Saturday, July 30, 2005

Hi Mom!

It's not Mother's Day, but any time is right for this message.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cormac McCarthy.

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossaly gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

There is intense disagreement about McCarthy's literary status, which his new novel, "No Country for Old Men" (Knopf, $24.95),* an unimportant, stripped-down thriller, will only aggravate. Some readers are alienate by his novels' punctual appointments with blood-soaked violence.... Others think his work bombastic, pretentious, or claustrophobically male-locked: McCarthy has a tendency to omit half the human race from serious scrutiny. But a balanced assessment has been hard to come by, because his reputation, at least since the publication of "Blood Meridian," in 1985, has been cultic. He is swarmed over by fans, devotees, obsessives, Southern and Southwestern history buggs, and fiercely protective academic scholars. He lives quietly in New Mexico, and has given just two interviews in the past decade. His granitic indifference to his readership only feeds it almost religious loyalty.
James Wood, in The New Yorker (July 25, 2005), page 88.

Fame has not made McCarthy more reclusive. Fifteen years ago, I knew a Tennessee writer who knew McCarthy years ago, before anyone had heard of either, and this fellow told me that he had great respect for the way that McCarthy had always eschewed the whole bookselling business and its demands for publicity.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Pynchon Appreciation Dept.

M. and T. call my attention to Gerald Howard's appreciation of Gravity's Rainbow, in the lastest issue of BookForum. Not knowing it would appear on-line, I canvassed area bookstores two weeks ago until I found one with a scarce copy of the print edition. Reminds me that I need to read GR again....

Maybe we're all smarter now.

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry questions the widespread perception that grade inflation is a problem in higher education:
I'm surprised by two things. First, that there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence of it. (It is interesting that Valen Johnson’s excellent book Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, for example, is not about grade inflation at all, but about grade variation and student evaluations of teaching). Second, that so many people think that there is firm evidence of it. Certainly, it appears that if you ask people—faculty and students—whether there is grade inflation, they believe there is. But that is poor evidence, because the students don’t know anything abut what happened in the past, and the faculty have faulty memories.
On average, grades have been on the rise, but as he discusses, there are other possible explanations for that.

Live by the blog, die by the blog.

Hank Chinaski doesn't scare me none. But that Penske -- he's mean.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Small Death In Lisbon: A Review.

A Small Death In Lisbon apparently is the best-known and best-selling of Robert Wilson's novels, but for whatever reason I came to it last, after all the others. It's very well done, but to my sensibility the plot is just a bit too ornate. I'm guessing that after Wilson wrote this one, someone told him -- or he decided -- that a surpassingly complex plot is not the ne plus ultra of the thriller genre, and in his subsequent books he reined it in a little and concentrated on some of the other challenges of the craft, with excellent results. On the other hand, if A Small Death In Lisbon sold more copies than the others, who cares what I think?

The Contract Surgeon: A review.

In The Contract Surgeon, South Dakotan Dan O'Brien tells the story of Crazy Horse's last day of life from the perspective of the Army doctor who treated him after he was bayonetted at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1877. O'Brien's narrator, Dr. Valentine McGillicuddy, was a historical figure who finished his career as the house surgeon at the Claremont resort on the Oakland-Berkeley line in the 1930s, and O'Brien explains at the outset that he has used historical research as much as possible. Indeed, a timeline at the start of the book helps to bring the reader up to speed on the campaigns before and after Little Big Horn, where Crazy Horse's forces killed Custer and the soldiers under him. Most of this book's action takes place after Crazy Horse's surrender, when various Indians were living on or near Fort Robinson and its garrison.

O'Brien deftly tells McGillicuddy's tale by weaving scenes from his life before and after 1877 with the story of what happened on that day. With a few minor quibbles -- e.g., I don't think someone seeing warships in San Francisco Bay in the late 1930s would be looking ahead to World War II -- I generally was impressed with the way that O'Brien recreated the times and places, and the way he used McGillicuddy as a guide.

