Sunday Salon: Why we hate NPR but keep right on listening.

C.J. and I really hate NPR (National Public Radio), but it remains the station our alarm clock is set to.  C.J. says we have our radio set to NPR because when the alarm goes off in the morning, NPR will get us out of bed the fastest.

We hate it so much that we’ll leap out of bed to turn the radio off and then start getting ready for work.

This is a good idea in theory.

But there are days, most days really, when we end up lying in bed listening to NPR.  C.J. still loves Nina Totenberg’s  coverage of the Supreme Court and there is still the occasional story that actually proves both interesting and pertinent.  But NPR is just not what it used to be.

It used to be smart.  Listening to it used to make me feel smart.  I fully acknowledge how elitist this feeling was, but it felt good.  We used to have it on all the time, so much so that our parrot took to screaming “NPR!” whenever she was upset at being put back in her cage.  We now scream “NPR!” but for different reasons.

A few years ago NPR switched up how they do things, fired Bob Edwards from their morning show, and really started dumbing things down, way down.

Now, instead of reporting a story like intelligent journalists writing for an intelligent audience, the way they still do at  BBC4, NPR sets things up like a little dialogue.   There’s a host in the studio who talks to a reporter who’s covering the story.  The host asks a series of incredibly dumb questions like, “Nigeria, that’s in western Africa, isn’t it?”  The intent, I guess, is to  fool the audience into thinking that the two are having an off-the-cuff conversation about the subject, but the effect is more like listening to a mediocre script reading in a Freshman playwriting class, the kind where the students are still writing dialogue to explain away holes in the plot.

And their assumption is that the listening audience is stupid.   Though judging from the call-in shows that follow Morning Addition, this assumption may be correct.

So my commute listening has switched to BBC podcasts for the most part.  When I run out of podcasts, I do sometimes go back to NPR in the hope that Silvia Paggioli will do a story from Dakar, but I haven’t heard much from her lately.  (Just in case Steve Inskeep reads this, Dakar is in Senegal which is in West Africa.)

Our local station runs these annoying perspective pieces throughout the day.  These used to be the time broadcasters were required to give to anyone who wanted to present an alternative point of view.  Should the station endorse candidate A, you could get a minute or two of airtime to speak about candidate B, C, or D.  We don’t have actual political discourse on our local public radio station anymore.   What we have is Steve Inskeep asking another reporter dumb questions like, “Are the Republicans in congress objecting to the president’s new immigration policy?”  “Why yes, Steve, they are.  Don’t you listen to the radio or are you really as stupid as you pretend to be day after day?”

Instead my local  public radio station has these little perspective pieces featuring someone  from an upscale town like Mill Valley, talking about the challenges of balancing a career in non-profit visual performing arts with  the demands of a new baby.  How the people of Mill Valley suffer.

The best thing about the perspective pieces is that they almost always get me out of bed in the morning.  Listen to someone drone on about why their puppy needs a special organic  lunch or get ready for work.  I guess I’ll get ready for work.

But this week, on the way to work, there was a rare good perspective piece.  A woman who moved to California a few years ago talked about how she and her husband decided to spend the night in every county in the state as away to really get to know their new home.  Sounds fun, I thought.

I’ve no ambition to spend the night in every state in America, which is a thing many people do, especially after retirement.  Nor do I really have the money to pay for it.  And the thought of all the plane rides it would take fills me with inertia.  But we could drive to every county in California.

So during lunch, I printed off a map of California counties and began shading in the ones C.J. and I have already spent the night in.  I came up with 15.   When I got home and told C.J. about the story, he told me that he had heard it too and had already made a spread sheet listing counties we had stayed in and whether or not we stayed in a hotel or a private home.   He remembered three that I had forgotten, so we’ve already spent the night in 18 counties.

That leaves 40 for us to visit.  California has 58 counties, most of them in the northern half of the state because they were drawn up prior to 1893 when most people in the state lived where the mines were.  We have the biggest county in America, San Bernardino which is larger than both the state of Maryland and the nation of Israel.  We also have more counties named for saints than any other state in the union.  Thank you Wikipedia; you rule.

There were four counties on the map that I had never heard of, including San Benito which is just east of Monterey County.  C.J. and I have decided to pay San Benito a visit during mid-winter break.

With a population just over 55,000, San Benito features two major attractions, Mission San Juan Bautista and Pinnacles National Park.  The county claims to have many terrific undiscovered wineries, but every county in Northern California says the same thing at this point.  We can load up the iPod with podcasts and  take Sigorney, our new car, for a drive down, see the mission, stay overnight, visit Pinnacles, then drive home, leaving only 39 more counties to go.

When were done with all 58, maybe we’ll do a little perspective piece for our local NPR station.  Perhaps Steve Inskeep will want to interview us on Morning Edition.

Perhaps not.

Posted in Rants | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison was made into the classic, some would say camp classic, 1973 Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green. In those days, before the advent of widespread, cheap special effects, science fiction movies were about ideas instead of spaceships and strange looking creatures. The movie is much better than its reputation–I rewatched it this year and found it holds up fairly well. The book, which is widely different from the movie, holds up fairly well, too. Both have components that have become dated, but the overall message, a plea to act soon to avoid environmental catastrophe, is still a pertinent one.

Make Room! Make Room! is a classic police procedural set in a dystopian future. Detective Andy Rusch is called on to investigate the murder of a very wealthy man, apparently the victim of an attempted robbery that went very wrong. The victim, lived with his beautiful “girlfriend” in one of the few functioning high rise apartments left in New York City. Det. Rusch lives on one of the upper floors in a broken down tenement building without water and power that function only rarely. He shares his apartment with Sol, an older man who lives as much in his memories as he does in the present. Det. Rusch’s building is overwhelmed nightly by squatters who camp out on the stairways, the only space in the city they can find for shelter.

People do eat Soylent products in Make Room! Make Room! but they are all made out of beans in the novel. Instead of talking the reader down that rabbit hole, Make Room! Make Room! follows a more ordinary plot line– the detective works to solve a hopeless case, he becomes involved with the victim’s girl, the case opens up windows on the corruption of society as a whole and on certain parts of the government in particular, then it all kind of fizzles out. It’s much more like The Long Goodbye or Chinatown than it is like Soylent Green.

Books like Make Room! Make Room! are often much more a reflection on the societal worries of their time than they are on a potential future. Once society has moved on to other problems, interest in books of this genre tends to fade away. I have been reading many of them lately and finding that I quite like them. They do provide entertaining reading and they provide an interesting glimpse into history; it’s fun to see what people in the past thought our lives today would be like. Well, sometimes it’s fun.

If you’ve never seen Soylent Green here’s the trailer for it. See if you can guess the secret of Soylent Green.


I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  I’m still moving all of my old reviews over to this new blog.  I’m almost up to 2010. I used to read and review three or four books a week.   I have to say that looking at this trailer today, Soylent Green looks a lot cheesier than I remember it being.  I did like the book quite a bit.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

hollywoodThis is the first time I’ve read anything by Charles Bukowski; I liked it.

Hollywood is basically a memoir in novel form as far as I can tell.  In in 1980’s after a life of hard living and heavy drinking, poet Charles Bukowski was asked to write an original screenplay which eventually became the Mickey Rourke/Faye Dunaway film Barfly.  Few people were more surprised by this than Mr. Bukowski.

Hollywood is a slightly fictionalized account of the time he spent working on the screen play, making the movie and enduring the publicity after its release.  During this time Bukowski was still drinking amounts of wine so large I can only imagine, though his recent marriage had moved him away from the really  heavy drinking of his youth.  That he lived long enough to reach 65 years is kind of amazing.

He seems to think so, too.

He treats the entire Hollywood experience with a bemused sense of not really detachment, maybe wonder, an appreciation for the surreal.  I always had the feeling that he can’t quite believe what’s happening, but that he’s spent so much of his life in that state of mind that he was basically used to it.  Wonder mixed with a little disgust.

The phone rang everyday.  People wanted to interview the writer. I never realized that there were so many movie magazines or magazines interested in the movies.  It was a sickness: this great interest in a medium that relentlessly and consistently failed, time after time after time, to produce anything at all.  People became so used to seeing shit on film that they no longer realized it was shit.

Most of the books deals with various attempts to find funding for production which turns out to be the most time-consuming and important aspect of movie-making.  Few companies are interesting in making a movie about a couple of drunks, so Bukowski and his producer end up working with less than reputable people.  The names are all slightly changed, which makes figuring out who is really who part of the fun.  Bukowski changes the names a little so it’s never too difficult to figure out whom he is really talking about.

While I can’t say that I really learned anything profound about movie making from Hollywood, I did have a very good time.  I expect that I will be reading more by Charles Bukowski.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, California, Fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Jessica Mitford vs. H.L. Mencken–A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

menckenYou can’t go wrong with either Jessica Mitford or H.L. Mencken so this was a very lucky draw for me.  Actually, I stacked the deck a bit for this my second round with the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, lots of Mitford and lots of Mencken in my current deck.  This match up was bound to happen.

I drew Jessica Mitford’s 1961 essay “Proceed with Caution”  about what it’s like to drive cross-country in America.  Mitford brings an outsider’s perspective to this topic which makes for a charming little piece.  While she doesn’t reveal anything terribly insightful about American life, she does present a pretty darn accurate idea of what it was like to drive our highways in 1961.  I’m guessing it’s accurate since it was a few years before my time because it sounds like the road trips I remember from my own childhood.

Nothing in your previous experience will have prepared you for the turnpikes, freeways, thruways, skyways you will encounter in America–particularly if you are, as I was, a Londoner.  The actual sensation of highway driving in America is that of traffic whizzing slowly.  This contradiction is achieved  by getting up to the legal limit (50, 70 or 80, depending on the state) and staying there–which is precisely what every other car is doing. For hours and hours you drive at this speed, with no necessity for slowing, accelerating, or changing gear–you are alone on your track, like Yuri Gagarin in his space capsule.

Yes, she is talking about driving the highways of the American West.  Sounds just like I-5 to me.  I’ve only driven the highways in France and Portugal, but neither of these really compared with those here in the U.S.  We do road trips like no one else.  It takes a long road to cross a big country.

Mencken’s essay was much more esoteric,  “The Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.”  Written I 1919, Mencken gives a very entertaining overview of the state of artistic criticism which was caught up in a debate over the purpose of both art and criticism.  Should art be instructive, moralistic in nature and how should the critic respond to art that is not so moral.   This question really isn’t that far from what so many people argue about today when they question how inclusive various art forms are.  The moral issues that interest us  are not exactly the same ones that interested critics and artists in 1919, but they’re similar enough to make Mencken’s essay relevant.

While Mencken does not side with the moralists, he is not entirely opposed to them either.  He does see a very useful place for critics which he outlines in his final paragraph.

“This is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts.  It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work, but it fails  to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism.  But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art.  Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment–and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.”

So how can I connect an essay on the nature of criticism with one on the great American road trip? One thing that struck me about both essays is how timely they each are in spite of being 50 to 100 years old.  Mitford’s road trip is still the road trip most Americans take.  Mencken’s questions about the purpose criticism is still the one I wonder about when I wonder about why I’m doing this book blogging thing.

And I like Mencken’s answer.  And Mitford’s essay has me itching to take the new care out for a very long drive.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Translated by Ebba Segerberg

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist and translated by Ebba Segerberg is for people who like their vampires monstrous. There are no cuddly creatures here, no misunderstood, sexy, brooding handsome young men, no one one who really has a soul, no one fighting an urge or repressing it with non-human blood substitutes. The vampire in Let the Right One In is an evil monster that survives on human flesh and blood. It’s also a 12-year-old girl.

In classic horror fiction the reader has to wait for the monster to arrive. Instead of starting off with a jolt, the way many contemporary thrillers do, things are basically normal for quite a while. Think of The Exorcist, the 1970’s movie about a girl possessed by demons. 40 minutes into the film things are bad but not so bad you’d have to believe the devil made her do it. Let the Right One In begins like a classic horror tale, with a troubling but ordinary situation. 12-year-old Oskar lives with his single mother in a modern flat in a modern subdivision. Small and shy, he has become the target of the school bullies, so much so that he dreads going to school and has lost all of his friends. He spends each day trying to avoid the bullies and then trying to keep his mother in the dark about them afterwards.

There is a murder in Oskar’s neighborhood which he becomes obsessed with. He follows every piece of news about it that he can get with an avid interest, even keeps a scrapbook about it. At the same time a man and his young daughter move into the building next door. Their curtains are always closed. Very few people ever see either of them enter or leave. Though the reader knows immediately where this is going, the book becomes harder and harder to put down. I’m not going to say any more. Spoiling any of the plot would spoil the fun of reading it. While Let the Right On In is probably not great art, it is great entertainment, the kind of book that keeps you up at night and then keeps you up at night.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  I like to think that I was ahead of the curve with this book.  I was a fan before everyone was a fan.  I probably was ahead of the pack, too, by about three hours.  It’s still one of my favorite scary books.  I gave my copy away, I used to do lots of give-aways in those days.  Dakota, pictured above, was our new dog.  She was four when we got her, so new to us. She used to eat my books.  She is still with us today but she has stopped eating books.

Posted in Book Review, European Literature, Fiction, Novel, Scandenavian Fiction, Thriller, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments