It’s Still the End of the World

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I’ve written about this before (Expect the End of the World. Laugh.; Trapped in Hope, Practicing Resurrection) but reading a recent New York Times piece about Paul Kingsnorth and The Dark Mountain Project has reawakened my prevailing sense of cheerful hopelessness about the natural world — which includes pretty much everything we know, including us — and the need to not only engage imagination and faith but to disengage from false hope.

Kingsnorth, responding to Naomi Klein’s comment that grief is important because it can lead to change, agrees “with the need for grief but not with the idea that it must lead to change — at least not the kind of change that mainstream environmental groups pursue”:

“What do you do,’ he asked, ‘when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? And that’s not a series of questions that have any answers other than people’s personal answers to them. Selfishly it’s just a process I’m going through.’ He laughed. ‘It’s extremely narcissistic of me. Rather than just having a personal crisis, I’ve said: “Hey! Come share my crisis with me!”‘

Maybe others aren’t feeling this sense of crisis, aren’t grieving, really are positive that we can lick this thing. All I can say is, I’m not. And it’s OK. There is much to celebrate and to love every day.

Later, Dougald Hine, a partner in Dark Mountain, is quoted:

People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’

I love that question: What do we start to notice? That’s an experience I want to have and share and talk about with others. It reminds me of the permaculture principle, Observe and Interact. Unless we notice what’s before us, around us, inside us, then when we act we are like characters in a play, doing what’s scripted, what’s expected, our role, instead of really relating, soul to soul, minds and bodies engaged, with ourselves and all other beings.

Some, like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, feel that Kingsnorth has given up. I think he is still spending his life being true, doing what matters most to him, preparing for the future in each daily, present moment, and supporting what he loves in his community:

“Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future.

“Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. ‘Why do I do this,’ he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, ‘when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. ‘I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough..”

The bolded bit reminds me of Andre Gregory’s reiteration of the Findhorn community’s idea, and Gustav Björnstrand’s idea, in the film My Dinner with Andre (1981), that in a dystopian future there may be pockets of light, or islands of history (like the underground in the Dark Ages), where humans can continue to live and perhaps “preserve the light, life, the culture … to keep things living.”

I’m also reminded of Tolstoy’s short story (or parable, or catechism), “The Three Questions” (1885); the three questions, with their answers, are

  1. When is the best time to do each thing? The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
  2. Who are the most important people to work with? The most important person is whoever you are with
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all time? The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

With the amendment I would make of “person” to “being,” I think it’s a recipe for right action at all times.

Kingsnorth’s calling also reminds me of Johnette Napolitano’s lyrics in her (Concrete Blonde) song, “True,” a kind of prayer:

One more sunset
Lay my head down – true
One more sunrise
Open my eyes up – true

Trust and The Edge

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Saw these three quotes within the space of 5 minutes this afternoon, combined with Tricycle’s challenge to “Commit to Sit” (in meditation) each day in the month of February; they feel to me as though they are deeply connected. That is, that sitting, waiting, trusting, and seeking refuge are all intimately related to an uncomfortable, unknown place just outside what is familiar and comfortable. It’s not that we won’t suffer storms or deepest aches; it’s that we can wait, with calmness; we can wake up as we recognise the storm and the ache for what they are, without running from them. without making a big deal of them; and we can wait for “the answering call” to find us.

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Whatever you feel is right at the edge of your familiar world, that’s the edge of your bodhisattva vow, the edge of your deep intention to wake up with what is. —Myogen Steve Stücky (here)

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1621754_10152408577534206_577263527_n(Yes, I know who Hagee is, and while our views may not often agree, in this case they do.)

Books Read 2013

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Once again (2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Bull the the Horns (2012) by Sheila Bair, former FDIC head. This is a very sobering and detailed book about, generally, the banking system in the U.S., and specifically, the subprime debacle, the practice of securitization, the home mortgage lending industry, and the difficulty FDIC, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Dept, and a couple of banking regulation organisations had in working together to try to solve the problems. I particularly appreciated the explanations of subprime mortgages and securitization; less interesting to me were the political meetings and machinations. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in U.S. banking.

