My new Think Again column is called “The Post Panders to Conservatives” and it’s here.
My new Nation column is called “The CIA: A Law Unto Itself” and it’s here.
My last Daily Beast column was the joyous, “Sending the Hammer to the Slammer,” and that’s here.
Oh, and I did an IHT/ piece on Wikileaks which you can find here.

Alter-reviews and Gift-Giving Guide, II.

If you’re looking for reasons to feel jealous of New Yorkers in general, and Upper West Siders, in particular, then you only need glance at the cinematic riches offered up by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Curmudgeons like yours truly were deeply appreciative of the Thanksgiving weekend series of the films of Suso Cecchi D’Amico. Did you know she wrote over 100 scripts for Visconti, Antonioni and the like, and co-wrote The Bicycle Thief for De Sica. The films I saw were ones I had never heard of but were remarkable in their intelligence and their charm, as well as a Sophia Loren, circa 1954.  It is just this kind of intelligent, inventive programming that casual cinephiles like yours truly feel so grateful to be able to enjoy. An equally interesting notion underlies this week’s series combining the films of Claude Chabrol, one of the bravest and most original directors of all time, with those of Arthur Penn, who, back in the seventies was briefly in the business of re-inventing American cinema. Take a look at the schedule here and see if it doesn’t give you something to which you can look forward every day, whether it is revisiting “Bonnie and Clyde”—or forgotten films that really give life to the old saw of them “not making them the way they used to.” The Chabrol/Penn series is followed by the traditional “Spanish Cinema Now” at which I spend a lot of time every year (along with their French, Italian and Jewish/Israeli counterparts, among a few others), and you’ll have to look at the schedule for that here, to see what appeals. Finally, FSLC has been paying special attention to music documentaries of late too. They recently showed a film about the inimitable Charlie Hayden, Ramblin Boy, about as versatile and intelligent a musician as exists anywhere, along with one this Saturday evening on Dave Brubeck, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the world premier of In his Own Sweet Way, which will also be shown on TCM next week.

I’m going to try to make it to the Brubeck film, before I go to the Beacon for night two of Hot Tuna’s celebration of Jorma’s 70th Birthday, with lots of great people. The following day by the way, is the Educational Alliance’s all-day Bob Dylan symposium, “What Kind of Love is This: Bob Dylan and the Band,” which has a really interesting lineup of speakers, and is followed by a concert that night of Dylan singing and playing people at Le Poisson Rouge downtown, and you can see that lineup here.

Now here’s a couple of reviews by Sal, one of which I think you’ll find rather surprising, given where it is appearing:

The BeeGees “Mythology” box and “In Our Own Time” dvd/bluray

The new Bee Gees boxed set, "Mythology" takes an interesting approach to anthologizing the Brothers Gibb. Each of the 4 CDs spotlights a brother and his vocal contributions. What you learn very quickly from just looking at this set is that Maurice sang no hits. And if you take the time and listen to these CDs, you will also discover that Maurice had the least Bee Gee-ish voice, keeping the vibrato to a minimum, and delivering some very powerful performances, "Trafalgar" and "It’s Just The Way," for starters.  Andy Gibb, who is showcased on Disc 4, is not half-bad, either. Post-disco hits like "I Just Want To Be Your Everything" and "Shadow Dancing" didn’t age so badly, and "Starlight" is as good as any of the Brothers’ biggest hits.

The early, hip stuff is here, and of course the big hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But there is so much more to Barry, Robin and Maurice that is unfortunately dismissed by "cool people" because of a few lousy decisions, mostly in the production department. They may have made history with their now trademark falsettos, but they may have taken that sound a bit too far over a few too many records later in their career. Still the bulk of this 4 CD set is excellent. You can’t go wrong with the hits, and hearing the brothers’ take on songs like "Heartbreaker" and "Islands In The Stream," hits for Dionne Warwick and Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers respectively, is a treat.

Also out is In Our Own Time, a new 2 hour documentary of The Bee Gees, told in Barry & Robin’s own words, with new interviews, as well as interviews with Maurice shortly before his death in 2003. You get a good share of live TV clips and performances, though nothing revelatory. It’s a nice companion to the box and wisely available as a separate purchase.

Bruce, The Promise:

There’s plenty to like about "The Promise," but I’m not finding so much to love, except for the fact that this set was released at all. Musically, there is nothing on the 2 CDs worth of outtakes that will make you say, "Wow! Why did he leave THAT off ‘Darkness…’?" I realize that’s not the point of this box.  But, without at least a few songs that hit you in "that way" like so many of the tracks on "Tracks" hit me the first time I cracked open that set, what you then have is a 2 CD set of tunes you won’t hurry to play a second and third time. Not even "Because The Night" or "Fire." Both are wonderful, but so ingrained in our live Springsteen psyches, that they are not so much revelations, as much as two reasons to exhale.

The 21 tracks on "The Promise" are a blast through their first pass, though admittedly, the anticipation inevitably led to a let down.  Nothing here rocked my world the way so many of the outtakes on the underappreciated Beatles’ Anthology sets did.  An early version of the Gary U.S. Bonds’ hit "This Little Girl" is good, but not better than Bonds’ single. "Talk To Me" is the identical backing track as Southside Johnny’s with different lead vocals. (The piano version found in the documentary would have been a nice inclusion. Same goes for that insane version of "Sherry Darling.")  The alternate and inferior "Racing In The Street" is…well…what I just said.  Still, "The Promise" is a gift, and by all means, necessary if you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan. This is not a new Springsteen record, but more like a good deed on the part of the man himself. The fans wanted it and now we’ve got it.

Also included in this set, and sadly, only in this set, is the newly remastered version of the classic album, "Darkness On The Edge Of Town," which I must say, might be worth the price of admission. There is new power in an already powerful record and the E-Street Band, especially the rhythm section, will surround you and pound you.  The sound is stellar! I imagine this will eventually be available separately. I can’t be fair about the DVDs. I just don’t enjoy watching music unless I am there, live. I have listened to audio rips of both the "Thrill Hill" outs and the "Houston ’78" performance and they are as much fun as you’d expect.

The Altercation Gift Giving Guide, Part II.

I do most of my reading for pleasure on audio, as I’ve mentioned here before, and the problem with recommending them is that it takes a long time to go through them and with audio books, you can’t really sample. I suppose you can, but I don’t. So of the ones I’ve gone all the way through of late, I strongly recommend Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, read by David LeDoux; Keith Richards’s Life, read by Johnny Depp, James Fox and Keith Richards; Tony Blair’s A Journey: My Political Life read by Tony Blair; Sean Wilenz’s Bob Dylan in America read by Sean Wilenz, (though be warned, a great deal of it has nothing to do with Dylan). One audio book I thought was pretty lousy, not lousily read by Stephen Hoye, just kind of tired, cliched and predictable—it’s sort of a sequel, Carl Hiassen’s Star Island. The ones I would like to be able to tell you to read (or buy for someone else) but I’ve not been able to get to them yet include:
James Kaplan, Frank, read by Rob Shapiro
Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter, read by Sissy Spacek
John Le Carre, Our Kind of Traitor, read by Robin Sachs
H.W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, read by Robertson Dean
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt, read by Mark Deakins
Joseph J Ellis, First Family: Abigail and John Adams, read by Kimberly Farr
Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia, read by by Ian Frazier
James Ellroy, The Hilliker Curse, read by James Elroy
Steve Martin, An Object of Beauty, read by Campbell Scott

If anyone has any comments on the above, send them along.

Also, there’s a bunch of books I’ve not yet found on audio, with which I plan to take my time, assuming that remains the case. Too many to list, really, but a sampling of Altercation-approved gift books that require actual reading, and have been recently released, would include:

Saul Bellow: Letters
David Grossman: Until the End of Land
William Trevor: Selected Stories
Madame Bovary, (Lydia Davis translation)
Dr. Zhvago, (Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky translation)
Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen
Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson
Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
Laura Kalman , Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-80
Garry Wills, Outside Looking In
Tony Judt,  The Memory Chalet
At the Fights: American Writers on Fighting
, (Library of America)
Also, Ann Beatie, The New Yorker Stories, about which I have a short review below.

I’ve been a fan of Ann Beattie’s short stories since I started reading The New Yorker in High School and now all those stories that have appeared in The New Yorker are collected in one big (but manageable) book, called, funnily enough The New Yorker Stories (Scribner). It’s got 48 stories and many of them appearing between cloth covers for the first time. Big and red, it reminds me of that lovely John Cheever collection that everybody’s parents had on their shelves when I was growing up. And I think Beattie stands with Cheever as a master of a certain, narrow slice of socio-political geography which, as I recall, somebody once named “the hippoisie…” Great idea, this collection. More here.

Now here’s Ltc. Bob:

Letters from a Semi-Foreign Land
Vol. I, Issue 4

22 NOV 2010

A short one today. I wrote something longer earlier, but you deserve more, so this one is brief.

I was sitting in my “local” the other day after work. It is a pub called the “Lower Lode.” It sits just across the Severn River from the Battlefield of Tewkesbury. I was thinking about the past. The Lode is a fairly old place, though not ancient by the standards of this country. As best as they can figure the first part of the pub/inn was built in the 1400s, or maybe later. But that is not verifiable. Pub history is, like Pub math, understandably, somewhat fungible.  Though as fascinating as this public house might be, that is not its past that I was considering. I was thinking more personally.

I was wondering what my grandfather felt when he drank in small rural pubic houses not too far away from here. (Not “too far away” in American standards, of course, not English. The English seem to think 20 miles is a long distance. I know Texans who will go 100 miles, one way, for a high-reputation Barbeque joint. Split the difference for my mid-western sensibilities.

My grandfather was a bomber pilot in the US Army Air Forces, and in particular in the 8th Air Force. He flew B-17s, and perhaps B-24s. He and his men learned to fly in America, then trained some more here, and then fought from here, in World War Two.

I knew that, but I realized something else that night, this past Sunday, as I thought about a man I had never known: I am the fourth out of five generations of my family to come to England, train for war, and then go to war in a place far from home. You can decide what you take away from this observation. My great-great grandfather was French, who emigrated to England and then America. My great-grandfather was born in London, then emigrated to America. And my grandfather was American.

My great-grandfather, somewhat non-sequentially, started the trend. Like I said, he was born in London and so was technically British, but had moved to New York City by the time the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914. He returned to England and immediately enlisted as an Infantryman at the beginning of the war. It appears that in 1914 he trained for the war in the UK, and then spent the better part of the next three years on the Western Front. Somewhere around the summer of 1916 he did something that won him a commission as an officer, and then the Military Cross from His Majesty’s Government.  Sometime after that he switched to the Royal Air Force. After the war he returned to America. He died before I ever met him.

But by that time, his father, who had emigrated from France, to England, and eventually to America, had also enlisted. It was late 1916 when that happened, and England needed every breathing soul. So my great-great grandfather joined his son in the Infantry, in the Middlesex Regiment. I know nothing else about the man. He too, like his son, trained for war in England and then spent two years on the front lines of the Western Front. He mustered out in December, 1918. This much I know. He died before I ever met him.

When war broke out for us Americans on 7 DEC 1941, my grandfather was affected. It was his turn, I guess, and so he immediately joined the USAAF. He trained in Texas, then he too came to England, where he trained a bit more, then he went to war in the skies over Germany. He died before I ever met him.

This is all from my mother’s side. She was an only child. So it skipped her, generationally, this apparent familial obligation to go to England and then to war. And now, sitting here in Gloucestershire, England, and realizing that I am the fourth, out of the last five generations of my family have come here, I am humbled. My family, for essentially a century, has come to this land, prepared for war, and then gone off still further to wage that war. It makes me wonder. I wonder because I am so acutely aware that I am not the first, or even the second or third…

They just had “Remembrance Day” here in the UK a little more than a week ago. It is a solemn period, held on the Sunday after the Armistice. Our own version has become, perhaps, a little less so. But their solid and restrained response to their losses reminded me of my own history, and of our history as a nation. It reminded me that our current numbers are so small that this will not happen again. That is to say that those of us in the Armed Forces today are so few, when seen on a global scale, that a generation from now we will not matter, nor be remembered, by the children in school today. We are, in America, anomalies. This is, all things considered, probably a good thing.

But I also observed that, being volunteer based, we who serve you seem to come from the same lines, over and over and over again, across decades and even centuries. And I noticed that among the career soldiers, sergeants and officers alike, this trend is even more pronounced.

You have perhaps heard that America’s fighting is done by 1% of the population of our nation. That is an overstatement. That statistic reflects the total size of our Armed Forces, from all services, in and out of combat. The actual fighting is done by about 500,000 (in-country, preparing to go in-country, or just returned, in all branches), and of that number, the overwhelming majority of them have done one year or less in combat.

The core of our national burden falls on a much smaller group. There are the guys, and a few gals, who do repeated combat tours over years and years of time. These are the professional Sergeants and Officers who have ten, and twenty and even thirty years service. Their total number is probably no more than 75,000, give or take. These are the men and women who stick to it through the decades, the ones who know, personally, some years and memories that are best left behind at some level. They are the ones who give the backbone, learn the lessons, and make us better at what we are trying to do. The privates are magnificent, glorious, heroic and largely selfless. The privates and corporals are generally the ones who take the brunt of the damage at the shitty end of the spear…and then most of them who remain, go home and begin new lives after one tour of duty. It has always been thus, and this is right for a democratic republic. But sometimes forgotten is the remainder. This left-over element is those lifers, those 75,000, who remain afterwards and who go back to war again and again, no matter how much they hate it.  They are the ones who do your fighting, when the people you elect decide that fighting must be done.  America’s population is estimated at 310,000,000, more or less. You do the math.

I know that mine is not the last generation to see war. I am too much of a historian to believe something like that. But I do hope that, if I do my job well, I might be the last in my family line that must come to England, prepare for war, and then launch off to an even more foreign land to fight. I hope that my daughters will come here as students, or scholars, or businesswomen, because this is a wondrous Semi-Foreign land. But I do not want them to follow in the family footsteps. In the end, that is what the true professionals all hope for. We detest war, for the same reason that we are good at it…because we know war, and we know it in a way that nobody else can, we know that it is nothing but obscenity. Sometimes a necessary obscenity, we understand and that is why we serve, but one that we know, and one that we hate.

You can write to LTC Bob at

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