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Book Review: “As Texas Goes…”

If you pick up Gail Collins’s new book hoping for a Seamus the Dog reference, you might be disappointed.

The author and New York Times columnist is best known of late for her running gag of inserting a reference to Seamus into each of her columns, but Collins has long had other interests.

Her latest work is As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. With a title like that, you can understand that there would be precious little space to devote to the time Mitt Romney drove 650 miles to his vacation home in Ontario with the family’s Irish Setter strapped to the roof of the car.

But, like I said, this book is not about Seamus the Dog.

What it is about is how Texas has used its sheer size and strong political forces to drive the national agenda. If you don’t believe that this is the case, I leave you with this tidbit: in 1988, addressing climate change was part of the Republican platform. Now, through the hard work of (Texan) Tom DeLay, “the political debate about global warming, when it comes up at all, is usually about whether or not it exists.”

As Collins points out:

We feel Texas’s influence in our lives every day, but we’ll be feeling it much more in the future, due to its enormous population growth, helped along by those interesting sex education classes and the almost complete lack of state family planning funds.

I think it’s safe to say that most Texans will not love what Collins has to say about their state, but it’s not necessarily because of a left-right divide.

Instead, Collins notes, what is perceived as a conservative/liberal battle is really a “great, historic American division between the people who live in crowded places and the people who live in empty places.” Texas – even though it has densely populated urban areas – exemplifies the empty place ethos.

In an “empty” place, government looks different than it does to those who live on the coasts – or even in the Midwest.

From the Texas standpoint, Collins asks,

What’s the point [of government]? It’s just going to tax you or get in your way. If a robber breaks into your house, it could take hours for law enforcement to arrive; carrying a gun is more practical. Government can’t help you and it has no business telling you what you can do with your property. Who could you hurt? There’s nobody else in sight. You’re on your own and you like it that way.

Collins – who views Texas from the political left and from a “crowded place” – asserts that the “empty place” ethos is untenable for the rest of the country, where we live close enough to each other that some regulation is in order.

As Texas Goes… ends with a rather grim prognosis: “if Texas goes south, it’s taking us along.”

An uplifting note does follow. “Texas on the Brink,” a report produced by the Legislative Study Group in the Texas House of Representatives, appears in the book’s Appendix, and for all the grim statistics it offers (Texas is dead last in the percent of the population with a high school diploma, percent of uninsured people, amount of pollution released into the air and water, etc.), it also offers a bit of hope: “Texas is on the brink, but Texas can do better. The choice is ours.”

Ultimately, that means the choice is ours, too, but, first, we have to choose not to follow Texas into the future. Is this a choice we will make?

Collins thinks not. However, if you’re going to read a book by a writer who thinks the nation is facing disaster, you might as well read one as funny as this. Collins is witty and darkly comic in a time when the national political scene could use a good dose of levity.

You wouldn’t think that a book that ends with sixty pages of notes, an appendix, and a bibliography would be concise and immensely readable, but there’s a reason that Collins has a loyal following at The New York Times.

So readers who just want to see snark about Seamus may be out of luck, but readers who pick up As Texas Goes… for a dose of Collins’ signature incisive commentary will not be disappointed.

More tales from Texas:

 

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Book Review: “Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama”

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the...

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the University of Southern California (Video of the speech) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

“Friends, Romans, countrymen.”

 

Part of what makes that line compelling is its meter; it’s a single stressed syllable, a trochee, and a dactyl. For those of you who skipped English class that day, think of the opening riff to AC/DC’s Back in Black: “DUM! DUH-dum! DUH-duh-dum!”

 

“Friends. Romans. Countrymen.” There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in those three words, and Sam Leith wants to give you a backstage tour.

 

The self-described English literature geek was intrigued by the power of Barack Obama’s words during his 2008 campaign and began writing about political rhetoric just after Obama’s inauguration. The result, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, coincides with the kickoff of Obama’s re-election campaign. Now there’s kairos[1] for you.

 

Once the foundation of education, rhetoric was removed from curricula over the last 200 years. Today, Leith says, rhetoric “is seen as a quaint and rather prissy minority interest.”

 

Leith wants to show that “rhetoric is not a dry, narrow, out-of-date academic subject,” and he does. A few of the more technical passages threaten to drift into textbook, eyes-glazing-over territory, but Leith recognizes that example is usually more interesting (and clearer) than description, so he showers his text with politics and pop culture and encourages less academically-inclined readers to skip ahead to the more interesting bits.

 

This isn’t your parents’ rhetoric primer. Indeed, since your parents probably didn’t study rhetoric, it might be more fitting to say that this isn’t your great- great- great- great-grandparents’ rhetoric primer. Irreverent and funny, Words Like Loaded Pistols is filled with tongue-in-cheek witticisms, slang, and unexpected illustrations. For example, in explaining the difference between metonymy and synecdoche (two easily confused concepts), Leith explains:

 

If you’re the sort of person who calls a grown woman a ‘piece of skirt,’ you’re being metonymic. If you’re the sort of person who calls your car your ‘set of wheels,’ you’re being synecdochic. In both cases, though this isn’t a technical term from rhetoric, you’re being an asshole.

 

Although Leith keeps his tone light, he has done his homework. Between the more technical chapters, Leith discusses “champions of rhetoric” – those who, for good or bad (there are no moral judgments here, merely rhetorical ones) entranced their listeners. He looks to powerful speakers from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, Cicero to Satan.

 

As political rhetoric builds to a climax over the next six months, Leith’s subject matter will be unavoidable. For the coming months, friends, ready your ears.

 


[1] Kairos, an important rhetorical element, is Greek for the opportune moment, like publishing a book about political rhetoric in the middle of a heated battle for the Presidency.

 

More about President Obama’s rhetoric:

 

 

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Movie Review: “True Grit” (2010)

True Grit (2010 film)

True Grit (2010 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we watched True Grit, I warned my boyfriend that I am just not a Western movie type of person. He had previously insisted that I watch Lone Star, and I fell asleep maybe twenty minutes into it.

However, I try not to judge (that’s a lie – I love to judge), so I gave it a shot.

The verdict:

I am just not a Western type of person.

I think this stems mainly from the fact that I don’t care for the aesthetics of the Western: I’m just not into a single color palette. I love lush, colorful movies, so sepia isn’t so much my thing.

Beyond not caring for the genre, I wasn’t impressed by the dialogue of this film, nor did I find the acting particularly compelling (though I acknowledge that the girl who played the lead, Hailee Steinfeld, is an impressively fast talker). And the plot… well, though I haven’t seen the original, I have no idea why anyone felt compelled to remake this movie.

I won’t go ahead and spoil the ending, except to say that I had hoped there would be an ending, and there wasn’t.

What am I missing when it comes to this movie (there has to be something!)?

Here’s another mention of True Grit:

 

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Book Review: “The Book Thief”

Cover of

Cover of The Book Thief

If I could have two wishes, they would be for world peace and forgiveness of my student loans.

If I could have three wishes, they would be for world peace, student loan forgiveness, and for every person considering picking up a Twilight book (or anything else from the “Paranormal Teen Romance” shelf) to read The Book Thief (2006) instead.

If I were going to add a fourth (though I don’t want to be greedy), it would be for you, dear reader, to pick up and read a copy of this book before it’s made into a movie.

The book follows Death as he(?) collects souls during Hitler’s Nazi regime. Death defies expectations by arousing sympathy as he trudges from one place to the next, collecting souls and wondering how far humanity will go to destroy itself. There is one image, as Death collects souls from a gas chamber, that I fear (hope?) will forever haunt me. Death is tender, and he does what he does because he has no choice, not because he enjoys it.

Death is no Grim Reaper. In fact, he laughs at our notion of him, insisting that he only wears black cloaks when it’s cold and that the idea of carrying a scythe amuses him.

But this is not a story about Death. Death is the narrator, but the story is about a girl named Liesel, a foster child outside Munich. Liesel’s story is one of learning the transfixing power of words. She learns to read as she finds herself, as she comes to understand the political climate in which she lives, as she becomes a woman. She steals books, first as an act of resistance (against Death, against Nazism), and then because (like Death) she has no choice. The books sustain her, and they keep her small world peaceful amid the chaos.

One might think it self-serving for a novelist to write about the importance of books. I don’t. It may be that most of what we read is drivel, quickly forgotten and relegated to a dusty book shelf, but sometimes a book comes along that is searing and original and beautiful and terrible (as in “inspiring terror,” not as in “bad”). These are the ones that make us want to be better: better people, better readers, and better writers. That’s all I could ever want in a novel.

