Happy New Year

Well, that’s it for us. Apologies for the political drivel, but we had to get in our yearly quota before midnight. Regularly literary coverage will continue when we pull ourselves off the floor, determine how we lost our boxers, come to terms with the arsenal of alcohol in the kitchen, check our credit card statements, cry, politely escort people out of our home, and try to begin living up to our barely realistic New Year’s resolutions.

If you plan to drink, please don’t drive. Be sure to drink lots of water. (And tomorrow morning will go down better with a bloody Mary.) If you’re not drunk, you probably are. If you don’t have a gym membership, you’ll probably have one next week.

Also, 2004 was better than you remember it. And 2005 is going to kick some serious ass for you, but only if you make it that way. Now get out there and kiss somebody.

Cheers,

Dr. Mabuse

What We Do Now

I was very interested to see that Melville House has assembled a collection entitled What We Do Now. The book is a collection of essay from assorted people: Steve Almond on getting tough, Maud Newton on tax law, and Greg Palast on voting fraud are just some of the interesting people who turn up. But what impresses me about the collection is how it’s collated several disparate responses in reaction to the current political clime. More importantly, with only a few hours left in 2004, flipping through the book has provoked me into thinking about the same subject. Because What We Do Now‘s very unity and provocative smorgasbord structure has had me thinking about what currently ails the Left. Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians may be able boosters on the publishing front, but it’s a pity that this approach can’t extend to the Left’s everyday actions.

It may seem an obvious point, but unity has eluded progressives of radical and centrist stripes over the past decade. The Left is either unwilling or unable to cast off its idealistic dregs, all too eager to engage in useless in-fighting over petty details. Instead of campaigning and pulling together for the pragmatic choice (i.e., the candidate or the goals that will get us closer to the marvelous possibilities of representative government), the Left is all too willing to quibble.

I can’t support Kerry because he’s part of the Democratic machine.

I’m for the death penalty. And while I agree with everything else the Green Party stands for, I can’t abide by that point.

These sentiments aren’t the problems of the people who express them, but the mark of an ideology that is inflexible and non-inclusive. Because the truth of the matter is that we need those centrists, if only to call us on our shit from time to time and perpetuate a unifying yet inclusive dialectic. They’d respect us more if we actually stood proudly on our two feet.

The problem isn’t one of politics, but confidence. We need an image, a mentality and a demonstrated series of actions that is confidently and uncompromisingly progressive, but that is simultaneously open to many political stripes.

Here in San Francisco, we had a series of political rallies in 2003. Before they escalated into a war against the police and fulfilled the psuedo-Kent State fantasies of priapic reactionaries, everyday Americans and their families went to these rallies in droves. I know. Because I was there and I talked with more than a few. Some of them had attended these rallies for the first time. And oh how they were disappointed! Let us not forget that before the rallies were driven by mob mentality, despite the insufferable pamphlet-slinging of pro-Palestine supporters and enraged Wobblies, the rallies were places that appealed to a meaty faction of everyday people. They brought people together and had the potential to be a forum for mobilization and a long-term commitment that could extend well into November.

Politiical demonstrations might make twentysomething Free Mumia supporters feel better, but I would argue that, so long as they adhere to a general message without a realistic effort to change government (and most of them do), they are useless. For some, the endless dirge of insensible rhetoric and uninformed opinions might boost egos. But that mentality belongs elsewhere: say, an Elks Lodge meeting. Until rallies are purged of their splinter opportunism and they appeal to the people at large, they will not have much use to anyone outside of cranks and militant nihilists.

This may not be what the Left wants to hear, but the unity problem is so hopelessly embedded that even populist poster boys like Michael Moore are incapable of flexibility. In an interview with Playboy, Moore described an early meeting with Howard Dean:

My wife and I went to meet him with the idea of supporting him. We brought our checkbook. But we weren’t in the room with him five minutes when we thought, Geez, this guy is kind of a prick. We didn’t write the check. I was not surprised the night of the Iowa caucus. He had spent the better part of two years in Iowa, letting people meet him. To meet him is to be turned off by him, so I wasn’t surprised that he lost. The concept of Dean was incredible. The movement behind him was a revolution. It was exciting to see, but Dean imploding was no surprise.

Well, if you ask me, Michael Moore’s kind of a prick for failing to identify politics as a business that involves the occasional tango with snakes for a long-term solution. Moore failed to use his base or his films to pull for John Kerry early in the year. While he quite wisely hit upon a winning formula to get a message out to the people (the mass medium of cinema), his inability to offer a game plan or even some scintilla of hope made his efforts useless.

Meanwhile, the Religious Right, having honed their organizational abilities through the so-called “Republican revolution” in ’94, have taken their battle directly to the American people. They have used a mobilized drive of bigotry and fear to convince the heartland that Bush is the man for the job. The unfortunate reality is that they wanted it more than we did.

The time has come for us to want it more than they do. We have two years of mobilization in store for the midterm elections in 2006. And we must never underestimate that our everyday actions, whether it involves a kind gesture, building up connections with political officials at the local and state levels, or our purchasing decisions, all contribute more effectively to winning than we can possibly measure.

We can be bold and accessible at the same time. The only thing stopping us is hopelessness, inaction, and giving up. And that’s silly. Because from where I’m sitting, we’re only just getting started.

