Sunday, December 26, 2010

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore, the queen of second person, incisive, witty, precise, intense, and always funny in the saddest possible way.

I've been a big fan of Lorrie Moore since my first really great writing workshop during my sophomore year of college, where we read the two Lorrie Moore stories that always make it into every fiction workshop--"How to Become a Writer" and "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)" both from Self Help. Since then, I've read Birds of America and Like Life and that volume of Best American Short Stories she edited. But her first (and for many years only) novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, just sat on the shelf until now. I don't know why.

The adolescent friendship between the narrator, Berie, and her closest friend Sils forms the core of the story. The two girls have been friends since grade school, but their relationship begins to change the summer they are fifteen, when beautiful Sils gets a boyfriend, leaving still-immature Berie uncertain and self conscious. The other details of Berie's life pinwheel around this friendship--her family, distant and dysfunctional, her fraught marriage, her adult self.

Like all Moore's work, it's impossible to say enough about the writing--the language is clever, surprising, evocative, concise, and mildly disturbing. More like a short story than a novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a single whole--consistent, absorbing, transitioning gracefully, seamlessly through time and place. It's a one-sitting book.

Similarly, the classic criticisms of Moore apply to this, as much as to any of her short works. It's pretentious, no doubt. Berie's character is pretty much indistinguishable from any one of Moore's other main characters. And Moore doesn't shy away from displaying her character's flaws, which can render them a bit unsympathetic.

But overall, I really enjoyed this book and remain a huge fan.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Julian Assange: The Book

So, let me get this straight: he changed the face of news media and investigative journalism; he challenged America's most cherished beliefs about watchdogs and freedom of the press...but he needs a traditional publisher for his memoirs? Really?

All I can think is that he'll be too busy overthrowing B of A to worry about alternative book publishing. Because seriously, if there is one person in the world (aside from Oprah) with the resources and reach to make a nonfiction debut into an internet bestseller, it must be Julian Assange.

Priorities....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's the big deal with the estate tax?

So, I know I'm super uber liberal and everything, but I don't get why the estate tax is supposed to be such a good thing.

I mean, yes, I know it was championed by TR (my all time favorite president), I know it's our most "progressive" tax, I know the people who support eliminating it are super-rich and mostly reprehensible. And I do believe that the wealthy should undertake a greater share of the tax burden overall.

But here's what I don't get: haven't people already paid tax on that money? Wouldn't it be both more practical and more just to tax earned income and accruing interest more heavily in the upper tax brackets to begin with?

Added to that, according to NPR, the estate tax has never produced more than 1-2% of federal revenues. And according to the Huffington Post the Democratic alternative is "only a little more irresponsible" than the proposed plan, the difference between $33 billion (Dems) and $68 billion (Reps & Obama)--small change when you're talking Federal budget.

Finally, the current plan (the one Obama negotiated), basically just raises the threshold for paying estate tax from $1 million to $5 million. This doesn't strike me as all that nuts. Remember, this isn't just a tax on liquid assets--it's the entire estate. If you own a small business, a car or two, and a house, your estate can get up close to the $1 million mark pretty fast. Some kinds of life insurance are also taxable under the estate tax, which can easily throw an estate over that threshold.

A $1 million baseline hits the upper middle class, not just the wealthiest 1% of the entire country. Of course, I personally think we'd be pretty safe with a threshold of $2 million instead of $5--but in any case, this is hardly the thing to go to bat over when the >$250k income tax is on the line.

But I still love Bernie Sanders.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

I've finished it--the Super Sad True Love Story. And it only took me four months. I started this great (but grating) satire back in September. I waded through the first half over the course of about two weeks, and then abandoned it for, well, everything else I've written about here. I just picked it back up again. Luckily, according to the experts, "it's the sort of riff-based novel that does particularly well in bite-size pieces." While this probably isn't exactly what Ron Charles had in mind, I finished it, and am writing about it, and that's it.

Set in an only slightly futuristic New York city (like maybe ten years from now), Super Sad True Love Story follows the middle aged, middle income Lenny Abramov through a painfully sentimental romance with beautiful but troubled 24-year-old Eunice Park. The couple meets for one night only in Rome, where Lenny is coming to the end of a year long business trip, unsuccessfully hawking nanotechnology-based youth enhancement to HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and Eunice is indulging in a little post-college travel. Lenny falls instantly, deliriously, pathetically in love; Eunice is bored, but willing enough. The the two reunite in Manhattan through the combined pressure of Lenny's eagerness to see Eunice again, and Eunice's need for a rent-free place to stay.

The novel is epistolary in style, told through Lenny's outmoded journal entries and Eunice's slang-filled emails, chats and "teens" (facebook, in effect). It deals primarily with their relationship (which is sad, in more ways than one), but also with the social tensions that surround them: the impending visit of the Chinese central banker, the encampments of homeless protesters and returning veterans, the armed guards who monitor travel between the burrows, the private armies retained by corporations.

Shteyngart's not-to-distant future is a corporate oligarchy driven by mass consumerism and credit, and populated by such financial monoliths as LandO'LakesGMFordCredit and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit. The American dollar is pegged to the Yuen and the "Governor of the People's Bank of China-Worldwide" is "unofficially the world's most powerful man." American is run by the Bipartisan Party, and all government messages include an "apply and deny" clause: "By reading this message your are denying its existence and implying consent." Service people are veterans, not of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of some equally ill-fated Venezuelan conflict. The entire populace carries iPhone-like mini computers called "apparats" which broadcast credit score and "fuckability" ratings, stream one-man-show-style reality-TV-esque video rants (which have apparently taken the place of both news and drama), and offer the opportunity to shop at such trendy stores as AssLuxury, JuicyPussy and Onionskin (where they sell translucent jeans). Books (irony of ironies, considering I paid $9.00 for the Kindle edition of this one) are valueless.

Critic Laura Miller argues that with Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart offers readers a kinder, gentler satire. Indeed, the author seems to have great empathy for his characters, despite their flaws, and he's put in the effort to make them real and well-rounded, not merely the cardboard cutouts that populate so many satires. Eunice is convincingly complex. Like many 20-something college grads, she's drifting, caught between her desire to do something and her own crippling lack of confidence; her love for her Korean immigrant family, and the pain inflicted by her abusive father; her shallow shopping-based socialization and her impulse to help the homeless protesters in living in the park; her affection for Lenny, and her sense of his inadequacy and strangeness. Lenny, likewise, is a fully fleshed character, and, even more remarkably, one who is capable of change.

I began the book feeling that, while it might be easy to sympathize with and even pity Shteyngart's characters, it would be impossible to actually like them. But, about 3/4 of the way through, I did find myself liking them. I was even anxious about what might happen to them. What started out as a slightly irritating slog had somehow sneaked into my good graces.

Super Sad True Love Story is a good book--a surprisingly good book--but, like the consumerist pop culture it mocks, it may drive you just a little nuts.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Take a tally....

Look's like someone's a little upset about his approval rating.

Well, you know what? I'm a little upset about his attitude. Um...take a tally of campaign promises? Seriously? Well, off the top of my head: the end of the war in Iraq; health care for every American; an end to additional tax breaks for the super-rich; gay marriage. Maybe the president could take a moment to point just one of those things out to me?

Obama is probably lucky he doesn't have to depend on me for justification, because I'm inclined to leave it at that. But, as it turns out, someone actually did take a tally. According to PolitiFact, the president is doing basically what he said he'd do. The site summarizes his success so far as "okay, we will."--which is pretty much exactly what president said of himself (though in somewhat milder terms). He's doing what he said he'd do--but it's going to take more than just two years, and it might not be as bright and shiny as well all imagined.

Of course, what PolitiFact doesn't take into account (what, indeed, it would be almost impossible to quantify) is the relative importance of some of successes and failures, or as the site calls them kept and broken promises. For example, Obama "kept" a promise to implement a "Women Owned Business" contracting program. But he "broke" a promise to institute cap and trade. Now, women owned businesses are laudable, certainly--but are they comparable to cap and trade in terms of impact and implication? To be clear, no one's saying they are--the point is, with this data, how would you know? One promise is weighted the same as any other. Deeper analysis is required.

What I think is so frustrating for anyone left-of-center at this point is not, as Obama seems to think, the concept of compromise. We aren't children (for the most part). We understand that no one gets their own way all the time. It's not even, as the media keeps telling everyone, that Democrats can't seem to stand up to bullying from the GOP--at least not entirely. The real ongoing problem is that whatever they do, the Democrats come off looking kind of bad. It doesn't matter if they're squaring off or trying to negotiate an equitable agreement; if it's possible to put a negative spin on a Democratic action, that's what will happen.

Everyone keeps saying Democrats are bad at politics, but what they're really bad at is PR. Everyone knows the Republican PR machine is consistent, powerful, and pervasive. The Democrats just don't roll that way. They don't all repeat the same phrases in interviews and speeches. They rarely espouse a take-no-prisoners, we're right and everyone else is wrong attitude (even when I think they should). Although many reporters and journalists are probably liberal, we'd never know it since, with the dual (occasionally overlapping) exceptions of actual pundits and people on Fox, they abstain from political activism in the interest of journalistic ethics.

From the outside looking in, it seems that the right is all the same. From my point of view, way off in the western hinterlands, everyone on the left is totally different. I can't listen to "Best of the Left" without getting totally mad at Jay and Thom Hartmann and that winy girl on "Young Turks" who just keeps laughing and agreeing with everything. As the above, clearly illustrates, even Obama can't talk to me in a way that doesn't piss me off.

I cannot honestly imagine how the president managed to generate such a groundswell of support in the first place, much less where it all went to once he settled into the job. Since Obama has continued to do what he said he would, the problem must lie, not in what he does, but in how he does it, or how he communicates it to his constituency.

In closing, for the record: I can't tell you how wrong and how politically stupid I think this decision to compromise with republicans on the >250K tax issue is. Even Obama admits holding out "might be good politics." He tries to spin this decision as a win for the American people, maybe it even is a win--but it feels like a loss. Case in point: PR!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Well, it's official...

...all 42 senate Republicans are assholes.

In case there's any doubt, here's written proof, in letter format.

Now, I realize filibusters have become pretty common in recent years, and especially in recent months. As Rachel Maddow furiously but accurately points out, Republicans already block everything anyway. This letter just marks the subtle transitioned from pattern to policy.

So it's not that this little declaration of war is all that surprising. It's just that the whole thing is so completely repellent. After all this talk of "comprise" this and "adult conversation" that, congressional republican's next move, as a body, is a hostage-style ultimatum.

You know what: that's actually fine. If the the 42 signers of this letter really believe that sustaining the Bush tax cuts for earners making over $250,000 per year is the most important issue our country faces, let them prove it. Let the all the tax cuts expire.

I've written to the white house, as well as Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on this issue, it pisses me off so much. Ugh!