Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Highest Tide

Jim Lynch

There is a tradition that authors write a "coming of age" novel as a first book. This is something that a writer is supposed to get out of his system before getting on with the real work of writing literary fiction. The Highest Tide is Jim Lynch's coming of age novel. It is also a first class work of literary fiction.

Lynch's protagonist is Miles O'Malley, a thirteen year old boy who has a business, picking up sea stars, sand dollars and clams at low tide, in Skookumchuck Bay, near Olympia Washington, and selling them to aquariums, collectors and restaurants. He is also a voracious reader of books on marine biology and the shortest kid in his class. He has a crush on an older girl who used to be his babysitter and is now a punkish rock bass player and singer with a substance abuse problem and bipolar disorder.

The novel employs a kind of Pacific Northwest version of magical realism. Miles sets it up early wth this bit of narrative, "I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they'll think you're exaggerating or lying when you're actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can." Miles discovers a giant squid washed up on a mud flat and left, still alive, by the receding tide, then a rare deep ocean fish. Soon a major survey of it's marine life is ordered and all kinds of unusual sea creatures from all overt the world are being discovered in Skookumchuck Bay. Miles becomes the object of a media feeding frenzy, the leader of a new age "cult" uses him for her own aggrandizement and people begin to visit the bay to cure their ills by rubbing mud on themselves.

Through this mass of magic, media hype and marine biology there run threads in which Miles learns about love, sex, death, friendship, betrayal, courage, cowardice, honesty, dishonesty, success and failure. That's the "coming of age" part. Lynch also throws in an earthquake and a massive flood tide.

The only thing I didn't like about The Highest Tide is that it is a much shorter book than his second novel, Border Songs.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Uncommon Carriers

John McPhee

The second John McPhee book that I read was his 1967 opus, Oranges. I was amazed to find a writer that could make an exploration of the Florida orange growing business a can't put it down read. Nobody equaled McPhee's feat until Henry Petroski wrote The Pencil. Oh, the first one I read was The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. I'm still waiting for semi-lighter than air ships to take over our transportation system.

Uncommon Carriers, published in 2006, is McPhee's 30th book of non-fiction. In it he describes riding with a long haul trucker who carries hazardous materials coast to coast, pushing barges up and down the Illinois River with a tow boat (McPhee was a supernumerary on board) riding a mile and a half long coal train from a mine in Wyoming to a power plant in Georgia and a tour of the UPS sorting facility in Louisville, KY.

McPhee makes his subjects interesting by concentrating on the people he meets. The truck driver in the first part of this book, Don Ainsworth, is a very interesting man and I wish that McPhee had stayed with his story longer. Ainsworth's hobby of collecting boots made of exotic leathers - even two pairs made from endangered sea turtle - his reading habits, almost as eclectic as my own, and his colorful use of language, held my interest beyond the time that McPhee wanted to devote to him. Ainsworth is a devoter reader of the Wall Street Journal, which he referred to as "the Walleye."

Like William Least Heat Moon's Roads to Quoz, this books seems to be a patchwork collection of short pieces put together by the author, piecemeal. It does have the unifying theme of transportation, yet it doesn't quite gel. The chapter on UPS is particularly jarring, and why is there a chapter about a canoe trip that followed, sort of, the route taken by Henry David Thoreau, up the Merrimack river? That doesn't belong in here at all.

I did learn something about the air freight business and about the Merrimack and eventually settled down to read those chapters with pleasure. John McPhee's simple prose captured me again. I hope that Don Ainsworth continues to find the Walleye at truck stops across America for a long time to come.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Serpent Gate

A Kevin Kearney Novel
Michael McGarrity

Michael McGarrity was recommended to me on a "what are you reading" thread on the FDP. His Kevin Kearney series of crime novels are set in New Mexico. Beyond sharing a state, they bear no resemblance to Tony Hillerman. Kevin Kearny is a reluctantly violent action hero. The death toll in Serpents Gate is Shakespearean in scope.

Years ago, when I was planning a visit to New Mexico, someone introduced me to Tony Hillerman's novels. Reading them colored my expectations of the visit. Other than the violence, Kearny's New Mexico more accurately reflects my actual experience. His Santa Fe is full of tourist traps, art galleries and corrupt politicians. His small towns have empty store fronts and cheap cafes. Kearny did not visit the Navajo reservation in this story, and neither did I.

Serpent Gate involves the theft of art from the office of the Governor of New Mexico, a Mexican drug lord a homeless schizophrenic and a large animal veterinarian. It was interesting to see Santa Fe and the small town of Mountainair (which I didn't visit) through McGarrity's eyes. The story wasn't bad either.

The reader has a semi omniscient point of view so there is no mystery involved. I guess that makes this a "police procedural" novel, although no police would ever proceed the way McGarrity's protagonist did, not if they wanted to stay out of jail themselves, possibly one in Mexico, but I digress.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Going Rogue

An American Life
Sarah Palin

I read Going Rogue so you don't have to.

As I understand it Sarah Palin locked herself in an apartment somewhere in California and banged this book out on her laptop in about six weeks. That's pretty darned fast by golly!

Other than some very colorful stuff about growing up in Alaska, eating God's creatures that found their place next to the potatoes and carrying firewood up the the woodstove in the family room above the garage in order to watch The Brady Bunch in comfort I learned:

Everything that went wrong with the McCain campaign was the fault of staffers who were trying to control the message and the VP candidate.

Katie Couric was out to get her in order to save her own faltering TV career.

The real answer to the famous "what newspapers do you read" question is AM radio talk shows.

Palin made surreptitious calls to Rush Limbaugh from the campaign bus.

McCain campaign "headquarters" scuttled the McCain campaign in their attempt to suppress Sarah Palin. They should have let her do her own thing.

She doesn't like fancy clothes and would rather have worn her thirft shop wardrobe on the campaign trail.

They told her to take those clothes home. She didn't want them.

People can be really mean. (Actually I already knew this.)

Obama is still really a secret terrorist and he is behind all the bogus ethics charges leveled against Palin since before she was tapped for the McCain campaign, including Troopergate.

Sarah Palin dresses up as Tina Fey for Halloween. (How can you tell she's in costume?)

Saturday Night Live was fun, especially the Sarah Palin Rap scene.

What bridge to nowhere? Never heard of it.

Conservatives are high minded and don't run dirty campaigns. Lee Atwater, who's that?

Todd is still hot.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

American Original

The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Joan Biskupic

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a central figure of the conservative movement in America.  He has also been controversial, ever since he was appointed by President Reagan in 1986. Outspoken and opinionated, Scalia has not hesitated to "tell people what they don't want to hear." This biography focuses on his most colorful, written opinions and public remarks, of which there are plenty.

The book begins with a short synopsis of "Nino" Scalia's early years. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1936, the son of an immigrant father, from Sicily, a professor of romance languages at Brooklyn College, and a first generation American mother. Although it was the middle of the depression there were no tenements, migrant camps, unemployment lines or matchbook selling on street corners for the Scalia family. They were high achievers with high expectations for their only child. Biskupic suggests that Scalia's "originalism" or more accurately, textualism, his insistence on considering only the text of the Constitution or of any laws being considered by the court, may be derived from his father's professional interest in the written word.

An originalist believes that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was understood by the founders, that it is not a "living" constitution, changing with fashion or with society's evolving needs. A textualist believes that the law is the law (or the Constitution) as written. Legislative history, committee reports, speeches by Seantors and the Federalist Papers are irrelevant to a textualist. Contrary to the practice of the last two hundred and fifty odd years, only the words of the Constitution and of the laws passed by Congress are to be considered.

In American Original, Biskupic asks whether Scalia's opinions are formed from his understanding of the Constitution, to which he strictly adheres, come what may, or are they rooted in his conservative Catholic upbringing and his Republican politics, then justified by reference to the text of the Constitution.  For the most part she leaves the answers up to the reader.

In the 1990 case of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in a persistent vegitative state since an automobile accident in 1983, Scalia found that the state had a compelling interest in preventing the death of an incompetent person who had left no directive and that the framers had not addressed the issue in the Constitution. Of course the framers had no means of extraordinary medical intervention, not even a feeding tube. How then could they have addressed the issue? In effect Scalia is saying that the state has an interest in maintaining living corpses, at the expense of the families of those unfortunates, because the issue was not addressed in the 18th century. (He was in the minority in the Cruzan case, as he often was.)  Biskupic asks was this originalism or late 20th century, right to life conservatism? Sometimes issues will arise that the 18th century is silent on.What is an originalist to do?

In an interview quote on jury selection, after having dissented in favor of a prosecutor who had eliminated all black jurors and invoked OJ Simpson in a trial against a black defendant. "I think blacks ought to be able to strike whites from the jury if they think  they will get a fairer shake from a black jury, and vice versa. I think you ought to be able to strike Methodists because Methodists will have something against you  because you're a Catholic. It is crazy to try to turn discretionary strikes into rational strikes. They were never intended to satisfy you that this is a panel you'd feel comfortable with, for whatever crazy reason." This seems less grounded in the Constitution, of course it was an opinion aired in a public forum and not in court. It also seems a bit irrelevant to the issue as it was a prosecutor, and not a defendant, that was dismissing jurors by race.

In the last decade the Supreme Court has reversed many of the affirmative action remedies that have been in effect since the 60s and 70s.  Scalia has an interesting take on this. "The law can't treat races unequally. That's my whole objection to affirmative action that it violates the principle of equality, that it is the state preferring one race over another - perhaps for very benign reasons. But nevertheless the Constitution forbids it. Jim Crow laws are bad. Scalia has been quoted to the effect that the children of Polish immigrants are paying the price for the acts of the ancestors of WASPs.

Biskupic quotes Scalia's son Eugene on religion: "My father views the Catholic faith today as the inheritor of a cultural heritage, the great art, the music, the Latin tradition," said Scalia's eldest son Eugene. "To him it's Bach and Beethoven versus a guitar Mass. I don't think it's a conservative thing, or a right wing thing. He wants a tradition." (Bach was Lutheran, I'm just sayin'.)

One place where religion could have a profound effect on a  Supreme Court Justice is Roe v Wade. "Scalia rejected the notion that his Catholicism directed his rulings. He did, however, readily acknowledge that, like his religion, his insistence on the wrongness of Roe stirred his deepest emotions. "Roe v. Wade was a lie, [and] even those who favor the outcome acknowledge that the reasoning in the opinion was terrible," he said, explaining why he wanted to overturn the 1973 case." He considers it bad law. Is the tail wagging the judicial dog or not? There is no place in the Constitution that specifies a privacy right. It has been implied by Supreme Court rulings in the past, Roe being the most prominent.

And then there is the case of Bush v Gore. You will remember that the Supreme Court ordered the recounting of votes in three Florida counties stopped, on the basis of a claim, by the Bush campaign, that counting them was a violation of the equal protection guarantee in the fourteenth amendment, because different counties in Florida were using different standards to judge the intent of voters. "Taking it upon himself to defend the majority's action, Scalia wrote that letting the recounts continue would threaten the 'legitimacy' of Bush's election. 'Count first, and rule on legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires,' Scalia said." This statement, as I remember it, was made after the Court had ordered the recounts stopped but before the decision in Bush v Gore was handed down.  In the decision, Scalia's principles of respecting state laws and courts and of looking only to the text of the Constitution and the law are ignored. States historically have had complete control over voting, even in national elections. Article one of the Constitution gives them that control. Varied ballots and methods of counting them within states have always been common.

Bush v Gore struck out into new ground, insisting on a standard method of recounting the varied ballots in different counties and overruling a state Supreme Court decision to do it, taking Federal control of Florida's election. The decision also stated that it applied only to this one instance. When in history has a Supreme Court decision ever applied to only one instance? The opinion, believed to have been written by Sandra Day Oconnor and Anthony Kennedy, was unsigned. When has a Supreme Court decision ever been anonymous? Scalia said he wanted to protect the integrity of Bush's election. I believe that the Supreme Court destroyed it. Only the withdrawal of Al Gore from the fray and his insistence on respecting the result saved us from a crisis of monumental proportion.

The New York Times and Washington Post attempted to count the votes in question after the fact and concluded that Bush would have won anyway. We will never know if this was accurate.

It has been said tha Man is the rationalizing animal. This applies equally to you and I as well as to Supreme Court Justices. American Original gives you, the reader, the opportunity to judge where rationalization has been at work, and who has been doing it, in the case of Justice Scalia.