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The Odd Couple: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

25 Dec

I’ve viewed and reflected on 2001: A Space Odyssey more than any other film. For a movie that turned 50 this year, it holds up pretty well. There have been (and continue to be) varied reactions to the film. You may find it fascinating, boring, uplifting, depressing, maddening, kitschy, intriguing, pretentious, funny, memorable, or completely forgettable. It’s all good; I wouldn’t dream of telling you that your reaction was not a valid one. (Check out Pauline Kael’s 1968 review here:

I read the novel by Arthur C. Clarke in when I was in the 8th grade and saw the film by Stanley Kubrick during its 1972 re-release. In retrospect, I’m wondering how Clarke and Kubrick worked together at all; it seems that the two were as different as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple.”


Felix and Oscar

I usually like to read a book before seeing its film adaptation so the movie won’t “corrupt” the images I form in my head as I read. 2001 is one movie I wish I had seen first and read the book afterward (or perhaps not at all. ) This is not to denigrate Clarke’s novel, which I found readable and entertaining. Never before had I read a book where the cast of characters kept changing. The book introduced me to the concept of trans-dimensional ducts, an idea I found breathtaking (and still do.) The problem was that the novel imposed a meaning on the events depicted in the film that in some sense shackled me to Clarke’s narrative, rather than allowing me to experience the “Rorschach test” (as the film has been called) of the movie. Once I’d read it, I couldn’t un-read it. Looking back, I wish I could have gone to the theater for that first viewing and had my mind blown (or confused, or maddened) without the novel to provide a convenient road map.

Clarke the novelist has a job to do and he does not shirk his duty. He dons his conductor’s cap and says “Hi there. We’re going on a trip that lasts eons. With words as my tools, I’ll make sure that you know where you’ve been. You’re going to have some fantastic experiences, but I’ll help you make sense of them.” Clarke proceeds to do just that. When Clarke the novelist is done with us, we know we’ve been in capable hands and things are very tidy.

Stanley Kubrick the filmmaker doffs his conductor’s cap and says, “Images and sounds are my stock in trade, and they’ll do the job here. We’re going to a few different places, but don’t look to me as your guide. You’re going to have to make your own connections. You may see and hear some things that help you make sense of the journey, but that’s not a given. I’ll provide the sounds and the images, but this is really up to you. This is a big-budget MGM movie, but in some ways, it’s an experimental film. We’re off.” When Kubrick the filmmaker is done with us, we’re in disarray, wondering what has just happened.

If you’ve never viewed 2001, by all means, do. Even if you find the film a disjointed series of vignettes tied together by a bewildering big black slab with no plot, I’ll bet that your eyes and ears will find something to like.


Your eyes and ears’ll like it



A bewildering mash-up of US tax legislation and a really good short story by D.H. Lawrence

8 Feb

I didn’t want to bring this up, but there’s  no gettin’ ‘round the subject of the tax legislation that passed late last year. This topic deserves mention simply because those who passed it again repeated the same hackneyed pap they always repeat after passing legislation that mostly benefits the wealthy (that is, tax cuts that benefit the rich are just what us average folks across America need most.)


A press release from Representative Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) states: “With this bill, the typical family of four earning the median family income of $73,000 will receive a tax cut of $2,059.”1 This conveniently leaves out the fact that according to a non-partisan analysis, the average 2018 tax cut for people in the top 1% will be $37,000.2 (And if anyone takes issue with the line they’re being sold, members of Congress can always suppress the dissenting view.) 3 This “trickle down” theory was all the rage during the Reagan era, and Congress and the current White house have revived it again (not that they necessarily believe it themselves.)

However, I’m already off in the weeds.  All this policy wonk stuff doesn’t ultimately interest me.  Books and movies do, and as I read of the latest attempt to sell the American people on this shopworn idea, I kept thinking about D.H. Lawrence’s, The Rocking Horse Winner.

