Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Reviews: The Caretaker, The Ballad of Black Tom

The Caretaker
by Thomas William Simpson
This is a mildly entertaining thriller that starts out with a lot of promise but loses it a bit about halfway through. It remains an ok read but I felt it was stretched out a little bit longer than it needed to be. The ending was hugely melodramatic but it wasn't like that wasn't telegraphed. In a book that is almost 600 pages I am going to expect something a little bit more epic than what The Caretaker turned out to be. That could be in part because of a decreasing patience or declining attention span on my part. I'm not sure. I can definitely say that if you are stuck somewhere for hours with no mental stimulation at hand this book could come in quite handy. You know the sorts of arenas of which I speak--places like auto dealerships, hospitals, corporate headquarters-- where all you can do is hurry up and wait. One thing which the author did which I wasn't too crazy about is to end sentences by alluding to the fate of major characters or letting you know who the bad guy is. If he did it once or twice that would be amusing or even exciting. It might make me curious. But there were constant references to wondering how a major character would be enjoying prison right now or explaining that it's too bad that another major character didn't know that he was dealing with a sociopath. Part of the joy in reading a book like this is in figuring out who the bad guy is, who the mark is, what the con is and what the motivations of the bad guy are. So much of that was given away so early that instead of being sucked in by the con, figuring it out and identifying with the so far clueless heroes and heroines, I felt a little separated from the protagonists and villains. Either they were too stupid or too obvious in their evil. The joy of being conned by stories like these is in figuring it out for yourself. Would you really enjoy a magician who instead of doing a trick for you explained in detail exactly how the trick worked even as he was doing it? Well some people would. Perhaps if while the magician was explaining the trick you were watching, he did another magic trick that you didn't even see until the end, then that might be ok? You could argue that that's what Simpson did here. Yes that might be the book's saving grace. But as I said I just thought it was a bit too long. Gunn Henderson Jr. is a tall stereotypical WASP Alpha Male salesman. He works for an unnamed shoe company (think Nike). 

Gunn is the kind of man who doesn't feel that his day is complete unless he has proven that he's better than you at something. Gunn's a sharp dressed ultra competitive man who doesn't take any s*** off of anybody. Anybody. That includes his marks clients, other salesmen, his bosses, women in general and especially his attractive wife Samantha or Sam. Sam is, if not quite a desperate housewife, getting pretty close to that status. 

Sam likes all the benefits and lifestyle that her successful husband provides. She likes that Gunn is tall, well built, handsome and dominant. Unfortunately, for Sam's tastes, Gunn's dominance too often slides over into bullying domineering behavior. Sam likes a man who leads. But she doesn't like Gunn's control freak tendencies. Gunn comes by his persona naturally. Gunn's father, a retired banker, is the same way. Both of the Henderson adult men view life as something where they win and everyone else loses. Gunn does provide materially, sexually and occasionally romantically, but he's self-absorbed. Even Sam must accept that it's Gunn's world. Sam's just living in it. When Sam gets a phone call from someone offering Gunn a new job she breaks her husband's rules and opens his mail containing the job offer. This new sales job, which Sam helps convince Gunn to take, offers a tremendous salary, bonus, incentives and the possibility to be in on the ground floor of something big. The Hendersons could become overnight multi-millionaires. The Hendersons and their two children sell their home and move into a mansion on an estate provided by their new employer. Their kids will attend a fancy private school. Gunn won't be able to enjoy too many of the benefits as he will be on the road at least 6 days a week trying to sell the new product. And even for a master salesman like Gunn, this product will be a tough sell. But never fear, the house comes complete with a housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Griner and a caretaker and handyman, Brady. Brady appears to be a patient, solicitous, careful, shy man, everything that Gunn isn't. While Gunn is off pounding the pavement, Sam finds herself growing more attracted to Brady. It probably helps that Brady, who is in even better shape than Gunn, likes to start off his day with a morning dive in the nude. Sam likes to watch that. Brady's a great listener and true gentleman. Sam slowly starts to confide in Brady.  There is an old quote which may or may not have been said by the actress Lana Turner which is "A gentleman is merely a patient wolf." I really liked the setup and early execution. I just thought it dragged in the middle. There is a certain Perils of Pauline aspect to this story. There's also an investigation of exactly how a marriage, or really any intimate relationship can come under deadly strain and either blow up or hold together against the odds. Gunn is an occasionally brutal jerk but he is a hard working one. I liked the examples of the stress a salesman is under. Sam may be the primary protagonist but she's not necessarily always sympathetic.

The Ballad of Black Tom
By Victor Lavalle
The writer H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) was a racist. HPL believed wholeheartedly in White Anglo-Saxon supremacy. He ignored any contrary evidence. He appears to have been completely unaware of the Harlem Renaissance which occurred during one of his most productive periods. In the rare cases where HPL conceded that white supremacy wasn't obvious he had no problem with others (he was something of a shrinking violet himself) employing violence to maintain white status. As late as 1936 HPL was praising Hitler. The groups HPL didn't like initially included just about everyone who wasn't Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or other Western-European descended American. HPL had special contempt for black people, whom he barely accepted as human. HPL wasn't crazy about Jews, despite briefly marrying a Jewish woman. During that short marriage, HPL moved to and lived in Brooklyn, NYC. HPL didn't enjoy his Gotham sojourn.  During his infrequent job searches HPL discovered that even his whiteness did not prevent would be employers from demanding experience and references, neither of which he had. HPL didn't like crowds. He certainly didn't like being around numerous non-whites, which by his reckoning, was a category that included Arabs, Turks, Persians, Central Asians, East Asians, South Asians, Italians, North Africans, Kurds, Blacks, -in short all the people who were moving to NYC at the time, often from overseas. HPL would actually step off the street to avoid being in close proximity to those he considered to be his lessers. His friends said that the sight of minorities or mixed crowds could drive HPL into a rage. HPL was also one of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century. HPL often placed his real life fears in his fiction. So it's unsurprising that all of HPL's then current New York City derived xenophobia, bias and racism was reflected in his short story "The Horror At Red Hook."  (THRH)
This story was a fever dream about non-white immigrants in NYC who are committed to some sort of devil worship. An Irish cop opposes them. A Dutch dilettante helps and directs them, though he may fall victim to the cultists or something they call up from Outside. THRH was not a very good story, even by pulp standards. The plot is weak. But plot is not where HPL made a name for himself. Where he excelled was atmosphere, mood and description, of which THRH had plenty. As stated, in THRH HPL let loose with some bile. These are typical passages:

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles..
Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Indeed, it would not have been too much to say that the old scholar’s particular circle coincided almost perfectly with the worst of the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island...
Their squat figures and characteristic squinting physiognomies, grotesquely combined with flashy American clothing, appeared more and more numerously among the loafers and nomad gangsters of the Borough Hall section..
Suddenly the leader of the visiting mariners, an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth, pulled forth a dirty, crumpled paper and handed it to the captain... 

