Sunday, August 31, 2008

Going Down South (Bonnie Glover book review)

When my copy of Bonnie Glover's second novel, Going Down South, arrived a couple weeks ago with its cover of an African-American girl holding daisies in her hand, my daughter made fun of me. “Dad why are you reading a book like that?”

Actually, my daughter's 18 and currently likes to read about serial killers so she didn't say it quite that way. It's certainly true that Bonnie Glover's two books have largely been marketed as ethnic chick lit. Almost all the characters are black, female, and they deal with emotional obstacles worthy of multiple Oprah installments. That said, I'm not female and yet I read The Middle Sister and Going Down South in more or less a single sitting each time I got them. Least you think it's the literary equivalent of fast food, I remember and savor scenes from both books. (In Middle Sister it's the calming effect of Danny the older sister's 400 pound boyrfriend. In Going Down South it's a scene where Olivia gets her grandmother's friend to take her to see her father)

The savor bit is literally true in one sense, Bonnie Glover happens to be one of those writers who writes about food with real feeling. In Glover novels, food often serves as a symbol of family continuity and or chaos. In the Middle Sister, three more or less parent-less girls begin to recover their sense of unity when the oldest sister's boyfriend begins cooking for them. In Going Down South, the three women at the center of the story begin taking their meals in the dining room of the “big house”.

Anyway, I really do need to give my daughter and others a better reason than “Well, I sort of know Bonnie Glover and I liked her first book.”

I think it comes down to this. Bonnie Glover, one of these women who also manages to practice law and raise a family between books, writes about the human capacity for resilience about as well as anyone I know. She picks some of the gloomiest subject matter imaginable, doesn't exactly write in happy endings, yet leaves the reader both hopeful and encouraged about her characters. In the first book, a major character get murdered. In Going Down South, you get a mix of teen pregnancy, rape, racism, sexual abuse by the clergy, and absent fathers. Fwiw Middle Sister throws in homosexuality and drugs. This is not Sounder. Glover goes right at the most negative stereotypes of the black family and writes about the capacity of their members to support one another and stay tied together.

One of the joys of Going Down South is that it pulls together three intriguing characters. Olivia is a bright New York teenager who's pregnancy sets off the plot. Daisy is her much lighter-skinned mother who for some reason seems uncomfortable with her own daughter. Birdie is the larger than life grandmother who after years of estrangement helps them out in Daisy's native Alabama in a kind of reverse Great Migration. Naturally, each of the three has secrets that have kept them apart over the years and the reader gets to figure these out just slightly ahead of the characters (not an easy thing to manage).

At points the secrets spill out a little fast and a climactic wrestling match between mother and daughter may strike some as a bit too staged even though I suspect many readers will find it hilariously absurd. None of this gets in the way of Glover's capacity for making the reader feel her characters' simultaneous loneliness and essential likeability. Individually they prove to be brave and smart, yet the book retains a sense that there are thousands of individuals in these circumstances who have been just as brave and smart. To me, this is part of the power of Glover's books and why I bought and read them both so eagerly. She shows us how love can survive in“shattered” even “hopeless” family situations. They do not get rescued by luck, pluck, or the return/reform of the absent fathers. Glover's characters simply prove themselves tougher than circumstances and they show it not with big gestures that magically resolve or remove the obstacles but through little steps that simply add up in the course of the story.

It's just fun to read an author who happens to be that rare combination of a realist and optimist all at once.

p.s. btw, there's also a Jack Nicholson movie called Goin' Down South which has absolutely nothing to do with this book.


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Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Condo One Vote

Back in April, John McCain confused Shia and Sunni. He didn't do it on the stump or in response to a trick question from a reporter. Remember in 2000 when candidate George W. Bush couldn't name the leader of Pakistan and no one really cared? McCain did it in the senate while discussing the Middle East. Joe Lieberman politely corrected him then McCain made the same mistake a few days later. It got reported, but the American public barely noticed. In August, he has to ask his staff how many houses he has with his wife and the story's everywhere?

It helps that that the Obama campaign responded immediately with clever ads to this one, but what the heck is the matter with us? Somehow it's not really news post 9/11 and post insurgency that candidate McCain doesn't know that Iran is Shia and Al Qaeda is Sunni? Yet somehow it's a turning point of the campaign that he has seven or more houses?

Actually, we don't even have what was so weird about the whole thing right. I voted for John Kerry and he had five houses with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry. FDR was attacked for being a traitor to his class. Basically anyone who runs for president is either really rich or will be soon. Just ask Bill and Hillary. Even Jenna Bush got more than a hundred thousand dollars for writing a children's book. In fact, her grandmother's dog Millie made several hundred thousand dollars for a book but all of that wen to charity. It strikes me that they should just make a rule for anyone who becomes president. After you serve your time, you come away with ten million dollars plus a nice pension. Whatever you had coming in goes to the charity of your choice. After that, you're a national treasure. You can write books, make speeches to groups of wealthy people in Japan, or endorse viagra, but you and your family can't benefit financially from any of your activities.

Anyway, I don't think many people have noticed that John McCain likely knew exactly how many houses he has with his wife Miss Buffalo Chip. He said, “Well it depends on how you count condos” or something to that effect. The reason he had to have his staff get back to the reporter was that he didn't know how to spin the answer. For instance he could have easily said, “At least four and we have some other vacation properties which I woldn't necessarily count as houses. Do you have a question about a policy matter?”

He might have also easily said, “My wife and I have a pre-nup. She's made a lot of money selling beer to teenagers. I'm just a humble public servant. Did I mention that I was a POW in Vietnam and one of my guards drew a cross in the dirt once just like that scene in Solzhenitsyn?”

Or he might have said, “That doesn't mean that I don't sympathize or want to help those Americans who are losing their only homes or who have never had one. After all, my wife and I might have a lot of homes today but I had the experience of living as a prisoner of war and sharing a cell for several years. You guys must play Monopoly. You know that having 8 houses is nothing like have a hotel on Boardwalk. I'm also a Panamanian immigrant.”

Instead, Mr. Straight Talk express wanted to check in with his staff first. It's not that John McCain's wife is rich, it's really that he didn't have the guts to answer a mildly embarrassing question in public with any level of candor without consulting his “staff”.

Even stupider, the McCain campaign's ultimate response was to point out that Obama has a house worth a million dollars (for those of us who live in California , we kind of shrug that one off), took a vacation in Hawaii, and may have had help buying that house from a bad person. It's a bit like Courtney Love making fun of someone else for smoking marijuana. Maybe that's what happens when you think rich starts at making five million dollars a year.

Maybe in the long haul, the Democrats have the right response to all of this. Joe Biden is one of the few people in Washington who really does know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis. In any case, I'd like to hear a bit more about how the candidates want to navigate the various factional differences in Iraq and elsewhere. Maybe more important, how many of us actually know what the two candidates want to do about the mortgage crisis?


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm No Car Salesman

We got my daughter off to college on the other coast so we found ourselves with three cars and two people. I put an ad in Craig’s List for our 1989 Acura, kept the price low because of all the work it needed, and discovered that I had 25 calls and 10 e-mails the next morning. I guess not many people sell working vehicles for six hundred dollars.

Anyway, I got all these calls from people who didn’t have working vehicles who wanted to see the vehicle immediately. One of the odd things is that you can tell someone that you’ve got 10 people who want to see the car and they’ll ask you “What’s the least you’ll take for it?” It’s especially weird when you’ve got it at one of those I just want to sell the vehicle and move on prices. Who knew that so many people want a twenty year old car? It might be yet another sign of the recession, many years ago I had a horrible time selling a Toyota Van at an almost as good price.

Ultimately, I got a call from someone local who seemed to know something about fixing them. My wife tells me that I shouldn’t care about these things, but I had this fear of passing the vehicle on to someone who didn’t know how much work it might need (the front brakes were shot) or who was on such a tight budget that he or she might run the risk and get in a serious accident. We’ve had one family member who had a serious accident in a used vehicle, so I’m apparently terrified of bad “Carma”.

Over the phone, the guy told me that he had worked on cars as a teenager with his dad. They had once bought three junked Datsun 240Z’s and turned it into one good working vehicle. He drove up with his girlfriend in a newish SUV and both were a bit more clean cut than I expected. It didn’t seem like someone who’d just had his car die. In the meantime, I had all these people calling from two hours away who were trying to figure out how to take a bus to where I live so they could see the vehicle or how they needed a car to get to work. It turned out that he was buying the car for his brother.

He hands me an envelope filled with cash and the whole transaction took about forty minutes. He didn’t even test drive the thing.

Maybe I did give someone too good a deal and I could have squeezed several hundred more dollars out of the car. I guess I’m not a business guy for a reason. On the phone, I started worrying about these people trying to arrange for someone to drive them two hours to my place and would happily volunteer all the problems with the vehicle (brakes, sensor in the starter system, alarm, the rip in the upholstery, the passenger door wasn’t original, etc.) In the meantime, I have this fantasy about passing this inanimate object on to a good home where it will be cared for and not abused. I may have actually sold it to some younger brother with multiple wrecks, etc. but the older brother seemed nice enough.

My mom, who had actually given us the car, was totally indifferent about the fact that we moved her old Acura on. My mother did drive it for 16 years. It was also the vehicle our youngest daughter learned to drive on. Less than six weeks ago, I even had my adventure at Kragen Auto Parts when I had to replace the battery so I wouldn’t have to jump start the car every morning when I drove to work for the last three weeks I planned to use it.

It served us well, but I can’t quite say that it was a member of the family. I’m pretty sure that I won’t be waking up at night a few months down the line asking “Why did we ever sell it?” Maybe, I’ll be saying “Why the heck did I sell it that cheap?”

Years ago, I had an chemistry teacher who did show me how to analyze the real cost of a car. There was, in fact, this magic point when the amount of money you had to put into maintenance exceeded the value of the vehicle. He also argued that there were many situations where you’re much better off just giving a vehicle away than dealing with the cost of keeping it running (think insurance, storage, repairs, etc.) Anyway, the price you pay or sell at is really just a minor part of the cost or value of the vehicle.

That said, I took the 2002 Honda that I reclaimed from my now at college daughter in for a tuneup, etc. this morning. You guessed it. The total bill will be slightly higher than what I sold the Acura for the day before. I wish my town had a decent bus or subway system.


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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Two John Edwardses

I was at a Target Store in High Point, North Carolina yesterday and decided to wait by the front counter while my wife and daughter finished shopping for various college items. My job was to hook up the flat screen tv. Dorm life has changed a bit since my time there thirty years ago. Her room includes a complete kitchen and she shares a bathroom with one other student. Four of them have their own living room. I spent most of the evening hooking up her flat screen television and aligning it with the 125 channel cable system there. While I waited, I noticed a copy of the National Enquirer by the counter with several horrific photos of celebrity plastic surgery. On the left side of the cover was a small box that promised exclusive photos of John Edwards and his alleged love child. I doubt that it's any presidential candidate's dream to have his/her name appear next to photos of Joan Van Ark and Phyllis Diller's post-surgery shots. It's probably worse when you just did damage control on Nightline the Friday before.

I voted for John Edwards twice. The first time is sort of iffy, since he just happened to be the second guy on the ticket in 2004. The second time though was a clear statement. I voted for JRE in the 2008 California primary after he basically had dropped out of the race. I voted for the man because it was important that he was standing up for working class Americans. Would I vote for him again? I would vote for the One John Edwards, the one who used to give the Two Americas speech.

The first John Edwards was one of the few progressive politicians on the national scene who could talk about economic issues without number-laden references to the GNP or the size of the housing market. JRE may have been the last presidential candidate who regularly discussed the economy in terms of how it impacted ordinary working families on a day to day level. He recognized the connection between real family values and issues like the right to health care, the right to a living wage, and the need for strong labor unions that advocate on behalf of their members. In the words of that John Edwards, there were two Americas.

“One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America - middle-class America - whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America - narrow-interest America - whose every wish is Washington's command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president. “

A big part of that one John Edwards was his marriage to Elizabeth Edwards. While John stayed boyish looking and apparently had a Kennedyesque physical presence with all that entailed, Elizabeth is four years older than John and she had gained weight since the death of their son Wade. Topping all of that, Elizabeth has a terminal cancer. I think a lot of voters who had come to believe in John Edwards came to that belief at least partly because of the Edwards marriage. While his cheating on his wife doesn't mean that he doesn't love her or that she doesn't love him, there seemed to be something beyond politics about their devotion to one another. The many parallels between the Clintons and the Edwardses (both couples met in law school, both wives are arguably brighter and more talented than their husbands) always seemed to end when it came to JRE's commitment to and fidelity to his wife in all senses. The Edwardses embodied a fantasy about what a marriage of two bright, ambitious, deeply political partners might be. Instead, we're left with some plot fragment from Batman (see Elliot Spitzer).

I do have to say a bit about Rielle Hunter. When I first saw the pictures of John Edwards's mistress, my first thought was that Elizabeth (whatever her weight) is way more attractive. Drop onto that the whole bit about Reille Hunter having dated Jay Mcinerney (Bright Lights Big City) and having been the model for Alison Poole, the coke addicted sexual adventurer in his later The Story of My Life (coincidentally, that's the title of Helen Keller's autobiography as well) along with the same character being featured in Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, and I'm totally perplexed. If you're married to Elizabeth Edwards, I might semi-understand messing around with some younger version of her. I don't get the party girl thing, nor do I get the physical attraction. I mean if you're going to risk this much...

I can only conclude that like the Two Americas, there are two John Edwardses. There's the guy I admired and voted for twice. There's also this other guy who really was narcissistic enough to get involved with Rielle Hunter while his wife had cancer, confess the affair to his family, then run for President as if no one would find out.

The Enquirer story strongly suggested that Edwards thing with Rielle Hunter was not a passing or past thing at all. In fact, it included some rather interesting information about the Edwards aide who is now claiming to be the father of Hunter's child. Allegedly, Hunter, Young, Young's wife, and his kids by marriage are all living in the same compound in Southern California. I don't necessarily believe it, but the Enquirer currently has more credibility on this particular story than Edwards himself.

No doubt, it's more important that there's a war in Georgia right now. Whatever the US says or warns about, it's clear to me that Russia wouldn't have dared to do this if it didn't happen to know that the US military is otherwise engaged. For a Soviet expert, Condi didn't seem to anticipate this one all that well or have any kind of contingency play. Yet, the war in Georgia doesn't gnaw on me the same way emotionally that the Edwards story does. One of my colleagues told me when the news broke that it simply shook him up too much to even talk about it. He's even a Hillary supporter. I find myself hurting too. Even though I knew better in some way, I wanted to think that the whole package was an is possible. It's like all I was looking at when I voted was just some overpriced haircut.


One of the oddest things about the Edwards scandal is that the single most viewed article on my own blog since the scandal broke has been a satirical post about an alleged affair between George W. Bush and Condaleeza Rice. I've written in the past about Larry Craig, David Vitter, and Ted Haggard among others. I did not write about Elliot Spitzer or James McGreevey. I suspect sexual secrets in a country/culture where "family values" are just part of politics don't necessarily have a party affiliation. I suspect there is some connection between being politically ambitious and having an elevated sex drive. At some point, I imagine we'll be seeing some similar story about female politicians (not that many of those yet).

I don't think we're asking our politicians to pretend to something that's impossible, but it's a level of temptation that's very different from what the rest of us experience.


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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Joyride (fiction)

joy ride has been published in Old Cars


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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Last Comic Stranding

My daughter still wanted to see standup comedy before leaving for college. At about 8:00 pm last night we decided to catch a 9:30 show in Fairfield which is about 90 minutes away from where we live. Rather than take her best friend, it wound up being Mrs. Chancelucky, daughter, and I. All of us are over 18, so that part wasn’t an issue this time around.

Pepperbelly is a converted movie theater in the old downtown section of Fairfield. It’s nicely laid out, clean, and the food’s actually pretty good (though parts of order never got to us). I’m not sure if it’s because the feature acts were African-American or if it’s Fairfield, but most of the audience was black and many of them looked liked they’d been part of a casting call for G’s to Gents. We’re talking some really big medallions, though I didn’t spot too many grills. That may be because we were in back and it may be because for the first two warmup acts hardly anyone laughed. Comedy can be pretty hit or miss even with the best performers, but when you’re paying real money for the show it does help to have warm up acts who can get at least a laugh or two. Even the other comedians were sitting in the back of the room looking stone-faced.

The official warm up act was a guy named Mikey who did about fifteen minutes on having sex with the mother of one of his friends then segued into a long bit about being married to an older woman and the joys of misappropriating her son’s child support. He went to some less edgy material at the end, with a very funny line about who actually works at Panda Express, but we were still very much in the “We actually paid for this?” zone.

Throughout the evening, only one table was laughing. There in the front and it appeared to be a group of friends who had maybe had a fair amount to drink.

They finally brought on the headliner, Roy Wood Jr. who I guess is best known for a series of prank call bits he does on nationally syndicated radio. He’s 28 years old, but looks 40, and he’s a bit edgy without quite being mean. For twenty five minutes, the guy just “killed” the room. It actually sounded and felt like a comedy club. He had bits about the sauce at McDonald’s, Martin Luther King making exceptions for certain groups in his I have a dream speech, bracelets that identify white people who actually like black people, and some general relationship humor. My wife and daughter actually started laughing as did I. Unlike his predecessors, this guy had material, a sense of timing, and some idea of how to build a joke. Up to that point, the high point of the evening had been that Pepperbelly’s chicken wings were actually quite good. Anyway, it was clear to me that Roy Wood is a real talent.

At that point, one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen happened. The rowdiest table in the club began talking amongst themselves, not exactly heckling (I’ve seen way worse), and the talent started engaging them. Somewhere in there, Roy Wood asked the cocktail waitress for a double grey goose with pineapple juice which she brought (something that our waitress didn’t do so well, but we weren’t talent), and this odd exchange happened between the rowdy table and Roy Wood essentially about who was drunker, who was really drunk, and how he needed to get back to his routine. Some of his heckler material got a bit too barbed as he explained that he was “drinking at work” and asked one of the women if she did that too at Home Depot which he then changed to Lane Bryant. (Definitely funny in the moment, but funny with too much of an edge) Patrons began walking out in pairs as the comedian kept trying to get back into his regular material without ever quite getting there. Within about fifteen minutes, what had been a great show (like thirty minutes worth of great show, a lot for any comic) drained right out of the room with Roy Wood on stage openly questioning the way he handled the audience that night and telling them not to treat the next big comic who came to Fairfield that way because he wouldn’t put up with it.

Bottom line, I’d never seen a comedian that accomplished who was dong that well so suddenly have his act done in by hecklers (they weren’t exactly heckling just sort of chattering). I’m not sure why the house didn’t do anything about it, though that one table might have been a significant percentage of the house and up to that point they were doing the bulk of the laughing. Anyway, talk about slipping on a banana peel in the non-vaudeville sense. A couple years ago, my daughter and I went to see Alonzo Bodden at Cobb’s and had a heckler he had to get kicked out of the club. We noticed, but it didn’t wind up taking over the evening and he did it really smoothly. It's an interesting aspect of being a comedian. I guess this is why they have comedy clubs in places like Fairfield. The material was every bit as good, delivery was good, etc. It's just that there's more to it than that.

At least we actually got to see comedy this time and yeah, I’d probably give the guy another chance in a couple years. Both the greatest thing and the most frustrating thing about live comedy, you just never know.


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Can We Get Serious?

Lately my friend Hagrid keeps sending me stuff about the impending collapse of the monetary system. “Buy Gold” he tells me between stories about the gas station that sells gasoline at the old prices if you’re willing to pay with pre-1965 silver coins. Apparently Hagrid has a bunch of those too. Naturally, Hagrid keeps all his gold in a vault at the Gringott’s bank where it’s all guarded by goblins. In the meantime, I’ve told him that if it’s going to get that bad, you don’t want gold you want guns and an endless supply of bottled water and canned goods in your personal underground bunker. My mom and step-dad went to Peru a few months back. A bunch of the wealthy Chinese there had done exactly that when the Shining Path was threatening to tear apart the country several years back. They still had bunkers with wells drilled directly underneath them. I just couldn’t ever live that way. Hagrid’s response would naturally be, we may just have to sooner than you think.

In the meantime, I just spent the last week listening to presidential campaign stories where the news has been about who played the race card first and something about an ad with Paris Hilton and Obama pasted into the same image (see the campaign against Harold Ford). Yes, some of this has to do with the increasing influence of Steve Schmidt, something of a Karl Rove protégé, in the McCain campaign. We seem to be looking at four very serious issues. There’s the economic crisis, the war, the environment, and health care. The four interrelate in any number of ways, but either the media isn’t covering it (a real possibility) or the two campaigns aren’t doing much to let America know that they’re serious about all of these matters. In particular, the McCain stump answers, “Yes, we’re winning the war” and “We need to lower taxes further” appear especially irresponsible. For one, I'd like to see candidate McCain define "Win" and the acceptable price for winning in that way. I'm inclined to believe that Paris Hilton actually does have deeper more thoughtful ideas about both the war and the economy than John McCain.

As much as I like and respect my friend Hagrid (he’s a bright guy who does study this stuff pretty carefully, though) , it scares me that he’s more willing to talk about this stuff seriously than the people covering the presidential race or the candidates themselves.


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