Just Add Horror


Title: Split

Rating: 2 Stars

I went and saw Split a couple of days ago. At one point, I was a pretty big M. Night Shyamalan fan. Unbreakable is probably one of my top ranked movies. I also enjoyed Sixth Sense and Signs. Hell, I even thought The Village was pretty good.

And then came Lady in the Water and everything else after that.

I probably haven’t seen any of his movies in the last ten years, so I was somewhat heartened to learn that his latest, Split, might actually not suck.

So, I went to see it. The good news is that it did not suck. The not so good news is that I think the critics were kind of grading on a curve. It wasn’t bad, but still nowhere near his top echelon.

The story revolves around three young women who have been kidnapped and are being held in a cell / dungeon looking kind of place. Hey, look! A kidnapped damsel in distress! What an innovative plot development!

The three young women are in high school. Clair and Marcia, close friends, are pretty typical teenagers. They are terrified and desperately want to escape. The third young woman is Casey. She’s not friends with the other two but shares a class with them. She is much quieter, subdued, and generally darker in mood than the others. Behind her eyes you can see her somewhat coldly calculating the situation.

The young women have been kidnapped by Dennis, played by James McAvoy. It quickly becomes obvious that there is something wrong with Dennis. In different scenes he acts completely differently. In one scene, he’s wearing a dress.

The women piece together that he’s actually a person with multiple personality disorder.

From there, the movie unfolds into different plot lines. One is the women trying to hatch an escape. Another is Casey as a child and her story of abuse and its impact upon her unfolds. The third is the McAvoy character, in all of its personalities, going about his day and meeting his shrink.

The psychiatrist seems to be a tired trope. It actually reminded me of the ending of Psycho, where a psychiatrist describes what’s going on with Norman Bates in clinical detail. The purpose of the psychiatrist is to advance the plot via exposition. Generally speaking, having to verbally explain what’s going on means that, as a filmmaker, you’re not really doing a great job. So it is here.

The important plot development that is being espoused appears to be that each of the personalities can be so distinct that they can have different physical characteristics. All throughout the movie, there is a concern about the beast. The beast is a previously unknown personality that is going to come along and kill the young women as part of some ritualistic sacrifice. That is why they’ve been kidnapped.

It then becomes a foot race between the young women trying to escape, the psychiatrist trying to resolve the personalities’ issues, and the looming appearance of the new beast personality.

The movie was not horrible. It clicked along. There were moments of suspense.

It’s just that the damsel in distress, the multiple personality maniac, and the knowing psychiatrist have all been done before. It just felt like Shyamalan threw all of these plots into a pot and tried to create a new stew.


No Dream For You


Title: White Trash

Rating: 4 Stars

As I wander somewhat lost in this dismal post inauguration milieu, I find myself looking for answers.

Trump got 46 percent of the vote, something like 63 million votes. On the one hand, it’s so easy just to think that all of those people are racist or stupid or selfish or ignorant, but clearly that’s me seeing the world through my own closeted point of view.

I live in Seattle, which is definitely in a bubble of prosperity. Trump got eight percent of the vote in Seattle, so it’s not like I have a whole bunch of reference points.

I’m guessing that over the next couple of months I’ll be doing the usual pointy headed liberal thing of reading books and articles trying to puzzle out this mystery.

Here’s my first attempt. White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg, received a lot of positive news and made several best book lists. Even though it’s still in hard cover and I pretty much never buy hard cover, I just couldn’t resist, bought it, and dove right in.

The premise is that for some, the American Dream is a sham. This has been true from day one, going all of the way back to Plymouth and Jamestown. Even back then, there were people in London that were of no use to anyone. In fact, they were called waste people. These people were convinced (or tricked, or if you were a street urchin, kidnapped) that they could earn their freedom and a new life if they emigrated to the colonies.

In fact, the people that were doing the convincing were trying to solve two problems. London had an excess lower class population and there was a need in the colonies for hard manual labor. The kind of manual labor that will wear you down and eventually kill you.

People were convinced (or tricked or kidnapped), arrived in the colonies, signed to some multi-year indentured contract, and then were worked to death. They never had a chance for their freedom, let alone to pursue anything approaching a dream.

This is a theme running throughout the entire 400 year history of the United States. There is always a class of people that basically just survive. They have no chance to own land. In the early days of America, the poor would venture west, claim land, and would clear it (ie squatters). Rich speculators with inside connections would come in, buy huge tracts of land, and would use the federal government to push the squatters out. The squatters would move further west, rinse and repeat.

Historically, due to its relatively poor soil and terrain not conducive to traditional farming, pretty much the entire state of North Carolina was composed of such people. Upper class people on a voyage or government officials sent out to survey would wonder at these backwards people, amazed at how poorly they dressed, at the nearly incomprehensible English that they spoke, and the brood of wild children running around.