But I have a big beef -- warning: spoilers follow, for there's no way to say this without giving away much of what happens -- with the racial politics of The Contract Surgeon. In other respects -- technological, sexual -- McGillicuddy is a creature of his times. But in depicting his views of Indians, and of Crazy Horse in particular, O'Brien has given his narrator from the late 1800s and early 1900s a sensibility that seems, to this reader, to be unmistakably from the late 20th century. McGillicuddy has nary a critical word to say about the Indians, and Crazy Horse is depicted as something like a saint, the very model of a noble savage. This would be easier to swallow if McGillicuddy came to these views late in life -- for example, as O'Brien suggests that he has grown to appreciate his wife in ways that he could not as a younger man, owing perhaps to the cultural mileau or his specific upbringing -- but while McGillicuddy's persona grows in other ways, his appreciation of things Indian appears first in full blossom, in a romantic fantasy of an innocent High Plains encounter with an Indian -- naked, no less -- whom we later learn is none other than Crazy Horse himself. I mean, please. O'Brien could have let McGillicuddy and Crazy Horse get acquainted at Fort Robinson, so the earlier encounter between them is just a little much -- the false note that reveals something off about the whole project, I'm afraid.

The business of depicting a world 125 years in the past is difficult enough, but all the more so if the story you want to tell about it is inescapably modern.

(I'm still sorting out my reactions to this book, and may yet revise the above.)

Friday, July 22, 2005


Belle Waring explains how to prepare quinoa:
Sara Dickerman goes through this whole (reasonably informative) article about whole grains, which even mentions quinoa, but then she doesn't tell you how to cook it or that it's the best shit EVAR. Please. do I put this? Millet don't taste real good. If you're eating millet, you're trying to make a point. "Look at me, I'm a big hippie! It's ancient grains!" Quinoa, on the other hand, is yum-tastic. I'm lying in bed right now nursing a grumpy, teething child, so I can't check the ratio. I think it's 1 1/2 c water to 1 c quinoa? No, OK, 2 to 1, I can use google even in my reduced state. It's a good idea to wash it, as it can retain a bitter coating, but I'm lazy and never bother, and it's always been fine, so... First, cook some onion and/or garlic in a few T olive oil. Then add 1 1/2 t cumin, or whatever, and then the quinoa, and toast for a minute or two. Put in the stock (or water), cook over low heat 17-20 minutes, turn off the heat and let it sit a minute or two, fluff it, and there you go. You could stir in chopped tomato or cilantro at the end, include red bell pepper or chilis at the start, generally let your mood and the contents of the vegetable drawer guide you. The grains are very pretty; they are translucent, and each has a curling tail wrapped around it. They have a lovely texture. Also, the are super good for you. I think it is the only grain which is a complete protein. If you are pressed for time, cook quinoa, mustard greens in olive oil and garlic, and pan-fried pork chops or boneless chicken breast with teriyaki sauce. 30 minutes start to finish, and mad healthiness along the way. They only sell it at this one health food store here in Singapore, so I don't eat it as often as I'd like.
(For M., because I promised.)

Annals of Journalism Dept.

Jon Carroll describes interviewing Milton Berle.

Whatever Happened To? Dept.

Whatever happened to metal basketball nets?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Rock and country.

More Rebecca Solnit:
There are songs of insurgent power; they are essentially what rock and roll, an outgrowth of one strain of the blues, does best, these songs of being young and at the beginning of the world, full of a sense of your own potential. Country, at least the old stuff, has mostly been devoted instead to aftermath, to the hard work it takes to keep going or the awareness that comes after it is no longer possible to go on. If it is deeper than rock it is because failure is deeper than success. Failure is what we learn from, mostly.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost 119 (Viking 2005).

(Though not all rock is like this -- for example, Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, as described in Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

New gypsy music.

Anyone who enjoyed Bury Me Standing should listen to this NPR story about Romania's Shukar Collective, which combines modern electronic and traditional Gypsy music.

Monday, July 18, 2005

How to get lost.

For G.:

The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery. Along with his own words, Sachs sent me a chunk of Thoreau, for whom navigating life and wilderness and meaning are the same art, and who slips subtly from one to the other in the course of a sentence. "It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time," he wrote in Walden. "Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,--for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,--do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." Thoreau is playing with the biblical question about what it profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul. Lose the whole world, he asserts, get lost in it, and find your soul.
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost 14-15 (Viking 2005).

Bless those pointy-headed nerds.

So the old iPod wasn't functioning of late -- impossible to unlock it, no matter how the switch was toggled; impossible to do anything but charge it -- and after exhausting all other options, which is to say that I alternately toggled the switch and left the thing along, I decided to take it down to the Mac Store at the Evil Mall, the one that charges for parking. I got there late in the afternoon, and the wait to meet with one of the Geniuses (tm) was about two hours, roughly two hours longer than I was inclined to wait. I was about to leave, but I caught the eye of one of the Geniuses, a nerdy fellow in a lime-green tee shirt -- in his defense, the uniform du jour at the Mac Store -- and asked him if he could just take a quick look at my iPod before I left and came back another day. Ten seconds later, and with the help of a paperclip and a glance at and a nod from another lime-green shirted nerd, my iPod was fixed. Woo hoo! Go nerds!

As an added bonus, the machine at the exit to the Evil Mall's parking garage let me leave without paying.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The war within Islam.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Soumayya Ghannoushi, a researcher at the University of London, puts Al Qaeda in context:

[A]lthough it founds its ideology on religious references and speaks a language overwhelmed by religious symbols, al-Qaida falls largely within the modern tradition of revolutionary anarchists - from the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks down to latter-day Marxist guerrillas like the Baadr-Meinhoff Gang....

Al-Qaida is also a revival of the radical currents that surfaced in Islamic history from time to time only to be defeated by moderate mainstream Islam led by the Ulama (scholars). In particular, they appear to be a continuation of Kharijite thought with its dualistic puritanical conception of the world and the community of Muslims and of Gnostic underground organisations like the Assassins and Qaramita, who sought to disrupt the stability of Muslim societies through acts of terrorism.

Al-Qaida would be best seen as a mixture of these political and ideological strands. Apart from the ideological justifications it takes recourse to, one would, indeed, be hard put to find much that distinguishes it from Latin American anarchist groups. Their acts share the same destructive ferocity, the same absurdity. The difference is that where one finds its ideological legitimacy in Marxism, the other seeks it in the Islamic religion.
Al Jazeera.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The new, new things.

Ron Rosenbaum points out that the putative inventor of the weblog, Jorn Barger, is back with a new blog, Rosenbaum also points the way to the collected reviews of Mister Quickly, who has produced a fine little ouevre. Rosenbaum's link appears to be mistakenly truncated; you can find more about Quickly here, and the collected Quickly reviews here. A small delight.

(Aside to A.: Note that Rosenbaum also has a new conjecture about Pale Fire. Hit the link soon, because it won't be good in a week.)


Some useful background, from Sidney Blumenthal in Salon:

In early 2002, Valerie Plame was an officer in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA task force on counter-proliferation, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, including Saddam's WMD programs. At that time, as she had been for almost two decades, she was an undercover operative. After training at "The Farm," the CIA's school for clandestine agents, she became what the agency considers among its most valuable and dangerous operatives -- a NOC, or someone who works under non-official cover. NOCs travel without diplomatic passports, so if they are captured as spies they have no immunity and can potentially be executed. As a NOC, Plame helped set up a front company, Brewster-Jennings, whose cover has now been blown and whose agents and contacts may be in danger still. After marrying Wilson in 1998, she took Wilson as her last name.

When the Italian report on Niger uranium surfaced, Vice President Cheney's office contacted the CIA's counter-proliferation office to look into it. Such a request is called a "tasker." It was hardly the first query the task force had received from the White House, and such requests were not made through the CIA director's office, but directly. Plame's colleagues asked her if she would invite her husband out to CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., for a meeting with them, to assess the question.
It was unsurprising that the CIA would seek out Wilson. He had already performed one secret mission to Niger for the agency, in 1999, and was trusted. Wilson had also had a distinguished and storied career as a Foreign Service officer. He served as acting ambassador in Iraq during the Gulf War and was hailed by the first President Bush as a "hero." Wilson was an important part of the team and highly regarded by Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Wilson was also an Africa specialist. He had been a diplomat in Niger, ambassador to Gabon and senior director for Africa on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. (I first encountered Wilson then, and we have since become friends.) No other professional had such an ideal background for this CIA mission.

Plame's superiors asked her to cable the field in Africa for routine approval of an investigation of the Niger claim. At Langley, Wilson met with about a dozen officers to discuss the situation. Plame was not at the meeting. Afterward, Wilson informed his wife that he would be traveling to Niger for about 10 days. She was not particularly enthusiastic, having recently given birth to twins, but she understood the importance of the mission. She had no authority to commission him. She was simply not the responsible senior officer. Nor, if she had been, could she have done so unilaterally. There was nothing of value to be gained personally from the mission by either Joe or Valerie Wilson. He undertook the trip out of a long-ingrained sense of government service.

CIA officers debriefed Wilson the night of his return at his home. His wife greeted the other operatives, but excused herself. She later read a copy of his debriefing report, but she made no changes in it. The next they spoke of Niger uranium was when they heard President Bush's mention of it in his 2003 State of the Union address.
Attributing Wilson's trip to his wife's supposed authority became the predicate for a smear campaign against his credibility. Seven months after the appointment of the special counsel, in July 2004, the Republican-dominated Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued its report on flawed intelligence leading to the Iraq war. The blame for failure was squarely put on the CIA for "groupthink." (The Republicans quashed a promised second report on political pressure on the intelligence process.) The three-page addendum by the ranking Republicans followed the now well-worn attack lines: "The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee."

The CIA subsequently issued a statement, as reported by New York Newsday and CNN, that the Republican senators' conclusion about Plame's role was wholly inaccurate. But the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt reported only the Republican senators' version, writing that Wilson was "specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly," in a memo she wrote. Schmidt quoted a CIA official in the senators' account saying that Plame had "offered up" Wilson's name. Plame's memo, in fact, was written at the express directive of her superiors two days before Wilson was to come to Langley for his meeting to describe his qualifications in a standard protocol to receive "country clearance." Unfortunately, Schmidt's article did not reflect this understanding of routine CIA procedure. The CIA officer who wrote the memo that originally recommended Wilson for the mission -- who was cited anonymously by the senators as the only source who said that Plame was responsible -- was deeply upset at the twisting of his testimony, which was not public, and told Plame he had said no such thing. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told Wilson that the Republican Senate staff never contacted him for the agency's information on the matter.

Curiously, the only document cited as the basis for Plame's role was a State Department memo that was later debunked by the CIA. The Washington Post, on Dec. 26, 2003, reported: "CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of the ... document, the official said, because the agency officer identified as talking about Plame's alleged role in arranging Wilson's trip could not have attended the meeting. 'It has been circulated around,' one official said." Even more curious, one of the outlets where the document was circulated was Talon News Service and its star correspondent, Jeff Gannon (aka Guckert). (Talon was revealed to be a partisan front for a Texas-based operation called GOPUSA and Gannon was exposed as a male prostitute, without previous journalistic credentials yet with easy and unexplained access to the White House.) According to the Post, "the CIA believes that people in the administration continue to release classified information to damage the figures at the center of the controversy."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Worth reading.

Ed Kilgore and Mark Schmitt describe the Rove System here (Kilgore) and here (Schmitt).

In other news, this blog's schoolboy infatuation with Mark Schmitt's blogorothmic output continues apace.

Apres moi, le deluge.

Annie LaMott, on a Bush presidency with Karl Rove around to write the script:

[T]o whom can Bush turn for advise and illumination on how to proceed with the growing scandal, besides Karl Rove? Because that's like talking to your alcoholism ABOUT your alcoholism, which doesn't make a lot of sense, since your alcoholism does not think of you as an alcoholic, but rather, as a social drinker, and bon vivant. Your alcoholism doesn't even think you have a problem: it's all those over-reactive, whiney babies you used to call your family and friends.

Cartes fantastique.

Courtesy of my delightful and talented future SIL, Le Monde diplomatique offers these various cool maps.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Cattle: A review.

I'd like to recommend Laurie Winn Carlson's Cattle: An Informal Social History, but I can't. The first chapter or so is, indeed, an informal social history of prehistoric and early cultures and their relationship with cattle. But after that, it's tough sledding. Carlson uses the theme of beef to launch the remaining chapters on various trajectories, most of which have some connection with cattle and most of which seem to have been written from a comfortable study or a library without her ever having gone outside, let alone near cattle. Which is a pity, because it seems like Carlson could gather some insights if she applied her academic training to some real fieldwork, pun intended. The book's subtitle intrigued me, but now I think it means to suggested "casual," in the sense of "unedited." I wish someone had rode herd on Carlson at the start of her trail.

Bury Me Standing: A review.

