California by Kevin Starr: The End

california (1)It feels a little strange to be reading a book about the history of California when an initiative to break up the state looks like it will make it to the 2016 ballot.  There’s always been an end of the world edge to California, see previous post, but reading about   the state’s history while the people consider breaking the state up left me a little queasy.

I shouldn’t say “the people” yet.  Last poll I heard about had the initiative going down to defeat 59% to 41%.  I’ve only heard the one tech-billionaire-d****e-bag on the radio advocating for the break-up of the state at this point.  Supporters are not coming out of the woodwork as far as I can tell.  (I should state that I do not watch television news, listen only to public radio and follow politics on just a few, generally left-leaning websites, so what do I know?  And that I think the tech-billionaire-d****e-bag behind the initiative is a d****e-bag and I’ll stand by my use of the term.)  Add to this the big book right now California by Edan Lepucki is about the end of the world and takes place in California and while I haven’t seen them, I’m pretty sure the apes in the Planet of the Apes movies take over Marin County, California.

But, we’ve faced the end of the world before, in fiction and in reality, and we’ve rebuilt more than once.  Currently our job growth rate is one percent higher than the national average.

So there.

The penultimate (second to the last–I recently learned this word.) chapter of California focuses on race.  The character of California, like the United States has been largely determined by race, perhaps we should say determined by racism.  As early as 1900 San Francisco was already the most racially diverse city in the country, more diverse than even New York City.  The Korean population of Los Angeles would make it the third largest city in Korea, the Mexican population would do about the same in Mexico.  The economy of California depends on the existence of a cheap, largely undocumented, labor force, but we’ve long tried to keep these millions of workers in pariah status.  Kevin Starr deals with this in the last chapter of his book as he covers Gray Davis’s defeat in a recall election to Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Granting drivers licenses to undocumented workers was one reason why Davis was recalled.

The Progressive Movement which produced so much of the infrastructure that made California a success, such as the University of California and the State College system, both of which used to be basically free to California residents, was so anti-immigrant, especially anti-Japanese, that its difficult to determine if it was a liberal or a conservative movement at heart.

The California Progressives distrusted big government, big corporations, and big labor.  They preferred to see a reforming elite, namely themselves–professional men of the upper middle class, a kind of nobility of the robe–in authority.  They were ardent conservationists, yet they also believed in public works: the dams and reservoirs that made modern California possible, even at the loss of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. They were distrustful of partisan politics and put in place a system of appointive commissions to oversee water and power, harbors, and other on-going functions of government.  They also mandated nonpartisanship in local elections and an open primary system that allowed candidates to enter party primaries regardless of their own political affiliations.  (In 1946 Earl Warren would win both the Republican and Democratic nominations for governor.)  Yet they also sponsored the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, which placed in the hands of the voters an extraordinary ability to make an end run around representative government.

These reforms allowed the voters of California to gut the state’s income through unprecedented tax cuts that years later  have made college education unaffordable for many residents, pass laws that ended affirmative action, make English the official language of the state, take marriage rights away from gay and lesbian Californians and to make what may be the first step in breaking the state itself up into six smaller states.

The same process also allowed the voters to raise their own taxes which has helped get the state back in nearly full working order and devote funds to stem cell research which has made California a world leader in what may well become a key industry.

I will be reading more of Mr. Starr’s books.  While I did not find the final sections of California that dealt with more current times to be nearly as fascinating as the earlier ones that dealt with more historical topics, it was an interesting book.  I certainly learned a lot about my home state.


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Raymond Chandler vs. Grace Paley

paleychandlerThis year, I’ve been looking at ways to connect the two stories I draw each time I do the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.  Sometimes its’ a lot of fun; sometimes it’s difficult work; and sometimes it’s been a stretch.  Quite a stretch, if I’m honest.

This time I drew “Come On,  Ye Sons of Art” by Grace Paley and “No Crime in the Mountains” by Raymond Chandler.

Truth is, neither stories is either author’s best work.

I’m not really sure what “Come On, Ye Sons of Art” is about.  Couple of people talking about stuff.  This has worked very well in other Paley stories, but this time it just fell flat as far as I’m concerned.

No Crime in the Mountains” features the usual Chandler detective character, not Phillip Marlowe this time around but someone just like him.  This time the detective drives up to a mountain resort town and ends up investigating the death of the man who hired him.  It’s a good story, better Chandler that “Come On, Ye Sons of Art” is Paley, but not the man’s best work.  Not by a long shot.

Still, I enjoyed Chandler more.  So while I cannot connect the two, frankly I’m not sure either is worth the effort, I have learned that mediocre pulp fiction is more entertaining than mediocre literary fiction.

For what it’s worth.

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Sunday Salon: The Trouble With Dog Stories

Five signs that Dakota is having a good day

  1. Jumps on the bed.
  2. Barks at The Hat Lady.
  3. Wants to go for a walk.
  4. Presents a toy when we get home.
  5. Asks for snack at bedtime.

Today, it’s Saturday afternoon as I write this, Dakota is having a good day.

My book blog has always been something of a dog story.  You can see a portrait of Dakota, my Bassett hound in the banner above.  It’s a detail from a much larger painting a friend of ours did.  My old blog featured a much bigger picture of Dakota taken at the Point Isabelle Dog Park, or Dog Heaven as we call it, with San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.   For several years now she has been the face of the TBR Dare.  Dakota has long been by my side in my Gravatar as well.  Sometimes she has been my Gravatar.

I used to regularly write posts about the books she ate, though she hasn’t eaten one for a couple of years.  I even kept a running list of them for a while.  She used to select the winners for book give-a-ways, back when I still did them.  But, you’ve probably guessed the problem with dog stories by now.

Last week, we took Dakota to an oncologist.  There is a visible lump towards the back of her belly.  The oncologist confirmed that she has lymphoma.  It’s a common type of cancer in dogs her age–she’s around 11 years old.  Since she’s a rescue dog, there’s no way to be sure exactly how old she is.  The oncologist said that without treatment we can expect another six to eight weeks.  There is medication available that will make most of her remaining weeks pain free.

Treatment, in case you’re wondering, is chemotherapy which takes six months and, if successful, would give her an additional six months to a year.  Bassett hounds live about 12 years on average, with 14 years not being uncommon.  Treatment cost $7,500 dollars, may not work, and could induce a list of side-effects that I was unable to really comprehend while the doctor was reviewing them.  Fortunately for me, C.J. was able to stay focused and got all of the details.  The possible side effects are not something I’m willing to put Dakota through, even if the treatment was something we could afford.  The oncologist did remind us that there is no guarantee treatment would work, though he does have one patient, a cat, who has lived five years after treatment.

Meantime, Dakota is completely happy and as active as ever. If you saw her today,  you would not think for a moment that she was sick at all.

So, I asked the oncologist how we would know when it was time.  He recommended making a list of five things Dakota does that show she is having a good day. Keep track of how many she does each day on a calendar.  When she does all five in one day, mark that day as an ‘A.’  When she does four out of five, mark that day as a ‘B.’  This way you’ll know when it’s time.  This past week, she had six A-level days.  We’re taking things day by day.

Many dog owners will tell you they learn about life through the dog/owner relationship.  Much of what they say I find problematic. I’m not one who subscribes to the dogs as children notion either. I am not a dog parent.  Dakota is not my child; she is my dog. I am certain that the people who call me a dog parent do so with the best of intentions, but conflating the two has always struck me as a bit insulting to both children and dogs.   There is something very moving about a dog’s devotion to its master.  It’s something unique to dogs.

Dakota has shown me one thing that I would like to take into my own life– the ability to be happy in the moment.  It’s a cliché, I know, but dogs really do live in the moment. When they are happy they are completely happy, Kermit the Frog happy. When they are sitting comfortably with people they love, they have no thought to the past or the future,  just the present moment and the pleasure it’s bringing them.   Enjoy the now whenever you can.  Not a bad motto.

I digress.

Today, Dakota has already jumped on the bed and gone for her morning walk.  When we came home from breakfast, she presented us with the toy leopard that I bought to keep her from jumping on the leather chair in the study, and she barked at the hat lady, one of our neighbors who wears a straw hat when she walks her two small dogs past our house twice a day. For some reason Dakota hates her or her dogs and barks furiously at them whenever they come by.   Tonight, around 8:30 when the sun goes down, I’m sure she’ll starting whining and wagging her tail to remind us that she gets a dog biscuit before bedtime.


I made this video of Dakota several years ago.  Though she did learn to sit, to shake, to come when called and to wait before eating until given the command, Dakota never has learned to stay.



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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy takes the reader into one of America’s darkest corners. Written in 1935, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is the story of Gloria and Robert, two young people who came to Hollywood to get into movies, Gloria as and actor, Robert as a director. Down on their luck like so many, they enter a dance marathon, to win some money, to get discovered, to have three decent meals a day.

Dance marathons were a brief craze in the 1930’s. Couples entered and danced, or at least kept moving, as long as they could. The last couple standing won the prize money. They could go on for weeks, even months. Along the way a couple could be sponsored by local business, win various competitions, get discovered by a Hollywood agent. At the very least they had a roof over their heads and three meals a day which was more than many people had in 1935 America.

You’ve already guessed that this is not a happy story, even if you haven’t seen Jane Fonda in the Sydney Pollack film version. That said, there is still much to recommend in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? McCoy knows his subject; I imagine he attended a dance marathon even if he was never in one. It should be pointed out that They Shoot Horses Don’t They takes place in the present; it’s not historical fiction, so what we get from McCoy is not filtered through the lens of time, it’s what at least one man really thought and felt about the subject. The behind the scenes workings of the dance contest McCoy portrays give the reader a fascinating insider’s perspective on dance marathons, 1930’s Los Angeles and the bottom rungs of the entertainment business. McCoy’s characters are memorable, and his writing hard boiled, very hard boiled, perfect for a film noir story like this. The story has resonance for contemporary America and the current craze for reality television. How far are we from staging a dance marathon for television?

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? did not do well in it’s initial printing, selling fewer than 3,000 copies. It was forgotten for decades until the French Existentialists re-discovered the book. Sydney Pollack directed the film version, which is terrific, one of the few times the movie is arguably better than the movie.  It’s also got the most disturbing movie trailer I’ve ever seen.  The last 30 seconds or so are amazing.


You certainly couldn’t make this movie today, even on HBO


I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I have to admit, I’m embarrassed by it, today.  What a cliche ridden mess.  But it’s a good book and a great movie, and maybe I can steer someone towards one of them so here it is. 

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The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers explores the fragility of the self. What makes us who we are? Are the people we love really who we thing they are?

The novel opens with a traffic accident. Mark Schluter suffers serious head trauma as a result of flipping his truck over on a lonely stretch of Iowa road one night. His sister Karin leaves her job and condo in Sioux City to stay by his side in their small home town of Kearny, the town Karin always wanted to leave. Karin and Mark are basically alone in the world; their parents have both died and neither has anyone close enough to them to come spend time at Mark’s bedside. Eventually, Mark does come out of his coma and speaks. Almost immediately he accuses Karin of not being his sister, but an imposter. He is convinced that although she looks like her and she knows everything his sister knows, she is not Karin.

In desperation, Karin writes a series of emails to Dr. Gerald Weber a famous cognitive neurologist who has written several popular books about people with unusual brain injuries to ask for help. (I suspect Dr. Weber is loosely based on Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Dr. Weber agrees to pay Mark a visit thinking he may be able to use this story in a future book. His diagnosis–Mark has Capgras syndrome, a condition that causes people to reject what the logical part of their brains tell them, that a person is really their sister, in favor of an irrational gut feeling that the people around them are not whom they seem to be.

Karin’s position is tragically difficult. She has spent her life trying to please others. She loses herself in repeated attempts to always make those nearest her happy: bosses, friends, co-workers, boyfriends, her brother. In Sioux City, she found a perfect job in customer relations, trying to make others happy for a living. Her relationship with Mark has not been great, but the two of them were always devoted to each other. After Mark denies her, he begins to describe what his real sister is like. Karin listens to him describe a person who is better than she really is. Mark’s “sister” is actually an improvement over Karin. A brother who constantly insists you are not his real sister would probably cause anyone to have doubts about who they really are, but Karin’s situation is further complicated by her return to their childhood hometown, where she meets up with both of her old boyfriends, one a conservationist trying to protect the cranes that migrate through the area, the other a developer who wants to build on the cranes nesting grounds. Karin habitually tries to please both, altering what she really wants to fit the situation to the point that she often loses sight of herself.

Mark himself, once he wakes from the coma, is not who he used to be at all. Outside of Capgras syndrome, the post accident Mark is kinder, more reflective, more mature, a definite improvement. So much so, that later in the novel when a cure becomes possible Karin hesitates to approve its use. Mark is haunted by a figure in white that he believes appeared before his truck the night of the accident and by a note that someone left at his beside afterwards claiming to be an angel sent by God to save him and charging him to go out and save someone else. But so much of Mark’s world is now alien to him. His sister is not really his sister, his best friends are not really his best friends, even his dog and his home have been switched with imposters. Why would anyone go to all this trouble? What do they want with him? Who left the note and did an angel really appear to him that night?

Dr. Weber comes to Iowa to see Mark just before his new book is set to release. He sees himself as a famous author, popular lecturer, important researcher who has brought the complexities of the human brain to a public eager for knowledge. Just before his book is released, a series of negative reviews begin. They claim that Dr. Weber’s case studies are outdated, his stories have no place in the new world of chemical based brain research, the people he describes are not much more than sideshow freaks he has exploited for his own aggrandizement and financial gain. Though he knows he should not let the reviews get to him, he can’t help but notice the new way his colleagues look at him, the way his students now whisper when he comes into the lecture hall, the changes in the questions he now gets after a lecture. Who is he, if he is no longer the famous Gerald Weber. On his trip to Iowa he meets Barbara Gillispie, a nurse’s aide who has become dedicated to Mark Schluter. He is attracted to her, wants to have a relationship with her, but he has been completely devoted to his wife of some 30 years. Who is this new man, this post famous Dr. Weber?

I think this is much more plot summary than I usually give, but I’ve left out quite a bit. Though there are not that many characters in The Echo Maker their story is quite complicated. Karin’s attempts to cure Mark, and Mark’s dedication to his own delusion and to finding out who his angel is make for compelling reading. What would you do if the family members you love most denied you were who you say you are? What would you do in Mark’s shoes? Add to this mix the brain science and personal drama that Dr. Weber brings and you have a very interesting reading experience, unlike anything I’ve read before, one that touches both the heart and the mind. (I’m assuming that the cases Dr. Weber describes and Capgras syndrome itself are all based on fact; they are all certainly interesting.) The Echo Maker presents the human mind as the final frontier, however one can’t help but dread the day when science finally finds all of the answers just a little. Are we simply a series of chemical reactions among neurons? Is the love we feel for each other simply the result of the way one set of neurons happen to connect with each other? (Dr. Weber thinks so and his colleagues are intent on proving him correct.)

But, to be honest, I didn’t have much patience for any of the characters in the book. Karin’s situation is compelling certainly, but she uses the two boyfriends in ways that bring havoc into their lives and after a while, I began to feel that she should just leave Mark alone and go back to the life she had in Sioux City. It’s hard to feel sorry for Dr. Weber, too. He has been at the top of his game so long, without any apparent effort, that the way he crumbles once he faces some opposition just made him seem wimpy to me. The relationship he has with his wife is so wonderful that jeopardizing it the way he does makes him look simply stupid. I expect more than a few readers have been tempted to throw the book against the wall. I almost was. Karin’s boyfriends both figure prominently in the story, and though she uses them, they are hard to feel any sympathy for. One is a heartless real estate developer and follower of Ayn Rand. (I don’t mean to imply that all followers of Ayn rand are heartless. Okay, maybe I do.) The other is a conservationist who clearly cares for his river and his animals to the detriment of the people around him. I cannot discuss Barbara without giving away the plot so I won’t, but she is another person I came to dislike in the end.

But, in spite of these faults, there is plenty to enjoy in the book.



I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008, a few years before it became clear jus how much I overuse the word ‘complelling.’  “Makes for compelling reading” is hearby banned from my lexicon. Sheesh.  

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