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.




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.)




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.


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.


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?