03 June 2012

"Father Brown Stories," "Arguably," "Nigger," "Fifty Shades of Grey," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "Farmer Boy," and "This Is Herman Cain!"

Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton
Arguably, Christopher Hitchens
Nigger, Randall Kennedy
Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This Is Herman Cain!, Herman Cain


Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton


It's tempting to pity Father Brown, Chesterton's forgotten little detective.  While Sherlock is ever in style, the little priest is more overlooked by the moment.  Somehow, though, I think he would have preferred it that way, because it is Father Brown's unobtrusiveness that makes these stories interesting.  These are the two styles of detectivry, then: the flashy brashness of Holmes and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, or the quiet effectiveness of Father Brown, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and classic Law and Order.

These stories are also almost all what I tend to think of as "fair" stories.  Their resolution depends on information to which the reader is privy: if you are clever and creative enough, you can think of the approximate solution.  This is the proper way to do a detective story, as opposed to the lazy writer's sudden revelation that the hero happened to pick up an additional piece of evidence, only revealed in the Accusing Parlor.  Such annoying stories are not mysteries at all, really: they are suspense stories.

The Father Brown Stories are fun and interesting, and would be particularly good for some light reading interspersed among some errands.  Take a look.


Arguably, Christopher Hitchens


This collection of essays by the late Christopher Hitchens can be described in one word: uneven.  Essays of surpassing intelligence or terrible beauty are mingled with tediousness and nonsense.  If these essays had been selected with more discrimination, both readers and Hitchens' image would be the better.

When Hitchens is good, he's very good.  His wit is sharp enough to shave an atom, and he lays out with it both judiciously and mercilessly.  In one example, he wryly speaks of his view of animal rights (not too great a fan), but also eviscerates their detractors:
Conversely, one of the most idiotic jeers against animal lovers is the one about their preferring critters to people. As a matter of observation, it will be found that people who “care”—about rain forests or animals, miscarriages of justice or dictatorships—are, though frequently irritating, very often the same people. Whereas those who love hamburgers and riskless hunting and mink coats are not in the front ranks of Amnesty International. Like the quality of mercy, the prompting of compassion is not finite, and can be self-replenishing.
Several authors fascinate Hitchens: Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Said, Omar Kaiyyam, W.H. Auden.  He quotes them, analyzes them, and in the case of Said, memorably attacks them.  His discussions range from a jolly ribaldry to the heights of abstraction, but he particularly shines in these literary contemplations.

One of the later essays, in particular, deserves special singling-out for praise.  "The Vietnam Syndrome," available here, is a discussion of the legacy of Agent Orange.  The outrage, simple and eloquent and burning, is almost enough to feel.

Unfortunately, there are many essays that fall short of this standard.  Some are simply mediocre, but others stumble badly in a few glaring gaps of understanding, as when Hichens is relating some of the saga of American slavery:
Until 1850, perhaps, the “peculiar institution” of slavery might have had a chance of perpetuating itself indefinitely by compromise. But the exorbitance and arrogance of “the slave power” forbade this accommodation. Not content with preserving their own domain in its southeastern redoubt, the future Confederates insisted on extending their chattel system into new territories, and on implicating the entire Union in their system.
I don't intend to defend the slaveholders, but Hitchens simply misses the purpose of their efforts to extend slavery: there was a delicate political detente on the matter, but the addition of numerous free states would lead to the passage of anti-slavery laws.  The slaveholding states were not eager to spread slavery, per se, but rather they thought it was necessary to keep a balance of slave and free.  They were still monstrously wrong, of course, but ascribing some sort of evangelical malice to the extension of slavery misunderstands their motives.

These sorts of mistakes are subtle, but at times they undermined my confidence in the author.  If you read this, keep a skeptical eye in your head, and watch for sloppy thinking.


Far worse than this, though, is an essay that is simply embarrassing, "Why Women Aren't Funny" (available here).  The only thing more grotesque than its overreach is the way in which this essay hamfistedly tries to club its point into submission with crude approximations of evolutionary psychology, a discipline that is perhaps most dangerous for the layman.

I recommend this book, but with reservations.  Pick and choose.




Nigger: the Short History of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy


As far as I can see, there are two pressing questions when it comes to this word: how did a simple word for color turn into something derogatory, and is there any merit to the idea that it has been successfully reclaimed as an African-American cultural shibboleth?  Unfortunately, while author Randall Kennedy does address these questions at some length in this thorough exploration of all things "n-word," his answers are mixed and oddly incurious.  In the end, Kennedy is a careful chronicler of what is known, but goes no further than that.

