Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Critic Thinking

Writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph Luzzi considers why some eminent critics have gotten it wrong when it comes to negative first judgments of works later held in high esteem.

Sometimes, he notes, some famed critics slammed work that would later be well-respected, or work that others considered such in which the critic went against the tide of approval. Voltaire, for one, derided Shakespeare, Dante and Jean-Jaques Rousseau, which amounts to two clean misses and a foul tip. He didn't do it because he hated them personally, except for Rousseau, since the other two men had died centuries before Voltaire was born. So why, Luzzi asks, and considers some other misjudgments as well in seeking out a reason.

Eventually, he supposes that the works so misunderstood represented a new direction of literature, poetry or thinking that critics didn't recognize or appreciate. Only after some time had passed were these disruptive works seen in their proper light. It doesn't explain why Voltaire hated Dante and Shaespeare, but then there were a lot of things Voltaire said that make no sense, like Candide or The Maid of Orleans.

One possibility that Luzzi overlooks is that the critics who lambaste material later considered great were the ones who got it right and the majority opinion got it wrong. Some of his cited examples were indeed mistaken assessments. William Wordsworth is an important poet, and Francis Jeffrey got him wrong. But at least one is dead on target: Anne L. Goodman said Catcher in the Rye stinks, and she's right. Holden Caulfield's adolescent angst is wearying for anyone over 25 and is all the more annoying for playing into that age group's belief that their insights represent something more profound than they will be able to have when they are older and less innocent.

That might be the kind of re-assessment some well-known works need, too. A careful examination to see if the emperor's new clothes are as real as the deceitful tailor has said they are.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bah! Humbug!

Today is Presidents' Day in the United States, a day originally supposed to celebrate the birth of the first president, George Washington. He was born February 22, 1732, although when he was actually born it was known as February 11, 1731 because England and its colonies were using the Julian Calendar and because dates before March 25 were considered part of the previous year.

The switch to the modern Gregorian Calendar happened in 1752, and the birthday migrated to the date we use today. No word on whether or not Washington tried to swing two birthdays a year; we know he was scrupulously honest but he would not have been lying to call either day his birthday since each of them was according to different calendars. Today would be February 7, 2016 if we were using the system under which Washington was born, but we would have already had the election either way so at least we wouldn't have that mess to do again.

Anyway, Washington's birthday was made a Washington, D.C. federal workers' holiday in 1879. In 1885, it became a federal holiday in all national government offices. Back in those sensible times, folks had the quaint idea of celebrating Washington's birthday on -- get this -- his birthday, Feb. 22. Government by 1971 had become much more sensible, instituting the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that mandated federal holidays be on certain Mondays of their respective months in order to create more three-day weekends, It is tempting to blame this on then-President Richard Nixon, but the Act was actually passed in 1968 and is therefore one more thing caused by the 60s. The act set the Washington's Birthday holiday as the third Monday in February, guaranteeing that it would be between the 15th and 21st and never fall on Washington's birthday. The 60s made a lot of people fuzzy about dates.

The migrating date and the proximity to Abraham Lincoln's birthday (February 12, 1809) began to move us towards considering the day "Washington and Lincoln's Birthday" as it is observed in several states and then "Presidents' Day," which honors all the men who have served in the office.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, suggests the day be eliminated entirely as a holiday. He notes that by morphing it into "Presidents Day," we celebrate some real zeroes in the White House and some men who, charitably, are less than zero. I'd be on board with this. If I'm going to pay for Joe and Jane Bureaucrat to have a day off, it at least ought to be in the summer when they can post stupid drunken beach selfies and amuse the rest of us.

Or it at least ought to celebrate the two top presidents we've ever had, Washington and Lincoln. There have been some other great ones and some pretty good ones who've earned a tip of the cap and a heartfelt thanks for your service. And there have been plenty who have earned having the door held open for them while decent folk chuck them out on the seat of their pants. But those two men -- the one who in more ways than we realize helped shape our republic and the one who managed to hold it together -- stand head and shoulders above the crowd. None of the others come close.

And while I'm at it I'm taking Tom and Teddy off Rushmore too. Jefferson was an excellent president and in some senses one of the greats, but he wasn't George-and-Abe level. Roosevelt got some good things done, but he was also one of the instigators of the expansion of the role of government. His successors took things way past where he would have ever gone, but they couldn't have if he hadn't helped start the engine. And he's on Rushmore because he was the best Republican in the White House between Lincoln and the monument's design in the mid-20s; Calvin Coolidge was in office then and would not have approved a statue of himself.

Williamson sees the elimination of the holiday as a way to try to reduce the "unelected king" atmosphere that's increasingly surrounded the presidency since the middle of the 20th century. The undisguised fawning over former President Obama and current President Trump is an extreme example of the problem, approaching worship, but we've been becoming more and more deferential to someone we've hired to run our country for some time.

So rename the holiday Washington-Lincoln Day and if someone wants to think special thoughts about the nation's chief executive they can do it on October 16. And federal employees can show their appreciation by showing up for work.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Continuing Story...

Barry Eisler's John Rain series got a makeover a few years ago when he regained the rights to the first six books and reprinted them with his preferred titles. He had turned down a contract with a press for the next book in the series and continued it with the self-pubished The Detachment on Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint in 2011. It's not certain that he should have.

The first six books of the series traced a character arc as the assassin Rain started to come to terms with what his work had cost him personally. His few close friends led him to question whether or not he should continue what he was doing. This doesn't spoil anything, but 2007's The Killer Ascendant brought the arc to a solid close.

So Eisler has to take a few pages at the beginning of The Detachment to undo everything he'd done up until that point, giving short shrift to characters and resolutions readers had spent several hundred pages following. Once that's done, he sets up a pretty shallow rationale for Rain and his partner Dox to join up with two more Eisler characters, Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, to hear out a proposal from intelligence guru Scott Horton: take on three assassinations that will cripple a conspiracy that seeks to scare the United States into martial law with horrific terror attacks. Rain doesn't trust Horton, but the chance to prevent hundreds if not thousands of innocent deaths and somehow make up for the misery he's caused pushes him into the job. It isn't long before he figures out that mistrusting Horton was probably the right move, and the lesson could cost him and Dox their lives.

The Detachment's action scenes are top-notch, as Eisler uses his own training in martial arts to aid descriptions of its hand-to-hand fights. But the plot is pretty ridiculous and its main engine requires Rain to shift into stupidity overdrive in order to get moving. A reader can get the impression that even Eisler is saying "Oh, c'mon!" to himself at one or another turn things take. Rain's introspection takes over in too many places, veering close to placing our assassin on an analyst's couch.

Graveyard of Memories, the eighth John Rain book, is a prequel of sorts that's set before the series' beginning. That might be the right take, as The Detachment makes a good pitch that the John Rain novels haven't much more future than one of his targets.
John Sandford's Virgil Flowers has had to handle some oddball cases as we've read him over the years, but two tigers stolen from the Minneapolis Zoo may top them all in 2016's Escape Clause. Traditional Chinese "medicines" use body parts of tigers, so the clock is ticking on whether or not Virgil can find them before they're killed and dismembered for processing.

He's also got to worry about his girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle, who's shown up unexpectedly with her boyfriend, a priest who is celibate only when he's not on sabbatical like he is now. She's investigating companies that exploit migrant labor, and she's cute enough to make Frankie remind Virgil she carries a knife.

There's probably about a short story's worth of real plot in Escape Clause, as whole sections of the book seem like times when Sandford decided to throw some funny lines and goofball characters on the page for grins. The B-plot with Sparkle does nothing important and manages to gum up the forward movement of the main tiger-theft narrative. B-plots are no problem in most books, but when the main storyline is a ticking-clock kind of construct, then their digressions aren't so welcome.

Sandford still remains a rarity among a lot of crime writers in that his criminals are not suave super-geniuses but generally rather dumb people looking for a short cut to get what they want. If they thought a little harder, they'd either come up with a better short cut or realize there wasn't one, but they don't. And because they start out kind of dumb, sooner or later they make a dumb mistake that leads Virgil straight towards them. It's a welcome change from all of the Lecter-wannabes that reign in the bestseller lists, but that difference is about all Escape Clause has going for it.
John Wells remains the only CIA operative who ever successfully penetrated Al Qaeda, but that was a long time ago and most of what he's done with the agency since then has been as himself. He's also begun something of a domestic life with his ex-fianceé Anne and their daughter Emmie, which is where we find him when The Prisoner opens.

But someone at the top levels of the CIA is selling out secrets that are getting agents and assets killed. It's only a matter of time before one of those secrets causes something catastrophic to happen on the level of a September 11 attack -- or worse. So when Wells is called, he reluctantly returns to service. The plan: infiltrate Afghanistan and adopt a cover as a jihadi and get himself captured, to be sent to a secret prison site that houses top terrorist operatives who may have clues as to the mole's identity. In order for the plan to work only the commander of the prison guard can know who Wells really is, so he may be in as much danger from his own side as he is from his enemies.

Berenson writes with a style that's clean and straightforward enough not to stall the narrative but still has an elegance a lot of spy novels lack. He offers plausible motives for most of his cast and the resolution of the different plot threads follows directly from their movement forward. The Prisoner features several great action set pieces, including a taut prologue that highlights some of the problems the mole is causing.

But he's done a lot of this before. Wells has an adult son from a previous marriage, who's made clear that Wells too often abandoned family for work before. The "only the warden knows" undercover operation happened at least once in just about every 1970s and 1980s cop and crime show and Berenson doesn't bring anything new with it here. There might be some new things to do with John Wells, the spy who actually converted to Islam while undercover, but Berenson doesn't bring any of them up in The Prisoner.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Southern Exposure

The above picture is a view of Jupiter from high above its South Pole. It's from the Juno probe currently hanging around our solar system's largest planet, running measurements and taking snapshots.

The view is one we've never seen before. With the exception of Pluto and Uranus, all of the planets in our solar system (Shut up! It is so a planet!) orbit the sun in what's called the "invariable plane" of the solar system oriented more or less like we are. Pluto varies widely from this plane, and Uranus is tilted so far over (more than 90 degrees) that it would look more like it was rolling around the sun rather than orbiting. At a tilt of 177 degrees, Venus is upside down.

But since the rest of us are on about the same plane, with not much more than 5 degrees difference in our orbital paths, it's impossible for us to get an angle that shows the top or bottom of any of the other planets from any of our earthly vantage points. It takes satellite missions that are designed to alter their orbits every now and again to look at parts of the planets we can't see.

Which in Jupiter's case we technically haven't done. As a gas giant, Jupiter has an incredibly huge, thick and dense atmosphere through which we cannot see. Whatever is solid deep inside that later remains a mystery to us and probably will for some time. It would take a satellite to dive down into the atmosphere, yes, but one a whole lot tougher than anything we can make now to survive the extreme winds, temperatures and pressures of the Jovian atmosphere.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where Have You Gone, Professor Kingsfield?

There is something called the United States Court of International Trade, and it recently handed down a decision on an issue that involved actual lawyers and judges spending actual time in court. I say that because when I tell you what issue was at hand, you will not believe it was a real thing.

Snuggies are blankets and not anything like priestly vestments, Judge Mark Barnett ruled.

If you need reminding, Snuggies are the "blankets with sleeves" which are advertised on television as a handy way to cover up with a blanket and still be able to use your arms without exposing them to the frigid air from which the blanket protects you. The United States Justice Department, which you would think would have some better things to do, had argued that Snuggies were in fact garments. The wide, flowing sleeves and long gown-like construction, the department said, was similar to academic robes or the cassocks or robes worn by some religious groups.

Judge Barnett noted that academic garments usually close in the back -- which, considering the sedentary lifestyle of a high percentage of academics, is something for which one may give thanks. Priestly vestments may close in the back instead of the front, but they actually do have closures and the Snuggie does not.

You are perhaps wondering exactly why this is a matter before the United States Court of International Trade. Well, Snuggies are imported rather than made in this country,  although probably not for long once someone tells President Trump about them. The department of Customs and Border Protection -- which also, you would think, would have some better things to do -- ruled they were garments. The company that imported them sued the government for this suggestion and thus, someone at the Justice Department who will probably not include this case on his résumé got the job of trying to convince a judge that Snuggies were just like a priest's or professor's robe.

So why did the Customs and Border protection office make such a ruling? Were they attempting to protect the domestic blanket industry against the incursion of this sleeved infiltrator? Did a Congressman have a brother-in-law in the hospital gown manufacturing biz who'd gotten a deal on some red polyester fleece and was looking to turn it over? Nope. Were they just opposed to the idea in general, figuring that there were already things called sweaters and sweatshirts in the world? Nope again.

Imported blankets carry import duties of 8.5 percent of the cost. Imported garments carry import duties of 14.9 percent. Uncle Sam was fine with you buying Grandma a nice little gift she could use to watch TV and not turn the thermostat up to Mohorovičić discontinuity levels. He just wasn't fine with taking less than 10 percent of the money.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nobody Saw Me Do It, And You Can't Prove Anything.

I am sure that many of you who saw this notice about a theft of rare books immediately suspected me. Thanks, but I'm not that clever.

Actually, the person who is suspected of ordering the books be stolen is known as "The Astronomer." Which means this whole scenario is being transferred into Final Draft files in at least a dozen Hollywood basements even as we speak.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Slumbers Rouse

Over the last two or three days, pitchers and catchers have been reporting for spring training. Position players will arrive within the next couple of weeks.

And the sun did look a little brighter today, I believe. Hope it did for you, too.