Category Archives: Books and literature

January 1973: Book Review

January 22, 1973, was the date that the Supreme Court announced their decision in Roe v. Wade. It was also a crucial day in John J. Sirica’s courtroom, where he precided over the trial of the Watergate burglars. Also on that date, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris peace accords, ending the war in Vietnam. And none of those stories led the evening news broadcasts. Because that was also the day Lyndon Johnson died.

January, 1973, was one of those months in American history where a whole lot of crucially important things happened at once, like April 1965 (which was also the subject of a terrific book, by Jay Winik). I just finished James Robenalt’s book, January, 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that changed America forever. It’s a very good book; not a great one, but an enjoyable read. It’s a book where the extraordinary events it describes are inherently dramatic and interesting, while Robenalt’s analysis of those events struck me as a trifle too breathless. He seems to be striving for significance where, perhaps, less exists than he seems to think. It’s undeniably fascinating that so many important events seem to have happened at the same time. I’m not sure that coincidence is quite as revelatory as Robenalt would have it.

The key figure in the whole story is, of course, Richard Nixon. What a fascinating character; what an endlessly transformative president, for good and ill. What fascinated me was the relationship between Nixon and aide Charles Colson. Robenalt was able to quote long conversations verbatim, because those conversations were, of course, recorded. What’s amazing is Nixon’s thin skin, his obsessive loathing of enemies for slights real and imagined, his paranoia, his long-standing grudges. Colson was his sounding board; the guy he could sit and vent to for hours on end. Nothing really new here; Rick Perlstein’s brilliant Nixonland covers it all more thoroughly and, I think, more insightfully. But it’s fascinating to me that the end of the Vietnam war, a signal achievement if ever there was one, was marred by Nixon’s jealousy of Henry Kissinger, and an order to bug Kissinger’s phone, to see if he was talking to the press about it. During that same month, both former Presidents Truman and Johnson passed away, and Nixon’s main concern was over which church their memorial services would be held in. The pastor of the National Cathedral was too anti-war (and, thought Nixon, secretly anti-Nixon), for Nixon’s taste. And so he engaged in unseemly negotiations with Lady Bird Johnson over memorializing President Johnson somewhere else.

But that was Nixon. A brilliant geo-political thinker. Surprisingly, even shockingly liberal when it came to domestic policies. You look at the man’s actual accomplishments, and they’re remarkable. He founded the EPA, and pushed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Mammal Marine Protection Act through Congress. He supported and pushed for the adoption of the 26th Amendment, granting the vote to 18 year olds. He ended the draft. He returned tribal lands to Native Americans, and granted tribes self-determination. He increased funding for cancer research.

But politically, his Southern strategy was built on exacerbating racial tensions at a time when it appeared that real progress had been made. He was the politician of white resentment, of ‘law and order’ (which everyone understood to mean ‘cracking down on black inner cities.’)

Was he, for example, a feminist? Well, he signed Title IX into law. No other bill has done more for college women, to promote fitness and achievement and empowerment. Three of the four justices who voted for Roe v. Wade were Nixon appointees, including Justice Blackmun, who authored it. He was also prone, in private, to use the worst kind of gutter language regarding women. Nixon said he supported the Equal Rights Amendment while campaigning. Then he did little about it while in office. Mixed bag? Pretty much, I’d say.

Of course, when we think of Nixon, we don’t think of Vietnamization or the opening to China. We think of Watergate. And it’s in the Watergate passages that Robenalt’s book is at its strongest. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the initial Watergate trial in January 1973, a trial that Robenalt covers in great detail. Robenalt is a lawyer, and it’s clear that he is deeply troubled by Judge Sirica’s judicial overreaching in that trial. Sirica was convinced that the defendants in the case were lying. He was convinced that they were covering up for their bosses, that the question of motive had not been adequately answered. Why were these guys burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel? Who paid them? Who was continuing to pay them? And so, when Liddy and McCord and Howard Hunt all agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them, Sirica (inappropriately and even illegally) went out of his way to refuse those pleas. He basically took over the case from the prosecutors. He committed, in short, the most egregious possible judicial misconduct. He also got away with it, because, of course, as we now know, he was right. There was a larger conspiracy, and the Watergate trial defendants were lying about it. It’s a fascinating story, and Robenalt tells it well.

