Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Earth Abides

While I was rearranging some books yesterday my eyes fell on George R. Stewart's Earth Abides. Initially I was struck by the fact that Earth Abides, published in 1949, could be considered a direct ancestor of (among other) the movie Contagion and Stephen King's The Stand. Then I started to wander around my memories of the book (mentally exploring its territory.) After a few moments of reverie a strange sense of "exclusion" from the story came over me. What, I wondered, is standing between me total immersion in the created world of the book?

Further thought led to a hypothesis--one which I who had so long enjoyed the book, found uncomfortable. The only way to check it out, I decided, was to sit down and reread Earth Abides carefully looking for the data that would either support or undermine that hypotheis.

Below are the notes I made while rereading:

Warning: Beyond here there lie spoilers.

Trigger Warning: post-apocalyptic imagery, violence against women, dangerous childbearing conditions, misogyny, implied rape, rape culture

Earth Abides begins, the reader can deduce, several weeks after the outbreak of a disease which is air-born and deadly. Before Ish, who is in an isolated location gather data for his research, realizes that anything has happened most of the population of the United States has already died and civilization as he has known it has already disappeared. The book has always been one of my favourites (being a fan as I am of post-apocalyptic novels) because it is told primarily from the "ordinary person" point of view. We never learn how/where the epidemic started and we are not given glimpses of what decision-makers were doing. The book is a quiet examination/description of what life would be like for a rather ordinary person in those circumstances.

The book has two narrative points of view: that of Isherwood Williams (Ish) and an omniscient narrative voice that gives us limited information about what is going on elsewhere in the world as well as some background information about ecology.[1] Since the word "man" is used frequently in the sense of "humanity" it is possible that some person mentioned in the text was actually in the mind's eye of the author a woman however the first individual that we can be certain is a woman is not mentioned until page 18 [2]
In Sacramento, a crazed woman had opened the cages of a circus menagerie for fear that the animals might starve to death, and been mauled by a lioness (18-19)
Given the gendered allocation of jobs at the time the book was published it is reasonable to assume that the nurses mentioned later on page 19 were also (or at least primarily) women. We read of dead men. We read of a man hung from the a telephone pole with a poster announcing "Looter." We do not read about women.

The reader is given an insight into what Ish (and the author) sees as the most salient/worthwhile qualities of men and women when Ish finds a survivor, a man who has already nearly drunk himself to death and thinks,
The survivor might have been a beautiful girl, or a fine intelligent man, but it was only this drunkard, too far gone for any help. (32)
Later, driving around the streets across the bay from San Francisco, Ish finally comes across a living woman. She is in the company of a flamboyantly dressed (and Ish soon realizes, armed) man who makes it clear that woman "belongs" to him sexually.
He (Ish) wondered what the woman could have been in the old life. Now she looker merely like a well-to-do prostitute. (34)
The man speaks but the women does not. Neither does the teen-age girl who Ish later glimpses as she flees the sight of him. Of the few fellow survivors he meets, only the men speak to him.

Ish later embarks on a trip across what was once the United States. On page 60 he meets a family (that is, a man, woman and boy who have found each other in the aftermath of the epidemic) of, as the book puts it "Negros." Ish speaks to them but the reader learns only of the information he gleans rather than "hearing" any of their actual words. The woman, Ish notices, is pregnant.

Ish has driven across the continent and arrived in New York City before the reader "hears" the words of a woman:
"Call me Ann," she said. "And have a drink!--Warm martinis, that's all I can offer you! Not a scrap of ice in New York City" (72)
Ish meets few people for quite a while after this and they are described only in the most general of terms. Most of them are suffering from what we would diagnose today as post traumatic stress disorder. There are few details about these encounters. Ish seems emotionally flat and unreactive--which would makes sense given what has happened to the world he knows. The only being with whom he has opened up and formed an emotional bond is a dog who adopted him.This relative flatness of affect continues until on page 98 Ish hears a women say (of his dog) "That's a beautiful dog!" and he has met Em (Emma) the woman with whom he will settle down and have children.

Now, I understand why a male writer would write a book with a male protagonist but Stewart's skill as a writer makes it easier to miss some key and disturbing aspects of the story. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is much implicit and a fair amount of explicit racism in the book. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is both implicit and explicit classism in the book. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is much implicit and explicit sexism in the book. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, the attitude toward women is actually far more disturbing than mere sexism and moves outside the boundary of misogyny to another, rather terrifying, territory. On rereading the book I am not really sure that women in this book are portrayed as actual human beings.

Early on in the story, long before Ish meets Em, he meets and, as he sometimes characterizes it, is seduced by a dog who he later names Princess. His interactions with Princess play a large part in him handling the immense psychological stresses of the first weeks and months after the epidemic kills off most of humanity. Princess accompanies him on his trek across the United States (for he does not really fully internalize the fall of the civilization until he see that New York City is now an almost empty shell abandoned by all by a handful of survivors.) Princess is instrumental in Ish's meeting with Em and the words he hears her speak, "That's a beautiful dog!" are about Princess.

Em and Ish may have sex the first night they meet but their interactions in this post-apocalyptic work fit into the gender norms of the decade after the Second World War. Em feeds Ish, they have sex (in the discrete way characters do in books written in the 1940s), she makes him breakfast and then:
They moved back, later that day, to the house on San Lupo Drive, chiefly because he seemed to have more possessions--books especially, than she did. It was trouble to move to the books than to move the books to them.(103)
Em changes the way in which she lives to fit into Ish's life. Ish continues to live in the home he was living in before he met her. He continues to entertain himself the way he did before he met her. Everything is the same with a few exceptions: now he has someone to cook his meals and share his bed. The reader learns that Em had been married and the mother of two "small children." Presumably husband and children died in the epidemic but the reader is left to infer that rather than being told. We never learn the name or even gender of either of the children. Em functions as a life force, a source of strength and a touchstone for Ish. He fears that she will die in childbirth and she reassures. The birth takes places "off screen" as one chapter ends with her pregnant and the next section begins some time after the birth. The reader is not told if the birth was easy or hard, only that the baby is healthy and Em is once again pregnant. Em and Ish have settled down to life in the remains of civilization. Ish reads novels and philosophy in the evening and Em knits.

A group of survivors grows up around Ish and Em until there are four adult women. All of them give birth at least once. We read no details about their pregnancies or their labour:
The Year 6 was an eventful one. During its course all four of the women bore children--even Maurine, who had seemed too old. There was, however--now that Em had led the way--a strong drive toward the having of many children. Each of the adults had for a time lived alone, had experienced what they now called the Great Loneliness, and the strange dread that went with it. Even now their little group was only a tiny candle against the pressure of the surrounding darkness. Each new-born baby seemed to give the uncertain flame a stronger hold and to push the darkness of annihilation back a little. (128)
And the cynic in this reader asks herself, 'what choice did any of these women have?' As one reads on one realizes that at no time does a lone woman join this group of survivors. Lone men are not encouraged to stay because of fears of sexual rivalry but since the Tribe (as they call themselvs) already have accepted polygamy the same fears would not bar a lone woman from joining up with them. Each man who joins brings at least one woman with him. One realizes that in this world there are no lone women. Women "belong" to men. Either the woman is lucky and belongs to a man who is "nice" to her or she unlucky. We she no women who are not part of group headed by a man. Since there is no birth control it seems strange to speak of there being "a strong drive towards the having of many children." It seems more likely that there is a strong drive (at least among the men) for having sex. Children are simply one of the results of that drive.

Though Ish thinks about the physical threats of pregnancy and childbirth before having sex with Em for the first time those fears are waived off by Em and seldom returned to. Em apparently has her children without trouble as do the other women. Again the cynic in me asks, what are the chances that the first 10 births after the "Great Disaster" would be trouble free? What are the odds that at least one of those women had a horrible labour? What are the odds that none of the children would have died? Indeed we read that it is not until "Year 11" that, for the first time, a child died a birth. The reader is given no details at all about that death. Was the labour long? Did the mother die of exhaustion? Did she hemorrhage? We read: "They thought that perhaps this death was caused from Molly's being old now. (134)" but one doubts that the "they" in that sentence would have been the women who held Molly's hand and wiped the sweat from her as she laboured.

Pregnancy and labour take place off stage just as does most of the other work done by women. Who makes the meals? Who washes the clothes? Who supervises the children? Who mends the clothes? All of this is the work of women. Em is praised often by Ish as the bearer of courage but her life, except for the moments when Ish needs her, takes place offstage and unconsidered. We know more the internal life of Princess (who is always running off after imaginary rabbits) than we do of Em. And, although the death of that child was first that had taken place at childbirth it was apparently not in the running when they came to name the year (something they did every year.)
When it came to naming the year, however, there was a dispute between the old and young. The older ones thought that it should be called the Year when Princess Died. . . . She had been ailing, an old dog, for some time. No one knew just how ancient she was, because she might have been anywhere for one year to three or four when first she picked up Ish. She had remained the same--always the princess, expecting the best of treatment, always unreliable, always ready to disappear on the trail of an imaginary rabbit just when you wanted her. But for all you might say against her, she had shown a very real character, and the older people could remember the time when she seemed very important along San Lupo Drive, almost another person.

By now there were dozens of dogs around. Nearly all of them must be children or grandchildren or great-grand-children of Princess. . .But to the children Princess had been an old and not very interesting dog of uncertain temper.. . . (134)
If Princess is "almost another person" to Ish--if Princess was "a very real character"--what is Em to Ish? The love of his life? The person who saved him from the post epidemic despair?
When Ish looked at Em, so many feelings boiled up within him that he knew any judgment he might try to make of her would be of no value. She, alone, had made the first decision to have a child. She had kept her courage and confidence during the Terrible Year. She it was to whom they all turned in time of trouble. Some strong power lodged within her, to affirm and never to deny. Without her they might all have been as nothing. Yet her power lay deep in the springs of action; in a particular situation, though she might inspire courage and confidence in others, she seldom herself supplied an idea. Ish knew that he would always turn to her and that she was greater than he, but he also knew that she would not be of help in planning toward the future. (141-142)
Em is a life force. And life forces don't have thoughts. They barely have feelings. Their "power," such as it is, is to support others. And when, now old and many times a grandmother, Em dies:
"Oh, Mother of Nation!" he thought. "Her sons shall praise, and her daughters call her blessed!" (283)
But we do not read of his grief, or her funeral, nor does he strive to name that year "The year Em died."

Ish survives Em, an old man even by the standards of longevity before the Great Disaster. He is encouraged to marry a young woman who had "no man to marry her."
He felt no love, but he took her. She comforted him in the long nights, for he was still a man in his strength. She bore him children, though the children seemed always a little strange to him--scarcely his, because they were not also Em's.(284)
And my flesh crawls at the idea of a young woman being "taken" by this old man. Even had she wanted to be a wife there was no reason for her to have to turn to an old man for among The Tribe other men had been known to take more than one wife. What was it like for her? Did she feel honoured to be taken by one of the few remaining "Old Ones" or had she secretly been horrified at her fate? Was she content to be the wife of a living, if old, paunchy and forgetful god?
Now no more children were born to Ish's young wife. Then one day she came to him with a younger man, and the two asked, respectfully, that Ish should give her to that one. (285)
We never learn the wife's name.

Ish, who is prone throughout the book to philosophizing and takes great pride and pleasure in marking the ways in which the old world has changed and adapted after the Great Disaster, spends no time on thinking of how things have changed for women. He is given a woman and then gives her to another man and yet he never pauses for a moment to ponder about this. He notices that this next generation cannot read but does not notice that the women of that generation have been reduced to property that is taken by men and given to other men.

The book ends as Ish's life comes to an end. He looks at the hills about him and notices that the hills that are shaped like a woman's breasts. He looks at the young men who have carried him away from the fire consuming the home that he has lived in for decades and he takes comfort in remembering the fourth verse of Ecclesiastes "Men go and come, but earth abides."

Yes, men come and go. Women, save as breasts and the promise of the earth's fecundity, have no part of the comforting vision of the earth abiding.

I still think that Earth Abides deserves a place as one of the most important and influential pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction written in the last century. I mourn that I will never again be able to read this book without the chill sense that in Stewart's future there would be no room for my mind, my knowledge, my skills, my insight or my ingenuity. In Stewart's world my only value would be my womb and my willingness to support the man who "took" me.

Rating: A uncomfortable 4-1/2 stars

[1] This narrative voice comes across as very similar to that in the movie Thread, similarly reporting information which may have devastating implication in a low-key scientific way.

[2] Stewart, George. Earth abides. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

And that's when the book lost me

There are books (movies, tv shows) that leave one with a vague sense of disquiet. You know that they "lost" you at some point but you cannot quite put your finger on it. There are others that have a least one moment that one can point at and say 'there, there it lost me. I was no longer willing to willfully suspend my disbelief in the extraordinary things because the author has demonstrated that they don't even grasp the ordinary ones'

I had one of these moments in Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun
"Well...what does he want?"

"I don't know!" wailed Perry. "Something called 'Smarties' and 'Yorkies.' Drugs, I expect."

"No, Miles. It's British candy. Smarties are like M&Ms, and a Yorkie is a chocolate bar." Being a Canadian gave Diefenbaker an occasional cultural advantage over his more insular American colleagues.(19) [1]
Bimbos is a murder mystery set at a science fiction and fantasy convention. People encouraged me to read it because I was a fan of science fiction, science fantasy and murder mysteries. What could be better? And part of the fun, I was told, was figuring out all the inside jokes. What best selling author was this character a send up of and which former best selling author was being made fun of in that scene.

One of the most common descriptions of the book was "well observed" and everyone assured me that McCrumb was making jokes and constructing caricatures from the inside looking out not the outside looking in.

And then I read page 19. And after that page I could never quite trust the author again. For you see, I am a Canadian. I grew up seeing Smarties at every grocery checkout counter. I grew up seeing Smarties at every convenience store. I grew up getting Smarties on Hallowe'en. If I was asked if Smarties were a drug I would never, ever think to say that they were a British candy. I might say that they are candy covered chocolates that are vastly superior to M&Ms. I would not call them British.

So, if I can't trust McCrumb to get a detail like that right--why should I trust her about things I know less about that which candies are available in the convenience stores of Canada.

The rest of the book may be witty and full of inside jokes but I will never know. It lost me on page 19.

[1] McCrumb, Sharyn (2002). Bimbos of the Death Sun Rosetta Books

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A cafetaria law-enforcer?

One of the charges that Catholics have been known to throw at each other is the epithet "cafeteria Catholic" by which they mean "you pick and choose those aspects of Catholicism that suit you."

Well, apparently in New York there are public officials who consider it okay to be a cafeteria legal officials. They feel quite comfortable deciding which laws and regulations they will enforce/abide by and which they will not. So, the clerk whose actions are described in N.Y. town clerk: I won't sign gay wedding license feels that since it violates her religious principles for two men (or women) to marry each other she is free to "be the law" in her town. On this basis she feels free not to issue them a license for which they legally eligible.

What if she refused to issue license for people who are divorced? There a lots of Americans who belong to a church that does not allow divorce and remarriage after divorce. Would there be question as to how long a clerk who refused to issues licenses to people who had been divorced would keep their job?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book Review: Jane and Prudence

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953)

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that there is nothing much to say beyond “good,” “bad,” “the type of thing I think you would like”, or “how did this ever get published?”

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that any book review that did it justice would have to be at least as long as the original book.

Jane and Prudence falls into that second category of book.

So, to begin by getting some of the business done before moving on to the meat of the review.

This is an excellent book. I feel that on technical points the writing itself falls short of the standard set by Pym in Excellent Women but it surpasses that book in terms of the nuanced exploration of character and the entwined exploration of the themes of class and religion in England in the 1950s and class, gender and food rationing in England in the 1950s.

Warning the first: For those who have yet to read Excellent Women -- one scene in this book containers spoilers about characters in that book.

Warning the second: This is one of those books which should be read without first reading the publisher’s description. For example, that of the Chivers Press edition of the book contains no information that cannot be gleaned without in the first few minutes of reading and mischaracterizes both the major characters, their interactions and what happens to each of them over the course of the story.

Jane and Prudence is set in the post WWII England when much of life still revolves around the problems and irritations that arose from the rationing of food. Rationing began January 8 1940 and continued even after the end of the war. Gradually, over the years, restrictions were dropped on various items such as clothes, chocolates, flour and soap but some items, particularly meat, were still rationed until July 4, 1954. These forced food shortages had the unintended consequence of making people much more consciously aware of how class, gender and social networks impacted who had access to which items.

The importance of meat is signaled early in the story, “people in these days do rather tend to worship meat for its own sake,’ said Jane, as they sat down to supper. ‘When people go abroad for a holiday they seem to bring back with them such a memory of meat.’” [1] (22)

Men, we learn as we read, can not be expected to endure the same dietary hardships as the women around them. For example, Jane and her husband Nicholas are having a meal at a local tea shop.
at last Mrs. Crampton emerged from behind the velvet curtain carrying two plates on a tray. She put in front of Jane a plate containing an egg, a rasher of bacon and some fried potatoes cut in fancy shapes, and in front of Nicholas a plate with two eggs and rather more potatoes. Nicholas exclaimed with pleasure.

‘Oh, a man needs eggs! said Mrs. Crampton, also looking pleased

This insistence on a man’s needs amused Jane. Men needed meat and eggs--well, yes, that might be allowed; but surely not more than women did? Perhaps Mrs. Crampton’s widowhood had something to do with it; possibly she made up for having no man to feed at home by ministering to the needs of those who frequented her café.

Nicholas accepted his two eggs and bacon and the implication that his needs were more important than his wife’s with a certain amount of complacency, Jane thought. But then as a clergyman he had had to get used to accepting flattery and gifts gracefully.. (p. 65)
But, the reader soon learns, Nicholas wasn't getting extra meat just because he was a clergyman:

Mrs. Crampton now returned and set down before Mr. Oliver a plate laden with roast chicken and all the proper accompaniments. He accepted it with quite as much complacency as Nicholas had accepted his eggs and bacon and began to eat.

Jane turned away, to save his embarrassment. Man needs bird, she thought. Just the very best, that is what man needs. (67)
Jane isn't the only woman who is consciously (and sardonically) aware that society seemed to feel that it was vitally important that men have their meat:
‘Mr. Driver! Mr. Driver!’ Mrs. Arkright came out on to the lawn calling. ‘Your steak’s ready!”

‘Ah, my steak.’ Fabian smiled. ‘You will excuse me, Miss Morrow?’

‘Of course. I should’t like to keep you from your steak. A man needs meat, as Mrs. Crampton and Mrs. Mayhew are always saying.’ She waved her hand in dismissal.

Fabian hurried away, conscious of his need for meat and of the faintly derisive tone of Miss Morrow’s remark, as if there were something comic about a man needing meat. (73, 74)
Pym is also clear-eyed and politely but firmly aware of the class presumptions that underline the religious habits of the British gentry.

One may wonder when Pym allows the reader into the shallow and self-centered “musings” of Fabian Driver if that sharp eye is trained only a particular type of person--someone who is facile and in the end desires social approval more than the approval of God:
He walked slowly down the main street, past the collection of old and new buildings that lined it. The Parish Church and the vicarage were at the other end of the village. Here he came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity. Even if truth were to be found there. A little further on, though, as was fitting, on the opposite side of the road, was the little tin hut which served as a place of worship for the Roman Catholics. Fabian knew Father Kinsella, a good-looking Irishman, who often came into the bar of the Golden Lion for a drink. He had even though of going to his church once or twice, but somehow it had never come to anything. The makeshift character of the building, the certain discomfort that he would find within, the plaster images in execrable taste, the simplicity of Father Kinsella’s sermons intended only for a congregation of Irish labourers and servant-girls--all these kept him away. The glamour of Rome was obviously not there.(70, 71)
Yet Pym later reveals not dissimilar thoughts in the mind of one of the more sympathetic characters, the sophisticated and educated Prudence
But then she imagined herself sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair after a day’s work, listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself. Better, surely, to go along Farm Street and be instructed by a calm pale Jesuit who would know the answers to all one’s doubts. Then, in the street where she did her shopping there was the Chapel, with a notice outside which said: ALL WELCOME. The minister, the Rev. Bernard Tabb, had the letters B.D.; B.Sc. after his name. The fact that he was a Bachelor of Science might give particular authority to his sermons, Prudence always felt; he might quite possibly know all the answers, grapple boldly with doubt and overcome it because he knew the best and worst of both worlds. He might even tackle evolution and the atomic bomb and make sense of it all. But of course, she thought, echoing Fabian’s sentiments as he walked in the village one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Not even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on back of the New Statesman, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.(284,285)
Reading Pym makes this reader wonder if the petty and long lasting nature of the privations after the Second World War played a major role in breaking down (some) of the class structure and gender relations in England. People learned new skills during the war and they called on their bravery to withstand the dangers and the rigours of that time. After the war people were expected to return to their old jobs and their old ways of life as if they had not learned or experienced anything. Women who had held down jobs were expected to get married and settle done. But there weren't enough men around to marry even if the women wanted to do so. And the pettiness of the privations without actual physical danger to ameliorate their sting made people edgy and more likely to be critical and cynical.

The peace, even more than the war, was undermining in the old England much more than threats from foreign country. Men had gone off to fight a war to preserve the England in which they had grown up leaving behind women who were called to do things they never would have done in that old England. England was not conquered but nonetheless the old England was no longer there to return to and many of the women, if not the men, were questioning if they wanted to go back to the way things were before:

Rating: 5 stars

[1] All quotations are from Pym, Barbara (1986:1953) Jane and Prudence. Bath, UK: Chivers Press

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: The girl with the dragon tattoo

TRIGGER WARNING: Misogyny, domestic violence, torture, rape culture

The girl with the dragon tattoo by Steig Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

Something niggles.

I finished the book in less that 24 hours in two sittings (I don't 'pull' all nighters any longer) so I suppose the first thing to say is that it is a page turner. Okay, it is a slow starting page turner but one which, after it finally does get up a head of steam, kept me reading nonstop until I finished it.

So on that level I certainly understand why the book became an international best seller. I get why the movie rights were snapped up.

But something still niggles.

I finished the book in a matter of hours while there are other books I have struggled with for days (and in the case of the one I am wrestling with right now, months.) But I am not sure how to rate the book. I am not sure what I would say to someone who asked me if I would recommend it.

The writing itself is competent although not great. However since I was reading it in English I cannot really speak to the writing style of the author can I? All one needs to do is read the same book translated by different individuals to know how much style can be created, changed and obscured by translators.

But something still niggles.

Finally, I realize what it is. Yes, the author was outraged at violence against women but by presenting so much of the violence as outsized and horrific he was undermining his message.

Few of us feel sympathy or empathy with serial murders. Few of use feel sympathy or empathy with sexual sadists and torturers. But that is not what most of the violence that women endure looks like.

Most of the violence and abuse that women suffer is banal.[1] Yes it sometimes escalates to a level of abuse that the next door neighbours and the police can recognize as unacceptable. But most of the time the soul destroying violence and abuse that women suffer is not the stuff that makes for best sellers.

Most rapists don't indulge in the type of showy behaviour that if witnessed by police ensure that the victim is never doubted or questioned. Most of the men who grope women, or make threatening and demeaning comments, go home to normal looking families and normal looking homes.

I don't need a man to tell me that torturing people in dungeons is wrong. I don't need a man to tell me that raping your daughter is wrong. I don't need a man to tell me that murdering people in slow and excruciating ways is wrong.

I don't need a man to defend women by writing books full of graphic descriptions of the mistreatment and torture of women to demonstrate that other men shouldn't do such things.

I don't want to feel that the person sitting in the train station reading the best-seller about how bad it is to hurt women is having their minds eye filled of material that otherwise they could only find in torture porn magazines.

So now instead of a niggle at the back of my mind I have a question. Doesn't a book like this help the guy down the street to feel he isn't doing anything really wrong if he only slaps his wife and if he only verbally abuses his children?

[1] Not, of course, to the person on whom it is inflicted. But it isn't telegenic and it isn't material for an international best-seller. It just destroys the minds, souls and often the bodies of those who endure it.

Books that just didn't work for me: Red Son

Red Son is one of those books which I very much wanted to like and yet somehow liking it eluded me.

The basic conceit of the graphic novel (what would have happened had Superman's spacecraft landed in the Soviet Union rather than the United States) seemed to be a perfect jump off point for a book that would at the very least amuse me. Instead I found myself strangely excluded/alienated by the book. After reading it for the first time I set it aside and returned to it again yesterday only to find it less interesting and more excluding than on my first attempt.

I think the problem was that I was looking for a book that grappled with the unexamined nature of Superman's support for "American values" by showing what we would think about someone of Superman's powers and nature if they had just as unquestioningly supported a different set of values. I was looking for a book that made its readers consider just how examined their own values were and just how examined their loyalties were.

Given the number/range of people who suggested that I might enjoy/appreciate Red Son I will assume that I didn't bounce of it simply because it isn't a well written/well drawn graphic novel. I am tentatively putting it into the list of "things which I would have enjoyed more if I hadn't approached them with a misunderstanding as to which genre they belonged in.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Here's a thought about the question of Obama's birth certificate

Who cares?

Yes, I know that the people who are trying to prove that Obama has falsified his birth certificate are "looking for a loophole" that allows them to get rid of him as President. I understand the short-term payoff (let's not take a chance this time on elections and impeachment by making him ineligible for office) but there is an underlying presumption/assumption being made by those on both sides of the argument.

It matters to them if someone is a "naturally born" American. On some level they don't feel that someone who has merely become a naturalized citizen is truly an American.[1]

There are many other countries where this whole line of thought seems at best silly. One could make an argument that someone who had only recently become a citizen of a country might be less likely to truly understand the hopes, dreams and needs of the its citizens--but that has more to do with the length of time one has lived in the country and the degree to which one's lifestyle had distanced one from the lives of most people than with actual citizenship.

It may not be unrelated that it was in the United States that I first heard people describe themselves as "cradle Catholics" to defend their opinions about some aspect of Catholicism.

In both cases it is just as likely that a new citizen/communicant would be more aware of the technical details than would someone who had never had to "work for" or "earn" membership.

So, just to throw a thought out there, next time someone is talking about amending the Constitution how about suggesting that they change Article 2--Section 1:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.


No person except a Citizen of the United States shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

[1] Yes, I know that there was a brief flurry of discussions about a Constitutional Amendment when Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered a successful Republican governor. However an amazing number of Republicans I talked to felt that it would be just wrong to have a naturalized citizen as President. Democrats who were otherwise supports of Jennifer Granholm seemed similarly conflicted. [2]

[2] My how quickly things change in politics. Yes, there was indeed a time when it seemed that only Article 2-Section 1 stood in the way of either Governor making a serious run for their party's Presidential nomination.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

[Fill in the blank] is a really bad detective, part two

I'm curled up reading one of the books I got at the recent library sale. Normally I approach any detective story only after putting my disbelief on the back burner but when one is reading a book published in the last twenty-five years by an author best known for writing "friendly hard-boiled-ish" stories rather than American cozies one doesn't expected that crucial suspension to be challenged within the first few pages and destroyed beyond repair before finishing the second chapter.

On the very first page of Sue Grafton's "E" is for Evidence[1] we learn that Kinsey Millhone (the private detective whose point-of-view the reader shares) has just found out that five thousand dollars had been deposited into her bank account by someone unknown to her. Either it is an innocent error or someone wants to make it look as if she has deposited the money herself.

I immediately stop reading and check the copyright page to find out when the book was originally published. 1988. 'Hmmmmm,' I think, 'I wonder what five thousand 1988 American dollars would be worth today.' A few seconds later I have found an inflation chart. It would cost you almost 10,000 dollars today to purchase what 5,000 dollars would have bought back then. That is far more money than most people then would have made for several months work. The deposit was made through a night-deposit slot and almost no one used those or deposited that much money at one time except businesses. And businesses are unlikely to make a cash deposit both that large and a round number.

At this point I am ready for Millhone to call the police (to report "found" money and a possible attempt at money laundering) and the insurance company for which she is currently doing work investigating possible insurance fraud. Because a cash deposit that large looks to me (as it should to her) like either an attempt to bribe her or and attempt to make it look as if she has taken a bribe.

The willing suspension of my disbelief necessary to read the book is already being stretched. I have known people whose jobs were unmasking fraud and they are routinely suspicious of everything. I have trouble believing that Millhone merely phones the bank to report the error and then goes back to writing up a report to her insurance company/client of her current investigation into possible insurance fraud.

'Chill out,' I tell myself, 'you have the advantage on her. You know that this is important because it is the first chapter of a murder mystery. You have that advantage over Millhone.'

'She supposed to be a private investigator,' myself grumbles back, 'she supposed to notice things like that."

I persuade myself to read further.

Back in the pages of the book, Millhone is thinking about the events that occurred between being assigned this case of possible insurance fraud and the present. A company has filed an insurance claim after a fire at one of their warehouses. Millhone has been sent out to investigate. The company president says, after meeting her, I hope you are not going to give me any static over that. Believe me, I'm not asking for anything I'm not entitled to.(15. Millhone tells the reader:
I made a noncommittal murmur or some sort, hopinp to conceal the fact that I'd gone on "fraud alert." Every insurance piker I'd ever met said just that, right down to the pious little toss of the head. (15)
A mere four pages later Millhone leaves her handbag unattended in the office of the person who had set off her "fraud alert" while she is taken to the actual site of the fire. Yes, the man whose office it was disappeared from the scene after answering a telephone call and yes, she did remove her wallet and bring it with her. But she left her handbag behind. In one of the offices of the business she had been hired to investigate.

At this point myself is finding it difficult not to toss the book aside. Either Millhone is a bad detective or the author is 'getting things set up' by having her protagonist do something no moderately adequate fraud investigator would do. Either way, I find it difficult to care what happens for the rest of the book. And it is only page 19.

[1] Grafton, Sue. E" is for evidence : a Kinsey Millhone mystery. New York: Holt, 1988.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: The Virgin Heiresses (aka The Dragon's Teeth)

The Virgin Heiresses (aka The Dragon's Teeth) by Ellery Queen (1939)

Two phrases came to mind when I finally put down this book: "backdoor pilot" and "eight deadly words."

Why did I find the first phrase applicable? According to Wikipedia: A backdoor pilot is defined by Variety as a "pilot episode filmed as a standalone movie so it can be broadcast if not picked up as a series".It is distinguished from a simple pilot in that it has a dual purpose. It has an inherent commercial value of its own while also being "proof of concept for the show, that's made to see if the series is worth bankrolling". This definition also includes episodes of one show introducing a spin-off.

One of the main characters in this book is Beau Rummell, the son of one of Inspector Queen's old colleagues who opens a detective agency with Ellery Queen. Much of the book is seen either seen through the eyes of Rummell or centers around him and his interactions with other characters. Rummell appeared in none of the books published previous to this one and continues to not appear in the books published afterwards. It feels as if the authors were either trying out a new character or a new style of writing. In the opinion of this reader they do neither well.

Which brings us to the second phrase, Dorothy Heydt's eight deadly words "I don't care what happens to these people." The characters failed to interest me enough to care whether they lived or died or were railroaded for committing murder. Ellery Queen himself seemed to have been replaced by an even more bloodless pod-person version of himself and the rest of characters rarely rose above being (very thin) cardboard cut-outs being moved around rather lackadaisically by authors who did not themselves really care what happened to most of them.

The measure of how boring, uninvolving and uninteresting this book was is that I didn't even have the heart to catalogue the racism, sexism, classism and essentialism of the story and characters.

Rating: 0 stars

[Fill in the blank] is a really bad detective

When your research project involves reading a representative sample of popular murder/detective novels written in (or translated into) English and published in the first half of the last century--well you aren't surprised to find yourself reading books that vary greatly in the quality of writing, the soundness of the plotting, the believability of the characterizations, the verisimilitude of the science and police procedures and the amount of overt, covert, passive and active misogyny, racism and classism.

As I have mentioned before in reviews published here and elsewhere, it is not uncommon for the protagonist/detective to (apparently) outwit the plodding, stodgy (and usually working class) policemen by the clever ruse of actually removing clues from the scene of the crime. When the protagonist/detective finally reveals his actions to the baffled police officers they never never respond by arresting him on the spot for obstructing justice. For example:
They were tightly, watchfully quiet, as if each had a deep personal stake in the least word being uttered by Mr. Queen. He glanced at his watch again.

"I must now confess," he went on with a faint smile, "to have engineered an unquestionably illegal suppression of important evidence. How important I leave you to judge. But I did suppress it when Mr. Rummell and I found it beneath the radiator of Room 1726 only a short time after the murderer of Ann Bloomer fled from it. In short, it was a companion-piece of the fountain-pen—an automatic pencil of the same hard black rubber composition, with similar gold trimming."

Inspector Queen glared at District Attorney Sampson, who glared back, then both glared at Mr. Queen.

The Inspector rose and roared: "You found what?"

"I'll take my punishment later, please," said Mr. Queen."
[1] (227)
But there was no punishment then or ever. Queen, Vance and their like are never punished for actions like this. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) rationale for their behaviour (and for their not being punished for this behaviour) is that the police would not be able to appreciate the full meaning of the clue or perhaps simply hat the police would get in the way of the detective investigating the crime as they wished. The behaviour of the detective/protagonist is not merely portrayed as justifiable it is often given a meritorious patina. On that basis they are justified in their minds, the minds of the authors and, presumably, the minds of most readers, for actively interfering with the police investigation.

No wonder the police are then unable to solve the crime.

Something else strikes me as I reread these books and that is how lacking in the basics of logic, deduction and common sense are many of these detective/protagonists. They are wont to expatiate at such length that the weary readers finds their eyes blurring as they skim over the words until they reach the end of the "proof" such as it. They aren't really presented well sourced arguments grounded in logic and accurate observations of places and people. They are just throwing loosing related pieces of information and random pieces of data in the eyes of the readers.

The only way these books work as "mysteries" and "puzzles" is that at least some (and all too often most) of the core participants do something stupid or overlook something obvious. So reader beware, don't focus on the inordinately complex set-ups of the crimes and don't get distracted by lengthy side-trips down avenues of knowledge that the author may find fascinating but which do not really move the story forward (for a good example of this read The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. "Ah," one imagines the author thinks his readers will exclaim, "anyone who knows so much about the breeding of that type of dog must indeed have the type of superior intellect that will allow him to solve arcane murder cases.")

There are quite a few books in which the reader can figure out what is really going on from the very beginning if only they set aside their presumptions that the detective knows best and instead reads the story as if everyone involved was no different than their family members, their co-workers or members of their local community group. Using the same deductive skills and knowledge as they use in everyday life most readers will suspect the true perpetrators of the crime long before the protagonist/detective has done so.

Thus, in The Virgin Heiresses by page 6 this reader was "onto" part of the plot that it would take the "brilliant protagonist" several hundred more pages of uncover (and not because of the rather rusty anvil which the author drops on the reader about bumping into door jambs.) Reading the rest of the book became nothing more than an exercise in boredom, frustration and annoyance as the reader is given page after page of evidence that contact with Hollywood did not improve the writing skills of the authors and that watching too many hard-boiled crime films did not improve their handling of dialogue. Rather than being what they had been—tolerably competent writers of the American let's-pretend-it-isn't-a-cozy-by-setting-it-in-a-big-city cozy with a protagonist who will only sound well-educated and upper-class to an audience that strives for both of those things but has achieved neither—they wrote several books that read as weak attempts at sounding like Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain.

The trouble with setting up your protagonist as a brilliant thinker is similar to the problem of setting up your protagonist as a brilliant reporter. Fred Clark addresses this frequently in his deconstruction of Left Behind. If the writer describes a character as a talented singer the reader can play along because the reader will never hear that person's voice. If the writer describes a character as a great dancer the reader can play along because the reader will never see that person dance. However when the writer describes a character as a brilliant thinker capable of unraveling the most deviously intricate of mysteries then the reader needs to both read of brilliant thoughts and dazzingly complex mysteries. Far too often writers demonstrate the characters brilliance by having them unravel a complex mystery which is only complex because the character is actually not that good a detective.

Tomorrow.....not so great moments in the lives of fictional detectives or "they did WHAT?"

[1] Queen, Ellery (1954:1939). The Virgin Heiresses, New York, NY: Pocket Books Inc.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Democratic differences, part two -- don't look at the man behind the curtain

The reason I mentioned the question of the ease/difficulty of voting in the previous post is that right now, in the United States, people who are worried about the outcome of the next election should be paying less attention to the polls and debates and more attention to the many laws and regulations recently (or soon to be) enacted that will make it more difficult for some people to vote.
Since the 2010 elections brought Republicans to power in numerous swing states, officials in many of those states have made it harder for minority, poor and young voters to cast their ballots. GOP governments have been curtailing early voting (in Ohio and Florida) and requiring voters to produce official photo-identification cards (in Wisconsin). In South Carolina, the poll tax lives again: Voters who want an official photo-ID card must present a passport or a birth certificate, neither of which can be obtained for free. The Washington Post "The GOP is trying to rig the electoral college"
All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic – including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.[Rolling Stone "The GOP War on Voting"]

There are many ways in which to win an election by suppressing portions of the vote without sending thugs out onto the streets to intimidate the population. You can have some polling stations in hard to find locations with inadequate parking and bad lighting. You can make it harder to vote without types of identification that some portions of the population are less likely to have that others. You can make it hard to vote without types of identification that carry a non-trivial cost for portions of the voting population. You suppress the vote by having "voter lists" purges that use dodgy criteria that impact some groups in society more than others. You can suppress part of the vote by having polling stations that are difficult to reach using only public transit and having the hours they operate inadequate for those who cannot get (paid) time off for the long trek by bus and subway from their place of work to their polling place.

If I can sit here and think of dozens of perfectly "legal" ways of suppressing portions of the vote then I guarantee you that there are political operatives right now who have thought of even more ways of doing so.

One of the first things one needs to do to protect democracy is to make sure that no one finds it easier, safer or cheaper to vote than anyone else.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Democratic differences

Pundits (particularly American pundits) like to talk about the importance of holding elections. The thing is that "holding an election" is actually not a single thing. It is a process that takes place over time. In the United States it takes place over a very long time and the process of registering to vote and then casting one's vote is far more complex in the United States than it is in some other countries.

My suspicions, from living for years in the U.S., is that most Americans don't get how their election/voting process looks to the rest of the world because they don't have a clear sense of how elections are run in other countries.

So this is a short description of what this voter did to get onto the voter's list for the provincial election on October 6.


I did nothing. I didn't pick up the phone, I didn't answer the doorbell, I didn't fill something out to put in the mail.

I did nothing.

Some number of years (several elections) ago some nice people knocked on the door and asked if anyone old enough (and eligible) to vote lived in the house. I wasn't home but mmySpouse gave my name as well as hir's.

That's how I got on the voting list.

Now every time there is an election I get a card in the mail reminding me of the date of the election and the location of my poll. It also lists eight advance polls (held in a variety of lcoations over 8 days.) I also have the option of voting at the returning office--which is also open on Sunday. All I need to do to vote is take with me the card I received in the mail and one piece of ID. Acceptable forms of ID range from Canadian passports, to birth certificates, health cards, armed forces IDs, and social insurance cards. Among the forms of acceptable ID are many that are available without cost.

I didn't need to go anywhere to get onto the voters list. The only questions asked of me (or rather of mmySpouse) were a) was I a Canadian citizen, b) was I eighteen or older and c) where did I live.

How hard would it be to get on the voters list I had just moved into the neighbourhood? Not very.

You can vote if you are in prison. You can vote if you are homeless. You can vote if you are confined to a hospital bed.

In short, it is the job of the government to make it possible (and safe) for you to vote.

And that, in my opinion, should be step one in running an election.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A much needed Pubic Service Announcement in the Toronto Star

For over a week newspapers across Canada were filled with news about a missing 3-year child in British Columbia.

3-year-old B.C. boy may have been kidnapped, say police ran the headline in the Toronto Star on September 9. It was an "every parent's nightmare" story. The parents tucked their son into bed at night and when they went to his room the next morning he was gone. Missing.

The child had been known to walk in his sleep but never before had he left the house when doing so.

At the same time a man who had previously served time for violent behaviour was named by the police as a person of interest.

An Amber alert was issued. No one knew where either the man or boy might be. Neighbours took time off work to form search parties. A ferry was called back to the dock and searched after someone thought they saw the boy among the passengers.

On the 9th of September the mother of the "person of interest" publicly called for her son to turn himself in. On the 10th of September the police announced that they considered the boy not lost but abducted. On September 11 the police announced that morning they had received a call informing them that the boy had been returned to his home (which was temporarily empty) sometime during the night. The police rushed to the house where they found the boy asleep on the sofa in the living room. His parents, staying at a house just a few doors away, saw the police cars and rushed to their home wondering what was going on. What they saw was their son. On September 14 the police announced that the man suspected of kidnapping the boy had been located and arrested.

No one knows what happened to the little boy over the days he was missing but he was returned in apparent good health to the arms of his family. As child abduction stories go this is about as "good" as it gets.

Today, the Toronto Star published a much needed PSA, Why Kienan’s abduction was 1 in 10 million, about child abduction. Kienan's case is unusual in many ways. Most children who go missing are killed within a few hours of their abduction. More importantly most children who go missing are not abducted by what the article refers to as "complete" strangers. The person lurking in the woods, the monster checking out the house as they drive slowly by and the predators who hang on in the park. Yes, it was the bogeyman who stole Kienan away in the night but statistics tell us that what parents really need to know is the person to watch for is the angry ex, the baby-sitter and that cousin who only started to spend time at the house after the kids were born.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This choice of ads is "interesting"

Most ad placement services, such as Adsense, use some combination of keywords on the current page and the nature of the website itself in order to select the ads that do (and perhaps more importantly) do not appear on a given webpage.

Which is why the placement of the following two ads on the same page caught my attention:

Ad #1

Ad #2

I understand why ad #1 is there. The site I was looking at hosts a large number of Christian/Evangelical blogs. The individual blog I was reading focuses on issues of evangelical Christianity.

In the process of doing my work I wander around many website and I have only seen ad #2 on that particular website.

So the question is -- is the service that selects those ads for that page "broken"/"made a mistake" or -- do they know something about the typical reader of that site that I don't know?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, is dead

Were it not for Hart I would not have had access to thousands of books I have read over the decade. His vision, books that would be free and easily accessible is one that I think may be even more important now than it was when he first started his work.

I always have a push/pull response to "free" books since I abhor the idea of enjoying the fruits of someone's labour without paying them a fair wage for their work. I want the authors who made these wonderful books to be free to quit their day job and spend all their time creating the stories/books I want to read. But there are many, many books that are out of print and whose authors are long since dead. I want to be able to read those books too. I want to have access to them even though I do not live in a large city with a world famous library.

What Michael Hart helped to create is a world in which I can read R. Austin Freeman and try one of Delafield's books without cost. What Michael Hart helped to create is a world in which I can do my research at little cost from the desk in my front room no matter the weather.

So thank you Michael Hart. You gave a wonderful gift to millions of people around the world.

Founder of Project Gutenberg dead at 64

Obituary for Michael Stern Hart (Gutenberg Wiki)

RIP Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oh! Canada

On Monday I read (in The Toronto Star article Bush to make promotional appearance in Toronto for Christian college) that
The former U.S. president has a stopover in Toronto next week that will include a Sept. 20 breakfast gathering on behalf of Tyndale [University College & Seminary] for an invited audience of 150 at the Hilton Toronto Hotel. Bush is expected to address the subject of Christian higher education.
In the article Gary Nelson, Tyndale's president, acknowledges that Bush was a controversial figure even among the different Christian groups represented at the university:
Nelson pointed to the fact that Tyndale represents 40 Christian denominations, making it the most multicultural seminary in North America. Included among the staff and students are Mennonites and followers of other pacifist faiths.

On Wednesday the same newspaper published a follow-up article Outrage spreads over Bush visit in which the reader learns that although none of the faculty at Tyndale University College had resigned, other members of the staff had and there was considerable controversy among current and former students, faculty and staff about how appropriate it was that Bush "could be given a place of honour at a promotional event for a school that stands for peace and justice."

Also on Wednesday three former students started a petition asking that the college cancel the planned event

On Wednesday the college posted an announcement on its website that "due to scheduling change'"[sic] the event has been canceled. According to the spokesperson quoted in Bush’s Toronto appearance cancelled there are no plans to reschedule Bush's visit.

This entire sequence of events stands out to me as an example of people within evangelical Christianity reclaiming a rhetoric/territory they believe Bush attempted to take as his own. There are, as the articles point out, many pacifists within the Christian denominations who are part of Tyndale's community. Many of them (and a good number of other Canadians) consider Bush to be a war criminal. Current and former students of Tyndale did not wish Bush and his worldview to be associated with their institution.

One part of the Christian community has declared firmly that what Bush calls speaking and governing as a Christian they call a war crime.

You've been framed!

Vatican Lists Core Teachings for Traditionalists reads the headline. The Vatican is, in this instance, involved in tactical skirmishes while losing the strategic battle.

While I am fairly sure that the press release from the Vatican did not describe the Society of St. Pius X as traditionalist by not addressing the claims of that group (and others like them) that they are traditionalist the Vatican has ceded to them the best ground on the battlefield.

When I was growing up (Catholic) "obeying the stricture, rules, and admonitions" of the Vatican and its appointed officials would have been described as being a traditionalist and "openly defying Church authorities" would have been described not only as schismatic but revolutionary.

The various hosts that I listen to on American Catholic radio make it a practice never to simply say "same-sex" marriage. They always refer to it as "so-called same-sex marriage." The strategists at the Vatican should be sending out a note to those same Catholic pundits to always refer to the Society of St. Pius X as "so-called" traditionalists.[1]

As we have learned over the last few years -- those who frame the terms of the debate almost always go on to win it.

[1] Friendly advise from a no-longer Catholic.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How do you remove the subject from their own story

You write a headline like this: Driving dad delivers baby on the Gardiner.

A man and his wife are in a parked car pulled over on the side of the road waiting for the ambulance to arrive. She is in labour:
as his wife, Zubine Khambatta, screamed in pain in the front seat of the car, time ran out.
“I told her to push at the next contraction and that’s when it hit me,” said Sivasankaran. “I was going to deliver a baby.”
Let us clarify something here. Sivasankaran did NOT deliver the baby. When Sivasankaran realized that he and his wife were not going to make it to the hospital on time he called 911. The operator talked gave him instructions over the phone as to what to do. So, yes, Sivasankaran assisted his wife but SHE delivered the baby. The 911 operator deserves an assist. Sivasankaran was there. He was more involved in the birth of his child than are many men. But it isn't his name that should be in the headlines.

Infelicitous headline of the day

From the New York Times -- Spain Resurrects Rape Probe Into Saudi Prince.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An appetitite for books

Sometimes the best way to describe a book is to liken it to a meal. There are books that leave you replete to the point of sleepiness. There are books that feel like a hefty meal as one is reading yet later leave the reader feeling empty. There are books that remind you of salty keep saying to yourself "just one more page, one more chapter," until the book is read (or the bowl is empty.)

And then there those other books---the ones that remind you of the dinner rolls and breadsticks placed in the middle of the table to distract the diner from slow service and mediocre cooking. If you eat the rolls the edge is taken off both your appetite and your palate.

I just finished a book like that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Borrowed authority

As is true for most households in Canada and the United States seldom a week goes by that we don't get flyers in the mail. We generally check them out only as a way of finding out food prices at different stores without expending time/gasoline. However, this week one of the non-groceryflyers immediately caught my eye. "Books" I exclaimed, "which bookstore has a sale going on?" My excitement quickly died down when I realized that the flyer was from the local Christian bookstore and there was little chance that what they had on sale would be something that I wanted to buy.[1] However, there were a lot of pictures of books and a lot of descriptions of books so it was impossible to throw out the flyer until I had read it.

The first several books seemed to be typical examples of what I think of as "soft, fuzzy" Christian books but the next caught my attention. In The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy the author, David Jeremiah, writes,
"As global financial earthquakes increase in frequency and intensity, many are beginning to wonder if we are on the threshold of Armageddon!" [p. xi]
Correction--the author is, according to the cover of the book, Dr. David Jeremiah. I ponder for a moment the chance that the author of this book on the world's economy is either an economist or has a degree in international relations and then, of course, I google him. I find, not to my surprise that, David Jeremiah isn't an economist. More to the point it is a stretch to refer to him as Doctor. I can, quite legally and accurately put Dr. in front of my name. I do after all have a doctorate. However in the academic communities in which I studied, researched and taught one didn't use the honorific except in formal circumstances or when it was relevant. If David Jeremiah had earned a doctorate ( from an accredited degree granting institution) in some discipline not directly related to the subject of the book it would still be misleading and even academic bad manners to put Dr. on the front cover of the book. Note the word "earned" in the previous sentence. A little research makes it unlikely that Jeremiah actually "earned" a doctorate -- what he apparently has is an honorary doctorate. According to Jeremiah's own website he has a BA, an MA (in theology) and
He completed additional graduate work at Grace University and was granted the Doctor of Divinity degree from Cedarville College[2] in 1981.[BIOGRAPHY OF DR. DAVID JEREMIAH]
I noticed, when I was living in the U.S. that many pastors are referred to and addressed as Dr. just as the ranking officer on a sea-going vessel is given the title Captain even if that is above hir actual rank. But only while they are onboard--when ashore the officer's actual rank is used to refer to and address them.

The rank of Captain, like the title Doctor has a contextual significance. On a ship someone is in charge. I have a doctorate in a particular discipline and my expertise in that area does not automatically bleed over into other areas of life. Thus even if Jeremiah had an earned (as opposed to an honourary) doctorate in divinity one could call into question its relevance on economics.

By the way, if the reader is wondering why the use of the title "Dr." took me aback they can look at the practices of other authors. For example, Paul Krugman (Ph.D. from MIT) does not call himself Dr. Krugman on the front cover of The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, although he is billed as a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics which, since it is a book about economics, does seem contextually relevant. If you look at Capitalism and Freedom its author is listed simply as Milton Friedman. Neither men needed to "borrow authority" by including their academic titles in their names.

I imagine that Jeremiah (and his readers) would insist that his knowledge of the bible makes him better able to predict future economic conditions than a mere economist. Again I cry foul. There is no indication from his webstie or his educational resume that Jeremiah is a student of the languages in which the bible was originally written. Therefore he is making predictions on the basis of someone else's translations.

If you have ever spent time among highly trained translators (especially those who work with ancient documents) you would be less likely to think that there are clear and obvious meanings to many passages. Consider the opening lines of The Illiad as translated by Robert Fitzgerald [3]
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men--carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
as opposed to the same lines translated by Robert Fagles [4]
Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' song Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feats for dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
In one translation the lines are address to Goddess and in the other immortal one. In one Achilles' rage is murderous and in the other ruinous. In one Zeus will still moving towards its end and in the other it had been done.

Unless you are a scholar of Homeric Greek and know not only the language but the ways in which the original words were used at the moment they were captured in writing you cannot speak to which translate is more "correct" although you can have an opinion as to which is more moving.

So, to return to the flyer (and the book it was advertising) what do we make of Jeremiah's use of the title Doctor? Is it making the claim that as a pastor he is more knowledgeable about meaning of the words in the Bible than someone who has studied the original languages? If he is making that claim then is he also making the claim that divine inspiration (or leading) trumps actual training and knowledge? And if that is the claim he is making is he arguing that that is true for all areas of expertise? Is one better off having someone with an honorary doctorate from a Christian college cutting into one's skull than a neurosurgeon who is guided only by years of study and training?

Or is there a list of disciplines where a "leading" outranks skills and training and a list of disciplines where it does not?

I suspect that it the latter is indeed the opinion of many who describe themselves as "born again" and many who describe themselves as members of the tea party. I do not think it is an accident that the same people who think that an honorary doctorate in divinity adds gravitas to the opinions of someone about world economics gives less weight to the scientific opinions of Nobel Prize winning scientists than they do their pastor or some radio-show host.

To them, I suspect, the title "doctor" reflects prestige or hierarchical authority not the acquisition of a set of skills and knowledge relevant to a particular discipline.

[1] I do own quite a collection of books that might be on sale at the store but I bought all of them at library sales. Some authors/books seem always to be available in abundance at library sales. If you attend them regularly you can soon have a large collection of Stephen King, John Grisham as well as the entire Left behind series.

[2] Cedarville College does not, according to the information on its own website, have any doctoral programs. The only graduate degrees it offers are in Education and Nursing Science.

[3] Homer - Robert Fitzgerald - Anchor Press - 1974

[4] Homer - Robert Fagles - Bernard Knox - Viking - 1990

Saturday, September 10, 2011

When is today?

Most of us has seen a movie or read a book in which, for at least a short period of time, a character isn't sure "when" they are. Maybe they have just awoken from a coma or perhaps they are conducting a trial of their new time machine. The protagonist should avoid grabbing strangers on the street and demanding "what is the name of the President of the United States?" unless they want to spend the next few days undergoing a psych assessment. So, what should our protagonist do find out when (and perhaps where) they are?

Often our brave, if somewhat confused, protagonist will grab a newspaper to check out the date. This strategy may work if you are on the street of a large city but what if you have landed on a quiet street in what appears to be a suburb? What if you woke up in your own home but were not sure how many (if any) years had passed?

This is a game you can play yourself. Next time you are driving home look around and ask yourself "what in this picture would locate us in time?" [1] Some of the things that jump out at me when we play that game are: almost no television antennas, almost every house has a small satellite dish and all the electrical lines and cables are buried.

And the recycle boxes.

In our community the recycling boxes are emptied on a once every two week schedule. You can tell easily tell which part of the city is due for pickup because every single house in that area will have at least one blue box out by the curb.

If that wasn't enough to tell you that we are no longer in the 1980s or 1990s or even 2000s you can check out the recycling and garbage booklet delivered twice yearly to each home in the community (and available online -- another clue to the year.)

The indications of just how much things have changed in the last few decades begin as soon as you open up the booklet and look at the first set of instructions where in addition to the explanation of what type of beverage cartons can be recycled there is a picture of a collection of acceptable items. The picture of a generic dairy milk container would have been included in a brochure printed two decades ago anywhere in Canada. The inclusion of a picture of a carton of soy milk in a brochure designed for a small city and rural community in southern Ontario is an indication of "how things have changed."

The next page includes the reminder not to place your garbage bags and recycling containers where they would impede wheelchairs, walkers or strollers and the suggestion that those who do not compost should offer organic wastes to neighbours who do or start community gardening projects.

There is a separate section dealing only with "e-waste" which includes an explanation of what makes electronic waste so environmentally dangerous and a list of places that will accept old electronic/computer equipment free of charge. The municipality holds an annual hazardous waste event so that people can (again at no cost) get rid of batteries, aerosol cans, medications, pesticides and other materials that shouldn't end up in landfills. A website has been set up where one can enter the type of hazardous material and one's postal code and get information about which stores/depots accept what type of hazardous waste throughout the year.

So, one good measure of exactly when and where we are is the neighbourhood garbage booklet. Where I live every effort is being made to discourage people from buying more than they can use and from throwing out materials that can be reused or recycled while at the same time every effort is being made to keep hazardous materials out of the landfills. I live in a time when even in semi-rural communities and small cities people own a wide variety of electronic equipment and eat and drink food only a few Canadians had encountered just a few decades ago.

I know I am not the only person who has occasional "I am living in the future" moments. I grew up reading science fiction, watching science fiction and hearing predictions about the world to come. When I look around my room I hardly notice that we have multiple computers, a flat-screen television set and 24-hour a day access to the internet. I also take for granted that I live in a community whether discussions of sustainability and protection of the environment is as routine at city council meetings as discussions of road repair and property taxes.

Living in the future isn't just about what we can buy it is also about what we throw out and how we do that.

[1] Since I live in a community that prides itself on the number and excellence of its 'classic' cars on some blocks you cannot safely determine the year by looking at the cars.

Friday, September 9, 2011

All you think about is the money - what the state of American tennis tournaments indicates about capitalism in America

"All you think about is the money," said Rafael Nadal to officials at the U.S. Open (tennis tournament.)

Before you accuse Nadal of naïveté or petulance stop for a moment and consider a few things. Nadal is a seasoned professional tennis player who has seen, taken part in, and won tournaments around the world. Nadal is not comparing the U.S. Open with some imaginary tennis tournament he is contrasting the way in which tennis professionals are treated at U. S. Open tournament with the treatment they receive at the other Grand Slam tournaments. And he is not alone in his feeling about the way in which the U.S. Open is run. Players from a wide number of countries are making the same comments. Players who have successfully won many tournaments and much money (like Roger Federer) are saying something similar. Players who themselves own and run tournaments (like Novak Djokovic) are saying something similar. American players, like Andy Roddick, are complaining.

Looking at the state of the tennis tournament being played right now in New York can give you an insight into the state of capitalism and management/worker relationships in America today.

Some tennis players make a lot of money, some make a good living, some make a decent living and some barely make a living. Tennis players make no money if they don't work [1] Even the top players make little in comparison to the top players in American football, baseball or basketball.

Tennis players provide the entertainment which is marketed, for a very large profit. Most of the players have no problem with the idea that those who put on the tournaments should make a healthy profit, but they do have a problem when the maximization of profit determines each and every aspect of the tournament. This does not result in the average tennis fan getting the best show possible. It doesn't result in the players providing the best entertainment. It doesn't result in tennis as a sport being strengthened.

It only results in those who hold the purse-strings/contracts making the most money for least investment in the short run. Like virtually every other major corporation in the United States decisions are being made not to benefit the long-term health of the company/endeavour but to make this month's payoff as large as it can be.

So, earlier this week, players were asked to go out and play in slippery conditions. For a tennis player slippery hard courts can make for a career ending injury. And I am sure if such a thing had happened to Nadal the network would have worked to milk that for as many rating points as possible. They would not have been willing to recompense Nadal for the future earnings lost.

What is eerie for me as a tennis fan watching this all unfold is how revolutionary it feels to say that "maximizing profit shouldn't be the ONLY consideration." Nadal and Federer and Djokovic and Roddick may be well paid but they are still, clearly, workers-for-hire who are expected to perform under all conditions. If workers are well paid (whether they are tennis players, university professors or postal workers) they are supposed not to be "petulant" or to "whine" about bad conditions. They are never, however, to take being well paid or well treated as a right. It is a privilege that can be taken away at any time.

None of the top ranked tennis players who have been so focal at the U.S. Open will go without dinner next week if their "attitude" costs them their careers. Their children will not starve and their families will not be without heat or shelter in the coming winter. And they may even be able to get some little things done to redress some of their complaints. Because those who demand the highest profits made the mistake of showing their naked greed on national television and took their avariciousness out on people who have a healthy amount of money and their own PR agents.

Most of the workers in the United States have none of the advantages these tennis professionals have and yet face the same profit-hungry, avaricious overlords who are willing to trash the future in order to make an extra cent in the present.

Things are not looking good for the American worker.

[1] Yes, some have juicy endorsement contracts. Indeed some players (especially women) make more from endorsements than they do from prize money. However endorsements are usually tied to something the player may not be able to control. Endorsement contracts may be tied to a player's rankings or their performance at particular tournaments. Endorsements based on a player's looks, attractiveness or sex-appeal can melt as quickly as a change in fashion.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Being an astronaut is also dangerous in non-action film way

Mention to most people that being an astronaut is dangerous your listener will probably have a mental picture of the Challenger and Columbia disasters or of the near-disaster of Apollo 13. Those who know something of the history of NASA might think of the Apollo 1 launch pad deaths. They may even heard some of the rumours about lost cosmonauts.

Once the flights are over and the astronauts have arrived back home the public and the media tend to assume that the dangers are over. And if the only dangers you are interested in are the ones that would make good action movies then you are right. However, if you widen your definition of "dangerous" to include ongoing dangers to life and heath you find that years after their missions astronauts are still facing space-flight-induced dangers.

Astronauts lose bone-mass while they are in space (think of it as space-indued osteoporosis) and according to a recent report some suffer papilledema, a swelling of the optic disk that disqualifies them (at least temporarily) from future flight. Astronauts are still discovering the long term consequences of time spent in space and it will probably take years before we are aware of all of them.

It is easy to step forward and support people who are being publicly and obviously brave. I hope that the governments that reaped the glory for sending these men and women into space will continue to recognize and support their bravery when it is less public and not as easy to see.

You can read the news release/brief on the recent National Academies of Science Report High Frontier⎯the Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post-Space Shuttle Era or you can download the entire report from The National Academies website or read it online.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Help! I have been caught in a maze of books

It seemed like a fairly straightforward research project.

After spending years teaching about the ways in which movies functioned as agents (and evidence) of socialization I settled down, post teaching career, to work on a related research project. Instead of movies I wanted to study books. Specifically books written for and popular with the middle classes in England and the United States. I was particularly interested in examining the ways in which gender, class and ethnicity were treated in books and stories published between 1900 and 1950. Obviously the job of reading all the popular/successful books written during those five decades was beyond my time and means and so I narrowed the scope of the project to financially successful mystery/detective books that were, if not taken seriously by the literary critics of the time, considered acceptable reading for the educated middle class.

I had two reasons for this choice: As a long time fan of the detective/mystery novel I owned/had already read several hundred books that fell into that category and I wanted to focus on the type of entertainment that people create and consume with comparative unselfconsciousness.[1] [2] The fact that many of the books I would need to read were in the public domain (and thus available for free or at a small cost via the internet) or could be picked up cheaply at used book sales was also a factor in my choice.

As turns out so often to be true things turned out to be more complicated than that.

First, I quickly found that just because I had read a book several decades ago it didn't mean that I didn't have to read it again. Just as the books original audience had read the book without conscious awareness of the issues/attitudes about gender, class and ethnicity I had originally read it not looking for such things. Reading the books consciously now was not the same as reading the books unconsciously then. And, of course, the me of two decades ago would not even have been aware of many of the things I am conscious of now.

Second, I soon realized that I needed to read fiction written at the same time in other countries in order to disentangle change over time from difference in cultures.

Third, I also needed to read non-mystery/detective books written in the same time period in the same countries in order to disentangle genre-related attitudes towards gender, class and ethnicity from those of the wider society. Some of those books would have to be within the category of general fiction and some from other genres.[3]

Fourth, I need to read books in all three categories (books from other countries, general fiction, other subgenres) from decades before and after the time I am focusing on in order to determine whether attitudes changed at different periods of time in different categories.

This is not an exhaustive list of how my research project moved from reading several hundred books and making notes on several hundred books already read to reading (and rereading) well over a thousand books. It does explain why I have no worries about being bored or at loose ends for the foreseeable future.

[1] Although books were censored and faced publication bans and these were not as restrictive or onerous as those facing American and British filmmakers. Indeed one could make an argument that although the movie going audience was generally unconscious of the presumptions and limitations of anything that could be shown on the screen many of the people actually involved in making those films were very aware of at least some of them.

[2] Clover makes a similar point about the makers (and audience) of modern horror films in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film.

[3] For example, it is difficult to determine the general attitude of American society towards women on the basis of reading only certain sub-genres of American science fiction.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ableist presumptions

Surfing the internet for news a Toronto Sun headline caught my attention Passengers save blind man from train tracks. One sentence from the short article jumped out at me "How he fell we don't know." (quoting the Calgary Police.)

So, we have no reason to think that the man's visual impairment had anything to do with his fall. We know that he was taken to the hospital. The article does not give us enough information to know whether the man's visual impairment rather than his physical injuries prevented him from getting out the way of the train. In fact, the only person mentioned in the article whose "sightedness" was relevant to the rescue was the driver who was not aware that someone had fallen under the train until passengers alerted hir.

All of the Canadian papers I found that picked up the story from The Calgary Sun/QMI Agency used that same headline.

To its credit The Calgary Herald moved the fact that the accident victim was visually impaired from the headline to the first paragraph of the article Witnesses alert C-Train driver after man falls. In all the articles I read the man was defined first (and only) as visually impaired. We are not told how old he is (though that is the type of detail routinely reported in newspaper stories.) We aren't told if he is a father or grandfather (another favourite of newspapers.) We aren't told if he was rushing to work or if he was retired. Given that the only personal detail included was that he was visually impaired the reader is likely to jump to the presumption that that detail is relevant to the accident. Which will probably lead to more people grabbing visually challenged strangers by the elbow in order to "help" them maneuver their way through train stations and across streets they may know better than the people attempting to help them.

I spent the better part of this summer wearing a support brace on my right ankle. I injured that ankle walking on an uncrowded sidewalk. It was bright day and the sidewalk was dry. I just fell. I don't know why. Fortunately I did not fall in front of an oncoming car.

I do know that if I was visually impaired and I had fallen in front of a car the headline in the local newspaper would probably have been "Blind woman falls in front of oncoming car."