Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Publishers will tell you that it's hard to interest people in books about social justice. Most of us feel guilty enough already. Besides, let's face it - so many books in that category are not only guilt-producing, they're mind-numbingly dull. Phrases like "the preferential option for the poor" do not roll trippingly off the tongue.

Thrift Store Saints, however, is one book about helping the poor that won't make you feel bad about yourself and won't put you to sleep. In fact, it may make you chuckle, if you're the chuckling sort. And if you'd like to get involved with serving the poor but don't have a clue where to start, this is the book for you.

Some 15 years ago, while looking for a rosary for her daughter's First Communion, Jane Knuth somehow ended up at a St. Vincent de Paul store. Noticing the mixture of used merchandise and holy hardware - "as if someone set up a chapel inside a garage sale" - she briefly wondered if the store was "a front for illegal activity."

After waiting an eternity while a small, elderly clerk dealt with a gigantic, stinking drunk, Knuth discovered that St. Vincent de Paul didn't accept credit cards. The clerk cheerfully offered to let her take the rosary anyway and pay later - and then asked if she'd consider volunteering to work at the store. Amazed, Knuth agreed, and then immediately regretted her words.

"Being Catholic," she writes, "I'm all for martyrs, but not as a personal vocation." But she went ahead, reluctant and ill at ease, and that is how Knuth's long involvement with the poor of Kalamazoo began.

The rest of the book covers what she learned from working with the poor (and with other volunteers, which could be even more challenging), but it's not your typical social justice book. Most books about poverty present a lot of facts, data, theory, and theology, interspersing the sober exposition with occasional anecdotes in hopes of keeping the reader's attention. This book turns that approach inside out. Knuth tells story after story, only occasionally supplementing her tales with commentary, as she gently and with self-deprecating humor leads readers into a new way of seeing.

The book, says its author, is "about recognizing God among us when the language is rough, the labor seems mindless, and everybody is wearing old clothes." An engaging storyteller, Knuth invites us to come inside with the customers, learn about their lives, and be changed.
Disclaimer: I used to work for Loyola Press, and Jane Knuth graciously included my name among the acknowledgments. However, I was not involved with editing the book, I have no financial interest in it, and Loyola didn't ask me to promote it. I just think it's an unusually winsome introduction to volunteer ministry. See for yourself - you can read the first two chapters here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

California tax cuts - a cautionary tale

I'm a California girl and proud of it. My cell phone's ring tone is "California Dreamin'," and when winter comes to Chicago I start humming "Maid of Constant Sorrow" ("I'm goin' back to California, place where I was partly raised"). So I was interested in David Brooks's commentary yesterday about why the state that once "enjoyed the highest living standards in the country" - during most of the years I lived there, in fact - now "has all the dysfunctions that mark national government, but at a more advanced stage."

Brooks says the blame comes from both sides of the ideological spectrum. In the 70s, labor lobbied for better salaries and pensions, and governors shorted infrastructure in order to meet their demands. Environmental regulations discouraged small businesses (Brooks says, but does not give examples). Tax policy cut off badly needed revenue.

The result? California is one of two U.S. states on the international list of 10 states most likely to default (the other one being my current home state, Illinois, whose woes you can read about here).

Who's to blame?
Brooks does not say exactly when California's fortunes began to turn around, but he implies that problems began in the late 60s or early 70s. The last of the pro-market, pro-business, but progressive governors he lists is Edmund "Pat" Brown, who finished his term in January 1967. Brooks does not mention that Ronald Reagan was governor of California from 1967 through 1974, and I don't know if he thinks the decline began with Reagan (who, by the way, actually raised taxes) or with his successor, Jerry Brown (Pat's son).

He does, however, mention a seminal event in California's troubled financial history: the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, the property tax-cutting brainchild of Republican lobbyist Howard Jarvis. "With Proposition 13 and other measures that cut taxes," Brooks writes, "they cut off revenue and pushed through structural reforms, making it hard for future administrations to raise funds."

