Thursday, February 28, 2013

Equal opportunity sexism

To those viewers, like me, who were offended by Seth MacFarlane's gross "We Saw Your Boobs" musical number on Sunday's Oscars show (not to mention all the rest of his misogynistic schtick) here's a bit of payback. Equal opportunity sexism!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die by Colin Cotterill: A review

It seems that these Dr. Siri novels have become an addiction for me. As soon as I read that a new one had been published, I immediately requested it on my Kindle so that I could read it right away. I was not disappointed. It is another romp through 1978 Laos with Siri and his posse of oddball family and friends.

Siri has finally managed to achieve his long desired goal of retiring from his post as the national coroner of Laos, but three months into his long awaited retirement, the 84-year-old doctor is called on again by his government to perform a service for them.

The backstory is that a clairvoyant has told a Lao general that she can locate the remains of his long-dead brother so that they can be given a proper ceremony. The general is convinced to give her the opportunity and requests the pathologist's presence to verify the identity of the bones when they are excavated.

But, back to that clairvoyant. Allegedly, she became clairvoyant and able to communicate with the dead by being killed and then reborn herself. She was the widow of a rich royalist who had dealings with Vietnamese commercial interests and connections to the Lao hierarchy. Following a trip to Vietnam to pursue her commercial interests, she returned home and was murdered in her bed, shot in the head by an apparent burglar. The villagers took her body and cremated it, but, a couple of days later, there she was, back alive and at home again. 

Soon, a steady stream of visitors was coming through the village, requesting her help in contacting their dead relatives. Her reputation grew and the general and his wife heard of her and contacted her.

The medium tells the Lao general that his brother is buried in a boat sunk at a certain bend in the depths of the Mekhong River. The delegation, including Siri, his wife Madame Daeng, and Mr. Geung from the morgue, heads out to excavate the river. But Madame Daeng is very suspicious. Something seems wrong to her. Will they really be excavating for bones or is it all a ruse to look for something else? Is this whole thing an elaborate scam? Is the medium really The Woman Who Wouldn't Die? And why do there seem to be so many Vietnamese in the area?

Meantime, Siri and Daeng have become aware that a Frenchman is looking for her. Daeng suspects that he is a ghost from her revolutionary past who may be seeking revenge for her work as a highly effective spy for the Lao during the recent war. Does he present a threat to Siri's beloved wife and maybe to Siri as well? 

As always, Cotterill writes lovingly of the Lao people and culture. The best part of these stories is the relationships between his main characters and those relationships are on full display here. This is another pleasurable read in this charming series that also gives us a window into a perhaps still little understood but very interesting part of the world.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw: A review

Heft this book, open it at random, and your first reaction might be, "Ah, a coffee-table book." And it could well be, but this is much more than just a coffee-table book, even as birds are much more than just their feathers.

The birds in Katrina van Grouw's astonishing book have been defeathered, often skinned and disassembled right down to their musculature or their skeletons, but they are always fully recognizable as birds. 

Their unfeathered selves are real specimens that are posed in the act of flying, walking, or standing, even as they would have in life. Ms. van Grouw has rendered them in monochromatic drawings that are remarkably detailed and absolutely mesmerizing. 

The author hastens to assure us that "no birds were harmed" in the production of the book. She has taken specimens that were already dead and prepared them for her drawings.

If that were all there was to this book, it could pass as a beautiful art book, but it is really much more than that. The text is informative and is written with great good humor. It tells us much about the lives of these birds and how they go about making their livings. It is almost as riveting as the drawings, and it is the perfect accompaniment to them.

Now, I am an avid birder, so perhaps it is not surprising that I should find a book about how their bodies are put together and how they work to be a fascinating bit of work. But I really don't think that you need be even very interested in birds to be able to enjoy this book. If you simply possess a modicum of curiosity about the natural world; if you are charmed by art that depicts animals, especially birds; if you enjoy erudite and witty writing, then I think you are the perfect audience for the book. 

Katrina van Grouw is a gifted writer and artist who obviously knows her birds. As a former curator of the ornithological collection at London's Natural History Museum, she also knows her bird art. She says that the creation of The Unfeathered Bird has been her lifetime's ambition. It was a worthy ambition and she has fulfilled it beautifully.

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why is the Oscars show such a godawful mess? Or, we have seen Seth MacFarlane and he's a boob.

Did you watch the Academy Awards show last night? We recorded it and I watched it later and zoomed right through all the commercials and the often interminable acceptance speeches that I didn't care to hear. I actually watched the "entertainment" portion of the show. I should have zoomed through most of that also.

I did not know who Seth MacFarlane was and I'm willing to bet that a significant portion of the audience was in the same quandary as me. I read later that he created "Family Guy," another show which I've never watched and never will. Apparently, he is considered young and hip and edgy, none of which describes the demographic to which I belong, so perhaps it was not surprising that I found him rude, repellent, and unfunny in equal measures. Joan Walsh says I shouldn't blame him. I should blame the producers of the show who knew what they were getting when they hired him and who approved his execrable script in advance. Well, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Many commentators today have pointed out that this show reached new heights of misogyny, racism, inappropriate religious references - well, you name it. Anything that was beyond the pale, they went there. If this is hip and edgy, give me Bob Hope. Even his cadaver would be funnier.

Why is the Oscars show such a godawful mess? This year reached some new lows for sure, but it's been a nasty spectacle for years. I have no criticism to make of any of the winners who were mostly classy and charming and even sometimes funny in their acceptance speeches. For the most part, the presenters, too, were okay, although many of their "jokes" fell flat - or maybe they were just so hip and edgy I didn't understand them. But this is the movie industry, for gods' sake! Why can't they put on a decent awards show? With all the wonderful entertainers in the world available to them, why can't they find a host who can hit the right note of charming irreverence without being nasty, mean, and churlish? Truly, it is a mystery.

As for the entertainers performing in the show, some of them were good - Shirley Bassey, Adele, and Barbra Streisand come to mind. Some of the dance numbers were good, if not spectacular or even particularly memorable. But, come on! This is Hollywood! Surely they can do better than this.

And they can start by finding a way to cut the show down to a reasonable time limit. That would be an instant improvement right there.

As an appropriate coda to the evening, it seems the satirical publication The Onion got caught up in the spirit of the thing and sent out an extremely offensive tweet referring to a nine-year-old African-American child actress with a racially and sexually charged epithet. They have since removed the tweet and apologized profusely, but they'll have to do some work to regain my respect. As will the Oscars.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Let America be America Again

In honor of Black History Month, and, indeed, in honor of all our nation's history, here is the famous poem by African-American poet Langston Hughes. Written in 1935, first published in 1936, it still resonates today for all those for whom America is not yet the America of our hopes and dreams.

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-

Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-

The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-

The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,

I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Our of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain -
All, all the stretch of these great green states -
and make America again!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: A review

"M-I-Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I- Crooked letter-Crooked letter-I-Humpback-Humpback-I" was the refrain used in a certain era to teach kids how to spell Mississippi. Tom Franklin borrows from it to title his book set in the small southeastern Mississippi community of Chabot. The title seems wholly appropriate.

I think that Franklin must have spent some time in such a place when growing up because he has got the description of it word perfect. I grew up in a similar community in northeast Mississippi and I do recognize these people. The group dynamics, the relations between the races, the everyday language of his characters all seem spot on to me.

Franklin's is a Southern Gothic mystery built around two characters, one black and one white. Silas Jones is a black constable in the town. Larry Ott is the town weirdo, known to locals as Scary Larry. But twenty-five years before, these two men's lives were intertwined in a way that will have long-term and long-delayed repercussions for each of them, as well as the community.

Larry got the moniker "Scary Larry" when he was still in high school and he had a date - his one and only one - with a local beauty. She had made the date with him, unbeknownst to Larry, in order to get him to transport her to a meeting with her real boyfriend. Larry never knew who that boyfriend was. But after he delivered her to the meeting place, the girl disappeared. She was never seen or heard from again, and Larry became a "person of interest" in her disappearance.

Larry was the geeky outsider at school. Even before the girl's disappearance, he was bullied, ostracized, and taunted. He never learned the social skills for making friends. Every night, he and his mother prayed together that God would send him just one special friend.

And for a while it seems that God has answered that prayer when Silas and his mother return to the area from Chicago and move into a cabin on the Ott farm. Larry and Silas manage to connect. They play together, explore the woods together, and Larry loans him a rifle and shows him how to shoot it. Still, the friendship has to remain a secret from the parents who would disapprove, and at school, where Silas is a star shortstop on the baseball team, he never acknowledges Larry. He ostracizes him just like everybody else. Truly, the reader's heart aches for both of these boys.

Then the tragedy of the girl's disappearance strikes and Larry becomes even further isolated. As soon as he can, he joins the army where he learns to be a mechanic like his father. Even in the army, he never fits in, and, after serving, he comes home to Chabot to a life of soul-withering isolation in a house full of Steven King and other horror novels.

Reading seems to be his only source of joy. He joins the Book-of-the-Month club and other book clubs and looks forward to the mail deliveries that relieve his boredom. Every day, he gets up and puts on a clean uniform and goes to the auto repair shop that he inherited from his father, but no customers ever come. He isn't welcome at church. He isn't welcome at the local cafe. He has no social contact except with his mother who is now in a nursing home.

Meantime, Silas has made a life for himself in Chabot. He is a respected member of the community. He has friends and a girlfriend whom he cares for and who cares for him, and he is good at his job. But there is a darker side to his life. He carries secrets which gnaw at him and weigh on his conscience.

Then, history repeats itself. The daughter of the richest family in town disappears and Scary Larry again becomes a "person of interest."  The gentle weirdo is once again under siege.

As I was reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and my heart was aching for Larry, I kept thinking he reminded me of another character in Southern literature, a genre which certainly contains more than its share of "monsters." Finally, it came to me - Boo Radley! Larry, in the almost complete isolation of his life, reminded me of no one so much as that other gentle weirdo, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird.

I thought Franklin did a masterful job of slowly peeling the onion, revealing the layers of connectedness between Larry and Silas. We know that these are two damaged souls, but only gradually do we learn just how damaged as the action moves back and forth between the present day and twenty-five years before. The well-crafted tale presents both a historical and psychological study and a window into the dark corners of the human soul. One can hardly ask more of a book.

Friday, February 22, 2013

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to...

Sunday night brings the presentation of this year's Academy Awards. The greatest suspense over the Oscars this year is which movie will win the Best Picture award. So far, "Argo" has won just about every award in sight and so has its director, Ben Affleck. But the history of the Oscars is that movies rarely win the top award if the director has not been nominated for the Best Director award, and Affleck, unaccountably, was not nominated. So will the picture break tradition and take home the prize, or will "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," (whose director also was not nominated), or any one of the other fine films in the running pull an upset win? At this point, I think any other film winning would qualify as an upset.

Whichever film wins, it will be the 85th movie to do so. How many of the other 84 can you name? Well, here's your chance to try.

Nelson Carvajal has put together a video with a scene from each of those movies, along with, at the end, a scene from each of this year's nominees. Here's your chance to play Best Movie trivia. Hint: There's a list of all the movies at the end. (Click on the full screen mode icon at the bottom right of the scene for better viewing.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: A review

Is A Visit from the Goon Squad really a novel or is it a collection of linked stories? It is extremely hard to classify or to summarize this convoluted exercise in story-telling. In the end though, I think the category hardly matters. Whatever you call it, it's a great read.

These are stories about the passage of time and how our lives never seem to work out the way we thought they would. "Goon," in Jennifer Egan's lexicon, means time. We all receive visits from the "Goon Squad" every day, every year, even if we are oblivious to those visits.

One of the many quirky things about this book is its portrayal of time. The action takes place over a period of forty years or so, but the narrative jumps forward and backward with ease and without warning. When you start reading a chapter, it isn't always clear at first just what time period you are in, but just keep reading. Eventually you'll get it.

A second quirkiness is the long list of protagonists who get to narrate the story from their point of view. The chapters (stories?) jump from one protagonist to another, but again, keep reading. After a while you'll find that this loose skein of narratives actually holds together. The pattern becomes clear. Music is woven through all the stories as a unifying theme and one might say that they exhibit perfect pitch.

Two characters who appear in the first chapter and reappear in the points of view of other protagonists throughout the book are music executive Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. We soon learn that these characters, as indeed all of the book's characters, have their dark side, but one feels that Egan has an affection for her characters and she views not unsympathetically and the reader tends to accept her view of them.

I've seen some reviews of this book which compare it to a Dickensian tale and I can see that. The multiplicity of characters, the complexity of their relationships, and their passage through time, as well as their changes through time, could well remind one of Dickens. Also Proust, for these characters are haunted by remembrance of things past.

Of course, Proust or Dickens never wrote a chapter in PowerPoint presentation format, but then maybe they would have if PowerPoint had been around in their day. That chapter, written in a somewhat dystopian future time by Sasha's teenage daughter, was, for me, one of the most moving in the book. I must admit I approached it warily, but after a few pages, it just seemed natural, as if that particular story could not have been told any other way.

Kids and their points of view are woven in the pattern throughout the book. These kids are invariably sharp observers and just as sharp judges of their parents and other adults. They are extremely savvy about the digital age in a way that their parents never can be. 

This is particularly true of the kids that appear in the dystopian future that is the setting of the latter chapters. Evans refers to the end of fifteen years of war that produced a baby boom and now these gadget-loving kids are everywhere and seem to be propelling the culture forward in an altogether new direction. 

The individual stories told here are sometimes sad, even tragic, but also often darkly funny. Egan writes with a light touch, just a bit of satire seeping from around the edges. Overall, the book has a somewhat bittersweet quality to it as you might expect of a book about the passage of time and the ravages it inflicts on our lives and on our images of ourselves. 

It is not the easiest book to read, just because of its complicated structure, but it is well worth the effort. I'm glad I stuck with it!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The best show on television

Sunday night is my big television viewing night. For the last several weeks, of course, there's been "Downton Abbey" on PBS to provide us with enough angst to last until the series returns next winter. Then there is HBO's "Girls," the hot show these days, the one that gets all the critics slavering. "Girls" is sort of a non-airbrushed version of "Sex in the City," four twenty-something friends shown with all all their warts, freckles, anxieties, and cellulite intact. It is in many ways a maddening show, but I can't seem to stop watching it.

But the best half hour on Sunday night is HBO's "Enlightened," the creation of Laura Dern and Mike White, who also star in it.

This is "Enlightened's" second season, like "Girls" which it follows in the Sunday lineup. It may have suffered from its association with "Girls" which seems to sort of suck all the air out of the room. But for those of us who have watched this brilliant - and I use that word advisedly - show from the beginning, there is plenty of air and plenty of reason to watch.

I think the show has had difficulty finding its audience because it is hard to classify. It's too poignant and sometimes downright sad to be called a comedy. And yet it has its comedic moments, some of them quite dark, that just make you shake your head at the human capacity for folly and even occasionally make you laugh out loud.

It is very much a character-driven show and regular viewers are deeply invested in these characters. Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern) is the character around whom everything revolves. She is employed by a big pharma company in California. Her background story is that she had worked at this company for several years and then she became romantically involved with one of the douchebag vice presidents. Things began to fall apart and she had a complete mental breakdown. She went away to a rehab center in Hawaii where she regained some control and, as the show opened last year, she had come back to California to resume her job. Instead of getting her old job back though, she was given a job in the basement of the firm, doing data entry, under the supervision of a boss named Dougie.

Her co-worker at the next desk in the basement is Tyler (Mike White), a sad, lonely, and bitter little man. Amy bonds with him and begins to dream that she and he can avenge themselves on the employer that has wronged them both and which she believes is polluting the earth and making people sick. They just need to find a way to get the information that can bring the company down.

Meantime, Amy lives with her mother (Diane Ladd), having lost everything when she had her breakdown. Even before that, she had lost her marriage to her high school sweetheart Levi (the wonderful Luke Wilson), a former professional baseball player whose life went off the tracks because of drug abuse. Levi sunk very low but Amy never stopped believing in him and believing that he could be the man that she still dreamed he could be. Finally, this season, we saw Levi admit that he needed help to get his life back together. He went to the rehab center in Hawaii where Amy had found "enlightenment." Parenthetically, one of the best episodes this season was the one which focused on him in Hawaii.

Amy is full of energy and do-gooder intentions and she dreams of making her mark, making a difference in the world. She is pushy and self-centered and yet her heart is in the right place. She wants to make things better, to right wrongs. This season, she has latched onto a crusading investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times who she believes can write the expose` she wants to tell about her employer. She approaches him and pitches the idea and he doesn't shoot her down immediately. Finally, it seems that someone may be taking Amy seriously.

In fact, in last Sunday's episode, it seems likely that Amy's wildest dreams may actually be coming true. In the middle of the episode, Levi returns from Hawaii. Declaring himself "fixed," he tells Amy he wants to try again with her. He even dreams of making another baby to replace the one they lost to miscarriage. But Amy has just started an affair with her journalist friend. Where will it all lead?

I identify so strongly with all the characters in this show. They are all such flawed, fragile human beings, fully realized by the wonderful actors who portray them, and I care deeply about each of them. I do so want them to be happy! I can't remember when I last felt that way about a television show. That's why I say it is the best show on television. Admittedly, I haven't seen them all, but I can't imagine one that would be better.

And yet, this wonderful show does not do that well in the ratings and it could be canceled after this season. It needs a bigger audience. That's why David Haglund in today's writes, "Please start watching 'Enlightened'."   I can only second his plea. There are only two more episodes this season, but I recommend you go back and binge-watch all of last season and this season. Trust me, you won't be sorry.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The most religious state

The Gallup pollsters periodically query the nation on a number of different issues. One of them is the question of religion. Their purpose is to determine the importance of religion in the lives of Americans and to rate the various states on their religiosity

To that end, they have interviewed thousands of people across the country, at least a thousand in every state except two and in the District of Columbia. The results of their latest surveys were  published last week.

So, what are the most religious states in the country?

State                                                           % report religion very important

Mississippi                                                                    58%
Utah                                                                             56%
Alabama                                                                       56%
Louisiana                                                                      53%
Arkansas                                                                      52%
South Carolina                                                              52% 
Tennessee                                                                     50%
North Carolina                                                              50%
Georgia                                                                         48%
Oklahoma                                                                     48%

And, at the other end of the spectrum, what are the states in which religion has the least importance in daily life?

State                                                          % report religion not important 

Vermont                                                                        19%
New Hampshire                                                             23%
Maine                                                                            24%
Massachusetts                                                               27%
Rhode Island                                                                 29%
Oregon                                                                          29%
District of Columbia                                                       30%
Nevada                                                                         31%
Hawaii                                                                           31%
Alaska                                                                           31%
Connecticut                                                                   31%
Washington                                                                    31%

We must remember that, in these surveys, people are asked to rate themselves, and so the surveys are most revelatory of how the people of the states see themselves. As such, the results may not present an unbiased reality.

For example, if it were possible for a totally dispassionate observer to rate states on how well they live up to the tenets of the major religions, Mississippi, Utah, etc., might not rate that highly. Two quotes from the words of Jesus as reported in the New Testament come to mind: "By their works shall you know them," and "If you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me." How do the states on these lists truly treat the least of their citizens? What are the works that most distinguish them, the ones for which they are best known?

Perhaps this survey does not identify so much those states that are most religious but rather those states that are most self-satisfied, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou in their attitudes. Just a thought.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Poetry Sunday - Love and Life: A Song

In honor of Valentine's Day just past, here's a love poem - of sorts.

Love and Life: A Song

All my past life is mine no more,
         The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
         By memory alone.

The time that is to come is not;
         How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot;
And that, as fast as it is got,
         Phyllis, is only thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,
         False hearts, and broken vows;
If I, by miracle, can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
         ’Tis all that Heav'n allows.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Water Touching Stone by Eliot Pattison: A review

While I was reading this book, the news broke of the 101st self-immolation of a Tibetan in Nepal since 2009. The self-immolaters are protesting the Chinese occupation of their homeland. 

It was a sad reminder that, even though these books are fiction, they are based on very real events; namely, the sixty-year-long effort by China to subjugate Tibet and obliterate its culture and religion.

Of course, for the traditional Tibetan, culture and religion are very much the same thing. Evidently, that is what the Chinese state finds so offensive.

But, as this book makes clear, it is not just the Tibetans whose culture is under attack by the Chinese government. The other ethnic minorities in the western China borderlands suffer from the same efforts at repression. The Kazakhs, the Uighurs, and the Tadjiks, as well as the Tibetans have a sad history of interaction with the giant to their east. And all of these peoples play a part in the story told in this second book in the Inspector Shan series,Water Touching Stone.

The story briefly is that an honored teacher has been murdered. The lamas in the secret gompa where the fugitive Inspector Shan has been staying since his release from the gulag divine that it is necessary for Shan and two of their number to travel to the remote northern regions of the Tibetan plateau, where the teacher was murdered, to restore the spiritual balance which has been upset by her violent death. They are accompanied by one of the purbas, resistance fighters against the Chinese.

This motley crew of outcasts heads into the wilds of Tibet. They soon discover to their horror that it is not only the teacher who was killed. Some of her students - all boys - have been killed, too, and it is feared that the others are targeted. 

The herdsmen in the area attribute the deaths to a demon. Shan isn't so sure. He believes the serial killer is all too human and that the motive for the killings may be found in the Tibetan struggle against cultural annihilation. 

Along the way, we meet secret Buddhists, some proud remnants of Muslim clans, vengeful Chinese officials, American anthropologists who are in the country illegally, soldiers, smugglers, and people who are just trying to survive. It is a heady cultural mix. The book is at its strongest in its exploration of the customs and daily lives of all these diverse groups and of how they coexist in a hostile land. It was on that level that I most enjoyed the tale.

But the book is classified as a mystery and that, frankly, didn't work so well for me. The story was all over the landscape - literally - and it didn't hold together very coherently for me. Now, maybe that's because the book is telling a story of a very non-literal society which exists on a spiritual more than a physical plane. Perhaps my western brain just isn't geared to absorb it, but I found the things that I look for in mysteries - the character development, the plotting - to be weak. 

Moreover, there was SUCH foreshadowing! One character in particular - and I don't want to give anything away here - was constantly looking forward to a certain happy event. So much time was spent in building the event up that I, the jaded reader, felt, "Uh, oh, this isn't going to end well." It didn't.

Eliot Pattison is obviously very sympathetic to the cause of the Tibetans and to the other cultural and ethnic minorities of that troubled region of the world and he writes movingly of them. Perhaps the best way to enjoy these books is as anthropological or sociological instruments and to not worry so much about the obviousness of the "mysteries."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

...Because, you know, it's all about the cats!

How are your single cats spending Valentine's Day?

Happy Valentine's Day to you and your cats. Oh, what the heck, dogs, too!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Best in show

What a face! Banana Joe, Westminster Best-in-Show winner. (Photo from New York Times.)

I am a cat person, but one of my guilty pleasures is watching dog shows on television, especially the Westminster Dog Show which happens at this time every year. These animals are the very best of their breeds and they are beautifully trained superb athletes who mostly seem to truly enjoy their time in the ring. They are just a joy to watch and I always look forward to spending time with them. Unfortunately, this year I was otherwise engaged and didn't get to watch any of the show, but I was delighted to look at the New York Times online later and learn that an affenpinscher, sometimes called the "monkey dog," had won the big prize.

Banana Joe, or Joey as he is called, was the first of his breed ever to win the Westminster Best-in-Show, and it is always fun to see a new breed win. There have been enough poodles and beagles carrying home the prize. Time for some new blood. It's especially nice to see such a quirky little dog as the affenpinscher, not exactly a household name among dog breeds, finally win.  

I wasn't watching when he won because I was watching the other big show on television last night, the political one. I watched President Obama's State of the Union address and Marco Rubio's Republican response, as well as excerpts from Rand Paul's online tea party response. Comparing the three speeches made painfully clear that Marco Rubio is not ready for prime time and Rand Paul remains a loose cannon nut case, very much in the tea party mold. I'm sure they loved his speech.

The president's speech, on the other hand, was a continuation of the themes in his inaugural address. He laid out a bold progressive agenda for the months and years ahead, an agenda which, if enacted, would make this country more forward-looking and its citizens safer and more prosperous, with a greatly strengthened infrastructure and safety net and a reinvigorated economy. With the obstinate determination of the Republicans to obstruct and delay, it is not clear how much, if any, of his agenda can become law, but all we can ask is that he will continue to take the message to the American people and ask for their support, that he will, in fact, actually fight for these measures which he says he wants. I think he would find that the vast majority of Americans agree with him. 

So, who won the political Best-in-Show last night? No competition, really.

Hardly an unknown like the affenpinscher, but a well-known competitor who rose to the occasion once again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bye, bye, Pope!

So, for the first time in over seven hundred years, a pope of the Catholic Church is voluntarily giving up his crown, red shoes, and scepter. Truly, we do live in amazing times.

As a total outsider, a non-Catholic with only a passing knowledge of how the Catholic Church works, I have to say that I think this may be the best decision the man has made as pope. His time in office has been marked by one scandal after another, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say that any of the scandals are Benedict's fault, my observation is that his instinct has always been to obfuscate and cover up rather than to get at the root of the corruption and clean things up. This attitude has most obviously permeated the church in its reaction to the sexual abuse of children by priests. The institution's primary concern has always been for the welfare of the priests rather than the welfare of children.

Of course, this is an institution which continues to deny that women are equal to men and to refuse to allow them any voice in church affairs. In this country, and indeed around the world, where courageous nuns have chosen to follow the teachings of Jesus in dealing with their fellow human beings rather than following the strictures of the pope and his bishops, they have been in constant conflict with the church hierarchy, even to the point of being threatened with excommunication. Meantime, the church struggles to find enough men who want to be priests and refuses to even consider the possibility of allowing women who would choose that role to assume it.

As for the idea of letting those male priests marry and have families, fuhgeddaboutit! God forbid these people should have any practical experience of what it is like to care for women or children when they advise their parishioners or make choices about how to deal with human problems. And so, in all too many tragic instances, the priesthood has become a haven for pedophiles who are unable to establish and maintain adult relationships in the real world.  

Then there is the church's antiquated and unscientific attitudes toward homosexuals. They refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality is as much a part of the human experience as heterosexuality and that people who are attracted to the same sex did not make that choice. They were born that way and deserve to have their sexuality acknowledged as a natural thing.

Do we even need to mention the church's attitude toward contraception? In an era when women around the world, when they have the choice, would choose to limit their families and to have babies only when they are capable of caring for them and giving them a healthy life, the Catholic Church continues to insist that "every sperm is sacred." No contraception allowed, no time, nohow!

Is it too much to hope that the church might elect a new pope who has at least one foot in the twenty-first century and is willing to consider the idea that the values of the Middle-Ages are not what are needed to lead the adherents to their faith, most of whom no longer believe in those values?  It probably is too much to hope. After all, the same old men who chose Benedict will be choosing the new pope, along with those other old men that Benedict has added to the College of Cardinals during his tenure. Not exactly a recipe for forward-looking innovation. In which case, it seems very likely that the Catholic Church will continue its decline into futility and oblivion. With apologies to my Catholic friends and relatives, that might not be such a bad thing.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Get ready to count

Yes, it is just a few days now until the annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins. Are you ready to count? It's easy - and free - to participate. You just go to the website and sign on. Then count the birds in a specific area - it can be your yard or a public area like a park - and report them on the site. Then watch the map fill up with reports from around the country, and, this year, from around the world.

In the past, the bird count only included the United States and Canada, but this year it is going global. I am really excited to be able to see those counts from all over the world. But really the ones that excite me most are the ones from my neighborhood and state. It's always interesting to see what other birders in my area are reporting.

Scientists can determine much about the health of various bird populations by analyzing the data from the bird count from year to year. Even a layperson like myself learns about the movement of birds in her area by looking at those numbers. This will be my eleventh year to participate in the count, and my records from all those years are available to me as a picture of how my yard and its birds have changed.

If you've never participated before, let this be the year that you start your picture of your own backyard. You don't have to have any particular expertise in birds - just be able to identify and count. If you care at all about birds, I can practically guarantee you will enjoy it.

(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature.) 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Talking Back to the Mad World

When I read this poem in this month's Poetry magazine, I thought, "Finally! Someone has written a poem about my philosophy of gardening!"

Yes, I admit it. I am a lazy gardener. I love the way my garden cultivates and arranges itself - with only minimal interference from me.

Talking Back to the Mad World

I will not tend. Or water,
pull, or yank,
I will not till, uproot,
fill up or spray.
The rain comes.
Or not. Plants: sun-fed,
moon-hopped, dirt-stuck.
Watch as flocks
of wild phlox
appear, disappear. My lazy,
garbagey magic
makes this nothing
I love
the tattered
camisole of
nothing. The world
runs its underbrush
course fed by
the nothing I give it.
Wars are fought.
Blood turns.
Dirt is a wide unruly room.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sunny, sunny Germany

Fox News does it again, spreading disinformation to its vast audience of gullible souls.

It is part of their remit, of course, to be totally opposed to any source of energy which does not pollute the atmosphere, so we should not be surprised that they scoff at the whole idea of solar energy. You can't depend on the sun, they say. Some days it is cloudy.

When it is pointed out to them that other countries are moving ahead quite successfully with solar energy projects, their "experts" will explain that it is because those countries are much sunnier than the United States. Sunny, sunny Germany, for example.  

When asked why Germany is doing so much better than the United States in this field,  Fox Business reporter Shibani Joshi explained, "They're a smaller country, and they've got lots of sun. Right? They've got a lot more sun than we do." He went on, "The problem is it's a cloudy day and it's raining, you're not gonna have it." Sure, California might get sun now and then, Joshi conceded, "but here on the East Coast, it's just not going to work."

Add this to the list of things that make you go, "Hmmm..." Or, "What???"