This also is a theme running throughout the book. Not only are these poor not given a chance to pursue their dreams, they are held in contempt. Since most Americans have bought into the concept of everyone getting what they want if they just work hard enough, they look upon these poor with absolutely no compassion and very little empathy. The inclination is to think that they are poor because they are lazy or shiftless and have no self respect to want to better themselves.

You can tell this by the terms that have been used to describe the poor: waste people, offscourings, rubbish, mudsill, clay eaters, squatter, cracker, white trash, scalawags, red necks, and trailer trash.

They truly never do get a break. Out of many, here are a few interesting facts:

  • Slavery had a significant impact on poor Southern whites. So much of work during this time was agriculture based. Since there was this tremendous pool of free labor, the poor Southern whites were deprived of a potential labor market, which left them in an even more wretched condition.
  • The fact that being poor was usually part of a multi-generational cycle, the poor was used as a basis and justification for eugenics. During the 1920’s there was an active eugenics program in America. People (women) were evaluated for mental degeneracy and sexual deviance and, if found wanting, were sterilized.
  • During the 1950’s, there was a housing boom (think Levittown). Houses could be cheaply built and purchased via loans. However, in such suburbs as Levittown, there was a very definite opinion regarding the right kind of person who should live there, and if you were a poor person without class, well, you might as well move along.

All in all, not exactly a cheery read. However, this book does shine a light on a part of America that is never really recognized, let alone examined in any real detail.

How many such people heard the message of Trump with his boldly confident declarations that he alone and fix all that pains our country and thought, yeah, he’s probably full of bullshit, but what do I really have to lose? Trump did out poll Clinton 76 percent to 17 percent among white men with no college degrees. What percentage of them had lost all hope and voted for the demagogue that told them what they wanted to hear?


Class Will Out


Title: My Man Godfrey

Rating: 2 Stars

This play took place at Theater Schmeater, a small theater in Belltown. It sat maybe fifty people. With ticket prices less than $30, this was indeed a play running on a shoe string.

Given all of that, it was a valiant effort. My Man Godfrey is a classic 1930’s era screwball comedy. As far as I can tell, the plot of the play married up pretty exactly with the movie.

I think that this is actually the crux of the problem that I had with it. There were many, too many in my opinion, set changes. The actors would utter a few lines (and being a screwball comedy, would utter them very rapidly) and then the scene would end, lights would dim, people would scurry around, and then open up to a new scene. Being that this is a very low budget play, the actual scenery changes were minimal, but still, pretty distracting. I’d guess that there were at least 30 scene changes.

Fundamentally, this movie doesn’t translate well to play form.

In a way, this reminded me of watching Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on stage at Ashland. Now, obviously, this play was designed for the stage. However, action in the play takes place in Alexandria, Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia, Athens, and military camps throughout Egypt. This is just way too much stage management for a play. Even Ashland, which is one of the world’s best playhouses with a tremendous budget, couldn’t pull it off. It was by far my least favorite Ashland  play.

The second problem is the fact that the acting in the original movie is iconic. William Powell and Carole Lombard are at the top of their form. This is especially true of Lombard. This is her signature role. Her great strength was as a screwball comedian, and she absolutely rocks the part.

There was just no way that actors from a local theater could ever hold a candle to Powell and Lombard. They give it their gamest efforts, but they fell far short.

In the words of that great early twenty-first century philosopher, Omar Little: “You come at the king, you best not miss”.

Outside of the performance, I found the actual plot / characters of My Man Godfrey to be fascinating.

As I’ve said, the movie was released during the Great Depression. It’s the story of a very wealthy Bullock family hiring a homeless man as a butler.

The Bullock family patriarch (Alexander) is a weak, passive nonentity. The matriarch (Angelica) is an empty-headed ditz. One daughter (Cornelia) is a spoiled, bitchy princess. The other daughter (Irene) is the most likable and is good-hearted, but still is vacuous, frivolous and pretty much completely self-involved.

Godfrey comes into a madcap house, and in his serious way, manages to not only cope with the hi jinks but begins to bring order to the house. In fact, through his actions, he directly saves the family from disaster and their own homelessness by recovering the business investments that Alexander had apparently let passively collapse.

Irene falls in love with him and basically shotguns him into marrying her.

Isn’t this a great message? A family gone soft and flabby with its wealth, about to collapse under their own incompetence and frivolousness, is saved by a common man on the street? Isn’t that a great message about how we’re all people and that people of merit will, through hard work and a bit of luck, rise to the top.