In this short story, an unhappy wife, an unlucky husband, two daughters, and a son, Paul are haunted by voices:

Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Paul’s frenzied rides on his rocking horse allow him to predict the winners of horse races. His winnings are considerable; through his uncle and the family lawyer he arranges for a thousand pounds to be paid to his mother on her birthday for five years. The mother renegotiates the deal to receive the entire five thousand in one lump sum. Once again, D.H. Lawrence:

And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”

The story is a good one, so I encourage you to read the whole text (and its subtext, for that matter.)  It’s often in anthologies or you can read it online 4.

In my humble opinion, real life will mirror fiction in the current round of tax cuts. The cuts will kick in, and instead of Shangri-La, the end result will be that those who benefit most will in a relatively short time go back to complaining how much they’re taxed. Big business will still grouse that US corporate tax rates are too high. Businesses will reward their stockholders, their workers not so much, the deficit will rise, and that will be that.

I’m not anti-tax; I actually like having good roads. The thing that rankles me is that not only did the Republicans (not trying to be partisan here – let’s face it, the GOP owns this one) pass the bill, they tried to sell the American people an obvious fiction.  I would have had more respect for ‘em if they’d have said “Hey America, guess what? The beneficiaries of this legislation will mostly be Big Business and the top 1%!  Your kids will end up paying for the resulting increase in the deficit! We did it!  Hooray for us!” Had they done this, I would have respected ‘em more.  Not much more – maybe 0.000125 % more. But more, nonetheless.


Hey, Let’s Do the Limbo Rock …

17 Jun

We 1 and our spouse listened to some DVD lectures on utopian and dystopian literature, and all the usual suspects were there: Thomas More’s Utopia,  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  Zamiatin’s We, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984. We asked Maryam (our spouse) if Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo was among the dystopian works. It was not. “How can this professor not include Limbo?”, we demanded.  Used to our irrational outbursts, Maryam merely smiled and said that she didn’t know how such an egregious mistake happened. Sheepish, we then realized we hadn’t actually read Wolfe’s book and hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about. We set out to rectify that problem.

We first heard about Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo in college when we were editing lectures on utopian and dystopian works for broadcast on the campus radio station.  Using a razor blade, an editing block, and splicing tape (this was audio tape, in the days before digital), we soon became adept at removing long pauses, sneezes, ums, ahs, irrelevant announcements, and anything else that might interrupt the flow of an otherwise scholarly lecture. We remembered that one lecturer had said “Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. It’s a good novel, it’s a good dystopian statement.” But was he right? Flash forward several decades – it was time to find out.

An inter-library loan later, we tore into the book, which soon started to bum us out. That’s not a criticism; Limbo is a dystopia after all, and any dystopia worth its salt is going to bum the reader out at some point. After our initial ennui  wore off, we had to admit that Wolfe’s premise is really clever.

Suppose, after a nuclear war, you found to your shock and surprise that a work you’d written 18 years earlier had become the basis of the culture in which you found yourself?  That’s the plight of Dr. Martine, Limbo’s main character.  As the novel unfolds, Martine finds both the Inland Strip (the former US ) and the East Union (formerly Russia) have interpreted his words in ways he hadn’t intended. That is all we can really tell you about the plot (and we worry that we may have already said too much, so forget the last several sentences!)


Works in the utopian/dystopian genre are really about the times in which they’re written, not the time in which they’re set. Limbo was published in 1952, but don’t let that throw you – in our humble opinion, it’s still very readable and relevant today. In an afterword, Wolfe describes the book as “a grab bag of ideas that were more or less around at the mid-century mark.” If the book has one weakness, it’s that at times the plot takes a back seat to the ideas in the book. Wolfe takes a heaping spoonful of Freud and adds Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Malraux, Wilhelm Reich, and others into the pot. This material  enriches the book, but at times we found ourselves struggling to keep up with Wolfe’s multifaceted mixture.

So, we have to agree with the anonymous professor whose lecture we edited several decades ago: Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. This book should take its rightful place in the canon of dystopian literature.

1. The writer of this blog has a habit of using the first person plural in lieu of the first person singular. This is an annoying affectation that this individual persists in using.

