch of the electorate—44% in recent polls. Again, that's true even if it makes you comfortable. Democrats do not have the luxury of standing pat on the issue. If they do, it will doom them—just like it did in 2016.

So what's it going to be? Whine or win? 
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7/4/18

Be Wary of Political Labels


Not my kind of socialist!
 Perhaps you've read about Spenser Rapone, the dude booted from the U.S. Army for stunts such as wearing a Che Guevara shirt under his dress uniform jacket, and writing "Communism Will Win" on his hat during his West Point graduation. He is a self-proclaimed "revolutionary socialist," and the Army wearied of his antics and dismissed him.

Maybe you've read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old that unseated the sclerotic five-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley. She also calls herself a socialist.

I wanted to vomit when I read about Rapone—but not for the reasons knee-jerk patriots would assume. Rapone is either naïve or an idiot; take your choice. He makes me sick because I am a socialist, and I have very little in common with him. Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, gives me hope that American politics might actually have a pulse.

Rapone used the word "socialism" in ways that fuel the miseducation of history-resistant Americans. He used it as a synonym for "communism" and that's exactly what most Americans believe it to be. * Millions of Americans associate socialism with the former Soviet Union, or perhaps with North Korea or Cuba, though ardor has cooled on Cuba now that right-wingers don't have Fidel Castro to kick around. The same crowd, by the way, downplays the fact that China is a communist country, because they make billions in business deals with those reds.

My kind!
 Ocasio-Cortez is my kind of socialist. So too is Bernie Sanders. And Billy Connolly. And Kaniela Ing. So we must ask, why do the far right and the extreme left get to own the word socialist?

Most of the political labels we toss around are categories, not specific ideologies. They reference a spectrum of thinking, not a single viewpoint. I often liken them to ice cream. When someone utters that that word, don't you immediately think, "What kind?" In our post-Ben and Jerry's/ Herrell's/ Hagen Daz world, choices and combinations are endless—not like the old days when choice was basically strips of a Neapolitan: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Yet we still think of politics as if it is a Neapolitan: democracy, communism, and fascism. Sometimes it gets even worse—like when Americans think capitalism is a synonym for democracy. Sorry, but capitalism is an economic term, not a set of political values. Have you ever asked yourself how the democratic United States can even do business with communist China? The answer is that that China isn't really a communist nation; it's an authoritarian nation whose guiding economic principle is state-command capitalism. The latter is cool with the United States, which isn't a pure democracy any more than China is a utopian communist state. At best, the United States is an indirect representative democracy that practices a de facto form of oligarchic (control by a few) capitalism. Moral: democracy, socialism, and fascism come in various "flavors." **

Back to my confession. I am a socialist, something I remind people when they tell me I "must" vote for Democrats. My economic principles are quite different from those of two-party capitalists. I think, for example, that medical care should be free for all, that public colleges should also be free (or very cheap), that all employers should have to pay a living wage, that Social Security should be fully funded by removing the income cap on paying into it, that no company should be allowed to raid or default on pension plans, that military spending should be slashed dramatically and funds diverted into infrastructure spending, that we should fully fund anti-poverty programs, and that government should invest heavily in green energy and biomedical research. I also believe in strict business regulation to ensure healthy environmental conditions. Regulators should also remove tax incentives for moving profitable businesses to lower-wage nations, or for setting up dummy offices abroad to avoid taxes. And, yes, I'd like to see a true graduated income tax that makes those who have more pay more. A personal mantra is: "Free trade is and always has been a fraud!" Yet I wouldn't go the barricades for any of this, because I oppose militarism and compulsion—touchstone values for democratic socialists the likes of which we find alive and well. (See chart.)

To (over) simplify, two-party capitalists believe that most forms of wealth should accrue to individuals; socialists hold that many forms of wealth should first serve a collective public good. Sure—the far end of the socialist spectrum results in nightmares such as the military-based bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet Union, or the smoke-and-mirrors fake socialism of Venezuela. It's also true that oligarchic capitalism meshes comfortably with fascist states such as Nazi Germany, religious monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, and military dictatorships such as that of Honduras. (Don't be fooled by sham elections; look at where power really lies.)   