Death in August (2011/2012) by Marco Vichi. Loosely, crime fiction set in Florence Italy, though the book meanders philosophically and meditatively — including through various memories (some involving WWII) and dinner party stories — and is not particularly compelling in terms of plot: an 60-year-old wealthy woman is found dead in her bed, apparently killed by asthma after inhaling the tropical mate plant. Set in the heat of a sweltering August in 1963 and featuring Inspector Bordelli, whose closest friends are thieves.

February

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) by Michael Chabon, a fictional work of alternative history, set in the federal state of Sitka, Alaska, where most of the Jews of the world have been living for 60 years, in the wake of  the Holocaust and the collapse of Israel in 1948. The Revision — when the Jews are flung out of Sitka — is coming in a few months and everyone’s looking for a Messiah(a Tzaddik Ha-Dor). Homicide detective Meyer Landsman and his partner Berko Shemets are investigating the murder of a man in Landsman’s cheap hotel. It never held my attention, but parts are very funny, very well concocted, and you can’t help but marvel at the imagination of the man who wrote it. Lines like “His face displays no trace of wariness, but Landsman can see where the wariness has been carefully erased” kept me reading.

The Hypnotist (2009/2001 trans.) by Lars Kepler. Set mainly on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden, this is a very well-written thriller with two primary plots and some minor ones that intersect deftly, beautifully, unpredictably. The first is the brutal stabbing murder of most of a family; the second unfolds from an event in a hypnotism group that met 10 years before, which led Erik Maria Bark to renounce his use of hypnotism; but he is convinced by DI Joona Linna to use his powers now to perhaps save the life of the surviving family member. The plotting is mostly chronological, except for one major flashback, and the action is seen variously but seamlessly through the eyes of Erik, Joona, Erik’s wife Simone, and various other characters, sometimes with a slight time shift. Highly recommended.

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (2010) by Carol Deppe: Read for our permaculture group, though this isn’t a permaculture book. Deppe focuses on 5 crops that — with care in choosing, sowing, growing, harvesting, and processing/cooking — should see home gardeners through hard times: potatoes, corn, beans (green and dry), squash and pumpkins, and ducks/eggs. Before she gets into the discussion of each of these, she talks at some length and in some personal terms about resiliency, climate change and weather, diet, tools, soil, and water.

March

The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) by William Trevor: A lovely novel of regret, redemption and forgiveness, that reads more like a slow-moving short story. Lucy Gault is 9 when we meet her, living an idyllic country life with her happy parents near the sea in County Cork, Ireland in 1921; but because of circumstances, her family now needs to move away, and Lucy doesn’t want to leave her beautiful home. So she runs off on moving day.  All that follows stems from this action and a handful of others, none intentionally meant to lead to the consequences that ensue.  The writing is often poetic and revealing of interiority;  the mood generally languid, with a pervasive sense of inevitability.

The Nightmare (2010) by Lars Kepler. Set mainly on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden, this is another well-written thriller, fast-paced and complex in its plot and in its telling. First a woman is found murdered on a pleasure boat, then a top Swedish munitions oversight committee member commits suicide. How are they connected? It’s not a sequel to The Hypnotist and you need not have read that book before this one. The only carry-over character is DI Joona Linna, an intuitive, optimistic, lone wolf sort of detective. As one reviewer wrote of this book, “Everyone in the book is just a little off, and when they all start bouncing against each other, the results are anything but predictable.” Some are more off than others but in general the small eccentricities are what make these books very interesting and engaging.  Highly recommended.

The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court (2012) by Jeffrey Toobin. A very readable, well-organised, rather partisan look at the Supreme Court since about 2005 (before Obama was president) until 2012. Toobin first compares and contrasts the backgrounds, goals and temperaments of President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, then sketches out cases since Roberts has been on the court (2006) and offers glimpses into the personal lives of each of the current justices as well as Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens. His partisanship reveals itself in his wording when talking about Scalia in particular — he uses the words fixation, obsession and preoccupation over and over with regard to him, as well as splenetic, sneering, belligerent, and apoplectic; talks about his misplaced sense of victimhood; says that Scalia pretended that the framers had dictated that the 2nd Amendment provided the right of individuals to own guns; and finally tells us that his dissenting opinion in the Arizona immigration case in June 2012 marks his “transition from conservative intellectual to right-wing crank” — as well as Alito (particularly with respect to the Goodyear case) and Thomas — who “made little pretense of relying on the words of his colleagues and his predecessors when their interpretations conflicted with his own understanding of the Constitution’s text.” He seems respectful of Roberts’ intellect, diplomacy and graceful writing style, but in the end asserts that he’s “doing the bidding of the contemporary Republican party.” Gun control is by far the topic, besides the Court itself, that Toobin explores at most length in the book, and to a lesser degree campaign finance reform; health care reform; free speech; originalism; judicial activism vs. stability and precedence; and the contrast in policies, beliefs, and judicial decisions between those who promote laissez faire principles and deregulation and those who think that regulation helps promote the public interest in the face of powerful monied interests.

