Saturday, December 31, 2011

Michele Bachmann, hunter

Michele Bachmann brags that she's a good shot with an AR-15 assault rifle and that it is her favorite weapon of choice for hunting. She told an interviewer on radio that she was going pheasant hunting with her fellow crazy, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, and left the impression that she was going to use an AR-15. Pheasant hunting with a semi-automatic assault rifle? Really, Michele?

I freely admit that I don't know much about guns and I know less about hunting, but I did grow up among some very successful hunters. I don't remember them ever using assault rifles. Rifles, yes, or sometimes shotguns, but they didn't find the need to resort to semi-automatic weapons. Still, they were able to bag their prey.

But in Republican politics, the bigger the gun you can claim to use the better, apparently. Whether it is actually the type of gun that is needed to kill your prey is irrelevant. I guess in Bachmann's case though her actual prey is the gullible voters of Iowa and she's hoping to bag them by flaunting her macho-ness.

This is disgusting.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Crazy neighbors

A few miles from where I live, a house burned last week. It was what the local newspaper called "a historic homestead" that had been in the family of the man who owned it since 1927.

The house burned to the ground even though the fire department was on the scene. The firemen were unable to get near the house because it contained an estimated 100,000 rounds of ammunition! As the fire spread, the ammunition started exploding and popping in all directions, making it dangerous for the firefighters to approach and so all they could do was stand and watch it burn.

According to the newspaper, not only did the house contain all that ammunition, it also had 30 to 40 family guns inside! Thirty to forty "family" guns?  Were these people planning on starting their own army?

The craziest thing about this story is that, in the gun-worshiping culture that is Texas, this is not even considered an aberration worthy of note. The headline in the paper said "Fire destroys historic family home" and you had to read the whole story to find out about the guns and ammunition. This is what passes for normal where I live.

Just makes me wonder what some of my other neighbors might be hiding behind those walls.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: It was a very good/bad year

