How Politics Works

On Upton Sinclair’s I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked:

I meant to get this issue of The Scoop out on February 1 or soon thereafter, but decided first to finish reading Upton Sinclair’s account of running for governor of California during 1934 so I could include a review

Though the book is in one sense applicable to a particular time in history (the Great Depression era) and to a particular place (California), it also exposes the way politics works in most if not all times and places — with the will and good of the people as a whole being overwhelmed by the lies of the powerful and their mercenary accomplices.

Sinclair, one of the most popular novelists of the early 20th century, considered himself a moderate socialist (think Bernie) when he and some like-minded thinkers developed a plan called EPIC (End Poverty in California). The plan envisioned putting the unemployed to work in factories and on farms sponsored by the state government. These enterprises would supply the needs of the otherwise unemployed and their families, thereby cutting the cost of state relief programs without interfering with the larger economy. For the details of how this could work, read the book. But in short, under the EPIC plan, everybody would win.

Clubs in support of EPIC launched all over California. The movement’s popularity convinced Democratic party leaders to enlist Sinclair to run as a democrat.

He won the primary in a landslide and appeared on the way to the governorship.

But the power brokers, once they came to understand that Sinclair and his kind wouldn’t play ball with them by compromising their principles for votes, rallied and besieged him with every sort of propaganda. Newspapers, billboards, and millions of leaflets labeled him a communist, an empty-headed dreamer, a liar, a swindler, a pawn of foreign powers.

Anyone who cares to understand what goes on politically in our time, should consider the book essential.

Buy it here,
Or here.

The Cartel

I don’t write many reviews. Neither do I read many fat novels, as I’m rather compulsive about finishing what I start and if a fat book doesn’t keep me spellbound, it might cost me a month of reading time.

So Don Winslow’s The Cartel sat on my shelf for a year. It’s around 600 pages. I read it in about a week.

A few works of art mean so much to me and have so changed my vision of the world and of human nature, I sometimes wish I could limit my human contact to others who have experienced them. Then I could feel we are talking about the same world. Among those works are Dostoyeski’s Crime and Punishment, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl and, now, The Cartel.

Novelists often argue that fiction can be truer than fact. If anyone should ask me to demonstrate the validity of that position, I would send him or her to The Cartel.

One of the tasks Mr. Winslow has accomplished is to humanize an overwhelming number of facts: tens of thousands of gruesome murders; whole villages turned to ghost towns; cities, their citizens and cultures, destroyed; countries given over to the worst of the worst. When we read news articles or even feature stories, the truth remains distant, not quite real. The Cartel turns facts into people who become part of us. They penetrate our minds and spirits. I realize the bell tolls for me. If I had read the book and not felt profoundly changed, I would consider myself jaded beyond all decency.

I live overlooking the Tijuana border, have spent many months on the Mexican side, read a good deal of Mexican history, always paid attention to Mexican political and cultural news and politics. I have written so much about Mexico that my editor asked me to back off. Readers aren’t all that interested Mexico, she said.

If anyone gave Mister Winslow that same advice, he or she was as misguided as the editor who famously told Tony Hillerman to “lose the Indians.”

The Cartel is a masterpiece. Please read it.

Thanks Grandma, for Ivanhoe

My grandma, a master storyteller and descendant of some noble folks from England and Scotland, was understandably a devoted fan of Sir Walter Scott. Since I spent most of my childhood living in her home, I read Ivanhoe when I was quite young. A long while ago.

So I picked it up on Kindle and — after wading through an interminable preface — soon got charmed by a jester outwitting a boisterous Knight of the Templars on leave from the crusades. Before long I met with surprisingly convincing versions of the infamous Prince John, and soon thereafter of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and King Richard

Equally fascinating were the depictions of conflict and collusion between the church and “state” (i.e. gangs of “nobles” exploiting the less fortunate); cultural attitudes between the rugged and earthy Saxons and the snooty Normans; and the loathing of Christians toward Jews, far deeper than toward their Muslim crusade enemies.

Whether Sir Walter’s fictional knights are honest depictions of the much-honored code of chivalry, I can hardly attest. But their prideful ways and will to conquer — be it lady or kingdom or Holy Land — feel so familiar, so universal, I trust his depiction. Even Ivanhoe and King Richard prove to be far less noble than reckless, macho, and avaricious.

The novel’s truly noble characters are those lacking worldly power: a few servants and the leading ladies, Rowena and Rebecca, one of whom assumes Christ-like moral proportions.

The plotting is as deft as any I can recall, with every thread woven into an exquisite tapestry. And the final pages are as fulfilling those of any great mystery. While we might guess correctly about the conclusion in general , the details are a delicious surprise and, in retrospect, entirely right.

In addition to all that, after a drink or two I might argue the final dialog between Rebecca and the Templar is as poetic, well-wrought, and significant as any from Shakespeare.

Thanks, Grandma, for Ivanhoe and everything.

Read Dennis Lynds

Here’s a quote I appreciate for obvious reasons:

In a New York Times opinion piece about racism and classism and what might be done to counter those attitudes, David Brooks wrote: “Conversation can help, though I suspect novels … work better.”

To verify the truth of this comment, I’d suggest reading some Dan Fortune mystery novels by Dennis Lynds, aka Michael Collins.

Unless memory fails me, all seventeen of the books are narrated by private detective Dan Fortune. Most of them are set in New York City, where Dan grew up and lives and works into middle age, when a woman lures him out west. He lands, and stays, in Santa Barbara.

A review in the Tulsa World asserted, “The creation of one-armed detective Dan Fortune helped revive the old-fashioned detective yarn.”

Here’s how Dennis did it:

The books are deftly plotted, alive with real characters, written with care and passion, and lifted even farther above the standard fare of the mystery genre by the author’s vast knowledge of human nature, history, and cultures.

Especially in the later books, Dan Fortune expresses a decidedly progressive socialist agenda, which he often backs up with facts and persuasive reasoning. At times Fortune can wax a bit preachy. If you essentially agree with his agenda, that the wealthy and greedy of the world have tyrannized the rest of us in the cruelest, most heartless of ways, you may occasionally feel as though he is preaching to the choir. If you disagree with his views, you might get offended, because he presents his case so skillfully, he may render you defenseless. You might even be required to change your mind.

Publishers Crippen and Landru contend: “Dennis Lynds was probably the most important and influential writer of private-eye stories to emerge in the past 40 years. His Dan Fortune series offers the sense of pace, setting, and characterization of a master stylist, and the social consciousness of a committed human being.”

I’ll buy that, in spades.

Do yourself a favor and read a sampling of Dan Fortune wisdom.

Then go to fictfact.com. While there, enter the Michael Collins Dan Fortune series as one you want to follow.

The Ripley Series

I love series books. Reading a masterful series, I get to follow characters as they grow, or at least learn more about them in each successive book.

Since time is short. I’m going to post reviews about great series’ rather than about single books.

So:

Meet Tom Ripley, from Patricia Highsmith’s ingenious, bewitching, and disturbing series.

The books are, in chronological order, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water.

First, the thoroughly delightful part.

When I daydream of going to Europe and realize I’m not likely to get there soon, I can read about or remember the Ripley books and Highsmith takes me there. She is a master of what I’ll call casual detail. Particulars of scenery, home furnishings and such as well as character features and expressions draw me so intimately into Ripley’s world, I can sometimes feel slightly ashamed for intruding. And the pictures she creates weave so intricately into the story, they become subtle but effective counterpoint to the extreme tension and suspense Ms. Highsmith’s intricate plots and Ripley’s outrageous actions invoke.

As in:

“He looked at the French windows, and chose to walk past them and go into Mme Antoinette’s realm, the kitchen in the front left corner of the house. A smell of complex vegetable soup greeted his nostrils.
“Mme Antoinette, in a polka-dot blue and white dress and a blue apron was stirring something at the stove.
“‘Good evening, madame?’
“‘M’sieur Tome! Bon Soir.’
“‘And what is the main dish this evening?’
“‘Noisettes de veau — but not the big ones, because it’s a warm evening.’

“In front of him was the lane, barely visible through some pear and apple trees and low bushes that grew wild. Down this unpaved way, he had once wheeled Murchison in a barrow in order to bury him — temporarily. Also through this lane an occasional farmer still drove a small tractor toward the main streets of Villeperce, or appeared out of nowhere with a barrow full of horse manure or tied-up kindling. The lane belonged to no one. “

A caution, in case you missed a line in the previous paragraph: Ripley books are probably not for the faint-hearted. Aside from being captivating entertainments, they are also studies of what most folks deem a psychopath.

But for earnest students of human nature, the Ripley books are essential. Whatever label we choose to give Tom Ripley, he offers us a glimpse deep into human nature. Into what I suspect any of us could become. Ripley is a “there but for fortune” alert. Because Tom is by no means the only “wicked” character in the books. When he admits his crimes to friends, though their first reaction may be shock, they hardly act appalled. In fact, should their practical or financial interest and Ripley’s coincide, they seem quite agreeable to letting him proceed or perhaps assisting with his dark intrigues. Even his bitterest, most upright enemies aren’t above getting bought off.

Those who believe humans are inherently not so bad, please read and contemplate the Ripley books and ask yourself, “So how bad are we?”

By the way, I write a series of my own. And I keep track of the series’ I read on FictFact, a great tool, and free. Please join me there.

Alan Russell’s New One

You might call me a fan of Alan Russell, since I’ve read all of his books and I’ll probably continue to read each new one as it comes out. His novels are certainly entertaining, intriguing and credible in plot. They feature characters I can believe and either cheer for or swear at. But most of all, what makes me welcome his new releases is that he seems compelled to stretch the common boundaries of the mystery genre.

All Mr. Russell’s books allow for humor even in the darkest times, which is, at least in my experience, more like-life than other authors appear to recognize. And, particular in his latest, Guardians of the Night, he admits that not all mysteries can be solved by even the most gifted and diligent detective.

Though Mr. Russell offers plenty of wit and wisdom, he’s willing to admit he doesn’t know it all, which make him a rare and valuable author.