Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Artist Nicholas Bassington-Hope is a lightning rod, attracting both passionate admiration from his supporters and passionate anger and even hate from his detractors. On the night before the opening of his exhibition at a famed Mayfair gallery, Bassington-Hope falls to his death from some scaffolding as he prepares to hang his masterpiece. He was alone at the time. Or was he? Was it really an accident or was it murder? The police rule an accident. His twin sister Georgina isn't so sure. 

On the advice of her former mentor at Girton College, Georgina enlists the aid of fellow Girton graduate Maisie Dobbs to investigate and discover the truth. As Maisie pursues her inquiries, she finds herself strongly attracted to the Bohemian lifestyle of the Bassington-Hope family, artists all, except for the eldest daughter Noelle, the practical one in the family.

At the same time, Maisie's personal life is in a shambles, as she struggles to find a civil way to break off a romantic relationship that she has come to realize isn't going anywhere and is one that she doesn't really want. She still has not completely mended the breach with her teacher and mentor Maurice Blanche, and to top it off, tragedy strikes when the daughter of her assistant Billy Beale is struck with deadly diphtheria. Then his two sons also get the disease. Maisie is beset with anxieties and concerns but still must struggle to focus on keeping faith with her client and giving her her best effort. 

But as she probes deeper into the mystery, she uncovers more and more concerning the secretive Nicholas and his circle of artist friends, as well as his younger brother who it seems may have been involved with some underworld characters and who Nicholas may have been attempting to extricate from his difficulties. Could those associations have led to his death?

Once again, Maisie's uncanny, almost supernatural, intuition guides her through the maze of information and clues and leads her to a solution that will eventually bring peace to her client, which is always Maisie's ultimate goal.

Jacqueline Winspear again, in her fourth Maisie Dobbs mystery, recreates the atmosphere of the early thirties in London; the desperation of jobless men trying to find a way to care for and feed their families, the anguish of parents with sick children and no money for doctors or medicine, and, above all, the haunted and sorrowful memories of those who served in and survived the Great War, many of them with injuries both physical and mental that will never heal. One feels the sadness and depression suffered by an entire society in that long ago period. Ms. Winspear has done her research on the period very well indeed.

Monday, July 30, 2012

My top five

I am essentially clueless about what the readers of this blog want to read. Often I'll put up a post about something that is very important to me and that I think others might care about and...nothing. It gets no reaction and very few readers. (I know that because my friend Google helpfully tracks and reports to me about how many readers I have, what part of the world they are from, and how many of them read particular posts.) Then again I might dash off some spur-of-the-moment comment about something in the news and thousands of readers will look at it. Obviously, if I understood that dynamic better, I'd write something like that every day!

Just this morning I was looking at the ranking of my most popular posts over the years and, frankly, I still don't have a clue. My five most popular posts of all time don't seem to have much in common at all.

1. Fifty shades of bad writing, posted 04/22/12: This is far and away the most popular post that I've ever done, maybe because it's a comment on that blockbuster reading phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey. It includes some of the steamier quotes from the book and that may have attracted some readers as well, but other than that I can't really see why it should be any more popular than a hundred other posts I've done.

2. Sidetracked by Henning Mankell: A review, posted 10/15/11: In general, my book review posts are the most popular posts that I do, and Henning Mankell is the most popular author that I've reviewed. Several reviews of his books do rank in the top twenty or so posts. I've even thought about making the blog strictly about books. Since I am a constant reader, I would have plenty of material to write about. But then, where would I be able to rant about my views on other things?

3. The earth moves and its axis shifts, posted 03/01/10: Earth science, how the planet works, is another passion of mine and it always makes me happy to be able to write about it. Even such catastrophic events as earthquakes and their effects on Earth are fascinating for me to read about and I'm happy to see that my readers find them interesting, also.

4. The American caste system, posted 01/19/12: Inequality of income and opportunity is becoming more and more ingrained in American society. The American Dream for those on the lowest end of the economic scale has become the American Nightmare. No matter how hard they work, the way up the ladder is blocked for them. In many cases, those blocking their way are their elected representatives. Unconscionable!

5. An alternative view of bodice rippers, posted 12/30/09: Romance novels get little respect in the world of literature, at least from critics and all the Very Serious People. But why should a romance novel that is well written be any less legitimate than a spy novel or any other genre? Because they are chic-lit? That seems to be the standard by which they are judged: If it's written to appeal to women, it must be inferior!

So, three of the top five posts are about literature, broadly speaking, and that doesn't really surprise me. I know that many of my readers are passionate lovers of books who care deeply about the written word, as I do. I'm just happy that I have this venue in which to share my passion about literature, as well as Nature, politics, science and all those other things that move me. And I'm especially happy and grateful that you take the time to read my words.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The vagina demagogues

“Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?” If you said yes to both, “Congratulations! You’re a feminist.” - How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

One book that I am very much looking forward to reading is How to Be a Woman by Caitlin (She pronounces it cat - lin) Moran. You would perhaps think that I might have figured that out by now but I think this book might have a few things to teach me.

Ms. Moran's book was a huge best seller last year in Britain, her home country where she is a columnist for The Times of London, and, at last, it and she are coming to the States. I've seen her in a few interviews and read reviews of the book and, frankly, it seems just what the complacent women in this country need to shake a bit of sense into them.

As proof of this, there is a frequently cited survey which shows that only 29 percent - 29 percent! - of American women self-identify as feminists. What part of feminism do you suppose the other 71 percent object to? Is it the right to vote? The right to own property? The right to equal pay for equal work? Perhaps they object to the right to decide how one dresses. Or maybe it's the right to control when or if one marries or when or if one has children that they think should be held by some third party. Do they object to the right to drive a car or to go out in public without being accompanied by a male relative? Truly, the mind boggles.

But I suppose we shouldn't really be surprised. The reactionary right-wingers have spent decades denigrating women and women's rights in every form, especially the right of women to control their own bodies, and this constant drumroll of negativity has had its effect. Since the 2010 election, Republican legislators at the state and national level and governors all over the country have felt free to legislate the most draconian laws regarding women's bodies, from forcing their doctors, on pain of prosecution, to lie to them about the effects of some medical procedures to requiring medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds prior to an abortion. Republican women legislators have joined in this assault on their own sex. They have felt secure in the knowledge that they would not have to pay a political price for such actions because 71 percent of American women have been brainwashed into believing that it is unfeminine to demand their rights.