Rapone is a revolutionary communist; I am a democratic socialist. No group in history has more fiercely opposed communists than democratic socialists. They saw early on that those claiming the communist label were authoritarian monsters drawn to personal power, militarism, and bureaucracy, not in empowering the people, assuring the public welfare, or building democracy. In a way, self-proclaimed communists remind me of today's Republican Party; many of my friends like to compare Trump to Mussolini, but I think he's more like Stalin.

But for now, let's chew on this irony: Rapone was thrown out of the Army for being a socialist, yet the U.S. military is the largest socialist enterprise in the United States—100% taxpayer-supported! But it sure as hell isn't the kind of socialism this democratic socialist wants.
 

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* Comic Jimmy Tingle quipped that Americans are taught to despise socialism in public school, "a socialist institution!"  

**Here's a short list of flavors. The most benign forms are in bold. Keep in mind that many nations have "mixed" forms of government that borrow from various political models.

Democracy: direct, indirect, pure, representative, parliamentary, one/two-party, proportional, winner-take-all, authoritarian, restricted electorate, capitalist democracy, social democracy, moderate libertarianism, religious, secular

Socialism: democratic, market, liberal, eco-socialism, utopian communism (as in the commune movement), religious (like early Christians), cooperative, Marxist, Maoist, labor parties, anarchist, syndicalist, state bureaucratic

Fascism: Nazism, military juntas, nationalist movements, religious theocracies/dictatorships, most authoritarian regimes, hate groups, extreme libertarianism, capitalist oligarchy, police states, power elites

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7/2/18

Woman in the Window a Good Read, but a Pasteup Job


THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
By A. J. Finn
HarperCollins, 448 pages.
★★★

The Woman in the Window is a thrilling read, yet by all rights it shouldn’t be. Let me address the gorilla in the room. I liked this book, but it’s a work of intellectual piracy. Take the unreliable observer/narrator of The Girl on a Train, the troubled teens from any Tana French novel, the disappearing act from Gone Girl, the creepy voyeurs from the films Three Colors: Red and Rear Window, plus skeptical law enforcement from the latter, and you’ve got The Woman in the Window.

Anna Fox is a former high-profile child psychologist laid low by agoraphobia, separation from her husband and daughter, and over-fondness for Merlot—which she seemingly drinks by the vat. She still does some counseling, but online and from the anonymous confines of her home office. Few of her clients realize that she too is in therapy, or that her only in-person human contacts are visits from her therapist, her trainer, delivery people, and the renter in her basement. Her neighbors certainly don’t know that Anna spends much of her day spying on them through a high-powered zoom lens on a tripod-mounted camera in her bedroom.

Anna’s life gets more complicated when a new family moves next door—the Russells: Alistair, Jane, and their teenage son Ethan. Anna perceptively intuits that Ethan is troubled and soon, he too visits Anna. But a much stranger visit comes Ethan’s mother, who bonds with Anna over girl talk and free-flowing Merlot. Imagine Anna’s shock when shortly thereafter, she zooms in on what she perceives to be Jane’s fatal stabbing, which she duly reports. Big problem: mom isn’t dead, she’s never met Anna, and the Russells tell her in no uncertain terms they should leave her alone and have nothing to do with Ethan. The cops, of course, write off the incident as the drunken hallucination of a lonely, depressed woman.

Of course, there is more than meets the eye, or there wouldn’t be much to the book, let alone enough to propel it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This is where things get messy for me as reviewer. I continued to read even though I was pretty certain I had sorted out all the red herrings before I was a third of the way through. By the time I was half done, I was sure I had identified the key figure in the mystery. A few pages later, I was confident I also knew the identity of the eventual villain. Turns out I was correct on all accounts. Still, I persisted to what was ultimately a fairly obvious conclusion.

