Friday, September 30, 2011

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell: A review

Swedish Inspector Kurt Wallander is a real sad-sack. His interpersonal relationships are a mess, totally unsatisfying. He's middle-aged and overweight and his heart often races with the slightest bit of exercise, leading him to fear that he's having a heart attack. Perhaps worst of all, he's come to doubt that he is any good at his job. He seems indecisive and unable to find and follow up clues to their logical conclusion. He suffers from serious bouts of depression. His life seems to be going downhill fast.

Then, it gets worse.

The time is April 1992 and in peaceful, democratic Sweden, a female estate agent disappears. Her husband reports the disappearance to the police and Inspector Wallander is on the case. He feels, instinctively, that the woman will never be found alive, but he doggedly pursues the clues that he has. However, nothing seems to make any sense, and, finally, when her body is found and suddenly a house nearby explodes, the case gets murkier and murkier. There's something that just doesn't add up.

Wallander doesn't realize it but he has stumbled into a case with international implications. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela has just been released from his long imprisonment and is working with President De Klerk to try to bring about a transition to democracy in that troubled country. A stubborn clique within the country wants to prevent that at any cost, including political assassination. A connection with the former Soviet KGB, also at loose ends in this brave new world of the late 20th century, leads the political plotters to send their proposed assassin to Sweden for training. And there he witnesses the casual killing of an estate agent who happened to be in the wrong place as the wrong time.


The White Lioness, the third in the popular Inspector Wallander series,  is a complicated tale that switches back and forth between Sweden and South Africa and is told through several different voices. Henning Mankell always keeps the action moving forward, however, and manages to tie up all the loose ends at the satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mythbusters

I came across an interesting entry on Daily Kos this morning, by way of their contributor who goes by the moniker "The Great State of Maine."  The piece takes several bits of conventional wisdom that are routinely reported by mainstream media sources, or are parroted by the all-knowing pundits from the inside-the-beltway exclusive club, and it busts them for the myths that they are, with links given as references.  I can't resist reproducing the busted myths and the references for the truth about them here:   


> Ben Bernanke is the most inflationary Fed chairman in recent memory.       (Except he's not.)
> Cutting taxes is a magical, mystical sure-fire job creator!
(Except it's not.)
> Allowing voters to register on election day results in widespread fraud.
(Except it doesn't.)
> As the Koch brothers' net worth rises, so does employment at their companies.
(Except it doesn't.)
> American companies are overregulated.
(Except they're not.)
> Bloody violence is out of control along the Mexican border, and illegal immigrants are streaming into America at record levels.
(Except it's not and they're not.)
> President Obama's plan to boost the economy doesn’t appeal beyond the liberal hippie fringe.
(Except it does---big-time.)
> Social Security is going broke, it adds to the deficit, and we have to raise the retirement age because people are living longer.
(Except it's not, it doesn't and we don't.)
> Don’t listen to that Paul Krugman---he's not very accurate!
(Except he is.)
> The earth is getting cooler.
(Except it's really really not.)
> Mitt Romney is a member of the middle class.
(Except milk just snorted out my nose.)
It's nice to know that somebody out there is actually paying attention to and checking on the stuff that is being reported, endlessly repeated, and often simply accepted by a lazy public as fact without examining it. Being an informed citizen is not easy and is sometimes very hard work.  We need all the help we can get.  Good to know that the mythbusters have our backs.

Wordless Wednesday: "I'm watching you!"

Monday, September 26, 2011

Put a little color in your life

It's fall, the Time of the Leaf Peepers.  It's the time when travelers spread out across the country to stare at deciduous trees and get drunk on the kaleidoscope of their brilliant changing colors.

Up East, many of the prime leaf peeping areas, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire, were hard hit by Hurricane Irene and will have their normal big season of tourism disrupted by the damage that the storm did.

In Texas, which is not a prime leaf peeping area and not really known for much fall color, a lot of the color in the forests this fall is like this:


And this:




The forests, including this small area behind my backyard, are full of dead trees. Thousands of dead trees.  Here, brown has become the color of autumn.

But, in other parts of the country, the changing of the colors has already begun and will continue and intensify in coming weeks.  In case you can't get away to enjoy those colors, here's a 60 second video just to give you a taste.  Enjoy!








Saturday, September 24, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: A review

Geraldine Brooks has a knack for taking a tiny thread of true historical fact and weaving it into a fine and intricate pattern that gives a clear picture, though fictional, of the period about which she is writing. She's done it again with Caleb's Crossing. In this case, the slender thread is the graduation from Harvard in 1665 of its first Native American student, a member of the Wampanoag tribe from Martha's Vineyard. Brooks has imagined a biography  for that young man that vividly explores what life was like for both the Puritans and the Native American tribes on the islands off Massachusetts in that period.

The story is told through the voice of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister, a good man who does his best to live his hard faith and to bring a healing message of salvation to the tribes. When we meet Bethia, she is a young girl, living with her father and mother and her older brother. Theirs is a hard life and Death constantly sits on their shoulders. One after another, members of the family and others in the small community succumb.

Meantime, Bethia has made a friend. She loves to wander through the woods and along the beaches, and in her wanderings, she has met a young boy, close to her own age. He is a son of the ruling family of the local Wampanoag tribe and he becomes her true brother of the heart. He has a long and, to the English tongue, almost unpronounceable name and Bethia gives him the English name of Caleb. He calls her Storm Eyes. Their friendship flourishes for three years. Then tragedy strikes the Mayfield family once again.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it, so suffice it to say that, in the fullness of time, Caleb and another Native American young man named Joel, along with Makepeace Mayfield, Bethia's brother, are sent off to Cambridge to prepare for matriculation into Harvard. The Mayfield family's circumstances have been reduced by this time and, as payment for Makepeace's studies, Bethia is indentured as housekeeper in the school where the boys will be studying.

Bethia's life is exceedingly hard, as Brooks describes it,  rising well before dawn and spending the day in grueling physical labor, but I think this is probably a fairly true account of what life was actually like for a woman in those days. Bethia burns with a desire to be a scholar herself but that path is closed to her by her sex. Women are not to be educated but are to rely upon their husbands for instruction in how to think and behave.  Still, a bright and inquiring mind will find a way and it was fascinating to read about Bethia's path to learning, which in many ways paralleled her friend Caleb's.

Brooks' work is well-researched and is written as a journal kept by Bethia and employing the language that was used in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Some of the terms are truly archaic and difficult to understand, but, usually, it is possible to ferret out their meaning when read in context.  The language simply lends to the authenticity of the work.  I would recommend Caleb's Crossing without hesitation to lovers of historical fiction, especially those who are interested in this particular period.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Who are these people?

We've now had three debates of the Republicans candidates for president and it's the audiences at those debates that have made the most news.

In the first debate, the audience cheered wildly when one of the questioners prefaced a question by pointing out that Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, had overseen some 234 executions of prisoners.  The audience really, really liked that.  They really like capital punishment.

In the second debate, a question contained the scenario of a young, healthy man who chooses not to get health insurance and then suffers a catastrophic illness that puts him into a coma for six months.  The question was about whether the man should be treated or allowed to die. Some in the audience shouted that he should die.  It's all about personal responsibility, you see.  You refused to buy health insurance, so you must suffer the consequences.  And if you couldn't afford to buy health insurance?  Well, then, you are just out of luck.  If you had insurance but were late with your monthly premium or somehow forgot to pay it and then got very sick?  Well, again, if that Republican audience has anything to say about it, you will die, untreated.

In the third debate, a soldier serving in Iraq asked a question about the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  The soldier is homosexual and wondered if these candidates would try to bring back DADT if elected.  The Republican audience booed the soldier who is serving his country in a war zone!   So much for the vaunted patriotism of Republicans.  And when Rick Santorum answered the question by indicating that yes, he would reinstate DADT, again the audience cheered wildly.

One shudders to try to imagine what the next debate might reveal about Republicans and one shudders to think that such mean-spirited, heartless people live in this country.  I hope none of them are my neighbors.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three thoughts for Thursday

(1.)  I wonder if President Obama will have the intestinal fortitude to continue to press hard for the "Buffett tax" in the face of intransigent Republican opposition.  Every poll that I have seen shows that the public is strongly in favor of his plan to require the super-rich to pay their fair share of taxes.  Obama has a populist wave of support at his back if he has the will and skill to use it.  Meantime, the Republicans complain that there is a large percentage of Americans who pay no income tax.  I assume they are not referring to their friends the corporations and rich people who manage to leverage tax breaks into a zero tax bill.  No, they are talking about the poor who Michele Bachmann screeches must pay something "even if it is only a dollar."  What apparently has not occurred to these people is that the poor who pay no income tax do so BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE ENOUGH INCOME TO REQUIRE A TAX!  On the other hand, they pay a disproportionate amount of payroll taxes - at least those who have jobs do - and they all pay sales taxes.  The poor do pay their fair share, more than their fair share.  Meanwhile, the rich get richer because of tax breaks that allow them to keep a larger share of their profits.

(2.)  One wonders if the outrage engendered by the execution last night of Troy Davis will have any dampening effect on the approval of the death penalty by the majority of Americans.  Once again, a man about whose guilt there was considerable doubt has been put to death by the state, while continuing to proclaim his innocence until the end and in spite of protests around the nation and around the world.  Will this give any of the proponents of the death penalty pause?  If Davis' death could start a new dialogue about the efficacy and fairness of the death penalty - e.g., the fact that it falls most heavily on minorities and on the poor (When was the last time you heard of a rich man being executed?) - then perhaps his death will not have been in vain.

(3.)  Today is the last full day of what has been a truly awful summer in Texas.  Good riddance!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two deaths

"Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Two men are scheduled to be killed by their respective states tonight.  In Georgia, Troy Davis is scheduled to die for the death of a police officer 22 years ago.  In Texas, Lawrence Brewer is scheduled to die for the horrific killing of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas in 1998.

Many people, including myself, have taken up the cause of Troy Davis and have petitioned Georgia to stop his execution.  Davis has steadfastly maintained his innocence and investigations over the past 22 years have cast considerable doubt on his conviction.  At least seven out of nine eyewitnesses have recanted their testimony and one of the remaining witnesses may very well be the actual murderer, according to some evidence. Still, every legal avenue to stop the execution and/or overturn the conviction has met with a stone wall.  The Supreme Court has refused to take further action.

There is more than reasonable doubt in this case, just as there was in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in Texas for starting a fire that killed his children.  Texas killed Willingham anyway and he went to his death proclaiming his innocence.  Rick Perry claims he doesn't lose any sleep over Willingham's death and he probably doesn't, even though it seems quite likely that he signed the death warrant of an innocent man.  The governor of Georgia seems cut from the same cloth as Perry and I doubt that he will suffer any sleepless nights over Davis, but he should.

As for white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, there is no doubt that he tied James Byrd, Jr. to the back of a pickup and dragged him to his death.  There seems little to recommend clemency for him.  Actually, there is nothing to recommend clemency for him.  And yet, what good is achieved by one more death?  Will it bring Mr. Byrd back?  No more than Troy Davis' death will bring back his alleged victim.

The death penalty is a horrendous act of institutionalized killing that makes murderers of us all.  Even if the acts of some deserve death, one innocent person executed is too many, and there have been many, based on too much evidence to be discounted.  A truly civilized society finds other ways to mete out justice and to bring closure to those who have suffered or been wronged.  In our society, though, we love our death penalty and we cling to the illusion that it somehow makes us safer.  And we cheer wildly when the number of executions authorized by a certain candidate for president is mentioned.  But, then, whoever said we were civilized?

UPDATE:  At almost literally the last minute, the Supreme Court is hearing an appeal on Troy Davis' behalf and Georgia is delaying his execution pending a decision from that court.  It is now two hours past the time when his execution was to take place.  A decision from the Supreme Court is expected tonight.

In Texas, despite pleas for mercy for James Byrd's killers from the Byrd family, Lawrence Brewer has been executed tonight.

UPDATE 2: The Supreme Court ultimately refused to issue a stay of execution for Troy Davis and the State of Georgia killed him around 11:00 EDT.  His last words were "I am innocent."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Missing by Karin Alvtegen: A review

One of the nice things about joining the local Mystery Book Club has been that it has introduced me to some authors who were unknown to me and whose work I probably would never have picked up except for that impetus. Karin Alvtegen is another one of those. A Swedish writer of mysteries/thrillers, she does not seem to have found as wide an audience in this country as Stieg Larsson (Who has?) or Henning Mankell, but she's good and perhaps her time will come.

Alvtegen's protagonist, Sybilla, called to mind Larsson's Lisbeth Salander in some ways and so I looked at the publication dates. Alvtegen's book was originally published in 2000 in Sweden, while the first of Larsson's trilogy was published in 2005. He must have been familiar with Alvtegen' book and one wonders if he was at all influenced by it.

Sybilla and Lisbeth do share some parallels. Both are anti-social loners and both had horrific childhoods that have marked them for life. Both reject society but ultimately find that there are people who will be on their side if they'll only let them. In both stories, computer hacking plays a role in the ultimate solution to the crime(s).

We meet Sybilla as a homeless woman, living by her wits. One way she has discovered of getting a free meal is to con some lonely man into buying it for her and that is what she is in the process of doing when we first see her at the Grand Hotel. Not only does the man buy her a meal but he winds up paying for her room for the night. Unfortunately for Sybilla, once the two separate and go to their own rooms, someone else goes to his room and brutally kills him and then mutilates the body. Since Sybilla was last seen with the victim, she becomes a suspect and when the police come to her room the next morning to question her, in a panic, she runs, leaving behind her precious briefcase.

She had been living off the grid for ten years, but soon the police figure out her identity and the nation-wide hunt is on for her.

Then, in rapid succession, more people are killed in a similar brutal manner and, again, they are mutilated after death. Sybilla becomes known as a serial killer and all of Sweden is on the alert for her.

The writer works hard at making us understand just what it is like to be a homeless person, to live outside of society, without the protection of law or custom. Much of the book, in fact, is taken up with this exposition of Sybilla's situation. I read the book on my Kindle and I was at 60% complete when I began to wonder if anyone was ever going to investigate the serial murders, or if we were just going to go on living inside Sybilla's head and experiencing her day-to-day fight to survive and to remain anonymous. Finally, a new character is introduced, Patrik, a fifteen-year-old boy who becomes a catalyst for getting the investigation going.

I found the character of Sybilla appealing and unlike any other protagonist I've met in a mystery/thriller. She seemed original and authentic. That being said, the story began to drag for me in its latter third. It became somewhat predictable and, it seemed to me at least, it detracted from the arc of the story that had been building up until then. Also, I note that the translator is prize-winning and much honored in her craft, but, frankly, I found the translation a bit clunky and awkward at times and, for me, it detracted from the pleasure of reading. Perhaps this was the best that could be produced from the original text. How would I know since, unfortunately, I don't read Swedish?

Overall, I found the book interesting. I'm glad I met Karin Alvtegen and I will probably read more of her work now that I know she's there.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Did you ever just want to blow something up?

Anyone who has read very much of this blog will be aware that I am an admirer of Paul Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, Princeton University professor, and New York Times op-ed writer.  And inveterate blogger.  I particularly love his blog where his humor has free rein, unlike in his Times column.

Krugman has spent years now, at least back to the early 2000s when I started reading him, pointing out the errors of political and economic policy.  For his trouble, he's often excoriated and almost never listened to by those he calls the Very Serious People, the people who hold the reins of power.  The fact that he has been right so often over the years seems to make the VSPs even more frenetic in their attempts to discredit him. One has to wonder what effect this has on him personally, what kind of a toll it takes, and whether it doesn't sometimes just leave him frustrated to the point of incoherence or just wanting to blow something up.

Well, he does have that Nobel Prize thingy to soothe his ego and, frankly, his ego seems to be in pretty good shape!  Yesterday, on his blog, he posted this image which an admirer had sent him.


Moviegoers will recognize the iconic image of George Clooney  in "Syriana."  Now we know who to cast in the role of Paul Krugman when "The Paul Krugman Story" is made.  I love it!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Thank God for Gail Collins

I'm so glad Gail Collins is back from her book break and writing her regular columns for The New York Times once again.  I have missed her clear-eyed and often humorous view of the world over the last couple of months.  Heaven knows I could have used that view during that period.

Often when I am at my wit's end over the latest tea party outrage or the latest stupid thing said by John Boehner/Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann/Rick Perry, I'll click on Gail's name in the online Times and find that she has written a column about it, but instead of letting herself be frustrated to the point of apoplexy about it, she has found the essential humor. She explores the hypocrisy and the egotism that are often a large part of the public persona of individuals, without losing sight of their humanity.  She is able to make fun of the idiots in public life without ever seeming mean-spirited.  (Maureen Dowd should take lessons!)

And now that Gail is back from her break and all is again right with the world, we hear about what was the subject of that book that she was working on all those weeks.  Texas!

Yes, Gail Collins is writing a book about my adopted home state.  Hypocrisy?  Egotism? Outrageous behavior?  Humor?  It's all there.  She won't even have to make anything up!  If ever a subject was ready-made for a writer, Texas was invented just for Gail Collins.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pirate King by Laurie R. King: A review

Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series has been a favorite of mine since I first discovered it a few years ago. The thing that I have enjoyed most about it is the relationship between young Mary and the great Holmes. I found the growth of the relationship from beekeeper's apprentice to partner and wife to be thoroughly believable and thoroughly entertaining. The problem that I have with the latest installment in the series, Pirate King, is that there simply isn't much of that relationship here.

Early on, Mary is sent away from Sussex and Sherlock on a supposed mission for Inspector Lestrade. She is to be an undercover agent embedded in a company of silent motion picture actors. Lestrade allegedly suspects that something nefarious is going on with the band of thespians. Illegal drugs? Gun running? It's never made quite clear and apparently Lestrade doesn't really know. Nevertheless, Mary is supposed to sort the whole thing out. Mary very soon suspects, however, that it isn't really Lestrade who is sending her on this mission, but her brother-in-law Mycroft who is a high muckety-muck in His Majesty's government. Further, she suspects that Mycroft is simply trying to get her out of Sussex. Why? Well, that, along with several other things about the story, is never really made clear.

Despite her misgivings, Mary takes on the task and finds herself with a theatrical group which will be making a film about a theatrical group that is making a film about "The Pirates of Penzance." Are you confused yet?

Fflyte Films, the producer of the film which is called "Pirate King," prides itself on reality and so hires some actual sailors to appear as the pirates in the film. Except the "sailors" turn out to be actual pirates. And the pirates seem bent on kidnapping the Penzance Major and his thirteen blonde daughters, along with Mary Russell. Ah, well, if you just suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, you'll be much happier.

This is a lark of a book. Nothing serious happens here until the very end and very little even there. Worst of all, there's very little Sherlock. It was a very light, fun read, but I hope this doesn't foretell a new direction for the series. I'm much happier when the story involves both of its main characters.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Climate reality bites

Texas has set another unhappy record.  It has become the hottest state on record.  During June, July, and August of this year, the state had an average temperature of 86.8 degrees.  Temperature-related energy demands in the state were more than 22 percent above normal for this period.  That is the largest increase since record-keeping of energy demands began more than a century ago.

Combine the fact of our record-breaking heat with the fact of our record-breaking drought and you've got a real disaster.  Add the fact that much of the state is on fire and you've got a catastrophe.  Wildfires have so far consumed an area that is the size of Connecticut.  The Texas Forest Service which has primary responsibility for fighting the fires (and which has had its budget cut drastically by our prescient state legislature and governor) issued a statement last week which said in part:  "No one on the face of this earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions."

Climate scientists have predicted that the phenomenon popularly called "global climate warming" could be more accurately called "global climate craziness" because it's not a matter of simple warming.  The forces that are affecting our planet's climate cause everything to be extreme.  Hot is hotter.  Cold is colder.  Wet is wetter.  And, yes, dry is drier.  This is not some hoax that climate scientists made up in order to milk research grant funds.  This is simple physics.  Humans are causing the atmosphere to heat up because of our carbon emissions.  Warmer air holds more water vapor.  Atmospheric circulation patterns shift, and places that would normally be rather wet, like the Texas Gulf Coast, are, instead, trapped under an unmovable high which keeps all moisture far away.  Our climate patterns are changing, perhaps for a very long-term, because we refuse to do anything to change our part in the equation.

And still we have politicians like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann who continue to deny any of these very basic facts.  They accuse climate scientists, 98 percent of whom are in agreement about the causes of these global climate changes, of fraud.  It is shameful, and yet it is no more than we've come to expect of a certain class of politicians.  What is truly troubling is that the politicians who know better are not pushing back harder and working to make green jobs sustainable and attractive to the market place.  We need a carbon tax, gasoline tax, or a cap-and-trade system - or perhaps all three - that will make renewable energies more competitive with dirty fuels.  As things stand now, all the tax breaks and incentives go to Big Coal and Big Oil and as long as their lobbyists continue to control our legislators it is likely to stay that way.

The truth about what is affecting our climate is currently being broadcast around the world in a 24-hour program called the Climate Reality Project.  The project continues online until 7:00 P.M. tonight.  If you are brave enough to take the truth, visit their website and get involved.  
 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good riddance to "Entourage"

The HBO show "Entourage" had been on television since 2004.  This was its last season.  Its last episode showed on Sunday night.

I never watched the show, except for a stray episode here and there, until this year, but certain members of my family had watched it faithfully, and since this was my last chance to find out, I decided to watch and see what appealed to them and what caused this show to continue being renewed for seven more years past its initial season.  I watched every week of this season's shows and I still don't understand.

Okay, it's a male bonding fantasy.  A group of not very smart, not particularly good looking, lazy young men get very, very rich while exerting practically no effort.  They live in a huge and extremely tacky mansion and drive hot cars and take beautiful young women to bed, again, while never breaking a sweat.  Literally.  I can see how that would fulfill the wildest fantasies of some men.  Maybe all men.  Just as "Sex and the City" might have fulfilled the same kind of fantasies with the same level of realism for some women.  But this show hung on for eight long years!  I can see it being interesting for maybe eight minutes.

Perhaps I'm lacking the "fantasy gene" (Although I had no problem liking "Game of Thrones."  But then it did have Sean Bean, who is my idea of a fantasy-fulfilling man.  But I drool and digress...)  but I just don't get it.  This show was so banal, the characters so shallow, how could anyone care about them?  Especially how could anyone care enough to continue watching for eight long years?

So, Sunday night in the last episode, everybody just got richer - no money worries here! - and at least three of the characters found true love:  Vinnie with a hot journalist whom he'd known for just a few days and then flew off to Paris to marry her; E (E? Really?) made up with his girlfriend who is now carrying his baby, quit his job and followed her to New York; and Ari the super agent quit his demanding(?) job that had ruined his marriage, made up with his wife and took her to Italy on a dream vacation.  The rest of the gang just continued to live in fantasyland.  Brotherhood triumphs over all and it continues.

Will there now be an "Entourage" movie?  God, I hope not!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The games dwindle down to a merciful few

It's official.  The Houston Astros have tied the worst loss record of their history.  They have now lost 97 games this year with only 16 more to play.  They have the worst record in all of Major League Baseball.  Their next three games will be against the team with the best record in Major League Baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies.  By the time the Phillies leave town at the middle of the week, the Astros loss record could well stand at 100.

Their sorry won/loss record does not tell the whole story though.  Many, if not most, of their games have been interesting.  That is especially true of the last couple of months in which they have featured a team of mostly rookies, and very young rookies at that.  These guys have been fun to watch with their enthusiasm and their energy.  Moreover, they are a talented group and they do know how to play the game.  They show great promise for the future and give their loyal fans, like me, hope that we won't have to wait until we are old and gray (Well, older and grayer!) until we have a competitive team to support once again.

Meantime, as we anticipate the stars of our future, tonight we get to see the stars of our past.  Roy Oswalt will be pitching for the Phillies and Hunter Pence will be in right field. How strange to see them in those uniforms!  And Brad Lidge will be in the bullpen.  A few years ago, one would have thought those guys would be Astros for life, but things like that don't happen any more unless your name is Bagwell or Biggio.  It probably wouldn't even happen to them if they were playing today.

As the games dwindle down to a precious few, this season will certainly be one for Astros fans to remember (or try to forget) for more reasons than one, but we can at least hope that this will be the team's nadir and that we can look forward to brighter days ahead.  As the song from "Damn Yankees" said,  "Wait'll next year and hope..."

UPDATE:  Astros win 5-1!  Baseball is a funny game.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nothing is the same

I turned on the radio this morning and heard a speaker at the 9/11 commemoration intoning "...They killed our citizens, but they could not kill our citizenship."  No, I thought, we did that to ourselves.

We killed our citizenship by accepting without question the lies we were told about what had happened.  Saddam Hussein was responsible.  There were weapons of mass destruction just waiting to be deployed against us.  And so we allowed our young men and women to be sent to invade a country which had done nothing to harm us and there we killed thousands of innocents among its citizens.  Many more than the terrorists killed on 9/11.

We killed our citizenship by allowing the suspension of civil liberties and by denying that basic human rights applied to our enemies.  And so we closed our eyes and ears while torture was committed in our name.  We looked the other way while people were thrown into secret prisons and denied legal representation or visits from human rights groups. We continued to look the other way while they languished there for years.

We killed our citizenship with divisive religious sectarianism in our own country. Suddenly, anyone who was not ostentatiously Christian and who did not spout (carefully selected) quotations from the Christian Bible was our enemy and was suspected of being a terrorist.  And if that person had brown skin and wore clothes that seemed strange to us, then, case closed!  He was a terrorist and had no rights.  And God forbid (literally!) that anyone of non-Christian belief should attempt to practice his/her faith or build a house of worship in this country!

We killed our citizenship by turning against our roots.  We are a nation of immigrants. Receiving migrants from other countries has always be our strength, but suddenly we want to slam the doors shut.  No entry allowed.  English only spoken here.

We killed our citizenship by allowing the government to listen in on our conversations, to read our mail, to track our travels, to monitor, using Big Brother techniques that even George Orwell never envisioned, our everyday lives.  We have, virtually without protest, given up our right to privacy.  In our desire to be secure, we have forfeited our right to be free.  But it is all in vain, because the truth is it is a dangerous world and there are people who want to kill us.   We can never be one hundred percent secure, but surely we can choose to live with courage.

There will be a lot of speakers and writers patting us all collectively on the back today and assuring us that we have persevered and kept our country's identity intact. Sadly, I think they are wrong.  This country has changed in the last ten years and not for the better.  It is not the vibrant, strong, forward-looking country that I grew up in.  It is a country that in so many ways has turned in upon itself.  It is something that has been particularly painful to see for those of us who can remember the past.

I remember that day 10 years ago.  I was at work.  I arrived at work at 7:00 those days and turned on my radio to NPR's "Morning Edition" where Bob Edwards still held sway. The sky outside my office window was a cloudless and brilliant blue.  There was a touch of fall in the air.  It was a beautiful day and a normal day of news as Edwards introduced stories and did his interviews.

And then, just before 8:00, Edwards' voice suddenly took on a new timbre - one of tension and incredulity.  And nothing was ever the same again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Parrying the truth

Did you watch the Miss Republican Beauty Contest Wednesday night?  No?  Neither did I. Consensual self-torture is not my thing.

Since the event though, I have read about it and have seen some of the comedians' takes on the performance of the various contestants.  The pundits and the Republicans in attendance at the Reagan Library were all slavering over the appearance of Rick Perry in his first debate.  He did not disappoint them, which is to say that he said a lot of crazy things that don't stand up to scrutiny but are the kinds of things that tea partiers love to hear.

I was bemused and appalled by the observation that the strongest applause line of the night was when one of the questioners - I forget which one - started to ask Perry about all of the executions he has overseen as governor.  More than 200 men have died under his watch.  When that number was read out in the introduction to the question, the Republican crowd broke into wild applause!  It's likely that at least some of those men who were executed were innocent of the crimes of which Texas juries had found them guilty, and it is almost certain that one of them was completely innocent, but little details like that do not bother Republican audiences.  Any more than they bother Rick Perry.

Of all the ridiculous statements made by Perry during the debate, though, surely the most ridiculous was equating global climate change deniers with Gallileo.  Somewhere, Gallileo must be shaking his head over that one.  As was pointed out to me, Perry was exactly 180 degrees away from the correct analogy.  In fact, the climate change deniers are in the tradition of Gallileo's persecutors, the pope and the Catholic Church of his time.

I thought that Stephen Colbert had by far the best commentary on Perry's performance.




The late night comedians must be thanking their gods for sending them Rick Perry.  The jokes almost write themselves.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tracks by Louise Erdrich: A review

Reading this book reminded me of trying to work a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the box top picture. You begin to wonder if these pieces REALLY fit together or have you forced them. Will there be a recognizable picture when you finish or will it just be a splatter of dots that mean nothing?

One doesn't expect Louise Erdrich to tell a linear story and she certainly doesn't in Tracks. It is a thoroughly non-linear, stream-of-consciousness kind of tale, an Ojibwe tale. Her storytelling has been compared to Faulkner's and one can clearly see why in this book.

Erdrich employs two narrators, Nanapush and Pauline. Nanapush is an old man who is telling stories to his granddaughter, Lulu. He is telling her about her origins and how she came to be who she is. Pauline's story is her own - a story of how she came to be a bride of Christ - but tangentially, her story also touches Lulu through Lulu's mother, Fleur.

Fleur was a woman of power. Her community ascribed those powers to the supernatural. In fact, in the Ojibwe community of 1912 - 1924, when these events take place, all of life was seen as influenced by the supernatural, by beings from another plane of existence. Often, these were the ancestors, relatives, and friends who had passed on to the next life. The Ojibwe had a mixture of religious belief that embraced the ancient faith as well as the Catholic one. At times, it was difficult to see where one left off and another began.

The language of this novel, as always in Erdrich's novels, is quite beautiful. Occasionally, the reader comes on a passage that strikes right to the center of her heart. Even so, I found the story a little difficult to follow. Once in a while I wished for a straightforward, linear path through the tangled web of these lives. "This happened and then this happened which led to this and ultimately resulted in that." One will always wish in vain for such a straight telling of an Erdrich story.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry: A review

If one created a word cloud for the Anne Perry's latest book, Acceptable Loss, the biggest cloud that would float to the front and center would be "humiliation." Close beside that cloud would be "fear" and "pain." All three of these emotions are perceived through the various characters' eyes, so "eyes" would have a major place in the cloud-orama as well.

I've always liked Anne Perry's writing for its social consciousness and its evocation of the period in which it is set, in the case of the William Monk series, the Victorian period in England. Perry is really excellent at describing the horrors of that period, in particular the atrocities committed against women and children while a privileged upper class simply chose to remain oblivious. Indeed, in some instances, the atrocities committed were for the pleasure and amusement of that privileged upper class, as is the case in this book and the previous entry, Execution Dock. But, my God, she has become repetitious in her writing.

Over and over again in this book, she reminds us that the first murder victim in the story was a truly awful person, a pimp of young boys - very young boys - and she pounds home the idea that the police really don't care who murdered him and might be inclined to pin a medal on him, except when the idea dawns that it could have been a "business" associate. For my taste, she could have made that case once and then left it alone until the end. I don't need to have it shoved down my throat (so to speak) on every page.

This is the seventeenth entry in this long series and it still features characters that I've come to care about - William Monk, now leading the Thames River Police; his indomitable wife Hester with her shelter for abused women; their friend and occasional ally Oliver Rathbone, the brilliant lawyer. In this story, as in the last, the plot pits Rathbone against William and Hester as they fight against the trafficking of young boys in the sex trade on the Thames. Here, Rathbone must defend his father-in-law who, it turns out, may be a backer of that trade. As usual, we follow William on his official investigation of the case and Hester on her thoroughly unofficial investigation as she treads the dangerous streets of the slums along the river. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

It seems churlish for a reader of Perry to snarl, "Just the facts, ma'am!" After all, Perry is not just about the facts. She is about the emotions and atmosphere of people and places, and that is a large part of what we love about her writing. But it would be interesting and rather refreshing to read a Perry book that spent a little more time on the facts of the crime and procedures of the investigation and a little less time on reminding us on every page about how honorable our heroes are and almost reveling in their revulsion over the crimes they investigate. The latter evokes in the reader emotions that are just a little too reminiscent of those men who got their pleasure from watching the abuse of small boys.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Texas is burning

As the Great Texas Drought continues unabated, many Texans are facing another horror arising from the drought.  Wildfires are raging right across the state and more than 1,000 homes have been lost.  More importantly, at least two young lives, a mother and her baby, have been lost.

The worst of the fires have been in the Hill Country around Austin, but here where I live in Southeast Texas, we are being touched by the flames as well.  Montgomery County (where I live) and adjoining Grimes and Waller Counties have been hit by big fires in the last couple of days.  The fires were made worse by the strong winds that we received as a result of Tropical Storm Lee.  All we got was the wind - no rain.

Although climate scientists continually warn that we should not ascribe any single weather event to the phenomenon of global warming, it is very difficult not to conclude that our more than year-long drought is not at least exacerbated, if not entirely caused, by the heating up of the planet.  Furthermore, this drought and its attendant wildfires will have long-term effects on our environment and the ecology of our state.  Wildlife have already suffered greatly and many animals have been lost.  More will die before this is over.

The fall migration for birds is now under way.  Texas is an important stopover for many species on their way south.  Furthermore, it is the winter home of millions of water birds and shorebirds.  All those birds now winging their way here will arrive to find ponds, rivers, streams, and lakes dried up and food in short supply.  If we don't get rains soon, this could well be devastating to some of these species.

These are the kinds of effects that climate scientists have predicted and warned of and tried desperately to get us to take seriously and start doing what we can to ameliorate our impact on global warming.  Still, our militantly ignorant and proud-of-it political "leaders" make jokes about the whole idea of global warming and refuse to take any sensible steps to stop or slow it.  Perhaps when their states are burning, they might begin to  think in a more serious way about it.

Or maybe not.  It sure hasn't worked for Rick Perry.

      

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jobs trump deficit

On this Labor Day, Americans are feeling very insecure about jobs.  Furthermore, they don't understand why politicians are not as concerned about the unemployment rate as they are.  In poll after poll, they have expressed their feelings loudly and clearly.  They want their leaders to stop obsessing about the deficit and focus their energies on creating more jobs.

(Click on the graph to see a larger image.)

This is fairly typical of those polls.  Voters from all across the political spectrum and in every region of the country believe by a margin of more than two-to-one that politicians should be working to create more jobs, rather than talking about the deficit 24-7.

And it is not only average voters who think this way.  Knowledgeable economists, some of them with a Nobel Prize on their mantel, have warned for years that we are spending too much time dithering on the deficit.  The problem is jobs, lack thereof.  If we improve the economy and put people back to work, the deficit will begin to cure itself.

But the people in Washington don't have time for Nobel Prize-winning economists or for average citizens.  They only listen to each other and what they are hearing from each other is that the deficit must be fixed and that it can only be fixed by austerity, specifically, by cutting all the programs that poor people and middle-class people depend upon.  All the programs that benefit the rich must be kept intact at all costs!  (Some things are more important to these people than the deficit.)

In my world and the world of most Americans, jobs trump the deficit every time.  You would think that politicians would have received that message, especially on Labor Day.  I guess not.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Savage Run (Joe Pickett #2) by C.J. Box: A review

Joe Pickett may be one of the last honorable men in Wyoming. Everyone else in Savage Run, the second in the Joe Pickett series by C.J. Box,  seems to ruthlessly pursue his/her own goals, and usually those goals involve the destruction of anyone who opposes him/her. Who knew the wild, wild West was still quite so wild?

The book begins with a cow being blown up and, along with the cow, a famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) eco-terrorist and his new wife. They were out that day busily spiking trees when the cow exploded nearby.

It turns out that the eco-terrorist was an old friend/lover of Joe Pickett's wife, Marybeth, from high school days and soon Marybeth starts getting mysterious phone calls from someone who says he is that long-ago lover. But isn't he dead? Well, his body was never actually found - just bits and pieces.

Meantime, while all this is happening, Joe is confronting a local rich hobby rancher about the giant trophy elk head hanging on his wall. It is evident to Joe that the animal was killed out-of-season. Plus, he happens to know (or at least strongly suspect) that only the head was taken. The rest of the carcass was left for scavengers. This ignoble end to a noble beast offends the sensibilities of the game warden, truly one of Wyoming's last honorable men.  But the rancher is politically well-connected and extremely powerful and the chances of ever bringing him to justice seem small indeed.

The plot gets more complicated when it turns out that two hired killers (Hired by whom?) are stalking environmentalists and have already killed several in some truly heinous ways. It was they who blew up the poor innocent cow that killed the two tree-spikers. 



Or did it?

C.J. Box is a talented writer and he obviously knows the physical setting he is writing about very well . He makes his readers smell the spruce, hear the rattling of the aspen and cottonwood leaves, feel the wonder and fear of an elk herd being stalked by wolves, and stand in awe of the landscape of the unforgiving granite mountains and canyons. It's a rousing good tale and I look forward to more in this series.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Rain, rain, please come my way!



Tropical Storm Lee moved into our area tonight, offering the best chance we have had in months for some substantial rainfall.  I'm just to the left of that large mass of green and yellow and so far I haven't benefited from all those rain clouds, but hope springs eternal.  It's a slow-moving system so perhaps before the night is out, Lee will actually grace us with some of its moisture. I'm trying not to get my hopes up. I've been disappointed too many times before in this interminable drought.

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 4:   Not a drop.  Not a friggin' drop!  The drought continues...

Friday, September 2, 2011

A straw too many

This might just be the straw that broke the camel's back for me.

What could be a more important job for a government than protecting the air that we breathe, making sure that it is safe to breathe and will not make us sick?  Apparently, for the Obama administration, it is more important to curry favor with the industries that pollute the air and cause untold misery to those who breathe it.  And so, Obama has decided to overrule his E.P.A. which had followed the advice of its scientific staff in setting tougher standards for air quality.

Industries, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had lobbied the White House non-stop to withdraw these standards.  Republicans had complained that the standards would be "job-killers."  Of course, they would like to see the E.P.A. shut down altogether, and if they ever have the power to do so, it will be.  Public health be damned!

One would hope that one's president would have the strength to stand up to such pressure.  One would hope that he might remember FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and, yes, LBJ, and be willing to take a strong stand on the side of an issue just because it is right, not because it is politically expedient.  With this president, one would hope in vain. He will continue to waffle on the issues, give in to pressure, and fail to protect the common good.  Next, we'll be hearing that the tar sands pipeline is going full-speed ahead, and never mind any possible risk to the environment.

Obama will say that, in a failing economy, these regulations would have been too expensive for industry, that they would have cost jobs that we cannot afford.  In other words, he's agreeing with the Republicans and their claim of  "job-killer" regulations.  I don't know why he doesn't just make it official and go ahead and announce he's switching parties.  He's certainly not any kind of Democrat that I can recognize.

As for the expense to public health that laxer standards will cause, the lives that will be lost because of breathing dirty air?  Those are acceptable costs, I guess.

UPDATE:  Today (September 3), Paul Krugman explains in his blog why this is a stupid decision based on the economics of the situation, never mind the morality and the concern for public health.  It's a triple play of a bad decision.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September Song

A song for the season and for the September of our years...




September Song
by Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill

Well, it's a long, long time
From May to December.
But the days grow short,
When you reach September.
And the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to flame
And I haven't got time
For the waiting game.

And the days dwindle down
To a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days
I'll spend with you.
These precious days
I'll spend with you.