Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison: A review

Beautiful Ghosts (Inspector Shan, #4)Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now the pattern of the plots of these Inspector Shan mysteries is well established. We've got the official from Beijing who is corrupt and criminal, who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. We've got the Chinese official who is the good socialist, who initially appears to be an enemy of Inspector Shan, but in the end proves to be an honest ally. We have the misguided American who during the course of the book is converted to the wisdom and peace of Buddhism. And, of course, we have Shan, the former inspector from Beijing who lost everything when he ran afoul of a powerful figure in the Chinese government and was sent to a work camp in Tibet, which proved to be his spiritual salvation. And we have Tan, who in my opinion is one of the most interesting characters in these books. He was the official in charge of the work camp that Shan was assigned to and it was he who authorized Shan's unofficial release after the prisoner helped him solve a mystery at the camp.

Moreover, in this book, we have a repetition of the action of the previous novels, in that Shan and his two Buddhist teachers Gendun and Lokesh accompany an expedition on a turgid progression through caves and tunnels in the mountains of Tibet. Those caves and tunnels are filled with the most preposterously elaborate Buddhist temples and treasures that are guarded by secret groups of the faithful who manage to keep Buddhism alive in the face of the strong opposition of the Chinese government. These travels continue endlessly (almost literally, it seems) and nothing much ever happens except that "old Tibetans" frequently give small "cries of delight" or "groans of despair" and knowing glances are passed routinely among those in the know. If I had a dollar for every time an old Tibetan or an old lama cries or groans in this book, I could probably go to dinner and a movie. Really, the whole thing gets extremely tedious after a while.

The first half of the book seemed utterly muddled and confusing to me, but it improved in the second half once the mystery part of the novel actually got under way. The writing seemed at least marginally sharper and better plotted.

The mystery begins at the ancient ruins of the Zhoka monastery where hill people have gathered for a celebration of the Dalai Lama's birthday. Local herders bring in a body of one of their own and claim that he was murdered by "godkillers." Then Surya, a monk who is a talented artist and an old friend of Gendun's, appears, covered in blood and announces that he has killed a man and that, therefore, he is "No more a monk. No more a human."

Confusion reigns and the ensuing investigation brings Shan's old nemesis - and savior - Colonel Tan into the picture. Before they reach the resolution of the mystery, more murders will be revealed and will occur, one of them in far away Seattle. And the source of all this evil will be revealed to be greed for the possession of art and the theft of the unique art from some of those aforementioned decorated caves. Shan finds himself teamed with an FBI agent named Corbett in trying to solve the crimes and bring a little justice to both their worlds.

One other spanner thrown into the works here is the introduction of Shan's son, Ko, whom he had not seen since he was a small child. He is now a young man of nineteen and a criminal, sent to work coal mines in Tibet. Shan is promised an opportunity to meet him if he will aid the investigation, but when he does meet him, he seems to be a cruel sociopath with no redeeming qualities. More pain for a father who has already borne so much pain.

In the end, things are, if not totally resolved, at least moved forward and, yes, a kind of rough justice is achieved. The ending between Shan and his son is actually quite moving.

The character of Shan is a sympathetic one and Colonel Tan is intriguing, and so I do find myself caring, almost against my will, about what happens in these books. In the past, I have given the author a pass on the confusion of his plots, putting it down to my unfamiliarity with the philosophy of Buddhism, but that pass has expired. I read books all the time about cultures I'm not familiar with and have no problem understanding them, when they are clearly written. Obfuscation rather than enlightenment, though, seems to be the aim of Pattison in this series and that is annoying. The other possibility is that he's just not a very good writer.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Rick Perry, presidential candidate

So, our esteemed governor, Rick ("Oops!") Perry, is deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to Texas' border with Mexico. It's unclear what exactly they are supposed to do there - other than bolster Perry's image for toughness with the radical immigrant-hating base of the Republican Party. It's that base who will select the next presidential candidate of that party, and Rick Perry is running hard for that position.