Slow News Day

  • OPTR has the goods on how to check out the first five chapters of Murakami’s latest, Kafka on the Shore.
  • Carrie has done a fantastic job compiling the overlooked books of 2004.
  • Less than a year after writing a steamy novel, Jimmy Carter has a slim memoir, Sharing Good Times, in the works. After the unexpected titilation found in The Hornet’s Nest, the former President had initially planned to go off the deep end again, largely because Clinton’s memoir was so plodding. But Carter persuaded to change the original title, Sharing High Times, and excise a lengthy chapter about the benefits of THC, a pleasure that has assisted him in his negotiations throughout the past ten years.
  • Stuart Jeffries predicts 2005′s bestsellers. He’s hedged his bets on Pablo Tusset’s The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant and, like myself, is hoping that Martin Amis’s new novel will live up to its name.
  • The Times talks with Leslie Klinger about The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. “I bought 300 books from a collector $3,500 in 1976, and I’ve never looked back,” he says. That kind of sociopathic obsession has us convinced that Klinger’s the right man for the job.
  • And it seems that anyone can sell a memoir, including ex-Justice Roy Moore. Moore, you may recall, was the crazed man who tried to set up the Ten Commandments in the Alabama courthouse. In So Help Me God (I wish I were making that title up), Moore described that night as “the completion of a lifelong mission to use his position as the state’s highest judge to publicly acknowledge God.” Well, it’s nice to know that today’s judicial system is dedicated to impartiality!

[8/11/05 UPDATE: Looks like Stuart Jeffries was about as accurate as a blind dart shooter.]

Statement from the White House

8:37 A.M. CST

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Laura and I were greatly inconvenienced by all this talk of generosity. You see, we could care less about this tsunami mess. We’re busy fighting a war. Can’t you leave us alone?

Nevertheless, there were 60,000 people or so who lost their lives and the last thing we want to do is send you mexed missages. I won’t even try to pronounce “Sri Lanka.” I spent three hours this morning trying to wrap that damn three-letter word around my tongue and failed miserably.

So let’s just say that our prayers go out to the people who had to pay for their passports. We apologize for the inconvenience. This country is committed to spending the next four years searching for its heart and its soul. Our embassies are having a grand old time, coming back to the homeland in their first-class passenger seats in time for the Haliburton new year’s party. I understand there will be ribs.

bushsrilanka.jpgThis morning, I spoke with the leaders of India, the nation that ends with Lanka, Thailand (where I told them to stop with the pad stuff, which is too spicy for a Texan’s stomach) and Indonesia, and expressed my condolences while trying to suppress my own personal laughter. And if you don’t believe how manly I was or that I actually made these telephone calls, I invite you to look at this picture. Do you see how in command I am? There are not one, but two phones on the table. And there are some papers too that I’m using to get that whole Lanka thing down. You see? I’m presidential.

Make no mistake: the tsunamis are either for us or against us. Through federal matching funds and the cutting of one $20 million plane, we have upped our figure to $35 million in aid to deal with this thing. (And besides, we’re too busy spending $40 million on my second inauguration.) Why, that’s enough to give these nations 35 million Popsicles. And that’s a good thing. Because when I was a boy, a Popsicle really brightened my day. And these people sure need bright’ning.

It’s hard work. Secretary Powell is working very hard. And we know that the other countries are working very hard. But when people are working very hard, it’s difficult to send a wire transfer. But we need to clamp down on our budgets and let the world know that, even when we deliver a chump change contribution, this tsunami conflict is about us. We are the most generous nation in the world. We have evidence that links the tsunamis to weapons of mass destruction. And we will prevail.

Thank you.

What Authors Did You Discover This Year?

Carrie’s tackled the underappreciated and the disappointments of the year. I’d like to raise her with an oldie but goodie approach. What authors did you read or “discover” for the first time this year? Feel free to name authors, contemporary or classic. (My own 2004 list includes Paula Fox, Lawrence Durrell, Eric Kraft, Flann O’Brien and David Mitchell — all of whom blew me away: Fox, for her incredibly crisp and compact poetry; Durrell, whose poetic ambition is truly sui generis; Kraft, for so poignantly merging Proust with middle American eccentrics; O’Brien, whose postmodern approach is so casual and beautifully goofy that I’m almost tempted to send huge stacks of The Third Policeman to McSweeney’s headquarters for their consideration; and Mitchell, for too many reasons.)

But never mind me. Who are yours? Comment away!

  • Ron points out how Laura Miller cannibalized a NYT piece for Salon.
  • Colm Toibin covers Booker winner The Line of Beauty for the NYRoB. His conclusion? Style over substance and an opportunity to play the “I knew Henry James and worked with him. You’re no Henry James” card.
  • This should please (and probably not surprise) Sarah. Mysteries are the most sought after fiction by library patrons. Some patrons have tried wearing trenchcoats to stave off overdue fees, hoping that this sartorial hint might make some of the librarians smile. But the librarians have proven just as martinet-minded in their obsessions as the readers.
  • Not enough that, by all reports, Crichton’s State of Fear is an outright bad novel, but it may very well be designed for the red states as well. So says George Will.
  • Christopher Hitchens weighs in on Sontag. Believe it or not, it’s not a Mother Theresa style takedown piece at all, but a quite balanced article. Apparently, someone took the bottle away from Hitch just as he began writing.
  • What are the hot books for 2005? This is London says everyone will go ga-ga over 20 year old Helen Oyeyemi, whose debut novel The Icarus Girl comes out this year. Well, only if it has sex confessionals and Leon Wieseltier manages to get his hands on it.
  • Also, if you’re interested in helping out the poor folks off the Indian Ocean, check out Tsunami Help, a blog devoted to philanthropy. (via Hurree

Susan Sontag Dead

Damn. Double damn.

Some Sontag resources:

WRITINGS:

INTERVIEWS:

OTHER WORDS/LECTURES:

Lede Lackeys Waiting for the Pop of Champagne

It’s slim pickens on the literary news front. For obvious reasons. But we’ll see what we can do:

  • The latest addition to the bookstore? Day care.
  • Birmingham, AL is more literate than New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Alas, not even Birmingham could beat San Francisco. For those who missed the survey, here are the results.
  • Apparently, it was a good year for Canadian writers. Perhaps a little of that edumucation and social program stuff up north might have something to do with it?
  • There’s also a books quiz at the Observer, for those interested.
  • Gray Lady. Manga! Gray Lady.
  • Christianity Today names the best books of the year. Believe it or not, Markson made the list.
  • NPR remembers the writers who passed on this year.
  • And yes, folks, it’s official. Sales of consumer electronics surpassed book sales for the first time.

McLaughlin and Kraus: Struggle! Suffer! Straddle!

Apparently getting a $2 million advance involves “struggling.” Of course, back in February, they were “suffering” through a potential sophomore slump despite a revolving door of editors and agents, many of them fired, hired or retired. And let’s not forget how the two labored to cut a deal whereby they demanded hair and makeup services for all of their promotional appearances.

Yes, it’s those bright young Nanny things again: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. And this time, the nouveau riche duo of the publishing world are claiming that critics are “dismissing the feminist aspects” of their new book, Citizen Girl. Well if Tom Wolfe can spin his bad sex as “ironic,” then I suppose it’s plausible to claim that women in the bathroom ogling over “Pam’s purple clogs” and other accoutrements came straight from bell hooks.

Most Wished For

If you’re interested in demographics, the most wished for books on Amazon (no link provided, due to this site’s policy) is:

1. America: The Book by Jon Stewart
2. State of Fear by Michael Crichton
3. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
4. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
5. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
6. He’s Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo
7. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
9. Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan
10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
11. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
12. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
13. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
14. I Am a Cheesy Protagonist Who Engages in Ironic Bad Sex (title recently changed) by Tom Wolfe
15. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
16. The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson
17. Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford, Matt Webb
18. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
19. When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin
20. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
21. Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
22. The Da Vinci Code: Illustrated Edition by Dan Brown
23. Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals: Cooking ‘Round the Clock
24. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
25. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Wet Rebound

Wet, because that’s exactly what it is outside. Not nearly as bad as Sri Lanka, but still resolute weather for this town. The other wet involves some paint applied to a few things over the weekend. But you’ll have to wait for that. Anyway, here we go:

  • First off, I’d like to make a case for the literary merits of Million Dollar Baby. Not only does its visuals harken back to the great boxer noir The Set-Up (complete with its slogan-laden signs), but Eastwood manages to get in some references to Yeats and Gaelic, as well as a nice pun (“IRA’S ROADSIDE DINER” is the name of the place that Eastwood considers dumping his savings into, but not a single critic got this). The one great visual I can’t get out of my head involves an homage to Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak.” The camera sneaks past Hilary Swank’s back in a dingy, green-walled apartment immersed in shadows, and we see Swank gnawing on a half-eaten piece of steak she swiped from her waitressing job. Truly one of the most haunting and visceral images I’ve seen on cinema this year. And a great film to boot.
  • The Aviator turned out to be a surprise too, probably Scorsese’s best film since the unfairly neglected Kundun (and, yes, I dug Bringing Out the Dead as much as the next guy, but it’s more interesting to see Scorsese work outside the “New York as hell” box). Of course, that didn’t concern most of the fockers who wanted to see Ben Stiller and Robert “Where’s my career now?” De Niro (ironically, once Scorsese’s right-hand man) revive their tired comic schtick. Never mind that. Some people I’ve talked to absolutely hated The Aviator, the chief beefs being historical liberties and an unexpected optimism. Well, what else do you folks expect from a biopic? The important thing was that the film captured the essence of the man and that Scorsese pulled off something of a miracle getting a performance out of Leonardo and keeping his juju together under Harvey Weinstein’s iron fist. I suspect The Aviator will be one of those overlooked gems like Tucker where its idealism will be more appreciated ten years from now. Plus, giving Scorsese the keys to the castle allowed for some extremely exciting flight sequences. Cate Blanchett as Hepburn, Alan Alda as sleazy Senator Brewster, fantastic sequences of exploding photograph bulbs. Joe Bob says check it out.
  • Moving onto literary news. If you missed Tanenhaus’ latest stunt and need a good laugh, read Walter Kirn’s bizarre cover essay declaring the end of elite rule by wit, apparently through (wait for this) the New Yorker cartoon. Huh? I’ve never been a big fan of the New Yorker‘s cartoons, but I’ve always respect their quiet wit in the same way that I can’t resist Charles Schultz (though you won’t see me reaching for either as a therapeutic solution, a la Franzen). Tanenhaus remains hopelessly up in the air over such foolish statements as, “The seduction of America’s elites by the vices of humanism and skepticism can only be blamed on the New Yorker cartoon, an agent of corruption more insidious than LSD or the electric guitar.” Yep, the NYTBR actually published that. If that’s meant as wit, it fails miserably for its lack of specifics. If that’s meant to be daring, then it’s no more provocative than Madonna after her conversion to Kabbalah. If that’s meant in earnest, then the NYTBR is truly in trouble. I’m curious what James Wolcott thinks about this, but I fear that there may be a conflict of interest.
  • What happens to the literary geniuses you don’t hear about? They become vagrants.
  • The California Literary Review checks out Paul Auster.
  • Several fantastic people, including one Maud Newton, name their favorite books at Newsday.
  • The Globe rolls out the red carpet for Louis Auchincloss.
  • And I’d also like to suggest that if you ever get the chance to do it, it’s an extremely strange expeirence to read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet at the same time. Both are fantastic in their own different ways, but I think I’ve got enough literary deviance to last through the winter.
  • Wishing you a belated merry Xmas.

The War on Literary Fusion?

Carrie recently pointed to this Meghan O’Rourke essay. O’Rourke suggested that Munro’s purported realism “is more of O. Henry in Munro than her admirers tend to admit.” Taken together with Lev Grossman’s recent suggestion that Michael Chabon’s editorial duties for his latest McSweeney’s “thrilling tale” compilation are “the promiscuous atmosphere of one of those speakeasies where socialites slum with gangsters in an effort to mutually increase everybody’s street cred,” it seems to me that the fight for fantastic fiction’s respectability is far from over. In fact, it’s extended across some interesting fault lines.

A genre writer is considered declasse, but in these days when postmodernism is considered dead as bright young things are busting their humps trying to find a playful yet acceptable substitute, a literary hybrid is apparently much worse. O’Rourke goes on to suggest that Munro has manipulated her readers because, heavens to Betsy, in O’Rourke’s judgment, the timing is off when she has two characters fail to meet. O’Rourke implies that this is a willful act of cruelty on Munro’s part and that, as such, the story she cites is built “of the tinder of contrivance.”

But what is contrivance exactly? Is it missed opportunities? Is it a character failing to meet some pivotal individual at the right time? Isn’t fiction supposed to be about the emotional impetus of its characters, as guided by language and reasonable plotting? Setting aside the odious example of Dickens’ Little Nell, it’s interesting that O’Rourke is vague about why “cruelty” is such a bad thing in fiction. If O’Rourke’s point here hangs upon whether Alice Munro is a firm Chekhovian realist or not or whether her fiction is “a bag of tricks,” then I’ve got news for her. Fiction has always involved machinations. But why should genre or style matter if emotional verisimilitude is firmly in place?

In fact, if we consider a number of Golden Age science fiction short stories, I would argue that what we remember is not the machinations, but the human impulse that bristles from the tales. Alfred Bester’s “Hobson’s Choice” is remembered not for the apocalyptic setup, but for its chilly ending about alienation and displacement. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” is remembered for a safari tourist stepping upon a butterfly and the stunning consequences. Harlan Ellison’s “Jefty is Five” is remembered for its depiction of youth and mortality, not the gimmick of a boy perpetually aged five.

I suppose the O. Henry comparison vexed me because I’ve been rereading Richard Matheson’s stories of late. Matheson, who I’ve often referred to as “the Ray Bradbury everyone always forgets about,” was one of a handful of speculative fiction storytellers who inspired me as a very young reader. What I’ve found years later is that, much like the examples cited above, the genre conventions ultimately didn’t matter. Sure, the stories are fantastic in structure, often carried out through vaguely described future worlds. Even the science is considerably loopy at times. But that isn’t the issue. Because Matheson’s characters are ensnared by jobs, families, their own paranoia, or their own inability to take control. And each Matheson tale involves a character trying to escape, whether it’s Mann from “Duel” or the frequently used Professor Wade. It’s the human impulse that commands our interest. If, however, the human impulse isn’t believable (say, for example, Tom Wolfe’s wholly implausible depiction of college life in I Am Charlotte Simmons), then this behavioral discrepancy will mow down a story more fatally than a Panzer tank.

If genre fiction offers a more fantastic approach to get at the human condition and we can accept it, why then should Munro or Chabon be penalized because their tales fall outside the box? Why is literary fusion considered a dirty concept in the 21st century? If fiction exists to make us feel, then, if a story does the job keeping us from seeing the lie, has not the task been fulfilled?

(Okay. Enough. Hiatus! Hiatus!)

Whereby the Good Doctor Helps Those Who Missed Opportunities

I’m almost ashamed to confess it, but the Missed Connections section on Craig’s List fascinates me. What are these people thinking? Why are they spending all of their time regretting a mistake? If it’s a matter of following up with someone, why are they resorting to a bulletin board that only a handful of people will read?

With these questions in mind, I briefly emerge from my candy-baking, holiday-themed hiatus to give the gift that keeps on giving: questionable advice.

Dan Dan the Mexi Man: Have you considered calling the Academy of Art and asking if Dan works there? Failing that, are you aware that there are other Dans in the universe? It might also help if you stop referring to some stranger as “the Mexi Man.” Outside of WB sitcoms, that doesn’t really win points with people.

Danced with you at 1015: Sorry, sweetheart. Roberto ain’t coming back anytime soon. People go to dance clubs for two reasons. Dancing is one and I’ll let you do the math on the other. Chances are that if Roberto was really interested in you, he’d have taken you home or asked for your number. How much vodka did you have, darling?

Rita from Queens: It’s always possible that Rita might call back. But here’s the way it works. When a girl calls, if you don’t call back within a reasonable time, she moves onto the next prospect. May I suggest that you go to your cell phone dealer and obtain a cell phone that you can operate. Failing that, spend at least six hours becoming infinitely familiar with your voicemail system so that this doesn’t happen again.