My excuse is that some books are plotted well and written badly, and some–like The Woman in the Window–are plotted badly but are skillfully written. Maybe I would have felt differently had I known about a now-exposed mystery external to the book itself. I never read about authors until I finish a book, as I don’t want to be trapped in the Hype Machine, so I was unaware of this novel’s authorial controversy. In short, there is no A. J. Finn; it’s a pen name for Daniel Mallory. A nom de plume is, of course, common in literature, but Mallory’s case is different. He’s also the executive editor of William Morrow and Company, which bought the book’s rights. It also owns rights to Gone Girl and the parent company, HarperCollins, released and flogged the novel. Can you say, “conflict of interest?”

I’ll overlook this because Finn/Mallory is a very good writer who kept me reading even though I knew his plot to be a cut-and-paste project. Still, the subterfuge, the lack of originality, and weak plot development prevents me from joining the chorus of praise for The Woman in the Window. I must call it what it really is: a good beach read. Literature? Nah! For that you need to show something new. It’s fitting that one of Anna’s shut-in activities is repeatedly watching old films. I’ve seen Finn’s story before. And before. And before. And before…

Rob Weir
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6/29/18

Ignore the Dumb Title: Good Time Has Much to Say


GOOD TIME (2017)
Directed by Josh and Bennie Safdie
A24 Pictures, 101 minutes, R (violence, language, sexuality)
★★★★



This overlooked film was nominated for the Palme D’Or and then disappeared in a flash. That’s puzzling as much of it is quite good. It is, however, encumbered with a terrible and misleading title. The moment one says, “bank robbery film” and “good time,” most folks will conjure images of a goofy slapstick caper film. Good Time is a caper film, but it’s more like Of Mice and Men mashed with Dog Day Afternoon than cheap laughs fare such as Going In Style or Quick Change.

We know we’re into something different from the opening scene. Nick Nikas (co-director Bennie Safdie) sits vacant-eyed across from a psychiatrist who unsuccessfully tries to engage him in a word association test. It’s not that Nick is being uncooperative, it’s that the exercise is too hard for him. Into the office bursts his brother “Connie” (Constantine), who yells at the shrink, tears up his notes, and leads his brother out of the office.

We next meet the brothers wearing rubber masks and trying to rob a bank. It goes wrong and they flee, with Connie (Robert Pattinson) yelling out instructions to his brother. Connie gets away, but Nick is apprehended when he runs straight through a plate glass door. From there we switch to Connie’s attempt to raise $10,000 for his brother’s bail, as he is worried that Nick will not fare well in jail. He’s right; Nick is badly beaten and hospitalized.

It is here we get the caper part of the film. Connie—his hair hastily cut and bleached, as the robbery money had a dye pack that would have made him easy to identify—spirits a sedated, bandaged, guarded man from the hospital only to discover it’s a different criminal, Ray (Buddy Duress), not Nick. From there it’s a wild night of flight, an encounter with a teenage accomplice (Taliah Webster), a bottle filled with valuable LSD, pursuit through an after-hours amusement park, and more.

Are the caper scenes funny? Let’s just say that the humor is more in the vein of Reservoir Dogs, but without the witty repartee. By the time the night is over, the film is more tragic than goofy, and more violent than slapstick. The overall look of the action is like colorized film noir, the garish offerings of New York City stores and the lurid lights of the amusement park striking us like paintballs between the eyes.

Rex Reed hated all of this and called the film “pointless toxicity” and a “totally surreal look at people in crisis.” My rejoinder is, “Exactly!” minus his “pointless” judgment. We will meet Nick again before the film ends and it slowly dawns on us that virtually every character in the film is handicapped by happenstance. The contrast of bright colors and darkness underscores the gap between the American Dream and the hazy nightmare through which our marginal protagonists fail to negotiate.

