Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley: A review

This might be my favorite Flavia de Luce novel so far. I'm not sure it is the best; it may just be that I was in the mood for it. You know how it is when a book hits exactly the right spot at the right time. It makes for a very pleasurable reading experience.

Flavia is now a teenager and an orphan. Her beloved father had died just six months previously after her mother, the sainted Harriet, had died when she was only a baby. 

Harriet had left the family home, which had come down from her side of the family, to Flavia, the youngest of her three daughters. Now that her father is gone, a decision must be made as to what to do with that home. Flavia's bossy aunt thinks it should be sold. But it's the only home Flavia knows. How can she sell it? Besides, what would happen to the loyal family factotum, Dogger, and the family cook? And, of course, her sisters Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne)?

Well, Feely is about to marry her fiance, Dieter, so that's her sorted. Their wedding had had to be postponed after her father's death and she has not taken the delay well. She and Dieter fight constantly.

Daffy will be headed off to college soon but not quite yet, and in the meantime...

In the meantime, the girls plus Dogger have taken a brief holiday in the village of Voglesthorpe. While drifting in a boat on the river one day, Flavia idly trails her fingers in the water and catches a floating corpse!

The body is that of a young man who was a noted local actor in the village theater. He was also the son of the local canon who two years earlier had been convicted of killing three women in a church service by poisoning the wine or wafers of the Holy Communion. The canon was a beloved figure in the community, but he was executed after being found guilty. He confessed to the crime, although there doesn't seem to have been a motive. 

And now his son is dead. Murdered. Why? Is there a connection between the crimes? These are just the sort of questions that Flavia can get her teeth into and that will distract her for a while from her sorrow and the problems of her own life.

Flavia is a talented chemist and Dogger is her equal and her assistant in performing experiments. They are extremely creative in devising those experiments. MacGyver had nothing on these two! 

We are treated to detailed and intricate explanations of the tests which they perform to prove or disprove their theories. Because, of course, they must solve the mystery of the young man's death, as well as those other deaths, the ones for which it seems the canon may have been wrongfully executed, in spite of his confession.

One of the best things about this present entry in the series is that we see the personality of Dogger being fleshed out a bit more and the relationship between him and Flavia blossom. Flavia may no longer have her father, but she has a guardian angel and stand-in father in Dogger.

And soon it seems she will have him as a partner in an agency for "discreet inquiries." That should be interesting, for when was Flavia ever discreet? 

The plot of the book was a bit weak, but its strength was the Flavia/Dogger relationship. It seems that the author has laid a strong foundation for the development and continuation of the series. I look forward to further entries.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Late January blooms

Late January and the weeds are flourishing in my garden. It seems that they do best in winter when there's hardly any competition from the plants that the gardener actually wants to grow. I've been spending a lot of time lately digging them out, but so far I'm losing the battle. They grow faster than I can dig.

Even so, it's not all weeds in the garden as we head into February. The garden is beginning to stir from its short winter nap and some plants are even blooming. 

My little Tazetta narcissus plants (I think this one is called 'Texas star') are just beginning to bloom. They seem to get earlier every year.

Not many actually have open blooms yet, but it's a start and enough to lift my spirits.

Seeing the flowers of the gerbera daisies always lifts my spirits.

And the little violas continue to bloom from pots around the patio.

The loropetalum is not in full bloom yet but it will be soon. Its fringy flowers reveal its relationship to witch-hazels.

I do like the sweet little flowers of the feverfew blooming by my back porch.

Out by the garden shed, the 'Peggy Martin' rose is getting an early start on its bloom year.

'Peggy's' cluster of blooms form a natural nosegay.

The Carolina jessamine is just beginning to wake up. Its flower buds are swelling.

This one is just about ready to open.

No flowers in the little goldfish pond. The water lilies are all resting now. All that greenery is just a reflection of vegetation around the pond, among some floating fish food pellets and a reflection of the bright blue winter sky. The goldfish provide the complementary orange as they bask in the sun.

Spring arrives early and usually in a rush here. By this time next month, we likely will be seeing its clear signs. For the moment, the signs are beginning to show - we just have to look a little harder for them.  

Monday, January 28, 2019

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover: A review

"...You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”  - Tara Westover in Educated: A Memoir.

I don't often read memoirs or autobiographies. I prefer fiction. It's more honest, I think, with less egoism, narcissism, and self-righteous self-regard. But this book kept staring me in the face everywhere I looked last year and, at the end of the year, it kept turning up on everyone's "Best of 2018" lists, including Barack Obama's. What could it be about the book that readers and critics found so compelling? I decided I had to find out.

Educated is the story of the youngest child born into a Mormon family of seven children that lived in the shadow of a mountain in southeastern Idaho. It's an area where most of the residents, it seems, are Mormons and very strict and conservative Mormons at that. But none are quite as strict or conservative as the Westover family, a family ruled by the iron hand of patriarchy in the form of the father.

The patriarch had grown up at the base of that same mountain and, when he married a girl from the nearby town, they just moved further up the slope. As the children started coming, he began to lose his grip on reality and to slip into paranoia and schizophrenia. He became a survivalist and spent his time preparing for the end of the world, making sure that his family would have sufficient food and fuel to survive while everyone else perished. 

The first three children had had their births registered and had actually started to school, but by the time the fourth child came along, the family no longer registered the births and the first three children were pulled out of school. The last four born never attended. The father was determined that the government not know of them or be able to track the family.

All the family worked in the father's business of building barns, sheds, and other outbuildings or collecting and selling scrap. They also helped the mother with her herbalist business. She was a gifted herbal healer and also, somewhat reluctantly, became an assistant to a midwife and then a midwife herself. Unlicensed, of course.

All of that on its surface might sound like an idyllic and iconic western family existence. But surfaces can be deceiving.

The children learned to read from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but they received no further education except for that provided by their daily lives. Moreover, the patriarch insisted that everything was in God's hands and he refused to adhere to even minimal safety precautions in his work or to insist on them for his children. He saw no reason for things like seat belts in cars or helmets for motorcycle riders. The result was a catalog of horrible injuries for the family members. Legs sliced open, fingers lost, terrible burns that left victims permanently disfigured, and repeated head injuries to one son. Moreover, the patriarch refuses to allow any of the injured, including himself, to receive care from physicians or from a hospital. Instead, they are put into the care of the mother/herbalist for healing. 

But the family dysfunctionality goes much deeper. That son with the head injuries is called Shawn in the book. His personality was volatile and unpredictable. He was a bully. As the years went on and the head injuries mounted, he became a super-bully. He was violently abusive to Tara. She suffered all manner of injuries, including cracked bones as a result of his attacks. And through it all her parents did nothing! They made excuses for him. Nothing was ever his fault.

The patriarch was never physically violent in his abuse, but he verbally practiced mental and psychological abuse. Tara writes that he was - and, I guess, is - bipolar. That's her diagnosis. He never saw a doctor and never got any treatment.

This is a harrowing and disturbing tale, and yet there is a rainbow at the end of all these storms for Tara survived. She not only survived; she thrived. 

At 16, she determined that she would go to college, even though she had never been to school. She had to pass the ACT with a score of at least 27 to be accepted at BYU, and somehow she managed to do that. She was supremely unprepared and overwhelmed, but she persisted. She found mentors and others who were willing to help her and she graduated. Through the good offices of one of her professors, she was accepted for a fellowship at Cambridge University and later another fellowship at Harvard. Ultimately, she returned to Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. in historiography.

The downside of this story of educational success is that during all of it she was returning periodically to her Idaho family where she continued to suffer abuse. Only belatedly was she able to break away, cut ties with all except for three brothers who had been supportive, and cross what had become an ideological chasm to get on with the new life that she had made for herself. 

