Land of Little Rain

Is This Where We’re Headed?

Is This Where We’re Headed?

The title for this post is the same as a that of a classic book by Mary Austin about her life in the Owens Valley. While there is little doubt that deserts can be starkly beautiful—as for instance Death Valley or the National Parks of Southern Utah—it can be frustrating to have forecast rain turn into little more than a dirty drizzle.

I call it a dirty drizzle because there’s only enough rain to smear my windshield when I run my wipers. As my windshield wiper reservoir is leaking and its replacement costs a small fortune for my twenty-year-old Nissan Pathfinder, I spend a good part of .L.A.’s so-called rainy season driving around looking through a coating of dirt.

I have no faith in weather forecasters. Why? Because they are only intent on selling advertising. Therefore, they tend to wildly exaggerate any rain forecast. Even if there’s so much as a 10% chance of showers, newsmen will spend hours telling us to look for the forecast in the next fifteen minutes, er…, half hour, er… hour. What usually happens, the mountains to the north of us get the rain, or the deserts beyond the mountains. What we get, at most, is a pittance.

People in the Northeast must be looking at us with ill-suppressed envy, as they struggle with snow and cold and “polar vortexes,” whatever those are. In the meantime, we continue to dry out. Our state’s agriculture, once the envy of the nation, is looking at a potential dust bowl.

Putin’s Kleptocracy

Something New from Mother Russia

Something New from Mother Russia

I know that some people think of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as the reincarnation of Stalin. Others on the right idolize him because, well, he persecutes gays. The truth is actually to be found elsewhere.

He definitely is a bad dude. Instead of killing people by the millions in Siberian gulags, he uses very targeted assassinations to eliminate some of his more outspoken enemies. In November 1998, soon after he took over the KGB, he had opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova murdered for her pro-democracy advocacy. As soon as Yeltsin named him Prime Minister a year later, he initiated a bombing campaign in Chechnya which led to hundreds of civilian deaths.

One outspoken critic of the Chechen war was Anna Politkovskaya, whose dispatches on the conflict I have read (and recommend: they are published under the name of A Small Corner of Hell). She paid dearly for her upstanding journalism: She was shot by KGB operatives at the door of her apartment in October 2006.

For a considerably longer list of his targets, click here.

What makes Putin radically different from his Communist forebears is that he is an oligarch in personal control of billions of rubles worth of assets, alone or with a small number of co-conspirators with whom he feels comfortable. There is an excellent review by Anne Applebaum in the December 18, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books which is a review of Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

No fool, Putin knew that Communism was on the skids while he was still a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, and he prepared for the demise of the Soviet empire by beginning to gather people whom he could trust. In St. Petersburg in 1991, he entered in numerous “legally flawed contracts” in which he exported millions of dollars worth of commodities in return for food that never seems to have been delivered. He was in on the rise to power of Bank Rossiya, which he used for his financial and criminal deals. Putin-controlled entities include Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative; St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company (SPAG), which was involved in Russian and Colombian drug money laundering; the construction company Twentieth Trust; and probably biggest of all—Gazprom.

It is as if an American president controlled Morgan Stanley, Exxon, Cargill, and numerous other massive corporations which combined to do whatever legal or illegal he or she wished to accomplish.

And yet Putin’s popularity is still high among Russian voters at this time. He pays careful attention to cultural and foreign policy choices that are in tune with the Russian man in the street. This includes his support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its hierarchy, and his ham-fisted attempts to support the Russian population of industrialized East Ukraine.


Time to Climb Off the Carousel

Liberal, Libertarian, Conservative—Just Going Round in Circles

Liberal, Libertarian, Conservative—Just Going Round in Circles

You’ve probably learned by now that political labels in American politics are primarily for assigning blame, whether due or not. That’s why I decided to not to write any more outrage pieces on my blog site. It was too easy to react to stupid things the other side was saying.

Oh, I’m still a Democrat, but as my hero Will Rogers once said: “I am not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat.” But I do not accept phone calls from any political party. And I’ve contacted the Democratic fund raisers who were bombarding my e-mail to stop it. Of course, Republicans and Libertarians know better than to try to contact me for any reason. I have my doubts about Democrats (a.k.a. The Circular Firing Squad), but I like the other guys even less. I figure that if Faux News has something good to say about anybody, they’re probably a serial child molester and would-be tyrant.

Do I consider myself a Liberal? Not really. Fiscally, I’m a bit on the Conservative side. My goal is not to see the Federal, State, and Local governments all spend themselves into bankruptcy; but I think that we can’t neglect the poor, the way that many troglodyte Conservatives advocate.

All the political labels have resulted only in a lot of Americans hating one another solely for their stated political affiliation. I’d prefer to judge people on the way they act.



Monsieur Hulot and His Brother-in-Law

Monsieur Hulot and His Brother-in-Law in Mon Oncle

Because of tax season stress, I am repeating this post from March 2006:

It is difficult to say which Jacques Tati film I love the most. In the end, it is a tie between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), with Jour de Fete (1949) and Playtime (1967) close on their heels.  In the end, I chose Mon Oncle because I thought its humor has almost attained the status of myth. In the inter-generational rapport between M. Hulot and the young son of his social-climbing sister, we see how new Hulots are created. By the end of the film, even the insufferable CEO brother-in-law (shown in background above) has become Hulot-ized as he complicitly clasps the hand of his son.

We don’t usually think of the French as being funny. Yet there was a tradition of film comedy in France going back to Max Linder in the silent era, followed by the early talkie musical comedies of René Clair. It is in Jacques Tati (real name: Tatischeff), however, that it reaches its pinnacle.  During his film career, which extended from 1934 to 1974, he directed only nine films and acted in fifteen, including shorts. Some of these are minor, but the four films named above are gems that will stand the test of time.

To illustrate how natural Tati’s comedy is, I will mention one scene. Hulot’s nephew plays with a bunch of lower-class kids who like practical jokes. They hide on a hillside overlooking a street corner where there is a lamppost. When they see a likely victim coming, one of the boys runs down with a broom and starts vigorously sweeping the sidewalk in front of the oncoming pedestrian, in effect directing him to walk toward the post. As he nears the post, another boy gives a loud whistle, which causes the pedestrian to look around and walk face first into the lamppost.  They run several variations on this until they are caught.

Hulot’s Paris is a layered city in which eccentric ne’er-do-wells laze around picturesque streets and social climbers dine at horribly pretentious restaurants like Kington’s (which looks ahead to the destruction of a similar restaurant/nightclub in Playtime).

For more information about Tati, click on Tativille, the “official” site of this great comedian. If you have never seen any of his films and need some cheering up, I urge you to get one of the recently released DVDs of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Mon Oncle and have yourself a ball.


Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Russian Novels

What Country Produces the Best Literature?

What Country Produces the Best Literature?

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the weeks to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “R” for Russian Novels.

I’ll come right out and say that, over the last two hundred years, Russia has produced the world’s best prose fiction. (They might well also have produced the greatest poetry, but I cannot judge as I do not know the language.) In addition to the 19th century titans—Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—there are other greats whose work continues to amaze me. I am thinking of Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, and Mikhail Lermontov,

Despite the travails of the Communist Century, Russian novels continued to be the best in the world, what with authors like Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Rybakov, Victor Serge (even though he wrote in French), Vladimir Nabokov, Vassily Grossman, Victor Zamyatin, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Andrey Gelasimov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Andrey Platonov, Ivan Bunin, Varlam Shalamov, and Sergei Lukyanenko.

And these are just the ones I’ve read! KI suspect I could find another dozen if only I lived long enough.

The most difficult thing most people find about Russian novels is the names of the characters. Let’s take for example the name of one of the major characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov is he youngest son of Fyodor Karamazov and bears his father’s first name in his patronymic (Fyodorovich). In addition to being called Alexei Fyodorovich, you are likely to see him called by one of his nicknames, which include Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka—all depending on who is speaking. After a few decades, you get used to the nicknames. No longer do I ask myself, “Is Dostoyevsky introducing another character here?”

Also, Russian novels are likely to be l-o-n-g. That’s all right with me, because I usually get so wrapped up in the stories that I almost don’t notice it.

If you want to get started, I suggest you pick something more nearly contemporary, such as Sergeyyi Lukyanenko’s eerie Night Watch, with its vampires and witches. (The Russian movie based on it is also worth seeing.)

So, enjoy yourselves, and give my regards to Nevsky Prospekt!

Terrible Harmony

Thoughts Inspired by Garry Wills’s Great Book on Chesterton

Thoughts Inspired by Garry Wills’s Great Book on Chesterton

I can identify the exact moment I fell in love with G.K. Chesterton. Many years ago, as I read The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time, I came across this line by Gilbert Syme, the narrator: “Just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.” It hit me like a bolt of lightning that here was a man that knew that all was one, and that everything affected everything else. Indeed, why not by the light of the tree?

Decades later, I finally read Garry Wills’s first book, Chesterton. It is not only the best work about the author I have ever read, and perhaps one of the best works of literary criticism I have read for many a year, but it made me come to several realizations:

  1. Chesterton was not some sort of Jolly Green Giant: What peace he finally attained was hard won.
  2. As the First World War and the books he wrote at that time showed, he was a very indifferent political propagandist (see The Appetite of Tyranny and The Utopia of Usurers).
  3. When Chesterton finally converted to Catholicism in 1922, he became another type of propagandist—one for his faith—but considerably more effectively than in his political work.
  4. Perhaps Chesterton’s most interesting work came before the Great War.

The best thing about Chesterton is Wills’s detailed analysis of the early work, including the poems “The Wild Knight” and “The Ballad of the White Horse” and most particularly, my favorite GKC book, The Man Who Was Thursday.

In an essay on dreams in The Coloured Lands, Chesterton wrote one of the most cogent expressions of the complexity of his dance with joy and nightmare:

In this subconscious world, in short, existence betrays itself; it shows that it is full of spiritual forces which disguise themselves as lions and lamp-posts, which can as easily disguise themselves as butterflies and Babylonian temples…. Life dwells alone in our very heart of hearts, life is one and virgin and unconjured, and sometimes in the watches of the night speaks in its own terrible harmony.

I have only one minor quibble, and that is that Wills downplayed much of Chesterton’s fiction, which was almost always good, from his earliest Father Brown stories (which he covers) to such titles as The Club of Queer Trades, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, The Return of Don Quixote, and The Poet and the Lunatics. At the same time, what Wills does accomplish is to excellent that I cannot but see myself re-reading this excellent book, and maybe even searching for a hardbound copy for my burgeoning GKC collection.


In Memory of Emil

Where My Uncle and Cousin Emil Worked: The Metal Craft Spinning Company

Where My Uncle and Cousin Emil Worked: The Metal Craft Spinning Company

For two years, 2008 and 2009, I posted all my blogs at Blog.Com. When suddenly it started to go bad around the end of that period, I moved to Multiply.Com for a while, which also went bad. Anyhow, here is a blog I wrote about my cousin, Emil Zoltan Paris:

I wish I had a photograph of my Cousin Emil. Perhaps I do—and when I find it I will post it—but I could not lay my hands on it on short notice. Emil Zoltan Paris Jr., to give his full name, was my father’s twin brother Emil Zoltan Paris Sr.’s only son. Between those formative years in my life during the early 1950s, he lived only a block away on East 177th Street.

He was a couple years older than I was, and he was anti-intellectual to a high degree, but he was fiercely loyal and goodhearted. As a little kid, I was frequently picked on by the neighborhood bullies—unless Emil was around. He was tall and big, the type that became a defensive tackle in high school (and in fact, that’s just what he was at West Geauga High). Whenever he caught someone who was picking on me, Emil just sat on him and whacked away until blood squirted or sounds of apology were reluctantly tendered.

Once, when he walked into our living room while I was reading Tom Sawyer, Emil picked up the book and slammed it to the floor, saying “There! That’s what I think of books!” Even at John Adams Junior High School, Emil was not known for his learning or sensitivity. But we liked him for his good heart and his steadfast friendship. Not, however, for his humor. Once he asked me if I could use the word Rotterdam in a sentence. When I hesitated, he grinned and said, “I gave my sister some candy and I hope it’ll rotterdam teeth out.”

Emil married a woman named Lois from Detroit, but it didn’t turn out well. She left him for another woman, who happened to be African-American.

I lost touch with Emil went I went to college and, from there, moved out to California. Then, I heard from my mother that he was living in Lake Havasu City, AZ, just across the Colorado River. Twice, on my road trips through Arizona, I detoured to Lake Havasu and visited him, once with my mother along. He was running a limo service there. We kept in touch now and then.

After a few years there, he moved back to Cleveland to be with his aging mother. It was difficult to tell who was more ill, because Emil was showing symptoms of advanced Type 2 Diabetes. Toward the end, he lost his vision. Then he passed away about sixteen years ago, leaving his two grown-up sons, Greg and Doug, with whom I am not in touch.

I miss not having Emil around to talk about old times. Those included the years he worked for his father’s company, the Metal-Craft Spinning Company in the Flats of Cleveland (see photo above).  The building in which Uncle Emil’s factory was located has now been subdivided into luxury lofts. I used to drop in with my father ostensibly to talk to my uncle, my cousin, and Mr. Prosser, my uncle’s partner. Actually, I was probably just as interested then in the nudie pinup calendars scattered throughout. For lunch, we would walk over to the old Flatiron Café and have some delicious sandwiches. It is still there, but it’s become yuppified and now calls itself an Irish Pub. Those gruff Slavic faces at the tables of the old greasy spoon are all gone.

Everybody Who Is Anybody

A Lane in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery

A Lane in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery

In the United States, there is no single cemetery where everybody who is anybody is interred. France has its Père Lachaise and Pantheon, and Argentina has La Recoleta.

There you will find the tombs of Argentina’s presidents, including Bartolomé Mitre, Carlos Pellegrini, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Hypólito Yrigoyen, Julio Argentino Roca, Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, and Raúl Alfonsin. Perhaps its most famous inhabitant is Evita Perón, who is buried here under her maiden name of Duarte. Not here is the only Argentinean president most people are likely to know: Juan Perón. He was buried at Chacarita Cemetery, then moved to a mausoleum some 35 miles outside of Buenos Aires.

Although Jorge Luis Borges—Argentina’s most famous writer—is buried in Europe, here you will find Silvina and Victoria Ocampo and Borges’s collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Walking through the labyrinthine passageways between the crowded crypts, one finds fabulous wealth (such as that of the Bullriches) side by side with neglected tombs with broken glass and crumbling plaster.

And yet, to pass eternity in this place has a high entrance requirement. Many of the tiny crypt spaces are more expensive than mansions in the more elegant parts of the city. These are the most exclusive fourteen acres in all of South America.

If you find yourself in Argentina, a visit to Recoleta is a must.


“He Never Sallied from His Library”

Did Quixote Imagine It All?

Did Don Quixote Imagine It All?

One reason I love this poem about the Knight of La Mancha is that its author, Jorge Luis Borges, was a bookworm like myself. Therefore, he could speculate as to whether the good Don dreamed all his adventures from the comfort of his own library.


Of that knight with the sallow, dry
Complexion and heroic bent, they guess
That, always on the verge of adventure,
He never sallied from his library.
The precise chronicle of his urges
And its tragic-comical reverses
Was dreamed by him, not by Cervantes,
It’s no more than a chronicle of dream.
Such my fate too. I know there’s something
Immortal and essential that I’ve buried
Somewhere in that library of the past
In which I read the history of the knight.
The slow leaves recall a child who gravely
Dreams vague things he cannot understand.

The translation is by A.S. Kline in this choice selection of Borges’s poetry on the Internet.

Life is different when you’re a reader. During my least favorite time of the year—tax season—I am lifted out of any temptation to depression by solving crimes with Chesterton’s Father Brown and Gaston Laroux with his mysterious Yellow Room; fighting the War of the Roses with Shakespeare’s Henry VI; becoming part of the mysterious search for Malory through a painterly landscape in Geoff Dyer’s The Search; and enjoying the world of books with Anatole France’s Sylvestre Bonnard.

After a day fighting with numbers, bits, and bytes, I vanish into my library and go tilting at my own windmills.

Eustace Tilley’s Last Stand

New Yorker Cover Commemorating the Magazine’s Move to the World Trade Center

New Yorker Cover Commemorating the Magazine’s Move to the World Trade Center

For half a century, I have loved The New Yorker. I remember learning about REM sleep from reading the magazine on a long train trip between Cleveland and White River Junction, VT (I was attending college in nearby Hanover, NH.) Then, in the late 1960s, there was a pioneering article about Magical Realism in Latin America: That started me on Jorge Luis Borges, who in turn led me to hundreds of writers whose work has become precious to me.

It was responsible for publishing Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, Roald Dahl, J.D. Salinger, Joseph Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, James Thurber, John Updike, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote.

But now, alas, I am thinking for the first time of not renewing my subscription when it expires later this year. The New Yorker has survived Harold Ross, William Shawn, Tina Brown, and David Remnick as editors. But I don’t think it can survive continuing ownership by Condé Nast Publications with its focus on the super-rich. Although the magazine has broken its long-standing policy of not endorsing a presidential candidate, it went for John Kerry and Barack Obama in the last three elections.

My bet is that the magazine is veering to the right. It takes its advertising revenue very seriously, and this has slanted its editorial content to fashion-conscious CEOs who are more likely to buy the ridiculously priced merchandise. There are still short stories by world-class writers, but not so often as before. And it seems that the farther The New Yorker goes from Manhattan, the less trustworthy are its articles. They have a particular problem with Southern California: It seems that they haven’t developed any further than Nathanael West, author of Day of the Locust.

Particularly dismaying are the endless bios of CEOs, a subject not dear to my heart.

Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi. I am more likely to get my info from The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement from London.