Archive for March, 2006

Money Matters: Richard Russo’s "Nobody’s Fool"

March 22, 2006

There is a tendency by people in the academy, such as myself, to glorify the poor. To think of them as in some way morally superior to the rich who have been corrupted by money. Which, of course, goes ahead and assumes that the rich are corrupt. This view of things is offset by what seems to be a more prevailing view of money and corruptness: God has blessed the rich with wealth; poor people are the lazy bums who simply refuse to pull themselves up by their cliched bootstraps. It’s easy to think either of these ways. There are lots of corrupt rich people. There are lots of lazy bums.

Try as they might, many artists fail to capture the complexities of individuals when money comes into the picture. Characters begin to stand for ideologies or are simply stereotypes.

A couple of years ago I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls, and was left thoroughly underwhelmed. It was a forgettable book. But he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and it must have just been my fault for not “getting it”, so when he published a collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child, a year or so later, and it was like eating cotton.

But then see, there’s a problem people like me who are always telling my friends what to read run into. Friends decide they want to give ME recommendations. Most of the time I can placate them with a, yeah, I’ve been meaning to pick that up, and then we both just forget about it. Except for this one pesky friend of mine who stays on my case until I read at least one of the books he’s telling me about (seriously, we have the same wireless service, so our minutes are free, so he calls me cross country on a daily basis sometimes for the express purpose of asking me if I’ve started the frieking book yet).

My friend’s most recent recommendation made me shudder. It was a novel by Richard Russo, Straight Man. I decided, after two weeks worth of calls, to just pick the stupid book up, read a few pages, and tell my friend it sucked and to shut up about it. I ended up reading it in a couple of days, laughing out loud. It’s a slightly absurd look at life at a university. It’s smart and funny and witty and will make you laugh. It was so good that I did something I almost never do – picked up another book by the same writer. This time it was Nobody’s Fool, a book more than a decade old.

Nobody’s Fool takes place in a small upstate New York town of Bath. Bath is a very small town that has fallen on hard times. It’s a miserably cold place, and the main character is a miserably cynical 60 year old named Sulley. Sulley is a lifelong fix-it-up man. He is content. He works just enough to pay his rent and buy his meals and drinks at the local bar, where he spends every night. Sulley is a frustrating man. He always has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn’t seem to care much about their feelings.

Sulley’s sometime boss is the richest man in Bath. He owns a construction company, inherited all of his money, and is married to the most beautiful woman in town. And he’s a complete jerk. Cheats on his wife. Cheats people out of money. He has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn’t seem to care much about their feelings.

On some level, this novel reads as a series of epiphanies. These two men, as well as the rest of the characters, all seem to have realizations about their shortcomings and become more likeable toward the end of the novel. But, it’s really more complicated than that. Russo fools the readers. The characters don’t really change in the course of the novel. Okay, they change, but not substantially. The epiphanies belong to the readers. We begin to like the characters in spite of their shortcomings. We begin to like Sully’s wise-cracks because we see the honest heart that they come from. We begin to like the richest man in town because, well, he’s just likeable. We know we shouldn’t like him, but he’s so huggable.

It is intriguing that Russo continually brings up money in relation to the characters. He wants readers to make judgements about the moral character of the individuals because of the money in their bank account. Then he spends the hundreds of pages destroying the relationship between money and character. Some people have good hearts and no money. Some people have good hearts and lots of money. But most people are equally likeable and disgusting if we get a glimpse inside their heads (as we do in the novel) regardless of their career or house or car or possessions.

What Russo does that is so refreshing in the how-money-relates-to-morality is show how similar the have’s and the have-not’s are. They both be at times charming and disgusting. They can be at times selfish and giving. They are alike in more ways than we are used to, or even comfortable with, thinking. The redemption in the novel doesn’t necessarily belong to the characters. There lives don’t end happily ever after, and they don’t make dramatic changes in the way they live. The redemption, if any is to be had, is with the reader. Readers are allowed to see the goods and the bads of each of these characters. And, as I said earlier, Russo continually mentions the financial status of the characters. Ultimately what he shows isn’t a universality of humankind so much as similarities between socio-economic groups. Attributes we often associated with the wealthy (good work ethic, honesty, intellect) are seen just as often in the poor. Attributes often associated with the poor (lazy, ignorant, something-for-nothing types) are seen just as often in the wealthy characters.

Russo challenges the way both the Left and the Right often think about the relationship between “success” and “moral character.” He isn’t preachy and he doesn’t reach conclusions. He merely — merely! — writes about social class in an intelligent, entertaining, and non-stereotypical way.

Currently about to finish: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gorevitch. Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. Shades of Glory by Laurence Hogan.

Mixed Nuts

March 21, 2006

This week, I promised myself that I would not post any articles related to birth control, abortion, or motherhood. And it’s even more challenging than I thought because there were a ton of them this past week, one more fascinating than the last. Maybe I will post them at the end just for kicks.

But first, I thought I would post a few other articles on other topics. William Saletan writes on Slate that the changing length and nature of old age call for a change in Social Security — namely, an end to basing payments on age rather than disability and a higher retirement age to reflect the fact that life expectancy and, more importantly, quality of life expectancy, has increased tremendously since the program was begun in 1935. My father recently retired — at the ripe young age of 58. My mother, now 55, plans to retire soon. And they feel entitled to do so. This always struck me as a spoiled and whiny approach to life. I anticipate having to work into my seventies just to finish paying off my student loan debt and to have a roof over my head. The insane sense of entitlement Baby Boomers feel about having twenty or thirty years of leisure after working for as long is just out of step with reality as far as I am concerned.

Now for the weekly New York Times roundup. They really outdid themselves this week. Yesterday there was an insightful article about the plight of young African American men in this country. I can’t say that I have any concrete suggestions about how to improve the situation, so it was mainly depressing to me.

In Sunday’s book review, there was a review of Kevin Phillips’ new book, American Theocracy. Phillips wrote a prescient 1969 book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority, which turned out to be right on the money. At the time, he was excited about the impending changes. Now, not so much. American Theocracy chronicles three ways in which the GOP is leading the U.S. down the primrose path to disaster: an overreliance on and obsession with oil (that alliteration was not on purpose, I swear); the rise of the Religious Right; and our out-of-control love affair with all kinds of debt, governmental, corporate, and personal. I normally don’t buy books until they are out in paperback, but if I made an exception for Marley & Me I think I can make an exception here too.

Okay, now briefly back to my pet issues — great articles this week, so I just couldn’t resist. First, the New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article about single mothers by choice. It was called “Looking for Mr. Good Sperm,” which certainly caught the eye. I inadvertently mentioned to my boss that I had read it, only realizing a second later that you probably shouldn’t say the word “sperm” in professional mixed company. Oh, well.

But the scariest article of the week by far was this one on Salon about the movement to ban contraception. (You have to get a day pass to read the full article, but I promise it’s worth it). Here’s one choice quote that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:

For those who are pro-choice, the idea of fighting to ban both abortion and contraception seems contradictory: Contraception, after all, lessens the number of abortions. But once one understands what the true social and moral agenda of activists like Worthington is, and their attitude toward sexuality, the contradictions vanish. For them, sex should always be about procreation; since contraception prevents conception, it is immoral. At a deeper level, they believe that women’s biological destiny is to be mothers. Feldt says, “When you peel back the layers of the anti-choice motivation, it always comes back to two things: What is the nature and purpose of human sexuality? And second, what is the role of women in the world?” Sex and the role of women are inextricably linked, because “if you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men.”And on that note, I hope everyone is having a good week!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

March 16, 2006

[Note: I wrote this a couple of years ago, but I thought I’d share it today in honor of tomorrow’s holiday.]

“We also know that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Herodotus

I’m a lover, not a fighter, so the only enduring image of St. Patrick’s Day in my memory is the overwhelming fear of being pinched by the older, meaner guys in elementary school.

Oh, I’d be wearing green. You bet your sweet shamrocks I’d wear green, but in case you didn’t know, most bullies are color blind. Mostly just on March 17th.

So I don’t like St. Patrick’s Day. I can’t stand corned beef and cabbage (partially due to an ugly vomit story from my childhood). I don’t even like to smell beer, and green beer doesn’t sound like much of an improvement. I’ve never seen a leprechaun or believed in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and the closest I’ve ever come to dancing an Irish jig was in Little League when I was playing right field and really needed to pee.

So I’m the Ebenezer Scrooge of St. Patrick’s Day. Bah humbug, I say! (My fear is that all my Irish friends will now gather around and pinch me.)

But the holiday’s namesake sounds like a pretty interesting guy.

Ironically, St. Patrick was British. When he was sixteen, Irish raiders captured him and took him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. At age 22, he escaped. According to his writings, he believed God spoke to him through a dream and told him to get out of Ireland. So he did. Patrick walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and escaped to his homeland.

Back in Britain, Patrick reported another revelation from God. He claimed that God spoke to him again, asking him to study and return to Ireland as a missionary. So he entered into a rigorous study program for fifteen years before heading back to the land of his captivity for the dual purpose of ministering to the few Irish Christians and hopefully converting many others.

So he did.

Legend has it that the shamrock became associated with Patrick because he used it to try to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish – three separate entities, but still one. Patrick used the powerful Irish symbol of the sun, too, superimposed it on the cross, and created what became known as the Celtic cross.

After twenty years of preaching in Ireland, he died onMarch 17. And in effect, he changed the religious face of Ireland. At the time of his arrival, there was only a handful devoted to Christianity, with the overwhelming majority worshiping nature gods. Today, 93% of Ireland’s population is Catholic.

And kids are being terrorized in playgrounds across the ocean for not wearing green. And college kids are inebriated with green beer. And the river in Chicago is green.

Well, things don’t always turn out the way you’d like. But I’d offer the reminder that it is possible to change the world on a large scale. Sure, some changes may turn out just like you’d hoped while others might be insulting.

But it’s worth a shot I’d say. Who knows, maybe you’ll get your own color-coded holiday someday, too.

A Wrongful Birth?

March 14, 2006

I swear I’m not doing this on purpose! I don’t know what it is about 2006, but the hits just keep on rolling. Case in point: this article from this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The topic refers back to an article that Joe linked to on a previous post. Lots of interesting issues here that go way beyond the (in comparison) pedestrian debate about abortion. I wish I had time to delve into it more deeply, but I just got back to the office from being horribly sick for five days and have a conference call.

Six Months Out

March 9, 2006

It stands to reason after a disconcerting event like Hurricane Katrina that we can’t even have a good six-month anniversary.

The storm hit on August 29, and if this were leap year we would have no problems, but February only has twenty-eight days in 2006, so for the six-month observation you get to choose: February 28 or March 1. Even better, take your pick: Fat Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

Fat Tuesday is the English translation of the party known in French as Mardi Gras, a day set aside every year for indulgent behavior – the feasting before the fasting. It fell on February 28 this year, arguably the six-month mark post-Katrina. Fat Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, a day set aside annually for the purpose of penance and fasting – the fasting in preparation of resurrection. It falls on March 1st this time around – also possibly considered the half-year anniversary. I guess it is sort of fitting that one can choose which attitude to don in a look back at this historic storm – one with beads around your neck and a drink in your hand swaying to the music, or one with dirt smeared on your face.

There’s a case to be made for the party. I suspect there are many that are to a point where “drinking their troubles away” is downright appealing. If you’re interested in a get-rich-quick scheme, you might check into building a spaceship and offering Gulf Coast residents trips to Mars where no one has ever even heard of Hurricane Katrina (unless of course, they have satellite television there). I can provide you with a list of people who want to get away from this mess, and if you can offer laughter and dancing as part of the package, then I suspect you’ll have more business than you’d know how to handle. Often, when the choice comes down to laughing or crying in light of trouble, many opt for laughter.

But there’s a case to be made for mourning, too. It is still so sad the work that remains. Countless elderly residents are still homeless, waiting for someone to help rescue them from seemingly hopeless situations. Countless single moms are trying to juggle work and daycare from a tiny FEMA trailer, not to mention battling insurance and fly-by-night con artists masquerading as contractors in their spare time. And Highway 90 still looks like Mars, but enough is there to remind us all of what used to be. There are many reasons to be depressed. So, tears are still appropriate.

There is much progress that has been made in six months. Unbelievable progress, really. There is still so much work that is left to be done. At least an equally unbelievable amount. There are both reasons to rejoice and weep six months removed.

So when it gets down to it, nothing has changed much on a macro-level. When we faced Hurricane Katrina head on, it turned out to be just like Dickens said – the best of times, and the worst of times. It still is six months later.

But there is hope.

There is always hope.

And that is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from it all.

"I will be killed…"

March 8, 2006

I haven’t spent much time around the blog lately. I saw something today that I just had to share here (free registration required). It’s a quick news story about Mithal Alusi, an Iraqi politician. He’s a Sunni muslim with a strong secularist streak. He has survived multiple assassination attempts, but has lost two sons in those attempts. He is a politician grounded in the realities of Iraq and what it will take for the fledgling democracy to survive as a nation and as a democracy. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the article:

But Alusi said he wasn’t counting on being a minister or anything but a struggling politician. He insisted that he was committed to a democratizing process that may take decades.But then in the next smoke-filled breath, Alusi said he didn’t expect to live to see his vision completed.“I will be killed,” he said. “I know that.”

These are the people we are supporting. Knowing that men like this exist, how can we even entertain the thought of abandoning Iraq?

Where Is Everybody?

March 8, 2006

It’s been looking a little thin over at Desperate Houseflies recently. But, I must soldier on. Today I saw two interesting articles by William Saletan, whose work on abortion I’ve cited previously. One examines the “loophole” in South Dakota’s recently enacted abortion ban; the other talks about moving beyond Roe v. Wade in order to break the stalemate (now we all know how well that will work, but nice try, Will). The former underscores my concern that pro-lifers are more interested in punishing women for having sex at non-approved times with non-approved people than they are with life, however you define it. The latter suggests the kind of compromise that Naomi Wolf and others have suggested: draw the line at the end of the first trimester. This is an interesting idea that would work really well for women who have money and self-awareness — but those women aren’t having second-trimester abortions anyway. I would be willing to bet that second-trimester abortions are caused primarily by three things other than fetuses with developmental problems detected then: (1) lack of money; (2) restrictions, such as waiting periods and notifications, that pose additional obstacles; and (3) lack of self-awareness, or denial, in women who are incredibly out of touch with their bodies and minds (and let me tell you, in my experience one would practically have to be on another planet from her own body not to know she was pregnant). And these things have a disproportionate impact on those with lower socioeconomic status, who are, not coincidentally, the very people who can least afford to bear the costs of unplanned children. So even though from an ethical standpoint I would be comfortable drawing this line, I’m not sure that it would have much of an actual effect in terms of numbers of unplanned pregnancies, which I think is the number we want to reduce. It’s the same lack of self-awareness that prevents a woman from realizing she’s pregnant until several weeks in, that helps to prevent that same woman from using contraception to begin with. I hate to sound like such a cliche liberal, but what we need most is universal, comprehensive sex education and access to free contraception for all. That won’t prevent every unplanned pregnancy, but it would help.

And just to stir up controversy, check out this article from The American Prospect about a 2001 study by two professors that purported to show that the legalization of abortion was a significant factor in the precipitous crime drop of the 1990s. (This ended up as a chapter in Freakonomics, since Stephen Levitt was one of the two). I had such a nonreaction to the data that I was kind of surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) that people were so incensed by it. I mean, doesn’t it stand to reason that unwanted children have worse lives than wanted ones, and therefore are more likely to commit crime? Seems like a fairly straightforward conclusion to me. What moral conclusions to draw from the data is a conversation that should be had, but it doesn’t change what they show.

Okay, that should be enough inflammatory content for this week. Sorry to be such a broken record by writing on this topic so much, but this is interesting stuff and very timely at the moment.

Correction: The Naomi Wolf article linked above is not the one in which she proposes a ban on abortion after the first trimester. I’m not sure if that article, reported on by Katha Pollitt in the Nation, was ever actually published. But Wolf was quoted in this article, originally published in Glamour magazine (I know, I was shocked too), on the subject. The article is also interesting in its own right.

Inspiration Day

March 2, 2006

Instead of reading my lame attempt at writing today, check out this link to a most inspirational story of an autistic young man turned high school hero:

I’m Not a Closer

March 1, 2006

I don’t have the best discipline when it comes to reading books. I seem to like buying books as much as reading them, which then creates a dilemma because I love starting new books as much as I like finishing ones I’m already reading. So, I have, at present, ten books started. I’m about half-way through each of them. Bad news is I’m expecting another book in the mail later today, so I’ll not be making any progress on the books I’ve started.

So, I’ll tease you with some upcoming posts. Don’t even pretend you’re not interested, as the books portion of this blog is the backbone, the air that fills the lungs and what-have-you and etc.

I didn’t read much as a teenager, so I kind of missed out on all of the Fantasy Fiction that gets so many people interested in reading. For instance, I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until I was 25-ish. And a confession that I’ll go talk more about next week (or, more likely, at some date later than next week) is that I don’t like that book. Well, one qualifier: I loved the first part of the book, The Fellowship of the Ring. The last two installments were painful and predictable and, gasp, boring. At least for me. (Another qualifier is that I loved the first and third movies in the trilogy.) Then a couple of summers ago after a heated graduate-league softball game, one of my professors told me to read Dune. It blew me away. It made me want to read more Fantasy Fiction. So, at the moment, I have three different Fantasy Series going. The genre is starting to make more sense to me, and reading the other series (Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series; China Mielville’s New Corbuzon (that’s not what it’s called, but I don’t think the trilogy has an actual name — the books just take place in a town called New Corbuzon [and I might be misspelling that, as I don’t have it in front of me]); and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series) has helped me understand more about the genre and also explain why I didn’t connect with Tolkien.

I’m also reading some academic-y stuff, just to make myself feel smart. Namely David Hume (got to love the Scottish philosophers — can I get a witness Coolhand?) and Margaret Himley’s wonderful book: Shared Territory: Understanding Children’s Writing as Works.

Another tease. About a month ago, as you all remember, I mentioned Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me. I’m close to finishing this one. It is so very good. If you all buy it, I won’t feel the need to write a rushed review of it (our editor is very pushy when it comes to deadlines). And a brief aside for anyone thinking of giving me a present. A very dear friend of mine gave me this book while I was in the hospital a couple of years ago. She wrote a very sweet note to me in the front of the book. So now, everytime I pick the book up, it reminds me of her. That is how you give someone a gift.

And in the spirit of Spring Training, I picked up a copy of Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. I devoured the first half and am hoping to finish it, well, whenever it is I decide to finish the books I’ve started.