Archive for December, 2013
JD sent me this in e mail
And although I’d already seen the Conly book reviewed in NYRB, and posted the review here, I thought I’d put this out for people to see.
I’ve spent the early morning handing in my grades and trying to explain to students that, no, you can’t make up 8 papers on the day after the term ends.
So I’m depressed.
is an article by Cathy Young, one of my favorite writers.
Okay, so I’ve been thinking about it some more. I think I’ve gotten it a little more straightened out in my head.
First, I’d say we’re still talking about luck, at least at base.
The African-America teenager who gets followed around Nordstroms because the security guard automatically suspects him of being a shoplifter would not be so followed around if he was a citizen of, say, Botswana.
That is as much the luck of the draw as being born genetically capable of growing up to look like Gene Tierney at twenty.
But the bigger issue, to me, is that the common usage of the word “privileged” implies that the “privileged” person is part of a small group that gets special treatment not available to the vast majority of his fellow citizens.
But the problem of the Hispanic guy being followed around Nordstoms or the black guy being pulled over by the cops far more often than a white guy is not a matter of some small group of people having a “privilege” that is not available to the rest of us.
Rather, not being so pulled over or followed is the default setting–it’s what most people have most of the time. It is, in other words, normal.
The Hispanic guy and the black teenager aren’t treated the way they are treated because some small group of other people have “privilege.”
If store clerks started following white women around the store and the police started stopping white motorists as often as black ones, no justice would have been achieved for anybody. We would simply have a situation in which everybody was being treated unjustly, and there would be no progress at all toward more justice for the black and Hispanic guys.
Like it or not, framing this issue as a matter of “privilege” implies that you want not to improve the condition of the minorities involved in this equation, but worsen the condition of everybody else. And it is a vast majority of everybody else.
And as soon as the general public gets the idea that that’s what you want to do, your chance of improving the level of justice afforded to the black and Hispanic guys goes out the window.
And this is not because the majority is racist and self-serving. It’s because it’s a moral imperative that every person value and protect his own life and with it his own rights and liberties. He can voluntarily agree to forgo such protection, but it would have to be voluntary.
It is never morally licit for us to demand that other people sacrifice themselves.
And it is certainly never licit for us to sacrifice them against their wills for the benefit of third parties (never mind ourselves).
All justice is individual and the first rule of moral behavior–pace Peter Singer–is that we must always treat fellow human beings as ends in themselves and not as the means to the ends of others.
Because of that, I am not as sanguine as Robert is that the tendency to follow the Hispanic guy around or stop the black guy more often is an acceptable trade off between rights and safety in the world we live in now.
What I do think I know is that fixing that situation–the unusual situation in which blacks and Hispanics find themselves these days vis a vis police and other security forces–will not and cannot be solved by people who are treated normally pretending that such normality is a “privilege” that they have illicitly acquired and behaving like nuns in a Chapter of Faults, scouring their consciences for every minute imperfection.
That’s what that reminds me of, all that “check your privilege” stuff. Nuns sitting in chapter and making a list of all their “imperfections against the Rule,” no matter how minor, out loud and in front of everybody they live with.
The process is very similar to the re education techniques of totalitarian societies. We might want to skip this kind of thing.
The problem with fixing this kind of thing is that it is operating on a level that isn’t really capable of rational fixes.
I was thinking about this during the whole George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin thing.
Now, the actual Florida law is and was such an incompetently framed mess that Zimmerman would practically have had to burst in on Martin while Martin was asleep in bed and fill him full of holes before he could fail to be acquitted.
But it’s possible that even with a law written with some semblance of common sense, Zimmerman might still have been acquitted, under what I think of as the Bernie Goetz paradigm.
In case you don’t remember, Bernie Goetz was the man who shot four black teenagers on a subway train in 1984, alledging that the way in which they approached him was a clear indication of their intent to mug him.
