Monday, October 31, 2011

Nostromo, a Tale of the Seaboard by Joseph Conrad: A review

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. That book was based on the germ of an idea from Conrad's Nostromo. It was set in the fictional country invented by Conrad for his book. Reading that book made me curious about Nostromo and I added it to my reading list. I hardly knew what I was letting myself in for. 

This was a very difficult read for me and it took me a seemingly interminable amount of time to finish it, but I persevered and did manage to read all the way to the end. Part of the difficulty lay in the fact that I read it on my Kindle. It might have been easier with a physical book where I could turn back and reread sections or refer to previous sections with greater ease. As it was, the story was very difficult to get into and I was fully one-third of the way through the book before I began to get a real sense of the story. 

One problem that I had with the book was that Nostromo, the main character around whom all the action takes place, is absent from much of the book. We only see him obliquely through the eyes of others, and for long passages he doesn't seem to figure in at all. He is described as the bold and courageous Italian seaman who is a natural-born leader and is admired by everyone. He is incorruptible and undaunted by any challenge, the very model that the inventor of the phrase "paragon of virtue" had in mind. 

Nostromo is a hero to the Europeans living in the political upheaval that is Costaguana. When revolution comes, he is the one who saves the day with a dramatic ride. He is also the man chosen to spirit away a load of silver ingots before they can fall into the hands of the "wrong side." He takes them out to sea where they are supposedly lost when the boat sinks, but were they really lost? Well, Nostromo is incorruptible so he wouldn't lie about it, would he? 

The revolution is resolved - sort of - and Nostromo slowly begins to build up his wealth until finally he is a very wealthy, as well as respected, man, but then, predictably, it all begins to fall apart. One just knows this isn't going to end well, and (Spoiler alert!) it doesn't. 

I really wanted to like this book, but I just found it tedious in the extreme. Although the overall story appealed to me, I could never really get engaged in it. One thing is certain: Any future Conrad that I read will be from a physical paper book. I think this old-fashioned writer is probably best read in old-fashioned form.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Snow-covered Rocky Mountain National Park

On Tuesday night, Rocky Mountain National Park got 18 inches of snow.  Most of the snow was still there when we visited today.

Hiking in the park today was like walking through a real winter wonderland.  A quiet winter wonderland.  The silence was amazing.  I'm so glad that we timed our visit so that we could experience this snow.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


"Mountains, Gandalf, I want to see mountains again!"
- Bilbo Baggins to the wizard Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring 

Bilbo and me - we both love mountains.  By the time you see this, I should be well on my way to Colorado where, I am reliably informed, they do still have mountains.  For the next ten days or so, I'll be enjoying those mountains.  During that time blogging will be sporadic if it occurs at all.  But don't forget me!  I'll be back!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Just one more!

Can you stand one more reference to Occupy Wall Street?  Here's proof that the movement really has spread to the far corners of the earth!

Yes, even in the frozen tundra of the North, a man and his dogs have caught the "occupy" fever.  There's no stopping it now!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy the world! Joyfully!

The movement that started out as "Occupy Wall Street" has now spread right around the world as people everywhere who are angry at what financial institutions are doing to society have begun to believe that perhaps they can fight back.  In most (although not all) places, the Occupiers have been peaceful even when provoked.  To see thousands of ordinary people gathered together in a peaceful protest against the depredations of the super-rich super-powerful Masters of the Universe on Wall Street and other such financial centers is a powerful thing.

But the most powerfully moving and utterly joyful demonstration that I have seen took place in Madrid last week, where tens of thousands of demonstrators sang Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from his Ninth Symphony.  I've often thought of Beethoven's Ninth as the most perfect music ever written.  Surely, the "Ode to Joy" is the most perfect expression of joy in music.  The demonstrators expressed their joy with that music and then topped it off with a chant of "These are our weapons!"

Music is our weapon.  Ideas are our weapons.  This demonstration gives me goosebumps.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Public support of the JOBS bill

At times it is really hard not to despair at the utter ignorance of a very large section of the American public.  For example, in regard to President Obama's proposed JOBS bill.

A CNN poll recently found that there was lukewarm support for the bill among the public; 43 percent saying they were in favor while 35 percent were opposed, with 22 percent not knowing enough to offer an opinion.  But then, when the pollsters asked the respondents about the individual sections of the bill, the picture changed completely.

As these graphs from DailyKos clearly reveal, the poll showed that support is overwhelming for the various components that make up the bill!  The least popular component, the payroll tax holiday, still had 59 percent support!

Why doesn't this support show up when people are asked the generic question about whether they support the president's JOBS bill?  Could it have anything to do with the unrelenting attacks against the bill by the right-wing and negative reporting on the president by the mainstream media?  If the mainstream media actually did its job and reported in a straightforward manner about what is in the bill, would people be informed enough to give a positive response when asked if they support it?  We'll never know because the mainstream media will continue to employ its false equivalency strategy of reporting the news, where positive statements about any Democratic proposals or actions must be instantly offset by negative statements from the right-wing about them, whether those negative statements are true or bear any relationship to reality at all.  The result is to so confuse ordinary everyday citizens that they hardly know what to believe any more.

But the Republicans know what they believe!  They believe that any means justify the end of defeating Barack Obama in 2012, and if that includes destroying a bill that might actually help many Americans who are in dire straits because of the economy, well, so be it!  The lives of ordinary citizens are simply collateral damage as far as these Republicans are concerned.  And so, when it came time to vote on a JOBS bill that an overwhelming majority of Americans actually support when they know what is in it:

 As I say, it is enough to make one despair for our country and for our broken political system.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Where's that liberal bias?

It's a well-known fact, constantly reiterated by right-wingers, that the traditional media (newspapers, magazines, network television) in this country are strongly pro-liberal. Except that, like so many other well-known facts parroted by the right-wingers, this, too, is a lie.  Now, someone has actually quantified exactly how false it is.

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released a study delineating the media's coverage of the Republican candidates for president versus coverage of President Obama over the last five months.  Can you guess which one received the most negative coverage?

It turns out that Obama has received the most consistently negative press of any of the presidential candidates, with negative assessments outweighing positive ones by almost four to one.  Again, this is not Rush Limbaugh we are talking about here.  This is the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News, etc.

Pew found that only 9 percent of the president's coverage was positive and 34 percent was negative.  By contrast, Rick Perry - Rick Perry, for heaven's sake! - had 32 percent positive coverage and 20 percent negative.

Tom Rosenthal, the director of the project stated that Obama had had substantially more negative coverage in every one of the last 23 weeks of the last five months, including the week that Osama Bin Laden was killed.

In contrast, the top four most favorably covered candidates were all favorites of the tea party.  Perry, with his 32 percent positive coverage, rated number one, followed by Sarah Palin (31 percent positive), Michele Bachmann (31 percent), and Herman Cain (28 percent).  Mitt Romney had 26 percent favorable coverage.

The next time Sarah Palin or any of her cohorts start whining about how they are so ill-treated by the "lamestream media," perhaps someone will show them this study.  Not that they would accept it, of course.  Too "scientificky."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ghost at Work by Carolyn Hart: A review

This bit of Halloween fluff was October's reading selection for my Mystery Book Club. It was a quick and easy read - nothing to pause and ruminate over here.

Bailey Ruth Raeburn is long-dead and happily ensconced in Heaven with her beloved Bobby Mac. She and Bobby Mac had their tickets punched for the Pearly Gates when they went down with their boat in a storm on the Gulf. Now Bailey Ruth is hoping to make herself useful as an employee of Heaven's Department of Good Intentions. (But, wait a minute, doesn't that road lead...oh, never mind!)

Bailey Ruth - it's always Bailey Ruth, never just Bailey or Ruth - meets with the Ticketmaster Wiggins and he gives her an assignment. She is to go as an "emissary" (for which, read "ghost") to the town of Adelaide, Oklahoma, which just happens to be her earthly home town. There she is to help a local clergyman's wife, who turns out to be BR's (I just can't keep writing Bailey Ruth) relation. The clergyman's wife has just found a dead body on her porch. Moreover, it is the body of a man whom she disliked and maybe had reason to want dead.

Soon, BR arrives on the scene, and, both seen and unseen, proceeds to destroy evidence, move bodies, and generally muck up the investigation by the local police. She is a perky, red-headed busybody, whom one witness to whom she appeared described as "drop-dead gorgeous." (Curiously, all of the beautiful people in this book seem to be redheads. I guess Adelaide is overrun with them.)

Anyway, the story is a romp, a hoot. It's not something about which I can be serious. I must confess I'm not familiar with Carolyn Hart's work, although she seems to have a large body of it. This book did not particularly make me want to become better acquainted with it

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sidetracked by Henning Mankell: A review

Reading Sidetracked by Henning Mankell, I found myself really wishing that Inspector Kurt Wallander would get some professional help. The man is so depressed that it makes me depressed just to read about him.

Not that he doesn't have plenty of reason to be depressed. His personal life is a mess. He's still grieving for and missing his friend and mentor who died years before. He feels inadequate in his work and there are other stresses in his job as his department faces a budget crunch and possible staff reductions. There is a woman in his life and he wants to marry her, but she is the widow of a Latvian policeman who was killed in the line of duty and she's not so sure she wants to commit to a life with a Swedish policeman. (I can't say that I blame her.) His father has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and he seems to be deteriorating rapidly. The one bright spot in his life is his daughter with whom he finally seems able to build a positive relationship.

Wallander's depression is made worse by the images he has to deal with in his work. For example, at the beginning of this book, he is called out to a farm where a young girl is hanging about for no apparent reason in a rape field. As he moves in and tries to talk to her, the young girl seems to panic and brings out a petrol can, dousing herself in fuel and then striking a match. Before Wallander's horrified eyes, the girl burns to death in the grain field.

And then, of course, there are the serial murders.

Someone is killing men, some of them very powerful men, by various horrific means. Not only is the killer taking their lives, he (she?) is also taking their scalps. Are these simply random killings or is there an unknown link between the victims? Wallander, who is a very instinctual detective, instinctively intuits that there is a connection, but what is it? It certainly is not obvious. And what possible motive could the killer have for scalping the victims?

The Ystad murder squad is on the case, led by Wallander, and, painstakingly, they work through the few clues they have, hoping for a break. When the break comes, Wallander, naturally, berates himself because he did not see the solution sooner.

The Wallander series is mesmerizing in an odd way, a bit like a train wreck. The reader can't turn away, even if she would wish to. Henning Mankell spins a good yarn and he's cornered the market for tales of dour, sad-sack Swedish policemen. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The most happy countries

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has released its report that measures the happiness of its member countries.  The report is titled "How's Life?" and it used surveys to measure eleven specific aspects of life that are believed to contribute to individuals' feelings of overall well-being.

Among the factors measured in the surveys were such things as income, jobs, housing, health, clean environment, safe neighborhoods, and work-life balance.  While income proved to be an important factor, less obvious aspects of life, including health, safe neighborhoods, and clean environments proved extremely important, also.

Here, then, is a countdown of what the OECD found to be the ten happiest countries in the world.
10. Austria
9.   United Kingdom
8.   China
7.   Sweden
6.   Norway
5.   Netherlands
4.   Indonesia
3.   Japan
2.   Iceland
1.   Denmark
Interestingly, seven of the ten are European countries and four of those seven are Nordic countries with strong social safety nets intact.  In fact, all of the countries on this list, with the possible exception of Indonesia, are marked by government services which provide a back-up for their citizens who need help.  Most all of these countries, for example, have universal health care through a state-run system.  Additionally, all of the countries, except China, have democratic traditions.