I am not usually a Robert Pattinson fan, but he’s very good as Connie, a man much smarter than the people in his family and neighborhood, but not smart enough to overcome the fact that life’s deck is stacked against him. Duress plays to the hilt his part as a small-time hood whose foul mouth is the toughest thing about him. There is also a delicious small part for Jennifer Jason Leigh, Connie’s putative girlfriend, Corey. She shows up acting as dumb as a rock and looking as shabby as a cast-off rag doll, both being pretty close to true (for her character).

Taliah Webster is cool as cucumber as a cynical black kid who says she’s 16, looks 14, and has seen enough to be jaded about cops. Webster’s brief make-out scene with Pattinson—consistent with the plot—raised eyebrows. It may not have been the smartest thing to write into the script given current sensibilities. Then again, it might also be an honest look at what goes on among the underclass. In either case, as good as Webster is, her character needed a deeper back-story to clarify her motives.

Acting wise, Safdie steals our heart. His Nick is not merely mentally challenged; he is so severely handicapped that he is like a loyal dog that follows Connie’s commands. Though Connie loves his brother deeply, he doesn’t run a sheltered workshop, which is precisely what Nick needs. In the end we are left wondering what Nick’s future will be. I could not imagine a bright one for Nick, Connie, Corey, or anyone else in their immediate circle.

Does this sound like a film that should be titled Good Time? It’s far from a screwy comedy, but it’s worth watching for many other reasons. That includes the unsettling ones.

Rob Weir

6/27/18

Warlight a Masterful Triumph


WARLIGHT  (2018)
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 304 pages.
★★★★★

In 1992, Michael Ondaatje won the Man Booker Prize for The English Patient. If there is any justice, he will win again for his doleful and astonishing Warlight.

How to explain what this book is about? I suppose we should start with the title. If you think that wars are over when they officially end, you’ve been fortunate enough never to have experienced one. Ondaatje’s novel opens in “the dimmed warlight” of 1945, just after the war against fascism has been won. That’s cold consolation to a city such as London, where war’s festering wounds and devastation lie all around. So too do secrets, old scores, and not-yet-subdued dangers. The very path to the future is bathed in a hazy half-light.   

Now ask yourself what you know of your parents’ lives before you were self-aware. Would you know about it, if when your mother was a girl, a thatcher’s lad fell through the cottage roof and couldn’t be moved for several weeks? Do you have even the faintest idea of what your father’s job entails? Of what your mother’s education was like? Of what either of them did during a war in which their children were packed off to America and Wales for safekeeping?

The narrator of Warlight is 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams. When he and his older sister Rachel are told that their parents are going away for a year—ostensibly because Unilever has sent their father off to Singapore—they fret over this less than one might think. Neither parent is what you’d call warm, and its unclear if their mother, Rose, cares at all, or if she’s just spectacularly bad at the whole motherhood thing. What is odd, though, is that the children are left in the care of a large-nosed, disheveled man named Walter, whose ideas about domesticity are even more challenged than Rose’s. Nathaniel dubs him The Moth for his furtive ways and soon forgets his actual name. And before you know it, the household is like a London Underground station through which all manner of people pass through. A few are sophisticated, but mostly they are a Dickensian array of misfits, petty criminals, and shadowy figures. The one constant is The Moth’s friend, whom Nathaniel and Rachel call The Darter because, as Walter explains, his welterweight boxing nickname was the Pimlico Darter. It also describes his propensity for dancing on the edge of malfeasance. Not exactly the company with whom you’d expect private school kids to be spending time.

Nathaniel soon begins to skip school and The Darter puts him to work—first at a restaurant, but soon joining him for late night trips down the Thames in a mussel boat to do some “delivery” work that might better be called “smuggling.” Those activities include cargoes of greyhounds for dog tracks, some legit but mostly not. But in the warlight, who’s to notice forged papers? The descriptions of London’s squalid piers and mysterious buildings are alone worth a read. What exactly took place inside a former monastery converted to a factory? How are people getting by amidst the rubble of the Blitz? It’s an exciting time for young Nathaniel, especially after he meets Agnes, who is way beneath him on the social scale, but who both introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh and is the blithe counterpoint to his brooding tendencies. 

I began to presume that Warlight was a coming of age novel. It is, but it’s so much more. I shall say only that it has much to do with the aspects of Rose’s life that an adolescent boy could not imagine, and a 17-yeard-old daughter could only partially infer. It also has to do with nurture, socialization, and early childhood. To what degree are we products of our genes versus the influence of various role models and our striving to invent ourselves? How many times can a single life shift gears? Can we ever truly overcome our essential natures? Though we have our suspicions, these will remain open questions, even when we meet Nathaniel again at age 28.

Michael Ondaatje has written more poetry than novels and it shows—in a good way. They are passages of this book that are read-aloud beautiful—sentences whose prose sparkles nearly as brightly as the provocative observations held within their content and context. I will also tell you something very important: nothing in this book is an incidental throwaway. It’s hard to know what impresses more, Ondaatje’s dreamy prose or plotting worthy of an artisan craftsman. If warlight is akin to the gloaming, this novel illumines like a hot summer sun.

Rob Weir

6/25/18

Shepherd's Hut Like an Aussie Huck Finn


THE SHEPHERD'S HUT  (2018)
By Tim Winton
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 288 pages.
★★★★

One of the hardest things for a novelist to do is capture adolescence. Most writers such as 57-year-old Tim Winton, who are accomplished enough to land a novel with a major publishing house, have long ago left behind the confused logic of adolescence. Plus, most of us would have trouble explaining our own coming of age, let alone concoct a convincing story for someone else. In literary terms, there's a reason why Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been, since 1884, the gold standard is depicting the adolescent mind.

Winton's The Shepherd's Hut will, in many ways, remind you of Huckleberry Finn. His 15-year-old protagonist and narrator Jackson ("Jaxie") Clackton is–like Winton– Australian, but the parallels to Huck Finn are striking. Both Huck and Jaxie grew up semi-feral, both have abusive fathers, both cuss a blue streak, neither is much for book learning, and both engage in a great adventure. Jaxie is a bit cruder, but replace the dark Mississippi alluvial soil with the parched red sands of Western Australian, make the dangers more site-specific, and exchange Twain's runaway slave for an exiled priest, and the two tales converge.

This is the case even though The Shepherd's Hut is set in the present. Winton gives the story a timeless quality. Jaxie knows some music and news from television, but he's effectively removed from direct everyday reality. He lives in a dying town in isolated Western Australia, an area roughly four times the size of Texas with under 2.6 million people—more than 75% of whom live in the city of Perth. No city luxuries for Jaxie; his town is so dead that even the IGA has closed. The Clacktons are poor, Jaxie is unpopular in school, and he's a loner–except for a childhood friend Lee (Lee-Ann) who becomes a bit more than that as they move into their teenage years. As if Jaxie's life can't get any worse, his mother dies of cancer, a tragedy that exacerbates his father's drinking and penchant for violence. When Jaxie and Lee are caught in a compromising position, she is carted off to a town far away. Jaxie has to deal with losing Lee, his aunt's withering condemnation of his morals, and a damaged eye courtesy of a clouting from his father—a figure Jaxie despises so much that he calls him "Captain Wankbag."

Jaxie's adventure begins when his father is killed in a freakish garage accident and Jaxie discovers his body. In his 15-year-old mind, he's sure he'll be accused of murdering the old bastard. So Jaxie sets off across the empty expanses with a vague idea of finding his soul mate Lee and living away from people. To give a sense of how little Jaxie has thought this through, he takes a rifle to shoot game, but not many cartridges. He wisely chucks his Vans for hiking shoes, but grabs a plastic cooler instead of water bags, doesn't pack extra clothing, and hastily grabs a butter knife instead of a proper hunting blade. (Trying skinning a kangaroo with a butter knife!)