To the bush lover whose jaw I broke: Two words: anger management.

Beautiful JWF on the BART: Go up and talk to her, you putz! And be prepared for the possibility of failure. Also, discretion is the name of the game. The last thing a woman needs on public transportation is a stranger’s desperate eyes searing into her soul. Is she reading a book? Does she have a nice overcoat? Make small talk instead of living with fear.

My girlfriend and I…: The place is “Missed Connections,” which involves people, not highly specific beer bottles.

PHX – SFO flight: Ask him for coffee next time. Look, nothing makes a man’s job easier than when you boldly suggest a date. It takes a lot of the weight from our backs. After all, we’re the ones constantly putting ourselves on the line here. Live dangerously. Start a trend. For the future of gender equality, ask him out if you’re interested! They did it on Sex and the City all the time, right?

Jo, 500 Club? Start drinking.

Nemo?: The San Francisco DJ scene isn’t nearly as large as it seems. With a name like that, it would be very easy to track the guy down if you hung out at raves and clubs and asked around. Of course, it’s also possible that Nemo was a one-night pseudonym, in which case you might be SOL. If you’re into DJs as prospective lovers, perhaps you should hook up with Skratchy Seal’s girlfriend and get some tips.

Were you checking out my package?: Perhaps purchasing a penis pump might confirm your hypothesis.

Squat and Gobble: The number is 415-487-0551. Play it safe. You may come across as socipathic, assuming he’s interested.

Now, back to the hiatus. Really.

Goodbye Amazon

Like Mark and Maud, we’ve completely obliterated Amazon as a purchasing option. No gifts or random packages sent from there anymore, thank you very much. You won’t even find our wishlist. Those kind and remarkable people lurking behind the scenes will have to stay the course until we get our obscure objects of literary desire tranposed and listed onto safer pastures. Rest assured, we don’t take Amazon’s PAC funding lightly and, as previous actions have demonstrated, we’re adamantly sociopathic in our boycotts. This week’s dartboard cutout? Why, Jeff Bezos, of course!

We do, however, think that the inestimable Mark Sarvas is overdoing it with his Time subscription legerdemain. The magazine is, without a doubt, useless. When you factor in their neurologically inert coverage of current events (witness such prima facie pronouncements as “The poisoning has already given him martyrlike status among his supporters, but it also raises questions about whether his health will allow him to serve with sustained vigor,” and the moronic machinations become apparent) and the fact that a mere four (four!) of their Persons of the Year have been women, it’s really a no-brainer. The magazine was established by Briton Hadden and Henry Luce to reduce the information of our times to jejune gardyloo processed by dullards. Or to cite Luce directly, “Of necessity, we made the discovery that it is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers.”

Birnbaum might drop-kick our asses for riding the adjective with two Js, but in Time‘s case, it’s readily apparent that no other modifier cuts the mustard in quite the same way.

(Furthermore, it would be criminal for us not to reveal how much we loved the Man of the Year moment in The Big Lebowski, whereby slacker Jeff L glimpses himself in a mirror styled along the Time yearly hard line. It’s one of the film’s most overlooked gags.)

We now return you to our regularly scheduled hiatus.

2004 — No Love for Markson?

One 2004 book that seems to have been entirely overlooked by all the end-of-the-year listmakers is David Markson’s Vanishing Point. (Full confession: I’m just as guilty, having only just hit Markson’s latest on my bookpile.) Nevertheless, Markson deserves some special consideration, given how he’s mastered the ability to juxtapose obscure personal tidbits involving artistic figures against the emotional dilemma of the “Author.” (For example, “David Garrick, retiring from the stage: Now I will sit and read Shakespeare.”)

This is the kind of cultural obsession that almost anyone who reads thinks about to some degree. That Markson’s tidbits are both fascinating and unsourced almost lends his work to compulsive fact-ferreting among the truly obsessed “Jesus, did that really happen?” scholars. (In fact, Markson’s phrasing reminds me of Don Marquis’s poetry with its seemingly simple gimmick masking a deeper emotional patina.) But Vanishing Point (much like This is Not a Novel and Reader’s Block) also addresses the broader problem of how literary culture often marginalizes the art in favor of the artists’ lives. How far removed are we really from the People subscribers? In dwelling upon the personal foibles of high cultural icons, are we groping for an existential meaning that we lack?

These are the bold questions that Vanishing Point and Markson in general dares to unfurl. But even if you’re not into this kind of obsessive probing (although you probably will be), Vanishing Point is still a supremely enjoyable novel.

(Also, happy anniversary, Mr. Syntax of Things.)

Carl Hiaasen: Measured Insanity?

Carl Hiaasen acts nuts in the presence of Bob Shacochis and becomes my new hero. Among Hiaasen’s affronts:

  • “because I’m making cell-phone calls in my car and exhibiting an absolute lack of urgency, Hiaasen rearranges the garbage cans.”
  • “Eventually we drag our feet down his dock and load gear onto the boat with icy fingers and half a warm heart between us. “
  • “‘Do you want people to die? Do you want carcasses floating down Biscayne Boulevard?’ he says. ‘Of course not. But nature’s here to remind us, and it does, that it can kick our ass, that we’re just gnats.’”

Steeler’s Game

Orson Scott Card is slated to get his panties in a bunch over Iron Man, penning a six issue miniseries. Iron Man will become a card-carrying member of the NRA, adjusting the strength of his armor so that Democrats will be incapable of filibustering and blue staters will lick the GOP’s feet during the 2008 presidential election.

How to Screw Over Tom Stoppard

So let’s say you’re an enterprising young director by the name of Chris Weitz. You have a great literary property at your disposal: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. But the guy who’s penning it is Tom Stoppard, one of the greatest living playwrights and an Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love. You’re intimidated by his talent. The man shoots out wordplay faster than you can comprehend it. So what do you do? You use pressure to dump him, because, hey, you only direct the scripts that you write, dig? You’re an auteur. You’re a rising star, what with films like The Nutty Professor II and American Pie on your CV. You cut all the references to God in the script. Because you need to entertain and you fear offending even a handful of those folks in the red states. And in the end, it’s about the Almighty Dollar, right? But then you bolt from the director’s chair because “the technical challenges of making such an epic are more than I can undertake at this point.” Of course, since you’ve already written the script for New Line, the studio plans on using it anyway. And since New Line’s bought Pullman off with a ridiculous and undisclosed sum, he’s a convert, no matter what monkey’s banging away on the keyboard.

Talk about a classic example of passive-aggressive backstabbing. We may never know the true nature of Stoppard’s script. But if anyone needed to be reminded about Hollywood’s willing encouragment of its bottom-feeders, Chris Weitz’s despicable antics provide a case history in progress.

Of course, for all I know, Weitz’s His Dark Materials might be dandy. Even so, you have to wonder whether the “technical challenges” would have been easier if Weitz had trusted a wordmeister like Stoppard in the first place.

(tip via Kevin)

One Not-So-Angry Man

The Thomas J. Cahill Courthouse, an edifice erected between 1958 and 1960 that houses the San Francisco Criminal Court, is a stark and, for the most part, featureless seven-story building composed almost entirely of cement and mortar. If I had to name an architectural style, I’d peg it as New WPA Revival.

Its outside walls are unpainted and unwashed. There’s nothing in the way of cornices or garrets. No fluted columns. Not even Justice, with her blindfold and her scales, makes a cameo engraving. In fact, there’s nothing remotely Roman about the place. It is a gigantic box that ensnares and entraps, spewing out a small collection of suits and inveterate smokers hobbling in the daylight. I saw one African-American woman in her forties huddled over in tears, her arm clutching a rail for support. There was no one to answer her call. Justice had been served. As a prospective juror called in to perform my civic duty, an obligation I had postponed, avoided and ignored for too long, I suddenly felt uncomfortable about meting out hard fate.

To enter the building, a visitor must walk through one of three pairs of doors. And because government minimalism is at work, above each door is a flagpole — three flags in total, identifying the nation (United States), the state (California) and the city (San Francisco), lest the visitor think he is in Cleveland, Ohio. The rectangular motif has been applied to clover hedges which run their way around the building’s perimeter, never daring to impede their rectilinear nature with a curve. Government, at least as it pertains to the administering of criminal justice, is resolutely square. I had to wonder whether Thomas J. Cahill approved.

There is, however, the great Seal of the City to the right of the courthouse entrance. A dedication just below this reads: TO THE FAITHFUL AND IMPARTIAL ENFORCEMENT OF THE LAWS WITH EQUAL AND EXACT JUSTICE TO ALL OF WHATEVER STATE OR PERSUASION. THIS BUILDING IS DEDICATED BY THE PEOPLE OF THE CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO.

Well, that’s all quite nice, but while the courthouse’s purpose is clearly and broadly addressed, I felt a little funny about a dedication plague that didn’t bother to include a recipient.

But not all is lost in the government spending department. Considerable money appears to have been siphoned for the lengthy handicapped ramp which leads up to the entrance in two diagonal swoops. The ramp has strayed from its initial purpose to fulfill the needs of stragglers, city workers, underpaid paralegals wheeling in pivotal papers and those with spare time.

I saw the flash of many an Armani, but these high-priced career men sped down the steps with an urgency that rivaled Boston Marathon runners. If they had clients, their arms were draped protectively around them and their heads were arced in the client’s direction, as if expecting a Chronicle city beat photographer to snap a few images to cripple character. If they didn’t have clients to nurse, they had cell phones. I timed a few attorneys leaving the door and, based off of five samples, I determined that the mean time between an attorney fleeing through the doors and whipping out a cell phone was 2.3 seconds.

After taking in this tableau, with five minutes to spare, it was time to make my way through the doors and determine my fate. Would I be on a four-week jury? Would I be excluded because of a peremptory challenge? Would I be shuffled from court to court like a human yo-yo? Would I fulfill my longtime dream of becoming the outstanding Henry Fonda figure in a room without air conditioning? I had ideas, images, and a commitment to impartial truth. The night before, I had decided to accept the fate of the criminal court gods and serve as a juror, if required. So that morning, I shaved.

I passed through the metal detector with flying colors. No beeps to speak of. I said hello to the security guard. He grunted in acknowledgment. No prob. This was easier than an airport.

More lawyers, more expensive suits, more briefcases and clients. And all this set against a vestibule of pinkish marble. I found the elevators and headed to the third floor.

It was easy to find the prospective jurors. I knew them by their confused gait, the way they constantly looked around. Their heads were all cast slightly to the floor. Who needed directions to the Jury Assembly Room when you had so many greenhorns that made the way so easy and identifiable?

The halls were now wider, but as unadorned as the outside walls. Square blocks of fluorescent cast muddy reflections on the murky green marble floor. I wondered how this place looked at night.

juryduty.jpgI went to the desk. There was a neat stack of envelopes from the day’s mail. Prospective jurors who had bowed out. The clerk, business as usual, asked me to fill out a form I had completely forgotten about. And then I was off to the races, waltzing into the waiting room.

The first thing that hit me was the indelible silence. The room was packed with about 150 people, but only a few people chatted on their cell phones. And even then, the rustling of a turned newspaper page dwarfed these mutterings, which were mainly business-related. Taken with the flattened puke-brown carpet, which looked and smelled as if it had seen at least a decade of foot traffic and infrequent vacuuming, the atmosphere spawned a contagious asceticism.

There were orange chairs with horrid black piping for armrests. A dying plant was situated near the windows. The same weak sunlight permeated through dusty panes onto a few round tables. On the opposite side of the room, I was amused to see a remarkable collection of empty wooden coat hangers hanging on a long rod that extended some twenty feet horizontally. The funny thing was that everybody wanted to hold onto their coats, presumably hoping to spend as little time as possible should they be one of the lucky bastards who got away.

No one smiled.

What did people do? They read newspapers. They stared into space. They tried to sleep and failed. The look of the bored was something like this: head sinking as far as it would go into the thin cushions, legs spread far out onto the floor, limbs clutched protectively into their chests. I watched one woman spend fifteen minutes folding a plastic bookstore bag, trying to determine the exact configuration it needed to be folded and inserted into her purse. Only after this elaborate ritual did she crack open her newly purchased trade paperback. I saw a sixty year old man cough repeatedly, while applying his pen to a thick legal agreement. He underlined every other word.

Time slows down in the jury assembly room. People have plenty of it here. Even when you’re prepared (and I had six books to read in my bag in case they locked the doors for a week), there is something about the process of indeterminate waiting that forces an almost total collapse of the synapses. After two minutes, the brain percolates again and finds things to do. It has to. Because the clock is ticking. Slowly, but ticking nonetheless. After this, there begins the silent bonding through furtive glances. That’s all you can do. Because making eye contact with strangers would, of course, cement your reputation as a closet stalker.

I was surprised to see that nobody looked particularly slipshod. Nobody wore T-shirts or nose earrings or shaved swastikas into their scalps. They stuck by the playbook and awaited their fates.

I wondered when it would begin. Two vending machines, the sole source of sustenance, remained untouched. A mid-sized television rested front and center. I saw a small window partition in the distance with three plastic snowflakes taped on and two ratty celebratory Xmas strings (one red, one green) hanging from the lintel. They both drooped and resembled loose nooses. There was a paucity of signs. No “Thank you for fulfilling your civic duty.” No “Clerks are sexy. Ask up front for a date.” Nothing to energize a Law & Order junkie. I was quite surprised to see a painting of some important local figure I couldn’t identify in a coffin-shaped frame. And I wondered if this was the décor to get people excited about democracy. Ultimately, there was nothing to think about but the cold hard process of waiting. This vexed most and comforted others.

I opted to read.

And then I heard the voice of the orientation lady. I didn’t know where it came from and wondered at first if I was hallucinating. But as my eye spent two minutes surveying the room, I realized that the flat, vaguely sing-songy voice was coming from a flat, vaguely sing-songy lady, essentially repeating what was printed on the jury summons.

We then watched the orientation video.

“California. Our state is a place of natural beauty and harmony! The best state in the nation!”

Video images of roaring waves colliding against currents and yuppie couples holding hands in Napa.

“But…not always.”

Sudden image juxtaposition. Criminals! People getting arrested. Oh no! The world isn’t as harmonious as we thought!

“We have disputes.”

No shit?

“And that’s where justice comes into play.”

Dissolve into footage of smiling attorneys, smiling bailiffs, smiling judges, the nice, relatively normal actors assembled for the industrial. You’d think it was a beer commercial. But where were the bikinis? This was followed by everyday Joes offering testimonials about how jury duty changed their life.

I wish I could tell you that I ignored this silly video, but I was strangely hooked. It was too surreal. This was the courtroom equivalent of the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland. But where that ride failed to persuade me that the world was a safe and sacrosanct place, the minute that the video offered an image of the Constitution, the moralist and the political junkie in me cried out, “Fuck yeah!” It seemed that where commercials had completely failed to get me to purchase their products, this video, with its explicit reminder that this country’s founding documents referenced trial by jury several times, got its tenterhooks into me. Bring it on!

The first jury pool names was read. My ears pricked up. I was fascinated that one of my city supervisors’ names was called. Nyah nyah! In your face!

And then they called my name.

Shit. So much for orientation propaganda.

I walked down a stairway with about a hundred other people, thinking from the asbestos peeling out of the walls that I was going to be lead into a bomb shelter or a gas chamber. But instead I entered a room – what’s referred to in the trade as a “department.” The place where trials happen and ineluctable sentences are executed.

This room was all wood, all the time. The same paneling pervaded every square inch of the place, much as the pink marble had in the vestibule and the concrete had on the outside. The No Adornments policy echoed its way into the inner sanctum, as had the flag motif. On each side of the judge’s seat, there was the United States flag and the California flag. And just behind this was the City’s seal. The jury seats were on the left, a chalkboard and a calendar, with orange and green highlights for holidays and weekends was on the right. Above the jury seats were several numerical printouts corresponding to the seats. (Please let me be Juror #8! Please let me be Juror #8!)

Then a small man introduced himself. He was the clerk of this establishment and a stand-out guy. As people came in, he said, “Good afternoon. Come on in please.” He made sure everyone had a seat. He talked very slow. I didn’t see a judge, a defendant, attorneys, or a bailiff. Where were they? We were prospective jurors, dammit! We had sacrificed time, money, and late return fees at Blockbuster to serve democracy. Didn’t we deserve some kind of reception?

Apparently not. The clerk took roll call. People announced that they were “here.” When they called “Champion,” at that point, I had to rock the boat a bit. Remembering how annoyed my seventh grade English teacher was with “Present” (the snarky bastard’s alternative), I used this very same word almost two decades later. In a courtroom, no less. There was a slight pause from the clerk, a modest glance up from his roll call sheet, and then a continuation of his ceremony. I was honored that other people took my lead and answered “Present” too, demonstrating prima facie evidence that an corruptive adolescent streak can survive into one’s thirties.

Then we were sworn in. Collectively. I was disappointed that a Bible hadn’t been served up. Because I was prepared to serve up my atheist credentials and ask for a copy of Ulysses or The Canterbury Tales.

Finally, the cavalry arrived. The prosecutor, the defense, the defendant, the defendant’s mother. I particularly liked the bailiff, who was a large man with a bushy moustache. When he set down on his chair and placed his hand to his head to stave off what was either boredom or a headache, we were blood brothers immediately.

Counting the number of seats per row and the number of rows, I quickly computed that I was one of a hundred jurors. By my lousy math, I figured that there was a 1 in 8 chance I’d get picked. Not bad for a guy vacillating between a copout and civic duty.

Then the judge came in. She was friendly, well-spoken, and laid it all out for us. The trial was afternoons, two to three days a week in light of the holidays. If we could serve, we needed to come back on Monday. As jury duty goes, that’s an extremely equitable schedule. But that wasn’t what clinched my decision to stay.

I looked at the defendant and the prosecutor again. The defendant was very, very black. The prosecutor was very, very white. In an instant, civic duty and a judgment based exclusively on the evidence won out.

I opted to return on Monday. Not even the supervisor could promise that much.

Newsflash: Bezos Loves Bloated Elephants

The big bombshell across the blogosphere comes from Dennis Loy Johnson, who points to the fact that 61% of Amazon’s PAC money goes to the GOP, while 98% of Barnes & Noble’s contributions go to the Democrats. I could make a comparison here between Ford and IBM’s contributions to certain interests in the 1930s, but I’ll just bow out from Amazon purchases gracefully, while pointing out that this may be the smoking gun to my long-held theory that Jeff Bezos is a chickenhead.

Jury Duty Update

Tomorrow, I head to the criminal courthouse. Part of me would like to invent a bevy of excuses to get out. Another part of me feels ashamed that I am trying to evade my duties and responsibilities as a citizen. Either way, I go through the jury selection process tomorrow and postings will be light until my return. But I will probably report my jury duty experience. Happy holidays.

Tom Wolfe Describes the Laci Peterson Murder

Slither slither slither went the mind. But the unborn son was what he had to forget about as he threw her into the otorhinolaryngological depths of the San Francisco Bay. The cement anchors! The cement anchors! Oh God, would his mind trapise outside and his head collide against her mon pubis? Bumping mon pubis with mon pubis as he tried to throw this corpse ::::::STATIC:::::: into the San Francisco Bay, the cold waters! Cold corpse into cold waters! Humiliation!

Scott remembered the good stoic words of Zeno, remembering that he was a Master of the Universe! And so, like a very good boy, a good solid man, Scott, he of the last name Peterson, looked away from her pectoral morsels that he had buried his face into just a few nights ago, watching his wife — the corpse! — ::::::STATIC::::::

And then came the distant cry of his father back in Atlanta:

“SON! IF YOU DON’T STOP VACILLATING BETWEEN THROWING HER INTO THE BAY AND SITTING THERE WITH YOUR TAILS BETWEEN YOUR LEGS, THEN YOU JUST AIN’T GOT THE GUTS. YOU’RE A MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE!”

Scott had to be a man, for to be otherwise (humiliation!) was not an option. And so her body plopped in, all her deltoids and her rotary cuffs and her solar plexus and then, eventually, her mon pubis — the last part to touch the waters.

The Bad Pun Morning Roundup

  • GalleyCat has one-upped Rex, crossing his tees by collating several major top ten lists, but referring (and rebirching and even ‘oking again) to each title by number of citations and moving violations. The Plot Against America is, predictably enough, in the tops for proper gravedigging.
  • Sean Connery’s ghostwriter needs to watch 65 films and die in the act of writing as part of his work. And, yes, that includes The Presidio and Highlander 2, which means dismarkharmony and shitheads all around.
  • Local boy done good well done medium rare Daniel Handler talks with the Chronicle about the Lemony Snicket movie, snickering a bit over a few ades on what it’s like to hand over the reins, dear enough for the holiday season.
  • Stephen Ambrose? Doris Kearns Goodwin? You’re just scratching the surface and applying the iodine when the skin breaks, sweetheart. The Chronicle of Higher Education has four more plagiarists. Which is a little late because the presidential election was last month.
  • The Detroit Free Press sees recipes everywhere. Better than dead people, I suppose. Of course, any steady spatula user knows that they can be found most frequently in the kitchen, often sinking beneath Khartoum.
  • The position for the California poet laureate is now open. Qualified candidates must bench-press 250 pounds and pump you up.
  • Bob Bernie spends a weekend with Cynthia Ozick.