Thursday, October 31, 2013


Talk about a scary Halloween.  We're fearing little goblins with Ted Cruz masks, demanding all the Candy or else, the "trick" being they will stay at our doorstep forever, blocking our exit until we relent. Other non-Cruz goblins better watch out too, once the Cruz clan congregates. 

Until now, I've been silent on the subject of Ted Cruz.  He burst on the political scene as did Sarah Palin, but Palin was clearly a hopeless lightweight who was "hired" to play a role.  She is a reality TV star, and that's about it.  But Cruz is very different, and I've been trying to make some sense of him, his views, and where he might be going.

He is perhaps the most disturbing politician I've witnessed firsthand (only vaguely remembering Joseph McCarthy from my childhood).  I thought Barry Goldwater was dangerous, but unlike Ted Cruz I don't remember him threatening to hold the US Government hostage.  Cruz's intransigent political views, with no compromise possible, is menacing enough. He is clearly an exceedingly ambitious politician who has all the requisite American-as-apple-pie views and the mannerisms of a preacher, attributes that appeal to his Tea Party / Christian Right followers.  (His recent hunting outing was amusing, perhaps not as well staged as Sarah-got-her-gun trained from a helicopter for moose in Alaska; he was in Iowa, the first stop for the Primary.  And he looks oh so manly with a gun.  Check out the pix here.)  Furthermore, Cruz is well educated and one can only assume that his behavior is being carefully choreographed to achieve the objective of running for the Presidency of the United States. 

His call to shut down the government and have the US default on its debts is a form of economic terrorism, i.e. the "threatened use of force [in this case, legislative force] a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." (The Free Dictionary) Or at least the rubric of demagogue might apply -- "a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the less-educated citizens in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness." (Wikipedia)

I can't help but think of Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, depicting the rise of a Senator "Buzz Windrip" to the Presidency, a campaign built on the back of patriotism and traditional "American values" promising economic reform, and after election appoints his own personal army ("The Minutemen" -- perhaps the NRA would apply for the job?), curtails minority rights, institutes kangaroo courts to do his dictatorial biding, while also limiting the power of the United States Congress. 

No, I don't believe that is what would happen if the unthinkable occurs, Ted Cruz being elected President, but he has mainly used his Senatorial seat as a bully pulpit for his Tea Party views, so his political ambition seems to know no bounds.  And I also can't help but think of this very loose paraphrase of a quote (sometimes attributed to Sinclair Lewis, but no one is sure)  -- if some form of dictatorship ever comes to America, it will be with a cross wrapped in an American flag. (Whatever happened to the concept of the separation of Church and State?) 

One would hope that moderates in the Republican Party can put down this radical, take-all-or-else faction.  John G. Taft, who rightly calls himself "a genetic Republican" made the brilliant case for reigning in the likes of Ted Cruz in his Op-Ed column in the October 22 NYT. He expresses my concerns exactly.

Here are some bullet point quotes from the article....

* If he [Senator Robert Alphonso Taft, his grandfather] were alive today, I can assure you he wouldn’t even recognize the modern Republican Party, which has repeatedly brought the United States of America to the edge of a fiscal cliff — seemingly with every intention of pushing us off the edge.

* Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room. Yet somehow the current generation of party activists has managed to do what no previous Republicans have been able to do — position the Democratic Party as the agents of fiscal responsibility.

* Speaking through the night, Senator Ted Cruz, with heavy-lidded, sleep-deprived eyes, conveyed not the libertarian element in Republican philosophy that advocates for smaller government and less intrusion into the personal lives of citizens, but a new, virulent strain of empty nihilism: “blow it up if we can’t get what we want.”

* This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy.....There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement.

* Watching the Republican Party use the full faith and credit of the United States to try to roll back Obamacare, watching its members threaten not to raise the debt limit — which Warren Buffett rightly called a “political weapon of mass destruction” — to repeal a tax on medical devices, I so wanted to ask a similar question: “Have you no sense of responsibility? At long last, have you left no sense of responsibility?” [A paraphrase of what was asked of Senator McCarthy.]

So, we now wait until February 7, the next "deadline" for the debt ceiling (it's becoming a Yo-Yo economy with all these kaleidoscopic, Armageddon-like cut-off dates).  It will be fascinating (or perhaps even more frightening) to watch Senator Cruz's machinations as that fateful day approaches.

Monday, October 28, 2013


This is but another novel I took along for the trip, but did not get around to reading it until I returned.  Although I finished it a while ago, it's been on my mind.

Part Franz Kafka, part Woody Allen, and throw in a touch of Mickey Spillane, unlike any book I've read in a long time, Nowhere by Thomas Berger is a dystopian view of the "future" which, as it was written in 1985, might as well be now.  It's about a second-rate gumshoe (he's no Mike Hammer), who aspires to be a playwright, but never seems to get the second act done, who slides down a rabbit hole into the "Kingdom" of Saint Sebastian, ostensibly on "assignment" by the US Government to find out something about the little Kingdom, its monarch, Prince Sebastian XXIII.  It is a little like the country of "Duchy of Grand Fenwick" in The Mouse That Roared, one of my favorite films about the Cold War, but far more bizarre.

Things appear to be topsy-turvy in the Kingdom, but are they?  Children are formally educated by being forced to watch take-offs of old Hollywood movies, Blonds are second class citizens and in fact are "obliged to have sexual relations with anyone who asks them," and although "condemned to menial work, waiting on tables, pulling rickshaws, they also "practice law (people can be severely punished for rudeness) and certain other professions that are more or less honorific elsewhere"  As Russel Wren, our protagonist comments, "and it should be noted that the Blonds are splendid physical specimens, tall and strong and comely, unlike any other oppressed people on record."

There is a "government" which functions like a parody of Alice In Wonderland, where "official scholars" maintain an encyclopedia for the land which no one reads as it is completely idiosyncratic, and hopelessly out of date.  Lawmakers are hard to be found or are completely ineffectual.  And our Prince is a corpulent over-eater, who encourages sodomy throughout the land, but one who is also considered by the people (that is, the non-Blonds) to be benevolent.  No wonder, there is unlimited credit in the country. 

Our perplexed gumshoe has an interesting exchange with a clerk concerning credit and economics at the Sebastian cable office (whether and where cables go is unclear):

  "Saint Sebastian is then a microcosm of Europe? Surely you have as well your own Versailles, Brandenburg Gate, and Erechtheum with a Caryatid Porch?"
  He shrugged in satisfaction. "We are peculiarly blessed, I must admit. For that reason we Sebastianers are not great travelers."
  "Also, on leaving the country one's overdraft and credit balance must be paid, no?"
  "In fact that would be against the law."
  "To leave the country?"
  He shook his head. "No, no: to discharge one's debts in toto."
  "Can you be serious?"
  The clerk spoke gravely. "It would be a profession of lack of faith in one's countrymen. No crime could be more heinous.  Every Sebastianer has a God-given right to be owed money by others. Only in this way does he establish the moral pretext for running up his own large debts. Else our economy would collapse."
  The dismal science has never been my strong suit. Whenever I've tried to understand how, in the same world, filled with the same people, buying and selling the same things there can be regular periods of great prosperity, followed immediately by recessions, my brain spins on its axis (this would make sense only if the good times resulted from the purchase of Earth goods by visitors from Mars, who however on the next occasion took their business to Jupiter).
  If you say so" was my response.

As it is in part a "mystery" novel, I'll not let on about the final resolution, but, hint, there is a Sebastiani Liberation group -- one of the reasons Wren is thrown into the rabbit hole in the first place.  Blond Olga, who Wren first meets as a stewardess on the Sebastiani Royal Airline, is connected to the group, explaining to Wren "Foreigners sometimes do not understand our vays.  Ve do not have to screw under every circumstance," just a little foreshadowing.

Written in 1985, Berger's book is one to be read today and to be pondered, and to be enjoyed for its ironic, satiric sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"The Master" and" Mistler's Exit"

As I said at the conclusion of my entry covering our river cruise, one of my favorite pastimes on board any vessel is to read some good books.  Alas, a river cruise is such an active one, reading time was limited, but between various ports, I managed to read two novels by familiar authors.  They were purposely selected for the trip because I admire their fine work and they share Europe as their geographic focal point.

First, I enjoyed The Master by Colm Tóibín, and a hat tip to my son, Chris, for sending it to me after he had read it. Chris is a writer of sorts, and this is a writer's book, an interior exploration about how one's life experiences subliminally enter the writing process.  I had read his book, Brooklyn, a couple years ago and at that time said "there are similarities to the work of Henry James, contrasting the old world to the new, and written by a man about a female protagonist -- a remarkable novel well worth reading. One cannot help but contrast Brooklyn to James' Portrait of a Lady." 

The Master is in fact a highly fictionalized account of Henry James' life during the last decade of the 19th century.  Born into a family of wealth and intellect, Henry essentially becomes condemned to a life of inner loneliness, although he was well traveled and had family and friends.  Tóibín shows the subtle absorption of those relationships into James' fiction, particularly his sister Alice, his attraction to Minny Temple, his cousin, and later, to a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, Constance Fenimore Woulson (all three of these women die during his lifetime, Constance by suicide). But James' life was one of sexual ambivalence -- as he was equally attracted to three men.  There is Hammond ( a manservant), Oliver Wendell Homes (after he had returned from the Civil War), and Hendrik Andersen (a sculptor).  Tóibín walks the line as many historians do -- that perhaps James was "hopelessly celibate" (as James described himself in one of his own letters). 

These relationships, as well as his travels -- to America and throughout Europe, are incorporated into his fiction, and Tóibín imagines how and why in this spellbinding novel, so exacting in its prose.  As an example, here is what he writes when Alice dies: Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay.  And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort.

In many ways, The Master shares some of the characteristics of the next novel I managed to finish during the trip, Mistler's Exit. This is also a tale of loneliness, written by one of America's most unique novelists, Louis Begley.  I say "unique" as here is a novelist, a very fine writer, who came to his craft decades after being a renowned international attorney, an unusual path for a writer (although ironically Henry James attended Harvard Law School -- as did Begley --, but for only a year as James had no intentions of becoming a lawyer).  And I say "loneliness" as the protagonist's sense of solitude is suddenly self-imposed after he receives the diagnosis of inoperable cancer and decides to make a clandestine visit to Venice for a week, keeping the reason for the visit from his wife and only son, in order to take in the city one last time and to think about how to break the news to his family.  Instead, he is followed by a young female photojournalist with whom he has intense sex in Venice, although he remains emotionally removed from it.  Characters come and go, old acquaintances, including a girl he loved in college, but never slept with at the time.  He would like to do so now, but "this time he would not cheat," a double meaning in the work.

Thomas Mistler was born into a privileged family, his father a successful banker, but Mistler charts his own course, breaking from his father's expectations of a successor and instead builds an international advertising business.  Begley writes with an eruditeness that is only rivaled by his classmate in Harvard, John Updike, unique in American literature where the norm is great writing often coming from authors not nearly as well educated. 

It is a fine introduction to Begley's style, very reminiscent of the "Schmidt" trilogy.  In fact, sometimes I thought of Mistler as "Schmidtie," but if you like this work, you will like his trilogy.

The epigraph to the novel, taken from Jacques Chardonne's Demi-Jour, makes a fitting ending to this entry, a reminder to live every moment as one's last and how meaningless "things" are in one's life.  I certainly found that out when we returned from the trip.--.......

Too bad about what men will lose; they'll never notice it,  Everything ends well because everything ends.

Monday, October 14, 2013

European River Cruise III

I had promised to post a few more photos of our trip  There is already a plethora of photos in the published entries, Part I and Part II, the ones I thought told the story best and of course most of my favorites.  But space precluded the inclusion of some of the more idiosyncratic ones that have no particular thing in common other than I like photographing doors, windows, different architectural features, especially when they are evocative of place, passage of time, displaying interesting shadows, and candid people shots. They are not in chronological order but, rather, by city visited, and not all cities are represented. Best way to breeze through these is to click onto the first one and keep on clicking at the bottom where all the photos are in a line ....