Broken Harbour and The Story of Land and Sea: The Skinny on Two Novels

Broken Harbour (Penguin, 452 pp.) is an older mystery (2012), but I decided to read it because I'm bored with Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, and the entire Boston wise guys genre. Thank goodness I ran into the talented Tana French. Broken Harbour is a long novel, but every page is so beautifully written and gripping that I never even tempted to peek to the ending.

Make sure you read this one!
The setting is Brianstown, an instant seaside community hastily and shoddily constructed during Ireland's brief flirtation with prosperity (2001-03). The views are terrific, but it's 45 minutes from Dublin and feels a million miles from nowhere—a place that was supposed to teem with middle class life but collapsed with the Irish economy and is so thinly populated its feel is analogous to the abandoned mall in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. One of its families, though, is the Spains—Pat, Jenny, and two adorable children. Pat and Jenny–always mentioned as a twin set–are such the dream couple that years later childhood and college friends continue to invoke them as all that life and love should be. So when Pat and the kids are brutally murdered and Jenny is left in a pool of blood barely clinging to life, detective Mike Kennedy and novice Richie Curren are off to solve the case. Kennedy's sent because he's the best—he's nicknamed "Scorcher" because of the speed in which he solves difficult cases. This time, though, he has both a rookie sidekick and quite a few personal demons to exorcise, not the least of which is that Brianstown sits on the harbor where his mother drowned herself.

Salon dubbed this novel "suburban Gothic," and that's an excellent handle. Everything about this novel is well done—the forensics, the psychological profiles, the build up, and the pay off. It's one of those books that throws a curve just when you think you've got it parsed. I figured out whodunnit, but French's solution still surprised me. I'll also say that this book made me so nervous about attics that I'm glad my house doesn't have one. And, no, the Celtic Tiger wasn't up there, though metaphorically speaking, it could have been.

You can give this one a miss.
Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel The Story of Land and Sea (2014, Harper, 256 pp.) has garnered high praise, but it gets little love from me. It's set in the region of Beaufort, South Carolina just before and after the American Revolution and revolves around the courtship and marriage of John and Helen. He is an ex-pirate and Revolutionary War soldier, and she the daughter of plantation privilege and a stern religious father.

The Story of Land and Sea is a nicely written book, but for me its taste was treacly   sweet, even when one of the plot's numerous tragedies was being played out. It unfolds out of chronological time and one of my problems with the book is young Helen's relationship with her slave, Molly—one that struck me as more white Southern wish fulfillment than plausible. In similar fashion, John's character seemed too modern—a former privateer turned SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Maybe all of these things resolved and The Story of Land and Sea took a dark turn. I wouldn't know. I lost interest in the book's languid palmetto pacing and gave up half way through. –Rob Weir


Clark Art Institue Renovations a Waste of Space and Money

I first visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA in 1975 and never stopped going back. Until 2011, that is, when the Clark closed most of its galleries to embark upon a three-rear expansion plan. The venerable Clark reopened in July 2014 to showcase its new digs, improved gallery spaces, and astronomical new admission price ($25). The Wall Street Journal raved over the new building, one designed by leading Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and it even won a few prizes. On the other hand, because most of the reviews of the new Clark have been mixed or scathingly negative, I waited until the free admission month of December to check it out.  
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Women of Amphissa

It was exhilarating to see old favorites back in the Clark after a three-year hiatus but, alas, I must concur with the new wing's naysayers–it is awful and inappropriate in just every way bad architecture can be. The Clark certainly needed updating–its main galleries date to 1955, the year the museum opened. Ando's wing increased the Clark's gallery space by 15% and provided a much-needed separate gallery for special exhibits. Also to be praised are improved lighting and internal renovations that add luster to the Clark's luminous treasures.

A little history, though, reveals why everything else about the new wing is a dud. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute houses the couple's private art collection. (Robert) Sterling Clark was among the heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and he began making trips to Paris in 1911 to purchase art. He married Francine Clary in 1919 and, thereafter, the New York power couple maintained a home in Paris to facilitate art buying. Sterling Clark was so deeply conservative that his name surfaces in a 1930s plot to overthrow President Roosevelt, but World War Two shook him to his core. By most accounts he remained conservative, but the war's destruction, the atomic bomb, and Cold War tension led him to fear that a nuclear exchange would destroy his beloved art. Why move it to Williamstown, a village in Massachusetts' northwest corner? Because one could get there from New York, but mostly because prevailing projections claimed that fallout from a nuclear exchange would not harm the area.