Winton vividly describes the landscape, but does so in ways that emphasize how it would be seen through 15-year-old eyes. I admired how Winton depicted the vastness of the land and its silent indifference to those upon it. In this sense, Winton makes us feel Jaxie's peril in ways more profound than harrowing escapes from brown snakes, venomous spiders, abandoned mine shafts, stray barbed wire, or monitor lizards. In fact, Winton mainly makes us worry that Jaxie will perish of dehydration or starvation.

One thing that doesn't endanger Jaxie is loneliness. He is relieved to find a water tank in the middle of nowhere, but disgusted to find that there's actually someone living in the old shepherd's hut to which it's attached. Enter Finton MacGillis, an elderly Irishman living alone in a place that Jaxie thinks is overpopulated by a factor of one. We eventually learn that Finton is an exiled priest who talks non-stop, but won't say why he's been transported to his solitary fate. Can Jaxie trust Finton, or is he some sort of conman or pedophile? He thinks he wants nothing to do with Finton, but can't explain why he keeps delaying his quest to find Lee.

What ensues is a strange relationship that makes sense only because Winton so thoroughly probes subjects such as the teenage psyche, the impact of loneliness on adults, and the spiritual reflection unvarnished nature induces. Something dramatic occurs to upset the delicate equilibrium, but that's up to you to discover. It's also up to you to determine if it's compelling. I found it slightly more plot convenient than convincing, but the rest of the book enthralled me.

I highly recommend this book. You will quickly understand why Winton is a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, which is given to the best work on Australian life, and why he's been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Rob Weir

6/22/18

Women with Amazing Voices

To repeat an old rant, too many Nashville-based female singers are like Lego pieces: unsnap one and pop another into place. As a rule they are young, small-voiced, whispery-toned sopranos—pretty to hear, but with all the distinctiveness of a block of clapboard houses painted white. Here's a June 2018 edition of Women with Amazing Voices—the ones that will make you want to stuff those Lego pieces back in the box and hide them in the closet.

Ellen Starski, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants

Ellen Starski has a unique voice you'll either love or find odd. Put me firmly in the first camp. Its nasal, but expressive; dramatic, but controlled. The latter quality is one I really admire. "Daughter of the Sea" is a perfect example. This song has theatrical qualities with its bouncy, edgy strings, but it's deliberately paced and the tension comes from small shifts in Starski's voice, not flashy outbursts. It's also typical in that most of the songs are about loss, family, and coming to grips with the ways of adult life. "Ode to Nanny and Cookie" is about her grandmothers; the tone is somber and wrapped in moody repeated guitar pulses. "Miss You Mary" is homage to her mother and she wrenches emotion from lines such as I was looking for a place to bury the past with you. A different kind of yearning emerges in "Missing You," Glimpses of you still surface on my skin/I shower and the world comes crashing in…. Starski lists influences such as Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann, and Sarah McLachlan, but there's also some old-time country in it that, to me, evoked Kitty Wells. Check out songs such as "Honey, I'm Not Him." When she sings I told you once don't make me tell you again/You better stay away from my man it's way more ominous than you'd expect. It also has Appalachian seasonings that reflect the northwest Pennsylvania coal country from which she hails. "Taken By the Breeze" also has an old-time flair, though its catchiness is enhanced with just a touch of mariachi brass that takes us south of the mountains. Ms. Starski also has a footlights-quality to parts of her repertoire. "Chasin' the Sun" feels like a string band vaudeville song, and she also engages in moody spoken word forays such as "Slip of Paper" and the title track, one that is completely silent for thirty seconds before Starski recites a rhythmic poem to flute and snare drum accompaniment. I always appreciate musicians who take chances and Starski's recording ranks high among my 2018 favorites.  ★★★★★

