Monday, December 31, 2012

I am resolved

Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!
— Ogden Nash
From Collected Verse from 1929 on

Yes, we've finally reached that fateful day, the day when the clock takes on the aura of a time bomb as it counts down the final hours of the old year and points toward the new year to come with all of its possibilities.

It's a time for retrospection as we think of the year 2012, now almost finished. What did we accomplish this year? What did we fail to do that we should have done? What are our triumphs? What are our despairs? And, most importantly, how can we improve and get it all right in the bright, shiny new year just peeking over our windowsills? That's where resolutions come in, of course.

As I think about what I would like to do to perfect myself in 2013, several things come to mind that I might resolve. A number of them have to do with reading.

Read more classics. I have to accept the fact that there are more great books out there than I will ever be able to complete reading in my lifetime, but that's no reason not to try, starting perhaps with American classics. I read one Faulkner book this year and was amazed once again by its power. There are others of his books that I've never read. I've never read Henry James. I've never read Saul Bellow. I've only read a couple of Toni Morrison's books. So many... I can't wait to get started.

Stick closer to my diet. This is a natural, the resolution that so many, myself included, make every year. I just got good news from my doctor concerning my latest lab work, a good incentive for me to be ever more diligent for the sake of my health.

Take more birding trips. So many birds, so little time. I added a few life birds this year, but not as many as I might have if I had tried just a little harder. I resolve to try harder in 2013.

Spend time every day writing. I'll never win the Pulitizer Prize or write the great American novel, but I can perfect the small skill that I have. It just takes practice and dedication. Expressing myself through the written word is an important part of my life and I need to work on it every day of my life.

Be diligent in support of the causes I care about. The environment, better schools for children, animals' rights, food safety, reducing gun violence, promoting peace in the world, and so many more - they are all big issues, bigger than I can get my arms around, but I must do what I can. That is the most - and the least - I can do.

Learn more about photography. I enjoy photography, especially photographing birds, but I'm strictly self-taught. I could benefit from actually getting some classroom instruction on how to be a better photographer. Maybe this will be the year that I finally sign up for that photography course at the local college.

Read Louise Erdrich from the beginning. I just got her latest book, The Round House, for Christmas and it has reminded me of what a great writer she is and of how much I've probably missed by reading her works, helter-skelter over the years. I think it would be wonderful to start with Love Medicine and read all the way through The Round House. I hope to do that this year.

Read more non-fiction. I am addicted to fiction, especially literary fiction and I read it voraciously. Normally, I spend less time in the non-fiction world. My aim in 2013 is to read at least one non-fiction book a month.

Exercise! Yes, I know, this is another one that we make every year, but exercise is so important for the brain as well as the body that it is necessary to keep rededicating ourselves to try to get more of it into our routines. We are much too sedentary.

Read more poetry. Poets have special insights, a unique way of seeing the world and I need to take advantage of their wisdom. I have my favorites that I return to from time to time, but this year I will make more of an effort to branch out, to get to know new poets and see what they have to teach me.

Be a better friend. I'm really not a good friend, too selfish, I think, but this year I am going to try my hardest to do better for all the people that I love. We all need a friend, but, as our mothers always told us, to have a friend you must first be a friend. Maybe it's not too late for me to put into practice the wisdom of my mother's words.

Let us hope that 2013 will finally be the year when we put all of our good intentions into practice!


Sunday, December 30, 2012

A poem for year's end

The Year
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1910)
clr gif

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny: A review

When reading a mystery series, I think it is a mistake to read the books out of sequence. But earlier this year my Mystery Book Club read Bury Your Dead, the sixth in Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series, and it was my introduction to this series. After finishing that book and loving it, I determined to read the series in order and I've been working my way through the books here at the end of the year. 

Then I picked up The Brutal Telling, number five in the series, and made another mistake. I was reading the book on my Kindle and thought I had started number four. By the time I had realized my mistake, I was already involved in the story.  Now, I have to circle back and read number four.  Sigh.

But having read Bury Your Dead earlier proved really problematic for reading this book because the final solution to this book's mystery is revealed there. And so, I read this book knowing all along who the murderer was. I knew so much more than the investigators and I kept having this impulse to shout at them, "No, no, you're getting it all wrong!" Somewhat surprisingly though, I found that knowing the solution really did not interfere with my enjoyment of the writing.

So, here we are in Three Pines, Quebec once again and once again there's been a murder. A man's body with its head bashed in has been found in Olivier's Bistro, the favorite gathering place for the villagers. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the man was not killed there. No enough blood. Obviously the body had been moved, but why? 

As Gamache and his investigative team, including its newest member, Paul Morin, dig into the mystery, they find themselves stumped. At first glance the dead man had looked like a tramp, but on closer examination, he had obviously cared for himself and had lived a healthy and clean life. There's no identification on the body and none of the villagers will admit to knowing who he was. With no identity, no motive, no murder weapon, and no murder site, the investigation seems hopeless.

Still, the team plows doggedly ahead,  and finally they get a break when Jean Guy Beauvoir discovers evidence that the body had spent some time on the floor of the old Hadley house, which is no longer a grim and scary place but has been bought and renovated into a bright and beautiful spa by Marc and Dominique Gilbert. Even though the wreck of a house has been changed beyond recognition, it still seems to be a magnet for murder.

But no. It turns out that even though the body had rested there for a while, it was not murdered there. Still not enough blood. And still no identity for the corpse.

Then the team gets its second break when a cabin in the woods is found and on the floor of the cabin is a large bloodstain. The place where the man lived and died has been found and in that humble cabin is a fortune in art!  And still the dead man has no identity.

The mystery only seems to deepen and Gamache travels across the country to the Queen Charlotte Islands searching for a link to the man's past that may offer the key to the puzzle. Meanwhile, art experts are inventorying the treasures found at the cabin and trying to find how they came to be there. It seems that the Homicide Division of the Surete du Quebec and its director Chief Inspector Gamache may finally be stymied. But don't bet against them.

Louise Penny continued her string of winners with this book. She's given us characters in Three Pines that we care about and it is difficult to see their lives torn apart by the events in this book. But then, I know what's coming because I have already read Bury Your Dead.     

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny: A review

Louise Penny's mysteries are very much in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Her Chief Inspector Gamache is almost a cross between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple! He combines the brilliance of Poirot with the small village values of Miss Marple. He is unfailingly courteous to all, even to the murder suspects that he and his team investigate in their roles with the Homicide Division of the Surete du Quebec. 

He has a soft spot for outsiders, for those whose value may not be recognized by others in the Surete or in society. Frequently, he makes them a part of his investigative team and his team has an almost 100% rate of solving crimes, thus proving Gamache's instincts are golden. 

His inclusion of these outsiders always meets resistance from his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, even though Jean Guy himself was once one of Gamache's "outsider projects." That could be said of most members of this highly successful investigative team.

Once again that team is called to Three Pines, the small village in Quebec that is virtually crime-free, except for murder. 

This time a death has occurred in the old Hadley house, the scene of a previous murder and kidnapping and a place where both Armand Gamache and Jean Guy were injured in the attempt to rescue the kidnapped woman. In fact, the old Hadley house stands on a hill outside the village proper and seems to exude a sense of evil. It is an abandoned house, a place that people avoid.

Why, then, on Easter weekend, did a group of villagers decide to go to the old house to conduct a seance? On Good Friday, they had persuaded a Wiccan visitor to the village to conduct a seance at the bistro, but that was less than successful. Not scary enough! Then someone suggested the old Hadley house and the plans were made.

During the seance, strange things begin to happen, weird sounds are heard, and one of the participants screams and drops dead. It appears she has been scared to death. But was it a natural death?

As a reader of mysteries, you surely know the answer to that question! The autopsy confirms it. The dead woman, much beloved, with not an enemy in the world according to all accounts, has been helped on her way out of this life. Now Gamache and his team must find someone who wanted her dead.

It seems impossible. Everybody loved her. And yet love and hate are emotions that can be closely related, two sides of the same coin. As Gamache always says when someone tells him things don't make sense, it always makes sense. You just have to find the sense that it made - to someone. There you will find your killer.

And Gamache, the patient observer, always finds the killer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A reader's dozen...well, fourteen, actually

'Tis the season for making lists. Everybody is going on record with a list of his/her favorite movies, television shows, songs, books, or whatever turns him/her on. Or, in some cases, it is the ten least favorite things, but, regardless of whether it's good or bad, it seems that one must make a list.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I decided to make a list of my favorite books that I read this year. Instead of a "top ten," I thought I would do it a bit differently and pick one book from each month - it would be my favorite from that month, so I would wind up with a list of twelve.

Sounds easy enough and most months were easy. But a couple of months proved problematic. I just couldn't pick between two favorites from those months. So, in the end, I had a list of fourteen favorites. And here they are, my favorites from each month with links to my reviews of them.

January:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I loved this book about baseball as life, as told through the eyes of five friends at a small midwest college. It was a great way to start my reading year.

February: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

This was a very well-written non-fiction exposition of how all things under the sun are related.

March: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is another book which takes us to college where we meet Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell and learn how they interrelate and each person's life affects the other two, not just in college. but on through life. It is also a book about reading and about how reading affects the kind of person one becomes.

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

This was an extraordinary book from the late twentieth century by a marvelous historian. She truly made the past come alive and showed how that calamitous century was in many ways so similar to our own - a distant mirror of our time.

May: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

This book was a recommendation from my daughter who is a great Atwood fan and a classicist. She did not steer me wrong. We get the perspective of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, on the tale of the Trojan War and what follows. It is a very different perspective from the typical sword and sandals view. Anyway, how could one resist a book that begins, "Now that I'm dead I know everything."

June: This was the first month that proved problematic for me. There were two wonderful books that I just couldn't choose between.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Marvelous book! Even better than Wolf Hall, I thought. One would think that everything that could possibly be written or said about the Tudors and Anne Boleyn would have already been written or said within the last four hundred years. But Mantel, in looking at the story through Thomas Cromwell's eyes, has given us a new and altogether different perspective and has proved once again that we just can't get enough of this story.

Canada by Richard Ford

This was another tour de force by Ford as he gave us the story of Dell Parsons, a retired English teacher living in Canada but whose story started in Montana. It was a story and a life that was changed forever the day that his desparate parents decided to be bank robbers.

July: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Certainly not the easiest read that I had all year but one that was ultimately worthwhile - a very rewarding book. It's the story of Quentin Compson and of the Sutpen family of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Quentin narrates the tale to his friend Shreve. It is a tale of exploitation, of racism and misogyny, and of hard men with hard hearts that have no room for tenderness, even for their own children.

August: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

This book was written with such a sureness of hand that it was hard to believe that it was Karen Russell's first. Her story of the Bigtree family, especially the Bigtree children, was one that grabbed me hard from the first few pages and didn't let go until the very end.

September: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

The story of eleven-year-old Michael's three month voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England in the early 1950s is a luminous tale of childhood friendships and how they endure (or not) and affect our lives forever more.

October: This was my other month with two selections.

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

This was the sixth in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny, but it was my introduction to it. I had never read any of the earlier books. Gamache is a totally captivating character, urbane, gentle, but implacable in the hunt for murderers. He always gets his man - or woman - but he never sees them as anything less than human. He is a humane policeman and a joy to read.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Barnes' short book, a meditation really, had a profound effect on me. As I read the words he had put down, I often felt they were directed specifically to me. Tony Webster's life has been a failure on so many levels. He lost his wife. He's been unable to maintain a close relationship with his only daughter. The friends of his youth have drifted away from him and he's allowed that to happen. Now in his 60s, is it too late for an epiphany? Oh, I do hope not!

November:  The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The gentle, everyday stories of Anne Tyler always catch my heart. The story of Aaron who lost his beloved wife Dorothy and had to learn to say goodbye was one that I found particularly affecting.

December: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Well, the month isn't quite over, so I suppose it is still possible that I might read another book this month that I like better, but it isn't likely. I loved this book! It begins in a commune in upstate New York in the 1960s and stretches all the way to a dystopian 2018. We live all those years through the character, Bit. He is our Everyman/woman, our stand-in as the story unfolds, as we see how it all happened and how it was all inevitable really. Groff is a wonderful writer.

There you have it - my reader's dozen. If a baker's dozen can have thirteen in it, I see no reason why a reader can't have fourteen in hers. I could have even expanded it further. I have read so many truly wonderful books this year. I hope that your year of reading has been just as rewarding for you.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy holidays!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all and thank you for reading my blog this year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Fatal Grace by Louise Penny: A review

This was the perfect time to read this book. The action takes place around Christmas in Three Pines, the idyllic village in the mountains of Quebec. 

It is a village where everything seems postcard perfect. As the snow falls, it could certainly serve as the scene on the front of a holiday card. There's only one tiny flaw in this otherwise perfect scene: The murder rate here seems astronomical!

Part of the traditional Christmas celebration in Three Pines is the annual curling tournament that takes place on a nearby frozen lake. The whole village, including CC Poitiers and her mouse of a husband and her pathetic daughter, have turned out for the exhibition. Also present is CC's photographer (and lover) who has been hired to take pictures of her interacting with the locals for a project the would-be Martha Stewart clone is planning. 

In the middle of the action, in the middle of the lake, in front of the whole village, CC is electrocuted. But no one will admit to having seen anything. And what about the photographer who was taking pictures? Did he photograph the murder? He turns over his pictures to be police, but some of them seem to be missing.

CC had not endeared herself to the village. She had managed to alienate them all, and no one can muster any particular grief at her passing. But at least her death gives them an opportunity to once again welcome their favorite policeman, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec. 

Gamache and his team settle into this village where he feels very much at home and they begin working the case. But there is more to this story than the macabre murder of one unloved woman. Gamache is obsessed with another murder, that of an old bag lady who was killed outside a department store in Quebec. 

The old woman was strangled. There seems to be no motive, and yet as Gamache gathers information, he begins to find possible links between that victim and the one in Three Lakes. Are the two murders somehow connected?

Meanwhile, all is not well in the Sûreté. Gamache has made enemies and it seems that they - or at least one of them - seek a way to bring this well-respected and well-loved Chief Inspector down. As part of that plan, a mole has been planted in his homicide team, a traitor who is seeking information that will destroy him. Louise Penny has very cagily left the identity of that mole somewhat ambiguous, but at the end of the book, she leaves us readers very much concerned for the welfare and future of our very own favorite Chief Inspector.

This book won the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel. One can easily understand why. The plotting is impeccable. The characters are drawn with care and attention to detail. 

As always, Gamache pursues his quarry with compassion mixed with steely resolve. He knows that the key to finding the murderer is to listen and to look, and, through his example, we begin to listen and to look more carefully, to watch for that nuance of phrase or expression that will give us entry to the hearts and minds - and secrets - of these people. 

The secret of Gamache's success as a policeman is that he is a world-class observer. The tiniest details are absorbed and stored away and finally brought out to fit into the puzzle that, when completed, reveals all. It all makes for a delicious read.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The snowy woods

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The NRA exposed

Seriously, Wayne LaPierre? That's your contribution to the national discussion? The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? How about just disarming them both? But, of course, that would make too much sense.

The vice-president of the National Rifle Association had his week-long-awaited "news conference" yesterday at which he took no questions. He simply read a rambling, thoroughly unhinged statement in a quavery voice. It was a statement that blamed gun violence in America on everything except guns. Video games, violence in movies, song lyrics, people who want to control the easy accessibility of guns, the general culture and on and on. What he didn't say was that all those things he alluded to could apply to any other industrialized nation in the world and yet no other nation in the world has the problem with gun violence that we do. No other nation in the world has a Wayne LaPierre and an NRA. I think there may be a connection.

Charles Blow wrote about this in his column today and referenced some data about the effectiveness of stricter gun control laws.

The simple truth is that more guns equal more death.
An analysis this year from the Violence Policy Center found that “states with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.” The report continued, “by contrast, states with weak gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership had far higher rates of firearm-related death.” According to the analysis, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut had the lowest per capita gun death rates. Each of those states had “strong gun laws and low gun ownership rates. On the other hand, “ranking first in the nation for gun death was Louisiana, followed by Wyoming, Alabama, Montana, and Mississippi.” Those states had “weak gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership.”
That is some pretty stark evidence, but, of course, the NRA and its allies don't accept that stinking "science," or "evidence," or "data" stuff. No, no, they know what they know, what their gut tells them, and they will not be moved!

So, LaPierre wants to solve the gun violence problem by putting an armed guard in every school in the country. First and foremost, does he have any idea what that would cost? Would the NRA be willing to pick up the tab for that? Secondly, many schools do have armed guards. Columbine, back in 1999, had an armed  guard. It didn't stop the massacre there. Thirdly, are we also going to put armed guards in malls, theaters, churches, every venue where people gather? After all, even though they are the most gut-wrenching, it isn't only elementary schools where these massacres take place.

As Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times today, pointed out:
The idea that having lots of guns around is the best protection against gun violence is a fairy tale that the N.R.A. tells itself when it goes to sleep at night. But an armed security officer at Columbine High School was no help. And history also shows that armed civilians generally freeze up during mass shootings — for good reason, since usually the only way a crazed gunman gets stopped is when he runs out of ammunition. So what we continue to have is an excellent argument for banning weapons that spray lots of bullets.  (My emphasis.)
The old argument of the NRAistas that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is specious in the extreme. Of course, guns kill people! Guns wielded by mentally deranged or just uncontrollably angry people kill people in this country every day, some 30,000 people a year. While LaPierre was hogging the attention of the news networks with his embarrassing performance yesterday, three people died from a rampage by a gunman in Pennsylvania, before he, too, was killed by police. If the killer had not had access to that gun, he might have still harmed someone with a knife. It is highly unlikely that he would have been able to kill three innocent people before he was stopped.

And so it goes every day in America. But we can stop this. The NRA has been exposed for the lobbyist of the gun manufacturers and sellers that they represent. They don't represent the ordinary hunter or sports gun owner who may be a member of their organization. A majority of their members also want tighter gun laws. Who will represent them?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Are you surprised to still be here?

Happy! Are you surprised to still be here?

The Maya, who were consummate astronomers and constructors of calendars, made what is known as the "long count" calendar which runs for a period of 5,125 years and then resets. This period of time is further divided into 13 Baktuns. (A Baktun lasts approximately 394 years.) Today is the day,, that those 5,125 years and 13 Baktuns end and the calendar resets.

The Maya with their advanced civilization and culture maintain a somewhat mystical hold over the imaginations of many people - including, I admit, me - and that accounts, I think, for why this date has received such hyped attention and has been looked forward to for many months now by some with a mixture of excitement and dread. In addition, there are those who are simply fascinated with the idea of an apocalypse and seem to spend their lives looking for it and looking for signs of its coming. Naturally, they would grab hold of the date of the end of Mayan "long count" calendar with both hands and start preparing for the End of the World.

There's no proof that the Maya thought of this date as the End of the World at all. It seems likely that they thought of it just as we think of December 31/January 1 - the end of one year, one era, and beginning of another. I think they would have fully expected to be around tomorrow to see the beginning of that new era.

Time is a human construct and the Maya may have been the most obsessed culture in human history with imposing their concept of time on things. Nature, though, has no use for our obsession with the passage of time. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. Earth continues its journey through the heavens. Plants and animals and humans begin their lives on it, lives which stretch out to their natural or unnatural end, and they return in one way or another to the Earth which generated them. And the Earth continues its journey through the heavens; the sun comes up and the sun goes down, but there are no divisions of time in Nature. It flows like a river. Would we do better to accept Nature's wisdom and give up some of our obsession with the passage of time, simply living in the moment? I think the wisest among us are able to achieve that. It is something to strive for beyond

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Still Life by Louise Penny: A review

Earlier this year, the leader of my local Mystery Book Club introduced me to the work of Louise Penny. As our book club selection for that month, we read Bury Your Dead. Wonderful book! I knew that I had to get to know that humane policeman, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec better. At my earliest opportunity, I would go back and start reading this award-winning series from the beginning. Well, my opportunity came this week when I picked up the first book in the series,  Still Life,  to read.

Immediately, I was propelled once again back into the idyllic village of Three Pines. The peace of the village had been shattered by the death of one its well-loved residents, Jane Neal. Her body was found in the woods on a Sunday morning. She had been pierced by an arrow straight through her heart.

It was bow hunting season in the area and the villagers were convinced that Jane had been killed by accident by some careless bow hunter. But when Chief Inspector Gamache arrives on the scene, he finds some anomalies. First and foremost, the arrow is missing. If this were just an accident, wouldn't the arrow still be in the area?

Gamache learns that Jane was an artist who had never exhibited her work, never showed it to anyone. But just a few days before she was killed, she had offered one of her paintings to be a part of a local show and the painting had been accepted. It was a Three Pines scene, the last day of a local fair. Why did she suddenly decide to make her work public and is there some connection between that fact and her death?

The problem that Gamache has is that there seems to be no motive for anyone wanting Jane dead and yet his instincts tell him that this was indeed murder most foul and he must dig into the long-held secrets of this insular village to find the murderer.

This series is nominally within the mystery genre, but it is so much more than that. Penny writes with such lucidity and grace about everyday people, people that any of us may know. She gives us character studies that reveal those people and their relationships to us. Here she is writing about a long-time married couple at the center of this mystery. The two are having trouble communicating with each other:
There it was again. A silence between them. Something else unsaid. Is this how it starts? Clara wondered. Those chasms between couples, filled not with comfort and familiarity, but with too much unsaid, and too much said.
With just those few words she has painted a vivid picture of a couple in pain.

Or, again, here is Gamache ruminating as he enters the home of a suspect:
Homes, Gamache knew, were a self-portrait. A person's choice of color, furnishing, pictures. Every touch revealed the individual. God, or the Devil, was in the details. And so was the human. Was it dirty, messy, obsessively clean? Were the decorations chosen to impress, or were they a hodgepodge of personal history? Was the space cluttered or clear? He felt a thrill every time he entered a home during an investigation. He was desperate to get into Jane Neal's home, but that would have to wait. For now the Crofts were about to reveal themselves.
And reveal themselves they do to Gamache, the ultimate observer.

As he sits or walks around the village and observes, Gamache learns that all of these villagers, so placid and easy-going on the surface, are hiding pain. One who isn't bothering to hide it is Ruth, a poet. Ruth, the poet-observer could be speaking for herself and all her fellow villagers:

Who hurt you, once,
so far beyond repair
that you would greet each
with curling lip?

Three Pines may not be on topographical maps, but Louise Penny has certainly put it on the literary map. A couple of years back when Ms. Penny came to Houston for an event, my daughter who works for the Houston Public Library, had an opportunity to spend some time with her. In fact, she acted as her chauffeur to and from the airport. She told me what a charming person she was and what a good writer she was and recommended that I read her books. I wish I had listened to my daughter and started reading sooner. But now I intend to make up for lost time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton: A review

Alex McKnight had been a police officer on the mean streets of Detroit. Fourteen years earlier the streets had proved especially mean for Alex and his partner. They had confronted a psycho in his home and the man had killed Alex's partner, Franklin, and had shot Alex three times. Doctors had removed two of the bullets, but the third bullet, lodged close to his heart, had proved impossible to remove. Alex has lived with that metal reminder in his body for all the years since.

The killer, a man named Maximilian Rose, was caught a year later and sent to prison where he has spent all the intervening years.

After the incident, Alex left the police department on a three-quarters disability pension and returned to his home town of Paradise on the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior. There he took over management of a number of hunters' cabins that had belonged to his now deceased father. He took care of the cabins and lived nearby in the woods in a tiny cabin of his own that he had helped his father build years earlier. 

Alex made some friends in the community. One of them was a rich man named Edwin Fulton who had a compulsive gambling habit. Another very good "friend," at least for a while, was Edwin's wife Sylvia. Edwin never knew about their affair and often referred to Alex as his "best friend."

A local lawyer (the Fulton family lawyer) contacted Alex about becoming a private investigator and doing some work for him. After mulling it over, Alex agreed, and so that is how we come to have Alex McKnight, P.I.

One night Edwin calls Alex to come to a motel where he has discovered a dead body. The body turns out to be a local bookmaker to whom Edwin owed money. He had been shot and had his throat cut. There was blood everywhere which gave Alex a flashback to the scene when he and his partner were shot.

A few days later, another bookmaker is killed - another bookmaker to whom Edwin owed money. Do we sense a trend developing here?

Not long after that, Edwin falls off the wagon and goes gambling at local casinos. Alex is sent out to search for him. He doesn't find him but he and his lawyer-employer eventually find his car and a boat nearby on the lake that has blood on it. Meantime, a crazy letter is stuck to the door of Alex's cabin in the woods indicating that Edwin has been killed and that his body is at the bottom of the lake. It is signed "Rose." Hmmm...

Alex is convinced that Maximilian Rose is somehow behind the killings and the harassment that he is receiving; i.e., crazy letters stuck on his cabin door, red roses left at his doorstep and on the boat where Edwin's body was NOT found, and phone calls in the night. But Rose is still in state prison. Maybe Alex is the one who's crazy.

A Cold Day in Paradise was the first in this series by Steve Hamilton. He created a fairly likable character in Alex McKnight, but not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer. I figured out who was behind the mystery long before he did, although I admit that I got the motive wrong. 

Hamilton's writing is very evocative. I've never been to the UP of Michigan, but after reading this book, I felt that I had been there. I think it must be a wildly beautiful place, but not necessarily a paradise.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What would Molly say?

At times of national angst, it is useful to consider what great philosophers have to say. Today we consider what that great Texas philosopher Molly Ivins had to say about guns in our society.

(With a tip of the hat to the Great State of Maine at Daily Kos for bringing this to my attention.)

In truth, there is no rational argument for guns in this society. This is no longer a frontier nation in which people hunt their own food. It is a crowded, overwhelmingly urban country in which letting people have access to guns is a continuing disaster. Those who want guns---whether for target shooting, hunting or potting rattlesnakes (get a hoe)---should be subject to the same restrictions placed on gun owners in England---a nation in which liberty has survived nicely without an armed populace. […]

Molly ivins screen grab
Molly Ivins
Michael Crichton makes an interesting argument about technology in his thriller "Jurassic Park." He points out that power without discipline is making this society into a wreckage. By the time someone who studies the martial arts becomes a master---literally able to kill with bare hands---that person has also undergone years of training and discipline. But any fool can pick up a gun and kill with it.
"A well-regulated militia" surely implies both long training and long discipline. That is the least, the very least, that should be required of those who are permitted to have guns, because a gun is literally the power to kill. For years, I used to enjoy taunting my gun-nut friends about their psycho-sexual hang-ups---always in a spirit of good cheer, you understand. But letting the noisy minority in the National Rifle Association force us to allow this carnage to continue is just plain insane.
(March, 1993.)
Since the horror of last Friday's murders at an elementary school in Connecticut where the bodies of first graders were literally riddled with bullets by a psychopath wielding an assault rifle, many of the usually predictable apologists for gun nuts have been notably silent, but some never learn when to shut up. In that category would be another Texas philosopher named Louie Gohmert who is of the school of thinking that if only that principal had had an assault rifle of her own, she could have stopped the killing. He, of course, fails to address the fact that the killer's mother apparently had a whole arsenal of assault rifles at her home. They didn't protect her. She's just as dead as the innocent children.  
Then, of course, there is the self-righteous twaddle of Mike Huckabee who has run the gamut from blaming the lack of public prayer in schools to, now, abortion pills and homosexuals, for the deranged murder of children in their classroom. He utterly refuses to address the fact that virtually 100 percent of these incidents are perpetrated by a particular social group - young white males with a history of mental problems and appallingly easy access to guns
Perhaps we would do well to look at that social group and see what it is that is making them so devoid of human feeling and empathy to be able to commit such crimes. Perhaps there is even something we could do to ameliorate their situation and help to integrate them into society instead of allowing them to be outcasts with no stake in society. But, no, in Gohmert/Huckabee World, better to just issue an assault rifle and kevlar vest to everyone, including, I suppose kindergarteners. 
It is just barely possible, I think, that we may finally have reached a tipping point in this country. At least in the last few days politicians seem more willing to discuss the issue of guns and their control and of instituting sensible laws to restrict their availability. Sen. Diane Feinstein has said she will introduce such legislation in the next session of Congress. As has been pointed out by various commentators, the Democrats are never going to get the votes of the gun nuts anyway, but it is possible to win without them, just as they won the last election without the help of white rural Southerners. And so they might as well be bold in proposing sensible gun control regulation. They may well find that the vast majority of Americans will support them and appreciate their efforts, even though as long as the Tea Party Republicans control the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that such legislation will be able to pass. Regardless of the outcome, it is still a fight worth having, and it is all the more reason to start organizing NOW to take back the House of Representatives in 2014!
In an op-ed today in The Washington Post. Joseph A. Califano, Jr.  wrote about the experience of another Democratic president in a similar situation:
If ever there were a moment for President Obama to learn from history, it is now, in the wake of Friday’s shootings at the elementary school at Newtown, Conn. The timely lesson for Obama, drawn from the experience of Lyndon B. Johnson — the last president to aggressively fight for comprehensive gun control — is this: Demand action on comprehensive gun control immediately from this Congress or lose the opportunity during your presidency.
If ever there was a moment to politicize an issue, this is it. It is time for the Body Politic to make its wishes known to its elected representatives. It is not a time for them or their representatives to be cowed by the bullies of the National Rifle Association and their allies whose only goal is to line their own pockets. Don't believe for one second that they are concerned about the Constitution! They are concerned about making money and controlling politicians and only that.

We have an opportunity at this moment to turn the conversation away from the "rights" of gun nuts to the rights of our children to be safe in their classrooms from psychotic killers wielding assault rifles. The innocent blood of the children demands that we seize this opportunity with both hands. Molly Ivins would counsel us to be brave.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
- Emily Dickinson 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Another day, another massacre

There really are no words to convey the horror. Another day, another massacre in the USA. This time most of the victims were children, babies really, barely even launched on the sea of life. The other victims were people who had dedicated their lives to helping children like them get launched. The sadness simply overwhelms me and, I am sure, most parents, who understand the images that the parents of those twenty children who died must live with for the rest of their lives. There is no way to mitigate the pain.

The killing of so many innocents in one place at one time certainly gets our attention and grabs all the headlines for a few days, but the truth is that this many people die most days in this country as a result of being killed with a gun. Some 10,000 deaths per year occur in the United States because of gun violence. And what is our response? Why, to make guns more widely available and easily accessible, of course.

The response of many of the gun nuts to yesterday's tragedy has been more than predictable: "Oh, if only one of those kindergarten teachers had had a gun. She could have taken out the shooter and saved lives." You might as well say: "Oh, if only one of those five-year-olds had had a gun. She could have taken out the shooter and saved lives."  Time and again we have seen that when an innocent bystander does have a gun, he will not be able to react in time or else he is just as likely to shoot the wrong person. Still, the myth of the heroic bystander persists in the minds of gun worshipers.

Then there is the response of people like Mike Huckabee, or as I think of him the execrable Mike Huckabee. His theory is that because public Christian prayer is not allowed in schools, his god has removed his protection from them so that such murders can occur. So, let's just think this through for a moment: Huckabee and his ilk worship a god who permits the murder of innocent children because the adults don't stand up in school and intone paeans of praise to his name. I want no part of such a god nor of his minions like Huckabee.

My theory of why such tragedies occur is quite different. Simply stated, I believe that they happen because guns are more easily accessible than mental health care in this country. All countries have their quota of mentally disturbed people, but it is only in this country, the most armed country in the world, that lethal weapons are everywhere and can be picked up at the local Wal-Mart by such mentally disturbed people for a few dollars. If the Connecticut killer had not been able to access guns, those precious children would be alive today and their families' lives would not have forever been blighted.

Why has our country reached this state? Because politicians in this country are terrified of the National Rifle Association. They are convinced that if they try to pass even the mildest restrictions on gun ownership, the NRA will go after their scalp. They are right, but, at least in the case of Democrats, the NRA will go after their scalps whether or not they do anything about gun control. They will continue to demagogue on the issue and to insist that "Obama is coming to take your guns." In fact, the only thing that Obama has done about guns as president is to sign a law allowing them to be carried in national parks! But you'll never convince the NRAists of that because, like others of their philosophical persuasion, they seem to live in a fact-free bubble.

The irony in all of this is that this is NOT what the American public wants. Public poll after public poll has shown conclusively that a rather large majority of Americans support tougher gun laws and making it harder to get most guns and impossible for the public to get automatic and semi-automatic weapons. And still politicians are afraid to act.

I don't know what it would take to stiffen the spines of politicians and make them willing to stand up to the NRA and to act in the interests of the public good and public safety. I don't know what it would take to make them willing to expand the availability of mental health services and to include mental health checks as a part of rigorous program of health care in schools. That would be a positive step toward turning back this tide of a massacre a month which seems likely to overwhelm our society. Is the blood of twenty children enough of a sacrifice to cause it to happen?

Whenever one of these horrors occurs, the cry of right-wing politicians is always, "Don't politicize it! Now is not the time to talk about gun control!" I beg to differ. Now is the perfect time to talk about gun control, now while the terror of dying children and the unquenchable grief of their parents is fresh in our minds.

When these things happen, public officials always rush to put out statements about how their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims and the survivors. I'm here to tell you, thoughts and prayers won't do it! By all means, pray if it makes you feel better, but only human action can stop these tragedies from occurring. We need to make clear to our elected representatives that we hold them personally responsible for their inaction. By such inaction, they are complicit in the murders of children. Perhaps it might just be enough to finally reach that tipping point where the life of a child is worth more in our society than the right to own a gun. Any gun. I live in hope and hope is all that is left on such a sad, sad day.

Creating Rain Gardens by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Apryl Uncapher: A review

In a world which is heating up and where long-lasting droughts are becoming more and more common, the value of the water provided free to us by Mother Nature cannot be overrated. And yet much - probably most - of that water is not utilized as it might be to enhance the environment. Often it simply runs off along gutters and down storm drains, picking up contaminants as it goes and sweeping them into lakes, streams, rivers, and, ultimately, oceans and creating a whole additional environmental problem. 

It is easy for an individual gardener to feel overwhelmed by the environmental devastation facing Earth, to feel impotent about doing anything to effect a solution. But the waste of rainwater is most definitely something that we can and should do something about. In this book, Cleo Woelfle-Erskine and Apryl Uncapher explain to us with step-by-step instructions just how we can accomplish that.

Capturing rainwater is a way to make your own garden practices more water-efficient and self-sustaining, and there are many different ways to do this. Perhaps the most familiar and the easiest method is the rain barrel which captures the water run-off from your roof, water which you can then use in watering your garden. From this easiest of methods, one can progress through many phases right up to the full-blown rain garden which captures rainwater runoff which is then absorbed back into your garden. Such places are magnets for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, many beneficial insects, as well as other interesting wildlife like reptiles and amphibians and even small mammals.

Some of the other methods of conserving water that are outlined in the book include permeable patios, simple living roofs, and planters that harvest rainwater from their surroundings. The authors also include lists of water-loving plants and explain how to work them into your gardening palette for maximum benefit. Examples are given for a prairie rain garden, a native wildflower garden, and even an edible rain garden.

This is the kind of practical handbook which I, as a gardener, find most useful - fewer airy-fairy theories and more down and dirty instructions. If you are that kind of gardener and you are interested in conserving rainwater, you might enjoy this book.

(Full disclosure: A copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher, Timber Press, free of charge for the purposes of this review.) 

Cross-posted from Gardening with Nature.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill: A review

The 74-year-old Dr. Siri has been trying to retire for years, but his country, 1978 Laos after the Pathet Lao revolution, just won't let him go. Now, though, it seems as if he might actually be able to achieve his long-held dream of retirement to spend his final years relaxing with his new wife and famous noodle shop owner, Madame Daeng. He shouldn't be counting the days, however, because his country has just one last assignment for him.

In 1968, there was a helicopter crash somewhere in the northeast of the country. The pilot was never found and is listed as MIA. It was an American helicopter from Air America, a CIA operation. Ten years later, the Americans are still seeking those lost in their Southeast Asian wars and, for some reason, they now seem focused on this one pilot. Could it be because his father is now a powerful United States senator?

At any rate, an American delegation, including another senator, arrives to conduct the search for the pilot and they must, of course, be accompanied and aided by a Laotian delegation. Who better to head that group than Laos's national - and only - coroner, Dr. Siri Paiboun?

Dr. Siri agrees to go on one condition; that he is able to select his companions and helpers. As usual, he has his boss, the odious Judge Haeng, at a disadvantage and Haeng agrees to the condition. Thus, Siri takes to the road accompanied by his wife, as well as nurse Dtui, policeman Phosy, morgue  assistant Mr. Geung, and old friend Civilai. Unbeknownst to him - at first - he is also accompanied by Auntie Bpoo, the transvestite fortune-teller of Vientiane who has foreseen Siri's imminent death, which she is determined to try to prevent.

This very mixed group, along with translators, heads out to the wilds of the country where unexploded bombs still lurk to take the limbs or the lives of the unwary. Very soon, Siri suspects that all may not be well with the group of Americans especially when a pack belonging to one of them, Major Potter, explodes, nearly killing a porter. Was the explosion meant for the major?

Soon after, the major does indeed wind up dead in what is made to appear to be a very embarrassing accident, but our intrepid coroner quickly determines that it was no accident. It was murder. In order to entrap the murderer, who surely must be one of the group, he allows them to think that he believes it was an accident. As other "accidents" and unfortunate events begin to pile up, Siri begins to think that maybe Auntie Bpoo's prediction was correct. Maybe his "retirement" will be to the grave.   

Slash and Burn is told with Colin Cotterill's usual blend of ironic humor and deep respect for the Lao culture. It is a winning combination. I always enjoy spending time with Dr. Siri and his friends.