Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, Lorrie Moore

Cover illustration for Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie MooreLorrie Moore, the queen of second person, incisive, witty, precise, intense, and always funny in the saddest possible way.

I’ve been a big fan of Lorrie Moore since my first really great writing workshop during my sophomore year of college, where we read the two Lorrie Moore stories that always make it into every fiction workshop–“How to Become a Writer” and “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” both from Self Help. Since then, I’ve read Birds of America and Like Life and that volume of Best American Short Stories she edited. But her first (and for many years only) novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, just sat on the shelf until now. I don’t know why.

The adolescent friendship between the narrator, Berie, and her closest friend Sils forms the core of the story. The two girls have been friends since grade school, but their relationship begins to change the summer they are fifteen, when beautiful Sils gets a boyfriend, leaving still-immature Berie uncertain and self conscious. The other details of Berie’s life pinwheel around this friendship–her family, distant and dysfunctional, her fraught marriage, her adult self.

Like all Moore’s work, it’s impossible to say enough about the writing–the language is clever, surprising, evocative, concise, and mildly disturbing. More like a short story than a novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a single whole–consistent, absorbing, transitioning gracefully, seamlessly through time and place. It’s a one-sitting book.

Similarly, the classic criticisms of Moore apply to this, as much as to any of her short works. It’s pretentious, no doubt. Berie’s character is pretty much indistinguishable from any one of Moore’s other main characters. And Moore doesn’t shy away from displaying her character’s flaws, which can render them a bit unsympathetic.

But overall, I really enjoyed this book and remain a huge fan.

Teen Trash is My Middle Name: Maggie Stiefvater

Cover image for Shiver by Maggie StiefvaterShiver, by Maggie Stiefvater is a truly horrendously bad teen paranormal romance. As child, Grace was attacked by the wolves who live in the woods behind her house, but saved just in time by a yellow-eyed wolf. Even years later Grace watches for the yellow-eyed wolf, and it seems that he is watching her, too. But after a local boy is attacked the town turns against their local wolf pack. Anxious for her wolves, Grace interrupts an impromptu hunt on her way home from school and unexpectedly runs into an injured naked guy. When she looks into his yellow eyes, she’s sure he’s her wolf.

Grace and her wolf, Sam, fall instantly and easily in love. Trouble is, these werewolves aren’t subject to the moon; they’re human in summer, animal in winter. And, eventually, they just stay wolves. Equally troubling, the boy everyone thought was dead has actually become a werewolf, and his reckless behavior is threatening to expose them all.

Among the most amusing atrocities in this terrible book are: (1) Sam’s completely awful teenage poetry sprinkled indiscriminately throughout, (2) The absolutely unapologetic sickeningly sentimental relationship between the lovers, and (3) the fact that no one in this small town seems to have noticed the huge group of dudes who all spend the summer together in a giant house right outside town (as someone who grew up in a town about this size, can I just say, this is not the kind of thing that would go unremarked).

Cover image for Linger by Maggie StiefvaterYes, I read the sequel. I know, I know. Someone told me it was better. She told me that after reading Shiver she thought “eh” but then read Linger and couldn’t wait for more.

This installment does include the excellent addition of Cole, an underage man-whore rock star werewolf with a substance problem and a dark past. It’s hard to go wrong with that. Sam’s poetry is if possible even worse, mostly because now he sings it (will he and Cole form a band in #3? one can only hope…) Also, in case the melodrama quotient wasn’t sufficient before, Grace may or may not be dying.

Cover image for Water Witch by Cynthia Felice and Connie WillisThis 1982 classic from Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice tells the story of Deza, the titular Water Witch , depicted in the somewhat terrifying cover illustration. Anastasia like, Deza impersonates a missing princess as part of a con, then realizes that she may actually be a princess after all. Good thing she’s already sleeping with the prince.

What’s the big deal with the estate tax?

So, I know I’m super uber liberal and everything, but I don’t get why the estate tax is supposed to be such a good thing.

I mean, yes, I know it was championed by TR (my all time favorite president), I know it’s our most “progressive” tax, I know the people who support eliminating it are super-rich and mostly reprehensible. And I do believe that the wealthy should undertake a greater share of the tax burden overall.

But here’s what I don’t get: haven’t people already paid tax on that money? Wouldn’t it be both more practical and more just to tax earned income and accruing interest more heavily in the upper tax brackets to begin with?

Added to that, according to NPR, the estate tax has never produced more than 1-2% of federal revenues. And according to the Huffington Post the Democratic alternative is “only a little more irresponsible” than the proposed plan, the difference between $33 billion (Dems) and $68 billion (Reps & Obama)–small change when you’re talking Federal budget.

Finally, the current plan (the one Obama negotiated), basically just raises the threshold for paying estate tax from $1 million to $5 million. This doesn’t strike me as all that nuts. Remember, this isn’t just a tax on liquid assets–it’s the entire estate. If you own a small business, a car or two, and a house, your estate can get up close to the $1 million mark pretty fast. Some kinds of life insurance are also taxable under the estate tax, which can easily throw an estate over that threshold.

