Monday, February 24, 2014

Behind The Sherlock Mania: The Detective's Creator In Both Fact & Fiction

(With a slew of movies and British and American television series, Sherlock Holmes has never been bigger since he went over Reichenbach Falls to his apparent death in an 1893 story.  Here are two book reviews, published in April 2008, about Holmes' creator.) 
Like many a lad, I drank in the Sherlock Holmes detective stories like so many bottles of soda pop without knowing anything about their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It didn’t really matter because Holmes and the world of 221B Baker Street seemed so lifelike that many readers believed that he really existed.
In the years since, I have come across occasional references to Conan Doyle in connection with his fascination with spiritualism, but only got the full measure of the man in two seemingly different but rather similar books – The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a biography by Andrew Lycett, and Arthur and George, a novel by Julian Barnes.
Both similarly portray Conan Doyle as a likeable medical doctor of middling competence who became a prolific, enormously popular and wealthy writer, historian, fantasist and propagandist for Britannia and his myriad pet causes who in the waning years of Victorian England dove into the deep end of the spiritualism pool head first. Once in those charlatan-filled waters, Conan Doyle did not cast aside the deductive logic of his own medical training that his famous detective used to such great effect as to apply it (with little success) to the fuzzy pseudo-religious belief that the dead can be contacted by mediums who are able to inform them about the afterlife.
Long story short: Conan Doyle was as prim as any proper Victorian gentleman, but he was a bit of a kook.
Conan Doyle repeatedly crossed wands with Harry Houdini, and the great American magician, escapologist and spiritualism debunker played him like a cheap violin. A séance spirit guide called Pheneas seems to have dominated the last years of Conan Doyle's life to little effect, although second wife Jean apparently was able to channel her desire for a luxurious vacation home through Pheneas, which Conan Doyle promptly had built at considerable expense.
* * * * *
Through no intention of Lycett, I concluded after laboring through his 527-page biography that there indeed is little for which Conan Doyle should be remembered other than his marvelous detectives stories, including my faves, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventure of the Speckled Band and A Scandal in Bohemia.
Lycett's biography is not merely exhaustive; it's exhausting. He catalogues Conan Doyle's athletic exploits (mostly mediocre), business deals (mostly flops), and speaking tours and trips abroad (mostly boring).
More interesting is his relationship with his mother, the beloved "Mam," with whom he never cut the apron strings, and with his two families.
There was his tubercular first wife Louise and their children. Conan Doyle was devoted to her in a chivalric sort of way but cold as a cucumber to children Mary and Kingsley, and almost certainly was sleeping with Jean, the second wife, before Louise's death. He was slightly more paternal to their issue, sons Denis and Adrian and daughter Billy, but as is all too typical of the offspring of famous fathers for whom their work comes first, all were a bit blarmy in the bean.
* * * * *
On the other hand, Barnes’s Arthur and George is a fast read at 386 pages and an engaging one at that.
This historic novel concerns Conan Doyle's most compelling real-life case, which Lycett covers in a mere handful of pages while revealing what Conan Doyle had for breakfast during that period, the gentleman’s clubs where he lunched and the worthies with whom he supped in the evening.
Arthur is, of course, Conan Doyle, while George is George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer who was framed and convicted in 1903 of mutilating farm animals in the rural West Midlands.
Conan Doyle, always the one for taking up causes, became interested in the case and met the young Edalji in prison, where he naively clung to the belief that racism played no role in his fate and justice would prevail sooner or later.
It turned out to be later and then only partial vindication as Conan Doyle proved Edalji's innocence but failed to win him restitution. Meanwhile, several years passed before the young man’s law license was restored.
* * * * *
Lycett concludes that it was off putting that a man like Conan Doyle with such a commanding physical presence should have become a wraith before his death at age 71 in 1930.

But, he writes:
"It was also fitting, since, from his start in Edinburgh, that city of contrasts, Arthur's life had been about crossing boundaries and trying to reconcile opposites.
"At the time the obituaries were respectful. But there was a sense that his day had passed. As the bright young things of the jazz age struggled with economic depression, they were not greatly interested in a man who had become obsessed with another world."
A sad epitaph for such a great storyteller, but then Conan Doyle never knew when to quit. Just like his Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

LBJ's Achievements & Vietnam: Let's Revisit That In A Few Decades, Okay?