Ekkekos, Elections, and “Er Ist Wieder Da”

17 Oct

We’ve not written much about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. The thing’s already a surrealistic debacle, so we didn’t think we had anything to add to the mess.  And what the heck, we don’t, except to notice that many people treat their favored candidate like their own personal ekkeko.  “What’s an ekkeko”, you ask?  So did we. Years ago we received a gift of a small open-mouthed guy in a brown suit and bow tie.  He’s  festooned with a tiny basket, bags of grain, small play money, a box of laundry detergent (go figure),  a small pair of huaraches, and the like. (There was also something in a small plastic bag, but we put him on our workbench in the basement and a mouse ate whatever was in there – we forgot what that was.) We lost the tag that goes with him, which explained that one puts things on him related to what one wants to manifest in one’s life, so his burden of treasures increases over the years.  (When we were studying computer science, our youngest daughter thoughtfully drew a picture of a computer and put it on our diminutive plaster person. What the heck, we got an A.) Only after a Web search did we recall that this droll little man is called an ekkeko, and it comes from the Incan tradition.


We’re on Facebook, and some of our friends (and people we don’t really know – we’ve gotta adjust our filters) like to post things of a political nature. We wonder if the candidates are emotional ekkekos of sorts, something for people to pin their hopes and dreams on.


We’ve seen David Wnendt’s “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“He’s Back”, or “Look Who’s Back” in English) twice now. The first time, we didn’t realize that there were optional English subtitles on this German language film and we missed about half of what’s going on.  (Nevertheless, we have long believed that if you want to see if a film is engaging, watch it with the sound turned off – if it still holds your attention, then the film is cinematic.  Some very good movies may fail this test, but on the whole, it’s not a bad way to judge a movie.) “He’s Back” could be described as “Borat meets Network meets Rip Van Winkle.” It’s based on a novel of the same title by Timur Vermes, and the one who’s back is none other than Adolph Hitler (played by Oliver Masucci.) As the film begins, we hear Hitler’s voice over expressing amazement that the German people have survived World War II, despite his order that all Germans be killed.  We see shots of clouds, and it’s not clear if Hitler has descended from the sky or been vomited up from the bowels of an Earth that has rejected him, as we then see him lying in the dirt near the former Führerbunker. In the course of the film, a hapless videographer named Fabian begins an uneasy relationship with the dictator, thinking him a demented actor who refuses to break character.  He takes him on a road trip of sorts around Germany. We don’t want to say too much else about the picture, as we’re always cautious about revealing plot points, but we found the film intriguing, funny, and disturbing all at the same time.


We suspect that the novel is less Borat-like than the film is.  Oliver Masucci, the actor who plays Hitler has said that during scenes shot at the Brandenburg gate, many people seemed happy to see him, and unprompted, begged him to bring back concentration camps.  (One woman hit him, and he felt that it was the healthiest reaction he received.)

The one quibble we have is that Masucci, a 6′ 1″ tall actor, is too tall for the role (Hitler was 5’9″.)  Nevertheless, the film is worth your time, and it raises some disturbing (and in this election season, timely) questions.

Outlander, Dr. Who, Star Trek, and Brigadoon

28 Apr

We were at a bachelor party some years ago (a rather sedate one) where a chap gave us his observations about the difference between Star Trek and Dr. Who.  Star Trek, he explained was the “American Male Fantasy”, whereas Dr. Who was all about “Labor Relations.” Dr. Who, he observed, mediated quarrels between bellicose aliens, whereas Captain Kirk got all the women.

We wonder if Outlander, now in its second season, functions as Star Trek for women – a not-necessarily-American female fantasy. Even the show’s  theme  song  muses “Say, could that lass be I?” After falling through a stone into 18th century Scotland last season, the main character Claire is unfazed by the era’s lack of modern plumbing. This season, she and her husband Jamie travel to France where they make their entrée into the French court with surprising ease. All the while, Claire runs around in the haute couture of the day. If she has to make that temporal jump to the left, a woman could do worse. And like the proverbial hedgehog, Claire knows one important thing; the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 must not happen.