Gretchen Peters, Sad Songs Make Me Happy


Perhaps the name Gretchen Peters gives you pause, but I’ll bet you know her music. She has a dozen records of her own, including the newly released Dancing with the Beast, but she is best known as a songwriter; she even has a niche in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her “Independence Day”—a hit for Martina McBride—ranks # 50 of the Top 100 greatest country songs of all time, but you’ve not heard it the way it should be sung until you’ve heard Peters perform it. Luckily you can; NoiseTrade has released it on a compilation of Peters’ back catalogue material. Take the collection title seriously; Peters has an affinity for tough songs. “Independence Day,” for example, is based on the infamous 1977 Francine Hughes case, and involves an eight-year-old girl who is at the fair the day her mother sets fire to the home of her abusive husband while he and she are in it.* A tragedy? Not from Peters’ perspective!  Disappearing Act” (from her new album) is about mortality, and "Blackbird" is another murder ballad.  “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a hit for Trisha Yearwood, is a sad song of missing a lost love; and “When All You Got is a Hammer” is about an Iraq War vet who comes home with PTSD and the deck stacked against him. When he chillingly strikes back Peters sings, When all you got is a hammer/Everything looks like a nail. There are several tender moments on this collection, including the lovely “The Way You Move Me” and her Peters' manifesto of things of value in “The Answer.” Mostly, though, this is an album about when life isn’t exactly as imagines, like the harried woman in “Five Minutes,” or the woman aching for “The Matador,” but fearing his rage and not sure who I was cheering for… I loved the fighter and the bull. A final word: Although Ms. Peters’ music is often labeled country, that's an inaccurate descriptor. Her voice is like a huskier version of Emmylou Harris’ and like Harris, the music transgresses folk, pop, country, and Americana borders. Quite a lot, in fact, is piano-based—more like a rawhide tough Sara Bareilles than a CMT cutout. ★★★★★ 

*For those needing further proof Sean Hannity is an idiot, he has used "Independence Day" as a theme for his radio show under the mistaken impression it's a patriotic song!

Angela Josephine, Daylight

This album has been dubbed a combination "folk-opera and personal exploration" and that's an excellent description. It's deeply spiritual in a dark and honest way—musings filled with doubt, yearning, and surrender to the reality there are mysteries we cannot answer. In her stunning eight-minute finale "Face to the Wind," Angela Josephine asks do you know the way of darkness? Her revelation isn't what you expect, nor is her insistence: I'm taking the cross in this way/there's no other way… In it we also hear some of the instruments she has mastered: piano, guitar, mandolin, dulcimers….  Ms. Josephine's voice is soulful, emotive, and adaptable. She's Grace Slick-like in the way she works the band and trippy grooves of "Got to Believe," which is another song that doesn't play out to usual scripts. She takes to task a man with no one to hold/just a prayer/and a Bible/and what you've been told. And what do we do with the refrain of the ambience-dripped, feedback-enhanced, echoic "River Rising" with its refrain: O sister glory be/Glory be our mother/O sister glory be/The father, son, the lover. The title track is the album's most cheerful, one that unfolds to scampering of mando notes, but Josephine mostly walks on the mysterious and dark side. "Red Roses," for example, is a (sort of) love song but one so moody it could be French—or Leonard Cohen! Josephine is a talented singer, musician, poet, and thinker. She recorded this album in a barn in her Michigan Upper Peninsula homeland and those old beams sparked a lot of serious contemplation. ★★★★

Kris Angelis, Photobooth

Florida-born Kris Angelis now resides in Los Angeles, where she's an actress and singer/songwriter. She has just dropped a single titled "Photobooth" and has released a five-song NoiseTrade EP to mark this. Like much of her music over the past 5-plus years, "Photobooth" is upbeat, a giddy romance unfolding behind a photo booth curtain. Angelis has a small voice, but it's sweet and she can kick it up to drop into danceable arrangements. She draws comparisons to Brandi Carlile and Rachel Platten, though I think her voice is cleaner than Platten's. Check out "Heartbreak is Contagious," her warning she doesn't want to be the rebound girl. Much of it is just guitar and voice, but Angelis gives lots of bounce to the song to make it sound bigger than it is. That's the same approach we hear in the piano-shaped "Prove Me Wrong," the joyous "Roll the Dice," and the indie energy of "A Billion Hearts." Perhaps you've seen Angelis on TV; now give her a listen. ★★★★

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