Into this dystopian landscape for women steps the colorful Ms. Moran with her polemic against, among other things, bikini waxes, g-strings, the pornography and stripping industries that dehumanize and objectify their subjects, stiletto heels...and the list goes on. She is a breath of fresh air in a very stale environment. Her book, The New York Times reviewer opined, is "a glorious, timely stand against sexism so ingrained we barely even notice it." 

That ingrained quality of sexism is what is so disheartening and why I'm excited about this book: Sexism in this country has become just a part of our everyday lives, something that we barely even see anymore, where rape jokes, for example, are an accepted form of humor. We need to awaken to the very real danger that our rights as women are being eroded day by day. Perhaps Moran's book can be a first step in doing that.

I just had a thought. What if all those millions of women now reading the Fifty Shades of Grey series should decide to pick up another book to read this summer and what if that book were How to Be a Woman? It might be the start of a revolution. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Them Bones by Carolyn Haines: A review

I feel that I should put this book in the category of guilty pleasures. I know in my heart that it is not the kind of book that a woman about to celebrate her mumble-mumble birthday should be spending her time reading, and, yet, frankly, it was a joy to read! Sort of a Fifty Shades of Grey without all that nasty BDSM. There was a bit of hot and heavy sex but it was more alluded to than explicit, which is only proper in a story about a genteelly-bred Southern woman.

Sarah Booth Delaney of Zinnia, Mississippi is not your stereotypical Southern belle though. She is over thirty, unemployed, and - horror of horrors! - unwed. She lives in her ancestral home, Dahlia House, in the Mississippi Delta. It is an ante bellum structure that has sheltered many generations of Delaneys, but now Sarah Booth is flat broke with no prospects of getting any money and she's about to lose her home, just when she's begun to understand how much she loves it.

But Sarah Booth isn't alone in the ancestral home. Jitty, the hundred-and-fifty-year-old ghost of her great-great-grandmother's nanny, inhabits the structure as well, and Jitty is one determined ghost! Mostly, she is determined that all of her hundred and fifty years with the Delaney family will not have been in vain and that Sarah Booth will not be allowed to lose her - and Jitty's - family home.

Jitty suggests a course of action which sets Sarah Booth on the road to some very unladylike behavior and finally gets her involved in investigating two violent deaths that occurred twenty years before. Both deaths were called accidents at the time they occurred, but Sarah Booth is not so sure. And when the gorgeous and sexy son of the two dead people unexpectedly returns to Zinnia from Europe where he's lived all these years, Sarah Booth becomes more convinced than ever. 

Then one of the people she had interviewed in her investigation turns up murdered and she is accused of the murder. In order to extricate herself, she must solve the puzzle of those long-ago murders. And just like that, Sarah Booth Delaney is launched on her new career as a private investigator. Maybe it will be lucrative enough to save the family manse - if only she can stay alive.

This is the first in a series and it is an excellent introduction to the main characters. The book is written with a light touch and a lot of humor. Sarah Booth and Jitty are delightful characters. Sarah Booth is the kind of person that a woman would be lucky to call her best friend. As for Jitty, well, I'd love to have a ghost like her inhabiting my house.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The fine art of diplomacy - Mitt Romney style

Mitt Romney goes to London, which is awash in preparations and excitement for the Olympics and also awash in hope that the Games will give the city and the country an economic boost, and he promptly rains on their parade. He called their preparations "disconcerting" and questioned the city's enthusiasm for the Olympics. He went on to say, “The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.” As for whether Londoners and the British public in general are really looking forward to the games, here's what Romney had to say: 
“Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?” he asked about the British people. “That’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.”
Honestly, Mitt, didn't your Mama ever teach you that if you can't say something nice about someone, just don't say anything at all? And did she ever mention that it is impolite to criticize your host? 

I thought Prime Minister Cameron's response to the implied criticism was on the mark.
 “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an allusion to Salt Lake City, which hosted Games that Mr. Romney oversaw. 
These kinds of verbal stumbles are, of course, the kinds of thing that Americans have come to expect of Romney. He may, in fact, be the biggest stumble-tongue in politics since George W. Bush. It does not help that he has no authentic persona or ability to connect with people and so he comes across as stiff as a department store mannequin.

Furthermore, he has a very sketchy relationship with the truth, and he's told so many different versions of so many different facets of his personal story and his political stances that it is very hard for him to keep them all straight. And then there are his stump speech and his political ads in which he baldly accuses President Obama of doing and saying things which he demonstrably never did or said.

In short, the man lies and he's rude to boot. Just as rude, it turns out, when visiting foreign countries as he is to people who question him in this country. Mitt the diplomat. Let's hope he gets out of London soon or we may find the outraged British declaring war on us!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben: A review

Harlan Coben's creation, Myron Bolitar, is a sports agent who is just about to hit the big time with his prized client, rookie quarterback Christian Steele. But before that happens, he's going to have to do some hard bargaining with some pretty shady characters who don't mind using violence as a negotiating tool. Fortunately, Myron has as his ace in the hole his friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win), to watch his back. Win makes up a considerable posse all by himself.

Myron and Win formerly did some top secret work for the government and they are both black belts in tae kwan do. They are very well-trained and capable of physically defending themselves against the bad guys, but defending his clients against the psychological and financial harm that can ensue when certain secrets start unraveling may be a different matter.

Christian Steele receives a phone call from his former fiancee, a woman whom everyone assumed was dead, although her body had never been found. Then nude pictures of the woman turn up in a sleazy magazine. At the same time, the woman's father is murdered by an presumed mugger. Are the incidents related? 

To complicate matters further, Myron has a personal connection to the family. He is in love with the woman's older sister. Although his relationship with her has long since ended, his feelings for her haven't.

Myron and Win begin to dig into the mysteries but things just get more and more complicated as they uncover lies within lies and family secrets which could destroy many lives.

Coben has created a very personable and likable hero in Myron Bolitar. He is a compassionate man in a business that is all about the money. Moreover, he has a sly humor that is very endearing.

Coben writes dialogue that is believable and rings true, although I know nothing about the business of being a sports agent. He tells his story in a linear, easy-to-follow manner and it is a real page-turner. He builds suspense as he keeps the reader in doubt as to whether the missing woman is alive or dead until close to the end of the book. All in all, it is a very satisfying read and a good introduction to the series. This first entry in the series was published in 1995 and there have been several since then. I look forward to reading them and to getting to know Myron and Win better.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Disappointing "Newsroom"

Will McAvoy is a fathead. A pontificating, holier-than-thou, blowhard of the kind of character that I love to hate. The problem is I had really hoped to love him.

When I first saw the promos for the new Aaron Sorkin show for HBO, The Newsroom, I thought it looked interesting. The cast was well-known for their good work, the idea of a series about a cable news show seemed relevant, and Aaron Sorkin is an award-winning producer and writer (The West Wing, Moneyball, The Social Network), so the whole thing offered the promise of keeping me entertained on Sunday nights this summer. So far it has been a disappointment, and it is mostly because of the character of Will McAvoy. He just sucks all the air out of the room for me.

Jeff Daniels, who plays Will, is terrific, as, in fact, all the actors are in their respective roles. There really isn't a stinker among them. But the words that they are given to speak are the problem.

Will seems to be channeling Eric Sevareid and his commentary on the CBS Evening News of long ago. All of his speeches - and every time he opens his mouth, it's a speech - sound like something Sevareid would have spoken on air. That wouldn't be such a bad thing in some contexts, but in every day conversation with one's colleagues, it seems stilted and inappropriate.

Moreover, Will is on a mission to bring civility to the world, but what that seems to mean to him is "civilizing" the women whom he chooses to date - mostly of the arm candy type. Each time he dates one of these...ladies, he seems to wind up lecturing her on correct behavior. Not attractive.

Of course, Will can't really get interested in any of those women because he's still in love with his executive producer, MacKenzie, with whom he used to be involved before he caught her in bed with an old boyfriend. And, naturally, MacKenzie is still in love with him, too, ( I mean who wouldn't be? He's such a peach!) and she tells everyone who will listen what a great guy he is and that he is the best person she has ever known. No doubt Will would agree with her.

The plot of the show has the news team covering recent events in the real world (the Gulf oil spill, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, the "Arab Spring") so that we know the outcomes of the stories and the characters get to sound wise and prescient as they interpret these events. I don't necessarily have a problem with that but I think it would be interesting and would help to humanize the characters if just once they got it all spectacularly wrong.

I think the real problem that I have with the show is the way it treats its women. They are mostly ciphers, there to be paternalistically lectured by Will or the other middle-aged white males in the cast. They are borderline inept klutzes, present to provide the aforesaid eye candy and comic relief and to gaze adoringly at Will, somewhat like Nancy looking at Ronald Reagan. One example of the ineptitude will suffice: MacKenzie, the supposedly hot-shot producer who has covered stories around the world, doesn't understand how to send email on her Blackberry and ends up sending a private message to hundreds of people.

The show premiered to a lot of raspberries from critics. The words "arrogant" and "cynical" got used a lot. But I really, really wanted to like it and I wanted to give it a chance to grow on me. Now, half-way through its season, I can report that it hasn't and I'm losing hope that it will. But I can be every bit as stubborn as Will McAvoy, so I guess I'll keep watching. After all, only five more Sundays to go. Maybe Will will finally make a mistake.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman: A review

George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The extraordinarily pessimistic theme of Barbara Tuchman's book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, seems to be that we are all incapable of learning from history and so we are doomed to repeat its errors over and over and over again, ad infinitum. All of human history has been a march of folly with occasional flashes of insight and brilliance which allow us to advance a bit. Tuchman finds plenty of examples to support her thesis.

Her definition of folly within the context of the book is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. She begins with a general discussion of several examples from history and literature such as Rehoboam, a king of ancient Israel whose obstinance in refusing to listen to the just complaints of his people resulted in the loss of the ten northern tribes of Israel, and Montezuma whose vacillation and failure to heed the warnings of his advisers caused the loss and ultimate demise of the Aztec kingdom. She then proceeds to longer and more detailed discussions of four specific examples of incredible folly.

The first is the prototype for all follies that come after: The Trojans accepting the "gift" of the wooden horse from the Greeks. The horse was brought inside the gates of the city in spite of ample warnings from multiple sources not to trust "Greeks bearing gifts." Priam did not heed the warnings and his city fell.

The second example is that of the Renaissance popes whose decadence and emotional and intellectual distance from the common people led to a revolt by those people against the Church and, ultimately, to the Reformation.

In the third example, the British lose America. It is incredible to read of the series of political blunders, miscalculations, and miscommunications that led inexorably to the decision of the colonies to separate themselves from their Mother Country. It need not have happened. The colonists had time and again signaled their willingness to contribute to the Treasury; they simply wanted to be consulted about the manner in which it would be done and they wanted representatives in London to defend their interests. King George and his advisers would not accept their request and paid a heavy price for their refusal.

Finally, we come to the folly of the American experience in Vietnam. It began in 1945. Vietnam had been a colony of France and, after the humiliation of World War II, the French were determined to hang on it in spite of common sense dictating otherwise. Ho Chi Minh had been trying since just after the first World War to gain independence for his country. He had attempted to present a petition to that effect to the "great powers" after that war, but they refused to accept it. A pragmatic patriot, he later joined the Communist Party when he saw that as a means for achieving independence. Through all the years of his and his followers' struggle, the French and later the Americans seemed to fail to understand the depth of their commitment to being free of foreign overlords. The Americans had forgotten their own 18th century experience with the British.

The American experience in Vietnam began in the Truman Administration with the deployment of 35 "advisers." For the next twenty years, those numbers would gradually grow until they exploded during the Johnson presidency. Reading of the decisions of Lyndon Johnson just makes one shake one's head even today. How could such brilliant men be so stupid? How could they utterly fail to heed all the warnings and assessments of those who knew the country, the region, the history, and the people? Well, how could the Trojans have accepted that Greek horse? When we see or hear evidence that contradicts our ingrained beliefs and what we want to believe because it makes us feel good, we just ignore it. That is the essence of human folly.

Reading this book made me wonder what Barbara Tuchman would have had to say about the last decade of American history. What would she have written about this country's reaction to the events of September 11, 2011; the wars, the abrogation of the individual's constitutional rights, the imprisonment without trial, and, yes, the torture? There are those who like to spout about American "exceptionalism" as if we somehow stood outside of history. We don't. Our follies prove it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Domestic terrorism, domestic politics

David Sirota of Salon.com has named yesterday's massacre in Colorado for what it is - terrorism. Our media would lead us to believe that terrorism is only the purview of dark-skinned Islamicists, but that is faulty thinking. The country is under siege and at the mercy of domestic terrorists like the Colorado murderer because we refuse to take responsibility for standing up to the NRA and passing and enforcing laws that will inhibit the gun traffic in this country. This will not change until we mature enough as a country to give up our adolescent obsession with guns and violence. Frankly, although it depresses me beyond measure to say it, I see no possibility of that happening.

Meanwhile, predictably, a certain segment of our society rushes to the microphones to say that if only there had been someone else in the audience with a gun to take the shooter down, all of this could have been avoided. Never mind that the shooter was wearing full body armor and that the hero would have had to shoot around the vast crowd that was in the audience and that was panicked by the assault and then have his bullet pierce the armor in order to take him down. All it would have taken is one Clint Eastwood type hero and he would have made the day for all of us, so goes their reasoning.

One of the proponents of that kind of thinking is our own Texas Republican Tea Party Representative and resident wackadoodle Louis Gohmert. He believes that the massacre was caused by "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs" and that if only that hero gun toter could have been in the audience, all would have been well. Gohmert was last heard from last week when he signed on to Michele Bachmann's hate campaign against Islamic Americans. And he is one of our elected representatives! Do we wonder that the country is in such trouble when we continue to elect such idiots?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Another massacre. Ho hum.

A man walks into a movie theater with a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun, plus two canisters of gas. He sets off his smoke bombs and then opens fire, randomly, at the packed crowd. He kills twelve people outright and wounds at least 38 others, some of them seriously enough that their survival is in doubt. He is captured almost immediately. He is a white male American, 24 years old.

Another day, another massacre in America. By now, our national consciousness is almost inured to such violence. Ho hum. Move along. Nothing to see here.

For a day or two or three, all the politicians and public officials will offer sober words about the killings. They will talk about how their prayers are with the victims and their families. They will talk about how the perpetrator must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And then they'll go back to business as usual. The victims, their families, and their pain will be pushed to the background and forgotten.

Soon enough, there will be another such massacre to claim our attention - for a day or two - and everyone will be shocked, shocked that this has happened again.

I'm not shocked. I've come to expect this. While I am sad for the victims and their families, I know they will not be the last, as long as we do not have the political will in this country to stop the trafficking in assault rifles and other such guns that have no business being in the hands of the general public. This in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans want this traffic stopped. But it doesn't matter what the people want. What matters is what the National Rifle Association wants because it owns our government.

And so I have a modest proposal. Since we are obviously not going to stop people from getting these guns, I think some canny Republican in Congress should propose a law that requires every American over the age of ten to carry a fully armed assault rifle at all times. Being caught without one's rifle should require a mandatory sentence of 30 days in prison, preferably a privatized for-profit prison. If one is too poor to buy a  rifle, then the government should issue vouchers to help them purchase. Not only would that get a gun into everyone's hands as the NRA wants, but it would also stimulate the economy! Two birds with one bullet, so to speak.  

Would this reduce the number of massacres we have? Probably not. It would most likely increase them, but so what? Every newscast would lead off with the story of the day's massacre(s) until they become so commonplace that they drop out of the news altogether. Anyway, we're going to have these events eventually, so we may as well go ahead and get them over with.

One other thing: If everyone has to carry an assault rifle and we engage in our daily massacres, it will at least reduce our carbon footprint by the simple means of reducing the number of people. We can accelerate the extermination of ourselves and save the Earth! Again, two birds with one bullet.

You're welcome.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Black Ships by Jo Graham: A review

The fall and sacking of Troy and the founding of Rome happened more than 3,000 years ago and yet they still fire our imaginations. They certainly fired the imagination of Jo Graham and she decided to write a book that would be a retelling of Virgil's The Aeneid, the story of how Aeneas, the last prince of Troy, left that ruined city and sailed with a remnant of his people around the Mediterranean until they came to a place situated between seven hills. There he founded Rome.

Graham's story would be different though. It would be told by a woman.

The girl-child, Gull, was born in Pylos, the Hellenic kingdom of old Nestor, after the fall of Troy. Her mother had been a woman of Troy who suffered the common fate of women in war in the Bronze Age. (Actually, not much has changed in 3,000 years.) She was captured by the victorious Achaians (Hellenes), raped repeatedly, and finally given to King Nestor as part of his share of the booty. She would be his slave.

By the time she arrived in Pylos, she was pregnant by one of her Achaian rapists with Gull and her child was born there where she served as a flax slave, one who tended the flax that was turned into linen. As Gull grew she followed her mother in her chores, but one day an accident changed all that. Her leg was run over by a chariot and was broken, never to be straight and strong again. Gull's mother, fearing for her future as damaged goods, took her to a nearby shrine and gave her to the care of the Pythia. Thus, she became an acolyte of the shrine and grew up to be the new Pythia when the old one passed on.

In time, another attack on Troy brought Aeneas and his remnant to Pylos and there the new Pythia encountered the people of her mother and joined with them as they continued their peregrinations. Their voyages took them to Santorini (Island of the Dead), and on to Millawanda, Halicarnassus, Ugarit, Byblos, and on down to the Egypt of Ramses III. (In her author's note, Graham admits that this is a difference from The Aeneid which had Aeneas landing in Carthage and dallying with Queen Dido, but, in fact, Carthage was not founded until four hundred years later and so she substituted Egypt and an Egyptian princess.) The oracle Gull, now Pythia, tells us about all of these places and cultures. When they finally come to rest in Egypt, she feels at home there and is loathe to leave, and yet she must in order to serve her prince.

This is such a well-known story, but it is intriguing to see it through the eyes of a woman. Graham's Pythia is a remarkable narrator. I admit that I am a sucker for stories about this turbulent period in history when there was so much upheaval in the Mediterranean world. The old world was dying and a new one was being born. I am able to find enjoyment even in something that is poorly written about the period. But this, I thought, was very well done.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is rape funny?

So there's this comedian named Daniel Tosh. I know nothing about him really except that I sometimes see ads for his show on Comedy Central while I'm waiting to watch The Daily Show. But he was doing his routine at a comedy club recently and apparently was riffing about rape jokes and a woman in the audience objected and shouted to him that "rape is never funny!" Whereupon Tosh responded that wouldn't it be funny if that woman were raped by maybe five guys?

Surprisingly, this has caused a controversy. Many people, women in particular, agreed with that woman in the audience that rape is never funny. On the other hand, many of Tosh's fellow comedians have rushed to defend him and said that, yes, rape, just like the Holocaust or children with birth defects, is a very funny subject and a legitimate subject for humor. Anyway, First Amendment and all that!


I watched Monday's Daily Show and Jon Stewart's guest was another comedian, Louis C.K. It seems that Louis had sent Tosh a tweet that was interpreted as defending him against his critics. He explained on the show that he had been on vacation and didn't even know about the controversy at the time he sent the tweet. He was simply responding to his show on Comedy Central and telling Tosh that he liked it.
He (Louis C.K.) then declared that the Tosh dustup was just “a fight between comedians and bloggers” and that only “hyperbole and garbage comes out of those two places.” And for the kicker, he added, “It’s also a fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke. And comedians can’t take criticism. Comedians are big pussies.” He went on to explain how the whole experience has enlightened him about the ways “rape polices women’s lives,” while adding, “I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”    
So the old "feminists have no sense of humor" canard raises its ugly head again. I guess Louis C.K. never met (or heard of) Nora Ephron. Or Roseanne Barr or Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter. He might want to spend some time with Caitlin Moran. Apparently, she's the new big thing in outrageously funny feminists.

But all of that aside, there is obviously a simple solution to this controversy. I propose an experiment involving Daniel Tosh and Louis C.K. and any other comedian who finds rape jokes hilarious. I'm sure they would be willing to volunteer for it in the interests of truth in humor. They need to know whereof they speak. So let's have them brutally raped by, oh, five or so guys, and then listen to the jokes they tell about it. The experience would certainly give their jokes a certain edge and we could then fairly judge their senses of humor about the whole thing.

No? I didn't think so. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Central Park Effect

Did you happen to see HBO's latest documentary, Birding: The Central Park Effect? It premiered last night, but, if you care to see it, I believe it will be showing a few times later in the week or you can watch it on HBO On Demand, if you have that feature. It's worth a look if you are interested in birding or birds or even if you just have a concern about the environment and what is happening to it.

I didn't see the show last night because I was watching the Astros game (Finally won one! Yay!) but I watched it today with my two cats. The bird photography and sounds were so realistic that it kept the cats' attention. In fact, it even had them jumping at the screen on occasion!

The film follows a group of regular birders in New York's Central Park through a year of watching the birds there. Some of them are fairly famous (at least in some circles) - people like authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen - but most of them are just regular people, New Yorkers with typically busy lives who are also obsessed by birds.

One of the most interesting of the lot for me was a woman with terminal breast cancer who leads bird walks through the park and has done for many years. She explained what the park means to her, basically that it takes her out of herself and out of her pain and reminds her that she's still here. She's still alive. And there are still birds to see and to share with others.

Another featured birder was a young African-American man who said that his friends know that he is going to disappear in the spring and that they will not see him again until spring migration is over. He was particularly interesting to me, because, so often, especially in this area, birding is perceived as a very white activity. It's heartening to see that this is not true everywhere.

This man, Chris Cooper, had formulated seven reasons why birding is interesting and important. Basically, his reasons had to do with the beauty of the birds, the connection they give us to Nature, studying birds and bird behavior as an entry to the world of science, etc. His last reason was "the unicorn effect." Essentially, this means that you come to know birds through studying them in field guides. You memorize them long before you ever see them. And then one day you finally see that picture that you've been studying come to life in the field and it's like the sensation of watching a unicorn emerge from among a stand of trees. Any birder will know what he's talking about.

Those are some of the birders, but what of "The Central Park Effect"? This refers to the fact that migrating birds are funneled into this green oasis in the middle of a highly urbanized area, so that at the height of the migration seasons, you can get millions and millions of birds coming into the park to feed and rest. Because they have nowhere else to go! This is a boon for the birders, of course, and it's certainly a boon for the birds that there is such a place. It is also sad for the birds that it is one of the few such places left.

It's not only New York that has a Central Park effect. Cities all over the country, with their urban parks, have the same effect, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree. Houston, with its many parks and nature preserves, has many such oases to sustain the birds on migration or even during nesting. It's one of the reasons that ours is one of the birdiest places in the country. But most, if not all, cities have some such "natural" areas, even if, like Central Park, their "Nature" is completely planned and landscaped by humans. These areas are absolutely essential to the survival of birds and much other wildlife in our urban society.

One's own garden can play a similar role. Even a postage-stamp-sized plot that is planned and planted for the benefit of wildlife can be a haven and a life-saver for hungry birds and other animals. That is why the growing popularity of habitat gardening has been one of the more heartening trends in gardening over the last few years.  

While birding probably will never be considered by the general population as a "cool" activity, for reasons that Jonathan Franzen explains in the film, even those who are not bird-addicted may gain a better understanding of their relatives and friends who are by watching this interesting documentary.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

The year is 1930, more than ten years after the end of the Great War. Still, England and Europe are mired in the past. They cannot forget all that they have lost. The pain and suffering continue as they try to honor the memories of the dead, while getting on with their lives.

What is true of her country is also true of Maisie Dobbs of London, psychologist and private investigator. She continues to be called on to investigate and resolve cases related to the war and war injuries and deaths. Now, she is being asked by Sir Cedric Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph, is truly dead.

Ralph was an aviator in the war and was reported to have died in a fiery crash in France, but his mother never believed that he was dead. She continued to try to prove her belief through the use of mediums and spiritualists. Her obsession had finally driven her mad, but on her deathbed, she extracted a promise from her husband, Sir Cedric, that he would continue the search and finally prove whether or not their son had perished. 

Sir Cedric is convinced that he is dead and that seems to be a relief to him for his son was not the kind of son that he wanted. He was a homosexual and that was a supreme embarrassment to his father. Nevertheless, he honors his promise to his wife and hires Maisie to search for the truth.

As always, Maisie's search for truth does not proceed in a linear fashion. She is also involved in the investigation of the supposed murder of a pimp by a teenaged girl who was found covered in his blood and with the murder weapon in her hand, but Maisie comes to believe that she is innocent and enlists Sir Cedric in a quid pro quo arrangement to defend the girl. At the same time, Maisie's old friend Priscilla begs her to search for the truth surrounding the death of her brother Peter, who also died in the war. In time, all of these investigations will converge. Moreover, Maisie will find that someone wants to stop her from getting at the truth, even if it means "stopping" her permanently!

Jacqueline Winspear is particularly good at recreating the atmosphere of the times about which she is writing. One can feel the sadness and despair of her characters as they try to rebuild their lives after the man-made cataclysm that changed them forever. Moreover, she creates sympathetic characters that we care about and want to see live happily ever after. But the solutions to the mysteries in her stories are just a little too pat, a little too convenient, to believe in. And Maisie's intuition, her sixth sense, that helps to get to the bottom of the mysteries, seems a bit contrived to me. Those quibbles aside, this third book in the series was an interesting read about a traumatic and colorful period of history.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lafayette, we remember!

Today is the French National Day. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 during the French revolution. We commonly think of it as Bastille Day. In France, it is celebrated with parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks, not unlike our own Independence Day.

France and the United States have historic ties going back to our country's Revolutionary War when the Marquis de Lafayette, a French patriot, fought on the side of our fledgling country. It has sometimes been a prickly relationship but blood ties are strong. When the United States entered World War I on the side of France, a group of military officers with Gen. John Pershing visited the tomb of Lafayette where one of the officers - some reports say Pershing, some say one of his aides - uttered the phrase, "Lafayette, we are here!" implying that they had come to repay a debt of honor.

On this French National Day, we remember again that debt and we wish our French friends and their new government well during this difficult time as they work to reverse the economic troubles of the European Union. Vive la France!

Lafayette, we remember.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Rep. Wackadoodle strikes again!

There really is no excuse for Michele Bachmann. One wonders what ever possessed the good people of Minnesota to elect her to represent them. Of course, the good people of Minnesota might reasonably respond with a question of their own: What possessed the people of Texas to elect Louis Gohmert to represent them? They really are two of a kind and neither of them is competent to serve in elective office of any kind, in my opinion.

The two are almost always found using the same hate-filled rhetoric and chasing the same chimera that only they and their kind can see. They are at it again. This time their bug-a-boo is the Muslim Brotherhood. "The Muslim Brotherhood is taking over the country and must be stopped from forcing Sharia law on all of us!"

Bachmann, Gohmert and a couple of their fellow wackadoodles have sent letters to the inspectors general of five government agencies demanding that they investigate infiltration by the Muslim Brotherhood into the highest reaches of the federal government. In particular, they singled out for investigation Huma Abedin, the wife of former congressman Anthony Weiner and a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bachmann questions her loyalty to the U.S., asserting that Abedin has three family members who are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The family members' connection to the Muslim Brotherhood may or may not be true. I certainly would not accept Michele Bachmann's word for it. But even if it is, so what? I've had relatives who have been members of some pretty questionable organizations and who may still be for all I know. It doesn't affect my feelings about my country. But Abedin is different, you see. She is Muslim and all Muslims are suspect and dangerous in the view of people like Bachmann and Gohmert. 

By all fair-minded accounts, Abedin is a loyal and hard-working employee of the State Department and she has the confidence of Secretary of State Clinton, which is good enough for me. But the haters will never accept that and she has been targeted before by anti-Muslim activists. Bachmann asserts that since Abedin, the dangerous Muslim, holds a position that “affords her routine access to the Secretary and to policy-making” she might be able to further Muslim Brotherhood interests.

We've heard all of this before, of course. Back in the 1950s it was Joseph McCarthy who saw not Muslims but Communists under every bed in Washington, especially at the State Department. But the rhetoric then sounded much like that of the Bachmann/Gohmert crowd today. The words used are eerily the same. The spirit of McCarthy is alive and still troubling our national discourse.
Keith Ellison, a Democrat and a Muslim, who is also a representative from Minnesota, wrote a letter to Bachmann and her co-signers yesterday demanding they provide evidence to support their accusations, or drop their claims and clear Abedin and others’ names.  “I request that you provide my office a full accounting of the sources you used to make the serious allegations against the individuals and organizations in your letters,” Ellison wrote.  
Ellison is unlikely to get a coherent reply. People like Bachmann/Gohmert don't need no stinkin' "evidence." They just know in their hearts what is true because they have a pipeline to God.
Yes, at long last, they have no shame. Perhaps the voters will muster enough shame to turn them out in November. Well, Minnesota voters, anyway. I don't think there's any hope for Texas.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill: A review

It is 1977. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the former Pathet Lao revolutionary and now reluctant national coroner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, has again been summoned to a remote part of his country to look at a dead body. This time it is a body - an arm anyway - that is protruding from a recently built concrete walk that leads from the President's former cave hideout to his new house. Dr. Siri's task is to disinter the arm, see if there is a body attached, and find out how the body died and how it got into the wet cement. 

Dr. Siri has taken his assistant Nurse Dtui with him on the trip to help in his investigation. They have left Mr. Geung, their mildly Down Syndrome-afflicted helper at the morgue in Vientiane, to take care of things while they are gone. Unfortunately, one of Siri's enemies in the Justice Ministry sees Geung as an embarrassment and a liability and he takes the opportunity of Siri's absence to have him kidnapped by the military and sent to the north for "re-education."

Meanwhile, Siri and Dtui get the body out of the concrete and perform the autopsy which only deepens the mystery of the death and how the body got there. But Siri is not only a surgeon and a coroner. He is also a shaman who embodies the spirit of a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman and is visited by the spirits of the dead who often lead him to the answers to questions of how they died. Soon he suspects that the spirit from this newly discovered body is with him and is trying to communicate something to him.

Cotterill manages to weave a lot of cultural information into these stories. This time, he explores further a theme from the previous books, mainly the enmity and distrust between putative allies Laos and Vietnam and the racial/cultural prejudice against the Hmong people in Laos and the Montagnards of Vietnam. Also, in this book, the Cubans who have been sent to Laos to help with the rebuilding of the country play a significant role. 

I was particularly interested in the story line of Geung, his loyalty to his friends and his job, and his single-minded obsession to return to Vientiane and take care of the morgue as he had promised Dr. Siri that he would. He is just a lovely character and I did enjoy reading about him.

All three of the main characters in these books, Siri, Dtui, and Geung are so compassionate, sympathetic, and humane and so full of humor that one feels comfortable in their presence. There's never really any doubt that the brilliant and intuitive Dr. Siri will get to the bottom of any mystery presented to him and that he will find a way to thwart the paper- and ideology-obsessed bureaucracy of his newly-Communist country. Nor is there any doubt that he will find a way to avenge his wronged friends. I want Dr. Siri to be my boss. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins: A review

I've been spending a lot of time in Mississippi lately. Last week it was Yoknapatawpha County with William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. This week I've been in Tibbehah County with Ace Atkins' Quinn Colson. It turns out that the two counties have a lot in common and the main thing they have in common is secrets. Secrets that can wreck lives, destroy families, and sometimes get you killed. The thing is, the "secrets" are often known by everybody in the county!

We met Quinn Colson in Atkins' previous book, The Ranger. He was an army ranger, fresh out of serving in Afghanistan and he had driven over from Fort Benning to attend his uncle's funeral. His uncle had been the sheriff of Tibbehah County and, in this entry, Quinn has followed in his footsteps, being elected sheriff in a special election to fill the post. He has swept the sheriff's department clean, firing most of the staff who had been involved in some corrupt practices. But Lillie Virgil, the tough chief deputy, is still there to give Quinn on-the-job training and watch his back.

Corruption in county government is still a problem that Quinn has to confront, but that has to take a back seat for a while. There are bad things happening in Tibbehah. It starts with a report from the local doctor of injuries to a baby that look like abuse. The investigation of child abuse leads Quinn and his deputies into the sordid world of human trafficking, a bootleg baby racket, and extreme animal abuse. If that isn't enough, there's a Mexican drug cartel making inroads in the area. They've come to purchase guns and it seems that Quinn's boyhood friend, Donnie Varner, who runs the local gun shop and shooting range, may be involved. Things get even dicier when it looks like the bootleg baby racket, the drug cartel, and the gunrunning may all be intertwined.

(I find it very interesting that the characters Donnie Varner and his father Luther, who owns a store, have the same last name as a family in some of the Faulkner books - The Long, Hot Summer and The Hamlet spring to mind - the patriarch of which owns a store. Coincidence? Unlikely, I think. An homage, perhaps.)

Ace Atkins has a genuine feel for and understanding of small town Mississippi and he portrays his characters with an empathy that helps to make them real for the reader. He's particularly good about emphasizing the role that the military and respect for all things military play in these communities. 

In this book, too, we get to know a little more about Quinn and his relationship with his younger sister, Caddy, and their childhood together. Caddy is back in town and trying to walk the straight and narrow for the sake of her son, Jason. This insight into the family relationships helps to humanize Quinn and lets us understand him a bit better.

Atkins has created an interesting world, as rich in its own way as Yoknapatawpha County. I look forward to visiting there again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

National service

I don't think there is too much on which I would agree with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but in June he called for the reinstitution of the military draft and I believe I agree with him - at least in principle - on that. Back during the years when my friends were getting drafted and sent to Vietnam, I had a different view on the matter, but seeing the way things have played out with this "volunteer army" has given me a whole new perspective.

Our military forces today are all volunteer and what that means in practice is that the people who end up in the military are either emotionally committed to that career or else they have no other viable choice. They are mostly poor and often don't have the option of going to college. They may join the military in hopes of later getting financial assistance for college or further training for a career. Middle-class kids with options rarely join the military. Rich kids almost never. For example, none of the sons of Mitt and Ann Romney chose to volunteer for the military and they are hardly unique among their peers in that.

And so the burden of defending our country and fighting its wars falls disproportionately on the lower economic groups in society. The very richest members of society, those who reap the greatest profits and benefits, never have to lift a finger or a gun in defense of the country. I actually think this explains a lot about their attitude toward the nation's politics. They believe they are entitled, just by virtue of being who they are. They don't owe the country anything - not their blood, or their sweat, or even their taxes. They are never taught a sense of duty to country and they are scathingly dismissive of those who choose a life of public service. All you have to do is listen to the regular rhetoric of the Republican Tea Party about government employees, who, I can assure you from personal experience, are NOT overpaid and underworked. But to hear the Republicans tell it, you would think that these people who work long hours to ensure that the country functions as well as it does, are merely sitting somewhere with their feet up all day long and if we could just get rid of them all the budget would be balanced and everything would be perfect.

It is important for the young to be taught that no one stands alone, we are all in this together, and we all owe service to one another and to our country. That should include the rich. And that is why the draft should be reinstituted - because it is the only way the sacrifice will be spread evenly across society.

But it shouldn't be a random draft. It should be mandatory national service for everyone. When a child turns 18, he or she should be required to spend at least a year - 18 months would be even better - in service to their country. It wouldn't have to be military service - in fact, military service would almost certainly have to be more than a year because of the training period required - because there is plenty that needs to be done in the civilian sector, from picking up trash from the highways to assisting in schools or daycare centers or hospitals or nursing homes or building roads and bridges or conservation projects; the list is almost literally endless. Such service would have the effect of making the young person more invested in his or her society. They would feel more of a sense of civic responsibility and solidarity with their fellow citizens.

In a country where we don't even have the political will to force the super-rich to pay their fair share of taxes, even though a majority of Americans claims to support the idea, it seems highly unlikely that we will force them to give us their children for a year of service, but we would be a better society if we could summon that will and our country would be stronger for it.    

Friday, July 6, 2012

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner: A review

William Faulkner
September 25, 1897 - July 6, 1962
Long, long ago in another lifetime, I read Absalom, Absalom! during my "Faulkner Period." I found it to be an amazing work, but dense, complex, and sometimes unintelligible. It was, in short, a daunting read.

This is the book which many critics pick as Faulkner's masterpiece. Moreover, it was greatly influenced by that other acknowledged masterpiece of the early twentieth century, Joyce's Ulysses. An essay that I recently read about  Absalom, Absalom! in The New York Times - which, in fact, impelled me to read the book again - said of the two works that "each in its way is a provincial Modernist novel about a young man trying to awaken from history." As one of the few and the proud who has actually read both books, I find that a very apt description. 

In fact, Faulkner has been on my mind since we visited his home, Rowan Oak, when we passed through Oxford, Mississippi on a road trip last month, and, as it happens, today, July 6, is the fiftieth anniversary of his death, so this week seemed an appropriate time to return to this dense and complex book and read it again. It is still a daunting read, but somewhat more intelligible, perhaps because of all the living I have done in the intervening years.

The book employs two of my pet peeves in its construction. First, the writer ignores common, accepted punctuation practices. Second, he uses run-on sentences that go sometimes for a whole page and the reader finds herself having to stop, go back, and re-read in order to follow the flow of the story. Normally, this would annoy the heck out of me, but somehow it just seems natural here and I find that I can tolerate it. In fact, I can't imagine the story being written in any other fashion.

This is Faulkner's famous "stream of consciousness" writing, and, of all his books, I think this one is the most extreme example of that style. The "young man who is trying to awaken from history" here is Quentin Compson and he is our listener/narrator. We hear the story of Thomas Sutpen and his progeny through Quentin's ears, read it through his eyes, are privy to his thoughts as he tries to make sense of it all, and listen as he relates the tale to his friend, Shreve, at Harvard in 1910. 

The story and Thomas Sutpen had their beginnings in the West Virginia mountains in 1807. Sutpen was one of several children of a poor white family of Scotch-English ancestry. As a young teenager, Sutpen ran away to the West Indies, ending up in Haiti, where he began to make his fortune as an overseer for a French planter on a sugar cane plantation. Eventually, he married the daughter of the planter and they had a son, Charles, but then he found that his wife was not as she had been presented to him; that she was, in fact, part black and he divorced her and left her and his son behind. 

Later, he made his way, with a group of slaves apparently from Haiti, to Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi and he bought land and built his own plantation, where he raised cotton. He married a local girl, Ellen Coldfield, and had two children, Henry and Judith. He also had a daughter, Clytemnestra (Clytie), with one of his slaves.

All of this happened in the early to mid-1800s and as the 1860s and Civil War loom, Henry heads off to the ten-year-old University of Mississippi where he meets a young man named Charles Bon. They become friends and he brings Charles home to meet his family during the Christmas holidays. Judith seems smitten with him and soon there is an understanding in the community that the two are engaged.

Then comes the war and Henry and Charles join an infantry unit from the University. Meanwhile, Thomas Sutpen, too, joins up and becomes a major and later a colonel in another infantry unit. Ellen, Judith, and Clytie are left to survive on the plantation alone. The slaves that had run the place take their first opportunity to flee north with a Yankee unit. The women are left with a handyman named Wash Jones, a squatter on the plantation, as their sole assistance. 

All the major characters do survive the war, but, in the interim, Henry has come to the realization that Charles Bon, his friend, is actually his half-brother and that he cannot let his sister marry him. The novel revolves, in a very non-linear fashion, around the resolution of this conflict and the consequences of that resolution.

At one point during the war, Henry and Charles are on the battlefield during a lull and Henry has told Charles that "you shall not" marry Judith and Charles says, "Who will stop me, Henry?" Then:
His hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol by the barrel, the butt extended toward Henry.

"Then do it now," he says.

Henry looks at the pistol; now he is not only panting, he is trembling [...]

"You are my brother."

"No I'm not. I'm the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry."
One of the things which modern readers often find distressing about this novel, as well as works by Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and perhaps most famously Mark Twain, is the use of the ugly word "nigger," and yet, in the period about which Faulkner was writing, it was certainly a word commonly used among white people and it is used freely - some would say overused - throughout this book. I think, to give Faulkner the benefit of a doubt, he was making a point. In Absalom, Absalom! he was confronting the seminal conundrum of the South, the intimate familial relationships of the black and white races and yet the deep and seemingly impenetrable social divide between the two. And through his writing, he was trying to force Mississippi and the South to confront that divide, to see it for what it was, an artificial construct created by humans that needed to be deconstructed by humans. 

Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." That is really the point that he made in all of his books and that he made most eloquently here. The past lives in us and through us. The historical consciousness informs our lives even when we are not aware of it. Racism is a part of that historical consciousness for Americans, not only for Southerners. That fact alone makes this book, first published in 1936, still relevant today.

At the end of the book, as Quentin Compson has reached the end of the tale told to his friend Shreve - who is from Canada -  in a Harvard dormitory room on a cold night in 1910, Shreve says:
"Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?"

"I dont hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I dont hate it," he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!
I don't. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Can the U.S. catch up to Rwanda?

The one thing that many people know about the country of Rwanda is that there was a terrible genocide there in 1994. Over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu people were killed in the awful conflict which roiled the country at that time.

Since 1994, Rwanda has been ruled by one man, Paul Kagame. At first he was the de facto leader and then in elections in 2000 he was selected as the country's president. He has been in power since then. His regime is autocratic and repressive and doesn't really brook criticism from any source. He is justifiably excoriated for his record of suppressing dissent.

Paradoxically, he is also considered one of the most effective leaders in Africa. His country is safe and clean and relatively free of government corruption. Per capita income has tripled in 18 years, average life expectancy has increased by 10 years (10 years!), deaths of children under 5 have dropped by half in five years, and malaria deaths have dropped by roughly two-thirds.

The remarkable achievements of Rwanda in the field of public health have come for one reason: Rwanda has universal health care! Their government health insurance plan, called Mutuelle de Sante', reaches all but four percent of its citizenry. The cost to patients is minimal and the health care is good and effective. What an amazing story this is for a small and poor country. What a testament to what can be achieved by human beings when there is the political will to do it.

Every developed country in the world besides the United States currently has some form of universal health care for its citizens. Moreover, many developing nations like China, Brazil, and Thailand also provide universal health care. Many Americans have become medical tourists in recent years, traveling to one of these countries which provides universal health care without exorbitant costs such as we have in this country. It is becoming a more and more common phenomenon.

With the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act that was announced last week, this country now has a chance to take a giant step toward joining forward-thinking, socially advanced countries in providing a very necessary social safety net - some would say a human right - which every one of us will need at some point in our lives. The ACA is a jerry-rigged system created by a committee dominated by insurance companies and it is far from the best we could do if we had the will. But it is a start.

Who knows? In ten or fifteen years, we might even catch up to Rwanda.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why July 4th?

How did it happen that we came to celebrate July 4 as our nation's Independence Day? The Second Continental Congress actually voted to approve a resolution of independence on July 2, 1776. After making the decision to separate themselves from England, the Congress then set about writing a declaration to set out their reasons for taking this action. They debated and revised the wording of the document for a couple of days, finally agreeing to the wording that has come down to us on July 4.

But it seems that the more important date would have been the date that they actually decided on independence, July 2. John Adams certainly thought that was the important date. He wrote his wife Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
Moreover, most historians agree that the document that we know as the Declaration of Independence was not actually signed until August 2, 1776, one month after the initial agreement to separate from England. So why don't we celebrate either July 2 or August 2 as our Independence Day?

For whatever reason, almost from the beginning Americans celebrated July 4 as the big day. It was the date that stuck in the nation's memory and heart. And so, regardless of the cold hard facts of what was agreed to or signed when, it is the traditional date of  the nation's birth and, anyway, it's the date that appears at the top of that famous document.

We hold this truth to be self-evident: The date doesn't really matter. What matters is the founding and keeping of the republic and July 4 is as good a date to celebrate it as any.

Happy Independence Day!