Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite

book cover

No Country for Old Middle-Aged Men

Ray Lamar was a drug enforcer, a killer, but ten years ago it went bad, with the Juarez cartel, a rival to his boss, killing his wife and severely damaging his son in a hit-and-run. Ray had left, feeling unable to care for his son, but now he is back, and dreaming of living a legitimate life he has taken on one last job from his old gangster employer, Memo.

Ray had wanted this for so long and never known how to do it, something so simple, a visit to see his son, a new life away from the violence of the last ten years.

He wants the payoff from this to tide him over until he can get established, and go legit. The job is supposed to be simple, a heist, yank some H from a truck, at least that was what he was told, but Ray smells a rat. There is more to this assignment than he was told. Blood is spilled and everything goes to hell from there.

[While reading the book, I kept seeing the face of Brooklyn-born Esai Morales as Ray]
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Ray’s cousin, Tomas Herrera, had been the sheriff of Coronado, NM. But before Ray left, while he was still trying to find and punish the cartel people who had taken out his family, he asked Tomas to look into a local cartel employee, a woman. She wound up dead. Tomas wound up an ex-sheriff. That’s a lot to take, even if Tomas always did love and admire his older cousin. How Tom and Ray deal with each other is one of the many fine elements in this excellent novel.

[I see the face of Demian Bichir for Tom]
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When Tomas was kicked out of office, he was replaced with a young deputy, a woman he had trained, and liked, Edna Kelly. The mayor wants her to keep Tom away from any sort of police-related activities, but the guy knows his stuff, and she could use the help. That they might have at one point been more than friends adds a level of tension, even though they have moved on.

The baddie in town is Dario Campo. He’s the guy who owns a bar in town that does not seem to do a lot of business, but is, somehow, always open. Dario arranges for the transportation of imported product. It is his transport that Ray was sent to heist. Dario is no simple black hat. There is another deep-background baddie, but we will not address him here.

There are enough supporting players to matter but the unheralded co-star is the town of Coronado, New Mexico. In the same way that Jennifer Haigh writes stories that tell the tale of Bakerton, PA (See Baker Towers and News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories), Waite writes about the slow death of a town. The oil that lit up the local economy years back has been pumped. We see yet another local well lay off it’s entire crew. The mayor struggles to keep the town from disintegrating entirely, desperate to keep bad news quiet, much as Mayor Vaughn urged Chief Brody to keep things on the down-low on Amity Island back in the 70s. How many oil towns in the southwest have seen their flames go out as the petro was drained and replaced with a whole lotta nuthin’. It is not just the lives of the main characters that are at stake.

I am at a decided disadvantage here as TCB is my introduction to Waite. Those with exposure to his earlier works will be better able to comment on his actual oeuvre. I gather this one has a lot in common with his last one, but you will have to check other reviewers for consideration of the changes, or consistencies from one book to the next. But we do know that Waite admires some writers and works in particular. He said in a 2011 interview with Powells’, I really like Cormac McCarthy though I think it might show too much in my writing. He mentions Blood Meridien as one of his favorite five books. So we can look for the town to get painted red, and it ain’t Christmas. Another item that popped to mind was the film There Will Be Blood. It has the obvious relevance of considerable violence in the West, although TWWB had much more to do with oil. In There will be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s need for family is foiled when his adopted son, deaf, cannot hear and learn from him. In The Carrion Birds, Ray, who desperately wants to have a normal life after having wandered in the desert for many years, is faced with a son who was damaged as a child and can neither speak no hear. There will be no happy family ending for him. Unlike Plainview, our guy does not see himself as god-like, but his need for vengeance resonates with Plainview’s.

There is a lot in here about greed, revenge and hoping for that which lies beyond reach. In addition to Ray’s dream, Tom would like to be sheriff again. And they are not alone in their unlikely desires. We can count on the baddies for greed, and Ray will provides all the revenge we will ever need, both ten years in the past and in the today of the story. Will justice ever be enforced? Can it be? What constitutes justice anyway?

On finishing this book, I had a feeling that it was somehow Shakespearean, more than a western, more than a noir, but had substance that I was feeling, but was unable to articulate. I claim no special knowledge of Shakespeare. Like most of us, I have seen many plays and films, and have read many books that either were Willy’s original plays or updated interpretations, but my familiarity is non-academic, of the garden-variety sort. So, I did what anyone in 2013 facing a shortage of knowledge might do, I headed for my internet machine to see what I could see. What I came up with was an ancient (100 yrs old more or less) text by an Oxford don that goes into the details of what it is that constititutes Shakespearean tragedy. I began listing elements, criteria and hoped to be able to come to a firm conclusion based on those. The result? Ah, there’s the rub. While many of the elements do fit nicely into this novel, there are others that have to be squeezed in like a stepsister foot into a glass slipper. I am including that list here, but while I tucked it under the cover of a spoiler notice ini Goodreads, recognizing that it is a sidetrip not everyone will want to take, I am still rookie enough not to have mastered that in WordPress. So be forewarned. Elements within the red text that follows can be considered potentially spoilerish

In order to consider whether the story does or does not conform, one must look at elements that will give far too much away. The book in question is Shakespearean Tragedy – Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lean and Macbethby one A.C. Bradley, an erstwhile professor of poetry at Oxford. The book is available for free thanks to the Gutenberg project. Clicking on the above title will take you there.

1 – it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the ‘hero,’
Check – this is Ray’s story, and while others figure in significantly, primarily Tom, it remains Ray’s story
2 – The story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero – check

3 – The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional – check
Wife killed, child damaged for life, father tortured and killed

4 – exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and—we must now add—generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe – check – there is a significant body count

5 – They befall a conspicuous person. Here we hit a soft spot. Ray has been away for ten years, so does not quality as locally conspicuous, although everyone there seems to know him from his earlier time in the town

6 – actions beget others, and these others beget others again, until this series of inter-connected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe – check – the calamities that befall are a product of human action, not the heavy hand of fate or the almighty

7 – the conflict may quite naturally be conceived as lying between two persons, of whom the hero is one; or, more fully, as lying between two parties or groups, in one of which the hero is the leading figure – well duh-uh, conflict assumes opposing parties

8 – here is an outward conflict of persons and groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero’s soul – check – Ray enters the scene hoping that he can ultimately walk away from the criminal life, but struggles to decide whether to remain and seek vengeance or leave

9 – They are exceptional beings – in Ray’s case one might argue that his skill in combat, his history as a special forces soldier, is what raises him above the ordinary, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies his primary tragic character was a political leader, a royal, someone very clearly in the public eye, so elevating Ray to that level is a significant stretch – no check

However, the royal/leader character represents in a way the potential demise of an entire comunity, embodies that in fact. While Ray lacks that sort of societal standing, the town is, in fact endangered by his actions. Those actions may be only a part of the longer demise of the community, but that his actions tie in to the town’s peril might (in a sneaky way) raise Ray up a notch into that “Exceptional being” category, just barely, with a bit of wishful thinking.

10 – In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him – check – his skill in combat, that which makes him special, also allows him to seek large scale vengeance, which forces the authorities to come after him

11 – the Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular – check
There is no meaningful reference to god as an actor here

Oh, and Willy the Shake tragedies take place in five acts. Ditto TCB, which is spread over five chapters.

One could go on in this vein for some time, but I will spare you further such contemplations. Suffice it to say that, with some reluctance, I am persuaded that Ray’s journey qualifies as of the Shakespearean tragic sort. I encourage you to check Bradley’s very interesting free book, if the subject pulls you.

The title, The Carrion Birds, seems quite well suited to the story. It is the town that is dying and sundry characters have been picking at the likely corpse for some time. Drug dealers are prime among these, but they are not the only ones. Another view might be that carrion birds are harbingers of death

The thought of death still circling him, as it always did, as it always did, high up like a vulture on the wind.

While it is tempting to settle on this, it is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in the UK under the title Dead if I Don’t. I do not know why this change was made, and whether it was the author’s idea or not, but I think the newer title is definitely a better fit.

Bottom line, this is a powerful read, with engaging characters, in all shades of gray, complicated matters under consideration, and a forward momentum that will keep you turning the pages. Dig in.

=====================================INTERVIEW

After the review was posted, Urban sent a note of thanks. I followed up with some questions, and the author very graciously offered thoughtful responses. He has OK’d the use of his words here. I inquired into why the title was changed from the UK version.

The title change was a decision I made after it was pointed out to me that all of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris start off with “Dead.” So, since my book was quite a bit different from those I wanted something different for a title. The Carrion Birds title was the pick that I went with here in the US.

I asked if I was barking up the wrong tree re the whole Shakespeare thing:

To be truthful I hadn’t thought about the Shakespeare connection until you brought it up. But that’s not to say it isn’t a large part of The Carrion Birds. The origins for much of what I write are usually a bit chaotic and hard to place. My writing just kind of “pops to mind” for lack of a better term. And it’s only after reflecting a bit on it that I start to get a feel for the origins.

I remembered re-reading Macbeth in the course of a night during a break I was taking from the novel. I was a little out of it and I was trying to find a way back into The Carrion Birds and something in there must have clicked for me. I had also been reading James Dickey’s To the White Sea and there is a definite sense of tragedy (or tragic karma depending on how you look at it) in that book. Plus a very early draft of TCB dealt with a sort of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid kind of feel. All that paying for your sins stuff. Which plays pretty well in TCB.

I should also say that a lot of my education in college came down to how many Shakespeare lit classes I could take, as well as all the electives I could fit in with film classes on Hitchcock. I like to say that Graham Greene has always been the biggest influence on how I put a novel together, but thinking on it now I’m starting to realize when I first came to the daunting task of putting a large work together, I fell back on my knowledge of plays and films.

With this in mind I’m arguing for Ray as a sort of “exceptional being.” He’s the son of one of the richest, former oilmen in the valley and in that way he is a sort of royal in the small scale of this community. So perhaps I was channeling some Shakespeare after all.

I asked if had any thoughts on casting:

As for casting, that’s one loaded question for me. I like your choices. Definitely two actors I would get behind in a heartbeat. But personally I try not to think on it too much. I worry I might start seeing those faces when I jump in on some bit of writing. And it might change how I lay out my characters or what decisions or actions I want them to accomplish. It’s just better for me if I don’t get too close with them. Who knows when I’ll have to kill them off…

Had he considered leaving Memo to his dark devices instead of the fate he wrote for him?

He’s such a bastard of a character. I feel like left to his own devices he would have ended up the way he does no matter what happens. So I guess I could have let him be, but what fun would that have been?

Finally, what’s coming up?

I try to get in at least five pages a day on the next project. And that project being a sequel to my first novel, The Terror of Living, makes the stress just that much higher. I loved my first novel and to be working on a sequel to it is exciting but also horrifying. I want what I’m writing now to outdistance what I’ve written before. I want each new project to be better than the last and so coming back to these characters I guess I just want to do them justice in the most badass way I can.

Thanks so much to Urban for offering real quantities of his time, and I guess I really should get cracking on his prior novel.

==========================================EXTRA STUFF

2011 interview with the author – from Powell’s

Author’s site

Author’s Facebook site

A free short story by the author on Simon and Schuster’s site

The Shakespearean lectures book noted in the review

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Filed under Interviews, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Our Occulted History

book cover I happened on this book in an unusual way. I was visiting my wife at her office in Harper Collins, and while waiting for her to complete this or that task, I looked around for items of interest. My eyes alit on this one. “Looks like weird fun,” said I. Many of the books I review are selected by my esteemed wife dashing in the door and exclaiming, “you’ve gotta read this!” Or one or the other of us catches an interesting TV interview with an author and picks the book up at Barnes and Noble (no, not Amazon, NEVER Amazon, which seeks to devour publishers like the one that employs my wife, not to mention most available book-reviewer sites). But this was more of a found object. And so, over a period of a couple weeks, I read this thing, bits at a time. When I had finally finished Our Occulted History I felt like I had just gotten off a roller coaster designed by a person with no inner ear. I have had diverse reactions to this thing, and it should come as no surprise that the first line that popped into my head while reading the book was: “It’s one thing to maintain an open mind, but maybe not so good to have one so porous it retains nothing of value. Jim Marrs’ brain is so filled with empty space it is unlikely that even a virus could find enough substance to which to attach itself. He puts the pseudo in pseudo-science.” Which may be the tiniest bit harsh. But I do think there is something going on here that bears some looking into.

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Ok, how many of you have ever been exposed to marijuana? Let’s have a show of hands. You know what I mean by exposed. Don’t get cute. And puh-leez, don’t pretend you never inhaled. Looking out over the group, I can see that almost every hand is raised, which means we have some liars out there. Yeah, my hand is up as well. From the tender age of fifteen. And yet here we stand sit, not a heroine addict, not a crack addict, not an alcoholic, and I have never been any of those, although I was addicted to cigarettes for many years. While I do not see much menace in it, I do not smoke pot any more. No moral high ground here. The stuff, while admittedly a nifty enhancement to Hendrix, Santana and a host of other musical artists, particularly when one ingests music via headphones, puts me to sleep. For me, pot, hash and some other things I will not go into, proclaimed unacceptable by the forces of righteousness, whether or not those proclaimers were peddling cigarettes, alcohol or equally addictive food products, were, for me, gateways to bedtime. I freely admit that I have not partaken since the 80s, and even then it was a rare event. But I do concede that there are situations within which the use of pot, once normalized, might make it easier for one to consider other products that are less benign.

So, let’s steer this vehicle back onto the actual roadway. What has this got to do with Jim Marrs? I’ll tell you. There are all sorts of gateway drugs in the world. Not all will have a pharmacological impact, and not all, as with weed, will necessarily pave a pathway to perdition. Our next example is one of those. And again, it is one I have sampled, probably even more than pot. Alien visitation. No, no anal probes, abductions or anything of an extreme sort. Never met, saw or conversed with an alien. (My personal eX-files have to do with a very Earth-based failed marriage) But I have tasted the out-of-this-world product and I like it. I have read my share of UFO books over the years. Although I am not a regular viewer, I have seen more than one or two episodes of the pseudo-scientific eye-roller Ancient Aliens. I mention this not to say that I buy their particular line of BS, but to note my starting position re alien visitation, namely that the subject matter still draws me. I have seen some freaky petroglyphs, in Hawaii, in Chichen Itza, the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, in the American southwest. And despite Don Henley’s claim that They’re not here and they’re not coming, I am inclined to believe that they have at least stopped by for a look-see and were spotted by the locals, actually a lot of locals, all across the planet, so maybe it was less of a look-see than a “whoa-ho, what have we here? Let’s check this place out” sort of thing. This requires no more suspension of disbelief than some of our more popular religions. And sustaining such notions does not lead to a suspension of intellectual processing. But the potential exists for this benign belief, given the proper (on in this case improper) influence, to be inflated into something alarming.

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Just as a druggie friend can push one beyond a little weed into a much darker place, so people like Jim Marrs can take an interesting notion and, through their powers of story-telling, lead the gullible to a vulnerable place. I suspect that Jim Marrs is a lunatic. I fear that he may be a con-man. I can see that he applies the fuzziest of logic in looking for support for his theses. It is obvious that he lives in an echo chamber inhabited by other paranoids and conspiracy theorists and that they reinforce and embolden each other to the point where, as in the right-wing bubble, opposing opinions are routinely disregarded, and whatever theories are being floated by the elect are accepted as revealed truth. This is where the primary problem lies. Step inside the bubble and, like a spacecraft air-lock, eliminate from one’s intake any competing notions. I also know that Jim Marrs is a gifted story-teller. However, you might need a pair of these

and one of these descriptiondescription

to get through the entire book safely.

It is an amazing story he has to tell. Marrs claims that a close look at ancient literature from across our world, particularly from Sumer, reveals not only that aliens have visited our lovely planet, but that, in order to more effectively mine gold, they modified the genetic makeup of the local hominid population to make the homo sap we are today to create a usable labor force. It gets weirder, really. He also posits a magical, and I do mean magical, form of gold that has unnatural properties, like an anti-gravity capacity and maybe even a multi-dimensional one. Guess what was inside the Arc of the Covenant?

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Funny powder, and not the sort they serve at after-parties on Oscars night. Ok, people. Time to break out your tinfoil hats. But let’s make sure they are tinfoil tri-corner hats. (Sorry, I was unable to come up with a corresponding image) Marrs has a political agenda as well. On his web-site, Jimmarrs.com, I found the following:

Seeing how Paul and Palin are now candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the corporatists would love to weaken, if not stop, the so-called Libertarian Tea Party influence on the future direction of the Republican Party. [I guess Paul and Palin are not right-wing enough for Marrs] Live and learn and don’t fall prey to revisionism, usurpation and political/media manipulation.

He makes statements that have the sound of reason, but lack the substance. Here is an example.

In his 2010 book, Babylon’s Banksters, Joseph P. Farrell, as a doctoral graduate of Pembroke College Oxford, who had unparalleled access to old books and manuscripts in Oxford University’s library, said his thesis was both simple to state but difficult to understand. “Since ancient times and with more or less uninterrupted constancy, there has existed an international money power which seeks by a variety of means including fraud, deception, assassination and war to usurp the money- and credit-creating power of various states it has sought to dominate” (implying, of course, that if you find Farrell’s case unconvincing it is because you just don’t understand it. Yeah, I’ve heard that argument before).

What does unparalleled access mean? Is there a double-secret code that Dean Wormer gave Farrell that allowed him access to materials mere mortals were not permitted to see? Who says his access was unparalleled? Any fact-checking done on this? If there was, Marrs isn’t telling. Are we to presume (yes, we are) that having this unparalleled access means that the researcher in question therefore has superior interpretive powers, and was thus able to spot, and interpret this secret info, and incorporate the gained knowledge into his thesis? But what that information might have been we are not told. It goes on. Marrs does not mention that among this great scholar’s publications are Roswell and the Reich and Genes, Giants, Monsters and Men: The Surviving Elites of the Cosmic War and Their Hidden Agenda. Be sure to secure the hatch to the bubble after you step inside.

I could make a list of the outlandish claims that this guy makes, but it would make my usual, wordy reviews seem like headlines. There is a debating technique favored on the right known as Gish Gallop. It entails spewing so much bullshit in a small amount of time that one’s opponent winds up spending all his or her time refuting the bullshit and does not get to make their own case. Marrs’ work has that feel. Replay Romney in the first debate for a taste, if you like. And Marrs seems like such a down-home folksy sort that one might be tempted to indulge in a few puffs. After all, even in his political attire, there are positions he holds that are pretty reasonable. But if you toke down, or snort up too much, you drift past the amber fields of reasonableness, and ascend until you are off in la-la-land and the world is suddenly really out to get you; 9/11 was an Israeli plot; remote viewing psychics in the US Army watched as aliens shot down Russian probes nearing Mars; The Rothschilds (translation: Jews) control the world’s economic apparatus. It was JFKs driver who killed him. And so on. So make sure you load up on personal weapons, and for sure bring along that special hat, because you never know when they might be listening in. I’ll give you an example of Marrs Gish-Galloping later.

Back to the book. So, next step. If they came here, why did they come? Was it to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before? Columbus did not sail the ocean blue to check out the Caribbean beaches. He had a concrete, business purpose in mind. Marrs would have us believe that they, a race he calls the Anunnaki, from Sumer legends, came to earth, or at least stuck around on Earth, for the gold. I picture alien spouses asking star-traveler hubby, “So, Gorp, what did you bring me this time? Not another carnivorous flower, Geez!” To which Gorp smiles and hands over vast quantities of the shiny stuff. Lady Gorp blushes, throws her several arms around her main guy and exclaims, “This place is a keeper, Sweetie. When are you going back?”

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Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in anthropology, just because we do not have rock (or in this case bone) solid examples of each and every step along a path of natural selection, that does not mean that those steps did not take place. Scientists are constantly finding previously undiscovered bones, unthought of species. Here is one that came to my attention just in the time since I began with Marrs’ book. Mr Marrs prefers to fill our knowledge gaps with notions of alien interference. And he is not above the odd lie to bolster his case.

Although Darwin never explicitly stated that man descended from the ape, his devotees advocated that conclusion.

Actually they did not. Apes and humans are evolved from prior species, not from each other and it was only the opponents of Darwinism who characterized his work as claiming humans descended from apes. Erect straw man. Light match. And he continues,

Even after a hundred years of effort, no one has been able to fully substantiate Darwin’s theories through documented fossil exhibits.

Um, well, actually yes they have. It is frequently the case that in any large chunk of science there will be specific steps from, say, point D to point F in a full alphabetic range, for which there is not 100% complete fossil evidence. It is the nature of science to extrapolate from available information. The absence of specific elements in the range of every possible piece of fossil evidence is not evidence that the missing bits do not exist. For a guy who is positing that humans were designed by an alien race, he seems unusually tetchy about insisting that every possible link be found in the theory that scientists across the planet accept as sound. But if Marrs can believe what he wants, why not the rest of us? I am not completely convinced that Jim Marrs is not the product of an alien huckster having bred with a cactus to produce him, I am still waiting for him to disprove that rumor, and he has never denied his questionable, and possibly prickly parentage.

They wanted our gold, so they fiddled with our (homo neanderthal, or maybe homo erectus) DNA to produce a work force trainable enough to to work the mines. It gets better. You may have heard the word Nefilim, basically angel-human hybrids. In the hands of Jim Marrs, it looks like our eight-foot-tall visitors liked a little, very little, relatively, something on the side. I will leave aside all the obvious penis jokes here, although it does pain me to do so. Tall, blue and handsome + human female = the Jim Marrs special, alien/human hybrid children, the Nefillim. Also, the inspiration for a classic film, well maybe not exactly a classic.

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If you have not yet summoned men in white suits with large nets, here is where the bat really meets the shit. Marrs goes on and feeds into other wing nut paranoid fantasies about a core of thirty-three families (guess what sort of DNA they are protecting) who rule the planet, while, of course, suppressing the discovery of the proof of our alien ancestry. (We wouldn’t want the baby to know who gran really is, would we, not until he is old enough to be able to handle the shock, and then, naturally, dominate his personal section of the planet) Of course what he counts as evidence has not convinced real scientists, and is unlikely to do so.

So what Jim Marrs has done, and has been doing for some time, is to take the nifty notion that they were here at some point in human history and lace it with his own rich blend of opiated Tea Party paranoid delusion, fusing the two. Smoking at this pipe keeps ya coming back, if, that is, you buy in. And here is one final item, before a bit of a detour. He talks a fair bit in his book about a magical substance referred to as powdered gold. Well, it turns out that there are entities more than willing to sell this stuff to the gullible. I have no specific knowledge that Marrs has a financial stake in any of these companies, but let’s just say I have my suspicions.

Not only is he proselytizing stealth political messages in his book, but it becomes much more overt when he lectures. I am separating this out from the already lengthy body of this review, tucking it under a spoiler label. There is enough detail involved that only those who are interested would want to spend the time to read it. It consists of a series of political claims Marrs makes in a lecture and how his claims are lacking in foundation.

MARRS ATTACKS

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Here is a quote from Jim Marrs: Hidden History Part 1, a lecture you can find on Youtube. This lecture was posted on February 7, 2012.

…global warming, which is turning out largely to be a hoax, because they fudged all the documents…they simply…but there is environmental change and there is a warming. Go outside. You can figure that one out. But, it’s not us. It is solar system wide. Something is happening solar-system wide. The outer planets are becoming more luminescent. The ice, the polar caps on Mars are melting. The ice on the moons of Jupiter, they seem to be melting. So, whatever’s happening, it’s not your SUV, no matter what Al Gore says. By the way Al Gore happens to have been one of the creators of the carbon tax credit company, corporation, out of Chicago, which is gonna handle all the carbon taxes that we’re all gonna have to pay, and manage the sale and trade and exchange of these carbon tax credits, which means that they’ll rake in billions and billions of dollars. So, gee, Al, maybe you had an ulterior motive in pushing this global warming idea.

So we will play Gish Gallop with Marrs here, as time is not much of a factor, but the methodology he uses should be illustrative of the tactic. Throw out enough lies and your opposition will have to spend all their time refuting them, while you move on to more lies. So, here goes.

global warming, which is turning out largely to be a hoax
In 1989, Republican president George H.W Bush proposed and Congress approved a twenty year study of global change. Participants included NOAA, NASA, the Pentagon the National Science foundation, the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Commerce, EPA and a host of others. You can look at a summary of their findings here. This brief summary says it all:

Trends observed in recent decades include rising temperatures, increasing heavy downpours, rising sea level, longer growing seasons, reductions in snow and ice, and changes in the amounts and timing of river flows. These trends are projected to continue, with larger changes resulting from higher amounts of heat-trapping gas emissions, and smaller changes from lower amounts of these emissions. The observed changes in climate are already causing a wide range of impacts, and these impacts are expected to grow.

Really, does anyone outside the bubble take this warming-denial malarky seriously?

it’s not us. It is solar system wide
Claims that the solar system is warming are complete nonsense The sun’s output has declined. This is another case of Marrs spewing politicized nonsense and claiming it to be fact. The supposed warming-induced increase in luminescence in outer planets is nothing more than seasonal change for entities that have a year that is far different in scale from ours. It is as if one were to observe New Hampshire from August through December and conclude that the planet was beginning an ice age.

the carbon tax credit company, corporation, out of Chicago, which is gonna handle all the carbon taxes that we’re all gonna have to pay, and manage the sale and trade and exchange of these carbon tax credits, which means that they’ll rake in billions and billions of dollars
Marrs appears to be making rather definitive presumptions about how the USA will deal with our emissions problem. Cap and trade, and Carbon taxes are both market-based attempts to reduce our emissions. Studies in 1967 and 1970 showed them to be the least costly way to reduce emissions. The 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act introduced the first cap-and-trade control mechanism into national law. This was proposed under and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. These days, with Republicans in the majority in the House there is no chance that any carbon tax or cap and trade legislation will reach the president any time soon.

As for Al Gore’s sinister machinations to profit from theoretical exchanges, none ever existed. Gore’s company was one investor in the Chicago Climate Exchange, a company which was intended to function like the New York Stock Exchange, acting as a market in which corporations could trade carbon allotments in the same way that investors trade stock. It never happened. CCX ceased to exist in 2010, which is too bad. It is called putting his money where his mouth is. Capitalism, ya know? He took a loss. Nothing sinister there at all. No plots required.

If you are ok with just reading this as an entertainment, Our Occluded History delivers the goods. It offers a wild, entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking tale. But if it strikes deeper in you than that, all I can say is “step away from the hookah.”
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Posted 3/30/13

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The Son by Philipp Meyer

book cover

HOW THE WEST SOUTHWEST WAS WON STOLEN

On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollan and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo…but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.

A man, a life—it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.

The Son is a magnificent family saga, covering two hundred years of Texan, but more significantly American history. Do not be fooled into thinking this is just a book about the Long-Horn state. In the same way that Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk (also set in Texas) took a specific day to stand for an entire period, The Son takes a much larger swath but remains a stand-in for the nation as a whole. A ranching and oil dynasty rises in parallel with the USA rising as a global power.

Items covered include the settlement of Texas by Americans, Indian Wars (sometimes from the perspective of the Indians), The Civil War, WW I, WW II, the Depression. Economic shifts, rise of oil in international importance, significance of corruption in government, impact of increasing difficulty of drilling in the USA and rise of the Middle East as the world’s major source of oil, including some economic intrigue involving the use of insider information. The misuse of the land is raised, as is the complicated relationships between residents of Mexico, Texas, and some who traveled both sides of the border.

Meyer splits the task of looking at different times in American history among three members of the McCullough dynasty. Eli McCullough is the patriarch of this clan, born not on the Fourth of July, but on the Second of March, 1836, otherwise known as Texas Independence Day. He is, literally, the first Texan. (Well, as with the US Declaration of Independence, it was not completely Ok’d until the next day, but who’s counting?) and is as large a character as the state itself. We meet him when he is 100 years old, in 1936, looking back on his life and times, (a la Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man) and some bloody times they were. Early settlers into what was still Mexico overwhelming the locals with numbers and guns. Bloodshed aplenty as a new population displaces current residents, whether Mexican citizens or one of the many Indian tribes in the area. Eli is captured by a Comanche raiding party that kills and abuses most of his family. Later he becomes a Texas Ranger, as a substitute for criminal prosecution, making the Rangers remind one of the French Foreign Legion.

The second perspective is that of Jeanne Anne McCullough, Eli’s great-granddaughter. We meet her at age 86, injured, on the floor of her home in 2012, and are treated to her recollections as well. She is the primary female character here, a crusty old bird who is also shown in softer light earlier in her life. But while softer, Jeanne was still tough even as a kid, eager to cowgirl up, take on tasks usually reserved for men, and was unable and unwilling to adapt to the very different expectations of northeastern refinery. Adaptation, and recognizing change, seeing the truth in front of her, or not, figures in her journey. She will use ill-gotten knowledge for personal gain some day.

Finally there is Peter, born in 1870, one of Eli’s sons, and Jeanne’s grandfather. Peter is the superego to Eli’s id. He struggles with what he sees as excessive violence in which his father revels, and tries as best he can to act in a moral way. I found Peter’s character to be the most real of the three. Constantly having to manage moral as well as physical conflict. He is the romantic of the crew. You will love him.

We see all three come of age in very different ways. Eli is taken captive by raiding Comanches as a thirteen-year-old but over an extended period, relying on his courage and quick wits, he learns the rules and the ways of the tribe, coming to see many things from their perspective, and becoming a respected leader. We get to see him again, struggling to adapt to white society while still a teen. We see Jeanne wanting to be who she is but struggling against the bias of the age that preferred its women less hardy, adventurous and determined. We see Peter struggling to reconcile his family and community responsibilities as a young man with the cruelty of his father and the racist townspeople determined to drive out the other, who happen to be people he knows, respects and even loves.

There is enough carnage in The Son to make fans of Cormac McCarthy lock and load. One particularly brutal event is nothing less than anti-Mexican pogrom. And there is enough political inspection to make fans of Steinbeck perk up when Eli says things like:

let the records show that the better classes, the Austins and Houstons, were all content to remain citizens of Mexico so long as they could keep their land. Their descendants have waged wars of propaganda to clear their names and have them declared Founders of Texas. In truth it was only the men like my father, who had nothing, who pushed Texas into war.

Meyer also notes several instances in which the victors write history that is distinctly at variance with how events actually occurred.

There is a lot in here about how change sweeps in and the present is always in the path of a rampaging future, whether one is talking about wilderness being replaced by farming and ranching, working the land being replaced by digging through it, or one population displacing another. Meyer highlights a major theme of the book when the last Comanche chief is found to be carrying a copy of History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Meyer takes on some regional stereotypes as well.

There is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and was treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were very few people, white or Indian, who did not see a stranger in the night and invite them to join a campfire.

The Teggs-us Rangers of the mid 18th-century would seem to have had a lot more in common with The Dirty Dozen than they might have had with Seal Team Six. It is also clear that there has been little change in the fact that governments often want services but are not always eager to actually pay for them. The corruption of those in power seems constant across the time-scape here.

Wandering notions. We are always on the lookout for possible connections to the classics. There are some here but they do not seem central. The Eli of the bible lives to 98 and has a son named Phineas. This one lives to 100 and also has a son named Phineas. One might see in the Comanche raids here a link to the Philistine raids of the earlier time. Also Eli was cursed by God that his male descendants would not see old age. This is not entirely the case here, but the death rate is alarmingly high for this Eli’s progeny through the generations. There is a Ulysses in this story, who, like his namesake, goes on a quest. And Eli is referred to in this way as well, in Peter’s diaries:

I began to think how often he was home during my childhood (never), my mother making excuses for him. Did she forgive him that day, at the very end. I do not. She was always reading to us, trying to distract us; she gave us very little time to get bored, or to notice he was gone. Some children’s version of the Odyssey, my father being Odysseus. Him versus the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, Everett, being much older, off reading by himself. Later I found his journals, detailed drawings of brown-skinned girls without dresses….My assumption, as my mother told us that my father was like Odysseus, was that I was Telemachus…now it seems more likely I will turn out a Telegomus or some other lost child whose deeds were never recorded. And of course there are other flaws in the story as well.

But ultimately, I do not think there is a core classical reflection at work here, just a bit of condiment for the large meal at hand. In an interview with the LA Times, Meyer cites among influences Steinbeck, Joyce, Woolf and Scottish writer James Kelman. I am sure those with a greater familiarity with works by those authors will find many connections in The Son that my limited knowledge prevented me from seeing.

The Son is Meyer’s second novel, well, second published novel anyway. He wrote a couple before American Rust was published in 2009. He wrote that while in an MFA program in Austin. He has it in mind that this book, which was initially called American Son would form the second volume of a trilogy. It is even more impressive when one considers that Meyer was born in Baltimore, in a neighborhood known more for John Waters films than Indian wars and oil booms.

Family sagas can be fun reads, long, engaging and hopefully educational. They can, of course, be over-long, post too many characters to keep track of and become tedious. Sometimes, though, they exceed all expectations and levitate above the crowd in the genre due to the craft of their creation, the quality of their characters, and the depth of their historical portraits. Some, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth rise to the level of literature. The Son also rises.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Author’s page

Wiki

2010 LA Times interview with Meyer.

Posted in April 2013

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The Lady and her Monsters

book cover I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Chapter 5 – Frankenstein)

Roseanne Montillo has dug up information about diverse real-world elements that influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of her seminal novel Frankenstein, joined the parts into a cohesive whole and energized them with intelligence, insight and wit, breathing new life into our appreciation of that great tale. She shows also the monster-rich environment that influenced MS, a world that was very well populated with mad scientists, mythical beasts, grave robbers, an actual evil stepmother, and people close to her who had monstrous leanings of their own, long before she added her creation to the list.

Your first experience of Frankenstein probably looked like this.
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Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the never-named “wretched creature” of the novel, gave him literal baby-steps and a child-like yearning for love and acceptance. Dramatizations of the character that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote rarely show him possessing the sort of intellectual curiosity and power with which she imbued him. Hollywood is definitely good at keeping things simple and it did so here. Most people think of Frankenstein’s monster as a big, inarticulate lug, who got a raw deal out of life the second time around and succumbed to an angry, pitchfork and torch-wielding mob, like two guys carrying a gay-pride banner at a Tea Party convention. It was not quite that way in the book.

I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

The monster’s plea to his creator shows him to be something other than the grunting fiend of cinema, more of an articulate fiend.

I heartily recommend reading the core material here, before, during or after you take on Montillo’s exposition. In a way, it is like putting on special glasses and seeing the 3d contours of an image when all that one had perceived previously was strictly two dimensional. Or watching a pop-up videos version of a familiar song. You will learn a lot reading Montillo’s book.

The book tells two tales. The first is Mary Shelley’s personal history. The second is a portrait of the world in which she grew up, the external influences on her, and how they contributed elements to her novel. There is, obviously, overlap.

2010 painting of the young Mary by Esao Andrews

Mary Godwin was the daughter of William Godwin, a leading writer and philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an early manifesto on gender equality. Clearly Mary got pretty high-end brain DNA from both parents. Unfortunately, Mary’s mother died ten days after introducing her to the world.

Mary’s makers

Mary grew up in an intellectually lively environment. As dad was a big cheese in the intellectual world, gatherings at the Godwin manse tended toward the illustrious. Thomas Paine read from his famous work in her home, as did many luminaries of the time, including a well-opiated Coleridge, who read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner while young Mary secretly listened in. This piece of that poem found its way into that little girl’s book.

Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Dad remarried four years after his wife died, to Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary’s new stepmother was straight from central casting for any of several tales by the Brothers Grimm. One result of this, some years on, was an attempt to keep Mary away from her father after she hit adolescence, and was a threat to absorb too much of daddy’s attention. MJ saw to it that Mary was banished for a stretch to a distant seaport, residing with a family that was only barely among Godwin’s friends. Mary had opportunities while there to hear many a fish story from local seamen.

Her relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley began when she was in her mid-teens. Shelley was married at the time, which was awkward, but that did not prevent the young couple from cementing their relationship. Shelley found Mary to be a true intellectual equal, which more than made up for her average looks. Scandal pursued them, but the young couple seemed not to care. A circle formed, Mary, Shelley, Mary’s half-sister Claire, who was smitten with PBS, and later, Lord Byron. It got complicated. There are bits from Mary’s relationships that contributed material to the book.

Shelley and Byron

As was common at the time, artists and scientists were not the divided clans they tend to be today. The greatest scientists of the age wrote poetry. And Shelley was renowned at his college for the many dangerous experiments he had running in his room. Shelley taught Mary, who had been home-schooled, a lot about science. They had several children together, only one of whom survived. It may be that one element in her story was a desire to bring back a dead child.

Montillo take us through the travels of the pair, and later the group, showing the places they stayed, the routes they took, their stops along the way and the stories Mary is likely to have accumulated at various locations on their journey. Yes, there really was a guy named Frankenstein. Another local alchemist sort had been pursued by angry townspeople after some imagined outrage.

Professor Montillo also offers considerable history and color of the time. The era in which Mary Godwin grew up was the Enlightenment. Science, unchained from the restrictions of superstition, was on the move.

The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. (from Chapter 3 of Frankenstein)

Resurrectionists
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Daring scientific experiments were being performed across Europe. There were things in the air at that time that had never been wafting about before. For example, there was a fellow named Galvani, who not only developed a particularly useful battery, but wanted to use his invention to re-animate the newly dead. In fact there was a lot of medical training at the time that required a steady supply of fresh material. As England restricted access to the needed product to the newly executed, that created a considerable market for materials from other sources, giving rise to the growth of so-called Resurrectionists, although flesh-miners might have been a more fitting term. Competition became pretty steep among gangs of grave robbers. The trade was so lucrative that some of the nearly departed were sped on their way by greedy practitioners.

Dissections were often open to the public

Also a lot of this medical work for which the sack-‘em-up-men labored so lustily was done in public fora. Popular entertainment was different in form from what we have today, but I expect the content is particularly consistent. Anatomists vivisected bodies in front of audiences of medical students and the public. Think of it as a monstrous live theater version of CSI. Public hangings were major social events, attended by large throngs ever eager to revel in the misfortune of others, or an early version of reality TV. And of course there is always room to amp up the excitement level, particularly when some of the edgier medical sorts had LARGE ambitions. Giovanni Aldini, nephew to Galvani, performed a particularly gruesome re-animation attempt so shocking that Galvani ultimately had to find some other way of making a living. It does, however, bear remembering that every time the paddles are applied and a doctor yells “Clear” we have mad scientists like Aldini to thank for the many cardiac patients who have been, literally, reanimated by the application of electricity. It’s enough to make you want to scream “It’s Alive!

Montillo also goes into some of the history of alchemy, as Mary makes plentiful reference to practitioners of that art in her book. There is a particularly curious description of how to create a homunculus. (no mention of blond hair and a tan ) Montillo also brings in the obvious connection between Mary’s creation and folkloric notions of golems.

One of the fun bits in the book is a description of a London emporium that sought to capitalize on the growing popular interest in the possible uses of electricity. The Celestial Bed and the Temple of Health was begun by a medical quack interested in the potential benefits of electric stimulation. But the place cloaked its true nature under the guise of providing medical care. I suppose The Celestial Bed did offer plenty of sparks, but the heavenly electricity generated within its walls was produced at least as much by its patrons as by galvanic devices.

The greatest benefit of The Lady and her Monsters is that it lays out many of the elements that Mary was or might have been exposed to in her few years on earth before she took pen in hand to write her contribution to a group ghost-story contest. There is indeed some interesting material offered on Mary’s life after the 1818 publication, most particularly her decision, when revising some years later, to alter Victor’s mode from Promethean arrogance to tool of the gods, reflecting her own denial of responsibility for the events of her life. But other material having to do with the time after publication was not as interesting as that concerning events that inspired the book. Her subsequent life was not a happy one, and I am not sure how much we gain by learning that.

Nevertheless, The Lady and her Monsters is a delightful book, both informative and entertaining. It does a high-voltage job of bringing the story of how Mary made her monster to life.

========================================EXTRA PARTS

This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.

A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?

Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Posted – April 2013

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The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

book cover It happens from time to time that, as with people, the first impression one has of a book changes when one expends some energy, and looks more closely. I remember a girl who glowed like the sun to my heart when light shone through her hair. But I will spare you those details. I was struck with a similar sort of smitten on my first reading of Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness, my reaction a Some Enchanted Evening experience. Wow, what a great book. Moving, poetic, artfully constructed. Curves in all the right places. Oh, sorry, yeah, the book. While I may move from point A to some other point over the course of this pondering, I should let you know up front that I end up still liking the book, so there will be no trash-talking, Dear John letters, or years of pain and regret here. Oh, damn, yeah, the book.

Remember the Oscar winning film Crash? Yeah, I think Brokeback should have won too, but the structure was one of separate tales intersecting. Ditto here, with the added element of time, like three-dimensional (or would that be four-dimensional?) chess. There are two primary players.

The book opens in 2010 with Martin, an elderly caretaker at the Starlight Retirement Home in Los Angeles. We learn in short order how he came to be with his adoptive parents in Paris, or at least some of the story. Then how he came to be in the USA. We see Martin learn something significant about his heritage. In 2010 he is awaiting the arrival of a very disfigured man

That would be Hugo. His is the main story here. When we meet Hugo in 1981 he is a middle-aged maintenance man at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. He is asked by a Nigerian immigrant neighbor to watch her seven-year-old son, Danny, and this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (We do follow Danny a bit later) Hugo does not really have friends. A sizeable chunk of his head was blown away during World War II in Paris, and people tend to keep their distance. He grows tomatoes to give away, and seems a decent sort. But he has very troubled dreams, or are they memories?

There are others. John is a US bomber pilot in WW II who crashes in France. Amelia is a blind grand-daughter we meet later.

The core connection here is between Martin and Hugo. There are other goings on, but their impact, IMHO, is either barely related or serves to manipulate events to a foregone conclusion. Still, the first time I read this book I was all choked up at the end. Hanky-worthy it was. And I will not try to take that away. This is a very, very moving story. You will feel, for sure. I will get to my concerns in a bit. But first some internals.

The story connects from character to character like a back-stitch. When one chapter ends, the last bit connects to the following chapter and a different character. And so on. There are plenty of parallels working here. Some characters feel hated, Hugo in different times for different reasons, Danny as a black child in Manchester. Memory and imagination get a lot of attention. Kindness is on display in diverse locales, as some who have feed those who do not. Artistry pops up multiple times too. John draws, as does Danny. Amelia works at an art museum. A briefly noted schoolboy in France also draws. Both Hugo and Martin work as maintenance men. Memory and imagination figure in this story as well, as does a contemplation of the eternal. Van Booy has a gift for language and it is no shock to learn that he publishes poetry as well. So there is plenty here to hang your feeling of content on. It is not only a story, but one that carries some greater weight. It also has its very own tone and cadence. One might associate clipped sentence structure with a writer like, say, Cormac McCarthy. Which carries certain dark implications. But that clippedness is used to very different purpose here.

Sometimes a priest would come and sit with me, talk to me, touch my hand. It felt nice. I wondered if His hand touches all, or if ours touch His. I remembered then, books in an attic. A small hand. Forbidden but they crawled through boxes anyway. Boxes of books and other boxes. Then I thought of the boy who brings cakes to the park for us. I wanted to boast to the priest. I felt proud to know someone like that, he knows Him, but I know Someone too. A child with the power to save us.

On the other hand, some of the sentiments expressed here sounded a bit Hallmarkian

Lives are staged from within

We’re all famous in our own hearts

What people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know.

So what’s the gripe? The title of the book is The Illusion of Separateness and we are meant to see that we are all connected somehow. Six degrees or something. Which is fine. I am sure there are many ways in which the paths of our lives cross each others. Sometimes in meaningful ways, most times not. The gyrations Van Booy went through to link Martin and Hugo seemed to me, on my second reading, forced. Not their first encounter, but latter ones. As with some Spielberg films, you get the sense that the writer/director is leading you by the nose and maybe pulling too hard sometimes on the reins. It felt less like something was being revealed than that something was being constructed. And sometimes it did seem a bit on the goopy side. I know, I know, makes it sound bad. And I do not really mean for the overall take to be a huge negative. We are manipulated by writers all the time. It is part of their job. But sometimes the beams are not well enough hidden behind dry wall or plaster.

So, bottom line is that if you can suspend your disbelief for a short time (I really do mean a short time. This is a short book, and a very fast read.) you will be well-rewarded by an amazing and incredibly moving story, told in beautiful language.

Not so, with the girl. We did get together, but it ended badly, very badly. This book, however, will cause you no harm at all. Who knows? Maybe you will feel a connection and it really will be The One for you and not an illusion at all.

Posted 4/30/13

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Fevered by Linda Marsa

The Heat is On

As the planet gets hotter, we’ll live sicker and die quicker

All change is a matter of degrees. Up or down, a bit here, a bit there. And in time, with persistence, you really have something. In the Broadway and later film musical, Pajama Game , the cast sings of the accumulating impact of a small change, in this case literal small change. And so it is with global warming. A fraction of a degree here and there, and what with adding that small bit over and over, the overall amount grows significantly. When we think of warming, we tend to think of what is going into the air, water and land right now. When the fact is that we have been making carbon deposits into our environment for a long time, and are beginning to see the result of that. If you will allow another dip into our musical theater history, the show Mary Poppins, offers a lesson on the value of compound interest. In the case of our planet however, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in question has grown far too large, its holdings are increasingly comprised of toxic assets and it threatens us all with more than just a fiscal meltdown.

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The author with a ring-tailed lemur in Sarasota, Florida

Global Warming is a hot topic. When we think of the medical impact of global warming it is usually in terms of coping with personal temperature management, keeping cool in the hot weather. We might think of shrinking polar caps, maybe rising sea levels, more energetic hurricanes and the like. But there are very concrete health impacts that might not be so obvious. What if the breeding season of disease-vector mosquitoes were to be extended? More mosquitoes = more illness. One effect of shifting weather patterns brought on by warming is desertification. Dust storms increase in frequency and severity. While one may think of dust storms as a health threat due to the danger of airborne particulates making their way inside our bodies, such storms also carry fungus spores, and the diseases they can cause. There are many such effects we can look forward to as the short-term focus of corporate and political leaders ensures that our long term is hotter and in need of medical attention. In projecting the likely result of any ongoing situation, the devil is in the details, and the author has collected enough of the pesky horned guys together to raise the global temperature even more.

Science writer Linda Marsa, whose previous book, Prescription for Profits , addressed the impact of corporate culture on medical research, has offered compelling details about how a warming planet will, hell, is already affecting our health. A lot of what she reports will surprise you. I am no stranger to the subject, and found that I was being regularly alarmed at what I had not known or suspected.

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Superstorm Sandy

Elements of warming that will affect our health include wider extremes and gyrations in weather,

Hot air holds more water, so we will have more torrential rains, more ferocious hurricanes, and, conversely, more dry spells as a result of heat-induced changes in rainfall patterns. Rising temperatures could trigger pestilence, drought-induced food shortages, raging firestorms, massive migrations, political instability, and wars, even the return of the bubonic plague…In the near future, millions might perish and millions more might be sickened by the litany of medical conditions caused or exacerbated by living in a rapidly warming world: heart disease, asthma, severe respiratory infections, heatstroke, and suicidal despair.

faster global spreading of disease with the growth of global access and increasing interconnectivity,

The explosion of international travel on a hotter, wetter planet—more than 60 million Americans travel abroad every year, and an equal number visit the United States—has created the perfect conditions for the increased transmission of lethal pathogens from the tropics to industrialized nations. Hitchhiking parasites and infected individuals carting microbes that can be passed on by mosquitoes can now go anywhere in the world in less than 24 Hours and deliver reservoirs of malaria, dengue, or chikungunya fever, a particularly nasty infection that causes arthritis-like joint pain, to newly temperate regions…These two factors—global movement and changing global weather—are what enabled the West Nile virus to become entrenched in North America.

assaults by air pollution on our ability to breathe,

One component of pollution, diesel fumes, delivers a double whammy for health. The diesel exhaust emitted by factories and big rigs not only damages the lungs, but also makes an excellent transport system for fungal spores, which proliferate in hotter, carbon-enriched environments. They attach themselves like glue to the tiny diesel particles, which scatter them in the wind in a “nasty synergy,” to use a phrase coined by the late Dr. Paul Epstein, a pioneer in environmental health at Harvard. The fungi lurking inside the spores can be lethal… [causing Valley Fever]

Dust storms may exist
By By Quinn Dombrowski

persistent exposure to hotter temperatures,

After 48 hours of constant exposure to temperatures in excess of 90°F, the body’s defenses start to break down. Consequently, the swiftness of the public health system’s response to heat-related illnesses can literally mean the difference between life and death.

and the stress of exploding demand on existing infrastructure:

[re New Orleans post Katrina]…the mental health care infrastructure—which had been inadequate before—was virtually nonexistent at a time when the need couldn’t possible have been greater. At one point there were only 22 psychiatrists in a city of 200,000. Within a year after Katrina, five doctors became so despondent they took their own lives. “It wasn’t just the destitute poor who had no hope, but professional people who didn’t leave New Orleans and who stayed in the middle of it.

It would be easy to look at all the dark sides of our current warming crisis and start looking for a convenient bridge from which to end it all. But wait. There is plenty more between the covers of Marsa’s report. In fact, she goes into some detail about actions that can be taken. Progress is already being made to reduce our carbon footprint, particularly via smart urbanization. She also shows how we can learn from pioneers in confronting the impact of warming, folks in the Netherlands and Australia specifically, who are learning the lessons of coping at the bleeding edge of climatic change.

description

I do not have any gripes about Fevered. Well, ok, maybe a very small and irrelevant one. I am of the opinion that most written work is made more palatable with a dose of humor. I know most of you are not exactly looking for comic relief in a book on global warming, and that is where I happily concede that this is a purely personal bias, and probably needs to be ignored. But the book could have used a smile or two, maybe a Far Side comic, something. But really, feel free to ignore the man behind this paragraph.

Marsa is a seasoned pro who has done her homework and whose experience as a popular science writer is on full display here. Which is a long way of saying that is it an easy-to-read book, rich with information, without being dumbed down.

It is probably the case that folks who are of the rightist persuasion would not bother picking up any book on global warming that did not feature conspiracies and reassurance that nothing is really wrong. Why confuse ideology with facts? But that leaves two thirds of us. For readers with minimal familiarity with warming, Fevered is a good introduction. The audience that will gain the most from the book, I suspect, consists of those of us who have read and studied enough to know just how bloody real this event is, and can always uses some more specifics, both for use in fending off zombie hordes of deniers and in thinking about where public resources should best be directed to cope with the impact.

Hopefully we can apply some heat of our own, get fired up and light a match under the appropriate representatives, senators, mayors, governors, council members and CEOs. Along with us they share responsibility, to a large degree.

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Global Warming – It’s hee-er!

Posted 8/26/2013

========================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s website . There is one video in particular that sums up her expectations for the future, in the blog page of the site

Wiki on Valley Fever

It is hard to find an example more directly relevant to Marsa’s thesis than this one, Pollution Costs California Hospitals Millions of Dollars by Gina-Marie Cheeseman – March 23rd, 2010

The September, 2013 issue of National Geographic is focused on Rising Seas. This is MUST READ material, very accessible, very alarming.

More to come…

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane may be Neil Gaiman’s best

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but aren’t.

I turned 7 early in third grade. It was a memorable school year because I had for a teacher a nun with a reputation. Sister Evangelista was about 5 foot nuthin’, and symmetrical. If the what’s black and white, black and white, black and white – a nun rolling down a hill joke were applied to her you would have needed a lot more black-and-whites, as her spherical shape would have kept her rolling a long time. It earned her the nickname Cannonball. She was notorious, not only for her distinctive dimensions, but for having a particularly foul temper. Her starched garb also pinched her face into a state of permanent floridity and pursed her lips into a particularly fish-like shape. It was not a happy year for me at school. There would be more than one instance of raised voices, and more than one rap across the hands with yardsticks. I was even banned from the classroom for a spell, to wander the halls for hours, unaccompanied. But I somehow knew that eventually I would be a third grader no longer and would escape the sharpened claws and flapping habit of this creature. She was unpleasant, for sure, but she did not present an existential threat.

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Neil on a drainpipe as a lad – from his FB page

When the unnamed narrator of Neil Gaiman’s book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, turns 7, he has troubles of his own. It begins with zero attendance at his birthday party. The family comes on some hard times and must take in boarders. The boy is given a kitten, Fluffy, to ease the loss of his room, but the pet falls victim to a cab, arriving with a South African opal miner, the latest paying resident. Not long after, the miner takes the family car. It is found soon after, at the end of a nearby lane, with a body in the back seat, and a hose running from the tail pipe to the driver’s window. At the scene, the boy meets an eleven-year-old girl, Lettie Hempstock, who takes charge of him, and brings him to her family’s farm, which borders the lane. And so begins a beautiful friendship. (Members of the extended Hempstock family, btw, turn up in several other Gaiman books)

Lettie lives with her mother and grandmother. When strange events begin to erupt in the area–the boy’s sister is assaulted by flung coins, the boy wakes up choking on a coin, and other strangeness afflicts neighbors–Lettie seems to know what is causing them. She is sent to take care of it and brings the boy, her little friend, along. They travel across the Hempstock property and into what seems another world, (mentions of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, among others, let us know that lines will be crossed) a place that has some threatening inhabitants. Lettie confronts the troublemaker, but the boy reacts to an event instead of thinking and disobeys her lone order, to keep hold of her hand. That is when the real trouble begins.

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Image taken from abc.net.au

The boy is far too young for this to be a coming of age tale, but a central element of horror, whether of the Freddie Krueger, Nurse Ratched (or Sister Evangelista) variety, or the flapping beast central to Gaiman’s tale, is one’s helplessness before a greater, and ill-intentioned power. Although he doesn’t characterize his intentions as horror-mongering, Gaiman has laid out what he was up to in writing the book.

It was meant to be just about looking out at the world through the kind of eyes that I had when I was 7, from the kind of landscape that I lived in when I was 7. And then it just didn’t quite stop. I kept writing it, and it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realized I’d actually written a novel. … I thought — it’s really not a kids’ story — and one of the biggest reasons it’s not a kids’ story is, I feel that good kids’ stories are all about hope. In the case of Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s a book about helplessness. It’s a book about family, it’s a book about being 7 in a world of people who are bigger than you, and more dangerous, and stepping into territory that you don’t entirely understand.

Gaiman was aware that his work might appeal to young readers for which is it not intended. He said that he deliberately made the first few chapters of the book dull as a way to dissuade younger readers, who would be put off by that and disinclined to continue on to the juicy bits.

The world the young boy faces may not be understandable. There is just too much to take in and Gaiman captures that element of childhood quite well.

Changes for the boy at home include the antithesis of Mary Poppins, in the form of one Ursula Monkton, who seems to have arrived on an ill wind, with the added bonus of her having designs on the boy’s father. Adults overall seem pretty careless. But there is some balance in this universe. Lettie’s family seems beyond time itself, a bright light in the darkness, welcoming, comforting, nurturing. And then there’s the ocean. Looks like a pond to you or me, but it has qualities quite unlike other bodies of water. As in his earlier American Gods, there are things that have been brought to this newer world from the place its residents once occupied. You may not be able to go home again, but what if you could take it with you? (Also a theme in American Gods)

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Gaiman says he usually writes for himself. One thing that was different about this book was that he was writing for someone else. His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, was off in Australia making an album. Where you or I might send along daily, or weekly notes of what was going on, Gaiman sent something else

I will tell my wife, by making stuff up, kind of what it was like to be me when I was seven, from the inside of my head, not in the real world, then put it in the actual landscape that I grew up in.

There really had been a boarder who killed himself in the family ride. Like his young hero, Gaiman climbed drainpipes. There really was a farm down the lane that had been recorded in the DomesDay Book.

And as with such enterprises he did not have a large frame work constructed. It was “like driving at night through the fog” – he knew “three or five pages ahead what would happen”, but no further.

There is some material here that rankled a bit. The substitute parent trope had been used to good effect in Coraline and manifests in many of the Disney animated classics, evil stepmothers in Cinderella, Snow White and the like. Ditto here. Maybe going to that well one time too many? And is dad really that dim? But there is also a nice diversity of conceptual toys at work. The flapping baddie was fun. The magical ocean and ageless Hemplocks are also very engaging. The nothingness created by the creatures referred to, among other things, as hunger birds, reminded me of Stephen King’s Langoliers, also the Nothing of the Never-Ending Story and the Dark Thing of a Wrinkle in Time. Might the three Hemplocks serve as a sort of feminine Holy Trinity? There is a wormhole that involves an actual…you know…worm, which made me smile for a long time. And any time there is a dip into water, one must ponder things baptismal, rebirth, either literal or spiritual.

Letting go is what so much of growing up is about. It is the very thing that must be done in order to be able to grow, to live one’s own life. But sometimes letting go has the opposite effect, and can place you in peril, particularly when you are only 7 and not ready for the consequences. There is a lot in this short book on holding on, and letting go, and the price of both. There is a lot on doing what is right, on personal sacrifice, on permanence and the ephemeral, on remembering and forgetting.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short novel. But do not let go of the notion that this is a book for adults. The ocean in question may look to be a pond, but do not be deceived. Jump in. The water’s fine, and deep.

Posted 8/19/13

========================================EXTRA STUFF

Gaiman’s FB page

A wonderful article on Gaiman in the January 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker

An excellent audio interview by Jian Ghomeshi of Canadian Broadcasting

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