A $1 million baseline hits the upper middle class, not just the wealthiest 1% of the entire country. Of course, I personally think we’d be pretty safe with a threshold of $2 million instead of $5–but in any case, this is hardly the thing to go to bat over when the >$250k income tax is on the line.

But I still love Bernie Sanders.

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Cover illustration for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary ShteyngartI’ve finished it–the Super Sad True Love Story. And it only took me four months. I started this great (but grating) satire back in September. I waded through the first half over the course of about two weeks, and then abandoned it for, well, everything else I’ve written about here. I just picked it back up again. Luckily, according to the experts, “it’s the sort of riff-based novel that does particularly well in bite-size pieces.” While this probably isn’t exactly what Ron Charles had in mind, I finished it, and am writing about it, and that’s it.

Set in an only slightly futuristic New York city (like maybe ten years from now), Super Sad True Love Story follows the middle aged, middle income Lenny Abramov through a painfully sentimental romance with beautiful but troubled 24-year-old Eunice Park. The couple meets for one night only in Rome, where Lenny is coming to the end of a year long business trip, unsuccessfully hawking nanotechnology-based youth enhancement to HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and Eunice is indulging in a little post-college travel. Lenny falls instantly, deliriously, pathetically in love; Eunice is bored, but willing enough. The the two reunite in Manhattan through the combined pressure of Lenny’s eagerness to see Eunice again, and Eunice’s need for a rent-free place to stay.

The novel is epistolary in style, told through Lenny’s outmoded journal entries and Eunice’s slang-filled emails, chats and “teens” (facebook, in effect). It deals primarily with their relationship (which is sad, in more ways than one), but also with the social tensions that surround them: the impending visit of the Chinese central banker, the encampments of homeless protesters and returning veterans, the armed guards who monitor travel between the burrows, the private armies retained by corporations.

Shteyngart’s not-to-distant future is a corporate oligarchy driven by mass consumerism and credit, and populated by such financial monoliths as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit. The American dollar is pegged to the Yuen and the “Governor of the People’s Bank of China-Worldwide” is “unofficially the world’s most powerful man.” American is run by the Bipartisan Party, and all government messages include an “apply and deny” clause: “By reading this message your are denying its existence and implying consent.” Service people are veterans, not of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of some equally ill-fated Venezuelan conflict. The entire populace carries iPhone-like mini computers called “apparats” which broadcast credit score and “fuckability” ratings, stream one-man-show-style reality-TV-esque video rants (which have apparently taken the place of both news and drama), and offer the opportunity to shop at such trendy stores as AssLuxury, JuicyPussy and Onionskin (where they sell translucent jeans). Books (irony of ironies, considering I paid $9.00 for the Kindle edition of this one) are valueless.

Critic Laura Miller argues that with Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart offers readers a kinder, gentler satire. Indeed, the author seems to have great empathy for his characters, despite their flaws, and he’s put in the effort to make them real and well-rounded, not merely the cardboard cutouts that populate so many satires. Eunice is convincingly complex. Like many 20-something college grads, she’s drifting, caught between her desire to do something and her own crippling lack of confidence; her love for her Korean immigrant family, and the pain inflicted by her abusive father; her shallow shopping-based socialization and her impulse to help the homeless protesters in living in the park; her affection for Lenny, and her sense of his inadequacy and strangeness. Lenny, likewise, is a fully fleshed character, and, even more remarkably, one who is capable of change.

I began the book feeling that, while it might be easy to sympathize with and even pity Shteyngart’s characters, it would be impossible to actually like them. But, about 3/4 of the way through, I did find myself liking them. I was even anxious about what might happen to them. What started out as a slightly irritating slog had somehow sneaked into my good graces.

Super Sad True Love Story is a good book–a surprisingly good book–but, like the consumerist pop culture it mocks, it may drive you just a little nuts.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Illustrations from Northanger AbbeyThough obviously distracted by the ongoing tax debate (which seems to have become inexplicably focused on the estate tax, rather than the >$250k break point, but whatever) I did manage to finish a novel this weekend: Northanger Abbey, the lost Austen.

Begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Northanger was one if the first novels Austen completed, as well as her first sale, though it did not appear in print until after her death. She had already written Lady Susan and had started both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however. It was a particularly unhappy and tumultuous period in the novelists’ life, encompassing her father’s retirement and the family’s subsequent move to Bath, a city she loathed, as well as her over night engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

The novel follows 17-year-old Ann Radcliffe enthusiast Catherine Morland on a visit to Bath. Under the guardianship of complacent childless family friends, Catherine visits the pump room and attends public balls, making new acquaintances. She quickly meets and befriends the lovely but manipulative Isabella Thorpe, and it emerges that the two girls older brothers also know each other at Oxford. When the young men pay a visit to Bath a dual brother-sister match seems eminent, or at last intended. Catherine, however, dislikes Mr Thorpe and remains blissfully unaware of his blundering attempts at courtship. She’s much too interested in Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and handsome young clergyman. Just Catherine’s visit draws to close, she is invited by Henry’s sister to visit the Tilney family at their home, (you guessed it) Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is perhaps the least sympathetic of all Jane Austen’s satires. Though frequently both critical and comedic, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all have the benefit of a compelling heroine and at least one honest romance. Catherine, on the other hand, is in many ways a foil–a nice girl, honest and not too bright, but with a healthy imagination where melodrama is concerned. She is Harriet Smith, with a better family and a stronger character. Her romance with Henry Tilney also lacks the weight of the relationships in Austen’s other novels–it’s funny and frequently charming, but, like Catherine herself, not too deep.

The real pleasure of the book comes from Austen’s language, her frequent tangential diatribes on the nature and import of novels, and her many hilarious digs at Ann Radcliffe–who as far as Austen is concerned, seems to have been the Stephenie Meyer of her day (only pro-woman, a better writer, and a different kind of crazy). Indeed, though the older author clearly influenced Austen’s work, Radcliffe jokes were something she could never quite give up–witness the roll The Romance of the Forrest plays in the breech between Harriet and Robert Martin in Emma.

Take a tally….

Look’s like someone‘s a little upset about his approval rating.

Well, you know what? I’m a little upset about his attitude. Um…take a tally of campaign promises? Seriously? Well, off the top of my head: the end of the war in Iraq; health care for every American; an end to additional tax breaks for the super-rich; gay marriage. Maybe the president could take a moment to point just one of those things out to me?

Obama is probably lucky he doesn’t have to depend on me for justification, because I’m inclined to leave it at that. But, as it turns out, someone actually did take a tally. According to PolitiFact, the president is doing basically what he said he’d do. The site summarizes his success so far as “okay, we will.”–which is pretty much exactly what president said of himself (though in somewhat milder terms). He’s doing what he said he’d do–but it’s going to take more than just two years, and it might not be as bright and shiny as well all imagined.

Of course, what PolitiFact doesn’t take into account (what, indeed, it would be almost impossible to quantify) is the relative importance of some of successes and failures, or as the site calls them kept and broken promises. For example, Obama “kept” a promise to implement a “Women Owned Business” contracting program. But he “broke” a promise to institute cap and trade. Now, women owned businesses are laudable, certainly–but are they comparable to cap and trade in terms of impact and implication? To be clear, no one’s saying they are–the point is, with this data, how would you know? One promise is weighted the same as any other. Deeper analysis is required.

What I think is so frustrating for anyone left-of-center at this point is not, as Obama seems to think, the concept of compromise. We aren’t children (for the most part). We understand that no one gets their own way all the time. It’s not even, as the media keeps telling everyone, that Democrats can’t seem to stand up to bullying from the GOP–at least not entirely. The real ongoing problem is that whatever they do, the Democrats come off looking kind of bad. It doesn’t matter if they’re squaring off or trying to negotiate an equitable agreement; if it’s possible to put a negative spin on a Democratic action, that’s what will happen.

Everyone keeps saying Democrats are bad at politics, but what they’re really bad at is PR. Everyone knows the Republican PR machine is consistent, powerful, and pervasive. The Democrats just don’t roll that way. They don’t all repeat the same phrases in interviews and speeches. They rarely espouse a take-no-prisoners, we’re right and everyone else is wrong attitude (even when I think they should). Although many reporters and journalists are probably liberal, we’d never know it since, with the dual (occasionally overlapping) exceptions of actual pundits and people on Fox, they abstain from political activism in the interest of journalistic ethics.

From the outside looking in, it seems that the right is all the same. From my point of view, way off in the western hinterlands, everyone on the left is totally different. I can’t listen to “Best of the Left” without getting totally mad at Jay and Thom Hartmann and that winy girl on “Young Turks” who just keeps laughing and agreeing with everything. As the above, clearly illustrates, even Obama can’t talk to me in a way that doesn’t piss me off.

I cannot honestly imagine how the president managed to generate such a groundswell of support in the first place, much less where it all went to once he settled into the job. Since Obama has continued to do what he said he would, the problem must lie, not in what he does, but in how he does it, or how he communicates it to his constituency.

In closing, for the record: I can’t tell you how wrong and how politically stupid I think this decision to compromise with republicans on the >250K tax issue is. Even Obama admits holding out “might be good politics.” He tries to spin this decision as a win for the American people, maybe it even is a win–but it feels like a loss. Case in point: PR!

Well, it’s official…

…all 42 senate Republicans are assholes.

In case there’s any doubt, here’s written proof, in letter format.

Now, I realize filibusters have become pretty common in recent years, and especially in recent months. As Rachel Maddow furiously but accurately points out, Republicans already block everything anyway. This letter just marks the subtle transitioned from pattern to policy.

So it’s not that this little declaration of war is all that surprising. It’s just that the whole thing is so completely repellent. After all this talk of “comprise” this and “adult conversation” that, congressional republican’s next move, as a body, is a hostage-style ultimatum.

You know what: that’s actually fine. If the the 42 signers of this letter really believe that sustaining the Bush tax cuts for earners making over $250,000 per year is the most important issue our country faces, let them prove it. Let the all the tax cuts expire.

I’ve written to the white house, as well as Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on this issue, it pisses me off so much. Ugh!