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Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens

Many years ago, someone at work noticed that I was reading David Copperfield.

He asked, “Are you being punished for something?”

Another person in the room overheard this. Entirely by coincidence, that person was reading the same book at the same time.

The two of us said, almost in unison, “Oh, you don’t know…”

The great Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago today.

I thank his hovering spirit for Nicholas Nickleby, for A Christmas Carol, for A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, and especially for his greatest novel, David Copperfield.

There are other Dickens books I haven’t yet read. I should get busy and read them, before someone says to me, “Oh, you don’t know…”


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Crazy Up To Our Eyeballs

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow mines a rich vein of pure American Crazy to bring us 2010: The Year in Crazy.

Second Amendment Remedies and Unlimited Corporate Money

There’s too much for just one cartoon, so there’s a part two, also.

No-Mortgage Foreclosures and Anti-Sharia Laws

(You can click the images to see the complete cartoons.)

With so much Crazy these days, he’s done a whole book titled Too Much Crazy, a collection of his weekly cartoons. I like Tom Tomorrow. If you don’t, reading this book may make you crazy.


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Untitled on Obama Administration

Untitled on Obama AdministrationI think this goes on all the time inside the book trade, but it’s odd when Amazon offers consumers a book called Untitled on Obama Administration.

Bob Woodward, one of the reporters who dug out the story of Watergate, is a perennial author of bestselling insider-y tales from the White House. Clearly, he’s got a contract to deliver one of those books in September, about the Obama Administration.

We don’t know what’s going to be in the book, but Woodward’s always good for a couple juicy headlines. We don’t know who he’s talked to or what he’s going to say, but Amazon knows there are plenty of folks waiting to get in line to wait for Woodward’s take on the new guy.

Come September, the words on everyone’s lips will be, “Have you read Untitled on Obama Administration?”

I’m thinking blockbuster. I’m thinking Pulitzer Prize.

I’m thinking “Six Crises, and Counting”.


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Mark Vonnegut wrote the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of short pieces by his father, Kurt Vonnegut. One of the things Mark says is this:

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.

The introduction is all I’ve read so far, so excuse me — gonna engage in some subversion. Gonna change the world a little bit.


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Right now I’m reading Who Let the Dogs In?, a collection of old newspaper columns by Molly Ivins. She sure could write.

Molly died a year ago January. In January two years ago, she wrote that she was “Not. backing. Hillary.

Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone. This is not a Dick Morris election. Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her. Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges.

The recent death of Gene McCarthy reminded me of a lesson I spent a long, long time unlearning, so now I have to re-learn it. It’s about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. There are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times. There are times a country is so tired of bull that only the truth can provide relief.

If no one in conventional-wisdom politics has the courage to speak up and say what needs to be said, then you go out and find some obscure junior senator from Minnesota with the guts to do it.

I wish Molly were still with us. I’ll bet she’d have something to say about Hillary’s “as far as I know” remark. “Enough sneaky insinuation,” perhaps? And I’d like to hear what she thought about the obscure junior Senator from Illinois.


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Vile Fox

This is a video response to a Fox News obituary trashing Kurt Vonnegut:


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My God — Life!

In A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


From Cat’s Cradle:

I did not know what was going to come from Angela’s clarinet. No one could have imagined what was going to come from there.

I expected something pathological, but I did not expect the depth, the violence, and the almost intolerable beauty of the disease.

Angela moistened and warmed the mouthpiece, but did not blow a single preliminary note. Her eyes glazed over, and her long, bony fingers twittered idly over the noiseless keys.

I waited anxiously, and I remembered what Marvin Breed had told me — that Angela’s one escape from her bleak life with her father was to her room, where she would lock the door and play along with phonograph records.

Newt now put a long-playing record on the large phonograph in the room off the terrace. He came back with the record’s slipcase, which he handed to me.

The record was called Cat House Piano. It was of unaccompanied piano by Meade Lux Lewis.

Since Angela, in order to deepen her trance, let Lewis play his first number without joining him, I read some of what the jacket said about Lewis.

“Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1905,” I read, “Mr. Lewis didn’t turn to music until he had passed his 16th birthday and then the instrument provided by his father was the violin. A year later young Lewis chanced to hear Jimmy Yancey play the piano. ‘This,’ as Lewis recalls, ‘was the real thing.’ Soon,” I read, “Lewis was teaching himself to play the boogie-woogie piano, absorbing all that was possible from the older Yancey, who remained until his death a close friend and idol to Mr. Lewis. Since his father was a Pullman porter,” I read, “the Lewis family lived near the railroad. The rhythm of the trains soon became a natural pattern to young Lewis and he composed a boogie-woogie solo, now a classic of its kind, which became known as the ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues.'”