LBJ and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
As the carriers of Lyndon Baines Johnson's torch prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his landmark Great Society legislation, they are asking us -- or people like myself of a certain age, anyway -- to do the impossible: Reconcile the Vietnam War, an atrocity that wasted nearly 60,000 American lives and millions more Vietnamese lives that he never understood and from which he never backed down, and achievements like the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, and the Clean Air Act.
The torch carriers, including daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Linda Bird Johnson Robb, are not asking Americans to put aside memories of the war as the LBJ Presidential Library prepares for a year of celebrations, but rather judge their father for more than the quagmire that sank his presidency, ushering in the nightmare era of Richard Nixon, and has indelibly tarnished his legacy.  
To which I say, let's revisit that in another few decades when the history of the era will be easier to rewrite.
That is when I and other Baby Boomers will be gone and the wounds of Vietnam have begun to heal, while nevertheless celebrating in the here and now the extraordinary domestic agenda that LBJ pushed through in the five years after the Kennedy assassination -- an agenda that has withstood the test of time, as well.
Still, it is the 36th president's polarizing image -- a tragic consequence of which was the echo chamber in which only LBJ's sycophantic aides were listened to as the war became an unmitigated disaster -- that has resonated most loudly down through the decades since his premature death at age 64 in 1973 of a broken heart, as some people will have it.
Beyond Johnson's daughters and surviving inner circle, some historians believe that acknowledging his achievements is long overdue.

"I absolutely think the time has come,"Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Johnson biographer, told The New York Times.  "When he left office, the trials and tribulations of the war were so emotional that it was hard to see everything else he had done beyond Vietnam. The country fundamentally changes as a result of L.B.J.’s presidency." 
Indeed, it is easy to forget that Johnson was a true populist who believe that it was government's responsibility to reach out to and help Americans, a concept that today's Republican Party has thrown under the bus and even many Democrats seem to shy away from.
All of this begs a couple of questions:
First, while the Civil Rights Act empowered African-Americans, weren't they disproportionately the victims of Vietnam?  Absolutely, and in that regard the war was a deadly discriminator.
Second, if Kennedy had lived, would he have become as unpopular as Johnson because of Vietnam and his own more modest domestic achievements would have gone unrecognized? 
Yes, but this assumes that Kennedy would have expanded the war as LBJ did, and on this note the record is mixed.  Some historians believe that he would have and others do not, noting the great reluctance with which he supported the modest buildup of then infinitesimal American presence, which followed his Bay of Pigs disaster.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Meteorological Indignities & The Winter Of Our (Well, My) Discontent

It was the final meteorological indignity in a winter full of meteorological indignities.
Not the fact that there have been only a few hours of temperatures above freezing since New Year's Day.  (The afternoon of January 31; ah, I remember it well.) 
Not the half-assed job the highway department has done in keeping the road past the mountain retreat open. (Multiple plowings after a minor snowfall on a Sunday, an overtime day, and neglect after a 10-inch snowfall on a weekday.) 
Not that the snow pack is so deep and hard from repeated snows.  Jack and Nicky can't walk on it because it's so damned slippery, and have taken to having to do their business in the driveway.  (You can see from the photo that they're not exactly miniature poodles.) 
Not the weather forecasters getting it wrong pretty consistently. (Mark Twain was right.) 
Not coming upon photos of the lagoon where we would hang out in the dead of winter in the Florida Keys.  (In the buff.  In the 1970s.)
Not that 5,000 or so miles from Sochi, driving on ice hereabouts is like an Olympic event. (The interstate yet again closed by jackknifed tractor trailers, ho hum.) 
Not that we'll end up burning three tons of coal before spring is sprung. (While the solar roof panels won't generate electricity because they're snow covered.) 
Not having to wear a long-sleeved turtleneck and socks to bed some nights.  (I haven't worn pajamas since I was a teenager.)
No, the final indignity was the nor'easter.
As in a foot of wind-driven snow on the front end yesterday morning and another eight inches on the back end last night, including an extraordinary four inches in one hour.  Can you say five-foot drifts?

But hey, the power stayed on and we're pretty cozy.  Just hoping we can make our way out this evening for a Valentine's Day dinner and back home for the kickoff of the second season of "House of Cards."

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Have Republicans Secretly Given Up On Taking Back The White House?

As anyone with even rudimentary math skills can figure out, the Republican Party's chances of retaking the White House, at least by honest means, continue to diminish.  

Two recent developments -- the refusal of Senate Republicans to approve a modest extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed and the House Republican leadership's announcement that it won't play ball on immigration reform this year -- are slaps in the face of the middle class and Hispanics, two voting blocs that are fleeing the ever shrinking GOP in droves but it must curry favor with to win national elections. 
Then there is the party's jihad against the Affordable Care Act, which warts and all (and then have been plenty) is beginning to fulfill its promise of providing access to affordable health care for millions more Americans while lowering costs.  In other words, with every passing month, more people benefit and the party's high-decibel propaganda becomes a little more hollow.
Even given the Republican Party's march ever deeper into the national electoral wilderness, even given its steady metamorphosis into an overwhelmingly white party that worships the rich and disparages the poor, the elderly and the infirm, even given its refusal to stop fighting the culture wars (same-sex marriage, abortion, and so on) that fewer and fewer voters care about, even given its predilection for faux attention-diverting scandals like Benghazi, Solyndra and the New Black Panthers, a thought occurs to me:
Although no one will dare say so publicly, the leaders of the Tea Party lunatic fringe that has become the tail that wags the party dog don't care if the Oval Office remains out of the Republican grasp.  Pushing a conservative agenda in Congress and on the state level is enough.  This was all but confirmed in a New York Times article about Tea Party-backed PACs raising tons of money while PACs like moderate stalwart Karl Rove's Crossroads are treading water.  There was nary a peep about winning back the biggest prize of all.  Toppling moderate stalwarts like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was more important.
White House be damned.
* * * * *
One other factor makes my theory more plausible, or perhaps I should say less insane.
Having been burned badly with Mitt Romney, who was nominated in 2012 to face off against President Obama despite his questionable conservative bona fides, it is unlikely that the party will nominate anyone in 2016 who has even a faint whiff of moderation about him.  (Yo diehards: Romney still would have lost the election if he had won the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Virginia.) 
This no-fly list includes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who despite my assertions here, may be mortally wounded by revelations that he took political bullying and New Jersey's pay-to-play political culture to new heights.
(Meanwhile, for a list of lessons not learned in 2012 and since, check out "What Could Possibly Go Wrong?," my take on the Romney-Ryan collapse.) 
Beyond Little Ricky Santorum, whose claim to fame is that he was the last conservative clown standing in the Republican presidential primary clown car in 2012, the list of the party's presidential wannabes is a Who's Who of national unelectables.  Heck, even Ronald Reagan would be unable to get the nomination if he were alive today.
* * * * *
Back to that math thing: The problem within the problem for the Republican Party is that because of its continuing refusal to compromise on anything on the national level while alienating vast swaths of voters, the Democrats begin the 2016 presidential race with 246 electoral votes. They are California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), New Hampshire (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Maine (4), Minnesota (10), Michigan (16), New York (29), New Jersey (14), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Wisconsin (10) and Washington (12).
Sure, you can quibble about a couple of these states, but the fact remains that the Democrats' traditional political base remains as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and only 24 more electoral votes are needed to win it all.
Further complicating matters for Republicans is that political parties used to run on their accomplishments, but the GOP is unable to point to a single accomplishment since the eight year Bush-Cheney sinkhole.  That is unless you consider attacks on the president, some of them thinly veiled racism, hindering efforts to jumpstart a still struggling economy and shutting down government to be accomplishments.
* * * * *
I rest my case.
Uh, not so fast there.  Back to that "at least by honest means" thing: With ample assists from fabulously wealthy fascist oligarchs like the Koch Brothers, manipulating the rules of the game through laws to allow states to proportionally award their electoral votes to the popular vote winner in each congressional district, and a Supreme Court that has become a de facto arm of the Republican Party, anything is possible in 2016.
Still, for the time being, expect another Democratic landslide -- and the possibility that key Republicans don't give an elephant's ass if that is the case.