An Heir And A Spare


Title: Accidental Presidents

Rating: 4 Stars

I have to admit to a weird fascination with US Presidents. Call it an early preview of growing up to be a history geek. From a young age, I liked to read presidential biographies. I became one of those weird kids that could recite the presidents in order, frontwards and backwards. I know all about the weird string of deaths of all presidents that were elected in a year ending with 0 (from 1840 to 1960). I love election stories such as when the Whig party, desperate to win the presidency at any cost, find themselves a general (William Henry Harrison) because the Democrats elected one with Andrew Jackson, and then, instead of a normal presidential campaign, just go out, have torchlight parades, and get everyone drunk on barrels of rum. Voila! Mission Accomplished!

So, this book, about the eight vice presidents that succeeded a president that died in office, is right up my alley.

Interestingly enough, the author, Jared Cohen, also shares a similar obsession. He’s not a trained historian, which is interesting because this is the second consecutive work of history written by a non historian that I’ve read (other being Americana, by Bhu Srinivasan). Cohen served as an adviser to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton in the State Department. He’s now associated with the Council on Foreign Relations and, bizarrely, is the CEO of Jigsaw, which is Google’s technology incubator.

It might just be me, but being CEO of Google’s technology future would seem to be kind of a full time job, but as he says in his author’s note, as a child he had a similar obsession to presidential facts that I had, and so somehow managed to find the time to write a pretty heavily researched 400 page history.

Some of the critical review feedback that I encountered regarding this book was that it was somehow lacking a central theme. Well, it talks about eight different at best tangentially related historical events, so I’m not exactly sure what is expected here. It’s not like there was some great Masonic conspiracy to off poorly performing presidents.

If there is a theme, it’s the somewhat stunning unpreparedness that our country has for possible succession crises. In fact, it really wasn’t cleared up until the 25th amendment was passed in 1967. Interestingly enough, maybe there’s some voodoo in that amendment because no president has died in office since its passage. Before that, there was about a 25% chance that a president would die in office.

During those early days, it was kind of a shit show. When the first president died (the aforementioned William Henry Harrison), it was spelled out that the vice president would assume the duties. But it was not clear if the vice president would actually become president or would just be some ad-hoc acting president.

Another weird oddity was that once a vice president succeeded to the presidency, there was no provision to get another vice president. That post just went vacant for the rest of the term. So, if the new president subsequently died in office, then what? Well, back in the day, it then devolved to the Speaker of the House or the President pro tempore of the Senate. That seems logical, but what if the congress is not in session? There were several times in our history where, if the newly promoted president had died, that there was no clear succession. The founding fathers, for all of their genius, just really couldn’t be bothered with the minutiae of succession.

John Tyler, who was Harrison’s vice president, was at best a suspect Whig, so Harrison’s cabinet was definitely on the side of acting president. However, Tyler was having none of it. He declared himself president, took the presidential oath of office, and would refuse all correspondence that was not specifically addressed to the president. If nothing else, then we owe some kind of debt to Tyler for at least setting that precedent.

Tyler was interesting in that he also prefigured the conflict that often arose when a vice president took over. On the one hand, it was the president that was actually elected president, which would seem to imply that the people chose that president’s policies. On the other hand, the new president now has the office and has the authority to chart a new direction. Specifically for Tyler, he was definitely against some of the key Whig policies such as a federal bank and internal improvements (eg canals and such), thinking they were intrusions upon state rights. Imagine the frustration of the Whig party, having majorities in both the house and senate and having elected a president but having their signature bills vetoed by a Whig president that assumed office via accident.

It was a similar case with Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson gets a really bad rap today, and looking at his subsequent presidential actions, selecting him as vice president seems crazy (ie a Southern Democrat). However, Johnson, during The Civil War, was actually kind of a hero. From his home state of Tennessee, he bravely stood on the side of the Union. He took progressive stances on slave freedom. He was a supporter of black rights. Tennessee actually seceded and it was Johnson that led the effort to bring it back into the US. He actually seemed to be a reasonable choice.

However, once The Civil War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson assumed the presidency, he saw that the threat to the unity of the US was over and so reverted back to his racist beliefs. Although the Republicans had great hope that he would continue to support their agenda, he vetoed much of the Republican legislation and pardoned thousands of Southern war leaders (ones that he had vowed to hang during The Civil War). By the end of his term, much of the antebellum Southern leadership was restored.

There was awkwardness around a couple of the assassinations. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth had actually left a note for Andrew Johnson at his hotel the day before Lincoln was shot. When the decidedly insane Charles Guiteau assassinated James Garfield, he claimed to be a Stalwart (Chester Arthur’s Republican contingent) and said he did it so that Chester Arthur could be president. Awkward!

