Archive for December 2, 2012

Interstate 69

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote last week about Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, and the return of his now-retired Edinburgh detective John Rebus. I finished it two Thursdays ago, but even before the end, I was planning my next book.

I had in mind a book I almost read two years ago, about the politics surrounding the building of a new interstate highway that would run from Canada to Mexico. The problem was, I couldn’t remember the name. More to the point, I knew the name was Interstate xy, I just didn’t remember the values of x and y. I looked at maps, studied which north-south interstates ran the length of the country, did searches on them and politics, or them and controversy, forgetting that the interstate I wanted to read about didn’t exist. Hence, doing a search on existing interstates wasn’t going to get me far.

Disappointed, I turned to another book I had in mind, Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution, which came out in September. I started reading it even before finishing Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Not because I was tiring of Rebus. On the contrary. But on awakening one night and realizing I couldn’t fall asleep, I decided to read for a bit. I didn’t have an e-version of the Rankin book. It’s not available in the US yet, so that my only recourse if I wanted to read it right away was to order the print version from the UK. Not wanting to turn the light on, I grabbed my iPad, downloaded the free initial part of My American Revolution, and began reading.

When I finished Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I continued with My American Revolution. Then, on Saturday (last weekend, two days after finishing Rankin), I struck on a search that led me to the correct interstate: 69. The book is Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. I can’t remember what I read about it two years ago, but at the least I read this, from the briefly noted reviews in an issue of the New Yorker in August 2010:

Dellinger’s nimble book chronicles the history of a largely unbuilt highway—if completed, it would stretch from the Canadian to the Mexican border—and tells the stories of the communities that stand to profit or to be imperilled by it. The narrative is sprawling by design, but the stories of determined individuals stand out from the complicated legislative history: David and Linda Stall bring together people in rural towns to protest the Trans-Texas corridor; Sandra and Thomas Tokarski fight against I-69 in Indiana from its initial proposal, in 1991, through the emergence of an anarchist anti-road movement in 2005. Most memorable are the impressions of faded conurbations, such as the newly tourist-friendly Clarksdale, Mississippi, and desperate El Dorado, Arkansas, where Murphy Oil promises to help pay for the college education of students who graduate from the public high schools.

I’m pretty sure I also read a blog post at the time from some prominent political writer recommending the book, based on which I downloaded the free initial portion, but wasn’t taken in by it. Nonetheless, ever since, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I should have given it more of a chance. This time, on rediscovering the title, I downloaded it and began reading. I was quickly immersed. Robert Sullivan would have to wait.

Here’s more, from the book’s website:

Interstate 69 is an enlightening journey through the heart of America. With this epic tale of one vast and controversial road project, Matt Dellinger brings to life the country’s complex political, social, and economic landscape.

The 1,400-mile extension of I-69 south from Indianapolis, if completed, will connect Canada to Mexico through Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. This so-called “NAFTA Highway” has been in development for two decades, and while segments are under construction today, others may never be built. Eagerly anticipated by many as an economic Godsend, I-69 has also been opposed by environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, anarchists, and others who question both the wisdom of building more highways and the merits of globalization.

Part history, part travelogue, Interstate 69 reveals the surprising story of how this extraordinary undertaking began, introduces us to the array of individuals who have worked tirelessly for years to build the road—or to stop it—and guides us through the many places the highway would transform forever: from sprawling cities like Indianapolis, Houston, and Memphis, to the small rural towns of the Midwestern rust belt, the Mississippi Delta, and South Texas.

That “Dellinger brings to life the country’s complex political, social, and economic landscape” is a fair description, and it’s what makes the book worth reading.

At the time that the book’s action begins, twenty years ago, I-69 already existed, but didn’t go far. It began at the south end of Lake Huron, where Ontario and Michigan meet at Port Huron, then headed west to central Michigan, through Flint and Lansing, where it turned south-southwest, finding its way, via Fort Wayne, Indiana, to the outer northeast edge of Indianapolis. The book’s opening sections deal with some business leaders in southern Indiana who had long hoped for a highway that would continue southwestwards from Indianapolis to Evansville — at the south end of the state on the Ohio River — via Bloomington and Washington.

With NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in the works and the election of Clinton and Gore, suddenly the political picture changes. Why not an interstate that runs from the Mexican border to Canada? Why not one that goes through other underserved, primarily rural areas? It could be sold as the NAFTA highway. And it would just happen to go through Arkansas and Tennessee. (Arkansas and Tennessee? Clinton and Gore? Propitious timing.)

We switch to Shreveport, in northwest Louisiana, where leaders immediately see the benefit of an interstate that would connect them to Houston to the southwest and Memphis to the northeast. The process of lobbying for a new interstate begins.