2011 was such a downer of a year on so many fronts. The worldwide economy was in a mess. Self-serving politicians refused to do anything that might help the country for fear that it would also help the re-election prospects of a president whom they despise and revile. The dumbing of America aided by such "news" outlets as Fox News continued. Global warming continued on its inexorable path and extreme weather became the norm. Here in Texas, the exceptional year-long drought accompanied by the worst wildfires in the state's history made our lives a misery.
Still, some optimistic folks are able to look back over the year and find reasons to celebrate. One of them was Michael Moran of Slate.com who gave us his list of ten things to celebrate about this year.
1. Osama bin Laden: Not merely his death, but an ignominious death at the hands of US soldiers that revealed once and for all the value of patience, Pakistan’s duplicity, President Obama’s mettle as commander-in-chief and provided a mother lode of useful intelligence on America’s one true enemy, al Qaeda. A win-win-win-win situation for humanity, except for bin Laden, of course, who instead of 72 virgins, got 24 members of SEAL Team 6 instead. I’ll drink to that, and to the memory of friends and family killed on 9/11.
2. It Lives! The American economy, in spite of a Republican attempt to deliberately default on US government obligations this summer and rather feeble efforts by the White House to outflank them, continues to sputter along. Given the alternative – the very real chance that we could be back in recession by now – this is worth a glass of champagne. Whether Washington’s sleepwalk through he graveyard can carry the economy through the 2012 election year, however, is another story. The pros at Morgan Stanley seem optimistic. I agree with them economically; unfortunately, politicians will have their say, and that means anything can happen.
3. It Flies! China’s economy, forecast by some as a hard landing just waiting to happen, has remained aloft in spite of lagging demand in its key export markets (the U.S. and Europe), a real estate and credit bubble at home and political uncertainty as the country’s leadership choreographs a generational transition. No matter what you may think about China politically, economically the world can ill afford to lose China’s dynamism at this particular moment.  Jim O’Neil, the Citibank analyst who coined the term, BRICS, sees a soft landing next year. Two cheers for the Chinese. 
4. The Arab Spring: I know, it’s not over yet and lots can (and probably will) go wrong. But even if every country that rose against its thuggish government now lapses back into something similar, one useful thing will persist: Arabs will have shown that they control their own destiny. Hopefully, over time, the crushing resentment of the West that characterizes the region will diminish as a result. My own assessments in detail here
5. We’re Out of Iraq: Plenty of potential for this to go awry still exists – remember, the humiliating “fall of Saigon” took place in 1975, two years after the US thought it had secured “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Still, we can at least be happy that the last has died in Iraq for Bush’s mistake. Let’s hope the government takes serious steps next years to help veterans who, according to a recent report, are attempting suicide at a rate of one every 80 hours. Sadly, many are successful. 
6.  Dear Departed Leader: Kim Jong-il, 1942-2011. Nuff said. 
7.  Turkey’s Turnaround: The “New Ottomans,” as Turkey’s current governing elite styles themselves, had a near disastrous performance in the early stages of the Arab Spring, opposing NATO’s efforts to help oust Muammar Qaddafy in Libya, and worse still, clinging to hopes for reform in Syria. But complete policy reversals in both places showed the practical nature of Turkey’s current leadership and the hallowness of the “who lost Turkey” nonsense being propagated by Israel’s friends in the US Congress (angry at the Israeli-Turkish rift that is entirely Israel’s job to mend). Turkey remains on side, folks; they’re just not willing to carry anyones water any longer. 
8. Signs of Life in Russia: Almost daily since the fixed parliamentary elections last month, Russian public opposition to the less-than-transparent nature of the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy” has caused said fortress to offer concessions. The latest, the defenestration of  Putin’s spinmeister, the “gray cardinal” Vladislav Surkov, is worth raising a glass to. It’s a hall of mirrors, yes, but in Russia – as in the Arab World and even China – an Internet savvy elite is having impact. 
9.  An Opening in Myanmar: As with most slow-motion democratic reforms, the transition from dictatorship to something less venal in Myanmar (Burma to you Luddites) has a long way to go before we call it a democracy. But the emerging civil society there, confirmed by the freeing of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and later by a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is one of the pure good news stories of 2011. Here’s a nice New York Times photo essay that drives home the changes
10. Iran in a Bottle: The desperation in Tehran is showing as sanctions, finally designed intelligently enough to cause deep problems for the Iranian economy, are biting. This week a senior Iranian official threatened to close down the Straits of Hormuz to shipping if the latest round of American sanctions, aimed at getting Iran to foreswear nuclear weapons, goes into effect. The mullahs’ gamble is that their ability to use threats to raise the price of oil will discourage the US, or at least its allies, from moving forward. Nothing would unite the Security Council as quickly behind military action than the shutdown of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf (though Russia, which benefits from such spikes, might play hard to get). My suspicion: It’s all bluster, the flailing of a regime losing the battle of ideas globally, losing its closest allies regionally and its ability to repress its people domestically. The sanctions should go ahead, Iran’s bluff should be called, and let’s welcome a Persian Spring in 2012. 
A few honorable mentions: Berlusconi's ouster in Italy; the continuing growth of Africa's economy; India's anti-corruption movement; the useful focus of Occupy Wall Street; micro bloggers who forced China's government to apologize for covering up a railway disaster.
While it is against my nature and principles to celebrate the death of any human being, even those such as Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il who caused so much misery and devastation during their lives, it is hard to dispute that the world is better in many ways because of the events on Moran's list. Maybe it wasn't such a bad year after all.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Enlightenment is hard but worth the effort

This is the time of year when everyone and his dog make lists of the best and the worst of the year now ending. In several of the lists of the best television shows of the year, I'm happy to see that one of my personal favorites is being mentioned.

Enlightened, the HBO series by Laura Dern and Mike White, which also stars Dern as the main character Amy Jellicoe, has not gotten the buzz that many of the year's series have had. All the talk this fall has been about Showtime's Homeland with critics falling all over themselves to praise it. Frankly, it left me a bit cold, but I loved Enlightened, although I sometimes wondered if anybody besides me were watching.

Amy Jellicoe is a disturbed California woman who has an emotional breakdown on the job and goes away to a rehab center in Hawaii to try find herself. There, she finds more than herself; she finds "enlightenment" and she returns home to try to put her life back together and to make it and the world better.

Amy is quirky and irritating and has serious issues in her relationships with her mother (with whom she now lives) and her ex-husband (played by Luke Wilson) but she is determined to remain positive and be the change she wants to see. She is also selfish, self-righteous, thoroughly obnoxious and supercilious at times and yet she engages my sympathy. I see myself all too clearly in her foibles and her trials, and isn't this the mark of a good drama?

