from December 15, 2004
What books should you not give as a holiday gift?
Though I am paid by the word, I will resist the temptation to make an exhaustive list. If I did so, I would become a rich man, but as I have mentioned on many occasions, usually in the company of my fellow quaffers, I have no need for lots of money, having been dead for coming on half a century. So I shall be content to set forth a few principles of gift books to avoid.
First, do not give a book to a friend whose literary tastes you do not know.
Second—and this is for the poverty-stricken, including the dead—do not give any person on your list any books that you have checked out of your local library. You cannot afford to.
So what should you give to your friends, relatives, and the famous persons from whom you have no more than two degrees of separation?
Send a Christmas, Xmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukah letter, using the following acceptable format:
Dear X, or X and Y, etc.
Operations (planned or unplanned) and outcome; lingering maladies; deaths of loved ones; etc.
Daily routine, new jobs, layoffs
E.g., “I continue to . . .” or “I am pleased to report that I am now working for . . .” or “Unfortunately . . .” or “As luck would have it . . .”
Any unusual incidents in past year
Burglaries the victim of, unwarranted arrests, witness of felonies committed, juries served on, etc.
List of accomplishments of self, mate, children, grandchildren, etc.
Places visited, time spent at each, whether business or pleasure, degree of enjoyment.
Include phrase “wishing you and yours a . . .” followed by name of holiday, depending on ethnicity of recipient; “Happy New Year” is appropriate on all occasions except if recipient is a Chinese friend.
Followed by a short personal note, ending with an exclamation point.
N.B. Keep this letter short, preferably to one page, two at the max. It can be done.
from January 15, 2005
Every critic worth a saline solution has discovered the film, Sideways. Many are the accolades that have been tossed its way; many are the prizes it has captured. Some in the film critic industry have gone so far as to predict the Academy Award for Best Picture.
With these plaudits in mind, I wandered over to the local cinema to check out the fuss and see how a two-hour marathon film about wine-tasting could engender so much enthusiasm.
I must begin this brief critique with a confession: I am not a connoisseur of the potable of choice by the elite. Before my cremation back in 1958, I preferred cheap beer. Post-cremation, my ashes have developed a taste for rotgut. Thus it should not surprise my many admirers that I entered the theater, known among the elite as “theatre,” with a chip on my robotic left shoulder.
Another confession: I dislike the contemporary novel or film that contains the word “f#@k” within the first sentence. I can tolerate “the F word,” as the genteel among us call it, when it appears tastefully and with good purpose midway through the story. Thus it should not shock my legions of readers that I rose from my seat and started to leave the theater when I heard the first spoken word of Sideways.
And now a third confession: I had made the mistake, on entering the theatre, of choosing to sit between two figurative elephants. The implication of this ill-chosen seat was that, though I found the act of rising a feat I could perform with grace and ease, I found it impossible to exit.
Why, you might ask, did I not request that one or the other of my companions stand up and allow me to slither down the row to the aisle?
In answer, I must report that I did. In fact, I asked both of them, first the one on my right, then the other larger-than-life creature. I did so politely. Both, however, answered in a negative way, and with precisely the same snarled word: “Siddown!”
Left without a choice in this matter, I sat down, determined to enjoy the tour de force I was being forced to endure.
To my surprise, I enjoyed it, despite the fact that my ill-chosen seatmates seemed to enjoy the multiple tubs of popcorn more than they did the humorous lines scattered throughout the film. They laughed in the wrong places. They chewed continuously—though fortunately, the sound emanating from the dozens of loudspeakers scattered throughout the theater was able to compete with the sound of the gnashing of their teeth.
As for the film itself, Miles, a depressive, was a better actor than Jack. His mother was even better; she should have been granted more dialogue.
And I have not converted to pinot noir.
My editor has been urging me to “get in on the act,” a phrase he bandies about with abandon.
The act he wished me to get in on is that of rendering a considered judgment on Mel Gibson’s film on Christ’s passion.
This I gladly do.
(Disclosure: I did not see the film I am about to review. I stood in line at the box office, but when it came my turn to purchase a ticket, I was unable to hand my money to the person, nor was he or she able to see me. Unfortunately, I am not quite two feet tall and have short arms. In a later discussion with my colleague Myles na Gopaleen, Jr., I vented my frustration at this state of affairs. Regular readers will recall that the Gopper was responsible for equipping my ashes with a robotic apparatus that allows me to move about at my pleasure. My frustration is caused by the size of the apparatus. I would prefer that it extend my frame to approximately 6’ 6”, with arms appropriate to this size. I would like to be able to dunk a basketball. I would capitalize on this ability by making an ad, which would produce enough money to fund my presidential candidacy. Gop said he would assign this request to an underling for further consideration. I advised him to assign it to an underling who is acquainted with the hardwood sport.)
(Addendum to disclosure: I saw the trailer many times. I have read a substantial number of reviews. I’m also acquainted with the story line Gibson used. This qualifies me for rendering an opinion, despite the weakness of my Aramaic.)
The Passion of the Christ is a gory film. There is no mention of the protagonist’s resurrection, nor of his ascension into heaven. I would have liked to have seen more miracles and heard more parables. It may or may not be anti-Semitic. It is unsuitable for small children, and for adults who can’t stand the sight of blood. It is also unsuitable for my major constituents, dead Americans, for whom it may bring back bad memories. As for my minor constituents, dead American parrots with a working knowledge of the English language, I have no opinion. They may or may not be eligible for salvation.
All things considered, then, I’m afraid I’ll have to give it a thumbs down.
It’s a tough job, running for president under the banner of the Dead Rights Party, but as they say, somebody’s gotta do it.
As I have repeatedly mentioned in recent columns, my responsibilities as both columnist and candidate have placed me in the awkward state of deciding, bi-monthly, which of the two shall be the focus of “Books to Avoid.” Many a discussion on this dilemma have I had with my exemplary editor, Mr. Arthur Unknown. Many are the debates on same have I engaged in with my campaign manager and idol, the Honorable Harold E. Stassen (1907-2001), who is best remembered for his record of nine (9) runs for the office of the presidency—beginning in 1948; ending, regrettably, in 1992—and whose perseverance despite all odds will remain with me as an inspiration until the end of time or my ashes are scattered over a Kentucky distillery.
This fortnight the dilemma is less acute. Following the example of one of my rivals, I have taken to the ski slopes to read, relax, replenish my ashen self with an après-ski concoction of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels (I’ve come up in the world), and plan my strategy for the grueling months ahead.
On my bookshelf is a copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the 1992 edition.
This massive volume is a veritable treasury of wit and wisdom. Put differently, it’s a big book with a lot of laughs and bright observations. It contains a high percentage of Shakespeare’s greatest lines: Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle!” speech, delivered on his receiving the news of his wife’s death, gets the full treatment, as does Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” though the editors unaccountably neglect to include Horatio’s excellent meteorological observation, “It is a nipping and an eager air.”
Lovers of Horace will enjoy his incisive advice: “Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem.” (“If possible honestly, if not, somehow, make money.”) And “Misce stultiiam consiliis brevem: Dulce est desipere loco.” (“Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: it’s good to be silly at the right moment.”)
For those for whom Latin is not their native tongue, there are gems like this, from Oscar Wilde: “The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.” And this, most appropriate for the season of electoral politics: “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”
American sages are represented, but not well. John Updike has just six quotations deemed wise by the deeming editors. Among them: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.”
A fine remark. If, in the next edition, the Oxford elite select for inclusion one of my campaign slogans—“Dead of America arise! You have nothing to lose but your bones and ashes!”—buy it.
A political poll is not exactly a book.
The key word here is “exactly.” There is a distinctive similarity between the two items. Both are meant to be read, or avoided, as the case may be.
I make this subtle point in refutation of my editor’s claim that I should not be columnizing about political polls, that I should, rather, be seeking out books warning my readers not to buy.
Which polls, the reader may well ask, should be avoided?
Instead of enumerating the vast number of deficient polls, I will simply set forth a standard that none of them, to my knowledge, meets:
An accurate poll in this political season would be one that includes (1) dead American citizens whose civil rights have been heretofore abrogated and (2) talking American parrots over the age of 18.
How many presidential preference polls meet this stringent standard? (If you know of one, please inform me via either e-mail or, preferably, telepathy.)
Clearly, then, the findings of the vast majority of polls are skewed. For whatever reasons—the absence of an up-to-date methodology, the prejudice against the dead, the ignorance of the intelligence of parrots, etc.—we at present have no idea how America will vote come election day.
My faith in the essential goodness, fairness, and intelligence of the average American voter leads me to believe that my candidacy for the highest office in the land will cause voters to respond positively to the principles of the Dead Rights Party. In my optimistic yet realistic view, the pollsters will be forced to move my name from the “Other” category to one of its own. By convention time, I will be considered a legitimate candidate for president. After Labor Day, my numbers will exceed those of the redoubtable gentleman who is presently cast in the role of the spoiler. I will be invited to participate in the presidential debates. My reasoned opinions will be the subject of the most profound columns. In late October, I will be running a close third behind the two front-runners, who will attempt to stench the flow of blood by endorsing my proposals.
I do not predict victory. All I can say with more than a modicum of certainty is that my campaign will change the political landscape for the rest of the 21st century.
As a candidate for president of these United States, a job with some unspecified responsibilities for Puerto Rico and Guam and other dependencies, I have had to cut down on my reading. Fortunately, however, the prevailing ethos of book reviewers allows me to follow the common example and write a review of a book I haven’t read.
Mark Bittner’s fine book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, is, in the words of Publishers Weekly, an “appealing, heartfelt account of one man’s attempt to bond with wildlife.” As Booklist informs us, “Bittner moved to San Francisco in search of himself . . . A period of homelessness came to an end when he was hired to help an elderly woman.” This unsung elderly woman lived on Telegraph Hill, a San Francisco landmark that is a must-see for tourists and presidential candidates who wish to court the city’s voters. The job did not include the care of the wild parrots who frequent this landmark, but Mr. Bittner, compared by one reviewer to a latter-day Saint Francis, went the extra mile and developed the habit of feeding the parrots out of his hand and becoming emotionally intimate with them.
The book was made into a documentary film, or vice versa. It is unclear whether the film is as good as, better than, or not as good as, the book. From my conversations with other members of the Kachina Round Table, however, I conclude that I should recommend both without qualification. I’m warned that I shouldn’t give away the surprising ending, which seems to involve a love story.
Mr. Bittner now has an up-to-date web site, which can be found on Google by typing in the keywords “wild,” “parrots,” and “telegraph.” From the FAQ page of this excellent website one can learn everything one would want to know about the subject of adopted birds. The question that interested this presidential candidate was: Can they talk? The answer: No.
In my last column I promised, in my well-chosen words, “that if elected, he [I] will do everything in his [my] power to see that a Constitutional Amendment be passed to enable American parrots over the age of 18 to exercise their rights to charge the ballot box.”
Not the least important facet of Mark Bittner’s work on parrots is that he makes us rethink our positions on matters of grave interest to Americans, including certain birds. The question that comes naturally to mind is this: Should nontalking parrots be given suffrage, a word that reeks of the nineteenth century?
Assuming a relationship between the ability to talk and the ability to think, whether clearly or befuddledly, on the grave matters of state, I must reluctantly but cheerfully modify my earlier vow. I now solemnly promise that if elected, I will do everything in my power to see that a Constitutional Amendment be passed to enable talking American parrots over the age of 18 to exercise their rights to charge the ballot box.
In my dual capacities as the book reviewer and a candidate for president of these United States of America on the fastest-growing political party in the Milky Way, the Dead Rights Party, I find myself in the moral quandary of having to decide to which of these two roles I am bound to direct my attention.
My editor reminds me that my contract stipulates that I write a semi-monthly column in which I warn my fellow Americans which books in our vast libraries and bookstores, used and new, should be avoided. I remind my editor that there is no stipulation in said contract that I cannot exercise my right as a voter over the age of thirty-five to run for the highest office in the land. His reply, that I was not born in these United States, is a valid point, though I have had to remind him that one plank on the Dead Rights platform is the passing of a constitutional amendment to fix that outmoded oversight.
