Monday, December 24, 2007

But they don't all play alike

NBC Nightly News just announced the death of Oscar Peterson by showing a film clip of what I'm almost certain was Art Tatum. Well, they were heavy-set black men who played piano -- what more do you want? I suppose we should be grateful the film library intern who had to work over the holidays didn't pull out video of Fats Domino.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All balled up at the Executive Office

When you heard about the fire at Cheney's office, did you or did you not have a mental picture of Draft Dodger Dick lumbering down the hallway of the Hotel Earl, cocking his favorite shotgun and bellowing, "I'll show you the life of the mind! I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!"?

Neither did I.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Slippery slope

Some years ago an Italian clothing company brought out a line of denim pants called Jesus Jeans. The Catholic Church was furious, demanding that billboards come down and magazines stop accepting advertising, and employing terms like "sacrilege" and "insult." Of course, nobody got hurt because the Church had lost the power to kill people for offenses against Christianity, after abusing it for about a thousand years. No one should die for naming a product after a religious figure, or a toy after a prophet. But no one should act holier-than-thou about it, either. This kind of thing happens where religions control states, and it could very well happen where presidents flout the Constitution by establishing religious charities in the White House, essentially re-routing tax money to organizations which paid no tax in the first place. We need to clean up our own society before we chastise Sudan.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dearborn debate: epilogue

Mr. Interlocutor: As you know, a man who could have had a bomb strapped to his body burst into the Rochester, New Hampshire, campaign office of Senator Hillary Clinton, took several hostages, and demanded to speak to Mrs. Clinton before being taken into custody by police. If you were president, how would you have dealt with this situation which could easily have turned tragic?

Rudolph Giuliani: I am the only candidate with a proven record of thtanding up to catathtrophe by holding preth conferenthes with my coat off. When the firtht 911 call came in, I would dithpatch a thwat team to the thene with orderth to shoot to kill. I wouldn't care if 911 deranged maniacth invaded 911 campaign offitheth. We should all be willing to thubmit to authority in order to pretherve our freedomth.

Mitt Romney: Well, this is why we need to expand our enhanced interrogation facilities at Guantanamo and enhancedly interrogate all potential terrorists who would harm this great and God-fearing country in the name of terror and terrorism. And I would just point out that this person walked right past the Obama headquarters down the street because he knew a male candidate would respond without becoming emotional or hysterical, as Mrs. Clinton probably did, wherever she was.

Mike Huckabee: Let me tell you, I know what it feels like to have a bomb strapped to your body, because I used to weigh 250 pounds. But seriously, we can expect more of this kind of thing as long as we keep God out of our public schools and replace him with evolution, which is just a theory I don't happen to accept. God bless America.

Ron Paul: As a libertarian, I would abolish government at all levels. Citizens would be free to hire private security firms to guard their lives and property. And who knows more about dealing with crazed suicide bombers, Blackwater or the cop on the beat? Air strikes, lots of them.

Fred Thompson: Cut taxes! Sorry, I was takin' a nap. Are they ready for me in makeup?

Tom Tancredo: There's no evidence that this guy was an illegal immigrant, but he easily could have been. I mean, look how close New Hampshire is to the border. I think it's right next to it. I could be wrong. But I would close our borders to madmen who would destroy our country. In fact, I would deport everyone who wasn't born here, including my grandmother.

John McCain: Well, it's very important to assess the situation as it unfolds, without overreacting until it's time to overreact, under the Constitution with the exception of those powers which are reserved for the president alone, in an emergency, in order to...what was the question?

Duncan Hunter: If the volunteers in Hillary's henhouse had guns, this would have been over in five seconds. Know what I mean?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Big Literature

The obituaries cited renal failure, but I think it was the news of Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize that killed Norman Mailer. The honor he had pursued for so long went to a woman and a feminist -- and even a writer of science fiction, sort of (Canopus In Argos). I was pretty sure the Swedes would never make room for Mailer, for they shy away from writers whose work is eclipsed by colorful personal lives. They don't mind if you throw an occasional punch at Gore Vidal, but they draw the line at stabbing a wife. Running for mayor of New York on a secession platform might also be taken as a sign of frivolity, and if there's one thing the Academicians hate, it's funny writers. With the possible exception of Shaw, they have never recognized anyone who set out to make people laugh and then succeeded. Nobody has ever cracked a smile as a result of cracking a Lessing book.

It has been a satisfying year for science fiction readers who long for respectability, and there must be a few. Philip K. Dick has received the acid-free-paper-and-ribbon-bookmark treatment from the prestigious Library of America. Well, it was time. They've already published a cookbook, several volumes of sportswriting and movie criticism, and a couple of pulp mystery writers. (The LOA was the baby of Edmund Wilson, author of the anti-mystery screed "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" I wonder what he would say to the inclusion of Hammett and Chandler.) But Dick was the founder of a cult second only to L. Ron Hubbard's, and there was little chance his books would drift out of print and be forgotten. When can we expect permanent editions of early Delany, Sturgeon and Asimov? Some of us think the most important thing the LOA's most important function is identifying forgotten writers like Charles Chesnutt and finding them a new readership. All these Dick books are already in good paperback editions.

I would like to see more attention paid to humor. They publish James Thurber and Dawn Powell, and the plays of George S. Kaufman and his many collaborators; Mark Twain is a given. But where are George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Ring Lardner, even H.L. Mencken? Humor dates, of course, but what doesn't? Have you tried reading Dreiser lately? And where is the next generation? Writing sitcoms, drawing graphic novels, even blogging. These days the funniest writer in The New Yorker is Anthony Lane, the movie critic, and he has to be inspired by rotten movies.

Who is the least honored, most read writer in the world? I mean, of those deserving honor. It would have to be Terry Pratchett, whose compound crime is to write funny science fiction (all right, funny fantasy). All he does is create a believable world, flatten it like a hubcap, mount it on the back of a giant turtle and use it to shoot poison darts at our sorry old planet and the patricians, assassins and wizards who run it, while making you laugh until soup comes out your nose. No Nobel in his future, no editions bound like Bibles, just millions of contented readers. Start with Going Postal, which I just finished, rationing myself so I wouldn't run out too soon. The Discworld books can be read in any order, and the more sober critics have begun comparing this guy with Chaucer. But really, did "The Nun's Priest's Tale" make you wet yourself?

I may have said too much.