The report concluded that global well-being is increasing, that people are richer, more likely to be employed, enjoy better housing conditions, are exposed to less air pollution and less crime, and are more educated and live longer.  And yet, income inequality between groups within countries is on the rise, which brings the "happiness quotient" of countries like the United States down, resulting in people feeling less secure.

And where did the United States place in this report?  Nineteenth.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The patriotic eight

So did a survey of the Forbes 400, the richest people in the country, billionaires all.  They asked them if they would willingly pay more taxes to help the country get out of its economic slump and on the way to prosperity.  Most of the 400 declined to respond to the survey.  Three unhesitatingly said no, they would not pay more taxes. Among these three was Charles Koch of the infamous Koch Brothers - no surprise there. One respondent gave an ambivalent "maybe" reply. And eight of the 400 stated that they would be willing to pay more taxes to help the country.  These eight were Todd Wagner, Leon Cooperman, Mark Cuban, James Simons, George Soros, Herbert Simon, John Arnold, and, of course, Warren Buffett.  We'll call them the "Patriotic Eight" for paying taxes is, in fact, a patriotic duty, no less than picking up a weapon and going to war when your country needs defending.

As that champion of the middle class, Elizabeth Warren, has pointed out, no one gets rich by himself.  Certainly, no one becomes a billionaire by himself.  Each of the Forbes 400 has taken advantage of the infrastructure paid for by the taxes of their fellow Americans - the roads, railroads, airport systems, not to mention the military defending their interests around the world and the civilian police force maintaining order so that they can do business, and, of course, an educational system that trains people to be productive employees, and on and on.  All parties fulfilling their obligations under the social contract that keeps our society running contribute to Charles Koch and George Soros being able to make wagon loads of money every day that they breathe.  Does it not seem fair that such people should themselves fulfill their obligations under the social contract to keep our society solvent and able to provide the services that we expect of government?  Should such people not pay a comparable share of their income in taxes as a laborer, a store clerk, a teacher, or a policeman pays?  Charles Koch says "no."  George Soros and seven of his peers say "yes."

Fair taxation is one of the underpinnings of a civil, equitable society.  It is at least encouraging that a few billionaires believe that and love their country enough to be willing to act on it.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

These voters have some strange values

Their big weekend summit in Washington is over and the "values voters" have spoken.  The next president of the United States will be ... Ron Paul!

Which, frankly, brings to mind a quote I read recently from the late and sadly missed Molly Ivins.  About ten years ago Molly said, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”  If Molly were still here to advise us, I feel absolutely certain that she would not be endorsing either Ron Paul or that other Texan who is in the race.

Nevertheless, the voters with values, as they bill themselves, indicating that other people are without values, really, really liked Mr. Paul and gave him 37% of their votes.  The other Texan got 8%.  Obviously, these voters were not at all convinced about his "values."

The straw poll vote was only one of the headlines coming out of this summit and probably not the most interesting one at that.  It was revealed, for example, that Major League Baseball has saved us from another 9/11 style attack by having "God Bless America" sung during the seventh inning stretch at MLB games!  Who knew that protection was that easy?  We could just disband the army and perhaps add the singing of  "America" for an even stronger defense.

Meanwhile, the candidates who appeared at the summit vied with each other to see who could be the most anti-women.  I think Michele Bachmann won that one.

Then there was the kerfuffle over whether Mormonism is a Christian religion or a cult - meaning, of course, that any religion that isn't Christianity is a "cult."

And various speakers talked about whether good morals make a good economy, again implying that our present stagnant economy is the fault of "immoral" leaders who are not sanctioned by their Christian God. And we all know who is meant by that - that Kenyan-born, socialist, fascist, Muslim in the White House.

