Publisher Pulls Book of Smiling Slaves

For several months, the publisher Scholastic had plans to release a book this year called A Birthday Cake for George Washington in which slaves in the Washington estate scrambled to make a cake after running out of sugar. School Library Journal said the beautifully illustrated book painted a “dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners.” Particularly troubling was that the slave were shown to be smiling.

Activists on one side are pleased the book has been pulled, but activists on the other side are saying they’re shocked.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and the PEN American Center argued in a official complaint, “Those who value free speech as an essential human right and a necessary precondition for social change should be alarmed whenever books are removed from circulation because they are controversial.”

I have to wonder what Scholastic was thinking when they edited, reviewed, and produced this book.  Were they of the same mind as the NCAC to publish anything of a certain quality? And what of that mindset; is no topic, view, or depiction of history unpublishable? If Scholastic had rejected this book upon its proposal would that have been the same censorship they are decrying now?

Freedom of speech or expression is a great principle within a sound moral framework where truths and recognized authorities can be appealed to. But secularism and its attending ills have pulled the banner of freedom from its pole and dragged it with them wherever they go, saying freedom is meant to be sullied, torn, and battered because it is a virtue on its own. Liberty in law is bound by the privileges of patriarchy, but freedom means whatever the ___ I want or anyone else wants with the enabling of the rest of us. That’s unsustainable.

Nicholas Sparks’ Satisfied Simpletons

Read this review of Nicholas Sparks‘ latest novel and his work at large. Thank you, Heather Havrilesky, for these words (via Prufrock).

Young neurotics are sometimes haunted by the recurring impression that dumb people are much happier than they are. Sparks’s oeuvre seems to suggest that this fabled shadow world of earnest, satisfied simpletons is real. All you need to do to be contented is power down the gears of your useless, overworked brain, the author tells us. Go make some tea and sit on the porch and marvel at the turn of events that brought us to this point, already!

It’s strange how literary and commercial works continue to adhere stubbornly to two opposite poles: poetically expressed skepticism versus clumsy, cliché-driven optimism. If our next great American novelist injected Sparks-style earnestness and stubbornly upbeat resolutions into the next great American novel, would we recognize that novel’s greatness?

Several things

When you’re a wit, you can be humble. When, like me, you’re a half-wit, you have to brag about it.

Today on F*cebook, a female friend who runs a small business announced that she’d just gotten a call from a place she hadn’t heard from before – the Yukon.

I responded, “You got the Call of the Wild.”

[Cue laugh track.]

I don’t know what I’d do for fun if I didn’t amuse myself.

Here’s where I’m at in the Long March toward my Master’s Degree. I’m formulating a theme for my capstone project.

It’s a humbling experience. Everybody seems to have a fairly clear idea what a capstone project is, except me.

Apparently it’s a research project, but a small one. Targeted, constrained. We do the research, we present the short paper, we get our sheepskins if it’s good enough, and they hold a secret ceremony in which they bestow on us the Sacred Rubber Sorter Finger.

At this point I’ve got a general direction, but not a specific topic.

I fear I’m going to have to do some actual research, to clarify my thinking.

Yes, it’s as bad as that.

Oh yes, I’m going to get my last vestigial hip replaced later this month. Expect not to expect me for a while at some point.

Origins of Ghetto Culture

Dr. Carl Ellis describes what he calls “ol’ redneck culture” in the South and how it produced a group of African-American underachievers who celebrate the ghetto. “The values of this culture,” he says, “produced self-sabotaging, self-destructive behavior patterns, including: drunkenness, gang formation, ‘talkin’ trash,’ a scornful attitude toward education and boisterous exhibitionism, to name a few.”

[The achievers] who participated in the great northern migration generally succeeded in spite of racial discrimination in housing and employment. However those who continued to wallow in the ol’ redneck culture became what I call “non-achievers.” Unlike the achievers, they generally did not succeed when they migrated to the urban North. Thus, for many non-achievers, the ol’ redneck culture morphed into what we now recognize as “ghetto culture.” The values that governed their lives included devaluing work as a means of getting ahead, instant gratification with a disregard for the future, and crisis orientation with no planning.

Is Free Shipping Killing Amazon?

Hey, did you hear Amazon may be opening several brick-and-mortar bookstores? Someone said it, but whether it’s true is another thing.

