Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Peter Baker's balanced history of the Bush years (2001-2009) recalls all those great journalistic "you are there" accounts of the presidency from yesteryear.  Baker contends Cheney's influence in the White House never had the cache the media placed upon it.  Most of the book deals with the aftermath of 9/11: a life changing day for Bush and one of grim determination for Cheney.  For what it lacks in historical perspective, Days of Fire explains with painstaking detail the inner workings of the Bush years although some crucial questions go unanswered.

Baker begins the book with a parallel biography of Bush and Cheney before they joined forces in the 2000 campaign.  A native of Wyoming, Cheney flunked out of Yale briefly worked as lineman for the electric company.  Like Bush, he enjoyed drinking, cleaned up his act, and dived into politics.  A protege of Donald Rumsfeld, hawkish Cold Warrior with presidential ambitions, Cheney rose quickly in the post-Watergate Ford administration.  A ruthless bureaucratic warrior, Cheney knew how to stifle dissent in the ranks.  During the Bush 41 administration he ran the defense department and oversaw the first Gulf War.  He opposed marching into Baghdad fearing it would create chaos in the Middle East.

Cheney's grim determination rattle America's saber at any country wore thin. He imagined himself as an American Churchill, evidenced by his personal library.  But Churchill knew about war at firsthand. Would Cheney have thought differently if he had been in the military?

Bush's path to the White House can be read as a natural outcome or a historical fluke.  The son of a President from a powerful political family rooted in the Eastern Establishment, the last name Bush carried weight among the power brokers.  Up until age 40, Bush worked for his father and dabbled in the oil business. He built his reputation as the popular owner of the Texas Rangers and defeated a popular incumbent governor. Bush popularized the term compassionate conservatism, a series of initiatives encouraging the private sector to bring about reforms in education and poverty.  Unlike his father, he declared himself a born again Christian and had a distaste for Washington politics.

Baker provides a dramatic account of September 11, 2001.  Bush appeared confused and indecisive at first, but regained his footing.  Cheney immediately set his sights on Iraq, convinced they were building nuclear weapons.  The war cabinet unleashed the CIA and pursued a policy of no quarter when it came to terrorism.  The initial invasion of Afghanistan went smoother than planned despite their failure to capture Bin Laden.  Meanwhile the administration passed the Patriot Act, a reversion to the bad old days where any form of dissent spelled social ostracism, even more ominous in age resembling 1984.

Baker never provides a satisfactory answer as to why Bush and Cheney decided to invade Iraq.  To a thinking observer, linking Iraq to 9/11 made no sense. Did Bush have a personal vendetta against Saddam?  A drive to right his father's mistakes? Isn't this armchair psychology?  Does history hinge on such interpersonal minutia?  Maybe?  

The immediate justification, to prevent the regime from attaining "weapons of mass destruction", came back to haunt them.  Were larger issues of geopolitics involved?  Great game diplomacy?  Later on, the administration's rhetoric linked the war to spreading democracy in the Middle East. Whatever the logic that went into their decision, the consequences were grave.

After Bush won reelection in 2004, Cheney's influence declined significantly. Condoleezza Rice, always close to Bush, took a more moderate approach to foreign policy.  The second term saw one disaster after another as Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, Hurricane Katrina, a more aggressive Russia, and the 2008 economic collapse.  

Bush admitted to feeling emotionally drained by the end.  Who can blame him?  In his final week in the office, Cheney requested a pardon for former aide "Scooter" Libby. Bush refused.  The image of Cheney groveling to his boss reads like something in The Godfather - Tessio begging Mike for one more favor before going to the chopping block.

Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days on JFK emphasized heroism and political leadership, I miss those types of histories.  Accounts of Bush and Cheney (and their successors) will focus on their corporate mindsets and overblown rhetoric of 2002-03.  But I digress, whether you agree or disagree, Days of Fire will shed light on Bush/Cheney years.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What We Talk About, When We Talk About Pynchon . . . Marc Maron and Paul Thomas Anderson

This past week filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for a fascinating two hour interview on WTF with Marc Maron.  While they discussed the many highlights of Anderson's career such as the making of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, they also shuffled around the subject of Thomas Pynchon.  For Anderson has directed the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice, which has gone into wide release this week.

Of all modern writers, Pynchon holds a special mystique.  Few photographs exist of him and he's never granted an interview or made a public appearance.  Nevertheless, his fiction has made a profound mark on the culture.  Every novel is a fun house maze where no one is who they appear to be.  Full of oddball humor and allusions to every subject imaginable, they stare directly into the abyss of "the system."

I recall reading The Crying of Lot 49 sometime after college.  It left a vivid impression. Where does one even go for an analogy?  Imagine a Twilight Zone story concocted by David Lynch done with the elan of a Chaplin film.  