Part I of the book sets this stage. In part II, we take a closer look at the situation in southern Indiana, where boosters are opposed by a Bloomington couple who live on a farm that the new interstate will go through (though their opposition began long before this became evident). What will promote local business development best? How do we best protect rural interests? Farms? Interstates cut farms to pieces, with a few “lucky” winners having land at the exits that can be turned into gas stations and motels. Dellinger never takes sides. He lays out the issues, allowing people involved in the years-long battles to have their say.

Part III is my favorite. We head into the south, spending time with people in Paducah, Kentucky, then Dyersburg, Tennessee, then Memphis, followed by its suburbs in northwest Mississippi. Here we come upon an interesting issue. What’s the best way to get from Memphis down to Shreveport? A look at the map might suggest that you want to cross the Mississippi into Arkansas, then drive southwest across Arkansas into Louisiana. The thing is, the Republican congressional victories of 1994 brought Trent Lott into power as Senate majority whip and, a year later, Senate majority leader. And Trent Lott just happened to be from Mississippi. He didn’t mind letting it be known that there wouldn’t be an I-69 that headed straight over the river from Memphis. It would have to come down river into Mississippi and the delta.

Dellinger accordingly heads down river too, with visits to Tunica (with its casinos), Clarksdale (home of the blues), and a poor area a ways south where residents on the Mississippi and Arkansas sides of the river had long hoped to see a new bridge built. I-69 planning gave them new hope. These communities come alive in Dellinger’s treatment.

Part IV takes us to Texas, but Dellinger no longer follows the anticipated route of I-69 from town to town. Rather, the story shifts, because Texas has bigger fish than I-69 to fry. As we enter the governership of Rick Perry and a newly Republican state legislature, a revolution in highway planning is underway. Great population growth requires new highways. The federal gas tax has not been increased in years and isn’t sufficient. Privatization provides the means. This becomes a major strand in the rest of the book, privatization having attracted interest around the country. We learn about Houston’s needs and the arguments for more ring roads and further sprawl versus mass transit. The economic needs of border towns such as McAllen and Harlingen on the Rio Grande that have no interstate, in contrast to Laredo, from which I-35 heads north through San Antonio and Austin to Dallas (and ultimately Duluth, Minnesota, with access to Canada — an alternate NAFTA highway). I-69 could connect them to Houston, a winner for both ends.

Part V finds us back in Indiana, where new governor Mitch Daniels is a proponent of privatization. He sells rights to the Indiana Toll Road (I-90) to a Spanish-Australian partnership (the Spanish company Cintra becomes a major character in the book) and anticipates building the long-awaited Indianopolis-Evansville portion of I-69 through a private-public partnership. Anarchists enter the stage, protests are held in an attempt to stop construction north from Evansville, the original proponents of I-69 are now in their 80s, those still alive. The book comes to an end, the story unfinished.

What a fascinating story it is, with local, state, regional, and national politics all interwoven. Such interweaving is inevitable, but not necessarily plain to see. Dellinger succeeds in laying bare the warp and the woof, at the same time revealing how they intersect with individual lives.

Categories: Books, Politics


December 2, 2012 Leave a comment


We’re a little slow to get to new restaurants, thanks in part to the many old ones that we don’t get to often enough. By the time we try a new one, it isn’t new anymore. Like Cuoco, which must have opened over a year ago, and which the Seattle Times reviewed just about a year ago. We made it there Friday night, discovering in the process a whole new center of evening activity.

The area of Seattle known as South Lake Union has been a locus of potential development for decades, thanks in part to the efforts of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who started buying up property at least twenty years ago. Once an industrial area of low-rise buildings, it is now the booming home of biotech companies, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the flagship REI store, the Group Health Cooperative offices where Jessica works, and much more, including most notably Amazon, which has continuing ambitious expansion plans.

Then there’s Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most famous chef-entrepreneur. Clustered at 4th and Virginia, on the northern edge of downtown, are four of his operations: Dahlia Lounge, Lola, Serious Pie, and Dahlia Bakery. All are superb. Combine newly upscale South Lake Union, thousands of office workers with a need for places to eat, and Tom Douglas and what do you get? A suite of new restaurants. There’s a second branch of Serious Pie. A second branch of the bakery. And, in one of the new Amazon buildings, Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern.

On Thursday, we were trying to figure out where to eat the next night with some friends when one of them reminded me that Gail had previously suggested a new Tom Douglas restaurants in South Lake Union. She recalled the name Brave Horse Tavern. I looked at the list online and decided Gail must have been referring to Cuoco. We made reservations.

Friday brought heavy rain, as many days seem to do lately. I knew the address and, in principle, how to get there, but hadn’t seen the new Amazon building since it opened and had no idea where parking was. We approached from Denny, the east-west street forming the southern border of South Lake Union, turning north onto Terry, the street the restaurant was supposed to be on. We found ourselves among unlit, low buildings and darkness—the old South Lake Union, not where one would expect to find a restaurant, or have any reason to go to at night. Up ahead we could see a brightly lit area.