The result was like a replay of a Death Wish movie. The jury refused to convict him on any charge but that of carrying a concealed weapon, and half the city lauded him as a hero.
As far as the New York Times was concerned, this was proof that the entire city of New York was deep-dyed racist, but I doubt that was the problem at all.
The problem was that most of the people watching the Goetz trial and reading about the circumstances of the assault had had personal experiences the kind of behavior Goetz said made him believe the boys were about to mug him–and, in those experiences, lots of people had in fact been mugged.
In other words, when Goetz said he feared for his safety because of the way the boys were behaving, people believed him and believed he was being reasonable. Most people saw that behavior as a credible threat.
(The way it worked was this: you’d be sitting on a mostly empty subway train with the conductor nowhere in sight. A group of adolescent males, usually at least three, would walk up to your seat in the car and surround you. They would crowd in around you and start demanding money. Got five dollars? Give me five dollars? If you took out your wallet to give them five dollars, they took the wallet. If you refused, the whole thing could get very physical very fast.)
Enough of the population of the city of New York at that point had either been the victim of one of these attacks, or had a friend or relative who had, or had witnessed one, that when Goetz described the behavior, it sounded more than credible.
Most of these people–most of the city–believed that if they had themselves been caught in this circumstances (surrounded by a group of young black males on an almost deserted subway car) they would have been perfectly within their rights and within the bounds of reason and common sense to fear for their safety.
Now, justice is individual–not every young black man, or group of young black men, on the NYC subways in the early 1980s was bent on stealing people’s wallets and/or beating them up. And assuming that every such young black male or group of males was so intending is certainly unjust.
It’s also inevitable in a way that cannot be stopped ever, anywhere.
Not a single person who saw Goetz’s defense as credible had to have a racist bone in his body.
All he had to do was live in NYC and ride the subways at a time when these attacks were being carried out virtually exclusively by young black males.
(By the way–nobody who was not shot by Bernie Goetz or not perceived to be a threat for mounting such an attack was “privileged” in any way. In fact, if there was any “privilege” as the word was used in that FB discussion, it belonged to the young black males, who could largely ride the NYC subways without fear. They didn’t have to worry that anybody would attack them. That’s why the Goetz case was so huge. The victims were not supposed to fight back, and no other victim ever did.)
After the Trayvon Martin case had really gotten going, I found myself struck beyond words–okay, I’m never beyond words–by the local news.
During that period of three or four months, there were at least two dozen violent crimes reported in the state of CT (in the news, not just the police blotters).
And of those crimes, all but two were committed by young African American males.
The percentage was similar on the national level.
There was a point where I began to wonder if somebody was doing it on purpose–as if a whole slew of people were determined to prove all the stereotypes right.
I am not saying here that it is at all right or just for people to look at young minority men and automatically assume they’re criminal.
I am saying it might be almost impossible to stop it as long as what we see is what we see.
The assumption does not need to be in any way racist. To be racist, it would have to be based on an inner conviction that young black males are more likely to be criminal because they are black.
What’s more likely to be operating is a sort of collective unconscious built up of image after image in the news.
That’s what I like to think of as the Pit Bull Problem. Most pit bulls are friendly, gentle creatures–just ask my sister in law; she’s trying to rescue every stray one in CT–but most of the viscious dog attacks we hear about on the news involve pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
The result is that, relying on untrue stereotypes or not, several municipalities have tried to or succeeded at banning the breed within their borders.
And yes, I know that human beings are not pit bulls. I’m just trying to point out that the psychology of the two situations is not the same.
I sometimes wonder if this is the unintended consequence of another attempt to eliminate racism as far as it could be eliminated.
When I was growing up, the news–local or national–almost never reported on black-on-black (or minority-on-minority) crime.
They didn’t think such crime was very interesting, and the reason they didn’t think such crime was very interesting was very racist indeed.
It was, they thought, just those people over there–that was the way they behaved, they were barely better than animals, why should anybody care?