Oh wait. It turns out that Godfrey isn’t just another ‘forgotten’ man. He’s actually the scion of a rich Boston family who has fallen because he has suffered heartbreak. In fact, the other ‘forgotten’ men that he talks to are all formerly successful men who have just fallen on temporary hard luck.

The message here is that it’s actually OK for Irene to fall in love with Godfrey and for Godfrey to be such a masterful savior for the family precisely because he’s not of the common sort. He’s one of their own class who is just hiding for the moment. He is the prince turned into a frog that is just waiting for the kiss of a princess.

This really triggered something in me because I’m in the process of reading White Trash, which is a history of class in America. The author makes a compelling argument that class has quite literally existed since the very first days of America settlement. Whether it’s the waste people of the 17th century, the clay eaters of the 18th century, the mudsills of the 19th century, or the trailer trash of the 20th, there has always been a group that is looked down upon, despised, and given no hope for advancement.

So, here we are, in the midst of the Great Depression, the great leveler of the 20th century, and even here, we have to make sure that the ‘forgotten’ people that show up on the screen have the proper pedigree.

Class will out.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Is That You?


Title: Looks Who’s Back

Rating: 3 Stars

The high concept plot for this book is that instead of committing suicide, Adolf Hitler went into some kind of suspended animation and comes to in the year 2011. He tries to adjust to his new surroundings and to pick up his plans where he left off.

I saw the German movie (subtitled) some time ago and enjoyed it. I imagined that the novel would be an even richer exploration of this theme. In fact, it was at best a mixed bag. Having just now re-read my movie review, I have to conclude that this is one of those rare occasions where the movie is legitimately better than the book.

Perhaps some of the challenges exists in the fact that there are three distinct threads of humor that take place throughout the novel.

One is that of the classic fish out of water. Hitler essentially exists in one moment in 1945 and in the very next moment exists in the year 2011. Moving abruptly from war ravaged Germany to the completely re-built Berlin is a huge shift for him. And of course, many other things have changed as well.

He can’t get over women picking up their dog’s feces. He imagines that these are barren women driven mad with grief that they cannot have children and thus treat their dogs like precious children. He interprets many events as a result of the British blockade (that has clearly been over for about 70 years).

Modern conveniences baffle him. He has no idea what to do with a television. He is perplexed by a computer and a mouse.

However, he proves adept. Quickly he learns how to surf the internet and this allows him to come up to speed with the world around him and allows him to begin to form a plan to once again assume a position of leadership.

This leads to the second main thread of humor. It is a satire on how irony has completely permeated our culture and its resulting response to a completely non-ironic person.

Hitler being Hitler, can’t stop acting like Hitler. He says absolutely outrageous things. Everyone assumes he’s being ironic, so just laugh at him. In fact, everyone is convinced that he’s a sublime comic genius who, much like Sacha Baron Cohen, never breaks character.

He gets a segment on a television show and through his, what he believes are heartfelt tirades of the importance of German nationalism but the audience thinks are subtle critiques of the same, becomes a star. He creates youTube videos and becomes an internet sensation. He manipulates the press into giving him broader, more sympathetic coverage.

Ironically, the only people that really disapprove him are the real German nationalists. They assume he is a Jew mocking Hitler and administer a severe enough beating that he ends up in the hospital

Even in the hospital, he is planning the formation of his own show and is plotting how to use that as a vehicle to launch himself back into politics. His new show’s motto? “It wasn’t all bad”.

All of this is told in first person from the viewpoint of Hitler. That in itself is the third source of humor. As he’s going about his now somewhat mundane existence, his inner thoughts are still of the supremely self-confident grandiloquent megalomaniac. This is especially amusing in the beginning, when he is truly helpless in the world and is living in a newspaper stand at its owner’s forbearance.

It was an amusing read, but I expected, at novel length, more depth. None of the three threads of humor are pursued far. In fact, I was hoping to see more depth surrounding the ironic culture dealing with a non-ironic throwback, but if anything, the movie dove deeper into this than the novel.

So, it was a fun read, but I was hoping for more.

Where’s A Serial Killer When You Need One?


Title: I Am Not A Serial Killer

Rating: 3 Stars

I’d read the book several years ago. Browsing through Netflix a day or two ago, I saw that they’d made a movie about. It was released last summer. I was kind of shocked. Usually, when I read some odd book and then find out later that they’re making a movie of it, I make a point of at least determining if it’s worthwhile to check out or not.

How did this one escape my radar? I looked it up and it had a total budget of under two million dollars. Ah, OK. An independent. Maybe it didn’t even make anywhere close to Seattle.


It’s an interesting premise. The protagonist, a young boy (I think around 14 or 15) is exhibiting the signs of becoming a serial killer. He is a bed wetter, fantasizes constantly, is cruel to animals, etc. In fact, his name is John Wayne Cleaver, named after John Wayne Gacy. Good parents, there!

