The Puzzling Family

On March 5, 2021, the spouse posted here “Piecing Things Together, Part II” about the “work” she and NBP do assembling jigsaw puzzles. Below is a small sampling of the results. The first one is a Ravensburger puzzle, their favorites. Immediate below it is a detail of the upper left corner. With the last puzzle you are allowed, nay required, to go “Awww.”

Snippets

After watching Okja, did you become a vegan?

Sodom and Gomorrah on the Hudson. That is how many characterize New York City, but this ignores that a large group of New Yorkers, including me, are devout followers of religion because we park our cars on New York City streets. New York rules prevent us from parking at particular places during particular times of the week so that street sweepers can clean to the curb. (I know that tourists find it amazing that our litter-filled streets are swept, but they are.) Thus, in front of my house, I cannot park on one side of the street from 11:30 A.M. to 1 P.M. on Mondays, and on Tuesdays I can’t park during those hours on the other side of the street. If I park on the wrong side of the street at those times, I WILL get a ticket. It’s irritating, but the streets do get swept. However, there are many regularly-scheduled suspensions of these “alternate-side-of-the-street- parking restrictions”—about forty per year. (Emergencies such as snowstorms also bring additional suspensions.) Many of the scheduled suspensions are for secular holidays—Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.—but the majority are for religious observances. As certain religions gain more adherents in New York, and hence more political power, alternate-side suspensions increase to recognize their religious holidays and festivals. (Politics gets played out in all sorts of ways in New York City.) Jewish and Christian holidays have been recognized for years, but not too long ago some Hindu and Islamic holy days were added thereby increasing the number of days on which I do not have to worry about being illegally parked. It may sound odd, but I don’t believe that I am the only car parker who says, “Thank all the gods for religion!”

Could this story be true? When Marilyn Monroe was married to Arthur Miller, his mother regularly made matzo ball soup for the couple. After the tenth time, Marilyn said, “Gee, Arthur, these matzo balls are pretty nice, but isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?”

Is Jules Feiffer’s thought appropriate for Easter? He said, “Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?”

“To many people virtue consists chiefly in repenting faults, not in avoiding them.” Lichtenberg.

“It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit.” Josh Billings.

March 14 has now become pi day. Some people learn hundreds or thousands of the numerals of pi, but as Jordan Ellenberg points out in How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, while pi itself is interesting, knowing more of those digits does not make it more interesting. He continues that knowing the coordinates of the Eiffel Tower with increasing exactitude does not tell you anything valuable about the Eiffel Tower.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I wonder if the old joke, with some truth in it, is now politically incorrect: What’s the Irish version of a queer? Answer: Someone who prefers women to liquor.

Historically Inaccurate, but True

When it first appeared on Netflix last summer, several friends highly recommended The Trial of the Chicago 7. I resisted watching it. I was in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 and for the trial that started a year later. It was a time of anger, hate, and stupidity, and I told Tony that I did not want that period brought back to me, and I thought the movie might do that. [I have written about my time in Chicago then on this blog a number of times. See the posts of Sept. 28, 2020, Sept. 11, 2020, April 15, 2020, June 17, 2019, August 30, 2017, and March 15, 2017] But I kept hearing how good the movie was, so I gave in and started to watch it. I no doubt was watching with a hypercritical eye, and I spotted some historical inaccuracies in the opening six-minute montage. I thought those flaws were going to color my perception of the film, so I stopped watching.

I wondered why this should bother me. When I watch a movie based on historical or biographical events, I do not expect that I am seeing a documentary; I know that I am not reading a scholarly book. Why should criticisms on historical grounds make a difference in enjoying or judging the worth of a movie?

I finally decided that it does matter because many people get their history only or primarily from popular media. Many of those people may, consequently, accept the inaccurate history presented by a film or TV show. I also decided, however, that a movie may be wrong on historical details, but still present important historical truths.

The 2014 film Selma about the voting rights marches in 1965 Alabama was criticized for being historically inaccurate, mostly in its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. My readings of history would agree with the criticisms. The movie also bothered me because left out of the film was any mention that many conservatives labeled the civil rights movement as communist-inspired. J. Edgar Hoover and others used that justification to monitor and undermine the movement. That is important in understanding that conservative roots in unfounded conspiracies are long and deep. On the other hand, even with some historical inaccuracies and omissions, the movie was “true” about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It captured the bigotry of America, and portrayed the incredible leadership of those fighting that bigotry. The movie underscored the great courage so many showed during the civil rights movement—not just the leaders, but “ordinary” people.  In Selma people were willing to march to make this a better country even though they knew they would probably be beaten or worse. Selma, even if wrong in some detail, presented truths that should have advanced the historical understanding of anyone who watched it.

I know my standard seems oxymoronic; even if it has inaccuracies, a movie can convey important historical truths. And I must confess, I don’t know a good way to define the “truth” that overcomes the inaccuracies, but as I tentatively, oh so tentatively, think about this, I believe there is something in my distinctions.

In any event, when another friend named Tony told me that he had been moved to tears by The Trial of the Chicago 7, I tried it again. I started this time after the opening montage. It is an excellent film, one, as I had feared it would, affected me by reminding me about those chaotic demonstrations and riots and the brutal government response. Chicago 7 accurately depicted the ugliness of the period and the injustice of that shocking trial. I was moved, and as my friend had, I cried at the end.

Then I went back and watched the beginning. And, in words that are always hard to write, I was wrong about one of the historical inaccuracies that I thought that I had spotted. I thought initially that the movie gave wrong information about the pace of our Vietnam buildup. It didn’t. On the­ other hand, the movie gave the impression that the draft lottery was in effect in 1968 and the movie later on indicated that Tom Hayden had been affected by it. The lottery was first held in December 1969, after the trial started, and it did not affect anyone born before 1944, which Hayden was.

I don’t know why the filmmakers included the historical inaccuracy. It wasn’t necessary, but even so, The Trial of the Chicago 7 contained important historical truths. But I still have tentative and contradictory thoughts about how to weigh important historical truths against other historical inaccuracies in a historically-based movie.

The Pope Goes to the New Iraq

          The Pope went to Iraq. Because of all the news coverage, I learned that Christians in Iraq had once been able to live and worship with reasonable freedom, but in the last two decades many Christian communities and neighborhoods had been decimated. Many reports have ascribed the devastations to ISIS in Iraq, but, of course, the invasion by the United States was a precipitating cause. Before 2003, a sizeable Christian minority lived in Iraq, but since then many Christians have been killed or forced to flee the country. Americans in general, and American Christians in particular, do not want to think of the United States as part of the cause of the death, dislocation, and destruction of Iraqi Christians and their communities, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion.

We should remember that we invaded Iraq even though Iraq posed no threat to us, and our government gave justifications for our invasion that were false. And what did we accomplish? Our military action helped cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and perhaps millions of refugees. The country and the region are more unstable since our invasion and occupation than before, and we will pay trillions of dollars to pay for this war long after I am dead.

So how should we think of this war? Do a little thought experiment and swap out other countries for Iraq and the U.S. Assume, for example, that Argentina invaded Pakistan arguing – falsely – that Pakistan had trained its atomic arsenal on Argentina. This theoretical invasion resulted in the death of 350,000 Pakistanis, the migration of 500,000 Moslems to refugee camps in India followed a few years later by terrorist groups from Kashmir attacking and killing Northern Indians by the thousands and destroying ancient palaces dating back to the 1350’s. We would talk about war crimes. We would talk about reparations and sanctions on Argentinian rulers responsible for the invasion. But we don’t talk about those things when America is the instigator. We still believe America is exceptional. We don’t apply the same standards to ourselves that we would to other countries.

          Before we launched our invasion of Iraq, I saw on TV an interview of a congressional leader who had just emerged from an intelligence briefing. The congressman said that as a result of the briefing, he had an “intuition” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He had just met with intelligence officials and had nothing more than an “intuition”?! That told me that the intelligence agencies did not have solid information showing Iraq had those weapons, but the congressman chose not to be skeptical. He voted in favor of the war. I am sure that he was viewed as a “good” man and a good “Christian,” but he voted for death because he had an intuition. And, of course, Colin Powell presented mere drawings and mockups, not photographs or eyewitness presentations, to justify our invasion. Why didn’t he ask where the hard intelligence was? And Powell is a “good” man.”

          Shortly after the invasion, I had occasion to meet with various officials who had been in Israeli intelligence services. They were mystified by our action. They said that Iraq was not a state sponsor of terrorism in the Mideast. But Iran was. They said further that an invasion of Iraq was sure to increase the influence of Iran in the Mideast, and this would be detrimental to certain Muslims and to Christians in the region and threaten Israel as well. They were right. Did none of our analysts realize this?

          I met a graduate of a distinguished college a few years after our invasion. He was a regular churchgoer, and he maintained that Christian principles supported our invasion. He was not alone in that opinion. I heard it said from religious people on TV many times. At the time I wondered what those Christian principles might be since they seemed to be radically different from my own. That made me want to get a WWJB bracelet—not a “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet, which were then popular in certain circles. No. I wanted a “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” bracelet.

          And I wonder when these American Christians say their prayers at night, do they contritely ask for forgiveness for having encouraged this war? Maybe God can forgive them; many others cannot.

Snippets

          The postponed Olympics from last summer are supposed to be held this summer, and many of us will watch sports that we only watch every four or, in this case, five years. I, for example, haven’t seen a decathlon since the last Olympiad, and I expect to hear announcers intone that the decathletes “are competing to be the best athlete in the world.” That tagline never made sense. Yes, those competitors are amazing, but there are many athletic abilities that are not part of a decathlon, which only incorporates track and field skills. Other talents are needed for making a soccer or American football pass, hitting a baseball, driving the basketball lane, or zooming down a ski jump. The range of sports around the world demanding diverse skills is amazing, and the decathlon tests only a tiny fraction of athletic abilities. The modern pentathlon would seem to be a better test of all-around athletic skill than its ten-part counterpart. The pentathletes compete in fencing, equestrian jumping, swimming, and a cross country race with periodic stops for shooting. Now that is a collection of diverse athletic skills.

          As a part-time resident of the Keystone state, I was interested in the recent news article that said conservation groups were suing to denominate the Eastern hellbender an endangered species. The Eastern hellbender is a less than cuddly salamander that can grow two feet in length. Two years ago it was named Pennsylvania’s official amphibian although the picture of the governor signing the denomination did not include a picture of an Eastern hellbender. The news article said that the animal got its name because the early American settlers described it as “a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.” One moniker, however, is not enough for this creature because it goes by the increasingly intriguing names of “mud devil,” “lasagna lizard,” and “snot otter.” The vote to name it the state amphibian was lopsided, but it had competition for the little-known trophy from the Wehrle’s salamander, which is named after the late naturalist R.W. Wehrle, of Indiana, Pa. Reading this factoid doubled my knowledge of Indiana, Pa., residents. I already knew that Jimmy Stewart was born and raised there. I am convinced that the brief news report contains the seeds of many jokes, but I haven’t come up with any, so I am posting this, I must admit, so that I can write “lasagna lizard” and “snot otter.”  Let’s do that again: lasagna lizard; snot otter.

          The phone call was with someone who had recently retired and moved to my part-time Pennsylvania community. After we had discussed governance issues, he discovered that I was talking to him from New York City. He was surprised and asked if I was afraid to go out. I started to say that I was cautious about Covid, but Brooklyn was no worse than where he was, when he said, “Friends of mine tell me that after the George Floyd protests, they are afraid to go out in New York City.” I did not know what to say. Those protests ended nine months ago. Is it fair to make conclusions about him from this? What should they be if I do?

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Oscar Wilde.

“The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is mysterious.” Rebecca Solnit, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.

Piecing Things Together, Part II

(Guest Post From the Spouse)

I’ve always liked puzzles. In high school I was one of those nerdy kids who enjoyed the extra credit geometry problems. Figuring out how to complete a geometry proof – when successful – was extremely satisfying and, well, elegant.

Being out of practice with geometric theorems, however, makes solving those mathematical puzzles impossible. But I still like puzzles so, in my advanced age, I have moved on to those less specialized forms of puzzling – namely crossword and jigsaw.

If you are a puzzler, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For others of you, I’ll try to explain why puzzles are so satisfying.

A crossword puzzle requires a modicum of trivial knowledge and some word skills. Having a decent vocabulary and a fair repertoire of synonyms is advantageous. In some puzzles it’s necessary to figure out the “trick” in the puzzle. In Sunday Times puzzles there’s always a trick. Are words inserted backwards? Maybe they turn corners. Two letters in a single square? Some clues may lead to puns or mangled clichés. In the not-too-distant past it was handy to have a crossword puzzle dictionary to look up, say, the definition of a roadside inn on the Silk Road (caravansary), who got the supporting actress Oscar in 1953 (Gloria Graham), or who was Martin Van Buren’s vice president (Richard Mentor Johnson). I guess some people know those things without a reference book; I’m not one of them. So these days it’s equally useful to know how to use the Internet. One doesn’t have to know every answer to every clue in order to complete a crossword puzzle; some of the answers emerge when words around them are completed. When a difficult word or phrase finally “fits” into a crossword puzzle, there must be a spritz of dopamine that bathes the brain. One experiences pleasure at the reasonableness, symmetry and completeness of the puzzle. Moreover, when it “fits,” there’s no more mental agitation. It fits; it belongs; it no longer jars the mind. There’s an aaaah moment.

Jigsaw puzzles are similar but require a different skill set. Here it’s a visual one. Like crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles come in varying degrees of difficulty. In the New York Times, crossword puzzles get harder as the week goes on. Friday’s puzzle is way harder than Monday’s. Saturday’s is impossible (at least for me). While jigsaw puzzles don’t come with a notice of difficulty, it’s safe to say that more pieces mean greater difficulty (we always opt for 1000 pieces), but even though puzzles come with a picture of their completed selves on the box cover, sometimes the difficulty isn’t quite clear until the puzzle is begun. The NBP and I have done many, many puzzles together. The NBP is exceptionally good at them having both a good sense of color and spatial representation. Me? Not nearly as good. The hardest puzzle we have done together was of a polar bear mother and her cub in a snow bank. I, who rely heavily on color, was at a severe disadvantage. White was not necessarily white; it came with subtle shades of gray, green, blue, even pink. Recognizing shape was essential. I would have been lost without the NBP.

The most fun puzzles (to me) are those from Ravensburger. They are fantastical with names like “No. 2 Curious Cupboard” and “The Bizarre Bookshop, #2.” Little pink creatures hide in corners next to giant flowers or old photographs. There’s always a bulldog or two, maybe a kitten. Sometimes there are quilts with beautiful patterns or candlesticks in front of a moon-shaped cookie, stairs leading up to a giant tomato. Books are everywhere with silly titles. There’s a cookbook entitled “2 FISH PERCHance 2 BREAM” or another entitled “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Pie.” Rulers, dolls, witches – well, they’re just delightfully strange. I love them.

We have also done a puzzle shaped like a fish that had kaleidoscopic colors and various geometric designs for the fins and the body. We did a puzzle of a New Orleans scene with many cascading flowers and wrought iron balconies. Flowers – particularly those entangled in wrought iron filigree — are surprisingly hard. My most recent “solution” was a picture of an old postcard of the New York Public Library in the 1940’s. It’s almost impressionistic, the people emerging as mere smudges of charcoal. The library itself is surrounded by buildings with windows, windows, and more windows, and all those windows looked alike. It was a challenge. I confess to having given up on a puzzle from the University of Chicago Alumni Association. Too many leaves with too many branches, and the NBP wasn’t available to help. No fun. No way.

Jigsaw puzzles are not as cognitively challenging as crossword puzzles, and they take a lot longer to complete. However, they share the same aaaaah moment when the piece fits and the church steeple comes into focus or the staircase reaches that tomato. And when the entire puzzle is complete, it’s almost like closing a good book; you’re sorry that it’s over.

Yes. I like piecing things together.

Snippets

I like that the acrylic blankets I have put on my bed are warmer than the wool ones they replaced. I like that they are fluffier. And I like that when I turn over on a dry, cold night, they shoot out tiny sparks.

The Has Been Guy Donald Trump was talking on Fox News, and I heard him say yet again that he got “almost 75 million votes, more than any other incumbent president.” In the last accounting I saw, Trump got 74,216,154 votes. Only with an unusual rounding technique does this become “almost 75 million.” More important, Trump was not asked why it is germane that he got the most votes of any sitting president when Joe Biden received the most votes ever for any presidential candidate. The germane fact, of course, is that 81,268,924 (almost 82 million by Trump’s reckoning) voted for his chief opponent. Add the three million votes cast for third party candidates, and you can say that 84 million people voted against the HBG, which should be considered a lot more important than that “almost 75 million” voted for him. The most important fact is that he lost, and that he is the Has Been Guy. It may be an interesting bar trivia question as to which NBA team scored the most points while losing, but in the standings all that matters is that they lost. Trump did get a lot of votes; he also lost — big time — hugely. That is what is germane. But the Fox “interviewer” never asked Trump about the importance of his spouting that he got more votes than any incumbent president. And America gets dumber.

Virtue and Vice look much the same,

If Truth is Naked, so is Shame.

                    W.S. Landor

After the author’s text concludes, many books contain a paragraph headed “About the Type.” Thus, a recently read volume had this just before the back cover, “This book was set in Sabon,” which was designed by a “well-known” (?) German twentieth-century typographer based on the work of a sixteenth-century French designer but was named for a Frankfurt typefounder in the 1550s. I, for unknown reasons, always read these paragraphs, but each time I wonder why and if anybody cares about this information. Does anyone ever pick up a book and say, “Oh, this is set in Sabon. It was a pleasure reading that typeface last month. That really makes me look forward to reading this book”?

I passed an eighteen-person line (I counted) waiting to make a purchase at a local coffee spot, and I realized that there is much I don’t understand in life. Anyone who needs a caffeine fix would find another source instead of waiting for a half hour to get it. And if they don’t tremble for the stimulant, why would they stand a half hour in line to buy coffee?

My governor is in political trouble. With each new revelation I think back to the early Covid-19 days when he was everyone’s darling. An astute friend then confidently said to me, “Soon we will all remember again why we hate Andrew Cuomo.” But the claims of sexual harassment always make me uneasy. I don’t think I ever did anything that could have been seen as sexual harassment, but I am never 100% confident that my perceptions and recollections on this front are correct. I know that over a lifetime my knowledge and sensitivities have changed. And I also wonder: What happens when you are bothered by sexual harassment at work, but you are self-employed?

Ruminations of a Somewhat Literate Person (concluded)

          The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett led me to think about other books in addition to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Bennett’s book concerns light-skinned Black twins, one of whom in adulthood passes for white. I first thought of Band of Angels by Robert Penn Warren, which was recommended to me by my friend Glen in the seventh grade. Growing up in our all-white Wisconsin town as the Civil Rights Era was emerging, Glen and I were learning that race was at the core of America. We discussed race often, and because we were both readers, his recommendation of the book fit into our conversations. (Glen once came up with the solution to the country’s racial problems. He said laws should be passed requiring marriage to someone from another race. Glen was convinced that in a few generations our racial problems would be gone. He was also more advanced musically than I at that dawn of the rock era, and he would tell me what songs and artists to listen for. Looking back, Glen shaped me a lot more than many of my other childhood friends.)

          Band of Angels is not quite a passing-for-white story although there is an element of that. In the book a privileged, pampered daughter of a plantation owner finds out when her father dies that her mother was a slave. Therefore, she is Black. In short order, she is sold into slavery. Etc. Etc. Even at the age of thirteen, while I found this to be a searing, shocking story that made me reflect on slavery and race, I thought that the book was a trashy melodrama. Even so, it gave Glen and me a lot to talk and think about. (By contrast, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a great book. Although Willie Stark is not the central figure that many think him to be in the book, an interesting book group would read any of the several excellent Huey Long biographies with Warren’s masterpiece for the potential of extended and interesting discussions.)

          While I would not recommend reading Band of Angels in conjunction with The Vanishing Half, a book group could benefit from discussing other books along with Bennett’s. The classic in “passing” literature is over a century old, but I have only recently read James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The book holds up, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast the importance of a lynching in the two books.

          The Vanishing Half, however, did make me think of a newer book that I have read: One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, a memoir by Bliss Broyard. Her father, Anatole Broyard, was a literary critic for the New York Times who wrote many daily book reviews that influenced my reading selections. After he died, it was reported that he was “passing,” although his situation may be more complicated than that. Many people knew that Broyard was Black, and few examples, if any, of him claiming to be white are given. He didn’t seek to hide his race; it simply didn’t come up. I am white, but I don’t proclaim it. Why should it be different for a Black? In any event, Bliss Broyard did not grow up thinking of her father, or herself, as Black, and her book discusses her explorations of her father’s family and the effects on her of learning this history. These are the same themes explored fictionally in The Vanishing Half. Discussing the real and fictional side-by-side could be interesting.

          And perhaps The Vanishing Half should be discussed with Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which many thought was inspired by Anatole Broyard even though Roth said otherwise. In any event, at the heart of The Human Stain is Coleman Silk as imagined by Nathan Zuckerman (as imagined by Philip Roth), a college professor who crosses over the color line. (Perhaps only in a Roth book would someone leave Blackness to become Jewish.)

The Human Stain, however, undercuts my notion of discussing novels together. Since The Vanishing Half, James Weldon Johnson’s book, and One Drop all contain main characters raised as Black who choose to pass as white, my premise of discussing books together should lead me to form a book group ­that included these as well as the Roth book. However, The Human Stain (which I have only just read because I thought that I ought to in order to write this post) is singularly rich and thought-provoking. Its language begs to be dissected and savored. In short, the novel’s unique power and intrigue would only be diluted by considering it with those other books. The Human Stain is a stand-alone and deserves its own discussion.

¬Ruminations of a Somewhat Literate Person

          I read a lot. Always have. This has been largely a solitary activity. Outside of an educational setting, I have seldom discussed books with anyone other than the spouse or a friend who shared similar knowledge and interests. Recently, however, I have participated in several book groups. I don’t always find the discussions thought-provoking. Only occasionally has the discussion given me a new or deeper insight into the book.

          Part of the reason for this is that often one book reminds me of another. My thoughts are diverted by that juxtaposition, and I would like to explore it. But, of course, in a book group neither can I expect that others will have read what I have nor can I assume that they would be interested in the comparisons. (Often the spouse and I have read the same book, and we do discuss how one book affects our appreciation of another.) And consequently, from my standpoint, the book group discussion is often wanting.

          For example, recently as I was reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, I had thoughts about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Margaret O’Farrell, which I had read only a few weeks before. The novels are quite different. Hamnet is about William Shakespeare’s family, and O’Farrell, with her many striking images, creates a believable sixteenth century England. Gyasi’s novel is set in today’s world and gives us the portrait of a sort of woman who would not have existed in Shakespeare’s day. However, a plague—one ancient, one modern and continuing–is at the heart of each book, but neither author dives deeply into the nature of the plague. Instead, what the books share is a profound sense of grief. In each novel, that grief does not bring people together, as it might, but separates one person from another. Is that inevitable when a young person is lost? Transcendent Kingdom and O’Farrell’s novel are greatly different books, but each made me think about the nature of grief, whether it is shared more when the elderly die, and could it ever be transcended. Was that just my own quirkiness, or would I benefit by having the books discussed together?

          Hamnet, by the way, also had me thinking about another book. Shakespeare’s wife, who is not named Anne Hathaway in O’Farrell’s novel, has the touch of the magical or mystical about her and is closely identified with the woods. That character, who exudes a self-assured strength, reminded me of the wife/mother in a much different book, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Follett’s character, too, captures a magical and mystical element grounded in her strength drawn from a forest. The spouse would add Green Mansions to this list, since Rema in that novel has some of the same preternatural qualities bequeathed by living in the wild.

          When I read a novel, I naturally think about other books I have read by the same author. Thus, in reading Phil Klay’s Missionaries, I thought about Redeployment. As with too much of my reading, I did not recall the details about that earlier prize-winner, I remember only that I found it exceptional. So did others, since it won America’s foremost literary award, the National Book Award. Missionaries, while worthy, did not strike me as outstanding as Klay’s debut work. That was because while I was reading about the militias and the cartels of Colombia with their atrocities and bloody revenges, I thought about The Cartel by Don Winslow, a novel about the Mexican drug gangs and their atrocities and revenges, which I read a few years ago. Winslow’s book amazed me. It also revolted me, but it impelled me to keep turning the pages, so I concluded that it had to be good. When I read Missionaries, I felt that I had already read much of it in Winslow’s book. Winslow gets labeled as a mystery and crime writer, a label that generally prevents an author from being thrown in the literary camp, but I wondered, if the two books were read side by side, whether Missionaries would be considered “better,” “more artistic,” “more literary” than The Cartel.

          I just finished reading The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, which has been on the top of the bestsellers list for quite a while. Even so, I don’t tend to categorize it as a “bestseller.” To my mind that category is given to a “brand name author,” that is, somebody who publishes frequently with the book almost always making the bestseller list. The author’s name is nearly as recognizable as a highly advertised soap or soda. The name-brand-author’s book is usually a mystery, thriller, romance, or more recently something with a fantasy element and is often referred to by the author’s name. For example, I am reading an Agatha Christie, a John Sandford, or a Lee Child. I am not denigrating these books. It takes a rare talent to write them, and I enjoy many of them.

          Bennett’s book, however, does not neatly fall into a genre and is more “literary” than many of these bestsellers. It brought to my mind Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, published a few years ago, another bestseller considered more literary than many and that does not fall into one of the usual genres. I have been trying to figure out why one book triggered thoughts of the other. It is perhaps because in both a community becomes a character in the book; the stories concern generations of a family; and family secrets drive the narrative. In addition, they are good and quick reads. Yet in reading each of them I felt if I was reading something that did more than just pass the time but was somehow worthwhile or deeper or more insightful than others on the Sunday bestseller lists. Would others think the two could be usefully discussed together?

(concluded March 1)

Not TFG, But the HBG

President Biden recently referred to him as “the former guy.” The amusingly insightful columnist Gail Collins thought that this reference would get under his skin and has used the sobriquet “TFG” to needle him. I, however, have been mentally referring to him as the HBG–the “has been guy.” And because of his recent diatribe against Senator Mitch McConnell, I have been wondering whether the HBG has Jewish roots.

His McConnell statement followed the usual formula. First, the HBG praised himself with false claims (he “single-handedly saved at least 12 Senate seats” for the Republicans); whined about the performances of others to explain failures that might be ascribed to him (the Georgia Senate races were lost because of Georgians’ “anguish at their inept Governor, Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the Republican Party, for not doing its [sic] job on Election Integrity during the 2020 Presidential race”); and then launched into an ad hominem attack on McConnell (“a dour, unsmiling, political hack”). The HBG’s statement made me smile, but almost any attack on McConnell will do that. His statement was almost puckish, close to witty, but I had doubts about its source. Is “dour” in the HBG’s vocabulary? Luckily, we did not have to hear his stab at pronouncing it.

This is all the usual HBG stuff, but what really got my attention was another statement: “Likewise, McConnell has no credibility on China because of his family’s substantial Chinese business holdings. He does nothing on this tremendous economic and military threat.” Senator Mitch is married to Elaine Chao, whose family owns a shipping company that transports goods to and from China and has gotten much of its financing from Chinese financial institutions. The Chao family is, you might say, entangled with China and that might be reason to wonder whether McConnell can be objective when it comes to relationships between China and the United States.

So the HBG seems to have a point, but perhaps he is not the one to be making it. He failed to mention that Elaine Chao was Secretary of Transportation in the just-ousted HBG administration—in fact, she was the longest serving of any of last term’s Cabinet secretaries. Transportation. That’s the business her family is in! If McConnell has no credibility on China because he is married to Elaine Chao, surely the credibility of the person who appointed and retained her in his Cabinet in a position that affected our relations with China should, therefore, also be suspect. After all, the Senate majority leader has little control over our China policies while the HBG sought to set them.

The HBG’s statement also reminded me of the classic definition of the Jewish concept of “chutzpah.” The defendant who has killed his parents comes before the court and begs for mercy because he is an orphan. It takes a lot of chutzpah to criticize McConnell for his wife’s family when you yourself have placed that woman in a position of trust and power concerning China. That leads me to the next question: Can you have such brazen chutzpah if you don’t have Jewish roots?

But these thoughts also made me wonder about labeling him the HBG as I have been doing for a while. Apparently the HBG wants us to believe that he actually recognized the “tremendous economic and military threat” that China posed, but we now learn that on his watch China became the EU’s largest trading partner. Whether his concern was economically sound or not, HBG voiced much anguish over our trade deficits in general, but now we learn that those deficits are larger at the end of the term than when he fluked  into office. If there were any real plans to fix the trade deficits (doubtful), they did not work. But, of course, it was not just his trade policies that failed. His wall was neither built nor financed as he said it would be. His America First plan that was going to give us better infrastructure didn’t exist – witness the catastrophes of the snow and cold of the last few weeks. He promised something cheaper and better than Obamacare, but he never made a single health insurance proposal. And now we have learned that in the last year of his term, life expectancy in this country fell by a year. Covid-19 is only part of the reason for that. It is also because of a flawed healthcare system and the opioid crisis, which he said he would, but never did, address.

Welcome to the HBG’s America. As I thought about this, I realized he is not the Has Been Guy; he’s the Never Was Guy. He is the NWG.