Monday, November 28, 2011

Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich: A review

You always know what you are going to get with a Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum novel. Stereotypical New Jersey mob references. A basically incompetent bounty hunter who couldn't catch a cold without major assistance from the big, strong, sexy men in her life. Kooky bail-jumpers who are generally of the comic book character variety and who will lead Stephanie and her "wingman" Lula a merry chase throughout the book. Stephanie's exploding cars or, as an alternative, stolen cars. Stephanie's crazy grandma who is hooked on "showings" at the local funeral home. Implied hot sex between Stephanie and two hot men - although not at the same time. Lula wearing skimpy outrageous clothes that barely cover her fat body and taking umbrage at anyone uses the word "fat" in her presence and constantly eating fried chicken and/or doughnuts and frequent references to her former career as a 'ho. Well, it's all there in this book, too.

That being said - basically, that these books are very predictable - Evanovich still manages to weave it all together in an amusing pattern. This is a fun and very quick read. Evanovich knows how to keep the action flowing and the pages turning.

The opening finds Stephanie on a plane returning from a mysterious vacation in Hawaii. It is implied that the vacation was a romantic interlude with one of the men in her life - a vacation that went awry and ended badly - but we don't get to know just how badly at first. Stephanie won't talk about it. She just tells her friends, "It's complicated."

Soon after she returns to Trenton and goes to her parents' house to do laundry, she finds a large manila envelope among her belongings. She opens it to find a picture of an unknown man. She doesn't know where the envelope and picture came from and she dumps it in the trash. The next thing she knows, the FBI and the New Jersey mob and someone who may be Russian and a local hairdresser are trying to bully her into turning over the picture to them. They won't believe her when she tells them she doesn't know where it is, that it went into the trash.

Meantime, both Joe Morelli and Ranger, Stephanie's two lovers, are sporting bruises which seem to be connected somehow to Stephanie's Hawaii trip. Neither of the men are happy with Stephanie, which, of course, doesn't keep either of them from screwing her every chance they get.

In the middle of all of this action, Stephanie and Lula continue to pursue their crazy "skips" who mostly escape their clutches in amusing ways several times before finally being cuffed and delivered to the police. 

The plots are always the same, the main characters (with the possible exception of Joe Morelli who seems to be turning into an adult) never grow or change. Yes, you always know what you are going to get with a Stephanie Plum mystery. Or is it a Stephanie Plum romance? Maybe we should call them rom-mysts. Whatever. I can't deny that they are fun to read.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mrs. Jeffries and the Feast of St. Stephen by Emily Brightwell: A review

The first of the Mrs. Jeffries Victorian mysteries series was published in 1997 and Emily Brightwell has churned one out every few months since then. Twenty-two of the books had preceded Mrs. Jeffries and the Feast of St. Stephen, (published 2007) the one that I just read, and there have been at least a half-dozen written since then! Yes, Ms. Brightwell is quite prolific. Not particularly original or interesting, but certainly prolific. 

This is the first of the series that I have read, and, obviously, a lot of exposition and water have flowed under the bridge since the beginning. This entry somewhat supposes that the reader has a familiarity with the characters and is invested in their stories. I wasn't, and that made the book less enthralling than it might have been. It is the selection of my local Mystery Book Club for the month of December and that was my excuse for reading it. 

Mrs. Jeffries is the housekeeper for Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard. The unmarried inspector has a household staff of five people to take care of his needs! (Seems a bit excessive, doesn't it? Oh, well...) The thing is, this household staff - unbeknownst to the inspector - investigate all of his murder cases right along with him and they solve the cases and then manage to pass the solution along to him so that he can shine before Scotland Yard's brass. As a result, Witherspoon has a reputation as one of the most successful investigators in Scotland Yard. 

As we meet the characters in this particular entry of the series, it is nearing Christmas and the household is getting ready for the season when their inspector is suddenly presented with a murder to solve. It turns out to be an upper class twit who has died. He died at a dinner party in his own home after drinking some wine that had been brought by a couple who were among his guests for the evening. The investigation quickly reveals that the twit, Stephen Whitfield, was not much loved by any of his guests, but did any of them actually have sufficient motive to do him in? 

The household staff jump into action and parallel the investigation by the inspector and his constable. This inspector, it turns out, needs all the help he can get and he gets plenty, from his staff, his constable, the doctor who is called to the death scene. They all seem extremely devoted to the man and eager to make sure he succeeds. I have no idea what the impetus of all these warm feelings might be. 

The situation reminded me of Upstairs, Downstairs or even of Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries featuring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt or William and Hester Monk. Unfortunately for Brightwell, her writing suffers from such comparisons. 