I've made several failed attempts at Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon's 1973 novel of 700+ pages on rockets, mind control, twisted Nazis and many, many other things.  I shouldn't feel too bad, Anderson also admitted to having been unable to finish Gravity's Rainbow, although he has expressed interest in adapting the impossible novel to the screen.  

Later I moved on to his debut novel V, a hypnotic tale about randomness and history, a bit of Jack Kerouac and Graham Greene. Pynchon's short story collection, Slow Learner, would be a great staring point for anyone new to his work.  The story, "Entropy," seems a blueprint for the future novels.  

Pynchon took a hiatus from publishing novels between 1973-90 and reemerged with Vineland, a California novel set in the mid 80s pitting an aging hippy against a sadistic FBI agent.  I've yet to read the recent novels: Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge.   

Therefore the release of Inherent Vice is something of an event. When Maron pressed Anderson on whether Pynchon took part in pre-production, he refused to answer with any specificity, "I can't be honest on that question."  When queried on what Inherent Vice is about, Anderson replied, "It's about Pynchon."

So, what do we talk about, when we talk about Pynchon?  Maron summed it as follows: the politics of drugs, the end of the 60s, politics of subversion, the stakes of being a provocateur and the fate of a sell out.  And finally to the question: What is reality anyway? And does it matter in the end?

Maron asked Anderson on whether he's got a response from Pynchon and he sheepishly replied, "I'm waiting on the call."  Anderson then spoke of their being "a weird agreement between them."  To which Maron interjected, "You've become a Pynchon character!"

Maron brought the right attitude to the interview.  Anderson is arguably the best director of his generation and their discussion gave insight into his creative process. I look forward to reading and watching Inherent Vice.

Anderson also talked about having David Foster Wallace as an English teacher at Emerson College back in the 80s.  Coincidentally, Wallace also held Pynchon in high regard. Anderson recalled Wallace being the one teacher he admired and calling him up one night to discuss Don Delillo's novel White Noise.  Another Pynchonian moment!

We now live (or maybe it's always been like this) in a Pynchon world. The year 2015 is the right time, maybe the only time, his work will grace the big screen.  Our brave new world, ever more reliant on technology, paradoxically connects us all, and yet leaves so many feeling disconnected.  And the paradoxes just keep piling up.  Meanwhile unseen chaos happens in the shadows.  And meanwhile . . . A Screaming Across the Sky
Thomas Pynchon once appeared on The Simpsons.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A Yuppie Epic

Franzen's artfully structured novel traces the varying fortunes of the Berglund's, a Midwestern family adrift in 21st century America.  Be cautioned, his characters are unlikable.  Neither are they dull. Franzen's hard on them and lets the reader into deepest parts of their psyches.

Walter Berglund, the family's patriarch, works as a lawyer in Minneapolis.  He gave up his film making aspirations in favor of the law.  Walter wants to educate the masses on overpopulation and raise the perfect family.  His wife Patty, former basketball star at the University of Minnesota, settles uneasily into her role as wife and mother.  

I found Patty to be the most sympathetic character.  On the surface she is a typical suburban wife you see jogging on the sidewalk.  Through flashbacks, the reader learns about the unspoken pressures placed on her, usually by the men in her life. Her choices and actions drive much of the novel.

As liberal parents Walter and Patty are troubled by their son Joey, who loves capitalism with fervent passion.  Joey's qualities are like the boomer's worst nightmare of a millennial: a freakish confidence, tech savvy, in love with money, basically a smug asshole.  He makes a fortune though selling defective equipment to the army, but he made a profit and that's all that matters.  Right?  

Richard Katz, Walter's best friend from college, is a middling punk rocker who finally hits the big time in the 2000s.  Richard serves as Franzen's sardonic mouthpiece on American pop culture.  Of all the characters, I found Walter the most interesting, but hardly sympathetic.  Possibly Franzen's alter ego?  Don't miss the passage when Richard attends an Indie Rock concert- which he views as an orgy of young white conformity, united by their passionate (and sophisticated) consumerism and ironic detachment about it all.  

Ideas, specifically ideas about freedom, are the crucial theme.  How should one take advantage of their freedom?  Such dilemmas can wreak havoc, one at the heart of the American experience I suppose?  What happens when your own idea of freedom clashes with others ideas of freedom?  It never ends well.  Sections dealing with fracking, overpopulation, the war in Iraq, terrorism all tie into the FREEDOM theme.

Franzen paints wonderful portraits.  He's often criticized for writing only about rich white people (yuppies). I get it, his Midwest is foreign to my own experience.  But whether you're writing about Chinese peasants in the 17th century, Welsh coal miners in the 1930s, or Brazilian truck drivers in the 1950s - well drawn characters and a story can make all the difference - regardless of class and social setting.