We know that it’s going to happen, though. The show removes all doubt with the opening sequence of the first episode of the second season.  Claire’s back in the 20th century asking a passing motorist who won the battle of Colloden.  (Hint:  it isn’t the Scots.)  In stories involving time travel, at least two schools  of thought contend. One is the “Watch out – the slightest thing you do in the past will change everything in the future” school.  (Think  Ray Bradbury’s  “A Sound of Thunder”, for example.)  Another is the “No amount of meddling in the past changes the future one bit” school.  (Think Alfred Bester’s “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.”)   Outlander seems to be in the latter camp. (By the way, we took issue with the fact that Claire’s 20th century husband is upset that she’s been away for two years –  just because she’s spent two years in the past does not mean that two years have passed in the 20th century.  However, that’s how author Diana Gabaldon apparently chose to do it, so we shouldn’t quibble.)

The show is a bit of a mixed bag – it’s a romance, but it’s punctuated by scenes of ultra-violence that would give Sam Peckinpah pause. Production values are high, and the acting is top drawer. We particularly like the scenes with Simon Callow, who plays the Duke of Ham Sandwich or the Duke of Sandringham or something like that.  Also high on our list this season is Andrew Gower, who plays  Bonnie Prince Charlie with dotty fervor.  He can hold forth on how it’s the will of God that he should reign while delivering this heartfelt speech in a bordello.


You’re a dotty one, Bonnie Prince Charlie!

As per usual, we don’t know where we’re going with this.  We started watching Outlander because our spouse was watching it, but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to stay with it – it’s a show that makes one uneasy (we’re wusses, what can we say?) Our adult youngest daughter perhaps said it best: “I can’t watch Outlander for the same reason I couldn’t watch Brigadoon as a kid. It’s a story about being trapped in the past.”

Cold War High Jinks

3 Sep

When we were kids, we checked out a book called “Spies and Spying” from our local library. Written for a young readers, it nevertheless contained real life tales of espionage. Our favorite was about Rudolph Abel (now known by his real name, William Fisher), an undercover Soviet agent living in New York, and the inept spy that Moscow sent to assist him, Reino Hayhanen.

The end of Fisher’s time in New York began when one of the men (probably Hayhanen) inadvertently passed into circulation a hollow nickel concealing a small sheet of film containing microdots. The specious specie came into the possession of two school teachers, who passed it in a handful of change to their news boy. The young man thereupon dropped the coins, splitting open the faux nickel and revealing its contents. This and the fact that Hayhanen spilled his guts to U.S.authorities ultimately led to Fisher’s arrest. (After receiving a message calling him back to Moscow for a ‘rest’ and a ‘promotion’, Hayhanen rightly panicked.) Fisher was later returned to Russia in a prisoner swap that included U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

Two years ago we had another of our get-rich-quick schemes. We would write a screenplay. We didn’t know of a single movie that dealt with the Fisher / Hayhanen story, so we’d get in ahead of everyone else. It couldn’t miss:

“Fade in. A bridge seen from above with figures at either end. The scene is partially obscured by fog. Cut to a tracking shot of two men seen from behind at the right of the frame. At the left of the frame, we see in the distance three men approaching in the opposite direction. The camera pans around, and we see the faces of the two men.

Cut  to five years earlier …”

Needless to say, we never followed through, and now we’ve been beaten to the punch by Steven Speilberg; next month, Dreamworks will release “Bridge of Spies”. We’re disappointed – instead of our hackneyed handling of the story, the world will instead see Spielbeg’s hackeneyed handling of the story.

Nothing in the film’s promotional materials indicates the film’s sources, but we speculate that it’s based at least in part on Giles Whittell’s book “Bridge Of Spies.” Without having yet seen the film, we worry that it’ll contain a lot of hokey jingoism (The tagline on the official web site is “In the shadow of war, one man showed the world what we stand for.”) We won’t provide a link to the site, ’cause Spielberg isn’t one of our favorite directors – we’re probably the only ones who think that “E.T.” was overrated.