Of course, historical perspective is always illuminating; the media consensus over Roe was ‘whew, at least we’ve put that issue to rest, once and for all.’ And I had forgotten how very quickly the Vietnam agreement came after the bombing of Hanoi. Of course, those sorts of ironies and insights are the main reason we read a book like this one. Anyway, I strongly recommend it. What a fascinating month. What a fun book.

 

The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.

 

 

Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things: Book Review

Some years ago, an evangelical friend who had gotten into the world of LDS filmmaking was telling me how much she liked the movie The Home Teachers. Since I thought The Home Teachers was the flaming dragon’s mouth of hell worst movie ever made ever, I asked how on earth she could have liked it. ‘You Mormons can laugh at yourselves,’ she responded. ‘I think that’s awesome!’ Which, come to think of it, it is. Think of James Arrington’s Farley Family plays, for example, or Pat Bagley’s cartoons, or the glory years of the late lamented Sugar Beet. Or the self-deprecatory wit of some of our General Authorities. We really do seem to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and that’s a good and healthy thing.

Which brings me to my good pal Janiel Miller’s delightful new book, Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things. Janiel’s an actress, a singer, a Mom and a life-long active Mormon. I just directed her in Much Ado about Zombies. When I told her that I was casting her as zombie-virus disease-vector, she said that I had fulfilled one of her life’s ambitions. In fact, her role was small, but you could see audiences looking forward to her every appearance, she made so much of it.  She became the cast den mother, and our resident humorist. And we had a great time with the show.

What I enjoyed most about her book is how perfectly it captures her voice. She approaches every subject sideways, a little off-center. She goofs around with language, and culture. It’s smart without being smart-ass. It’s a book about tone. Genial, always positive, endlessly enchanted by everything absurd about our culture, the book feels like a lunch with my old friend and her wonderful husband Bruce and my amazing wife,  sitting in Cravings Bistro, eating their mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich (can cuisine get more Mormon than that?) conversationally goofing around. Without ever being angry, or vicious, or disrespectful, never for a second remotely mean-spirited, Janiel takes our culture on with affection and insight. I got the book, dipped my toe in, then set it aside for a few days. It took me awhile to get into it, and then I imagined Janiel reading it aloud, and it came to life for me, and once I figure that out, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a read more. My daughter caught me reading it, and asked why my lips were moving. I hadn’t realized they were. But it’s that kind of book, a read-aloud. Even if you’re alone.

The book starts with a kind of lexicon of Mormonish terminology. Some examples:

Bishop: a man who spends a century over the course of five years herding his flock towards the celestial pen, whilst his wife and kids post ‘missing persons’ bulletins with his picture on them all over town.

Cultural Hall: a vast chamber into which ward members overflow for sacrament meetings, listen to inspirational speakers, and partake of nourishment–all beneath the benevolent gaze of a pair of basketball hoops.

Eagle Scout Project: a program where the mother of a scout earns her Eagle badge by forcing helping her son through each of his merit badges, then dragging him downtown to replant all the bulbs around the city’s trees.

Missionary Farewells: we don’t have them. *snort*

Polygamy: sooo. This. We don’t do this anymore. We did it before. Now we don’t. Anybody who still does this ain’t us, a’ight? I mean, even stalwart pioneer-type dudes were smart enough to eventually realize that having fourteen PMS-y women under one roof made them about as safe as a bucket of KFC Extra-Crispy at the Donner party, and would eventually result in fourteen merry widows.

Terrestrial Kingdom: Second Degree of Glory. The ‘middle child’ of the Three Kingdoms. Not quite good enough, not quite bad enough. Like American Idol runners-up, but with more bling.

 

But I’m making it sound too straightforward. Most of the lexiconographical entries include asides, anecdotes, clarifications, funny, barely-relevant-but-probably-true stories. Janiel takes a scattershot approach to her comedy, reflecting a magnificently random mind. That’s the charm of the book. Plus the fact that she generally gets us right. And truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but truth is always the basis for funny.

Like the recipes. After the lexicon, we have recipes. For Funeral Potatoes and Green Jello salad; authentic Mormonicana. And I mean, come on. I always use frozen hash browns for my funeral potatoes, thank you very much, and crushed corn chex on top, not panko bread crumbs. (Seriously, panko bread crumbs? Way too highbrow for the World’s Greatest Comfort Food). Also, onion powder is optional for the best Utah fry sauce. Really, all you need is ketchup and mayo, though I understand Burger Supreme seasons theirs with BBQ sauce.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the last section of the book was the most delightful; just stories. And that’s when the book gets a little more real, a little more vulnerable. I mean, it’s still funny. She can’t help but be funny. But we get that little bit more truth. It’s where Janiel moves from straight-up Erma Bombeck to later, more reflective Erma Bombeck, with a strong flavor of Jean Kerr. Maybe a little Molly Ivins. Good stuff, though, and moving.

I think I know Janiel well enough to know that she won’t be insulted when I call this the perfect bathroom book. In fact, though, I did not read it in the bathroom. I mostly enjoyed it in my office, waiting for my computer to download the latest I-tunes update, or for files to backup. It’s a book that made annoying mandatory downtime pretty fun. I started to look forward to computer hassles, honestly, so that I could get back to reading Janiel’s book. It was that much fun.

So, seriously, buy this and read it. It’s a lark, a wheeze, a ball. And also wise and smart and real. And if you’re not a Mormon, but want to learn more about us, read this. Do not see The Home Teachers. It’s really bad. And this is really really good.

Austerity: Book Review

Every dollar spent by government is a dollar not available for job creation and investment. Our first national priority must be eliminating the federal budget deficit, and paying down the national debt. It is immoral to pass on all that debt to our grandchildren. Europe’s problems are of its own creation: too generous a welfare state, too high taxes. What’s needed is belt-tightening, cuts in spending. Recessions are simply normal parts of a business cycle. Ride them out, and normal and natural rates of unemployment will return. The biggest problem in a recession is for a government to spend; it just prolongs the misery. The Great Depression would have ended years earlier were it not for Roosevelt’s foolish reliance on Keynesian stimulus efforts. What we need is to improve business confidence, achieved by cutting government spending. Or, heard more faintly, out on the fringes, this: what we need is to get rid of the federal reserve, and go back to the gold standard. What’s needed, above all, is austerity.

You have probably heard most, if not all of the ideas expressed in that first paragraph. Sometimes they’re uttered by politicians, sometimes by commentators, often by businessmen, occasionally even from economists, though only from that small (but sadly influential) minority of economists from the Austrian school of neo-liberal or libertarian thinkers. You’ve probably heard them at family gatherings, from your elderly great-uncle Horace, or on-line from that old high school friend now working as a computer programmer. But here’s what’s really important: everything in that first paragraph is false. All of it; every sentence. Demonstrably false. Provably false. Factually false. Or, to put it more colorfully (and here I quote Mark Blythe), “absolute horse***t.”

May I recommend an excellent book making that case: Blythe’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. And no, his language isn’t generally that colorful. But it’s a passionate book, a fiery polemic, as well as a first-rate economic history. I loved it, and found it almost compulsively readable, but I should warn you; it’s a book about economics by an economist. It’s intelligibly written, intended for a general readership, but there are still paragraphs it may take you some time to unpack.

Blythe is professor of economics at Brown University, holds an endowed chair, published scholar with a lengthy resume. But, of course, economists disagree with each other all the time, and the main rival schools of thought hold views that are unreconcilable. So don’t just believe him because he’s a smart guy with advanced degrees in the field and an impressive publishing history. Read the book. Follow his logic and reasoning and evidence. Then let’s talk.

Because, let’s face it; austerity has a certain grim appeal. The United Kingdom, and France, and Spain, and many other countries in Europe have generous welfare states, high unemployment, and massive budget deficits. All that debt is crippling their ability to budget responsibly, especially when paying interest on debt already accrued becomes a major budget line. So what’s needed is good old fashioned thrift and industry. It’s common sense, we think, because that’s what we would do in our families. If we had a situation, in our families, where someone was out of work and our income shrank, we’d immediately cut down on our spending. We’d see if we could cut our food budget, we’d clip coupons, we’d forgo that new purchase, we’d scrimp and save and make do. Even if our income didn’t shrink, even if we did find ourselves in relative prosperity, we still look for ways to be frugal. Frugality is a virtue; profligacy a vice. How much TV advertising is based on that premise? You can save $___ if you use our insurance company, or wireless service, or buy that car from our dealership.

The problem is, if everyone practices frugality and austerity, the economy grinds to a halt. If everyone does it, it doesn’t work. Companies go broke, factories are shuttered. And a government is the very definition of ‘everyone.’

So when governments spend, more money is put into circulation, demand grows, and supply grows to meet demand. When governments contract, less money circulates, unemployment increases, and, paradoxically, budget deficits increase. Over and over again, Blythe makes this point: austerity doesn’t work. It has never worked. It’s been tried repeatedly, in countries all over the world, and has essentially a one hundred percent fail rate historically. What does tend to happen in austerity situations is that rich people get richer (because they’re insulated from the effects of it), and poor people, obviously, get a good deal poorer. And there are always neo-liberal economists who will insist that the only thing that’s needed is more patience. That it will work eventually.

Economically, there’s no reason to believe that austerity will ever work. Politically, of course, it’s a complete failure. As Blythe points out repeatedly, you can’t have a gold standard in a democracy. Gold standards constrict economic growth, and voters eventually get fed up. That’s exactly why the anti-austerity party, Syriza, just won an election in Greece, for example.

Blythe does not suggest, BTW, that governments should spend irresponsibly, or that deficits don’t matter at all, ever. Of course, too much government debt is a bad thing. But he does suggest several policy initiatives that are more likely to be successful. Looking at the debt held by the US government, for example, one obvious solution is to raise taxes on the super-rich. The greatest periods of economic growth in US history coincided with very high taxes on the top brackets.

He also believes that there exists, internationally, a tax collection crisis. That’s certainly true in Greece, where wealthy scofflaw tax cheats held, at one time, nearly every seat in their parliament. The fact is, most rich people don’t like paying taxes, and have the resources to avoid paying them. Governments need relentless imagination and cunning to see to it that that doesn’t happen.

I’m a bit skeptical about a country like the US mustering the political will to actually raise taxes, or let banks fail–another policy notion Blythe recommends. But the book is a treat. Give it a read. Plow through. You’ll be well-rewarded.

 

 

On global warming

I just read a very good book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It’s exceptionally well researched, compelling in its argument and in the evidence it musters to support that argument. It’s passionately and persuasively written.  It’s also completely bonkers. Which is why I’m a really bad liberal.

Whenever my Dad comes to visit, he and my daughter engage in a debate over climate change. She is convinced, as am I, that climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by the behavior of human beings in an industrialized world, that the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere could have serious consequences for people and cultures all over the planet. My father does not trust those scientists who have reached those conclusions, nor is he troubled by the consensus most such scientists have reached, nor by the peer reviewed literature summarizing their research. He thinks they’re alarmists. I think he’s wrong. I would rather that he were right. Here’s why:

Okay, that clip is from The Newsroom, and its an odd segment in an excessively weird episode. It’s also pretty funny, especially all the reaction shots in the control room. I love the moment when Will (the anchor) lists various steps that might reduce the likelihood of continued climate devastation, and the scientist’s response is ‘that would have been great!’ Twenty years ago. It’s quite possible that Aaron Sorkin (the writer of this show) might be right. I would rather that he weren’t.

So, Naomi Klein. And her book argues that the science of climate change should be greeted as terrific news. It gives us the opportunity, she argues, to completely re-order our society. More mass transit; fewer (or no) automobiles. More apartments, fewer (or no) suburban homes. Greatly restricted air travel. We can develop a greater sense of community and interdependence, she argues. We can walk more, or bicycle. Stop burning coal (and destroying mountains looking for it). Stop fracking (and pumping dangerous chemicals into groundwater). Stop, above all, corporatization and neo-liberal economics. If you want a good summation of her arguments, read this excellent review.

Here’s why I call the book ‘bonkers,’ and also why I’m a terrible liberal: it’s never going to happen. Human beings are not capable of remaking society in the ways she describes. Human beings have created political institutions that will block any effort to institute these sorts of changes. We like our cars, we like air travel, we like crappy food and we like doing our Christmas shopping on-line, requiring UPS trucks to drive all day playing Santa.

I tend to think that future generations will come to regard Naomi Klein as prophetic, and that episode of Newsroom as prescient. I think it’s very likely that I, an old white guy, am leaving my children and grandchildren a much diminished planet. I think the early bits of Interstellar may well be regarded as hopelessly naive and optimistic, assuming there’s anyone around to watch movies in the future.

Or maybe climate scientists really are all wrong about this stuff and maybe the situation isn’t actually dire. I hope so. Gosh, that would be great.

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs: Book review

Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.

May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance.  If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.

He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:

“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”

“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”

And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras.  It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.

Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.

Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”

In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.

Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.

Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping.  So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.

He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.

But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever.  It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.

And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.

And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.

I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book.  You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.

 

 

Top Ten (or so) Reasons to see Much Ado about Zombies

The Covey Center production of Much Ado About Zombies, written by Becky Baker and William Shakespeare, and directed by yours truly, opens Friday, Oct. 24. Tickets available here. There’s also a super awesome promotional video, featuring Barrett Ogden, Ashley Lammi and Archie Crisanto, doing lines from the play that their characters never actually speak, but why quibble?  If you live in Provo, you should see this show. If you live in Orem, or anywhere in Utah north of St. George or south of Idaho, you should see it.  Here’s a top Ten (or so) list of reasons why:

Top Ten (or maybe thirteen) List of Reasons to See the Covey Center Much Ado About Zombies.

10) It’s Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Only with zombies. One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, only with 50% more zombies than ever before!

9) There’s a strange rumor, as yet unconfirmed, of a unexplained crack in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire England. Another rumor, also unconfirmed, describes a shambling bald bearded figure, dressed in decayed Jacobean clothing, stowing away aboard a fishing trawler operating out of Cornwall. Also, hobos have reported a similar figure climbing onto a train in Halifax, heading westward. One hobo said he overheard this same personage muttering about those ‘who doth disturb these unquiet denizens of underfiend realms’ under his breath. Another hobo, on the same train, had his brains eaten. Who knows what all this portends?

8) We’re talkin’ pure steampunk eye candy. Sets, costumes, lighting, makeup: all of it wicked awesome.

7) You can see Sierra Docken, a snarling, biting, zombie violinist. Also a string zombie trio performing Pachelbel as never before.

6) Also Archie Crisanto, as Friar Frank, a grave robbing, cigarette smoking, gun wielding pastor straight from Hell’s Kitchen.

5) You know the part of Hero? Sweet, innocent, bland Hero, Claudio’s fiancee, Beatrice’s cousin, Leonato’s daughter, and one of the dullest female characters in Shakespeare? Yeah, not in our version. Emily Siwachok creates an edgy, punk rock, feminist Hero. She’s an anti-Hero! (rimshot).

4) Janiel Miller rocks out as Balthazar, Leonato’s court musician and disease vector. With all original music by Keaton Anderson. (Who is himself not, as far as I know, an undead disease vector).

3) So many little touches. The blood in Zombie Kevin’s beard. The visor eye makeup for Conrade (Kristen Perkins). Plus Conrade herself, murderous, but at least conflicted about it. The bayonet at the end of Andrea Mullins’ rifle. Mark Buchanan’s monkish garb. The spinning gears. The fact that the zombie virus glows. Blacklight zombie makeup. The huge honkin’ syringe.

2) Megan Graves, a lovely young woman, relishing a letter from her lover, happily strolls along. And is pursued and eaten by zombies. You know, like happens sometimes.

1) Shakespeare’s fun! Zombies are fun! Dub step dancing: fun!

0) Barrett Ogden and Ashley Lammi make a terrific Benedick and Beatrice. Carter Peterson, an amazing physical actor, is a superb Claudio. Jason Hagey and Chris Curlett make a wonderful Leonato/Don Pedro. Can’t say enough about Sophie Determan and Nick Black as that charming sociopathic couple, Margaret and Borachio. And Jennifer Mustoe, Caden Mustoe and Andrea Mullen, as the bumbling law enforcement team of Dogberry, Verges and Ani. Hannah Witkin’s zombie walk, and dancing.  Really, the cast is phenomonal. And I’m entirely, completely objective.

-1) And Kat Webb’s Don John is as nasty a villain as any in Shakespeare. And she wears a black cape to prove it.

-2) Plus Leah Hodson. Who plays the lovesick Messenger, mad about Claudio, but also pursued by Zombie Kevin. And is also a fine zombie cellist. Who told me at our audition that she was kinda afraid of zombies, but now is one.

So there you go! Top Ten (or so) reasons to see it!  Tickets selling fast! And can sell faster if you call now!  And if you are able to come, I know you’ll have a good time.  Promise.

 

Much Ado about problems, and solutions

I am currently directing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo. Make that Much Ado About Zombies, since that’s what we’re calling it. On account of us having zombies in it, see? It’s going to be very fun.  We open Oct. 24, and you can buy tickets here.

I’m really enjoying the experience. Love the cast, love the design team I’m working with, and of course, it’s a pure joy to work with Shakespeare’s text, even in this high concept, truncated version. What’s been interesting, though, is to see the way in which adding zombies not only clarifies the text, but solves textual problems in the text.

For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s basically a romantic comedy about two couples. Beatrice and Benedick are two smart, witty, clever people who can’t stop sniping at each other. Their friends are amused, in fact, by the funny but nasty things they say to each other every time they meet. And they’re both absolutely determined never to marry. No one they meet will ever be good enough for them. The script does hint that they have a past as well, that they were in a relationship once, and it was horrible. So Don Pedro, Benedick’s boss, decides to play matchmaker. He has a loud conversation with her uncle, which he intends Benedick to overhear, about how much Beatrice is into him. Meanwhile, Hero, Beatrice’s cousin and friend, has a similar overheard conversation about Benedick, about how much he wishes he could tell Beatrice that he loves her.  So Beatrice and Benedick, separately, overhear their friends talking about them, and about how each of them is secretly in love with the other, and this brings about their eventual reconciliation and subsequent marriage.  It’s fun stuff, and I have the actors to pull it off; both my Beatrice, Ashley Lammi, and my Benedick, Barrett Ogden, are terrific.

But the other love story involves Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, and Claudio, Benedick’s best friend. Theirs is, initially, a more conventional love story. They meet, and Claudio gets Don Pedro to negotiate with her uncle, Leonato, on his behalf, for her hand. Everything works out, until Don John, Don Pedro’s brother sister (in our production) a real trouble-maker, conspires to destroy their happiness. She falsely accuses Hero of sexual misconduct, on Hero’s wedding day, in a terrible, ugly scene of betrayal and poisonous destruction. Hero faints, and, advised by Friar Francis (one of those all-knowing Shakespeare friars), “dies.” That is, Francis urges B and B to tell folks that Hero has died from the shock of the whole ghastly experience, so at least everyone’ll all feel bad for her. Then, when the dumb-as-a-post constable Dogberry more or less accidentally uncovers the whole plot, Don John is exposed, Claudio forgives Hero, and they’re married, to live happily ever after.

There are two problems with the Hero/Claudio scenario. The first is that Hero and Claudio are underwritten and not-very-interesting characters. Hero is just a sweet young girl, innocent and nice. Claudio is noble, but not very bright. It’s hard to care about their story, except of course to feel bad for Hero, getting caught up in the middle of the nastiest sibling rivalry in Shakespeare, that of Don Pedro and Don John.

But the other problem is more intractable. It makes sense that Claudio would forgive Hero once he realizes she’s innocent of the charges that Don John has made.  But why would Hero forgive him? He’s just publicly, in church, in front of all their friends, on her wedding day, accused her of being a whore.  I can’t imagine any situation being more personal or more painful. Fine; he learns she’s innocent; he forgives her. But her father, Leonato, is so angry about this false accusation that he challenges Claudio to a duel. Why would Hero be okay subsequently marrying the jerk? Why (to put it in historical context) would her father agree to it?  Shakespeare doesn’t explain.  He basically glosses over the problem. It’s a comedy; everyone gets married at the end.

Not to brag or anything, but I honestly think we solve both problems.  The first problem, the Hero=boring problem, we solve by having her not be boring. Our Hero, a terrific actress named Emily Siwachok, plays Hero with sass and independence and attitude, playing nearly every line sarcastically.  She’s a mechanic, a tool-belt wearing blue collar gal, a fixer of machine guns and sharpener of knives.  She’s exciting and fun. And our Claudio, Carter Peterson, is one of the first characters to become a zombie. So he’s in conflict in every scene, fighting between his zombie tendencies and his love for Emily. (He’s also a brilliant physical actor).

We added another scene too. Shakespeare wrote song lyrics for the play, including “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,” set many times by many composers.  We’ve hired a composer of our own, Keaton Anderson, who gave the song a zombie-punk vibe. Our Balthazar, Janiel Miller, sings it, but it really rocks; pretty soon, Claudio has to dance. Hero sees him, and dances too.  I mean, what brings two people together better than a love of the same music? Right? (Plus, Carter Peterson’s dancing is a show-stopper).

But the zombie thing really solves the problem of the play’s ending, of Hero’s willingness to forgive Claudio and marry him. Because him being a jerk turns out to not  be his fault.  He believes Don John and rejects Hero because he’s a zombie.  He’s impaired.  It wasn’t him doing it. And when she wakes up at her own funeral, she’s a zombie too. But true love conquers all, and when the two of them see each other, they are able to fight off the zombie virus, and embrace.

It’s a lovely moment, if I have to say so myself. But if it works, it’ll be because our concept (Much Ado, with zombies), really works.  A good concept will do that for you. Shakespeare wrote magnificent characters, wonderful plays, and the greatest theatrical dialogue of all time.  But sometimes plot points don’t, actually, make sense.  That presents a challenge for a director and a cast.  I’m proud of our solutions here.

Mr. Mercedes: Book Review

Stephen King has published 55 novels, pretty much all of them best-sellers. Heaven knows how many short stories, novelettes, screenplays, teleplays and even a couple of non-fiction works have poured from his prolific pen. He’s sixty seven years old, and pretty much defines ‘rich and successful.’ His most recent novel, Mr. Mercedes, came out in June, and he has two more novels finished and awaiting publication, one of them a sequel to this one.  I haven’t read all his novels, but I have certainly read most of them. I think he’s a very fine writer, imaginative and consistently interesting.

And Mr. Mercedes certainly must be reckoned among the best works of his career. It’s also stylistically quite different from his earlier works.  And that seems to me rather remarkable. For a writer of his age and with his track record to set himself the challenge of refining his craft strikes me as unusual and laudable.

Because up to now, Stephen King has been known almost entirely as a writer of horror novels. Specifically, he’s known for placing classic horror novel tropes in recognizable contemporary settings. ‘salem’s Lot is a vampire novel, set in a modern city; The Shining, a haunted house story set in a ski lodge/hotel, The Stand, apocalyptic fantasy, set in a recognizable American west. Even The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about an adolescent girl lost in a forest, had a Satanically possessed bear. He loves ghosts and ghouls, loves to tell stories of ordinary people facing some kind of ultimate, supernatural Evil.

But Mr. Mercedes isn’t a horror novel in any of those ways; there’s nothing supernatural in it. It’s still about Evil, but in this case, it’s about a common psychopath, a murderous madman, recognizable as every day’s headlines.

His dedicatory note reads “thinking of James M. Cain,” followed by this quotation: “they threw me off the haytruck about noon.” That is, of course, the opening line to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the classic novels of American hard-boiled detective fiction. Mr. Mercedes is basically King’s attempt to write a detective novel in the style of guys like Cain and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and as later refined by the greatest of them all, Elmore Leonard. It features a cynical, past-his-prime private detective, a blonde with a mysterious past, a couple of sidekicks, and an intriguing mystery. At one point, the novel even makes passing mention of Humphrey Bogart. It’s clearly an homage.

But it’s updated, of course, and set in our world, today. Hammett and Chandler’s detectives were cynical about police corruption and Prohibition and the mob; King’s hero, retired police detective Bill Hodges, contends with the aftermath of the world-wide financial crisis, and the villain of the piece imagines himself another 9/11 terrorist, and hopes to beat the death toll of the World Trade Center attacks. And of course, Hodges’ sidekicks are better than he is with computers.

Even the writing style is an homage. Cain was famous for the spare economy of his prose, which is not something you would say about Stephen King, who is rather more addicted to the baroque. “They threw me off the haytruck about noon,” is a terrific opening, straightforward and evocative.  King begins Mr. Mercedes thus: “Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand.”  Simple, strong.

I’m cheating, though; that’s the first line of the first chapter, but the book begins with a preface. That’s King’s forte: he doesn’t start with the protagonist, he starts with the villain. He starts with Evil.  It’s the Great Recession. The mayor of a midwest city (unspecified) has announced a job fair; the night before, the unemployed begin to gather. It’s a damp night, not rainy but misty, foggy. Hundreds of people queueing up, many with sleeping bags, clumped together by the City Center entrance. Out of the mist, a Mercedes sedan emerges, smashed into the crowd, killing eight, badly injuring many more. Just as suddenly, the Mercedes guns it away. It’s found a few blocks away, abandoned. A stolen vehicle, no prints, no DNA or hair samples left behind. A senseless killing, a tragedy, an act of terror. And no clues as to who-dun-it.

A few months later, the lead detective on the case, Bill Hodges, has retired, and is contemplating suicide. Hodges is sixty one, overweight, at a loss, now that the one thing on earth he was good at has been taken from him. And then, suddenly, he’s galvanized when he gets a taunting letter from the Mercedes killer. The rest of the novel is about a kind of psychological warware between Hodges and Mr. Mercedes.

We get to know the villain too, a nerd-herd type computer tech named Brady Hartfield. He’s a completely convincing bad guy, a profiler’s dream, but also weirdly sympathetic, like Arnie in Christine, or Jack Torrance in The Shining (the novel, not the movie, where Jack Nicholson is devilish from the get-go). There’s another villain in Brady’s background, too; his alcoholic and murderous mother, with whom he has a believable but incredibly troubling incestuous relationship.

But that’s it. Brady’s not possessed by some evil spirit and his Mom is not troubled by ghosts. No ghouls, no phantoms, no alien forces; nothing supernatural at all. Just a creepy weirdo killer and a good cop, past his prime, trying to catch him before he kills again.

It makes for a terrific read, can’t-put-it-down past-midnight page turner. Of course, I won’t give away the ending. I’ll just say that my heart was thumping the whole last hundred pages. I can’t tell you how much I admire this. I love it when good writers set themselves challenges.

ReReading Job: Book review

Michael Austin’s Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is a terrific book; smart, thoughtful, funny. I honestly didn’t think a literary scholar’s close reading of the (boring) Book of Job would be so compulsively readable. I didn’t think it would be the kind of book I would find myself unable to put down at two o’clock in the morning. Honestly, I thought reading it would be kind of a chore; that I would trudge my way through it dutifully, seeking a nugget of enlightenment in the mucky stream of turgid prose. Instead, I got all caught up in it.

This isn’t a hard book to recommend–go, now, buy it, read it.  But the task of recommending it requires that I acknowledge some barriers at least some of my friends are likely to put up.  First of all, Austin is openly LDS, and gives Job an LDS reading.  For some of you, that’s a problem. You’re likely thinking, “crap, an apologetic reading of Job. Pass.” But it’s not. It’s not, like, a correlated reading of the text; nothing like that at all.  This is Job from the perspective of a very smart, very well read, first-rate literary scholar, who also happens to be LDS, and whose initial personal history with the text (which he acknowledges), was that of an LDS kid struggling to read a boring book he didn’t understand.

It’s also possible, of course, that some of you might buy the book hoping for a correlated reading of the text, hoping, in fact, for something authoritative and definitive and McConkey-ish.  You won’t find that here either. This is a literary scholar reading a poem, reading it as a poem. An inspired poem, to be sure, but a poem nonetheless, a work of fiction, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a work of fiction. Austin doesn’t know, for example, if Job actually existed. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t think that’s a significant issue with the text. He wants to engage with the text as it stands, and he wants us to engage with it along with him. And what I’m trying to convince you is that you should, go on the journey the text demands of us.

The fact is, most people (most Mormons, but also most Christians) share a particular reading of Job built largely on the frame story found in Job‘s first two chapters, and final chapter.  Job was a wealthy man, who is tested by God (or by Satan, with God’s permission), is remarkably patient despite his afflictions, and is eventually rewarded by God with even better stuff than he had when the whole thing started.

I don’t want to give too much away, but what Austin wants to persuade you is that the frame story, the suffering patient Job rewarded story is the Disney version. And that all the middle chapters are the meat of the poem, and a profound and powerful deconstruction of the frame story. The body of the poem is entirely different from the frame story, different in approach, in style, in language and in intent. And that’s a good thing.

Because the case Satan makes in the frame story is particularly insidious. If God rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, if that’s all that’s going on, then nobody is actually good. We’re lab rats in a Pavlovian experiment based on a sophisticated reward/punishment binary. Is Job good? If he’s only good because he expects to be rewarded for being good, and expects as well to be punished if he isn’t good, then his supposed goodness is entirely illusionary.

Job’s friends insist that he must have sinned, for why else has he suffered such dreadful misfortune?  But he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t sinned and that the bad things that have happened to him are entirely arbitrary. And he isn’t remotely patient about it. He’s furious, and repeatedly and powerfully curses God for allowing him to suffer so. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, and one of the purposes of the poem is to suggest that inexplicable suffering is part of mortality.  We need to get our heads around that reality.

I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice it to say that Austin writes in a clear, fresh, clean, readable prose blessedly lacking in theoretical jargon or supererogatory turgidity. That I’ve spent more time thinking about this book than any other I’ve read for awhile, and that it made me re-read Job.

I just have one tiny quibble. I don’t think Job‘s a poem; I think it’s a play. That opening scene is theologically weird, but it’s dramaturgically sound; neat way to frame a tale. And most of it’s in dialogue. I have no idea what Job’s performance history might be, if it had one, but it would certainly work as a play, and many of the best literary works that it’s inspired are plays.

But that’s also not a crucial point. This is a great book.  Buy it. Read it. Now.