Brightwell strews clues and red herrings plentifully throughout the book and I found that I was able to sort through them and solve the mystery long before both the professional and amateur investigators in the book. There's a certain satisfaction in that, but actually, I like my mysteries to be a bit more challenging. 

This is very light reading and will not tie the reader down for very long at all. It's the sort of thing that might be good for a plane trip, but not something that one really wants to burrow into and think about overly much.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The USNS Medgar Evers

I remember when Medgar Evers was murdered by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. It was one of the saddest and most shameful days of many such days for that state during that period. His was also the first of a number of political assassinations of prominent champions of civil rights that occurred in the 1960s. The killings of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were to follow and, for many, overshadowed Mr. Evers' death. That death, though, made an indelible impression on my youthful memory and I've never forgotten its impact.

It was with a certain amount of wonder and real pride that I learned recently that the U.S. Navy had chosen to honor the memory of Mr. Evers by naming one of its newest ships after him.  The U.S. Navy Ship Medgar Evers was christened by his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, in San Diego on November 12 and will begin serving as a supply ship for the Navy in early 2012. Thus the Navy honors an Army veteran who served his country in World War II and who later died in that country in the fight to secure voting rights for all Americans. At this time, when the right to vote is again under attack from well-financed sources, who, if they had their way, would probably return the country to the voting requirements that were in effect at the time of the country's founding in the eighteenth century, it is very appropriate that this honor is bestowed upon a man who gave his all to extend that right to all citizens.

It seems appropriate, too, that the present Secretary of the Navy is Ray Mabus, former governor of Mr. Evers' and my home state of Mississippi. He was present for the christening.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Ionian Sanction by Gary Corby: A review

The Ionian Sanction is the second in Gary Corby's very interesting ancient Greek mysteries series.


Thorion, the proxenos (agent) for Ephesus (a Hellenic city in the Persian Empire) in fifth-century Athens, is dead. Very dead. His body is hanging from the ceiling of his office in his Athens home, where he is found by Pericles. Pericles had received a note from Thorion which seemed to say that he had committed treason against Athens. But it soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems at the death scene. 

Pericles calls in the investigator Nicolaos, whom he had used once before, to look into the death. Nico quickly discovers that Thorion did not die hanging from the ceiling. He was already dead when he was put there. Who killed him? Why? Did it have something to do with Thorion's supposed treason? He was the agent for Ephesus. Did the cause of the murder emanate from there? 

Pericles is nothing if not decisive and he decides on the spot to have Nico to investigate further.  In the course of his investigation he will go to Ephesus to interview the proxenos of Athens there and  to see if he can get to the bottom of what has happened. 

Before leaving for Ephesus, Nico uncovers the probable murderer of Thorion, a man called Araxes, and has a marathon fight and race with him, but Araxes manages to escape both Nico and Athens. Nico follows a lead to the slave market where he sees a beautiful teenage girl about to be sold to a brothel - the girl who had accompanied Araxes to Athens. He buys the girl and soon learns that she is the daughter of Themistocles, the hero who had once saved Athens from the Persians only later to be ostracized and condemned for treason. He had fled to the Persians and had ultimately become the Great King's satrap in Magnesia, which is near Ephesus. Ephesus, also it turns out, is the place that the love of Nico's life had fled to after Nico's father refused permission for their marriage because she was the daughter of a hetaera, the mistress of the man whose murder Nico had investigated in The Pericles Commission. So, on to Ephesus! 

Gary Corby has shown a knack for recreating a believable fifth-century Athens and the ancient world of that time. His interweaving of the actual personages of the period, well-known to us from history, people like Pericles and Themistocles, with his own creations like Nico is seamless and is a fascinating way of revealing the history of those times. Ancient Greece has long been an interest of mine and this series is one of the best things to come along for this reader of historical mysteries in quite some time. One of my favorite parts of the book is the extensive historical notes at the end of the book where one can see many parallels between those times and our own. Good stuff!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What'll they cheer this time?

There's another of the endless Republican "presidential" debates tonight and I can hardly wait to see what the slavering audience will cheer this time.

So far the Republican debate audiences have gone wild to show their support for:

  • The death penalty to be applied without restraint.
  • Letting uninsured people die of treatable diseases.
  • An electrified border fence to kill people who try to cross it.

Furthermore, they have booed:

  • Gay soldiers who choose to serve their country, even those who are in war zones.
  • Letting children (who may themselves be citizens) of undocumented workers pay in-state tuition at Texas universities.

Given that history, it's really not all that hard to predict what the crowd might get hot and excited about this time. I would guess that if Newt Gingrich mentions his plan to do away with child labor laws and put six-year-olds to work as janitors, the Republican crowd would love it. And if he goes even further and mentions his long-ago scheme of having the state take custody of the children of welfare recipients and put them in orphanages to be raised, the crowd will probably work itself into a frenzy and nominate him for president on the spot!

