Friday, May 31, 2013

Sloths!

Look out, cats. Your days as king of the internet may be numbered. There is an animal which affords you some major internet cuteness competition. Sloths.

Sloths are very, very big on the Internet just now. And they got there by doing practically nothing and doing it verrry slowly.

Unfortunately, their cuteness does not protect them from threats in the wild. The main threat to their existence, as with so many animals, is habitat destruction. But there are people devoted to their rescue.

One of them is Monique Pool, a sloth rescuer and founder of the Green Heritage Fund Suriname. She recently rescued more than 200 sloths from 16 acres of forest that were being cleared for a cattle farm. 
She harbors the animals for a few days before releasing them back into the wild, usually caring for one or two at a time. But the recent rash of deforestation led Pool to rescue many mothers and babies that will need to be cared for for months before they can be released. She also took in homeless anteaters and porcupines in addition to the sloths. 
Many of the rescued animals were Bradypus tridactylus, a species of three-toed sloths only found in the Guiana Shield. Conservation International visited her sanctuary shortly after that rescue operation and made this short film of Pool with the cute animals that had been recently saved.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: A review

Whenever one sees a list of "Great American Novels," Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady almost invariably appears on it. Indeed, one can find proponents of the idea among the literary cognoscenti that it is THE Great American Novel. And so, it was necessary that, in furtherance of my woefully lacking literary education, I should read it and decide if I agreed.

The first thing that I learned is that reading Henry James is not for the faint-hearted. This book, which is considered to be his masterpiece, was published in 1881 and it was written at a time when verbose, dense novels were in vogue. It certainly fits into that tradition. 

James writes sentences that go on for half a page or more. He never uses a one-syllable word when a three-syllable word is available. His paragraphs go on for pages without a break. The conversations of his characters are maddeningly oblique. They seem to be speaking in some kind of code to which I do not possess the key. 

Moreover, none of those characters, with the possible exceptions of Harriet and Ralph, are particularly likable. Are these the components of a great novel? If so, then here it is!

Even to one who had never before read the book, its story line is familiar. Isabel Archer, a young unmarried woman from Albany, New York, is orphaned and left adrift when her father dies. She has two older sisters both of whom are married and launched on lives of their own. Unexpectedly, her mother's sister, Lydia Touchett, arrives from Europe and proceeds to take her in hand and take her to Europe to further her education and find a husband for her. 

Isabel's image of herself is as a proud and independent woman who has no wish to marry and wants to make a life for herself on her own. On arriving in England, she meets her Uncle Touchett who is enchanted with her and, when he dies, leaves her a fortune. That money changes the course of Isabel's life. 

The thing about Isabel is that, both before and after becoming an heiress, every man she meets seems to fall helplessly in love with her. Men are always asking her to marry them. Why? Her great attraction was not at all clear to me.

Our anonymous Eye of God narrator, he who sees all, hears all, and knows all, refers to Isabel as an intellectual. He never gives any evidence to support that claim. In fact, she seems quite naive and occasionally downright stupid. We're told that she is not a great beauty. Her conversation always seems to be expressed in riddles that do not engage. She does not seem to have a great heart or a particular talent for friendship. So, again, explain to me why all these men are obsessed with her. 

She turns down perfectly worthy men who want to marry her and instead chooses the least worthy one in the pack, Gilbert Osmond of Florence. In her decision, she is skillfully and stealthily guided by her "friend" Madame Merle for reasons of her own which one suspects all along but which finally become clear near the end of this long book.

Osmond is penniless and he marries Isabel for her fortune and for what that fortune can do for his motherless daughter Pansy. Isabel at first is happy, but at some point - and we never really learn where or why - she sees her husband for what he is and her life becomes a misery. 

She has a baby boy who lives for only six months. This is referred to only in passing. We never learn why he died or what effect that might have had on the parents' relationship. Isabel never seems to think of the child again. The only bright spot in her life is Pansy, whom she learns to love. The once proud and independent Isabel is gone forever, as her destiny is taken from her hands by her marriage to the odious Gilbert. 

What point is James making here? It has been said that his special subject was the American encounter with Europe and what that had to teach us about the limits of independence. Social obligations constrict us and make us unable to always be at complete liberty to do what we please and to select our own destiny. And so the myth of the self-made American, an individual who is totally self-reliant and independent is just that - a myth. America and Americans are not set apart and exempt from the constraints of history. We are not special or exceptional, as some of us like to think of ourselves. ("American exceptionalism" are the watchwords of a certain political mindset in our country.) Rather, we are simply flotsam on the evolutionary flow of that human history of which we are all a part.

So, the question remains: Is this a great novel? It is a difficult read, at least for the modern reader. I didn't hate the book and I was never tempted to throw it across the room, but it was frustrating at times. The philosophical style of writing here was perhaps more popular and maybe even easier to understand in the late 19th century. The cultural references would have been fresher. But great novels hold up over the centuries and continue to have things to tell us about the human condition. The novel meets that test.

The ending of the novel is thoroughly ambiguous and leaves us to decide for ourselves what will happen to Isabel. That is, if we care

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don't let the door hit you on the backside!

So...we won't have Michele Bachmann to kick around anymore. No more crazy histrionics from the crazy lady from Minnesota to sigh and shake our heads about. 

Well, never mind. We'll still have Louie Gohmert and Virginia Foxx and too many others like them so there'll still be plenty of silliness in Congress. But, once her current term is up, no more Bachmannisms like these:
If you look at FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama, this is really the final leap to socialism [...] they’re trying to consolidate power, so we need to do everything we can to thwart them at every turn to make sure that they aren’t able to, for all time, secure a power base that for all time can never be defeated.(link)
The news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would, I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they are pro-America or anti-America.(link)
The real concerns is that there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums.(link) 
Absolutely, I'm very concerned that [Barack Obama] may have anti-American views.(link)
One thing people know about me is I’m a substantive, serious person.(link)
Yes, Bachmann is such a substantive, serious person that she has a solid record of accomplishment in her years as a Congresswoman. 


Michele Bachmann's Complete Legislative History (source: www.govtrack.us)

THINGS ATTEMPTED BY MICHELE

BACHMANN
THINGS ACCOMPLISHED BY MICHELE BACHMANN
Bills Sponsored58
Referred to Committee (aka: went nowhere)53
Reported by Committee (Got out of committee)1
H.R. 850 (112th): To facilitate a proposed project in the Lower St. Croix Wild and Scenic River, and for other purposes.
Agreed To (Simple Resolution)3
H.Res. 373 (111th): Expressing support for designation of the month of September as “National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month" 
H.Res. 923 (110th): Recognizing the State of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary. 
H.Res. 789 (110th): Honoring public child welfare agencies, nonprofit organizations and private entities providing services for foster children.
Passed House1
H.R. 45: To repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010
Signed Into Law0




I guess we should be grateful that Bachmann was not a more effective legislator.


There is plenty of speculation as to why she is leaving just now. She's under investigation for ethical violations. The latest polls from Minnesota show her a couple of points behind her likely challenger in next year's elections. There have been reports that she has been investigating a move to Iowa and that she may resurface there and run again in the future. That's if she survives the ethics investigations, I guess. Or maybe she'll join her good buddy Allen West on Fox News, the retirement community for failed tea partiers. 



(Hat tip to Daily Kos for collecting the Bachmannisms and to Jason Linkins of Huffington Post for the chart of her accomplishments.)

Wordless Wednesday: Summertime = Sunflowers and Butterflies








Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee, photography by Saxon Holt: A review



(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature.)



As the earth heats up and droughts become more prevalent across the country, American gardeners are learning, in many cases to their chagrin, that the broad expanses of green lawn that have long been a staple of the American landscape may no longer be sustainable. These lawns are water-guzzlers and, as water becomes more dear, it is more and more obvious that the traditional lawn has to go.


Moreover, that traditional lawn as it has evolved over a century and a half has become a time-consuming, synthetic chemical-sucking monster. It is not good for the environment and it is not good for the humans who must spend an inordinate amount of time grooming it. Although it may appear an inviting place for kids and pets to play, its dependence on chemicals which remain in the ecosystem can make it a dangerous place for even those activities.

John Greenlee, a nurseryman and garden designer with decades of experience behind him, thinks that he has a better idea. He has written this very helpful and beautiful book in support of that idea. He believes that the time for transition to meadow gardens, which rely heavily on native grasses and wildflowers, has come. 

The native grasses and wildflowers are already adapted to their areas. They require minimal (if any) supplemental water and almost no care once installed and established. They are the perfect garden for the times and for the lazy gardener. Like me. 

People sometimes think of a meadow garden as a wild and rather messy place and they may think they don't want that in their front yard. But Greenlee shows that such a garden is not a random assortment of messy and anonymous grasses. Instead, it is a complete mini ecosystem which has as its basis a variety of regionally appropriate native grasses. Mixed in with those grasses are many perennial and annual wildflowers and altogether, these plants form a colorful tapestry that is a background for wildlife.

Meadow gardens are the perfect landscape for a habitat gardener, like myself, who gardens in support of local wildlife, because such a garden is friendly to all kinds of life, including humans. Birds, butterflies, and bees will quickly find a meadow garden and make themselves at home there. Small reptiles, amphibians, and even mammals will make it their home as well.

Greenlee offers his readers specific advice about the preparation of the site for the meadow garden, as well as plant selection and maintenance. Again, maintenance, once the garden is well-established is really minimal. He gives lists of various ornamental grasses and information about how they perform in different climates and areas.

Greenlee's passion for meadow gardens is contagious and he is very persuasive. But if the reader is unconvinced by Greenlee's words, she may find her resistance melting in the face of Saxon Holt's beautiful photographs. Looking at these pictures, it is very hard to see why anyone wouldn't want her front yard - or, indeed, her backyard - to look like that.

Meadow gardens are one of the hot trends in gardening today. They are definitely making inroads into those broad, green, ecologically dead zones that Americans have favored for so many years. One hopes that Greenlee's lovely book might help to push that trend along.

(I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day




Memorial Day. It's not just a day off from work. It is a day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. Let us honor that service and that sacrifice today and every day.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Weavers

The Weavers

BY LINDA GREGERSON
As sometimes, in the gentler months, the sun
will return
                          before the rain has altogether
                                                      stopped and through

this lightest of curtains the curve of it shines
with a thousand
                            inclinations and so close
                                                        is the one to the

one adjacent that you cannot tell where magenta
for instance begins
                           and where the all-but-magenta
                                                      has ended and yet

you’d never mistake the blues for red, so these two,
the girl and the
                          goddess, with their earth-bred, grass-
                                                      fed, kettle-dyed

wools, devised on their looms
transitions so subtle no
                           hand could trace nor eye discern
                                                       their increments,

yet the stories they told were perfectly clear.
The gods in their heaven,
                           the one proposed. The gods in
                                                       heat, said the other.

And ludicrous too, with their pinions and swansdown,
fins and hooves,
                           their shepherds’ crooks and pizzles.
                                                       Till mingling

with their darlings-for-a-day they made
a progeny so motley it
                           defied all sorting-out.
                                                      It wasn’t the boasting

brought Arachne all her sorrow
nor even
                           the knowing her craft so well.
                                                      Once true

and twice attested.
It was simply the logic she’d already
                            taught us how
                                                       to read.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Caturday

It's been a while since we checked in with Maru, the famous Japanese cat who is an Internet sensation, so let's see what he's up to.

Maru has a new toy. It is a pink cardboard car. To Maru, it probably just looks like another cardboard box and we know how he feels about boxes. Boxes are meant to be gotten inside of one way or another, no matter how long it takes!



Cats and boxes - some things never change.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Forever Young

Seventy-two years ago today Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota. Yes, the musical icon of  my generation, Bob Dylan, is 72 years old today.

Back in the '60s when we both were young, 72 seemed far, far away and ancient. Today, it gets closer every year and seems quite young actually. Maybe 70 is the new 50.

Anyway, over the years, Bob has said it all in song. His songs are the background music of my life. And one of his songs that I have always loved seems particularly appropriate today. He wrote it for his children but it has meaning for all of us.

Here he is in a performance of "Forever Young," backed up by his friend Bruce Springsteen.



Thanks for all the music, Bob, and happy birthday. May your song always be sung.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The World's Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still: A review

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

The most striking thing about this fascinating book is the wonderful photographs of birds. Many of the photographs were obtained through the method of organizing and running an international photo competition. More than 300 photographers from around the world submitted over 3,500 photographs. The winning images along with 800 others appear in the book. Yes, this is a very photo-rich volume! 

There are some 650 birds that are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered by conservation groups which monitor the status of birds in the wild. There are a number of those species that have never been photographed. They may, in fact, be extinct, but at the very least they have rarely been seen and no usable photographs exist. This category includes some 76 species and these were illustrated for the book by Polish artist Tomasz Cofta. But for the rest of the birds included here, photographs were obtained.

The book begins with several introductory pages which explain the diversity and distribution of birds around the world. For example, we learn that the birdiest places on Earth are the northern half of South America and the islands of Indonesia. 

Further, it explains how bird species are assigned to certain threat categories and goes on to explore the many threats which these rare birds - and, indeed, all birds - face. Most of these threats are related to human activities and include things like residential and commercial development, agricultural practices, logging, energy production and mining, dams, etc.

There are threats to birds which know no borders. Birds on migration face habitat degradation, hunting, trapping, as well as the growing menace of powerlines and wind turbines. The need for aggressive conservation practices is paramount. 

Following the very informative introductory sections, the book is divided into seven regional sections--Europe and the Middle East; Africa and Madagascar; Asia; Australasia; Oceanic Islands; North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; and South America. Each of the geographical sections includes an illustrated directory to the bird species under threat there, and gives a concise description of distribution, status, population, key threats, and conservation needs. 

Finally, there are some sixty species of birds that are considered "Data Deficient." This simply means that they are so poorly known that their threat status cannot be assessed. But there is summary information included which details their presumed population trend, the population size (if known), the apparent distribution, and, when possible, notes on status, habitat preferences, and ecology. 

There is an enormous wealth of information here which would be of interest to bird lovers everywhere and to everyone who is concerned with protecting and preserving these wonderful creatures whose very existence is so seriously threatened by our activities. It is a concise and easily accessible compendium of what is known about these birds and, most importantly, about ways that interested individuals and groups can work to assist their survival.

(A copy of this book was provided to me free-of-charge by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Golden Rule and hard hearts

When the Congress was debating the bill to provide relief to victims of the Super Storm Sandy that hit the East Coast last year, Rep. Tom Cole from Moore, Oklahoma remarked that his state was only one tornado away from needing such federal relief itself. He voted for the bill with no strings attached.

Cole's words were prophetic and, unfortunately for Oklahomans, his prophecy came true in a big way yesterday with the massive tornado that hit his home town. Now, Oklahoma will need major help from the rest of the country to recover and rebuild. But that's what we are here for. After all, we here in Southeast Texas are only one major hurricane away from needing help ourselves.

Christians - true Christians - know it as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's not a bad rule to live by, whether you are a Christian or not.

In the debate on Sandy relief in the Senate, neither of Oklahoma's senators followed that rule. In fact, quite the opposite. They railed against such federal aid. Sen. James Inhofe called it a "slush fund." Sen. Tom Coburn insisted that any relief that was provided had to be paid for by taking something away from somewhere else in the budget.  They both voted against giving the aid to their suffering fellow Americans.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. President Obama (who is also president of Oklahoma even if it didn't vote for him) has already declared Oklahoma a disaster area, making it eligible for federal assistance and has assured Oklahomans that they will have all the resources they need at their disposal. What has been the response of Oklahoma's two hard-hearted senators?

Well, I suppose we have to give Coburn the prize for consistency. He is insisting that any help given to Oklahoma has to be taken away from somebody else. Close down those Head Start Centers. Cut the number of Meals on Wheels recipients. Take some of the funds that haven't yet been spent on Sandy relief and give it to Oklahoma. Coburn is very proud of his consistency. One might say his consistent cruelty.

Inhofe, on the other hand, is a full-blown hypocrite which doesn't surprise me at all. He now claims that victims of disaster in his state are very different from victims of disaster in the East. Sandy aid, he says, "was totally different. They were getting things - for instance that was supposed to be in New Jersey, they had things in the Virgin Islands, they were fixing roads there, they were putting roofs on houses in Washington D.C., everyone was getting in and exploiting the tragedy taking place. That won't happen in Oklahoma."  Because, I guess, Oklahoma is just so much more virtuous and deserving.

What he fails to mention, of course, is that Sandy did not only damage New Jersey. It also damaged the Virgin Islands and Washington and places all along the coast. They all needed help to recover. Most Americans did not begrudge them that help any more than we now begrudge Oklahoma help.

The federal deficit has shrunk dramatically since Obama has been president and it continues to shrink faster than at any time since just after World War II, but Republicans like Coburn and Inhofe refuse to acknowledge that and continue to insist on pinching pennies - at least as long as it hurts someone else besides themselves and their friends. God forbid one of their flights should be delayed!

No, Senators, we can afford to be generous to our suffering neighbors. The money's there. In fact, we can't afford not to be generous, because there but for one giant storm are we.

And besides, it is what Jesus would demand of us. You remember Jesus, don't you? That Golden Rule guy?

Monday, May 20, 2013

This must drive Darrell Issa crazy!

The trifecta of so-called scandals currently being hyped by the inside the beltway press corps in Washington seem to have had the perverse effect of elevating President Obama's popularity with the great mass of Americans who live outside the beltway, outside the bubble. The results of the first polls since the stories broke show that his approval ratings have actually increased. His approval now stands at 53 percent.

I'm sure this has left Republicans scratching their heads, trying to understand why the American people are not responding to their faux outrage over Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP. The public, at first glance, seem to have sussed out just what that "outrage" is: A political attempt to damage and weaken a popular president.

We've all been down this road before, not so many years ago. We remember the Clinton era and Gingrich et al's attempt at impeachment. Now Republicans are tossing around the word impeachment once again. It seems almost certain that they will attempt it with this president as well. Because that's what their crazy base wants and expects. They are not into governing the country. They are into mischief-making and gumming up the works of government as much as possible.

When they do get around to attempting impeachment, they will find eager partners in the slavering Washington press corps who like nothing better than a ginned up phony controversy. With such stories to obsess about, they don't actually have to get out and work to dig out the real news that affects people's lives.

In the Republicans' continuing campaign to bring down the Obama presidency, there is no more eager soldier than Darrell Issa, the California representative who has dedicated himself to destroying President Obama and has enlisted the committee he heads as his instrument. And what has been the net result of all of his "investigations"? Well, as noted, Obama's popularity has increased while the disapproval ratings of Republicans are at their highest level since CNN started polling the question in 1992. This must drive Darrell Issa crazy!

You would think that it might also cause the Republicans to stop and reconsider their policy of obstruction. They might gain more sympathy and support from Americans if they actually showed some attempts to assist in solving the nation's real problems - of which there are many - rather than simply being the party of "no." But, frankly, these guys seem incapable of such reflection and so I suspect their tantrums will continue and so will their attempts to bring down the president and the country be damned.

When they get around to impeaching Obama, I imagine his approval ratings will skyrocket - 90 percent seems imminently possible.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Ozymandias


    The Kate Atkinson book that I read this week referred to Shelley's iconic poem Ozymandias. It served as a plot device related to one of her main characters and I was reminded that I had not read the poem in quite a while. So, I looked it up and read it and decided to feature it for this Poetry Sunday.

Ozymandias
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

    Shelley was supposedly inspired to write this poem by stories of archaeological finds in Egypt as a result of the Napoleonic expeditions there. In particular, there was a story of a giant broken statue found in the sands that had an inscription similar to the one he describes. Supposedly, it was a statue of Ramses II.

    Egypt's greatest pharoah died as all men do and in time his kingdom and all that he had accomplished fell into chaos. Still, many of his works did survive and we can look at them today and marvel. But he is a lesson for us. Our great works which we think will outlive us and maybe last forever seldom do. It is hubris to believe they will. The message of Shelley's poem is clear: Time is the destroyer of pride. Or, as someone famously said, in the long run, we are all dead.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson: A review

Kate Atkinson's mysteries read like literary fiction. Very, very good literary fiction. She manipulates her multiple story lines to construct a tight and intricately woven tale that is fast-paced and keeps the reader turning those pages. She writes with wit and humor, but also manages to convey the melancholy, loneliness, and regret of her characters without ever being maudlin. In other words, she is able to present a full portrait of their humanity. 

Moreover, in One Good Turn, she delivers a delicious and particularly satisfying twist at the end. I loved it!

In this book, we again meet Jackson Brodie, the ex-army, ex-police, and now ex-private detective. At the end of Case Histories, Jackson had inherited two million pounds from a grateful client and had sold his private detective agency and gone to live in France. 

He had started an affair with one of his former clients from that first book, Julia the actress. Now, Julia has taken a part in a production to be presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Brodie travels with her to the city.

On a street in Edinburgh one day, Jackson witnesses an incident of road rage. A car has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian and the vehicle behind rear-ends the car. The driver of the rear vehicle, a mountain of a man, jumps out of his SUV with a baseball bat and attacks the driver of the car. The man goes down and his attacker turns his ire to the victim's car and beats it to a pulp. Then he returns to the victim to deliver the coup de grace as horrified bystanders, including Jackson Brodie, watch. 

Before he can complete the action, one of the bystanders tosses his briefcase with a laptop in it at the attacker. Miraculously, it hits him and knocks him down. When he picks himself up, he gets in his vehicle and leaves. 

The owner of the briefcase goes to the aid of the injured man as the police arrive. Brodie, who had been preparing to intervene, is off the hook and goes on his way. But he had automatically noted the license plate number of the attacker's vehicle. Thereby hangs a tale.

One of the bystanders was a woman named Gloria Hatter, the wife of a local entrepreneur named Graham. Graham is a builder who puts up particularly shoddy housing all over town, while bribing inspectors to look the other way. He also has other business interests that will come to light in the course of the book. He is just about half a step ahead of the Fraud Squad. Graham is a very rich and a very cruel man. Gloria is a desperately unhappy woman with a plan. 

Another of the bystanders, the man who threw the briefcase, is Martin Canning, a writer of schlocky mysteries. Martin has a major role to play in this story.

All of the disparate threads of this tale seem totally unconnected at first. In addition to the ones I've mentioned, we have Russian prostitutes, teenage delinquents, a female inspector with the Lothian and Borders Police, a stand-up comedian, and others too numerous to mention. But Atkinson weaves her magic and in the end all of those disparate threads come together in a pattern that has the execrable Graham Hatter squarely at its center, and we finally see that everything really does connect. 

This is absolutely a masterful job of plotting and of handling a large cast of characters while making each of them distinct and memorable. Atkinson is a formidable writer, whether you label her work mysteries or literary fiction. She defies categorization. And that is a good thing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Need a laugh? Here are a few.

It's been a frustrating, irritating and generally maddening week as we have been treated to the obsessing of the Washington press corps over so-called "scandals" that proved to actually be not all that scandalous in my view. But these "journalists" like Jonathan Karl of ABC News are so used to accepting without question the Republican outrage of the day and parroting it that they are the real scandal. Meantime, they can't be bothered to investigate and cover the outrageous story of the pervasive culture of ignoring sexual assault in the military and the true scandal of how the House of Representatives wasted the country's time and money by holding the 37th - 37th!!! - vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act this week.

Well, let's forget all of that for a few moments.

The best sitcom on television, The Big Bang Theory, wrapped up its sixth season this week and as Ken Tucker of The Daily Beast wrote today, it just keeps getting better.

So, as an antidote to all the tomfoolery in Washington this week, let's spend some time with those sweet nerds Sheldon and Leonard and their posse.






Now, don't you feel better? You're welcome!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Girls hate Game of Thrones? Really???

Apparently, girls are not supposed to like Game of Thrones, but don't tell my daughters - or me. I love Game of Thrones. Loved the books. Wish George R.R. Martin would get on with pushing that sixth one out. Love the HBO series. Plan my Sunday nights around it, in fact.

It's the series that it is being assumed by some writers that girls don't like. There's all that gross stuff - incest, torture, dirt, guys getting hands or nipples or balls cut off. All those naked women - although they've tried to balance it with a few naked men this season. At least their butts. Unlike with the women, we don't get full frontal nudity. Plus, it's a complicated story that diverges in about seven different directions - just too much for our simple little girly brains, I guess.

But the fact is that I and many other women and girls agree with Alyssa Rosenberg of Slate.com that it is "one of the most outrageously enjoyable shows on television right now." And a big part of the reason for that, as Rosenberg goes on to point out, is because of the female characters in the show. From young Arya Stark to Lady Olenna Redwynne, from Ygritte the wildling to Danaerys Targaryen the Khaleesi and (maybe) future queen, from the lady and knight Brienne to the perfidious queen regent Cersei, these are strong women, women that a viewer can develop strong feelings about.

Those who think that fantasy does not appeal to females are just dead wrong. As a female who grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien, I'm a prime example of that and there are, no doubt, millions like me around the world. I will admit that I am picky about my fantasies, but then I like to think I'm picky about everything that I read or watch. I only have so many brain cells available and I don't want to fill them up with schlock.

George R.R. Martin does not write schlock. Game of Thrones is a rich tapestry of a medieval society in upheaval, conflict, and change. Westeros has been compared to Europe in the Middle Ages and it is a fairly apt comparison. The political machinations and maneuvering, the emphasis on being faithful to and promoting your family, roiling religious discontent, it's all there and not so different from what you would read in history books of the period. A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman comes to mind.

Moreover, when translated to the TV screen, it is really a great soap opera. Women are stereotypically supposed to like soap operas, aren't they? So, why wouldn't they like Game of Thrones?

Although I have to say that if the writers of the series include one more unnecessary scene of Theon Greyjoy being mercilessly tortured, I may just have to leave the room for the duration. Give it a rest, guys. We get it already. Move on.

There are only three episodes left in this season. The series producers divided the big third book, Storm of Swords, in two and presumably will finish it up next season. I'm on pins and needles about where they will end this season. There is so much action they haven't covered yet, it is hard to see how they can get very much farther along in only three more episodes. But there are a few little details which I hope they wrap up this season and one of them is that sadistic twerp Joffrey!

Well, in three more weeks we'll know for sure. Then we girls who love Game of Thrones can begin the wait for the next season.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

4,099 and counting

Since the massacre of school children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut shocked the consciences of Americans on December 14, 2012, at least 4,099 more people have been killed in gun violence in the United States. Many of them have also been children and often it is a case of children killing children. Like the five-year-old boy in Kentucky who recently shot and killed his two-year-old sister with a rifle that his parents had given him as a gift.

Think about that for a moment. A five-year-old with a working firearm. That had been given to him by his parents! What kind of parents allow a five-year-old to have a gun? Now, they and he have to live with their decision for the rest of their lives. But there'll be no legal consequences for them, because that is just an accepted way of life in their society. As far as the community is concerned, there are no lessons to be learned here. Just bury the girl and forget her.

There have been many other incidents of children killing children just since the Kentucky tragedy a few weeks ago, right up until today when the headlines are about a four-year-old shooting and killing an eleven-year-old relative in Florida. Now get this: The grandmother told police that a two-year-old and the four-year-old were playing with the gun and the relative who was shot tried to get it away from them! There were six children in the room along, apparently, with the grandmother. And she was allowing them to play with a loaded gun!

It's easy to see then why pediatricians, who are devoted to caring for the health of these children, are concerned and are pushing for gun reform. As Maggie Fox of NBC News has written:

To pediatricians, gun control is a public health issue, not a political one. But they're treading a fine line, and they know it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has begun a renewed push to try to get Congress to pass gun control measures, sending more than 100 pediatricians to Capitol Hill earlier this month. But others who have taken on the issue over the past decade have a warning for them: they can run afoul of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups that are quick to paint anyone who advocates for gun control as a political extremist.
What the doctors want is an assault weapon ban, mandatory background checks and waiting periods before all firearm purchases, a ban on high-capacity magazines, handgun regulations and requirements for safe firearm storage under federal law.
Gun violence is most certainly a public health issue in this country. Gun-injury and death rates are almost twenty times higher in the U.S. than in other high-income nations with populations of more than one million. And research has shown that people are 2.7 times more likely to be murdered if they have firearms in their homes. There are bereaved families in Kentucky and Florida who can attest to that.

So, along with America's pediatricians, we must continue to raise our voices to try to effect change in the laws of this country that will provide more protection for our children and, indeed, for all of us. Unfortunately, I live in Texas where every elected "representative" of mine in Washington actually represents the NRA. It is utterly hopeless for me to try to affect their thinking on this issue, but I do what I can, and I look to elected officials from other states to represent my views.

Meanwhile, a few miles from my home, in Houston, the NRA recently held its convention. Each day during the convention, the local Houston Chronicle had a big picture on its front page of some cute kid at the convention - usually five to seven years old - holding and pointing a gun. Future NRA members.

And some parents will continue to give guns to four-year-olds. You can't cure stupid.



Monday, May 13, 2013

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: A review


The monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups is hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec. It is home to two dozen cloistered monks who live lives of contemplation and prayer, locked away from the world. They tend their gardens and their chickens and make chocolate-covered blueberries for sale or exchange with other monasteries and they sing.

They sing plainchant, Gregorian chants. This music over the centuries has become known as the "beautiful mystery" because of its profound and almost magical effect on both singer and listener.

Even though the community of Saint Gilbert have taken a vow of silence, they raise their voices in these chants and a recording of them singing has been sent out into the world where it became a sensation. People love the music. Unfortunately, within the community the recording causes sensation also. And dissension.

The community divides along the lines of those who want to make more recordings to raise money to support the repairs that need to be made to the abbey and the traditionalists who want nothing further to do with the outside world, who want to keep their music just for themselves as their offering to their God. And now this dissension has ended in murder.

Their renowned choir director, an expert on Gregorian chants, has been murdered, his head bashed in, and the gates of Saint Gregory have had to be opened at last as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec arrive to investigate and capture the murderer. There are twenty-three suspects, the other monks at the abbey. 

The relationship between Gamache and Jean-Guy has changed subtly since the last book in the series,  A Trick of the Light, which I read just last week. Jean-Guy is separated from his wife and Gamache's daughter Annie is separated from her husband. The two have acknowledged their feelings for one another and are engaged in an affair which they believe they have kept secret from everyone including Annie's parents. Jean-Guy is off the pills that had him in an addictive grip in the last book and he is finally happy. Consequently, his relationship with his chief seems much more relaxed.

Both Gamache and Jean-Guy continue to heal from their wounds suffered in a shootout a couple of books back, but Gamache has worked hard at healing and is much further along than Beauvoir. Jean-Guy's recovery is still tentative and when the hated Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté shows up at the monastery to "help" with the investigation, Gamache soon comes to suspect that his ulterior purposes may include messing with Beauvoir's mind. Little does he suspect just how right he is or that before he can solve the ugly mystery of the monk's murder, he will have to again face the demons of that awful experience at the warehouse.

This time the only members of the Sûreté homicide team involved in the investigation are Gamache and Beauvoir. Louise Penny seems to want to concentrate on their relationship and develop it further. The truth is that the two love each other as father and son, even though Beauvoir thinks he has hidden his relationship with his mentor's daughter. But those feelings leave him open to be manipulated by an evil man who is willing to take advantage of them. Chief Superintendent Francoeur is just such an evil man, a murderer of souls. 

And so Gamache must not only find a murderer of monks, he must find a way to save the young man whom he and his family love.

As usual, Penny carries us along in the flow of her story, dropping clues along the way, and, as usual, she makes us care very much about her characters. I'm already looking forward to the next book to see what will happen in this continuing story.