April

Helsinki Blood (2013) by James Thompson, fourth in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. A Goodreads reviewer sets the dark scene: “Inspector Kari Vaara is having a bad year. Still recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor and injuries from his last case, he now has to deal with corrupt higher-ups, relatives of some of the deceased Kari and his cohorts eliminated, his wife’s trauma from her part in the last case which caused her to leave their baby with Kari and return to the U.S., and now person or persons unknown have targeted his family and friends. In hopes of proving to his wife that he can do more than mindless murder, Kari takes a missing person case.” As Vaara recovers from his surgery, he is beginning to feel more emotion, making him less psychopathic than in the previous book. But his henchmen (Sweetness and Milo) are still psychopaths and still willing to do whatever Kari asks. Lots of cruelty, blood and gore.

The Sound of Broken Glass (2013) by Deborah Crombie in the Kincaid/James series. DS Melody Talbot gets a larger role than usual in this crime novel, set mainly in Crystal Palace in South London (also in Notting Hill, Cleaver Square, Dulwich). While Kincaid spends his time at home with their foster daughter Charlotte, Gemma and Melody tackle the murder of an older man who is found naked, bound and strangled in a cheap hotel after his involvement in a bit of a dust-up at the local pub. The plot is mostly contemporary, with some flashbacks to 15 years ago. It’s a cozy police procedural.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012) by Bob Spitz: Really an engaging, fast read for a 525+pp book. He does overuse the adjective “finchy” and there is some repetition that a good editor would have caught, but those things are minor compared with the generally strong writing, the wealth of interesting anecdotes, the detailed family histories, and the fully fleshed-out life of Julia Child.  (Read for a bookgroup.)

May

Room No. 10 (2005/2013) by Åke Edwardson, seventh in the Inspector Winter series set in Gothenburg. When Chief Inspector Erik Winter is called to investigate a young woman found hanged in a sleazy hotel room (with one hand painted white), he realises he investigated a missing person’s case involving this same hotel room 18 years before. Are there connections between the cases? Satisfying.

The Day is Dark (2011) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, fourth in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. This one is set in a very remote area of east Greenland, where the villagers are hostile and people working on a molybdenum mining project keep disappearing.  Something was missing in this thriller for me; it was slow, dreary, and not compelling. I don’t feel like I get much sense of the personality of the recurring characters in the series, either; they seem flat to me.

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompson: Read for my permaculture discussion group. Pretty basic, with chapters on Why Permaculture?, Permaculture Basics, Designing the Permaculture Garden, Building the Soil, Permaculture Edibles, Growing from Seed, and Permaculture and the Community. Beautiful and helpful  photos and drawings. Hits all the highlights — polyculture garden, fruit tree guilds, seed starting and seed saving, and goes into some detail on many crops: fruits, nuts, vines, fruiting ground covers, perennial and annual vegetables, mushrooms, edible flowers and herbs, and grains. Useful addition to the permaculture library.

Watching the Dark (2012) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks series, set in the Eastvale area and also in Estonia. Banks is investigating the murder of a fellow police officer, felled with a crossbow while convalescing at the the police rehab center.  Photos he had hidden in his room, and a missing girl case he investigated  years ago, lead Banks — and, against Banks’ will, Professional Standards Inspector Joanna Passero — to Talinn, Estonia to learn more. Good.