The first thing wrong with the Ando reboot is that it is unfaithful to Clark's conservative instincts. Of course, a modern museum cannot remain anchored to one man's 1930s style politics, but it should do things that enhance the collection. Ando has designed space for a contemporary art collections, something the Clark doesn't have and never will. Like the Lawrence Alma-Tadema painting above, the Clark's collection is often playful and sometimes even lustful–such as its sensual Bouguereaus–but nearly all of it reflects the Clarks' haute bourgeois tastes: Old Masters, European Realism, Homer, Remington, Rodin, and one of the finest Impressionist collections in North America. So why build an envelope that, from the outside, is more suggestive of a Holocaust memorial than a Monet water lily? 

I do not exaggerate. One now drives into the Clark past severe unadorned polished granite slabs. One then walks along walls suggestive of Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial sans names, and enters a metal tube and glass foyer that's massive and largely empty:  the main desk, a staircase, and–peeking behind a slab–one of the most barren gift shops I've ever seen in a major museum. Looking for signs to tell you what's downstairs or how to get to the galleries? Keep looking.

A welcoming space, or cafe of the damned?
Downstairs is where one finds the special exhibits gallery and what is being touted as the Clark's first true café, a few tables with a raw reinforced concrete back wall and a fronting wall of glass. Maybe the Clark's board found this innovative, but it's distressingly akin to cafés in the University of Massachusetts Campus Center, a building beloved by no one. The space is underground; hence the glass faces more blank slabs. In the summer, the entryway is silhouetted by shallow reflective ponds, one of which cascades down to café level. That, I suppose, is mildly interesting and the pools lend gravitas to an otherwise boring slice of neo-Brutalism, but let's return to Monet to discuss a more gracious path not taken.

There was no reason to construct ponds because—as anyone who has been to the Clark knows–there is already a lovely natural pond on the premises. At the height of summer it teems with (you guessed it) water lilies. It's easy to envision flattening the sterile and empty entryway, reorienting it, and making the real pond the museum's outdoor centerpiece. Mother Nature nearly always trumps landscaping.

Let me beat the tired horse: the new entry is a waste of space whose spartan voids evoke yawns, not Zen. There's plenty of room to display the missing instructions that one gets to the galleries by traversing the void, making a right, and then walking up a slight incline to get to the second floor of the original 1955 building. That's where the fun really begins. We walk out of Ando's postmodernist boredom and into the twenty galleries housing old friends.  

Drained pools and lots of emptiness.
I'm glad the Clark has more space, I'm thrilled by the gallery upgrades, and I'm glad it's back to full strength. But it will be a while before I renew my membership. The trustees spent $145 million on the renovations and spent it foolishly. They built a space to display Ellsworth Kelly, not Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Need 15% more space so you can do a Kelly loaner show? Do what any sensible contractor would do and add a room off the back. Make it blend and, by all means, don't waste money on empty space. Take the savings and buy some good art to furnish the new addition.  Rob Weir


Wired for Sound: Contemporary Music from Mozambique

Wired for Sound: Mocambique
* * *

Wired for Sound is a seventeen-track sampler of what's going on in the contemporary music world of Mozambique. For those who need to get maps out, Mozambique is on Africa's southeast coast–the island of Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean to its east. Although Bantu peoples and languages are indigenous to Mozambique, it was a colony of Portugal until 1975 and Portuguese remains its official language. As you will hear, Western influences are embedded in some of the music. In its externals, Wired for Sound feels similar to a lot of Afropop––lots of bright guitar cascades, solid framing percussion, and lead voices supplemented by texturing harmonies.  As the title suggests, most of what you hear is plugged in. Mozambican lead vocals tend to be smoother and sunnier than what we associate with West African music. In fact, tracks such as Million Issac Junior's "Thikukola" or Academico and Pimento's "Marry Very Well" are faintly reminiscent of calypso songs. There is also a blues tradition; change the language and "Takunha Dilani" would be at home in a club in Chicago's Southside. Still another style, heard in "Atija" by Palopes and "Ihepo Mama" by Liquissone Juliasse Nhamataira, uses repeated words to induce a meditative quality. Another departure is that Mozambican music contains more horns than a lot of other African music, South Africa being the exception. Much of the brass melds into the mix, but one will certainly hear bright sax in the Sozhinho Ernesto K. Banda song "Ku Pupuluma," and the ethereal jazzy flair of Nhamataira on "Chuva" is evocative of midwinter projects from Paul Winter.