In both cases conspiracy theorists tried to use this information to implicate Johnson and Arthur. This is specially humorous in the case of Arthur. Arthur was a guy that just wanted to eat fine food, drink fine wine, and hand out cushy assignments to buddies. He had never previously been elected to any office and had zero desire to be president. When he was told that Garfield had finally died (it took like three months of medical malpractice to actually kill him), Arthur broke into hysterical tears.

Interestingly enough, although he’ll never be top tier, despite incredibly low expectations, Arthur actually acquitted himself fairly well. Despite being a product himself of the spoils system, he continued Garfield’s primary priority of civil service reform. He also signed the bill that launched the modernization of the navy (the so-called ABCD ships).

I want to leave with two more facts that I learned. I have no idea what they mean. Probably they mean nothing, but I found them to be very cool.

The first president that received written death threats was Andrew Jackson (he was also the first target of an assassination attempt, after the assassin’s guns misfired, Jackson somewhat hilariously attacked him with his cane; Jackson had to be pulled off him). One letter said that the writer will cut Jackson’s throat while he’s sleeping and that he should be burnt at the stake. The author of the letter was Junius Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father.

Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt. One of his great-great grandfathers was John Tyler’s brother. This is such a strange country. It’s odd to think that there is a fairly direct descendant relationship between two vice presidents that assumed the presidency upon their predecessor’s death. It’s even more strange to contemplate that one of them came from a prominent slave holding family in Virginia and the other came from a small town in Missouri. What are the odds?

I could go on. This is already a long post, so I’ll cut it short. As a presidential history geek, I found all of this to be fascinating.


For Those About To Rock


Title: Hell’s Belles

Growing up in Rat City in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you were allowed two musical choices: AC/DC or Judas Priest. I fell solidly into the AC/DC camp. With Highway to Hell coming out in 1979 and Back In Black in 1980, they were the soundtrack of my high school.

AC/DC still exists, but with Bon Scot dead, Malcolm Young dead, Brian Johnson deaf, Cliff Williams retired, and Phil Rudd probably off somewhere having someone killed, I’m not sure if it’s quite the same.

So, I had to settle for the next best thing. That, of course, is Hell’s Belles, who have been certified, by none other than the immortal Angus, as the best AC/DC cover band. It’s interesting that AC/DC has been around so long that even Hell’s Belles has been in existence for close to twenty years, although they have nothing on Randy Hansen, who has been channeling Jimi Hendrix for over forty years now.

After nearly twenty years (although Hell’s Belles themselves have gone through some significant lineup changes over the years), they pretty much have it figured out. Adrian Conner does a mean Angus, attired in Catholic school girl clothes, running all around the stage, shaking her head and making her long dreads fly. Amber Saxon does the vocals. Although definitely a woman, at times she seemed to be channeling Brian Johnson. I have to admit that I’m somewhat curious regarding how she sounds off stage and/or what these performances do for her vocal cords. The other members of the band performed well, but were much more in the background.

Playing at El Corazon makes for an intimate venue. AC/DC has long since been an arena band. Here you could see their facsimiles up close and personal. Adrian and Amber both interacted regularly with the audience, especially Adrian as she leaned over the crowd and extended her guitar, letting them reach up and pretend to play it.

The crowd was very much into it. Looking at them, they seemed to be mostly about my age, living days gone by where they might have seen AC/DC in their rock and roll youth. There were sixty year old men shouting chorus lyrics, thrusting their devil horns defiantly into the air.

AC/DC has such a huge set of songs that received extensive radio play that they could have played for hours. They covered songs from both the Bon Scot and the Brian Johnson eras, including but certainly not limited to If You Want Blood, Hell’s Bells, Back in Black, Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, Dirty Deeds, and TNT.

An expected highlight was Thunderstruck, and of course it was. Essentially, if you’re a rock band and you can’t kill a crowd playing Thunderstruck, you should probably give it up and take an accounting job in a beige cubicle somewhere. Hell’s Belles did a great job on it and left the crowd screaming for more.

Bad Boy Boogie is not a major AC/DC song, but Hell’s Belles re-purposed it as Bad Girl Boogie. It lived up to its name at its climax with Adrian standing on the bass drum, facing away from the crowd, bending over, and dropping her panties to moon the audience, revealing a large AC/DC tattoo apparently on her butt. If real, that does show commitment.

Although it’s been impossible for decades, I’d imagine that the best way to see AC/DC live would have been in a venue like this. Seeing Hell’s Belles was the closest thing that I’ll ever come, and for one night, it was enough.

Plastic Surgery Uplift Suasion


Title: We Cast A Shadow

Rating: 5 Stars

About six months ago, I read Stamped from the Beginning, a history of race relations in the US. It’s an outstanding read. Among other things, it broke the history of racism into three categories of action. There are the racists, who believe that one group of people are fundamentally better than another group based upon visible physical characteristics. There are the anti-racists, who believe that race is a construct, that any perceived differences are solely based upon covert, overt, or systemic racist beliefs. Finally there are the assimilationists, who think that the best way to solve racism is for those that are oppressed to work just a bit harder and behave a bit better and we’ll all end up loving each other (also known as uplift suasion, in case you’re wondering where I got the blog title).