Lavalle is a writer who counts HPL as an influence but was apparently troubled by HPL's racism and xenophobia. He writes that he dedicates The Ballad of Black Tom to HPL "with all of my conflicted feelings".
The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling/reworking of THRH. It's mostly told from the point of view of the titular character Thomas Lester, a young black man who's not very good at either music or the art of the con. Lester mostly makes his living by playing music on the street for cash. However since he only knows three or four songs and can't even play those well he usually has to leave Harlem to make any money. Lester also earns a living by doing odd jobs for people, finding things which they can't find or can't reach. He lives with his sickly father. When the amateur anthropologist Robert Suydam runs across Lester on the street he invites Lester to play for him at a party Suydam's putting together. Despite Suydam's offer of employment Lester doesn't like Suydam, who can barely conceal his contempt. But a gig is a gig. The police officer Thomas Malone and the private detective Howard (a fictionalized stand-in for author Robert E. Howard) steal the money that Suydam gave to Lester as an upfront fee. Howard sees no reason a black man should have that kind of money. At the request of Suydam's family Howard and Malone are keeping a watch on Suydam. Suydam's family thinks he's mad. Intrigued and still needing money Lester has no choice but to attend the strange gathering at Suydam's house. He also needs to avoid Howard, Malone and other racist cops or white people who are quick to harass, insult or even assault him should they find him in the wrong neighborhood. There is some sort of supernatural power out there which Suydam, no matter how ineptly, may have tapped into. Lester will need to decide what to do about that. Lester, not Suydam or Malone, is the moral center of this story. Although he's not a good musician, Lester is much smarter than anyone realizes. Lester knows that people see what they want to see. Spiritual blindness is a recurring theme in the story.

This is a quick read at about 150 pages. It is not necessary to know of or have a liking for HPL to enjoy this story. The issues raised in the story are still vibrant today. I liked the story. I will look for more work by the author.

Monday, April 25, 2016

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Red Woman

Well we're back. And Jon Snow is dead. Dead as a doornail. There is no doubt whatever about that. Let me repeat emphatically that Jon Snow is dead. But this is no Christmas Carol. We open with a panoramic shot of the Castle Black courtyard centered on Snow's corpse to make that fact clear. We hear Ghost howling with grief and scratching at the door. Not for nothing but you would think that the Stark children would know by now not to get separated from their wolves. It seems like bad things happen. Davos knows something's up so he leaves his room and discovers Jon's body. Along with some of the Night's Watch members who didn't stab Jon 5011 times he takes Jon's corpse inside. Everyone immediately knows Thorne did it. But Dolorous Edd says that they can't trust anyone who's not in the room. Melisandre enters. She says she saw Jon fighting at Winterfell in her flames. Davos is less interested in prophecies and more interested in getting people to guard against the attack which he knows must be coming. He suggests setting Ghost free. While Jon's friends are ready to make a last stand and go out hard, Davos thinks it's better to make a stand and survive. He convinces Dolorous Edd to go for help. Exactly who Edd is going to ask for help is unsaid but I would guess that that Davos is talking about the wildlings. Meanwhile Thorne is overseeing a meeting to explain what happened. As he says, and he may well be honest here, he never liked Jon Snow. But Thorne never disobeyed orders. But he could not stand by and countenance Jon letting the wildlings thru the Wall and giving them lands where they had often robbed, raped and pillaged. Thorne, and several other Night's Watch leaders saw that as treason to the Night Watch. It was something that would destroy the Night's Watch. It violated, as they saw it, the whole purpose of the Night's Watch. So they had to act. Thorne isn't hiding anything. Later on Thorne knocks on the door of the room where Davos and the die hard Snow loyalists are hiding. He offers to give amnesty to anyone who lays down their weapons and provide Davos and Melisandre safe passage south. But they've got to surrender before nightfall. Thorne won't say what will happen after that but then again I don't suppose he has to does he?

Davos politely agrees to consider the offer. When Thorne leaves Davos scorns the offer and says they're dead if they agree to it. Not a very trusting fellow that Davos. Davos muses that they need to get Melisandre on their side. Otherwise Dolorous Edd is their only chance. At Winterfell Ramsay Bolton mourns over Myranda's corpse. He reminisces about their happy times together and promises vengeance. Even so he orders the maester to feed the corpse to his dogs. Roose congratulates his son on their victory over a depleted and demoralized Baratheon army. But Roose being Roose he has to stick the knife in to Ramsay. He reminds Ramsay that by marrying Sansa Stark, the Boltons have made an enemy of the Lannisters. And a Lannister always pays his debts. To fight the Lannisters the Boltons will need the entire North. To unify the North they need Sansa Stark and an heir. Ramsay has lost both. But no matter, Roose's wife will produce an heir. So Ramsay needn't worry after all. Isn't that wonderful? Roose, as always, looks quite pleased with himself. Sansa and Reek Theon are running away from the Bolton hounds and soldiers. 
They cross the river in an attempt to throw off the hounds. They take respite in a crevice beneath a tree. Theon hugs Sansa in an attempt to share his body warmth. But before they can get warm and start to recall all the good times they had at Winterfell, the hounds and soldiers are upon them. Apparently they didn't fall for the old "hide my scent by crossing running water" routine. Either finding nobility or simply tired of running, Theon tells Sansa to get to Castle Black where her brother Jon is Lord Commander. He then steps out in front of the soldiers to give her a chance to flee. The soldiers want to know where Sansa is but Theon claims she's dead. Well noses don't lie. The dogs find Sansa, who is apparently too tired and cold to run any longer. At that point, Brienne and Podrick (well mostly Brienne) show up and make mincemeat of the Bolton crew. In a bit of a cliched scene, Theon finds something of his shattered soul/manhood by stabbing someone who was just about to kill Podrick. Brienne again offers her loyalty and service to Sansa. This time Sansa accepts, though she's still shivering and has to be coached through some of the words.

A pensive Cersei hears of a ship returning from Dorne. Excited she goes down to the harbor. But she can tell by Jaime's expression that their daughter is dead. She admits that Myrcella was nothing like her. Myrcella was good, honest and decent. Cersei starts to obsess over the ugly physical changes of death and speaks of the prophecy that all of her children will die before her. Jaime interrupts to say f*** the prophecy and f*** everyone who is not a Lannister. He promises revenge. Margaery is still in prison. She wants to see her brother Loras. A septa reads scripture to her and urges her to confess. Margaery won't do that. The septa gets upset. She is about to lay hands on Margaery in a non-pleasant way. But before the beating can commence the High Sparrow, who has presumably been watching, decides to play Good Cop to the Septa's Bad Cop. He also urges confession and in a psychological twist gets Margaery to admit that no one is truly without sin. In Braavos Arya is living the streets as a blind beggar girl. Some people drop coins in her bowl. But apparently this is all just part of a test as the Waif girl comes to ask Arya if she has been listening. As most of us would likely do Arya is like what? And that's when the Waif gives Arya a quarterstaff and commands her to fight. Being blind is Arya's problem, not hers, says the Waif. The Waif beats up Arya something fierce. She promises to see Arya tomorrow. Apparently the beatings will continue until Arya's other senses, and answers, improve. Jorah and Daario are searching for Daenerys. Daario teases Jorah about his unrequited love for Daenerys but Jorah is beyond taking offense. All the same if you were alone with a desperate and armed romantic rival wouldn't you be a bit careful about what you said to him or her? If I were Daario I might not turn my back to Jorah. There's a lot of ways a man can die out there in the wilderness. Anyway Jorah finds Daenerys' ring. He also checks himself and sees that the greyscale is still spreading. 

In Meereen Varys and Tyrion walk through the city without any bodyguards to get the lay of the land. Varys corrects Tyrion's Valyrian when Tyrion tries to tell an impoverished woman that he wants to give her money so that she can feed her baby. From what the duo can tell the lower classes are starting to turn against Daenerys. The Lord of Light is also gaining more followers. And oh yes, while they're out walking, someone has burned all of Daenerys' ships. Speaking of Daenerys she has been made a slave of the local Dothraki horde. Her two guards muse about what she looks like naked. They reach their encampment and turn her over to Khal Moro, their leader. In what seems like a humorous nod to Monty Python's "What have the Romans ever done for us" riff, Khal Moro declares that there is nothing more magnificent than seeing a woman nude for the first time. His lieutenants, being the philosophical contrarians that they are, counter with various other events in life, which mostly involve pillaging and looting. Khal Moro, rolling his eyes, concedes the point by saying ok, seeing a woman nude for the first time must be among the FIVE greatest things in life. And as his hands are straying closer to his weapons, his lieutenants know now is the time to shut up. Daenerys reveals that not only does she speak Dothraki but she is Daenerys Stormborn, first of her name, blah blah blah. That doesn't impress the Dothraki much but when she tells them that she is Khal Drogo's widow that gives Khal Moro pause. One does not rape or enslave a fellow Khal's widow. No the proper plan of action is to take Daenerys to Vaes Dothrak to live with the other widowed Khaleesis.

In Dorne Prince Doran is taking a rare walk though his gardens, assisted by his effective sister-in-law, Ellaria Sand. He talks of his brother Oberyn's adventures and erotic exploits. He envied Oberyn those things but hey someone had to rule and as oldest that fell to him. Ellaria smiles and agrees and helps her lover's brother back to his throne. At that point a maester(?)/messenger (?) brings news of Myrcella's death. But before Doran can do anything other than look shocked Ellaria and the Sand Snakes kill Areo Hotah and Doran and the messenger too for good measure. The other guards look on impassively as Ellaria stabs Doran at least ten thousand times. She calls him weak and insults him for never taking vengeance for Elia's and Oberyn's death. Dorne can no longer be ruled by weak men. And that writ includes his son Trystane, who is murdered by his cousins the Sand Snakes on his ship. I wonder if all the people who were clutching their pearls about the show's alleged violence against women problem will stop watching because a woman drove an 8 foot spear through the back of her male cousin's head and joked about it. I'm betting not. The show's final scene was both a bit of fanservice and a confirmation of some theories. Melisandre (cleavage alert!) is standing in front of the mirror in her typical low cut gown. She has been looking in the fires. She looks depressed. She takes off her gown and stares at herself. She then removes her ruby choker. It would appear that Melisandre is not a young woman but rather a woman who is well over a hundred years old. Maybe she's multiple centuries old. Either way she's older than dirt and looks about as attractive as mud. Evidently she's having a crisis of faith and wanted to remind herself who she is.

What I liked

  • I liked the ending of the Doran storyline. He was boring. In the books GRRM spends a lot of time on Doran and his plans for his son. It was even more boring than the show. I am happy that the show creators have apparently confirmed that Doran and Areo Hotah were not important to the end game.
  • The joking between Khal Moro and his lieutenants.
  • The oath of allegiance between Brienne and Sansa
  • Ghost
  • Melisandre (and not just for the obvious reasons either). I thought that the actress did a pretty good job communicating spiritual crisis. I was reminded of those people who run around saying that the world is going to end on this day. When it doesn't end, what do they do if they were true believers?
  • Roose's jocular mood. He makes evil look fun.

What I didn't like

  • If you discovered that close relatives were involved in a plot to work against your interests, would you, like Prince Doran, have these relatives free and walking around you with weapons? I'm guessing not. I just don't like Dorne, either in the books or the show. But even though I'm happy Doran is off the show his demise at the hands of his female relatives feels like fanservice to people who were upset at the Sansa storyline. 
  • Varys and Tyrion walking around without any bodyguards. I suppose that given how ineffective The Unsullied have been in street fighting Varys and Tyrion could have decided they would be better off without them. Still given that some unknown people in Meereen just tried to take out Daenerys and ALL of her supporters, some sort of protection detail might be in order.
  • I thought Trystane was on the same boat with Myrcella? Even if he wasn't he apparently knew about her death? Why was he just sitting around without any guards? Oh well. It's not like he will be missed.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

HBO Game of Thrones: Who is Jon Snow's Mother?

The last thing Ned Stark told Jon Snow was that the next time they talked he would tell Jon all about Jon's mother. Benioff and Weiss had to answer (presumably correctly) this post title question for GRRM before he allowed them to adapt his A Song of Ice and Fire series for HBO. Although this post does not technically contain spoilers as GRMM, Benioff or Weiss haven't publicly answered the question, this post provides what I consider to be the correct, obvious and most widely held answer. Season Five of Game of Thrones made increasingly obvious (IMO) hints to the answer. Season Six may include flashbacks, some of which could be written about below. So if you don't want to discuss Jon Snow's mother and why that's important to the story, you should probably skip this post. This post references numerous book details, which if you've not read the books, might be things you don't want to know. Caveat lector.

Rickard Stark, Ned Stark's father, wanted to link the Starks and the North to powerful Southern families. Rickard fostered Ned with the Arryns of the Vale. Rickard arranged for his eldest son and heir Brandon, to marry Catelyn Tully of the Riverlands. Rickard Stark betrothed his only daughter Lyanna to Robert Baratheon of the Stormlands. Remember that in GRRM's fictional world, similar to our own, upper class marriages are often not about love between a man and a woman but rather about political alliances, settling rivalries, ending wars, and obtaining land and wealth. A person's individual happiness, romantic dreams or sexual satisfaction are unimportant when weighed against other factors. Lyanna Stark and Brandon Stark were both more impulsive than their stolid brother Ned. It's described in the books as having "wolf-blood". Ned thinks that their headstrong nature led to their demise. How did this happen? Prince Rhaegar won a tournament and gave the prize to Lyanna Stark, instead of to his own wife, Elia. Eventually, as the story goes, Rhaegar kidnapped, and per Sansa Stark's recounting, raped Lyanna Stark. When Brandon Stark and later Rickard Stark went to King's Landing to demand justice the Mad King Aerys had them murdered in the most grotesque of ways. Rickard Stark was cooked to death in front of his son. Brandon Stark was slowly strangled while vainly trying to save his father. Aerys wanted to make a clean sweep of Starks and their supporters. He ordered Jon Arryn to surrender his wards Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. Jon Arryn suggested that the King commit an anatomically impossible act. Arryn called his banners. It was on. Ned Stark and Jon Arryn each married Tully daughters to seal their alliance with House Tully. Ned impregnated Catelyn and went off to war. Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar Targaryen. Lyanna Stark died from unknown causes.

At the war's end Ned returned safe and sound to his wife and firstborn son. But he also brought back a child, a boy named Jon. To put it mildly, Catelyn wasn't exactly ecstatic about this turn of events. To be fair who would be? If your new spouse came home with a child that wasn't yours would you be happy? Ned refused to discuss Jon or his mother. Ned let people believe that Jon's mother might be any number of women, most of whom were conveniently deceased, lowborn or continents away. It wasn't uncommon for a wealthy Lord to father a child out of wedlock, but it was VERY unusual for a Lord to raise such a child with his trueborn children. That was a violation of social mores and a serious insult to a wife. This is why Catelyn Stark, in both book and show, never warmed to Jon Snow. To Catelyn, Jon was a walking reminder of Ned's infidelity. Catelyn also viewed Jon as a peril to her children's inheritance. Catelyn could not fully vent this frustration to Ned. But Catelyn certainly showed Jon her indifference and/or disdain. We know that Ned and Catelyn had an unusual marriage for Westerosi nobles because they actually liked and loved each other. Ned valued his wife's counsel. Catelyn learned to appreciate Ned's reserve and caring nature. In books they each separately think about how nice it would be to have another child together. But loving spouse or not there are clearly some limits beyond which Ned will not go. In the books the one time Catelyn recalls Ned being mean or cold to her is when she asks him about Jon's mother. Catelyn suspects that Jon's mother is an old flame of Ned's.

It had taken her a fortnight to marshal her courage, but finally, in bed one night, Catelyn had asked her husband the truth of it, asked him to his face.
That was the only time in all their years that Ned had ever frightened her. "Never ask me about Jon," he said, cold as ice. "He is my blood, and that is all you need to know. And now I will learn where you heard that name my lady." She had pledged to obey; she told him; and from that day on the whispering had stopped, and Ashara Dayne's name was never heard in Winterfell again.

Well isn't this curious. Ned Stark, Mr. Nice Guy himself, is suddenly coldly dismissive to his wife to the point of frightening her. He evidently severely corrects some gossipy Winterfell residents. Obviously Jon's parentage is a sore spot with Ned. Even more curious, notice that Ned refers to Jon as "my blood" and not "my son" when speaking to Catelyn. In the show Ned is not as abrupt with Robert when Robert teases Ned about his infidelity but he nonetheless makes it crystal clear that he doesn't want to talk about Jon or his mother. During the last season Stannis, who is strict and inflexible in a different fashion from Ned, mused that infidelity was never Ned's way. Ned was if nothing else, a righteous man. Do we really believe that a man who tried his best to live by both the letter and the spirit of the law would dishonor his new wife by immediately cheating on her? That seems unlikely. Although Westeros may not have divorce as such Ned would be risking the new alliance with the Tullys by insulting Catelyn. He would also risk losing the respect of his bannermen, something that in a milieu lacking centralized armies could be dangerous. Ned may not be the most devious man to ever come from the North but he's not stupid. He wouldn't hurt his wife or damage his own reputation unless he had no choice. So why would he feel he had no choice? Because Ned made a promise. And you know how Ned feels about promises. Ned and six of his closest bannermen apparently learned that Lyanna was at the Tower of Joy. They tracked her down to that location only to find that she was being guarded by three Kingsguard members, one of whom is the brother of Ned's former crush. In the ensuing showdown only Ned and his bannerman Howland Reed, father of Jojen and Meera, survived. Lyanna died shortly afterwards in a "bed of blood". Among her last words to Ned were "Promise me Ned." This memory is something which causes Ned immense grief. He believes that he's paid a cost for that promise for the past decade and a half.

He could still hear her at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. “I will,” Ned promised her. That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them.

Hmm. To what price is Ned referring? Remember that per books, Catelyn's annoyance with Jon is heightened by the fact that Jon resembles Ned more strongly than any of her children except Arya. Jon and Arya look alike. But Robb, Sansa, Rickon and Bran all take more after their mother, Catelyn. When Arya is depressed/angry about her unconventional looks, Ned raises her spirits by telling her that she's a late bloomer. Ned says that Arya is actually a dead ringer for Lyanna Stark, who was considered one of the great beauties in all of the Kingdoms. So if Arya looks like her aunt Lyanna and Jon looks like Arya, it makes sense that Jon looks like his mother Lyanna. And since the Starks are not incestuous Lannisters, Ned is not Jon's father. Rhaegar Targaryen is. Ned took the child as his own to protect Jon from Robert's wrath. Robert Baratheon hated Rhaegar Targeyen for "stealing" Lyanna Stark from him. At the rebellion's end Robert Baratheon was happy/relieved to see the Lannisters present the slaughtered children of Rhaegar Targaryen to him. Years later Robert was making plans to assassinate Rhaegar's sister, Daenerys. It's safe to say that Robert is not exactly rational on the subject of Targaryens. Although Robert is Ned's best friend and foster brother, he's also Ned's king. Robert accepts more honest talk and disagreement from Ned than he does from most people but the bottom line is that when Robert gives Ned a direct order, he expects Ned to follow it. And Robert would want to kill Rhaegar's last son. Robert would see the son of the previous heir to the throne as a direct threat to his rule. It's unthinkable that Ned would ever turn over his sister's son to his best friend for execution. Ned keeps his promises. The solution that Ned found was to sacrifice his own reputation and some closeness with his wife in order to keep his nephew safe. It's not just Robert whom Ned would need to worry about. What would various other factions do if they knew there was a Targaryen heir still alive in Westeros and that Lord Stark was protecting him? Blackmail could be the least of Ned's worries. Ned doesn't tell Catelyn because as Ned muses, if Catelyn were ever in a position to protect her own children by sacrificing Jon, she just might do it. The best way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself. Catelyn couldn't reveal what she doesn't know.

Ned thought, If it came to that, the life of some child I did not know, against Robb and Sansa and Arya and Bran and Rickon, what would I do? Even more so, what would Catelyn do, if it were Jon’s life, against the children of her body. He did not know. He prayed he never would.
In an internal monologue why would Ned not list Jon with his other children?
Ned and Barristan Selmy never remember Rhaegar as any sort of rapist or cruel man. That seems really odd for someone like Ned, who clearly adored his baby sis. Wouldn't it seem that Ned would have some negative thoughts about Rhaegar if Rhaegar really did what some say he did? Robert, not Ned, is the one who is constantly bad mouthing Rhaegar. Robert places Lyanna on a pedestal. That could well be because Robert never really knew Lyanna, as Ned gently points out. Robert liked Lyanna's beauty and the idea of Lyanna marrying him but Lyanna didn't necessarily reciprocate those feelings. Lyanna was a strong willed young woman who wasn't crazy about marrying Robert Baratheon, who even as a youth already had a reputation for being something of a ladies man.

“Robert will never keep to one bed,” Lyanna had told him at Winterfell, on the night long ago when their father had promised her hand to the young Lord of Storm’s End. “I hear he has gotten a child on some young girl in the Vale.” Ned had held the babe in his arms; he could scarcely deny her, nor would he lie to his sister, but he assured her that what Robert did before their betrothal was of no matter, that he was a good man and true who would love her with all his heart. Lyanna had only smiled. “Love is sweet, dearest Ned, but it cannot change a man’s nature."
Lyanna was a fantastic horserider who could handle weapons and may have defeated knights at a joust. We also know that she cried tears of joy at Rhaegar's music. It's a good bet that not only was Lyanna able to defend herself if need be but also that she liked Rhaegar. And unlike say Gregor Clegane, there are no hushed tales told of Rhaegar's rapes or crimes. Isn't it possible, even likely, that Lyanna willingly eloped with Rhaegar instead of being kidnapped? So any intimacies were consensual. There are some characters in A Song of Ice and Fire who speak dismissively of women in battle, pointing out that a woman's battle is in the birthing bed, not the field. So what was Lyanna doing in a "bed of blood"? And why were Kingsguard members there if not to protect someone of royal blood? I think Kingsguard members were there to protect the pregnant Queen and newly born royal prince, Jon Snow, who is Ice (Stark) and Fire (Targaryen). And since Targaryens were polygamy friendly, who's to say that Rhaegar and Lyanna weren't legally married, making Jon Snow Targaryen the legitimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms? There's probably only one man alive who knows the truth of the matter, Stark bannerman Howland Reed. It's easier on Robert's ego for him to believe that his betrothed was abducted, raped and murdered than to accept that a woman coolly evaluated him, considered her options and ran away with someone else. And Ned being Ned never sees fit to correct his friend. Although Robert may well view Lyanna's "kidnapping" as casus belli it's not clear that anyone else does. Without Brandon Stark foolishly challenging Rhaegar to come out and die and the Mad King's overreaction, war could have been avoided. Anyway, Ned Stark does not believe in hurting children. He lied and confessed to treason to save Sansa's life. Ned was willing to be insulted and dismissed from court to save Daenerys' life. And Ned was willing to dishonor his name and damage his relationship with Catelyn to save Jon's life. 

Movie Reviews: Count Yorga, Vampire, My Son The Fanatic

Count Yorga, Vampire
directed by Bob Kelljan
This AIP movie is similar to what Hammer later tried to do with Dracula AD 1972. It updates vampires for the modern era. The difference is that Count Yorga ,Vampire takes its subject matter more seriously. This film is an example of how low budget doesn't necessarily need to mean low class. The special effects are few and far between. The blood looks fake as can be. But nevertheless this film gives a pretty good bang for the buck as far as scares go. In addition, this is a pretty interesting trip in time back to the days of doctors who chain smoked, women who found bras to be too constraining and men who thought that tight gaudy polyester pants just screamed out macho masculinity. So there's that. The early seventies were a different time. As the title gives away there isn't any real mystery as to who the bad guy is or what he is. Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) looking and sounding like a Continental mix (even though he's American) between Dracula and Hugh Hefner is the titular bad guy. Yorga's making ends meet as a medium and hypnotist. He claims to originally be from Bulgaria. Yorga is conducting a seance for a woman named Donna (Donna Anders). Donna wants to contact her recently deceased mother. Donna's mother died suddenly from anemia shortly after she became Yorga's girlfriend. The Count didn't come to the daytime funeral. But he did convince Donna to bury her mother instead of cremating her as her will instructed. Donna doesn't seem to find this strange. At Donna's request many of her friends attend the seance even though they don't take the seance or the strange count very seriously. As the seance gets going Donna sees something and becomes hysterical. Count Yorga calms her down and hypnotizes her to forget whatever it was she saw. He also takes the opportunity to implant some naughty post-hypnotic suggestions in her head. Needing a ride home Count Yorga prevails upon Erica (Judy Lang) and her boyfriend Paul (Michael Murphy) to offer him a lift. Paul's not crazy about the idea; he doesn't like the glances the Count is giving his woman. Erica seems oblivious. Arriving at the Count's neo-gothic LA mansion Paul declines the Count's offer to Erica and him to stay the night. Paul is anxious to be away, especially after seeing the Count's silent moronic looking servant Bruda (Edward Walsh). 

Leaving the estate their VW van gets stuck in mud which wasn't there before. Since this is before cell phones and neither of them wants to go back to the mansion they settle down to do what boyfriend and girlfriend normally do when they are alone. The Count crashes their party, throwing Paul out of the van and having his way with Erica. The next day neither Paul nor Erica can remember what happened. But Erica is sick. She has a sudden fondness for eating live animals. Even in the wild seventies this was beyond the norm so Paul calls his best bud Michael (Michael MacReady), Donna's boyfriend, and the aforementioned chain smoking hematologist Dr. Hayes (Roger Perry). It's a weakness of the movie that Hayes is very quick to seize on vampirism as the culprit. I mean if you visited your doctor and told him you had a sudden coughing fit would you expect him to immediately pronounce that you were infected by Aliens? To be fair though once you see a woman eating her pet I think you might be open to some unlikely theories.This movie is not really a remake of the original Dracula story but it is very similar to it. A group of men must protect their women from the foreign menace. Again, unlike today's vampire movies, this film isn't driven by special effects. There's a lot of talking punctuated by long bouts of silence. There's also a fair amount of cleavage. The Count is a strictly heterosexual vampire. Only women, and good looking ones at that, are among his victims. I mean if you're intending on living forever you might as well do it in style, right? The best that men can hope for is a quick death. Yorga's not into sharing his growing harem. Because the special effects are minimal, paradoxically this film, low budget and all, has its creepy moments. It extracts fear from things like finding someone watching you, missing a wake up call, or realizing that your vehicle is stuck. Robert Quarry doesn't have a lot to do but he does it well enough. This film is not action heavy. I believe I first saw this movie way back in the day on either Creature Feature or Thriller. This movie will likely only be of interest to horror movie fans.

My Son The Fanatic
directed by Udayan Prasad
I think that the question of nationalism is going to be more, not less, important in the 21st century and beyond. Although there are some people who believe that nation states and their trappings are crutches which humans need to evolve beyond there are also those who think that a strong nation-state with sovereign borders and independent economies is still required. People do not organize themselves by markets and economics alone. I might have more to write on that on a later date since I tend to align more closely with the second group. Anyhow the reason I mention that is that those questions are becoming more and more urgent as poor economic prospects, weak states, the fallout from colonialism, overpopulation and even climate change drive more people to move from the Global South to the Global North. The problem with this is that people and cultures are not fungible. You can not move millions of people from Area A into Area B without problems. If Area B has traditionally been peopled by humans who do things very differently from humans in Area A there will be some issues. There will be conflicts. Some of these will be minor. But some will be pretty serious. We see that today in the controversies over immigration to Europe from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. We've also seen people from Eric Clapton to John Cleese point out that London doesn't look like it used to look (and they don't like it). The events in this older movie (it was made in 1997) presaged many current discussions about Belgium, France, the U.K. and even the United States. Why are some people who grew up with European citizenship rejecting it in favor of something else. My Son The Fanatic is also a pretty decent love story.
Parvez (Om Puri) is a Pakistani immigrant to the U.K. He's a pretty decent fellow. Maybe too decent. He drives a taxi. Parvez is happy to be in the U.K. and considers himself English--or at least Pakistani-English. He's a Muslim but he's not going to freak out if he should have bacon or drink alcohol on occasion. And because he sees himself as not like those people in Pakistan he won't automatically immediately take offense if white Englishmen or Englishwomen make accidental or even deliberate racist comments about Pakistanis. No, Parvez thinks that if you work hard and keep a positive attitude, good things will happen. His son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) was born in the U.K. So he has no basis for comparison to anything else. He has a much lower tolerance for racism, deliberate or not. Based mostly on his father's wishes Farid is betrothed to marry a white Englishwoman, the daughter of the local police chief. But although Farid is too young to have a midlife crisis he's still having trouble trying to define himself in a country which doesn't feel right to him. When Farid detects some racist condescension from his putative wife and in-laws he calls off the wedding, chastising his father for naivete and lack of pride. More ominously Farid re-dedicates himself to fundamentalist Islam, sells off his guitar, rejects Western culture and starts hanging out with some dodgy characters. The father and son realize that they don't know each other that well and may not like each other that much. Farid's frustrations are long standing. They are as much personal as they are ideological.

Parvez has met the call girl Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). He drives her around from appointment to appointment. He tries to protect her. They talk and start to hang out. The duo realize that they might have something more than a transactional relationship. But it's then that Parvez discovers that his angry and possibly violent son may not be wrong about everything. This is a movie that is full of humor and heartbreak, just like life. There's a lot to be said for how different generations respond in varying ways to conflict. This movie raises a lot of questions about assimilation and identity-religious, racial, national. Parvez is a jazz fan. He is a man of South Asian descent living in the U.K. He is a Muslim. Are those identities necessarily all mutually exclusive? Parvez thinks not. Farid thinks that he can find the answers to life by returning to a mythical lost past purity. He also thinks that he should be able to exert power over people who don't meet his religious standards. Nevertheless, this film is not as simple as tolerance good, fundamentalist bad. Give this one a look see if you can find it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince Dead at 57

The jacked up thing about getting older or perhaps about life in general is that eventually all of your youthful heroes pass away.  Prince died today at age 57. That seems far too young of course. But you never know what's going on in someone else's life. And like the Mississippi Fred McDowell song points out, no matter what your plans might be, when your time is up "You gotta move". Prince was a huge part of the soundtrack to my misspent youth. They say that people often keep a special spot in their heart for the music of their teens and early adulthood. I have most of Prince's albums. I definitely have everything he did in his classic period from the late seventies to the early nineties. This is sad but it is what it is. Prince was one of the most exciting and eclectic performers, composers, musicians and guitarists out there. I don't think he ever fully got the credit he deserved from the rock press, who often dismissed him as a "pop" star or "R&B" star. On guitar Prince could play circles around many people but I think his true instrument was his band. Condolences to his family.
(CNN)The artist known as Prince, who pioneered "the Minneapolis sound" and took on the music industry in his fight for creative freedom, died Thursday at age 57, according to his publicist. "It is with profound sadness that I am confirming that the legendary, iconic performer, Prince Rogers Nelson, has died at his Paisley Park residence this morning at the age of 57," said Yvette Noel-Schure.
Earlier Thursday, police said they were investigating a death Paisley Park studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Earlier this month, Prince said he wasn't feeling well, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and canceled at least one concert in the city. Some days later, he took the stage in Atlanta to perform. After that concert, the singer's plane made an emergency landing, Noel-Schure told CNN. At the time she said, "He is fine and at home."
Prince has won seven Grammy Awards, and has earned 30 nominations. Five of his singles have topped the charts and 14 other songs hit the Top 10. He won an Oscar for the original song score to the classic film "Purple Rain." 

The singer's predilection for lavishly kinky story-songs earned him the nickname, His Royal Badness. He is also known as the "Purple One" because of his colorful fashions.
Controversy followed the singer and that, in part, made his fans adore him more. "Darling Nikki," a song that details a one-night stand, prompted the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center. Led by Al Gore's then wife, Tipper, the group encouraged record labels to place advisory labels on albums with explicit lyrics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Saudi Arabia's Threats, 9-11 and President Obama

You may recall that there was a Saudi connection to 9-11. Fifteen of the nineteen men who committed the attack were Saudi Arabian citizens. Saudi Arabia practices, underwrites and exports a fierce puritanical brand of Islam, one which is implacably hostile to all other religions including other versions of Islam. Thomas Friedman gets it mostly right when he writes that  Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment. It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia. And we, America, have never called them on that — because we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.
So I wasn't that surprised to learn that the Saudi Arabian government, alarmed at the possibility that the Congress might pass a bill allowing exceptions to foreign governmental immunity in the case where American citizens have been murdered, made some crude threats about selling off US assets were that bill to become law. "Nice economy you got here kid. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it. You savvy??"

Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. The officials have warned senators of diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. 
Several outside economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through, saying that such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. But the threat is another sign of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States. LINK
While I don't like ambulance chasers or attorneys/organizations who seek nothing more than to shake down institutions with big pockets, I also don't care for foreign nations trying to insert themselves and their interests into US politics. Saudi Arabia is hardly the first or worst offender but it seems as if their concerns might have been better addressed privately. If there is evidence that some additional Saudi citizens, in or out of their government, knew about, planned, financed or assisted in the 9-11 attack then I would certainly want them held accountable, preferably criminally but civilly is fine. I have relatives and friends who worked in or visited the World Trade Center. It could just as easily been some of them there that day. This contretemps also shows that somehow Saudi Arabia has forgotten who is the superpower and who is not. It might be time for the President to remind Saudi Arabia of that rather than run interference against 9-11 families who want answers and/or possible recompense. This is a larger problem than Saudi Arabia. There is something wrong with our political establishment and foreign policy when so-called allies from Tel Aviv to Ridyadh feel free to inject themselves in American politics, skim off billions in financial and military aid, insult our leaders and tell our legislators what they'd better not do. This needs to be fixed. One way that the President could respond to the Saudi threats is to declassify the 28 pages from the Joint Inquiry Intelligence Committee report on 9-11 which, according to former Senator Bob Graham, outlines a Saudi network which allegedly aided and assisted in the attacks. For what it's worth, as a candidate Barack Obama promised to fully declassify this report but as President, he hasn't done it. So it goes. The President will be in Ridyadh on Wednesday. I hope that he has something positive to report afterwards but I'm not sanguine about that possibility. It is important to remember that no matter what, each country has and will pursue its own interests. Saudi Arabia is no exception to that rule. This would be an excellent time to redefine our relationship with that country.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Anomalisa

directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
This stop motion animated movie is simultaneously offbeat and very traditional. It's also adult and explicit in a way that probably would not have been possible with live action acting with these particular actors, although you never know I guess. It's a beautiful movie with a message that you've no doubt heard a million times before but in my opinion never gets old. Enjoy life. Expand your horizons. Live and love while you can because sooner than you think winter is coming for us all. I suppose how much you enjoy this movie depends on how amenable you are to hearing those particular bromides again. All of us should occasionally take the time to stop and smell the roses. As Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. If your inner child or young teen could see the adult that you've become would he or she be excited and joyful or revolted and frightened? Are you living your dreams? Are you just slowly hacking your way through a dull and boring life? Or worst of all, are you thoroughly consumed with self-loathing and thus depressed at the choices and compromises that you've made in order to get somewhere that you're not sure you want to be anymore. It makes a difference. Our mental and emotional states can influence our physical state and vice versa. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a middle aged, out of shape and somewhat jowly customer service efficiency expert. Michael writes books and gives lectures on how to be a better customer service agent. He doesn't like his work. He doesn't like traveling around speaking. He doesn't like his wife. He doesn't like people in general. Michael is a sad sack of a man.

One way that you know that Michael doesn't like people is that almost everyone else in the film that Michael hears or talks to sounds exactly the same. Men, women, boys, girls--everyone sounds identical to Michael. That's because they're all voiced by Tom Noonan. It is kind of weird hearing a man's voice coming from a depiction of a woman or child but it definitely pulls you into Michael's depression and strangeness. It took me a while to get used to this but it does what it's supposed to do. Michael is lonely. He lives in a gray half-world where nothing he does or says makes any difference anyway. Arriving in Cincinnati Michael can't stop thinking about an ex-girlfriend he dumped, Bella. He wonders what she's doing and how her life has proceeded. He meets her for drinks but can't really find the words to explain why they're apart or what he wants from her now. Things go about as well as you might expect. Fleeing back to his hotel from that scene of emotional carnage, Michael runs into two women, one of whom, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) touches something in him. Unlike everyone else in the film Lisa has her own voice. Both Lisa and her friend are customer service workers who are at the hotel to attend Michael's lecture. To them Michael is something of a rock star. Showing courage and a little gamesmanship he wasn't aware he still had, the normally inept Michael adroitly invites the shy, insecure, slightly pudgy but also perky Lisa back to his room. The duo has some things in common that go beyond their disappointments and missed chances in life. And that's enough plot description. This could be understood as a romance movie but there's more to it than that. I wouldn't call it a romance movie per se. This is a strange little film that may appeal to people who are looking for something different and yet familiar at the same time. But be aware that this is an adult movie in every sense of the word. It is pretty interesting technically that puppets and animation can capture so much emotion and humanity. This movie takes a few different steps than you might expect. 

It is a movie that jumbles romance, loneliness, heartbreak and the sadness and joy of being alive all into one big wonderful fractured story. It is an inside joke that Michael and Lisa are checked into a hotel named Fregoli. The Fregoli delusion is an actual disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that different people are really one single person who is out to get him. This is of course what Michael and the viewer will perceive until Lisa's introduction. Kurt Vonnegut also did something similar in his book Breakfast of Champions. This movie will make you think about the masks many of us wear in our day to day lives and how those masks hinder or help us. If you don't mind stepping off the beaten path in some aspects, check this film out. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

2016 Presidential Race

Lately few of the five remaining major party candidates have been having a good time of it in the polls or on the campaign trails. Most of the candidates made some unforced errors or were baited into making mistakes by the media or their rivals. The candidates seem to be reaching a point where their irritation with each other and the entire campaign process becomes more evident each week. Each candidate is digging deep to find weaknesses in his or her rivals. This interminable process is made even more unpleasant by the 24 hour cable news and social media presence. For every statement you make there is someone eagerly waiting to call you and your supporters everything but a child of God. When Republican consultants are asking other Republican partisans if their preferred candidate pays them more for certain unusual sexual favors or Democratic consultants and media talking heads are trying to paint the other Democratic candidate as the Second Coming of George Wallace you know that people are getting nasty and desperate. So it goes. Nobody put a gun to their heads and made them run for President of the United States.

Donald Trump
Politics is not war. But politics and war have some things in common. In both war and politics you can attack in different ways. There's the air game where someone comes over the horizon at 800 mph, drops ordnance on the target and is gone before anyone can react. There's lots of explosions and people running around bemoaning all the destruction. The nice thing about the air game is that you're in and out quickly. Few people can meet you on equal terms. You can shift targets at a moment's notice. The air game looks great on video. 
In the ground game you have to, as Sonny Corleone might have said, get up close to someone and bada-bing shoot them right in the head. The danger with this is that even a less technologically advanced enemy can still hurt you once you're both rolling around in the muck.The ground game is slower. You spend more time doing things that don't get publicity or ratings. It's pretty ugly on video.

Donald Trump is a devotee of the air game in politics. It's worked well for him. He's a bombastic man who apparently becomes easily bored. Trump likes to drop the hammer on his opponents and/or the media and move on to the next target. So far he hasn't shown the patience for or ability to execute the long slow grind. This means building an organization that will ensure that his supporters (and children) are registered and ready, willing and able to vote, caucus or become delegates as the rules require. Someone has to know all the various state rules and loopholes about obtaining delegates. A winning campaign must put resources into making sure that all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed right down to the precinct level. This can be boring work. It's not as exciting as stream of consciousness pep rallies, nasty tweets about how ugly your opponent's wife is or calling into MSNBC or FOX and boasting about the size of your Wee Willie. If you're ignorant of the rules and ignore your ground game you'll find yourself losing Colorado and Wisconsin to Ted Cruz. That's annoying. This is why Trump hired strategist Paul Manafort to ensure that Trump gets every delegate to which he's entitled and to bring some structure to his campaign. The race will be closer than it should but most of the remaining Republican contests are on Trump friendly turf. I think Trump will be the nominee. And I think he will clinch the nomination before the convention. But if he doesn't my won't that be entertaining!

Hillary Clinton
Her aura of inevitability has been a bit damaged of late with a string of Sanders victories. However because of the rules of the contests and the choices of the voters, it's almost but not quite impossible for Sanders to catch up to Clinton in pledged delegates. For example over the weekend Sanders beat Clinton decisively in Wyoming. But Clinton walked away with just as many pledged delegates from that state as Sanders did. In order to lose to Sanders in pledged delegates Clinton would need to lose almost all of the remaining contests by insane margins (70-30, 90-10,80-20) which probably won't happen. Additionally Clinton still has a commanding lead among Democratic superdelegates. At this time, Clinton is leading decisively in New York. If she wins convincingly there the air could start to leak out of the Sanders balloon. That poll could be meaningless of course. But ultimately Clinton's campaign is the Borg model of Democratic politics. Resistance is futile. Your opinions are irrelevant. You will be assimilated. Absent her or her husband going off script and making some racial faux pas it would be the political upset of the century should she lose the nomination to Sanders when all is said and done. Sanders is certainly putting Mrs. Clinton through her paces. Her flashes of irritation and the constant charges of sexism emanating from her followers and media surrogates show that Clinton never expected to be in this sort of tussle with an old socialist from Vermont by way of Brooklyn. I still think at this time that Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. The important question is after Clinton wins the nomination will she and her supporters reach out to Sanders voters? Or will Sanders voters decide that they'd rather vote for someone outside of the Democratic party altogether? The snide back and forth between Clinton and Sanders over qualifications and the pompous expectation that Sanders voters MUST vote for Clinton in the fall show that Clinton may lead a still fractured party in November. Because her current range of possible general election opponents is so dismal, Clinton may not need every last single Sanders voter. As she is fond of pointing out, she HAS won the majority of Democratic voters. Sanders has not. There are some people who feel that Clinton is just a slightly left wing version of a establishment party that doesn't disagree all that much on things like foreign policy, privacy, law enforcement, monetary policy, capitalism, etc. Those people may say to hell with it and vote for another candidate.

John Kasich
There is no mathematical way that John Kasich can win the Republican nomination before the convention. He's too far behind. His only hope appears to be to stay in the race and win just enough to deny Trump or Cruz the nomination. Then, in a contested convention, Kasich will pour everything he's got into an argument to convince delegates that Cruz and Trump have too many negatives to win in the general election. So they should then go with a winner like Kasich. Kasich just all but called Trump Sauron and has made similar statements about Cruz in the past. There are some polls and other indicators that show Kasich doing better against Sanders or Clinton in the fall. But the ironic thing is that Kasich only appears moderate and mild tempered in comparison to Trump or Cruz. He's got his own history of personal harshness and hard right viewpoints. Of course Kasich could be angling for a VP spot. It wouldn't be the first time that a tough rival got the booby prize of American politics. The problem with Kasich's plan is that the nomination rules do not currently allow for him to be nominated. A nominee must have won the majority of delegates in at least eight states to be nominated. Kasisch hasn't done that and isn't likely to do it in the states remaining. So implicitly he's arguing to be selected as much as elected. But given the high negatives that Cruz and Trump bring, a little bit of convention chicanery might save the Republican party from itself in the fall. But be that as it may it doesn't mean that Kasich should benefit from it. The American electorate isn't clamoring for Kasich. And they've told him that already.

Ted Cruz
The Canadian Conservative Crusader has looked like he has the wind beneath his wings. He came across as human and even sympathetic in the dust up over Trump insulting Heidi Cruz's looks. And unlike Trump, who seems like the know it all blowhard who thinks he can guess his way through the multiple choice final exam, Senator Cruz comes across as the smarmy dedicated student who constantly asks for extra work, reminds an absentminded professor of the promised pop quiz and refuses to share his notes with fellow students who couldn't hear what the professor said. Nobody in the Republican establishment much likes Cruz but many of them appear to be signalling that they like Trump even less. It still remains a source of amusement to me that many of the diehard birthers who couldn't accept that President Obama was born in the US, could be voting for a man who was born in Canada. But that's life. Most people who know Cruz will tell you that he's a smart man. They may think he's a jerk but few people question his intelligence or political skills. Cruz could also be angling for a VP spot or other cabinet position though again it's hard to see how you work for someone who implied ugly things about your wife. Cruz won't catch Trump in the race but he definitely could prevent Trump from reaching the 1237 delegates needed to win the nomination. And if he does that, well then he can contest the convention by arguing that Trump's negatives with everyone, including Republican women, make it impossible to select Trump as the nominee. Left unsaid that while Trump is apparently not that invested in the pro-life, anti-gay marriage stance of many conservatives, Cruz definitely is. This could, properly framed in a general election, be devastating to a Cruz helmed ticket. Cruz is the hard right winger whom many conservatives say they've been waiting for. Perhaps it will take a beatdown of Mondalesque proportions for Republicans to realize that the hard right can't win a national election just by being well, hard right. We'll see.

Bernie Sanders
Sanders has been kicking around longer than anyone thought he could, maybe even Sanders himself. It's only recently that Team Clinton has started to take him seriously, perhaps because it's been a while since Sanders has lost to Clinton. Sanders made a critical mistake in not going after the black vote earlier. In the South the Democratic voter base is disproportionately black. Sanders was and still is easily caricatured as a clueless out of touch white liberal who is tone deaf to specifically black voter concerns. There might be something to that insofar as talking solely about class when people have interests that are touched by class, race and gender doesn't tell people what they want to hear. And you don't get people to vote for you by not telling them what they want to hear, at least some of the time. There are some Clinton supporters for whom blunt identity politics is the reason for voting for Clinton. As one Clinton supporter was quoted saying in the NYT, "It's time for someone with a womb" to be in the White House. Every politician panders of course but if some voters in the Democratic base won't support Sanders because of his race or gender then there's not much Sanders can do about that. People have criticized Sanders, in both reasoned and ridiculous ways, for his "pie-in-the-sky" plans and lack of details about working with Congress and the Courts. That's fair enough I guess. But let's remember that the current President told everyone after winning the nomination that his election would be remembered years later as a time when everyone looked back and realized that that was when the oceans stopped rising and the planet began to heal. Politicians make lofty promises. It's what they do. Anyway I don't think things look so good for Sanders going forward. His misguided but noble attempt to avoid getting negative with Clinton and his late outreach to black voters left him in a hole that's probably too hard to climb out from in the current atmosphere. New York could be his last stand. The poison arrows are flying fast and furious against Sanders. He's definitely shaking the pillars of heaven. People are worried that he could win or do serious damage to Clinton.