Because in the reality-based world that most of us inhabit, it is very clear that Germany is not a notably sunny country. In fact, if you look at comparison maps of photovoltaic solar resources that are available to the United States, Germany, and Spain, they look like this.  

Click on image to enlarge.

If it's difficult to read, all you really need to know is that the yellow to orange areas represent areas with the greatest amount of solar resources. The blue to violet areas have the least amount of solar resources. All of Germany is blue or violet. Most of the United States, except for Alaska, is in the yellow to orange range. We are more comparable to Spain than Germany.

As of sometime in the first half of 2011, Germany has had over 20% of its electricity supply coming from renewable resources. Solar power peaked at 40% of power demand in Germany last summer. So why are they doing so much better than we are?

Bobby Jindal recently gained notoriety by telling his fellow Republicans that they have to stop being "the stupid party." I would submit that the United States needs to stop being the stupid country when it comes to alternative energy sources. Of course, the truth is that much of that will depend on the Republicans stopping being the stupid party, because it is their obstructionism and obsequiousness to the petroleum industry that is the main obstacle to our moving forward on finding ways to utilize all this non-polluting energy that is just waiting for us.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: A review

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao racked up most of the major literary awards when it came out in 2007, including the Pulitzer. It was hailed as a tour de force by most critics. Now that I've finally gotten around to reading the book, I have to agree. It is an amazing work.

This was Junot Diaz's first novel. Of course, since then he's written another greatly acclaimed book, This Is How You Lose Her. I'm putting it on my "to be read" list.

We meet Oscar as an amazingly sweet-tempered, grossly obese teenage geek who lives in a fantasy world of gaming, anime, comics, and Lord of the Rings with his rebellious older sister and his Dominican mother in Paterson, New Jersey. Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of all, he dreams of finding love. He falls in love repeatedly, usually with the most highly inappropriate females, but his sentiments are never returned. He's never been kissed.

Things are not easy for this immigrant Dominican family. The mother works two and three jobs to support the family. The father is out of the picture - never been in the picture, really. The mother seems incapable of showing tenderness to her two teenage children, although it is apparent that she does love them fiercely. The arc of her life was bent early on in the Dominican Republic under the vicious dictator Trujillo. Her family, which had been upper middle class, was destroyed. She was the sole survivor, but she, too, was marked for life, both physically and mentally.

The family ever after feels itself cursed by something called the Fuk├║. The curse has doomed the family to torture, unjust imprisonment, tragic accidents, and ill-starred love affairs. Can Oscar possibly escape its effects?

The tumultuous history of Oscar's family and his own life are shown to us with humor and with warm and affectionate insight into the Dominican-American experience. Moreover, we are impressed again with the human capacity to endure and to persevere in the face of mind-boggling physical pain, tragedy, heartbreak and loss. All of this is slowly revealed to the reader by a narrator who is only gradually identified as Yunior, a friend and lover of Oscar's sister, Lola, and a friend and sometime roommate at Rutgers of Oscar's. 

Throughout all the turmoil of Oscar's life, the things that remain constant are his devotion to his sister Lola, her devotion to him, and his need to express himself in writing. We might add to that his search for love. He wants a relationship with a woman so badly, but he seems doomed to die a virgin.

The ties of the American Dominican community to their country of origin are strong. Oscar and his family return to the D.R. from time to time, particularly at times of crisis, and visit with their abuela, La Inca. It was she who saved Oscar's and Lola's mother as a child when all the rest of her family was destroyed. She is in many ways the glue which holds the remnant of the family together. This family may be cursed, but it is also a family of strong women who will not allow it to be utterly destroyed.

These are all vivid characters and we get to know them intimately through the voice of Yunior. It is a straightforward but passionate voice.

This book is replete with cultural references to comics, anime, superheroes, and especially to J.R.R. Tolkien. I got the Tolkien ones, but I'm sure I missed some of the others that I was less familiar with; however, I never felt that I was missing something important. I was always able to discern meaning through context. Also, there are sentences and phrases in Spanish sprinkled throughout the text, but my college Spanish was generally up to the task of figuring out what was meant. 

Junot Diaz writes with compassion and understanding about the Dominican-American community and about the life of the perpetual outsider. The nerd. The dork. The one who always gets picked last for the team. The one who never gets kissed. It is a life which many of us can relate to and for which we can have empathy. We badly want Oscar to finally win, but we strongly suspect that isn't going to happen. Diaz keeps us turning those pages to find out.