As on all samplers, some tracks stand out more than others and a few seem out of place. I personally enjoyed a traditional song from Josefina Zacharias, but could have done without the final two tracks altogether–a rap in an African language I don't speak by MDK and Flay C has no emotional impact on me, and Nelito and Armando's attempt at some Mozambican hip hop sounds like a sloppy mess. Rap and hip-hop are now universal (which means they may be on the wane as pop music) and they never have been genres I found interesting, but these two tracks violate the standard I use to gauge world music: if you're performing something that's vibrant and new, I'm intrigued; if you're recycling pop clichés, I'm unimpressed. Luckily there are 15 really solid tracks to make up for the two misfires.  Rob Weir


Americanah a Good Read, though Beware of the Hype

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf  ISBN: 978-0307462126, 496 pp.
* * *

Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie certainly isn’t afraid to take on the big issues: race, immigration, gender, sex…. Hers is a book about liminality and identity formation. Its central characters are Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up and fall in love during Nigeria’s military dictatorship. It’s a land where corruption is rampant, women sleep with married generals to get ahead, but tensions are so tight that one misplaced word can take you from the top of the hill to obscurity (or worse) in the wink of an eye. Anyone with intelligence, connections, and resources seeks to get out.

Ifemelu has all three and bolts to study in the United States. Obinze plans to follow, but 9/11 puts the kibosh to his plan to join Ifemelu in America. Instead he illegally enters England, struggles, and is eventually arrested and deported. Luckily for him, Nigeria’s government has changed and he is able to rise in the world as a real estate developer via some don’t-ask-questions contacts. He acquires wealth and fine things: flashy cars, a luxurious home, a glamorous wife, a child.

But this novel is really about Ife. On one hand, she undergoes the classic immigrant story in that she’s caught between two worlds. The book’s title says it all; she is an “Americanah,” neither Nigerian nor completely American. As such, her anguish comes from trying to figure out which side of her is winning at various stages of her young adulthood. In addition, life in America and her experiences with various lovers also expose her to new ideas and new dilemmas. America teaches her about feminism, though some of the black men she meets fail to practice it. And, of course, she begins to refract her experience through the lens of race. Through her experiences (and Obinze’s), we see race in three contexts: the United States, Britain, and Nigeria (where lighter-hued Africans are seen as more attractive than darker-skinned ones).

Many of Ife’s musings are expressed in a blog she keeps that goes viral: “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She writes frankly about problems ranging from overt racism to the exoticism she suspects motivates a white lover. And, as becomes increasingly clear, she just doesn’t get American men—no matter what their color. There’s a wonderful scene in a Trenton braiding shop in which we witness Ife coming to grips with an existential crisis, the gist of which is whether it’s even possible to go “home.” (Maybe she’s already there.)

So far, so good. The book is certainly provocative. It also won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and has been nominated for many other prizes. I take issues with the acclaim.  I enjoyed Americanah  in the end, but I must caution that it’s a slow-to-develop book and one I nearly stopped reading on several occasions. There is an emerging standard in literature to honor as “important” any book that deals with significant social issues.  I reject that standard in favor of one that also includes skillful and compelling writing. Adichie passes that standard, but not with distinction. The cumbersome title of Ife’s blog is indicative of some of the book’s shortcomings. There are deeply moving passages, but also leaden prose. Many of the blog entries, for example, seem—and there’s no polite way to put this—trite. Maybe Adichie (age 37) captures the vacuous style of blogs written by 30-somethings, or maybe she’s cheapening the very ideas upon which she wishes us to muse. You decide, but I often found myself annoyed by the tone (not the content). I can say, without reservation, that Adichie telegraphs her plot from miles away. She spins the frisson between Ife and Obinze in such a way that it’s like watching someone paint herself into a corner: there is but one conceivable outcome.

For a book about identity, it suffers from a crisis of identity. Is it about the immigrant experience? Is it about racial and gender identity? About love unrequited and requited? It seems to be about all of these things, but for me the love story simply gets in the way. I liked this book, but the awards strike me as the triumph of good intentions over sterling prose. It’s worth a read, but ignore the buzz.--  Rob Weir


"Lost" on the River Indeed

Lost on the River
Harvest Records Deluxe Edition
* *

It sounded like a match made in heaven–a trove of unfinished Bob Dylan songs from the fecund writing period between his motorcycle accident in 1966 and his return to the stage in 1967. Dylan was so on fire during this time that he must've gone through Bic pens and tablets like flames raging through a barn of dry hay. So why not hand off the song fragments to producer T Bone Burnett and let others write music for them? Best of all, let others sing 'em! Dylan's poetic credentials are not in dispute–as a wordsmith he ranks with the man whose ID he appropriated when he busted out of Minnesota: Dylan Thomas. As a singer though, the adjective "unique" is about the nicest thing one can say of his voice. Most people sing better than Dylan; hell, even I sing better and that's no endorsement of my vocal prowess.

As the old cliché goes, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.  Lost on the River is surely one of the year's most disappointing albums-a muddy, meandering journey to nowhere in particular. We learn several things right away. First, not every word Dylan spun was lyrical gold. (Check out the words for "Duncan and Jimmy" and keep an airsickness bag handy.) Second, there is an enormous difference between singing Bob Dylan songs and getting Dylan. The artists who collectively call themselves The New Basement Tapes flesh out the Dylan fragments within a range that extends from semi-successful to utter flops. By far, the best efforts come from Lewis Mumford and Elvis Costello–Mumford, because he has the wisdom to keep arrangements simple so that one can actually hear Dylan's lyrics, and Costello because he's old enough to understand the Boho sensibilities that inspired Dylan. Mumford is especially sharp on "Kansas City" and "The Whistle is Blowing," which come closest to sounding like the way Dylan might have fashioned the tunes. Costello shines on "Married to My Hack," whose Beat-poet cadences he nails. Jim James (My Morning Jacket) also has a few nice turns, though he has a tendency to overdue the production values by half. Aside from his opening track, "Down on the Bottom," most of his other mixes blur the lyrics in and render them irrelevant as Dylan compositions.

On the disappointing side are selections from Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm a huge fan of Giddens, but a big voice like hers is a drawback on this project. Her take on "Hidee Hidee Ho # 16" comes off like a histrionic outtake from a Jazz Age stage show. And I've no idea what Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) is doing on this record. There's no nice way to say this—he's so bad that he makes "Card Shark" sound like it should be on a children's music CD. G-rated Dylan? Please!!! Even Mumford and Costello drop the ball on occasion. Mumford's "When I Get My Hands on You" is a brilliant interpretation--of Paul Simon, not Dylan; Costello's take on the title track has less shape than a mu-mu.

Maybe the next time someone finds a Dylan cache they ought to ask the man himself what he had in mind. The fact that several of the tracks on Lost on the River are reworked previous versions might indicate Dylan just forgot to take out the trash. 
Rob Weir


M.C. Escher Worth the Trip of Your Choice

M. C. Escher: Reality and Illusion
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH
Through January 5, 2015

Impossible staircases, strange insect-like creatures furling and unfurling, a set of disembodied hands drawing each other into existence…. It was all so trippy and off-kilter that those of us who first saw the work of M. C. Esher in the 1960s and ‘70s simply assumed he was one of us—perhaps some acid-fueled poster artist from the Bay area.

He was actually a Dutchman, Mauritis Cornelius Escher, who was born in 1898 and checked off the planet in 1972, just about the time Baby Boomers were checking him out. Moreover, he was more Straight Arrow than Acid Rocker and he drew his inspirations from Tuscan architecture and Moorish designers, not countercultural ideals. He blew his mind in San Gimignano, not San Francisco, and with mathematics, not controlled substances.

The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, a small jewel, showcases Escher’s biography and work. It’s a perfect setting as, like Escher’s work, Manchester isn’t quite what first-time visitors expect. Once the world’s largest textile manufacturing center, Manchester is a gritty postindustrial city, whose red- brick factories stretch along the Merrimack River as far as the eye can see. Yet scattered among the decline are the remnants of the past wealth that endowed the Currier, and tenuous gentrification projects as fanciful as some of Escher’s works and might just fuel a brighter future.