Nigger's discussion of the history of the word is perfunctory, but illustrates the whole:
Nigger is derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and niggar. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as “negars.” A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved “niggor” boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as “negers.” (Currently some people insist upon distinguishing nigger—which they see as exclusively an insult—from nigga, which they view as a term capable of signaling friendly salutation.) In the 1700s niger appeared in what the dictionary describes as “dignified argumentation” such as Samuel Sewall's denunciation of slavery, The Selling of Joseph. No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.
The other question of importance, the acceptability of the word in certain contexts, is explored with somewhat greater insight.  For almost a full chapter, the author touches on the different sides of the question, from the firm disapproval of Bill Cosby for the word to its fluid omnipresence in Chris Rock's comedy.
Today a similar charge is leveled. Some entertainers who openly use nigger reject Cosby's politics of respectability, which counsels African Americans to mind their manners and mouths in the presence of whites. This group of performers doubts the efficacy of seeking to burnish the image of African Americans in the eyes of white folk. Some think that the racial perceptions of most whites are beyond changing; others believe that whatever marginal benefits a politics of respectability may yield are not worth the psychic cost of giving up or diluting cultural rituals that blacks enjoy. This latter attitude is effectively expressed by the remark “I don't give a fuck.” These entertainers don't care whether whites find nigger upsetting. They don't care whether whites are confused by blacks’ use of the term. And they don't care whether whites who hear blacks using the N-word think that African Americans lack self-respect. The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy nigger care principally, perhaps exclusively, about what they themselves think, desire, and enjoy—which is part of their allure. Many people (including me) are drawn to these performers despite their many faults because, among other things, they exhibit a bracing independence. They eschew boring conventions, including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing.
There are also some truly astonishing tidbits from history, such as this:
To discredit Abraham Lincoln, his racist Democratic party opponents wrote a “Black Republican Prayer” that ended with the “benediction”:
May the blessings of Emancipation extend throughout our unhappy land, and the illustrious, sweet-scented Sambo nestle in the bosom of every Abolition woman… and the distinction of color be forever consigned to oblivion [so] that we may live in bands of fraternal love, union and equality with the Almighty Nigger, henceforth, now and forever. Amen.
Such interesting discussions and anecdotes, however, occupy only a tenth of the volume.  The rest of it is devoted to endless, exhaustive, exhausting, pointless lists of misdeeds.  They are presented in what becomes a familiar format: Kennedy blandly describes some possible use of the word, then reels off between five and ten examples in scrupulous and legalistic detail.  When one example would suffice, he gives eight.  When two sentences could summarize the case, he uses twelve.  Compiled in such length and recited with such dispassion, Kennedy far overshoots any burden of proof - assuming we need any proof for the proposition that a judge who spouts slurs is probably a racist.  Instead, the reader is numbed.

That which is good and useful in Nigger would be better cut down to an intensely interested essay, rather than this novocaine text.  Skip it.


Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James

I have nothing to say about this book.  I couldn't finish it.  It fell into the very narrow but deathly dark pit of disinterest: far below mediocre but not hilariously awful.  It was dull.

It was as dull as used dishwater, two bubbles and a scrap of bread floating in it.  It was as dull as a long strip of last year's newspaper, loosely stuck to the side of the bin.  It was as dull as the slight stickiness left on a plastic soda bottle, long after the label is peeled off.

I advise you not to read it.



Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne


Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne's 1873 description of a race around the globe, is a very boring fellow.  His sole occupation - for he has no job or family - is reading the papers and playing whist.  He speaks very little, although what he says is very intelligent and worldly.  He dines alone, all three meals, in the same place every day.  In an unintentionally tragic scene, we first see Fogg sitting alone at home, staring at the clock, waiting for it to be time to leave his house and go to breakfast.  He is a man singularly fixated on time and schedule, who spends all day reading the news of the world.

In other words, he is a man singularly well-suited for his trip around the world, which requires broad knowledge and an obsession with being in the correct place at the correct time.

It put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes, the star of dozens of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  1887's A Study in Scarlet introduces the good detective, and gives his nature, culminating in Watson's famous list:
1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2. Philosophy.—Nil.
3. Astronomy.—Nil.
4. Politics.—Feeble.
5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening. 6. Geology.—Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
7. Chemistry.—Profound.
8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Aside from  his pleasure in the violin and his recreational drug abuse, Holmes is also a very boring man.  He is strikingly unpleasant, vain, and fond of humiliating others.  But he is singularly well-suited for his own task: the detection of crime.

So what was it about this period in Europe that spawned the development of these sorts of characters who are so singularly - they might say "scientifically" - focused on isolated pursuits?  Phileas Fogg is not admirable in any other context that his single adventure, and indeed I found myself intensely disliking him by the end of the story.  Verne clearly intended for his level of reservation to be the character's flaw, extending it even to a puzzling coldness to the woman he grows to love, only to finally surmount the trait in the book's final act.  But it was far worse for me to see the hidden talents that Fogg had been laying fallow and squandering in his life of nothingness.  He is an expert horseman, sailor, marksman, traveler, and doubtless other pursuits.  He is just as skilled, if not more so, than his clever butler-cum-acrobat, Passepartout (French for "skeleton key").  But whereas Passepartout feels the glory of adventure and enchantment of travel, Fogg will not even bother to ascend to the deck of his steamer as it passes the wonders of the world, preferring to remain below, playing whist or staring at the wall (quite literally).

Don't mistake me: this is a rollicking good adventure story, and very amusing.  The racism and stereotypes are antique enough to be adorable, and the final twist has that perfect flavor of the nineteenth century: moderately clever and breathlessly declared.  You should definitely read it.  But I think that you, like me, will end up pitying Fogg's wife.




Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder


I never read any of the Little House on the Prairie series when I was younger, nor did I ever see the television show of the seventies.  This book, the only volume of the stories that stands alone, tells about the childhood of Wilder's husband, Almanzo Wilder, in his ninth and tenth years as the son of a prosperous but hard-working farmer.  Overall, Farmer Boy was mildly funny and completely quaint - combined with its strong moral values and glimpses into history, it's a perfect book for children.  I completely understand why these books are beloved.

What I can't understand is why no one's ever mentioned the food to me.  By a wide margin, the most prominent feature of this book is the vivid richness of the gustatory descriptions.
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
That is beautiful.  And the book is full of this!
Under the snow on the south slopes the bright red berries were ripe among their thick green leaves. Almanzo took off his mittens and pawed away the snow with his bare hands. He found the red clusters and filled his mouth full. The cold berries crunched between his teeth, gushing out their aromatic juice.
Farmer Boy didn't make me hungry.  It did one better: it made me want the good hollow belly hunger, only brought on by a day's work and tired muscles.

I recommend you take an hour and read this.   It's very short and it's for children, of course, but I think it's worth visiting as an adult.  Any book is worth reading when you can almost taste the pie.




This Is Herman Cain!, Herman Cain

There are two ways to provide a concise summary of This Is Herman Cain!, the autobiographical campaign book written by the Republican politician during his brief period of ascendancy this past year.  The first summary is rather kinder, so I'll do it first.

1.  This Is Herman Cain! is the charming account of an older man, thrilled with his unexpected moment in the spotlight and echoing with the powerful cadences of a black Baptist and the whimsical wisdom of a self-made businessman.  While misguided in its policy and strange in its emphases, it has an odd sort of delight about it.  The whole of the book is found in this paragraph of triumphal self-assurance, specious criticism of an opponent, and absolute naivete:
Twenty-five minutes later, having articulated my “Cain Doctrine” to the cheering, banner-waving crowd, without printed speech or teleprompter, because I don’t do teleprompters—I like to say I’m a leader, not a reader—I recalled the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and declared that when all the votes are counted on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, “We will be free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! This nation will be free at last—again!”
The second summary is harsher, but far more accurate.

2.  This Is Herman Cain! is a hilarious, terrifying, and sad journey into the half-lucid ramblings of a man wildly out of his depth.  It is hilarious because of Cain's bizarre anecdotes, terrifying because the man was actually considered a serious candidate, and sad because people close to him were willing to let him humiliate himself.  The whole of the book is found in this paragraph of chilling banality:
The next morning I did a few interviews and relaxed. In the afternoon I took a nap and then had a bowl of soup before going over to the Peace Center.
This is a book that starts off badly and keeps getting worse, spiraling lower and lower at breakneck speed, like a suicidal hang-glider.  In a curious turn of events, the simple errors of fact are in the minority.  Usually political autobiographies are heavy on such errors, studded with only a few absurdities.  But in This Is Herman Cain!, whenever I saw a claim that was merely demonstrably false ("President Obama wrongheadedly betrayed America’s most steadfast ally in that region with his arrogant demand for the sovereign nation’s return to its pre-1967 Six Day War borders"), I sighed with relief.  That's only completely wrong, I would think.  It's not batshit crazy.  This paragraph is safe.

But few paragraphs were so spared.  And I have questions.

Herman Cain, why would you put a story in your autobiography about how your kindly old father once threatened someone?!
So Woodruff started giving my dad stock, and he was generous with that, too. One day he told my dad, “Joe Jones doesn’t think I ought to be giving you any stock, but I told him I was going to give it to you anyway.” To Joe Jones, Woodruff’s money was his money.
One day Dad said to Jones, “Mr. Jones, I’d like to see you outside for a minute.” They walked out to the driveway and Dad said, “Do you see this gun I’m carrying?”—Dad had a permit to carry one because he was with Woodruff—“Do you know how good I can shoot this gun?”
“No,” Joe Jones replied.
“I can throw a silver dollar up in the air and hit it four times before it hits the ground. That’s how good a shot I am,” my dad said. “If you ever tell Mr. Woodruff not to do something for me again, you’re going to find out how good I am with this gun!” He was joking, but my dad was unafraid: Nobody was going to mess with Luther Cain.
That's not funny!  That's not funny at all!  That's just a story about how your daddy once threatened to shoot someone!  Herman Cain, what is wrong with you?!

Or this:
Back in Atlanta, notwithstanding the usual sibling disagreements, Thurman and I got along well, enjoying all manner of adventures. Thurman loved to laugh and to make other people laugh. But sometimes his idea of a good laugh got us both in trouble. One Christmas, when I was ten and he was nine, our parents bought us BB guns as presents. We took the guns over to an aunt’s house and were playing outdoors when Thurman pointed his gun at our older cousin, Elizabeth. He told her not to move but she did move after daring him to shoot, so he shot her in the butt. Elizabeth was not really hurt but that BB did sting. Needless to say, Mom took the guns away from us and we never saw them again.
Why would you tell us that bizarre, pointless story?!  It has no bearing on anything!  What wildly irresponsible person read this book and allowed you to put it into print?!

At one point, Herman Cain talks about how terrible Obamacare will be (it was still in the future at this point), and how great American healthcare is.  And I can understand that policy position, if you're a Republican - it's mandatory.  But why would you include an anecdote about how you used the pull of your rich friends to get into treatment?!
She had already researched Sloan Kettering, in New York, and MD Anderson, in Houston, for me. She said, “Those are the top two in the country. Do you know someone that can help you get into MD Anderson?”
I said, “Yes I do. Boone Pickens, the oil magnate.” I called Boone Pickens, a good friend to this day.
He used to be on the board of MD Anderson and was a contributor, and he called the head of the hospital and said, “Herman Cain is not just another person trying to get into MD Anderson; he’s also a friend of mine.”
It's as if this rambling, incoherent mess is actually the result of Herman Cain's own brain fighting against him, trying to defeat him.  "Don't elect me," his brain is saying.  "I don't know what I'm doing!  Don't let me get near anything important!"

I just don't understand it.  Read this paragraph:
And that’s not what we the people want. I can tell you that everywhere I go as I campaign for my party’s presidential nomination, people are still in shock over President Obama’s demand for Israel to revert to its 1967 borders. Why? Because, like me, they are unabashedly pro-Israel. For instance, on Friday, May 20, 2011, the day after President Obama’s ultimatum to Israel, I was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, speaking at the Pottawattamie County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner, and every time I mentioned my support for Israel, the attendees stood up and cheered and applauded.
So why doesn’t President Obama get it?
Now I demand this: go out and search the world.  Speak to every person, from one end to the other.  Ring the town bells and call out even the old and sick, for we must interview them all.  Sit them down, and look them in the eye, and find me just one person who is unable to understand why the attendees at official Republican Party dinners might not agree with Democratic President Barack Obama.

This book is not a good book for business.  Herman Cain makes his decisions about his career based on purposeless, arbitrary goals such as "be a vice-president of something," later elevated to "be a president of something."  DIRECT QUOTES.  THOSE ARE DIRECT QUOTES.
So as CEO of Self, after several successful years as vice president of Pillsbury’s corporate systems and services, I knew that I had to dream higher: I had to dream of being president of something, for somebody, somewhere. And I decided to put that dream into action. Achieving that dream meant that I had to change careers.
This book is not a good book for politics.  Herman Cain makes his decisions about matters of policy by calling people with direct financial stakes in the result, and believes them without qualification or confirmation.
The president had insisted that under his scheme, the cost to restaurants would be only about two-and-one-half percent of their cost of doing business. I told Loretta that his observation was ludicrous. I knew that because I had consulted with the staff of the [National Restaurant Association], and they had found Mr. Clinton’s calculation to be mathematically incorrect.
And inexplicably there is an entire chapter devoted to the number 45, which Herman Cain believes is mystically significant to his life.
That isn’t all: Next year will be the forty-fifth anniversary of my college graduation. And in 2013, my first year in the White House, Gloria and I will be celebrating our forty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’m not a devout numerologist, but my mathematical training does cause me to recognize when numbers appear more than coincidentally. Isn’t it amazing how often 45 keeps popping up in my life?
Herman Cain, why did you write this?!  Why did they let you publish it!?  Are you trying to signal us that you're actually another, tinier man, trapped inside of a thick shell of Herman Cain that refuses to release you?!  Is this a cry for help?!  What happened to you, Herman Cain?!
The next morning I did a few interviews and relaxed. In the afternoon I took a nap and then had a bowl of soup before going over to the Peace Center.

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