Monday, April 30, 2012

The good old Bank of Mom and Dad

Poor Mitt Romney. He just keeps sticking his foot further and further into his mouth, repeatedly proving that he doesn't really have a clue about how average people live in this country.

His latest clumsy effort at "connecting" with his audience was at Otterbein University last week where he told students, “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business,” 

In advising them to borrow from the Bank of Mom and Dad, he cited a friend of his who took out a $20,000 loan from his parents. Never mind that $20,000 wouldn't even see a student through most (if not all) public universities today, I guess if you don't have parents that are rich enough to front you the money, you would just be out of luck in Romneyworld. Students who are poor or middle class who have dreams of a college education need not apply.  

When did investing in educating our young become considered poor social policy and poor politics in this country? Today we risk losing a whole generation of young people who will not be able to pursue higher education because of the cost and because one of our dominant political parties insists that only those that are able to pay for it on their own should be allowed to go to college. They don't believe in upward mobility. In fact, considering the economic policies that they espouse, one is forced to conclude that their goal for the nation is downward mobility

Meantime, the United States continues to fall further behind in the rankings of students' performance, particularly in math and science. We who benefited from the foresightedness and the generous spirit of our parents' and grandparents' generations are failing our children and grandchildren. History will not look kindly upon that failure.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Breaking news! Ryan repudiates Rand!

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand."                                                                                       - Rep. Paul Ryan (R - Wisconsin)

This Paul Ryan quote came from a 2005 gathering in Washington that honored the author and libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand, the woman who he acknowledged had had an enormous impact on his life and his career. The woman whose philosophy had, in fact, inspired him to go into politics and to try to remake the world in her image. Ryan was famous for requiring his interns to read Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, and for giving the book as a Christmas present every year.  In countless interviews, he was very open about her influence on his life.

Accordingly, as the Republicans' point man on budget matters, he wrote budgets which were completely draconian in their punishment of the powerless poor and middle class and their distribution of largess to the richest and most powerful among us. For this, he was heaped with praise by his fellow Republicans and by Washington pundits who anointed him as a Very Serious Person.

Recently, though, some people - other than Paul Krugman who's been there all along - have begun to point out some of the flaws in Mr. Ryan's budgetary philosophy. And now the Catholic bishops have denounced the budget on religious grounds, calling it un-Christian. Apparently the bishops have noticed that sticking it to the poor is not really what Jesus would have done. And this criticism from the bishops, it seems, has been the final straw for the Catholic Mr. Ryan. Suddenly, he has decided that he doesn't really admire that atheist philosopher Rand after all!
He was interviewed for this week’s National Review, and he explicitly repudiated Ayn Rand.
"I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas, who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. Don’t give me Ayn Rand. "
It sounds to me as if Ryan has been taking lessons from the Etch-a-Sketch candidate, shaking everything up and trying to reset it. So will we now see him renouncing his budget which is the very embodiment of Rand's morality and political perspective? I won't hold my breath.

Whenever I think of Ryan and his slavish adherence in his political life to the philosophy expressed in Atlas Shrugged, I'm always reminded of  blogger Kung Fu Monkey's take on it:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
Personally, I was always enchanted by the orcs, elves and hobbits and never was enticed to the dark side by  Rand/Sauron.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips: A review

The Greek gods of Olympus are alive in the twenty-first century but they are not well. Their powers are waning because nobody believes in them any more. They all live together in a cramped rat and roach-infested town house in London and they are seriously getting on each other's nerves.

Marie Phillips has imagined a world in which the Greek gods retain their essential characters but must find ways of getting along in a world of humans. Thus, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, is a telephone sex worker, when she isn't getting it on with her fellow gods - or, sometimes, while she's getting it on with her fellow gods. (She has mastered multi-tasking.) Apollo, god of the sun, is a television psychic, and his sister, Artemis, the goddess of hunting, is a professional dog walker. 

The house where the gods all live is slowly succumbing to rot and it is filthy because nobody ever cleans. Artemis decides to do something at least about the filth problem and she hires a cleaner named Alice.

Alice has a friend named Neil who would very much like to be her boyfriend but he's much too meek and shy to do anything about it. Apollo, on the other hand, has no such problem and once he sees Alice cleaning his house, he decides he must have her. Well, no one says "no" to a god, do they? No one except Alice, it seems. That puts Apollo into a world-class snit and soon all hell (literally) is breaking loose. Mad old Zeus escapes from the top floor of the house where the other gods have confined him and begins hurling thunderbolts. Things are looking very bleak for humanity and especially for Alice and Neil who are caught in the crossfire of a battle of the wills between gods. The situation requires a hero and Artemis finds a most unlikely one.

This was a fun and quick read. It was Phillips' first novel and it is very imaginative and funny. For those, like me, who are hooked on Greek mythology, it was very entertaining to read about the gods trying to cope with the twenty-first century, and, in the end, managing very well, with a little assist from a heroic human. Not unlike the Greek gods of old. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cat's Claw by Susan Wittig Albert: A review

Occasionally, it is good to be able to read a book that is totally undemanding, one that doesn't require the brain to exert itself overmuch but can let it figuratively relax and enjoy the ride. That's what books like those in Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles herbal mystery series are like for me. Cat's Claw is the twentieth in that series and I confess that I have read and enjoyed them all. They speak to several of my interests - gardening, native Texas plants, herbs and herbal lore - and they are set in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, among my favorite spots in the state. Picking up one of her books is a bit like putting on my favorite robe and slippers and sinking into my favorite chair. It's all about comfort.

That being said, the last few books in this series have grown a bit stale, stodgy and predictable, and the character of China Bayles seems a lot less fresh and interesting to me than she was ten or fifteen volumes ago. Maybe Albert was feeling that way, too, because in this book, she's taken the focus off the Bayles character just a bit and redirected it toward the Pecan Springs police chief Sheila Dawson. Dawson has been a character in the series for a while now and it seems that Albert may be interested in steering the arc of these stories more in her direction. Much of this story is told from her perspective, although China Bayles still gets her two cents' worth in, also.

The main mystery here involves the death of Pecan Springs' computer guru, Larry Kirk, who is found shot to death in his kitchen. He has a gun still in his hand and at first it looks like suicide, but some things just don't add up. For one thing, Larry hated guns and was a staunch anti-gun advocate. For another, he seemed an easy-going type, very unlikely to have taken his own life. When Sheila discovers that the gun was in the wrong hand - right, although Larry was left-handed - that pretty much clinches it. The autopsy report confirms it. Sheila has a murder on her hands.

As the investigation develops, there are suspicions that blackmail may have played a part in the murder. When a customer of Kirk's, a Pecan Springs bigwig named George Timms is discovered to have broken into Kirk's computer shop and then goes missing, Sheila suspects a connection. Then Timms, too, is found dead and a search of his house turns up some very nasty secrets, a possible incentive for blackmail. But how is this related to Larry Kirk's death? Or is it?

As a still relatively new police chief and a female one in the domain of the good old boys at that, Sheila Dawson is under a lot of pressure to solve the mysteries and bring the perpatrator(s?) to justice. Somehow the reader never is in any doubt that she will be able to do just that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Shakespeare debt

The exact date of William Shakespeare's birth may not be absolutely known for sure, although there is a record that he was baptized on April 26, 1616, but we know it was around this time in that year. This is the 396th anniversary of his birth, and the debt that our language owes the man continues to accrue interest. 

It is virtually impossible for an English speaker to get through the day without quoting him in some fashion. This was neatly illustrated in a meditation by Bernard Levin that I happened to come upon today, repeated here for your edification:
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare 'It's Greek to me'you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinningyou are quoting Shakespeare;  if you recall your salad daysyou are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in angerif your wish is father to the thoughtif your lost property has vanished into thin airyou are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousyif you have played fast and looseif you have been tongue-tieda tower of strengthhoodwinked or in a pickleif you have knitted your browsmade a virtue of necessityinsisted on fair playslept not one winkstood on ceremonydanced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitcheshad short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thingif you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise -- why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggageif you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of itif you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and bloodif you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul playif you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reasonthen -- to give the devil his due -- if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packingif you wish I was dead as a doornailif you think I am an eyesorea laughing stockthe devil incarnatea stony-hearted villainbloody-minded or a blinking idiotthen -- by JoveO LordTut, tutFor goodness' sakeWhat the dickensBut me no buts -- it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
So, the long and the short of it is, to give the devil (or the angel) his due, our language would be poor indeed without Will's meaty additions to it. And we may as well admit that we will never be able to repay our debt, not even until the trumpets sound at the crack of doom.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fifty shades of bad writing

“You beguile me, Christian. Completely overwhelm me. I feel like Icarus flying too close to the sun.”- The virginal Anastasia speaks to Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey 
One of the more interesting and puzzling phenomena in the world of books recently has been the popularity of the soft porn book - often referred to as "mommy porn" - Fifty Shades of Grey. The book, first in a trilogy, shot to the top of the New York Times combined e-reader and print fiction best-seller list and it was quickly followed by the other two parts of the trilogy.  The books have stayed there now for six or seven weeks.

If news of this latest reading rage that seems to have lots of horny women panting for more hasn't reached your ears - or eyes - yet, let me tell you what I know about it. It will have to be second-hand, because, frankly, I haven't read it either. I've just read lots about it.

The author, E.L. James, apparently conceived of the books as a bit of Twilight "fan fiction," an homage to the paranormal love story of Bella and Edward in that popular series - which I also haven't read. James “reimagined the Bella and Edward love affair set in contemporary Seattle, Washington with Bella as the young college graduate virgin and Edward as the masterful billionaire with secret sexual predilections.” She named the Bella character Anastasia and the Edward character Christian Grey and Fifty Shades of Grey was born.

The relationship of Anastasia and Christian is based on kinky sex, specifically bondage, dominance, sado-masochism or BDSM in the shorthand of the day. Christian is one messed up individual and he gets off on spanking Anastasia, dominating her and causing her pain. And Anastasia likes it! 

And it seems that a lot of women really, really enjoy reading about it. When one reads the comments on online reviews of the book, one sees that the women fans of the book empathize with Christian because of his tortured past. They forgive him and understand all of his funny little predilections. They see him as incredibly romantic and someone they'd like to have handcuff them to the bedposts.

Now, I'm not opposed to erotica as such. A well-written sex scene is a pleasurable read and a great - um - tension-reliever. But the excerpts that I've read of this book just reek! For example:
“I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder … Hmm … My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”  
Anastasia's "inner goddess" seems to be an ever-present participant/observer in their encounters, completing a virtual three-way, so to speak. Again, after a sado-masochistic romp:
“We lie there, panting together, waiting for our breathing to slow. He gently strokes my hair … Boy … I Survived. That wasn’t so bad. I’m more stoic than I thought. My inner goddess is prostrate … well, at least she’s quiet.” 
I am at a stage in my life when there are so many good writers and good books out there and time is just too short to spend it on bad writers and bad books. My "inner goddess" tells me to stay far, far away from Fifty Shades of Grey.

If  you, on the other hand, are curious, you can speed read some of the naughtiest bits of the book here and then see what your very own inner goddess tells you about reading the whole thing!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman: A review

I saw a reference to this book recently in something else I was reading and thought, "Oh, yes, I remember reading that book." But then I took the book down from the shelf to look at it and realized that I hadn't read it at all. I think I may have started and stopped. After all, it was published in 1978 which was an extraordinarily busy time in my life, so I may simply not have had the energy for it. It is a dense and long book.

I'm so glad that I picked it up again. The world has turned many times since its publication date more than thirty years ago, but when you get right down to it, not much has changed about human nature. Indeed, not much has changed since the 14th century about which Tuchman was writing. 

Europe - specifically France and England - in the 14th century was beset by an incredible series of catastrophes. There was climate change (the Little Ice Age), the Hundred Years War between England and France, the papal schism, the last Crusades, pillaging companies of brigands, peasant revolts, and then, to top it all off, the cherry on top of the whipped cream so to speak, there was the Black Death. 

The deadly pestilence of the bubonic plague may have killed a third of the total population. No one can say with absolute certainty. What is known is that many areas were virtually depopulated. The plague hit not just once but at intervals throughout the last part of this rotten century and into the 15th century. 

Meanwhile, the wars ground on incessantly with, as usual, the poor ordinary folk as their main victims. When one considers all the things that went wrong in this century, it is somewhat amazing that anything of European society remained when it finally dragged to its sorry end. 

Barbara Tuchman was a tireless and thorough researcher and it certainly shows in this book. With an enormous amount of ground to cover and events to explain, she frequently wanders off in delightful ways to various related topics of medieval life. With all that meandering though, she still manages to keep the reader focused on a clear narrative of events. 

She does this by the device of showing us the benighted century though the life of a particular man, a French nobleman named Enguerrand de Coucy. Coucy was a sort of 14th century Forrest Gump who happened to be present at many of the important events that occurred during his lifetime. Moreover, his activities were remarkably well-documented and he was an inspired choice for the peg on which to hang the tattered cloak of this century. 

The title of this book, A Distant Mirror, was an acknowledgement by Ms. Tuchman that her century, the 20th, was in many ways a reflection of the medieval century. If you think about that long list of tragedies that were to mark that long-ago time and compare them to the events of the 20th and now 21st centuries, the things which they have in common are apparent. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it and we never seem to learn. 

If we fail to learn, it cannot be laid on the shoulders of Barbara Tuchman who did a truly masterful job of bringing the calamitous century to life and making us feel the pain of those who lived and died (often horribly) there.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Climate change affecting the weather? Ya think?

Headline in The New York Times today: In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change. The story under the headline relates how a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

Can this really be true? After years of being in denial despite climate scientists' best efforts to make the case that human-caused climate warming is happening and that we need to try to slow or reverse it, is the public finally ready to accept the truth of climate change?
“Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,” said Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll. “People are starting to connect the dots.”
Maybe. But after reading the story in the Times, if you follow up by reading the reader comments on the story, you may be excused for wondering if that is really true. There are too many people out there who still believe, in all seriousness, that the whole thing about climate change is just one big conspiracy of those damned scientists and the liberal media.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Close but no cigar

Did you hear that the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday and, for the first time since 1977, no prize was awarded for fiction? That seems pretty curious in view of the fact that there was some pretty darned good fiction released within the past year.

The only three books in the fiction category that were finalists in the nominating process for the prize were Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Train Demons by Denis Johnson, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. I have not read any of the three - yet. (To be perfectly honest, I'd never even heard of Johnson's book, but now that I have, I'll look it up and see if its something I might have an interest in reading.) But I did read several books published in 2011 that I certainly think were worthy of Pulitzer consideration and I blogged about all of them here: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht; State of Wonder by Ann Patchett; and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, to name just four.

One difference that I see between the four books that I just mentioned and the three nominated by the Pulitzer committee is that my four had a pretty wide audience. They were not necessarily blockbuster best-sellers, but they sold well. The three nominees, I believe, were not that popular. Perhaps acceptance and popularity with the public is a strike against a book when it comes to being considered for this prize. Sometimes prize-giving entities like these seem to enjoy rewarding obscurity.

Of course, I don't know what the Pulitzer nominating committee or the board that makes the final selection have as their standards and guidelines, but I do think that the books that I read compare very favorably with many of the winners for fiction down through the years.

I was happy to see that at least one book that I read did win. Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt won in the General Nonfiction category. Well deserved.

UPDATE: See this Daily Beast article for more on the issue and the selection process.

UPDATE 2: Also, here's an excellent op-ed by Ann Patchett on the subject.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Game of Thrones' second season

Last night I saw the third episode in this second season of Game of Thrones on HBO. Having now read all five of the books, since the end of the first season of the show, I can state unequivocally that those involved in the production of the series have done a terrific job of translating it to the screen. With its huge number of characters that are important to the story, not to mention the many varied locations where the action takes place, it would seem to me to be an absolutely daunting task and yet they've passed the test with flying colors.

My understanding of the books and of the television series has been deepened recently by the book that I'm currently reading, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. Indeed, The Game of Thrones could easily have been set in the Europe of the 14th century with its constant wars, its religious conflicts and schisms, the intermarrying for political reasons of the great families of the time, the utter brutishness of the lives of the poor who made up the vast majority of the population, and, of course, the scheming and betrayals of the kings and those who would be kings. I'm about two-thirds of the way through Tuchman's long and information-filled book and I'm finding it hard to put down.

Comparing Tuchman's book to George R.R. Martin's series of books about the fictional world of Westeros is proof once again that truth really is stranger than fiction and it makes this reader wonder if perhaps Martin read Tuchman's book that was first published back in 1978 and if it might have given him the germ of an idea for his created world.  If so, there's still plenty of  material there for the two more books planned in his series.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The faux mommy wars

I'm sure you've heard of the big manufactured political brouhaha of the week that was generated when Hilary Rosen, a political pundit on CNN, in talking about Mitt Romney getting his information about women's issues from his wife, made the statement that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. Well, when the Republicans and Fox News heard that, they wet themselves in glee. Soon the Fox Newsies were falling all over themselves decrying liberals' war against moms and tying the Obama campaign to Rosen's statement, even though she has no connection to the Obama campaign and even though an Obama spokesman immediately distanced the campaign from the statement and even though Rosen herself apologized for her choice of words. Soon, the Romney campaign was sending out fundraising emails lambasting the Obama campaign's disrespect to stay-at-home moms and asking the recipients to stand with Ann. What utter nonsense! But then this is the state to which political discourse in this country has fallen.

Completely lost in all the dust-up was the point which Rosen had been trying to make and it is a completely valid point. Ann Romney had the privilege of choosing to remain at home with her children rather than entering the workforce. Moreover, she had a household staff of servants to help her. While no one in his or her right mind would argue that raising five children - or one child, for that matter - is not hard work, the situation in which Ann Romney raised her children cannot even remotely be compared to the situation in which most mothers in America find themselves.

Most American mothers do not have the option of choosing to stay at home with their children or of having servants to help with their needs. If those children are going to be fed, clothed, housed, and educated, their mothers have to work to pay for it. Thus, most mothers of young children in America rise early in the morning, clean, dress, and feed their children and get themselves ready for work. Then they take the children to a day care center and head on to their day job where they spend the next eight or more hours. Then they return to the day care center, pick up the children, take them home, try to respond to their needs - regardless of how tired they are - for quality time with mom, make dinner for them, make sure they get their baths and maybe a story or two read and then put them to bed. A few short hours later, they start the routine all over again. Is it any wonder that mothers are perpetually tired and stressed out, never get a full night's sleep, and that their mental and physical health suffers from this killing routine?

Of course, that's only the beginning. As the kids age, there are other activities that they have to be ferried to and mom is the chauffeur and cheerleader for those activities. Well, I could go on, but it makes me tired just to think about it. Been there, done that, have two amazingly normal and well-adjusted adult children to prove it.

If a mom is lucky, she has a husband who is a willing partner in the raising of these children, but if she isn't - and a whole lot of women aren't - then it's all on her shoulders. Even if she does have a helpful partner, I would argue that the bulk of the responsibility still falls on her shoulders.

The economic reality of late 20th and early 21st century America has been that, in most families, it takes two parents in the workforce to keep the family afloat and thriving. Ann Romney never had to make that choice of going into the workforce to provide for her family. There's nothing wrong with that. Probably a majority of mothers would choose as she did, if they had a choice. They don't. But don't insult me and other working mothers who hold down stressful full-time day jobs and still manage to be full-time mothers by saying that Ann Romney knows what we've experienced and can report to her husband what our views and needs are. She doesn't have a clue and neither does he.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wild Horses by Dick Francis: A review

There was a time in my life - maybe 20-25 years ago - when Dick Francis was actually my favorite author. I looked forward to his new book every year and rushed out to buy it as soon as it was in the bookstores. Eventually though, all of his plots and all of his characters took on a sameness and it became hard to distinguish one book from another. Moreover, I got older and my tastes in literature changed. In the '90s, I stopped reading him altogether. In fact, I think Wild Horses was one of the last of his books that I read before I dropped him. This month it was the selection for my local Mystery Book Club and so I re-read it, because I really couldn't remember anything about it. 

It all came back to me slowly as I read. In this one, Francis' hero is a film director who was once a jockey until he got too big. Now he's directing a movie about the racing world, specifically about the hanging death of the wife of a trainer some twenty-six years before. The mystery of the death was never solved. It was never proved whether it was suicide or murder although there were suspicions that her husband had killed her. Twenty-five years later a writer had published a fictionalized account of the story and now our hero is turning it into a movie. 

As it happens, this makes several people really nervous. They don't want that whole can of worms opened up once again and soon threats of death and destruction plague the making of the movie and actual attempts at mayhem proliferate. Meanwhile, offstage so to speak, tangential characters are dying, sometimes in bloody fashion. Are the deaths and the discontent with the reopening of the questions about the death of a woman more than a quarter of a century before somehow related? The director suspects they may be and sets himself the task of solving the mysteries - if only he can live long enough. 

The director, Thomas Lyon, is one of Francis' typical decent, stoic heroes, one who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. His heroes always get painfully injured during the course of their investigations - beaten up, shot, stabbed - but it only makes them more determined. Thomas Lyon fits right into that mold. They also tend to have very chaste sex lives and to view men as the protectors of women. Weirdly, in this rewriting of the basic Francis plot, this 30-year-old director is smitten with a farmer's virginal teenage daughter. She just happens to be the daughter of the man whose first wife was killed all those many years ago. 

The plot plods on, not really at all like wild horses racing across a beach. It was predictable in all its turns, although I have to admit I didn't fully remember who the culprit was until he was uncloaked by the director/investigator. Nevertheless, it was an oddly satisfying read for me, a blast from the past, even though it isn't something that I would choose on my own to read today. It doesn't have the zip and freshness that many of Francis' early novels did. Still, it held some pleasures. Mostly nostalgic.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The New American Landscape edited by Thomas Christopher: A review

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening was published last summer. I reviewed it at that time for my other blog, Gardening with Nature, but it is a book that I have turned to time and again since first reading it for inspiration and for information about best gardening practices.  It is a book that is invaluable for any gardener seeking to achieve sustainability in his/her gardening practices.

This book features chapters written by a diverse group of knowledgeable horticulturists and gardeners on a variety of subjects such as the new American meadow garden, balancing natives and exotics in the garden, landscapes that welcome wildlife, the sustainable edible garden, gardening sustainably in a changing climate, and on and on. There are eleven chapters in all, edited and introduced by Thomas Christopher, who has been reporting on gardening and environmental issues for more than twenty-five years. The thing that ties all these various chapters together is that they feature a sustainable approach to gardening.

The subjects that are covered affect gardeners everywhere and the writers' commonsense step-by-step approach demonstrates how gardeners' sustainable practices positively shape our environment. Gardeners, after all, are on the front line of defense as we struggle to deal with problems like loss of habitat, water shortages, shrinking biodiversity, and, the biggie, global climate change, and how we garden in our own backyard can have an impact for good or ill on each of those important issues.

Some of the suggestions here for improving our sustainable gardening practices include the following:

1. Plant a tree. If you can only do one thing, this may be the very best thing you can do to help the environment. Trees take up CO2 and reduce emissions from air conditioning. Furthermore, they help to cool our yards and houses - another reason that we here in Texas need to do everything within our power to save trees during this drought.

2. Recycle and reduce use of disposable products. For example, do not use non-biodegradable mulches such as those made of plastic. Use natural, organic mulches.

3. Improve nitrogen fertilizer use efficiency. One of the writers suggests, for example, using clover/grass mixes for your lawn. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil.

4. Reduce fossil fuel usage. Use tools that do not require fossil fuels whenever possible and use the ones that do require fossil fuel as sparingly as possible.

5. Increase soil carbon sequestration. One way to do this is to employ a no-till, no-dig method of gardening known as lasagna gardening. It involves layering rather than tilling and has become increasingly popular among organic gardeners.

6. Use renewable energy sources whenever possible.

These suggestions and this book work for gardeners with a wide range of experience. Both the veteran gardener and the newbie can learn a lot here. This is an impressive and thought-provoking book, one that belongs on the shelf of every gardener who is concerned about the environment and the future of the planet. That, I think, is every gardener.

(An Advance Review Copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher, Timber Press, for the purposes of this review.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Women and caterpillars, unite!

Last week, Reince Priebus, the Republican National Campaign Committee Chairman, was interviewed on Bloomberg Television by Al Hunt and was asked about all the anti-women initiatives that his party has sponsored right across the country over the past fifteen months. Priebus rejected the idea that Republicans are waging a war on women and then he made the following jaw-dropping statement:
“If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars. It’s a fiction.  
So, let me get this straight. It's all the Democrats' and the mainstream media's fault that Republicans are being accused of a war on women. It has nothing to do with mandating unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, limiting access to birth control, rescinding equal pay laws, writing bills that would charge women who have miscarriages with murder, forcing women to produce written statements to their employers about the reason they need contraceptives in order for their group insurance to cover those contraceptives, legislation that would define a woman as pregnant two weeks before conception  - all of these are actual bills introduced by Republican legislators in recent months, all aimed at controlling women's wombs and their lives. But none of that represents a Republican war on women, according to Mr. Priebus. No, it's all those mean ol' Democrats' and journalists' fault.

As the wonderful Bug Girl points out in her blog today, in fact, the Republicans have been almost equally relentless in their war against caterpillars as well. They have repeatedly introduced legislation that would strip the E.P.A. of powers to regulate poisons being released into the environment, including actual pesticides that are used against caterpillars. I think it is quite clear that Republicans are pursuing their war on two fronts, both against women and against caterpillars, so I say, it's time for those of us on the receiving end of their constant artillery barrage to get together and present a united front. Women and caterpillars, unite!

   It's you and me, kid!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Take me out to the ball game

It's the first weekend of the new baseball season and my team, the Astros, are at .500. That means they are on a pace to win 81 games this year. That's after losing a record 106 and winning only 56 last season. Winning 81 games this year would be a miraculous improvement.

Of course, this is a very, very young and inexperienced team and probably no one, except maybe their mothers, really expects them to have a winning season, but stranger things have happened in baseball. Stranger things happen every day in baseball. That's one of the reasons the game never gets boring - except to boring people.

The Astros are playing the Colorado Rockies at home in this first series of the season. In the first game of the season yesterday, their youth and inexperience showed. They made four - count 'em, four - errors. You can't win a major league baseball game when you make four errors and give up four unearned runs, and the Astros didn't. They lost 5-3. But at least they did hit two home runs in the game. Home runs were scarcer than hen's teeth in Astros games last year, but in today's game they again hit two home runs. That means they are on a pace to hit 324 home runs this year!

Well, 324 home runs in a season aren't going to happen and 81 wins probably won't happen either, but today, after yesterday's awful game, they played error-less ball and looked like champions. Their young pitcher, Lucas Harrell, was particularly impressive. It gives their die-hard fans hope that this may at least be, if not a winning season, an interesting one. If the young guys pull together as a team and improve throughout the coming months as we have every right to expect they will, then it will be an interesting season.

It might even be a winning one. It is April, after all, and hope springs eternal in April. In April, any team seems capable of making it to the World Series. Even my Astros.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon, translator): A review

Oh, my God, this book made my brain hurt! Actually, reading any Umberto Eco book makes my brain hurt. Even The Name of the Rose, which I loved, and Foucault's Pendulum, which I liked, gave me pains when I was reading them. I think the problem may be that Eco is so far beyond me intellectually that I have to struggle to keep up with him. Even so, I probably miss a lot of his references. Somewhat paradoxically though, I do enjoy reading him. I enjoy the challenge. 

This book is the fictionalization of the creation of an actual work of fiction, the notorious The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is the anti-Semitic screed that had its origin in the 19th century, being based on what was apparently intended as a political satire. In the hands of those who hated Jews and who sought justification for oppressing and ultimately eliminating them, it became the excuse for the instigation of extreme evil. 

Eco takes us into the middle and late 19th century in Italy, France, and Prussia. It was a revolutionary time, a time of extreme political upheaval when Italy was on its way to being unified and the Paris Commune was attempting reform in France. Moreover, it was a time of religious conflict and of the prominence of belief in the occult and of the rise of Freemasonry, as well as celebration of Black Masses. This was a heady mixture which resulted in plots and counter-plots. Eco imagines that behind it all is one man, one evil genius, Simone Simonini. 

Simonini is a master counterfeiter who produces all kinds of fake documents which keep the political pot boiling, including the document which convicts the Jewish Captain Dreyfus in France and lands him on Devil's Island. It is Simonini who, at the behest of the Russian secret service, produces The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document purports to be the minutes of a meeting of rabbis in the Prague Cemetery, in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Not only was this document accepted and believed by many in the 19th century, it continued to be published as fact(!) throughout the 20th century and was actually cited by Hitler as justification for the Holocaust. Henry Ford - yes, that Henry Ford! - was also a big fan. Sadly, it is still being published - and believed - by people today. 

There is an extensive cast of characters here, who are sometimes difficult to keep straight. Interestingly, they, except for Simonini, are mostly all actual historical characters and, Eco assures us, they spoke and behaved in the way that he reports. I'm not enough of a historian to judge whether that is really true, but it does give this story an extra fillip of authenticity. 

This was a difficult read, but I'm glad I read it - emphasis on the past tense. It does have some relevance, I think, for today's world beyond that unfortunate zombie document, The Protocols, which just refuses to die. It reveals to us how easily humans can be manipulated by the unscrupulous who are willing to concoct and repeat lies that appeal to people's basest instincts - and keep telling them over and over and over again until they become a part of the public canon. God, what fools these mortals be!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Petal & Twig: Seasonal Bouquets with Blossoms, Branches, and Grasses from Your Garden by Valerie Easton: A review

My husband sometimes surprises me with books that he thinks I might like. Since I am a serious gardener, this one jumped right out at him when he saw it mentioned in a New York Times review and so he got it for me. Sweet husband. And sweet little book. 

It is a little book, only 115 pages, and is easily read in one sitting. The author, Valerie Easton, is a garden writer based in Seattle, who enjoys bringing nature into the house with bouquets of flowers and foliage from the garden and, in this book, she shares her enthusiasm for that art. 

Her philosophy of flower arranging is that simple is best. She is not interested in creating elaborate floral constructions. She prefers to keep it informal and as natural-looking as possible, maybe a handful of daisies or of interesting limbs and twigs from the garden stuffed into a simple vase. This is an art of flower arranging that even I might be able to master! 

For those interested in growing plants for cutting and arranging, the author has included a chapter called "What to grow: A core list" where she gives a list of plants for the different seasons that do well in arrangements. She doesn't neglect edible plants and foliage that can be quite striking in bouquets. 

Truth is, I'm not much of a flower arranger. I tend to prefer my flowers alive and growing in the garden, not dying in a vase, but after reading this little book, I might amend my philosophy a bit to include the occasional bouquet, at least on special occasions. Readers who really enjoy having fresh flowers from the garden in their home will find this book very helpful in providing ideas and tips for their use. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A poem provokes outrage!

I could hardly believe my eyes as I read the story in the Times today about Gunter Grass' recently published poem. The poem has provoked anger and outrage in Germany and other parts of Europe and in Israel!

What? People are up in arms about a poem? Who gets so emotional about a poem? Who pays attention to poetry anyway? Well, apparently when it is a poem by Gunter Grass and it concerns Israel, a lot of people do.

This is not just any poem about moon and June, flowers and puppy dogs. In this poem, Grass expresses the opinion that the main threat to peace in the Middle East today is Israel. He alludes to Israel's nuclear arsenal - the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons - and to its saber-rattling approach to relations with Iran. This plus its continuing refusal to make any accommodations to the Palestinian people, Grass opines, is enough to make the militaristic state a time-bomb waiting to explode and engulf the Middle East in flames.

The title of the poem is "What Must Be Said." Grass has indicated that he hesitated to put his thoughts on paper because he knows he will be accused of anti-Semitism, but he is 84 years old and he writes, “Why do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace? Because that must be said which may already be too late to say tomorrow.”

In today's world, anyone who criticizes Israel in any context can count on being branded an anti-Semite, regardless of the truth of the matter. But why should Israel be immune from criticism? Within the state itself, there are plenty of Israelis, although maybe not enough, who are willing to criticize the actions of their government. In this country though, and apparently in European countries as well, no breath of criticism is allowed. A politician here would sign his own political death warrant by being seen as being less than 100% in Israel's corner, regardless of the issue.

I have complained in this space before about American politicians being in thrall to Israel and being unwilling to separate this country's foreign policy from Israel's. I think it is a huge mistake. Our interests do not always converge and, when they don't, we should be willing to say so forthrightly and without hesitation. Regardless of what the right-wing would have us believe, this is not a religious issue and we are not instructed by the Bible to always support Israel in any misadventure they may choose to undertake. This is a political issue, a foreign policy issue, and our aim must always be to pursue goals that are advantageous to our own country. In general, that will mean that we pursue peace in the Middle East and elsewhere.

As things stand today, I actually think Gunter Grass was about right in his assessment. Israel is a serious threat to peace in the Middle East and the world, and it needs to be acknowledged.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The civilizing influence

"Must women 'civilize' men?" Joan Walsh asks in her column today in After all, it is the position of many conservative thinkers (See Charles Murray) and politicians (See Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, et. al.) that this is the role of women in society. That it is the only role they should play in society. They must stay home, tend the fires, raise the kids, and be there whenever their husbands want them. This is the basis of all human civilization and when women seek to play any other role, that civilization begins to break down. In this worldview, all the problems of our society today can be traced back to women trying to break out of the mold that genetics put them into, and everything would be fine again if women would just shut up and fit themselves back into that mold.

And why should it be women's responsibility to provide that civilizing influence? Are men such wild and base creatures that they have no instinct for civilized behavior on their own? What an insulting idea.

The conservative model for family is set in stone. It consists of a man and a woman and children, with the man the head of the household and the provider and everyone else subservient to him. If you take away from the man that role of family ruler then you have taken away his whole reason for being and the thing which gives him the veneer of civilization, the thing that distinguishes him from beasts. Wives who enter the workforce are demeaning their husbands and usurping their role of provider. And in the philosophy of today's conservatives, women who seek to control their own bodies and the number of children which they have are interfering with the husband's responsibility and prerogative. Yes, some people who live here in the second decade of the 21st century do actually think like that. You can hear them on conservative talk-radio or, for that matter, on the Fox News Network any hour of the day.

My thought is - and I think Joan Walsh would agree with me - that the sexes civilize each other. We complete each other. We form a unit, two halves of a whole. We create a family together and that is the basis of our civilization. But civilization is not the sole responsibility of one sex or the other. It is in every way a joint undertaking. And it works best and is most successful when both parts of the unit are equally valued and respected and when each has the capacity to bring out the best that is in the other. We each rub off the rough edges on the other and that is the real civilizing influence.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dispatches from the war on women

The website iVillage has been compiling data about the condition of women's lives in the United States here in the second decade of the 21st century. They researched such sources as the 2010 U.S.Census, the National Women's Law Center, National Partnership for Women and Families, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence. What they found makes for appalling reading.

They ranked the fifty states according to their protection of women and families and of women's rights. The assault on women's rights is a nationwide policy objective of the right-wing to "put women in their place," and there are few bright spots in the data that they found, but five states were particularly bad. According to iVillage, these five are the very worst of the worst:     

5. Kentucky 
Over 77% of the women in the state live in a county without an abortion provider and nearly 20% of the women live in poverty. Not even a quarter of the women in the state have a college degree.
4. West Virginia
Like Kentucky, West Virginia has a tragically low number of women holding college degrees with just 17.8%. Poverty is also a problem with the median income approximately only $29,651. West Virginia is also the only state that doesn’t protect a woman’s right to breast-feed in either public or private.
3. Arkansas
In Arkansas abortion is pretty much legal in name only. Only 3% of the state’s counties offer them. Just about one-quarter of the population doesn’t have health insurance and the median income is only $29,148 a year.
2. Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s attack on reproductive choice has been relentless this legislative session with personhood measures and restrictive anti-abortion measures. The entire region only has six abortion doctors and the state has outlawed insurance coverage for abortion. As it stands 1 in 4 women in the state already live without health insurance and the state does not have a single female elected official in Congress. The good news is Oklahoma’s overreach was just hemmed in by the federal courts.
1. Mississippi 
Mississippi women earn the lowest average wages in the country and has never elected a woman to Congress or as governor. 22% of the women of the state live in poverty and 68% of Mississippi women are overweight or obese.
For me, about the only surprise here is that Texas isn't among the five worst. In fact, it only ranked 38th. Just wait until our state legislature meets again. I'm betting they can win the race to the bottom.

The pattern that the researchers found in their study was that states where women do not have access to affordable higher education, reproductive health care, and representation in Congress are the most virulently and shamelessly anti-women in their policies. This war - and never doubt that it is, in fact, a war - is not just about abortion. It is about women's ability to control their lives and their destinies. It is about the most basic right of women to control their own bodies.

In countries around the world, sociologists find that the improvement of economic conditions, as well as the health of the population, is tied to the ability of women to receive education, health care, to control the size of their families, and to participate in government. Thus, the most advanced societies on the planet are generally considered to be those of northern Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, where women are most free to control their own destinies. The United States, in this as in so many other arenas, threatens to fall back into the status of a Third World country. This is where the right-wingnuts want to take us. Let us hope that, in this election year, women will be cognizant of this threat to their autonomy and that they will flood the polls and vote for those who represent their interests. Otherwise, by the next election, we may not be able to vote at all. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April is Poetry Month

April is Poetry Month, so let's celebrate it with a poem.

Poetry is not necessarily an easy endeavor for a writer, a fact which Erica Jong recognizes. She gives some hints on how the aspiring poet can capture the words and make them purr.

The Poem Cat by Erica Jong
Sometimes the poem
doesn't want to come;
it hides from the poet
like a playful cat
who has run
under the house
& lurks among slugs,
roots, spiders' eyes,
ledge so long out of the sun
that it is dank
with the breath of the Troll King.

Sometimes the poem
darts away
like a coy lover
who is afraid of being possessed,
of feeling too much,
of losing his essential
loneliness-which he calls

Sometimes the poem
can't requite
the poet's passion.

The poem is a dance
between poet & poem,
but sometimes the poem
just won't dance
and lurks on the sidelines
tapping its feet-
iambs, trochees-
out of step with the music
of your mariachi band.

If the poem won't come,
I say: sneak up on it.
Pretend you don't care.
Sit in your chair
reading Shakespeare, Neruda,
immortal Emily
and let yourself flow
into their music.

Go to the kitchen
and start peeling onions
for homemade sugo.

Before you know it,
the poem will be crying
as your ripe tomatoes
bubble away
with inspiration.

When the whole house is filled
with the tender tomato aroma,
start kneading the pasta.

As you rock
over the damp sensuous dough,
making it bend to your will,
as you make love to this manna
of flour and water,
the poem will get hungry
and come
just like a cat
coming home
when you least
expect her.