Once Upon a Town

The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen

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Recommended by my sister, when we got to talking about books last summer when we visited her in Iowa. She really liked it, and who could blame her, it's a feelgood story of small-town Midwest virtue with notes of bittersweetness of how things change over time.

Between December 1941 and April 1946, the citizens of North Platte, Nebraska provided an unparalleled example of diligence, voluntary cooperation, and unselfish patriotism. Back then, North Platte was a quick stop for troop trains heading both east and west, many times per day, every day. The North Platters took on what turned out to be a near-impossible task: during the stop, the soldiers would be provided with chicken, eggs, sandwiches, cigarettes, cake, popcorn balls, candy,… basically, whatever the citizens could provide.

If anything, the author of this history, Bob Greene, understates how difficult this was. North Platte wasn't a particularly prosperous town. During the war, a lot of basic foodstuffs were under strict rationing. They did have the advantage of being right in the middle of a lot of farming communities. But that poised problems of its own: gasoline was also rationed. How you gonna get those chickens to North Platte without gassing up the truck?

Well, they figured it out pretty well, by all accounts presented here. It is largely an oral history. Bob Greene found numerous folks, both soldiers and civilians, to tell their tales. (The book was published in 2002: roughly speaking, the folks in their twenties during the war were in their eighties then.)

Greene tours the town, with (as I said) bittersweet observations of how things changed. Passenger trains stopped coming through North Platte in the 70s, and the depot that housed the Canteen was torn down by Union Pacific not long after. (The town is still home to a thriving freight railroad business: the Union Pacific Bailey Yard is "the largest railroad classification yard in the world.")

Green has an ear for telling interesting and illustrative stories. The Hotel Pawnee (then: Hotel Yancy) was built in 1929 by North Platte native (and one-term Nebraska Governor) Morell Keith Neville. It was meant to be a luxury destination; instead the Great Depression happened. When Greene visits, it's been repurposed into an "Assisted Living Facility", but it seems to be a depressing, smelly old-people warehouse. (These days it's supposed to be in the process of a fantabulous restoration, but the newest stories I can find about that are a couple years old.)

But here's the thing. While doing my usual few minutes of superficial research on Wikipedia (footnotes elided):

On July 13, 1929, a black man shot and killed a white police officer. The black man reportedly took his own life, being trapped by a mob. This led to the formation of white mobs combing the city, and ordering black residents to leave North Platte. Fearing mob violence, most of North Platte's black residents fled.

Um. This was only a dozen years before the war, and the North Platte Canteen. And Greene doesn't mention this at all. And, geez, he pretty much had to know about it.

I can kind of understand why. It would complicate his narrative, and he'd have to wonder how many good citizens of North Platte participated in both the Canteen, and the perhaps-a-lynch mob.

Last Modified 2022-05-16 6:23 AM EDT

The Man in the Crooked Hat

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I've now read five Harry Dolan novels in the past 18 months. Yeah, I'm hooked. Unfortunately, if he has anything new coming out, Amazon doesn't know about it. Sigh.

This is a standalone novel from 2017. It has the standard Dolan ingredients: a complex plot, deadpan dialog, lots of characters. Some of whom are minor characters and stay minor. Some are only seemingly minor. So you had best keep track of everyone.

Oh, and a pulse-pounding climax.

The protagonist, Jack Pellum, is haunted by the senseless killing of his wife. It's a little unusual in that we know who did it right from the get-go: Michael Underhill, the titular Man in the Crooked Hat. What we don't know: his motive. And he's obviously very careful. Jack and Underhill engage in a ballet of detection and deception.

All Jack knows is that he saw the Hat Guy shortly before his wife's murder, acting suspicious. Didn't get a good look at him, but two years afterward he's set himself up in the private eye business, and is posting flyers around town with a poor rendition of his suspect. Then he gets word that a recent suicide has also accused a man in a crooked hat of a murder 20 years previous! Could it be…?

If you like mysteries, I think you'll like Dolan.

A Confederacy of Dunces

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Another book plucked from the New York Times shortlist of fiction whence they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". Nine to go!

And, compared to those other 24 books on the shortlist, it's pretty funny. Funnier than Beloved, anyway.

The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, and he's not really a dunce. He is (to use our preferred non-judgmental language) several sigma off the mean on a number of personality traits: he's delusional, an inveterate liar, antisocial, and very rude. He also dresses oddly. He records his oddball thoughts on numerous Big Chief writing tablets. He lives with his momma in New Orleans; she's at her wit's end, demanding that he get gainfully employed. He makes a couple efforts at that, but things don't go well, thanks to his insistence on using the jobs as springboards to hatch various crackpot schemes.

Ignatius's odyssey involves numerous colorful characters and situations, described in amusing detail. Many of those characters spin off their own subplots. Are they actually all dunces, as the title claims? It seems cruel to say so, but yeah, probably. Ignatius is probably the smartest of the bunch, at least he has the biggest vocabulary.

I couldn't help but notice one of Ignatius's plots: to "Save the World Through Degeneracy". Specifically, as he describes it:

Our first step will be to elect one of their ["degenerate"] number to some very high office — the presidency, if Fortuna spins us kindly. Then they will infiltrate the military. As soldiers, they will all be so continually busy in fraternizing with one another, tailoring their uniforms to fit like sausage skins, inventing new and varied battle dress, giving cocktail parties, etc., that they will never have time for battle. The one whom we finally make Chief of Staff will want only to attend to his fashionable wardrobe, a wardrobe which, alternately, will permit him to be either Chief of Staff or debutante, as the desire strikes him. In seeing the success of their unified fellows here, perverts around the world will also band together to capture the military in their respective countries. In those reactionary countries in which the deviates seem to be having some trouble in gaining control, we will send aid to them as rebels to help them in toppling their governments. When we have at last overthrown all existing governments, the world will enjoy not war but global orgies conducted with the utmost protocol and the most truly international spirit, for these people do transcend simple national differences. Their minds are on one goal; they are truly united; they think as one.
Hm. Are we so sure that plot isn't being carried out right now?

The book's history is tragic: published posthumously a few years after the author's suicide. Especially interesting is the Wikipedia section describing efforts to bring it to the screen. Who should star as Ignatius?

John Belushi! Uh, no.

John Candy! Darn.

Chris Farley! Oops.

Divine! A bold suggestion, but… also no.

I don't believe in curses, but…

Light Perpetual

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I picked up this book from Portsmouth Public Library due to a rave from Pun Salad fave Alan Jacobs. It's good! Although not my usual fare.

It springs from an actual, horrific, historical event: the V2 bombing of November 25, 1944 which destroyed a Woolworths in southeast London, along with everyone inside at the time. A total of 168 people were killed, including 5 children: Alec, Ben, Jo, Val, and Vern. The author, Francis Spufford, builds his novel in the alternate universe where, for whatever reason, the V2 was diverted or delayed, and those kids lived on. What happened?

A lot, as it turns out. We check in with the characters in 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994, and 2009; their lives are full of twists and surprises. Alec turns into a bit of a sassy weisenheimer in grade school, moves on to get a union job as a linotype operator at the Times, an unfortunately doomed profession. (I note my spell-checker no longer recognizes "linotype" as a word.) Ben develops a crippling mental illness, but then… Jo's musical talent takes her to sunny California for a bit, while sister Val makes an unfortunate life choice in marrying an actual skinhead Nazi. And opera-loving Vern has dreams of becoming a real estate mogul, and if he has to scam a soccer star in the process, well….

Francis Spufford's prose is (at times) beautifully ornate, deserving of slow and thoughtful reading. And a lot of Britishisms, many of which I got, others… oh, well. All main characters are drawn with complexity and sympathy.

Nine Nasty Words

English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

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I really enjoyed reading John McWhorter's Woke Racism last month. So I decided to give this book a try. It's on a totally different topic, but equally in McWhorter's wheelhouse as a linguistics professor at Columbia.

What are the nine nasty words? Well, some of them I'm OK with typing, others not. (Caveat lector, McWhorter spells them all out.)

1. damn;

2. hell;

3. the F-word;

4. shit;

5. ass;

6. dick (and the female equivalent);

7. the N-word;

8. the other F-word (and the female equivalent);

9. bitch.

I think that's (more or less) right; the book mentions many more profanities. Like a good linguistic scholar, McWhorter describes their possible/probable origins, their use in literature, pop culture, even legal filings. (Babe Ruth's dad makes an appearance right at the beginning.) There's fascinating detective work on how the words moved in and out of "respectable" discourse. There are all sorts of citations, many drawn from McWhorter's own "lived experience". (He hung out with some pretty salty folks.) The oeuvre of "dirty blues" singer Lucille Bogan turns out to be a rich source of smut. The rationale of ending the N-word with "-er" vs. "-a" turns out to be surprisingly nuanced. When was bitch first spoken in a movie? The answer may shock you!

Something of which I was unaware: out on the Left Coast, the phrase "flip a bitch" is used to describe making an illegal U-turn. McWhorter notes how odd and wonderful this is:

A word Iron Age Europeans used to refer to female dogs is now used on the other side of the other side of the world in California to refer to making illegal U-turns.

And, reader, there is page after page of this stuff. Above all, the book communicates McWhorter's enthusiasm and joy in accumulating facts, establishing lexicographic histories and relationships, and telling great stories. It's a word guy's version of what Feynman called "the pleasure of finding things out."

Last Modified 2022-05-05 2:44 PM EDT

Unequivocal Justice

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My interest in political philosophy is strictly at the dilettante level. When getting books in that area, I occasionally try academic works. (I still have borrowing privileges at the University Near Here's library, and that extends to interlibrary loan, so price and popularity are usually non-issues.) As a result, I often (unfortunately too often) find myself in "look at every page" mode; academic works can get pretty lofty and obscure, they can be just one salvo in an ongoing debate, and seemingly nobody gives authors points for clear, accessible prose stylings.

Unequivocal Justice was unusual in that regard. Christopher Freiman is very clear and accessible here. It's relatively short. It's occasionally funny. (And, very unusual for books in this genre, it has no subtitle.)

It's probably not for total newbies. Previous exposure to John Rawls in particular would be recommended. (Can you pass a short, superficial quiz on A Theory of Justice? Fine, jump in.)

Freiman's goal here is to criticize and counter egalitarian theories of justice (like Rawls'), especially as such theories rule out laissez-faire free market capitalism as an acceptable operating system for national economies. His argument is an extension of the famous observation in Federalist No. 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

As you may have noticed, there's a serious shortage of angels, both in 1788 and 2022.

Freiman's general objection fleshes that out: egalitarians demand that states need to coercively ensure a decent standard of living for the less well-off; otherwise cold-hearted capitalists will accumulate all the available wealth, leaving the unfortunate to starve or freeze or…. The problem: those capitalists are viewed as clones of Charles Montgomery Plantagenet Schicklgruber "Monty" Burns.

However (good news) the government employees enforcing egalitarian measures are clones of Nedward "Ned" Flanders Jr.

Freiman says: wait a minute. In the real world, governments and businesses are run by real people, not by archetypes and caricatures. It's inconsistent to assume "ideal" behavior from government coercers, who are looking to correct flaws emanating from the non-ideal behavior of the well-off citizenry.

Freiman takes this general incoherence and breaks it down, rebutting egalitarian claims about "political liberty, economic sufficiency, fair opportunity, and social equality." He's very fair to his opponents, considering their objections, but that only makes his arguments more devastating.

Bye Bye Baby

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This comes pretty close to "phoning it in" territory. It's not awful, just lazy and formulaic. I know, I know: what did I expect? It's the tenth book in the Ace Atkins-authored implementation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. And I guess Mr. Atkins is OK with Parker's name appearing large and loud at the top of the book cover while is own is relegated small and discreet at the bottom.

As long as suckers like me keep buying the books, I guess he'll keep writing them. [Update: wrong! See below.]

The story this time: Spenser is hired to provide security for Boston's current CongressCritter, Carolina Garcia-Ramirez. She's up for re-election, she's running against the guy she defeated in the primary last time around. (Conveniently, he's labeled a "chauvinist pig" early on.) She has also received credible death threats. Being a black woman, there are often vile racist and sexist insults attached. Some loon threw a cup of urine on her down in D. C. There's a white supremacist group, the "Minutemen", that seem to be acting suspiciously. There are also mob ties.

Fortunately, longtime buddy Hawk is free to help out. And eventually, Spenser's somewhat newer buddy, Zebulon Sixkill, comes in from California to assist too. The bad guys don't have much of a chance.

I'd say Atkins is about 90% of the way toward a faithful mimic of Parker's prose style. Not bad. He's a little heavy on having Spenser drop literary allusions into his conversations. Spenser utters "We'd be fools not to" once. And Hawk says it too!

Like the previous entry in the Spenser series, the book has a "ripped from the headlines, but fictionalized" feel. The Congresswoman Carolina Garcia-Ramirez is an obvious takeoff on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; she's even referred to as "CGR" in places. Her opponents are cartoonish, exclusively racists and sexists, mostly violence-prone. There's no indication that Carolina's anything other than a saint, crusading for the little guys.

Nothing particularly unexpected happens. The thrilling climax is not that thrilling. There's a possible setup for the next book. But…

Atkins' website announced the book this way: "Ace’s last Spenser novel hits stores today." Hm. "Last" as opposed to "latest"? Am I reading too much into that?

Update: No, I was not reading too much into that: Ace is done.

Last Modified 2022-04-25 6:44 AM EDT

They Don't Represent Us

Reclaiming Our Democracy

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Lawrence Lessig came to my attention in 2002 when he argued (and to my mind, botched) the case Eldred v. Ashcroft before the Supreme Court, an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the "Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act". (He lost the case, 7-2.) I knew, from occasional sightings since then, that this book would be out of my confort zone. Lessig is a Progressive Democrat, with all that implies. But he knows the law, and the Constitution, and in this book he sometimes surprised me with occasional libertarian instincts. He's a mixed bag.

But I was most intrigued by the title. I was like: "Dude, I know THEY don't represent US." Specifically, me. Even more specifically: in 2020, my CongressCritter, Democrat Chris Pappas squeaked to re-election with 51.3% of the vote. His main opponent, Republican Matt Mowers, got 46.2%. My vote went to Libertarian Zachary Dumont, who got 2.4%.

In my mind, there is no meaningful way in which Chris Pappas could be said to "represent" me. Or for any of the 48.7% of the voters who preferred someone else. As I type, he's a 100% rubber stamp for Biden, like (to be fair) nearly all his Democrat colleagues. He could be replaced by a suitably programmed robot.

But Lessig has a different view of "representation". Or it's maybe more accurate to say he has multiple views of "representation", but none of them match with mine. For example, he waxes predictably about "gerrymandering", but that wouldn't resolve my issue: Pappas only got 51.3% of the popular vote, but that translates into an entire vote in the House. No matter how the district lines are drawn, it's winner take all, baby. (My crackpot reform idea is here.)

Lessig advocates multimember Congressional districts with ranked-choice voting determining the winners. (More detail at the FairVote advocacy site.) Intriguing, but I suspect that would simply get me represented by N robotic representatives instead of one.

Lessig also supports an Article V Convention for "fixing" the Constitution; public financing of campaigns where every voter is provided an $N dollar voucher they could "donate" to a candidate (whereupon it would turn into actual taxpayer money); "civic juries", a bunch of citizens who would consider various public policy options, considering the testimony of "experts presenting various viewpoints". And other assorted gimmickry to fix things to his imagined liking.

He is a huge fan of the Sarbanes/Pelosi HR1 voting reform act (as it was proposed in 2019). He correctly notes that it was unable to gather a single GOP vote in the House, and was bottled up in the Senate. (The most recent iteration, the "For the People Act" also went nowhere.) He makes no effort to consider the valid Constitutional/Federalism/separation of powers objections.

Gimmicks aside, Lessig's unstated view of government is not the design of the Founders: to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens, and otherwise stay out of the way. Instead, government is essentially there to solve problems. Using "democracy", of course, to both define and solve the problems.

Not that he's examined that premise much. Jason Brennan's critique Against Democracy is dismissed in a single sentence. Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter isn't mentioned at all.

Lessig's prose style is earnest, and occasionally dreadful. What do you do when confronted with a sentence like (p. 56):

But we should neither exaggerate the insignificance of losing presidential public funding nor, and more important for our purposes here, imagine that the economy of influence for funding presidential campaigns is anything like the economy of influence for funding campaigns for Congress.

We shouldn't exaggerate insignificance of losing something. I'm still working on what that might mean.

The Plot

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This book made the WSJ's list of the best mysteries of 2021; that's been a semi-reliable source of recommendations in the past, so…

The protagonist is Jacob ("Jake") Finch Bonner, a writer whose first novel was published to moderate acclaim, whose second book garnered no acclaim whatsoever, and third and fourth books were rejected by all publishers. So he's in kind of a professional funk, and he's resorted to teaching at a fiction-writing workshop for aspiring writers with more cash than talent. Jake puts up a brave front, but he's full of self-pity and self-loathing. He's not writing, and nobody cares.

Into this sad existence drops an arrogant student, Evan Parker. Parker claims that he doesn't really need the program, or any tips from a dud like Jake. Because he's got the plot of his novel, and it is sure-fire. After some jousting, Parker tells Jake the plot, and … wow, Jake thinks, this jerk is right. It would be a can't-miss guaranteed hit!

A few years later, Jake's career has continued its downhill progress. When he gets the urge to look up whatever happened to that jerk with the great plot. Whoa, he's dead! And Jake makes a fateful decision…

It's pretty good. Starts off almost as a David Lodge-style satire of marginal academic life, then a tale of wild authorial success and hubris, then a combination of mystery and horror. I'm only giving it 4/5 stars on Goodreads because I saw the Big Twist at the end somewhere around the middle of the book. Long before Jake sees it, anyway. To his eternal regret.

Dark Sky

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I started reading C. J. Box back in 2010. And now I'm almost caught up! And this is yet another page-turner. (Oops, sorry. Kindle version. Make that "yet another screen-swiper".)

Box's continuing hero, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, finds himself in real trouble. Again. He's tasked by the (unlikeable and dishonest) governor to lead an elk hunt, escorting an arrogant, entitled tech billionaire and his retinue up into the mountains. The hope is that the tech guy will enjoy himself so much that he locate a massive server farm in Wyoming. The governor threatens Joe's job if he doesn't pull that off.

Little does Joe realize he's walking into a trap set by a demented rancher and his sons; they plan to exact murderous revenge on the Zuckerberg-like baron, and leave no witnesses. So what starts as an interesting hunting expedition soon turns into a deadly game of hide-and-seek in the Wyoming wildnerness. Who will survive?

(Well, Joe will. Barely. C. J. is not gonna kill off Joe.)

There's also a Nate Romanowski subplot. A sociopathic rival falconer has encroached on Nate's territory, looking to enrich himself by selling birds illegally to Saudi sheiks. That plot is not concluded, but a development late in the book guarantees that it will continue in the next volume. Which I already have in my Kindle library.