From the looks of things, the focus of the film is going to be on James Donovan, the American lawyer who negotiated the swap of William Fisher for Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor, an academic captured by the East German Stasi. To us though, the story of the odd pairing of the adept Fisher with the incompetent Hayhanen seems the more interesting one. The accounts we read years ago about Abel/Fisher depicted him as a superspy, though Whittell’s book suggests that this reputation is undeserved. Fisher certainly kept a low profile, and was capable at photography and at creating microdots, but Whittell points out that he provided Moscow with little valuable intelligence during his stint in the US. Whittell goes as far as suggesting that Fisher essentially “went native”, going through the motions of espionage while his main pursuits were art and painting. Still, he was competent, in contrast to Hayhanen, who spoke English with a thick accent, showed little interest in learning the techniques of spycraft, spent money intended for other purposes on himself,  engaged in loud drunken rows with his wife, and generally called lots of attention to himself.  To us, this seems the stuff of a Harold Pinter play.

We’ll know soon enough if the Spielberg production is a worthy one. As long as they don’t overplay the patriotic angle and lay off the cliches, we figure it’ll be an OK movie. The trailer for the film displays the words “Inspired by True Events”, which is usually code for “We’re gonna play fast and loose with the facts, then tell you it’s the true story.”

William Fisher

Why’d ya spy on us, Willie?

Confessional Hit Men

23 Jun

St. Augustine is said to have prayed “Lord, make me pure, but not yet!” John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man would likely relate to that statement; there seems to be quite a gap between his realization that his professional life is an amoral one and his abandonment of that life.

We didn’t know anything about Perkins before we read this book, and from what we gather, his other work is about the teachings of shamans he met in South America. Perkins seems to be sort of a latter-day Carlos Castenada without the drugs. In Confessions, Perkins explains that an economic hit man (EHM) is one who travels to Indonesia, or Panama, or wherever and persuades officials of that country to accept development projects with inflated growth projections. The terms of the contract stipulate that American firms do the work, so the boys from Bechtel or Halliburton, or Perkins’ (now defunct) employer Chas. T. Main come in and make lots of money. If the debtor county struggles under the weight of the debt that they’re saddled with, no problem – the creditor nation (the US) can trade that for favorable United Nations votes, or access to the debtor’s natural resources, or to force the nation to allow American military bases.

Perkins seems to be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy (or in Greg Palast’s assessment, a guy that you hate then come to love  Some think him a complete nut job who made up everything in the book while others laud him for mending his ways and telling it like it is.

As per usual, we’re on the fence.  We don’t quite know what to make of Perkins’ tale of being brought into the shadowy EHM world by an attractive woman named Claudine Martin, who then vanishes without a trace.  This story seems far-fetched, but to us, its not the main point of the book, so we don’t ultimately care how he got into the biz. What strikes us are the parts of the book that don’t seem far-fetched. Call us conspiracy freaks if you wish, but  Perkins’ accounts of ‘corporatocracy’,  collusion between the US government and corporate interests in various places around the globe don’t seem all that hard to believe.  (Given the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and Allende in Chile, to name just two examples, many of the book’s assertions seem quite plausible.)

We’re not sorry we read the book, but it’s not as substantial as we had hoped.  Perkins also shades the truth at times to make himself appear in a better light.  After he leaves the EHM life, he lands a lucrative position as an expert witness for a nuclear power company.  He writes: “Unfortunately, the longer I studied the issue, the more I began to doubt the validity of my own arguments.  The literature was constantly changing at that time, reflecting a growth in research, and the evidence increasingly indicated that many alternative forms of energy were technically superior and more economical than nuclear power.” Perkins doesn’t state the exact time frame, but this seems to be in the early 80s.  The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in 1979, making this claim seem a mite disingenuous.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have (but probably didn’t)  opined “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like.”  That reflects our feelings.  We generally liked the book, but many who suspect Perkins of being an unreliable narrator have a valid point.

silhouette of a man

Confess, hit man!

Capitalists, Communists, and Spies

8 Apr

We haven’t written anything in donkey’s years (we don’t really know what that means, but our ol’ mum used to say it, so it’s good enough for us.) We started to write something about Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement, which is all about politics, religion, and stuff like that there.  Then, after listening to DVDs of Ben Macintyre’s book A Spy  Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal we figured we’d write about that.  Then, got interested in the famous Detroit Industry Murals of Diego Rivera, and yep, we figured we’d write about them.  It seemed like a mixed bag, but politics was the common thread tying these seemingly disparate subjects together.

Kim Philby was the (in)famous head of Britain’s MI6 who spied for the Russians for decades.  As described in Macintyre’s book, Philby and his colleagues were a boozy lot who more or less fell into the spy trade.  It seems that all one really needed to do in those days was to have graduated from one of the upper crust colleges, and, once in possession of the old school tie, to discreetly put out the word in the right circles that one wanted to join the spy biz.  This is an oversimplification, but not a very gross one; both Philby and his MI6 colleague Nicolas Elliot made their entrances into the business following more or less this formula.

Philby  was an odd duck.  He wasn’t Russian, but he along with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, seems to have become a convert to Soviet Communism while a student at Cambridge and never questioned his decision, even after the horrors of life under Stalin came to light.  Unlike his friend Burgess who seems to have offended just about everyone,  Philby was charismatic and liked by all who met him.  For the longest time, the only ones who seemed at all suspicious of him were his Soviet paymasters, who thought him too good to be true.

We liked Macintyre’s book.  In fact, we want to actually read it; we feel like we cheated by listening to it on DVD as we shuttled to and from our work place.  One cool thing about the DVD version though, is the narrator ( whose name escapes us at the moment.)  If he’s quoting a Frenchman, he adopts a French accent.  If the speaker is Russian, he adopts a Russian accent.  It’s quite funny when he does an American accent, not because he’s not good at it (he is) but because it’s always the same American accent, even when the American he’s quoting is from the South.

What stuck us about Macintyre’s book is that, here’s this guy who’s aiding the Communist cause every chance he gets, while all the while going to his posh club, taking long, liquored-up lunches with friends, and living the life of a capitalist.

Diego Rivera, on the other hand, was a self-identified communist who acted like he was a capitalist (we were determined to tie these two disparate characters together, even if we had to use a shoehorn to do it.) Unlike Philby’s works, Rivera’s are masterpieces, and when he painted the 27 frescoes that comprise the Detroit Industry Murals, he was at the top of his game.  (Don’t take our word for it, visit  and slide down the page to check them out.)  We like art and we like the murals, so what’s our beef with Rivera?  Well, in our humble opinion, the guy was a tightwad.  Rivera was to be paid $10,000 to paint the murals, but when his patron Edsel Ford saw the preliminary sketches, he more than doubled Rivera’s fee (the settled-on amount was something weird  like 20,899 – if we weren’t so lazy we’d look it up.) The cost of materials would also be borne by his patrons, but Rivera was expected to pay his assistants from the 20K+ he’d been given. So here’s this guy, being paid what was not a bad chunk of change during the Great Depression, and what does he do?  He turns around and pays his four main assistants 12 bucks a week (at the time, the workers in Ford’s plant received $5 per day.) Other assistants didn’t get paid at all.  One of the main assistants later got $18 a week after he threatened to protest in front of the museum saying that Rivera was unfair to labor.  He got the bread, but he also got the silent treatment from Rivera for a long time after that.

It’s not that we have anything against Diego Rivera.  On the contrary, we think him a great artist.  It’s just that we think that if you say you’re a Communist, you really ought to share the wealth, ‘cause that’s theoretically what you’re supposed to do when you make that  statement.