For 30 years, wrote Kevin O'Leary in Time magazine last year, California's leaders tried to "live with Proposition 13 while continuing to provide the state services Californians expect — freeways, higher education, prisons, assistance to needy families and, very important, essential funding to local government and school districts that vanished after the antitax measure passed." Eventually their efforts collapsed. California, the state that has led the way in education, technology, pop culture, and wine growing, is now leading the way in financial ruin.

Predictably, the conservative Cato Institute thinks Proposition 13 was just fine, inexplicably linking it to the economic surge beginning in the 1980s (remember Silicon Valley and the dot com bubble?) Their description of its influence, however, is right on:
Proposition 13 was a political earthquake whose jolt was felt not just in Sacramento but all across the nation, including Washington, D.C. Jarvis's initiative to cut California's notoriously high property taxes by 30 percent and then cap the rate of increase in the future was the prelude to the Reagan income tax cuts in 1981. It also incited a nationwide tax revolt at the state and local levels. Within five years of Proposition 13's passage, nearly half the states strapped a similar straitjacket on politicians' tax-raising capabilities. Almost all of those tax limitation measures remain the law of the land today.
Taxing and spending
Hey, if you try to take care of your maxed-out credit cards by lowering your income, you should love the results of our state and national tax revolts. Prosperity all around, right? No wonder politicians are calling for still more tax reductions.

Ah, but they are also calling for massive spending cuts. Well, yes, it would be great if the government would reduce spending (unless, of course, it reduces spending on something that affects me). Oddly, every president in the last 40 years has increased spending, including Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush.

Beginning in the early 80s and continuing to the present (except for a few years under President Clinton), the gap between federal revenue and federal spending has also increased. The only thing trickling - and now flooding - down is massive debt. How long can we keep this up?

I don't much like to pay taxes - federal, state, or local. I would rather live in a world where interstate highways, health care, education, old-age pensions, prisons, city transportation systems, fire departments, police departments, bridges, food safety inspections, and libraries appeared by magic. I would much rather live in a world without war and therefore with no need for a military. I just don't know where that magical world might be.

Alas, even California's Governor Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown had no fairy dust at his disposal when Howard Jarvis pulled the plug on a major source of California's funding.

It's said that "as California goes, so goes the nation." Nation, watch out. Cut taxes, raise debt, cut services, lose credit ... what's next?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

THE SHALLOWS by Nicholas Carr

Three months ago I commented briefly on The Shallows, a then-hot-off-the-press warning that the Internet could lead to "a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization." At the same time I e-mailed a review of the book to The Christian Century magazine. You can finally read my review here.

Ironically, thanks to the Internet, The Shallows is already old news. Numerous commentaries on the controversial book have been published during the three months required to get my review into print. (This is not the Century's fault, by the way; it's just how print publication works.)

What's more, the print version isn't even as helpful as an online version could have been. If I'd posted my review on my blog, you would have been able to click through to Carr's original article in The Atlantic as well as to more info on Carr's other books.

Clearly print publication has some major limitations.

If Carr's thesis about the Internet is right, however, our minds are already too fried to read an entire magazine article anyway. Chances are, if I'd posted it online, readers would have clicked the first link and stopped reading the review. So I'm not going to write more about The Shallows here--Carr would suggest that this 246-word post may already be testing the limits of your attention span. But since (according to Carr) you really enjoy clicking links, let me encourage you to check out my complete review--"How Our Minds Have Changed"--here.

Monday, September 20, 2010


First, let's get the amazing statistics out of the way. As of a month ago, over 40 million copies of the late Stieg Larsson's trilogy had sold worldwide in over 40 languages. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first book ever to sell over a million copies in the Kindle edition. Subtitled Swedish-language films of the first two books have been playing in the United States this year, and the third installment is scheduled for release in about six weeks. At the end of 2011 Columbia Pictures plans to release a U.S. version of Dragon, with the others to follow.