In another couple of blocks, we found ourselves in a thriving community, swarms of cars, traffic cops at every intersection controlling the flow. To the left was Jessica’s office building. To the right, a building we had never seen before. As we drove past it, we saw Cuoco. At the far end, we turned right and saw a parking garage entrance within the building. Pretty easy. We parked, took the elevator up a level, passed a bank of Amazon lockers for employees, exited into a courtyard and heavy rain, with the Cuoco entrance just ten feet over, within the courtyard, set back from the street.

Our friends, unfortunately, came from the north. This turned out to be a disaster, because of road construction, traffic, and the weather. They never did find the garage. They just parked where they found a spot and walked in the rain to Cuomo. We had studied the menu several times over by that point, which was good, since are now prepared to order our next three dinners there. The back side of the single-sheet menu has the wine list, which, though not long, has an intriguing mix of Italian wines that I’d love to sample.

Once our friends settled in and had a chance to review the menu, we agreed to share three appetizers. I see now that the online menu lists only one: 24 month aged prosciutto parma, honey crisp apples, arugula. Next time I go, I might order just this. It was great. The dish I chose was a green salad, the details of which already escape me. And we had an order of some sort of risotto balls, maybe with olives of some sort in them. These were great too.

Preceding this was what the menu calls their “bread service”, for which one pays: Dahlia workshop “house loaf” with olives, olive oil, rosemary lard. The bread is served with a small three-part dish, the parts containing butter, the olive oil, and the lard. Everyone else loved the lardo. I was avoiding it, until they insisted I try. I was happy enough with the butter up to that point. They’re right. It was good.

For the main dish, I had the Bucatini: hollow dried wheat pasta, marinara, braised beef meatballs. Gail had the Tagliatelle: house made egg pasta, braised painted hills beef, melted leeks, prosser farm kale, as did one of our friends. Our other friend had Ricotta cavatelli: crimini ragu, cotechino sausage, pecorino.

My meatballs were perfect. Well, as Gail observed yesterday, my dish looked dry. Maybe it was, a little. Certainly it wasn’t swimming in marinara. But the flavors were excellent and I couldn’t have been happier. I tasted a little of Gail’s tagliatelle at the end. It was overwhelmingly rich, at least compared to my dish, which is one reason she had a little left over. A tantalizing array of tastes, but too much for me by that point in the meal. Accompanying all this was a bottle of Montepulciano, the 2008 Corte alla Flora.

Gail being a Tom Douglas donut fanatic, it was hard to leave without some, but we had decided to retreat to our friends’ home for dessert. They come with a hot chocolate sauce. Taking out may not be the ideal way to eat them. They survived the drive, though, and we’re glad we got them.

I’m just now looking at what the Seattle Times reviewer had to say. Here’s her discussion of the pasta options:

Just about everyone orders pasta here. With 10 different noodles on the menu, the choice isn’t easy. Will you have the ethereal tajarin, unimaginably thin hand-cut egg noodles dressed in butter and sage, or their much wider, marinara-sauced cousins, tagliatelle, twined around roasted Delicata squash and chunks of spicy Italian sausage? Will you opt for the dainty cheese-filled cappelletti in silky fonduta sauce, or the savory, meat-stuffed agnolotti dal plin that resemble tiny origami birds just emerged from a butter and marjoram bath? What about butternut squash gnocchi, so light and supremely autumnal tossed with chanterelles, hazelnuts and sage? I’m no help: I loved them all.

We do need to go back to sample more of the pastas.

Oh, I didn’t mention that right by the entrance, you can see the pasta-making area and look into the kitchen. We turned the other way on being seated, so we didn’t even notice. On the way out, we stood by the door for a minute while the hostess went to get a bag for us to carry our chocolate sauce carton in. That gave us a chance to look around, and to realize as we went out into the rain that all that time, Tom Douglas was standing just five feet away from us. We should have said hi.

Categories: Restaurants

Making the World Feel Larger

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment


I awoke this morning to see a tweet from the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson: “Read Zoe Heller’s @nybooks review of ‘Joseph Anton,’ right now.” As you probably know, Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s recent memoir, focusing on the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini sentencing him to death for his novel The Satanic Verses, and the life he was forced to lead as a result.

I don’t always do what I’m told, but in this case I followed Davidson’s command, clicked on the link she supplied, and was taken to Heller’s review. It’s in the December 20 issue of the New York Review of Books, which hasn’t yet come in the mail. And it’s not behind their paywall, so you can follow the link and read it too. In it, Heller—herself a novelist—ponders the role of fiction.

I’ll quote two passages, not to save you the trouble of reading the full essay but rather, I hope, to entice you to read it in full.

Given how often Rushdie has been accused of writing The Satanic Verses with the express purpose of making trouble, it is understandable that he should wish to highlight the unexpected—the unprecedented—nature of the events that followed the novel’s publication. Even so, his retrospective account of himself as a bookish innocent, bewildered by the world’s coarse intrusion into the literary sphere, seems a little over-egged. By this point in his career, Rushdie, who had already been sued by Indira Gandhi for libelous statements in Midnight’s Children and had already seen his third novel banned in Pakistan, was better qualified than most to appreciate literature’s capacity for eliciting hostile, nonliterary responses.

More troubling, however, than his exaggerated claim to naiveté is the case that Rushdie seems to be making for fiction’s immunity from political or religious anger. In a departure from the standard, liberal notion that literature must be free to offend, he proposes that literature, properly understood, cannot offend. Muslims who were insulted by The Satanic Verses were guilty of a category error: just like Anis Rushdie, in his “unsophisticated” reading of Midnight’s Children, they had confused fiction with other sorts of speech


At various points, Rushdie seems to grow tired of defending the special rights of fiction and moves on to advocating for the extra-special rights of serious, or important, fiction. “He hoped for, he often felt he needed, a more particular defense like the quality defense made in the case of other assaulted books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Lolita….”

One is struck here, not just by the implied disregard for the free speech of other writers who might not qualify for “the quality defense,” but also by the lordly nonchalance with which Rushdie places himself alongside Lawrence, Joyce, and Nabokov in the ranks of literary merit. Throughout this memoir, Rushdie claims kinship with any number of great literary men—men who, like him, suffered for their genius, but whose fame was destined to outlast that of their oppressors:


A man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast. Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book.

The title of this post refers to the essay’s last paragraph. It would do Heller an injustice if I were to quote the entire paragraph. Here’s a portion:

The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir, is to encourage “understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.” Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before.

To which Heller responds with a devastating conclusion. See for yourself.

Categories: Books

Romney and Public Service

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment


I don’t want to be unkind, or to have unkind feelings, but I’m finding it hard to come up with any sympathy for Romney. I mention this in the context of a Washington post article yesterday with the headline, “A detached Romney tends wounds in seclusion after failed White House bid.” It opens:

The man who planned to be president wakes up each morning now without a plan.

Mitt Romney looks out the windows of his beach house here in La Jolla, a moneyed and pristine enclave of San Diego, at noisy construction workers fixing up his next-door neighbor’s home, sending out regular updates on the renovation. He devours news from 2,600 miles away in Washington about the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, shaking his head and wondering what if.

Gone are the minute-by-minute schedules and the swarm of Secret Service agents. There’s no aide to make his peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches. Romney hangs around the house, sometimes alone, pecking away at his iPad and e-mailing his CEO buddies who have been swooping in and out of La Jolla to visit. He wrote to one who’s having a liver transplant soon: “I’ll change your bedpan, take you back and forth to treatment.”

It’s not what Romney imagined he would be doing as the new year approaches.

Four weeks after losing a presidential election he was convinced he would win, Romney’s rapid retreat into seclusion has been marked by repressed emotions, second-guessing and, perhaps for the first time in the overachiever’s adult life, sustained boredom, according to interviews with more than a dozen of Romney’s closest friends and advisers.

Romney’s conviction that he would win is evidence of how out of touch he is, and why he was never suited to a political career. We learn later in the article that

Romney also is plotting his next career steps — a return to business, perhaps, or something in the charitable realm or with the Mormon Church, said friends who have discussed possibilities with him. He kept a diary on the campaign trail and is considering writing a book.

“He’s a very vibrant, young 65-year-old. He looks 55 and acts 45,” Kaufman said. “He’s got a lot of life left in him.”

Romney has ruled out running for another office, adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. Still, he doesn’t plan to recede completely from public life. “He’ll be involved in some fashion because that’s the commitment of his family to public service,” Fehrnstrom said.

I’m kind of thinking that if he’s committed to public service, the best way to demonstrate that would in fact be to recede from public life. But here I am being unkind, which I didn’t want to be.

Let me close with a thought about public service from Atrios, reacting to the same Washington Post article.

Elsewhere in the article someone discusses the family’s commitment to public service. Argh. This isn’t about Romney, just this conceit that being a member of Congress, or a governor, or the f–king president, is about “public service.” There are public servants, like the teachers everybody dumps on these days, but people with high paying cushy jobs which virtually guarantee them a lifetime of future even cushier even more high paying jobs are hardly making some sort of sacrifice for good.

Indeed. Who are the real public servants?

Categories: Politics