To be honest, I probably skimmed the last 100 pages, I'd had enough of the Berglunds by that point.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

New History Wars in Colorado

Over the past two weeks High School students in Littleton, Colorado have protested the School Board's attempt to revise changes made to the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. The new curriculum questions the traditional narrative common in textbooks with titles like, "The March of Freedom."  Conservatives see the new material as being too "negative" with units on slavery, oppression of women, the displacement of Native Americans, robber barons, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the disco era etc . . They favor content with a triumphant narrative emphasizing the genius of a free market system, glorious military victories, and "respect for authority."

Battles over history are nothing new. The culture wars of the 1990s came to a fever pitch in 1992 over the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. The once gallant explorer suddenly found himself reduced to an amoral opportunist who introduced genocide, disease, and racism to the New World. Battle lines were drawn. Nowadays, Columbus Day looms as a day of trendy moral outrage and social awkwardness.

Most historians now recognize grand narratives of the past exist only in the imagination of the historian who writes them. You get a version of the truth, but nothing close to "the truth."  Therefore, the teaching of history has evolved into a maze of contradictions and red herrings. Since the 19th century, historians of all stripes have used history to advance political agendas and therein lies the anxiety in this debate.

The fear of indoctrination drives conservative advocates crazy. They suspect a “Progressive” agenda to brainwash students into believing the government is the answer to every social ill. Sure, a curriculum exploring negative aspects of history could lead to a political awakening. But a new generation of bleeding heart lefties? It’s no more indoctrinating than fiercely pro-capitalist, Reagan worshiping material that glosses over the difficult questions.

As Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus observed, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I partly agree. To explore the past takes fortitude and an open mind. But don’t fall into despair like Stephen. I applaud the students of Jefferson County taking a stand against a sanitized history curriculum. I would also tell them, don't rely too much on "the system" to set the record straight on the past. Go out and read a few history books on your own. Travel to a historical site. Ask a living person about a historical event.  Get diverse points of view.  And finally, realize history is part of the path to self-knowledge.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

Ever since the demise of The Beatles in 1970 much of the blame unfairly fell on Paul McCartney.  Many critics championed John Lennon as the sole creative force behind the band. Tom Doyle's new book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is a sympathetic account of McCartney's struggle to win respect and regain his identity as a solo artist.

Doyle's portrait of McCartney is that of a level headed person in manic pursuit of new creative challenges.  After the Beatles broke up he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and rarely left his farm in Scotland, "For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless . . . He was 27 and suddenly of no use to anyone anymore" (3).  Days and nights were spent drinking to relieve his depression.  Eventually he snapped out of it and returned to songwriting, starting his own band Wings.

Ian MacDonald's epic history of The Beatles Revolution in the Head concluded all the ex-Beatles failed as solo artists.  That's a harsh conclusion and one in need of reevaluation. McCartney released nine albums of varying quality in the 1970s, with many hit singles in between (far more than his old bandmates).  After a string of mediocre albums, which critics joyously ripped apart, Band on the Run (1973) proved a critical and commercial breakthrough.

Doyle's colorful account of the Band on the Run sessions, an album produced in Lagos, Niger, are a high point in the book.  Paul, Linda, their children spent seven weeks in a war torn region of Africa making the album.  One day Paul and Linda ventured out and were robbed at knife point. They also lost their demo tapes and had to rewrite the songs from memory.  One day in the studio, Paul had a panic attack and had to be rushed to a hospital (possibly brought on by excessive marijuana use). Also, local musicians resented Westerners making music in their country. Ever the diplomat, Paul diffused the situation by inviting them to the studio and convincing them he had no intention to rip them off.

Band on the Run produced the hit singles "Band on the Run,"  "Jet", "Helen Wheels", and "Bluebird" which all became staples of FM radio.  Now over forty years old, the album manages to recapture the spirit of a Beatles record.

Paul found stability in his marriage to photographer Linda Eastman and their five children. In 1976, Wings embarked on a triumphant arena tour of America, performing before 67,000 at the Seattle Kingdome.  The tour produced a massive live album, Wings Over America.  

As the decade came to a close, the momentum of Wings screeched to a halt.  Their 1978 LP London Town, a collection of soft rock tunes recorded on a yacht, made them sound completely out of touch. Punk and New Wave were reinventing popular music. Nevertheless, they scored yet another hit with the folkie, "Mull of Kintyre."

A major portion of the biography covers the parallel course of John Lennon.  That's the sad part of the story. Doyle believes the two of them never achieved a reconciliation following their bitter break up.  On Lennon's Imagine album he chided McCartney on "How do you Sleep" with digs like "a pretty face may last a year or two/pretty soon they'll see what you can do."  In interviews, Lennon was less than kind to his old partner.

In 1974, John and Paul hung out in L.A. and played together in a drunken jam session and did consider working together again.  In 1976, Saturday Night Live offered The Beatles $500 to perform live on the show. Coincidentally, Paul was visiting John and Yoko that night and they briefly considered taking up the offer (a night fictionalized in the TV movie Two of Us).  Alas, Lennon-McCartney, never wrote another song, much to Paul's regret.

The death of Lennon left him devastated.  A flood of death threats forced McCartney and his family to avoid public appearances for a time.  In 1981 Wings disbanded, and Paul released the inventive solo record McCartney II.  In 1982 he wrote his own tribute to Lennon, "Here Today."  

 Man on the Run fills a much needed gap in the ever increasing catalog of Beatles literature.  After finishing, you may want to dust off those old Wings records and give them another chance.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns

The mid 1980s saw the release of two classic graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Both works complement each other and cover similar themes of political corruption, mass media culture, and the fascist subtext in superhero comics.  Although Christopher Nolan's film trilogy did not directly adapt the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's influence reigns over those pictures.

The story follows a world weary Bruce Wayne who chose to stand by as Gotham City descended into a dystopia.  The crime rate skyrocketed.  Batman's one man crusade against criminals appears to have been in vain.  And he's not been seen in ten years. Many believe the Batman's a myth. A terrifying group of criminals known as the mutants are terrorizing the city.  Meanwhile, Batman's longtime nemesis the Joker is about to be released from the sanatorium for good behavior.  Even the Man of Steel appears as an unlikely villain.

In Miller's world, Superman still stands for the same values of truth, justice, and the American way - and that's the problem!  For Superman is the Reagan administration's enforcer of justice and moral values. He's on the side of big business and the military-industrial complex - he went establishment!  When Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement, the government decides to crack down on his one man crusade against the criminal underworld.

Miller's vision remains more relevant than ever.  A recurring theme is the the mind numbing effect of 24 hour news coverage.  The media plays on the people's fears for ratings. Doubts are also raised about Batman's psyche: Does he truly care about the people or does he do it because he enjoys inflicting punishment?  There's an unsettling vibe in the story of living under the incessant dread of catastrophe.  

As far as superhero stories go, you'll find nothing better.  Miller wrote a classic.  The artwork's iconic and groundbreaking.  The Dark Knight Returns has not dated one iota.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

In Harvey Pekar's final graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, he attempted to resolve his conflicting feelings towards the state of Israel.  Raised by Zionists in post-war Cleveland, Pekar grew up with a clear belief in Israel's mission to be a homeland for all Jews. With artist J.T. Waldman, Pekar accomplished two things: 1) an overview of Jewish history 2) chronicled his own evolving views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  While he's proud of the resilience and courage of the Jews to survive and uphold their traditions in the face of incredible adversity through the ages, he no longer considered himself a Zionist.

The turning point for Pekar came the after the Six Day War of 1967. After quickly throwing back a combined attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel began to expand it's borders and establish settlements.  Pekar wondered how an oppressed people could be okay with oppressing another group with an equal claim on the land?                                     
Aftermath of the Six Day War

Pekar and Waldman have no answers for these complex questions of history, politics, and religion.  However, both agree there must be some solution out there.  Waldman observed, "It's like everyone's view on the subject is so entrenched that no one bothers talking about it anymore."  True.  Today, consumers want news that conforms to their worldview.  Anything that goes against their view is written off as nonsense.  The wall to wall coverage of the recent troubles in Israel reports the day to day events as if they exist in a vacuum.  Any opinion on these matters requires a strong knowledge of the root causes.

A personal anecdote.  In college, I studied mostly American and European history. As an undergrad, I took a survey course on the Middle East.  Although the professor admitted a bias for the Palestinians, the course was informative and insightful.  A few years later, in grad school, I had a professor who wanted it known to anyone within earshot he gave financial support to the Arabs and on more than one occasion I heard him indulge in ugly rants against Israel ( he was a white male American who taught American labor history) One day he asked me point blank if I supported Palestine.  

To be honest, I never had a strong view on the matter.  The history fascinated me and I'd always sympathized and admired the Jews.  I recalled reading about President Harry Truman's decision in 1948 to support Israel, an act I viewed as an act of political courage. At it's best, isn't America about helping the underdog?  Anyway, the professor looked at me as if I had said something hateful.  After that he ignored me in class. Despite his rudeness, I thanked him on the last day of class and he coldly told me, "Too bad I got stuck with a student like you."  There's nothing like rude awakening on how "entrenched" people, even educated ones, refuse to hear the other side.

I'd highly endorse this book for anyone looking for some historical perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The illustrations are vivid and capture the sweep of history and how it directly compares to the present.