Sunday, June 30, 2013

Poetry Sunday: I started Early - Took my Dog

A few days ago, I posted my review here of Kate Atkinson's book Started Early, Took My Dog. That enigmatic title was taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson about a walk on the beach. Of course, when I realized that, I had to look the poem up and read it.

Like all of Dickinson's poems, it is very evocative and succinctly expresses, in her own inimitable way, her view and understanding of the world around her. I liked the poem a lot, so I decided to feature it today.

And here it is - complete with Dickinson's own original spellings, capitalizations, and punctuations.

I started Early - Took my Dog
by Emily Dickinson

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
  

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Caturday: Meow Men

Are you a Mad Men fan? I admit I am obsessed with the show.

I didn't watch it when it first started six years ago because it conflicted with something else I was watching, and I only got into it recently. Courtesy of Netflix, we've been doing some binge watching on our Sunday video afternoons. We are now up to season four.

Of course, season six just ended and I know a lot of fans out there are still suffering withdrawal, so here's a little something to keep them entertained until season seven rolls around - a cat pastiche of the intro with iconic theme music of the series.



Tabby as Don Draper. Really, is there anything cats can't do?

Friday, June 28, 2013

That was the week that was

What a week! So much news made and, for once, not all of it was bad.

*~*~*~*

I can't let the week pass without adding my voice in praise of Sen. Wendy Davis of Texas, as well as Texas Democrats and all the Texas women (and men) who showed up in Austin this week to support efforts to kill the Republicans' attempt to further strip women's rights. It was a magnificent effort and is not at all diminished by the fact that Rick Perry immediately called a second special session of the state legislature to consider nothing but the draconian abortion bills. The legislature will have thirty days to pass the bills and it is likely the Democrats will not be able to stop them this time, although they will try. Republicans are determined to do the tea party's bidding on this, in spite of the fact that these restrictions on abortion are blatantly unconstitutional by any reading of Roe v. Wade and all the challenges to it and subsequent court decisions over the years. And who knows? With the personnel that are currently on the Supreme Court, it is entirely possible that they will overturn Roe v. Wade and make all of this legal.

*~*~*~*

In an ironic confluence of the week's news, the Supreme Court's egregious decision on the Voting Rights Act relates directly to the story of Wendy Davis and Texas Democrats, because now the Republicans are free to implement their voter suppression laws that the Justice Department had refused to allow to go forward and they gleefully began to do so the day after the court's decision. They are free to gerrymander to their heart's content and they will do their best to ensure that Wendy Davis and other pesky Democrats cannot be reelected. Moreover, the Voter ID law which was clearly (to anybody not named John Roberts) designed to restrict the ability of black and brown people in Texas to vote and to ensure the continuation of redneck white rule in the state, regardless of what the population looks like, now goes into effect.

These are people who do not care about democracy. They are only concerned with holding onto their power, the state and its people's welfare be damned!

It's a popular thing in some circles of Texas Republicanism to say that we need another revolution. They may be on to something. Yes, we need to revolt and throw these Stone Age bastards out!

*~*~*~*

While it doesn't qualify as earth-shaking news, I went to the movies yesterday. We searched around for something that we might enjoy seeing and found the pickings slim. We finally settled on Star Trek Into Darkness

As one of the original fans of the original television series back in the Dark Ages when it began, my first reaction to the new movie was, "Boy, was that loud!"

My second reaction was that special effects have come a long, long way since that original series, and that's not necessarily a good thing. This movie was essentially all special effects. Not five minutes went by without something exploding or someone doing something humanly impossible, even in the twenty-third or twenty-fourth century.

Of the acting, probably the less said the better. Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Khan, was suitably malevolent and invincible. I liked Karl Urban as Bones, but then I like Karl Urban as most characters he plays. Simon Pegg as Scotty was pretty entertaining. As for the rest of those guys - well, Chris Pine as Kirk chewed up the scenery in a way that even William Shatner never would have dared. He out-Shatnered Shatner. Zachary Quinto as Spock is no Leonard Nimoy, but then, who is?

The movie was two hours and five minutes long. It seemed about five hours. Its main effect on me was to make me want to go back and watch Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan again.

*~*~*~*    

President Obama made a major speech about climate change this week and, given the abundance of other stories in the news, it was almost completely ignored by the news media. Actually, that may be a good thing. At least it may keep the science deniers from having a platform on which to spout their nonsense.

President Obama has wisely chosen to take steps that he can do without our dysfunctional Congress's approval or participation, and that offers hope for those of us who have been gnashing our teeth over the inaction on this issue for years that something may actually get done this time, something that will finally begin to inhibit the spewing of greenhouse gases into our fragile atmosphere.

When future historians look back on 2013, this might actually turn out to be the most consequential story of the year.

*~*~*~*

We learned this week that the IRS "scandal" was manufactured, which, frankly didn't surprise me in the least. The inspector general only reported on the targeting of conservative organizations because that is all Darrell Issa and the Republican leadership asked him to do and he was bound by those parameters. In fact, the IRS had targeted probably more liberal and progressive organizations for extra scrutiny. They did this, essentially, because they were trying to enforce a difficult law, which is made difficult by the fact that the agency has apparently misinterpreted it over the years.

Will Issa and his hooligans drop their "investigation" of the IRS now that their scheme has been exposed? Who knows? But they always have Benghazi, another manufactured "scandal" to fall back on.

*~*~*~*

Nelson Mandela. Invictus.

*~*~*~*

June 27 was our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. It's been a short thirty-eight years.

On Wednesday night, as a kind of pre-anniversary gift, our sweet son-in-law treated the whole family to tickets to the Astros game. It was the first game I had attended this year and one of the few of their games that I've been able to see. Due to a massive cock-up by the team's business management, the games are not on most people's televisions this year, including mine. This is a major irritant to me, since, in most years, I watch every game on TV, unless I happen to be at the ball park.

Anyway, back to Wednesday's game. It was a gross mismatch on paper.

The Astros played their old foes from the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals entered the game with the best record in the National League and having squashed the Astros like an annoying bug, 13-5, the night before. The Astros had the worst record in the American League. So, yes, a mismatch on paper.

But they don't play the games on paper!

THE ASTROS WON!!! 

It didn't look promising at first. After two pitches the Astros were down 2-0. But the pitcher maintained his composure and got the side out without further damage.

Meantime, Astros hitters were having no luck. Through three innings, they had no hits. But then came the fourth. Jose Altuve (You gotta love that little guy!) broke up the no-hitter with a single, and before the inning was over, it was the St. Louis pitcher who had lost his composure and the underdog Astros were up 4-2.

The Cards scored one more run but the Astros held on and won it, 4-3.

It was a great evening for this Astros fan. Maybe I brought them luck. Maybe I should attend more games!    

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson: A review

One of the great pleasures - one of many - for me in reading Kate Atkinson is all the cultural and literary references in her books. It's sort of an "inside baseball" thing, I guess. The cognoscente feel especially smart and privileged to understand the references.

Many of her references relate to television series that any fan of PBS/BBC mysteries will recognize. For example, I think every one of her books that I have read so far has had someone in them watching Midsomer Murders! As a prodigious fan of that series and owner of an (almost) complete collection of DVDs of it, I know just who she's talking about when she refers to those people.

Another television investigative team she mentions in this book is that of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis, another of my all-time favorites. There are also literary references to everyone from Shakespeare to Faulkner to, in this case, Emily Dickinson. It's from one of Dickinson's poems that the rather weird title of this book is derived.

But enough about cultural references. What about the story itself?

The story is typical Atkinson. It has its roots in an event that happened in the 1970s. A prostitute is murdered and her child(ren?) disappear(s). One of those who finds the body is WPC Tracy Waterhouse. She picks up the child in the apartment where the murder took place, a little boy of four, and cuddles him to comfort him. Then a social worker comes and takes him away and shortly after he is made to disappear, apparently sent to an orphanage under a new name. More than thirty years later, Tracy Waterhouse continues to be haunted by this.

By now, Waterhouse has retired from the police force and is working as head of security at a place called Merrion Centre in Leeds. One day she witnesses a woman being abusive to a small girl, presumably her daughter, in the Centre. Tracy follows the woman, whom she knows is a prostitute from her years with the police, and impulsively offers to buy the small child from her! Tracy Waterhouse's lonely, humdrum life will never be the same.

Also witnessing the abusive event is an elderly woman named Tilly, an actress on a soap opera. Tilly wants to interfere to protect the child but is stopped by her physical frailty and incipient dementia.

In another part of Merrion Centre that day, Jackson Brodie witnesses a hulk of a man with a little dog, a Border terrier. The man has a rope tied too tightly around the little dog's neck and is dragging him along. Jackson follows the man and when he gets to a somewhat more private area, he hails the man, says "On guard!" and punches him hard in the stomach. The man goes down and Jackson takes the dog and walks away.

How the stories of all three of these characters intertwine and how they are all a part of the continuing story that began with the murder of a prostitute back in 1975 is the complicated tale that Atkinson enthralls us with in Started Early, Took My Dog. We learn again, as Faulkner told us, that the past is never history; it is not even past. 

Moreover, this book, as all those of Atkinson's that I've read, is full of her sly humor - some of it chuckle-worthy, some of it laugh-out-loud funny. But overall and binding it all together is a sense of morality and intelligence. Jackson Brodie may be a flawed character, as is Tracy Waterhouse and certainly poor Tilly, but all are ethical beings who are driven (and perhaps doomed) by their impulse to protect the weak. Perhaps it is significant that both Tracy and Jackson are former police officers and that Tilly still mourns the death of her black child that she failed to protect.

This was the fourth in the Jackson Brodie saga. Kate Atkinson has now gone on to write other things and it is not clear if she will come back to Brodie. I sincerely hope she does. There is, I think, a lot more development possible here and I'm just not finished reading about him. I would hate to think that my last glimpse of him would be looking at his ringing cell phone and thinking of Emily Dickinson's Hope is the Thing With Feathers.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Supreme Court's split personality

So, yesterday the Supreme Court overturned on a vote of 5-4 the heart of the Voting Rights Act, in spite of the fact that the Act had been reauthorized by an overwhelming vote of Congress - the Senate passed it unanimously and the House passed it 390 to 33 - in 2006, and subsequently signed by President Bush who professed to be extremely happy to do so. 

This near-unanimous support in the Legislative and Executive branches of government was completely overlooked and held to be worthless by the Supreme Court in its decision. The majority - the usual suspects: Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and, in this case, Kennedy - essentially found that racism no longer is a barrier to voting in the United States. 


And I look around the state of Texas and most of the states of the old Confederacy, as well as Arizona, and I have to wonder: Exactly what country are these guys looking at?  


So, today, the Supreme Court strikes down on a 5-4 vote - this time Kennedy joined the other side - the Defense of Marriage Act, joining in the tide of history that is rolling in most civilized countries of the world. 


Scalia in his furious dissent - and no one can be more furious than Scalia - wrote the following eye-popping statement:  

"We have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation"
 ---
"It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere “primary” in its role." 
He went on to write that the decision represents an "exalted notion of the role of this court in American democratic society." You see, since DOMA was passed by Congress democratically, the Supreme Court should not touch it!
Let's examine this: When it comes to the Voting Rights Act, renewed by the democratically elected Congress and President in 2006, the Supreme Court has every right to invalidate it, say Scalia and his cohorts. But when it comes to DOMA, passed by a much smaller majority in 1996, the Court has "no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation."
Do we see an inconsistency here?
It seems that, as a blogger on Daily Kos opined today, the only consistency of Scalia and his ilk is in the service of bigotry. Split personality indeed. They don't serve the law. They twist their interpretation of law to serve their personal prejudices. In doing so, they bring shame to the institution in which they serve.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, Second Edition by David More and John White: A review

First and foremost, this is a beautiful book. It features over 5,000 meticulous illustrations, by master botanical artist David More, of the nearly 2,000 species of trees found in the forests, landscapes, and gardens of North America and Europe. 

In addition to the precise paintings which illustrate the important details of trees - things like leaves, needles, bark, blossoms, fruits, nuts, and cones - More's paintings are accompanied by informative text from John White, a former research dendrologist at the UK's Forestry Commission. This is the book's second edition, the first published in 2002 and this one just out in June of this year. 

It is a big book, weighing in at over five pounds, but then it has to be big in order to give full justice to all those different trees. The trees are divided, quite logically, as you would expect from an encyclopedia, into families. Forty-seven distinct families of trees are represented here, from the largest ones like Cypress, Pine, Rose, and Pea to smaller ones like Dogwood, Tupelo, and Foxglove. 

By the way, did you know that oaks are in the Beech (Fagaceae) family? Silly me, I would have thought they were a family on their own, the Oak family, but, no, they are cousins in the Beech family with beeches and sweet chestnut.

This is a book full of very useful information for a wide variety of readers. For example, landscape professionals and gardeners will find that not only are native species included, but also the many cultivars that are popular in garden landscapes. Lovers of the outdoors should find the illustrations, which show both full leaf and barer winter appearance, a great help in identifying and fully appreciating the trees that they encounter on their excursions. Even the more serious naturalists and foresters should be delighted with the inclusion of key facts concerning each tree represented here, including information on their native ranges and their dates of introduction into cultivation.

For the common variety gardener like myself, one of the most useful parts of the book was the introduction. This informative section includes an extensive list of trees for problem sites or special needs. Some of the problem sites and special needs covered were: Clay Soils; Very Wet Ground; Seaside Conditions; Acid Soils; For Interesting Bark; Town Streets, etc. Of course, one has to remember that this is an encyclopedia that covers two continents and must be sure to seek out cultivars that are adapted for one's area, but this is a helpful guide that can point us in the right direction.

The introduction is also where you will find an explanation of the notes that are included at the end of the description of each tree. These notes refer to the tree's height, hardiness, value in the garden, and the kind of wood the tree produces.

In the back of the book are an index of scientific names and an index of common English names.

David More and John White have done a masterful job, the work of several years, in collecting and collating all the information presented here, along with the beautiful and precise illustrations. It is hard to imagine a more complete and useful resource for identifying trees and their cultivars found in North America and Europe.

(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.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sick of Snowden

 “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”                                                                                - Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963

I grew up in an era when people who broke unjust laws because of their principles and whistleblowers who risked their lives and freedom to bring the public's attention to wrongs that the government was committing were unquestioned heroes. I admired them unreservedly and wanted to do everything I could to support them.

There is one big difference between those people - people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Daniel Ellsberg - and the current crop of so-called whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Those principled people of the 1960s and 1970s acknowledged that they were breaking laws, claimed that the laws themselves were unjust, and chose to take any punishment which society meted out in order to call attention to injustice and to try to get the laws overturned. Snowden and Assange and people like them blow their whistles and run away and hide.

I find it extremely ironic to consider the places that Snowden has chosen to run to. First to China, now (apparently) to Russia and then (again apparently) on to either Cuba, Ecuador, or Venezuela. None of those countries is exactly known for its openness or championing of human rights. I wonder if he will try to "blow the whistle" on the injustices in his new chosen country, whichever it may be. If so, I wonder where he will run for sanctuary afterwards - or if he will be able to run afterwards.

Actually, I think the editorial page editor of The New York Times got it just about right in his blog post about Snowden today, the bottom line of which is that Snowden diminishes himself and his supposed cause by running away. If he had chosen to stand trial, I would have no hesitation in calling him a hero whether or not I agree with all that he has done - and, frankly, I have serious questions about that, especially now that he has given an interview saying that he went into the job specifically to gather evidence of NSA surveillance. In other words, to be a spy.

And what information has he now turned over to China or Russia? In order to obtain the job, he took an oath, which evidently he knew he was going to break when he took it.  I admit that I may be prejudiced since I, too, was a government employee for many years, and I took an oath which I considered binding. But, again, I could perhaps respect his decision if I didn't consider him such a coward, and, frankly, such a hypocrite for running from the United States to the decidedly undemocratic and totalitarian society of China, Russia, Cuba, etc., any one of which is happy to collaborate in embarrassing Snowden's native country.

So, no, I can't consider him alongside Martin Luther King or Daniel Ellsberg or any of the other heroes of my youth. Or even on the same level as someone like Bradley Manning who is currently standing trial for revealing classified information. Moreover, I am sick of seeing his face peering out at me every time I open a news site on the Internet. I'll be happy when he becomes yesterday's news and can settle down to his new life of freedom in Ecuador or Venezuela. No doubt he will be hailed as a hero there.

UPDATE: Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon.com has more on the hypocrisy of choosing Ecuador as sanctuary as Assange has done, and as Snowden also seems to be considering.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Wind and the Moon

"Radiant and lovely, the queen of the night."

Tonight is the night when the full Moon make its closest approach to Earth all year and it will appear at its biggest and brightest to us Earthlings. Some call it the "Supermoon," although, in fact, it is unlikely that we will be able to tell any difference with our naked eyes from a normal full Moon. But, like every full Moon, this one will be gorgeous, well worth going outside to look at.

In honor of this "Supermoon," here's a poem about the Moon that I read and loved as a child. I'm sure many other children did, too. It it one of the reasons that I've had a life-long love affair with the Moon. 

The Wind and the Moon

by George MacDonald

Said the Wind to the Moon, "I will blow you out;
You stare
In the air
Like a ghost in a chair,
Always looking what I am about —
I hate to be watched; I'll blow you out."

The Wind blew hard, and out went the Moon.
So, deep
On a heap
Of clouds to sleep,
Down lay the Wind, and slumbered soon,
Muttering low, "I've done for that Moon."

He turned in his bed; she was there again!
On high
In the sky,
With her one ghost eye,
The Moon shone white and alive and plain.
Said the Wind, "I will blow you out again."

The Wind blew hard, and the Moon grew dim.
"With my sledge,
And my wedge,
I have knocked off her edge!
If only I blow right fierce and grim,
The creature will soon be dimmer than dim."

He blew and he blew, and she thinned to a thread.
"One puff
More's enough
To blow her to snuff!
One good puff more where the last was bred,
And glimmer, glimmer, glum will go the thread."

He blew a great blast, and the thread was gone.
In the air
Nowhere
Was a moonbeam bare;
Far off and harmless the shy stars shone —
Sure and certain the Moon was gone!

The Wind he took to his revels once more;
On down,
In town,
Like a merry—mad clown,
He leaped and halloed with whistle and roar —
"What's that?" The glimmering thread once more!

He flew in a rage — he danced and blew;
But in vain
Was the pain
Of his bursting brain;
For still the broader the Moon—scrap grew,
The broader he swelled his big cheeks and blew.

Slowly she grew — till she filled the night,
And shone
On her throne
In the sky alone,
A matchless, wonderful silvery light,
Radiant and lovely, the queen of the night.

Said the Wind: "What a marvel of power am I!
With my breath,
Good faith!
I blew her to death —
First blew her away right out of the sky —
Then blew her in; what strength have I!

But the Moon she knew nothing about the affair;
For high
In the sky,
With her one white eye,
Motionless, miles above the air,
She had never heard the great Wind blare.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Caturday

What do you suppose Simon's Cat and his friend The Kitten are up to?



Just about as I expected. When cats are involved, there is always a nap in the picture.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Tony Soprano lives

The news that James Gandolfini had died in Rome of a heart attack earlier this week hit me, as I'm sure it did many Sopranos fans, like a punch to the gut. I felt as though a member of my own family had died.

For six years, beginning in 1999, Tony Soprano was a weekly visitor to our home each Sunday night during the seasons of The Sopranos. He was a brutal mob boss, but he was also a human being with human frailties and concerns and James Gandolfini made us care about him almost in spite of ourselves. That was his genius.

For those six years, The Sopranos was the best thing on television. Indeed, it made us see the possibilities of television, that it could be more than mindless sitcoms and cookie cutter cop and doctor shows.

It showed us a complicated family, one in which we could see our own families reflected, even if we had no connection to New Jersey mafiosi. We laughed, we cried, sometimes we yelled at the screen. It was a show that made us care.

In the end, like Gandolfini's life, it faded to black much too soon, leaving us puzzled and frustrated and wanting more.



James Gandolfini is gone, much to our sorrow, but Tony Soprano is an enduring character who will never die.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis: A review

I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series. I've read all twenty books in that series and was waiting for the next entry, but, as it happens, Marcus has retired from the investigations game since the death of his father. As chief heir to the family fortune, he's taken over the family auction business and is prospering in that role.

But the miscreants of Rome should not rest easy. The Didius Falcos' adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is now on the case, having been trained by the master himself.

Those readers who have followed the series will remember Flavia Albia as the British-born orphan waif rescued from a life on the streets by Marcus and Helena. She was adopted and raised as their daughter. Now she is all grown up at 28 and is herself a widow, her much-loved young husband, Lentullus, having died a few years before. She is determined to make her own way in the world and to maintain her independence. Following in her adoptive father's footsteps is her way of achieving that goal.

This novel, first in a new series for Davis, is actually based on real historical events. A series of mysterious deaths of people thought to be perfectly healthy is revealed to be the result of an unknown poison. The poison is delivered by a needle that has been loaded with the deadly substance. It is delivered in public places, on the streets of Rome, and usually the victims do not even realize they have been attacked until it is too late and they are breathing their last.

The scene of the action is the Aventine Hill, which is Flavia's haunt. She knows its monumental temples, grubby snack bars, and muddy back lanes like the back of her hand. Moreover, she has taken over her father's ratty old office there as her own headquarters.

She becomes involved in the case when a nephew is suspicious about the death of his perfectly healthy elderly aunt. Flavia agrees to investigate and soon learns of other unexpected deaths in the same area. She enlists the aid of friends in the vigiles, the local fire brigade/police, in her investigation and finds that she has come to the attention of the plebeian aedile, Manlius Faustus. His "runner," Tiberius, is often on the streets looking for perpetrators of crime and he offers advice and support to Flavia, although at first she is very hostile to him and unwilling to take it.

She is much more taken by another member of Faustus' household, a charming freedman named Andronicus, and feels herself becoming romantically involved with him. But will she allow her head to be turned to the extent that she loses sight of her investigation into the murders?

Flavia Albia is a tough and witty investigator/narrator in the tradition of Marcus Didius Falco. She gives us a new slant on life in ancient Rome, as we see the city and its people and political systems from the viewpoint of a woman. 

She is living and working in the time of the emperor Domitian, a much less benevolent ruler than the Vespasian and Titus that Marcus Didius Falco had to deal with and occasionally worked for. It is a time of paranoia in Rome, when people do well to keep their heads down for fear they might be chopped off. 

Flavia Albia has a soft spot for animals and the appalling cruelty to foxes of the cult of Ceres is one of the features of this story - a feature which I, frankly, found very hard to read, having myself a soft spot for animals. But it is a part of the inhumanity to both animals and humans that was endemic to the era, and Lindsey Davis, as usual, has done her research well. She brings the streets of ancient Rome to life in an unflinching way. 

It will be interesting to see where she goes with this new female detective of hers. I'll be waiting for the next installment.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mississippi Craft Center

We just returned from our annual trip to Mississippi where we visit with my family and friends there and go to put flowers on the grave sites of my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. The area was lush and green this year. They've had plenty of rain this spring and the wildflowers and gardens certainly testify to that.

Every year, we try to vary our route so that we get to see a different part of the country. This year, we went through central Louisiana and entered Mississippi at Natchez.

Natchez is a very old river town, established in the 1700s, and, of course, it is famous for its ante bellum homes and the "pilgrimage" to those homes every spring when they are at their height of beauty. But we didn't visit any of them on this trip. Been there, done that before.

Instead, we headed out of town on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444 mile scenic route that goes all the way from Natchez to Nashville. We made our first stop just outside of Natchez.  


Emerald Mound, as you can read from the sign, is the second largest temple mound found in the United States. It is a relic of the Mississippian culture which flourished here and all the way up the big river north into Illinois in the 1300s to 1600s before Europeans came to the area.

The Mississippians were forbears of the Natchez Indians who populated the area at the time of the European invasion. This sign shows how the mound was constructed on top of an existing hill.

This is the very top of the mound which is 65 feet tall and spreads over eight acres. You can walk all the way to the top - although I didn't. It was steamy hot out there!

Heading north from Natchez, our next stop was just north of Jackson at the Mississippi Craft Center. We try to make it a point to stop here every year, no matter what route we are taking. It is a wonderful place.

This is the exterior of the modern building which houses the craft center. It contains crafts of all kinds from all over the state and, in some cases, from surrounding states. Our house holds many examples of these crafts that we have purchased here over the years.


On the grounds in front of the building was a display of many metal sculptures from various craftsmen. Some of them were made from old farm implements. All of them exhibited a sense of humor.


I found all of these "human" sculptures particularly fun. They made me smile.





Inside the building, the visitor finds many more traditional kinds of crafts - doll-making, for example.


I am really not sure how to categorize this!


Wood-turning is very popular. These beautiful boxes are prime examples. There were also many, many unique wooden bowls, one of which caught my husband's eye and he brought it home with us where it now resides on our living room coffee table.


There are also numerous examples of pottery in all shapes and forms.


Figurines in many different kinds of materials, from metal to fabric and just about everything in between, are another popular item.


Bottle trees are traditional features of southern gardens. I have one in mine, but it doesn't look like this! This is a very non-traditional bottle tree in the shape of a peacock.


The Choctaw Indians of the area contribute their wonderfully colorful baskets to the mix. You can find baskets in all sizes from the tiniest ones on the table here to monsters that could hold a medium-sized child. I have bought a few of these baskets over the years and I treasure them.

The craftsmen and craftswomen also make wonderful objects from gourds, some of which are shown here.

This is just the tip of the iceberg really. There is so much more here, from quilts to metal crafts to intricate stained glass objects to unique one-of-a-kind furniture. If you are ever in the Jackson area, by all means, you should make it a point to visit the Mississippi Craft Center.

We still had much farther to go, so we headed north again. It was a lovely drive. The wildflowers along the roadside were never more beautiful. The Natchez Trace Parkway is another treasure of the National Park System. It is a shame that sequestration has forced it to close some of the restrooms along the long drive and has impacted other services of the National Park Service - but that's a rant for another day.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø: A review

I was 19 percent of the way through reading this novel on my Kindle when I realized that I had no idea what was going on. It was a story that switched back and forth between the war years of the 1940s and the rise of neo-fascism in Norway in 1999. Was it all connected somehow? It seemed clear that Jo Nesbø intended that, but it was just hard for me to see. 

I know people who would have given up reading the book at that point, but I am made of sterner stuff! I was determined to see what all the shouting and praise for Nesbø was all about.

I'm glad I persevered. Shortly after scratching my head in confusion at the 19 percent mark, the story actually started to make sense to me and I was able to begin to see the connections between the various characters and their story lines.

We meet Daniel, a young Norwegian soldier in 1944, fighting alongside the Germans against the Russians. He is a legendary sharpshooter. But then he is supposedly killed.

Later, a wounded Norwegian soldier wakes up in a Vienna hospital. During his convalescence from wounds, he becomes involved with a young nurse. The consequences of that liaison will reverberate back in Oslo more than fifty years later.

All those years later, in the 1990s, we meet Harry Hole, a dedicated police officer who seems to have a knack for embarrassing his superiors. In this instance, he has shot a Secret Service agent who was in Oslo guarding the president of the United States who was on a diplomatic mission. The agent had failed to follow protocol and was not identified by Harry as an agent. He thought he presented a threat to the president, so he shot him.

As a "reward" for his actions, Harry has been promoted to inspector and has been given duties to take him out of Oslo and, his superiors hope, to keep him out of trouble and out of the limelight. 

He is assigned to monitor neo-Nazi activities. It all seems fairly boring and mundane until he gets reports of a rare and unusual gun being fired in the area in target practice. It is a gun known to be used by assassins. Suddenly, his duty seems not so mundane after all.

Harry calls on his friends and associates to help in tracing the gun to try to find how it came to Norway and who might have brought it there. In aiding his investigation, his friend and partner Ellen Gjelten makes a startling discovery. It is a discovery that will put her life in danger and will cause anguish for Harry.

In the middle of the investigation, a former soldier is found with his throat cut. But how does all of this tie together? It is a complicated tale and it is often hard to keep it all straight.

In pursuit of answers, Harry travels to South Africa and to Vienna, still trying to trace the gun and to put all the pieces of the story together. But no matter what he does, he always seems to be one step behind in finding the solution to this convoluted mystery.

Harry Hole is a flawed character, an alcoholic whom a tragedy midway through the story sends off the deep end again. He struggles to pull himself together enough to function and to bring some very bad guys to justice. The whole thing has become personal for him.

Jo Nesbø is a good writer and I think I do see what all the shouting is about. In Harry Hole, he had created an appealing protagonist that the reader can empathize with and care about, someone whom we want to see win. 

Nesbø handles an extremely complicated plot with assurance. I may not have known what was going on for a while, but he certainly never lost the thread of his story and in the end we were able to follow that thread.


This was not the first in the Harry Hole series, but I believe it was the first to be translated into English, and it was the first I was able to get delivered to my Kindle. There are several more books in this popular series and I look forward to reading them all.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mississippi

It has been almost forty years since I last lived in Mississippi, but, in a sense, it will always be "home" because I grew up there. My parents are dead now, but I still have other family there, as well as friends that I grew up with, and so I retain an interest in what happens there. When I see a story in the news with the name of that state in the headline, I tend to pay attention and read it. So it was that when I recently came across this story in The Daily Beast, of course I had to read it.

The thing is, when I see these stories about Mississippi, they are almost always bad news. This one was no exception. The first paragraph pointed out some of the appalling statistics about the state:

  • It has the nation's highest poverty rate.
  • It has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate and the highest teen birth rate.
  • Its schools rank 48th out of the 50 states.
  • It ranks second among states (to Louisiana) in the percentage of its citizens that it locks up.
  • Its infancy mortality rate is the highest in the nation at 9.67 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is close to Botswana's rate.
  • Life expectancy is the lowest in the country and is lower than in Guatemala and Pakistan.
  • Few states invest less in public education or public health.
  • It is one of the worst states for women's rights and has never sent a woman to Congress.
In short, if Mississippi were a country, it would be considered part of the Third World and a particularly backward part of that world at that.

There seems little hope that any of this will change for the better in the short term. Mississippi is dominated by arch conservatives, all men of course, in its government and they are perfectly happy with the status quo since it gives them all the power and they are determined to hold the line against change. Such men are typified by their governor, Phil Bryant, who in a recently well-publicized comment, laid the blame for America's educational woes squarely in the laps of working mothers. Mediocrity, he opined, can be traced directly to moms in the workplace.

Mississippi has been in the news over the past year because it has tried to close all abortion clinics in the state and deny access to this health care for its women. It currently has only one such clinic remaining, in the state capital of Jackson, that is waging a battle in the courts to stay open. 

Its latest approach in dealing with issues of pregnancy, specifically teen pregnancy, is to collect cord blood from babies born to girls under 16, with a view to using DNA to establish the fathers and then prosecuting for statutory rape older men who have impregnated teenagers. One has to admit it is a novel approach.

There is, however, a possibility that the law could be turned against the girls themselves if drugs are found in the cord blood. Currently in the state, two women who suffered stillbirths are being prosecuted under the state's murder statutes because they had drugs in their system at the time of the births.

The idea that a state could more profitably address the issue of teen pregnancies, as well as decreasing the need for abortions, through sex education and freer access to contraceptives seems a totally alien idea to the people who maintain their iron grip on Mississippi's government.  

All of this is appalling and depressing, and yet when you meet the people of the state on a personal level, they are friendly and welcoming and just want to live their lives in peace and see better futures for their children - just like all of us. What they need is a leader, someone to inspire them to strive for a more compassionate government and to dare to break the chains of dogma that make them slaves to an unsavory history. Those of us who care for the state and its people and watch from the outside as it continues to be bound to its past can only hope that such a leader will find his or her way to the forefront and that Mississippi can soon join the majority of the states in the 21st century.  

*~*~*~*

And speaking of Mississippi, that's where I'll be for the next several days, visiting friends and family there. While I'm on the road, I may or may not have an opportunity to post here, but I will return before the Summer Solstice. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

The return of the cougar

There was an interesting article today in the science section of The New York Times about the return of the cougar to the eastern half of the continent. The species had been virtually exterminated east of the Rockies by 1900. The last one known to exist in Maine was killed in 1938.

The ones that remained in the western states, mainly in the Rocky Mountains, were treated as vermin and they could be shot on sight as late as the 1960s. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 put an end to that.

Scientists say that as early as 40 years ago the species started expanding its range. The life cycle of cougars demands that as young males reach adulthood, after about two years with their mothers, they must leave the area and find new places to settle and to find mates. Following that urge, the young males, as well as the young females, began to move east. Their numbers have steadily increased and there are now estimated to be as many as 30,000 in North America.

They have recolonized much of the Mid-West and there have been reports of sightings in Arkansas and Louisiana. My husband swears that he saw one crossing the road a few miles from our home late at night a few years ago. Of course, the area where we live is a hotbed of people who keep exotic animals in their backyards. Escaped tigers on the prowl are not unheard of, so it is possible that what he saw was an escaped or deliberately released pet. But it is also possible that it was an animal that arrived here under its own steam.

People generally seem to have positive feelings about the return of the cougar, AKA puma, mountain lion, panther, painter, or catamount, an attitude that the beleaguered gray wolf could only envy. It is likely though that as the big cats - seven feet long and up to 160 pounds - move into more thickly populated areas, they may come into conflict with humans once again and may again be persecuted. But for now, they are considered an undiluted success story of animal conservation in this country.

The big cats generally prey on big mammals such as elk, bighorn sheep, wild horses and burros, and even beaver, but their preference seems to be for deer and there are certainly plenty of those in this area and in much of the eastern part of the country. White-tailed deer have, in fact, become a plague on the land in many areas. As this top predator returns to those areas, we may see that deer population begin to decline and a more stable balance begin to be achieved.  It is, after all, Nature's way.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Invictus

Nelson Mandela is in hospital again, as he has often been this year, because of a problem with his lungs. Thinking of Mandela reminded me of the acclaimed movie about his life starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood that came out a few years ago, Invictus.  And thinking of the movie naturally led me to thinking of the famous poem which allegedly meant so much to Mr. Mandela during his long imprisonment during the apartheid years in South Africa. The man is a world treasure and so, in honor of him, let's feature that poem today and send him our positive thoughts.

Invictus
 by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cats in hats?

The latest internet kitty sensation seems to be hats for cats. That's right - a chapeau for your favorite furry purry.

Meredith Yarborough, a South Carolina woman, started knitting kitty hats and taking pictures of cats modeling them in order to sell them on Etsy. Once she was discovered by the internet, the whole thing went viral.

Here are a few examples of her creations.

You could make your cat feel like King of the Beasts with a lion's mane hat.


What could be more fun than a cupcake hat?


Every little kitty wants to grow up to be a fireman, right?


He can celebrate his birthday with his very own birthday hat.


And he'll be all set for Halloween Trick or Treat with a witch's hat.

Yarborough's cat Bullwinkle is her model. He must be an exceptionally docile and sweet-tempered cat.

She claims that she makes these hats because she loves cats and wants to share that love with the world. I don't know. Look at the expression on that cat's face. Does he look happy to you?

I know two cats who are not ten feet from me now who would rip those hats to shreds if I tried to put one on them. They might rip me to shreds, too! I wouldn't even try. No cat in the hat for me.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: A review

This is a story that, unfortunately, resonates with current events happening all too often on Indian reservations in this country. It involves violence against Native American women by white men. It is a problem which raises knotty jurisdictional issues for law enforcement.

This may sound familiar to those who follow the news out of Washington. During the debate over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act last year, certain Republicans in Congress balked at some of the provisions because they did not want Native American courts and law enforcement to have authority to arrest and prosecute white perpetrators of such crimes. This is the issue that is at the heart of Louise Erdrich's latest book about Ojibwe culture, the National Book Award winner, The Round House.

The events in the book take place in 1988. In the spring of that year, Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is the victim of a horrific rape. It leaves her physically battered and psychologically traumatized and reluctant to talk to the police or to her husband about what happened.

The story is told, from the perspective of later years, through the eyes of Geraldine's thirteen-year-old son, Joe. The attack on his mother has torn his safe world apart. He longs for justice for her but justice is slow in coming and, meanwhile, his mother has taken to her bed and will not leave it. She exists in a world of solitude that neither Joe nor his father, Bazil, a tribal law judge, seems capable of breaking through.

The investigation of the crime soon enough leads to the arrest of a suspect, but he is a white man, and it is not clear just where the crime took place. Was it on the reservation or off? Which court exactly has jurisdiction over the crime? There seems no doubt that this man is the perpetrator, but soon he is released when jurisdictional issues cannot be decided. This sends Geraldine into an even deeper tailspin of grief and depression.

Joe is understandably frustrated and angry at the course of events and he determines to find a way on his own to wrest justice from this tragic situation. In this, he is aided by his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus. Much of the story revolves around these four teenage boys' activities in the summer following the attack on Geraldine as they pursue their "investigation" and as Joe slowly evolves a plan. Difficult as the story is, the boys bring a great deal of humor to it. They are, after all, simply goofy, typical teenage boys, full of hormones and curiosity, and eager to grow up. 

Bazil, meanwhile, attempts to work through the law, which he reveres, to find justice for his wife, but when the rapist is released from jail and Bazil encounters him at the grocery store, something snaps inside him and he attacks the man. When Joe joins in the attack, it seems to bring Bazil to his senses and he backs away and the man escapes. In tragedy piled on top of tragedy, Bazil then suffers a mild heart attack in the grocery store, further traumatizing his son.

There is so much sadness in this story and yet it never really seems depressing. The saving grace for the Coutts family is their own closeness and the solidarity which the rest of the reservation folk feel with them. Many of their friends and relatives, each in his or her own way, set about trying to heal the family. They are always supported and loved and the sense of community is a palpable part of the tale.

Though, eventually, a kind of rough justice was achieved, the ending of the saga was still more distressing, and yet, it is hard to see how it could have been different. It fit the arc of the story perfectly. 

One small quibble: What has Louise Erdrich got against quotation marks? Her writing is lyrical, but sometimes unnecessarily unclear simply because no quotation marks are used. Are we listening to a conversation or reading exposition? Much as I liked the book, this lack irritated me.