Book Review: In the Clearing by Robert Frost (1962)

I bought this book at a yard sale some years ago, and I’ve decided recently to add a volume of poetry to my mix of books on my nightstand (after my experience with the book of Leonard Cohen’s selected poems). So I read this book.

It’s only 100 pages of primary material, and doesn’t represent a collection of material showing a poet’s evolution. Hence, I could enjoy it and the poems within it much more easily and much more viscerally than I could something with footnotes or 40 page introductions indicating why the poet was good.

Oddly enough, Robert Frost published this book in 1962, which is within the span of years contained within the four volumes in the Leonard Cohen selection (1956-1968). Cohen’s material seems much more contemporary and Frost’s more archaic, but the lack of “sophistication” belies some powerful poetry.

Frost rhymes almost exclusively, and any serious poet who attended college gets that beaten out of them pretty effectively (and unserious poets rarely bother). So a contemporary reader, even I, can find himself or herself pooh-poohing the rhymes as unsophisticated. Sometimes, they are; he rhymes US with Russ (for Russian) at one point. I gave that up early in college, and prefer to work a little harder to make rhymes work.

But if you spend too much time carping about the rhymes and the simplicity of the language of the poems, you miss out on Frost’s ability to nail a phrase or line that captures something of human experience that you’ll want to quote and that his simplistic poems often have deeper meanings below the surface that you can fathom without a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and certain material related to the Kabbalah.

So read more Frost. I knew once that it was good (high school, before I became more “educated” in my poetry tastes) and now again.

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The Benefits of a Classical Education

I love it when I get an allusion made by some author, whether it’s Robert B. Parker or Varifrank, who quotes:

It’s not like John Kerry hasn’t tried to run for President before, and got nowhere, not even out of the early democrat primaries. He’s been “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung” for some time, and he’s a not exactly a stunning member of the Senate, he barely makes any kind of presence.

That’s Sir Walter Scott. I can almost quote the complete couplet.

Just don’t tell my mother-in-law, the former English teacher whom I impressed at our first meeting by reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, that I know this particular quote because, in the movie Groundhog Day, Andie MacDowell’s character Rita recites it to Bill Murray’s character Phil Conners and she attributes it. Knowning how I know what I know often spoils the illusion.

(Link seen on Instapundit.)

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Book Review: Nightmare in Manhattan by Thomas Walsh (1950)

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I bought a copy of this book for $2.95 at Downtown Books, and I was in the mood for a good older (pulp, noir) book after watching Call It Murder, a movie I got as part of a Humphrey Bogart movie box set and which Humphrey Bogart gets first billing only because his last name begins with a B. So after watching a poor transfer of a decent play turned into a bad movie, I picked this book up. Nertz. I deserved it, I suppose.

This book won the Edgar Award in 1951 for best first mystery novel. Apparently, the author was a widely-published short story writer, and the back cover explains that he’s an expert craftsman who doesn’t like a single waste word. Unfortunately, you can flip the book open to any page and find wasted words, impersonal expressions, extraneous adverbs, and everything else.

If this book served as our only artifact, we might assume that 1949 preceded the important invention of dialog. Open this book and just look at the text, and you might think you’re looking at a Russian novel or an academic piece of nonfiction. Long paragraphs fill out the pages, with nary a line of spoken dialog between–and when the characters speak, they speak in paragraphs.

These two factors alone would deprive a book of pacing, but that’s not all. Walsh apparently conducted his research into the Manhattan train depot, the primary setting of the novel, because he spends pages upon pages describing its environment and its back corridors. Whereas I like glimpses behind the scenes of different business/industrial scenes, Walsh pours these wordy descriptions into even climactic action scenes. The antagonist should run down a corridor. That’s all I need to see. I don’t need to know what rooms branch from the corridor, or how high the windows in the corridor are, or upon what rooms the other doors open. Just get the antagonist down the corridor.

Walsh also uses a poor device to try to build suspense, wherein he cuts between the cardboard characters, some of whom are lucky enough to be distinguished by their archetypes but others are only different in name, just as an important event is going to happen. Short cuts might prove interesting and suspenseful if the reader could tell the characters apart or cared about the characters. However, when the clock sits at twelve minutes to noon and these cut scenes stretch into paragraphs and dialogless pages of characters reflecting that they’re scared/anxious/nervous because the upcoming event is important amid meticulous recounting of the staircases and balconies of the train station, the reader just wants to fast forward those twelve minutes so that over the course of ten pages, something important will happen.

Perhaps I’m a jaded modern reader who doesn’t appreciate the important ground broken by this crime novel. But I do know that pulp fiction published at the same time had more at stake than this book. The plot: kidnappers, amusingly spelled kidnapers in this book (obviously, it preceded the common spelling of the crime), kidnape a child and hold him ransom for (pinky to mouth) fifty thousand dollars!. A tough transit cop and his superiors want to find the kidnapers before they kill the child. Russeted onto the story, we have an understated love interest in the secretary of the businessman whose son was kidnaped. Also, we have the train station, which is not personified and doesn’t become a character in any sense like Ray Chandler would do to LA or Ed McBain would do to The City.

The plot, really, is secondary to the mind numbing description and language. One cannot escape them, and indeed I didn’t so much read this book as rubberneck the wreck it became.

One last thought, and pardon me while I spoil the climax for you. The only mirth I derived from this book I found in the climactic thirty page final chase, wherein the tough cop mortally, or at least seriously, wounds the bad guy with a gunshot to the upper chest, and the villian leaps from a balcony and runs through a door into empty office spaces in the train depot, and falls down some stairs, runs down a corridor, falls down more steps, leaps out of the way of a train when he finds himself in a tunnel, and then almost makes it back to the child to kill him. The legions of law enforcement, meanwhile, cannot find where this fellow went. Because apparently, in 1950, they had not yet invented bleeding profusely.

I don’t think it was supposed to be funny, but during those thirty pages of climax, I had a lot of time to enjoy the absurdity.

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So-Called Watch

Another alleged “professional” writer deploys the bane of my existence. Eleanor Clift, writing in Newsweek, uses “so-called” to disparage something:

The fact that Kerry attributed the breakdown in military discipline to the policymakers in Washington is lost on these men, who take Kerry’s words personally. This is not about Kerry’s performance in Vietnam; it’s what he said when he came home. Kerry has never made extravagant claims about his heroism in Vietnam. He never said his wounds were serious, and he never said he didn’t want to get out of Vietnam. After three wounds, under military rules, he was entitled to ship out, which he did after a combat tour of four months and 12 days. Nothing these so-called Veterans for Truth have come up with contradicts what Kerry has said, but that’s not the point.

Come on, Eleanor; so-called makes your prose sound more juvenile than your content does. It’s “talk to the hand” or “whatever”; if you say so-called past age 23, your development has arrested.

(Link seen on Outside the Beltway, where James Joyner thoroughly fisks Clift’s column.)

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Which of the Five Ws Is This?

Here’s the beginning of a story on entitled Missing Arkansas girl found dead:

The body of a 7-year-old girl missing since Sunday was found Thursday night in a northeastern Arkansas field not far from where her shoes and pink bicycle had been recovered days earlier.

The family’s pastor, the Rev. Stephen Chitman, said police searching among corn and soybean fields found the body of Patricia Ann Miles, who disappeared Sunday morning after riding her bike to a grocery store. Television footage showed family members wailing after officers told them about her death.

Can anyone here tell me why the journalist who wrote this piece saw fit to include a detail about television coverage of this story, particularly an invasive convention widely deplored?

Just what do they teach in journalism schools these days?

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Litigation Pool

Walter Olson at Overlawyered speculates on upcoming litigation after Hurricane Charley.

This sounds like the perfect opportunity for a pool!

Over 2
Sue Vietnam over continued attacks from Charley.            
Sue Alabama, Georgia for not allowing Florida penninsula to retract northward to safer
Sue Catholic Church for God’s wrath impacting the innocent as well as the guilty.            
Sue Chinese entomologists for not controlling their butterflies.    
Brian J.
Sue President Bush, Governor Bush for allowing Illuminati to perpetrate this
Sue Chicago; the Windy City and its jealousy are behind this somehow.            
Sue landscapers for putting those dangerous trees in places where they can fall, split,
break, or otherwise endanger people or property.
Brian J.
Sue automakers, except for Hummer, for not making vehicles heavy enough.            
Sue utility companies for piping/transmitting dangerous gases/electricity through
residential neighborhoods.

$5.00 gets you a square. Pick the lawsuit and timeframe in which you think it will be filed.

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Answers to Trivia Questions

Here are the answers to some trivia questions soon to be asked:

  1. Samantha Fox
  2. Bright Lights, Big City
  3. David Hartmann and Joan Lunden
  4. Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, Lloyd Bentsen, Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Joe Liebermann, John Edwards
  5. Teen Wolf Too
  6. Nancy McKeon
  7. The Satanic Verses
  8. Here’s Boomer
  9. Yemen
  10. Texas Instruments home computers and Jello gelatin desserts.

Feel free to think up your own and to join me in studying to ensure dominance in trivia nights ten years’ hence.

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Welfare, Please

I hate it when rich capitalist developers aren’t too proud to beg for tax money:

Schnuck Markets Inc. plans to close its only store in East St. Louis, but the company has extended the store’s life for another 30 days while a developer tries to buy the building and negotiate a more favorable lease that would allow the store to remain open.

Clayton developer Jim Koman has the property at 25th and State streets under contract, but wants financial assistance from East St. Louis and the state of Illinois before closing on the property, which is held in a trust with a Belleville bank.

“If we don’t get some kind of support, it will be difficult for us to make this transition,” said Koman, the president of Koman Properties. And, he added: “We don’t have an agreement with Schnucks.”

So the only thing he’s guaranteeing is that he’ll take the tax dollars.

It’s not even begging, it’s extortion, and deals like this give capitalism its slightly darker tint. Unfortunately, city and state officials enable this stupidity when they spend the people’s money to ensure that developers with their own millions in liquid cash don’t have to risk anything to turn a profit.

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Headline of Tomorrow

Germany appeals to United Nations:

Make the Americans occupiers stay in our country.

President Kerry: Our Allies Need Our Troops to Support Humanitarian Missions

Our Military Spending Props Up Important Progressive States

Germany Blindsides France With Another Invasion

Seeks to Cure Unemployment with Military Adventure, Hostile Domestic to Occupation by American Imperialists

Make your own. Here’s the starter kit: Germans Wary of U.S. Troop Withdrawal

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Candidates for Me, But None for Thee

Steve Chapman comes out in favor of eliminating the electoral college. Because, I think he argues, it doesn’t empower individual states. And:

Another claim is that this system upholds federalism and decentralization. In fact, no state government would find itself weaker without the Electoral College, because it confers no meaningful authority on state governments.

Nor does it protect small states, which are granted proportionally more votes than large ones. Residents of Delaware and Idaho have no discernible common interests merely because they happen to live in small states. New York and Texas are both big states but, trust me, they don’t feel a deep and special bond because of that. Americans vote on the basis of ideology, religion, race, economic concerns and the personal appeal of the candidates, not on some hazy “state” interest.

Most small states, in fact, get zero attention. During the 2000 general election campaign, says Edwards, only six of the 17 smallest states were visited by either presidential candidate. Many bigger ones (like Illinois) also got shortchanged–and are getting similar treatment this year.

Why? Because of the Electoral College. John Kerry will get millions of votes in Texas, but none of its electoral votes. No matter what Kerry does in California, he’s almost guaranteed its electoral votes. Neither he nor President Bush has any incentive to waste much time in those places. They focus instead on the few states where the outcome is in doubt. Under a direct election, by contrast, candidates would go where the votes are–giving most Americans actual exposure to the campaign.

The electoral college preserves federalism, and although it doesn’t give any small state a lot of power, it does ensure that presidential candidates pay attention to regions comprised of small states. Make no mistake about it, if the candidates only had to pander to the interests of the populous coastal states and not to the Midwest, the plains, and much of the South, they would not–and our government would tip further to a rule by the coastal elite, who don’t care if gas taxes go to ten dollars a gallon because they live in small states where if they trip in Maryland, they bang their heads in Delaware, or who think eliminating all guns is noble because they won’t be called upon to reason with a bobcat or a bear.

But Steve Chapman lives in Chicago, which would be the lone visit between coasts for candidates, and I guess he wants his exposure to them.

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This woman, who’s a real *UNT, told me this joke today:

An old woman, watching the news, sees the traffic report and calls her husband, who’s on his way home. “Honey, be careful on 270, they say there’s someone driving the wrong way.”

He says, “One? There’s hundreds of them!”

My mother’s sister is so spunky. When used regarding a six-year-old, that adjective’s just precious. Applied against anyone over fifty, the adjective’s condescending and ALMOST SEEMS TO BE SPOKEN SLOWLY AND LOUDLY, have you noticed?

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Oprah’s Big Day In Court

From CNN:

Oprah Winfrey was expected to make an appearance at the Cook County Criminal Court — for jury duty.

A spokeswoman for the talk-show host confirmed Friday that Winfrey would report Monday.

She won’t get picked for a jury, but it’s good to see she’s doing her civic duty when she could have easily gotten off.

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Blogging Through a Hurricane from a Safe Distance

Instapundit’s keeping track of nutbars blogging in the path of a hurricane.


Listen, boys and girls, I read Condominium, and I have effectively, pre-emptively evacuated myself to the middle of the country for the duration of every hurricane season and, just in case, all of the other seasons as well.

Oh, sure, you more worldly types laugh, but I still remember the fear of a seven-year-old young man in 1979 who knew just enough geography and just little enough meteorology to fear Hurricane David. Don’t worry, his supportive mother said, hurricanes only occur on the ocean. But I had enough imagination to suspect hurricanes could come up the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi River like a steamer, and then across the state of Wisconsin to imperil me in Milwaukee.

Sure, some of you laugh at the notion, and my therapist tells me that I, too, will someday find humor in it.

But not yet.

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News Producers on the Other Side of the Line

So if you or I lip off to a TSA official at the airport, we’re going to prison for a couple years for some handy felony or another.

So these two men show up in full “I Am A Terrorist” regalia at a charter helicopter hangar in the St. Louis suburbs in Illinois:

Arlene Thomas grew suspicious when two men with out-of-state drivers licenses and a large wad of cash came into her Sauget helicopter hangar Wednesday morning and said they wanted to see St. Louis landmarks from the sky.

The men, whom Thomas described to police as of “Middle Eastern descent,” were carrying a duffel bag and a backpack and drove up in a rental car with Texas license plates.

The signs pointed to terrorism – that’s exactly the impression the two men, an NBC News producer and cameraman, were trying to create.

They’re met with a warm greeting:

Thomas called police, who searched the bags and the men and found a butane lighter, box cutter, two knives, duct tape, a powdery substance and a bottle filled with a clear liquid. The men also had maps of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis with major landmarks highlighted in yellow.

But because they’re news people, they’re special:

Four hours later, the NBC employees were released without charges but with the wrath of airport director Bob McDaniel.

“I’m absolutely outraged that NBC News is out here trying to create news rather than report news,” McDaniel said after meeting with members of the Transportation Security Administration. “This clearly scared the hell out of a lot of folks and wasted a lot of valuable resources, tying up emergency forces, and all of it was entirely unnecessary.”

NBC defends its actions:

NBC defended its actions in an e-mail statement to the Post-Dispatch, saying that the employees did nothing wrong in determining the security measures at helicopter charter services.

“Nothing they did or carried was illegal,” said NBC spokesman Allison Gollust. “In Illinois, the system worked and … our reporting will include this part of the story, evidence that civilians like those in Illinois are making attempts to keep the skies safe.”

Spare us the sanctimony, hey? You’re pissing in the pool of resources and are diminishing the vigilence of the population by making them wonder, hey, is that a terrorist, or just a national news media exposé on how small town hicks profile men who look middle eastern and who are doing perfectly legal, but suspicious, things while carrying perfectly legal, but suspicious, things.

And in your own way terrifying people for your own gain. What does that make you again?

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Book Review: Selected Poems 1956-1968 by Leonard Cohen (1972)

This book collects four of Leonard Cohen’s first volumes of poetry, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Flowers for Hitler (1964), and Parasites of Heaven (1966). The book also includes some never-before seen poems, kind of like the bonus material you get on a greatest hits album. Except this collection is not greatest hits, it’s all the filler material, too.

I first heard Leonard Cohen, as I am sure many of my generation did, in the film Pump Up The Volume, where Cohen sings the theme song of the protagonist. Unfortunately, the credits and the soundtrack do not credit Cohen, so all this young man got was the Concrete Blonde rendition. But I persevered and discovered the I’m Your Man album. Good album. Leonard’s got a rich voice, and the songs are literary and lyrical in the best sense of the word.

So it helps to read the book with knowledge of Cohen’s voice. The voice can carry much of what the words cannot.

Cohen’s poems tread the mystical, where they allude to Judaica that I don’t understand. Then he’s throwing all sorts of Catholic imagery into the poems, which I don’t understand as well, but I’m more familiar with them; I went to a Jesuit university, you know.

The best section is The Spice-Box of Earth, wherein Cohen explores relationships in greater detail than the others. I could relate more to the poems, as I was once a young man seeking to get laid by young women. I appreciate the sensual confusion in the coffeeshop pheromones and cigarette smoke. Heck, the section made me feel ten years younger. I remember longing and loss.

But even the best poets have their off poems (apparently, Emily Dickinson had 1767 of them), and unfortunately readers have to wade through them. I took from this book no other poems I could recite from memory than when I began (I could recite “For Annie” which I remembered from an anthology I’d read before I heard I’m Your Man).

But I liked the book okay. I feel smart, reading poetry in my spare time and all. So if you don’t mind some free verse with a distinct coffeehouse flare, you won’t mind this book.

Post script: I would never knowingly participate in a poetry slam in which Leonard Cohen took part. He’s got enough A material, and he’s got the voice. ‘Nuff said.

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