Friday, January 30, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The End of Torture at American Hands

This article is by Jane Meyer, the author of The Dark Side, an absolutely incredible book. The article is about Obama's signing of executive orders to end torture by Americans. He had the support of quite a few generals, one of whom said something very quotable: "One of them, retired Major General Paul Eaton, stressed that, as he put it later that day, “torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough. It’s also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Love in the Driest Season

TitleLove in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir
AuthorNeely Tucker
Tagsaids, africa, zimbabwe, adoption, race relations, non-fiction

Neely Tucker grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi, a white product of a deeply racist society. He turned to journalism as his escape from the poverty and the racism. As a journalist in Detroit, he spent a lot of time with his neighbor,, a black woman named Vita. After going to his first overseas assignment, he discovered that Vita was the love of his life, and they were married.

After time in Eastern Europe, he was sent to Zimbabwe. He and Vita had heard that AIDS was having a horrific impact there, but it took time to sink in.that a whole generation was dying and leaving orphans. Neely and Vita began working in orphanages, trying to provide a bit of help to a system with too few people to take care of the increasing number of orphans with totally inadequate funds and supplies.

When Neely and Vita see baby Chipo, they fall in love. Chipo had already come close to death on more than one occasion. When they take her home, they have to fight to keep her breathing as she suffered from pneumonia. More than once an hour she had to be fed and her breathing tubes cleared, and part of this time Neely was away reporting on the embassy bombing in Nairobi. The Tuckers want to adopt Chipo, and this is the story of how they overcame an impossible bureaucracy to make it happen.

Neely Tucker saw a lot of death as a reporter in areas of the world where conflict and disease were rampant. He tells enough of the story to make the reader feel some of the horrors he has seen. So the book is difficult to read. It is, however, a compelling story, and in the end, it shows that people can change for the better, as illustrated by Neely's parents, who for so long accepted the racism of their society, only to be won over by their son's black wife and daughter.

The lessons of the book, then, are that life is hard... unbearably so, in some parts of the world. Yet even among the worst, Neely Tucker finds heroes.

The book is written with clarity and honesty, sometimes brutally so. Read it and weep, but read it.
PublicationThree Rivers Press (2005), Paperback, 288 pages
Publication date2005
ISBN1400081602 / 9781400081608

Book Review: Undead and Unworthy

TitleUndead and Unworthy (Queen Betsy, Book 7)
AuthorMaryJanice Davidson
Tagsfantasy, vampires, paranormal

Seventh of Mary Janice Davidson's series about Betsy Taylor, a fashion-conscious vampire who, now that she is Queen of the Vampires, can indulge her taste for shoes. Too bad all the people who want to hurt or kill her for one reason or another don't respect the shoes. In this book, feral vampires blame her for their decades of miserable existence and try to wipe out her and her family. Meanwhile she tries to solve murder cases with a human police detective who hates her but dates her best friend.

This chick lit paranormal series is generally amusing, with decent plots, but it's like Chinese food, you're hungry for something else an hour after reading it.
PublicationBerkley Hardcover (2008), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0425221628 / 9780425221624

Book Review: All the Colors of Darkness

TitleAll the Colors of Darkness
AuthorPeter Robinson
Tagsmystery, series, alan banks, england

Latest in Peter Robinson's police procedurals set in Eastvale, a town in England, whose main character is detective Alan Banks. I've read all the series and consider it one of the best contemporary mystery series. This eighteenth volume doesn't disappoint. What seems to be a murder/suicide in a gay couple gets more complicated when it turns out the murder victim was a British intelligence agent. Was his lover manipulated into the murder?

If this series were on television instead of books, I would say it has a great ensemble cast. The characters are complex and real. Moreover Robinson does good plot. It is a rare fictional series that holds up well over 18 books. If you haven't tried this series, give it a shot. Each book stands on its own, but the characters do a lot of development over the course of the series.
PublicationWilliam Morrow (no date), Hardcover, 368 pages
Publication dateno date
ISBN006136293X / 9780061362934

Book Review: The Somnambulist

TitleThe Somnambulist: A Novel
AuthorJonathan Barnes
Tagsfiction, fantasy, london, magic, mystery, thriller

This unusual and intriguing story has as a main character Edward Moon, magician and crime-solving genius, a little past his prime. His partner in the magic show is the Somnambulist, seemingly impervious to pain and injury. They live above a theatre in London, and word reaches them of an unusual murder...and that is just the beginning of odd events, including prophecies of the destruction of London.

The book has bizarre characters, fantastical elements, bizarre events...and it all works, and makes for a truly interesting read. Not, perhaps, for those with weak stomachs.
PublicationHarper Paperbacks (no date), Paperback, 384 pages
Publication dateno date
ISBN006137539X / 9780061375392

Book Review: Prisoners, by Jeffrey Goldberg

TitlePrisoners A Muslim & A Jew Across the Middle East Divide
AuthorJeffrey Goldberg
Tagsisrael, judiasm, gaza, palestinians, non-fiction

Goldberg grew up in a secular Jewish household, but as a teenager became a Zionist, in part as a reaction to the horrors of the Nazis. He went to Israel, spent time in a kibbutz, then joined the Israeli army and served as a prison guard, where he became acquainted with the Palestinian prisoners. He had become rather disillusioned with aspects of Israeli society. One prisoner in particular made an impression on him. He was thoughtful, a reader, and they talked as often as they could. Goldberg felt that if he could consider Rafiq a friend, there would be hope for a resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In the end, they come to some understanding.

Despite this, the book is rather depressing. Far too many on both sides are unwilling to make peace. Too many Muslims are unwilling to allow Israel to exist, and the Jews, religious or secular, are desperate for their home state to survive.

My biggest conclusion at the end of this book is that religion is far too often a deadly, dangerous, divisive thing. It's not a conclusion I want to reach, but it is inescapable.
PublicationkNOPF (2006), Hardcover
Publication date2006

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Speeches: Text Cloud

The New York Times has done something really fascinating here. They have a timeline/slidebar. You can move along it and select a particular President's inaugural speech and see a text cloud in which the words that are used the most are the largest. You can also get the full text of all the inaugural speeches. Great job, Gray Lady!

It's Done!

It's done! Our long national nightmare of Bush 43 is over and Barack Obama is President of the United States. Marvelous speech, see here for the text. For me it was both realistic and inspiring. Blessings on our new President and his family, cabinet, and all who serve the United States. May we go forward in helping this country live up to its best ideals, and to once more be a leader in creating a peaceful, just, and prosperous world.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Article on the History of Creationism

Scientific American published this article on the history of creationism in the classroom, showing how the creationists have adapted their tactics whenever their current tactic is struck down. Early in the article, one scientist speaks of the importance of evolution, "without evolution, modern biology, including medicine and biotechnology, wouldn’t make sense.” Also see SciAm's review of the movie Expelled, which has this quote: " What I knew about evolution came primarily from creationist literature, so when I finally took a course in evolutionary theory in graduate school I realized that I had been hoodwinked. What I discovered is a massive amount of evidence from multiple sciences—geology, paleontology, biogeography, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, genetics and embryology—demonstrating that evolution happened."

A New Surge of Patriotism

This article by Robert Creamer explains why Obama's election and inauguration has created a new swell of patriotism. He sees four factors: Obama's call to service satisfies our search for meaning; his support of progressive values such as tolerance; that we can once again be proud of how America acts in the world; and that our election of an African-American allows us to be proud of ourselves in this act that fulfills the American dream in a way never before achieved.

Religion: Best when Least Dogmatic

I was thinking a lot about religious pluralism a great deal today, on Martin Luther King Day. Just happened to come across a marvelous quote while thinking about the topic, "Fundamentalism is the thief of mercy." (Jeffrey Goldberg, Prisoners: a Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, p. 7).

I understand this to mean that fundamentalist religions divide the human race, and insist on the supremacy of the speaker's faith, giving a sense of righteousness that does not allow for real communication with people of other faiths.

The religious leaders I like the most are free of such fundamentalism, and have worked hard for the rights and enrichment of people of all faiths, all ethnicities. Today, of course, I think of Martin Luther King, a Christian, who spoke for justice for all, and insisted that justice could happen now, not in some ill-defined future. He, in turn, was a follower of Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu. who was widely read in all the worlds' religions and developed the concept of non-violent resistance. The religious leader of today whom I most revere is the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, whose compassion extends to his enemies and to the whole world. Two of my favorite writers on Christianity are John Shelby Spong, who believes not in a Jesus who performed miracles, but one who loved all and whose loves opens us to the experience of God's love, and to Bart Ehrman, who is a Biblical scholar but whose deep study of Christianity has shown its failures and who is now an agnostic. Ehrman is an example of one who has thought long on religious issues and their complexity, and can explain those thoughts well. And from my own religion of Wicca, I greatly appreciate Starhawk, who has two characteristics I greatly admire: the ability to write of complex issues with clarity and grace, and a devotion to activism that shows one who walks the walk, not just talks the talk.

Religion is a complex issue, and deserves that we think, feel, and meditate deeply upon it. I also note that so many of those of all religions who have had mystical experiences talk of the interconnectedness of all things. Religions that insist on being the only path to God end too often in violence against those who do not agree with them. We cannot afford this kind of divisiveness in our world which has so many advanced means of killing others.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: Defining Moment

TitleThe Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
AuthorJonathan Alter
Tagsfdr, non-fiction, politcs, history, government

The history of the U.S. is at another defining moment, as a new President prepares to take office who has the potential to be as transformative a leader as Lincoln or FDR. That is one reason I'm reading books about both FDR and Lincoln, to see what lessons their experiences provide us in another moment of national crisis.