But to the question: should this column be a book review, or should I use it to espouse one or another of the causes to which I, as a legally dead person, am committed?
Answer: I have recently taken time from my frenetic schedule to read a book. Ergo. . .
The Mind & the Brain, co-written by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley, is subtitled Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Dr. Schwartz, unlike your average PhD, is one of those doctors who can do you some good, especially if you happen to suffer from OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine. Ms. Begley, unlike your average person whose last name begins with a B, writes fancy prose and knows where to put commas and semi-colons. She is the award-winning science columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
In a mere 375 pages, Dr. Schwartz proves that people and laboratory monkeys have minds, not just three pounds of grey gelatin called a brain. Apparently philosophers and neurologists have long been skeptical on this point. It is important that we, and presumably our pets, have minds, says Schwartz with the help of his award-winning co-author. Otherwise we would be automatons and life would be an illusion. We would not have free will, with the result that we couldn’t achieve our goals. I, to use a ready example, could not be running for president. My wife, who in her pre-coffin days suffered from OCD, could not have been cured of her habit of making me take out the trash every day of the week.
The proof of this strange theory that people have minds is that the theory of quantum mechanics is true. The devil is in the details.
If you have half a mind, you will want to read this book. If I am elected president, I will convince a mindless Congress to make it required reading for every doctor in America, including all those Ph.D.s whose usefulness to society is in serious doubt.
Studies have shown that the average New Year resolution continues in effect for fifteen (15) days.
This high number is attributed to (1) what remains of the Protestant work ethic, (2) the stoical among us, and (3) the tendency among the rest of us to make easy-to-keep resolutions—in a word, cheating.
The same studies disclose that the most common resolution concerns a change of diet. A startling revelation. I would have guessed that the average American would resolve, while watching the Rose Bowl Parade, to become a kinder, gentler, less cynical person in the year to come. (Disclosure: I myself annually resolve to remain the kinder, gentler ass-kicking satirist laboring away in a way that is peculiarly my own.)
The second most common resolution is to make more money. The questionnaire follows up this anticipated response by querying the respondent concerning what he or she plans to do with the extra cash. Leading the list is the purchase of an expensive vehicle, most often a Hummer (men) or a Lexus (women). This, too, awoke me from my dogmatic slumber. I would have thought that the average American craves money in order to distribute it to the less fortunate. (Disclosure: I myself give a tenth of my earnings to the church of my choice. My earnings are, I must admit, meager: I took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience soon after my wife had me burned to a crisp and deposited me in an urn. Ten percent of nothing is—you do the math).
But enough of the studies. I come before you today, my fellow Americans, as the leading, indeed only, candidate for President of these United States on the—let me check this out—yes, the Dead Rights ticket. You have besieged me with questions, not always kindly put, concerning my proposals for making America an even greater nation.
Today I wish to announce that, if nominated I will run, if elected I will serve, and that one of my first acts as president of the aforementioned great nation will be the establishment of a new national holiday. That holiday will be named Break Day. It will be so named because it will be devoted to breaking the resolutions we as Americans have made on the onset of a new year. Mark this date on your 2005 calendar: January 2.
The festivities will begin on Break Day Eve, at halftime of the last bowl game that has been played. At that time all those who have resolved to eat healthier food and less of it will, with no feelings of guilt, put down their alfalfa sprouts and salt-free crackers and follow their natural instincts. The visions of sugar-plummed Hummers and Lexuses will be excised from their morbid imaginations. On that eve, and on the day following, they will go about high-fiving and crying, “Back to the Old!”
My Nobel-studded committee of economic advisors informs me that this day will keep the engines of economic growth humming.
[Inaudible question, but unkindly put.]
I refer all questions to my advisors.
[Semi-audible question concerning identity of those advisors.]
Due to technical difficulties beyond my control, my website is not yet operative. Thank you for your patience on this matter.
Q. Could you speak to the question of what those technical difficulties might be?
A. I have not yet mastered the art of running a computer. Keep in mind that I come from a lowly background. I am the only candidate who can claim to inhabit an urn. As my ads correctly inform you, “There was no room for him in a coffin.”
[Exit candidate, right.]
I have chosen to take half a month off my reviewing schedule in order to render heartfelt thanks and further suggestions to my colleague, Myles na Gopaleen, Jr., who has changed my status from ash-with-a-remembrance-of-books-past to ash-with-greater-potential. It was courtesy of the work of his think tank, the renowned Myles Junior Think Tank (MJTT), that I was able to attend, see, hear, and review a concert consisting largely of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Opus 125). It will also be courtesy of same that I will be able to attend and view other concerts, films, and plays of the contemporary world.
In the sweet phrase of our editor, I have been “semi-resurrected.”
Having come so far, however, I crave more. While I cannot possibly doubt that the human spirit lives on after the body has “slipped over the Western cataract,” as late great Wallace Stevens so admirably put it, I believe that that body can be fully resurrected. If “semi” is possible, I reason, “fully” cannot be far behind.
This belief is based, not on the Bible I continue to venerate, but on the successful application of scientific intelligence to the problems of life. If the MJTT can fix up a bottle-shaped urn with failing faculties in less than ten days, what is to prevent it from completing the task by restoring the full panoply of its potentialities?
The living, I am certain, cannot imagine the humiliation one feels when waddling into a public place equipped with robotic features that only resemble legs, arms, fingers, eyes, ears, and the rest—and without the benefit of the clothing that distinguishes cultured societies from the hunting and fishing clans that once dotted our planet!
One would almost prefer to attend such public events in an invisible state.
Myles, my dear friend and colleague, finish the job. I request this, not for my own sake, but for the sake of the billions who will otherwise suffer the fate of the grave or the urn. Leave aside the problem of the shrinking planet; resurrect those who sense a slight discomfort in their post-life domiciles. If you can solve the energy problem by filching half the moons of Jupiter, setting them in orbit around Earth, covering them with tinfoil, you can make at least some of us immortal and with no sense of humiliation.
I hear you ask, what about the problem of over-population? I answer: send the excess of human beings to those moons.
You have thought big and brave thoughts. It is now time to think bigger and braver ones.
from October 5, 2003
In an effort to persuade girls between the age of 12 and 17 to read the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville have put the Good Book in a new format: the fashion magazine, which they market under the title Revolve. The New Testament can now be purchased and read alongside quizzes, celebrity birthdays, and pictures of beautiful, smiling young Christian women.
Say the girls who use it, it’s like awesome.
Say I, wait till they put the Old Testament in the same format. A picture of Adam and Eve eating apples in the nude would be, well, you know, like truly awesome. Of course to preserve the fashionableness, they would not be eating apples; they would be smoking marijuana and singing that old children’s favorite, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And of course there would have to be a CD in the package with Peter, Paul, and Mary of New Testament fame belting it out, as well as a quiz on the best way to obtain this illegal substance.
Say I, the same goes for a picture of Sarah and Hagar battling it out over the rights to Abraham. Thomas Nelson Publishers could include a discussion question: If these two had been fortunate enough to have been born into Christian families, would they be acting like this? Or, What does this teach us about the evils of polygamy and adultery? Or, more boldly, If this situation applies to your nuclear family, how would you peacefully resolve the problem in such a way that everyone goes home happy and with their self-esteem intact?
The idea for a spiced-up version of the New Testament came to the researchers at Thomas Nelson Publishers when they discovered, to their chagrin, that teenagers don’t read the Bible anymore.
Apparently their research has not been extensive enough for them to discover that teenagers don’t read much of anything anymore. But they are in the Bible business, so they would have to discover that truth in their own spare time, which they undoubtedly spend channel surfing in quest of the best of the new sitcoms.
Am I advising the reader not to purchase a copy of Revolve? Not at all. I’m suggesting that they purchase a dozen or so and distribute them to the adults on their Christmas list. This book will make a wonderful, even awesome, gag gift.