As I read We Cast a Shadow, I kept thinking back on Stamped from the Beginning.

The setting of the novel is in some near term future yet still clearly recognizable city in the Southern US. After a previous surge in racial equality, there has been regression. For the most part, blacks are segregated into a literally gated off slum. There is a heavy police presence. Blacks are regularly arrested and condemned to prison. There are a few token successful blacks in professions. Even they must still endure regular demeaning behavior.

For those successful minorities, there are extensive plastic surgeries available to make them look more white. In fact, a cutting edge procedure is demelanization, which will make a black person white.

In this setting is our protagonist (unnamed). He is a black male. He works as an associate at a prestigious law firm. He is married to a white woman named Penny and has a son named Nigel. Nigel is fair skinned but has a black birthmark that appears to be growing. Both parents love Nigel. Penny is accepting of Nigel’s looks while the narrator, knowing what it means to be a black man in a society that hates and is terrified of black men, wants to do everything he can to make Nigel look as white as possible.

The demelanization procedure is extremely expensive. The only way that the narrator can possibly afford it is to become a ‘shareholder’ in the firm. To do so requires him to debase himself and to become the diversity shill for the law firm.

The narrator’s father (only known as Sir) was a strict assimilationist. He was a literature professor that was proud of his accomplishments. When the narrator was young, Sir had a moment of weakness (in the narrator’s point of view) that destroyed Sir’s assimilationist dream and threatened the safe life that had been built for the narrator.

Now an adult with a young boy, the narrator is obsessed with not repeating that mistake. He knows of the problems that a young black man will face and is terrified on Nigel’s behalf.

Nigel is not concerned with his birthmark. For that matter, neither is Penny. His blackness is part of his identity and neither want to lose that. The narrator, lost in his fear, either cannot see Nigel’s resoluteness or thinks of it as naivety.

Placing the setting of this novel into a near future is clever. Ruffin only has to slightly exaggerate the casual racism that exists today to bring into clear relief the harm that it brings.

The struggle between anti-racists and assimilationists is at the heart of the novel. If you could save someone that you unconditionally love some pain at the cost of changing who that person is, would you? Or, do you let your loved one struggle and continue to fight the long, hard slog to bring justice for the broader community?

In his early writings, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the so-called Talented Tenth (the black elite). By raising them up to equality with whites, he (and others) thought it would ultimately benefit all blacks (he later became a complete anti-racist). It’s the same kind of thinking where wealthy parents, instead of supporting public schools, do what they think is best for their children by sending them off to private schools. The narrator, by only thinking of his son Nigel, regulates the poor black community to their own sad fate.

These are important ideas and are eloquently brought forth in an entertaining, well-written novel.

This is not the first time that this idea has been broached. There is a novel by George Schuyler, written in 1931 during the Harlem Renaissance, called Black No More, that also discusses, both at a personal level as well as at a structural social level, what would happen if suddenly there was a procedure that could turn a black person white.

Sigh…yet another book to add to my pile to read.

I’d Buy That For A Dollar


Title: Americana

Rating: 4 Stars

Sometimes I feel obligated to give a slight apology by saying that I might have underrated the book or film that I’m discussing. This time (and it actually might be the first time) I think that there’s a solid chance that I’m actually overrating this book.

Although it seems like a conventional history and actually kind of reads like one, the author is not a trained historian. He is a media / internet entrepreneur (somewhat self described). He comes from a family that immigrated to the US from India when he was a young child. This is his first book. He found the subject of capitalism and its role in the history of the US to be a fascinating subject and decided to write about it.

Clearly, none of that is bad. Because of my own biases, given his internet entrepreneurial background, I expected some kind of Ayn Rand objectivist dissertation on the role of the individual rising up and bravely making their way on their own.  Based upon his immigrant background, I was also expecting an ‘anyone can make it if they work hard enough’ theme to be at work as well.

As biases often do, they failed me here. Srinivasan does not do either.

Don’t get me wrong. It is generally an optimistic read. Over several chapters, he observes how American innovation and related business entrepreneurship has caused much of the greatness in which the US is regarded.

Fair enough, and it’s certainly true that such developments as telegraphs, steam engines, radio, flight, computers, and practical applications of electricity are wonderful examples of applied ingenuity that came to fruition largely thanks to the risk / reward types of behavior that a capitalist system favors.

