Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


It's a good day!

Sorry I've been away. We went to San Diego last week to have a bit of a vacation, and I went to the Comic-Con (read about it here!), so I had no access to yonder Internet for a few days, and since I've been back, I've been busy. I'll try to be better now, though!

Anyway, it's a good day because today is the anniversary of our wedding. It's been 15 years! Crystal is the "gift" for 15 years, but Krys and I never get anything for each other except cute cards, so she got no crystal! I'm very proud that we've lasted for 15 years, mainly because I've seen some people I know have marriages that don't last and also because most of my friends waited until they were older, so I'm fairly proud that I was so young and knew who I wanted to spend my life with.

It's still very cool being married, and it's a wonderful feeling to know that Krys and I will always be there for each other. I just thought I'd mention what a good day it is. And promise I'll post something substantial very soon!

Labels: , ,


What I've been reading

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett. 1997, Simon & Schuster, 333 pages.

This novel is strange. It's not strange in a Joycean way, because it's very straightforward, but it's strange because it doesn't seem that Bennett knows what he wants to do with it. It is a story of a cynical novelist who travels to the Belgian Congo in 1959, just on the cusp of independence, to be with the woman he loves, a fiery, idealistic journalist. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about the transfer of power in the Congo from the Belgians to the Congolese knows that Patrice Lumumba, who was the first prime minister, was deposed in a coup ten weeks after taking power and a few months later killed (probably with the Americans' blessing). Lumumba has become a mythic figure in the history of anti-colonialism and African independence, and he haunts this book as well, although he's not in it that much.

Bennett gives us an interesting pair in James Gillespie and Inès Sabiani, the book's star-crossed lovers. James is older (by thirteen years) and much more jaded than Inès, who believes in completely biased journalism (she's a communist) while James tries to see all sides of a story. James finds his relationship threatened by the volatile situation in the Congo, which is bad and getting worse, but which offers Inès a chance to get involved in the way she loves and the way James hates. The book is really about how their affair disintegrates as James realizes that a simple love affair will never be as important to Inès as grand ideas on the world stage. She leaves him, but he can never stop loving her. That, of course, becomes a problem.

The difficulty with this book is that we know exactly where it's going, and while that's not always the point, as a thriller, it doesn't deliver, and as a love story, it's a bit lacking (for different reasons). The reviews compare it to, most commonly, a Graham Greene novel, but the crucial difference is that it's written with almost 40 years' hindsight, so while Greene's novels have a sense of not knowing exactly who's who and who's the bad guy, this novel can examine the legacy of the early independence movement and buy into the Lumumba fantasy more than a contemporary novel might (or might not, of course). We know how the Congo spiraled out of control fairly quickly (and this book was written in 1997, prior to the latest round of violence in the eastern part of the country), so Bennett can subtly indicate that the involvement of the United States (personified by Mark Stipe, a CIA agent who befriends Gillespie) was part of what caused the country to fall apart. It makes this slightly more a propaganda piece than a true thriller, because Bennett is guiding us toward an anti-Belgian, anti-American viewpoint based on the future history of the country, which a contemporary author might not do. (I'm not, I should stress, saying that Bennett believes this viewpoint or, if he does, that it's a bad viewpoint to have. It's apparently fairly clear that the CIA was, if not complicit, at least aware that Lumumba's enemies were going to slaughter him, so it's not as if writing with an anti-American tone is that offensive. I'm just pointing out that it's fairly obvious, and it's mostly because Bennett "knows how it all turns out.")

As a love story, it falls apart even more quickly, because the affair is falling apart at the beginning of the book, and Bennett never quite convinces us that James and Inès had the affair of the century, so its dissolution isn't as powerful (although Bennett's writing when describing the fractured affair is very good; the best in the book). Bennett doesn't quite earn the tragedy of James and Inès, because we don't really believe that James could be so beguiled in the first place, so why is he so addicted to Inès? It's crucial that we believe it, because it's the hinge on which Gillespie's final actions rotate. James becomes much more pathetic as the book continues, because despite Inès telling him early in their relationship that she loved him, it's hard to believe from her actions. So when she breaks his heart, it feels like he should have gotten over it. Come on, Gillespie!

