Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison: A review

Shan Tao Yun is Han Chinese, at one time an inspector in Beijing. That was before he got in the way of a powerful Chinese official when he probed in some inconvenient dark corners. 

Shan was then stripped of his rank, accused of "conspiracy," and unceremoniously shipped off to a Tibetan gulag, where he was put in a Tibetan work crew along with Buddhist lamas and priests whose gompa was destroyed by the Chinese invaders. We never do learn just what "conspiracy" Shan was supposed to be a part of.

In the work gang - the 404th is its designation - Shan is accepted by the Buddhists and, over the course of three years, he learns to admire them and their philosophy. He begins to learn the ways of their belief system. He is able to perform some important services for his group, one of which is to get an old lama freed on Chairman Mao's birthday. This secures his fame among the Tibetans.

Then one day, while his labor gang is working on a road up a mountainside, they discover a body under some rocks. The body is headless and the head cannot be found.

The local prosecutor is supposedly on vacation and there is no one to conduct an investigation of events. Colonel Tan, the commander in the area, knows of Shan Tao Lun and his former occupation, and temporarily releases him to be his investigator.

Shan is a brilliant investigator, methodical and clever and willing to follow every lead wherever it goes to find the truth, without regard to the consequences. That's how he came to be in Tibet in the first place.

When a Buddhist priest is arrested for the murder, which turned out to be of the "vacationing" prosecutor, Shan knows the man is not guilty and a sense of urgency is added to his investigation. If he cannot find the truth, the priest will be executed and the whole incident swept under the rug. This is an offense to Shan's sense of justice, and to his growing respect for the Tibetan people and their struggle for survival under Chinese rule.

Following Shan through the Tibetan community as he pursues his investigation was an eye-opening experience. Tibet is revealed as a society that exists as much in the spirit world as in the everyday world of human events. There is, for example, a profound belief in protective demons which are as real to them as the shoes on their feet or what they had for their last meal. Shan comes to believe that the embodiment of one of these protective demons is somehow involved not only in the murder he is investigating but in at least three others. But how will he be able to prove his theory, and will he be able to prove it in time to save an innocent man?

This book won the Edgar Award in 2000 for the best first mystery book by an American. Eliot Pattison has gone on to write several more in this series and I look forward to reading them all. This really was very well written and the character of Shan is a fascinating one. It will be very interesting to see how he develops.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wanted: A plot

The plot of "Downton Abbey" in its third season has been a mess so far. It lurches here and there with no clear purpose, and, seemingly, with no goal in mind.

We started the season with Shirley MacLaine appearing as Lady Cora's filthy rich American mother. And why was that, exactly? Well, she showed up for Lady Mary's wedding, but evidently she was there to reinforce just how single-minded Mary is in her determination that Downton remain Downton, that nothing changes.

We learned that that idiot Robert had dithered away the family's fortune and that the Granthams were at the point of having to sell Downton, so Mary and the Dowager Countess came up with a devious scheme to inveigle Mary's American grandmother into giving up a sizable portion of her vast fortune in support of saving the old homestead. When she refused, Mary pivoted immediately to insisting that her new husband, Matthew, forget his principles and accept a bequest from the father of his dead fiancee and use that money to save Downton which seems to be the only thing that really matters to her. Mary truly is a very selfish and self-centered woman.

Matthew at first resisted Mary's importuning about saving the family home, but then he gave in with very little struggle after receiving an extremely conveniently written letter from the dead man who made the bequest. He took the money and invested it in the estate. Now he seems bent on insisting that it be run properly. I suspect that will never fly with Mary and her father.

Meanwhile, downstairs, we had the short-lived drama over Mrs. Hughes' potential cancer. That was immediately resolved, of course. We don't want to spend too much time agonizing over those people. Unless their name happens to be John Bates. Then the agony just seems to go on forever, long past the point where we've ceased to care.

And then there is poor Lady Edith, iconic middle child of the Grantham family . I don't know what Julian Fellowes has against her. He seems to delight in thwarting her dreams and humiliating her. He hasn't yet written her a strong story line. This year we have her ecstatically happy and ready to walk down the aisle to her beloved, only to have her lily-livered beloved jilt her at the altar in front of the whole village. I think Fellowes is determined that Edith will never be happy. Still, she keeps trying to find some useful purpose in life. Perhaps it really will be as a journalist crusading for women's rights.

Finally, we come to Lady Sybil, the family rebel. She chose a career as a nurse. She chose to be politically aware and involved. She treated the servants as real people with lives of their own. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would fall in love with a servant - the Irish chauffeur. She and her Tom married and went off to Ireland to live, and almost immediately she became pregnant. This season they came back for Mary's wedding and then went back to Ireland for the baby's birth. Fellowes could have left them there. But nooooooo...

There was a kerfuffle in Dublin and Tom had to flee to avoid arrest. Sybil followed and soon they were both back at Downton waiting for their baby to be born. Cue the squabbling doctors and the pompous Lord of the Manor. (Remind me, has the upper class doofus twit Robert ever been right about any single issue in this series?) Cue the foreshadowing of doom and before you know it, we've got another young woman agonizingly dead on the altar of childbirth. To what purpose?

I've read that the actress who played Sybil wanted to go on to other projects and so Fellowes wrote her out of the series, but he had already written her out when he sent her to Ireland. Why not just leave her there? Perhaps to allow all the other characters to react with sadness to the news of her death, showing their sympathetic sides. Even Thomas, and who knew that he had a sympathetic side?

If Fellowes really felt he had to kill off a major character, why not Bates? It would have been easy enough. He doesn't seem very popular among his fellow inmates. Moreover, that story line has gone on far too long. It should have been wrapped up by the end of last season. Where exactly is Fellowes going with it? In fact, where is he going with any of it? The whole thing seems a bit of a mish-mash. But, of course, I wouldn't miss a minute of it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The perfect Mr. Darcy

January marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, arguably her most popular work. To mark the anniversary, there are all sorts of events planned, from twelve hour readathons to themed balls. There have been a spate of articles this week about the book, including the one I saw today about all the different covers the various editions of the book have had over the last two hundred years. There have been a lot of them because the book has never been out of print.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Ms. Austen's book must surely be one of the most sincerely admired works of art ever. It sometimes seems that everyone and her dog has written a pastiche homage to the book. One of the latest of these was the dean of British mystery writers, P.D. James whose Death Comes to Pemberley came out in 2011.  It was also one of the most successful efforts at channeling Austen's spirit, in my opinion. (I reviewed it here.)

And then, of course, there are the film adaptations, which just keep coming, and which lead very naturally to the question, who is the best Mr. Darcy?. For the connoisseur, there is but one answer to that question. It is Colin Firth in the 1996 BBC series production that my daughters and I still rewatch periodically. As Elinor Lipman wrote in Huffington Post this week:
A geological sample of Darcy's core, as portrayed so beautifully by Firth, would show the following layers: at the bottom, his breeding and wealth. Undeniable. On top of that, confusion, the push-pull of class--egad, 10,000 pounds a year and a house 10 times larger than Downton Abbey! Who wouldn't be conflicted, falling in love beneath his station with a penniless girl in possession of an insufferable mother? Next: love-struck silence. And finally, which we learn from the housekeeper who has known him since he was four, a heart of pure gold. Before Disc Two, it is only hinted at. He stares at Elizabeth Bennet with an intensity that promises passion and--spoiler alert--a happy ending.
I would go even further and argue that not only is Colin Firth the perfect Mr. Darcy but all the actors in this adaptation are perfectly cast for their roles, from the odious Mr. Collins and slimy Wickham to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. After seeing it, I could never imagine other actors in these roles. Matthew MacFadyen and Keira Knightley in the Darcy and Lizzie roles? Give me a break!

As proof of my thesis, here's a short snippet from the film, eye candy for the day. 

It is a truth that must be universally acknowledged: Colin Firth in 1996 was the perfect Mr. Darcy and he will live as such forever in my daydreams.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin: A review

Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Borders and Lothian Police was retired by his creator Ian Rankin five years ago in Exit Music. Rebus had reached the mandatory retirement age for B&L police and perhaps Rankin was a bit tired of the old guy after writing his stories for twenty years. But, as many a Scottish bad guy has learned over the years, John Rebus is not so easily fobbed off.

Ian Rankin went on to write other things. He started another series about another Scottish policeman named Malcolm Fox. Fox was the antithesis of Rebus. He was abstemious, a stickler for the rules, and never one to fraternize with the "natives," for which read "criminal class." Fox was perhaps ideally placed as a policeman who investigated other policemen. He was with the "Complaints," the police ethics division that investigated alleged infractions of the rules. Rebus, of course, was never one to be bound by rules if they interfered with him getting a "result." He would have been anathema to Malcolm Fox.

And maybe he still will be, because Rebus is back! True, for the present he is only back as a civilian employee in the cold case unit, but it seems the retirement age rules have loosened up a bit and he has applied to return to full professional status. That will never happen if Fox can help it!

The active case investigators of Borders and Lothian are working the recent disappearance of a teenage girl, last seen on a major roadway heading north out of Edinburgh. The cold case unit is contacted by a mother, Nina Hazlitt, whose daughter disappeared along the same road in 1999. She has connected her daughter's disappearance to others of young women along that road. None of the missing women has ever been found, nor have their bodies been located. John Rebus happens to be the one who is available to talk to the woman when she comes to the station, and he is intrigued. His instinct tells him that there is something there and John Rebus' instinct is not something to be ignored. Is there a serial killer abroad in the north of Scotland? Rebus begins one of his typical investigations, shoe leather on the ground, talking to people, more importantly, listening to people.

My, how I've missed this man! It's such a pleasure to have him back and to have him and Rankin on top of their game here. 

Not only has Rankin brought back Rebus, he's also brought back some of the other well-known characters from that series. There's Siobhan Clarke, of course, Rankin's partner on so many investigations. Her star has risen in the police ranks since Rebus left them and there are those who think that any association she has with him now might retard any future rise. Such sentiments won't deter Siobhan who was not Rebus' protege for nothing. She's every bit as stubborn as her mentor and just as dedicated to getting a result, even if it means bending a few rules. 

Also back, somewhat surprisingly is (Spoiler alert!) "Big Ger" Cafferty, Rebus' nemesis over so many years. Theirs was always a complicated relationship. At the end of Exit Music, it was not at all clear that Cafferty had survived. He did, and he now owes his life to Rebus. Cafferty is a man who always pays his debts.

There's a new bad guy in Edinburgh crime, not quite as canny as Cafferty, and there's a protege of his, a young guy, the brother of the recently missing girl, who looks like he might take over the whole shebang. But I mustn't give too much away. Suffice to say that this is one of Rankin's typical plots with twists and turns and surprises enough to keep the reader satisfied and keep us turning those pages. 

The only criticism that I have of the book is that the ending just seemed a bit too convenient and labored. It's a small quibble, a small price to pay to have my favorite detective back on the case again. Let's hope that Malcolm Fox's crusade against him fails and that he'll soon be back with Borders and Lothian for real, working with Siobhan Clarke to catch the bad guys, even if it means bending the rules a bit.  We can also hope that it won't take Ian Rankin another five years to give us the next entry in this series.

UPDATE: For those in the Houston area, Ian Rankin will be in town on Wednesday, January 30. He'll be appearing at Murder by the Book at 6:30 to meet fans and sign his book. Wonder if I could get him to sign my Kindle?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Poetry Sunday - Cold Blooded Creatures

Cold Blooded Creatures

Man, the egregious egoist,
(In mystery the twig is bent,)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient

Of the intolerable load
Which on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of its eyes.

He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a night-mare doom.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Get to work, George!

It was announced this week that George R.R. Martin has co-edited an anthology called Dangerous Women. Moreover, he contributed a novella to the collection called The Princess and the Queen. It is set in Westeros in the time of the Song of Ice and Fire and is about the origins of the war between the Targaryens that split the society apart and led to the ongoing conflicts of House against House that we read about in the first five novels in the series.

All of which leads me to wonder just what a novella by Martin would look like. Would it be just 500 pages instead of 1000?

Further, it makes me wonder, WTF, George? What the heck are you doing working on a novella and co-editing a freaking anthology when you should be working on that next book? Don't you know we are dying out here?

We want to know if Jon is dead or alive. Will we finally find out who his mother (and maybe father because I still suspect it wasn't Ned) was? Has Daenerys Targaryen gotten her dragons under good enough control that she is ready to mount her invasion of Westeros to take back the Targaryen throne? And how will the people of Westeros greet her? Will they join her crusade or take up arms against her? What will Jaime do when faced with the heir of the mad king whom he was sworn to protect and whom he slew? What about the Starks? Whose side will they be on? And what about Tyrion and Ser Jorah Mormont? What role will they play?

These are the questions you should be answering, George, not which story should go where in some lame anthology! Come on! Quit procrastinating and get to work!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hillary is not impressed

This was the week that congressional Republicans have been panting for since September - the moment when they finally got to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi on September 11. They've spent the last five months appearing on Sunday television news shows denouncing the "cover-up" and "scandal" which they attach to that incident. They also spent several weeks maligning the secretary of state and implying that she was afraid to appear before their scary committees and so was faking the "Benghazi flu." In fact, of course, she was ill, but I don't think any of the maligners have yet acknowledged that or apologized.

What they also haven't done - at least many of them haven't - is actually attend the briefings which the intelligence people have conducted to explain the facts of what is known about the attack. But then they are not really interested in the facts. They are interested in grandstanding for their base and in finding some cudgel with which to beat Hillary Clinton. Had they actually attended the briefings, they might have had the answers to their questions and would not have shown themselves up as fools this week, earning looks from Secretary Clinton that need no words.

But, in the internet world, there are always words and it didn't take long. Soon a new Hillary meme was born.

This shot was taken of Secretary Clinton as she was watching Senator McCain make his statement. He never really got around to asking any intelligible questions.

But then, again, these "hearings" weren't really about getting at the truth. They were about political grandstanding. And Hillary understood that and was prepared for these jokers, better prepared certainly than any of her interrogators. In the end, they didn't lay a glove on her. They didn't even impress her.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich: A review

The most inept bounty hunter in the state of New Jersey and possibly on the face of the earth, along with her equally inept sidekick, is at it again. Yes, Stephanie Plum and Lula are busily chasing skips around Trenton. Chasing, rarely catching.

This time, Stephanie is on the trail of Geoffrey Cubbin, facing trial for embezzling millions from Trenton’s premier assisted-living facility. Geoffrey mysteriously disappeared from the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. Now Stephanie needs to find him so that her boss, Vinnie, will not have to forfeit all that bond money. But Cubbin has vanished without a trace, without a clue, and five million dollars of embezzled funds are missing.

Things take a sinister turn when it becomes known that Cubbin isn't the first patient to vanish from this hospital. He isn't the last either, for soon, another post-surgery patient who was facing trial also vanishes in the middle of the night. What could be happening here? Obviously, they must be receiving help from somewhere, but from whom and why? And does it have a connection to another mysterious medical facility simply called The Clinic? A night nurse at the hospital also moonlights at The Clinic so there is a link, but beyond that, Stephanie and her team are unable to find out what is going on. Or to find Geoffrey Cubbin.

As usual, Stephanie gets help from her crazy Grandma Mazur in breaking the case. Grandma goes undercover at the assisted living facility to see if she can get a lead and she provides the clue that finally cracks the facade of deception.

Meanwhile, Stephanie is doing her own moonlighting with the security firm of the hot and sexy Ranger. Their case leads them back into Ranger's days with Special Forces. It seems that a member of his former unit that he thought was dead may not be. He's back and looking for vengeance for some imagined fault of Ranger's and another member of the group.  The question is will Ranger be able to track him down before he starts killing the people against whom he has a grudge.

Of course, while all of this is going on, Stephanie is also chasing her usual caseload of low-level skips and losers and she keeps missing them in her usual helter skelter fashion. In that she is most ineptly assisted by Lula.

Lula is a really problematic character for me. She is such a stereotype. She is fat and constantly thinks about food or sex - mostly food, in this entry. She is black. She wears outrageous costumes and hairstyles. She is a former whore - or "'ho" in her vocabulary. Her humor is mostly scatological. In other words, she's the typical big, brassy, black woman of so many blaxpoitation movies and television shows. I really find her offensive.

As for Stephanie, she's a caricature of  another kind - the cute, perky nincompoop whom all the boys are crazy for. She has two hot guys, the good guy cop Morelli and the dangerous guy Ranger, constantly panting after her and vying to get her into bed. It's never made clear just what her attraction is for these two perfect specimens. It's a fantasy worthy of any romance novel. 

In fact, that is pretty much what the Stephanie Plum novels are - romance masquerading as mystery.  They are fun reads and they certainly don't tax the brain or the emotions. Just don't expect too much from them and you won't be disappointed. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz: A review

I've been reading really serious literature recently and I decided that I needed a bit of fluff to clear my reading palate. It doesn't get much fluffier than Lisa Lutz and her family of ditsy San Francisco detectives, the Spellmans.

This is the fifth in the Spellman series. Several years have passed in the family's history since the series began, and yet it is hard to see much growth in most of the family members. They still spend more time surveilling each other, trying to trip each other up, and playing silly pranks than they ever do on working for their clients. It's really hard to see how they keep the business going.

In this episode, it is not only the Spellmans who are hiding things from each other, but all of their clients seem to have ulterior motives and are hiding secrets which may or may not impact the jobs they've hired the Spellmans to do.

On the home front, Rae, the younger daughter, is now in college. David and Maggie are married and are now the parents of an 18-month-old daughter who, for some mysterious reason, calls everything "banana." Our protagonist, Isabel ("Izzy"), the iconic middle child, has been living with Henry Stone for a while but is unable to commit to a future together.

The Spellman household and investigation firm has taken on a new member, Demetrius, the man who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder and who Maggie and Izzy had managed to get freed in the last book. In this episode of Spellmania also, Grammy Spellman comes to live with the family, an event which portends disaster on many fronts. To top it off, Henry Stone's mother, Gertrude, comes to visit and almost immediately falls for Izzy's disreputable bartender friend, Bernie. Complications ensue.

The plot for this mystery seems utterly impossible to summarize or even categorize. It's really a mess, just like the Spellman family, but a fairly entertaining mess.

Lisa Lutz writes with great good humor and she is able to create some interesting characters. She's been very successful with what she does so she obviously doesn't need any advice from me, but I would like to see her try her hand at a straightforward mystery that goes from point A to point B, all the way to point Z, without all the phony and distracting appendices and footnotes. But that's her shtick, I guess, and she's shticking to it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The poetry of the inauguration

This was the big day in Washington, the day that the Republican Party had devoted itself heart and soul for the last four years to prevent. It was the day of Barack Hussein Obama's second inauguration as president

These events are always inspiring and are full of pomp and circumstance, but occasionally they do reach the level of poetry. Perhaps I am prejudiced but I thought today's event did and not just when the poet Richard Blanco came to read the poem he had written for the day. Throughout the ceremony, at least the parts that I saw, it seemed to me that this inauguration had a poetic grandeur, and the president's speech matched that sense of poetry.

I was happy to hear him refer to some concrete policy issues in the speech and not just in the typical airy fairy pie-in-the-sky kind of way of these kinds of speeches. He spoke about the need to further enhance equality for all citizens, about the need to make sure that children are safe and that they have what they need to prepare fore the future. But he also addressed the fact that citizens in some states in this country had to stand in line for six to eight hours to vote in November's election. That is unconscionable and he said we must fix it. He is also the first president, in my memory at least, to actually mention addressing climate change in his inaugural address. And all of this he tied together with the progressive march of American history toward perfecting itself and living up to the ideals expressed in its Constitution. I thought it was a terrific speech.

And speaking of poetry, I really liked Richard Blanco's poem. I don't know that it rises to the level of great and memorable poetry, but I thought it was perfect for the moment.

One Today
by Richard Blanco

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper -- bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives -- to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind -- our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me -- in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country -- all of us --
facing the stars
hope -- a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it -- together.

One sun, one moon, one planet, one country and one people who will rise or fall together. It is a noble sentiment, well-expressed by Blanco and by the president in his speech, and, call me a dreamer, but I hope it carries not only this "one today" but the next four years. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Sparrow

The Sparrow
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window-pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life's window-sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic's rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was born in Ohio in 1872 to former slaves and had a very prolific career as a poet. You can learn more about him here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The NRA's Congressman Brady

On Wednesday, President Obama offered his plan for requiring universal background checks, restricting access to some guns and high capacity magazine clips and other changes that are intended to help cut into the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Soon after, my email box received a statement from my elected representative in Congress, Kevin Brady, a Republican. His response to the president's proposals was straight from a script of National Rifle Association talking points.
I want our children safe at school and our Second Amendment rights protected at home. Today's proposals do neither.
Strong gun control laws in Connecticut didn't stop the Sandy Hook tragedy - and won't stop others like them in America. In fact, areas with the most restrictive gun laws historically suffer from higher rates of gun violence.
As for the 23 executive orders, why did it take the deaths of school children, movie-goers and an attack on a congresswoman before the President finally acted to enforce existing gun laws?
Why did it take so long to decide that we should keep guns away from the mentally ill, insist agencies work together and fill the ATF leadership vacancy?
I also question the wisdom of turning doctors into law enforcement investigators, and I can't help but notice that Hollywood - which profits greatly from fostering America's culture of violence - got a complete pass.
That's disappointing for parents like me who fight to shield our children from the relentless, in-your-face violence on TV screens and at the movies.
So, he just rejected everything the president said, without offering anything constructive in response, plus his statement is filled with inaccuracies and disingenuosness. For example, the statement that areas with the most restrictive gun laws historically suffer from higher rates of gun violence is categorically untrue. Consider this from the Legal Community Against Violence:

Ten States with the strongest gun laws:                                                           
New Jersey
New York (The list was compiled prior to their recently passed laws.)
Rhode Island
Ten States with the weakest gun laws:
New Mexico

Compare these lists with the states with highest and lowest gun death rates.

Ten States with the highest gun death rates:
New Mexico
West Virginia
Ten States with the lowest gun death rates:
Rhode Island
New York
New Jersey
New Hampshire
South Dakota

The states with the strictest gun laws, in fact, have some of the lowest rates of gun-related deaths.

As for Connecticut's strict gun laws not stopping the madman from slaughtering the children at Sandy Hook, that is perhaps the best argument for federal gun laws that would ban military-style assault rifles and high capacity magazine clips. If he had not had such weapons available to him, he may have still managed to kill some people at the school, but it is unlikely that he would have been able to kill 26. He would have had to stop and reload which would have given the adults there a chance to stop him.

The disingenuousness of Mr. Brady's statement comes in his complaining because existing gun laws are not enforced. The Senate has refused for six years (at the behest of the NRA) to confirm a director for the ATF. Congress has refused to appropriate money for the agency's staffing and has specifically added riders to laws that would actually prevent the ATF from monitoring and regulating guns, again at the behest of the NRA.  And the congressman has the nerve to whine about the laws not being enforced? Where was he when the votes were counted?

As for the CDC collecting data on gun violence, who better than doctors who have to deal with the results of gun violence? I suppose Brady would prefer that the NRA do it! If we do not have this information, how can we make wise decisions about what needs to be done to prevent it?  

Lastly, of course, Brady parrots the old NRA bromide that it is all Hollywood's fault with their violent movies and video games. The real problem with that argument is that other countries are just as steeped - if not more so - in violent video games and violent movies and yet no industrialized country in the world comes near us in the rate of gun deaths and injuries that are suffered here every year, every day. If you pick up our local newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, any day of the week, you will find the news of someone being murdered with a gun. What is different about our country and all those other countries? Our ready access to guns of virtually any kind. We continue to retain our title of the "most armed country in the world." The NRA must be so proud.

It is passing strange to me that a congressman would be more interested in getting an "A" rating from the NRA than in protecting tiny children from literally being blown to bits by assault rifles with high capacity magazine clips. I wonder what Congressman Brady's explanation would be as to why he is against universal background checks that would help keep such weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people, or for that matter, why he would be against banning such weapons altogether. They are not appropriate hunting tools or target-shooting weapons. Their only use is for killing people. Why does Congressman Brady think they have a place on our streets? I plan to ask him.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin: A review

The broad outlines of Bruce Springsteen's life are fairly well-known to his fans, of whom I consider myself one. He has been written about often in the press over the past 35 to 40 years as he made his way from a skinny, scruffy, struggling New Jersey teenager in thrall to rock 'n' roll and trying to live that religion to, today, his position as cultural icon and folk hero. It's been a bumpy ride, but no one could claim that the man has not remained true to his faith.

Peter Ames Carlin has written about other rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, so he knows the form. He had the advantage of having Springsteen's cooperation and of having his blessing in contacting all the musicians and business associates who have known him as well as friends, lovers, and family members. Carlin has taken full advantage of that access and has produced a pretty exhaustively researched book that reveals the man, warts and all, and explores the roots of his music.

It is a tribute to Springsteen that virtually all of the people contacted by Carlin spoke to him very candidly about the man, realizing perhaps that Bruce really didn't care what they thought or what they said. The two notable exceptions to this openness were his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and his current wife of more than twenty years, Patti Scialfa and that seems to have been their choice. Other than that, it was apparently pretty much no holds barred.

Carlin begins the tale by looking at Springsteen's family history. That's appropriate since everything that he is, as well as what his music is, seems deeply embedded in family roots. The writer traces the immigration from Holland of his father's family and from France of his mother's family and of their attempts to build new lives for themselves in this country. The course of those lives was often touched by tragedy. In the case of Bruce's father, it was the death of his five-year-old sister when he was just a baby. The child was playing in the street and was run over by a truck, an event which sent her family into a spiral of sadness and melancholy from which they were never able to fully recover. In their grief, the parents often neglected Doug Springsteen, Bruce's father, a fact which had implications for his entire life and which ultimately touched the lives of his children.

Bruce's mother's family history was much happier in many ways, although it, too, was touched by tragedy, but she grew up with a joy in life that she was able to pass on to her children.

Bruce grew up in a household where his father never seems to have had long-term employment, but went from job to job. He was burdened by depression and ended every day sitting silently in a dark kitchen with a beer and a cigarette. He had no appreciation for his son's music and this was the source of constant conflict as the young man was growing up.

As a child, as a teenager, and as an adult, Bruce Springsteen seems always to have been a loner, marching to the beat of a drum that others simply couldn't hear. As a child and as a man, he has stubbornly insisted on doing things his way. His perfectionism has often driven the musicians who worked with him to the brink of insurrection, but after all, he is the Boss, and what he says goes. And so they do take after take after take as they try to get the songs just right.

In his early years, like most rock musicians, Bruce had a checkered history of working with many bands. A group would come together and work for awhile, then break apart and another group would form, and this went on for years. But as time went by, a coterie of musicians began to coalesce - Steve Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Clarence Clemons, finally Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, and lastly Nils Lofgren. The E Street Band was coming together. Interestingly, Patti Scialfa had auditioned for Bruce and Steve years earlier when they were forming a band, but she was underage and they passed on her because she would be unable to travel with the group. Several years later, she was ready to be a part of E Street.

I admit my eyes glazed over a bit with the long narration about one band after another in the early years. They all began to run together in my mind, but that background was necessary to see just how the E Street Band came together and, of course, it is that band which has been so much a part of Bruce's life and so important in interpreting his music. His relationship with band members has not been without its ups and downs and occasional fractures, but always they seem to be drawn back together by their love of the music - and maybe by their love of each other. They are truly "Blood Brothers."

One of the things that we often take for granted about rock musicians is their partaking of and often succumbing to drugs and booze. You won't find that here. Springsteen is positively abstemious by comparison and he always demanded decorum of his band members. Carlin tells of his once walking into a tour bus and finding a couple of the band members doing cocaine. He exploded and told them that if he ever caught any of them doing that again they would be fired on the spot! He told his manager that he meant it and that he could replace any one of those guys with ease. Although he admitted it might take a little longer to replace Clarence.

No, cocaine and booze hold no attraction for Bruce Springsteen. His drug of choice has always been rock 'n' roll.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith: A review

Zadie Smith employs a non-traditional format and punctuation in telling this story, something that is almost guaranteed to turn me off immediately. I just find it annoying. And yet, several pages into this book, as I got into the flow of the story and of the language of northwest London, suddenly it didn't really matter any more. 

Smith uses a stream of consciousness technique in telling the tangled stories of Leah and Keisha/Natalie, as well as Felix and Nathan. Indeed, the reader reflects, how else could these stories be told?

And so we have these four people who were connected in childhood and whose lives are now tangential, sometimes touching, sometimes intertwined in the small community that is NW. 

The main story here, though, is the story of a city, a complicated place where people live cheek-by-jowl and yet are in their own worlds. It is a place that will seem very familiar to urban dwellers everywhere, I think. We follow the characters from their private homes - flats - to public parks, to workplaces, walking the streets, navigating the roundabouts, taking the Tube. This is modern-day London. It is a fascinating place and the strongest character in this tale.

Smith's focus among her human characters is primarily on Leah and Keisha/Natalie. (As a child she was Keisha; as an adult, she changed her name to Natalie.) They are now thirty-somethings, but they are best friends from childhood, a childhood spent on the council estate of Caldwell. Their lives are bound together forever by an incident in that childhood. Now they are trying to make their way through adulthood in a way that brings them happiness.

On the outside, they both seem successful. Natalie is a lawyer, married to a rich banker, mother to two kids and seemingly living the good life. Leah has a worthwhile job dispensing money to charities and is married to a beautiful man who adores her and who craves children with his beloved wife. 

We soon learn though that Leah has a dark secret. She doesn't want children, and she has taken steps to ensure that there won't be any, a fact of which she has not informed her husband. 

Natalie, too, is unfulfilled by her seemingly perfect life. In pursuit of fulfillment, she engages in some extremely risky sexual behavior, again without informing her husband.

The ancillary characters, also from Caldwell, Felix and Nathan, have roles to play in this story, too. 

Felix has had a checkered employment history, but now seems to have settled into work as a mechanic. He has a woman in his life whom he cares for and who cares for him. He seems on his way to a stable relationship and a stable and successful life. 

Nathan is just the opposite. He is living on the streets and seems incapable of pulling himself out of the downward spiral his life has taken. 

The amazing thing about this book for me was the language and the way it evokes the spirit of a city that is constantly changing as waves of immigrants attempt to make lives for themselves on its streets. It is a city that reinvents itself from day to day and year to year and yet its essential character seems unchanging. A resident from twenty years ago, fifty years ago, would still recognize the old girl in her new guise. And all of that is there in the language.

I had not read any of Zadie Smith's work before, other than an essay here and there, so I have nothing with which to compare it. I don't know if this is the way that she usually writes, but I found her prose lyrical, magical even. And yet...

And yet, in the end, the book was ultimately unsatisfying. We are left to ponder the randomness of fate and how Leah and Natalie have come to the circumstances in which they find themselves. What is their way forward? It's very unclear from the murkily over-dramatic ending. Maybe a bit more time given to exploring motivation and laying some emotional groundwork for the drama would have given the reader more of a feeling of resolution at the end.

Nevertheless, Zadie Smith has an amazing ear for language and for dialogue and she is able to communicate a sense of place and a sense of the rhythm of the city's streets that make for some truly unforgettable scenes. I look forward to reading more of her work. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

One month later

Yesterday marked one month since the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that day, 917 more people in America have been killed by gun violence.

And since that time, debate has raged - rage being the operative word - across the television screens of the country, adding more heat than light to the issue of gun violence. There has been a spate of crazy people posting videos threatening to start killing people if anyone tries to take their guns.

And then we have the truly delusional. Have you heard about the latest conspiracy theory by the gun nuts that the entire Sandy Hook incident was "performance art", something dreamed up by the Obama Administration in order to soften the country up for the confiscation of guns? All those parental tears are just pretend. Those children are not dead! All those little coffins were empty.

The Sandy Hook "truthers" are even going so far as to harass a man who helped some of the children fleeing the carnage on that day, claiming that he is just part of the "act." Truly these people seem beyond reach, beyond reason, and this is the quality of thinking of the opposition to the idea of any attempt to control the access to guns of any kind, including assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips. It is an idea which an overwhelming majority of Americans supports but so far it is the crazies that grab the headlines, not the sane people who want commonsense reform. Instead of highlighting the president's statement in his press conference yesterday that if we can do anything to stop the murder of even one child we must do it, we hear from people like Wayne LaPierre of the NRA who says we will never be able to stop all gun violence, therefore, we shouldn't try to stop any.

As long as all the mass murderers are young white men, which almost all of them are, the gun nuts (who, frankly, are also mostly white) are united in their opposition to doing anything which might "infringe their second amendment rights" and they insist that "we must take time to reflect before we take any hasty action," trusting that as time goes by our memories of the outrage of Sandy Hook will fade as will our desire for urgent action. Of course, if the murderers were not WHITE men...

 from Daily Kos, 01/15/12 (Click to enlarge.)

Will this time be different? Will we, the majority of Americans, be able to hang onto our outrage long enough to get something done to make the country safer? Will another month go by in which 917 more people are killed by guns? And where is the outrage for those victims?

The only way to get any action on the issue is to apply constant, unrelenting pressure to our elected representatives in Congress. You can be sure that the NRA and its allies are applying constant, unrelenting pressure from the other direction. We do have an advantage though. We outnumber them. And numbers count.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Letter to a Lost Friend

You know how sometimes when you read a bit of poetry it speaks to you, resonates with a chord deep within your psyche, in ways that you may not even be able to verbalize? So it was when I read "Letter to a Lost Friend" in Poetry Magazine this month. I can't explain just why it moves me, but it does.

Letter to a Lost Friend

There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened
              between us, like ostyt, which can be used
for a cup of  tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,
              and return, it is too cool; or perekhotet,
which is to want something so much over months
              and even years that when you get it, you have lost
the desire. Pushkin said, when he saw his portrait by Kiprensky,
              “It is like looking into a mirror, but one that flatters me.”
What is the word for someone who looks into her friend’s face
              and sees once smooth skin gone like a train that has left
the station in Petersburg with its wide avenues and nights
              at the Stray Dog Cafe, sex with the wrong men,
who looked so right by candlelight, when everyone was young
              and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, painted or wrote
all night but nothing good, drank too much vodka, and woke
              in the painful daylight with skin like fresh cream, books
everywhere, Lorca on Gogol, Tolstoy under Madame de Sévigné,
              so that now, on a train in the taiga of  Siberia,
I see what she sees — all my books alphabetized and on shelves,
              feet misshapen, hands ribbed with raised veins,
neck crumpled like last week’s newspaper, while her friends
              are young, their skin pimply and eyes bright as puppies’,
and who can blame her, for how lucky we are to be loved
              for even a moment, though I can’t help but feel like Pushkin,
a rough ball of  lead lodged in his gut, looking at his books
              and saying, “Goodbye, my dear friends,” as those volumes
close and turn back into oblong blocks, dust clouding
              the gold leaf that once shimmered on their spines.
Source: Poetry (January 2013).

"How lucky we are to be loved even for a moment..." 

If love lasts only for a moment, it was worth it. It's something that poets know and that they teach us through their art.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny: A review

One of the pleasures of the Armand Gamache series - and there are many - is the description of the food. Wherever his job as head of the homicide division of the Surete du Quebec takes him, Gamache always seems to eat exceedingly well, and Louise Penny describes it all in intricate detail - the herbs used, the consistency of the sauce, and especially the aroma of the baking bread and of the coffee, always the coffee.

That is never more true than in this fourth entry in the series. Armand and his beloved Reine-Marie have gone to the Manoir Bellechasse for a short vacation and to fulfill their tradition of celebrating their anniversary at this inn which holds so much nostalgia for them. It's their thirty-fifth anniversary and they are enjoying their time away from it all, being cosseted and pampered by the staff of the Manoir.

The Gamaches are not the only guests. The Morrow/Finney family has arrived for their family reunion and a more obnoxious and unattractive family is hard to imagine. They all seem to dislike each other - and everyone else. The only moderately polite person is the family is Julia, one of the two daughters.

There are two sons as well, but at first only one, Thomas, is present. Then the second son and his wife turn up and we learn that they are Peter and Clara Morrow from Three Pines, the most murderous village in Quebec! One begins to suspect that there will soon be a murder.

One's suspicions are confirmed when a statue of the long-dead father of the four Morrow children topples from its pedestal in the garden and crushes poor Julia. At first it seems a grotesque accident, but Gamache quickly determines that all is not just as it seems - at the site of the murder or with the Morrow/Finney family. It is indeed murder and soon his team is on job. 

There are plenty of suspects, most of them other family members, but there seem to be other possibilities as well. There are some unhappy young staff members at the Manoir and the three permanent staff members, the manager, the maitre d' and the chef, all seem to be hiding something. Was one of their secrets a motive for murder?

It's always entertaining to be a fly on the wall as Armand Gamache picks his way through all the known facts and subtle clues and arrives at the conclusion which will solve the crime. Gamache is a most human and humane policeman. He has his weaknesses which are always on full view to the reader. (One of them is a fear of heights!) But the key to his success seems to be that he is always able to empathize with both victims and criminals. He sees both as essentially human - a flawed human perhaps, but still a part of the human experience and responding to known human stimuli and motives.

Louise Penny seems to have a bit of that same empathy for all her characters. She draws each of them with loving care. It is one of the qualities that make these books such pleasurable reads.