He writes about subjects such as these with great enthusiasm. Each of the 35 chapters are centered around such a subject. The chapters are written in a fairly linear order, so you do end up with a narrative history of the United States, expressed in terms of capitalist advances. Each chapter is bite size (usually around 15 pages), so by no means is it exhaustive, but it does hit most of the highlights of our history.

To his credit, this is not just a paean to our entrepreneurial spirit. He forthrightly describes the many natural advantages that our nation has had. Gold was found in the Alaskan Yukon right at the point where our need for it was at a critical point (when we had a critical shortage coming out the depression of 1893). Oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania right when we were in our industrial push. A literal mountain of iron ore was discovered right when we started adopting the Bessemer process for creating steel. This natural bounty has been vital to our success.

He also does not hide from the darker side of capitalism. He describes how business focus on the bottom line often leads to brutal working conditions and low pay. Moving to efficiency at scale of food production can lead to low quality / unhealthy food. In times of systemic panic, capitalism can itself virtually shut down.

He also discusses how not all get to participate in this great capitalistic miracle. Not only does he touch upon the obvious discrimination such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans in the early days of the Republic, but also upon how this behavior continues to carry forward into more recent times. As he describes how the dire post WWII housing shortage was effectively solved by suburbs like Leavittown, he clearly demonstrates that people of color were explicitly excluded.

He acknowledges all of this and sees, therefore, an active role for the government. Something has to act as the honest broker to make sure that the businesses behave in a legal and ethical manner. There must be an independent arbiter that people trust to make sure that such things like our food and medicine are safe. There must be rules in place to keep businesses from operating with impunity.

Also, there have been times when the US has basically set aside our capitalist tendencies and operated essentially under government control. He specifically mentions WWII, where the government took over large swaths of the economy. For several years, the automobile companies quit making consumer cars and switched over to military production. Major activities like the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program would have never gotten off the ground without government leadership.

He sees this government control and is enough of a pragmatist to understand that such control is occasionally necessary. He believes that the beauty of American capitalism is that it is able to flexibly respond according to any given situation.

In all honesty, given the last several history books that I’ve read on depressing subjects such as the bitter history of labor rights, the overt corporate biases of the Supreme Court, and the blatant racism of the New Deal, I was due for a rinse of optimism. This served that purpose very well.

What Price Art?


Title: Apocalypse Now

Rating: 4 Stars

I’m occasionally diving into the AFI Top 100 films list (2007 version) and re-watching films that I haven’t seen for a while.

I don’t write about all of them that I watch (eg Raging Bull, Casablanca). If I write about everything that I watch or read, I’m afraid that I’m going to end up like a person that I once read about a long time ago. He kept a daily diary and began to obsess over it and record every little thing that happened to him (including such things as bowel movements). He finally reached a point where he could never take a vacation because he knew that he’d fall so far behind that he’d never catch up. The recording of events in his diary ended up consuming the time that he could have spent, you know, experiencing events.

So I pick and choose what to write about. Especially for those films that I’ve already seen, it needs to spark something that I find interesting to write about that is new to me.

So it is with Apocalypse Now. The film is very good. It’s essentially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness retold through the prism of the Vietnam War. Instead of Belgians killing the native population in the name of ivory you have Americans killing the native population in the name of defeating communism.

In both cases, there is a journey on a river, starting in civilization and ending in some strange and unknown territory. The purpose of the mission is to send a man to this unknown darkness to meet a man named Kurtz, once a star performer, that has now gone seriously rogue. In Apocalypse Now, the man’s mission is to kill Kurtz.

As the boat progresses up the river, events become increasingly less civilized and more surreal. In both cases, once Kurtz is found, he is ill, probably mad, but yet compelling and is essentially being worshiped as a god.

The film is quite well done. There are strong performances and it effectively captures the heart into the darkness. The deeper that the boat crew goes, the more mad the crew becomes. The madness is fueled by the madness that brought the United States into Vietnam in the first place, not to mention the years spent there with no feasible plan to leave with victory.

So, I enjoyed the film. However, I’ve been reading stories of events that go on behind the scenes of the making of films. Apocalypse Now is notorious about the problems and questionable decisions that went into its making.

Here’s a partial list:

  • It was a six week scheduled shoot that took sixteen months.
  • Lawrence Fishburne was fourteen years old when filming started. During filming, that wonderful human being Dennis Hopper got him addicted to heroin.
  • In the hotel room opening scene, what you’re watching is Martin Sheen having a real nervous breakdown.
  • Later, Sheen had a heart attack. Worried that he’d lose backing if it became public, Coppola hid this fact and used Sheen’s brother in a couple of scenes while he recovered.
  • An argument can be made that Coppola became Kurtz during the filming. He became a tyrant on set and threatened suicide multiple times.
  • Marlon Brando was signed to play Kurtz. Kurtz was supposed to be a tall, thin man. Brando showed up nearly 90 pounds overweight. In case that wasn’t bad enough, he hadn’t read either the film script or the Heart of Darkness before showing up. Shooting was held up as Coppola read Heart of Darkness to Brando. Brando hated his assigned dialog and refused to do it. Kurtz’s dialog in the film was largely ad-libbed.
  • Heading towards the climax of the film, a water buffalo is ceremoniously sacrificed and brutally torn apart. If it looks realistic, it’s because a real animal was slaughtered in the scene. In case you think that this was some sacred ceremony, Coppola staged the shot and encouraged the ritualistic chants. Although only the water buffalo made the final cut, apparently there were many other animals that were similarly slaughtered on camera. This was filmed in the Philippines, where there were minimal animal cruelty laws.
  • In the opening jungle scene where napalm strikes set the entire jungle on fire, you might hope that maybe stock footage was used or something like that. Nope, Coppola found some virgin jungle and napalmed the shit out of it. Once again, the Philippines were happy to let Coppola set their jungle on fire.
  • It might be different if this film was made, I don’t know, in the 1930s or some time like that where people didn’t know better. Filming started in 1976. People cared about the environment. People cared about animal cruelty. People cared about teenagers getting addicted to heroin.

So, yes, it’s a great film, but does the making of a great film excuse the excesses of making it?

Slave Zero

I can’t remember how, but somehow I stumbled upon a man named John Punch.

Slavery, our country’s original sin, started early. The first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. This was a bit more than ten years after Jamestown was established.

What’s interesting is that some historians are in conflict regarding whether or not slavery started immediately or not. Some historians believe that the first Africans were actually treated more like indentured servants. This is an important distinction because indentured servants become free once they’ve fulfilled their term of service.

This brings us to John Punch, a black man that was a servant of a Virginia Planter named Hugh Gwyn. One night, in 1640, Punch and two white servants ran off from Gwyn’s plantation.

All three were caught and were returned to Virginia. All three men were given thirty lashes with a whip. In addition, the two white men had four years added to their term of indenture (one more year with Gwyn and three more years for the benefit of the colony). Punch, on the other hand, in addition to the lashes, had his indenture to Gwyn extended to the natural term of his life.

In other words, there was no freedom for Punch. He was no longer an indentured servant. He was a slave. This was the first documented instance of slavery in Virginia.

It staggered me to contemplate. All of the millions of slaves in this sad history of America and you can actually point to the first one. Forget about killing baby Hitler, what would you pay to get into a time machine to try to change that?

But wait, there’s more.

John Punch eventually married an indentured servant. She was a white woman. They had a child named John Bunch. Bunch was the first documented multiracial child born in America. Bunch himself got married and generations of descendants followed over the centuries. Some of the descendants, over time, continued to marry white, moved to various parts of the country, and became completely assimilated into the white population.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, there is very good evidence (through historical documents and DNA analysis) that John Punch’s eleventh great-grandson is…

Barack Obama.

Wait, how can that be? After all, Obama’s father is known to be from Kenya. Fascinatingly enough, the connection is through his white mother.

How bizarre is it that there is literally a direct linear connection between the first black President of the United States and the first American slave? What kind of unfathomable historical symmetry is at play here? History plays strange games sometimes, but this seems extra level mind blowing.

And, oh yeah, how about all of those guys that questioned Obama’s citizenship? Remember Newt Gingrich talking about Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior?” This was all coded talk to present Obama as one of the Other (ie not a real American).

Well, I don’t know how to break it to those guys, but compared to Obama’s direct lineage,  they are all fresh off the boat. He has direct descendants in America dating back over 350 years.

Who knows, maybe he should be getting a Mayflower Society invitation.


Too Much Jazz


Title: Mumbo Jumbo

Rating: 3 Stars

I knew that I was going to be in for a ride when the author, Ishmael Reed, got a specific call-out by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Set in 1920s Harlem, there is a growing alarm in the world. Across the US, if not the globe, there appears to be a viral outbreak of Jes Grew. What is Jes Grew? Once infected, the victim falls prey to uncontrollable dancing, singing, and talking. Since this is a contagion of liberation, it is actually not a plague but an anti-plague.

A secret organization called the Wallflower Order is working behind the scenes to maintain order and discipline in the world. Concerned with the ramifications if Jes Grew spreads to New York, they enlist a man named Hinkle Von Vamptom to control the outbreak.

Von Vamptom is apparently around a thousand years old and is a member of the original Knights Templar (the crusader knights shut down by the pope in the fourteenth century). Von Vamptom agrees to help on the condition that the Templars are absolved of guilt and will lead the next crusade.

At the same time that Jes Grew is spreading, there is another movement afoot to steal historical artifacts stored in Western museums and repatriate them back to their original lands.

President Warren Harding, rumored to be part black, appears to be sympathetic to the cause of Jes Grew and provides at least vocal support. Luckily for the forces of order, his Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was embedded into his administration by the Wallflower Order, so he averts this threat by poisoning and murdering the president.

