Review, The Global War on Morris

Steve Israel is a congressman who represents New York’s third district, which includes Huntington, Oyster Bay and Queens. morris2

He also represents a warning: If ever you see anyone wearing a “Careful or I’ll Put You in My Novel” t-shirt, run the other way.

In a hilarious and biting takedown of Washington’s movers and shakers – make that Washington’s Republican movers and shakers – Israel delivers a comic novel that entertains and skewers in equal measure. Former Vice President Dick Cheney might not like it – nor Republican operatives Karl Rove or Lewis “Scooter” Libby – but conservatives who can laugh at themselves (a useful skill in an increasingly divisive society) may find common ground with liberals in liking this book. The Global War on Morris is a fun, alarmingly insightful romp through a fictional landscape dotted with real people and real problems – terrorism, for example, and the (disturbingly threatened) Department of Homeland Security.

The titular Morris is an armchair schlub, a dutiful and predictable man whose long-term marriage has grown stale, and whose chief pleasures in life are reposing in his RoyaLounger 8000 (c’mon, you know this guy) and watching his beloved Mets.

“Morris refused to do many things in public. Hugging was near the top of the list. Morris didn’t do hugs with strangers. They were too complicated. They involved excessive motion and calibration. Too many things could go wrong.”

A pharmaceutical salesman, Morris Feldstein only perks up when he visits the office of Dr. Kirleski, where an unamicably divorced receptionist, Victoria, always brightens when he enters the door.

Well, yes, there will be a romance of sort develop between the two; that’s a given. But the rest of the tale is not as predictable, and what is commonly called a madcap caper ensues, linking Morris – the least likely to become ensnared in international intrigue – with drug tampering, a sleeper terror cell, an unhappy government agency – and, of course, Dick Cheney, depicted here as a stodgy, humorless power freak intent on raising the nation’s terror level based on his political needs. “Behind his desk, Cheney sat like a statue. Same cool texture. Same frozen expression. Same blue suit and red tie even on a Saturday morning in August.”

In its willingness to portray Washington as a wasteland of stooges, The Global War on Morris resembles “Wag the Dog“, the 1997 film that suggests that nothing real happens on the national or international stage, and everything in the news is a Matrix-like inversion of truth manipulated to achieve goals never publicly be revealed. But Israel winks while he writes, and the result is a light-hearted treatment of serious subjects that never feels contrived or mean. (Again, Vice President Cheney may feel differently – you’ll have to check with him.) This is a book that Dave Barry could have written – if Dave Barry had inside knowledge of Congress.

From Rona, the beleaguered wife of Morris Feldstein (who insists that the couple buy a Florida condominium to break up the monotony of their lives) to Hassan, the towel boy at the Paradise Hotel and Residences, who endures pains of the flesh while awaiting the call to his 72 virgins, Israel creates a cast of impossibly loveable characters linked together skillfully as happenstance causes the FBI to think hapless Morris is the mastermind of a terrorist plot. It’s seamless, tautly edited fun.

(Postscript: In my house, the easiest way to identify a good book is to see which one I thrust in the hands of a visitor. When my BFF Diane recently visited, this was the one.)

Originally published in The Hippo, the best little weekly in New Hampshire.

Terror alert orange

AMRposterAs a longtime fan of Another Mother Runner’s Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea, I was thrilled last year when they asked me to contribute to their third book, a collection of essays and insight from the Mother Runner nation.

The book will be released in March, and Dimity and Sarah are profiling a different writer each week; I’m up today.

I had the privilege of copy-editing the book in the fall, which wasn’t so much work (these women are pros) as it was inspiration. More to come on this collection as we get closer to the publication date — and the book tour. I’ve been invited to join Dimity and Sarah and some of the other writers on their stops in Rochester, N.Y., and Washington D.C.

They promise swag.

But I would go anyway, just for the camaraderie with other women who know the challenges of being both a runner and mom.

Meanwhile, if you read their blog post, you may have a question.

The answer:

Yes, Pittsburgh.

It’s kind of a long story.

Details to come.



Review, Digging for Richard III

If you shrugged when, two years ago, it was announced that British archaeologists had dug up the remains of King Richard III, here is reason to care: Mike Pitts has written the back story of the dig and its eventual triumph, performing the literary equivalent of the actual excavation: bones into life. richardjpg

The book is Digging for Richard III, and it poses a danger for those who left medieval history in high school and never visited again. Read it at risk of becoming a rabid Ricardian, those whose present is constantly absorbed with the past.

Of course, the dig, which took place in August 2012 in Leicester, England, was a successful recruiting agent all by itself. In the month after it was announced that the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England were found, The Richard III Society gained 450 new members, and recorded 1.5 million hits – a day – on its website. Forget Princess Diana; Richard III, despised despot, had become the People’s King. This is because his story is one of redemption, worthy of Dickens: a deformed, evil-doer morphed into a tragic, valiant figure whose deserved legacy was destroyed by usurping pretenders. Shakespeare, in his wrong portrayal of Richard, becomes the bad guy here. Phillipa Langley, whose obsession with finding the king’s grave was fueled by metaphysical twists, is the hero.

Smartly, Pitts organizes his book into acts, a’la the bard. It’s a nice touch on a book that, even without it, would be enthralling. Here it must be admitted that the storyline is compelling all by itself: Smart, beautiful screenwriter, on whim, picks up a book about an old, maligned king; falls in love; becomes determined to find his remains against incalculable odds; recruits a team; discovers grave after a series of astonishing events that suggest the murdered king is directing events from somewhere beyond the grave. This is good reading even in the starkest prose.

But Pitts delivers the story with Shakespearean eloquence and flair (marred ever so slightly for American readers by the Brits’ annoying practice of enclosing quotes in single quotation marks instead of two). Further, he, too, is an archaeologist who has directed excavations at Stonehenge and Avebury, and who knows all the people involved in the search. His is an insiders’ story, but he is also a journalist and crafts the narrative with a deft hand.

The result is a love affair turned detective story rife with poetry, science and wafts of philosophy. It instructs in the how-to of an archaeological dig: how to break up a parking lot, how to reconstruct a face from a skeleton, how bones survive and erode. But it also deals in whys, why this ancient stuff matters today. Perhaps most importantly, it instructs in the worth of that old mantra of journalism – if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out – because history is written by imperfect people with agendas; people who might have faulty memories, or might have been fed wrong information, or who might need to slay a monster, not a saint, if their bucket list includes ascending a throne. For such problematic scenarios, give thanks for science, which can determine when a man was viciously lanced in the back 500 years ago.

Archeology, the appropriately named Pitts writes, can’t replace history. “But neither does it just collect mute fragments: it finds stories, it tells us things we didn’t otherwise know, things we can debate and reinterpret, but not entirely dismiss – things, perhaps, we didn’t want to know. And all the while, regardless of what it tells about the past, it makes the concept of history tangible and present, part of our lives.”

Which is why, a wronged king still reigns in the news, and will continue to in the new year.   Scientists are working to sequence the genomes of Richard III and his living descendent, Canadian Michael Ibson, and in the coming year, we may learn more about the king: the color of his eyes and hair, the origins of the scoliosis warped his spine. It’s information breathlessly awaited by the ever growing ranks of the Richard III Society – and by anyone who reads Pitts’ book.

And also with you

poinsetThree years ago, when the Catholic Church changed the liturgy and demanded that we all learn to pronounce “consubstantial,” I worried about how the lily-and-poinsettia crowd was going to manage at Christmas. The so-called C&E Christians – those who go to church only on Christmas and Easter – would never be so conspicuous, I figured. They’d be stumbling over the responses like first-graders learning to read.

But, no.  Turns out, the stumbler is me.

Three years into the new translation, I sometimes find myself still saying “And also with you.”

Worse, I’m still saying it while looking at the book that tells me to say “And with your spirit.”

Early on, my friend Father John told me it wasn’t the occasional church-goer, but people who went to Mass every day who would struggled most with the change.  The old liturgy is so ingrained in their heads, the responses so automatic, that it’s as though the mind willfully deviates from the new, like a teenager defying a parent.  It’s as if the subconscious has more sway than the conscious.

Which is, come to think of it, why there are C&E Christians at all.

Consider this:  Why is it that a person who won’t sit in a church for 50 minutes in October will stand there for an hour and a half on Christmas Eve?

Just 40 percent of Americans attend church every week, but over the holidays, it’s standing-room only.  And being there is so important that, not only do the C&E Christians show up, but when they get there, if the church is full, an astonishing number of them will stand for the whole service, however uncomfortable they might be in their shiny new shoes.

It’s that wily old subconscious at work.

Despite all the howling about the secularization of Christmas, despite the “Happy Holidays” and “winter concerts,” despite forbidden crèches and declining attendance, the power of church stubbornly endures.   At the most important times in their lives – weddings, funerals, holidays, and the coming-of-age rituals – it’s still where people want to be.

The challenge that today’s churches aren’t up to is how to get people to find significance there during the other 33 weeks of the year.

They don’t call it “Ordinary Time” for nothing.

After Christmas, the altars go bare, and the trumpets disappear from the choir lofts, and, like children who won’t play a regular Game Boy after experiencing a 3D-DSI, the C&Es lose interest in church once again.  The thing that motivates them to go at Christmas and Easter, however, is still there, though dormant like chipmunks in winter, buried under everyday life.

It’s a holy thing, restlessness satisfied, a replenishment of awe. It can be experienced at a symphony, yes, or by looking through a telescope on a starry night, but the communal act of worship stands alone in its capacity to dare.

It’s gutsy, this business of faith.

To practice it, to bow publicly to the ridiculous notion that anything exists beyond our senses – and if it does, that it would deign to communicate Itself to humans – is  to open oneself up to ridicule in this, our smart and coldly rational world.

It’s far easier, and makes so much more sense, to sleep in, to stay warm and antipathetic in the privacy of one’s own home.

C.S. Lewis, in his obscure novel “Perelandra,” wrote of men in wartime awakening “to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions.”

It’s a worry, isn’t it?   The prospect of everything ultimately mattering – from your behavior, to your character, to whether or not you ever set foot in a church – can give a man the vapors if pondered earnestly enough.

I’m thinking it takes more courage to believe that everything matters than to conclude that nothing does.

The C&E Christians intuit this, too, and so, year after year, they come back. Theirs is a largely unconscious gesture, a tenuous expression of faith. But the Lord is with them – and with their spirit.  That part of the new liturgy, they get.  They may get the rest of it, too, if they are careful and don’t follow my lead.

Review, Wolf in White Van

When Sean Phillips was a child, he assumed a throne in his grandparents’ backyard. It was a rock on which Sean perched and invented a dark world of imagination. “No one liked living there, not even its king. It has a soundtrack. All screams.”  wolftry

Fast forward a decade or so, and Sean’s real world is nearly as horrific as his puerile fantasies: his face, grotesquely rearranged; his livelihood threatened; relationships fractured; and daily interactions dwindled to caregivers and random encounters with strangers who exclaim, “Dude, your face!”

This is the world created by singer/songwriter John Darnielle in a complicated fiction called Wolf in White Van. It’s an excavation into darkness, a story told backward, similar to the 2000 film Memento.   The protagonist, Sean, has suffered a catastrophic event at age 17. After leaving the hospital and rehab, he returns home for a while, but then his parents, unable or unwilling to cope with what happened, ask him to move out. He is able to support himself because of good insurance and income from games he invented and sells by subscription through the mail.

The biggest and best, Trace Italian, was his first idea (“ There is something fierce and starved about first ideas”), developed during his recovery, when there was nothing else for his body or mind to do. It’s not a video game, but one with a story line and instructions that are written and delivered via US mail:

   For the third time since sunrise, you see men in gas masks sweeping the highway. It’s dusk. They are approaching the overpass where you hide in the weeds….

The backdrop is an apocalyptic society, in which flesh-eating mutants roam the continent, looking for edible survivors in a contaminated society. The humans, the players, are trying to reach the lone safe place, the Trace Italian, the term taken from trace italienne, an ancient defensive strategy.

To play, participants choose actions from an array of possibilities that Sean offers. For example, those making it to an astrologer’s shack find the astrologer on the floor, dead, and then have to choose their next move. Do they flee, or steal the man’s knife and bury the body? It’s all done in writing, or at least is supposed to be, which is why it’s a shock when Sean learns that a player has died and her teen-aged boyfriend is in critical condition after acting out a part of the game. How and why this tragedy occurred is a storyline that duels with the how and why of Sean’s own condition.

The title comes from a real-life incident, recounted in the book, about the passing hysteria over “satanic” messages concealed in music recordings played backward. A song by Christian rock singer Larry Norman (who died in 2008) was said to have hissed “wolf in white van” when played backward, although the existential value of the phrase is dubious, as Sean points out when he hears a debate on a Christian TV show and calls in to the show. What follows is both troubling and funny, and leads to a philosophical aside:

“Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room. I sift and rake and dig around in my vivid recollections of young Sean on the floor in summer, and I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. … He is like a jellyfish adrift in the sea, throbbing quietly in the warm waves of the surf just off the highway where the dusty white vans with smoked windows and indistinct decals near their wheel hubs roll innocently past.”

The author, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist for the band The Mountain Goats, takes a potentially unsympathetic character and makes him enormously sympathetic by virtue of his disfigurement and vocabulary. (How many self-employed gamers can use the phrase “gestural semaphore”?) In his childhood game, Sean played a cruel king, thirsty for blood, who decreed, “Everyone in my orbit would have a terrible day.” The orbit doesn’t get much kinder as it expands and ages; Sean’s world remains “a smoking, wrecked kingdom,” but when the end comes, it is not a relief. This is good, because a complete understanding of what transpires may require a thorough second reading.

When the player dies, Sean says, “My grief sought out all parts of my body it hasn’t inhabited yet, and I felt like I might collapse in on myself right there, at last, spectacularly.” The young man’s face is “strange and terrible.” This is an apt description, too, of this story, but it is a strange and terrible story told beautifully.

Originally published in The Hippo. Read my new reviews here every Thursday.