Never Trust A Dane

As I write these words I have all my numerous and wide-spread cousins in mind, all of whom are of Danish extraction.  For myself and my sister, all our grandparents were born in Denmark.  I quote Bernard Cornwall from Lords Of the North, the third book in his Saxon Stories:

Never trust a Dane

In spite of this slur,  I’m enjoying the Saxon Stories which cover the latter half of the Ninth Century in British history when the West Saxons under Alfred The Great were consolidating a number of small kingdoms into something like the England we know today.  I’ve recently started reading these stories because it seemed like a good way to follow up The Viking Wars:  War and Peace In King Alfred’s Britain 789-955 by Max Adams.  I enjoy reading histories and then reading historical novels about the same period.  I’ve read histories of the Napoleonic Wars intermixed with historical novels, many of them by Bernard Cornwell, especially the Richard Sharpe series of novels.  Cornwell has written series of historical novels covering broad swathes of British history starting with Stonehenge then making a long leap forward to the post-Roman era and continuing on through The Battle Of Waterloo in 1815.

  • Stonehenge:  A Novel Of 2000 BC
  • The Warlord Chronicles – post-Roman in the Dark Ages, 6th century
  • The Saxon Stories – 9th and 10th centuries
  • Azincourt – 1415
  • The Grail Quest Series – mid-14th century
  • The Sharpe Stories – 1794 – 1815.  These stories conclude with Waterloo.  Cornwell also wrote a history of Waterloo.  Try reading these books consecutively.

All of Cornwell’s books are good reads, historically-accurate and engrossing.  I appreciate that he follows each novel with a discussion of what in the novel is historical fact and what is not.

2018 – A Very Good Year

 

Bests of 2018

I read, listened to, or watched these things in 2018.  They were not necessarily released or published in 2018.  Some are years old but new to me – I discovered them this year.

 

Best Album Title:  I’m Not Here To Hunt Rabbits

This is guitar music from Botswana “played in an eccentric style and with a depth of expression rivaling any genre of music, this is folk from the dusty outskirts of the Kalahari Desert.

A community of African country blues masters with a totally original technique. For one thing; the left hand reaches up and over the neck of the guitar, instead of from behind and underneath. Furthermore, although played on six-string guitars, the guitars are only stringed with 3 or 4 treble strings, usually in G, E and D, and one bass. If a bass string is hard to find, it might be substituted by a brake cable. Tuning is achieved by ear …

Where did these peculiarities originate? Why did they come about? Nobody knows. That’s how the older musicians did it – that’s how it always used to be done …” *

A good example song:  Rampoka by Solly Sobatso

FunkmammothBest Song About the Wooly Mammoth:

Brontosaurus by Funkmammoth

Best Protest Song:

Ohio by Leon Bridges, Gary Clark, Jr., and Jon Batiste.  This is a cover of the song written by Neil Young in response to the Kent State protests and killings of protesters in 1970.  The Guardian in 2010 described the song as the “greatest protest record.”  It is in The Grammy Hall Of Fame.

Honorable Mention:  For What It’s Worth by The Lone Bellow

Best passage from a book:

This passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

All night now the jooks clanged and clamored.  Pianos living three lifetimes in one.  Blues made and used right on the spot.

Best lyric from a song:

Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live
Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive

I’m just happy to be here, happy to be alive

From End Of the Line sung by The Travelling Wilburys, written by Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty.

Best music genre:

Lo-fi is a genre hard to define and characterize even after some research.  Lo-fi (or low-fi) is a term that’s been in use for decades as a label for “recorded music in which the sound quality is lower than the usual contemporary standards (the opposite of high fidelity) and imperfections of the recording and production are audible.  . . . Lo-fi only began to be recognized as a style of popular music in the 1990s . . .” **

I think I’ve been listening to a sub-genre of lo-fi described by Wikipedia as a form of “downtempo music tagged as “lo-fi hip-hop” or “chillhop”. **

Here is my favorite example of what I think is lo-fi hip hop or chillhop.  (Brontosaurus from above is also in this genre.)

Sens Plus Profond by Coquins

Best Fact:

Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso from 1956 is the first million-selling LP by a single artist.

Best Happy Song:

Happy With You by Paul McCartney, a good song for all us baby boomers and everyone else

Best Singer Of Nostalgia:

Van Morrison, still going strong after all these years.

The Beauty Of the Days Gone By

Memory Lane

In Tiburon

Brown Eyed Girl     “Do you remember when we used to sing… ?”

Best Movie:

The Shape of Water directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Theater from the Shape of Water

Virgil WanderI loved the cinematography – low-key, saturated colors with a palette leaning towards greens, browns, and oranges.  It reminded me of one of my favorites photographs – Flâneur Granville taken by one of my favorite photographers, Fred Herzog.  A key visual in the movie is an old-style movie theater and marquee reminiscent of a mid-twentieth-century main street.  The main character lives above the theater.   Later in 2018, I read Virgil Wander, a recently-published novel.  One of the novel’s locations is a small-town main street where there is an old-style movie theater complete with a marquee.  Again, The main character lives above the theater.

________________________________________________________________________________________

* Piranha

** Wikipedia entry for Lo-fi music

 

 

 

 

 

First Classic Book Review

This is my first review for the Fifty Classic Books challenge.  I had started a different book but abandoned it and decided I would not subject myself to prolonged boredom while working on this challenge.  So I switched to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Hurston writes the story of Janie Crawford in the deep South of the early Twentieth Century.  It’s not a boring story.

The book describes Janie’s striving for self-actualization and the constraints that society and culture threw up to hinder her search.  Janie didn’t know anything about self-actualization or even that it was something to pursue. Her pursuit was more of a yearning that she sought to fulfill.  The obvious constraint she faced was racism. She lived smack in the middle of Jim Crow country in the heart of the Jim Crow era. She faced other obstacles including sexism and an insidious sort of class consciousness.

Janie is in her mid-teens at the start of the story.  She was

full of that oldest human longing – self-revelation.

She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road.  Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.

She didn’t know anything about the world or what it would bring.  She was looking for . . . sun-up and pollen and blooming trees . . . flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.

Janie’s life from that point on was not springtime and blooming trees.  Her era was not just Jim Crow, it was also a man’s world. Janie’s grandmother, before marrying her off, offers Janie her insights about the world they lived in:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh to find out. . . . So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up.  He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.

Here are some comments from the men in Janie’s life who needed to be in control:

“Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows.  I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves. . . . ”  He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

[Joe] wanted to be friendly with her again.  His big, big laugh was as much for her as for the baiting.  He was longing for peace but on his own terms [her submission].

Before the week was over he [Tea Cake] had whipped Janie.  Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him.  Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all.  He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.

Janie withdrew into herself;  a prolonged stifling of her desires until she met and went off with Tea Cake, who rarely tried to control Janie.  Their relationship was closer to one of equals although Tea Cake sometimes acted out because of his fears and insecurities.

The racism of that era is encapsulated in a court scene when Janie is charged with killing Tea Cake to save herself when he was in the end-stages of rabies madness.  She is tried by a white judge, twelve white, male jurists, and a white prosecutor. All the African-American friends of Janie and Tea Cake have to sit or stand in the back of the courtroom. After the State rests its case, a spokesman for the blacks asks to be heard:

“Mistah Prescott [the prosecutor], Ah got somethin’ tuh say.”

Mr. Prescott replies, “If you know what’s good for you, you better shut your mouth up until somebody calls you.”

“Yassuh, Mr. Prescott.”

“We are handling this case.  Another word out of you, out of any of you niggers back there, and I’ll bind you over to the big court.”

“Yassuh”

[After which] the white women made a little applause.

There is also class consciousness.  Even those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder need to have a group of people lower than them that they can disdain.  In this case,  those within the African-American community with darker skin and more pronounced features.

Ah [Mrs. Turner] ain’t useter ‘ssociatin’ wid black folks.  Mah son claims dey draws lighting. . . . Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man.  It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race. . . . You’se different from me.  Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah doon’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em maself.  ‘Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folds lak me and you miced up wid ‘em. Us oughta class off.’ [check spelling]

[Janie replies]  Us can’t do it.  We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks. 

[Mrs. Turner again]  Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips.  Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in my face.  Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair.  Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves.

Hurston does not forget other universal human foibles.

Gossip:  “An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.”

Envy:  One of the regulars on the porch of Joe’s store:  “Us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do.  Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down. Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.”

And as Thurston writes, “. . .there was no doubt that the town respected him and even admired him in a way.  But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate.”

Not to mention meanness, dislike of those who do things differently, greed, social climbing.

The racism and sexism in the book were too ingrained in American society to expect any sort of resolution in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  On the other hand, Thurston has many of the characters in Janie’s social world overcoming what I describe above as human foibles.  Often, the characters exhibit them, but given some time and better information they come to more humane thoughts and behaviors. The friends of Janie and Tea Cake first condemned Janie for killing Tea Cake but eventually realized that she killed Tea Cake in self-defence and in doing so protected the community from an infectious and deadly disease.

And what of Janie?  What about her search for something better?  I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that Janie survives.

She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features.  The young girl was gone, but a handsome women had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair.  The weight, the length, the glory was there.

” . . . you got tuh go there tuh know there.  Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh.  Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They go tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

Hurston writes with unexpected descriptive phrases that are clear, concise, unique.  I often wondered how a person could come up with these ways to describe things? Very out of the ordinary.  Here are a few examples:

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought.  She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.

She was a rut in the road.  Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.

Sorrow dogged by sorrow is in mah heart.

Last summer that multiplied cockroach wuz round heah tryin’ tuh sell gophers.

Ah’m stone dead from standin’ still and tryin’ tuh smile.

Something stood like an oxen’s foot on her tongue, and then too, Jody, no Joe, gave her a ferocious look.  A look with all the unthinkable coldness of outer space.

All night now the jooks clanged and clamored.  Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot.

It was the meanest moment of eternity.

She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.

Hurston’s humor usually shows up in the dialogue:

Yeah, Sam say most of ‘em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment.  Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there and hear it all.

Sam is too crazy.  You can’t stop laughing when youse round him.

Uuh huun.  He says he aims to be there hisself so he can find out who stole his corn-cob pipe.

There is also a wonderful story about a yaller mule that becomes a dead yaller mule that ends with a description of the neighborhood’s buzzards gathering to dispose of the mule.  One reads about the buzzards and thinks, “yeah, that’s exactly how buzzards go about doing their thing.” And it’s a funny description.

Hurston’s dialogue is in an African-American vernacular which I first found irritating.  I actually made this note in the margin on page 10: “End of patois. Good”. I found that it made the text harder to read and understand.  I eventually was able to overlook the dialect to the extent that it didn’t interfere with my appreciation of the book. Henry Louis Gates, Jr writes in an afterword that people read Their Eyes Were Watching God in part “. . . because she used black vernacular speech and rituals, in ways subtle and various, to chart the coming to consciousness of black women, so glaringly absent in other black fiction.”  She used the dialogue of peripheral characters speaking the vernacular to give voice to commentaries on life.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937.  Gates’s afterword mentions this about Zora Neale Hurston’s subsequent life.

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks.  Seven years later she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

She deserved better, much better.

Since I finished Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’ve wondered how much has changed since those days.  I thought about some of the books I’ve read that helped me understand that not enough progress has been made.  The problems described in Their Eyes Were Watching God are still with us.

I thought about the Easy Rawlins series of detective novels by Walter Mosely that describe the African-American experience in southern California in the decades after World War Two.  Stanley Crouch’s Nighthawk Rising, a biography of Charlie Parker, and Gordon Parks’ autobiography Choice Of Weapons confirm the accuracy of Mosely’s fictional works.  I found more confirmation in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth Of Other Suns and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  There are recent novels like those of Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones.  Most recently for me, the mystery Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke which takes places in contemporary, rural Texas and has an African-American Texas Ranger as its protagonist show that progress has been made – a black Texas Ranger! – but not nearly enough given that the novel also involves the White Aryan Brotherhood.

We need to keep pushing forward, especially now when we seem to be regressing.

A Dark Wood

The day before yesterday I finished “In a Dark, Dark Wood”, the scary thriller by Ruth Ware*.  Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself in a dark wood.

My hike took longer than expected, and I forgot that daylight savings time ended recently.  It gets dark very early these days.

So I’m trudging through a dark wood.  There is absolutely no wind, and no creatures are stirring, not even a mouse.  They have all gone south or into hibernation for the winter or have bedded down for the evening.  I can hear a jet far up in the sky but nothing else.  It’s actually a beautiful evening.  More than once I stop to enjoy the quiet and the beauty of the color left behind by the setting sun, color that shows brightly in the crisp, clear evening air.

I was in the Dunnville Bottoms in the floodplain of the Chippewa River in Western Wisconsin.  Here are some scenes from the dark, dark woods in the bottoms, mostly oak forests with many old, gnarly, spooky oaks.

 

 


I thought the book was neither scary nor thrilling, just an average, somewhat entertaining who-done-it.

 

 

Aging Disgracefully

St. Croix Islands Wildlife Preserve

Who wants to age gracefully?  Not me.  Old folks just wanna’ have fun.

I sure do, but my doctor suggests that I have morning depression.*  That means I feel wretched in the morning, but if I’m lucky I’ll perk up later in the day.  By the time bedtime rolls around, just like a toddler I don’t want to go to bed; I want to stay up late.

When I woke up this morning, I “was stiff and sore and grumpy.  It felt as though rigor mortis was getting an early start on me.  Sleeping for eight hours is enough to make anything go numb.  Anything that still had feeling to begin with.  Worse yet, there was not a drop of Diet Coke to be found anywhere.  I needed to pee again.   I’m old and have a bladder the size of a lima bean.  Don’t get old.  If Peter Pan shows up, just go.”**

So what do I do in the morning?  I’m not sure I remember.  I know I eat breakfast and check the latest news on the internet.  (Tip for morning depressives:  Never read the latest news in the morning.  You will end up with absolutely no hope.  I of course always read the news in the morning.)

My doctor prescribed light therapy.  I got a light box a few days ago, but it still sits unopened in the box it came in.  I’m too depressed in the morning to open the box much less set up the light.  I’ll do it some night when I am more energetic and haven’t drunk too much beer.

I’ll finish this wretched post by quoting two of my heroes who I’ve quoted before and will likely quote again.

What?  Me worry.    – Alfred E. Newman

Keep on truckin’        – R. Crumb


* In case you were wondering, morning depression (not to be confused with morning sickness or associated with pregnancy, something I’m not likely to experience, being sixty-nine years old and the wrong gender ) is also known as diurnal depression, diurnal variation of depressive symptoms or diurnal mood variation.  I’ll stick with morning depression.

** All quotes are by Sheldon Horowitz, the eighty-two year old protagonist of the novel Norwegian By Night.  I’ve slightly altered the quote to be in first-person and the appropriate tense.

 

 

Wrinkles, Discolorations, Blemishes

I enjoy photographing botanical subjects that are past their prime.  Flowers, leaves, other things that are starting to show their age; wrinkles, discolorations, blemishes; such things can add character to beauty.  Perhaps I have this penchant because I am (this is hard to admit) beyond my prime and have wrinkles and age spots aplenty.  At this time of the year in my neck of the woods, everything outside is past its prime. Everything is dead.*   This morning I bought primroses at the grocery store.  Some of the flowers are starting to wilt.  I thought the wilt spots add interesting new color and texture to the already beautiful flowers.

Wilting Primrose
Wilting Primrose

* A paraphrase of Charles Dickens from David Copperfield:

I looked at her earnestly.

‘When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,’ said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, ‘were they all well?’ After another pause, ‘Was your mama well?’

I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.

‘Because,’ said she, ‘I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.’

A mist rose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.

‘She is very dangerously ill,’ she added.

I knew all now.

‘She is dead.’

 

Still Possible

The SiegeEven after a winter of discontent,  everything is still possible.,  My winter of discontent has been trivial in comparison to the first winter of the siege of Leningrad (now St.  Petersburg) as described in The Siege.  People in the book starve to death, thousands of them.  People freeze to death.  I’m over-weight and never have to worry about heating my apartment.  What do I have to be depressed about?  What, me worry?  The following, from one of the last pages of the book, takes place during the spring after the first, terrible winter of the siege.

The sun shines.  Everything’s possible now that the sun is here, warming flesh and drawing dandelions and nettles out of wasteground.  As long as you can still walk, no matter how slowly, and pause from time to time to hold up your face to the sun and let a haze of glowing red soak through your eyelids, everything is still possible.

Punk in 1970s New York

city-on-fireI’ve recently read or watched two items that involve the punk scene (or should I say punk-rock scene?  I’m not sure.) in New York City in the mid-1970s:  The book City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Spike Lee’s movie Summer Of Sam.

City On Fire is a long book, almost 1000 dense pages.  The nexus of the plot is the murder of a young woman in a New York park on New Year’s Eve 1977.  The book describes in great detail the lives and relationships of the people who were involved in one way or another with the murdered woman.  It jumps back and forth in time from the early sixties to the start of the 21st Century while also jumping back and forth between characters.  Many of the characters are punks participating in the New York City scene that apparently started in the mid-1970s.  I cannot speak from experience about any aspect of punk.  During that time period I was moving in the opposite direction; exploring bluegrass, country, and mountain music.  So while the punks in this novel were moving away from the musical (pop) mainstream and finding punk, I was moving away from the mainstream and finding bluegrass.  Given what I learned from the book and movie, I’m glad I moved in that direction.

City On Fire also covers the massive and  complete blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977.  Some of the book’s climactic events happen during the night of the blackout.

summer-of-samThe movie Summer of Sam uses the background of the Son Of Sam serial killings to depict life in New York when David Berkowitz was on his killing spree.  It focuses on the punk scene and on life in the city’s Italian neighborhoods.  City On Fire presents more of a political and artistic picture of punk as a search for a sort of anarchistic freedom.  Summer Of Sam, in contrast, focuses a lot on the sexual goings-on within the punk and club scenes.

I’m not sure I would recommend watching the movie or reading the book.  I was often irritated at the book’s author for jumping around so much.  I kept wanting him to stick to the plot line in which I was engrossed.   Eventually, I just wanted him to wrap things up and tell me what happened to all the characters whom except, I think, for one, were strung out on drugs or alcohol.  They were all drinking excessively, strung out, shooting heroin, dropping pills, sometimes doing it all in one day.  I did not think it was possible for a person to use as many drugs and as much alcohol as some of the characters.

Watching the movie left me feeling like I had besmirched my soul.

eye-and-tear

 

 

Series, Series, . . .

Careless In RedI finished another Elizabeth George novel today, one in her series of mystery novels.  I’m stuck in the series.  I ‘ve often been stuck in such series and have churned my way through many of them.  I like best the ones wherein the novels in the series are sequential and characters change and develop from book to book.  One of the best such series going today is the Easy Rawlins series of mysteries by Walter Moseley.  I’ve also liked some series that are not sequential and in which the protagonist(s) are the same in every book – they just do their thing and don’t change from book to book.  One such is the Lew Archer mysteries by Ross McDonald.  Coincidently, both the Archer and the Rawlins mysteries take place in southern California in the mid-twentieth century.

Other than mysteries, I’ve been engrossed in series with military themes, the most notable of which take place during the Napoleonic Wars and have British heroes:

  • The Aubrey–Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian, about the British navy in the age of sail
  • The Hornblower series, also about the British navy in the age of sail, by C. S. Forester
  • The Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell.  Sharpe is a rifleman in Wellington’s armies in India, Spain, and eventually at Waterloo.

I could list lots of others, series by A. Conan Doyle, Martha Grimes, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham,  E.E. “Doc” Smith (science fiction that my brother and I were plowing through at the same time), John D. MacDonald with his Travis McGee series, Rex Stout with Nero Wolfe, and on, and on, and on.  I know I’ve read others, but you can’t expect me to remember them all although I did just remember some from my high-school days; the adventure yarns of Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books.  If I go back a bit further I would have to throw in series for young readers like the Tom Swift books and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books.

I have to stop writing.  I keep remembering other series.  I’ll never finish this post unless I just come to a full, abrupt stop.

What series have you enjoyed?

Anthills Of the Savannah

80213Chinua Achebe died about two years ago.  Shortly after, I read Anthills Of the Savannah, the first book by Achebe I had read.  I wanted to read Things Fall Apart, his most famous book, but Common Good Books, my favorite book store, ran out of it the day after his death.  Instead, I bought and read Anthills, a fine book.  I wish I had read Achebe earlier.  Here are some favorite lines from the book:

Contradictions if well understood and managed can spark off the fire of invention.

Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity.

Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots, and party-liners.

. . . we may accept a limitation on our actions but never, under no circumstances, must we accept restrictions on our thinking.

Anthills leads a person to think about the basic nature of humanity and society, about struggle and repression, about action and ideas, about one’s role in the world.  It is a book with splendid writing.  I usually think that a well-written book is one in which the writing itself – as opposed to the plot, the ideas, the characterizations – should be invisible.  If that is not the case, then the reader should be struck by the beauty of the writing as I was with Achebe’s.

Anthills has an absorbing plot and characters to admire.  Shortly after reading Anthills, I heard on the radio – probably public radio – the idea that good literature leads to the development or nurturing of empathy.  I agree.  I also feel that it presents the reader with role models.  It has done that for me my entire life.  If asked to list role models one of the first that springs to mind is Mr. Pickwick, not to mention Sam Weller.  Another is Richard Swiveler from The Old Curiosity Shop.  Many other good role models appear in Dickens,  even Barkis.  Gus from Lonesome Dove.  Frodo and Bilbo.  Tom and Huck.  From Anthills, Chris, Ikem, Beatrice, and others are characters to admire and emulate.

 

Last Day In Willow River

Yesterday I made a special effort to go hiking at Willow River State Park because I knew that it might be my last chance until next spring.  The weather forecasters said that by today the trails would be covered with snow.  I spent a couple of hours tramping through the woods discovering faint trails through the woods that weren’t visible before all the trees and shrubs dropped their leaves.  I saw parts of the park I wasn’t even aware off.  I took a few photos:

 

Last Night in Twisted River(I derived the title of this post from the title of one of the best novels I’ve read over the last several years, John Irving’s Last Night In Twisted River.)

 

 

Next

NextMichael Crichton finished his novel Next in 2006.  The novel explores the ethics of bio-engineering, genetic research, and the use of human tissue.  I don’t know what has happened in this area since 2006.  I suspect that the issues Crichton raised are still unsettled.  The book is typical Crichton so I’m not going to say much about the novel.  Instead I would like to discuss the Author’s Note that describes some of Crichton’s conclusions.

1.  Stop Patenting Genes.

The first conclusion describes a point of law that I had not been aware of but that makes sense to me.

. . . genes are facts of nature.  Like gravity, sunlight, and leaves on trees, genes exist in the natural world.  Facts on nature can’t be owned.  You can own a test for a gene, or a drug that affects a gene, but not the gene itself.  You can own a treatment for a disease, but not the disease itself.  Gene patents break that fundamental rule.  [emphasis is mine]  Of course one can argue about what’s a fact of nature, and there are people paid to do that.  But here’s a simple test.  If something exists for a million years before the arrival of Homo Sapiens on earth, it’s a fact of nature.  To argue that a gene is in any way a human invention is absurd.

Consequences of gene patenting?

. . . research on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was inhibited because scientists were unsure who owned the genome – three simultaneous patent claims had been filed.  As a result, research on SARS wasn’t as vigorous as it might have been. That should scare every sensible person.  Here was a contagious disease with a 10 percent death rate that had spread to two dozen countries around the world.  Yet scientific research to combat the disease was inhibited – because of patent fears.

2.  Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.

Historically, the courts have decided questions about human tissues based on existing property law.  In general, they have rules that once your tissue leaves your body, you no longer maintain any rights to it.

The notion that once you part with your tissue you no longer have any rights is absurd.  Consider this:  Under present law, if somebody takes my picture, I have rights forever in the use of that photo.  Twenty years later, if somebody published it or puts it in an advertisement, I still have rights.  But if somebody takes my tissue – part of my physical body – I have no rights.  This means I have more rights over my image that I have over the actual tissues of my body.

3.  Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.

New legislation is needed if the FDA is to publish adverse results from gene therapy trials.  At the moment, it cannot do so.  In the past, some researchers have tried to prevent the reporting of patient deaths, claiming that such deaths were a trade secret.

. . .

Review studies conducted by those who have a financial or other interest in the outcome are not reliable because they are inherently biased.  That fact should be addressed by an information system that does not permit biased testing, and takes steps to ensure that it does not occur.  Yet gross bias remains far too common in medicine, and in certain other areas of high-stakes science as well.

4.  Avoid bans on research.

Bans can’t be enforced.

5.  Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permits

university researchers to sell their discoveries for their own profit, even when that research has been funded by taxpayer money.

As a result of this legislation, most science professors now have corporate ties – either to companies they have started or to other biotech companies. . .   Thirty years ago, disinterested scientists were available to discuss any subject affecting the public.  Now scientists have personal interests that influence their judgement.

Secrecy now pervades research, and hampers medical progress.  Universities that once provided a scholarly haven from the world are now commercialised – and the haven is gone.  Scientists who once felt a humanitarian calling have become businessmen concerned with profit and loss.  The life of the mind is a notion as quaint as the whalebone corset.

 

 

Civil War Novels

A Chain of Thunder (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater, #2)Jeff Shaara is well-known to anyone who enjoys military fiction.  He has written many enjoyable novels that take plan in a number of American wars including the First and Second World Wars, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War.  He carries on after his father Michael Shaara who wrote The Killer Angels, a Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the best novel about The Civil War.

Jeff started by writing two novels that continue the story started by his father – the story of the three days at Gettysburg.  He then branched out to different wars and different campaigns of The Civil War. Both Shaara’ novels are historically accurate.  Their characters are as much as possible actual people ranging from private soldiers to the top generals; and in A Chain Of Thunder, Jeff’s novel of the Vicksburg campaign, one private citizen.  Jeff introduced a private citizen to show the experience of private citizens during the siege of Vicksburg; an experience of living in hastily dug-out caves on short rations and continual fear of artillery shelling.

If you decide to check out A Chain Of Thunder, consider starting with A Blaze Of Glory, a novel about Shiloh and the first of a planned trilogy of The Civil War in the western theater.

Cain at GettysburgRalph Peters writes in a similar vein.  In fact, when I read Cain At Gettysburg I wondered why Peters wrote the book because it is so similar to The Killer Angels – same style and approach, some of the same characters.  Peters  continues with Hell Or Richmond which picks up a few months after Gettysburg at the point where Ulysses S.  Grant is appointed the commander of all the Union armies including The Army Of the Potomac and continues through the Overland Campaign up to when Grant and the Army Of the Potomac cross the James River on their way to the siege of Richmond and Petersburg.  Like the Shaaras, Peters is historically accurate.  I’m a stickler for good cartography in military writing both fictional and nonfictional, and I find that good maps are surprisingly rare.  The maps in Cain At Gettysburg and Hell Or Richmond are just right, well executed with the right amount of detail.

At the start of the Overland campaign, Grant under estimated his opponent,Robert E. Lee, the commander of The Army Of Northern Virginia; and Lee under estimated Grant.  Peters makes this very clear and goes on to show how the remainder of the was in the East was in part a duel between Grant and Lee.  As described by Peters, neither was willing – on a very personal level – to be defeated by the other.

Hell or RichmondWhen I finished Hell Or Richmond  I wanted to immediately start the next book that would run through to the end at Appomatox.  I don’t know if Peters plans to write another book in this series.  I can only hope so.

Carthage

CarthageI finished Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates.  Good book.  I was engrossed for most of the book.  A couple sections became a bit tedious, but for the most part it was engrossing.  I was impressed by how Oates seamlessly incorporated a number of social issues without it becoming obvious or over-burdening the plot.  Oates writes about the United States’s system of incarceration, not directly as in non-fiction, nor in a didactic, opinionated style.  Her picture is just part of the novel, part of the plot.  Similarly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and post-traumatic stress.  All of this as the background of a good story.  And as Stephen King says, you first have to tell a good story.

I’ve now read two Oates novels in the last couple of months after getting to age 65 without reading one.  I’ve looked at her novels in book stores, but never quite wanted to read one.  That ended when I was curious about the title of her last novel before Carthage; The Accursed.  I read the dust jacket and bought the book.  Same thing happened with Carthage; I was attracted by the title.  I’m sure I will read more of  her books.

Historical Novel or Gothic Thriller?

The AccursedJoyce Carol Oates, one of our most respected writers of the last few decades, and I was disappointed by The Accursed, the first of her books I have read.  I have little good to say about the book except that it is somewhat entertaining.  Only somewhat entertaining; not enough for me to recommend the book to a friend.

The book is part historical novel and part Gothic thriller in the Dracula mode. I think that Oates did not well mix the two genres.  I was left wondering at times if what I was reading was fact or fiction. For example, the book describes an extramarital relationship in 1906 between Woodrow Wilson and a Mrs. Peck:

As five of the controversial “Mrs. Peck” letters are extant, and determined by reputable Wilson scholars to be in his hand, the passion of Woodrow Wilson for this mysterious woman is no longer any secret.

I cannot tell if the above if fact or fiction.  Oates includes a short bibliography at the end of the book the includes a number of works on Woodrow Wilson, but provides no guidance on how to determine what in her book is historical fact.  As a work of historical fiction, many renowned figures appear as characters.  Oates depicts them all negatively.  Here is what the narrator of the novel says about Mark Twain:

. . . the much-acclaimed American man of letters was known for the eccentricities of his humor, and often behaved wantonly, and cruelly

Other characters are Upton Sinclair, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack London, all of whom are depicted unfavorably.  I have no objection whatsoever to writing about the shortcomings of historical figures; the best historians never shirk from doing so.  This novel however seems to show only bad characteristics.  There are a couple of exceptions.  Wilson eventually shows great strength of character by resisting making a Faustian bargain with one of the novel’s villains.  Upton Sinclair, although naive and unworldly and who abandons his wife and child, is nonetheless sincere about his socialist principles and acts on them.

I was left with no good feelings about this novel.  I found the Gothic elements somewhat perverse which I suppose was the author’s intent.  There are no redeeming aspects of the novel that I am aware of.

Pnin

PninTimofey Pnin is a somewhat eccentric, Russian emigre who is teaching Russian to very sparse classes in the early 1950s at a small college in New England.  After nine years at the college he is expecting tenure and is secure enough to think about buying a house.  Then he finds that he will be let go.  On the last page of the book the narrator – an old Russian friend of Pnin’s – watches him drive away from the small college town to – who knows where?  I quote from one of the last paragraphs that I find melancholy yet optimistic.

Then the little sedan [bearing Pnin] boldly swung up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle might happen.

Is that not a perfect sentence?  A wonderful, wonderful sentence?