In the end, his love clashes with his lack of belief in, well, anything. If you've ever seen Casablanca or The Third Man, you know that the cynic grows a conscience and helps the person who needs his help. What's interesting is that Bennett makes it clear that James does this (yes, he can't escape the conscience!) not for noble reasons, like Rick Blaine, but because of his love for Inès - he's convinced that she'll come back to him if he doesn't cave to the authorities. The problem with this goes back to the unconvincing way Bennett gives us the affair. James is conflicted because he's unsure if Inès will come back to him or not, but we as the reader are sure she won't, because she's never given any reasons that James is anything else but a momentary stop on her way between one revolution and the next. Therefore, his sacrifice is meaningless, and his loss of cynicism, even for a moment, rings false. It's frustrating.

Bennett writes very well, and he really does a fine job creating these characters - perhaps too well, because then he can't fit these two people together. The politics of the book, in fact, are quite well done, as we get a good sense of what it was like in the Congo in 1959-60. I'm fascinated by the independence movement in Africa, and while Bennett changes the time frame so that it's not a very good historical document, he does a good job showing us the effect the independence movement had on both the whites and the natives, as for many Europeans, they considered Africa their home and couldn't imagine the violence that accompanied many independence movements. Bennett does a good job with that, and when that takes center stage, the book is often gripping.

The Catastrophist is a difficult book to recommend, because while there's a lot of good writing and some good ideas in the book, the central relationship is poorly done and therefore affects much of the rest of it. It's an easy book to read and it's an interesting look at a volatile period of history, but it also falls short in a lot of places. But it also shows why Krys and I call some incidents "Lumumba moments!"

Labels: , , , ,


People are awesome

This photograph was on the front page of the Valley & State section of the 15 July edition of the Arizona Republic. According to the caption, this SUV was stolen by a dude who was drunk. So now they're going to charge him with theft and DUI. That has to suck. I just love this picture. It sucks for the homeowner, but it's freakin' hilarious.

Labels: , , ,


Sex is fun!

So says Britain's National Health Service!

The NHS (can we call it that?) has released a pamphlet for teens emphasizing that sex can be pleasurable. This, of course, has put some people into a bit of a dither, because won't someone think of the children!!!!! I sympathize with those people, being a parent of daughters (because boys can have sex anytime they want and not worry about the consequences, right?), but I still think the parents are the ones who really have the most influence with whether their kids have sex or not. I know I'll have to deal with this sooner or later, but I'd like to think that Norah will be smart about it - whatever "smart" means in this case.

Who knew sex is fun? Alert the media!

Labels: , , ,


What I've been reading

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago by Simon Baatz. 2008, Harper Perennial, 541 pages.

Most of us, I would presume, have heard of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, at least in conjunction with the films made of their exploits, from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (with Jimmy Stewart) to Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (with Orson Welles and E. G. Marshall and, weirdly enough, Gavin McLeod) or even to Tom Kalin's Swoon, which is the only movie of the three I've seen (although I'd like to see the others). The story of Leopold and Loeb is so very weird that it fascinates us, even 85 years later. It's one of those crimes that continues to defy explanation, which is probably why it remains interesting to study.

Baatz writes in his book that no one prior to this has written a book on the case, which seems odd. But here this one is, and in the best tradition of popular history, it's a well researched and erudite yet gripping read, mainly because of the subject matter. Baatz gets a bit turgid when dealing with the courtroom scenes, but when he writes about Leopold and Loeb's relationship and the days leading up to and following the murder, the book races along in an almost fictional style. Similarly, once Leopold and Loeb actually go to jail, Baatz does a good job writing about their lives (in Loeb's case, a short one). The trial section isn't bad, but it does drag a bit due to all the back-and-forth legal maneuverings of the two sides.

Leopold and Loeb are a fascinating pair, of course, because it's doubtful either one of them would have pulled off such a horrible crime (murdering a 15-year-old boy for no motive) without the other. Leopold was a shy, extremely intelligent young man who fell in love with Loeb and had an active fantasy life wherein he was the slave of a great king who came to depend on the slave and always offered him his freedom, which the slave refused. Loeb, meanwhile, who was more outgoing and less intelligent than Leopold, dreamed of being the perfect criminal. The two boys complemented each other, as Loeb kept Leopold on the hook by promising sex if he (Leopold) would help in his (Loeb's) crimes - the two worked their way up to murder over the course of a few years - while Leopold allowed Loeb to call the shots while making himself indispensable to Loeb, in much the same way his fantasy slave becomes indispensable to the king. Both boys were from rich families, and both boys had odd relationships with their nannies when they were young - Leopold's seduced him when he was twelve, while Loeb's pushed him to graduate early from high school and enter college before he was ready - it becomes obvious early on that both boys were cauldrons of psychoses that came bubbling out when they met each other and enabled each other's desires.

Baatz goes over the crime in great detail (most of which was provided by Loeb and Leopold themselves) and the trial in even greater detail. Clarence Darrow was the lead attorney (technically he was Loeb's lawyer), which of course sensationalized the case even more, and Robert Crowe, the DA, had his eye on future political office and a reputation as someone who always got the death penalty, even in cases where the defendant pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. The actual trial wasn't even really a trial - Darrow pleaded guilty to avoid a jury trial, but then persuaded the judge to hear arguments by both sides on the degree of mental illness suffered by the boys - not insanity, Darrow argued, but a different kind of mental illness. This allowed him to avoid the jury and essentially place the burden on the judge to determine the sentence, and if he found that Leopold and Loeb suffered from any kind of mental illness, they wouldn't receive the death penalty. Crowe thought the defense was a perversion of justice, but the judge allowed it, and that's what the trial became. By "winning," Darrow got the boys life sentences. Loeb was killed in prison, but Leopold was eventually paroled.

Baatz also does a good job placing the crime in the context of 1920s America. It's interesting reading the contrasting attitudes displayed by the police and members of the press about, say, the boys' sex acts. On the one hand, there's the expected talk about "perversion" and mental deficiencies, but there's also a kind of casual understanding that these things go on and that's just the way life is. Baatz subtly makes the point that, this being the Twenties, boys just experimented with these sorts of things. We also get the usual denunciations of the decadent lifestyles of the young from pulpits across the country, as preachers raged against the anti-religious attitude sweeping the nation (it never ends, does it?). Baatz points out how at least one minister preached a sermon explaining how the death penalty is completely congruent with Christian values. There's a lot of this kind of social context in the book, as the case captured the imagination of the entire country.

For the Thrill of It is an interesting book about a dazzling time in American history and its dark underbelly. Leopold and Loeb were, it seemed, paragons of what American youth could be - they were both intelligent, good-looking, rich, and had bright futures. They didn't have great family lives, it became clear, but neither were they from broken homes. Underneath it all, of course, were dark currents just waiting to be released, and the most interesting part of the book is, as I mentioned, that neither could have done this without the other. The one place the book fails is at conclusively stating why Leopold and Loeb killed a boy. This failure isn't Baatz's, though. Leopold and Loeb themselves could never really provide a conclusive answer to that question. No wonder the crime continues to vex us even today!

Labels: , , , , ,


Yes, the sky is really this blue

When I was back in Pennsylvania, the weather was very nice - the two-month rain storm had abated, the temperatures were in the low- to mid-80s, with nice cloud cover (not too much!), not-too-awful humidity (not like July and August!), cool breezes, and nice cool nights. I mentioned to someone at my picnic reunion how ridiculously hot Arizona is, to the point where you really can't understand the heat unless you've experienced it. An old friend who has lived here backed me up on this. I mentioned that there's never any cloud cover, and someone scoffed at that. No, really, I explained to her, there's hardly ever any cloud cover, and this is for probably a good 250-300 days a year (other days, usually in the winter, are sunny, but there's a few clouds). In case anyone doubts me, I took a picture!

Seriously - that's the sky around here for most of the year. In case you think I'm just showing you a Blue Screen of Death and that's not really the sky, here's some context:

Yes, it can be achingly beautiful. But dang, it gets boring after a while. And, you know, really freakin' hot. Give me scudding clouds punctuated by bursts of sun and the occasional horrible downpour any day!

Labels: , ,