The Currier exhibit on Escher is exhaustive. It opens with Escher’s earliest commercial graphic works, nature studies, landscapes, and prints. Escher gained such renown for his later mind-bending works that it’s easy to overlook his considerable printmaking skills. He excelled in all forms of printmaking—lithography, woodcuts, linoleum blocks, mezzotints, and several others that were unfamiliar to me. His artistic life took a dramatic turn when he toured Italy in 1922, the beginning of a journey that took him across Europe to study and work, but also to escape war. Italy’s medieval and Spain’s Moorish pasts precipitated a shift from pure to imaginative design. Escher had no formal training in mathematics, but non-representational geometry such as Möbius strips and ambiguous triangles became a staple of Escher’s works.

A tesselation and Mobius strip
The Currier exhibit highlights Escher’s draftsmanship and his intuitive grasp of both practical and improbable geometry. From Spanish tile makers he learned tessellation, patterns without overlap in which one design bleeds seamlessly into the next. A famed Escher technique was to begin with an abstract line of forms that slowly evolve into recognizable birds or insects. But look closely, as Escher liked to mess with our perceptions. Some of his tessellations construct, then deconstruct; others shift our focus in ways that we accept subconsciously before our reason centers alert us that we’ve been visually hoodwinked. Escher often did this in the simplest possible manner, such as changing the flight patterns of a flock of birds by slowly adding one color while deemphasizing the previously dominant hue.

Famed Escher works such as Relativity (1953) relied upon Necker cubes and Penrose triangles. Remember how you first learned how to draw a cube that appears as three-dimensional by sketching two squares whose points you connected? Do the same thing with top and bottom trapezoids and your Necker cube looks quite different. Hide some of these in a composition with some Penrose triangles whose sides are drawn in such a way as to create an architecturally impossible figure. That’s how Escher gave us pillars that support nothing, interlaced staircases that do not interconnect, and spatial planes whose dimensionality is both everywhere and nowhere. As we used to say, “Far out!”

Check out the columns!
Escher was neither a bohemian nor a child of the 60s, but his art anticipated the altered states of William Burroughs and it flung open wide Aldous Huxley’s doors of perception. You have just weeks left to get to Manchester. If you can’t make it, at least upload some of Escher’s work and study it. Don’t surf—look hard and deep. Prepare to have your mind blown.  Rob Weir  


Force Majeure is a Flurry, not an Avalanche

Directed and written by Ruben Örtlund
Magnolia Pictures, 118 minutes, R (for brief nudity and cursing in Swedish)

Swedish director Ruben Örtlund has a good photographic eye. He serves up jaw-dropping views of the French Alps and gorgeously textured shots of small domestic moments such as a family tranquilly snoozing in their matching long johns. Alas, he's a lousy scriptwriter and director. The term force majeure is used in legal proceedings to refer to an event such as a flood, hurricane, or other unavoidable accident that relieves parties of liability. Nice try, but Örtlund bears the blame for this film. There's no sense pulling any punches; Force Majeure is a very bad and very boring film.

It centers on a Yuppie Swedish couple, Tomas (Johannes Kahnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their oh-so-perfect children Harry and Vera. Tomas is work-obsessed and addicted to his cellphone, but perhaps a ski vacation in the French Alps is just what is needed to reconnect with his child-centered wife and his privileged, but pouting brood. Or, maybe not! Things go wrong on day two when a resort-induced avalanche gets a bit too close to the resort and terrifies lunchtime patrons. In the end, no one is hurt as what appeared to be a wall of snow was but an icy fog rolling off the edge of the snow slide. However, Tomas' frightened every-man-for-himself bolt leaves Ebba shattered and throws an already troubled marriage into deeper crisis when he denies that he put his own safety above that of his family.

I guess this is a metaphor for something: Deep-seated abandonment desires? Lack of virility? Male selfishness? How risk aversion leads to stultifying stasis? The sterility of middle-class life? Tomas' flight leads Ebba to question her own life. Should she have an affair like the free-spirited woman she meets in the pub? Walk away from her marriage? Make it work? Does Tomas need to go to an Iron John seminar to recoup his masculine Mojo? Do a 180 and become a Sensitive New Age Guy? Copy his buddy Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and take up with a mistress half his age? Do we care? Nope! The film's premise is thinner than the Alpine air and any gravitas it appears to have is but a passing fog. You can safely nod off for long stretches. Any time something even remotely dramatic happens—like Tomas forgetting his room key card––Ola Flottum's score gives us a cheesy organ treatment of Vivaldi to warn us to pay close attention. (Seriously, Boris Karloff would have rejected this music—and that's no slam on Vivaldi.) 

Force Majeure is really about rich Yuppies suffering from problems of their own manufacture—making an Alp out of an anthill, if you will. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the patently absurd manner in which Tomas and Ebba at least temporarily resolve their differences. (For those of you who must see this film despite my warning, pay attention to the film's final ski sequence. Then email me with the subject line "You told me so!") Worse still, Örtlund takes two hours to tell a non-tale that warrants 30 minutes at best. My favorite moments in the film itself—as opposed to still shots–involved observing Hivju's impressive red beard. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a metaphor for how bored I was.—Rob Weir


Abolish the Police?

Readers of this blog know that I have reservations about the Ferguson, Missouri case. In short, I think the grand jury was correct in its assumption that the prosecution did not present compelling evidence to allow for the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed African American Michael Brown. That very well might be the prosecuting attorney’s fault and, if locals feel that way, they probably ought to launch a recall vote. Given what the grand jury saw and heard, though, non-indictment appears to be the right call. (It at least leaves open the possibility of a future indictment.)

I have no such reservations about an incident on Staten Island—there is no justification whatsoever for Officer Daniel Pantaleo to apply the banned choke hold on Eric Garner that resulted in his death. Garner wasn’t engaged in dangerous activity—he was selling individual cigarettes on the street, an activity common among panhandlers and poor folks. It’s illegal, but let’s not confuse this with an assault on public order. Pantaleo is, at minimum, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in any court less biased than cover-your-ass police (CYA) culture.

Here in Massachusetts we have our own scandal involving cops getting away with murder. As it turns out, quite a few Bay State cops busting drunk drivers are cruising the streets while intoxicated and several have been involved in fatal accidents for which they were never charged. Here’s how you do it. Drunkenly kill a motorist or two, wait for an investigating officer to arrive, refuse a breathalyzer test, and rely upon the CYA ‘professional courtesy’ of your fellow officer. In Massachusetts, refusing to take the test is an automatic 180-day suspension of license, an inconvenience but hardly on par with the 13 to15-year sentence a Hampshire County judge just imposed on a Central American immigrant—who confessed, by the way—for the DUI double fatality he caused. Can you say ‘miscarriage of justice?’

It’s time to take action and one way do so is simply to abolish police—fire every one of them, including the “good” cops. I’m not suggesting some misty-eyed human-nature-is good-we-can-take-care-of-each-other utopian solution. I’m suggesting we nod to reality and admit that policing is an outdated concept that can be more efficiently and fairly done by technology and the US military.

We don’t need traffic cops any more, nor have they ever been particularly successful in making the streets safer. Here’s what does work: tamper-proof speed generals in vehicles that prevent engines from accelerating over a set speed, and traffic cameras that record bad driving. The latter have been in place in Canada and Europe for years. Want to tool down the interstate at 90 mph? Your fine will come in the mail. I can hear the anguished screams of “Big Brother” and “invasion of privacy.” My response: “Grow up! This battle is as over and lost as the Vietnam War.” Have we learned nothing in the post-9/11world? The simple truth is that you are being watched. Or did you think eye-witnesses solved the Boston Marathon bombing? Or that changing your password protects you from phishing? Or that laws prevent access to your “private” information? Or perhaps you think your license plates aren’t already being recorded. Ever go through a tollbooth? Ever drive by a ‘secure’ building? Cameras are everywhere, so don’t confuse privacy rights with your desire to drive like an idiot whenever you wish. If you want safer streets and maximum patrol coverage, lose the cops and bring on the cameras. Need backup? Drones can police the roads better than cops in cars.

Another outdated concept is ‘community policing.’ It’s pretty simple: bad guys don’t want to play basketball with cops and, if they’re bad enough, no one else in the community is going play tattletale; they’re smart enough to know that Officer Friendly can’t protect them from gangs. Moreover, community policing spawns the problematic CYA culture of Massachusetts, Staten Island, and (maybe) Ferguson.

Who can protect us better than rogue cops and their CYA accessories? How about the US military? In an earlier post I suggested an Italian-style carabinieri. It's not a perfect solution, but it does trend better than today’s police culture. There are 1.1 million full-time cops in the USA and another 100,000 part-timers. The US military is much larger: 1.37 on active duty and another 850,000 reservists.

