Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje: A review

“There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” - The Cat's Table

Michael Ondaatje insists that this novel is not autobiographical and why should we doubt him? Even so, the intimate and poignant tale certainly feels autobiographical and Ondaatje admits that the story has parallels with his own. 

The central event of the book, an eleven-year-old boy's voyage on a big ship by himself from Colombo in what was then called Ceylon to England in 1954, was a journey that the writer himself made at that age. In the end, I suppose the argument could be made that all fiction is autobiographical in that it springs from the writer's imagination and that imagination is a product of his/her experiences. Discerning the autobiographical bits becomes a circular and rather pointless exercise, I think. Better to just relax and enjoy the book. And there is a lot to enjoy about this book.

Eleven-year-old Michael sails alone on the Oronsay on a three-week voyage at the end of which his mother is to meet him in Tilbury in England. He had been living with an uncle in Colombo and going to school there. Now he will go to school in England. 

Although he is alone, there are a few other people on the ship who are known to him: his older cousin, the beautiful Emily; Cassius, a boy of his age with whom he had attended school; a family friend, Flavia Prins, who the family asked to keep an eye on Michael. 

On the ship, passengers are assigned to particular tables at which to take their meals. The most prestigious, of course, where the elite eat, is the Captain's Table. The least prestigious, farthest away from the Captain's Table is the Cat's Table. Michael finds himself assigned to that table with two other boys his age, the rambunctious Cassius and the quiet Ramadhin. Others at the table included a botanist, a tailor who never speaks, a pianist who claimed to have "hit the skids," a retired ship dismantler, and a woman called Miss Lasqueti, the pigeon lady.

The three boys quickly realize that their very insignificance causes them to be disregarded and overlooked. They are “invisible to officials such as the purser and the head steward, and the captain.” Michael, whose nickname on board has become Mynah, has already been “trained into cautiousness” in the Ceylonese boarding school he attended with Cassius. There “a fear of punishment created a skill in lying, and I learned to withhold small pertinent truths.” The boys put those skills into full play in their adventurous ramblings around the ship.

They find that they are able to observe the adults on board and to learn to read them. They make friends with several of those adults and they expose the boys to the worlds of jazz and literature, as well as to some of the seamier sides of life. The boys also gather at night to spy on a shackled prisoner being sent to England for trial. His crime and fate are mysteries that will haunt Michael forever. 

Michael's story is told from the vantage point of adulthood after he has become a writer and moved to Canada. Intertwined with the boys' story is the story of the adult Michael and how the events of that three-week trip affected his passage into adulthood, how he perceived the world and how he lived his life. As he got older, he found that he understood more clearly many of the things that happened between the adults that he observed so closely on that long-ago voyage. Snippets of memory come back to him to enlighten his way, like the beam of a flashlight in a long dark hall. People that he met on the voyage keep popping up at unexpected moments. That brief voyage has turned into the voyage of his life.

Perhaps the main lesson that the boy Michael gains from his experience is the knowledge that "“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.” Places like the Cat's Table. It's a fine place from which to observe life, a fine place to learn the craft of telling a story, of writing.

This is a lyrically written book that shimmers with anticipation from one page to the next. It is seductive in its power. It draws the reader in and makes one wish that it will never end. As I turned the last page and realized that I had finished the book, I immediately felt a sense of loss that I would not be hearing more from the life of Michael, in which I had invested so much emotion.

Ondaatje is a skillful writer who has given us an elegantly beautiful book that is a joy to read. I think it may well be the best book I have read all year. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A little Saturday music

Here's something to end our week on a positive note.  The singer is Mary Black, with Emmy Lou Harris on harmony. Enjoy.

By the time it gets dark lyrics
- By Sandy Denny

Baby, every cloud has a silver lining
Baby every dog really has his day
And it matters to me to see you smiling
Why don't we blow all your cares away ?

Yesterday is gone and will be forgotten
And today is where every new day starts
Got to be free as the leaves in Autumn
You may be sad but it never lasts.

And maybe, by the evening we'll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there'll be
By the time it gets dark.

We could go walking out in the sunshine
Look at all the people out in the street
Hurrying away to a business luncheon
Waiting for a taxi for aching feet.

Light up your face, baby, let's get going
Want to see a change in those weary eyes
We'll have some fun, take a boat out rowing
Why on earth should life be so serious?

And maybe, by the evening we'll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there'll be
By the time it gets dark.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The rational approach to handling teen pregnancies

At my book club meeting yesterday, the conversation veered off-topic as it often does, this time into the charged arena of teen pregnancy and contraception. One of the attendees commented that she had read that schools in New York were giving out condoms to students. Another member remarked that they would let them have condoms but wouldn't let them have "Big Gulp" soft drinks! At which point someone said, "Yeah, their priorities are a bit skewed." And I thought, but did not say, "No, I'd say their priorities are about right."

The rate of  teenage pregnancies has been falling in this country as a whole, but it is still a very serious problem, especially in the most conservative states in the country. States like Texas. Or Mississippi. A map showing the rate of teenage pregnancies in the various states very clearly shows this. The map shows the rates as shades of red ranging from near white (15 or less births per 1000 women aged 15 to 19) to darkest red (55 or more such births). Most of the darkest red states are those along the southern border of the country, the area that also tends to be most politically conservative.

Why should this be? These same red states are the ones that give the loudest lip service to the idea of chastity and postponing sex until after marriage. So why doesn't their reality conform to their stated values? Probably because teenage hormones are more powerful than dry lectures on the importance of chastity.

Most of these red states do not require schools to teach contraception. In fact, many of them prohibit schools from even mentioning sex. Several do not require any type of sex education and many that do ostensibly permit such a course require the teachers to stress abstinence and advise children to wait until after marriage. In a hyper-sexualized society such as ours, that's a bit like advising a person standing in a pond and dying of thirst not to drink any of the water that is all around him/her.

Indeed, studies have shown repeatedly that abstinence-only sex education is not as effective at reducing teen pregnancies and births as is providing practical help and information to teenagers about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. So, I say good on New York for facing reality and making contraception and even morning-after pills available to students. Let's hope that some day Texas and the other red states will be enlightened enough to follow their lead. Unfortunately, it won't be before many more thousands of promising young lives are blighted or ruined by an unwanted pregnancy.

As for those huge soft drinks, if I ruled the world, they would be totally banned!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The new Know-Nothings

I was reading a story about Bill Nye, the Science Guy, a couple of days ago when I came across a sentence that literally made me groan out load. It said, "In June, a Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago." So much for science and the fossil record. So much for critical thinking. These people prefer to accept the Bible as their scientific and historical text and not worry their little heads about any more complicated explanations. Oh, well, I guess we should just be relieved that the percentage wasn't even higher.

As the story pointed out, the United States stands alone among modern industrialized states in this Know-Nothingism. It's only in the most backward and theocratic places on earth that you would find such a high percentage of people who refuse to acknowledge evolution as settled science.

The same disheartening assessment can be made regarding human-caused global warming. The United States is the center, the hotbed of denialism.

Indeed, a denial of evolution and a denial of global climate change seem to go hand-in-hand. Both refusals to accept the facts established by science involve a kind of magical thinking. Dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time and Noah carried two of them onto the Ark! God is looking out for us and will not allow the earth's systems to be destroyed by human negligence; therefore, global warming cannot be happening. Both thought processes, of course, absolve humans of any responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

In this march back to the Dark Ages, Texas Republicans proudly lead the way. Earlier this year, they came up with a party platform that sought to ban the teaching of critical thinking skills in schools! Their reason was that critical thinking causes people to focus on behavior modification and, according to them, it has "the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."  Heaven forbid that a fifteen-year-old should be forced to reexamine his/her "fixed beliefs" or that s/he should question whether father really knows best. 

This refusal of a large percentage of Americans to think critically and rationally about issues facing them and the country certainly goes a long way toward explaining many of the problems which our society has. It truly is enough to make one despair of the future. In fact, Bill Nye himself seems to despair of the adults whose brains are already ossified, but, in a video that is making its way around the Internet, he asks them please not to impose their beliefs on their children.

It seems a reasonable argument to me. Let the kids think for themselves and make up their own minds. Somehow, though, I doubt it will be persuasive to that 46 percent that the Gallup pollsters counted. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory: A review

As a child, Margaret Beaufort of the House of Lancaster was obsessed with Joan of Arc. She was convinced that she was called by God to be England's Joan. In the War of the Roses, the cousins' war, she was devoted to the cause of the Lancasters because, obviously (to her child's mind), they were the ones anointed by God to rule. The Yorks were usurpers who were to be resisted unto death. But, of course, it wouldn't really be "unto death" because God was on the Lancasters' side and so they would, without a doubt, prevail.

Margaret's dream was to devote her life to study and the worship of God. At the age of twelve, her mother disabused her of that dream by informing her that the only purpose, the only duty, of a Lancaster girl was to breed a Lancaster heir, a boy who could sit on the throne. And so, Margaret would be married to Edmund Tudor and she would live in Wales and there conceive and bring forth the next generation.

Margaret's marriage to Edmund was a nightmare - a twelve-year-old married to a man in his twenties. There was no tenderness in the relationship. As far a Edmund understood, sex was rape. Thus, every night the child Margaret was subjected to rape. Alone in the world, with no one to take her part, Margaret had no choice but to submit.

Fourteen months later, at the age of fourteen, after two days of agony during which she learned that her mother had instructed the midwives that if the child she carried was a boy and there was a choice between saving the baby or saving the mother, the mother was to be sacrificed, Margaret gave birth to a Tudor/Lancaster son. By that time, her brute of a husband was already dead, just another victim of the cousins' war. At fourteen, Margaret was a mother and a widow.

An unattached woman was too valuable a commodity to be allowed to languish and so, immediately, Margaret's mother contracted another marriage for her, to Sir Henry Stafford. After her year of mourning for Tudor was up, she was sent to marry Stafford. Her son was left in the care of his uncle, Jasper, Edmund's twin brother. From that time on, Margaret was never able to spend more than a few days at a time with him. He grew up essentially a stranger to her, although Jasper kept his promise to make sure that the boy, Henry, knew of his mother.

Henry Stafford was a very different kind of husband. He was gentle and kind. He encouraged Margaret's questing mind and gave her books to read and time to contemplate and pray. He was a man of peace who loved his home and cared for his tenants. He stayed as far as he could from the cousins' war. Margaret despised him as a coward.

Now, Margaret had a new obsession: To see her son on the throne of England. She constantly schemed and planned to make that happen. When the Yorks were triumphant and Jasper had to take young Henry and go into exile in Brittany, Margaret continued to work to make it possible for them to return and for Henry to eventually claim the throne. Every action that she took, every breath, every prayer (and there were plenty of those) was devoted to bringing that about. She prayed to God and to Joan for guidance. Amazingly, every heavenly directive that she received was in perfect accord with her own obsession of making her son king. Funny how that works.

Unfortunately, the thoughtful pacifist Stafford was not able to stay out of the wars forever and eventually he, too, became another victim, leaving Margaret a widow once again. By that time, she was also an orphan, her mother having died. This left her free to seek a marital alliance on her own, which she promptly did, contracting a loveless, sexless marriage with Lord Thomas Stanley, a man she saw as a likely co-conspirator in her grand design.

This was actually quite a fascinating book. In spite of the sympathy evoked by Margaret's early history, she turns into a thoroughly unlovable, unlikable, un-self-aware, venal, grasping, God-obsessed, jealous, power-obsessed woman whose only goal in life is to see her son on the throne and to be able to be addressed herself as "My Lady, the King's Mother" and to sign her name "Margaret Regina: Margaret R." She achieves her goal and Henry Tudor becomes Henry VII, but at what a cost!

Philippa Gregory did a good job of bringing Margaret Beaufort to life, as indeed she did with Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen. Having now read both accounts, I can only marvel at what both women achieved in an era when women were totally powerless and were considered property of the men in their families, at least on paper. To be able to rise above such a system was an amazing achievement. Perhaps it took a single-minded obsession to be able to do that. Interesting women, but I don't think I'd want to sit down to tea with either of them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

An appreciation of Treme

Treme returned to the HBO schedule last night, giving me a new reason to look forward to Sunday night television. This is the show's third season, and it was announced today that its fourth half-season will be its last.

This David Simon show about New Orleans in the aftermath of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina has never gained the viewership of HBO's most popular series such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, so I guess, in a way, it will be lucky to last three-and-a-half seasons, but, as one who has come to love the series, I see its short run as a shame and just another indictment of the taste of the American television viewing public.

I admit that it took me a while to get into it also. It's a show with a lot of different and very diverse characters. The story lines attempt to do justice to each of them and so we get lots of scenes of just a minute or so of exposition for each story as the camera jumps back and forth among the characters. I think it is easier for a television show to build an audience if there is one central character on which the viewers can focus - think of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos - but, in this show, the central character really is the city of New Orleans and that's a bit harder for an audience to grasp. In this regard, Treme has been compared to David Simon's other highly acclaimed show that focused on a city (Baltimore) as the main character, The Wire, a series which I still haven't watched but I still intend to one of these days.

The denizens of New Orleans who prowl the streets, or more accurately, sashay down the streets of the series are presented as mostly artistic iconoclasts who pursue their own unique visions. Whether it is a jazz musician struggling to bring his art to a new audience or a chef who just wants to express herself through the food she cooks or a club musician/assistant high school band director trying to support his family while fulfilling his own need for expression or even a civil rights lawyer or an incorruptible policeman trying to bring justice to their community, they all are, in their own ways, artists and lovers of the artistic life. And art, as we know, can sometimes be messy and hard to grasp, and so the series struggles to be understood and appreciated even after two years.

The truth is, it probably isn't a series for everybody and it probably was never going to gain a gigantic audience. New Orleans, in the time of Katrina, is still somewhat of an open wound on the American psyche and perhaps we don't want to be reminded that we failed the citizens of that city in so many ways in the aftermath of the storm. But this show does not present those citizens as merely victims. No, they are strong. They are survivors. In spite of all the hardships which Nature and an incompetent government threw at them in those years, they were determined to rebuild their lives and to rebuild their city and to never abandon their town. They were also determined to live their lives with joy, with a jazz soundtrack accompanying them.

That joy is the essence of the indomitable spirit of Treme, the community and the series. It's why this show is one of my TV watching pleasures and why I will be looking forward to Sunday nights for the next several weeks.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The amazing shrinking penis

Have you heard the latest scientific theory from the great mind of Rush Limbaugh? It seems that men's penises are shrinking, according to an Italian study on sexuality, and Rush knows why! It's those darn "feminazis"! They strike again. But listen to the master speak:
I have a story, it's from Philadelphia, CBS News, CBS Eyeball News. "If size matters, male private parts are shrinking, according to a new Italian study on sexuality. [...] The study’s leaders claim to have bona fide research that says the average size of a penis is roughly 10 percent smaller than it was 50 years ago." And the researchers say air pollution is why. Air pollution, global warming, has been shown to negatively impact penis size, say Italian researchers.
I don't buy this. I think it's feminism. If it's tied to the last 50 years, the average size of a member is 10% smaller in 50 years, it has to be the feminazis. I mean, the chickification, everything else. Give 'em time and they'll blame Bush. Give 'em time. But air pollution versus feminazis? Ha.
Wow! Who knew we had such power? I mean I'm still reeling from the recent discovery, thanks to that other great mind and authority on women, Todd Akin, that my ladyparts have a magic barrier which they can employ to reject any sperm from a rapist. Now I learn that simply by the power of my mind, by standing up for my rights as a human being, I can make men's penises shrink!

Now if women could only learn to employ these superpowers to actually shield themselves from rapists or other physical assaults, or even if they could use those powers to actually ensure that they are paid an equal wage for equal work, then we would truly be living in the age of Superwomen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Frank Capra's America

Frank Capra's movies always exhibited a unique view of society, mostly hopeful, but he didn't shy away from the dark side either. Perhaps his iconic movie is It's a Wonderful Life. Something about this week - I can't imagine what it was - made me think of that movie and particularly of this scene.

Two philosophies of life that could hardly be stated any more clearly.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark: A review

I may have read a Mary Higgins Clark book at sometime in the past, but I honestly can't remember what and when, so I don't know if this book is typical of her writing. She's been very successful with her suspense novels over the years and one frequently sees her on best-seller lists. Indeed, this book was on The New York Times best-seller list for a while (and may still be), but it's really hard to understand why. It is a particularly bland and simplistic piece of writing. 

Simple declarative sentence follows simple declarative sentence ad nauseum and we get to see the story from the perspective of virtually every character in the book. A bit fewer perspectives would have given a cleaner and more readable book, in my opinion, and a few more complex compound sentences might have brought more variety and interest to the reading. Oh, well...

While I was reading the book, news broke that a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School had decoded a fourth century papyrus that refers to Jesus' wife.  As one who is fascinated by archaeology, that added a fillip of extra interest to the book for me, which it badly needed. 

The Lost Years revolves around a parchment which is alleged to be a letter written by Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea. Biblical scholar Jonathan Lyons finds the parchment as he is examining documents from a safe in an old church. He is convinced that it is authentic. He confides to some of his closest associates about the find and gives the document to his mistress for safekeeping! Whatever happened to safety deposit boxes?

He can't keep the parchment at home because his wife has Alzheimer's and is given to destructive behavior. He fears she might find it and deface or destroy it. 

Meantime, he is appalled that one of the people he has confided in has suggested that he can find a buyer for the parchment on the black market and the two can share the profits. Lyons wants the parchment to be returned to the Vatican Library from whence it was stolen in the 15th century. 

But a few days later, Lyons is shot dead while sitting at his desk at home. His twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Mariah, from whom he had become estranged when she learned of his relationship with the mistress, finds the body and discovers her mother covered in blood and crouched in a closet clutching the murder weapon. Did she kill her husband in a jealous rage over the mistress or is the murder somehow related to the parchment? The police think the former; Mariah is convinced it is the latter and is determined to prove it with the help of her friends. 

There was just a lot of extraneous schmaltzy fluff in this book that really detracted from the story for me. We never really got to know any of the characters well because the perspectives kept hopping around from person to person. And the author engaged in a lot of deliberate misdirection in trying to keep the reader's eye off the actual villain in the piece. About two-thirds of the way through, I felt that I knew who that person was and it turned out I was right, but I really didn't  care much anymore.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jon Stewart must love Mitt Romney!

As usual, the most cogent commentary on the latest Romney debacle comes from Jon Stewart.

Meanwhile the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News brigade is urging Romney to own his out-of-touch statements and not back down. It looks like Romney is heeding their advice. There will probably be even more fodder for Jon Stewart very soon. He and all the other late night comedians must bless the day that the Republicans nominated Romney.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

That's it! No more Ms. Nice Blogger!

I am beginning to be thoroughly pissed off by Mitt and Ann Romney and their rich friends. This latest debacle with the video secretly shot when Mitt thought he was among his own kind and could freely speak his mind is just one more example of people who are so divorced from the real world that the rest of us live in that you have to wonder just why the man would ever condescend to even want to be president of a people that he so thoroughly despises. Oh, I forgot - it's the power and the opportunity to make even more money for himself and his friends. That's all it's ever about with him. There is no bottom line except the bottom line.

The most appalling thing about this video is that it reveals that this is what he really believes! It's not just red meat for the base. He was speaking off the cuff and apparently from the heart so we have to assume that he really believes that 47% of the citizens of this country are worthless moochers.

Where does one even begin? Well, the statement has been thoroughly refuted elsewhere by people much more knowledgeable than I, so I won't even start except to say that, yes, I am probably one of that 47% who were never, ever going to vote for Romney no matter what he said, but I would have at least given him a respectful hearing. Now he's lost the chance even for that. He thinks he has contempt for those of us who receive anything that he categorizes as government assistance? Believe me, I'll see his contempt and raise him an outright disdain.

The irony is that when he talks about those recipients of government "entitlements," many of those people are his strongest supporters. The only demographics in the country that show Romney consistently leading in the polls are the elderly and the white men.

The elderly are the prime recipients of government largess through Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans' benefits, but I seriously doubt that any of them would consider themselves "moochers," having worked hard during their working lives or having laid their lives on the line for their country to secure those benefits.

As for the white men who support Romney, specifically the poor white men who are his strongest supporters among this group, they frequently pay no income taxes because of the Earned Income Tax Credit and, if they are unemployed, they are probably receiving Unemployment Benefits. Are they moochers because of this? No, most of them would prefer to be working and paying income taxes, but will they be offended enough by Romney's comments to refuse to vote for him? Probably not. His skin is the right shade and they really believe in their hearts that they can be just like him, given the chance.

Of course, another demographic supporting Romney is that comprised of millionaires and billionaires, but that is a small group.

And then there is Ann Romney. She's the one who is supposed to "humanize" her robotic spouse, the fact that she is just as condescending and snobbish and out of touch as he is notwithstanding. We are supposed to give her a pass because she has suffered. She had breast cancer. She had miscarriages. She has multiple sclerosis. Well, let me tell you who has suffered: The women who have miscarriages and cancer and debilitating diseases but still have to get up in the morning and go to work because their families are depending on them to put food on the table and a roof over their heads! Ann Romney can't see or empathize with "those people." She only sees and talks to the rich white ladies in her own social class, the ones who, like her, never worked a day in their lives. And she is Romney's ambassador to women! No wonder he's losing that demographic by double digits.

Let's not forget Romney's friends, people like Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and the private equity manager named Leder whose house Romney was at when he made his now infamous comments that were caught on video. But at this moment, I'm thinking more of Romney's foreign friends; specifically Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who evidently despises President Obama and is doing everything in his power to swing the American election to his friend Mitt. He is trying his best to drag Obama into another Middle East war, this time with Iran, because he badly wants to attack that country but apparently he doesn't dare do it without American backing. So far, President Obama isn't biting. We can only hope that he will keep his cool and keep telling Netanyahu "NO!" (And also, let us devoutly hope that once the election is over, Netanyahu will pay a steep political price for his interference.)

Meantime, thanks to our Supreme Court, we have no idea how much money Netanyahu and his friends are throwing into the Romney campaign. You can bet that the Israeli prime minister is doing his own bit of fund-raising for the Republican nominee that he clearly favors. He's probably hitting up all his rich friends to send money to help influence the election, in hopes that a President Romney would be more amenable to his war-mongering.

The election cannot be over soon enough for me, at which time I sincerely hope that Ann and Mitt Romney will retire to their seven houses - or however many it is - and their parties with their billionaire friends where they can say anything they want without being videotaped and where I will never have to hear of them again. Just leave the rest of us to get on with our piddling little lives in peace.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Merry Misogynist by Colin Cotterill: A review

There is a serial killer loose in peaceful Buddhist Laos. (Yes, in 1978 the government was nominally socialist, following the revolution that overturned the Royalists, but the country's soul was still Buddhist.) It is still a poverty-stricken country struggling to make its way in the world and provide better lives for its long-suffering people, but progress is dismayingly slow. Even with all its problems though, people had been able to trust each other on a personal day-to-day level, but now a wolf is loose in the peaceful fold and all of that may be changing. Not if the national coroner 73-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun can prevent it! 

The killer comes to Siri's attention when the murdered body of a beautiful country girl is delivered to his morgue in Vientiane. She had been tied to a tree and strangled, but she had not, as the doctor had expected to find, been raped. However, her body had been violated in a particularly sickening fashion, enough to make Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung literally sick. And enough to enrage Dr. Siri who vows he will find the monster who has done this.

To his horror, as he begins to investigate, he finds that the monster may have struck many times. 

In 1978, Laos was a country with only minimal means of communication and police departments in the various localities were essentially isolated and on their own, so no one had been able to notice the fact that a number of beautiful, innocent, young country girls had "married" a smart-looking man with a truck from Vientiane and then disappeared from their families, never to be seen again. The bodies turned up later, in other locations, tied to trees, strangled, but until Siri started poking around no one had ever put two and two together. 

Siri now has a new partner in his investigations, his new wife Madame Daeng. They, along with policeman Phosy, and the usual posse of assistants, set out to find the truth and bring justice and peace for the spirits of the murdered girls, and maybe prevent the tragedy from happening again.

Meanwhile, of course, there are other mysteries for Siri to solve. Rajid, the naked Indian, has disappeared. Much to his surprise, Siri discovers that the man has a father and he painstakingly gathers clues to try to locate Rajid before it is too late, because he has been warned by the spirits that sometimes communicate with him that Rajid is in serious danger.

While solving mysteries with his friends, Siri must also fight with housing officials who accuse him of not actually living in the house that the government has allocated for him but of allowing other people to live there while he actually stays with his new bride above her noodle shop. But Siri would never lie to the government, would he?

This is a somewhat darker tale than the previous entries in this series, because of the serial killer aspect of it. But leave it to Dr. Siri to wrap all the loose ends up in a neat little bow and give all his admiring readers that warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill: A review

Whenever Dr. Siri Paiboun gets called out of town for one of the interminable conferences he is expected to attend as Laos' national coroner, things seem to start popping at the Vientiane morgue where he works with his nurse Dtui and helper Mr. Geung. This time is no exception. While Siri is listening to boring lectures in the north of the country, a booby-trapped corpse is delivered to the morgue and only Nurse Dtui's quick wits save them all from catastrophe.

Moreover, as soon as Siri left town, two auditors moved in to go over his records. But then the auditors are found dead at their posts, having eaten some poisoned cashew cakes that were meant for Siri and/or his staff. What is the meaning of this?

A few months earlier, Siri had foiled a coup aimed at toppling the new Communist government of Laos. It seems that the attempts on his life may be the way that the instigators of the coup have chosen to repay him. 

Meantime, the conference that the good doctor was attending broke up and he was headed back to Vientiane with his boss, Judge Haeng, when he was kidnapped by seven female Hmong villagers. Siri is known by the Hmong to house in his 73-year-old body the spirit of a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman named Yeh Ming. The village elder had ordered Siri's kidnapping, hoping that Yeh Ming would consent to perform an exorcism on the headman's daughter. He believes her soul may be possessed by a demon due to the curse of a mysterious artifact which has brought bad luck to the village. The mysterious artifact turns out to be a child's toy - a pogo stick!

Siri reluctantly agrees to perform the exorcism and sets in play a chain of events which will see the realization of a prophecy by Auntie Bpoo, the transvestite fortune-teller which we met in the last book. 

This charming tale carries forward the stories of all the characters that we've come to love in this series: Dr. Siri, of course, and his (now) fiancee Madame Daeng; Nurse Dtui and her (now) husband, the policeman Phosy; the lovable Mr. Geung; and Siri's best friend and the unsuccessful coup plotter, Civilai. They are all here and they are all as full of vim and vigor as ever!

The only complaint that I have about the books of Colin Cotterill's series is that they are just too short. It is always with reluctance that I leave behind the irascible but thoroughly lovable coroner and his coterie of friends and admirers. 

But anyway, I have the next book in the series so what's keeping me from jumping right into it? Not a thing!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory: A review

I got the feeling early on that this book really wanted to be a historical bodice-ripper, but the narrative voice of Elizabeth Woodville is so laconic, so lacking in passion, that it never quite made it. The lack of passion is especially surprising in a woman who was twice married and mother to about a dozen children. In fact, it seemed that about half her life was spent being pregnant.

Woodville was a widow with two young sons at the time that Edward IV came out on top - at least temporarily - in the cousins' war known to history as the War of the Roses. Her husband had fought and died for the Lancasters, the faction that was also supported by her family, the Riverses. Edward was, of course, a York, the other side in the war. But as the newly crowned king rides by her family's holdings, Elizabeth the Lancasterite stands by the road and asks the assistance of the Yorkist king in regaining her dowry lands that have been taken from her. Elizabeth is a beautiful woman and the king is very susceptible to beautiful women. 

Theirs is a story of "love at first sight" and even though Elizabeth is a commoner and the king is expected to marry a princess to help secure his realm, the two do, in fact, marry in secret and Edward returns to his war. The war never really ends in all the years covered by this tale, but there are at least brief periods of peace. In one such period, Edward acknowledges Elizabeth as his wife and she is crowned as queen. In her new position of power, she immediately sets about putting members of her family into advantageous marriages and powerful offices which will further tighten their holds on the reins of government and the treasury of the kingdom.

Elizabeth's real passion, it seems, is for the advancement of her family. She spins her webs of schemes and conspiracies to try to ensure that that happens. But others are spinning, too. When it comes to gaining and holding the throne, there is no honor among the schemers, even when they are brothers.

The end of the story is well-known. Edward dies and leaves his brother Richard as the guardian and Protector of the Realm for his son and heir, Edward, and his younger son Richard. But Duke Richard proves false and sends young Edward to the Tower of London for safekeeping. Elizabeth is instructed to send her son Richard along, too, to be with his brother, but Philippa Gregory gives the story a twist just here and we are left with the possibility that perhaps at least one of the boys survived. In truth, of course, historians have puzzled over the fate of the two little princes for more than five hundred years. No one really knows what happened. Perhaps Gregory's story makes as much sense as any. 

The stories of the Plantagenets have inspired writers from Shakespeare's day to the present, but they have mostly told the tales from the perspectives of the men involved. Gregory takes the distaff side and gives us a glimpse of the strong and determined women behind the constantly warring men. While her writing might not quite rise to the level of "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" it's still a rousing good tale. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A profile in stupidity

Mitt Romney may be an absolute whiz when it comes to making money by shutting down companies and outsourcing jobs, but when it comes to understanding the way the real world works, he's an idiot. That's the only explanation I can see for his behavior in response to recent events in the Middle East. Moreover, not only is he an idiot, he is a craven political opportunist willing to make "profit" from capitalizing on the deaths of devoted American public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect and defend the interests of this country. In that sense, not only is he an idiot and an opportunist, he is unpatriotic.

I can write that last paragraph because we have freedom of speech in this country. It is a concept that is sometimes hard for people in other parts of the world to fully understand. So when they see or hear of an offensive anti-Muslim film like the one that was used as an excuse to incite the riot in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans from the consulate there, it is hard for them to understand why the U.S. government cannot just arrest the perpetrator of the obscenity and shut down distribution of the film. When the U.S. government fails to do that, they jump to the conclusion that the government itself condones the film and its message and they use that reasoning to stir up hatred against the government. The concept that a government cannot control what its citizens say or write or what images they load to YouTube is literally foreign to them.

And so we have riots occurring around the Middle East today and U.S. diplomats lives' are being put in danger because another bigot with a political agenda of his own produced a film deriding the Prophet Mohammed and insulting the Muslim religion and loaded it on YouTube, an act that was calculated to incite violence thus lending credence to the self-fulfilling prophecy that Muslims are violent people. His actions may not be against the law (although that is yet to be determined, I think) but they are most certainly immoral and unpatriotic. Anyone who would knowingly, willingly put the lives of our public servants in other countries in peril cannot be said to have the interests of this country at heart and they deserve our censure and disgust.

And what of politicians in this country who would take advantage of such a volatile situation to try to advance their own political agendas? Yes, people like Mitt Romney and the few like Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, loudmouth radio host Rush Limbaugh, Senator John Kyl, and half-Governor Sarah Palin who have supported him. They deserve a double serving of our censure and disgust and they deserve to be run out of public life altogether.

Ironically, as demonstrations, some of them violent, spread across the Middle East in response to a film that is utterly stupid and without any artistic merit, the United States is apparently viewed more positively by the ordinary citizens of the area than it has been in many years. There has, for example, been an outpouring of outrage from citizens of both Libya and Egypt over the violence that took the lives of Libyan ambassador Christopher Stevens and others. Likewise, the governments of Libya and Egypt have expressed their outrage and regret. It should be noted also that Libyans fought to defend the consulate in Benghazi from its attackers and that at least ten of them died defending it. While it is natural for Americans to focus on the deaths of our own citizens, we must not lose sight of that and we must remember and honor the memories of those brave Libyans as well.      

Free speech is a difficult concept. It may be our greatest strength as a country, but it can cut both ways and it can be used against us. It is sometimes a burden as well as a gift, because we have to put up with a lot of stupid speech to ensure that we protect everyone's rights. But I think that the very least that we can expect of someone running for the highest office in our country is that she or he speak with probity, thoughtfulness, and intelligence about issues, and if s/he cannot meet that standard then s/he should remain silent. Mitt Romney should have remained silent. Instead, he gave us a memorable and devastating profile in stupidity.

UPDATE: And then there are the thoughtful responses - Pictures from a pro-American Libyan rally.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Moment of Truth by Lisa Scottoline: A review

This represents a bit of a twist on the usual plot of legal thrillers, in that an innocent man sets out to frame himself for the murder of his wife. I confess this is the first Lisa Scottoline novel that I've read so I don't know if unusual plot twists are a trademark of her work, but, for the most part, I think she pulls it off.

A Philadelphia civil law attorney named Jack Newlin arrives home for dinner and finds his wife murdered in their kitchen. Their teenage daughter was supposed to join them for dinner on the night of the murder and Newlin immediately jumps to the conclusion that the daughter Paige, who is absent from the house, must have killed her mother. He determines to protect the daughter at all costs by confessing to the murder himself. He sets the scene to make it appear that he was the murderer and then calls 911.

After being arrested, Newlin makes a statement to the police and is videotaped confessing to the murder, but in mid-confession, he realizes he is making it too easy and that a real murderer wouldn't behave this way. He stops his statement and demands to see a lawyer, but his plan is to find the most incompetent lawyer he can and hire that person for his defense.

He reaches Mary DiNunzio, a rookie lawyer at the firm of Rosato & Associates, who has only ever tried one murder case. He counts on her inexperience to seal his fate, but he doesn't count on Mary's lawyerly instincts and her ethics. She is determined to give her reluctant client the very best defense possible, and soon she becomes convinced that Jack is, in fact, innocent and is trying to protect someone. She will do everything in her power to prove her client's innocence, with or without his cooperation.

Soon, we learn that the Newlins were a very dysfunctional family and that the daughter may have been being emotionally, and perhaps even physically, abused by the mother. This may be the source of Jack's feelings of guilt - the fact that he didn't do more to protect the girl.

Meantime, Paige, who is a model living on her own, has become involved with a boyfriend who seems to be a real jerk and who may be a criminal besides. Is it possible that he was involved in his girlfriend's mother's death?

There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, plenty of red herrings thrown in to confuse the issue. Also, Mary is strongly attracted to her client and it isn't clear that she is able to separate her personal feelings from her professional responsibilities.

Mary DiNunzio is a very appealing character and while she may be short on experience, she is long on persistence and completely determined to reach that "moment of truth" when all is revealed and her client will be exonerated.

I found Scottoline's plotting of the story very brisk. She kept things moving. Moreover, her descriptions of her characters' appearances and her setting of the scenes was exceptionally sharp, I thought. I had no trouble at all envisioning the various characters and the various places where they found themselves. It was all laid out for me.

It seems that there are a number of books in this series about the Rosato & Associates law firm in Philadelphia. I gather that each one features different lawyers within the firm. That is an interesting concept on which to base a series. Evidently, it has proved successful for Scottoline and if this book is a fair example, I can see why.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Another perspective of the conventions

Jimmy Fallon sums up the Republican and Democratic conventions by channeling James Taylor.

Yeah, that just about says it all.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Summing up: On to November!

So the Republicans' and Democrats' quadrennial celebrations of themselves are over, and now it's time to get serious about the election. Less than two months left until that fateful date. Did I hear you say, "Thank God!"?

I didn't watch any of the Republican convention in real time. I only read and watched some of the news reports afterward and I did look at the platform which they adopted. From such a perspective, one could only be struck by what a hate-filled, angry, pessimistic, narrow-minded, misogynistic, and downright unpatriotic congregation it appeared to be. The theme seemed to be, "I've got mine, Jack, and f**k you!" A perusal of the faces of the delegates, mostly white and white-haired, seemed to confirm that impression. I truly don't mean to be unkind or unfair to them, but that is just the way they seemed to me. Perhaps if I had watched more of the actual convention, I might have had a somewhat more sympathetic view of the group, but somehow I doubt it. The performance art of that angry and rudely profane old man Clint Eastwood and his empty chair seemed the perfect metaphor for the convention.  

The Democratic convention was an entirely different kettle of fish. I did watch sections of it, switching between convention coverage and my baseball game of the night. The first and most obvious difference that struck me full in the face was the audience of delegates. As the cameras panned over the crowd, one saw every hue in the human rainbow of colors. Moreover, based on their distinctive dress, one could identify Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, and who knows how many other faiths were represented there? I suspect there may have even been a few fundamentalist Christians. In short, it looked like the diverse group of people that you would find in any gathering in downtown Houston or any other big city around the country. It looked like America.

But the real difference was in the tone of the speeches. Sure they derided the Republicans, but they didn't seem to hate them or even be angry at them personally. They were more bemused and appalled. They, of course, made a great effort to point out their differences in support of women's rights and gay rights and especially their support and appreciation of the military, something which was incredibly and unaccountably missing from the Republicans' rhetoric last week. They made jokes - some at their own expense - and they really seemed to be enjoying themselves. There wasn't a pinched face in the house! Maybe that was partly because they were entertained by some real barnburning speeches. I watched at least parts of the major ones.


Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio gave the keynote speech. It was full of youthful energy and enthusiasm and optimism for the future. Castro represents the very best that Texas has to offer and he gives us liberals hope that the rising brown tide of voters in this state may some day help us to wash away the backward-looking, anti-science, anti-woman, anti-critical-thinking, bought-and-sold-by-the-oil-companies clique that controls the state today. Plus, his speech brought one of the sweetest moments of the convention as the cameras found his watching family and focused on his three-year-old daughter as she discovered her image on the big screen.

I loved it.


I watched perhaps half of First Lady Michelle Obama's speech and she made me proud. Her speech was filled with heart and soul and love of family. She took care to emphasize one of the causes she has championed along with Jill Biden, that of being an advocate for those who serve the country in the military and especially for their families who also serve.

I loved it.


On Wednesday night came the speechmaker everyone had been waiting for - Bill Clinton. I missed the first ten to fifteen minutes while watching the Astros and Pirates, but not to worry: There was still plenty of speech left! He took up each of the arguments that the Republicans have made against President Obama and his record of the past three-and-a-half years, and, as usual, the loquacious former president went off script as he sought to explain in great wonkish detail, but in an utterly understandable way, just why each of those arguments was specious. And he did it all with a smile. He made a blazing defense of the Obama record to the utter dismay of all those pundits who had been eagerly anticipating a half-hearted effort.

After his speech, the next day, the picture of his wife, Hillary, who was in East Timor at the time, watching video of the speech went viral on the Internet, as everything that she does seems to these days.

I loved it.


Finally, on the last night of the convention, we heard from the candidates themselves. First, Joe Biden extolled the courage and the hard work and the care and concern for the American people of the man with whom he serves and he got to utter that phrase that he has made famous over the last several months: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!" And finally, it was time for the president himself.

I watched all of the president's speech. I thought it was sober and reflective. It did contain a litany of his accomplishments, but it also made clear that he knows that the country is not yet out of the ditch that it was driven into and that there is still much to do to get us where we need to be. I was especially struck by his invocation of the responsibilities of citizenship, by his assertion that we are not just individuals whose only role is to look out for ourselves but that we must look out for our fellow citizens because we are all in this together. We must look to the right and the left, behind and ahead, and help lift those who have fallen. As the Marines pride themselves on the slogan "no Marine left behind," the president was invoking the slogan for the whole country, much as his wife had said in her speech, paraphrasing,  that when we walk through the door of success, we don't slam it shut behind us. We prop it open for those who follow. It was a very different philosophy from what we had heard from Republicans.

I loved it!


I thought it was a very effective, successful convention for the Democrats. There was only one tiny blip on their screen and that involved two words that were omitted from their platform: God and Jerusalem. Fox News and the Republicans went crazy! How dare the Democrats not mention God or say that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem??? (And what the hell is Tel Aviv?) At which point the president himself apparently directed the convention to insert the wording. It was sloppily done, really the only sloppily done moment of the week. But I do understand what the president was doing. If those words had not been in the platform, Fox News and its minions who are running for president and vice-president would have beat that straw issue all the way to election day. It would have been a distraction that the Democrats don't need. They need to focus on the true issues facing the country. They need to focus on the truth, because when they do that, they win. It's that well-known liberal bias that the truth has.

On to November!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Live long and prosper

In honor of the 46th anniversary of Star Trek, here's an excerpt from my current favorite nerdy television series.

Live long and prosper.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Vladimir Putin, bird conservationist?

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

I've written here (in Backyard Birder) many times about the project to help save the endangered Whooping Crane by developing an eastern migratory flock that flies between Wisconsin and Florida twice each year. Young birds are taught the route by training them to fly with an ultralight aircraft. The project has had some success - and some tragedies - and the flock is slowly growing.

Of course, Whooping Cranes are not the only members of that long-legged family that are endangered. In fact, many cranes right around the world are seriously endangered. Our own Sandhill Crane is a notable exception, probably because of that bird's adaptability and willingness to utilize a variety of foods in its diet.

Another critically endangered bird is the Siberian Crane, part of whose range extends into Russia, and it turns out that Russian conservationists also have a program based on use of the ultralight to escort the young birds on their first flight. Recently, that program got a big boost in publicity around the world when they had a celebrity pilot for a portion of the ultralight's flight. President Vladimir Putin donned the crane costume and took the helm to lead the birds on their way.

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin courtesy of The New York Times
Vladimir Putin, alpha bird in crane costume, leads his flock. 

Mr. Putin is famous for his efforts to present himself as a formidable athlete, a caring outdoorsman, and "macho man of adventure," not unlike a certain blue-eyed, chisel-framed candidate for vice-president in this country.  As The New York Times points out in its article about his flight:
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns. 
So it seems that Mr. Putin's exploits are sometimes prone to exaggeration, not unlike Mr. Ryan's. But really, if he wants to be involved in "The Flight of Hope," which is what the Russian conservationists call their crane project, then I say "good on him." If Vladimir Putin has a stake in seeing that the Siberian Crane survives as a species, then that probably increases its chances of avoiding extinction in a very substantial way. These days, cranes need all the friends they can get.