And what did these voters not talk about during the weekend?  Jobs and how to create them.  Because creating jobs to help people better their situations and support themselves and their families is not a value that these people...value.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: "Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear... " (With update)

As one who has fumed impotently for years about the buying and selling of my country's government and institutions by rich, mostly rabidly right-wing corporations and the super-rich, I had frequently wondered whether Americans would ever awake from their apathy and take to the streets to demand change.  It seems that finally we may be stretching, yawning, maybe putting one foot on the floor, and preparing to ever-so-tentatively stand up for ourselves and face up to the powers that be.  That, at least, is the message that I take from the movement that has become known as Occupy Wall Street and has now spread around the country, even into Houston!   This, I think, is the most hopeful event that I have witnessed in many years.

And what has been the media's response to thousands of people gathering in New York and elsewhere to protest the buying of our democracy?  Its first response was to ignore it. Literally, for days into the demonstrations, you could not find any information about them in the mainstream media outlets.  Even The New York Times on the demonstration's home turf was negligent.

Then, when the police started swinging their clubs and pepper spraying people and the event could no longer be ignored, the theme of the media became:  "These are just a bunch of hippies!  They don't even know what they want!  They haven't issued any demands!  Where are the demands?  What do they want?"

A few brave and enterprising journalists finally got around to actually asking participants what they wanted and they found, almost universally, intelligent, well-spoken people who knew that something very, very bad was happening to their country and they wanted their fellow citizens to wake up and change it.  That's what they want - participatory democracy.  People taking their fate and their future and the future of their country into their own hands again and not leaving it to right-wing ideologues like the Koch Brothers and Art Pope and others of their ilk who buy politicians like buying candy in a candy store.

On the whole, I think the media still have not really caught on to what is happening here. They are still trying to fit it into one of their pre-formed news niches, something that will allow them to use shorthand in discussing the movement so that they don't really have to get off their lazy butts and engage it.  This is the Fox-ification of the news business and it is endemic and rampant in journalism today.  Will they get away with it?  A better question might be, will we let them get away with it?

UPDATE 10/10/11:  For a more thorough and erudite discussion of the media commentariat's and the plutocracy's reaction to the demonstrations, read Paul Krugman's column today.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman: A review

In this book, neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has a knack for translating complicated scientific concepts into everyday language, argues that most of the activity of the brain occurs on an unconscious level. This unconscious is hard-wired by our genetics, by our experience in the womb, our early nurturing, the various chemicals that we are exposed to in our environment, and so many other factors over which we have absolutely no control that it calls into serious question the popular idea that humans possess free will. If our brains are already bent by circumstances in one direction and our brains control our minds, our thoughts, our physical actions, both deliberate and autonomic, what is the control that our conscious can exert over our actions? Are our "choices" not already predetermined by all the factors that have gone into our hard-wiring? And, this being the case (and it's very hard to argue that it isn't), how can anyone ever be truly "blamed" for his or her actions? Is blameworthiness the wrong question? Eagleman clearly thinks so. He says, "How you turn out depends on where you've been." As he explains:

Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It's a nice idea, but it's wrong. People's brains can be vastly different - influenced not only by genetics but by the environments in which they grew up. Many "pathogens" (both chemical and behavioral) can influence how you turn out; these include substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight. As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can cause problems in mental development. Once the child is grown, substance abuse and exposure to a variety of toxins can damage the brain, modifying intelligence, aggression, and decision-making abilities.

Reading this, one might think that Eagleman is arguing that one can never be held accountable for anything, but that really isn't the case. He's arguing that our justice system should take into account the state of the brain, its physical make-up as well as the psychological influences that shaped it, and that punishment or rehabilitation should be planned accordingly. This is a very humanistic approach to the concept of justice. It's one that a society still stuck, as ours seems to be, in the "eye for an eye" stage of psychological maturity - or lack of maturity - is probably unable to accept or even consider. But Eagleman has put the idea on the table, and perhaps at some later, more enlightened time, it might even become our normal way of dealing with such issues.

David Eagleman writes with clarity and wit and constantly introduces anecdotes from current events to illustrate his points. This is a very accessible book about the most complicated of subjects, our internal computers. Interesting to find out that, for the most part, those computers travel with us, Incognito.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How will Palin separate them from their money now?

Poor Sarah Palin supporters.  For months now she and her political action committee have been teasing these benighted people with the possibility that their darling Sarah would run for president.  They were constantly besieged by mailings from the PAC urging them to send her more money, the implication being that if they could only manage to contribute enough money, Sarah would end their suffering and become a candidate.  And, of course, if she ran, she would be sure to win!  After all, she is "The Undefeated."   (Except, of course, when she was.  Defeated, that is.)

But now, their hopeful bubble has been burst.  Sarah is not running.

Most of us had figured this out a long time ago.  Even most Republicans had figured it out.  Her favorability ratings among them are in the toilet.  The great majority did not want her to run and wouldn't have supported her if she had.  Ah, but the faithful few clung to their hope and continued to send her their money.

With Sarah, it has always been all about the money and how she can separate people from theirs.  Now that she's figured out how political action committees work, I predict that she will be the perennial candidate.  From now on, in every election cycle, as long as people can be fooled into sending her donations, she will pretend that she is considering running.  But she never will, because running is hard work.  And if there is one thing we have learned about Sarah Palin, besides the fact that she loves bilking people of their money under false pretenses, it is that she is allergic to hard work.  She's a quitter.  Always has been, always will be.  

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Inventors of the modern world

One of the headlines that I read online today in regard to the sad passing of Steve Jobs was that he "invented our modern world."   That might seem like typical journalistic hyperbole and yet, if you think about it, there's more than a grain of truth there.  The world is a very different place because Steve Jobs lived among us.  He packed a lot of innovation into his short 56 years.

When I came into the world, the reigning "world genius" was still Albert Einstein.  He was nearing the end of his stay on this planet, but he was still very much with us.  In his lifetime, his theories and insights had transformed our world.  Things could never go back to the way they were before Einstein.  He changed the world forever and he was gifted with a long life to see the results wrought by some of his accomplishments.

When I think about other "world geniuses" that have been present on Earth during my lifetime, two names spring readily to mind:  Jim Henson and Steve Jobs.

Jim Henson had a vision of how to talk to and educate small children.  He came up with the idea of communicating with them through his non-threatening Muppets.  Muppets did the kinds of things that kids did - or wanted to do.  Kids could easily relate to them and would take in the information relayed through the Muppets and remember it.  I was extremely fortunate to have my children after Henson had invented his Muppets and after they moved to Sesame Street and became an everyday feature of the lives of millions of children, including mine.  A whole generation of children grew up, thanks to Henson, with a precocious understanding of letters, numbers, what synonyms and antonyms are, and perhaps most importantly, knowing that "it's not easy being green."  Jim Henson may not have been recognized as a Civil Rights pioneer, but he did as much as anyone to prepare a generation of kids to be more accepting of people who might look different from them.  He changed our world and he left it much too young.

The genius of Steve Jobs was not so much in inventing new products but in taking other people's ideas and seeing how they could made to work better.  As well as CEO, he filled the role at Apple of super-consumer.  He could look at a product and see what was wrong with it, what would annoy people about it, and what it would take to make it a more "user-friendly" product.  Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, but before he came along they were clunky affairs that only a truly dedicated geek could love.  Jobs made them sleek and fast and intuitive and fun to operate.  He made them a necessary part of our everyday lives.  Today, even if you operate a PC rather than an Apple, you are still benefiting from Jobs' genius.  The other computer companies readily adopted and adapted his methods as their own, making their products ever smaller, lighter, easier to handle and ever more user-friendly.

Of course, the personal computer was the starting point of Jobs' innovations, but then came the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, all products that we perhaps didn't know we wanted, but we now cannot imagine the world without them.  Yes, Steve Jobs helped invent our modern world.  He changed our world forever and he left us much too soon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: A review

Ann Patchett had me at the first scene in her novel State of Wonder. The heroine of her story, Dr. Marina Singh, is a 42-year-old research scientist for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, who works, with her research partner Dr. Anders Eckman, in the rather unexciting field of cholesterol. But Eckman has been sent by the company to Brazil and as the story opens, Marina's boss and lover, Mr. Fox, appears in the doorway of her lab with an airmail letter informing the company that Dr. Eckman has died of a fever. Marina feels as though the world is collapsing, folding in on her.

Eckman has left a wife and three sons and Mr. Fox and Marina go to the home to break the tragic news. Mrs. Eckman is unable to accept that her husband is dead. She believes she would feel it if he were gone. She wants Marina to go to Brazil and find out what has happened. And this, as it happens, is exactly what Mr. Fox wants as well.

Eckman had been sent to Brazil to locate Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher in the employ of the drug company who is supposed to be developing a fertility drug for the company. Swenson has been uncommunicative and Fox doesn't know where progress on the drug stands - or, indeed, if there has been any progress. Eckman was supposed to find out, but since he is out of the picture, Marina, who was a long-ago medical student of Dr. Swenson's, is persuaded to take his place.

Things are complicated by Marina's personal history as the daughter of an Indian man and a white woman. Her father deserted the family early on and returned to India where he created a second family. Marina and her mother occasionally visited him there and the anti-malarial drugs which Marina had to take gave her terrible nightmares. Now, in preparation for her trip to Brazil, she's put on the drug again and the nightmares resume. They are debilitating.

Another complicating factor is that no one really knows where in Brazil Dr. Swenson and the tribe she lives with are located. When Marina arrives in the town of Manaus, which is the only address they have for Swenson, she has no idea how to proceed further. But she meets characters who are familiar with Swenson, including a couple who are housesitting her apartment there. After a few weeks, one night when she is attending the opera with that couple, Dr. Swenson herself turns up and the story really begins to come to life.

The drug research in the jungle brings up unexpected moral dilemmas and Marina finds that all is not exactly as it might seem and that many mysteries lurk among the trees with the insects, snakes, monkeys, and brilliantly colored birds.

This is the first Patchett book I've read so I can't compare it to her others, but its structure - at least in the first part - is somewhat like a meandering stream that keeps twisting back upon itself. The reader is not really sure where to focus her attention, but with the arrival of Dr. Swenson on the scene, the stream straightens out a bit and one can discern the plot. Dr. Swenson is a charismatic character and this time, unlike medical school, she brings out the best in her former pupil, Marina Singh.

Patchett is an artful writer who most likely has read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and has taken its lessons to heart. She's written a worthy successor to that long ago jungle trek. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

My magic bar of soap

No doubt you have heard of a condition called restless leg syndrome.  You've probably seen commercials on television for products that are supposed to cure it.  You might even think it's one of those made-up imaginary diseases designed to make money for someone who has come up with a "cure."  Well, I'm here to testify that it is not imaginary.  I've suffered from it for years and it has cost me countless hours of restful sleep.

At times it is simply an annoyance, but at other times it is a serious problem, causing insomnia and making it difficult for me to function after a sleepless night of tossing and turning.  I've tried any number of remedies over the years - exercises, massages, pain pills, analgesic ointments, various mineral supplements - and some of them even work, at least temporarily, but I've never found anything that really worked to permanently relieve the problem.  Enter the world of folk remedies and white magic.

From time to time, I would read stories about sleeping with a bar of soap between the sheets as a cure for leg cramps and restless legs and I would always think to myself that this was probably the most ridiculous thing I had ever read.  What could a bar of soap possibly do?  I could conceive of no scientific basis for it and so I dismissed it.  

A couple of weeks ago, I went through a really bad period of restless legs.  In spite of trying all the methods I had used in the past to relieve my symptoms, nothing worked.  For an entire week, I barely slept, and when I slept, it was not a restful sleep.  My days were miserable.  Sunday night, September 25, was the worst.  I spent much of the night walking the floor.  By Monday, I was desperate enough to try magic.

Last Monday night, before I went to bed, I slipped a bar of soap between the sheets.  I slept soundly that night for the first time in over a week, so soundly that I found it hard to wake up the next morning.  Maybe my body was trying to make up for its sleep deprivation.  Every night since then, I have slept with my magic bar of soap, and the operative words here are "I have slept."  I don't sleep as soundly as I did that first night every night, but every night I sleep without restless or cramping legs.  For me, it's a miracle, because I can't explain it.

Why should a simple bar of soap make a difference?  Does it exude some kind of chemical that calms the legs?  Is it simply a placebo effect, the power of suggestion?  Does it somehow invoke my protective spirits to come and lull me to sleep?  Who cares?  For now, for me, it works, and that is the only important thing.  If it be white magic (or in the case of my soap, pink magic) it is the very best kind of magic!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Banned Books Week

Today is the last day of Banned Books Week, an event sponsored each year by the American Library Association to draw attention to the issue of intellectual freedom and especially to the freedom of one to choose what one will read.  I can't let the week pass without making note of it here.

Each year the ALA publishes a list of the books that have had the most challenges during the past year.  A "challenge" just means that someone tried to have the book removed from library shelves or made unobtainable by certain groups of people.  The ten most challenged books of 2010 and the reasons for their challenges are an interesting mixture.  This is not the first year that some of the books have appeared on this list.

1.   And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell:  This is a perennial favorite of those who want to ban books - the story of a same-sex penguin couple and their son.  It was challenged because of homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuitability for its age group.

2.   The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie:  It was objected to because of what was deemed offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicitness, violence, and unsuitability for its age group.

3.   Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:  Challenged due to insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexual explicitness.

4.   Crank by Ellen Hopkins:  It was objected to for its portrayal of drug use, offensive language, and sexual explicitness.

5.   The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:  Someone thought it was unsuited to its age group, violent, and sexually explicit.

6.   Lush by Natasha Friend:  Drug use, unsuitability for age group, offensive language, and sexual explicitness were the complaints about this book.

7.   What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones:  Complaints included sexism, sexual explicitness, and unsuitability for age group.

8.   Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich:  This journalistic expose' of the effect of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act on the working poor of America was objected to because it had drug use, was "inaccurate", had offensive language, had a political viewpoint which some people didn't approve of, and had a a religious viewpoint that certain people found offensive.

9.   Revolutionary Voices by Amy Sonnie:  Objected to for its portrayal of homosexuality and sexual explicitness.

10.  Twilight by Stephanie Meyer:  Challenged because of it violence and its religious viewpoint.

Well, at least there was no Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird on the list this year.  Most of the books on the list are for children or young adults, and while one can certainly empathize with a parent's desire to protect a child from ideas which s/he may not understand or which may be upsetting, I would strongly suggest that banning a book or keeping it out of the child's hands is not the way to do that.  Better to let the child read whatever interests him/her and then discuss it with him/her.  Open communication is the best way both to protect a child from being upset and to help the child open up his/her mind to other ideas and possibilities and ways of approaching life.

I was particularly interested to see that Nickel and Dimed made the top ten.   This book was a damning expose' of how difficult it is for the working poor to get by in America and how the laws that we make often make it even harder for them.  So some people thought it was "inaccurate" and didn't like its "political viewpoint."  Gee, I wonder who those people could have been?

Thank you to the librarians of the world who guard the portals of intellectual freedom for us all.  Let us support them in their work and honor their endeavors by reading more books.  Most especially, let's read some of those books that someone doesn't want us to read!