Alter is a senior editor at Newsweek and analyst for NBC news. He has put together an excellent work here that concentrates on the first 100 days of FDR's presidency. He does cover Roosevelt's life before the inaugaration, briefly, but with an emphasis on traits that helped FDR be probably the only man in the running who could have made things better to any real extent.

Alter emphasizes some of the same things as others, including the effect the polio had in deepening Roosevelt's determination and compassion for others. Some things he talks about are not emphasized much in other bios, such as the attempted assassination in Miami in February 1932. Roosevelt was not injured, but Chicago mayor Anton Cermak was and eventually died of his wounds. At some point Cermak was put into the car next to Roosevelt who held and encouraged him until they reached the hospital. It had a galvanizing effect on public opinion of Roosevelt, who had been seen as rather weak and vacillating prior to this. Nevertheless, it was not an easy campaign and he almost did not get the nomination.

One of the other big surprises is that Roosevelt was at first fairly conventional, determined to cut government spending and raise taxes in order to improve the economy... the things almost everyone in both parties were saying to do. He didn't have strongly held convictions on what to do, and some of the legislation of that first 100 days were cobbled together at the last minute and wererather a hodgepodge of ideas. FDR's genius was in part a willingness to try anything and see what worked and what didn't, a conviction that action of any kind was better than non-action. That, coupled with his genius for communicating, helped people recover their belief that things would get better, which by itself helped make things better.

Alter's book is well-written, and incredibly well-researched. His bibliography is a masterpiece, and includes not only books, but document collections, interviews, and newspapers and magazines. He wrote this book as much as possible from primary materials, and found some resources in archives that haven't previously been used in works on FDR. Excellent and recommended book, with, in my opinion, good lessons for Obama..
PublicationSimon & Schuster (2007), Paperback, 432 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0743246012 / 9780743246019

Book Review: The Archivist

TitleThe Archivist: A Novel
AuthorMartha Cooley
Tagsliterature, poetry, fiction, mental illness

The plot involves an archivist who is responsible for holdings that include works relating to T.S. Eliot, his wife, who died long before the main action of the book and whose story is told in flashbacks and journal entries, and a woman English student determined to get access to Eliot's letters. The story of Eliot and his wife Vivienne, who he had put away in a mental institution, parallels the story of the archivist and his wife. The wife's journal entries are rather heartbreaking, and in the end help drive an act by the archivist that will change history forever.
PublicationBack Bay Books (1999), Paperback, 336 pages
Publication date1999
ISBN0316158461 / 9780316158466

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Prevention First

Good news on the family planning front. A new bill in Congress will emphasize prevention first, and change the abstinence only nightmare that has increased the rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in this country. This article explains the bill and its provisions.

Truly Scary: Christian Anti-feminism

See this article about the Christian anti-feminist movement, that thinks women find their best fulfillment in submission. They think that feminism leads women to question God... which suits me just fine. Not questioning authority gets us into lots of nasty trouble. It isn't entirely clear what it means to working women: they want them home, but how many families can live today on one salary? Expecially if the family is large, and there is a rather subtle statement that sounds anti-contraception to me in the article. And what about me, a single woman whose father died years ago? I guess they would say I must submit to God, but it doesn't sound very supportive of single women, who are now about half of the total number of women in the U.S. All this before we even get into the question of women who are born gay.

Bush's Spin

Bush has been spending his final days in office spinning like a top, trying to secure his "legacy". There are a lot of people who find what he is saying disingenious at best. Here's an article by Richard Clarke, who was the head of counterterrorism for Clinton and part of the Bush administration, including 9/11, disagreeing with Bush's claim to have kept America safe.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Israel and Gaza: another view

The one thing I am sure of about the Israeli-Gazan conflict is that it is complicated, and that it is extremely difficult to get a complete picture of the situation, groups, and viewpoints involved. This article presents one part of the picture, and a depressing part. What I do know is that the Arabic news sources are full of horrifying pictures of the Gazan casualties, and that breeds more terrorists. Answers? I have no clue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Alex and Me

TitleAlex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process
AuthorIrene M. Pepperberg
Tagsparrots. language, cognition, animal behavior

In Sept. 2007, Alex, a 31 year- gray African parrot, the most famous parrot in the world, died, emotionally devastating the women who had had him for 30 years and was the cause of his fame. Irene Pepperberg grew up with birds all her life, then got her Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry. Yet the work didn't satisfy her, and she turned to studying cognition and language acquisition in the African gray parrot. African grays were chosen because their pronunciation is better than other birds capable of speech.

Pepperberg began trauning Alex to recognize shapes, colors, and numbers. His capabilities for doing so were astounding. During the 30 years of training, he on his own picked up the abstract concept of none, was able to recognize what was same and what was different, and more. With other scientists studying animal cognition, this has caused a revolution, showing that animals are capable of thought, and that a creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut was capable of abstract concepts.

Pepperburg summed up her scientific studies in her previous book, The Alex Studies. This book in more personal, about her life and how it led her to this work, about her deep bond with Alex, the depth of which even she was not aware of until his loss, and about the studies she did with Alex. His personality emerges as the alpha bird, bossy, playful, and loving. His last words to her were "You be good. I love you. You'll be in tomorrow"?

There are great moments of humor. In one, Alex was at the vets and near the desk of the accountant. He asked the accountant, "want a nut?" "No". "Want corn" "No, Alex, thank you"... this went on a while. Finally, Alex petulantly asked, "Well, what DO you want?". The accountant laughed and started paying attention to Alex, which is what he wanted.

The book begins with a discussion of what Pepperberg calls her "It's a Wonderful Life" moment. After Alex's death, emails and letters poured in from people who let her know just how much she and Alex had meant in their lives... from scientists, animal lovers, and others.

The book is fairly short, written for a lay person, and written well. Marvelous!
PublicationCollins (2008), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 240 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0061672475 / 9780061672477

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Giants, by John Stauffer

TitleGiants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
AuthorJohn Stauffer
Tagsabraham lincoln, frederick douglass, civil war, reconstruction, slavery, abolitionism

I saw this book originally on one of the lists of best books of 2008, and I heartily concur with that assessment. It is a dual biography of Frederick Douglass, the black slave who rose to be one of the greatest advocates of abolition, and of Abraham Lincoln.

The two men had backgrounds that were more similar than one would think. Both grew up poor, with almost no formal education. Douglass was in his early years rather fortunate for a slave, he grew up rather pampered (it was likely that he was his owner's son) and his first duties were as a house servant, the best condition for a slave. He was even taught a bit of reading and writing. Lincoln, while not a slave, was grindingly poor, and subject to his father's control until his 21st birthday, and felt trapped by being so. Both men loved reading passionately, and read similar works - the Bible, Shakespeare, and particular book of great speeches that included a dialog between master and slave. Both learned speechcraft from this book and became among the best orators of their day.

Both had to deal with a great deal of brutality. Lincoln, in the rough and tumble area he grew up in, had to fight to prove his manhood. Douglass was beaten severely to break his spirit.

There are many in the U.S. who like to underplay the role of slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. However, this book shows that it was the insolvable issue, a legacy that stemmed from the failure of the Founding Fathers to solve the problem. It had to be resolved eventually.

Abolitionists were fairly popular speakers in the North, and Douglass became their most popular. It spurs the imagination to think of the effect he must have had on his audiences... a black man who was obviously intelligent, a mature man, a thinker, a great orator, who could talk about slavery as one who endured it. How many of his hearers must have had their myths of white superiority at the least badly damaged by hearing many men have this kind of life-changing impact on so many?

Other events leading to the Civil War include the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court, both of which opened the possibility that slavery could be reimposed on states that had rejected it. In addition there were the Lincoln Douglas debates, John Brown's raid, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin (by Harriet Beecher Stowe) which had a tremendous impact on Northern society. Then, finally, came the election of Abraham Lincoln on a platform of not expanding slavery, and the secession of the Southern States.

It is hard to recognize now that Lincoln was actually fairly conservative on the issue of slavery. He did not want it expanded, and wanted to put in place policies that would lead to its eventual demise everywhere. But his priorty in his presidency was restoring the Union, not abolishing slavery. For this reason Douglass was often disappointed in him, and a vocal critic. Yet the two men met three times and became friends. Douglass was enthralled that Lincoln treated him as an equal, and as a friend, and forever loved him for that.

Truly fascinating story that reminds me of why I love history. Stauffer is to be commended.
PublicationTwelve (2008), Hardcover, 448 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0446580090 / 9780446580090

Book Review: No Rest for the Wiccan

TitleNo Rest for the Wiccan (Bewitching Mysteries, No. 4)
AuthorMadelyn Alt
Tagsfantasy, series, wiccans, witches, empaths, paranormal

Fourth in Madelyn Alt's series about a woman in small town Indiana, who grew up steeped in Catholic guilt, but takes a job with a wiccan and finds to her surprise that it works for her and unleashes her talents as an empath. The character is a bit frustrating in that she won't let go enough of that past, and it makes her do dumb things.... I think I demand more of fictional characters than I demand of myself. ;-).
PublicationBerkley (2008), Paperback, 304 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0425224562 / 9780425224564