I finally succumbed to massive cultural pressure and the urging of my friends: I put The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on hold at the library (I was number 68 in line). While I was checking it out last week, the woman who scanned my card advised me, "Read 100 pages before forming any judgment about the book. It has a slow start."

Yesterday afternoon I finished all 590 pages, and I can now say that she was right. What she didn't tell me was that it has a slow ending too. For the last 100 pages or so I kept thinking of the time I flew into Boston at night under heavy fog. The plane had descended for several minutes when suddenly  it leaped upward. We flew for a while longer, descended again, leaped upward again. The pilot took the microphone and said, "I could have sworn there was a runway down there."

In the middle of the book, though, there was plenty of suspense, violence, sex, international money laundering, gadgets, psychopaths, computer hacking, organized crime, sadism, and Swedish scenery.

If you are one of the three people in the world who has not yet read any books by Larsson, and if you think that maybe you don't want to bother, Janet Potter's kick-ass September 10 review, Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus, will give you plenty of reasons to avoid them. Her comments on Larsson's writing style are perceptive, though I'm willing to allow a writer of thrillers a lot of editorial leeway. At the end of her review, however, she raises an objection that troubled me more and more the further I got into the book: Michael is not as nice to female characters as he thinks he is.

On the one hand, Mikael is a kind man who sees women as equal human beings and treats them with dignity. At least that's what Stieg Larsson tells us, and the description seems important to him. After all, the name of the book's Swedish edition is Men Who Hate Women, and every section of the book features a statistical epigraph on the topic ("Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man"). I don't think it's a spoiler to say that revenge against women-haters is the book's major theme.

On the other hand Mikael, though he apparently is never physically violent with women, is known as a womanizer. His wife divorced him because of a long-standing affair he was carrying on while married to her, so he rarely sees his daughter, now a teenager (he admits he's a lousy father). The marriage-breaking affair is with a married woman whose husband does not seem to object, though the woman can get a bit huffy when she walks in on Mikael in bed with yet another woman. While engaged in investigative journalism / detection, Mikael beds a lonely woman who is part of the group he's investigating, and their short affair seems to leave her shaken and bereft. He also beds the young woman who works for him, while admitting he's old enough to be her father. She gives him her heart, and he apparently breaks it.

Is this how a defender of the female gender behaves?

Unless I am suddenly faced with a very long airplane trip, I don't think I'll read the other two books. I'd like to know what happens to the spunky revenge princess Liz Salander, but I've had about enough of Mikael.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy reflect on civil discourse and the limits of human understanding

This evening Mr Neff and I ate dinner to the music of Mavis Staples in her new album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame, who also wrote two of the songs.

Earlier in the day we'd been talking about Alan Jacobs' article in Big Questions Online, "The Online State of Nature."  Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, asks (quoting Thomas Hobbes): "Why has Internet discourse devolved into a 'war of every man against every man'?"

Well, Mavis and Jeff have a song for that.  It's called "Only the Lord Knows," and you can watch a version of it here.

Here's the refrain:
What can you do, what can you do when you can't trust
Anybody to tell you the truth?
Can't trust him, can't trust her - what to do, what to do now?
Only the Lord knows, and he ain't you.
"That's a wonderful example of epistemological humility," said Mr Neff.

Took the words right out of my mouth.

Though I've been in love with Mavis Staples ever since she teamed up with Aretha Franklin in "Oh Happy Day" in the late 80s, and with Jeff Tweedy ever since I met him, his wife, and their toddler son eating celery sticks backstage after a Wilco concert in the mid 90s, I would never have thought of putting them together. Two years ago, however, Tweedy joined a small audience as Staples recorded a live album, and two weeks after that, Tweedy and Staples did lunch.

The resulting album, the one we listened to tonight, was released this week, and it's a match made in heaven. Maybe literally. You can read positive reviews in the Chicago Tribune, Paste Magazine, Rolling Stone, and even Christianity Today. Or you can watch Staples and Tweedy chat. Or, of course, you can just download the album and enjoy the whole thing beginning five minutes from now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When to quit reading a book

A friend gave me this useful formula : Subtract your age from the number 100, and the answer is the number of pages you have to read before giving up on a book you're not enjoying.* Her advice came to mind the other day as I was preparing to return yet another partially read book to the library. Oops, I thought : am I dangerously deficient in perseverance?

No, I said to myself. Life is short - why spend it with books I don't really want to read?

Here's a list of the books I've quit reading (or listening to) since June. Every one of them, by the way, is worth reading.

  • Animal Factory by David Kirby. Important discussion of how factory farms damage the earth. I had recently read several books on the topic and decided after several chapters that I wasn't in the mood to read more - but I recommend the book.
  • March Violets by Philip Kerr. Friends swear by this author, and I thought I'd like a thriller set in pre-war Berlin. Somehow, I didn't. Maybe I'm just not a hard-boiled girl.
  • Au Début d'un bel été by Jacques Duquesne. Looked like a fun fluffy read that would help my French fluency. In the event, my French fluency didn't want to be helped.
  • Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga. I loved his White Tiger. This is good too, but I wanted a novel and not a book of short stories, so I read the first one and quit.
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Love his daffyness. Didn't want quite that much of it. Was listening to the audiobook, and I understand the actual book includes a fair amount of visual humor. Maybe I'll try it.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Very impressed by first 50 pages or so. This is the book that inspired the U.S. to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Was amazed at how many of the abuses are still happening today: exploited immigrant labor, careless inspections, vertical ownership of industry, inhumane treatment of animals... But decided to quit listening to the audiobook because I was getting depressed.
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein. Amusing send-up of academic and philosophic pomposity. PW gave it a starred review, and I was pleased that a good friend thought I'd like it. But I passed it on to a philosophy major who, I thought, would enjoy it more than I did.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. One granddaughter described the YA series (of which this is Book 1) thus: "they are soooooooo good." The other granddaughter wrote, "i read like the last page or so and i didnt like it. nor the plot. too scary." After reading a few chapters, I agree with both girls. Really well done. If you like dystopic fiction.

Not reading those books gave me time to read (or listen to) 34 others. One of the best was The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Uh oh. Is a mild Internet addiction to blame for my willingness to abandon so many fine books?

Or have I just wisely given up my youthful doggedness?

Whatever. In any case, I well remember a day maybe 20 years ago when I took a deep breath and spoke to a bookcase full of unread books. "I don't have to read you," I announced. And felt much better.


I don't know the source of my friend's formula, but Nancy Pearl's "Rule of Fifty" is similar - and very good.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Ngozi Achebe's first novel, Onaedo, The Blacksmith's Daughter, is a good book you're probably never going to read, and that's a shame.

Hey, it's not your fault. The book is not in your library, nor is it in any bookstore near you. You can order it from Amazon, but at $19.95 (even though discounted today to $17.05), it's overpriced. If you're looking for a historical novel by a Nigerian woman who lives in America, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a better deal at $10.85.

And yet Onaedo is an engrossing story about a likeable, gutsy woman, and it is rich in fascinating cultural and historical detail. The story is set in western Africa some 500 years ago. Onaedo, the teen-aged daughter of a prominent Igbo elder, is resisting one suitor after another. Her heart belongs to Dualo, but he is not prosperous enough to ask for her hand. Enter Oguebie, a rich but unscrupulous suitor who is involved in some nefarious business with a couple of Portuguese fortune seekers. You guessed it, probably sooner than Oguebie does - these are slave traders, and they want him to help them capture his neighbors.

Like her uncle, the famed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease), Ngozi Achebe depicts a culture rich in familial relationships and traditional beliefs but threatened by European invaders (see my reviews of two of her uncle's books here and here). Whereas the uncle created tragic heroes who cannot reconcile the old and the new, the niece gives us a spunky heroine who manages to survive one disaster after another. Onaedo may never be a classic, but it's a page-turning historical romance.

The book has problems, though. It appears to be the first and only book ever published by Mandac-Goldberg, about whom I could find no information except the little that is on their website. To their credit, they have given the book an attractive cover (though the title needs more contrast with the background if they want bookstore browsers to notice it) and a functional interior design. However, their publicity materials, including back-cover copy, are amateurish; their pricing is unrealistic; and they apparently haven't figured out how to get the book into bookstores and libraries.

The biggest problem with the book is its inadequate editing at all levels. The copy editor, if there was one, did not understand standard syntax or comma placement. No content editor helped the author see that the 21st-century Prologue and Epilogue in no way helped the story, or that the Prologue's clumsy writing and tangled time sequences were likely to put off potential readers before the real story ever got started. Nobody helped the author shape her complex plot with its multiple points of view and its sometimes confusing roster of characters whose names, strange to Western ears, all begin to sound alike.

This is unfortunate, because Onaedo is a good story by a talented writer who deserves better than she got. The book ends just as a new adventure is about to begin, so there will surely be a sequel. In addition, Achebe told an interviewer that she is now at work on a "coming of age story ... set during the Nigerian/Biafran Civil war." An established publisher with a crew of professional editors and marketers could do well with Achebe on their list.

If she is very lucky, some such publisher or editor will read Onaedo as if it is a manuscript, not a published book; will see its possibilities and the potential for equally gripping sequels; will buy the rights from Mandac-Goldberg; and will work with the author to turn it into the excellent book it ought to be. I'd like to be able to recommend Onaedo without reservations. Perhaps someday that will be possible.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Books about dogs

The United States has more pet dogs and more dogs per family than any other country in the world. According to the Humane Society, 39% of our households include at least one dog, and nearly 80 million dogs live within our borders. Two of those dogs belong to us. We are desperately in love with them.

So I suppose we are the intended market for the flood of dog books that followed John Grogan's phenomenal publishing success, Marley and Me. When it sold 5 million copies and was made into a major motion picture, lots of publishers sat up and wagged. Whole litters of dog memoirs followed, most with appealing pups on their covers. Most were quickly remaindered, for good reason. Copy-cat books, even if they're about dogs, seldom appeal.

Let me recommend instead some excellent dog books that were published before Marley and are still available. All of these authors have written other good books too.
Time was, dogs earned their keep by herding, hunting, maiming intruders, or even fighting other animals. Some dogs still do - but most have quite a different job description nowadays. "The new work of dogs," says Katz, "is attending to the emotional lives of Americans, many of whom feel increasingly disconnected from one another." This insightful book highlights the dog-human relationship through stories about new dogs and their people.
McConnell, who is an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an animal behaviorist, and a dog trainer, helps us understand how our dogs think and helps us communicate so that our dogs will understand us. Who knew, for example, that you can get a dog to stop pestering you by gently patting it on the head? Unlike the ever-popular but controversial Cesar Milan, McConnell favors benevolence over dominance.
This is memoir as it should be written: a delicate interplay between the author's emotions and the world beyond herself. Knapp adopted Lucille, a German shepherd mix, when she was recovering from 20 years of alcoholism, the death of both her parents, and a failed relationship. Using her relationship with the dog as a springboard, she explores many facets of the human-animal bond.
Pick up this book if you love Mayle's Provence books, or if you simply want to spend a delightful evening or two curled up with a laugh-out-loud story. Boy, a large French dog of uncertain ancestry, is the narrator. After a brutal childhood and adolescence ("a lesser dog might have despaired"), he is rescued from the side of the road by Madame. "The other half" grudgingly agrees that the dog may stay, and a series of hilarious adventures follow. Illustrated throughout by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, this book would make a great gift for all the francophilic book lovers on your list. Me, for example.
Thomas had a rich career as an anthropologist and novelist before turning her observant eye on dogs. The result is a fascinating study of how dogs think, what they want, and why they act the way they do. Warning: dog lovers and dog trainers protested her hands-off approach to dog care, and scholars hated her anthropomorphizing (which she cheerfully admits and defends). Nevertheless, the book became a bestseller because - hey - it's really interesting!
Ackerley spent his life looking for what he called an "Ideal Friend," finally finding it in an Alsatian bitch (U.S. translation: German shepherd female). This is his paean to a dog that was probably worse than Marley - so bad, in fact, that most of Ackerley's human acquaintances stopped visiting. He didn't care. In their absence he got a lot of writing done - and anyway, he had the dog. Now a minor motion picture starring the voices of Christopher Plummer, the late Lynn Redgrave, and Isabella Rossellini, My Dog Tulip is unlikely ever to play at a theater near me. It's touring a few cities between now and November, though, so click on the link to see if one of them is near you. Or buy the book, which Truman Capote called "one of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Is it too much to ask of a historical novel that it be, well, historical?

Alas, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, soon to be released in paperback, is not.

Never mind that the author, Carolly Erickson, has a PhD in medieval history from Columbia University, or that she has written some fine biographies from the Tudor period including Great Harry and The First Elizabeth. If you want to learn more about the doomed queen on France, Scotland, and (in her mind, at least) England, don't start here.

To be fair, Erickson never claims historical accuracy for her novel. In fact, in a note to the reader at the back of the book, she writes:
Just a reminder that in this historical entertainment, authentic history and imaginative invention are blended, so that fictional events and circumstances, fictional characters and fictional alterations to the past intertwine. Fresh interpretations of past personalities and events are offered, and traditional ones laid aside.
Of course. That's how every historical novelist operates. In my review of Brenda Rickman's The Heretic's Wife, for example, I point out that she gives a biased Protestant interpretation of Sir Thomas More and I suggest that she too easily disregards the religio-political context of her time. Still Rickman, for the most part, sets her story within a real historical framework.

Erickson, by contrast, plays fast and loose with events. She begins by having Bothwell, Mary's third husband, present at her execution, though he is believed to have died nine years earlier. She admits this "whimsy" in her note, as well as other "thick-coming fancies" that "crowd out sober evidence": Mary and Bothwell's island trip, Mary's meeting with Elizabeth, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary's second husband, Darnley. She doesn't mention some of her other fancies: Riccio and Darnley's gay relationship, for example (in reality, Darnley hated Riccio, who was widely believed to be the father of Mary's son).

These are mere peccadilloes, however, compared to her entirely made-up account of Mary's sabbatical from captivity, to which Erickson devotes some 70 pages.

Mary lived in England as Elizabeth's prisoner from 1568 until her execution in 1587. In this novel, notwithstanding, Mary escapes to Rome in 1575, spending two years consorting with the pope and a famous general. She then follows the general to Flanders. When it becomes obvious that he is not going to rescue her, she proceeds to Normandy, where she spends a couple more years with her grandmother and daughter. Eventually she returns to England and begins searching for some letters Elizabeth allegedly wrote to her lover Leicester, proving Elizabeth's complicity in his wife's murder and thus her unsuitability to be queen.

Virtually none of this last third of the book is based on what actually happened. Mary never escaped from her well-guarded house arrest. Even the letters turn the real story inside out. Yes, letters were involved in Mary's trial - but they weren't by or about Elizabeth. Instead, they were allegedly written by Mary to her lover Bothwell, proving her complicity in Darnley's murder and thus her own unsuitability to be queen.

It's easy to understand why Erickson would choose to stray so widely from the historical record. The last 18 years of Mary's 44-year life were, except for a few abortive plots, extremely boring, as critics of Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen have pointed out. No doubt Erickson, who knows her history, decided to have a little fun and spice up the story.

Well, we all know that memoirs aren't necessarily factual, and we expect historical fiction to include invented characters and conversations and events. But we also expect memoirs - even fictional ones - to elucidate a character's inner workings, and we anticipate that historical fiction will bring a long-ago period to life. By building so much of Mary's story on an invented historical framework, Erickson shows us too little of Mary or of the Tudor/Stuart period.

She does, however, give us some charming Scottish ruffians.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Full disclosure, size XL

The midterm election season is upon us, the first since the Supreme Court's January 21 ruling that allows corporations to spend as much as they wish on political advertising - as long as they disclose their involvement.

It seems to me that corporate disclosure isn't enough. I want an easy way to know who is buying my candidates, my member of Congress, my senators. Sure, I can go to the extremely informative Open Secrets website and find out for myself that, for example, Nancy Pelosi's number one contributor was American Income Life Insurance while John Boehner's was the American Financial Group.

But after reading this morning how corporations are funding our elected representatives' favorite charities in mutual back-scratching deals, I think it's high time for a more direct approach to disclosure. Even the 27% of Americans who don't read books need to know who is buying their politicians.

Let's make good use of America's favorite communications medium: the T shirt.

Let's require every person holding elected office, and every candidate for elected office, to wear a T shirt at all times listing his or her top three contributing industries. T shirts should be updated at least every three months.

It may be hard at first for Ms. Pelosi to give up her lovely designer suits or for Mr. Boehner to abandon his dazzling white shirts and silk ties, but Zazzle offers a wide variety of styles for men and women. The Speaker will be able to choose flattering colors and necklines, and the Minority Leader can continue to wear stark white to highlight his tan.

It's good to know who's buying the ads, but it's even more important to know who's buying the candidates.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

CORDUROY MANSIONS by Alexander McCall Smith

The cast of characters is what makes the first book in Alexander McCall Smith's new series, Corduroy Mansions, compulsively readable.

William, a middle-aged wine merchant, is trying to figure out how to get his rude, freeloading son, Eddie, to move out and get his own apartment. Dee, who works at a vitamin shop, has offered to give her young male colleague a colonic irrigation. James, an art student, is having a sexual identity crisis - he thinks he might be straight. Oedipus Snark, a lazy, unprincipled Member of Parliament, is so loathsome that his personal assistant Jenny, his girlfriend Barbara, and even his mother, Berthea, can't stand him. The one entirely sane individual in the book is Freddie de la Hay, a Pimlico terrier (a breed invented to order) - though he is clearly not the sweet puppy pictured on the U.S. book jacket.

In 100 short chapters, the characters get into and out of hilarious predicaments, ruminating as they go. "Ugliness can be beautiful," says James in a typical aside. "Anything can be beautiful. And maybe that's what a certain sort of artist is trying to do: he - or she, of course - is trying to open our eyes to a beauty we would not otherwise see." Surely that is what McCall Smith is trying to do: he loves his flawed characters, and after spending an hour or two enjoying his gentle humor, one sees one's friends and neighbors with kinder eyes.

Don't expect tight plotting, though. McCall Smith wrote this book for The Telegraph as a genuine serial novel - a chapter a day, five days a week, for six months (this is also how he wrote the 44 Scotland Street series for The Scotsman) - and he clearly did not start out with any particular destination in mind. Loose ends abound, but they aren't a problem. We know he'll be back next year to tie some of them up and to leave still more hanging.

Indeed, the second book in this series, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, has already been published in the U.K., and the third book's first installment will soon appear. This brings McCall Smith's 2009-2010 literary output up to seven and a fraction books (well, he had to do something during the six months when he wasn't writing Corduroy Mansions books). According to a 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the typical American claims to read about four books a year. That's how many books Alexander McCall Smith writes.