27 December 2008

this big fake world, by Ada Limón

this big fake world, a story in verse. Ada Limón
66 pages. Pearl Editions, Long Beach, California. 2007.

I don't think I've ever read anything quite like this before. The story is as complicated as any novel, but conveyed in the terse, precise language of poetry. I know this concept isn't new, it's probably just the first time that I've read anything so contemporary, accessible, so readable done this way.

In fake world we have Our Hero, a man who feels at odds with life. We are introduced to him in "On a Lunch Break Our Hero Accidentally Leaves the Office:"
"...the traffic lights kept turning
green and green again.
He began to complain to them
about being rushed, always
getting the "go ahead..."
"when he returned to the conference
all the men in suits looked
like barbed wire."
The second poem is entitled "There is a Woman at the Hardware Store," and later on we meet Our Hero's wife in a poem entitled "His Wife Was Not Something He Could Hang on the Tree:"
"... He knew she was
angry, but had given up on talking, her mouth
turned down like a fish's mouth awaiting
the hook..."
Our hero has a friend named Lewis, who writes letters to Ronald Reagan.

In this little book of just about fifty poems, we can follow these four lives as they change and interact, and understand the feelings of these somehow familiar people. We are given a rich and detailed story, laced with whimsy (as any love story must be), and told with great skill.

This is a wonderful work, and one that I shall continue to enjoy. Ms.
Limón is a poet of great promise, and I look forward to reading more of her work. I have another collection of her poems, Lucky Wreck, which I'm reading, and hope to write about here soon.

Two poems by Ada Limón may be read in the 19 December 2008 edition of InDigest, a web publication.

I found her books at Amazon.com:

this big fake world

Lucky Wreck

26 August 2008

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey

Harper Collins 2008 311 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-145152-2.

Margot Livesey has written five other novels, according to the dust jacket on this book. Further information from that source tells us that while she is from Scotland, she is presently living near Boston, and is a writer in residence at Emerson College.

This novel is written in four major parts. Each part deals with a different point of view, but with the same story. Now, this is not simply a retelling of the story from four vantage points. That doesn't sound very interesting or original to me, and this book is both. As a matter of fact, this is easily one of the very best books of any type that I've read.

The principal characters are Sean, Abigail, Dara, and Dara's father Cameron. Sean is a scholar who gave up a business career to return to school and study Keats. Abigail is the woman who stole Sean away from his idealistic, nearly-idyllic marriage -- only to disappoint him with coldness and infidelity later on. Dara is Abigail's close friend from college, who lives in the flat downstairs from Sean and Abigail, in the house of the title, which is Abigail's by virtue of an unexpected inheritance.

Cameron is the older person in this group of four, and his part of the novel flashes back in time to when he was the age of the other characters, in order to tell the story of his uniquely problematic life. Cameron is the older of two boys, but his younger brother Lionel was killed in an accident at age fourteen.

There are many other people involved in this story, including Abigail's parents, who provided her with a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity, moving her all over Britain during her childhood. Dara has, of course, a mother -- divorced from her father when his secret becomes apparent to her. Sean has a brother to whom he turns when his life becomes a morass of betrayal and despair.

The characters in The House on Fortune Street are complicated. No one is excessively good, nor is anyone supremely bad. At times, Abigail seems to qualify as the Evil one of the cast -- but her story is more complex than that. We get a good background on all these people, who they are, and why they behave as they do. Character development is extremely complete and believable in this book.

The story itself is fascinating, and I won't reveal any more of it here. I encourage you to read this novel -- I think nearly anyone would enjoy it. The plot is neatly done, thoroughly fascinating, and perfectly wrapped up at the end. This is not a particularly happy story, dealing with some of the saddest aspects of human experience, but there is much about it that is attractive and warm -- it is not completely pessimistic about the resilience of human spirit.

This is the first book I've read by Livesey's, I'm glad there are others.

14 July 2008

Obsession, by Jonathan Kellerman

2007 Ballantine Books ISBN 978-0-345-45264-1. 458 pages.

Another great Alex Delaware novel. Robin is back, and a new French bulldog.

Alex is approached by a former client, Tanya, the adopted daughter of a woman recently deceased, Patty Bigelow. Patty was a nurse, well-known and respected by Rick, partner of Delaware's longtime friend, Detective Milo Sturgis.

Tanya's concern is that she thinks her mother was trying to confess something on her deathbed, something horrible. Knowing that Delaware is a psychologist, and that he has a friend in the police (Sturgis), she asks him to help find out what, if anything, Patty had on her conscience, and help her stop thinking about it.

Both Tanya and Patty have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and as the stress of the mystery increases, so do Tanya's symptoms.

The mystery unfolds in LA as all good Delawares do, and this is one of the most satisfying of the collection.

28 April 2008

The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford

Vintage Books 2006. ISBN 978-0-679-77667-3. 485 pages.

This novel takes place during three days in the fall of 2000: Thanksgiving Day and the two days prior. It is narrated by Frank Bascombe, a real-estate broker who lives and works on the Atlantic shore of New Jersey.

Frank is in his mid-fifties, twice married, happy with his work, and successful. His life has had its pain, however. He and his first wife lost a son at age nine, to Reyes' syndrome. His second wife, Sally, believing herself to be a widow at the time of their marriage, discovered that she was not. Her first husband, Wally, was a veteran of the Viet Nam war who suffered from mental illness (probably post-traumatic stress disorder) and disappeared for many years. Sally believed him to be dead and went through the process of having him so declared. Wally reappeared after her marriage to Frank, and she – confused and dismayed – went off to be with Wally, leaving Frank alone in Sea-Clift, New Jersey with his business, his beach house, and his memories.

Frank has an employee named Mike Mahoney who works as an agent for his company, Realty-Wise. Mike Mahoney's Irish-American name is a comically incongruous label for this man. He is an immigrant, a Tibetan who worked his way to America by way of several jobs including telemarketing from a call center in India. Mike is a devout follower of the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, and finds nothing but harmony between his religion, nationality, and profession. He is an excellent real-estate agent.

Frank's plans for Thanksgiving involve a reunion with his son and daughter at the beach house, with an elaborate catered meal. Each of his children plan to bring current serious love-interests to the holiday dinner, neither of which Frank has met at the beginning of the story. Clarissa is bringing a boyfriend, which is a change for her.

Frank's daughter Clarissa is a serious sort, who had been involved in a committed lesbian relationship at the time that Frank discovered that he had prostate cancer. She was enrolled in graduate school at the time, but came immediately to her father's side when learning of his illness and took an aggressive role as his advocate and aid in his fight against cancer. When we join Frank, he has made much progress in recovering from the disease, but it is still very much with him; his sickness and weakness are part of the pathos with which this story is interwoven.

Paul, the surviving son, is quite nearly a buffoon. He can hardly be civil with his father, for whom he feels great resentment. Apparently growing up as the surviving brother was not a pleasant role. Paul works for Hallmark in Kansas City, writing messages for greeting cards.

...Paul, in his rage last spring, told me about his job—that it was the same as what Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Proust or Edna St. Vincent Millay did: supplied useful words to ordinary people who didn't have enough of them. I, of course, thought he was nuts.”[p.390]

The days are eventful in a way that would be slapstick comedy if not written in such a thoughtful, sober, and analytical manner. On a trip to his inland home town of Haddam, NJ, Frank meets a developer with whom Mike Mahoney may partner, attends a friend's funeral, nearly witnesses the bombing of a hospital, and gets punched by a drunken acquaintance in a bar.

The next day includes a vitriolic argument with another old friend, and a gangsterish youth breaks out one of the side windows of Frank's car with a brick concealed within a milk carton. Getting this window repaired late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Frank visits another bar, where he spends a little too much time, and finds himself sitting in his repaired car, without the keys, on a freezing, rainy night.

Thanksgiving Day itself provides no exception to the nearly absurd progression of accidents and disaster. Ford does not disappoint; he has constructed a fascinating and suspenseful plot that keeps us involved as well as enabling pointed commentary and reflection on the state of our lives as Americans in the twenty-first century.

During the meeting with the developer and Mahoney, Frank realizes that the field where they are, soon to be covered with new houses, is a place he used to visit with his deceased son, Ralph, who “would be almost 30 now.” [p.47]

...I take a departing look at the cornfield...soon to be overwhelmed...Someone should draw the line somewhere.

I say silent adieu to the ground my son trod and will no more. The old lay of the land...” [p.44]

The farmland changes to housing developments, and Ralph's short life and death, and Frank's first marriage, recede into the past.

Frank considers the development unnecessary, and he abhors the unnecessary, in spite of his career in Real Estate, and his Suburban, which might both be argued to be unnecessary. (The “Suburban,” of course may just be a little joke.) His rejection of the unnecessary is part of his understanding of what he terms “The Permanent Period.”

...when very little you say comes in quotes...few...voices mutter doubts in your head...life's a destination more than a journey...who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you've croaked...” [p.46]

...the Permanent Period...comes...when it comes...[It]portended an end to perpetual becoming, to thinking that life schemed wonderful changes for me...” [p.54]

[The Permanent Period] portended that I say to myself, and mean it, ...'This is how in the shit I am! My life is this way' – recognizing ... what an embarrassment...it would be if, once you were dust, the world and yourself were in basic disagreement on this subject.”[p.54]

Ford presents the absurd in a determined and calm manner. When Frank visits Haddam to make an appearance at the funeral of his old friend Ernie, there are costumed volunteers re-enacting a revolutionary war battle in the streets. As the hearse containing Ernie's remains leaves the funeral home en route to his final resting place, people in tri-corner hats are chasing each other in the street, pretending to shoot muskets.

Frank belongs to an unusual service organization known as “Sponsors.” It is the function of the Sponsors to provide a friendly ear, simple advice, but no personal involvement, to citizens of the area who contact the organization with requests for help. “Strange questions are our stock in trade.”

Sponsorship is not about connectedness anyway. It's about being consoled by connection's opposite. A little connectedness...goes a long way...We might all do with a little less of it.” [p.96]

Frank makes a Sponsor visit while he is in Haddam, to a well-to-do widow who is suffering from the feeling that she needs to confess something, but does not know what that “something” is. Frank advises her that most likely there is nothing; it is probably just a feeling arising from a need to get on with the future, and the belief that in order to do so the past must first be cleared up. Overlaying the visit, Frank believes at first that he has met the woman before, a feeling that gets stronger while he is there. He concludes that she was someone with whom, between marriages, he had a one-night encounter, which he recalls only vaguely. By the end of the meeting it seems that perhaps Marguerite remembers as well; we are not certain, and if she does she is not eager to recognize it either. Frank leaves this awkward situation having slightly made a fool of himself, and collapses in the refuge of his Suburban, feeling a little woozy.

In Lay of the Land, Ford has constructed a muted seaside world, a believable inland New Jersey, and a character into whose mind and memories we are allowed to wander, and browse. This book is, among other things, a snapshot of America in late 2000. In the background is the contested Gore-Bush election. It is not yet 2001, more innocence exists than will after the events of 11 September 2001. Frank is a confident Democrat, unafraid to sport a “WHY BUSH?” bumper sticker on the Suburban, even at the risk of offending a client.

There is plenty of plot, and action – which I have intentionally avoided exposing in order to preserve the enjoyment of the novel for anyone who has not read it – but there is a wealth of interior rambling as well. We follow Frank's despair, sadness, his joy with his second wife, the absurd disaster of Wally's return, his love for his daughter and sons – even the difficult Paul. There is an abundance of quirky characters, but they seem only to be drawn from real life, rather than contrived. Issues with which Americans had to and have to deal are introduced, examined briefly, and become part of the backdrop in front of which this play is performed. Lay of the Land seems to have something for everyone; in an odd and peaceful way, it is very reassuring. We are all here for only a while, everything changes, and we have the opportunity to behave well, to be decent to each other.

This book was given to me, consigned to my chairside pile, and read in order of seniority (approximately, anyway). It was not until I finished the book that I became aware that this was the third in a series of books about Frank Bascombe. The Sportswriter, and Independence Day both treat earlier periods in Bascombe's life. I mention this partly as praise, because Lay of the Land works perfectly all alone as far as I am concerned. I am, however, encouraged to read more of Ford's work, and may very well complete this trilogy.

26 April 2008

© Eric F. Lester 2008

26 April 2008

No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Vintage International 309 pages. ISBN 978-0-307-38713-4

No Country For Old Men starts out with a short stream-of consciousness narrative, as if Sheriff Bell were talking to us, or we could read his thoughts. These italicized segments will be repeated throughout the book, and one will provide its epilogue.

Sheriff Bell, we discover, has been the Sheriff of his county for many years. He is a man who appreciates the peace and simplicity of his own life, and has a strong love for his wife, to whom he has been married for many years. Bell is in many ways a very traditional good American man, who served his country in World War II, and came back home to be a peace officer in the place where he grew up.

Bell is monogamous, not overly religious, and exhibits a calm, pragmatic tolerance of other people who may or may not be much like him. It would have been easy to write more prejudice into this character, to make him a little more of the typical “redneck” small-town sheriff; McCarthy has created a much more complex character here, a man that we will know, recognize, and like. Bell is the man we wish we had directing our local law enforcement, wherever we live.

In the beginning of the book, a man named Moss, out hunting in the desert, comes upon the scene of a grisly multiple murder that's taken place around several abandoned vehicles. There are dead bodies, weapons, and drugs. In one vehicle is a man who has been shot but is not dead, to whom Moss speaks. This man calls Moss cuate (friend, compadre) and asks for agua. Moss has no water, and is too cautious and fascinated to simply go for help at that moment.

Moss follows the tracks of an injured man who crawled away from the scene, and finds him dead, with a bag “level full of hundred dollar bills... His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.”

This money, which Moss takes, drives the story to its end. It is, of course, the proceeds from a drug deal that went horribly wrong. Moss, who we find to be a simple and generally honest man devoted to his young wife is instantly possessed by the spell of lucre, the awesome possibilities that these millions of dollars represent, the vision of freedom from dull and difficult work. He has practically no resistance, although we are given strong hints that he sees the seeds of his own destruction herein. Moss knows full well that he has scant chance of getting away with this treasure, but the reward is just too great for him not to try.

The lure of all that money doesn't completely corrupt Moss. He returns later, in the night, with water for the man in the car, but it is too late. As he runs with the satchel of money he demonstrates that he has not lost his strong set of principles. He is as kind as he can afford to be; he is loyal to his wife.

There are many evil men in this book, but none with evil so pure as Chigurh. Chigurh is presented as a heartless, soulless murderer; he comes into the story by killing a young deputy in a county next to Bell's. As he moves through the story he leaves a trail of victims, some shot to death, some killed with an air-powered hammer designed to slaughter cattle.

Chigurh obviously takes pleasure in killing, but he is not killing solely for pleasure. He seeks the money that Moss has found, hoping that by recovering it he can gain the trust and business of the mysterious drug cartel whose ill-fated transaction in the desert caused the scene that Moss discovered. He represents the coldest of the cold; the murdering reptile brain that thrives in the world of drugs.

Moss runs, and is sought by the drug runners, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. Bell has put the pieces together, and has a reasonably accurate idea of what has transpired. Reason and logic, which serve him in understanding the case, also tell him that Moss is very unlikely to survive. (And what will happen to his wife?) He sets out to find, and rescue him – an impossible task that he cannot refuse to try. Bell's wife asks him: “Do you really care?” To which Bell answers:

Yes mam. I do. The people of Terrell County hired me to look after em... I get paid to be the first one hurt. Killed, for that matter. I'd better care.”
There is a struggle in this book, but even more there is despair. Bell, consulting with his deputy, Torbert, says this about the drug runners:

...I used to say they were the same ones we've always had to deal with. Same ones my grandaddy had to deal with. Back then they was rustlin cattle. Now they're runnin dope. But I don't know as that's true no more. I'm like you. I ain't sure we've seen these people before. Their kind. I dont know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they'd have to build an annex on to hell.”

Bell could be described as a conservative, but that would be an oversimplification. Bell certainly believes in what we might term “traditional” moral values, but he brings his own personality, a sort of horrified acceptance of what is coming to pass, to the discussion. He tells of a discussion with a woman who complains about the “right wing,” and says “I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion.” Bell says:

...I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

McCarthy writes much of this book in a vernacular that seems appropriate for the people, and the place, in a way that is easy and pleasant to read. I devoured this book on a rainy Sunday several weeks ago. After a couple of hours I cancelled my plans for the day and read it to the end. I am not sorry for doing that.

This is a skillfully told story, in the tradition of the Western, but addressing one of the major questions of modern civilization: What have we done? We have created this wealthy, technologically enhanced existence (at least for those of us in America, much of Europe, and the rest of the “developed” world), at the expense of decency, community, and perhaps even humanity. Drug addiction, and the soulless criminals that supply the addicts, make up the basis for a profound symptom of the rot growing within our numbers. Again, from Bell:

I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”

And this:

I think I know where we're headed. We're bein bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs... Money that can buy whole countries ... it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It's not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was...

...I told a reporter...It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners... It reaches into ever strata...You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it's just too late.”

By the end of No Country for Old Men I felt very close to Sheriff Bell and his view of the world. I believed in Chigurh and the evil he symbolizes, and I understood the futility of looking at it as a “law enforcement problem.”

Furthermore, I look forward to reading more books by Cormac McCarthy. This was my first.

12,13,24 April 2008

©Eric F. Lester 2008

01 March 2008

This Is By Us

My Reading Life has suffered a bit of late. I seem to have slowed down on actually reading books, complete books, and yet I seem to spend plenty of time right here in this chair reading, and writing. The truth is, I've found this new thing to read, and it's consumed a lot of my time.

I first encountered thisisby.us on Craigslist, where I was perusing jobs for writers or editors. I do this often, it's sort of like picking a scab. Whenever I see a job open that's actually real-looking, the requirements are far beyond anything I can claim -- even though I feel that I could do the job -- and I fall into despair that I will end my days as a greeter for Wal Mart after my nice cushy job that I have now is eaten by the monster of financial inevitability. The ad said something like "write and get paid," so I was interested.

What I found was a sort of interesting looking website with the catchy FQDN of thisisby.us. Thisisby.us allows anyone to contribute (anyone who registers, that is, but it's a simple process and doesn't require anything objectionable) just about anything. There is no editorial approval required. Once one's writing is posted on the site, readers who have registered can vote for the piece if they like it, and write comments about it. The number of times a piece is viewed, and the number of times it's voted for, determine how prominently it will be listed on the site.

As for the "get paid" part: thisisby.us sells ads on the site. The advertising revenue is split fifty-fifty with the contributors, according to the FAQ, and distributed according to "goodness," a quality calculated from views times votes, measured at some point in time. From what I have learned, no one is getting rich writing for thisisby.us.

I didn't ever think I was going to make money there, but it looked like it might be fun, and perhaps a place to improve my writing. I started reading, and soon wanted to be able to vote and comment. I had to register, and create a username, and I was in.

There are plenty of posts to read, vote for -- or not, and write comments about if one desires. Experience hasn't yet taught me -- though it should have by now, I've made sufficient faux pas in this area that I should know better -- to be careful when commenting. Various personal shortcomings make this a problem area: thoughtlessness, insensitivity, literary snobbism, old age, and a sick sense of humor are among them. Mental illness probably plays a part as well. Be advised: the writer is very likely to read one's comments. The writer is very likely to be feeling just a little bit insecure, having just released his or her brain child to the cold, cruel world. The rule "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" is a good rule here.

(There will be members of thisisby.us who will read that last sentence and snort meaningfully at the hypocrisy I've displayed by writing it.)

There are many really fine writers working on this site regularly. A registered member can "fan" a writer that she likes by clicking "I like this writer!" on a post, or on the writer's profile page. It is then possible to enable email notification whenever a writer one likes has posted something. I do this, and I must admit to being obsessed with checking the trap I've set in gmail to catch these messages. I will eagerly click off to read the new one by one of my favorites, and then read the comments, and become curious about a comment writer, click on his link, start reading something by the new person, and I'm off ... Hours go by in this way.

A writer who goes by the alias Wisco writes once or twice every day (from Wisconsin), including a "news roundup" for the day which is always interesting, often quite insightful, and frequently humorous. Brakeformoose is another frequent journalistic contributor, writing from New Hampshire. His stuff is very funny when he means it to be, and very professional. It was not too surprising to learn that he free-lances for his local newspaper. (As of 1 March, 2008, 'moose seems to have slowed down a bit. Perhaps he's finding some success out in the "real world." I hope so -- he's very good.)

Terry Hargrove's alias is his name. He is the author of Don't Mind Me, subtitled "A Tennessean Lost In Connecticut." He writes regularly on thisiby.us, and I am always quick to read him. Mr. Hargrove writes a column for the Pictorial Gazette of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and his book is a collection of those columns. His stories are often about his childhood or his family, sometimes set in Tennessee where he grew up in the 1960s. He makes me laugh out loud regularly, and has a gift for the short and sweet.

Brianfile23 and BigDog both write from Fort Worth, Texas. I feel like both of these guys are my friends, although I wouldn't know them if I saw them on the street, and they'd probably think I was a strange old codger if they met me. Brian's posts are like pages of his personal journal, stories of his daily life, right up to date. I don't know how he does that. BigDog's writing is likely to be about anything, and he's really been working on it of late. He just wrote an essay about The Innocence Project, and before that a piece of a vampire thriller (I think?). Late last night I read one by him about a Polish woman who saved Jews during World War II.

vetinarii lives in New Zealand, although he's originally from England. His writing is simply exquisite. It's always calm, nicely poised, perfectly phrased, and thoroughly interesting. I would read a grocery list written by this man. Jasmine Ardent is the alias of a lawyer who lives in Seattle; she writes poetry and prose of a quality that makes one despair thinking of her laboring over boring briefs in a dusty courtroom. She has been kind enough to comment on some of my efforts and I think her ideas very helpful.

My old friend Doc writes some very well-worded and often highly opinionated pieces, and occasionally posts them on thisisby.us under the name Tom Joad. Doc writes letters to the editors of the local papers, and they get printed just about every time. I keep telling him he should be freelancing for the papers instead of giving his writing away free and working nights for money.

Blackrob8 is new to me, but I've seen some really good stuff from him. Typo is a very intelligent fellow who writes beautifully and betrays an excellent education. Beardless Viking is a writer I just started paying attention to; he is, according to his profile, a "First-year MFA in Creative Writing at San Jose State University." bbstucco was one of the first writers that really attracted me on thisisby.us. He has just about stopped posting on the site this year, but that's apparently because he too has found success in that elusive "real world."

There's anniemor in Northern Island, mudgeon I know not where, maze, Erik the Red, Roomspimp (what a strange name), Mike James, dean fearce, and so many more I know I'm going to forget someone wonderful and probably hurt somebody's feelings by leaving them out.

I don't know how I can possibly name all the writers that have entertained me, occupied my mind, and why -- this entry would go on for many meters down your screen. It's unfair, because I've named a few, and that seems to give them preference, but it's really not that way. Go to http://thisisby.us, read a post or two, register, and try it yourself. See how many writers you've collected after a few weeks.

I suppose this is the "social networking" website thing in a different form, but for me it's a very palatable form. Certainly, a lot of the posts on thisisby.us are forgettable, of low quality, barely intelligible and offensive -- bring your thick skin and do not send your children to this site. But when you go to the trouble of mining through the slag, the gems you extract will be well worth it.

10 February 2008

Don't Mind Me, by Terry Hargrove

Ladder Press, 2007. 168 pages. ISBN 0-9790371615

Terry Hargrove is appearing April 5, 2008 at the New Haven Free Public Library

I became familiar with Terry Hargrove through a writing website that I've been frequenting. "Thisisby.us" has a broad range of writers and poets from rank amateurs to real professionals. Hargrove is one of the pros.

He's quite modest, doesn't throw his credentials around or beat the less experienced with the club of his accomplishments, but I did get a hint that he might have a book in print, and sure enough, this is it.

Hargrove is one of seven children, born and raised in Lewisburg,Tennessee, who moved to Old Saybrook, Connecticut with his family. There he writes a column for the Pictorial Gazette, a Connecticut newspaper.

Hargrove's stories are uniformly short and sweet, and I had to prevent myself from racing through his book. It takes only a few minutes to read any one of them, and many are quite good read aloud. (My wife can attest to how many times I stopped her from whatever she was doing and made her listen while I was reading this book.) They remind me a little of the stories I used to hear on NPR read by Bailey White, and I think that NPR would do well to entice Terry Hargrove to read his stories on the air, if he's of a mind to.

There are 47 stories in this book, so I'm not going to go into each one, but I will point out a few that really stand out.

"Damon Runyon and Me" is about Terry's appreciation of Roller Derby, a sport which Runyon invented.

"Tennessee Spring" is tornado season. "Maybe tornadoes are God's construction company, like the one working on I-95 only faster, cheaper, and non-union."

"When Should I Start Being Concerned?" Children don't often fall into stereotypical molds -- they are real individuals right from the start.

"The Face" is about having a mustache, or not having a mustache; dealing with eighth-graders, and dealing with one's father-in-law.

"Lessons From Jam Pot" has serious existential questions -- and answers.

"Easter Duck" remembers a pet that could have inspired Rod Serling.

"A Halloween Tale" deals with death, and fear, and crawl spaces.

"Problems With Math" is a great explanation of what it's like to not intuitively understand mathematics. Terry Hargrove describes getting a bad headache from it; I just get sleepy.

"The Christmas Tree" If I have to declare a favorite, this is it. This is a horselaugh from beginning to end.

"The Age Before Computer Nerds" tells us a bit about the comic book kid, and his future.

"Getting Even" is about getting even, and it's a delight to revel in Glenn's delight.

Mr. Hargrove has given us a wonderful sampling of his work, which will leave readers looking for more. He deals with ordinary life: families, communities, schools, and churches, and the things that happen within them, without sanding off the rough spots or polishing the surface. His stories impress us as true reflections of life, they remind us of things that have happened in our own real lives, of people and places we have known.

I'll be looking forward to reading Terry Hargrove's next book.

07 February 2008

Mortal Allies, by Brian Haig

This was an audio book, which I listened to while driving to and fro for a couple of weeks. The book is read by John Rubenstein in a style that I would describe as "wiseass," but it seems suited to the voice of the narrator. The novel is written in first person, and the narrator is Major Drummond, a JAG officer, army lawyer, who has a background in covert operations.

The novel begins with Drummond arriving in Korea at an army base, dressed in cutoffs and a t-shirt, because he's been summarily wrenched from a vacation in Bermuda and flown here to assist in the defense of a Captain charged with murder, necrophilia, committing homosexual acts, and consorting with an enlisted man. The Captain has a civilian attorney, a woman that Drummond remembers less than fondly from law school. He is assigned to be her military assistant.

The story unfolds into a complex montage of issues: gays in the military, military justice, military protocols, modern diplomatic relations with Korea, the conflict with North Korea, the clash of the cultures, and the clash of Drummond's personality with Katherine Carlson, the beautiful but difficult attorney who leads the defense.

This is a mystery, with elements of spy novel, a thriller, and a social commentary. I was surprised to find myself really liking this book, and becoming engrossed in it about half way through. Haig has done a masterful job of plot construction, and has managed to make a statement in a most unconventional way.

I may have to read some more Brian Haig.

29 January 2008

The End of America, by Naomi Wolf

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007. 168 pages. ISBN 978-1-933392-79-0.

This is a disturbing little book. It's extremely well-written, relatively dispassionate, and coldly logical. It did not make me feel well.

The full title is The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Wolf has written it directly and emphatically, outlining her points clearly and describing nothing less than an emergency to her fellow citizens of all political persuasions.

While her claims may at first seem extreme and alarmist, a reading of her carefully thought-out arguments brings to one some rather unwelcome revelations. Reaching back through the history of the Bush administration to the date of her writing (late 2006) Wolf itemizes instance after instance of power-grabbing initiatives by the Bush Executive Branch.

In her introduction (go to this site and scroll down toward the bottom, there's a link to download a copy of the introduction and some other material from the book) Wolf says
"I began to take a second look at how leaders in the past had cracked down on societies over which they had
gained control..."

End of America compares moves made by the Bush administration to steps taken by leaders such as Mussolini as they established totalitarian control over their countries.

How can we ignore such legislative travesties as the USA PATRIOT act and the Military Commissions Act? This last, which suspends habeas corpus, should make any American of any political persuasion furious. The idea that the President (whoever he or she is, no matter of what political party) would have the ability to imprison any citizen without charge, without the right to representation, and even without disclosing that the imprisonment has been accomplished or where the citizen is -- this is in my mind a definition of the opposite of what the Bill of Rights and Constitution exist to protect.

Wolf's comparisons of strategies, and of language, are chilling. She points out the significance of the term "homeland" as we now use it, and how it was used as the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s. It is considered "over-the-top" to make comparisons with the Nazis and Hitler:

"I also know that there is a kind of intellectual etiquette, an unwritten rule, that Nazism and Hitler should be treated as stand-alone categories. But I believe this etiquette is actually keeping us from learning what we have to learn right now. I believe we honor the memory of the victims of Nazism with our willingness to face the lessons that history—even the most nightmarish history—can offer us about how to defend freedom."
Wolf points out her own bona fides in this,

"As someone who lost relatives on both sides of my family in the Holocaust..."
There will still be detractors, those who will say that this book is unnecessarily paranoid, that there just isn't any basis for believing that our leaders are headed in this direction.

I found the most chilling aspect of this work to be the idea that we are supposed to know that our government will deal with us if we speak out against it. We are supposed to be aware of the downhill slide from legal interrogation of prisoners with Constitutional rights to the covert torture of helpless "disappeared" captives.

It serves the ends of what Wolf terms the "Fascist shift" for us to have a growing fear of our government. We know that it imprisons our fellow citizens without recourse to traditional legal protections, and we know that it has reached out to foreign nationals and governments and committed crimes. We know that if the magic word "terrorism" is invoked, all bets are off, and all rules are suspended. There is no real effort to conceal these things, there is no need. The more this incipient knowledge is revealed, the less likely we all become to resist any initiative taken by the Executive.

I put this book down about a month ago and put off writing this review. I was just too uncomfortable. As time has gone by, I have found myself brushing off her arguments as too extreme, even obsessive. And then I think back, and I understand that this, too, is probably a predictable reaction. People who live in societies that are becoming more repressive no doubt feel just as I do.

Therefore I say, read this little book, and judge for yourself. If Naomi Wolf is wrong then we have nothing to fear and there is no harm in the reading. If she is right, we may be at an important point in our history, where we will need every intelligent and alert American to be aware of what our government is doing, and to fight to retain the freedoms that have made this country the beacon of light that it once was in the world.

27 January 2008

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-618-68000-9. 374 pages.

The God Delusion
is well-written, and well-reasoned. It deals with a difficult and complicated subject in a manner that kept my interest without being condescending or simplistic, in spite of the need for detailed explanations throughout. Dawkins comes across as a likable, optimistic teacher with a strong desire to see clear thinking take root and grow in the world.

Dawkins uses science and logic to illustrate how irrational religious beliefs have evolved and developed over the history of mankind, and how they have plagued civilization.

There will be, of course, objections to this book. Atheists run into this all the time. Apparently some religious people feel threatened by atheism; perhaps they don't like to have to think carefully about exactly what they believe. Dawkins' analysis of the origins of religion, and the actual substance of which it is formed, is daunting to say the least. He challenges the circular logic of faith, which says that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. It is this anti-logical trump card that defeats all rational discussion. If one argues that God cannot be seen, heard, or felt, the response will be that God wants it this way: God wants us to have faith in him without any evidence of his existence. Religion says that belief in the improbable is the key to understanding God and pleasing him.

This book provides welcome relief from the background guilt that I experience when discussions of religion erupt. While I regard most of this stuff as nonsense on a rational, adult level there is always the "inner child" that was taught early on to fear the omniscient bearded man in the sky. There is the confusing story of Jesus and his inscrutable sacrifice, which somehow relieves me of original sin, or something like that. Talk about a guilt trip! Here's this man who, 2000 years ago, suffered a horrible death at the hands of merciless sadists because he knew that you were coming along, and he loves you, even now. Aren't you ashamed of yourself for not believing this.

It is not hard to debunk the myths that come from religion, whether it's the story of Jesus or the promise of a heaven full of virgins to the suicide bomber (Dawkins, by the way, rightly asks: what about the fate of these virgins? How do they feel about it? And why would a man want virgins, anyway?) it's pretty easy to simply say: this is not possible, not probable, it cannot be proven and so it is not true. What is difficult is to free people from the innate feeling that they are supposed to believe in this claptrap, and that if they don't, they are evil, ungrateful heretics and that God (who loves them) will punish them with nothing less than merciless eternal torture. This predisposition to adopt such illogical nonsense as one's "beliefs" is, as Dawkins points out, most likely a sort of side-effect of natural selection.

I found this concept immensely attractive. Parents impart much useful knowledge to their children, e.g. don't eat spoiled food, wash your hands, get enough sleep, the good fish are in this part of the river, etc. At the same time, parents may tell their children things which are inaccurate or untrue, such as the idea that you can "catch" a cold from getting wet and chilly, that people of another race are inherently inferior, or that there is an invisible omniscient omnipotent being who requires certain bizarre behavior and will punish you if you fail to display it. While the bad ideas may be quite useless or even harmful, the basic good information is often required for survival. Offspring with a penchant for hearing and adopting the instructions of their parents are probably more likely to survive, hence natural selection will favor this trait. The bad ideas, such as religion, are as fervently adopted as the good. Dawkins' own explanation of this concept is much more skillful than mine, and includes good examples and illustrations.

The message of The God Delusion is that too much evil is done in the name of religion for it to occupy the exalted place that it enjoys in human society. Why should we continue to grant special privileges (tax exemption) and overlook behavior which, if not excused under the explanation of religious belief, would be considered illegal and destructive (e.g. taking children out of school)? Religion is responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Religion fuels the never-ending wars of the Middle East, and the conflict in Ireland. Many representatives of one of the major religions of the world have been exposed as pedophiles, and that church itself has been found to be complicit in covering up or impeding prosecution of crimes committed by these people. How is it that rational people continue to tolerate this monstrosity in our midst?

This topic cannot be broached without inspiring controversy. I am sure that many people will find me heretical, insensitive, and evil for expressing these ideas. Fortunately for me, very few people read what I write here, so I will not have to put up with too much abuse. But to anyone who does object, I invite you to borrow this book from your public library (or buy it, if you don't mind putting money in the hands of the infidel) and read it. Give it an honest chance and ask yourself if it doesn't make a lot of sense. Some will, of course, reject it out of hand. But a few may just be relieved to find that they are not alone: many of us are unwilling to ignore logic, to eschew science, and adopt dangerous and destructive myths foisted upon us by previous generations. Many, I imagine, will be very pleased to read this book, and to enjoy its clear and reasonable arguments and Dawkins' fine writing.