• Best book title in a long time

    Our friend and neighbor, Lucy Biederman, now teaching at Case Western in Cleveland came up with an inspired titled:

    The Walmart Book of the Dead (Amazon link)

    She wrote most of it in Louisiana, while getting her doctorate in poetry. She explains the origins of the book in an interview with the Case Western Daily:

    Living on a graduate student stipend in the Deep South, writer Lucy Biederman had few shopping options—so she found herself frequenting a place at once mysterious and magical to her: Walmart….

    “The last thing you’d expect is for someone to not have an opinion about Walmart,” said Biederman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University, “but a lot of these opinions can be too easy.

    “The closer you get, the more complicated it gets,” she said. “It’s similar to death in that way.” –Case Western Daily

    Her observation about Walmart’s place in American culture–and its gaping cultural divide–is insightful:

    To some people, Walmart is so essential it’s more than a store—it’s the pulse of their existence.

    And to others, Walmart represents so much of what’s wrong with profit-seeking. I wanted to bridge that gap. –Lucy Biederman


    Comments: Statisticians are unable to calculate the number of expected jokes the author will have to endure about “future books dealing with Costco or Target?” (In rural Louisiana, the questions will be about “Dollar General.”)

    As for me, I still can’t believe Lucy is the first person to see the obvious connections between Walmart and ancient Egyptian religious practices.


  • Why Do People Love Detective Stories?

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    I certainly enjoy them, in print, on TV, and in movies.

    Many stories that are not framed specifically as detective stories really are. Perry Mason (the old black-and-white shows) are always “whodunnits.”

    It’s not surprising, then, that I enjoyed Marco den Ouden’s article about why people enjoy detective stories so much (Foundation for Econ. Ed.)

    Most of the article is about den Ouden’s love of Harry Bosch novels, written by Michael Connell, but he advances a general argument, too. Here’s the nub of it:

    That is the appeal of the crime novel, of the police detectives on television and in the movies. We see them as avenging angels, as heroic figures who will stop at nothing. We see them as empathetic warriors who, like Bosch, will not let politics or other impediments stop them.

    Whether it is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or Owen Laukkanen’s duo of Windermere and Stevens, we find in these characters the relentless searcher for truth and justice. –Marco den Ouden for FEE

    The search for truth and justice are obviously central, but there are other attractions, too, I think.

    • The pleasure of discerning clues and piecing them together, best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes and the classic “closed room” crimes
    • Trying to understand the suspects’ motives, particularly how different motives might lead to the same deadly outcome
    • Uncovering a dark layer beneath the benign surface of social convention and
    • The chance to immerse yourself in varied social, physical, and historical environments, all while following a strong plot line.

    The weakness, typically, lies in the psychological development of characters (except, at times, the detective).

    So, what do you think?


  • Martha Lavey: Remembering a great artistic director who shaped Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater

    In a city of great theater, none casts a longer shadow than Steppenwolf, with its extraordinary ensemble of actors, writers, and directors.

    In recent decades, none shaped that theater more than artistic director Martha Lavey, who died this week of a stroke, far too young (60).

    She commissioned new plays; brought in up-and-coming playwrights like Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”), Tarrell Alvin McCraney (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” adapted for the film “Moonlight”) and Bruce Norris (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park”); and created new workshops and experimental performing spaces.

    During her tenure, Steppenwolf presented a long list of critically praised productions. Several transferred to Broadway, winning nine Tony Awards. The theater’s restagings of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” both won Tonys for best revival.

    Mr. Letts’s “August: Osage County” was developed at the theater and had its world premiere there. After moving to Broadway, it won five awards at the 2008 Tonys, including best play. Mr. Letts went on to win a best-actor Tony in 2013 for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” –Chicago Tribune


    As subscribers for decades, we saw them all.

    I remember especially watching Tracy Lett’s magisterial “August: Osage Country” in its premier run. I kept thinking, “This is one for the ages. It will be playing as long as there are great actors to play it.” That was the creative genius of Tracy, Martha, and the Steppenwolf ensemble. Time and again, they captured the raw, immediate, and very personal drama of live theater.


    In Martha Lavey’s memory, all Chicago’s theaters have dimmed their lights.

    Her lasting achievement is that Chicago’s creative lights will burn brighter for her life in theater here.

    The Chicago Tribune obituary is here. The New York Times obituary is here.

  • ZipDialog’s Roundup of News Beyond the Front Page . .Sunday, January 8

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Positive, human-interest story on medical marijuana, with a moving headline: “I made my autistic son cannabis cookies. They saved him.”

    At the time [our 9-year-old son] was consumed by violent rages. He would bang his head, scream for hours and literally eat his shirts. At dinnertime, he threw his plates so forcefully that there was food stuck on the ceiling. He would punch and scratch himself and others, such that people would look at the red streaks on our bodies and ask us, gingerly, if we had cats.

    But when I got the cookies right, he calmed down. His aggressions became less ferocious and less frequent. Mealtimes became less fraught. He was able to maintain enough self-composure that he even learned how to ride a bike — despite every expert telling us it would never happen.

    It seemed like a miracle. And seven years later, it’s still working. –Marie Myung-Ok Lee (Chicago Tribune, originally in Washington Post)

    ◆ Democrats want to delay hearings on Trump’s cabinet picks That’s the report in The Hill.

    Comment: The political wisdom of the Democrats’ strategy depends on their reasons. If they want essential financial and ethics information, the delay will be seen as justifiable. If there are not substantive reasons, then the Democrats will be seen as obstructionist, part of the swamp Trump promised to drain.

    ◆ “The stuff that dreams are made of” I just learned that Bogie ad libbed that line. It wasn’t in the script.

    ◆ Goodbye to two fine men: Nat Hentoff and Mario Soares

    ◆ Hentoff, aged 91, was a great jazz critic, a fierce defender of free speech, and prolific author. A true mensch.  The NYT obituary is here.

    ◆ Mario Soares, 92, played a crucial role in Portugal’s transition to democracy after decades of right-wing, authoritarian rule. The BBC calls him the “Father of Portuguese Democracy.”

    ◆ Putin wins his last round against Obama, says The Economist. Now, they say, he will have to hang on to power with that scapegoat. The story is here.

    Comment: We’ll see. Putin is currently jousting with plenty of dragons around the world; perhaps they can serve as scapegoats. Trump clearly wants to shift relations with Russia; that explains his overtures and smooth relations with the Kremlin before he takes office. The question is what will happen to those relations after Trump faces his first crisis with Russia. (Remember, things went smoothly with Ted Cruz, too, until their interests clashed directly.)

    ◆ Taiwan’s leader is coming to the US, and Beijing is not happy about it. CNBC has the story.




  • A wonderful, steaming bio of actress Mary Astor, reviewed with zest by Woody Allen

    Woody’s review in the New York Times is here, and it’s a pleasure to read, much like his early writing.

    I loved Mary Astor as the femme fatale, played against Humphrey Bogart, in The Maltese Falcon.

    She is also remembered for Meet Me in St. Louis.

    Off-screen, it turns out, she loved rollin’ and tumblin’, as the blues songs put it.

    And, while blues men wrote songs, Mary wrote a diary. Alas for Mary, her husband discovered it.

    Woody loves the book and recounts the main themes with characteristic humor.

    The link to the book at Amazon, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel, is here, if you want to read the juicy details of Hollywood scandals in the golden years.

  • ZipDialog’s Roundup of News Beyond the Front Page . . Saturday, Dec. 10

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Deeply troubling assessment from the CIA that Russia was trying to help Trump win the White House
    (Washington Post)

    The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

    Trump has consistently dismissed the intelligence community’s findings about Russian hacking.–Washington Post

    Comment: This summer, I said, in print, that the Russians favored Trump and would leak any materials their spies had collected. Their reason was less their favorability toward Trump than their dislike of Hillary Clinton, whom they considered tougher on NATO and whom they associated with Bill Clinton’s expansion of NATO in the 1990s.

    That they may well have tried to hack into the voting process itself is very serious and should be carefully investigated, as it will be. 

    The Democrats have strong incentives to do this, but they should not overreach and say the interference had much impact (beyond the leaked DNC memos), much less that it drove the outcome.

    ◆ Hillary Clinton, past and future

    ⇒ Her losing campaign cost a record $1.2 billion, twice what the Donald spent. (NY Post)

    ⇒ Latest moves indicate Hillary Clinton won’t fade away (Fox News)

    After a brief period of reclusion, Clinton is slowly but surely appearing more in public, and in ways that indicate a political and public future of some sort. –Fox News

    Comment: Purchases of garlic and crosses surge, mostly among Democrats.

    ◆ Fred Smith created FedEx and still runs it, so he knows a bit about world trade. He doesn’t like Trump’s ideas on the subject. (Fortune)

    ◆ Related story: Trump’s trade team is stocked with veterans of steel-trade conflicts with China (Reuters)

    ◆ The Oxford American magazine has an essay on one of the great photographers of our time, William Eggleston, whose use of color transformed the medium.

    The photographer William Eggleston as photographed by Maude Schuyler Clay. This snapshot appears in a new exhibit at Power House Memphis called “Guilding Light – A tribute to William Eggleston.”

    Personal story: How I totally embarrassed myself when I met Bill Eggleston: It was the mid-1970s, and I had never heard of him, even though lovers of photography already knew his work in black-and-white. A friend told him that Bill would be coming to Cambridge, Mass., and urged me to meet him. I was happy to and invited him for lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club. We sat down, began exchanging pleasantries, and I asked (quite sincerely), “Are you one of those Delta photographers who take pictures of debutantes leaning against an oak tree at their daddy’s plantation?” “No,” he said, he didn’t do much of that. I guess not. He had come East for the opening of his one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art.

    That path-breaking show, his first with color, was excoriated by critics at the time. NYT critic Hilton Kramer was particularly savage.

    Since then, the show has been recognized as a major achievement in modern photography and a launching point for the use of color and attention to banal, everyday objects. As The Australian put it in a headline this year: “Photographer William Eggleston pioneered use of colour at MOMA



    ◆ Send interesting stories to
    Charles (dot) Lipson at Gmail (dot) com



  • Very human moments: The Obamas and Bushes at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

    There were so many touching moments today at the opening ceremonies for Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

    One of the most moving and unexpected (to me) was when Michelle Obama saw George Bush and immediately hugged him. You could see the mutual respect and affection.

    It takes only a moment, but it’s worth seeing.

    As President, George W. Bush signed the legislation for the museum, which was completed under Pres. Obama.

    The second moment worth watching was Pres. Bush asking Pres. Obama to take a photo.