Von Vampton, with increasing desperation, tries to find a talking android, a black man that speaks with apparent authenticity but that ultimately preaches the conformity that the Wallflower Order desires to blunt Jes Grew. After failing to find a black man, he puts one of his assistants in black face and pushes him forward. It does not go well.

Finally the forces of conformity initiates the financial crisis that kicks off The Great Depression. This calamity does stop the spread of Jes Grew.

What all is going on here? So much, including a lot that I didn’t get on this first reading.

First of all, it’s interesting that it was set in the 1920s. This was during the time that jazz entered into the mainstream as well as the rise of the famed Harlem Renaissance. This was a time when black culture was truly exploding. Coincidentally, I’m just now watching Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz, and during the episode that I’m watching now, it referred to jazz as a germ. There was a sense during this time that the ‘younger’ generation, lost in the aftermath of the destruction of WWI, were looking for some new purpose or meaning. Since it seemed so revolutionary, jazz probably did seem to be an infectious disease to those looking on in horror.

Jes Grew has its roots in non-western culture. As opposed to monotheistic, it hearkens back to the gods of ancient Egypt. There is a thirty page section in the middle where it tries to synthesize a simple myth across multiple ancient cultures and includes references to Osiris (Egyptian god), Dionysus (Greek god), and Moses. The purpose is to move away from a purely Western oriented religion. It’s trying to create a religious tradition distinct from the monotheistic bible.

Cultural appropriation is another theme here. Besides the explicit stealing of artifacts by the West that is discussed here, through the example of the talking android, the forces of order subvert liberating views by adopting them and perverting them.

Throughout all of the novel, there is a feel of magic realism. There are Haitian priests that feed loas (spirits). There is the thousand year old Templar. There are spirits possessing bodies. There is the Jes Grew movement itself, mysteriously moving around the world and the country.

The novel is reclaiming history, traditions and values that have been overrun by the West.

I did enjoy reading it because it truly is not like anything that I’ve read before. Not being steeped in these non-Western alternative cultures, it was a bit of a struggle for me at times. I’m sure that I would benefit from re-reading it, especially if I first immersed myself in some of the ideas present in the work.

Charlize For President


Title: Long Shot

Rating: 4 Stars

I’m a sucker for romantic comedies, if it’s well done and there is good chemistry. On both fronts, Long Shot is a very good film.

Charlize Theron plays Charlotte Field, a hyper ambitious workaholic Secretary of State. The current president, President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), a former television star who played a US President, decides that he does not want to run for re-election so that he can focus instead on his movie career. Chambers indicates that he’s willing to support Charlotte if she were to run for President.

Meanwhile, Seth Rogan plays Fred Flarsky, a dedicated investigative journalist. He’s just found out that the independent newspaper that he works for is being bought out by an evil media mogul named Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). He refuses to work for such a man, so immediately quits.

Charlotte decides that she needs to hire a speechwriter to help make her more likable and funny (the unfortunate plight of all women candidates). There is already a connection between Fred and Charlotte. Charlotte baby sat Fred when they were growing up. They meet again now and Charlotte decides to give Fred the writing job.

Once they meet, then the machinations of romantic comedy begin to fire. They have disagreements, they make up, they get close, they fall in love, insurmountable barriers are placed in their way, but ultimately love triumphs. From a plot perspective, it follows a well trod path.

Within that framework, this is a very well executed film. Theron and Rogan have awesome chemistry. There are many laugh out loud moments in the film. There are many good lines in the film (my favorite, “I look like Cap’n Crunch’s Grindr date”). This film just about had the perfect balance between romance and comedy.

Other relationships in the film worked as well. Fred’s best friend, Lance, is played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. Lance is endlessly supportive and encouraging of Fred as Fred loses his job, gets the girl, loses the girl, and gets the girl back. He’s the type of friend that all men want to have in their corner. He’s also hilarious, especially in the scene where Fred, liberal muckraking journalist, discovers, to his horror, that Lance is actually a conservative, religious Republican.

Bob Odenkirk does good work as the feckless president that is under the thumb of the cynically evil media owner. Given the political climate in which we’re currently in, it was both soothing and slightly uncomfortable to see this relationship play out in a humorous manner.

The only really discordant moment was when Charlotte, frustrated and at the end of her rope, goes out with Fred to decompress and ends up taking Molly. While still tripping, an emergency crops up and she has to manage a hostage crisis. This just did not fit in with the flow of the movie and seemed to be there primarily for filler.

Romantic comedies generally don’t have the goal of advancing social causes, but this does try to do its part. Usually, romantic comedies end with the woman making sacrifices in the pursuit of romance and love. Here, it’s the man that has to adapt. Charlotte is an ambitious woman and is not going to set that aside just for the love of a man. Even in the riding off into the sunset part of the film, it’s clear that Fred is supporting Charlotte to help her fulfill her destiny. It’s refreshing to see this perspective.

Generally speaking, it was good escapist entertainment. I’m talking more than just the romantic aspect of it. You have a powerful and ambitious woman whose signature issue that she’s fighting for is the environment. Again, given our current political situation, seeing that become successful is the epitome of escapist entertainment.

Fight For Your Right To…


Title: A History Of America In Ten Strikes

Rating: 4 Stars

First of all, the book title is a misnomer. It’s not about ten strikes. It actually discusses probably closer to 100 strikes. Loomis takes a look at America’s history from a distinctly labor point of view. He divides it into ten periods of time. Within each period, he provides some context, discusses many of the labor activities that occurred, with particular emphasis upon one strike. At the end of each section, he summarizes where the labor movement ended up.

Spoiler alert: with only a couple of exceptions, the labor movement is thwarted at every turn, often brutally. All parts of the government apparatus are tilted towards business at the expense of workers. The courts, with only a couple of rare exceptions, nearly always side with business. Historically speaking, courts treat contracts between employer and employee as being between two equals, absolutely disregarding the power imbalance that exists between these parties. The courts used that philosophy to strike down minimum wage laws, maximum hour laws, and child laws.

After all, if a parent wants to send their child to work at a business for twelve hours a day at a rate of fifty cents per day, isn’t that the right of the parent and isn’t it an unreasonable infringement of the state upon parental rights to act otherwise?

If a man is willing to work fourteen hours a day for two dollars a day at a dangerous job, isn’t that his right? Isn’t that so even if the man knows that if he quits, he will be evicted immediately from his company supplied housing and will be blackballed by all of the other competing businesses?

This was essentially the logic behind the Lochner vs New York case. It struck down New York labor laws on the grounds that they are restricting employees’ rights. Yes, somewhere in the Constitution the justices found the right to work at a horrible, unsafe, poorly paid job to be some fundamental essential right. The ruling was made in 1905. It was not overturned until 1937. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the current crop of conservatives on the Supreme Court are moving us back towards that decision.

Throughout history, it’s not only the court system that is against labor. Quite often, local police were called in to break up strikes. If the police weren’t available, then businesses would hire thugs from private companies like the Pinkerton Agency. If that didn’t work, then the federal government would send in troops. Many strikes were only broken when people (including women and children) were shot down and killed.

Another way to keep labor costs down was to prey on workers’ racism. Strikes were broken using black labor, Chinese labor, Irish labor, and Hispanic labor. Instead of seeing common laboring brethren, workers saw them as threats and would respond to such scabs with hatred, playing into the owners’ hands.

If you find this infuriating, you will generally be infuriated while reading this book. It’s not all doom and gloom. Even during historically bad times, some strikes were won and workers’ lots improved. For the most part, such successes were localized and often transitory.

There were two main periods where labor rights generally advanced. One was during The Civil War. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln’s war aims were relatively modest. He basically just wanted to reunite the country. However, the actual slaves had other ideas. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, slaves would escape to Union lines. At first, the generals didn’t know what to do with them. The Confederates (ie the dis-unionist rebels) somewhat hilariously tried to reclaim them via the Fugitive Slave Act. The Union General, Benjamin Butler, came up with the somewhat brilliant idea of saying, oh, you think these slaves are property and not people…fine, I’m confiscating them as war contraband property.

Somewhat hilariously (again!), the Southern leaders were so convinced that slavery as in institution was beneficial to all (including the slaves), that when they went off to war, they were confident that the slaves would run/manage the plantations in their absence. Shockingly, when given the chance for freedom, slaves leaped at the chance. This had the double whammy of aiding the Northern cause with their labor (and later with their arms) while depriving the South. To a large extent, it was the slaves themselves that made the war about freeing the slaves.

The other period where labor generally advanced was between the Great Depression and the early 1970s. In FDR, you had an administration that was willing to actively support labor in a somewhat desperate attempt to end the depression. When WWII came along, suddenly there was a huge need for workers, resulting in increased worker leverage. And then after WWII, much of the non-US manufacturing base was in ruins, so during the great global rebuild, there was again, a great demand for workers.

The unions were at their peak during this time. However, the unions traded prosperity for continued organization. So, although a middle class definitely arose from the union gains, it was limited. The unions were discriminatory to both minorities and to women. The South, for obvious reasons, has a long history of being against labor (thank you again, slavery). Unions made efforts to organize in the South, but were generally unsuccessful. Unions were primarily only interested in ‘manly’ jobs, so for a long time missed opportunities to organize service jobs. As unions gained wealth, the union leadership became increasingly remote from the workers.