As I say, I can hardly wait.

Monday, November 21, 2011

11/22/63

It's the name of a big, new novel by Stephen King and, for my generation of Americans, it is a sad date forever etched in our memories. 11/22/63 - the date that our president was murdered.

Each year since, as the fatal date draws near, there is always a flurry of news stories about it and a flurry of commentary, both positive and negative, about the president who died that day in Dallas. This year is no exception. In addition to King's book, we have the release by Caroline Kennedy of her mother Jacqueline's taped 1964 reminiscences with Arthur Schlesinger and Chris Matthews' biography of the man, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.  Also, the weekend just past brought us a long article in New York Magazine by Frank Rich entitled "What Killed JFK?"

Rich's answer to the question he poses is that it was the pervasive hatred of the times which created the atmosphere where a deranged loser could believe that it would be acceptable for him to assassinate a president. Indeed, he may have dreamed that he would be hailed as a hero in some quarters. In fact, as one who lived through that dark period in one area of the country where that hatred was as rampant as anywhere, I can tell you that that is exactly what happened. There were people in this country, many of them still alive today, who thought that Lee Harvey Oswald did a great service for the nation. Such attitudes were expressed in some churches, including the one my family attended, at the time.

The most troubling thing about Rich's article, though, is the parallel that he draws between 1963 and 20ll and the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

In both instances, both men came into office as trailblazers, Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president and Obama as the first African-American. Both were seen initially as champions of the liberal cause and both soon proved to be much more moderate or even conservative than their most ardent supporters. Both had had very short and undistinguished careers in the Senate and, as president, both proved very tentative in their handling of the legislative branch of Congress. By the third year of their presidencies, both were seen as something of a disappointment and there was much speculation as to whether they could win a second term, even though in Kennedy's case his approval ratings were much higher than Obama's are now.

But perhaps the most striking thing that the two presidents share is the unreasoning, blind hatred which they both engendered in many of their fellow Americans. John F. Kennedy, just as Barack Obama today, was seen as an illegitimate president by a certain segment of the citizenry and the vituperation coming from them was not so different from the vileness you can hear on Fox News or from Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, or that you can read in the comments on the pages of too many online newspapers, including the local Houston Chronicle, concerning Barack Obama. The vitriol of a U.S. Congressman who will stand and interrupt a president's speech in a joint session of Congress with a shouted, "You lie!" or the insanity of another poor deranged loser like the one who fired shots at the White House last week are merely the most obvious examples of the malice that stalks our country today. In a country where so many people are armed to the teeth, this is not a good sign.

I remember that day 48 years ago only too well. I will never forget the shock and sadness and deep disappointment that I felt that day and in the days that followed. I've often wondered what would have happened if Oswald's aim had not been true and Kennedy had lived. How would things have been different? Different better or different worse? Obviously, I'm not the only one who has wondered.  That's why Stephen King wrote his book.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby: A review

Just over a week ago I first learned of this series of mysteries set in the ancient Athens of Pericles and Socrates and I couldn't wait to get started reading them. I requested the book on my Kindle and got right down to business. I was not disappointed. 

This is Gary Corby's first Athenian mystery but he shows a sureness and sophistication in the plotting, and his characters are well-drawn. Many of the characters here, like Pericles, Socrates, and the first murder victim Ephialtes, were real people, but Corby's main character Nicolaos is his own invention. He is a particularly appealing and empathetic character. 

Nicolaos is the son of a sculptor who hopes that his older son will follow in his footsteps. Nico has other ideas, but in ancient Athens he is bound to do what his father commands. He only becomes a free adult when his father dies. 

We meet Nico just as he has returned from his two years of service in Athens' army. He is twenty years old and has an idea that he might want to enter the world of politics, but he has no background or training for it and, of course, there is that immovable object, his father's determination that he should become a sculptor. Nico's family also includes a mother who is a midwife and a twelve-year-old brother named Socrates - yes, that Socrates! - who is an irritating nuisance to a young man about town. 

As Nico wonders how he can persuade his father that he is not cut out to be a sculptor, Fate takes a hand in his life. As he stands near the rock of the Aeropagus, a dead body pierced by an arrow falls at his feet. It is Ephialtes, the man who has lately given Athens its democracy. As Nico examines the body, another man comes along the path. It is Pericles, the consummate Athenian politician. After an initially hostile confrontation, Nico manages to impress Pericles with his observations and conclusions about the killing. Pericles gives him a commission: Find who the murderer is and he will be richly rewarded. 

Nicolaos accepts the commission but makes little headway in his investigation before the body count begins to mount. Are all the other deaths somehow connected to the first? How can he ever prove it, even with the impassioned assistance of Ephialtes' beautiful daughter? The neophyte detective must pursue his investigation in a dangerous Athens on the knife-edge of civil war. How can he possibly hope to succeed? 

Corby has recreated a very believable fifth-century B.C.E. Athens. The sounds, the smells, the patri-centric society where fathers hold the power or life or death over their children, the birth pangs of something new under the sun - a democracy - are all here in this rich historical mix. The pacing of the novel makes it a real page-turner. It was hard to put it down, as I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. It was an impressive beginning for a series. I can't wait to read more.

Friday, November 18, 2011

SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion by John Maddox Roberts: A review

Decius Caecilius Metellus, now Senator Metellus and married to Caius Julius Caesar's favorite niece, Julia, is tapped by Caesar to oversee his current pet project of revising the calendar. It is 46 B.C.E. and the calendar currently in use in Rome has become hopelessly out of sync with the seasons of the year. Caesar, in his best, practical, problem-solving manner, has called in astronomers and astrologers from around the known world to put matters right by inventing a new calendar that will keep time accurately and not have to be revised every few years. Much as they love Caesar, his fellow Romans hate the idea of having their old calendar tinkered with, and so when the astronomers start dying in violent ways, there is no shortage of suspects in the murders. 

Two of the astronomers are killed by means that even the best doctors in Rome cannot decipher. How will Decius ever figure it out and catch the culprit? 

The SPQR series is truly one of my favorite historical mystery series. The character of Decius Metellus is meticulously drawn. The stories are written as his memoirs when he is an old man living in the time of the "First Citizen" Octavian, or Caesar Augustus. With a certain sly humor, Decius looks back at the time of Julius Caesar and his plans for a bigger and better Rome. The portrait that is painted here of Caius Julius one instinctively feels is probably very close to who the real man was, and we see the history of that turbulent period through the clear eyes of the very observant, if somewhat cynical, Senator Metellus. As we look at the actions of Cicero, Cassius, and Brutus, as well as Atia and Servilia, even though we know how it is all going to end for them, we hang on every word. Roberts' writing is that good. 

The key to this outstanding series is, of course, John Maddox Roberts' research. He knows ancient Rome. He understands and is able to evoke the life of the streets, the action in the Forum, the revelries at the palace of Cleopatra, and the everyday concerns of ordinary citizens and slaves in the great city. 

One of those concerns of the ordinary citizens was the uprooting of their normal day-to-day planning and routines by the institution of a new calendar that changed everything. Caesar had faith that they would learn to accept it when they saw its benefits and that faith in ordinary plebeians was probably not misplaced. Unfortunately, his faith in his own class, the patricians, was not borne out as we know all too well from history and as we shall surely see in some future book in this series. I look forward to reading that book when it is written. Meantime, The Year of Confusion is a wonderful and aptly-named lead-in to that final act.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Supremely politicized court

There was a time in my memory when our Supreme Court was held in high esteem and citizens could be generally assured that decisions made by the court were made on the basis of the cases' merits and in accordance with the Constitution.  No more.

The Supreme Court under the Chief Justiceship of John Roberts has become a hotbed of political activity where it seems that cases are decided primarily based on what would advantage the court's favorite political party.  From the outrageous ruling of the court on the disputed presidential election in 2000 right through the possibly even more laughable finding that corporations are people, too, this court has lost all claim to be considered an objective arbiter of constitutional issues.  The majority's opinions are always informed by the latest talking points of the right-wing.

The latest evidence of their bias came on the day that the court decided to take up the case filed against the health care reform bill.  On that very day, two of the most right-wing members of the court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dined at a fund-raiser held by the legal firm that will be arguing the case before the court.  Gee, I wonder how those two justices will vote when the time comes? Or will they do the honorable thing and recuse themselves?  (No, I'm not serious.)

Of course, Thomas' vote was never in doubt as it had already been bought by the money paid to his wife as a lobbyist for the anti health care reform faction. In the past, this would have been a scandal and Thomas would have been shamed into recusing himself or possibly even resigning, but these people have no shame.  It is a word that does not exist in their vocabulary.

There is no longer any guarantee that the Supreme Court will be bound by the Constitution in its decisions.  Indeed, it seems that it is more likely to be bound by the laws propounded by Karl Rove and Grover Norquist.  That's how far our democracy has fallen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Republican candidates heart torture

The latest thing that we learned from the Republican presidential debates is that these candidates are really enthusiastic about torturing people and that they would reinstate waterboarding as an interrogation technique on their first day in office.  Furthermore, we learned that a Republican audience would wildly applaud and cheer such action.  None of this should be a surprise to anyone who has paid any sort of attention to these debates.

Throughout the debates, they have been all about who can stake out the craziest, most extreme position and stick to it.  Whoever wins this race to the bottom usually gets to be the frontrunner for that week or at least the one who gets the most buzz for the week.

The whole thing is beyond depressing.  How can anyone take any of these guys seriously?  They are not serious people.  They will do and say anything that they believe will give them the advantage with the Republican base, and, excuse me, but the Republican base is batshit crazy!  They are for letting people without medical insurance die in the street.  They are very much in favor of the death penalty. (They would probably like to extend it to jaywalking.)  They will boo a soldier who is serving this country in harm's way if he happens to be gay.  And they love the idea of torturing people with no restraint or guidelines on those activities.  And these are the people who will select the next Republican candidate for the presidency.

Even cranky old John McCain, who actually knows something about torture, was outraged at his party's candidates' stated support for waterboarding.  I didn't know he had the capacity to be outraged about anything any more.

These candidates for the presidency are so ill-informed, intellectually incurious, and completely without principle that the thought that one of them may actually become the leader of this nation is enough to make one break out in a cold sweat and rush to start packing one's bags to emigrate to Canada or Costa Rica.  At least those countries believe in having universal health insurance and not letting people die in the street because of lack of money for medical bills.  Plus, I believe they have a dim view of torture, too.  Two points which place them far above your average Republican on the evolutionary tree.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley: A review

Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley's wonderful eleven-year-old detective, is back again in a fourth installment of her adventures. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows may be my favorite so far. It is well-plotted, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the action moves along at a snappy pace. It proved to be a fast read, too fast in fact. I didn't want it to end so soon. 

Flavia and her two older sisters and sworn enemies live with their father, the Colonel, in a rambling wreck of an estate in rural England. They live in genteel poverty along with the wonderful Dogger, the Colonel's old war buddy and now jack-of-all-trades around the estate, and the cook whose cooking Flavia despises. The Colonel always struggles to keep the wolf from the door and his latest scheme for doing so is to lease the estate to a cinema company for the purpose of making a movie with the international movie star, Phyllis Wyvern. The company arrives just before Christmas and begins to set up to film the movie. 

The local vicar, seeing a chance to make money for repairs to the church, approaches Phyllis about putting on a performance of a scene from Romeo and Juliet for the locals. She agrees to do so and on the appointed night, the whole village turns up at the estate to watch. Unfortunately, while the performance is taking place, a blizzard blows in and makes it impossible for the villagers to get back to town. Even more unfortunately, during the night, while everyone is stuck there, someone murders Phyllis Wyvern. 

The body is discovered by Flavia who immediately goes into her detective mode, meanwhile planning a scientific experiment that will prove once and for all the existence or non-existence of St. Nicholas and a Christmas fireworks show that will be the talk of the county for years to come. Yes, Flavia has her hands full, but as usual, she is up to the task! 

This was a wonderfully entertaining book to read. Flavia is a very empathetic and believable character. One even believes in her extreme precociousness, and one feels her pain in the death of her mother before she could ever know her and in the hostility she feels from her sisters. And yet, when Flavia is threatened, we find that maybe those sisters aren't really so hostile after all. 

Highly recommended reading for all lovers of cozy mysteries. For those of us who enjoy such reading, this book is like catnip to a cat!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Meet the kitties

Regular readers of this blog may remember that back in August I told you about the death of my beloved cat, Nicholas.  It was a devastating loss for me and I wasn't at all sure that I ever wanted another cat in my life.  But, of course, my children, who have lived with cats their entire lives, had no such doubts and soon started lobbying me to add another cat to the household.  My younger daughter even had the potential candidates all lined up for me.

While visiting friends earlier this year YD had discovered two kittens in their neighborhood.  The kittens had apparently been abandoned.  She and her friends asked the neighbors but no one claimed the little kittens and so YD's friend and her husband took the babies in and took care of them.  They raised them for the past several months, but they are dog people, plus they are getting ready to make a long-distance move so it wasn't feasible for them to keep the kittens.

When we returned from our Colorado vacation last week, I gave the okay for them to bring the kittens over so we could give them a trial.  They arrived just a week ago today.  It seems like they have been here forever.  They have completely taken over the house and completely captivated my husband and me.  Meet our new overlords.

Beau, the boy kitten, is long and lean, has the body of a Siamese.  He's extremely rambunctious and curious and into everything.  This is a rare quiet moment.

His sister, Bella, as you can see is a tortoiseshell.  She has a somewhat chunkier body-shape.  She is very sweet and loving and has the purr of a cat of about twice her size.

Beau looks down on his sister from the top of the cat tower.

The guest room bed is one of Bella's favorite spots for a nap.

Beau "investigates" the cat toy basket.

A house without a cat is not really a home, at least for those of us who love cats.  As Jean Cocteau wrote, "I love cats because I enjoy my home, and, little by little, they become its visible soul."  On the other hand, sometimes it happens very quickly. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day

To all who have served and to those who are still serving, and also to their families, we offer our gratitude and our support and our promise that we will never forget your sacrifice.


Happy Veterans Day 2011.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

Poor Rick Perry

Poor Rick Perry.  And I never in a million years thought I would type those words!  But, honestly, as a human being, I can completely empathize with his "Oops!" moment last night.  In the middle of telling a story or making a point and suddenly your brain freezes up and you can't remember what that point was?  Yes, been there, done that.  But I'm not running for president.  I want anyone that I vote for for president to be smarter than I am and certainly better able to speak in public than I am. And that person is not Mr. Perry.

Long ago, the sainted Molly Ivins dubbed Perry "Governor Goodhair," the implication being that that's all he was - all hair and no ideas.  Nothing under the hair.  It's something that a lot of Texans have known throughout Perry's charmed life in public office.  Now the rest of the country and the rest of the world is learning that, too.

Rick Perry will never be president.  But will he now concede that point and get out of the race and stop embarrassing himself, his family, and Texas?  "Shoot, no!" he says.  So, as the interminable Republican debates continue, we can all look forward to more cringe-worthy moments like this:

 

It's going to be a long, long presidential campaign.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: A review

The setting of The Tiger's Wife is the former Yugoslavia, torn apart by years of war and ethnic cleansing. Natalia is a young doctor, a pediatrician, who, with her lifelong friend and fellow doctor Zora, travels to a district village that she had never been to or heard of to inoculate and treat children. En route, she receives the devastating news that her beloved grandfather has died in another village she had never heard of. Her grandfather, also a doctor, had been the major influence in her life. He had set her on the course she was to pursue as her life's work, and he had filled her imagination with fantastic stories. 

The stories that he told had a touch of the supernatural and the superstitious. They were stories strongly grounded in the folk tales and beliefs of villagers who, even in the late 20th century, lived lives isolated from the modern world, lives that were full of the beliefs and traditions of their ancestors. His stories included a tale about a deathless man, an immortal who came to collect the souls of the villages' dead. But his most unforgettable story was about his own village and what happened there as World War II was beginning. During the bombing by the Germans, a tiger escaped from the zoo and hid in the mountains. The tiger was befriended by a young deaf-mute woman who was the wife of the butcher who abused her horribly. When the butcher disappeared and soon after it became apparent that the woman was pregnant, the legend grew in the village that she had become the tiger's wife and was carrying his child. Natalia's grandfather was just a young child at the time and he befriended the woman and sought to protect the tiger. 

Natalia at first believes that her grandfather's stories are just stories, but after his death, she begins to suspect that there is more to them. Especially when, while in the distant village taking care of the children at an orphanage, she comes face to face with the deathless man himself! 

Obreht's tale makes extended use of the devices of magical realism. It is a beautifully written book that flirts with the paranormal in telling a straightforward story of the horrors of war and of personal loss. We never get to know really whose "side" Natalia was on in the ethnic wars. We do get to know that, whatever else might be true, she was always on the side of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen and that she treasured her tattered "Born to run" tee shirt. I can certainly relate to that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"No" is a powerful word

Today was election day and around the country voters said a loud and ringing "No!" to a lot of pet Republican initiatives.

The vote which gives me personally the most satisfaction is the one in my birthplace of Mississippi which rejected the Republican proposition that a fertilized egg is a person deserving of all the rights and protections of personhood.  They had previously tried to sneak this abomination of a law by the voters of Colorado - twice! - and been rejected.  Now the voters of Mississippi have rejected them, too, and if they can't get approval for this idea in the ultra-conservative state of Mississippi, it is unlikely that they can get it passed anywhere.  That won't stop them from trying though.  They are already trying to get the initiative on the ballots in several states for next year.

In Ohio, the voters rejected the idea that public employees do not have any collective bargaining rights and they did so by a very unambiguous margin.  Good for the voters of Ohio!

And let us not forget Maine where the Republicans were trying to overturn four decades of voting practices by doing away with the right of citizens to register and vote on the same day.  The reason that they gave for doing this was to stop voter fraud, even though there was zero evidence of voter fraud in Maine.  The voters of Maine told the Republicans that they like being able to register and vote on the same day and so they will keep their voting laws just the way they have been.  Good for the voters of Maine!

Sometimes it seems that an epidemic of common sense sweeps across the nation and voters act more rationally than we've had any right to expect.  It's always a surprise when that happens.  A very happy surprise.  There's a lot to be happy about on this election day.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Election Day 2011

It's an off-year election but there is a lot riding on the outcome at the polls tomorrow.

In Ohio, voters will decide whether public workers have rights to band together to negotiate contracts with their employers, but, in the end, it is not just the rights of public employees that are being determined, it is the right of all workers. It's the whole concept of collective bargaining that is at stake here, for that is what the Republican governor and legislature of Ohio are seeking to curtail.  If they are successful in getting the voters to approve the law that they passed earlier this year - and millions and millions of dollars have poured into the state from the usual suspects to try to make sure it is passed - then even more draconian laws more punitive to labor unions can be expected in coming legislative sessions.  If, on the other hands, the opponents of the law can manage to stop this movement in its tracks, then it may prove to be a bellwether for the fate of other such laws around the country.

In Mississippi tomorrow, voters will decide whether a fertilized egg will have all the rights of a person.  Yes, you read that right.  Under the radicals' proposed amendment to the Mississippi constitution, a fertilized egg would be defined as a person.  If the amendment is approved, it will be interesting to see how or if they plan to allow the eggs to vote.  I guess we should just be glad that they didn't go so far as declare each and every sperm a person.  Maybe that's the next step in this process to take us back to the 16th century.  Monty Python saw it coming long ago.  (For "Roman Catholic" in the song,  just substitute "Mississippian.")  



"Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote." - Andrew Lack

One could add that bad policies are allowed to stand because citizens are too lazy or ill-informed to take a stand against them.  Tomorrow will be another test of that statement.
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Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich: A review

It's only within the last year that I've begun reading the works of Louise Erdrich. Don't ask me why I waited so long. After all, The Beet Queen was published in 1986 and Love Medicine in 1984. She was always on my radar, but there are always so many books to read and so little time. Belatedly, I have entered Erdrich's world and I'm very glad to have finally made it here. 

Louise Erdrich writes about ordinary people. They are not superheroes, or even heroes (for the most part) in the common understanding of the word. They are people who struggle to play the hand that Fate has dealt them through nature and nurture (or lack of nurture) as best they can. They go through life never really understanding their own motives or what makes them tick. Mostly, they are too busy making a living to give much thought to that. Even so, these characters sometimes have flashes of insight that just about literally take the reader's breath away. 

In this, as in other of her books, Erdrich employs the method of the multiple perspective narration in telling the story. Whenever I read a book that uses this method, I am reminded of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying where it was used so effectively. The Beet Queen measures up well to that iconic work.

The core of this story concerns three children, Karl and Mary Adare and their newborn baby brother, who are abandoned by their mother, Adelaide, who was in despair following the death of her lover and the loss of his support which left the little family destitute. Adelaide flies off with the Great Omar, a barnstorming pilot. Her baby is immediately kidnapped by a couple who have just lost their own baby. They bring him up as their own. Karl and Mary hop a freight train to Argus, North Dakota, where they have an aunt. However, along the way, Karl takes another path and ends up being raised in an orphanage. Mary actually makes it to Argus and is taken in, cared for and raised by the family. The rest of the book revolves around the events in Argus and in Mary's life and the lives of those who touch her. But Karl, who becomes a salesman, and the baby brother, who grows up to be a priest, will inevitably be drawn back into the tale. 

The Beet Queen herself is Dot, a thoroughly unlovable character who is the progeny of Karl and of Mary's best friend, Celestine. Unlovable she may be but she is loved deeply by three of the book's characters, Celestine, Mary, and Wallace, friend of the two women and one-time lover of Karl. In fact, it is Wallace who delivers the baby Dot (whose real name is Wallacette Darlene) on a cold snowy night. Thereafter, his fate is forever tied to hers. 

Erdrich writes lyrically, one might even say lovingly, of her characters. These are not attractive people, but she makes us understand the ties of sympathy, jealousy and betrayal that bind all the members of the Adare family and their Argus neighbors together. She makes us see ourselves in them and care about their fates, even as we may be repelled by the darker aspects of their personalities. We see in their story the impatient flow of history over forty years on the harsh landscape of North Dakota and we experience the lives of the hard yet vulnerable people who are able to survive there. This wonderful book brings the rich panoply of personal tales together for our enjoyment. I'm so glad that I have finally entered Erdrich's world and come to know these people.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Your Friday kitty break

I don't know if I would classify these as the "10 cutest cat moments" but there are some pretty cute images here. Of course, it is hard to take an image of a cat that isn't cute.



Happy weekend to you and your cat(s)!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

UNESCO recognizes Palestine. Congress takes its ball and goes home.

In the Palestinian people's long struggle to have their rights to a state of their own recognized, they finally achieved a tiny victory this week. The United Nations' education, science and culture organization known as UNESCO decided to accept Palestine as a full member even though the geographical boundaries of such a state do not exist.  This means that Palestine, rather than its occupying power Israel, will have the right to nominate World Heritage Sites in its own territory, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and this helps to achieve at least a few of Palestine's long-denied rights as a state.

It is likely that other United Nations organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will follow suit.  Inch by painful inch, Palestine may finally be crawling toward a kind of recognition and legitimacy as a world state.

And what has been the response to all of this in this country?  Our government gives lip service to the rights of Palestinians, after all, and to the "two-state solution" to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, so one might think that we would respond positively to UNESCO's action.  One would be wrong.

The U.S. Congress, which regularly ties itself into knots to show its undying devotion to Israel, announced that it would withhold this year's UNESCO dues because of their admitting Palestine to membership.  The State Department put out a statement that the action by UNESCO was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of accomplishing a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.  The United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.  But such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians."  Since the hard-line right-wingers whom the Israelis keep electing to head their government REFUSE to engage in any serious negotiations, our government's position would virtually ensure that there would NEVER be a Palestinian state.  The "peace process" which the United States has urged upon the parties has gone on now for some twenty years with essentially net zero progress.  Little wonder that the Palestinians have lost patience with it.  

All over the Middle East, the Arab Spring movement has empowered civil societies and has mobilized public opinion in favor of a new approach to try to win freedom and political autonomy.  That new approach is based on international law and human rights and non-violent civic action and it has been very successful in many places in that region.  If the Palestinians can start such an action within the state of Israel, they will have the rest of the world - except for the United States - on their side.

Unfortunately, our government remains in thrall to Israel and we will not break free until we recognize that Israel's self-interest and our own self-interest are not the same thing.  We need to sever that bond and learn to support Israel only when it is in our interest to do so, just as we would any other state in the world.  We should also recognize that we need the United Nations organizations, including UNESCO, and that there is no reason that such agencies should not welcome Palestine as a partner.  Certainly, our support of the agencies should not depend upon who they accept as members.  We work in a body that recognizes China, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and many other countries with whom we don't necessarily agree on everything.  And that is exactly the way it should be.  Picking up our toys and running home every time things don't go to please us is just childish and is not the way a great nation should behave.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Drink up! No, really, it's okay.

Don't you hate it that science is always coming up with some new research that tells us that something that we were told years ago would benefit us is really going to kill us?  I can give you a prime example - HRT.  Hormone Replacement Therapy.  For years, women of a certain age were told that it was the magic pill, the key to keeping ourselves young and supple, and many of us took the little magic pills.  Then one day out of a clear blue sky comes new research that proves rather definitively that, as young and supple as we might be, our chances of getting certain forms of cancer were greatly increased!

Every year it seems that some researcher comes up with another of these magic formulas and everybody jumps on the bandwagon and then a few years later we find that it wasn't magic after all.  Vitamin D3 was another recent example.

Anyway, happily, it works the other way around as well.  Sometimes we find out that things which we thought were bad for us, or at least not particularly good for us, are actually beneficial.  Coffee, for example.  It turns out that coffee, or at least the caffeine in coffee, may be protecting and aiding those who drink it.
It saves your brain!  Four or five cups of coffee a day may help protect the brain from Alzheimer's Disease.  Well, anyway, it has that effect on mice.
Research has shown that men who drink six cups of coffee a day have a 60 percent decreased chance of developing a dangerous form of prostate cancer, as well as a 20 percent decreased chance of developing any other kinds of prostate cancer.  Drink up, guys!
Women who drink a few cups of caffeinated coffee have a lower risk of depression than women who don't drink any coffee, according to a Harvard study.   So throw away the  mood-altering pills and  just drink more coffee!
New research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research conference shows that coffee could help to ward off basal cell carcinoma, the most common cancer in the world.  In addition to the sunscreen, don't forget that extra cup of coffee.
Drinking coffee is associated with a lower Type 2 diabetes risk, with more coffee consumption linked to a greater decrease in risk, according to an Archives of Internal Medicine review of studies from 2009.   This is one instance where consuming more of something may actually be better for you.
Drinking a few cups of coffee a day could lower the risk of developing Parkinson's disease by as much as 25 percent, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, with the consumption of two to three cups seemingly having the optimal effect. 
The caffeine in coffee could actually help you to spot grammar errors, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  Researchers found that caffeine helped students to correct errors in subject-verb agreement and verb tense; however, it didn't help with recognizing misspelled words.
So there you have it.  Science has confirmed what many of us long suspected, namely that we perform better with a little caffeine, our drug of choice, in our system.  Not only that but the drug may be providing valuable protection for our bodies in the long term.  Tea-drinker that I am, I just wonder if the caffeine in tea has the same effect.  Maybe I should switch.  Nah, they'll probably just come out next year with a study that shows that coffee actually hastens our decline.  In fact, I'm just about willing to bet on it.