This guy was making more than Rivera’s assistants

We could rhapsodize for hours about the murals and attempt to beguile you with trivia (did you know that Dick Tracy appears on the South Wall among a depiction of folks touring the car plant), but we hope we’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll research them on your own.

OK we didn’t manage to work in the Taibbi book in this one, but hey, maybe later.

50 Grades of Che

9 Feb

We think this might actually make a more interesting movie …

Report Card of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna

            | 1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th | Final
Subject     -------------------------------
Reading     | B   | C+  | B   | B   | B-
Writing     | A   | B   | C   | B   | B+
Arithmetic  | A   | B-  | C   | C   | C+
Geography   | C   | C   | B   | B   | C+
History     | C   | D   | D   | D   | D+
Science     | B   | B   | C   | B   | B-
Art         | B   | C+  | B   | B   | B-
Music       | C   | B   | B   | B   | B-
Phys. Ed.   | A   | B   | B   | C   | B
Citizenship | B   | C   | C   | D   | C-
Tu, che

Tu, che

Babbittry and a Guy from the Sky

17 Sep

Our spouse picked up a couple paperback books that had been sitting on the ‘free’ table of the local college and presented them to us, thinking we’d actually read them. What the heck, we did. One was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). The other was Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968).

Babbitt was a best seller in 1922, and it’s the book from which we derive the word ‘babbittry’ (sometimes spelled ‘babbitry’) which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means ‘a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.’ Yep, that’s that main character, George Babbitt alright. George is the Nietzschean herd man, careful not to form an opinion without first checking with his next door neighbor and the members of the Booster’s club.

We read that Lewis had planned for the novel comprise a twenty-four hour period in the life of his character. He apparently abandoned this approach, so that only the first four chapters follow this structure. These early chapters are slow-going and Lewis often tells us rather than shows us his characters’ traits. For example, an early passage informs us “She [Babbitt’s wife, Myra] was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one save perhaps Tinka, her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Babbitt would not be an interesting character if he did not have a crisis of faith, which comes when his best friend commits a shocking crime. Babbitt then goes off the rails a bit, flirting with infidelity, and even more disquieting to his friends, begins to form opinions counter to common dogma. Hearing his friends discussing a labor strike, Babbitt pipes up “Oh rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn’t notice any bombs.” This seemingly mild statement and other similar statements endanger his standing in the fictional town of Zenith.

Though not tightly plotted, the novel is often funny, and despite a slow start, it kept us interested. It’s satirical snapshot of America before the Great Depression.

Give it a look

Give it a look

Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, on the other hand, deals with life in the future, as least the future from the point of view of 1968, when the book was published. On December 25, 1998, Vornan-19 descends from the sky naked, traveling at several thousand feet per second. He lands in Rome, proclaiming himself a visitor from the year 2999 and administering an electric shock to the policeman who tries to clothe him. Vornan-19 is nothing if not randy; he almost immediately inquires as to the location of the nearest ‘house of intercourse.’

The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specializing in sending sub-atomic particles into the past. Leo is the mentor of Jack Bryant, a brilliant student who quits physics just as he’s on the verge of discovering a means of totally liberating the atom using neither fission nor fusion. Jack marries a woman named Shirley and hangs out in the Arizona desert, where Leo is frequent guest.

A lot of the story revolves around the question of whether the bisexual Vornan-19 is a visitor from 2999 or a hoaxer. Leo alternately believes him to be a fraud and the genuine article. He eventually joins a team of scientists (and rather poorly behaved ones at that) who show Vornan-19 around the US. The government is using the supposed man from the future as a counterweight to the nihilistic doomsday cult that has arisen in advance of the millennium.

The novel has been derided as a rip-off of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but although both deal with the theme of an interloper who transforms a culture, we don’t think that Silverberg is ripping off Heinlein.

There’s a whole bunch of sex in the novel (it was written in the 60s after all), and the ending is a little weak, but we nonetheless found the book entertaining (the ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is weak too, and that novel is still beloved.) Despite being written over 45 years ago, it holds up rather well. It’s not top-drawer, but it’s not a bad read.