In Honor of Sarah Palin

I believe we must treat our political foes with respect in the arena of public opinion. And so I will dedicate this post to the Governor of Alaska. This is Banned Books Week, and it’s always appropriate to look at what drives literary censorship in this country. According to the American Library Association, more than 400 books were challenged in 2007. The 10 most challenged titles were:

1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Click here to see why these books were challenged. And read one of ’em. That’ll show the bastards.

A Book for the Times: World Made by Hand

For many years now, curmudgeon-blogger-painter-author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the downfall of America’s vast consumer society in stark terms, in his non-fiction books (like his 2006 The Long Emergency) and on his iconic blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Read Kunstler for a couple of weeks, and he will piss you off. Read him for a few months, and you’ll question the financial underpinnings of the western world – some of the verities slowly begin to fray. Two months ago, for example, Kunstler posted a typical essay called “The Coming Re-Becoming” that factored the assumptions we Americans make for our strength and general well-being in the alleys and by-ways of sheer luck:

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don’t mean that we are a better people than any other society — these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts — but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle “time out” from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we’re sailing into now.

Fortunate, indeed – and now that the entire financial system is shaking, I’d like to recommend Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made by Hand, a sharp cinematic imagining on everyday American life after the failure of the energy grid.

I read the book between trips upstate this summer, which was perfectly appropriate, as World Made by Hand unfolds in the sleepy town of Union Grove, New York along the Hudson River north of Albany – a region down on its economic luck even before the apocalyptic events hinted at in Kunstler’s tale. But as Robert Earle, a former software engineer, attempts to balance his base own survival with more human pursuits in a town edging toward violence and anarchy, we glimpse that world through his eyes.

The New York State Thruway as a walking trail. Abandoned strip malls, gas stations, and shopping outlets. The absence of mass media, except for the occasional Bible-thumping when the power cranks the radio back on. The real meaning of horsepower. In short, it’s like a field trip to an Amish village or a 19th century agrarian recreation – but littered with carcasses of automobiles, commerce, mass production and media. The Hudson is again the super-highway it was when the French and British fought for it. All food is produced locally. Drugs are scarce to non-existent, and contagion sweeps away whole generations. Recycling isn’t a feel-good fad – it’s survival. And violence in the absence of real law threatens the last of civilization.

The people in World Made by Hand are thin; they’re hungry, sure – but there’s not too much meat to their characters, either. Women fare the worst: feminism has not survived, and they are reduced either to a means of production or sad, wandering specters. The men aren’t much better, because life has become cheapened and introspection has as much validity as 50-inch Trinitron.

The most affecting character is the cultish preacher Brother Jobe who comes to town to build a new community of believers, only to find personal tragedy. Jobe has seen trouble all over the east coast, and knows that his chances in upstate New York are his last; although things are bad, they’re not as bad as elsewhere – there are terrorist bombs and lynch mobs across the land. The failed nation is rarely addressed directly, but unfolds in conversation – like this one between Earle and his new live-in lover, a young widow of Union Grove’s increasing violence:

“The world has become such a wicked place,” she said quietly, just a statement of fact

“There’s goodness here too.”

“Where is it?”

“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence.”

“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”

“I don’t know what’s in my heart anymore. It’s too dark to see.”

“Light follows darkness.”

To a writer and soap-box shouter like Kunstler, World Made by Hand is not so much of a warning as a promise. Yet, you can also sense a yearning from the author – who lives, after all, in Sarasota Springs – for a return to that earlier time. Indeed, there are portions of the new life in Union Grove that are admirable; the reliance on a communitarian movement for survival is one. A closer tie to the means of food production is another. You get the feeling the author himself thinks he might do well in the reinvention years he hints at in economic/political blog posts circa 2008.

This economic spasm is a result of the credit explosion in all its variety and complexity and derivation. Kunstler’s bleak future stems from energy policy. Yet the events of these last two weeks can be tucked neatly into the back story for World Made by Hand. It’s a good read. And it sure as hell beats watching the Dow or sorting through the bailout paperwork.

The World According to Bert Cooper

As I mentioned in our last outing, the life in the edges in Mad Men is often more entertaining than the faux suburban turmoil that makes up the lives of Don and Betty Draper. The world of Sterling Cooper is really coming into its own in season two, even as the cardboard angst of Ossining (a bizarre choice to begin with) begins to fade. One of the great characters from those edges is the firm’s founder and senior partner, Bert Cooper, played with (sound)stage presence by the veteran Robert Morse. Almost all of the Morse scenes are good ones, and his character is the moral center of life at the firm – his square seniority balanced by the picaresque ways of his junior, Roger Sterling.

Over at AMC’s Mad Men site, there’s a short interview with Morse and i think it captures some of the enthusiasm around creating the Sterling Cooper atmosphere. Live-blogging starts at 10 tonights, so in lieu of a longer post, here’s an excerpt:

Q: Do you feel like you’re stepping back in time with Mad Men?

A: Not really stepping back in time, but there are many values and things in the script that are reminiscent — secretaries and typewriters, etc. — of my days when How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying] was on Broadway. So it is a reminder of things past, a little Proustian. Otherwise, it’s fun wearing a goatee and a mustache and having my hair plastered down. It’s fun to look completely different than you are. They write Bert Cooper very cleverly. He’s an oddball. He walks around with no shoes, his office is completely decorated in early Japanese stuff. He has these fun, odd quirks.

Q: Is it true you visit the set, even on days when you’re not filming?

A: That’s right. Exactly. I love to go into the studio on days when I’m not even doing anything. It’s like my senior club. Some people go to senior centers, well I go to my senior center. I think I’m the oldest of the group — the only one who has lived through this period. I just love this show: I show up and hit the marks and say the lines and go home. And then show up the next day with the paper and visit with everybody and have a free lunch.

Languor in the Land of Plenty

Is boredom of interest? The affliction troubling the two main characters of AMC’s wildly popular Mad Men seems to be some type of low-grade non-fever, the after effects of a suburban existentialist bomb that exploded far off camera leaving viewers wandering the frozen landscape of Draperville without the pleasure of fire. Don and Betty Draper are the ice-cold post-apocalyptic center of what is actually a nifty office drama whirling around them, but they move in the slow motion zombie dance of dead-eyed survivors – oh, so weary with life on Madison Avenue and Ossining and the country club. Maybe they’ll figure in Cormac McCarthy’s next descent to the depths – or George Romero’s, anyway.

Don Draper sucks the life out of the tasty little agency storyline slowly unfolding at Sterling Cooper; in truth, the man simply doesn’t have a real job. He shows up, sucks down nicotine, beds a client, tosses back a few drinks, and turns his thumb up or down on creative ideas like some early 60s Madison Avenue caesar. He never works. Not like Darren Stevens. Not like Jim Blandings. Hell, not even like partner Roger Sterling or sales director Duck Phillips, two far more authentic characters who you can genuinely sense have an eye on the agency’s bottom line.

And not like the band of ambitious junior people: Peggy, Sal, Paul and Pete. These people have plans. They have schemes. They have principles they’re willing to compromise in order to satisfy ambition. They’re interesting.

Betty Draper is a pouty mannequin; Don a brooding extra. They’re bored with their lives, having imagined more, but nothing seems to drive any real crisis. Moreover, they’re not likable, in the way that draws an audience to follow them. Sure they’re bad people. So were Tony and Carmela Soprano. But in The Sopranos, Tony and Carm dominated the center – the vast and fascinating ensemble moved around them. Don and Betty…no. Maybe they’re too pretty. Or maybe the writing isn’t up to scratch. And nor are they the literary successors to Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, either. Yates told a suburban horror story in the guise of everyday life – he meant to horrify, and he did. (I’ll be curious to compare Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers in the upcoming Sam Mendes flick to the cardboard Drapers).

So I’m watching Mad Men in the edges, and enjoying it more. Peggy’s ambition is growing and she’s willing to play by the boys’ rules to succeed. Pete’s feeling needed beyond his family’s wealth. And Duck’s dealing with the make-or-break midlife in the killing fields of midtown. These people feel real and their dialogue works; further, they wear their period outfits and settings well. Last week, Peggy’s move on the men’s club turned on her break room conversation with Joan – she got tough advice and she took it. Pete renewed his partnership with Peggy. Roger brokered a deal between the feuding Duck and Don. Paul took a chance on a big creative idea.

Take out the Drapers’ boring boredom, and you had movement – you had drama, in the collision of ambition and opportunity.