Thursday, July 9, 2015

Books on the nightstand: "Phineas Finn"

 
Morgan Library
   
Saving money isn't everything. There is also supporting local establishments which provide service and community that no web site could offer. So I make it a practice to shun Amazon, whenever possible, and stroll over to the Book Bin, my local book shop, to order the books I'm looking for. 
     I was in the process of paying for Alberto Manguel's "Curiosity," based entirely on a rapturous review in the Economist, when one of the Book Bin's friendly, helpful clerks, Allison, pointed out that I have been neglecting my "Books on the nightstand," section of the blog—a number of months have gone by. I apologized and told her I would get right to it. 
     That was weeks ago. And numerous times I meant to set down the novel reviewed below and report on it here. But I didn't want to pull myself away from reading it. As soon as I finished though, just last night, and while it is still fresh in mind, I want to use it to revivify the "Books on the nightstand" section o the blog, where I'll post this, and next week I'll tuck a review of Amanda Palmer's "The Art of Asking."


Phineas Finn,  by Anthony Trollope (Everyman, 1997)

    I don't read many novels, because they generally strike me as untrue. Whatever fantasy world is created is pallid compared with reality, the characters jerky with quirks and irrationalities, unbelievable puppets, compared to actual people, moving through un uninteresting tale.
    But occasionally a novel grabs me. 
    This was an improbable choice. Even Adam Gopnik's tribute to Anthony Trollope on his 200th birthday in the New Yorker in early May might not have prompted me to order it. I have an aversion to 19th century British novelists. I think I've read two Dickens novels, Great Expectations, in high school, and A Christmas Carol, several times, and as marvelous as those were, I was happy to leave it at that. 
    But Gopnik's 2008 essay on Samuel Johnson had set me off on a deeply satisfying journey into Johnson's vastly fascinating world, not only reading the biography he was reviewing—Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin—but tackling Boswell's epic Life of Johnson, a pure joy.
    So I figured, he didn't steer me wrong with the Great Cham of LIterature; perhaps I should trust him here, too. 
     So into Phineas Finn, an 1869 novel about a young Irishman who is put up for a seat in Parliament, his world of ministers and functionaries, plus assorted characters such as Quintus Slade of the People's Banner, one of the greasier journalists  to be found in literature, approaching those in real life. There are alluring, strong women characters: Lady Laura Standish, wed to to the rigid Robert Kennedy, and the buoyant Violet Effingham.
    The romantic ... well, not a triangle, more like a pentagram, when you include Madame Max Goesler and Mary Flood Jones, his sweetheart waiting patiently back at home—did keep my interest, but I was able to march through its 650 pages mainly due to the book's political tone, which rang a most contemporary note. Here is Finn and his friend Laurence Fitzgibbon debating how a vote will fall between the Tories and the Liberals.
    "But the country gets nothing done by a Tory government," says Phineas.
    "As to that, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other," replies his Fitzgibbon. "I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power—for patronage and pay."
     That could be the Illinois government right now.  The cynicism of the book, 150 years old, is startlingly contemporary, such as when the hypocrisy of British leadership is painted as a good thing, at least compared to the sincerity of Americans. In Britain, rancorous Parliamentary debates end with the participants marching off arm-in-arm.
     "It is not so in the United States," writes Trollope. "There the same political enmity exists, but the political enmity produces private hatred. The leaders of parties there really mean what they say when they abuse each other, and are in earnest when they talk as though they were about to ear each other limb form limb."
Anthony Trollope
      The shabbiness of low level government is deliciously laid out by Trollope, who worked as a postal inspector in Ireland for years—some of Finn's friends express sincere condolences at the calamity of his election. But the higher levels fare little better.
     Here is  again is Fitzgibbon—who blithely reneges on a loan that Finn has signed for in an act of misplaced trust, causing Finn to be plagued by a colorfully dogged creditor—explaining the candidates for Prime Minister. 
     "There will be a choice out of three. There is the Duke, who is the most incompetent man in England; there is Monk, who is the most unfit; and there is Gresham, who is the most unpopular. I can't conceive it possible to find a worse Prime Minister than either of the three,— but the country affords no other."
     "And which would Mildmay name?" asks Phineas.
   "All of them,—one after the other, so as to make the embarrassment the greater."
    "Mildmay" points to one of the flaws in the book, Trollope's tendency toward illustrative names. There is the timid Mildmay, the radical Turnbull, the revered Duke of Omnium. Not quite Piers Plowman's wife, Dame Work-While-I-Am-Able, but uncomfortably close.  
     Still, I found myself eager to get back to the book, the mark of good fiction.  Trollope is a first rate writer, tossing off lines that should be epigrams assuming they weren't already when he used them: "But we all know how the man well spoken of may steal a horse, while he who is of evil repute may not look over a hedge." 
     Or, even better: "After all, money is an accident."
     Phineas Finn plunges readers into a world that is foreign—after Lady Laura flees her husband, the grim Mr. Kennedy threatens to go to law to drag her back—yet all-too-familiar. There's something reassuring about it. If our leaders are going to be dolts, at least we can comfort ourselves with the realization that we didn't invent the practice. The greatest recommendation I can give is that there is a second book, Phineas Redux and I am going to seek that out and dive in, just for the pleasure of hanging out with Phineas, Lady Laura, Madame Max and the rest of their diverting circle. It is summer, after all. 
     
      
     

64 comments:

  1. Wow, we get many blogs and columns today.

    But I like Amazon for big savings.

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    1. This got posted by accident for a few hours yesterday.

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    2. That Morgan library is beautiful.

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  2. May I recommend Winston Graham novels, especially for the ladies. (no it's not harlequin junk)

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  3. I think you'd enjoy Middlemarch.

    John

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  4. Good to have the book reviews again. BTW, Adam Gopnik is a favorite writer/author of mine, thanks to the recommendations of NS ("Paris to the Moon" especially). I'll have to check out his essay on Samuel Johnson.

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  5. No David Copperfield? No Oliver Twist?

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    1. I truly have to recommend The Pickwick Papers - one of my favorite books ever. Thanks for the review, this sounds like a great read.

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    2. I forgot to add my name, NW Pat Carey.

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  6. Good analogy to the modern day politics.

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  7. I love Amazon too, for convenience and price. I may have to download Phineas next. Thanks for the book idea.

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  8. Btw, what's with approval now? New policy?

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    1. A measure to remind those who think it's their blog that it's actually my blog. Temporary, I hope. I'm like the magician at a 5 year-old's birthday party. The magic is lost if some smart ass kid in the back keeps heckling me. At least the magic for me is lost, and I'm the person doing this.

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  9. Neil, don't pay attention to insecure, know it all, assholes. If you have to do it by doing a check first, then do so.

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  10. Don't let him spoil it for the rest of us. Why he doesn't do his own blog, is beyond me or is obsessed with just spot checking yours. Again, no one is saying we have to agree with you all the time, but it's how he does it. He can't take a hint.

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  11. Don't let that idiot win, NS. Maybe he wants you to stop the blog.

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    1. Who knows, I'm not a psychologist. But it was intruding on the enjoyment I get from this -- again, I don't mind fair criticism, but relentless gainsaying, I reach a point.... anyway, I'm only vetting comments when I'm going to be away from computer, because I don't want any manifestos being posted in my absence. It's my blog.

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    2. I can't say that I'm not curious as to what was written that prompted the scorched-earth response, but I missed the post, alas. I've read enough in the past to have some idea of what it may have been like, though. If it was indefensible, then I'm in error about what follows, and I apologize if this qualifies as a manifesto.

      I guess I'm the only one here that appreciates A-n-A for what he seems to be: a very informed, very opinionated guy who seems to have latched on to this blog as a place to express his views, and offers a take on Neil's posts that is probably representative of some percentage of his readers. As well as a fan of NS's writing who is as iconoclastic as NS is, himself, and is not simply a Yes-man. Sure he's obnoxious sometimes, but there's plenty of obnoxiousness to go around in the blog world, generally, and here, too. A-n-A's obnoxiousness is always in the service of a larger point, though, it seems to me, while some of the backbiting among the anonymice on here is just free-floating bullshit.

      I'm not sure if this comment will get posted or not, but I'd just point out that there are all kinds of blogs and all kinds of bloggers. David Simon (creator of "The Wire", one of the greatest TV shows in history, among many other accomplishments) has a blog, and he'll respond to random commenters for hours arguing about a point. (Of course, he posts about once every couple months, so that blog is a whole different enterprise.) Eric Zorn, back in the day, would also get in the mix a fair amount. But the glory of his comment section was that the commenters themselves would have some excellent, extended discussions about the topic at hand, and other topics too. He, IMHO, would never have taken down a comment just for disagreeing with him or calling into question his thought process, if it made a substantive point. It made for a wonderful blog that the Tribune managed to ruin, in their desperate pursuit of the elusive, multi-platformed, Tweet-spewing younger folk who are never going to subscribe to the Tribune unless it comes wrapped around a free iPhone.

      Anyway, EGD is excellent for what it is. A daily repository of Neil's fine output, present and past, newsy and otherwise. Despite what I'm sure is a wide and very intelligent readership, the comment section has never achieved a critical mass of commenters who sustain good, argumentative conversations among themselves, however, and NS doesn't seem inclined to waste time arguing with commenters, worthwhile or otherwise, himself. Which is certainly understandable. Though I'm shooting myself in the foot by doing so, I'll just point out that silencing A-n-A makes the blog worse, not better. IMHO, of course. A-n-A often adds interesting and thought-provoking perspective to the topic at hand, granted often with more than a soupcon of attitude. But nobody doubts that its NS's blog, not his and, while reading a series of "Great column, Neil!" comments may be gratifying to our host, it doesn't add much to the vitality of the comment section. But, as one among "the dozen people who hang around the comments section (who) are always jabbering away", as NS so graciously put it in his anniversary post, I'm well aware that the vitality of the comment section is not among his priorities.

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    3. good points, Jakash

      but again, he can do it in a different way, no one is suggesting just saying, good column, ns

      I miss Scribe's posts
      you disagree with ns, but don't seem to do it in attack only mode

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    4. Jak, I saw part of it before it was removed and it was in the usual condescending "Neil is an idiot or lacking and didn't write about this topic" style

      He seemed to be mad that Neil didn't cover some little know attack of Buddhists attacking Muslims. That wasn't the column point and he can't be commanding what he wants written.

      I know NS is temperamental but I can't blame him for removing it, he puts up with more than most would

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    5. Jak, I don't think all the anonymous posts are unworthy.

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    6. 12:02,

      Nor do I. I said "some".

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    7. Jakash, I think Mr. Steinberg is taking steps to ensure that this doesn't turn into one of the _worst_ features of the glory days of "Change of Subject." Yes, there was a dedicated community of commenters who could sustain good conversations amongst themselves... but for far too long, huge chunks of comment space were taken up by certain commenters baiting Mr. Zorn and/or other commenters with off-topic responses, others engaging, and down the rabbit hole everybody went. The actual substantive comments got harder and harder to find and to comment on.

      I have no clue as to how to achieve the comment-space wonderland that existed on, say, Roger Ebert's blog, or that used to exist in other spaces. I doubt that the blog software Mr. Steinberg uses gives him many options to achieve that here. And so, when faced with commenters who either purposely refuse or simply cannot understand the overt and subtle rules established in a given comment space, I see no problem with a time out or actual ban. You might be right in your interpretation of A-n-A, but that doesn't make her/his behavior acceptable/wanted in this space. It's not A-n-A's space, no matter what s/he thinks.

      Bill

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    8. It wasn't anything particularly bad or vile, to be honest I barely glanced at it before deleting it. It had a "You write that you didn't know about these Buddhist attacks but I INFORMED you of these attacks in a previous post .... " blah blah blah. I just get sick of it sometimes. Nothing more complicated than that. Comments have three settings: permit, don't permit or moderate. I want to have comments because you guys seem to enjoy them, but am not disciplined enough to never read them.

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    9. "I just get sick of it sometimes." Fair enough. I can certainly understand that.

      "... but I INFORMED you...", once one gets past the obnoxiousness, is kind of disarming in its demonstration of his frustration. Some of us like to fantasize that our comments actually matter, that NS is somehow actually noting our contributions and, in A-n-A's case, evidently even hoping that NS is remembering what we've said in the past. This is preposterous, of course, given that these comments are just a very fleeting, often annoying, distraction for him amidst the hundreds of other things going on in any given day.

      Still, Bill, I'd have to argue that, while some of A-n-A's comments may be unwanted here, his participation is much more substantive than some of the stuff you refer to that sullied CoS. He's not a troll, and he comes nowhere near flooding the bridge with the amount of flotsam that certain commenters did there. ; )

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    10. Eh, discipline is overrated at times. I believe I'm speaking for most of the commenters here when I say we would be disappointed if you didn't sneak a peek at our, ahem, words of wisdom and respond on occasion :)

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    11. (Above 2:52 post is directed at our blog host.)

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    12. I do read them, or at least scan them. Sometimes they're complicated analyses of matters that have nothing to do with what I'm writing about. When someone has a valid question I try to address it. Sometimes points are very solid and I compliment that. The only thing I won't do is provide a forum for people to observe what a mediocrity and a moron I am. I can have that conversation without any outside assistance.

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    13. Bill and NS, well said.

      Jakash, stop pandering to rude people.

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    14. Jak, who are you? Ana's paid spokesman? how do you know he's frustrated? being clever, doesn't give license for rudeness, as another said...

      how about- Neil, I'd like to hear your opinion on this or that matter?

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    15. Seems to me that there are usually more rude comments coming from various anonymice than come from the EGD bogeyman. The primary difference is that they're directed to other commenters, which doesn't seem to bother our host. Which is fine, as it's his blog, so he's the referee. Another difference is that they're usually one-liners, rather than being included with cogent and informative arguments. Whatever.

      I'm not pandering to anybody, just calling it as I see it. Not that I'd be inclined to follow your orders at any rate.

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    16. Perhaps Jakash, you can find out if ANA has a blog and join him there, if you miss him so.

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    17. How about sticking to the point, Jak, about novels.

      Not running defense for another poster. I don't see any other coming to his defense.

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    18. Jak, NS doesn't owe you an explanation of why he pulled a post.

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  12. Once you're finished w Phineas, may I suggest moving to the Barsetshire books. I just started rereading The Warden. I'm surprised about Dickens, no Little Dorritt? Great Expectations, to me, is the least "Dickensy" of his novels. Any Wodehouse next?

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    1. Bleak House! Or Last of the Mohicans.

      We the Living, for a realistic novel about the horrors of Communism.

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    2. Oh indeed, and Two Cities, Curiosity Shoppe, big fan of Dickens. I love Brit Lit. For some silly fun, try Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Good bubblegum for the brain.

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  13. I wonder if your aversion extends to Jane Austen? I have long enjoyed her spot-on characterizations and subtle skewerings of pomposity and hypocrisy. I do know that some are put off by the small domestic sphere in which her books are primarily set, but for me her wit outweighs that.

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    1. Never read her, never tried to read her. I probably should.

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    2. don't bother, it's girly

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    3. It may be "girly", but it's also witty, well-written and insightful. Not saying that NS needs to rush out and buy "Northanger Abbey", but I read "Pride and Prejudice" and enjoyed it and survived... I'd read others, if there weren't dozens of other things I'd like to get to first. But don't, alas. Since my wife is a big fan of hers, I keep up by watching TV and movie adaptations. 1995 6-hour P+P with Jennifer Ehle and, ahem, Colin Firth, ladies? Plus, Chicago Shakespeare Theater just had a swell world-premiere presentation of a musical of "Sense and Sensibility".

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    4. What a nice hubby you are, Jak.

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    5. Jak, I meant you disagree with Neil at times but not in a rude and arrogant style. Let ANA learn from you.

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    6. Re Jane Austen -- Here's a link to a new book some fans may like: Margaret Doody's "Jane Austen's Names" (UC Press) -- and a brief comment: "Doody makes a convincing argument that Jane Austen imbued most, if not all, of her character and place names with historical, geographical, or social significance, and provides the historical and cultural context necessary to understand the import of each of these careful naming choices...A delightful, edifying read" Library Journal

      http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/J/bo11329340.html

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  14. Good stuff, Jane Austen, and PBS has made some great adaptations to enhance the books.

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    1. I always got the impression that Austen is more interesting for female readers.

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  15. Same goes for the Bronte sisters novels.

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  16. (Re-submitted, as for some strange reason, me submitting under my Google Account means an eaten comment. I've often wondered if this is why there are so many anonymous comments)

    This is an awesome review, and has convinced me to read the book. I've read Trollope for pleasure before, so I have a possible warning before you jump into Phineas Redux -- it's easy to burn out on him, and all the things that might drive you batty w/r/t 19th century British novelists my come to the fore at the expense of the pleasures. Maybe read a few things from different authors between Finn and Redux?

    Bill

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    1. I second what bill said about the google

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    2. I third it. One reason, among others, that I keep my comments to a sentence or two -- hate to press "publish" and have to sign into Google and retype all those great thoughts that somehow no longer make such wonderful sense after all.

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  17. I wonder how the Book Bin is doing financially and if it can stay open. I certainly hope so. A bookstore is such a wonderful place for serendipitous discoveries. Since our nearby Borders closed, the nearest bookstore is a Barnes and Noble at a large mall. An Anderson's Books was supposed to open near us, but now they are trying to raise $50K through a crowd funding effort, which doesn't seem encouraging. I question how viable the business is if they have to resort to this, although there is some appeal to getting community investment.

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  18. wow, serendipitous, that's a big word, how impressive

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  19. No Austen for me either. Mark Twain said some wonderfully insulting things about her---

    "Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book."
    - quoted in Remembered Yesterdays, Robert Underwood Johnson

    "To me his prose is unreadable -- like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death."
    - Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909

    "I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

    - Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

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    1. Some of that could be sexism of the time. Lady writers weren't often approved of.

      Though some things seem better in tv productions than in the book.

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    2. You have to wonder why Twain kept rereading P & P if he detested it so much.

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    3. Perhaps the 1800s version of hate-watching.

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  20. I have to say thank you for the picture of the Morgan Library. It made me look it up online, and I got sucked into their massive collection. It is truly amazing!

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  21. Oh yes, Morgan father of JP Morgan, rich tycoon who squeezed the poor and workers like Carnegie but was willing to build libraries. Didn't pay income tax either since not around then, they'd have found loopholes if it was. Still tied to the Morgan Chase bank. I'd love to see a Socialist revolution just to fix that bunch.

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    1. They loved monopolies and banks did what they wanted to then. They'd thumb nose at the Sherman anti trust act. Thank goodness for Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900's to reign them in some. That's cause he acted more like a Dem then a Repub.

      good reader feedback today on what could fix pensions and school probs, from a CTU personnel but it's disheartening when the wealthy get a pass

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    2. rein them in, oops

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  22. Look Jak, We are actually having intelligent conversation and not just saying -good column, even without Lord ANA around.

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  23. "It's not so in America", eh? Was that true at the time, or just their perception across the pond, through a months-long news cycle?

    After all, when talking about the enmity and gridlock in current federal politics, it's common to point out how Reagan and Tip O'Neill got on well, amongst other examples going back a couple of decades before that. Is the amity and enmity cyclical, but we're all too young to notice?

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.