Is the free two-day shipping available to Amazon Prime members hurting the company? When customers buy something small, like a jar of Nutella, and choose their free two-day shipping option as Prime members can, it costs the company a good bit. Amazon is working on multiple schemes for getting their products in your hands quickly, but their current schemes are soaking them. Perhaps if they can only drown all of their competition, they’ll start making money.

‘Last Train Out,’ by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In the wake of my enjoyment of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (reviewed a few inches below), I bought another of his vintage thrillers, Last Train Out. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Unlike Impersonation, which came near the beginning of the author’s career and involved the beginnings of World War I, this book was written about 1940 and is set at the start of World War II. I’m happy to report that the author’s eye had not dimmed, nor his natural force abated in the intervening years.

Charles Mildenhall is a young Englishman in the diplomatic service. He’s been found to be valuable in troubleshooting crises, so he flits about and puts his hand in wherever trouble pops up. In that capacity he enters Vienna around 1938. He makes the acquaintance of Leopold Benjamin, an immensely wealthy and much respected Jewish banker. Charles is invited to a dinner party at Benjamin’s palatial home, hoping to get a look at Mr. Benjamin’s fabled art collection. Alas, he is told that it’s not available to view at the moment. Mr. Benjamin’s American secretary, Patricia Grey, explains to him, confidentially, that efforts are being made to get the treasures out of the country before the Nazis march in. He almost meets Marius Blute, a mysterious international dabbler who is assisting Mr. Leopold.

Returning to Vienna a few months later, Charles finds both Patricia and Marius in desperate conditions, penniless, cut off, and with their job unfinished. Charles immediately puts his own funds at their disposal, and happily volunteers (partly because he’s fallen in love with Patricia) to assist them in the desperate enterprise of getting the paintings, packed in coffins, to Switzerland by rail. Both Germans and organized crime figures are hot on their heels.

The realism level isn’t very high, but it never is for this generation of thriller (come to think of it, all thrillers are unrealistic. Different generations just demand different kinds of realism in different subject areas). The final resolution might be seen as a kind of deus ex machina, but it’s been fairly set up by the author, though it’s perhaps a little far-fetched. (But certainly no more far-fetched than Bruce Willis driving a truck into a helicopter in flight.)

It should also be noted, for those who care, that the two main female characters in this book are more active and assertive than the women in his earlier work.

Pretty high quality fun. Nothing objectionable. Recommended.

Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Fortitude’

Frankly, if I’d known the kind of show Fortitude was, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I took it for a police procedural, sort of an extreme Broadchurch, but it turned out to be more like science fiction/horror (though the Wikipedia article calls it a “psychological thriller”).

It is sort of an extreme Broadchurch, though. Extreme in every way – more violence, more blood, more sex, less plausibility, and a far more extreme geographic location.

“Fortitude” is a fictional mining town on the Norwegian arctic island of Svalbard (though the filming was done in Iceland). It’s illegal, we are told, to die in Fortitude, because any pathogens in a body would be eternally preserved in the permafrost. Times are hard. The mines are playing out, and the governor is trying to interest investors in the idea of a “glacier hotel” to bring in the tourist trade.

There’s a heavy element of soap opera in the production. The central character seems to be the “sheriff,” a seemingly decent man with a dark secret. He’s obsessed with the hot Spanish waitress in town, but she’s having an affair with the rescue pilot, a married man. He sneaks out for a few minutes from watching his sick son to have a slap and tickle session with her. When he gets home he finds that the boy has wandered out into the snow. When he gets home, he’s covered in blood, which turns out to be that of a local scientist, who was murdered with a potato peeler and a cleaver.

Meanwhile, a couple local miners have discovered a frozen mammoth, which they hide away, hoping to sell it for a fortune. A detective from Scotland Yard (why would a Scotland Yard detective work in Svalbard? Something to do with mine ownership. It gets worse – he’s an American) comes to town to investigate the murder (a different one) of a mining engineer. A local photographer, who is dying of cancer and due for sanitary deportation, knows something about the death, but isn’t talking.

As I said, if I’d known the sort of story it was I probably wouldn’t have watched it, but by the time I figured that out I was seven episodes in (there are twelve in all) and too interested to stop. The mystery is intriguing, the acting excellent, and the visuals stunning (I was very impressed with the effects the cinematographer achieved with snow).

There’s lots to warn you about here. Sex, nudity, violence, graphic blood and guts, lots of foul language. But it caught me up, I’ll admit it. Not only the Icelandic locations, but the interesting character interactions. There’s some dialogue that questions the goodness of God. But the character dynamics actually argue to the contrary, it seems to me.

So it’s a good series, from the technical point of view. I can’t recommend it to our readers on moral grounds, but you can make your own judgments.

‘The Great Impersonation,’ by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Reader Nigel Ray recommended E. Phillips Oppenheim to me as an author, so I downloaded The Great Impersonation. I was pleased. This is an author I mean to get to know better.

Oppenheim had a long career, spanning the first half of the 20th Century. I’m embarrassed to have been only vaguely aware of him, because he was very good at his craft.

In The Great Impersonation, we follow Leopold Von Ragastein, a German agent operating just before World War I. He can easily pass as an Englishman, since he spent many years there and was educated at Oxford. While there he met Sir Everard Dominey, a disreputable and alcoholic young Englishman who, everyone noticed, looked enough like Leopold to be his twin. A chance meeting in Africa years later gives Leopold a perfect opportunity. All he has to do is dispose of the real Everard, assume his identity, and return to England (financed by German gold) to pay his debts and resume his place in society.

Most people are taken in. The only two people in England who seriously doubt his identity are a jealous old lover – who may mean real danger – and Everard’s wife. She went mad on a terrible night when Everard (she believes) killed a man who was obsessed with her. But that has nothing to do with Leopold, she insists, as he is not really her husband.

Leopold is an interesting character – a patriot and a man of honor torn between feeling and duty as Lady Dominey gradually regains her faculties, and he comes to love her.

The climax offers a very neat plot twist.

Although The Great Impersonation is technically a thriller, there’s actually not much action in it. And that’s fine with me – the drama is in the increasing tension between Leopold’s conflicting duties of honor and love. Modern readers will probably find the main female characters stereotyped, especially the childlike Lady Dominey, but I put up with that sort of thing just fine myself.

Well written, well plotted, and morally unobjectionable, The Great Impersonation was a pleasure to read. Recommended.

The Classics Have Fractal Quality

Answering a question no one was asking (and possibly procrastinating on other projects (or likely having lost a bet (or very likely using grant resources that they’d otherwise have to return (and/or definitely exercising strong nerd power)))), physicists have found that many great works of literature resemble fractals.

The academics put more than 100 works of world literature, by authors from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, through a detailed statistical analysis. Looking at sentence lengths and how they varied, they found that in an “overwhelming majority” of the studied texts, the correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade – meaning that their construction is a fractal: a mathematical object in which each fragment, when expanded, has a structure resembling the whole. (via Prufrock et al)

‘The Red House Mystery,’ by A. A. Milne

Roy Jacobsen suggested that I improve my education in classic mystery stories by reading The Red House by A. A. Milne (yes, that A. A. Milne). My previous knowledge of it was confined to the analysis contained in Raymond Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” He found it wanting in almost every respect.

I didn’t hate the book, but I tend to agree with Chandler overall. I think that might be largely a function of history, though. The book’s central “trick,” surprising to readers in 1922, seemed fairly obvious to me, having read pretty extensively in the corpus of detective fiction from before and after this work. Also I may have gotten the solution from Chandler, but I’m pretty sure I’d forgotten it.

Mark Ablett, wealthy owner of The Red House, which sits on a large estate in England, receives a surprise visit from his long-lost brother, a wastrel recently returned from years in Australia. Voices from his office indicate a fight between the brothers, there is a gunshot, and when the locked door is opened by his secretary, the rascal brother is found dead. Mark, meanwhile, has vanished.

By pure chance, Tony Gillingham, a friend of one of Mark’s house guests, Bill Beverly, shows up just after the murder. More or less to amuse themselves, Tony and Bill stay on to play Holmes and Watson, and figure out what happened to Mark.

My main problem with The Red House, as I said, was that I figured out the trick of the thing well before the end. After that, I got impatient with the amateur sleuths, who talked, and talked, and talked, and operated in the most leisurely fashion imaginable.

The Red House is worth reading for its importance in the history of detective fiction, and it’s amusing enough at times (though not, I think, as amusing as the author thinks). There’s nothing whatever in the way of objectionable content – on the contrary, everyone is irreproachably proper in speech and deportment, except for the small matter of shooting someone.

His Kindness!

Jared Wilson tells a wonderful story on how we don’t want to be put a period where J.I. Packer puts an exclamation point.

Also, if you missed the news earlier this month, Packer, that greatly anointed author, has lost his sight. He talks about it in this interview.

No, in the days when it was physically possible for me to do these things I was concerned, even anxious, to get ahead with doing them. Now that it’s no longer possible I acknowledge the sovereignty of God. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21). Now that I’m nearly 90 years old he’s taken away. And I won’t get any stronger, physically, as I go on in this world. And I don’t know how much longer I’ll be going on anyway.

‘The Retaliators,’ by Donald Hamilton

This vintage novel showed up as an e-book bargain on Amazon. I’d enjoyed previous books in the Matt Helm series, so I downloaded it.

Disclaimer: If you’ve ever seen the Dean Martin Matt Helm movies, put them out of your mind. The movies have only the most tenuous connection to the original books.

At the start of The Retaliators, Matt Helm, professional government assassin, finds himself in his home town of Santa Fe, the beneficiary of a suspicious windfall. Somebody has deposited $20,000 into his checking account, without his knowledge. It’s an old trick – clearly someone wants to discredit him, to make it look like he’s taken a bribe. His suspicions run to the director of a rival government security agency, who has a personal vendetta against his group. Meanwhile, he learns that one of his fellow agents, a man he trusts, has been arrested. Matt heads south to Mexico both to avoid the same fate and to carry out an assignment, but finds himself dodging agency enemies and “friends” who may or may not be trustworthy. There are also, of course, a couple of beautiful women in the mix.

Hamilton was a fine writer, and he told a lean, vivid story. Matt Helm is an interesting, if not always appealing, character, very much in the James Bond mold. He’s not quite a machine, but he’s a consummate professional. He’s largely cut himself off from close human relationships, and all considerations must take second place to doing the job, which is killing. If he gets the chance to right some wrongs along the way, that’s gravy, but it’s not his focus.

The Retaliators, like all the Matt Helm books, is an entertaining story in the “moral holiday” mode. Adult themes, but not extreme by today’s standards.

Film review: ’13 Hours’

Is it a political movie? Absolutely not.

Does it raise political questions? No way it couldn’t.

13 Hours is a harrowing (144 minutes) film, perhaps (I speak, of course, as someone whose entire battle experience has been with blunt weapons) as realistic a picture of combat as you’re likely to encounter in civilian life. The central character is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), whom we follow as he arrives in Benghazi and gets to know the security team at the “secret” CIA facility. We get a look at what you might call the Warrior Culture, the brotherhood of men who’ve developed a taste for living with danger, doing a job they believe makes a difference. Civilian life seems stale to them.

They’ll get all the action they want on September 11.

There are no speeches about the administration in this movie. When the guys talk, it’s mostly either talking trash – guy talk – or (sometimes in a weary, private moment) meditating on the meaning of it all. The question of where’s the cavalry, and whether the team can hold out long enough to get relief, is discussed in practical, immediate terms. Questions of final responsibility are conspicuous by their absence.

13 Hours is not for the faint of heart. The violence is graphic, the language often foul.

More than anything else, the film is a memorial to the dead. It’s deeply felt, and serious, and well worth your time if you can handle it.

Dana Gioia on the Common Reader

The new poet laureate for California is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and USC poetry professor Dana Gioia. Micah Mattix asked him a few questions

Writing for “what we used to call the common reader . . . doesn’t mean dumbing things down,” Gioia told me. “It is possible to bring the best of poetry to a broad audience without condescension . . . The common reader is not an idiot. He or she is a lawyer, doctor, farmer, soldier, scientist, minister, civil servant.”

Mattix states, “Gioia’s own poetry ignores the current fashion for obscure, partially fragmented free verse whose allusions and assimilated jargon appeal mostly to academics and other poets.”

For example, here are a few words from “Becoming a Redwood,” a poem that sounds as if it were written by Robert Frost.

Yes, it’s hard to stand still, hour after hour,
fixed as a fencepost, hearing the steers
snort in the dark pasture, smelling the manure.
And paralyzed by the mystery of how a stone
can bear to be a stone, the pain
the grass endures breaking through the earth’s crust.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture