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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Literary Matchmaking: Mary Doria Russell, Meet Laurie King, and Vice Versa

I don't know whether two of my favorite contemporary authors, Mary Doria Russell and Laurie King, are already fans of each other's work. If not, I believe they could be. I'm not quite bold enough to contact either author directly and make the suggestion, but if either or both use Google Alerts or something similar, I may get to play literary yenta.

These authors research diligently, with a great eye for the telling detail; they create or re-imagine memorable characters; and they write beautifully, with especially satisfying dialogue.

So: Ms. Russell, meet Ms. King; Ms. King, meet Ms. Russell. Happy reading!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book review: A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling


Coming from Rowling's Harry Potter series to her first book for adults, I had not anticipated how much it would remind me of the novels of Jane Austen.  Austen famously worked with a small canvas, focusing on the foibles and concerns of residents of small and insular communities. Rowling does the same. If one imagines Austen transplanted to the present, freed from any pressure to adhere to romantic conventions, and urged to give reign to all her darker and more cynical impulses, we might have something like this novel.

To be sure, the Harry Potter series does showcase Rowling's impressive ability to paint compelling and unflattering portraits. But in those books, characters like Cornelius Fudge and the wonderfully detestable Dolores Umbridge act as antagonists or foils for likable and admirable characters.  In A Casual Vacancy, they comprise most, if not all, of the human landscape. One's response to almost every character is essentially: “My God, I hope I'm not like that.”

Some reviews have stated that the only likable or admirable character in this book is the man who dies at its beginning, and whose death occasions the entire plot. I would qualify this statement in two ways. First, there are a couple of other characters who do worthwhile jobs as best they can, against discouraging odds. However, even these characters are sufficiently flawed and foolish in various aspects of their personal lives as to prevent the reader from wishing to identify with them. Second, this limitation extends to some extent to the soon-departed Barry Fairbrother. While there are reasons (starting with the character's unsubtle name) to believe that we are intended to side with him in the dispute over Pagford's responsibility for the Fields housing project, his view of that project and of certain of its residents could be fairly characterized as somewhat one-sided and optimistic. It is even clearer that his tireless advocacy leads him to neglect aspects of his family life.

 At one point, Rowling has a character recall the W.B. Yeats line, “A pity beyond all telling/ is hid at the heart of love.” For much of the book, one might question whether Rowling feels that pity. In the end, I was more or less persuaded that she does. She ultimately succeeds in making the reader care, to a varying extent, about the fates of these deeply flawed characters. The book is thus eventually moving, rather than merely disheartening.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Preview of Hoosier Gadfly column re Civil Obedience aka Red State Evolution


My extremely knowledgeable husband, The Hoosier Gadfly (HG), is planning to do a blog post about the next step for those who still hope to preserve our republic as per its constitutional framework. However, he may not get to it for a day or three, so I am putting together this preview in the meantime, based on some notes he threw together.

Five secession petitions, concerning five states, have appeared on the whitehouse.gov petition website. Secession is hopeless, and makes for lousy PR -- but there is another state-based approach that may offer a hint of promise, if a sufficient number of states follow it.

Article VI, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires all legislative, judicial and executive officers of the states, as well as of the federal government, to swear or affirm that they will support the Constitution. That Constitution includes the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  HG paraphrases this as saying: "When we talked about a federal government of limited, enumerated powers, WE MEANT IT."

It is also worth noting, as well, the language affixed by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate to the proposed Bill of Rights when it was circulated to the states, including the following: "The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added . . . ."

Finally, we must keep in mind that at the time the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights were debated and ratified, the citizenry as a whole was expected to be able to read and comprehend them. They were not considered arcane and mysterious documents that only exalted judges in robes could interpret.

Add all this together, and you have an obligation and responsibility for state governments to uphold the Constitution as reasonably understood, even when any or all branches of the federal government have tossed it aside as antiquated or inconvenient.

We have seen some movement in this direction in the recent election, where a number of states passed referenda legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, a drug the federal government has (with no constitutional power as a basis) declared illegal, or proclaiming that health insurance or health care will remain a province of state government, not subject to federal fiat. HG suggests a more comprehensive and coordinated campaign, which could be called "Civil Obedience," and/or "Red State Evolution." As many states as possible should declare that they will neither enforce nor allow the enforcement of any unconstitutional federal statutes or regulations within their borders. Any federal agents attempting the latter will be restrained and escorted hence. If enough states take this stand, it will be impractical to take action against them.

If any "blue states" find this situation intolerable -- let them talk of secession. The states exercising Civil Obedience have no intention of leaving the Union -- nor of letting it be further subverted by those also sworn to defend it.