The boy recognizes that he has the signs but does not want to become a serial killer. He is trying to build himself up a process where he can avert his destiny.

And then things get even weirder. A series of brutal murders take place in the small town. In each case, the body is mutilated and an organ is taken.

Not surprisingly, Cleaver gets drawn into the action. He inadvertently discovers that the murderer is actually his next door neighbor (Crowley), an elderly man in apparently ill health.

As he delves deeper, he discovers that Crowley is actually an immortal demon in human shape. As parts of his body dies off, he has to kill someone and replace it (yeah, as a premise, doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense).

This sets up a cat and mouse game between Cleaver and Crowley as Crowley’s body continues to deteriorate and Cleaver attempts to stop him from killing others. As can be imagined, this leads to a final struggle between the two.

Let’s talk about the fundamental problem. Let’s call it the Dexter problem. It’s an interesting premise to make a serial killer a protagonist, but how do you keep the audience on the killer’s side?

I mean, at some point, no matter how good of a crime fighter Jeffrey Dahmer is, at some point you know that he’s going to have to eat someone’s head. That would seem to be a problem for a protagonist.

I totally get that the anti-hero archetype has risen in prominence over the last several decades. And I’m totally supportive of that. They’re way more interesting than the white-hatted aw-shucks cowboy. It’s just that, at some point, the writer always seems to feel the need to, at some point, step back, and say, hey, my guy’s not all that bad.

For an example of this, look at the Dexter books. In the first book, he’s all alone, not caring about anyone, only trying to live his life according to the injunctions from his step father cop, just living for the moment when he can find a guilty party just so he can horribly mutilate, torture, and slowly and sadistically murder him.

By the end of the third book or so, he’s got a wife and kids, probably a mortgage and is worried about who’s going to be on the Jimmy Fallon show tonight.

This movie has a similar problem. In the book, I remember Cleaver as actually being kind of spooky. Here, sure, Cleaver likes to draw macabre drawings and talk about serial killers, but he pretty much seems like a pretty normal angsty teenager. I felt that to really make the audience buy into him as a protagonist that the film makers really had to shave off some rough edges. He just really didn’t seem like all that much of an anti-hero.

The part that was surprisingly effective was Crowley’s motivation. Crowley is your basic timeless, ageless demon that can pretty effortlessly take over bodies. Some many years ago, he’d taken over the ‘real’ Crowley’s body. At some point thereafter, he’d met a woman named Kay. The two of them promptly fell in love and have been together ever since, with Kay (now Mrs Crowley) having no idea that her husband is a demon.

The demon can abandon Crowley’s body at any time and take up another. However, his love for her is so strong that he simply can’t leave her alone. Hence, as his body continues to deteriorate, he feels bound to continue to try keep the proverbial pieces together until Kay passes.

At the end of the movie, when the demon realizes that his Crowley persona is gone, even though with his power he can simply take on another, he willingly kills himself because he can’t contemplate his life without his beloved.

This in turn has an impact upon Cleaver. Cleaver, seeing this, understands that even if a demon can find true love and can reform, then even a socially maladjusted teenager with serial killer tendencies might have a chance as well.

At the end, you see him taking the first steps to try to integrate himself into his family.

I have no idea if this kind of metamorphosis is even close to psychologically feasible, but it makes for a beautiful image.


Sometimes They Really Are Out To Get You

When I was younger, I was prone to conspiracy theories. For a while, it must have been in my mid-twenties, I did some fair amount of research into the various Kennedy assassination  theories. Was it the Cubans angry about the Bay of Pigs invasion? Was it the Soviets sending in their Manchurian candidate sleeper agent? Was it the Mafia, killing John to send a message to Bobby to get off their back? Or, was it (Oliver Stone’s favorite) LBJ and the military industrial complex knocking him off so that they could drop some Agent Orange on those pesky Viet Cong?

As you read, you get deeper and deeper into the theory and you start getting caught up in the labyrinth of interlocking, contradictory theories that insiders debate endlessly. What’s up with the Magic Bullet? Who’s buried in Oswald’s grave? Who’s the Babushka Lady? The three tramps? The Umbrella man?

At some point, if you’re a reasonable person, you hit a point of no return. In my case, it could very well have been the Coca-Cola theory. IIRC, this is that Oswald was so addicted to refined sugar that he suffered severe impairment, which somehow caused him to assassinate JFK and then not remembering the act.

You emerge, blinking uncertainly back into the bright light of reality, slightly abashed and ashamed that you just dedicated some not insignificant amount of  brain cells to this endeavor.

The fact is, IMHO, there are seldom conspiracies.  I work for a very large company (>150,000 employees) and large entities like that just don’t lend themselves well to conspiracies. I’ve seen multiple things at work that, from the outside, could very well look like some nefarious plot of evil genius, but when exposed to the sunlight, they are the usual acts of unqualified people feebly trying to figure something out that is unimaginably complex to them.

So, my policy, for many years, is to never assume evil any act that can be explained by stupidity. I’ve taken off my tin foil hat and have placed it up in the high reaches of my closet shelf.

But every now and then…

Way back in the 1980’s, there was serious concern about the antics of the Reagan administration. I’m no fan of Reagan. Various wild eye conspiracy theories surrounded his terms, specifically in his relationships to minorities, who he pretty clearly had very little sympathy for and in fact, as Governor of California, used his strong arm stance against the ‘inner city hoodlums’ as a platform to national prominence.

However, there were rumors that the CIA invented AIDS to kill the black population. There were wild claims that the CIA funded/supported the crack epidemic, again target primarily against black people.

The CIA involved with the drug scourge of the 1980’s and 1990’s? That has to be crazy, right?

Well, let’s step back into the way back machine and talk about this.

The Reagan administration had a couple of problems. One problem was that there was a group called Hezbollah that was kidnapping Americans and holding them for hostages, sometimes for years. This was completely unacceptable to the macho posturing of Reagan; what’s up with this little collection of ragtag terrorists having the gall to hold American hostages?

The problem was that the hostages were being kept separately deep in the heart of Beirut. No westerners knew where they were. The American had no contacts within Hezbollah, so they were stymied.

However, the Hezbollah unofficial sponsor was Iran. Maybe America could somehow use Iran to assert some leverage upon their client and get the hostages freed? Unfortunately, America and Iran had no diplomatic relationship, so it was not obvious how do to this.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two was that Nicaragua was being ruled by the Sandinistas. They were a left wing government with some ties to Castro. Therefore, there was a commie government at our proverbial back door! This could not stand!

Luckily, there was another group in Honduras, called the Contras, who wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration desperately wanted to provide them money and weaponry so that the scourge of the Sandinistas could be destroyed and the Americas could be free from the threat of communism.

However, politics were murky in Central America. For the same reason as supporting the Contras, America also supported El Salvador, which was known for such lovely things as death squads and raping / murdering American nuns.

Congress, disgusted at acts such as these, passed the Boland Amendment. This Amendment explicitly disallowed spending any funds at all towards the Contras.

How to resolve these two big problems? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was some way we could solve both at the same time?

And away we go…

Iran was in the middle of an intense war with Iraq. They desperately needed military equipment. Since America had actually essentially built the Shah’s military force before he had fallen, the Iranians specifically had a need for American military equipment.

Through insanely deep back channels, America made contact with Iran. Would they be willing to purchase American military spares, and also, as a price for allowing the purchase, would they also be willing to put pressure upon Hezbollah to release hostages?

Remember, during all of this time, Reagan was boasting that he would never negotiate with kidnappers and that America had put Iran on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Well, the Iranians, as a matter of fact, were interested.  America sold some of its military spares (apparently it was considered pretty low quality stuff) to the Iranians for a huge sum of money. Apparently, at least in the beginning, in case this wasn’t crazy enough, Israel served as the middle man in this arrangement. Yes, the Israelis helped to close an arms deal with a country sworn to destroy them.

The Reagan administration then used the excess funds from this deal to fund the Contras. The fig leaf of legality here is that since this deal was run from the National Security Council (?!), that somehow the Boland Amendment did not apply. Few constitutional scholars agree.

Eventually, some hostages were freed. As more hostages were freed, additional arm sales proceeded.

So, to sum up, to free up a couple American hostages, America sold military supplies to a state sponsor of terrorism so that it could provide additional money and arms to a rebel force that it explicitly was prohibited to aid.

But wait, there’s more.

Those wonderful freedom fighters, the Contras, were part of a cocaine distribution network.

Ever in need of money, the Contras looked to establish a network in California. The CIA leaned upon the DEA to grant amnesty to Contra figures so that the network could be set up. A shadowy operative named Blandon set up a network with Freeway Rick Ross. They took the pure cocaine, converted it to the much cheaper crack, and an epidemic was born.

A journalist named Gary Webb exposed all of this. For his work, he was hounded out of his job. In fact, instead of supporting a fellow journalist, the LA Times literally hired a team of reporters, not to get to the root of all of this, but to discredit Gary Webb (and no, I’m not making this up; eventually the LA Times apologized publicly for this action).

Ultimately, Gary Webb committed suicide.

There’s some controversy in what I’ve just written, but honestly, not a lot.

A very real argument can be made that the administration of Ronald Reagan, the president that still today has a significant percentage of Americans wanting to make him the fucking fifth face on Mt Rushmore, had a huge role in causing the crack epidemic that wreaked untold havoc on an entire generation of Black Americans.

Still, I stand by my statement that most conspiracies are usually the act of stupid people blindly trying to discover a way through an unimaginably complex problem.

But Jesus Fucking Christ, don’t be throwing out that tin foil hat quite yet.


Slavery Shall Set Us Free


Title: The Sellout

Rating: 4 Stars

The narrator (unnamed but whose last name has been apparently changed to Me) has a problem.  He has lived his entire life in Dickens, which is, astonishingly enough, a rural section of South Central Los Angeles. It’s a heavily minority community known for its poverty and violence.

One day he realizes that all of the references to Dickens has been removed. It is no longer a town of its own but part of some larger entity.

He decides to take action and try to restore the Dickens name, and in so doing, hopefully leave its residents in a better, more positive place.

He realizes, that of all the indignities that have been visited upon the black race, rendering them invisible appears to be the worst. Not only are the black people effectively invisible to the larger community, but accepting this invisibility also leave the black people feeling invisible to themselves.

Hominy Jenkins is the last surviving member of the old, horribly racist show, Lil Rascals. He never got the fame of Buckwheat. He was the second fiddle black child. After the end of Lil Rascals, he resorted to more and more demeaning black roles until he ends up in Dickens with an addled mind.

Hominy pleads with the narrator to enslave him. Knowing that this is what Hominy needs to regain his self after a lifetime of degradation, the narrator reluctantly agrees. Hominy does very little work and his whipping takes place at a BDSM club.

Hominy tells the narrator to think bigger. Try to save the community, not just one black person at a time.

After much thought, he boards a local bus and replaces the priority seating sign with one that states the priority is for whites. He  puts up a big sign next to the decrepit local school announcing the formation of a brand new, ultra modern, very expensive school exclusively for whites.  The implication is that the decrepit local school is the school for only minorities. He spray paints the local run down hospital with signs saying ‘For Coloreds Only’.

Via this, he institutes de facto segregation in Dickens. Surprisingly enough, the open oppression of segregation re-energizes the community. School scores are up, crime is down, there is even some form of peace between the various rival gangs.

By this extreme action, Dickens becomes once again a community.

That’s the nuts and bolts of it. From the flat description, this probably seems like a prissy, moralistic tale told with heavy-handed political correctness.

In no way is this the truth. In short, the novel is fucking hilarious. There were many moments of laugh out humor. Paul Beatty has a point of view and he expresses it with a rapier sharp satire. No one is spared.

This is not the gentle satire of Keillor. This is Swiftian. Be prepared to laugh uproariously in one page and then shift uncomfortably on the next. This is a blast of heat about race today.

If someone wants to read about the state of race and race relations in the United States in the first part of the twenty-first century, this would be an extremely good place to start.


Proto Military Industrial Complex

198259Title: War is a Racket

Rating: 4 Stars

Smedley Butler is one of those great characters in history that you never hear about but led an amazing life.

Born of Quaker parents, he lied about his age and joined the marines when he was 16. He fought in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Banana Wars (fought in Honduras and Nicaragua), in Mexico, in Haiti, and fought in WWI. He received many medals, including two Medals of Honor. He was one of our nations most famous war heroes.

However, there was a sign of things to come. He recounted the story of Mussolini of running down a child without concern (‘It was only one life. What is one life in the affairs of a State’). In the ensuing diplomatic uproar, he was arrested and nearly court martialed.

Upon his retirement, he became even more of an activist. He supported the Bonus Army when they marched to Washington to get some relief from the Great Depression. He was aghast when the regular army (led by Douglas MacArthur) dispersed the old soldiers with cavalry charges and gas.

Later, his fame as a great soldier led some financiers and businessmen (including allegedly some duPonts) to approach him with a plot to overthrow FDR and to overturn the New Deal. If he were to join him, he would be placed at the head of their army. He indignantly refused and went public with the plot.

As I said, an interesting life. Raised as a Quaker, a decorated war hero for over 30 years, and then in his later years turned back to his Quaker roots and plead for peace.

He came to understand that each and every one of his military adventures was not to benefit the glory or honor of America, but was an excuse to make money.

Just the act of going to war guarantees that millionaires and billionaires will be created. After all, uniforms need to be made, shoes need to be shod, and weaponry and ammunition need to be manufactured.

This was especially true in WWI. He lists many respectable companies that before the war made respectable profits but during the war made obscene profits an order of magnitude greater. Although he does not specifically mention, you can make this argument all of the way back to the Civil War, if not further back. As in WWI, there were manufacturers that made incredible profits and very often provided shoddy products. In fact, the word shoddy itself derives back to the mid nineteenth century. The Civil War manufacturers could very well be the source of the word shoddy.

The soldiers sacrificed, not only those that sacrificed their lives, but also those that sacrificed arms, legs, eyes, or most tragically, their minds. Meanwhile, the businessmen sacrificed nothing.

Although raised by Quakers and a firm believer in peace, he was not purely a pacifist. He essentially wanted our military defense to be precisely that, defense.

Why did we fight in WWI? Did we really have an interest in either the Triple Entente or the Central Powers?

This was written on the eve of WWII. He could see the same war clouds gathering on the horizon and he was asking the same questions. It’s interesting that WWII is considered the last good war where clearly we were the good guys and our cause was just. This (coincidentally, I promise!) is the second straight book that asks the question, why? Did we need to fight it? Was the millions of lives lost, and the untold destruction, and the billions of dollars spent on war materials worth it?

Many years ago, I read a book called ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’. Its thesis is that its every nations’ goal to achieve regional hegemony, which is basically to be impervious to invasion threats from neighbors. In this thesis, the United States is the only country in the modern era to achieve this. It’s true if you think about it (at least in regards to the continental states). Neither Canada nor Mexico are a threat to us. Any other invasion is essentially logistically impossible. Our borders are secure like no other nation in the world.

This is the point that Butler makes. Let’s stop the war time profiteering and let’s stop wasting the lives of our youth.

War is a racket and must be stopped.

The Terrorist Under My Bed


Title: Overblown

Rating: 2 Stars

This book is about the absurdity that is the war on terror. Over the last 15 years, inside the United States, there have been (the count varies depending upon the source) somewhere around 150 deaths as a result of terrorist actions. We have spent over a trillion dollars ‘hardening’ our country against the terrorist threat. Considering that our population is somewhere around 320 million, that is an insane amount of money to be spent against a vanishingly small threat.

Consider that, in an average year, somewhere over 30,000 Americans die of gun deaths (murder, accident, or suicide), something like 35,000 Americans die in traffic accidents, over 500,000 Americans die of cancer, and somewhere around that same number will die of heart disease.

From a pure rational, logical point of view, this seems absurd.

This book tries to address this absurdity.

First of all, Mueller goes into detail regarding the various weapons of mass destruction that terrorists ‘experts’ have tried to, well, terrorize us with. For example, radioactive weapons (ie dirty bombs) really aren’t even that dangerous. They sound horrifying, but the bomb radius is actually quite small and the amount of radiation that a person near the bomb site might be exposed to barely qualifies as even being dangerous (ie slightly heightened cancer risk). Similarly, the range of chemical weapons is actually very narrow and is relatively non-lethal. An effective biological weapon that could cause mass casualties poses tremendous technical difficulties significantly beyond those of a terrorist cell.

The ‘experts’ like to talk about these WMD’s and use the phrase ‘existential threat’. Somehow, these weapons could somehow literally change our American way of life. These weapons all sound scary, and yes, there could very well be casualties, but again, remember the above numbers. Even a death toll of a couple of thousand would put it significantly behind gun deaths that we as a nation experience every year. We experience that number of gun deaths every year and yet we carry on the will to live on and our existence is not threatened in the slightest.

In fact, an argument can be made that the terrorist ‘experts’ are themselves the existential threat to our way of life because of the dread that we feel, the liberties that we’ve apparently willingly sacrificed, and the daily indignities that we now have to face (is taking off our shoes at the airport really keeping us safe?).

Not only that, the excess military grade materials and the untold billions of dollars that we’ve paid out in support of this terrorist threat has effectively militarized our local police, thus very effectively changing the previous relationship that the citizenry had with the group that enforces our laws.

He places our response to terrorism within other historical events. He discusses events like Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, the rise of Castro, the rise of the Ayatollah, and even, during the 80’s, the threat invoked by the growth of the Japanese economy.

In all cases, the United States exaggerated the thread and overreacted to it. At the very best much money and much angst was spent in facing up to each of these ‘existential threats’, only to have the threat eventually fade away. At the worst our panic and fear made the situation significantly worse and more dangerous.

Mueller even includes our response to Pearl Harbor in this category. In the larger scheme of the American military, he posits that Pearl Harbor wasn’t that big of a disaster and the full scale war that followed caused millions of deaths. He claims that the Japanese empire, especially with its situation in China, was overextended anyway and could have been dealt with more effectively with significantly less cost and death. I don’t know enough to comment, but it is a provocative opinion that I’d not previously heard.

So, if this book provoked all of this thought, why 2 stars?

Well, first of all, not its fault, but it is dated. It was published in 2006, when Bin Laden was still alive, the Iraq insurgency was in full swing, and he makes a mention of Syria being a stabilizing influence in the region. So, there is that.

Also, I was disappointed in the prose. The terror message is naturally compelling to our most basic instincts. The terror message is so financially lucrative that there are all kinds of smooth talking hucksters pitching it. The terror message is so politically powerful that pretty much all politicians beat their figurative chest and brag how tough and strong they are.

Against all of that are just tiny voices like this one. I’d like this tiny voice to at least itself be charismatic, undaunted, and full of verve.

Alas, this prose is none of that. I’m interested in the subject and believe his thesis, but even I had trouble staying alert and energized reading it.

This subject is so important that I want an evangelist standing at a pulpit, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

He is not that evangelist.


The Magician Vs The Medium


Title: The Witch of Lime Street

Rating: 3 Stars

This is a well told story of a battle between one of the world’s most famous magicians, Harry Houdini, and one of the most accomplished mediums, Margery.

After the advent of WWI, in which so many millions of young men died, there was a rise in spiritualism. To a large extent, this was led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who himself lost a number of relatives in WWI and lost a son immediately after WWI from the Spanish Influenza.

Like many others, he sought solace in his loss by trying to make contact with his loved ones beyond the grave. Because he was Doyle, the writer of the ever so logical Sherlock Holmes, his word was much respected and spiritualism became ascendant.

In the meantime, Harry Houdini was becoming a famous magician and escape artist. His beloved mother died. In his grief, he sought out mediums. To his trained eye, he quickly realized that everyone that he went to was fake. Infuriated at those who were, from his point of view, cheating grieving parents, relatives, and spouses, it became one of his major life missions to expose these charlatans.

One of the editors of The Scientific American proposed a contest. He identified a committee of five experts in the psychic field, including Harry Houdini. If someone could conclusively demonstrate psychic phenomena to the satisfaction of the committee, they would win a cash prize.

There were a couple of entrants that were quickly dismissed.

However, there was another possible medium that held great promise. First of all, she was not a professional medium. In fact, she was the wife of a prominent doctor. The doctor himself was an upper class Boston Brahman. She spoke and acted with great elegance and wit. She did not need money and never asked for it. She did not seek attention. She would seem to have no reason to fake it.

Not only that, but she seemed like the real thing. She had a brother, Walter, who died young. She could consistently go into a trance and channel him. While she was being held down, the spirit of Walter would blow trumpets, move about the room, move the table, destroy furniture, play a gramophone, and ultimately, would produce what appeared to be ectoplastic spirit hands.

The bulk of the story is between Margery and Houdini. He becomes absolutely convinced that she’s faking it. He devises additional controls to prevent her from performing. Occasionally he does succeed in stopping her but sometimes she can still make Walter come out and do his tricks despite Houdini’s contrivances.

Although she never does confess, ultimately The Scientific American refuses to give her the prize money since they cannot conclusively prove that her performance is supernatural. Other organizations (eg Harvard University) perform similar tests and they all conclude that she’s faking it.

The story is well told but feels incomplete. There are two major missing pieces.

If she is faking it, why is she faking it? If she didn’t want fame or money, why let scientists come in and test her / probe her / question her relentlessly? What did she gain? One theory is that she herself did not actually come from Boston high society. She actually married into it when she married the wealthy doctor (Dr Roy Crandon). Margery was actually Crandon’s third wife and his first two marriages did not end well.

Crandon himself first got into spirituality with a passion. Could it be that Margery pretended to have this power as a way to keep her husband satisfied? She seemed to have a fun-loving side. Was this her way to amuse herself? And then as she got deeper and deeper into it she just had to keep it going? No one seems to know.

The other major piece is that if she was faking, how was she faking it? To be a medium requires great strength and great dexterity. For instance, to have a trumpet move through the air, apparently this is done by balancing the trumpet on your head and then flinging it using your neck. To move a table while your hands and legs are bound, you duck down with your head and you push the table and lift it with your head. For the ectoplastic hand, it was theorized that Crandon got odd animal parts from the butcher (eg intestines) and then would surgically craft this into something resembling a hand and then Margery would store it in her vagina and pull it out at an opportune time. Wow!

It was also theorized that, with her feminine charms, she would seduce some of the male members of the circle and would coerce them into helping her by moving things around in the dark.

That’s kind of the theory. However, the book is very inconclusive on both of these questions. I totally get that these questions, with the passage of time, could very well be unanswerable.

The problem is that answering those two questions is kind of the point of the book. If you can’t answer those questions, then I was left feeling pretty unsatisfied.