With the rise of globalization (led by passage of laws such as NAFTA), the unions really had no answer to the problems of capital mobility. If a company can set up a factory just over the border in Mexico and pay workers one tenth of the price of a union American worker, there was little to stop them.

On the one hand, this is a grim time. The federal government is certainly not friendly to labor. Many state governments are actively trying to kill unions. There will probably be no remedy in the court system, especially at the Supreme Court. Companies such as Amazon and Uber are stripping away benefits by treating workers as independent contractors. The gig economy has led to millions of workers stitching together multiple jobs just to pay for essentials such as food and rent.

However, people will fight and will continue to fight. One thing that I really liked about this history is that it did not just focus on the usual historical figures. Throughout the entire history of labor, women and people of color have been central to the fight. Here they were explicitly called out and their bravery, charisma, and leadership were eloquently rendered.

Author, Know Thyself


Title: Look Homeward, Angel

Rating: 4 Stars

If nothing else, Thomas Wolfe did not lack self confidence. He firmly believed in his genius and that one day he would be looked upon as a great man. Unfortunately, he died young, so was not able to demonstrate all of which he was capable.

Also he decided to end his relationship with the great editor Maxwell Perkins after his second novel was published. Given his kind of insane output (the first draft of this novel was 1100 pages, his second novel was originally the length of In Search Of Lost Time, and his submission to his new editor was over a million words), he probably benefited from having a strong, talented editor.

The plot of Look Homeward, Angel, is pretty straightforward. It’s the story of the Gant family, with particular emphasis upon the youngest son, Eugene Gant. It starts with the marriage of his parents and ends with Eugene graduating from the state college and getting ready to head off to Harvard, probably leaving his family forever in so doing.

Look Homeward, Angel is, without question, an ambitious novel. As I read it, I heard all kinds of echoes to other great works.

His detailed description of Altamont (the placeholder for Asheville, North Carolina), was reminiscent to me of the Dublin of Ulysses. This especially stood out during a passage where a tour was taken through the town, describing in great detail the buildings, the streets, the intersections, the businesses, and the people that are encountered. From that description, you could probably come close to drawing a map of the city.

His use of senses reminds me of Proust. A typical breakfast of the Gant family is lavishly described. You can actually smell the food on the table, and those smells in turn inspire additional emotions and thoughts in the mind of Eugene.

The novel is clearly autobiographical. In this it reminds me of Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh. Usually, when you read a typical autobiography, you expect a certain amount of hagiography. Sure, people will expose some of their warts, but you really don’t expect them to bring out a microscope and let you see their open wounds so exposed. However, with both Butler and Wolfe, they take unsparing looks at their fictional counterpart. There is no artificial sheen to Eugene. You see him whining, complaining, consorting with prostitutes, rude to his family, and ever so vainglorious. Wolfe, writing later, brings up his faded memories and writes them into crisp relief.

And finally, you can’t talk about Southern writers without mentioning William Faulkner. I saw many connections between the work of Wolfe and Faulkner. They both make use of stream of consciousness to understand the inner thoughts of their characters.

Indeed, the characters from this novel all seemed like they could have been at home in Yoknapatawpha County. You have the father figure that almost seems like a heroic marble figure to his family. Oliver Gant proudly strides around his house declaiming Shakespeare. You also see this great father figure torn down by alcohol abuse and irrationally tearing around the house, much to the amusement of his previously cowed family. You have the mother, Eliza, reacting to Oliver’s irrationality by becoming increasingly grim and miserly. The children are all effected by this as well. The daughter Helen becomes the codependent of her parents, apparently sacrificing her own happiness but actually getting her own bitter satisfaction through this sacrifice. Their son Ben lashes out at his parents while still refusing to abandon them. Eugene becomes the repository of all of their hopes and feels the pressure that they’ve placed upon him. As I was reading Eugene’s struggles, I was reminded of Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury.

As I was reading this, it seemed that all members of the Gant family are essentially narcissists. Any criticism at all of Eliza resulted in her weeping about how unappreciated she is. Her sacrifices to her family were always to be the center of any conversation. As Ben lay dying of influenza, Oliver despondently sat at the foot of the bed and wondered how they could possibly pay for Ben’s funeral and morosely talked about the cancer  eating away at his body. Even the protagonist Eugene was nearly in a constant series of flights of fancy in which he was the hero (or the villain) of any situation.

That could be one of the points that Wolfe was making. We are all necessarily narcissists. The only existence that we can even have a chance of knowing is our own. Therefore, isn’t it natural that we each are the star of our own show? Despite the fact that the Gants are a large family that clearly do have feelings for each other, it’s also clear that they each ultimately only truly care about the role that they themselves are playing in this human drama.

By writing a clearly autobiographical work of fiction in which his alter ego is drawn in great detail and featured so prominently, Wolfe places his own narcissism front and center.