It took me ten years to read Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, and now I regret it. The book is an awesome combination of field work, reportage, and academic research. Fonseca spent substantial time living with a Gypy family in Albania, the focus of the book's first section, and much more time on the ground in Eastern Europe, particularly in Rumania and Hungary, and her descriptions of who she met and what she saw are lucid and well-done. But she also surveys the academic work done to date, such as it is, and not in English alone. For example, Fonseca has delved into Rumanian archives to find historical accounts of the enslavement of Gypsies, a historical stain of no moment to most Rumanians and something that Gypsies -- most of whom are illiterate, and lack an written tradition of any sort -- do not know about either.

Fonseca argues that the Gypsies are of comparable historical importance in Europe to the Jews, but that while the Jews enjoy a tradition of learning and accomplishment which assures their place in the historical record, the Gypsies have been marginalized and have marginalized themselves. As Fonseca describes, they often live on the margin, literally enough -- near jurisdictional borders, for example, where they are less likely to arouse official attention. And yet their position as a scapegoat in newly democraticizing Eastern European countries seems sadly secure. Fonseca investigates atrocities against various Gypsy communities, and the woeful and sometimes complicit official response.

As I say, it's an impressive book. I would love to know what Fonseca has been doing since she published it, and I would love to hear an update from her on what has transpired for the Gypsies in the last ten years.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Whom will Bush nominate?

If you believe that Bush and Rove are following a strategy of polarizing in order to keep Republicans in the fold, then it stands to reason that they will select someone for the Supreme Court who is sufficiently conservative to spark Democratic outrage, but not someone conservative enough to cost them votes on the GOP side of the aisle. They benefit from agitating and provoking Democrats, and have no interest in the sort of bipartisan consensus that would take power from the right, but they need above all to win this fight, because once the perception is that they lack the power to get the job done, they will start to lose moderate Republicans seeking to leverage their position at the fulcrum.

Whom this means they'll pick, I don't know. I'm afraid this analysis doesn't help Hon. Michael McConnell, whom I wish they'd pick.

Like A Rolling Stone: A review.

Greil Marcus is one of the authors whose stuff I'll pick up sight unseen; I've just read his latest, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, about the single and the moment in the country and the culture when it was released. The recorded version of the song is the musical equivalent of lightning in a bottle: Marcus describes the efforts on the part of Dylan and the studio musicians to capture the song -- they got in once, the version we all know from the radio, and did not find it again. Dylan and various back-up musicians struggled in the following months and years to make it work again, with varying success, as Marcus describes.

Having missed the mid-60's, I nevertheless appreciate Marcus's efforts to make sense of it decades later, perhaps more than Alan Light, who wrote a not-snark-free review of Like a Rolling Stone in yesterday's New York Times Book Review:

..."I've written a lot of books and after reading Dylan's book, I realized I would never write a book [as] good [as Chronicles]," Marcus said recently. Yet that hasn't stopped him from trying. Marcus's latest--published eight years after Invisible Republic, his exploration of Dylan's "Basement Tapes" album with the Band--is a "biography" of the singer's signature hit, a single that Rolling Stone magazine recently selected as the greatest song of all time. (Some readers might begin to wonder if Marcus's next book will be an exegesis of the chorus to "Jokerman.") Marcus ... can still deliver blazing insight. His description of the pure sonics of "Like a Rolling Stone"--a sound so complete and perfectly realized that it "never plays the same way twice"--forces you to approach a 40-year-old song with new ears. The song "promises a new country," Marcus writes; "now all you have to do is find it." But too many tropes in Marcus's cultural criticism are starting to feel overfamiliar, and too much of his own Dylanology is starting to fold in on itself. This book's subtitle is Bob Dylan at the Crossroads; the opening line of Invisible Republic was "Once a singer stood at a world crossroads."
One can quibble with some of this -- most of the Basement Tapes were not released on the album with that name, and circulate as bootlegs, and rather than writing that the single of "Like a Rolling Stone" was "perfectly realized," Marcus writes about how the musicians were just trying to hold it together in the third and fourth verses -- but the overall sense of it is fair enough. If you didn't like Invisible Republic(now sold under the name The Old, Weird America), don't bother with this one. But I liked both books very much, and reading Like A Rolling Stone has got me listening to "Highway 61 Revisited" over and over again in the last few weeks. Marcus has much, much more to say than most critics.

A happy Fourth of July to everyone in Dylan's America.

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