One last note: There is a conception here in the States that any book featuring an adolescent is “Young Adult” fiction. I have read that, in Markus Zusak‘s native Australia, this book was marketed as a general audience novel. Although I never gave much credence to the distinction between YA and “regular” fiction (I skipped directly from “Fear Street” to Dean Koontz during the sixth grade and never read any YA fiction until adulthood), I wouldn’t want anyone to miss this novel because it is marketed to the Harry Potter crowd.

Other reviews of The Book Thief:

 

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Happy International Women’s Day!

Image representing Kiva as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

What should we do today to celebrate?

First, keep these facts in mind:

  • 70% of the world’s poorest people are women
  • 2/3 of illiterate adults are women
  • HIV is still the leading cause of illness for many women

I don’t normally hawk products or services, but I’m pretty excited about Kiva. Kiva loans help thousands of women to start businesses, educate their children, and realize their dreams. Celebrate International Women’s Day by making a loan!

You can do this now free! Just go to kiva.org/women to get started.

More about International Women’s Day:
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One Heartbeat for Chardon

Today was the one-year mark of a deadly school rampage in Chardon, Ohio.

You probably don’t remember it.

The Chardon massacre was sandwiched among a number of other mass shootings (there were at least sixteen mass shootings in the United States in 2012), and it happened in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, so it made almost no impression on the national media. In fact, one journalist from Newtown, Connecticut, has called it the “school shooting that few remember.”

That’s a shame.

It’s a shame because we should remember the murder victims of the Chardon massacre: Daniel (16), Demetrius (16), and Russell (17).

It’s a shame because we should remember Nick, the teen who was shot and paralyzed in the attack.

It’s a shame because we should remember Joy and Nate, the teens living in the aftermath of having been shot.

It’s a shame because we should remember what can happen when teenagers get their hands on guns.

Most of all, it’s a shame that the shooting of six teenagers and the death of three is so commonplace in these United States that it no longer shocks, no longer makes news, no longer sparks people to action.

Today, I remember the Hilltoppers. I hope you will, too.

Related articles

 

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Tiny Triumphs: SOTU Edition

I would like to share the day’s Tiny Triumphs, the little things that made me happy today.

  1. I had a phone interview. I’m hunting for a job. (Actually, I’m on the hunt for two jobs, but that’s another story.) I applied for an open position on Monday night, and I got a call for an interview on Tuesday morning. It doesn’t get better than that!
  2. I (re-)joined the gym. I was a member of the local gym, and then I got a campaign job that took me out of town for more than six months, so I canceled my membership. I’ve meant to re-join the gym ever since.
  3. I worked out. Yes, I realize that this should have logically followed from #2, but I assure you that I am the type of person who will go to great lengths to avoid going to the gym. (More on that, later.)
  4. I said, No.” There’s no point in avoiding mentioning my political affiliation now, because it will become clear through my subsequent posts. I am a Democrat. (I’ll post more on that, later, too.) I have given money to numerous Democratic/progressive/liberal people and causes, so I am on lots of fundraising lists. For weeks after the 2012 election, I did not answer my phone any time it was from an “Unknown” number because I suspected it was the DSCC calling to ask for money, and I know that I would not be able to turn them down. Today, I gathered all of my fortitude and answered two calls from “Unknown” numbers. The first call was in fact from the DSCC. The second was from the DCCC. For the first time, I refused to give either group money. I realize that this sounds miserly, but it was actually something that I needed to do – both because I am flat broke (see #1), and because when it comes to political fundraising I am, as the song goes, “just a girl who can’t say no.” Or as least I was.
  5. I was re-Tweeted by Ana Marie Cox. (I told you I was liberal!) During the State of the Union Address, Ana Marie made a quip combining two of my favorite things: politics and Arrested Development. I responded with a pretty obscure quote from Arrested that was appropriate (to the latter, if not to the former). Minutes later, I was delighted to see that Ana Marie had re-Tweeted me. Ana Marie, if you’re reading this, I know that you went waaaaaay deep into the Google search on yourself to find this, but I’m totally willing to ignore that fact. We both like politics and Arrested. Can we be friends?
Articles about how Democrats would try to squeeze money from a turnip:

 

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