But as I finished reading Tara's uplifting story, I was struck with the thought that the rest of her survivalist family are still there on that Idaho mountain and her violent brother, Shawn, is still free to abuse people - people who now include his wife and children. And so it continues into the next generation. It is a sobering conclusion.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Lines: The cold earth slept below by Percy Bysshe Shelley

This melancholy poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is evocative of winter and loss. He was inspired to write it in response to the death of his beloved wife. I feel the cold and his sadness just from reading it.

Lines: The cold earth slept below

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The cold earth slept below; 
         Above the cold sky shone; 
                And all around, 
                With a chilling sound, 
From caves of ice and fields of snow 
The breath of night like death did flow 
                Beneath the sinking moon. 

The wintry hedge was black; 
         The green grass was not seen; 
                The birds did rest 
                On the bare thorn’s breast, 
Whose roots, beside the pathway track, 
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack 
                Which the frost had made between. 

Thine eyes glow’d in the glare 
         Of the moon’s dying light; 
                As a fen-fire’s beam 
                On a sluggish stream 
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there, 
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair, 
                That shook in the wind of night. 

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved; 
         The wind made thy bosom chill; 
                The night did shed 
                On thy dear head 
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie 
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky 
                Might visit thee at will. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

This week in birds - #338

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

A first-year Vermilion Flycatcher just beginning to get his adult color. I photographed him in January a few years ago at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.


In the interests of greater biodiversity, many cities make an effort to attract and welcome more wildlife into their concrete jungles. Relatively small changes can aid in this effort. It starts with the base of the natural world: the insects. Planting rooftop gardens or other green spaces to welcome them is the first step. When the insects come, their predators will follow.


The southern Australia island of Tasmania had 56 active wildfires going as of Friday, as the country suffers through another scorching summer. Power plants are struggling to keep up with demand in what will be one of Australia's hottest summers on record.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has updated its Red List of Threatened Species. There are 222 bird species that are now considered to be critically endangered and 13 percent of the world's bird species are now threatened.


In New York, a state legislator who represents part of New York City is writing a bill that will require every building in that city to have "bird collision deterrent safety measures" and to "use bird-safe building materials and design features." Such legislation has the potential to make a big difference in cities where thousands - actually millions - of birds die every year from crashing into glass walls and windows. Let's hope it is the start of a new trend. 


This is an El NiƱo year and that means that, among other things, that there is likely to be a big rise in atmospheric CO2 during the year. 


Apollo 14 astronauts brought home a load of rocks from the moon on their mission there nearly fifty years ago. Now, analysis of one of those rocks has shown that its origin was Earth. The rock, which is made up of quartz, feldspar, and zircon, is thought to have been crystallized deep beneath Earth’s surface some 4 billion years ago. It is theorized that it was catapulted towards the moon in a collision with an asteroid or comet soon afterward. 


Remember the Great Black Hawk that showed up in Maine, far out of its normal range of Mexico and Central America, a few weeks ago? Well, it ran into trouble in the cold Maine winter. It was found on the ground and was suffering from frostbite. It was taken to a wildlife rehab center, where it is being treated but there is still uncertainty about the bird's injuries and its possibility for complete recovery. 


A transmissible cancer has devastated the wild population of Tasmanian devils in recent years. Up to 80% of the animals have died from the disease, but a new study offers hope that the disease is unlikely to cause extinction. Of course, now the devils also have to deal with those 56 wildfires on their island.


A new study just published in the journal Nature indicates that a warming climate will cause plants and soil to absorb less of the greenhouse gases that are produced thus speeding the rate of change.


An opinion writer in the Times writes of the activities of citizen scientists who monitor and count the western population of Monarch butterflies and wonders if we are watching the slow extinction of the species.


Scientists have mapped the genomes of three species of Caribbean parrots in an effort to assist in saving them from extinction. The three species, the Puerto Rican Parrot, the Cuban Parrot, and the Hispaniolan Parrot are all threatened by habitat loss and illegal trading.


Birds are a vector for creating greater biodiversity in Nature. We know that they transmit seeds of plants in their feces and water birds sometimes transport eggs of fish or amphibians on their legs or feathers. It turns out they also help to spread the fungi that live on the plants that they transmit. Isn't it wonderful how Nature works? I am constantly amazed.


The Pantanal in South America is a critical area for fighting climate change and protecting endangered species. It is mostly located in Brazil but also stretches into neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay. The race is on to protect it. It's a race we dare not lose.


The current administration in Washington has cut the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half in order to open it up to coal mining. It must be a great disappointment to those who initiated the change to find that the coal companies don't seem to be interested


This is Romeo. He has lived in captivity for ten years as the last known member of his species, the Sehuencas water frog. During that time scientists continued to search for more of the frogs in the wild. The search has finally paid off; a Juliet has been found for Romeo! And not just a Juliet but five of the frogs - three males and two females - have been located. Now scientists hope they will breed in captivity so that more of the animals can be returned to their natural habitat.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn: A review

The full title of this book is quite a mouthful: Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. That's a tall order that the title promises to fulfill but Rob Dunn manages to do it.

The aim of his book is to explore the biosphere that comprises all the critters that live on and in our bodies and that share our houses with us. After years of sampling and cataloging this biosphere, he and his colleagues found what he describes as a "floating, leaping, crawling circus of thousands of species," perhaps as many as 200,000 altogether. Many of their discoveries were previously unknown to science.

Dunn and his team sampled and analyzed such areas around the house as shower heads, door frames, refrigerators, hot water heaters, cellars, toilets, pillowcases, and the list goes on and on. Some of the findings are rather disgusting and occasionally alarming but always fascinating. The bottom-line finding of their research is that most of our fellow travelers and cohabitators are either benign or actually beneficial to us in some way. Only a few are actually harmful. 

The problem is that we have become so paranoid about making our living spaces as pristine as possible, using pesticides and antimicrobials and sealing off our homes from the outdoors, that we have upset the balance between the good guys and the bad guys. In fact, we have tipped the scales in favor of some of the bad guys.

The microbes that live with us are able to evolve incredibly fast. They adjust to live in ecological niches which we can hardly even imagine and thus they are able to survive our chemical assaults against them and to evolve their way out of every trap we set for them. That is how we get pesticide-resistant German cockroaches and bedbugs as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

The research team's findings regarding our indoor biosphere is much the same as ecologists' findings about the larger environment: Biodiversity rocks! The richer the diversity of life in our houses the better. A diverse biosphere keeps things in balance; the benign, the beneficial, and the detrimental fill their appropriate niches and an equlibrium is achieved. 

One interesting hypothesis arising from the team's research concerns the relationship between a degraded and less diverse biosphere and the incidence of certain inflammation-associated diseases such as Crohn's disease, asthma, allergies, etc. They found a correlation between areas where the biosphere had been interfered with (i.e., excessively cleaned) and a higher incidence of those diseases. They had not set out to prove any such link, but their findings were highly suggestive. All of which led me to wonder about environmental factors related to some other diseases that are rampant in our modern society - things like autism, e.g.

There's a lot to digest here and Dunn makes it all perfectly palatable. His writing has a kind of folksiness quality to it. He keeps it all on a level that would seem to be easily understandable for the average reader. He's writing for the general public, not for his fellow scientists, after all, and his goal is to proselytize for the preservation of biodiversity, not only in our larger world but also in those smaller spaces where we live our daily lives. 

I did have one quibble with his book. In listing critters that share our houses with us, he kept referring to things like cockroaches, mosquitoes, silverfish, bedbugs, and spiders, and he repeatedly referred to them all as insects. I was quite offended on behalf of our friends and allies, the spiders.

Since reading this book, I have noticed one effect it has had on my behavior: I now wash my hands more often and more assiduously than before!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd: A review

It is soon-to-be Christmas 1920, two years after the end of the Great War. Ian Rutledge has spent the day fulfilling social obligations. It was his beloved sister Frances' wedding day and his duty, since both their parents are dead, was to walk her down the aisle and give her hand to the husband-to-be. He is happy for his sister but cannot help feeling melancholy about how her marriage will change his relationship with her. She has been the rock on which he has anchored his life after coming home from the war shell-shocked, wounded in spirit.

After the wedding, he makes it through the reception, socializing with the guests, but once the happy couple leaves on their wedding trip, his PTSD closes in and he must escape. He leaves London, driving aimlessly with no destination in mind.

Somewhere on the dark and lonely road between London and Suffolk, he encounters a car stopped in the middle of the road with an open door. Rutledge stops to give assistance and finds a woman standing beside the car and at her feet lies the body of a man. He had been shot once and was dead.

The woman swears that she did not kill the victim. He was driving her home from a party when they saw a figure in the middle of the road and the driver stopped to see if help was needed. As he approached the figure, he was shot through the heart and the figure retreated into the darkness.

Rutledge makes a cursory search for the killer or for the gun but finds no trace of either. He sends the woman in his car to the nearby village of Wolfpit to get the constable, while he stays with the body and the car.

Inspector Rutledge, having stumbled upon the murder scene, is determined to investigate the case and he manages to persuade Scotland Yard to let him be in charge, even though the local constabulary are less than enthused about his participation.

His investigation reveals that the victim, Stephen Wentworth, was hated by his family but loved and respected by everyone else. What could be the source of such hatred?

Well, it seems that Stephen was a twin. He was the second-born twin. The first-born was a beautiful baby and his mother fell in love with him at first sight and lavished all her love on him. When Stephen was born a bit later, he was at first not a pretty baby and his mother disdained him. Her attitude toward the children was passed on to the father. The only one who gave Stephen any love was his nanny.

Then a few months later, tragedy struck. Stephen's brother was found dead in the crib. Stephen was cuddled up beside him. The mother irrationally called baby Stephen a murderer! She was sure that he was jealous of his perfect brother and so killed him to get him out of the way. The doctor said it was likely a heart defect, but no autopsy was allowed on the perfect child, and Stephen was forever branded in his family's eyes as a murderer.

Were people really that ignorant in 1920? Well, maybe. After all, there are still some pretty weird ideas given credence in 2018; e.g., the vaccinations cause autism crowd.

Oh, well, soon the investigation's waters are muddied by a second killing. Same m.o. as the first - one shot to the chest. There's no immediate obvious connection between the two men, but Rutledge instinctively knows there must be one.

Then, in a nearby village, a third man with no apparent connection to the other two is killed in the same way and the waters get muddier still.

It's a complicated case and Rutledge struggles to find the thread that will lead him out of the maze and into the light, while at the same time continuing to struggle with his old demons from the war. I'm sure other long-time readers of this series, like myself, are longing for Rutledge to finally conquer those demons and get on with his life, but looking back over the last several books, one can see that some progress has been made, even as England itself begins to make some progress in coming to terms with the loss of so many of a generation of its young men and is moving on. These books do a good job, in my opinion, of conveying that atmosphere.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Poetry Sunday: When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

We lost Mary Oliver last week. She died at the age of 83. She was a prize-winning poet who wrote of the natural world, and she was one of the most popular of modern poets. Her poetry is very accessible and that is not a bad thing. 

This is actually one of her most famous poems and it could serve as a summation of her life. At the end of that life she could well and truly say that she did not "end up simply having visited this world."

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

This week in birds - #337

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

A Snowy Egret poses atop a post near Galveston Bay. Note his "golden slippers," a definitive field mark of the species.


Certain politicians in our country will tell you that there is no such thing as global warming because it is cold here now. Those politicians are unable to see beyond their own backyard. Much of North America is experiencing very cold temperatures this weekend, but in the southern hemisphere, Earth is burning. In Australia, for example, they've had record temperatures recently of almost 122 degrees F which has had devastating effects on Nature. Millions of birds, bats, and fish have died as a direct result of the heat. Moreover, wildfires are widespread and farmers are experiencing crop failure.


Meanwhile, a scientist who studied the Puerto Rican rainforest returned there after 35 years to find that 98% of ground insects had disappeared and along with them the birds that depended on those insects for food.


Oceans had their hottest year on record in 2018 as global warming continues to accelerate with the result that Antarctica is now shedding ice six times faster than it did in 1979. Along the East Coast of North America, these changes have made flooding more routine


University of British Columbia researchers have discovered that the population of Northern Goshawks that exists on the little archipelago of Haida Gwaii possess a unique genome cluster which makes them distinct from others of their kind. Only about 50 of the birds exist so their survival is in doubt.


The wall which the administration wants to build along our southern border would destroy the National Butterfly Center which is home not only to an amazing array of butterflies but also to at least 200 native bee species


Although red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, a new study of a pack of wild dogs in Galveston County on the Texas coast has found that the animals possess red wolf DNA. They are obviously not purebred wolves but are thought to be hybrids of coyotes and wolves, with possibly some dog thrown in for good measure. 


Meanwhile, in other canid news, the golden jackal, once barely known in Europe, is now spreading rapidly there and outnumbers wolves at this point. 


Species of birds that live in mountainous areas are moving ever higher as the climate warms. A recent study showed that birds in the Andes were heading uphill in an attempt to keep pace with warming temperatures and would soon run out of room. It’s the latest example of how species are on the move as they struggle to adapt to climate change. 


A bird whose native habitat ranges from the coniferous forests of northern Asia west through Russia to Finland has been quickening birders' pulses in South Los Angeles recently. A vagrant Red-flanked Bluetail, the first ever seen in California, has chosen to reside there - at least temporarily - just south of the 10 Freeway. 

Los Angeles' latest celebrity, the vagrant Red-Flanked Bluetail.


And in other vagrancy news ('tis the season for it), a European Robin has turned up in Peking. the robin is common and taken for granted throughout much of Europe, but it is a rarity in Peking and birders have poured in from far and wide to have a look at it. The bird has been dubbed a "Brexit refugee"!

 The little "refugee" requesting asylum in Peking.


Since the EPA no longer protects the environment, it's up to the people who live there to do it. That is happening in Louisiana where a group of activists led by native matriarchs is fighting a battle to stop a pipeline which they fear would lead to pollution of the precious water of the area.  


The Billion Oyster Project is an effort to rebuild oyster reefs in the waters around New York City. It has been ongoing since 2014. Oysters are natural filters and so will help to clean the waters. 


Spring is coming sooner not only to the Virginia coast, but to the entire North American Coastal Plain, a region that stretches along the sea’s edge from Texas to Massachusetts and birds are nesting earlier. In one corner of that plain, around Virginia Beach, the Yellow-crowned Night Herons are nesting some three weeks earlier than they have traditionally.


Lichens are complex composite organisms, made up of fungi living together with microscopic algae. Now a study reveals they may be even MORE complex than previously thought


The new chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), promises stricter oversight of the Department of the Interior in all of its operations. That will be a refreshing change from the lack of oversight for the past two years.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

A blast from my past: The myth of exceptionalism

I was looking at the record of traffic on my blog this week and I saw that this post from five years ago was getting some notice. Why now? I've no idea. But rereading it, it seems just as accurate and important now as I obviously considered it back then. Also quite ironic considering our current circumstances. What do you think?


Friday, September 13, 2013

The myth of exceptionalism

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."   - Vladimir Putin in New York Times op-ed

Russia's Vladimir Putin made a big splash this week with his op-ed  piece in the Times in which he lectured the United States and President Obama about the "need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." Of course, he doesn't mention here the fact that Russia has vetoed any effort by the Security Council to address the two year old crisis and civil war in Syria. 

He goes on to piously discuss democracy as an ideal toward which countries are moving at their own speed, with the implication being that countries must be allowed to work out their destinies without interference from the outside, even, I guess, when those countries enact such undemocratic laws as the recent Russian acts which discriminate against homosexuals.  

It's hard - impossible really - to know if Putin himself actually wrote this op-ed or if it was written by the public relations firm he employs, but perhaps it doesn't really matter. No doubt it fairly represents the opinions of the man himself. As such, the hypocrisy of the piece is truly staggering, coming from a man who has been a chief obstructionist of peaceful negotiations of many conflicts in the world, as well as a man who runs a very illiberal and undemocratic regime in his own country. 

Nevertheless, if one merely takes the op-ed at face value, there are certain statements that make sense and with which a reasonable person can agree. One of those is the quote with which I opened my blog post.

For a long time, it has irked me almost beyond endurance to hear jingoistic American politicians talking about "American exceptionalism," which some of them do at every possible opportunity. Their clear implication is that this is a country which was established by some Outside Power, usually a long-robed, long-bearded, all-powerful Judeo-Christian God, and that the country continues to be watched over and protected by that Outside Power, in a way that is not true of any other country in the world. Indeed, it is an article of faith among certain fundamentalist right-wing politicians and their followers that we stand outside and are immune from the flow of history. All of that is so much hogwash.

In fact, this country was established by human beings, brilliant but flawed human beings, who were willing to put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line to bring it into being. They were human beings who were acutely aware of the lessons of history and who would never for a moment have presumed to believe that they or the country they were creating were immune from and could not learn from those lessons. 

In short, the idea that the United States of America is exceptional and stands outside of the flow of history is a myth and a dangerous myth at that. We are subject to the same natural laws as any other people, any other government. Our system of government which has worked well enough for over two hundred years inevitably contains the seeds of its own destruction. From time to time, those seeds sprout and grow as they are doing now with the refusal of certain elements in our society to live by the tenets of democracy. 

So, I would agree with Putin's statement that it is dangerous to see ourselves as exceptional. We need to accept that we are a part of history and are not immune to its forces. Perhaps this would give us the dash of humility we need to be effective citizens of the world.    

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A review

I found myself grinning and sometimes chuckling my way through this tale of a serial killer in Lagos. Does that make me a bad person?

The description of the book on Goodreads is: "Satire meets slasher in this short, darkly funny hand grenade of a novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends." That pretty succinctly sums it up. But it is actually much more than that.

It is, at its heart, a story about family dynamics and loyalty. It is a cleverly written satire, full of dark humor and social commentary that is elegantly disguised. But, basically, it is the story of the love and devotion of two sisters.

We see things from the point of view of Korede. She is a nurse and a neat freak and she seems to lead a fairly normal life. She is well thought of on her job at the hospital in Lagos and is in line to be named head nurse. She has a crush on a young doctor called Tade and she hopes that he will notice her and realize they are soul mates. She is the older sister and the plain one in the family.

Ayoola is the younger sister and she is flirty, charming, and gorgeous. She is noticed wherever she goes and men fall all over themselves trying to get her attention. Unlike Korede, she has no shortage of boyfriends, but when she tires of a beau, instead of breaking up with him, she kills him. Then she calls on Korede to help her dispose of the body. So far, this has happened three times and Korede has learned via the internet that with the third murder, one is considered to be a serial killer. 

But what led the two sisters to this point? We learn that they grew up with an autocratic and abusive father who regularly beat them with a cane. Their mother had retreated into an Ambien-induced fugue and was unable to protect them. Finally, when the girls were teenagers, the father was preparing to beat them one day and reached for his cane and he fell and hit his head on a glass coffee table. The girls watched as his life drained away, then they woke their mother and told her. It isn't entirely clear whether the man slipped or was pushed but I have my suspicions.

At any rate, Korede managed to deal with the tragedy and at least feign normality. Ayoola, too, successfully feigns normality; no one ever looks beyond her beautiful face and body. But, in fact, she is a sociopath. 

The two sisters continue to live with their mother and lead their separate lives but then one day, Ayoola turns up at the hospital to visit her sister and Tade sees her and immediately falls under her spell. Korede's worst fear is realized when they start a relationship. Will this one end like the others? Korede must find some way to prevent it.

This was just great fun to read from beginning to end. It was well-written and the quirky characters were fully developed by the author. It certainly has a unique premise and I found the plot thoroughly addictive. I was sorry to see it end.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars