Feb 17 8 2017

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

This weighty and much-praised book, a Booker nominee, recounts the friendship of four prosperous New York men – a lawyer, an actor, an artist, and an architect – over several decades.

I have not been so giddily happy to see the end of a book since Little Dorrit, and that was back in 1973.

The characters are well drawn, the language is interesting without being self-consciously lyrical, but while there’s plenty of incident, there’s remarkably little story to propel this long, long character study. While the narrative spans decades, we’re focused so intensely on the changing characters that nothing much changes in the city or the world. The characters’ few changes are telegraphed long, long in advance, so they are in effect described before they are demonstrated.

Feb 17 3 2017

Lip Reading

I’ve suddenly discovered that I’ve become dependent on reading lips.

I’ve worn hearing aids for years; I have what basically amounts to arthritis of the ears, and believe me, it’s better than arthritis in your knees or carpal tunnel or whatever. But I don’t hear terrifically well.

So last Saturday I was in Logan Airport’s International Terminal, talking to a reporter, and she wanted to do a standup with her iPhone. She asked if I wanted to use my name, and was surprised when I said “sure”.

So, it’s a big noisy room with lots of echoes – a really challenging environment, but I was coping fine until she starts with the video. To get a good angle, naturally, she holds the camera in front of her face. Suddenly, I can’t hear a word she’s saying. Literally: I cannot make anything out.

Now, when the pitcher and the catcher are talking on the mound, I don’t have a clue. When Tom Brady is talking on the field, I have no idea what he’s saying, unless (of course) he’s saying “Fuck!” which he says a lot, but everyone knows that one. But it seems that, day to day, I’ve been learning.

Kind of alarming.

  • If things really go completely south – something that no longer seems beyond belief – the question will be: when do we try to run? And where? I’ve received my first offer of a spare room on a distant continent, in case of emergency.
  • In addition to the chilling effects on research from this anti-science administration and its the Muslim travel ban, we’ve got to start wondering which borders will soon be closed to American travelers. I’ve already queried one conference regarding the possibility that Americans won’t be able to get visas for Eastern Europe by the time the conference is held.

by Margaret Atwood

Latest in the stellar new Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood takes The Tempest and sets the story at a Canadian Shakespeare festival that is about to oust its brilliant, distracted director. He goes into a long, rural exile, alone with the memory of his dead three-year-old Miranda. Now, he’s teaching drama in a prison a thirsting for revenge.

Jan 17 30 2017

My Weekend

My Weekend

By Pia Guerra.

  • It’s bad.
  • It’s going to get worse.
  • I’ve heard of graduate students who left to attend a research conference and cannot return. There’s a Clemson professor with a green card who left to spend some time with his ailing parent. He caught the first flight home, and was removed from the flight on the tarmac. His car is at the airport. He owns a home near campus; the gutters need cleaning. He’s been living there for years. He does not know whether he will ever be able to return.
  • The government has been forcing people to give up their green cards. The government has been preventing people from obtaining legal advice. The government has already lied about the number of people being detained. The government has prevented Congressmen from verifying that court orders are being respected.
  • The ACLU is great. I saw on Twitter at 6:15 that they were trying to get a demonstration at Logan Airport at 7. I hopped in the car. When I got to Terminal E, about a dozen people were clustered by the Customs Exit. I introduced myself to the organizers and we spoke briefly. Five minutes later, she had me doing an interview with the Boston Globe. Twenty minutes later, there were a couple of hundred people lending their support. It got bigger from there.
  • Once again, we are testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. The odds are not good.
  • Under no circumstances should you stand for the National Anthem at the Super Bowl or elsewhere.
  • I’m already losing friends, or at least acquaintances – and I scarcely know any Republicans anymore.
  • Sally Q. Yates, the acting Attorney General who just instructed the Justice Department not to defend the indefensible travel ban, deserves comparison to Elliot Richardson. Do the right thing, and let the sky fall.
  • There’s a small red panel here that reads “break glass in the event the It Happens Here.” I’m pulling it now. I don’t think anyone gets to pull the Fascist alarm more than once in a lifetime, but tomorrow might be too late.
Jan 17 26 2017

Dear Daughter

by Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.

Jan 17 23 2017


I just noticed that I read about 20 books more than usual last year.

I’m not sure I know why, or how. Perhaps the answer lies in the push to finish Those Trojan Girls, which involved reading a bunch of school stories. Maybe it’s the new car with better audiobook support. Maybe it’s just one of those things.

It’s an interesting bit of data, though, and I only know it because I keep my book notes in Tinderbox.

by Lou Berney

This Edgar Award-winning mystery is an accomplished formal experiment, a quadruple-mystery with a half twist. Wyatt, a private investigator, takes a quick trip from his Las Vegas base to his old home-town, Oklahoma City, to find out who is harassing the new owner of a local rock bar. Wyatt avoids Oklahoma City like the plague because, as a teenager, he'd been caught in the bloodbath of a movie theater robbery; he can’t resist looking into that as well. The poor guy has PI written on his sleeve, so much so that total strangers walk up to him and ask him to look into stuff for them. Wyatt unwisely tries to do a favor for one of these strangers. And then we have Julianne, a nurse who has nothing to do with Wyatt except that she, too, found herself at the edge of a terrible, mysterious crime in those long-ago days.

On the whole, it’s done pretty well. Knitting together four braids is hard, and sometimes the seams show. Some of the red herrings aren't quite as interesting as they need to be, given the amount of business required to keep the machinery moving. Still, an exemplary story.

For Tinderbox reasons as well as the exigencies of the present crisis, I’m interested in the management of volunteers on charitable and political organizations. What is the best modern thinking on the subject?

Traditional approaches are based in the expectation that the typical volunteer has little education and few skills. That was true in 1938.

My guess is that many organizations turn away useful help because they can’t match volunteers to things that need doing. Instead, they ask supporters to send money and hire the help they need. That makes sense in some environments: if you’re a prosperous attorney, for example, it’s better for you to work some extra weekend hours and then to send your extra billing to the cause. That’s more efficient than spending time knocking on doors or addressing envelopes, but lots of people can’t easily expand their income, especially in a world where plenty of folks find it hard to find a job in the first place. Overtime doesn’t grow on trees.

I think that organizations can probably use volunteers far more effectively than they do. I think we may need that in the coming crisis. But I don’t know: who does? Email me.

Long March: To The Vineyard

That was a lot of people.

A friend – one of the very few Republicans I know – recently wrote a story suggesting the Democrats find an compromise with pro-Life anti-Trumpers. This is a fellow who knows a hell of a lot more than I know about politics. He knows a lot more than just about anyone.

I can’t figure this out how this would work.

Let’s assume that Roe and Griswold will soon be overridden, and that hundreds of Federal judicial appointments that ought to have been Obama’s will now be made by Trump and ratified by a feckless or impotent Senate. Let’s assume (optimistically) that the GOP adopts a Federal solution – regulation of abortion and birth control returns to the states. What would America look like then?

California, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont will retain regulations that look a good deal like today’s. The Deep South will outlaw abortion and restrict birth control. Throughout the rest of the country, the politics will be brutal. But there will be lots of places where it's hard or illegal to obtain an abortion.

That means lots of women will again go on abortion vacations. That’s expensive, so there will be lots of fundraising to help poor women travel to free states. In states that try to enact restrictive controls on birth control (e.g. requiring parental consent for minors), there will be a more-or-less open black market in smuggled birth control, too.

The pro-Life zealots will hate that. District attorneys who want votes and publicity will crack down. Congress will be lobbied to pass laws against interstate transport for the purpose of obtaining an abortion. Prosecutors will try to shut down Planned Parenthood for criminal conspiracy.

Those marchers last Sunday knew that they were standing where abolitionists had stood. Every time a woman is killed or crippled by a back-alley abortion, her name will be read from the pulpits of New England churches -- Unitarian and Universalist churches that were, remember, born out of support for abolition and immigration. Every time a contraceptive smuggler is arrested, her name will be read from the pulpits of glass-walled megachurches. Denominations that have been neighbors for a century will again despise each other. The Catholic Church in the US will split in two.

People will not forswear sex because they will not give up love. We know this. Women won’t give up their sexual autonomy, wrested at long last from the iron grip of biology. They'll fight, and their friends, their lovers and their families will fight beside them. If they cannot stop the law, they will try to work around it. If they cannot save their sisters, there are not jails enough.

A wiser Trump would appoint a couple of socially-liberal, pro-business Southern women to the Supreme Court and kick the can down the road for another generation. A lucky Trump might pick a conservative prevaricator who could try to thread the needle. But the odds are, we may have a runaway court. I cannot see a calm and peaceful future in its wake.

The best compromise now available to pro-Life, anti-Trump Republicans is pretty much the status quo; this is, for them, the best of all possible worlds. It’s also deeply unacceptable to them. We’ve had this discussion for a generation. The vintage where they store the grapes of wrath is over there, and the fruit hangs heavy on the vine.

Jan 17 19 2017

A Funny Fellow

Amy Poehler explained a lot about how much work goes into being funny, but some people make you smile without years of training and practice. (Amy Poehler was probably like that before all those years of improv, but hardly anybody knew that.). But the strangest comedy highlight has got to be Kennedy Steve, an air traffic controller with a big fan base.

Seriously! This guy is a traffic cop, sorting out airplanes that aren’t even flying yet, just taxiing to and from their gates. Most of the time, he’s telling people to wait. Occasionally, he’ll ask someone to hurry up. Mostly, he gives planes cryptic instructions for taxiing through the big airport.

Jet Blue 359, after the RJ, you can continue on to ALPHA all the way to KILO-ECHO. ’Cause you’re the next to go.

But he’s infectiously funny. When he’s working a shift, he’ll be the most listened-to channel at LiveATC. At least two separate people condense his traffic alerts to take out the pauses between calls, type out transcripts and upload them to Youtube where they regularly get tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners. (There are also lesser stars – grumpy Kennedy Jack and enthusiastic Boston John – but Kennedy Steve is clearly the big draw.)

What makes Kennedy Steve funny? I’ve been trying to work it out. I have a few ideas:

Mock Epic: A subtext of air traffic control is always the risk of terrible accidents, but most interactions involve minor annoyances and small delays. The context of these annoyances, however, is a power struggle between airline pilots (who are Masters Of Their Craft) and controllers (who are telling those Masters where to go, which is something they cannot be expected to enjoy). Kennedy Steve systematically exaggerates the challenges and delays and vexations while making light of them. When bad weather shuts down a big airport somewhere and lots of departing flights have to wait, he doesn’t just tell them to wait – he tells them to “call Clearance for an incredibly creative re-routing!” When the gate supervisors are clogging up the taxiways, he tells pilots that “your ramp is simply stellar!”

Heroic Struggle: The Roadrunner always has the Coyote and Acme Industries. Steve has tugs — the vehicles push and tow airplanes at the gate. Like planes, tugs need to get permission from Ground Control to go places. Steve is always complaining about the tugs, because they dawdle on his taxiways or don’t listen to their radios. Especially super tugs. Steve loves to complain that super tugs aren’t very super. It’s an eternal struggle, and that’s funny.

Funny Names: Taxiways are designated by letters. Because it’s very hard to hear letters accurately, controllers use the phonetic alphabet, and avoid using initials for anything else. This is a problem when you want someone to follow the MD-80 ahead of them, so controllers sometimes call that airplane a “Mad Dog”. Steve tells pilots to “Follow the angry puppy and contact the tower.”

NetJet flights are “the 1%.” During the USAir/American merger, flights that used one airline’s flight number but the other airline’s paint were “in disguise.”

Schtick: Steve doesn’t have a ton of jokes, but he has some running gags. Like the funny names, these give people permission to laugh.

Because of the way the airport is set up, some British Airways (callsign “Speedbird”) flights have to ask special permission to push back from their gate. The typical interchange is:

BA17: Kennedy Ground, (this is) Speedbird 17 requesting pushback.

Ground: Speedbird 17, Kennedy Ground. Pushback onto ALPHA approved.

BA17: Which direction do you want us to face? Speedbird 17.

Ground: Oh, face the front of the aircraft, sir! If you sit facing the rear, the people in back get frightened. But the plane can face SW.

It’s generally BA – I think I’ve heard it with Quantas, too. I don’t know if it’s limited to specific pilots. It’s not that funny, and it’s only a joke once, but the running gag quality sells the rest of it.

Discipline: Occasionally, people break rules, or things get fouled up. That’s always fraught, but Steve tends to finesse this by making fun of a common enemy. During rush hour when Steve is trying to get everyone parked or to the runway efficiently, there’s always some plane that has no gate and no place to go.

Plane: We’re gonna have to wait somewhere until the gate opens up.

Ground: Stellar!

Plane: Where’d you like us to wait?

Ground: Atlanta?

When pilots talk to air traffic controllers, the convention is that they identify who they’re calling (in case they’re on the wrong frequency) and who they are (because one controller is dealing with lots of planes). Inevitably, someone forgets.

Unknown Plane: Ground?

Ground: Plane?

But Steve makes an exception for his natural enemy, the tug: if a tug does something wrong, it’s a Big Deal and Steve will threaten to punish them by sending them the long way around.

I still don’t know how he does it.

On sale at Amazon today: E. P. Thomspon’s The Making of the English Working Class for Kindle. $1.99.

by Karrie Fransman

An accomplished graphic novel, the work of several hands, recounts a country week in which a group of young artists set to creating a graphic novel about the death of the artist. In the end, neither the artists nor we really come to grips with the absent artist, and the varied media employed – loose watercolors, photographic comics, contemporary high-style comic art – sometimes tug uneasily at each other.

Jan 17 13 2017

Night Witches

by Jason Morningstar

A table-top role playing game (and sophisticated study of the nature of narrative) by Jason Morningstar, author of the insightful narrative game Fiasco, which explores the dynamics of the caper movie, and Grey Ranks, a game about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that achieved things we did not think games could achieve.

This is the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-woman force that flew more than 1000 combat mission against invading Germans. As in Grey Ranks, the outlook is grim: we are flying obsolete bombers against a superior enemy, our own Army despises us because we are women, and our government is perpetually suspicious of success and of failure. Amidst the brutal carnage and foolishness, we can perhaps find friends and lovers among the women of the regiment – but of course such particularity may be unsocialist revanchist perversion.

The center of Night Witches and its underlying brilliance lies in what we would call, in other circles, its collection of writing prompts. For example, when the 588th arrives at its first duty station, the players are asked:

Which officer of the 588th was in no condition to fly when the Regiment arrived in Trudgen Gornyaka? What is being done to keep livestock off the runway, and why isn’t it working?

You’ve got to love this. We’re still early in the war, we’ve already got pilots in love with other pilots, pilots in love with their airplanes, an officer with a drinking problem, the NKVD snooping around our beloved Captain, a critical shortage of gaskets. We’ve got the Germans. And now we’ve got goats on the runway, again! And there’s a Mysterious Reason that the goats keep getting onto the runway. Improv: go!

Morningstar (along with fellow narratives game designers the Paul Czege and D. Vincent Baker) teaches us a lot about the interface between games, hypertext fiction, and old media.

Michael Tsai, who is on a blogging roll lately, has a great rundown on the latest kerfuffle about static typed languages like Swift and whether their value outweighs their inconvenience.

The underlying problem is simple. In dynamically-typed languages like Obejctive C, you can have a container that holds different kinds of things and, if you get mixed up, you might find yourself sending a message to an object that it can’t handle. If you’ve got a mix of Dates and Colors in the same list, you might send a color an request for its day of the week; if you do that, the color looks at you all funny and nothing good will happen.

Reading this debate, I was startled to realize one thing I’d overlooked: I almost never make type errors. I make plenty of errors – for me, programming is always about correcting errors – but type errors are once in a blue moon affairs.

I wonder if strong typing is a solution to a problem we don’t really have, or whether I’m just Doing It Wrong.

If the current political situation were proposed in a novel, I’d dismiss is as utterly implausible. Presidents don’t begin their term with 37% approval, because people with 37% approval don’t win elections. Presidents don’t get elected because Russia thinks they’ll be good for the Fatherland. Presidents don’t get CIA briefings before inauguration that explain that the president is being blackmailed, and has probably acceded to the blackmailers’ demands.

Meanwhile, our local Democratic City Committee staggers on as it always has, planning to have its twice-a-year parties and doing little else. Still, this is the natural first line of resistance and, if things continue in this vein, Resistance.

The caucuses are coming up. I think people who come to a Saturday morning political caucus in a year without national elections deserve something better than a fast-food donut and a box of coffee. We may not win the all battles, but we need the good songs and the good food.

What should we do for breakfast?

Update: One reader suggests poached pears in little puff pastry cups. That sounds pretty good! How about Pizza Carbonara – egg, ricotta, pancetta, a bit of spinach?

by Deborah Levy

Booker-award nominee and early work by the author of the current sensation, Hot Milk. Two London couples (and a teenage daughter) share a villa in France. Beset by the usual woes – growing boredom, diminishing talent, looming bankruptcy – their uneasy friendships are strained when a stranger, Kitty Finch, turns up naked one morning in the swimming pool and is invited to stay.

This ought to work. The writing is enviable. Somehow, I missed the turnoff.

Jan 17 8 2017

Red Harvest

by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, which became a great movie, and The Thin Man, which spawned one of the first movie franchises, but this is his great novel.

An operative of the Continental Agency (we never learn his name) is dispatched to Personville, California, a small city. People in the know call it Poisonville. His client is murdered before they can meet, and we begin single-handedly to wrest the town from the control of an unsavory league of industrial goons, booze smugglers, beer distributors, and a police department they jointly own. In the middle of everything is Dinah Brand, a woman whom everyone loves: the long line of her lovers soon includes the Continental Op, but that doesn’t change his plans.

The body count is formidable, so high in fact that at one point the investigator himself goggles at the total. So many characters die so quickly that Hammett has a hell of a time helping us keep everyone straight. This is the novel that changed American mysteries and from which film noir springs.

It ought to have been the start of a long line of books. Whiskey and Hollywood got in the way, but we’ll always have Poisonville.

Jan 17 5 2017

Wishful Drinking

by Carrie Fisher

A witty, self-deprecating memoir by the late actress, this slender and likable volume reflects on what it was like to live in the fishbowl of celebrity. It was tough enough to be Debbie Reynold’s daughter, still harder to be Eddie Fisher’s child. That would’ve been plenty, but Fisher was bipolar to boot. “If my life wasn’t funny,” she writes, “it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

by Elinor Lippman

Frederica Hatch is a daughter of the regiment – the regiment in the case being Deming College where her parents, Professor Hatch and Professor Hatch, teach and oversee the faculty union. She was raised in a dormitory, the daughter of houseparents and the special darling and mascot of a women’s college. When she herself goes off to college, she notices the professors’ labradors and golden retrievers, beloved and fussed over by lonesome and homesick students. She says, “the dogs reminded me of me.”

One day, Frederica learns that her father had been briefly married before he met Freddy’s mother, and finds the prospect of this mysterious, shadowy figure of his past fascinating. Then, the ex-wife comes to Deming to serve as the houseparent, and difficulties ensue. By the author of The Inn At Lake Devine, who is not to be confused with Laura Lippman, this was an especially fortunate find at the redoubtable Big Chicken Barn.

Jan 17 3 2017

How To Help

I asked Nikki Pope, co-author of Pruno, Ramen and a Side of Hope, how people who aren’t attorneys can help. She has some suggestions:

One thing is to find out what your local innocence project needs. One of our exonerees profiled in Pruno, Larry Lamb, moved to the Boston area to live with his son and to get away from the negative influences in his life.

The most effective way to put a dent into wrongful convictions is to prevent them in the first place. Compelling law enforcement to adopt best practices like proper eyewitness identification procedures and videotaping of interrogations would be great. I’m not sure what Massachusetts’ policies are; I sent a copy to Governor Baker (a Kellogg classmate of mine) to encourage him to encourage MA law enforcement to adopt or refine best practices.

Conviction Integrity Units have been effective in some jurisdictions at finding and exonerating innocent people. The unit must legitimately be interested in correcting the wrong; something that is just for publicity is more harmful than doing nothing.

Most innocence projects are understaffed. They get many more requests for investigation than they have resources to investigate. These aren't even legal services, just private investigators. Many donate their time, but if they were paid, the cases would get to the top of the list faster. Funds to pay private investigators are always welcome. If you're in the Boston area, check out the New England Innocence Project and find out what they need - volunteers, investigators, lawyers.

Of course, any copies of the book (or the audiobook) that you'd like to send to others will be great. We're giving most of our share of the proceeds from book sales to support the exonerees and organizations that provide legal and social support services to exonerees. I actually prefer the audiobook because I hear something different every time I listen.

by Courtney B. Lance and Nikki Pope

In recent years, more than a thousand Americans who were serving long prison sentences have been freed because, as it turned out, they were demonstrably innocent.

The criminal justice system is absurdly stacked against people who, for one reason or another, were wrongly convicted. It’s not enough to cast doubt on the conviction; in some states, convicts must show that no reasonable jury could possibly have convicted them. Convicts have had to sue to force the state to disclose that it possesses evidence that could exonerate them, and then must sue again to force the state to permit that evidence to be tested. Prisoners released on parole at the end of their sentence benefit from programs intended to prevent repeat offenses; because the exonerated never committed a crime in the first place, they can’t receive any of these benefits.

This book offers a number of close looks at some people who spent a long time in prison for crimes with which they had nothing to do. Some of the people are remarkable. Many are worthy of emulation.

The book’s one flaw is that it lacks a call to action. Our treatment of exonerees is unjust; finding it so, we should put a stop to it. Where do we begin?

Jan 17 2 2017

Dear Daughter

by Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.