Curiously, this show is classed as a comedy and, yes, it is often funny in a thoroughly heartbreakingly human way. Personally, I would call it a "dramedy," but I guess the award shows don't have such a classification.

Whatever they choose to call it, I'm just glad to see the show getting some recognition and I'm glad to see that  HBO has recognized its value and has renewed it for a second season. It is not always an easy show to watch. Sometimes it makes me cringe for myself as well as Amy. But it is definitely worth the effort.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R.R. Martin: A review

This series just gets darker and darker. George R.R. Martin continues to show no compunction about killing off his characters. Of course, he's got about a million of them so there are plenty to spare! 

The clash of the kings continues in this volume. The five contenders for power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros wage their wars across the face of the land and no one is safe or secure. 

Robb Stark still rules in the North and has not yet lost a battle. 

The execrable Joffrey Lannister still sits on the Iron Throne most recently occupied by his putative father, Robert Baratheon. 

Robert Baratheon's brother, Stannis, has been defeated and disgraced but still hangs on to his army and still plays the game of thrones. Meanwhile, Stannis' and Robert's other brother, Renly, is dead, possibly the victim of witchcraft. 

And, across the sea, Daenerys of the House Targaryen, mistress of the only three dragons in the world, makes her way slowly westward, vowing to reclaim the Iron Throne that she considers rightfully hers. 

In the north, beyond the Wall, Jon Snow is learning that keeping the vows of the Night Watch is not always an easy thing. 

The remaining members of the Stark family still are scattered and, in some cases, unaware of the fate of each other. Arya is in the wild, on the run, sometimes a captive but always moving onward to...where? Sansa remains a hostage of the Lannisters in King's Landing and she will become even more tightly tied by marriage to that family. The Lannisters also are seeing changes in their fortunes. Tyrion serves as Hand of the King at the behest of his father, while Jaime is himself a hostage of war in Riverrun. Both Tyrion and Jaime show some unexpected depth and complexity of character in this entry and one wonders where that is leading. 

The action and the momentum switch back and forth among these powerful families and who can say where it all will end? 

Martin is a master of keeping the action moving and the suspense high and providing that shock that the reader least expects. This book was over 1100 pages long and yet it seemed all too brief to me. Which is why I will now be moving right along to A Feast for Crows, the next entry in this epic series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy holidays

It's going to be a busy week with not much time for blogging but here's something from Simon's Cat to wish you happy holidays and maybe give you a chuckle.



As for my own little angelic kittens, they would never climb the Christmas tree and send ornaments and needles crashing to the floor or play soccer up and down the hall with said ornaments or knock the shepherd in the Nativity scene to the floor, smashing him into a hundred pieces. Oh, no, they'd never do anything like that!

In fact, butter wouldn't melt in their little mouths as they wait for their visit from Santa Claws.

Happy holidays to all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The death of an atheist and a true-believer

I thought it was a supreme irony that Christopher Hitchens should have died this week at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston just as the Iraqi war was ending. This, after all, was the war that he had championed and supported all through the last nine years and right up until his death. He had written endless justifications for that stupid and totally unnecessary war. He had been a cheerleader for the deaths of innocent Iraqis in the service of what he saw as a higher good - the West's battle against what he called "Islamofascism." As far as I know, he never acknowledged the fact that Iraq was not an Islamic state under Saddam Hussein. For ill or good, it was a secular state, and no, it didn't have weapons of mass destruction as Hitchens and the other chickenhawk neo-conservatives claimed.

Since Hitchens' death, there have been countless fawning and glowing remembrances of him. He was, it cannot be denied, a brilliant man with a love of and impressive gift for the English language. He also, it is clear, must have had a great gift for friendship. He was loyal to his friends (unless they crossed him) and they to him. One of the most thoughtful essays I have read about his death was written by his friend Ian McEwan in The New York Times today.

In the last years of his life, he worked for online Slate magazine, which, since his death, has devoted much of its space to memoirs of him, nearly all of them affectionate, as well as what they bill as "Hitchens' greatest hits," several of the columns he wrote for the magazine.

I did not know Christopher Hitchens. He was not a friend of mine. I simply observed him from afar and marveled over the fact that, although he had had a reputation as a Marxist and a defender of liberalism, he strongly and loudly and often rudely supported an unjust war which made us all less safe rather than safer. He was, of course, also an avowed atheist, and a few years ago, I read his best-selling book on the subject of religion vs. atheism, God is not Great. Although I was not really unsympathetic to his argument, I found him shrill and dismissive toward those who believe in a god, and generally rather mean-spirited in his arguments. I could not love the book any more than I could applaud his political beliefs.

With all of that in mind, I'm pleased to see that some have not forgotten the whole man since his death and they write about him in the context of his entire personality and belief system - warts and all. Glenn Greenwald's piece in today's Salon.com falls in that category.

When a public figure dies - well, when anyone dies really - the human tendency is to gloss over the ugly parts and remember only the good. It is an understandable reaction, but I think we do the dead, as well as ourselves, a disservice when we do that. Best to face reality unblinkered and remember things and people as they truly were. No false pedestals for Christopher Hitchens. He was brilliant and he made many contributions in life. He was also human and made many mistakes and the most egregious of these was probably his drum-beating for the war that never should have been. That shouldn't be forgotten or forgiven.  Indeed, he never asked for forgiveness. He continued to maintain his support for the war to the end of his life. Which came the day the war ended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire #2) by George R.R. Martin: A review

Incest, fratricide, alchemy, the dead rising to walk and kill, cold hearts and cold steel and, of course, dragons - A Clash of Kings has all that. It also has strong characters and a fully realized mythical world that seems as real and as current as today's newspaper. 

The land of Westeros is in turmoil. Even more turmoil than in A Game of Thrones. In fact, A Game of Thrones seems almost tame by comparison. Yes, George R. R. Martin has definitely kicked it up a notch with this book. 

The king who sat on the Iron Throne, Robert Baratheon, is dead, killed by a boar and by the perfidy of his queen, Cersei. His friend and ally, Eddard (Ned) Stark, the Hand of the King, is dead, killed by the newly installed King Joffrey, a cruel and obnoxious 13-year-old boy, son of Cersei and putative son of Robert. Ned was killed, as the previous Hand had also been killed, because he had uncovered a terrible secret about Cersei and her son. 

Now the Stark family, Lady Catelyn and her five children and the bastard son, Jon Snow, are all still alive but are separated, scattered to the four winds by the chances of war. War rages throughout the land because Joffrey is not the only king. Robert's two brothers, Stannis and Renly, have each claimed the kingship, and in the North, Robb Stark has been proclaimed the King in the North and he leads a formidable army to protect the lands he is heir to and to avenge his father. 

Beyond the Wall in the North that protects Westeros from the wildlings and other even more sinister beings that lurk in the frozen waste, Jon Snow is learning the ways of a ranger of the Night's Watch, a force which is sworn to protect the realm but takes no part in civil wars and contests for thrones. 

Sansa, the older Stark daughter is trapped in King's Landing where she saw her father beheaded and where she is betrothed to the child king Joffrey who ordered his murder. 

Arya, the younger daughter, is in the wilds as the book opens. She had been present at her father's beheading also, but had been protected from actually seeing it by Yoren, a ranger of the Night's Watch, who afterward spirited her away and out of the city. 

The two youngest Stark boys, Brandon and Rickon, are still at the ancient home of the Starks called Winterfell, but their peril increases daily. 

Lady Catelyn accompanied her son, Robb, to war and serves as his emissary to the two Baratheon brothers who vie in the South for the kingship. 

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the last of the Targaryens, Daenerys, the "Mother of Dragons," raises her three dragons and tries to find a way to get her meager band of followers across the Narrow Sea to take back the Iron Throne which she deems hers by rights. 

And while four "kings" stake their claims and battle for supremacy, other lesser Houses also see an opportunity to advance their own prospects. 

Over it all, in the sky, a red comet takes its journey through the heavens. Is it an omen? And, if so, of what? Each House, of course, interprets the comet in the way most beneficent for that family. 

This book is over 900 pages long and there seems no way to sum it up. Martin has created an astonishing work of imagination that is unrivaled by anything I have ever read with the possible exception of J.R.R. Tolkien. This work is definitely on a par with Tolkien. 

One of the things that I find particularly satisfying about the Song of Ice and Fire series is the several strong female characters. This is not always - one could say almost never - the case in such fantasy works. From the pre-teen Arya to her mother Lady Catelyn, to the female knight Brienne, to Daenerys Targaryen, and even the odious Cersei, these are females who take responsibility for their own fates. Yes, they are victims of the society in which they live, but they reject that victimhood. 

For me, one of the most affecting moments of the book was when Arya, who is now a prisoner, goes to the Godswood to pray among the trees to the old gods of her father and she finds an answer to her prayer in the remembered words of her father. And since I can't wait to finds out what happens next to Arya, I'm moving right along to the next book in the series, A Storm of Swords. Did I mention that these books are mesmerizing?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An unnecessary war ends

The government is today marking the official end of the Iraqi war. The unnecessary war. The war built on a lie and the swaggering hubris of a small group of small men who had never been to war and had no appreciation or understanding of its costs. In this case, the costs were thousands, perhaps more than a million, dead and many thousands more maimed. Lives ruined that can never be recalled or repaired. A country torn down to build up the egos of those small, swaggering men.

And through it all, the men who fomented that war could never even give the country they were destroying the respect of calling it by its correct name. To them the country would always be "eye-rack." They taught a generation of young Americans to call the country - the correct name of which is "ear-rock" - by this spurious, insulting name. It's only one example but it bespeaks the attitude of these despicable chickenhawks, and gives an indication of why many people in that part of the world hate the United States. Language matters, and, whatever else his faults and weaknesses may be, I'm happy that we have a president who understands that and gives peoples and cultures the respect to which they are entitled.

It's easy enough to start a war if you are determined to do so. It is not so easy to stop it. This one dragged on for more than eight years before a different kind of president - a non-swaggerer, non-boaster - was able to stop it, not with a tall, gaudy banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished!" but with quiet ceremonies thanking and honoring the lives of those who have served.

There's still that other war that drags on. Afghanistan. It was a necessary war in the beginning, but now it has dragged on beyond all reason. The longest war this country has ever fought. There is a plan in place for ending it as well, but even if that timetable is sped up, it can't be soon enough. The time to end it was yesterday. Last year. Five years ago.

Nevertheless, today one war ended and American troops are being pulled from the field and sent home or to other posts. One unnecessary war has ended. That is cause for rejoicing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thanks a lot Lowe's!

Thanks a lot Lowe's. You just made my bedroom redecoration project more time-consuming, expensive, and inconvenient. So that's how you repay my loyalty.

You've probably heard and read of Lowe's stupid, cowardly, and totally tone-deaf move of pulling its ads from the reality show on TLC that shows an ordinary Muslim family in Michigan going about its daily life. I admit I've never seen "All-American Muslim," not because the idea of the show offends me but because I don't watch reality shows. Period. But from what I've read, the family that is the center of the show is just a typical American family, not so different from my own.

This was too much for the Muslim-haters. The series didn't show the jihadists, they screamed. It didn't show Muslims making bombs or planning to kill innocent Americans, and everybody knows that is how all Muslims spend most of their time. The Muslim-haters' insane complaints reached Lowe's corporate offices and all their spines turned immediately to jelly. They couldn't be associated with a show that incited controversy among the hard right wing, and so they immediately pulled their ads from the show, I guess hoping nobody would notice they had ever been a sponsor. Unfortunately for them, people did notice, including many of us who normally do our shopping for home improvement and gardening supplies at their store.

Lowe's is my closest big box store for house and garden supplies and it generally has good prices, so that has been where I did my shopping. But I cannot support with my hard-earned dollars a company that would be so craven and un-American in its policies. I don't shop at Wal-Mart. How do Lowe's policies make it superior to them?  So now I'll have to find another store for the paint and other supplies I need for my redecoration project. It'll be inconvenient and will mean traveling a few miles farther down the road, but there are a couple of Home Depots that are not too distant. Let's just hope that they don't do something utterly stupid that makes them unworthy of my dollars.

Here's the Daily Show's "Senior Muslim Correspondent" Aasif Mandvi's take on the issue.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The debate that wasn't

So now Donald Trump has pulled out of his own debate! The Donald announced to his slavering public today that he would not, after all, be moderating a debate between Republican candidates for president later this month. The reason he gave was that he wants to keep his options open should he decide (in his infinite wisdom) that the eventual nominee of the Republican Party doesn't have the right stuff. If that is the case, the Donald wants to be able to jump in and run as an independent in order to save the country.

The only Republicans who had consented to show up for Donald's debate were Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, but I'm sure that the lack of enthusiasm among the other candidates for appearing on the same stage with Donald Trump's hairpiece and ego had nothing to do with Trump's decision to call the whole thing off. No, Trump is motivated strictly by his deep patriotism and desire to be of service to his fellow Americans. What a guy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Whacking "Boardwalk Empire"

The agonizing, confusing, infuriating second season of  HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" came to an end last night. Finally, I won't be wasting an hour of my life each Sunday night on a show which seemed to have no focus and no clear purpose. It was just kind of all over the place.

Of course, no one was forcing me to watch it. But I had watched the first season last year so I had something invested in the characters and the story and I wanted to see where it all was headed. The answer seemed to change from week to week. It was as if the writers really had no clear idea of what they wanted to do with the characters. It felt like each week's story was created on the fly and didn't necessarily relate to the previous weeks or to the future.

By the time this season was halfway through, I had frankly lost all interest. There were really no characters that I cared about except the poor little children and they were just ciphers, props for the adults. Still, I kept watching, hoping that the series might redeem itself. Today, several of the reviewers that I read on the subject, thought that it did find redemption with last night's episode. They saw it as a powerful story that tied up the season nicely and finally brought everything into focus. They must have been watching a different show than I saw.

The effusive praise for last night's episode all seems to relate to (Spoiler alert!) the whacking of James Darmody. Whenever any series kills off one of its main characters, it seems to trigger a response from reviewers that praises the courage of the creators of the show. Frankly, the only relationship that was left that I found at all compelling was that between James and his friend and cohort Richard, both of them World War I veterans who were seriously injured both physically and psychologically by their time in the trenches. Nucky's cold-blooded killing of James brought that relationship to an end.

As it turns out, Darmody may be the luckiest character in the show. He's well out of it.

I read that the show has been renewed for a third season, so the question now is will I watch it or have I whacked it from my life for good? Well, we'll see, I guess. Maybe by the time season three rolls around I will have forgotten how bad this season was. Or maybe I'll be bored and looking for a way to fill an hour on Sunday night.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The stars of the southern hemisphere

The late autumn and winter nighttime sky is especially beautiful and interesting for those who enjoy looking into heaven, both the professional astronomers and the amateur backyard stargazers like myself. The clarity of the winter atmosphere makes all those heavenly bodies "pop" and seem even brighter and closer than they normally do.

But things are popping on the opposite side of the equator as well. I recently ran across a marvelous time-lapse video by astro-photographer Stephane Guisard that shows that brilliant southern hemisphere spring/summer sky. The scene is the sky over the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you'll notice the rocks in the video, you can also see some of the ancient petroglyphs left by people who lived in that desert long ago. It is a fascinating video. Enjoy.

"Hierbas Buenas" Valley Petroglyphs (Night Time Lapse Movie) from Stéphane Guisard on Vimeo.


The Bad Astronomy blog in Discover magazine has a discussion of the film which explains a bit about what is captured in the images.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1) by George R. R. Martin: A review

I have freely admitted that before the HBO series "Game of Thrones," I was not familiar with George R. R. Martin's work. Truly, sometimes my ignorance is just breathtaking. 

Once the television series began, I was quickly hooked. It was a rich and fascinating story of families, betrayal, loyalty, human perfidy and cruelty, heroic deeds, all laid over with a mysterious threat to the civilization of the seven kingdoms of Martin's world. The acting was good and the production values outstanding. It was, in short, a very good series. What of the books from which the tale came? I had to find out for myself. 

What I have found in reading the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire series is that the television series was very true to the book. All the characters and all the action that were part of the series are there in the book. It is an amazing read. 

Martin has created a mythical land that seems as though it might have been real in some dim and distant past, perhaps the time we call the Middle Ages. In this world, summers can last for decades and winters for a lifetime or more. We enter the world at a time of summer. It has been summer for many years but now winter is creeping back. Strange things are happening in the haunted forests of the North, beyond "The Wall." 

The great family which rules in the North, closest to the lands beyond the Wall, is the Starks, led by Eddard (Ned) Stark, a man to whom honor, family, and loyalty to friends are everything. While sinister and supernatural forces are gathering in the frozen lands beyond the Wall, news of equally sinister events in the South reaches Ned Stark at his home in Winterfell. The Hand of the King, the man charged with seeing that the commands of the king are carried out, has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Now the king needs a new Hand and he calls on his old friend Ned to fill the office. 

Ned is well and truly in the middle. Danger from the North and from the South leaves him filled with foreboding. He has no desire to leave Winterfell and his family, but one cannot say "no" to the king. In the end, he heads South with the king and his entourage, taking his two young daughters with him, so that they will have the advantage of acquaintanceship at the king's court. The reader has a premonition here (even if she hadn't seen the series) that this will not end well for Ned, an honorable man thrown into a pit of poisonous vipers and (Spoiler alert!) it doesn't. 

Martin makes his fantasy world come alive with his wonderfully intricate descriptions of pageants and plots, the contrast between the harsh and unyielding lives of the North, where "Winter is coming" is more than just the Stark family's catchphrase, and the epicurean kingdom of the South, where food and wine are plentiful and where the great houses play the game of thrones for keeps. 

Martin has created some wonderfully interesting characters that the reader comes to care about and is invested in. Chief among these, of course, is Ned Stark, but there is also his bastard son, Jon Snow and his younger daughter, Arya, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, his other four children. There is Daenerys (Dany), the last of the Targaryens, the old dynasty that had been overthrown by the great families when the outrages of the mad king Aerys II had become too much to bear. Dany and her knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, are fascinating creations and I'm sure we will hear more from them. And then there is Tyrion Lannister, the second son of the great house of Lannister, a dwarf and a cynic who seems a near match for Ned Stark when it comes to honor. 

Characters that one cares about, great action, lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror - it's all here. And more! I can't wait to see what happens next, so I'm heading right into the next book in the series, A Clash of Kings.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Russian spring?

It seems that the spirit of discontent with the status quo that fueled the Arab Spring and, later, the Occupy movement in this country and around the world is beginning to creep into Russia as well. Protests have sprung up in Moscow and people have taken to the streets over voting irregularities and, indeed, over many long-standing complaints. As one of the activists stated, "People's mentalities have changed. I can't stand being lied to anymore."

That seems to be a succinct statement of what is bothering people in Moscow and in many places in the world. We just can't stand being lied to any more. People in government and in public life make up their own "convenient truths," to support whatever political doctrine they espouse. They relentlessly repeat these lies, never blinking any eye, until they enter the accepted dogma and people forget, if they ever knew, that the whole thing started out as a convenient lie told to make someone look good.

The technique is the same whether it is in Washington or Moscow, London or Peking, or any other place in the world that you care to name. But right around the world, people are getting wise to that technique. The Internet, cell phones, and other accouterments of modern communications technology are powerful weapons against such lies. It is getting harder for the liars to make their lies stick. There are too many eyes watching and ears listening.

This is the energy that spawned the Arab Spring that changed the face of the Middle East. It has engendered the Occupy movement here, the end of which we cannot yet see, but I don't think we'll be returning to the complacent and apathetic population that we seemed to be not so many months ago anytime soon. And now that restless energy has reached all the way to Moscow and has spilled into the streets there. Moscow! Stalin must be spinning wildly in his tomb.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A dry and stormy future

The southwestern part of the country, from Texas right west to California, has had one of its driest years on record. Moreover, it has also been one of the hottest on record. It has been the all-time worst fire year in Texas and has seen the biggest and most damaging wildfires ever in Arizona and New Mexico. The summer just past was the hottest ever recorded in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico. In my part of Texas, we endured an August where every single day except one had high temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit - often well above 100. If you've enjoyed this year's weather, you are going to love the future here, because there is every indication that this year has been a harbinger of things to come. Drought, heat, wildfires and extreme storms may well be the norm for this region in the foreseeable future.

We should no longer talk of climate change in futuristic terms. Climate change is not happening only in some distant future. Climate change HAS happened and we have contributed to it, making the change more severe and more rapid than it should have been. The really bad news is that we have no inclination or will to change our ways and try to stop or slow the arc of change and so it is likely to continue at an ever faster pace until it is finally too late to do anything to ameliorate it. If it isn't already. According to the scientists at the Global Carbon Project, global emissions of carbon dioxide set a post-Industrial Revolution record in 2010. Want to bet they won't break that record this year?

Meantime, on the political front, every viable Republican candidate for president denies there is any relationship between human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and the heating up of the planet. There are not enough votes in Congress to pass even the weakest legislation to try to reduce our contribution to the problem. And the president utterly refuses to lead on this issue. The words "global warming" and "global climate change" have been expunged from his vocabulary.

What is a concerned citizen to do? This is not a problem that will yield to individual actions, no matter how sincere. There are some things that only a government can do and cleaning up the atmosphere, removing the pollutants that contribute to global warming is one of those things. And the only way government WILL do that is if enough angry voters demand that it be done. It's not something that can be completed in one election cycle perhaps but, in the long run, if we keep the pressure on and refuse to vote for anti-science extremists who would sell the earth to the polluters, then perhaps we can change this government and make it once again  a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." For the sake of my sanity, I have to believe that that is possible.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

Faulkner on HBO?

I saw an interesting article in the online magazine Slate today. It seems that David Milch of "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood" fame has signed a deal with HBO to develop several of William Faulkner's works for television.  Since Milch does have a known - and successful - track record in television, Faulkner's works would appear to be in good hands. Moreover, HBO has a long lineage of doing quality series, so the addition of Faulkner to that lineage is something to look forward to.

The story didn't specify which of Faulkner's many novels or short stories might be showing up on our home screens at some point in the future. Of course, several of his works have been adapted for the big screen in the past. Some have been successful adaptations, some not so successful, but Milch certainly should not be bound or influenced by any of that history.

One hopes that instead he will look at the works with fresh eyes and with the thought of translating them for an audience who may not be that familiar with them. After all, Faulkner has been dead now for almost fifty years. His earliest work was published around 1919 and his most prolific and best period of writing was in the 1930s and 1940s, making his writing now a part of historical rather than contemporary American literature. The Snopes family and Yoknapatawpha County belong now to our dim past, but they represent eternal truths that are as relevant today as when Faulkner first wrote about them and they are certainly as interesting as the members of the Soprano family or the residents of Deadwood.

Good luck to David Milch on this new project. I look forward to viewing its result.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton: A review

Kinsey Millhone just gets better with age. In V is for Vengeance, she turns thirty-eight. The year is 1988 and Kinsey is in her prime as a private detective. She is tough and smart, a woman of her word who lives to see justice done. Even if it is sometimes a rough kind of justice. 

In this entry in the long-running series, we find Kinsey shopping the lingerie department at a department store and there she witnesses a woman shoplifting several items. She reports the woman to a clerk who calls in the loss prevention people. The shoplifter is followed out of the store and then confronted about the unpaid-for items she's carrying. Ultimately, she is arrested and taken to jail. For Kinsey, it is a satisfying outcome, but then, a few days later, she learns that the woman is dead, an apparent suicide. But was it? 

Her fiance' is disbelieving and hires Kinsey to get to the bottom of what he believes is murder. Little could Kinsey have anticipated where the trail from that one death will lead her. 

She uncovers a large and very professional shoplifting ring and at its center is a dapper gangster with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, right next to him is his brother, the sociopath. There is the small-time criminal who gave Kinsey her first set of lock-picks and for whom she has a soft spot in her heart. He has run afoul of the professional criminals and is in big trouble. There's the annoying journalist, the upright cop who is Kinsey's friend and one-time lover, the bent cop who is her nemesis. There is a beautiful woman who has had much sorrow in her life and now is experiencing a new kind of sorrow with an unfaithful husband and is looking for a way out. There is a long, long list of interesting characters here and, for some of the leading actors, we get to hear their stories from their own perspective. But the main focus, as always, is Kinsey Millhone and it is her tale which ties all the others together. 

We always know that for every blow dealt Kinsey, she will find a way to extract, if not actually vengeance, a kind of equilibrium. Her fans will not be disappointed by the outcome of this case. 

As Kinsey has improved with age, so has her creator Sue Grafton. Ms. Grafton knows her craft. She writes with a sure hand. There are no hesitations or false steps along the way. She knows where she is going with this story and she leads us expertly through the clues, into the heads of the main characters, and finally to a satisfying denouement. I would rate this as one of the better entries in the Kinsey Millhone series. 

I wonder what W will stand for?