Saturday, June 30, 2012

Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch: A review

"I don't have a plan," Elvis volunteers. "I just have a feel. Trying to get a better understanding of myself. The mistakes I make always come back around. Truth is like the sun, isn't it? You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't going away."
That snippet from a conversation between Roger Morgan and Elvis Presley in September 1962 gives Jim Lynch's novel its title and is a quick summation of the plot. Indeed, it could be the summation of the plot of many novels and many lives. The mistakes that we make always seem to come back around, often when we least expect them.

The place is Seattle. The novel switches back and forth between the time of the World's Fair that took place there in 1962 and the year 2001, a time of other momentous events. The man most responsible for the Fair's success was Roger Morgan, the mastermind of it all. It was an event that transformed the city from a sleepy outpost of the past to a place that embraced the future and was a magnet for farsighted thinkers. And Roger was the promoter that brought it all together and made it happen. He was brash and daring as he scrambled about trying to amass the funds to build the iconic Space Needle and all the other pavilions and exhibits. He was dubbed the unofficial mayor of Seattle. He was the man that everyone wanted a piece of.

Forty years later, he is still promoting Seattle, and at 70 years old, he suddenly decides to run to become the mayor for real of his city.

In 2001, reporter Helen Gulanos is new to the city. An investigative reporter with the Post-Intelligencer, she has come here to try to make a journalistic reputation for herself. She is a young single mother trying to raise a pre-school aged son and to make a life for them in a city that she doesn't really know or understand. As fate would have it, she just happens to be present when Roger Morgan announces his decision to run for mayor and her journalistic instincts begin to twitch. She intuits that there is an interesting story here, perhaps one that has not been told, and she determines to tell it.

In digging for her story, Helen begins to find the name of the beloved legend Roger Morgan turning up in some unsavory places - namely in stories of mid-century real-estate scandals, graft, and gambling - and what may have started out as a human interest story takes on the tones of a political expose'. Moreover, it is an expose' being produced under time pressure as the mayoral primary looms.

It also emerges that Helen herself has some secrets she would prefer not to be widely known and it seems that the object of her investigation has an uncanny knowledge and understanding of those secrets. And yet each of these individuals, who may be seen as adversaries, also has a grudging admiration for the style of the other and a sympathy for the problems facing him/her. 

I greatly enjoyed Jim Lynch's two previous novels set in the Northwest, Border Songs and The Highest Tide, but, frankly, I found it difficult to really get "into" this one. The two main characters didn't really grab me at first and I was about two-thirds of the way through before their fates began to somewhat interest me. In fact, even at the end, I was still trying to make up my mind about them.

This novel is a time-traveler. It exists in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and also in 2001, ending on September 10. Perhaps the message is that everyday sins and tragedies are dwarfed and overwhelmed by the tide of time and events. But, in fact, the truth is like the sun and it isn't going away forever. It always returns. Even in rainy Seattle.

Friday, June 29, 2012


Just because you've been so good this week, here is some Friday cat frivolity for you.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The conflicted court

The Supreme Court of the United States has appeared less and less supreme in recent years. Not that its power to interpret the Constitution has been impaired but that its interpretations have seemed more and more politically partisan and less and less actually based on the rule of law. Two high points of this politically partisan court are usually cited by its critics as evidence of its right-wing bias.

The first, of course, was the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 that stopped the count of votes in Florida and substituted the Court's own vote for the popular vote of the people in that year's presidential election. The reasoning behind this decision was so flawed and convoluted that even those who wrote it (Scalia) stipulated that it could not be cited as precedent in any other case.

The second was the notorious Citizens United decision which declared that corporations have the same rights as people! In fact, in the view of the Court, they have even more rights than people because they can make unlimited donations to political campaigns, essentially buying elections. These two decisions rank right up there with Dred Scott as three of the most egregious and outrageous ever made by a Supreme Court.

Recent opinion polls have shown that many people are cognizant of the bias being shown by the Court in its opinions and that it has lessened the esteem which they hold for that Court. They can see that, in effect, the Roberts Court has become, like Fox News, just another arm of the Republican Tea Party, the radical right wing that only believes in democracy when the majority agrees with them and that  refuses to recognize the legitimacy of democratically elected officials and democratically passed laws when those officials and those laws are not in lock step with their plutocratic agenda. The latest poll that I saw showed something like 45 percent of respondents had a negative view of the Court. Those who held positive views were considerably less and then, of course, there was a segment of respondents who were clueless and didn't know what they thought.

One wonders if such polls trouble the sleep of Chief Justice John Roberts at all. After all, his name is on this court and history will judge him as a Chief Justice based on its decisions. So far, those decisions would not assure him much of a ranking among the Chief Justices of history.

So now we come to this week's decisions.

First the Court overruled Arizona's racist "papers, please" law sending Antonin Scalia into an apoplectic dissent that must have scorched the paint on the walls of the Court chamber. Scalia's language was so over-the-top, unlawyerly, and extreme that it has prompted some to call for his resignation. But this is just the cap in a long career of extremist views for this justice. He's obviously not going to resign.

Now, today, we have the Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act. To the dismay of right-wingers everywhere - and, I think, to the surprise of many liberals - the Court upheld the law, finding it constitutional in all of its major parts. The conservative John Roberts joined with the four liberal-leaning justices on the Court to form a majority opinion. As usual, Scalia and his minions, Thomas and Alito, held the dissenting view and, somewhat surprisingly, the libertarian Kennedy sided with them.

Observers of the Court may see this as some evidence that Roberts has, in fact, become concerned with how history will view him and that this may impel him in the future to moderate somewhat his more radical right-wing instincts. Time will tell on that score. At least now we know why Scalia went bat-shit crazy with his Arizona dissent. He knew what was coming and he doesn't like losing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hillary Clinton, my hero

There is a long and very positive piece in The New York Times Magazine about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entitled "Hillary Clinton's Last Tour as a Rock-Star Diplomat."  I read it with some avidity since Clinton is a hero of mine, one of the people that I admire most in the world.

I am certainly not unique in being a Clinton-admirer. She is the most admired woman in this country, topping that list year after year and is arguably the most admired woman in the world.

There are good reasons for all that admiration. Wherever life has taken her, Clinton has always worked to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place, especially for women and children. She has taken up the cause of women and children around the world and made elevating their status a prime aim of her professional life.

By all accounts, she has been relentless in pursuing her passion for women's and children's rights. Everywhere that she goes in the world as Secretary of State - and she goes everywhere! - that cause is always part of her agenda. She is ever on the lookout for ways in which the lot of the common women in the countries where she visits can be advanced and, in her dealings with heads of state and diplomats, she is not shy about bringing these topics up and making them a part of the negotiations.

Improving the lot of women in developing countries often means paying attention to the most basic of human needs. Things like making access to clean water easier or providing ways of cooking food that do not pollute houses and the atmosphere and make families sick. Or making sure that women and children have access to health care and that women can have the means to limit the numbers of their children. Our Secretary of State is attuned to such commonplace needs and makes them a part of her writ. After all, there are rock-solid data that show that the key to improving society as a whole lies in improving the lives of women. As a rising tide lifts all boats, the rising status of women raises the status of all humanity. Not everyone in the world of politics and international relations accepts that truth, of course, but Clinton does and she is its most effective ambassador.

Clinton has said that she will end her term as Secretary of State with the end of President Obama's first term, regardless of the outcome of this year's election. I would very much hate to be the person who tries to fill her shoes when she goes.

It will be interesting to see what the next act of Hillary Clinton's life will be about. She has certainly earned a rest if that is what she wants, and, indeed, she may want that for a while. I suspect it will be a short while.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz: A review

The wacky family of San Francisco private investigators is back in #4 of Lisa Lutz's Spellmans series. Nothing has changed. They are just as quirky and paranoid as ever. They still spend way more time investigating each other than they do working for paying customers. No wonder the business is sinking into the toilet.

Daughter Isabel (Izzy) has finally committed to the family business and will take it over when her parents retire. If there is anything left to take over by then. Pater familias Al has lost a chunk of money in the stock market and there don't seem to be enough paying customers to put the family business back on a firm financial footing. What to do?

Meanwhile, Isabel's romantic relationship with bartender Connor seems to be failing as well and her mother is blackmailing her into dating at least one lawyer or other professional each week because she's convinced that Connor is wrong for her.

Son David seems to be faring better in the romance department. His relationship with lawyer Maggie is stable and progressing and, wonder of wonders, she is approved of by every member of this dysfunctional family.

Even Rae, now almost ready to graduate high school if she can stay of out of jail long enough, has a new boyfriend who seems like a thoroughly normal and nice young man. All the Spellmans want to adopt him.

Izzy continues her relationship with her 85 year-old best friend Morty who now lives in Florida and the other wacky characters that we've come to expect in this series are all here once again.

As for Henry, the San Francisco policeman that Isabel decided she was in love with a couple of books back and then was humiliated when he told her she wasn't grown-up enough for him - well, he's still on the scene, too, and perhaps they are both beginning to accept the inevitability of their relationship.

As for the plot? What plot? It's one long series of disconnected zany events which truly make one wonder how the Spellmans are ever able to make a living as PIs.

Not to be simply a cranky old woman about this, these books are written as humorous mysteries and obviously they are more on the humor side of the equation than the mystery side. The whole series is light and funny and a fast read and this fourth book fits right in with that profile. However, I find myself very annoyed by Ms. Lutz's format for writing these books. Her "notes" and appendices are unnecessary irritations especially for those reading the books on e-readers like the Kindle and I really wish she would just stop it and write a straightforward narrative already. Plus, her constant references to the "previous documents" became redundant and another irritation after about the fifth such instruction to go back and read those previous documents. Each book should stand on its own for those who are starting in the middle of a series. Readers shouldn't be constantly beaten over the head and admonished to go back and read previous books.

On the other hand, maybe I am a cranky old woman.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Canada by Richard Ford: A review

Dell Parsons, a 66-year-old soon-to-be-retired high school English teacher in Canada, looks back at his life and tells its story. In particular, he tells of the two defining and cataclysmic events that happened when he was fifteen and that set him on the road to his life that would become.

Parsons' voice is a flat, laconic, stream-of-consciousness type story-telling that is deceptively simple. You read a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and think, "Huh, not much there." Then you read on and suddenly it grabs you and you begin to see the significance of that bland sentence pages back and just how it fits into a whole that is greater than its parts. This is the work of a writer who knows what he is doing, who is, in short, a master of his craft.

The first paragraph of Richard Ford's book, Dell Parsons' story, is a hook.
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
How could you not continue reading after that?

Dell Parsons and his twin (slightly older) sister Berner were Air Force brats. Their father, an Alabama native, was a career Air Force man who had been a bombardier in World War II. Their mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Seattle, became pregnant after a brief relationship with Bev Parsons and the two immediately got married. Thus were their lives changed forever and diverted into streams where they would not otherwise have flowed.

The twins were born and with their parents moved around to various Air Force bases around the country, finally winding up in Great Falls, Montana where their father retired from his military career, after a bit of a dust-up about illegally obtained beef for the officers' dining tables. Because of their constant moves, Dell and Berner never really felt at home anywhere. They were always the outsiders, but they always had each other.

Then their father got it into his head that the best way forward for his family was for him to rob a bank. He convinced his wife to be a part of the scheme and they headed off to North Dakota to implement their "plan." They returned home with their loot of $2500 and were captured almost immediately. The fifteen-year-old twins were left on their own.

Berner, who was the wild one of the duo, ran away to San Francisco. But Dell, ever the obedient son, stayed put as his mother had told him to and eventually her friend, Mildred, came to collect him. 

Mildred heads north with the boy. She intends to deliver him to her brother Arthur in Saskatchewan and so she does. In the course of a few months, Dell's life is uprooted and then changed forever as he learns to work and survive in an alien environment and he witnesses things and is a part of things that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Dell's life story is one of redemption. It could have so easily gone so wrong and yet it doesn't. 

The intervention of a kindly woman puts him on a bus to Winnipeg where he will live with the woman's son and go to school. Eventually, he marries a Canadian woman, becomes a Canadian citizen himself, and makes a good middle-class successful life for himself. But he remembers everything about how he got there.

Richard Ford is a fine writer. I greatly enjoyed his three highly acclaimed Frank Bascombe novels and I looked forward to reading this latest from him. I was not disappointed.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The body as universe

Scientists say that there are 100 trillion microbes that call our bodies home. These are creatures, bacteria, that have co-evolved with us and that work to keep our bodies healthy. Because our healthy body is in their self-interest. 

So what happens when we take antibiotics? The medicine that may kill what is making us sick also kills millions, or billions, or trillions of those friendly bacteria that are our allies. It is a virtual holocaust which may, in fact, leave our bodies prey to opportunistic viruses or bacteria because our army of defenders has been laid low.

Our body's population of microscopic creatures is called the "microbiome" and I read an interesting article about it in The New York Times earlier this week. The article attained a certain relevance for me because I was getting sick at the time. It started with sinus pressure which then drained and gave me an inflamed and irritated and extremely painful throat. Fortunately, after 24 hours of that, my throat got better and the illness proceeded downward into my chest, where at least it has the virtue of not being so painful. But as the sickness progressed, I thought about the article that I had read and began to monitor my body's reaction to my first respiratory infection in seven years.

I decided early on that I wouldn't contact my doctor unless things seemed to be getting seriously out of hand. I would use palliatives to help with the pain - hot baths, cough drops, heating pads, the old standby Vick's VapoRub. I would drink lots of water. Well, I do that anyway. And I would wait for my body to heal itself. It seems to be working. I'm not ready to run any races, or even walk a mile, yet, but I can tell that my body's defenders are winning their fight. Soon, this physical presence should again be a safe place for them and me to be.

I've been giving this microbiome a lot of thought this week. I wonder what it is like for all those critters that live inside of me and on my skin. For them, I am a virtual universe, the only universe they will ever know, and they are in eternal war against enemies that might harm me and them. But what exactly do they "know"?

Thinking about that made me contemplate the Gaia principle or hypothesis which gained a certain prominence back in the 1970s with the publication of several articles and finally of a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by Dr. James Lovelock. The Gaia principle proposes, briefly, that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. To put it another way, the Earth is our body writ large. It is a closed system that is self-regulating and seeks to ensure the health of the planet.

But what if this analogy of the microbiome extends not just to the planet but to the galaxy? The universe? What if we, as humans, are in the same relationship to the Earth as the microbiome is to our body? And our blue planet is in that same relationship with the galaxy and the universe? What if we are all just part of one unimaginably large biome? Well, scientists are actually seriously studying that possibility and, frankly, it makes as much sense as many theories I've heard about the order of the universe. 

Then again, perhaps I am being influenced by my own personal microbiome. I wonder - would I be a different person if I had a different microbiome? Is Rush Limbaugh a creature of his microbiome? Maybe we could slip some antibiotics into his soup.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rowan Oak

During our visit to Mississippi last week, we spent a day in historic Oxford, home of William Faulkner and many other quite famous writers through the years. We visited the wonderful Square Books bookstore on the town square.  It's an outstanding independent bookstore that carries a wide variety of books but specializes in Mississippi authors. There are a lot of them.

While at the store, I purchased a couple of autographed first editions of John Grisham and Ace Atkins, as well as two paperback mysteries by Carolyn Haines, a writer whom I had not read. My "to be read" shelves are beginning to groan under the weight of all the books there.

We could not be in Oxford, of course, without visiting the home of the most famous Mississippi author of them all, William Faulkner, so we headed out to the house called Rowan Oak. Faulkner had bought the house, a primitive Greek Revival structure that was built in the 1840s, in 1930 and had named it after the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace. It was the home of the Faulkners until he died in 1962. In 1972, his daughter Jill sold the house to the University of Mississippi to secure its preservation and, in 1977, it was named a National Historic Landmark.

The house stands at the end of a walkway bordered by big eastern red cedar trees. The trees were planted after an epidemic of yellow fever that swept the South. It was believed that these trees helped to cleanse the air of bad vapors.

Rowan Oak is a a very modest and unpretentious house. Apparently, it suited Faulkner just fine. It was his home and his sanctuary.

Above the mantle in the library is a picture of Faulkner that was painted by his mother who was a talented artist. My eye was taken by the two small ruby glass vases on the mantle. My mother-in-law had those exact vases, also, and now I have them.

Also in the library was this painting of magnolia blossoms, another work by Faulkner's mother. In fact, all of the paintings in the library - several of them Faulkner ancestors - were painted by his mother.

The painting is of Faulkner's great-grandfather Col. William C. Falkner. (That was the original spelling of the family name. Faulkner later added the U.) The bust next to the picture is of Don Quixote. Faulkner acquired it in Venezuela.

Across the hall from the library is the parlor which features another picture of Faulkner in his riding habit above the mantle.

Another thing which struck me was this dining table and chairs which are like ones that my husband and I had when we were first married! We later passed them along to our younger daughter.

Faulkner added a small room where he did his writing and on the walls of that room, in his own handwriting, is the plot outline for his novel, A Fable.

The action of the novel takes place during a Holy Week set during World War I. There is an entry on the walls of the room for each day of the week. The book, published in 1954, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

On a small table in front of the window in the writing room is Faulkner's typewriter and his ever-present pipe and can of tobacco.

Faulkner's wife, Estelle, was a painter also and upstairs in the hallway and the family's quarters are several of her paintings. She loved Nature and was a bird watcher - a woman after my own heart!

This looks like the old tawny orange daylily, often called "ditch lily," that one sees growing everywhere, including in the wild, in the South.

A quote from the man himself neatly sums up his philosophy of writing. This was in a cabinet near a book of newspaper clippings about Faulkner. One that I found was from the 25th anniversary of his death and stated that he was still receiving letters from people who did not realize he was dead! One recent one was from a Hollywood producer who wanted advice about filming some of his works.

In the garden were two huge gardenias, much taller than my 5'5'', which scented the air with their wonderful perfume.

 The plaque near the cedar-bordered walkway identifies this as a National Historic Landmark.

If you happen to find yourself in Oxford, by all means take an hour or so and tour Rowan Oak and its grounds. The spirit of Faulkner can be felt here, and the day we were there, the woods were full of birdsong. Miss Estelle, the bird watcher, would have been happy.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mister Rogers lives!

My children grew up in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Never was there a better neighbor for young children

Fred Rogers' passed from our physical presence a few years ago, but his spirit lingers in the hearts and minds of all those children he influenced and in reruns of his show that are still being broadcast somewhere. And on YouTube. Someone has done a remix featuring Mister Rogers and it has been making the rounds of the Internet recently. Have you seen it?

Mister Rogers - still teaching us to grow things in the gardens of our mind.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: A review

I took Hilary Mantel with me on vacation last week. She proved to be a fascinating companion.

I had read Wolf Hall, her Man Booker Prize-winner, in 2010 and enjoyed it immensely, even though I was sometimes annoyed by Mantel's eccentric punctuation and her often failing to enumerate who "he" was in her telling of the story. Usually, it would be Thomas Cromwell, but not always. It was sometimes confusing.

In Bring Up the Bodies, she seems to have addressed my quibbles or maybe I've just gotten used to her style of writing. Maybe a little bit of both.

This book follows the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn and the Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell's part in it. Cromwell was Henry VIII's right-hand man. Henry spoke his desire and Cromwell made it reality. When he wanted to get rid of his first wife Katherine so that he could marry his inamorata Anne, Cromwell made it possible. But at the opening of this book in 1535, Anne and Henry have been married for three years and she has failed to give him a son. Their only living child is Elizabeth. All other pregnancies - and it seems that poor Anne has been almost constantly pregnant - have ended in miscarriages or dead children. Moreover, Anne has proved to be strong-willed and to be possessed of a sharp intelligence which makes her unpopular among members of the court. Henry is disenchanted to say the least. It is time for Cromwell to work his magic once more.

Anne makes it almost too easy for him. She is the center of attention of a coterie of young men in the court. She flatters and flirts and loans them money and gives them gifts. Rumor has it that one of the gifts she gives is her own body. Most appallingly, one member of this favored coterie is her own brother, George.

All of this, of course, makes her a focus of the gossip and malice of other members of the court, specifically of those ladies who serve her. Cromwell talks to the ladies-in-waiting, starting with Anne's sister-in-law, George's wife Lady Rochford. He pieces together very nebulous and circumstantial stories which might or might not be evidence of adultery and treason, but, in the end, when he presents his case to the peers who will decide the fate of those accused, there is no hesitation in condemning them all. Of course, these peers knew what their king wanted. To be rid of Anne and to have Jane Seymour. They did their part to make it possible.

Were Anne and the five men executed really guilty or were their deaths simply means to an end? It is highly unlikely that we will ever know the truth of the matter. As Mantel would have it, it seems that at least four of the men executed may have been selected as victims because of their part in the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey who had been a mentor to Cromwell, while another man who may truly have been guilty was protected because he was not an enemy of Wolsey. Is this really the case or merely literary license? Again, we'll never know, but it certainly makes for one bang-up story.

Mantel is a lyrical writer and it is such a pleasure to read and sometimes re-read these pages. Her choice of words for her descriptions are just perfect. Not a syllable could be changed or moved. For example, here she describes the death of Anne:

There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
Anne's head has been separated from her body by a single clean stroke of a sword by the French headsman brought over for the purpose. "The body exsanguinates" - what a crisp and concise descriptive word for such a bloody mess. But that is typical of Mantel's writing throughout. This is a tour de force, a writer on top of her game. And that makes for much pleasure for her fortunate readers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Truth, justice, and the American Way

There are a lot of bad things going on in this country. In all too many instances, our government "of the people" is actually government "of the rich people and rich corporations" as the super-rich have bought and paid for the politicians who run the government. We have become an oligarchy of the rich and this is fully sanctioned by the Supreme Court which is supposed to uphold the Constitution and support our individual rights. The Roberts Court, though, is simply an extension of the oligarchy.

Moreover, in many states, the oligarchs are attempting to steal the presidential election by preemptively removing from the rolls of eligible voters Democrats and minority voters who presumably would not be voting for their preferred candidate. They claim widespread voter fraud, but the only noticeable fraud is that perpetrated by these states in trying to deny their citizens their rights.

These are examples to make any American who loves this country and what it has stood for in the past gnash his/her teeth and pull out any hair that he/she may have left. While there may be things that we can do in the long run to stop the infringement of our rights and to stop our country from turning into the Banana Republic that it seems to be on the road to becoming, it will be a very long fight, because our enemies are too well-funded and too powerful to overcome easily. All we have on our side is numbers. And right.

It is a daunting and discouraging prospect. Wouldn't it be nice if there were something that we could do NOW that would help to right a wrong and would strike a blow for truth, justice, and the American Way? As it happens, there is!

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is coming up in about a month and there are two very worthy candidates who deserve to represent their team in that game. The team is chosen, though, by votes of the fans and presently these two candidates are lagging behind in the voting because, apparently, their lazy fans can't be bothered to get off their duffs and cast a ballot! But actually, they don't even have to get off their duffs. They can vote via the Internet and each voter is allowed to vote 25 times for their favorite player(s).    Of course, if you are at the ball park, you can pick up as many paper ballots as you want, mark them and cast them. This is one instance in which it is perfectly legal to vote "early and often" and no one will accuse you of voter fraud.

So, if you have not yet cast your All-Star ballot, here are two candidates for your consideration:

Jose Altuve, second baseman for the Houston Astros

Jose leads all second basemen in the league in batting average. He's currently batting .326. He is second in runs scored and sixth in RBIs. That RBI ranking is related to his place in the batting order which is usually near the top, so he doesn't necessarily get a chance to bat in many runs, but he has over 70 hits for the season which is also among the league leaders.  His last hit was his fourth home run of the year, which for a little guy (5'5") is not too shabby at all. Altuve also leads all second basemen in stolen bases with 10 for the season.

Jed Lowrie, shortstop for the Houston Astros:

Jose Altuve's double play partner in the middle of the diamond is shortstop Jed Lowrie, and they are a slick fielding duo. Jed is on the small side as well, a slender guy who looks more like an accountant or a computer nerd than a ball player. Looks can be deceiving though because he leads all shortstops in the league in home runs with twelve. He is also fourth among shortstops in the league in RBIs.

Both of these young guys are having outstanding years, but fans tend to vote for older established players who've been around for awhile and probably have been to several All-Star Games before. This is an injustice! The best player at the position should be the one to go to the game. And this is an injustice which you can help correct TODAY!  Go to the MLB website and vote for Altuve and Lowrie. They'll make you proud you did when game day rolls around.      

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pompeii by Robert Harris: A review

With the passage of time, history often gives way to legend and legend becomes myth. Thus it is with the story of what happened to Pompeii in 79 C.E. It is so far removed from us that it seems almost a myth. And yet it did happen. Vesuvius exploded and erupted and covered the prosperous cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and, in the process, preserved them so that we can actually see the incredible riches that existed there as well as the casts of the bodies of people and animals that died there during those horrible days of late August. Unlike Atlantis, we can actually walk the streets of Pompeii. It is no myth.

The story of Pompeii has long fascinated me. I well remember the first book I ever read about it, The Last Days of Pompeii by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame. I was sixteen years old at the time, a very impressionable time in my life and the book certainly made its mark on me for life. 

More recently, I have also read a couple of other books by Robert Harris, namely Imperium and Conspirata and I enjoyed them so I was eager to read Pompeii.

Harris tells the story of the cataclysm that engulfed Pompeii through the character of the young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus. He had recently been appointed the aquarius in charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that carried fresh water to over a million people living in the towns around the Bay of Naples. The former aquarius in charge had disappeared and Attilius arrived in late summer to take over his new responsibilities. Suddenly, those responsibilities began to seem overwhelming when something happened to the Augusta and the dependable supply of water stopped flowing to some of the cities. The problem was on the Augusta's main line somewhere on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and Attilius must organize an expedition to repair it before the reservoir ran dry and Pompeii and all the cities lost their fresh water.

Attilius travels to Pompeii to seek men and materials to help with the repairs and there he finds a corrupt and violent town and officials unconcerned with the fact that some neighboring towns have already lost their water. He does finally get what he needs to repair the aqueduct but he also makes an enemy who will try to destroy him.

Meanwhile, the world of Nature and the aqueduct itself are offering voluminous portents of danger. But only the young engineer and the old admiral Pliny the Elder seem at all concerned by the messages from the earth.

The Roman aqueduct system was one of the wonders of the ancient world and, indeed, it remains a wonder of today's world, and some of the most interesting parts of this book, for me, were descriptions of the aqueduct and its workings and of how Roman engineers went about assuring the integrity of aqueducts and repairing them when problems occurred. The aqueduct and the volcano are really the two main characters in this book. The engineer and Pliny and all the ancillary characters only serve the purpose of exposition. We're not too invested in the fate of most of the characters because we already know their fate. It was sealed by the eruption of Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago. 

This book, like the other books of Harris' that I have read, was well researched, and he brought the world of the Mediterranean coast of the first century C.E. alive. It was a cruel world indeed if you were a slave and not much better if you were a poor freed man. As for women - well, there were no free women. They were all owned by the men of their families, whether they were rich or poor. 

But rich men? Ah, they had the best that the world had to offer. They lived lives of incredible luxury and privilege, but none of that saved them when the mountain exploded.  Very many of them lost everything right along with the common people on August 24 and 25, 79 C.E.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Muppet Personality Theory

The wonderful Dahlia Lithwick of the online magazine Slate has a very perceptive and funny piece in the magazine today called "Chaos Theory: A Unified Theory of Muppet Types." It's worth your time to go and read the whole article but here's the capsule version.

Lithwick maintains that human beings can be categorized as either one of two kinds of Muppets: Chaos Muppets or Order Muppets. As one who grew up with my children as they watched Sesame Street and learned their ABCs, colors, numbers, shapes, and much else from the Muppets, I have to say that her theory makes a whole lot of sense to me.
Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.
Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. 
See? Doesn't that make it all perfectly clear? It's the most transparent and understandable theory of personality types that I have ever read! I speak as one who struggled through many college psychology and sociology classes and scratched my head over Freud and Jung and Adler.

Lithwick goes on to say that opposite Muppet types do attract (Think Bert and Ernie.) and that they often wind up married to each other. That's not necessarily a bad thing because the two personality types tend to balance each other and make a unified whole. Just think what a disaster a marriage between two Chaos Muppets might be like! The only thing worse might be a marriage between two Order Muppets.  (Come to think of it, that may go a long way towards explaining the divorce rate.)

So, what kind of Muppet are you? I think I probably fall more in the Chaos category. One look at the closets in my house would convince you of that. But in my professional life, I had to masquerade as an Order Muppet. Maybe that's why I was often miserable there. I sat at my desk crunching numbers and dreamed of skipping down the street hand-in-hand with Big Bird and Cookie Monster, leaving a trail of yellow feathers, cookie crumbs, and happy smiles  in our wake.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dorchester Terrace by Anne Perry: A review

I have been reading Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries for so long that there is little mystery left to her stories for me. In this latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery, I had surmised by about a hundred pages in who the villain(s) of the piece were going to be. I read the rest of the book in light of my theory, which did, in fact, turn out to be right. 

Figuring out the puzzle early on did not necessarily lessen the pleasure of the read. Actually, there is a certain satisfaction in feeling smarter than the "detectives" and I probably smirked all the way through the last third of the book as Pitt finally caught up to me and began to figure things out.

This book features most of the characters readers have come to know so well in the previous 26 books in the series. We have the elegant Aunt Vespasia whose society connections always play a role in the solution of the Pitt mysteries. We have the sister Emily and her husband Jack Radley, now a minor official in the Foreign Office. And we have Victor Narraway, former head of the Special Branch which Pitt now heads. Narraway is an ally and former mentor of Pitt and an admirer of Pitt's wife Charlotte.

The story, briefly, is this. Pitt receives information that anarchists may be planning to assassinate an Austrian duke who is soon to travel to England. He must evaluate the information and formulate plans to ensure that the assassination does not take place. Inexplicably, his superior, Lord Tregarron, does not seem to take the threat to the duke seriously, and Pitt finds he must go around Tregarron and find other resources in the effort to protect the duke. Fortunately, he has Narraway and Vespasia. And Charlotte, of course.

Meanwhile, an old woman lies dying in her house at Dorchester Terrace. Serafina Montserrat was once a formidable force in the revolutions of 1848. She had cast her lot with the Croatians who were attempting to extricate themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her lover, a leader of that struggle, was betrayed by someone close to him and was executed after being tortured by government forces. His execution was witnessed by his eight-year-old daughter Adriana who was subsequently rescued by Serafina and handed over safely to the care of her grandparents. Now, as she is dying, Serafina is terrified that, as her mind wanders, she may reveal secrets which could prove detrimental to relations between England and the Balkan states. 

Serafina dies, but her former colleague Vespasia suspects it is not a natural death. An autopsy reveals her suspicions are accurate. The old woman was murdered with an overdose of laudanum. Then a second woman, that same Adriana, now wife of a Foreign Office official and a Croatian immigrant, also dies of a laudanum overdose. Suicide or murder? And do the two deaths have any connection to the supposed plot against the duke? William Pitt must sort it all out and save the day - with a little help from his friends.

I don't really read Perry for plot or for mystery any more. I read her mostly because of long-time familiarity with and affection for her characters and for her descriptions. Her descriptions of the fashionable dress of the day, the interior decorations of the period, and the social mores of the time are worth the price of the books to me. Her books are always well-researched and do an excellent job of making one feel that one is "there," observing the action.

In this entry, one of the characters goes on a long rant about the importance of Austria and the Balkans as the linchpin that holds Europe together. He speaks with remarkable prescience about what will happen if governments fall and Germany and Russia are pulled into the vortex of the resulting conflicts. Of course, Perry is writing these "prescient" words with a hundred years' hindsight of a century of war. It doesn't make them any less chilling or less interesting.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

March Violets by Philip Kerr: A review

March Violets are those in Germany of the mid 1930s who have lately become a part of the National Socialist movement as a matter of convenience or perhaps even recent conviction. They are spoken of derisively throughout this first in the series of noir mysteries featuring German gumshoe Bernhard Gunther.

My husband is a Bernie Gunther fan and has long recommended these books to me. I was hesitant to read them because I OD'd on Hitler and Nazi references long, long ago. I could happily live the rest of my life without ever enduring another one. So that was one strike against this book which is heavily invested in the Nazi culture. Bernie is not a Nazi and is not at all sympathetic with their philosophy, but he is a German and must live in a Berlin that is dominated by them; a Berlin that is hazardous to the health of anyone who does not give what the Nazis believe is due deference to all their institutions. In one instance, Kerr writes of Bernie meeting a torchlight parade at night.
Driving west on Leipsigerstrasse, I met the torchlight parade of Brownshirt legions as it marched south down Wilhelmstrasse, and I was obliged to get out of my car and salute the passing standard. Not to have done so would have been to risk a beating. I guess there were others like me in that crowd, our right arms extended like so many traffic policemen, doing it just to avoid trouble and feeling a bit ridiculous. Who knows? But come to think of it, political parties were always big on salutes in Germany: the Social Democrats had their clenched fist raised high above the head; the Bolshies in the KPD had their clenched fist raised at shoulder level; the Centrists had their two-fingered, pistol-shaped hand signal, with the thumb cocked; and the Nazis had fingernail inspection. I can remember when we used to think it was all rather ridiculous and melodramatic, and maybe that's why none of us took it seriously. And here we all were now, saluting with the best of them. Crazy.
Chilling. When I read that, I thought of our own politics of recent years and the ostentatious faux patriotism that has become so much a part of our lives. The flag pins on politicians' lapels. The bank of flags behind the politician whenever he makes the most commonplace appearance or announcement. I don't remember the politicians of my youth requiring any such window-dressing, perhaps because most of the politicians of my youth had been through World War II and understood real patriotism. This phoniness even reaches into the world of baseball where the song "God Bless America" has been added to the seventh inning stretch routine, where "Take Me Out to the Ballgame!" should rule the day. Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. But truly, one does see parallels between the frightened Germany of the 1930s and the frightened America of the post-9/11 era.

Back to Bernie Gunther. Bernie is a former policeman, now a private investigator who specializes in finding missing persons. This seems a formidable task in a Berlin where people are regularly made to disappear by the state, but Bernie has developed a network of friends and snitches who can be depended on to assist him. 

He is approached by a millionaire businessman, Hermann Six, who wants him to investigate the deaths of his only daughter and son-in-law. The two were shot to death in their bed and their house then torched. The door to a safe in their bedroom where some sensitive documents and some valuable diamonds were kept was found opened and the safe cleaned out. Bernie's task is to find the documents and diamonds and, maybe, find out what happened and why.

The story gets very convoluted. There are red herring characters who seem to serve absolutely no purpose. There are hints of government corruption and of organized crime, but it is extremely hard (at least it was for me) to sort this all out and make sense of it. At one point, Bernie is sent to Dachau which is just as horrific as you would imagine. In short, it seems that everything including the kitchen sink has been thrown into this story.

Another quibble I had with the book was the language. Bernie constantly talks in tough-guy detective patois. A gun is a "lighter." (Why?) A safe is a "nut" and a safecracker is a "nutcracker" - which actually makes a bit of sense, I suppose. In describing a hangover, he says that his mouth feels like he has a "whore's drawers" in it. He seems incapable of speaking a simple, straight declarative sentence. Some readers find that the language lends verisimilitude to the story - German-speaker being translated into English - but a little bit of colorful metaphor goes a long way with me. It began to wear on my nerves after about a hundred pages.

This series is highly rated and praised by many critics and readers, including my husband who is not an easy grader. Kerr is sometimes favorably compared to Raymond Chandler. One can't judge a series by the first book. They often get better as the series progresses. March Violets was okay, but it may be that I'll find the later books more interesting. When I get around to reading them.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The end of the Game - until next spring

Okay, the second season of Game of Thrones on HBO is over, freeing up an hour of my time on Sunday nights to do...something else. At least until another HBO show comes along to claim my attention. It won't be True Blood which takes the time slot next Sunday. Not my cup of blood - er, tea.

I had wondered how the writers were going to manage to squeeze all of the remaining action of the book into one episode and the answer was, they didn't. This season the writers and directors made significant changes to the stories of many of the characters. Moreover, some characters and several of the events of the book were dropped altogether. I suppose at least some of that was necessary to fit the time frames allowed by ten one-hour episodes. Which brings up another point. The books they are dramatizing are very, very long, and I really would like to see them expand the seasons a bit more, maybe to twelve episodes, so that there is a bit more time to spend on each character's story. But I suppose there is something to be said for leaving your viewers wanting more.

There's a lot of discussion today in the blogs that follow the series about who the winners and losers among the characters were this season. Obviously, the biggest loser was Renly, since he's now dead. Probably the second biggest loser, at least for the moment, was Tyrion, injured in the Battle of the Blackwater and all his power as Hand wrenched from him by the triumphant return of his father. Or you could make a case for Stannis as the second biggest loser since he actually lost the big battle, along with his fleet and much of his army, and has had to retreat to his stony castle.

Winners? Well, Tywin Lannister, of course. The Tyrell family which has now cast its lot with the triumphant Lannisters and will marry their widowed daughter Margaery to King Joffrey (and what a prize that is!). Robb Stark continues to be undefeated on the field of battle. Arya has escaped her captivity with a little help from Jaqen H'Ghar, a man of Braavos.

But for my money, the biggest winner of the season (and I must admit my opinion may be colored by the fact that I have read all the books) is Danaerys Targaryen.  Danaerys' story may be the one most drastically changed by the series dramatists, but even though the events are different, the arc of the story remains true to the Dany of the books. At the end of season two, she has regained her dragons and enough loot to buy a ship. Her prospects are definitely looking up.

The riveting thing about George R.R. Martin's stories is not the swashbuckling or the dragons or the magic or the bloodletting. The riveting thing is the characters themselves and the constant choices which they must make. They then suffer the consequences or reap the benefits of those choices. There is an internal logic and an integrity to the individual stories, regardless of all the hocus pocus of magic and cultic religious beliefs that are integral to their telling. The outcomes may be as infinitely variable as human nature itself, but looking back from the vantage point of the end of book five, A Dance With Dragons, it seems to me that events happened much as they should have, given the choices made.

Though I found some of the changes made in season two discombobulating, the series has stayed true to Martin's overall themes of power and its uses (and abuses) and of the clash between personal loyalty and one's community obligations. And that is why, I think, it was a very satisfying, if extremely short, season, and why I will be looking forward to season three. A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, was, for me at least, the best of the five. It'll be very interesting to see how the television people handle it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta: A review

I am old enough to remember that wonderful sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone. It was one of the most original and imaginative series of its time and I can't think of any television series since that has surpassed it. For those of us who experienced it first-hand, it has certainly stood the test of time. The Leftovers could have been an episode on The Twilight Zone and that is high praise indeed.

Tom Perrotta imagines a world in which millions of people have suddenly vanished without a trace. Like puffs of smoke on the wind, they have "Suddenly Departed." This rapture-like event, however, does not seem to have had a religious component, although some of those who are left behind, the "Leftovers," try to impose one on it. The people who disappeared were of every possible religious faith or lack of faith and seemingly every possible state of morality and from every corner of the earth. As time passes - three years at the telling of this story - there is still no explanation for the disappearances and no solution to the mystery of where they have gone. The Leftovers must deal with this disruption as best they can and try to cope and carry on.

We experience the Sudden Departure through events in the small town of Mapleton and through the Garvey family - Kevin, Laurie and their two teenage children, Tom and Jill. No one from the Garvey family disappeared in the SD, but Jill was an eyewitness as a friend who she was with at the time did disappear. In the aftermath of the event, though, the Garvey family is falling apart. 

Tom has dropped out of college and become involved in a cult called the Healing Hug movement, led by a guru called Holy Wayne, whom the writer describes as "that age-old scoundrel, the Horny Man of God." It turns out to be an apt description. Later when Tom becomes disillusioned with Holy Wayne, he falls in with another cult called the Barefoot People. Like many Leftovers torn loose from their moorings, he drifts, without purpose.

Jill, once an A-student with a bright future, loses interest in school and, with her friend Aimee, spends every night partying. But what caused Jill to lose her way was not really the SD itself but what happened to her mother afterward. Laurie has abandoned her family and joined yet another cult, the Guilty Remnant, whose members seek martyrdom and who take a vow of silence, wear white, and must brandish lighted cigarettes every time they appear in public. Their mantra is "We smoke to proclaim our faith," and one of their main jobs is to watch (i.e., stalk) nonmembers and garner new devotees for the cult while they await the end of the world.

Kevin, meanwhile, has gone into politics as a member of the Hopeful Party and has been elected mayor of Mapleton. He is trying his best to return to a normal life with Jill, the one member of his family left to him. He becomes interested in a woman, Nora Durst, who lost all of her family - a husband and two children - in the Sudden Departure and he tries to jump start a romantic relationship with her, but she is so lost and depressed that she is unable to respond.

Perrotta is very good at using the situation that he has set up to explore the stress points between religion and secular American life. One of his characters who is both sad and funny in an ironic way is the Rev. Matt Jamison, an Evangelical Christian type who is appalled that he "missed the cut" and was not taken in the SD. Moreover, he insists that this could not have been the real rapture, else he would have been taken! To prove his point, he goes on an utterly mean-spirited campaign of exposing the moral failings of those who were taken by publishing a hateful newsletter with all the scurrilous details of their shortcomings. 

In the ongoing trauma of the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, it seems that everyone in Perrotta's suburban world is drifting into one form or another of cultic extremism as a way of dealing with their pain and confusion. The breakdown of reason as depicted here seems very believable. In fact, it seems a metaphor for American society post 9/11 when fear and extremism have in many ways come to rule our social and political lives.

All of this sounds very dark, I know, and it is, but there are light moments in the book as well and it ends on a (perhaps) hopeful note as symbolized by a newborn baby. Maybe she will be the miracle child for whom the world is waiting, one who will usher in a new age of peace and happiness. At a minimum, perhaps she will heal one lost and lonely woman and give her a reason for living. 

Though we never learn what happened to the Departed, maybe the message is that, although we all suffer loss in our lives, we Leftovers must carry on, treasuring our lives even more because of what we have lost.

Friday, June 1, 2012

As long as Simon has a cat, there is hope for the world

Have you read today's headlines? The stock market is crashing. The economic recovery is stalling. Syria is slaughtering its own citizens and no one seems capable of stopping them. The planet is heating up. The politicians are up to their usual a**holery. My favorite baseball team has lost six games in a row! And to top it off, there's only one more episode of Game of Thrones on HBO and how the heck are they going to squeeze all the remaining action of the book into one episode?

What can offer us relief from this unremitting avalanche of bad, bad news? It's time to deploy the big guns. Yes, time for another entry of "Simon's Cat."

Happy weekend!