Up in my part of the world, this was one of the first discriminatory practices to fall. A little push came to a little shove, and the news outlets, newspapers and television both, started taking minority-on-minority crime seriously, and reporting it.
And there’s where the unintended consequences came in.
Black on white crime is very rare, so in the days of “they don’t matter,” “they” were almost never reported as committing violent crimes.
The image that came through was of a community that was hardworking and decent if maybe a little stupid–racist enough, obviously, but nowhere near as breathtakingly negative as what we have now.
And that image, racist or not, did a lot to secure the support of people in the Northeast for civil rights. Here were these perfectly nice people and they were being harrassed. We had to put a stop to that.
The image that comes through now is not like that, and it is not like that not because the media are reporting on black criminals but not white ones.
At the same time, however, most African American and Hispanic people do not commit violent crimes.
The problem becomes how to present the news in a way that makes that the more likely picture in people’s heads rather than the one we’ve got now.
And on that, the only practical move I can see is to go back to not reporting most minority-on-minority crime.
No, this will not solve racism in or country, or fix racial relations overnight–but it would put young African American and Hispanic males at less risk of stand-your-ground kinds of incidents.
And in time, it might even ease off on the getting your car stopped/getting followed in the store thing.
Perception matters, even if it shouldn’t.
Talking about “privilege,” on the other hand, will do nothing but make most people reject your concerns before they’ve even heard them out–after all, you’re telling them that they’re part of a special small group that’s getting things they have no right to expect, like safety and the presumption of innocence.
My father had a principle of life that he used to hammer into us on a regular basis: if something goes wrong, hope to hell that it was your fault. If it was your fault, you have a chance to fix it. If it wasn’t, you’re screwed.
I bring this up because I was monitoring a discussion on FB last week about “privilege.”
I put the word “privilege” in scare quotes because it’s a very bad word for what the people in that discussion were talking about.
Like it or not, the word “privilege” has connotations in ordinary usage that cannot be wished away.
First and foremost, it implies that whatever you’re talking about is unearned. Second, it implies that what you’re talking about is unjust.
When we encounter “privilege,” therefore, we should work to eradicate it.
There was a lot of convoluted verbiage going on in the discussion, but after awhile it became clear to me that what the participants were mostly talking about was not “privilege” as most of us understand it, but luck.
(The big exception concerned two people, one of whom had the money to go from a nice warm and dry house to a nice warm and dry car to a nice warm and dry office park in unclement weather and the other of whom had no money and had to get wet and cold while taking public transportation. In that case, the circumstances of the two of them might be due to luck (or “privilege”), but they might equally be due to achievement–one of the two might have worked hard and gotten somewhere, the other might have been spending his spare time in casinos.)
It is certainly the case that luck exists, and that it is not “fair.” Some of us are born intelligent and others not. Some of us are born beautiful and others not. Some of us get born in the US and others get born in Chad. There’s a lot of luck out there, and in some cases it’s the beginning and the end of the ball game.
Bill died at forty six of a cancer so rare there are no known risk factors for it. How did he get it? Nobody knows. And unless somebody gets very luck fairly soon, I probably won’t know in my lifetime.
The problem with that conversation, for me, was complicated.
Framing the argument in terms of “privilege” and a consequent determination to make “privilege” cease to exist is an inherently false statement of the problem.
Luck is not the same thing as “privilege” as “privilege” is ordinarly understood as a word. And although we could possibly forsee a day when ACTUAL privilege could be eradicated–unlikely, but not completely impossible–we will never see a day when luck will be eradicated, or even when luck will not play a truly enormous part in the way our lives work out.
Think about the children dying year after year in that central African nation whose leader is convinced that polio vaccine is a plot by the Western powers to render his citizens impotent. Then think of mine, who did not.
The whole convoluted confusion around the idea of ‘privilege” encourages people to focus their time and energy around resentment, to be angry at the world and what’s been “done to” them. It teaches them to frame the events of their lives around an idea that sees them as essentially passive.
And, what’s more, it allows as the only legitimate response by other people an acceptance of and empathy with just that passivity. To respond to complaints of a lack of “privilege” by saying that luck is what it is and cannot be helped, so just get on with your life and get over it, is by definition in such a discussion “blaming the victim.”
But the issue isn’t about blaming the victim, or anybody else. Luck is. There’s no way to end it, and there’s no way around it. It is enormously annoying on almost every level. It is certainly not fair.
Get over it. Get past it. And get done what we need to get done.
Even then, of course, luck may kick your ass. That’s the nature of life. But the only chance any of us ever have is to play the cards we’re dealt and see what we can make of ourselves.
And most of the people who are caught in the miasma of “privilege” talk would live better lives and have better chances if we said just that to them.
This is not “blaming the victim.” It’s just reality.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do things to make the world fairer, if we can. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be sensitive to people’s needs when they tell us what they are (although in that case, there’s going to be some conflict–the rules that so many “feminists” these days want to install to make women “safe” feel to me like a suffocating prissiness that I don’t want and feel hold me back).
It is an illusion that luck doesn’t matter, but it’s a necessary one if we’re ever going to get anything. We need it in the same way every teacher needs to walk into her classroom is fully capable of learning the material. It isn’t always true, but if we don’t convince ourselves of it, we’re in danger of doing a lot of damage.
The “privilege” business does a lot of damage, too, it’s just that the people who engage in it decide not to see it.
I am, at the moment, in a definite funk. I had a student this term who was truly something amazing. Good looking. Intelligent. Charismatic–incredibly charismatic. With the kind of ear for writing narrative prose nobody can teach anybody. With the kind of comic timing nobody could teach anybody, either.
In one way, of course, he lacked “privilege.” He was a young black male from a ghetto family, no father, lots of violence in the neighborhood, and drugs on top of that.
He’d been arrrested before I ever saw him, but I think the judge may have seen what I, and his advisor, and most of his teachers eventually saw. Instead of locking him up, the judge gave him probation and an ankle bracelet. When he broke probation the first couple of times, he got reprieves.
I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks, and I’m a little afraid that the reprieves ran out.
But–in spite of the “oppression” of being born in a ghetto and young and black and male, he was ALSO born with so much talent and potential he made me dizzy.
Most of his white, middle class classmates don’t have half as much going for them. They’ll plod through school and get some mid-range job somewhere and get by by following orders, and never have much of anything else to look forward to.
But this kid is something else. And there’s only one way he’s ever going to be able to achieve what he’s capable of.
He needs somebody to tell him, “yep, you bet, you got a raw deal on all those counts, grow up, get over it, and stop behaving like an adolescent asshole.”
But nobody will tell him that.
Because it’s all about “privilege.”
And telling him that would be “blaming the victim.”
As I go out to meet the ravening hordes.
Except they’re not ravening. They’re hyperventilating.
Which they wouldn’t be doing if they hadn’t left their term papers to the last minute, and beyond.
I really do read the comments, most of the time. I even follow the links to find out what everybody is doing.
And I have heard the plaintive cry that I should put up something new.
Unfortunately, we have reached one of those times of year when my time is not my own.
Somewhere back there in the house are two folders full of term papers that are virtually all a mess, and of which at least three are almost certainly plagarized.
And, as usual, the plagarizing isn’t even intelligent.
I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t give an assignments that requires students to plagarize in a way that indicates an IQ number in more than double digits. If they’re going to do it anyway, they might as well learn to think it through.
Last night was also our first snowstorm, more or less. There is snow on the ground out there, but not much of it. There’s been a sander by and a plow, but I’m not sure what the plow actually had to plow. When I said “not much of it,” I was serious. My lawn is still mostly green.
I’m also reading a very strange little book, called The Lusiads, an epic poem (I know, I know) written by a man named Camoes about the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India.
It was written in the sixteenth century by a man who desperately wanted to give Portugal a literary monument to match the Homeric epics and, of course–because all these people at the time read Latin, but very few of them read Greek–The Aeneiad.
I don’t read Portuguese, and this is a poem. It’s hard for me to tell whether the sheer awfulness of the poetry is in the original or the result of the translation.
I have learned that there are a lot of things that rhyme with “ocean.”
The work itself is–so far, I’m about halfway through–a conglomeration of things that kind of do and kind of don’t make sense.
There’s a lot that takes place on Mount Olympus and other venues of the Greek gods with Bacchus kind of/sort of identified with the devil.
Then every once in a while Camoes breaks in to explain that of course he doesn’t believe in any of that. He’s a Christian. He knows that the Greek gods were fake and a matter of superstition.
The most interesting part so far, for me, has been the long scene in which da Gama narrates the history of Portugal to the first friendly king he’s encountered on the other side of the horn of Africa.
The king is Muslim–as have been all the other kings he’s encountered on that side of Africa–and I kept wondering if it made much sense for da Gama to spend that much time talking about how thoroughly the Christian Portuguese had vanquished the Moors.
Especially since he desperately needed the help of these people to complete his voyage to Indian.
I’m also willing to bet that the real da Gama did know such thing on his actual voyage.
You’ve got to assume the man had some sense.
The Lusiads is the national poem of Portugal. It’s important to Portugal’s culture and to its national identity.
And Portugal is a place I’ve visited and a place I love. It gave me Jose Saramago and Manoel de Oliveira. It wouldn’t be right for me to make fun of this thing, so I won’t.
It is, however, either as a result of the translation or of the weaknesses of the original, well and truly awful.
It’s also in endless ottavia rima, which is mindboggling in its own way. Although not in the way you might think.
The translator does not seem to have tried to put the lines entirely into the rhyme scheme, but he has insisted on ending each stanza with a couplet.
And the couplets are…
I’m about to go back to that mind boggling thing again.
My gut says you’ve got to work at making something this bad, but from the introduction the translator obvious adores the hell out of this poem.
Since I’m not writing fiction this week, I’m at liberty to try to cut the problem with music, but so far I’ve tried Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn and Charlie Parker and none of it has worked.
One of my sons has suggested I move on to Wagner and Strauss, but I can never handle sturm und drang in the morning.
Right now I’m going to go launch myself into the real world and try to get this correcting done before the hordes descend on special office hours tomorrow.
For that, I may bring tranquilizers.
It is Monday morning, and I will admit that what I thought I was going to be doing here in the cold wet drizzle that is a New England December is writing about how the Obamacare website ran on the first day after its deadline.
As it turns out, I have heard no Obamacare news at all.
Sometime yesterday, a Metro-North train on its way from Poughkeepsie to New York City derailed in the Brox, killing four people and injuring 67 others, including fourteen who ended up in critical condition.
Metro-North is the principle commuter rail system for NYC and its suburbs. If the crash had occurred during the commuter hours on a week day, there would have been a truly impressive body count.
As it is, things are bad enough, and the newspapers and major news outlets–all but one of which is based in NYC–are a bit distracted from the usual political fray.
So let me write about something else, something I sort of darkly alluded to yesterday–the reason why this book I’m reading took me so long to get into.
The book is called Deadly Force, with a subtitle I’m blanking on completely this morning. It’s written by a man named Chris MacNab, who is described in his author bio as “based in the UK.”
The book was also originally published in the UK by Osprey, and later distributed here by Random House.
The UK-ness of all this is important, because it may be the reason I have to excuse the man for his introduction and first half of first chapter.
It’s also important to note that the copy I have is what’s called a “bound galley” or an “uncorrected proof,” which is exactly what it sounds like. These are raw galley pages stuck between covers and sent out as advance copies to reviewers and librarians and people who might blurb so all that can be coordinated with the actual launch date.
Since this is an uncorrected proof, it’s necessary to give this book the benefit of the doubt. It’s always possible that the problem I’m about to outline was caught before publication and fixed.
But I doubt it.
Because this isn’t a matter of a few words misspelled or a few acronyms misidentified. (Although there are plenty of those–it takes him to the last quarter of the book to stop called the ATF the BATF.)
The problem is that Mr. MacNab based his introduction and most of his first chapter on the Belleisle study, including his contention that in talking about gun violence in the US, he doesn’t have to deal with conditions from the colonial period to the Civil War, since in that period most Americans didn’t have guns anyway.
If it seems a little odd to you that a largely frontier society still vulnerable to Indian raids and where most families relied for meat in the winter on game they shot themselves–even most families in cities like Boston and New Haven–well, it seemed odd to a lot of people when the Belleisle study came out, because that is what the Belleisle study claimed to prove.
Michael Belleisle was a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, and he’d actually been writing quite a few well-received academic papers on this very theme over the course of several years.
He might have spent a long career “proving” a lot of things that weren’t true, except he decided to up the ante. He published his “findings” as a book, called Arming America. The book was published by Knopf, probably the most intellectually prestigious house in the US, in 2002.
And at first, things went just swimmingly. In fact, they went better than swimmingly. The book received almost universal acclaim and turned into a best seller. Belleisle was awarded the Bancroft Prize, as good as it gets in history. He had a lecture schedule that was the envy of academia.
The first complaint to come in came from Charleton Heston, then president of the NRA, and Belleisle and the people who loved his book brushed it off without much thought.
Arming America was a book that threatened to debunk everything gun rights advocates contended about the atmosphere surrounding the adoption of the Second Amendment. Of course such advocates would claim there was something wrong with the research. Heston wasn’t a scholar or an expert, after all.
Belleisle managed to maintain an atmosphere of “nobody objects to this research but gun rights activists with an axe to grind,” and several of the actual scholars who next stepped up to complain about the books research and premises were indeed gun rights supporters as well as actual historians.
But they were actual historians, and the more they complained, the more other historians who had initially supported the book started to get…hinky.
And hinky they should have gotten.
It’s not that Belleisle fudged his research. He did enough of that, taking quotes from people like George Washington out of context and cooking his statistics.
The problem was that he’d also made a lot of it up.
A lot of it.
Whole whacking hunks of it.
He claimed, for instance, that some of his statistic had come from his review of the records of San Francisco in the years before the Civil War. The problem is that no such records exist. What records there were were all destroyed in the great San Francisco fire that followed the earthquake of 1906.
He also claimed to have analyzed the probate records of 150 who had died in Providence, Rhode Island in the last days of the colonies and the first of the new Republic. It turned out most of those didn’t exist, either, as most of the men on the list had died intestate and left no probate records of any kind.
There was more, but you see what I mean. The book wasn’t just a sieve. It was a fairy castle in the air.
And it turns out that real historians, even committed left-liberal ones, don’t have much patience with fairy castles in the air.
It took two years, but in the end Belleisle was forced to resign from Emory. Knopf cancelled his book contract and ceased publishing the book. Columbia University rescinded the Bancroft Prize.
The man’s career was, to all intents and purposes, over. (The book is still published by a small independent press, so you can get it if you want it.)
Now, a few things.
The first is that the writer of Deadly Force, Chris MacNab, lives and works in Britain, and it’s possible he never heard about any of this. Maybe he went to his local library and it hadn’t heard about any of it either, and there was the book, and he read it and found it interesting, and assumed he could trust it.
That’s sloppy, but not criminal. It’s happened before, and it will almost certainly happen again.
But under the circumstances, it would be very sloppy indeed. The episode was not small. It resulted in a major and very public dust up and significant recriminations against the writer, and deserved recriminations at that.
At the very least, MacNab should have done what I’m always telling my students to do: Google the damned thing and make sure you don’t get any surprises.
The same can be said for the editors at Osprey, who had an obligation to vet the thing when they published it.
But then we come to the second thing, which is Random House.
Random House owns Knopf, the very publishing house that had been left with egg on its face and worse when it published Arming America to begin with.
I do understand that in most cases, distribution deals are just that–American House A agrees to use its distribution system to get UK House B into American bookstores, usually for a small consideration. There’s no need for the people at American House A to even read the books they’re getting from UK House B. After all, the book clearly states it’s published by “Osprey House” and not “Random House.”
Even so, the irony here is almost breathtaking.
The parent of the publishing house that had to spend considerable time and effort to rescue its reputation from the mess Belleisle made of it in the first place is issuing yet another book making yet the same claims based on yet the same fabricated “evidence.”
Shouldn’t somebody, somewhere, have been paying attention?
I tried looking up some reviews of the MacNab book, but couldn’t find any that pointed out the problem with the use of the Belleisle study. I have no idea if that means that the Belleisle references were removed before publication, of if none of the reviewers had heard of it either.
And the reason can’t be that MacNab is telling his readers what they want to hear, because in spite of the awed tone of a Brit dealing with American gun stats, MacNab’s books is VERY pro-cop. The pro-cop people don’t want to hear that there’s something wrong with the Second Amendment. They want to hear that there’s something right with it.
The impression I get is not of a bunch of anti-gun ideologues latching on to what they want to hear, but an overall sloppiness that makes me a lot more nervous about the research in the rest of the book than I would have been with actual bias.
I can correct for actual bias. Sloppiness is an invitation to the fate of Sisyphus.
And it’s too bad. Because on many levels, MacNab’s book is very, very interesting.
So, another first of the month, and the November list runs as follows:
64) Mark Levin. The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic.
65) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Lucifer’s Hammer.
66) Alison Weir. The Life of Elizabeth I.
67) Charlotte MacLeod. Exit the Milkman.
It’s not a terribly exciting list as lists go, but it’s the end of the term and I handed in a book and…well, you know.
I was fairly sure, mid-month, that there would be at least one more book on here, but I ran into the same trouble I had with the Pinker last month.
I had problems with that book itself, and for several days I found myself unable to force myself through more than a couple of pages of the thing.
It was a much shorter book than the Pinker, and normally wouldn’t have taken me more than four or five days of even a very busy week, but here we are.
I’ve started to wonder if this is something new or something I’ve always had and never noticed until recently.
Since the thing about always finishing what I start is not new, I assume I must have had some response to books I either didn’t like or distrusted all along, but I just don’t know what it was.
And maybe it was this.
Anyway, as to the books:
The first thing I want to point out is the Charlotte MacLeod, Exit the Milkman, at the end.
I have a little stack of MacLeod’s Peter Shandy books on my coffee table, and I picked up this one because it was on top of that stack and I was looking for something light.
I have a soft spot in my heart for MacLeod, because her first Peter Shandy mystery, Rest Ye Merry, is probably what propelled me out of graduate school and college teaching and into really making a shot at being a mystery writer.
I stumbled into a bookstore called Jocundry’s in East Lansing, Michigan, after a really harrowing two weeks involving classes who hated me and prelims I couldn’t wrap my mind around and looking desperately for some kind of respite, and what I found was Rest Ye Merry.
It’s definitely a cozy, but the high end of cozy, well done and interesting and with characters you want to live with, and right after I finished it I bought the only other thing by MacLeod the store carried in its mystery section: The Family Vault, the first book of her other series.
And it occurred to me that if this was the kind of thing people were publishing in mysteries, I could be very happy doing something similar, assuming I could do it at all.
And that’s where the Pay McKenna series came from, a couple of years later, after several tries at book that just weren’t going anywhere.
I was, in those days, a much cosier writer than I am now.
That’s the kind of thing watching people die can do to you.
This book is, I think, the last in the series, and it is not one of the best. Too much depends on enormous coincidences, and not enough depends on the mystery.
And the thing is sort of…disorganized. And it bothered me. Charlotte was not normally disorganized. So I started checking around a bit, and found that it was published in 1996.
And there, I think, is where the problem may be.
1996 was the year when Bill was dying, and also desperately attempting to finish a book subtitled “an oral history of the mystery.”
That book required interviewing dozens of mystery writers about their lives, work, experience in publishing, you name it. There was urgency on two fronts. Some of these writers were very old, and there was the need to get them on the record before the time ran out.
And Bill was getting sicker, so there was the need to get the book written in case the time ran out.
Close to the end of everything, Bill called Charlotte to ask her to interview for the book, not expecting any trouble. We’d known Charlotte for years, and it was one of those things. Even people we didn’t know wanted to be in the book, including some extraordinarily authors.
But when Bill called Charlotte, she not only didn’t want to be in the book, she didn’t want to talk at all, and she was highly agitated and upset. Bill went through his spiel and Charlotte said “No!” and hung up.
Bill proceeded to do his usual thing and start worrying that he had said something that upset her.
Then,a while later, we heard from a mutual friend that Charlotte had moved to a nursing home, the victim of a rapidly progressing case of dementia.
And that, I think, may be what is wrong with this book. It may be the book she wrote when the dementia was first coming on. Dementia would explain the kinds of problems it has. The odd driftiness. The lack of cohesion.
If you like cozies, the Peter Shandy series is a good one to read, but don’t read this one until you’ve done the rest.
Charlotte’s best work is very good indeed, and it deserves to be appreciated.
Oddly enough, I’ve beent thinking about Charlotte for a while now. She was one of a trio of mystery writers who were close friends for many years: Charlotte, and Marion Babson, and Barbara Peters.
Charlotte was the first to die. Barbara Peters (Barbara Mertz) died a few months ago. Marion is left, still writing mysteries and, I worry, lonelier than I’d like her to be.
Her publisher tends to reissue The Twelve Deaths of Christmas every year or so. It’s a good one, if you like cozies.
As for the rest of the books up there:
The Liberty Amendments is interesting, although if I wrote my own set, they would be significantly different.
That is, of course, the problem with projects of that kind. Everybody knows the system is broken, but everybody thinks the system is broken in a different way.
There are some interesting things in here that I’d never thought of, especially about the role of the courts. And my two big complaints are a) that he doesn’t want to end rule by regulation absolutely and b) that he only wants oversight of rule by regulation where the result of the regulation is $100 million dollars or more.
But the regulations I am most concerned with–how you reaise your children, what kind of chair you use at the desk in your home office, what kind of food you’re allowed to send with your kid to school, schools that punish or expel children for acts they commit OUTSIDE of school hours and grounds and auspices–are precisely the ones that have little economic impact, but lots of the personal kind.
Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer is a standard issue disaster novel, and I love disaster novels.
Like most disaster novels, though, this one gives you about the first third of the book concentrating on disaster, and the rest on What Happens Next To Put Civilization Back Together.
My big problem with all that is that I don’t really care what happens next. I want the disaster.
The greatest disaster novel ever written is certainly Stephen King’s The Stand in the originally published version.
King later published the full version as he wrote it, and that one is damned near unreadable.
But even King’s novel is only half the disaster and the rest What Comes After.
Lucifer’s Hammer doesn’t rise to the level of The Stand in either plot or characterization, but I had a good time with it. I tried reading it many years ago and couldn’t even get started, but this time it went down like butter.
Finally, there’s The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir.
Elizabethans are what she does best, and this is very good indeed.
I’m going to go back to the music and the crime book–a nonfiction book about crime.
It’s the last full week of classes.
That’s how that is.