Perry just came back from a weekend in Iowa, the state that holds the first presidential primary. It was his fourth visit there in eight months. He's also making the rounds of all the right-wing media outlets, accusing the Obama administration of failing to secure our southern border, even though Obama has deported more illegal immigrants crossing that border than any other president in history and has increased the number of Border Patrol agents along the border to record numbers.

In fact, the border is most likely more secure than it has ever been, but when did a Texas Republican ever let the facts get in the way of the narrative he wants to tell? Perry is simply following the example of the master, George W. Bush, and his "Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" lie.

In order to further enhance his image, Perry has added glasses with "intellectual" frames to make him look smarter and he's ditched the ostentatious cowboy boots in favor of loafers to make him look more...urbane and sophisticated...I guess. And the whole thing has worked brilliantly!

The Washington Post proclaims that Perry is "So hot right now." Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard writes that Perry is "alive, well, and hyperactive as a national political figure." And Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes, “In 2014 we see a more mature and humbled version of Perry, one without the Texas swagger. It is that more serious figure, bespectacled and more relaxed, whom voters now see.” The television networks - and not just the predictable Fox News - are clamoring to have him appear on their programs where he can give his "expert" analysis of the humanitarian crisis at our border.

You can bet that not one of those television or print "journalists" is going to ask Perry about the fact that he has ordered more people executed than any other governor in modern history or the strong evidence that some of those people were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. You won't see them asking him about the millions of people in Texas who have no health insurance protection because he has refused to expand Medicaid. Texas still has the highest rate of uninsured of any state in the country. You definitely won't hear them asking about rates of teen pregnancies in the state or the fact that Texas under Perry's leadership continues to try to shut down Planned Parenthood and other such clinics that provide access to birth control information and supplies, under the pretense that all these clinics do is abortions. And they won't be asking about pervasive, entrenched poverty and the state's niggling programs to assist those (mostly women, children, and the disabled) who are trapped in its grip.

No, they will ask him about the "crisis on the border," giving him a chance to look serious and wise (thanks to those intellectual glasses frames) and to pontificate, and giving all the right wing conventional wisdom pundits an opportunity to swoon over how smart and hip and relevant Rick Perry has suddenly become.  

It is a strange, strange world that we live in when lightweights like Rick Perry are taken seriously.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Reverence

Oh, how I remember so many summer evenings like this on the farm when I was a child. And I remember them with reverence.


by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

The air vibrated
with the sound of cicadas
on those hot Missouri nights after sundown
when the grown-ups gathered on the wide back lawn,
sank into their slung-back canvas chairs
tall glasses of iced tea beading in the heat

And we sisters chased fireflies
reaching for them in the dark
admiring their compact black bodies
their orange stripes and seeking antennas
as they crawled to our fingertips
and clicked open into the night air.

In all the days and years that have followed,
I don't know that I've ever experienced
that same utter certainty of the goodness of life
that was as palpable
as the sound of the cicadas on those nights:

my sisters running around with me in the dark,
the murmur of the grown-ups' voices,
the way reverence mixes with amazement
to see such a small body
emit so much light.


Yes, on summer nights when I hear the sound of the cicadas, I still remember that "utter certainty of the goodness of life." And even though I never see fireflies now where I live, I recall the feel of their small bodies and the magic of the light they emitted on those hot summer nights long ago.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

This week in birds - #117

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Summer visitor, a Common Nighthawk, in flight in the late afternoon sky.


Plans are afoot to destroy one of Miami-Dade County's last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, one of the world's rarest forests, in order to put up a Wal-Mart, because we all know that what the world really, really needs is fewer forests and more Wal-Marts.


An interesting new study suggests that fruit colors may have evolved in order to attract the attention of birds.


Jeff of "SE Texas Bird and Wildlife Watching" has some excellent pictures of summer at one of my favorite places, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Molt migrations and postbreeding dispersal of birds is already under way. Birds tend to move around a lot in July and it is possible to see some unusual species at this time of year. There's more on the subject of migration at American Scientist which explains some of the physiological changes undergone by migrating birds.


"The Prairie Ecologist" has some good information about a fascinating insect, the longhorned flower beetle.


A mysterious bird called the Spotted Green Pigeon (Coloenas maculata), known only from specimens, has been found to be a relative of the Dodo. Both birds are apparently descended from "island hopping" species in the Pacific.


Good news from the world of puffins: The endangered Atlantic Puffin in Scotland has had a particularly successful breeding season, after a few years of failures.


The western drought continues its devastating effects. Lake Mead has sunk to a record low and continues to recede.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing its controversial policy of shooting invasive Barred Owls in territory in the Northwest where the endangered Northern Spotted Owl formerly was resident. The more aggressive Barred Owl tends to out-compete its spotted cousin and push it out of its territory. Now FWS personnel report that the project is having the desired effect. They are seeing the Spotted Owls moving back into some areas where the Barred Owls have been eradicated. One would certainly hope that all those dead owls would not be in vain.


"The Birders Report" has a portrait of juvenile Acorn Woodpeckers in northern California. The piece includes some really good pictures of this handsome bird.


The remarkable long-distance migration route of the Semipalmated Sandpiper is being mapped with the aid of modern science in the form of a GPS locator.


Hey, did you know that National Moth Week starts today? Well, it does, so spare a little love for some of our most important pollinators. Not only do moths do yeoman's work in the pollination arena, but many of them are very beautiful. They frequently go unappreciated because they are mostly active at night. Just to prove how attractive they can be, The New York Times has an essay on luna moths, among the most beautiful of the species.


Friday, July 18, 2014

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

An Incomplete Revenge (Maisie Dobbs, #5)An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been quite a while since I checked in on Maisie Dobbs. Time to remedy that.

An Incomplete Revenge is the fifth entry in Jacqueline Winspear's series of mysteries featuring psychologist/private investigator Dobbs, a former military nurse during World War I who is forever scarred, both physically and emotionally, by that experience.

The time is 1931. The world has moved on from the conflagration of war and the chaos of the immediate post-war period, but a new shadow is cast by economic uncertainty. Maisie is worried about the survival of her struggling private investigation business in such times.

In the midst of such worries, she receives a seemingly straightforward assignment from an old friend to investigate the situation in a small rural community where there is an estate that he is considering purchasing. There is a worrisome pattern of petty crimes and fires in the area and Maisie's client wants to know the origin of these incidents and if they are in any way related to the land he wishes to purchase.

Maisie's inquiries take her to a village in Kent, in an area that grows hops. During the hop-picking season - which happens during the time of this investigation - day laborers descend on the area from many quarters to gather the hops. Among them are Maisie's assistant and his family, who spend their "vacation" hop-picking, along with many others from London, or the "Smoke" as they refer to it.

Also present to help with the hop-picking, and even less welcome than the Londoners with the local villagers, are a tribe of gypsies. Upon arriving in the village, Maisie immediately senses the hostility of the villagers toward outsiders and she wonders at the source of it. She soon learns of the tragic history of the village which included a Zeppelin raid during the war and the legacy of events surrounding that raid.

There is a peculiar secrecy that hangs over this picturesque village and Maisie becomes convinced that it is related to the incidents that she has been sent to investigate. But with no one really willing to talk freely to her, how will she ever connect the dots and figure out what is going on? Well, that, of course, is where her finely honed detection skills as well as her knowledge of human psychology come into play. With a mixture of shrewd questions and keen observations, Maisie Dobbs always gets to the bottom of things and gives satisfaction to her clients.

Jacqueline Winspear is meticulous about setting the stage for these mysteries. She pays great attention to historical detail and that is one of the strengths of her writing. Her characterizations tend to get a bit syrupy and facile at times which can be annoying, but, overall, the characters are sympathetic and one wishes them well. It will be interesting to see just where she takes this series as she heads into the 1930s.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

R + L = J? Maybe...

For all of us who are frankly obsessed with George R.R. Martin's convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the lines of the story that has fascinated us and been a source of much speculation has been the parentage of the character Jon Snow. He is supposedly the bastard son of Eddard Stark of Winterfell, but that just never seemed very likely. The uber ethical, moral, and loyal Ned Stark was never one to betray his vows, even under the most extreme provocation. What is the likelihood that he would have betrayed his marriage vows?

So, after reading the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, I devised my own theory about Jon's parents. I thought I was being very clever and that I was probably the only one who had figured the whole thing out. Turns out I was only one of thousands. Maybe millions.

And now that so many of us have worked out the "answer" to this puzzle, I think we can pretty well count on Martin to make sure it is wrong. Because that's just how the man rolls. He doesn't like his readers figuring things out too soon.

Two more books to go. Write like the wind, George!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cop Hater by Ed McBain: A review

Cop Hater (87th Precinct, #1)Cop Hater by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over my years of reading mysteries, I have often encountered writers who acknowledged the influence on their work of Ed McBain, but somehow I've just never gotten around to going to the source of all that inspiration. I decided to remedy that chasm in my mystery-reading experience this summer, starting with the very first McBain entry in his 87th Precinct series.

Cop Hater was first published in 1956 and the series ran all the way up until the year of McBain's death in 2005 with more than fifty entries overall. In the foreword to this re-publication of Cop Hater, McBain says that, when he started, his publisher was looking for someone to be a successor to Erle Stanley Gardner who was nearing the end of his long and productive writing career. It seems that the publisher struck gold when they selected McBain for that role.

Among the first things that struck me about reading this book was the similarity between styles of McBain and the Swedish duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo who wrote the Martin Beck series that I've been reading this year. The Sjowall/Wahloo series started about ten years after the 87th Precinct one. They were among those writers who acknowledged their debt to McBain. They professed their admiration for his spare and straightforward way of telling his stories and sought to imitate it in their own writing. They succeeded very well.

The second thing that hit me in the face in reading the book was the heat. The mythical city of Isola where the story is set is experiencing a terrible heat wave. It is July and all anyone can talk about is how hot it is. This novel was set contemporaneously with its time but now, 58 years later, that makes it a historical novel, taking place before the time of almost universal air conditioning. Sweat is a constant factor in the story. It runs off the characters and down the pages as we read.

A third thing that is very arresting (pun intended) about the story is that it takes place before the Miranda decision of the Supreme Court. McBain describes a very different world of interactions between arresting officers and suspects. The suspects are never advised of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer to represent them, and the police have pretty much a free hand in browbeating the people they arrest and trying to get a confession, as well as sometimes actually beating them.

The main story here involves the murder of cops - all detectives assigned to the 87th Precinct. The first two detectives that are killed, on two separate nights after they leave work, had been partners, and so the initial suspicion falls on cases that they might have been working on or had worked together. But then a third detective is killed, one who had not actively worked with the other two on anything. This leads that man's partner, Steve Carella, to begin to suspect that the killer of the men - the same gun was used to commit all three murders - was not a "cop hater" at all. Perhaps the motive for the killings has nothing to do with the fact that the men were policemen. This, ultimately, proves to be a very insightful analysis of the situation.

As I was reading the book, I couldn't help thinking that, even as later authors paid homage to McBain, he himself was influenced by the old TV show "Dragnet." Indeed, he acknowledges as much in the story. As the detectives review possible suspects, one of those suspects turns out to be in Los Angeles, and a detective in the group comments that they "can leave him to Joe Friday!"

This was an interesting reading experience, both for the obvious connections with other authors I have read and am currently reading and for the historical view it supplies on a time that wasn't really so long ago and yet is vastly different in perspective and in its approach to police work. I think it will be fascinating to continue reading the series and see how - and if - that changes over the years. After all, the series went on for another 49 eventful years after Cop Hater and I suspect that it must have evolved with the times in order to stay so popular for all those years.

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