I looked up from my reading. The first number on the record was done. The phonograph needle was now scratching its slow way across the void to the second. The second number, I learned from the jacket, was “Dragon Blues.”

Meade Lux Lewis played four bars alone — and then Angela Hoenikker joined in.

Her eyes were closed.

I was flabbergasted.

She was great.

She improvised around the music of the Pullman porter’s son; went from liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened child, to a heroin nightmare.

Her glissandi spoke of heaven and hell and all that lay between.

Such music from such a woman could only be a case of schizophrenia or demonic possession.

My hair stood on end, as though Angela were rolling on the floor, foaming at the mouth, and babbling fluent Babylonian.

When the music was done, I shrieked at Julian Castle, who was transfixed, too, “My God — life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”

You can find audio samples of Meade Lux Lewis here.


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The Gospel from Outer Space

Atrios has another excerpt from Slaughterhouse-Five:

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!



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Kurt Is Up In Heaven Now

Yesterday, I might have written what I believed — “Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest living American novelist” — and I don’t think I would have faced much of an argument. Oh, there might have been feeble peeps from here or there for Norman Mailer or Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, but nothing resembling a serious challenge.

Today, I don’t have the faintest idea who the greatest living American novelist is. “Kurt is up in heaven now.”

Today, I will write what I believe — “Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century” — but that won’t go unchallenged. His books blow the doors off Hemingway’s, I’ll say that. His best work stands toe to toe and nose to nose with Steinbeck’s best, and his weaker stuff is a lot better than Steinbeck’s weaker stuff. But I guess you compare best to best, so I can only say this with complete confidence: “Vonnegut was one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th Century.”

This is silly, you know — comparing and ranking very different writers, trying to pick the one winner and champion, turning everything into a horse race. I feel stupid and pathetic, because what I really want to do is write something with just one percent of the grace and power of a single sentence in a Kurt Vonnegut book.

In the previous blog post, I said, “So it goes.” I look around on other blogs. Lots of people are saying “So it goes.” Those who have read Slaughterhouse-Five understand. To everyone else, it looks like a kind of secret handshake. I can’t explain it to you, either. Every sentence in a Vonnegut novel is part of a carefully woven fabric, gaining power and meaning from every other sentence. Not one word is wasted.

I avoided Vonnegut for years. I had heard that his writing was… well, different. At that time, there were some authors noted for their verbal stunt work and determination to boggle the reader’s mind and leave him feeling stupid. But Kurt Vonnegut wrote to communicate. He had something to say. He said it so well it boggled the mind. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Tralfamadorians were aliens who lived in the fourth dimension, who could see past, present and future all at once:

Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes == “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” says Billy Pilgrim.

On a trip to distant Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim looks at some Tralfamadorian novels:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

Kurt Vonnegut is gone, and he is still here. The many marvelous moments remain.

Read the books.


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So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut has died.:

Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan.

So it goes.

He was the great American novelist.

I will try to say something appropriate later.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.


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Armageddon Outta Here

Madeleine Albright last night on the Colbert Report:

I understand that there are 100 million Americans who believe in the Rapture … and that they believe that the end of the world will come that way, but Armageddon is not exactly a foreign policy.

I remember when the government worked hard to prevent the world from ending… just yet, anyway. This administration is full of bold new ideas.


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Good Citizen’s Alphabet

Bertrand Russell - The Good Citizen's AlphabetVia Crooks and Liars: I hadn’t realized that Bertrand Russell, the mathematician, philosopher, and general trouble-maker, had written a children’s book:

In these political times, so polarized with heated rhetoric, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a copy of Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet. A important philosopher, Russell had the wisdom to realize that certain words require proper definition to be used correctly in political and social discourse; words such as, “asinine,” “erroneous,” even “nincompoop.” Of course, there are also words that inspire: “liberty,” “sacrifice,” even “zeal.” Russell aspired to educational enlightenment, believing “the ABC, that gateway to all wisdom, is not made sufficiently attractive to immature minds.” In his research with this teaching tool, respondents found his explication of the alphabet both “wise” and “foolish,” “right-minded” and “subversive.”

Well, it’s not really a children’s book. Like the Pat Bagley books, it uses the form of a children’s book to comment on grown-up concerns. “Asinine” is defined as “What you think,” and “Bolshevik” as “Anyone whose opinions I disagree with.” “Liberty” is “The right to obey the police” — I see that Bush, Cheney and Gonzales aren’t breaking new ground after all.