In an earlier post I noted that the military is lousy at winning foreign wars, so let’s let soldiers train on American streets. Save the dough spent on cops and assess states and municipalities fees that go into the Pentagon budget. Among the advantages:

·      The US military is the most integrated body in American society, so no more white cops with seniority in black neighborhoods.
·      Police forces are increasingly militarized. Doesn’t it make sense to let those trained in this technology use it instead of amateurs?
·      Military personnel can be rotated regularly, which discourages corruption and payoffs. I’ll take dispassionate cops over community policing.
·      The US military has more trained investigators than any prosecuting attorney.
·      The military is, as a rule, more disciplined, physically fit, and duty-bound than most police forces.
·      It’s likely to be cheaper. (For a start, taxpayers wouldn’t be double-billed for high tech gear.)
·      It can't be any worse than what we already have.


Lost in Words a Wicked and Delicious Take-down of Man Booker Prize

Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, # 978-037428091, 261 pp.
* * * *

Edward St. Aubyn was once short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s version of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Don’t look for his name again in the near future—not after his acidly funny thinly veiled take-down of the Man Booker in Lost for Words. His is a whistle-blower’s satire of the award, one that says the prize has less to do with literature than with boardrooms, bedrooms, horse-trading, and horseshit. It’s a work of fiction, but just barely. Former judge A. L. Kennedy called the Man Booker "a pile of crooked nonsense" awarded according to "who knows who, who's sleeping with who[m], who's selling drugs to who[m], who's married to who[m], whose turn it is." A look at past winners certainly gives pause. Amidst the distinguished—V.S. Naipul, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gortimer––one finds an awful lot of one-hit wonders and dross: Arundhati Roy, Anita Brookner, Kiran Desai… And I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that Hilary Mantel's novels are even readable, let alone worthy of winning two Man Bookers.  

Those who know British culture will have great fun matching the fictional characters vying for and judging the Elysian Prize to the real-life characters that inspired them. For example, one of the Elysian judges is a handsome young actor Tobias Benedict, a dead ringer for 2012 judge Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey). Other elements of Kennedy’s blast are also at play. The Man part of the Man Booker is the investment firm that administers the prize, as is the Elysian Prize corporate sponsor. Both prizes are often headed by politicians, Scottish MP Malcolm Craig in the case of Lost for Words. Other members of Craig's contentious committee include: Benedict; social media guru Jo Cross; Oxbridge scholar Vanessa Shaw; and Penny Feathers, the ex-mistress of both Craig and Sir David Hampshire, whose firm funds the award. Everybody has an agenda. Craig is partial to wot u starin at, a foul-mouthed look at Glasgow’s working-class underbelly; Cross seeks “relevance,” though what she means by that is anyone’s guess; Shaw wants stellar literature, though one suspects she doesn’t think any has been written since the Edwardian age; and Feathers––modeled after Dame Stella Rimington, another Booker apostate—just wants a good read and good luck with that. She’s also hysterically writing an execrable mystery of her own with the aid of software that helps choose words and phrases. As bad as that sounds, she comes close to being the sanest one of the lot! 

Add to this unruly lot the writers on the short list, those spurned, publishers, and hangers-on. Many of them circle like buzzards around the gorgeous Katherine Burns, a writer of some renown, though it's not clear if it's because she's really all that good, or if it's because she has no qualms with sleeping with whomever she finds useful. At one point she's simultaneously bedding her publisher, Alan Oaks; French rapscallion Didier Leroux; and novelist Sam Black. Oaks loses her affection when one of his aides mistakenly submits an Indian cookbook for the Elysian Prize instead of Burns' novel; and Black loses out to professional jealousy when his The Frozen Torrent makes the shortlist. Leroux claims Katherine, though he's a poor man's Foucault, a pseudo-intellectual happy to expound about all of the major points and many of the minor ones from his postmodern work of theory What is Banality? Poor man—he could answer that question by gazing into a mirror!

Lost for Words has its flaws. Like some of his characters, St. Aubyn occasionally goes over the top. It contains one worthless and ridiculous personality—solipsistic Indian aristocrat Sunny Bunjee who has come to England to claim a prize he knows he should win, though no one has heard of him or his self-published tome. He happens to be the nephew of the woman whose cookbook is mistakenly viewed as literature. We really don't need much of Sunny and St. Aubyn strolls into cheap satire when trying to flesh out Sunny's tale. And, yes, St. Aubyn is open to charges of cattiness. Still, his snippets of novels within the novel works well enough to show that the emperor has no clothes. I roared over how Vanessa Shaw defended All the World's a Stage, a really insipid tale narrated from William Shakespeare's point of view. If you've ever had the experience of picking up a Man Booker Prize winner and wondering why on earth it was even published, let alone honored, Lost for Words explains it all. At its best, this is a laugh-out-loud farce.   Rob Weir


Deck the Blah, Blah, Blah....

Here’s the blog post designed to get everyone’s dander up. I can’t help it—it’s December, my least favorite month of the year. It’s cold, the sun sets around 4:20, I’m too damn busy, viruses sprout like mistletoe, and I have to endure holiday music blaring from every speaker in the Western hemisphere. Anything but that! Nothing brings out the Grinch in me like December.

The Grinch before he went wrong!
Speaking of the Grinch, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is one of the saddest tales ever known. It makes me want to cry. It’s the tale of how a perfectly good monster lost his faith. The Grinch had a delightful curmudgeonly misanthropic thing going but by the end, he’s become a sniveling, sentimental fool. How sad it that? In my alt.Grinch, he gobbles Cindy Lou Who for breakfast and then pillages Whoville. It’s the only sane way to cope with the Christmas season.

Yep. I have issues—serious issues—with Christmas. First of all, it’s ahistorical. It’s 99:1 that Jesus was not born in December. (April is a better guess. The Bible tends to be circularly constructed, so odds are that Christmas and Easter are calendrically parallel.) Second, Christmas is a capitalist holiday, not a religious one. Actually, it’s become a communist one. Every time you go to Walmart, you are supporting its China, Inc. supply network, and everything you buy that says “Made in China” anywhere on the product, helps prop up the Reds of Beijing. About the only thing that amuses me in December is listening to conservatives defend the capitalist system, by which they mean the Red Chinese system. The same old crowd of phonies who’d pop a vein if they caught someone helping out Fidel Castro by smoking a Cuban cigar thinks that Wall Street and communism are antithetical. Hilarious!

I know that some Christians claim they spend the Yule season contemplating the Virgin birth and the coming of the Savior. Sure you do. When I drive by the mall, all I see being worshiped is the god of materialism. What I see very little of in the US of A is the daily practice of any major religion. My students associate Christianity with intolerance, bigotry, and an attempt to deny choice to individuals. Are they wrong? And, sorry, I don’t believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Hinduism is often an excuse for sexism and appalling levels of classicist privilege. I like the focus of secular Judaism, but its religious varieties are often knee-jerk defenses of whatever the State of Israel is doing, just as Anti-Semites automatically attack Israel and defend Palestinian terrorism. I’d take down Buddhism as well, though my main experience with it is via the catch phrases tossed out by decidedly Western Yoganistas. (Okay, the Buddhist Tamils have some things to answer for.)  My standard line these days is that I’m not anti-faith, I’m anti-organized religion. So add that to the list of why December is a thorn in my side as organized religions across the globe have hijacked it.  Rohatsu (Buddhist) happens in December, as does Hanukkah. Sometimes Diwali (Hindu) and any of a number of Muslim holidays occur in December. (It depends on whether their lunar calendars coincide with the Western Gregorian calendar.) Back in 1965, we invented Kwanzaa, a sort of pan-African religious/family/heritage celebration because there just weren’t enough religious holidays already. And, of course, there is the granddaddy of them all: Retail Day—sorry—Christmas.

I’d be happy to look the other way and merrily celebrate alternatives such as Moosemas and Festivus, but I can’t. Everywhere I turn it’s fa-la-la this and fa-la-la that. Neo-cons complain about the “War on Christmas,” but damned if I’ve noticed any massed troops seeking to overthrow it. Try not to hear Christmas carols this month. (Conveniently scheduling a one-month coma is the coward’s way out and doesn’t count.) Christmas season hurts my ears. Karaoke is the only thing that’s ever been done to music that is worse than Christmas music. “Jingle Bell Rock:” (a) doesn’t, (b) is as camp as a row of tents, and (c) makes me want to commit violence. Can it get any worse? Yes, I fear that it can. Bob Dylan made a holiday album. That alone is scarier than any slasher film you’ll ever see, but this year there’s a new collection of reggae ­and dub-step carols. I think my brain just melted!

Lord, help me make it through December! I am looking forward to the pagan holiday of Yule on December 21. That’s the Solstice for the uniformed. The days will gradually grow longer after Yule—seconds at a time at first, but in New England we’ll take it. Best of all, it means that December is nearly over!—S. A. Tire