September 27, 2007

Texas Hold 'Em at the Paradise Lounge

One pleasure of my job is that I occasionally get to travel somewhere in the United States to interview a former worker at a plant about where the drums were buried or how they didn't really truck the TCE to Kansas City but just dumped it out back.

Sometimes these trips produce fun side-adventures, which explains how Tuesday night found me in the twice-weekly game of Texas Hold 'Em at the back table at Christine's Paradise Lounge in Herington, Kansas. I bought into the game after polishing off the best chicken fried steak I've ever tasted.

You forget how friendly small town America is. Too many years on the coasts have wiped out any trace of my Wyoming upbringing, but I still felt at home under the open sky, talking to the locals over beers in the roadside dives. The poker players were especially welcoming. I don't really play, so Cathy (on my left) helpfully reminded me when it was my turn to bet, and how much would keep me in the game. Once or twice she peeked over my shoulder and whispered helpful things like, "that's not a straight," and "if I were you, I'd fold."

During the trip I finished Junot Diaz's first book, a collection of stories called "Drown." I read it because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about, and Diaz didn't disappoint. Diaz's writing is so fresh and alive -- he practically invents new uses for the language on every line, but none of it sounds forced or pretentious. It doesn't sound like he's working to make his language so musical.

Diaz's stories are also incredibly rich, putting you on the street in the Dominican neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey, a strange and beautiful place to be at the same time you are criss-crossing the heartland.

It took me an hour and a half to lose $20 in the poker game, where a different kind of lingo prevailed, a world away from the charged jive of Diaz's characters but just as musical and engaging. I go back to Kansas the week of October 8th. If I'm in Herington that Tuesday night, you'll know where to find me.

September 21, 2007

The Conscience of a Liberal

What moves the September 15 anti-war march off the top spot in My Back Pages?

Only Paul Krugman's new blog at the Times, "The Conscience of a Liberal." On September 18, apparently, Krugman's occasional responses to his readers blossomed into a full-fledged blog.

Krugman's Times opinion pieces are a pleasure to read. Smart, progressive, and so well written. It's stuff you just don't see in the mainstream media. His first blog entry contains a helpful graph of income disparity in America since the early part of the 20th Century, along with an explanation of that disparity's political sources.

It's the kind of stuff my friend Steve Novick knows so well. In fact, I would say Steve, who is running for the U.S. Senate from Oregon, easily knows as much about economic policy as Krugman, high praise but it's no exaggeration. When I saw Krugman's chart, and read his initial blog entry, my first thought was that, thanks to Novick, I already knew what Krugman was talking about.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Oregon voters are the luckiest, because they get to elect Paul Krugman to the U.S. Senate in '08, by voting for Steve Novick.

September 18, 2007

Washington, D.C., September 15, 2007

We stood in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, and mingled with the anti-war protesters gearing up to march. You couldn't imagine a more diverse crowd. Old, young, clean-cut, ragged out, dressed up, dressed down, white, black, brown, you name it. They dressed like hippies, like soldiers, like tourists, like death.

And they seemed to represent every cause imaginable. Ten minutes after listening to a speaker lament the occupation of Palestine I ran into a friend who works for AIPAC. Veterans back from the war stood near the wingnut with the megaphone ranting about government ID implants in newborns. In a lot of ways, it was like an outdoor rock festival, just without the rock bands.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue, along a two block stretch, a much smaller crowd had gathered. I would put them all between 40 and 55, white, clean-cut, in pressed shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. All dressed the same, all of them intensely angry. As the march passed by they shouted at the protesters, calling them out as individuals and hurling insults at them. They called the men cowards and the women Iraqi whores. I have never been near an angry mob. It's a scary experience.

I took this photo after the marchers had passed by their vicious counterparts, and things had relaxed a little. Maybe you can see, in the faces of the people behind the banner, the jubilation, optimism and peace that carried the day.

September 17, 2007

The Lives of Others

"The Lives of Others," is the best film I've seen in years, probably one of the best films I've seen, ever. It's beautiful on so many levels, but what struck me was how tightly woven the story is. There isn't a single wasted moment; every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue propels the story forward.

I think we get used to thinking that a story either has a great plot or is "literary" in some sense -- a study in character, or language -- and can't be both. But great literature, of course, does it all, and "The Lives of Others" is that kind of story. It's simply brilliant.

On the website for the film (click on the title, above) there's an engaging interview with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which begins with his lucid and (I thought) amazing description of the inspiration for the story (punch the tab marked "The Crew" and then hit "Interview with the Director").

September 15, 2007

Buddha Boy

The Braindead Megaphone, by George Saunders
(Pocket Book Review # 12)

George Saunders saves the best for last in his new essay collection. "Buddha Boy" describes his journey to a remote village in Nepal to investigate a fifteen year-old buddhist who has been meditating under a tree for seven months. In that time, apparently, the boy hasn't eaten, or even moved.

Saunders weaves Nepal's beauty and ramshackle poverty together with armchair soliloquies on Buddhism, suffering, and revelation, he lampoons his own failings as a journalist, and he tries to catch the locals sneaking the boy food, all the while maintaining a perfect balance of skepticism, sympathy, and reverance for his subject. It's a nice little story about our tentative and uneasy relationship with the miraculous.

"Manifesto," the last piece, is something I think I first saw in the New Yorker. It's a perfect, timeless, satire, a political screed from the mythical group People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction (PKRA).

September 10, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 11

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

I started to write this review by borrowing an old Monty Python joke, but then I realized -- by sheer coincide, or possibly by some deep operation of my subconscious -- that I have finished “The Looming Tower” and am writing this short review the night before the anniversary of 9/11.

What are the odds? How could this have happened, if not by some sort of deeply-hidden design?

And moreoever, given that I’m writing this review on such a solemn occasion, dare I make a joke about it? I just finished one of George Saunders’ essays (more on them in a few days), in which he emphasizes the value of humor in discussing dark truths, but still, it feels a little wrong to reach for an easy joke about 9/11 on the eve of the day itself.

I will say this, though. I believe our country desperately needs some sort of satire on the so-called War on Terror. Because satire can do things no other form of criticism can, and also the Yahoos running our country are in desperate need of a hard literary thrashing.

In any case, “The Looming Tower” is brilliant, not least because it so crisply and so beautifully puts the tragic events of September 11 into perspective. Bin Laden and his cronies, one sees, are not the menace the current Administration would have us believe. They are, rather, deranged fanatics who enjoyed the meager benefits of a safe haven in Afghanistan and an enemy paralyzed by bureaucratized law enforcement and -- critically -- a newly-elected President whose arrogance was matched only by his obliviousness in international affairs.

In other words, Lawrence Wright’s gripping account of the history of America’s worst domestic terrorist attack feels like essential reading. The story it tells is incredible, as well plotted as a great novel and full of as many unlikely characters.

Much the same story, by the way, is told (in less detail) in the slightly quirky BBC documentary “The Power of Nightmares,” which you can find in the latest three issues of Wholphin, the McSweeney’s DVD magazine of unseen films.

September 5, 2007

The Pocket Book Review Busts Out

I have a review on Bookslut of Claudia Smith's "The Sky is a Well." There's other cool stuff on Jessa Crispin's lit zine this month, including a story about a BBC reporter's return to her home country of Sierra Leone, and an interview with Jim Shepard, whose new collection comes out September 25th.

September 3, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 10

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

A young woman, Sai, shares a ramshackle house in the Himalayas with her grandfather, his cook, and the cook's ragged dog. There, they are robbed by Maoist Nepalese rebels. In New York, the cook's son Biju shuttles from one humiliating restaurant job to another, until he returns to India with even less than when he left. Kiran Desai's novel makes a quiet mockery of colonialism, globalization, and what the world calls progress. It is also filled with wisdom, and sentences that are as perfect as anything English can offer up.

It's not long on plot -- its mission is to paint a portrait, and as Desai tied up the loose ends on the way to the finish I found myself wishing there had been a point on which the story took a hard turn. But it's still a timely, rich and beautiful novel.

September 2, 2007

Life Lists

I have a new essay on the Nervous Breakdown site. Thanks for reading!