You can see the entire book by viewing the slideshow.


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Clueless George

Clueless George Goes to WarClueless George Goes to War, by Utah political cartoonist Pat Bagley, is a parody of the Curious George children’s books.

It’s the first of three such books. The others are Clueless George is Watching You and Clueless George Takes on Liberals. They’re short — each one less than 30 pages — but they’re funny, and they land some sharp jabs at this disastrous administration.

Clueless George Goes to War, Page 1

As The Man tucks him into bed at the end of Clueless George Goes to War, George worries about some of his critics.

“They were obviously America-hating, evildoer-loving liberals,” The Man patiently explained.

“So that’s why you sent them all to Geronimo Bay…” mused George. “Shouldn’t we have given them trials?”

“The answer to that is very nuanced,” said The Man.

This administration tries to “nuance” our rights out of existence. The proper response to that isn’t nuanced at all.

You can find sample pages from all three books, other books and pins here.

Airy Persiflage

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For Us, The Living

Part of the legend of King Arthur says that Arthur is not dead, but only sleeping under a hill in Avalon, waiting to return in England’s hour of greatest need. It’s a myth, of course. Arthur himself is at least half myth.

Abraham Lincoln

Today is the 198th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and I can’t help thinking that this country sure could use him now.

Of course, Lincoln can’t return to save us from our current troubles, any more than Washington or Jefferson could solve the troubles of Lincoln’s own day. “It is for us, the living,” and it always has been.

We will not be saved unless we save ourselves.

On the PBS NewsHour tonight, essayist Julia Keller said of this portrait, “It is less of a face, maybe, than a soul, worn inside out.”

Lincoln is a source of comfort and encouragement in our hour of need. He was a mortal, fallible human being, like ourselves. He showed us just what a mortal, fallible human being can do. His life challenges every one of us to do better.


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Molly Ivins, R.I.P.

I was talking with a friend earlier today. He’s a tennis buff, and he said many players put a lot of energy into learning just what brand of racquet, or shoes, or sweatband is used by an Andy Roddick or a Venus Williams or some other favorite professional player. Then they spend a lot of money to buy those products, expecting a big improvement in their own game.

That gave me an idea. I thought perhaps I could buy an old Ansel Adams camera and become a great photographer. Or maybe get ahold of Molly Ivins’ typewriter, and be a great writer.

Sad news:

Molly Ivins, the liberal newspaper columnist who delighted in skewering politicians and interpreting, and mocking, her Texas culture, died yesterday in Austin. She was 62. …

In her syndicated column, which appeared in about 350 newspapers, Ms. Ivins cultivated the voice of a folksy populist who derided those who she thought acted too big for their britches. She was rowdy and profane, but she could filet her opponents with droll precision.

After Patrick J. Buchanan, as a conservative candidate for president, declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention that the United States was engaged in a cultural war, she said his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.” …

Her Texas upbringing made her something of an expert on the Bush family. She viewed the first President George Bush benignly. (“Real Texans do not use the word ‘summer’ as a verb,” she wrote.)

But she derided the current President Bush, whom she first knew in high school. She called him Shrub and Dubya. With the Texas journalist Lou Dubose, she wrote two best-selling books about Mr. Bush: “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” (2000) and “Bushwhacked” (2003).

The Washington Post says she “poked fun at the powerful,” but she did more than that. I read “Shrub” and “Bushwhacked,” and under the surface humor is a trove of information and insight that should have been a warning to all of us. She was a stunningly good writer — she could express a thought with such sharpness and clarity that a reader might never think about a topic in the same way after reading Molly’s take on it.

I sure hope that talent and that spirit came from the typewriter she used. If not, we’ve suffered a grievous loss.

Ms. Ivins learned she had breast cancer in 1999 and was typically unvarnished in describing her treatments. “First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you,” she wrote. “I have been on blind dates better than that.”
But she kept writing her columns and kept writing and raising money for The Texas Observer.

Indeed, rarely has a reporter so embodied the ethos of her publication. On the paper’s 50th anniversary in 2004, she wrote: “This is where you can tell the truth without the bark on it, laugh at anyone who is ridiculous, and go after the bad guys with all the energy you have.”

In her final column, she offered some advice to all of us:

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush’s proposed surge. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington on Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, “Stop it, now!”

The talent, I fear, she took with her. But reading her columns, I think she left the spirit here with us.