Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Critical Mass

My six-week vacation

A creepy and beautiful morning in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

A creepy and beautiful morning in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

As I haven’t blogged in six weeks, a lot of people – literally half a dozen – have been asking if my computer is broken. That’s not the case. Nor have I been conducting a sociological experiment in social media deprivation, as tempting as that sounds. None of that. Without trying to sound as haughty as Brett Easton Ellis, I’ve been using the time finishing up the writing of two books.

One is a biography of an interesting fellow that a local family is paying me to write. The latter is a novel, co-written with a dead man.  As the former is nearly complete and the second is in the hands of a New York City agent, I am now free to resume writing The Critical Mass. Yes, that means all of the left-wing, pseudo-intellectual, faux-philosophical, sociopathicultural smart-assing that any human can handle. And it also means the resumption, this Sunday, of the greatest time-saving device since the Slap Chop, “I Read the Sunday New York Times, So  You Don’t Have To.”

In the meantime, this post is accompanied by a cool photo I took in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery while walking my dog one morning. I’d meant to put it on the site with my next blog. And, as you can see by the lack of snow on the ground, and green leaves still on the trees, I’ve kept my word.

The Critical Mass

I have stories to kill for

Here’s an excerpt from an unpublished novel, Amazon Fever:

Olivia sat up in the water. “In apartheid South Africa, I would have been consigned to Soweto. In pre-Civil War America, I would have been a slave – a house slave, but a slave nonetheless. So I am black.”

Elizabet rolled her eyes. “You are a crazy blonde with a very nice tan.”

“My color is not a tan.” Olivia lifted her shirt, revealing small breasts that were the same coffee-with-cream color as the rest of her.

“Wow! You’re almost as dark as me!” Elisabet lifted her shirt and hitched up her bra, and underneath were ample breasts, with the copper of her Indian heritage sneaking through.

The writer is Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama neuroscientist who went on a shooting rampage in February after she was denied tenure. So I’m reading this crap – she actually uses the word “bespoke” – in Harper’s, a very smart and literate magazine that represents the very height of western civilization, leaving me thinking: “What do I have to do to get published in one of these high-minded magazines? Kill three people?

It’s not a first.  The New York Times and The Washington Post did allow “Industrial Society and its Future” to hit the presses after its author, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, promised he would end his campaign of terror if it were published. Most writers don’t work that way, although I do have some questions about Hunter S. Thompson.

Last weekend, I spent a few hours in one of our chain bookstores, a supermarket of publications that are as bright and shiny as the waxed cucumbers in your grocer’s vegetable section. Browsing the  highbrow section, just a few degrees of separation from the bodybuilding mags, I sat with a handful of these things, surprised at how inaccessible the fiction can be. Too dry. Where’s the humor? Where are the interesting characters? Where are the great ideas, the satire, the hypocrisies laid bare? Is your navel really that interesting? I won’t name names. OK, here’s one name: The Objective Standard, supposedly inspired by the philosophies of Ayn Rand. The cover should come with a fine layer of dust. If you’re going to publish a magazine with its main themes established by a famous writer, try the Marquis de Sade.

Finally, I tugged Lapham’s Quarterly from the rack, lost behind The Weekly Standard, like a child hiding behind its mother’s leg. I flipped open to a page with a quote from Hippocrates. “Life is short, art is long.” I scribbled that in my notebook. Here, at last, is a magazine that I can aspire to. Contributors to this “Arts and Letters” issue included Pliny the Elder, John Ruskin, Louis Armstrong, George Orwell, Alexandr Pushkin,  Vasily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, Billie Holiday and Kurt Vonnegut. Not a killer among them. But dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. So, I’m getting closer every day.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday Times, so you don’t have to

This morning, whole-grain bread dough is rising in the kitchen, and the music is a collection of Jelly Roll Morton. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the jazz pianist intones, “if the women don’t get you, the liquor must.”

1, Far from suffering the consequences of their actions, over the past decade the corporations that defy U.S. sanctions by doing business with Iran have been rewarded with more than $107 billion in government contracts. These companies are doing business in some of the most-important sectors of the Iranian economy, including oil and gas, which The Times’ front-page story this morning describes as “a huge source of revenue for the Iranian government and a stronghold of the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a primary focus of the Obama administration’s proposed sanctions because it oversees Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.” The long story suggests the Obama administration is making some inroads on this policy self-immolation; of 74 companies worldwide that received federal money while doing business with Iran, 49 are listed as currently active (most notably ConocoPhillips), another 11 are doing business in Iran but plan no new investment (Honeywell) and 14 have withdrawn from Iran. Some of this business is in direct defiance of the Iran Sanctions Act, passed 14 years ago by the Clinton Administration. There’s a lesson in here for the folks who believe corporations don’t need regulation, that they’ll simply conduct themselves in the best interests of the public.

2, Staff members who have defected from the Church of Scientology report they were beaten as well as “pressured to have abortions; forced to work without sleep on little pay; and held incommunicado if they wanted to leave.” No reaction from Scientologists Tom Cruise, John Travolta or Nancy Cartwright, best known as the voice of Bart Simpson.

3, In South Korea, police say a man has been arrested for stealing 1,700 pairs of shoes. People there traditionally remove their shoes before they enter homes or public places such as restaurants and hospitals. The suspect, now jailed, had been charged twice before with stealing shoes, in 2005 and 2008; the second time, he was discovered with 1,200 pairs in his possession. As The Times writes, “stealing shoes was a case of if the shoe fits, take it.” The thief’s modus operandi was  revealed last month, when he was observed attending a funeral in a cheap pair of shoes and leaving in an expensive pair, then twice returning in a pair of sandals, each time leaving with someone’s nicer footwear. This sole Seoul sole perpetrator is identified only by his surname, Park, which in South Korea doesn’t exactly narrow the field of suspects.

4, Today’s fascinating obituary is “Patricia Travers, Violinist Who Vanished, Dies at 82.” A prodigy whose first solo appearance with the New York Philharmonic was 1939 at age 11, Travers’ last public performance was with the Boston Symphony, in 1951, when she was 23. She then appears to have simply given up, living with her parents in Clifton, N.J., and then alone after they died, a classic study in childhood prodigies. “Probably, as happens in most early-career artists, she just lost motivation and perhaps went in quest of the proverbial lost childhood,” said the 80-year-old conductor Lorin Maazel. As a child prodigy himself, he led the Pittsburgh Symphony with Travers as child soloist.  In the final paragraph, The Times says Travers’ lawyer noted, “The only person for whom Ms. Travers seems to have played as she grew older, he said, was her mother.”

5, And his death at age 90 casts light on the astonishing story of Henri Salmide. A German naval officer, in 1944 Salmide was assigned the task of blowing up the French port of Bordeaux before it fell into Allied hands. The Times obituary says the Germans expected 3,500 to die in the explosion. Instead, Petty Officer Heinz Stahlschmidt, as he was known then, went off on what would have been a worthy scene from the film Inglourious Basterds, detonating the explosives in the bunker where he had stored them, and killing an estimated 50 Nazis. “I acted according to my Christian conscience,” he said in 1997. “I could not accept that the port of Bordeaux be wantonly destroyed when the war was clearly lost.” Married to a French woman after the war, and a naturalized French citizen with a new French name, the French historian Dominique Lormier said Salmide never received proper recognition, saying “the French Resistance wanted to self-appropriate the story by saying that they were behind Salmide’s actions.”

6, On the Automobiles page, the owner of a 1950 Nash Ambassador Custom (appealingly ugly, typical of the era) attributes his interest in the car to the Superman TV show of the mid-’50s. “There must’ve been one car dealer in all of Metropolis, because everyone drove a Nash,” Rich Conaty says. “Lois Lane had a Nash Rambler. Clark Kent drove a Nash-Healey sports car. For a good chunk of Superman, you saw nothing but Nashes.”

7, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, found an very socialistic – or is it humanistic? – approach to helping her starving citizens following last week’s earthquake. She asked the nation’s grocers to give away food. Government-sactined looting. In the Week in Review, The Times notes, “Its hard to name a single disruption in the social order, natural or man-made, that has not triggered looting somewhere.” That would include Hurricane Katrina, Chicago snowstorms, Canadian police strikes, Italian lava flows and the fall of Rome.

8, The Book Review takes a look at the cleverly titled This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson, whose last book, The Dead Beat, profiled obituary writers. Reviewer Pagan Kennedy notes that Johnson claims “dead librarians are more interesting than any other type of dead person.” High praise, indeed, considering how many types of dead people populate our cemeteries. “They are people who struggle to bring the dead back to life,” Kennedy writes of Johnson’s intent. “For they are waging the holy battle to resurrect the entire world, over and over again….”

9, “The Changling,” The NY Times Magazine‘s profile of Joanna Newsom, the harp-playing freak folkie, has to be judged a success: It has me interested in a musician I’d never before considered granting any of my hard-to-come-by time. I suppose it’s that quirky thing, again….

10, Another magazine story,”Cyberposse,” describes the new Chinese phenomena, “a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town.” It doesn’t take much to imagine this being taken steps further, to a world where the Internet is the mechanism for fear-driven, anonymous personal terrorism.

11, In the magazine’s “On Language” column, we see the emergence of the word “optics” as the new political buzzword for “public relations.” As in, how did it look? To me, this sounds as whacked as “metrics,” which was merely another faux-weighty phrase suggesting a political calculation. I find both only slightly less irritating than my own pet peeve, which I’ve loudly blogged about in the past, enjoying a meal at a restaurant only to have a member of the wait staff point to my order and cheerfully ask, “Are you still working on that?”

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