Literary criticism.

Who said I’d not like “Thirteen Moons?” Was that you, Jeff? I think so. Well, you’re wrong. Not that you don’t have company:

How, then, to explain the much more frequent patches of bad — really bad — writing in “Thirteen Moons”? This starts with the book’s very first sentences, which are so awful that they beg to be read aloud: “There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel.” To be sure, there were plenty of passages like this in “Cold Mountain” — of prose that somehow managed to be simultaneously portentous, folksy and cloying, like banjo music on the soundtrack of a Ken Burns documentary. But the volume in “Thirteen Moons” has been cranked up considerably.

It seems to me I’m too middlebrow for the New York Times Book Review, because nothing about that passage clangs awful to me. It’s not that I have no discernment; I can find stink-o prose all day, but then, a good chunk of my daily reading comes from newspapers, where the soil is particularly rich. In fiction, my tastes have obviously been destroyed by reading too many pulpy mysteries. Somewhere I have a Mickey Spillane paperback where Mike Hammer shoots the gun out of the bad guy’s hand in their climactic faceoff. I always thought that should be the 1,000-point bullseye on a target — hit the gun in the guy’s hand but leave his fingers intact.

Anyway, back to “Thirteen Moons” — I’m enjoying it because it illuminates a part of history that’s a black hole in my knowledge, the pre-Civil War 19th century. Life was a little keener then. A historian once described to me what must have happened in a famous battle on the riverbanks in Fort Wayne: The initial volley by the soldiers using their muzzle-loaders, the fumble to reload, the rush by the Indians and the remainder of the fighting carried out hand-to-hand, using bayonets and hatchets and war clubs. The overwhelming smell on the battlefield would have to be excrement; I don’t see how the average man, red or white, could avoid shitting himself in fright under such conditions. The Indians won this skirmish, and described it in their stories as the Battle of the Pumpkin Fields, because of the way the dead looked on the crisp October morning, their newly bared skulls steaming and pink after the Indians collected their trophies.

I’m only halfway through, however. Things could change.

So here it is, Wednesday, and while I thought for a while yesterday I had turned the corner with this cold, it appears today that was a false dawn. Good thing, because the temperature is dropping, the wind is howling and I’m not going outside unless someone pays me.

Fortunately, there’s supplemental reading.

Bernie Madoff still has a trick up his sleeve, I just know it. You wait — the judge will sentence him to jail, there’ll be a poof, and he’ll simply disappear and rematerialize on a beach in the South Pacific.

It’s been a few days since I checked in at Coozledad’s retirement home for unwanted and amusingly named animals. Of course I missed a lot.

Amusing fact gleaned from Jack Lessenberry: Rep. John Conyers’ staff has a code word for his wife — “Ghetto.”

Back to bed. With “Thirteen Moons.” Work can wait another hour.

Posted at 9:30 am in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' |

74 responses to “Literary criticism.”

  1. Jolene said on March 11, 2009 at 9:54 am

    The Lessenberry column re Conyers is terrific. Incisive, honest, and funny. However, given what we know about how Monica reacts when offended, Lessenberry should keep a sharp eye out and, perhaps, hire a food-taster.

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  2. Kirk said on March 11, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I see that ex-NBA star/Detroit mayoral candidate Dave Bing has changed his mind and decided that he doesn’t have an M.B.A. after all. What is it with people making up crap like this?

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  3. ROgirl said on March 11, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Lessenberry nails it. That line about McCarthy and his tactics comes to mind: Have you no shame, Ms. Conyers? At long last, have you no shame?

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  4. Colleen said on March 11, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Seriously. Detroit amazes me. And not in a good way.

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  5. Snarkworth said on March 11, 2009 at 10:08 am

    I’m guessing Bernie Madoff pulls a Ken Lay. All sad and tragic, until someone gets suspicious and finds the coffin’s empty.

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  6. Connie said on March 11, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Just picked up my holds, I will be reading Laura Lippman’s newest, Life Sentence, and Barbara Vine’s new book The Birthday. Yes, she is really Ruth Rendell, I know. I’ll be looking for your final review of Thirteen Moons.

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  7. Jolene said on March 11, 2009 at 11:01 am

    The Food Section in today’s WaPo has three great recipes for different kinds of hash. For some reason, Nance, these recipes sounded like you.

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  8. Gasman said on March 11, 2009 at 11:07 am

    For the kind of money we’re talking about, I’m surprised that no one has blown Bernie’s brains out. There are many people who have been jolted back to the real world with the loss of their millions. To go from a life of luxury to one like the rest of us other American schlubs has got to be a shocker. Oh well, I suppose there are still opportunities before he is incarcerated.

    Monica Conyers might well be the goofiest twit in politics. She’s a loon even by Republican standards. Maybe a cage match to the death between her and Michelle Bachman. At least we’d be spared having to listen to one of them.

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  9. moe99 said on March 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Got this note from a law professor friend in FL this am about the Madoff plea:

    It seems to me that the real story here is that Madoff is trying to protect his family members from prosecution and forfeiture proceedings. By pleading without an agreement, he avoids any obligation to cooperate with prosecutors who may wish to charge his sons (and perhaps his wife) and who would likely seek to obtain the hundred million or so that he has transferred to his wife (and perhaps the money his sons made). Although prosecutors can subpoena him to testify before a grand jury once he pleads, they have no leverage with which to compel him to testify since the threat of civil or criminal contempt proceedings against a witness who is already in jail for life is empty.

    Ken Lay saved his wife’s ill gotten assets by dying; Madoff found an easier way.

    Given the scope of his crimes and the public outcry that would follow, it’s hard to imagine prosecutors negotiating any plea that would let Madoff serve less than fifteen years and that would shield any family assets, so pleading without a negotiated plea to charges potentially carrying a much longer sentence is no big deal at his age.

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  10. judybusy said on March 11, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Connie, I recently discovered Ruth Rendell, and am making my way through her work. I was up late last night reading _Thirteen Steps Down_, which was not my favorite, mostly becuase I am a psychiatric social worker, and so don’t enjoy the view of the mentally ill from the inside out. It’s too much like work.

    Gasman, LOVE the idea of a match between Conyers and Bachman. Being from MN, I could help arrange something…

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  11. ROgirl said on March 11, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Ruth Rendell is great. She also writes under the name of Barbara Vine. Those stories are different from the Rendell books, psychological studies of disturbing and disturbed characters. Wonderfully twisted, very engrossing.

    I’d love to see what the prosecutors have up their sleeves on Madoff family members and employees.

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  12. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I think feces would be the primary smell on any battlefield after the broad availabilty of firearms. Some of it from terror, and a lot of it from the nature of the wounds inflicted.But From what I’ve read, a lot of the fighters wouldn’t notice it much in combat, because their brains are beginning the process of shutting the stuff out, and most are screaming at the top of their lungs.
    I used to think ancient warfare was somehow a little better, but if you think very hard about how an army of several thousand dies at Cannae or Zama, a lot of it involves being stampeded or suffocated by your comrades when they get flanked, and penned up like cattle.

    On a lighter note, I reread Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man” last summer. I’ve never read such an elegiac book written in the form of a joke.

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  13. Sue said on March 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Just finished a book called “The Help” by Katherine Stockett. It’s southern lit (lite) for those of us who can’t handle the deeper stuff. It’s interesting and enjoyable but not groundbreaking. I’m guessing it will start appearing at book clubs pretty soon. I think it’s a good beach book. Now I’m trying to get through some of E.M. Forster’s work, on a recommendation. I gave up on Howard’s End and am half-heartedly reading A Room With A View. Apparently I’m in the minority; those titles are in the every-few-years BBC adaptation cycle, so lots of people must like them. Being an overly-polite person (usually), now I have to think of something nice to say to the person who recommended the books.

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  14. Catherine said on March 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Moe, my husband has the same theory, that Madoff is trying to protect family members. To which I said, “But his sons turned him in.” To which he said, “Exactly. It was all planned that way when they saw that the house of cards was about to tip over.” DH can be a little conspiracy-minded, but sometimes he’s right.

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  15. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Where will Madoff serve his sentence? Some of the federal penitentiaries have been nicknamed “Club Fed” for a reason. Given the many, many victims of Madoff’s crimes, I would hope he will be sent to a place where hard work and a lack of amenities are the norm.

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  16. Danny said on March 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I just finished a paper called, “Proximity Transducer System : Installation and Maintenance Manual.” It was a real page turner. But as for longer tomes, my latest book (which I’ll be finishing soon) is “VBA for Excel.” I’m guessing this won’t be appearing at books clubs any time soon.

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  17. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    My relative unhappiness with Thirteen Moons wasn’t with the first half or the writing per se, so i’ll wait with interest for the final review. I’m even more interested in your take on “Food Matters” and Bittman’s whole “vegan until 6” schema.

    I love all of Allan Eckert’s stuff, so you can’t count on my taste for fine writing. I think it’s generally conceded that Eckert doesn’t have much snap or sinewy ripple to his prose, but the scenes and stories he assembles are all i need some days — i’d love to read what a more novelistic approach like Frazier’s could do with William Johnston or Andrew Montour and his mother, let alone Gnadenhutten (sadly, if you haven’t read any Eckert, you’ve probably never heard of them unless you took a really specific history course on pre-Revolutionary America.

    As for pre-Civil War America, i am just finishing Charles Dickens’ “American Notes,” and it has been an absolute joy, even the recycled preaching on slavery at the end. Talk about getting the visceral, earthy, fecal, wild perspective on the Ohio Valley and ante-bellum Northern cities . . . and the passage on Niagra Falls is worth the book for that meditative description alone.

    If you like reading on-line —

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  18. Danny said on March 11, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Moe, I forget, did you say that have you read the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? Every time I see a mention of “Thriteen moons” it brings to mind Daughter of the Thirteen Moons, who is one of the characters from the series.

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  19. nancy said on March 11, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Jeff, I’ve been following Bittman’s diet suggestions with some modifications — not vegan, but mostly vegetarian during the day. (I think women need dairy for the calcium.) It’s a good way to eat, and I’ve lost a few pounds. Not many, but enough to loosen my waistbands a tad, and when cycling season finally arrives, I hope it’ll come off faster.

    One thing I noticed is that when I do eat meat of late, I’m far pickier about its quality. Late last week, I had a pow’ful protein craving after several days of hard workouts. Rather than cook, I thought a nice bar hamburger would fill the bill. All that night and into the next morning, my mouth and throat felt painted with grease.

    But generally, yeah — more vegetables, more whole grains, less sugar, less junk. It’s a good way to eat.

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  20. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 11, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    Bittman and Pollan are in synch with this simple plan, but the “vegan ’til 6” plan fails me if you count eggs. Gotta have eggs some mornings. (Sez my waistband: no you don’t.)

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  21. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    For the enjoyment of central Ohioans, born or adopted, the view of Dickens on our state capital:

    “We reached Columbus shortly before seven o’clock, and stayed there, to refresh, that day and night: having excellent apartments in a very large unfinished hotel called the Neill House*, which were richly fitted with the polished wood of the black walnut, and opened on a handsome portico and stone verandah, like rooms in some Italian mansion. The town is clean and pretty, and of course is ‘going to be’ much larger. It is the seat of the State legislature of Ohio, and lays claim, in consequence, to some consideration and importance.”

    *location now the Huntington Bancshares Bldg.

    And on Niagara:

    “When we were seated in the little ferry-boat, and were crossing the swollen river immediately before both cataracts, I began to feel what it was: but I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on Table Rock, and looked – Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! – that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.

    Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one – instant and lasting – of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind, tranquillity, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness: nothing of gloom or terror. Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, for ever.

    Oh, how the strife and trouble of daily life receded from my view, and lessened in the distance, during the ten memorable days we passed on that Enchanted Ground! What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears, the drops of many hues, that showered around, and twined themselves about the gorgeous arches which the changing rainbows made!

    I never stirred in all that time from the Canadian side, whither I had gone at first. I never crossed the river again; for I knew there were people on the other shore, and in such a place it is natural to shun strange company. To wander to and fro all day, and see the cataracts from all points of view; to stand upon the edge of the great Horse-Shoe Fall, marking the hurried water gathering strength as it approached the verge, yet seeming, too, to pause before it shot into the gulf below; to gaze from the river’s level up at the torrent as it came streaming down; to climb the neighbouring heights and watch it through the trees, and see the wreathing water in the rapids hurrying on to take its fearful plunge; to linger in the shadow of the solemn rocks three miles below; watching the river as, stirred by no visible cause, it heaved and eddied and awoke the echoes, being troubled yet, far down beneath the surface, by its giant leap; to have Niagara before me, lighted by the sun and by the moon, red in the day’s decline, and grey as evening slowly fell upon it; to look upon it every day, and wake up in the night and hear its ceaseless voice: this was enough.

    I think in every quiet season now, still do those waters roll and leap, and roar and tumble, all day long; still are the rainbows spanning them, a hundred feet below. Still, when the sun is on them, do they shine and glow like molten gold. Still, when the day is gloomy, do they fall like snow, or seem to crumble away like the front of a great chalk cliff, or roll down the rock like dense white smoke. But always does the mighty stream appear to die as it comes down, and always from its unfathomable grave arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist which is never laid: which has haunted this place with the same dread solemnity since Darkness brooded on the deep, and that first flood before the Deluge – Light – came rushing on Creation at the word of God.”

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  22. Dorothy said on March 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Years ago I saw a BBC production of Barbara Vine’s story ‘A Dark Adapted Eye.’ I can’t remember much about it right now except that it knocked my socks off. I’ve loved Ms. Rendell ever since.

    I just finished “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” a couple weeks ago. Very well written and heart-wrenchingly sad. But that guy can W-R-I-T-E. My favorite passage, when he was describing a scene inside an old house with an array of things abandoned inside, said that a pile of newspapers was “oatmealing” in the corner. I knew instantly what he meant by that made up verb.

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  23. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Levi Johnston heads into the Republican memory hole .
    Can’t blame the girl, but it does sound like the knives are out in the Circle-K
    Trailer Park. Reminds me of old home week.

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  24. judybusy said on March 11, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    coozledad, you just justified the entire existence of the web with that story link. Thank you!

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  25. moe99 said on March 11, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I read the first 6 or 7 volumes of the Wheel of Time series. My son has read them all. I gave up because it was never going to end. We’re still waiting for the final volume, which is being ghostwritten, to be released.

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  26. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I can’t recall who nicknamed the Palin clan “The Wasilla Hillbillies,” but they were prescient. It’s hard to believe just six month ago Sarah P. and her brood stood a good chance of moving to D.C.

    This is probably a good development for Bristol Palin, who seems like a nice kid. Levi came off as a jerk and we all know shotgun weddings rarely last. You have to think all that talk about Bristol and Levi marrying was window-dressing for the campaign, right? Turning lemons into lemonade for the evangelicals by promising to rectify the unplanned pregnancy with wedding bells? Luckily, this young lady no longer has to follow that script.

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  27. Sue said on March 11, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Where do the two parties stand on fathers’ rights, including single fathers? If this story gets wider circulation (Bristol supposedly denying Levi access to the baby), fathers’ rights groups will be contacting Levi. He could be a very valuable poster boy for their cause, and if he decides to take them up on it, everyone hoping to score a political point or two will jump right in. Who cares that there are teenagers and a baby involved? Any ideas on how this will be covered across the spectrum?

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  28. nancy said on March 11, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Can we at least acknowledge for the sake of journalistic responsibility that the source for all this is the Star, and their source is Levi’s white-trash sister? Just acknowledge it.

    [Acknowledgment occurs.]

    OK, carry on.

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  29. Sue said on March 11, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Well, I did say “supposedly”.

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  30. MichaelG said on March 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    I can assure one and all that the primary smell on battlefields I have experienced is not feces.

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  31. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Hey Hoosiers!

    My favorite wacky wingnut site, Human Events, has a list of the Top 10 RINOS (Republicans In Name Only) you’ll find entertaining. The top two spots are taken by the ladies from Maine — Collins and Snowe– and the third by Arlen Specter. You’ll recall those are the GOPers who voted in favor of President Obama’s stimulus package. To my astonishment, Richard Lugar is listed as the 8th biggest RINO.

    Man, the party is really going to the starboard side when Dick Lugar is a RINO.

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  32. Rana said on March 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I gave up because it was never going to end.

    Yes. Plus after about book 5 the repetitive motifs in the prose (especially in descriptions of characters) become impossible to ignore.

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  33. Scout said on March 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Hand raised here to acknowledge the source of the Bristol story, but I think we all knew the alleged engagement was just a nod to the evangelicals to keep them in line and give them cover for “voting their conscience.”

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  34. brian stouder said on March 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Paging Jeff The Mild Mannered One! Jeff TMMO to the white courtesy phone!

    what happens when a pastor in northern Alabama spends a month of Sundays talking about sex from the pulpit?

    money quote from a disgruntled competing pastor:

    Evangelist Roland Belew, a self-described fundamentalist and former trucker who now preaches at a truck stop, said the whole idea goes against the teaching of New Testament apostles. “Paul said preach the Gospel,” said Belew. “Talking about sex ain’t gonna get nobody to heaven.”

    Hah! I think he might rethink that one…

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  35. nancy said on March 11, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Let’s also share a laugh over Levi’s sister’s name — Mercede. Which makes both Johnston children named, sort of, for iconic brands in the American marketplace.

    Sometimes I torture my child by telling her she was thisclose to being named Amber Destiny.

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  36. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    MichaelG: That probably has a lot do with to the screening process that keeps people like me out of the military. Feces would be leaking from every pore.

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  37. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Nancy, did Mercede have a brother named Ben??

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  38. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    The child my wife and I never had, little Motorola, would probably have been gutting an assistant principal at the middle school with a dull pair of paper shears long about now, had my wife not met my relatives and subsequently got her tubes tied.

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  39. Sue said on March 11, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    So I’m cleaning closets today, because when I take a day off, I make sure the weather’s awful and I have lots of fun things to do (ironing was this morning), and I come across a headless Barbie. Oh, yes, I remember this one. A $100 (at the time) collector Barbie that my brother, bless his single heart, didn’t understand was not actually meant to be played with and should not be given to an actual girl. Fancy ballerina outfit, tights, wing things, etc. I’m quite sure there was lots of flowing blonde hair involved, too, although not as much as her Totally Hair Barbie (known around the house simply as “Totally Hair”). No head, of course, because the girl it was given to has an older brother. And not hidden in the closet by the brother, but by me, because sometimes it’s easier to be a part of the crime than face the consequences, which would have lasted weeks. Fortunately, this Barbie wasn’t any more special than the others she had and she quickly forgot it, figuring it was embedded in the bedroom strata and would resurface someday. So, goodbye, expensive headless Barbie; your clothes will be going to Goodwill so some clueless kid can dress her own wild-haired Barbie in a designer ballerina outfit. Why am I telling this story, besides the fact that I’m avoiding the next closet? Well, how many of you are reading this and nodding?

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  40. brian stouder said on March 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm


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  41. Catherine said on March 11, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Just cleaned 8 YO’s room and found, under a bookcase, a number of Barbie parts: handless Barbies, footless Barbies, Barbie tibias, the works. Judging by the marks on them, the puppy played a major role, but I think the coverup was managed by a human. The most worrisome part: It doesn’t all go back together into 3 or 4 Barbies — there are definitely parts that are altogether gone.

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  42. del said on March 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Wonder what Ted Nugent would smell like on the battlefield.

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  43. moe99 said on March 11, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Fun for the evening:

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  44. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 11, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Brian, i’m not clear — are you pro- or con- preaching in favor of sex? (I’m guessing pro-!) Actually, it’s getting kinda trite in EvangelicalWorld ™; all the big kahunas short of Rick Warren have done that sermon series in the last year. “The Love Dare”, the book that goes with the movie “Fireproof”, has two days specifically about sexual intimacy. On the other hand — — some of this trend is sincere interest in talking during the sermon time about issues that are really related to people’s everyday lives (ok, every week lives…), but a bunch of it is flailing to grasp attention and interest in the wake of what Michael’s speaking of in the CSM piece. I can’t say which side the Alabama pastor falls on, but the truck stop preacher just sounds jealous (he said judgmentally, immediately repenting).

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  45. LA Mary said on March 11, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I’ve been at a job fair all day, something I do quite often. Today was the first time I had people who were obviously drunk come to my booth. Not one, four. Times are hard, I guess. That still does not make me want to hire drunks into health care jobs.

    Coozledad, thank you for the Bristol update. Also, on your website, there is a photo of a mandolin band. I have a similar photo of my ex’s grandmother in a mandolin band at Mount Holyoke in 1918. We have her mandolin, a Martin, with a monogrammed silver plate covering the end of the strings.

    Good luck with the obnoxious cat. They never die young. I have one and I’m sure she’ll live to be 25. The two nice ones I have will likely have expensive medical issues and die at 8. Years of cat ownership have given me this wisdom.

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  46. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Jeff TMMO,

    I read that CSM article earlier today and thought it made a lot of sense. It also brought to mind a comment by Jay Bakker, the son of disgraced PTL leaders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Young Jay is a tattooed, chain-smoking, hard-rocking evangelist to the punks and metal kids, which is quite the opposite of the lifestyle his parents embraced, but I digress. Asked about the issue of gay marriage, Jay Bakker noted that more than half of all Christian marriages failed and maybe the evangelicals might seek to address the problems with hetero marriage before going after the gays. I think he speaks for a lot of younger evangelicals. They look at all the issues and problems and challenges out there and they are not prioritizing gays like their folks’ generation.

    I also ponder what is happening to the Catholic Church, which seems increasingly crazy to me. Not unusual crazy, but cat lady crazy.

    The story out of Brazil about the archbishop excommunicating the mother of a 9-year-old girl, who was pregant with twins after being assaulted by her stepfather, because she arranged an abortion for this child is a perfect example. The doctor who performed the operation –and who insisted it was a dangerous pregnancy because this little girl’s body could not carry the twins to term– also was excommunicated.

    But what of the rapist stepfather? He’s still in the Church. The archbishop is quoted as saying what the stepfather did was horrible, but the abortions were worse because the twin fetuses were innocents who were killed.

    Let’s not even venture into Pope Benedict’s welcoming of a sect that include a prominent Holocaust denier among its clergy members. What the hell is going on with my former religion???

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  47. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    LA Mary: I know there was a mandolin craze that straddled the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, but it would be interesting to find out how widespread it was. Those were tough times, and a Gibson mandolin is generally not cheap . That photograph came from a junk and antique store my wife and I would haunt when we were furnishing our first house. The girl who’s front and center is my alter ego. I was always pissy about music.

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  48. moe99 said on March 11, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Vatican says washing machines did more to liberate women than the pill.

    Yet another reason I am glad to be a presbyterian these days.

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  49. jeff borden said on March 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm


    At least you have a religion. My poor parents, who never made a lot of money, sent me and my sister to Catholic schools. Sheesh, my dad wasn’t even a Catholic, yet he still shelled out whatever it was to assure we would (a) get a good education and (b)a Catholic upbringing. Today, I stand aghast at the church and its leadership even as I recognize how much comfort the local parish priest and deacon brought my mom when she was in her final days.

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  50. LA Mary said on March 11, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    I torture my children by telling them they were almost named Cosmo and Stanley. There was a flirtation with the name Wieczeclaw as well.

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  51. basset said on March 11, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Mandolins in general and Gibsons in particular were indeed very popular in the first few decades of the 20th Century, not least because Gibson built connections with music teachers, who would then form orchestras among their students. A good short account is here:

    There are still a lot of those old Gibsons around, and every once in awhile one turns up in an attic or under a bed. I have a 1918 A4 similar to the one the long-haired girl is holding near the center of the picture on Cooz’s blog; that little white spot on the head of the instrument is inlaid script, usually mother of pearl, which reads “The Gibson.”

    Mine came from a builder who acquired it in trashed condition and replaced the top and the fretboard; I eventually got hold of the guy he got it from, who told me someone he worked with just walked in and gave it to him, case and all, one day, said it had been in grandpa’s attic. Where the heat, of course, weakened the glue holding the internal bracing in place, allowing the tension of the strings to cave the top in.

    All fixed up, though, it plays really nicely, particularly in the hands of someone who can do more with it than me.

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  52. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 11, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    To be fair to Il Papa di Roma —

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  53. basset said on March 11, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Just pulled out my reproduction 1918 Gibson catalog to follow up on Cooze’s statement that a Gibson was “generally not cheap.” And he’s right… list price on mine, effective August 25, 1917, was $88.65 not counting the case. Wholesale was $50, pretty good markup.

    So… going to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “CPI Inflation Calculator,” tainted as it no doubt is by being part of the liberal conspiracy, we convert $88.65 in 1917 dollars into… $1462.33 today. Which is a lot less than I expected, Gibsons start in the mid-$2000s now and go straight up from there.

    You have to love the language in this old catalog:

    “Can a teacher, whose divine commission is to instruct and lead, fail to acquire the tools that equip him for service, no matter how financially poor, when he can secure the foundation instrument to his Mandolin Orchestra for $5.00 down and $3.00 a month? Fie! Good teacher, those terms of only ten cents a day would cure deafness and make any teacher who can breathe thoughtful breath feel a fever of passion to play even tricks of desperation to gain greater influence and a larger musical destiny.”

    That’s all one paragraph… in the “Some Miscreate their Own Evils by Paining Themselves with Expensive Economy to Please Nobody, Not Even Themselves” section, trying to sell mando-basses on time payments.

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  54. basset said on March 11, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    As we get further into wages and such… just found a NY Times article from 1922 which said railroad machinists made an average of 50.5 cents an hour in 1917, compared to 21.8 for a laborer. So that’s about a thousand dollars a year, based on a forty-hour week… and that mandolin would have cost just over four weeks’ wages, which would total a lot more than $1462.33 now. Someone explain why this is not adding up…

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  55. nancy said on March 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Math is hard!

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  56. Rana said on March 11, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    An article on the mutilation of Barbie – I have to say, not once during my childhood was I tempted to snack on Barbie’s feet.

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  57. Rana said on March 11, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    On the wages… the machinists would be making about $8 an hour in 2009 dollars, and the laborers would be making $3.60 an hour. So my guess is that wages have increased at a greater rate than inflation (due to things like union activity, the minimum wage act, and postwar affluence) while the material costs of producing goods has probably increased at the same rate as inflation or perhaps a bit more less (Thank you, edit function!).

    In other words, the value of the dollar itself describes one fixed trajectory, but the value of the work and goods describe different ones.

    That’d be my guess, anyway.

    My sense of the likely math is fuzzy but we ought to be able to figure out the trends at least…

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  58. Rana said on March 11, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    *chuckling in appreciation of Nancy’s ability to combine Barbies and wage inflation in a single line*

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  59. Jolene said on March 11, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    It strikes me that there are the seeds of a Northern Exposure-type sitcom in that “preaching about sex” story—the truck-stop preacher, the “aspires to be Rick Warren” megachurch preacher, the 22-year-old mayor, the landscaper/social commentator. It could work.

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  60. coozledad said on March 11, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Basset: I’m fucking speechless.I need to read up. Great stuff! It reminds me of my first encounter with Thorsten Veblen.

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  61. beb said on March 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Jeff at 21. Darn you, You made me learn something.

    Nancy at 35. My last name is Brown. She tease our daughter that we were thinking of naming her “Honey Brown” so she’d appear on all the restaurant menus. Needless to say, that was never going to happen.

    Jeff Borden at 46. Speaking of crazy cat ladies and the Catholic Church, I’ll have you know that my wife, is a lot less crazy than the Catholic Church.

    Bassett at 54. I read a lot of 20s and 30s fiction. My rule of thumb for converting prices back then is 30X. So an $88 mandolin would cost today around $2700, which matches with what you say they do cost today. On the otherhand, while I don’t know what skills a railroad machinist has I’d say they’d earn between $20-$30 an hour now, which is 40-60 times what they made back then.

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  62. Dexter said on March 11, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    I am off to WebMD or whatever that site is to study leukemia…I just got an email that my cousin is receiving chemo, as I type , his seventh drip, now he stays in the hospital to rest for three more weeks.
    Any of you read the Auburn Evening Star? Another cousin was the person trapped in her car on CR11…water started coming in the car, she bailed out, made it to safety, the new Pontiac filled with water and is ruined. Tomorrow, a new Pontiac.

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  63. basset said on March 11, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    I would guess, Beb, that you’re pretty close on current railroad machinist pay. I made $4.58 an hour on a railroad track gang in the summer of 1975, working out of Mitchell, Indiana on the Chessie System Cincinnati-St. Louis line… big jump from the dollar-sixty I was getting to detassel seed corn down in Greene County.

    and Stroh’s was about 69 cents a quart at the time, if I remember correctly.

    still maybe a little low on the value of that mandolin, the A4 was next to the top of the line back then and would be… let’s see, here’s a dealer asking $2500 for one today:

    Gibson doesn’t really make an equivalent model today, closest they have lists around $5000.

    but they sure did build some weird stuff back in the old days:

    Cooze, send me a postal address through Nance and I’ll ship you that repro Gibson catalog if you promise to send it back. I like the part where they advise cleaning the mandolin with gasoline and then rubbing a little olive oil into the wood to keep it nice.

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  64. alex said on March 12, 2009 at 6:56 am

    Rana, the author of that Barbie story, Neil Steinberg, is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m surprised he didn’t mention the Chicago artist who was sued by Mattel some years back. Her specialty was making things with Barbie parts.

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  65. Connie said on March 12, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Cruisin the news and laughing out loud this a.m. Fraternity wins over Westboro Baptist Church demo in Chicago: .

    And don’t miss Chris Matthew’s smackdown of Ari Fleischer, . Did I really hear Fleischer blame Saddam for 9/11?

    And then there’s the thing where Chuck Norris wants to be President of Texas after it secedes. His reference to “cells” is rather scary.

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  66. alex said on March 12, 2009 at 7:56 am

    When did Chuck Norris start using that sissy hair color?

    And why didn’t Chris Matthews smack down Bush administration officials for that same audacious lie back in 2001-2004?

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  67. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on March 12, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Looking forward to the verdict on “Thirteen Moons,” although “De gustibus non est disputandum.”

    Just as it is accurately said that Pennsylvania is Alabama, with Philly tacked to one end and The Burgh tacked to the other, you can say Alaska is Kentucky with glaciers and a couple extra really high mountains (and swap oil for coal).

    Before there’s much more amusement over the Bristol Palin story, i’m more interested in the fact that to run for national office, you really have to fit into or not protrude too far from an upper middle class framework. That, or you’re expected, nay, encouraged, to throw non-conforming friends and relations off the island — think Jimmy Carter and Billy (and even Miz Lillian was expected to tamp down some of her more colorful characteristics), or Bill Clinton’s mother. Roger Clinton tried to fit the narrative, but mostly got squeezed out.

    For roles like that of senator, we’re a lot more accepting of quirks that are Newport or Kennebunkport or Key West based than qualities and background more common to Clinch Mountain or Mobile Bay. And my question would be — what kind of talent pool are we excluding from public debate this way? Are hillbilly folk really more vulnerable to blackmail than the Royal Tenenbaums or Muffy and Skip? Does intellect require the flat, uninflected American Standard English of tv news readers, or is Jimmy Carter going to be the outlier, accent-wise, for national leadership?

    Anyhow, in aid of absolutely nothing — if i can read body language at all, Bernie Madoff is utterly, utterly relieved to be done with the game, and i suspect actually relieved, if a bit apprehensive, about going to jail. It’s not a point made in sympathy, just a practical point of psychology: he’s been imagining this day for decades, apparently. He never imagined it would even last this long, and it’s done, and he’s ready to go. The fascinating story, and i look forward to Michael Lewis (i hope, i hope) writing it, will be about how it began. When did Madoff first realize the how and in what way he could do this iteration of the Ponzi scheme, and at what point did he realize, probably not long after that, that he could go no way other than forward . . . or throw himself into jail by a full and immediate unprompted confession in media res (which never happens) . . . so he continued, and probably marveled over and over that it kept on going, beyond his wildest fears, let alone hopes, which he probably abandoned years ago.

    Just one guy’s take. Happy Thursday y’all, and Happy 250th birthday for one of my favorite drinking companions, those all too infrequent occasions when i get to have a quiet evening out with friends. Hoist a brown and tan beauty for me when it passes the Holy Hour of Noon!

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  68. Kirk said on March 12, 2009 at 8:30 am

    So even frat rats have some redeeming qualities. Who knew?

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  69. jeff borden said on March 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Not just frat rats, but frat rats from the University of Chicago, where students pride themselves on not having any fun. I never put much stock in the whole “Greek life” thing, but this morning I’m tipping my hat to the fellows who showed up the cockroaches from Westboro.

    Laughing at people like that –and the looney neo-Nazis, and the pathetic remnants of the KKK, etc.– may be a more effective response than jeering. These folks feed off hate, but it must chap their butts when they are openly mocked and targeted by derisive laughter.

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  70. brian stouder said on March 12, 2009 at 10:21 am

    OK – enough “literary criticism”; here’s a journalism criticism.

    MSNBC is currently running the following ‘breaking news’ banner:

    Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff pleads guilty to all charges

    “disgraced financier”?

    “disgraced financier”??!?

    I understand the concept of avoiding editorializing/punditry/snark in news reporting….but the man is now an official, no reasonable (in fact, not one scintilla of) doubt, confessed criminal…and we’re calling him a “disgraced financier”?

    Isn’t THAT a sort of gross understatement?

    If we capture a drug cartel kingpin and he cops a plea, he ain’t gonna be called a “disgraced pharmaceutical mogul”…or if we capture Osama Bin Laden, he won’t be referred to as a “disgraced societal engineer”

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  71. moe99 said on March 12, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Madoff is being defended by one of the smartest securities attorneys in the business: Ira Sorkin. You can bet your bottom dollar that everything that has been going on since Sorkin was hired is exquisitely scripted.

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  72. brian stouder said on March 12, 2009 at 11:42 am

    You can bet your bottom dollar that everything that has been going on since Sorkin was hired is exquisitely scripted

    moe – isn’t that obscene?

    It breaks the Gold Rule* to say this, but Sorkin’s services certainly can’t be cheap. How’s he getting paid? Where did the large money required to retain such a lawyer’s firm come from?

    *regarding the accumulation of very large wealth, the rule is: don’t ask “how”, but only “how much”

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  73. moe99 said on March 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Madoff transferred around a hundred million dollars to his wife. I would bet it’s coming from there.

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  74. brian stouder said on March 12, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Well, msnbc has changed their reference to Madoff from “disgraced financier” to “disgraced invester” and (this is the good one) “admitted con man” – and oddly enough, even though it’s fruit salad, I feel better.

    But I recall reading many years ago that WC Fields kept small bank accounts all across the country, so that if he got swindled or a bank collapsed, he wouldn’t be broke.

    I thought that was funny at the time, but now I see the wisdom

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