Citizens of London: : The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour (2010) by Lynne Olson. Read for a bookgroup. I liked it (everyone else in the group loved it). Focuses on Gil Winant (ambassador to Britain), Ed Murrow (CBS broadcaster) and Averill Harriman (U.S. Lend-Lease manager, later ambassador to the Soviet Union, then to Britain, and later still married to Pamela Churchill), and their crucial behind-the-scenes influence on Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II. Well-researched and -written, the book is chronological from 1939 until 1945 or so, in addition to filling in the backgrounds of the three men and then filling us in on their lives after the war. I learned a lot of new information about the U.S. and Britain militarily and politically in the European theatre in World War II, life in London during the war and particularly during the Blitz, the ongoing friction between the two Allies, Eisenhower’s role, and about Churchill and Roosevelt themselves.

The Violent Bear It Away (1960) by Flannery O’Connor, for a bookgroup. More of a novella, the story of a 14-year-old boy raised by his fanatically religious great-uncle to be a prophet. When his great-uncle dies, the boy leaves the homestead without burying him as he’s been told to do, and seeks out his other uncle, a secular humanist whose “dim-witted” son the boy has been told to baptise.  A dark, deeply cynical story of murder, rape, arson, thieving, and probably some other crimes, whose message seems to be that you can’t escape your destiny.

June

April Fool Dead (2002) by Carolyn Hart, #13 in the Death on Demand series, just a lazy beach vacation re-read. Her writing and caricatures (hitting readers over the head with the daily (hourly?) sexual vibes between Annie and Max, the arrogant forcefulness of Emma, etc.) are off-putting but the location, on a SC island, with all the ambiance that brings, is enticing. The mystery plots themselves are so-so.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kenedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis (2012) by Alice Kaplan, non-fiction about these three American women and how each of their one-year time spent in Paris (all around college age, between 1949 and 1964) influenced their lives ever after. A bit contrived as a theory but the book provides an interesting contrast between the aesthete (Kennedy), the bohemian (Sontag) and the political activist (Davis). None of the women particularly appealed to me but the section on Sontag was my favourite because it contained so much information about the French avant garde movement. The section on Davis bogs down in detail, in my opinion, but it was the favourite of most in my bookgroup.

Dead, White and Blue (2013) by Carolyn Hart, #23 in the Death on Demand series. Shell Hurst is a careless, cruel young woman who enjoys toying with people. One of the people she toys with, at a Fourth of July dinner dance, doesn’t find it funny and takes care of Shell. This mystery strains credulity more than most of Hart’s, which is saying something. The Darlings seem to spend 80% of their lives snooping in other people’s business, and other people let them, even while they complain about it. The Darlings ask 100 people to come reenact a murder and those people (including the murderer) all come. You would think by now the islanders would have all signed a petition to export the meddling, pushy Darlings. The only plus to this series, and the reason I occasionally read one (besides being desperate for something to read) is the lure of the SC island setting. (There was also basic grammatical error in this book, infer used when imply was meant. Hello, editors?)

July

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009) by Alan Bradley, the first in the Flavia de Luce series, set in 1950s small town England. Flavia is an 11-year-old misfit, a precocious amateur sleuth and chemist. The writing is rich, the plots have the feel of an English cozy, but I’m not sure how I feel about Flavia and her relationships with the rest of her family; it feels a little too much like a caricature. The plot of this book centers on stamp collecting.

The Fire Witness (2011/2013) by Lars Kepler, transl. Laura Wideburg. Third in the Joona Linna series set in Sweden. A girl and a nurse at a home for troubled girls are murdered on the same night, and soon afterward a woman who pretends to be a medium to make money starts to have visions of the murdered girl. Only Joona Linna — still under official investigation for his actions in another case — will listen to her when she calls the police.  I guessed the murderer fairly early but there are enough plot twists (including one concerning Linna’s own past) to keep the reader enthralled anyway. I read this 500-page book (made up of 195 very short chapters) in about 4 hours.  Very fast-paced. Excellent writing. Themes include parenting, adopted and foster children, and troubled teenaged girls.

Death and the Olive Grove: An Inspector Bordelli Mystery (2012/2013) by Marco Vichi, transl. Stephen Sartarelli. Second in the series. The spectre of World War II is not far away from Inspector Bordelli’s thoughts or the events in this introspective crime novel, set in spring 1964, Florence.  Bordelli chain smokes, dreams, and relives the past as he investigates the strangulation deaths of young girls left out in fields.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010) by Alan Bradley, second in the Flavia de Luce series, set in 1950s small-town England. I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as the first in the series but I’m not sure why. Plot centers on an abusive, philandering puppeteer electrocuted during his show, and the hanging death of a young local child years before. Think I am finished with this series.

The General in His Labyrinth (1989) by Gabriel García Márquez, a fictional tale of Simón Bolívar’s last few months, when he journeys down the Magdalena River in 1830.  This is a classic “nothing really happens” story: As the General and his entourage travel, he remembers glory days gone by, romances, and ordinary and traumatic events as he becomes sicker and sicker, is sometimes reviled and sometimes worshipped (and often not noticed at all), and feels the weight of all his decisions.  I read this for a small bookgroup, and the others thought it a depressing read, but I found it dreamy and realistic, an interior journey through the labyrinth of one’s life — in this case, of a very eventful, action-filled life that as it winds down becomes a time for reverie, regrets, nostalgia, hope, despair, and a kind of acceptance.

Lost (2013) by SJ Bolton, with Detective Constable Lacey Flint (officially not on the case, and seeing a psychiatrist to deal with some past trauma) and Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury. In this novel, pre-teen boys are being dumped near the Thames, their bodies first drained of blood. Is it vampirism? Renfield’s Syndrome? Or maybe the work of the rather absent father of Lacey’s 11-year-old neighbour Barney? Perhaps my favourite so far of her books, though if you don’t like reading about children in peril, you might want to skip it.

The Bat (1997/2012) by Jo Nesbo, the first in the Harry Hole crime fiction series, but one of the last to be translated into English. This one is set in Australia. Norwegian police officer Hole, is, as ever, fighting his alcoholism, as he investigates the murder of a minor Norwegian TV celebrity, Inger Holter He’s paired with Sydney homicide detective Andrew Kensington, an Australian aborigine, who may already suspect Holter’s murderer. Hippies, prostitutes, heroine users, aborigine boxers, gay circus clowns and other fringe characters figure in this tightly-woven novel.

August

Midwinter Blood (2011/2012) by Mons Kallentoft, the first in another Swedish police series, featuring troubled single mom Malin Fors. In this one, a mutilated body is found hanging from a tree.  It is a pagan ritual or something more prosaic? Lots of child cruelty in this book; that is, cruelty done to children and rendered by children (and teens).  Well-written and -plotted. I’ll definitely read another.

Skin Tight (1989) by Carl Hiaasen, a comic crime novel set in Florida and focusing on plastic surgery. Hilarious! I was laughing aloud as I read it on the beach in Delaware. The many means of murder are ingenuous and varied, the protagonist (Mick Stranahan, a former detective for the Fla. State’s Attorney’s office) likeable and fun to be with, and the dialogue trenchant. Wikipedia has a good plot summary.

March (2005) by Geraldine Brooks, for a bookgroup. Historical fiction set during the start of the Civil War, the book follows Concord (MA) idealist and abolitionist Mr. March — the absent father from Little Women, whom Brooks has modelled on Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott — as he goes off to be a chaplain in Virginia, leaving his family in reduced circumstances (thanks to having given all their wealth to the insurrectionist John Brown, whom his wife admires). While away, he writes home to his wife, withholding from her much of what he sees, does, and feels, as she later learns. He becomes ill with a recurring fever, and his illness, coupled with a brutal “skirmish” near the plantation where he has found his calling teaching almost-former slave children and adults, results in his being transported to a hospital in down-at-heel Washington DC, where he meets up again with Grace, an intelligent, literate and wise black woman, now a nurse, whom he first met, and fell for, when he was an 18-year-old peddlar making his fortune selling items house to house in the South. Most of the chapters are told from March’s point of view, though a few near the end are from his wife, Marmee’s, perspective as she visits him in hospital. For me, the book reads like a historical romance mixed with, as the New York Times review puts it, “moral exhibitionism.” I found the book sentimental (e.g., all the black people are virtuous and good-hearted, with only one exception, and most of the white people are not) and the main character (March) an idealist who regularly misreads other people (particularly his wife, as we learn) and who enjoys self-flagellation and the narcissistic belief (or pride, as his wife calls it) that only he can effect a change in others and in society. The New York Times review describes him thus: “March, who lives on vegetables and guilt, must continually learn that Northern troops can be as racist as Southern landowners.” I don’t mind a protagonist who’s a coward, or one who’s a prig, but March and the other characters felt like contrivances created to make a point.  One thing that did work for me with this book was the setting of each chapter with a dissembling letter from March to his wife, followed by the events that really occurred and the memories and thoughts that were really in his mind.  The book won a Pulitzer for fiction in 2006.

Native Tongue (1991) by Carl Hiaasen: Not as laugh-out-loud funny as Skin Tight but even wilder and more improbable in conception. Joe Winder — a journalist, now a press writer, for the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, a wannabe Disney in Key Largo run by an ex-mob informant in the FBW witness protection program — gets involved in various people’s schemes to thwart the amusement park owner’s planned new golf course and other land developments. Wikipedia again has a good plot summary.

Death Angel (2013) by Linda Fairstein, 15th in the Assistant D.A. Alex Cooper series set in Manhattan. This tale, set almost entirely in Central Park, involves the murder of a homeless young woman and leads Alex and the others to events from the past, with a focus not only on the geography and landmarks of Central Park but also on The Dakota and one wealthy family who lived there for decades. Before we’re entirely immersed in the Park, though, Alex and Special Victims Unit Detective Mercer Wallace’s wife, Vickee, go to the Vineyard for a weekend, where their conversation sets the stage for the next phase of Alex and (NYPD Detective) Mike Chapman’s relationship. 

Strip Tease (1993) by Carl Hiaasen. Erin, a strip club dancer with a druggy psychopathic wheelchair-stealing ex-husband (who has custody of their young daughter), becomes involved in  the degenerate life of a U.S. congressman, David Dilbeck, who avidly supports Big Sugar. The strip club bouncer, Shad, and a Florida homicide detective Sgt. Al Garcia, try to protect Erin from a multitude of dangers.  Set in Fort Lauderdale. Some funny bits but not as good as Skin Tight.

September

Old Filth (2006) by Jane Gardam: First in a trilogy. Excellent. Summary truncated from Good Reads: “Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood. Now an eighty-year-old widower living in comfortable seclusion in Dorset, Feathers … slips back into the past with ever mounting frequency and intensity. …  Feathers’ childhood in Malaya during the British Empire’s heyday, his schooling in pre-war England, his professional success in Southeast Asia and his return to England toward the end of the millennium, are vantage points from which the reader can observe the march forward of an eventful era and the steady progress” of the man and the century.

The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) by Jane Gardam: Second in the trilogy, the story of her marriage to Filth told from Betty’s point of view (mostly).

Little Face (2006/2007) by Sophie Hannah, a gripping psychological thriller that I read in less than two days. Alice returns home after her first outing since her daughter was born to find that it’s not her daughter in the nursery now but another baby who looks almost the same. The police are called, but they doubt her story, as do her controlling mother-in-law and husband. But DC Simon Waterhouse, who feels an instant affinity for Alice, thinks she may be telling the truth. The psychological nuances are fine.

Last Friends (2013) by Jane Gardam, last in the Old Filth trilogy, this one focusing on Pastry Willy’s widow, Dulcie, Terry Veneering and his childhood in Herringfleet, and everyone’s pal, Fred Fiscal-Smith.  I’m going to miss these people.

October

The Wrong Mother (2008) by Sophie Hannah, the third in the thriller series featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer.  When Sally Thorning sees the husband and father of a murdered woman and child on TV, she recognises his name — but his face doesn’t match the man she knows by this name, someone she spent a week with the year before.  This is a complicated plot featuring several sets of mothers and young daughters, with numerous twists and small details,  the mothers sharing a degree of reactions to their children ranging from irritation to all-out desperation at being on-call 24/7 servants to small beloved tyrants, a taboo topic for many moms and a clever focus for a crime novel. Gripping.

When We Were the Kennedys (2012) by Monica Wood, my second reading of this book, for another book group. Just as good — compelling, moving — the second time around.

The Truth-Teller’s Lie (2007), by Sophie Hannah, second in the Waterhouse/ Zailer series.  When Naomi Jenkins’ lover doesn’t show up for their regular Thursday afternoon tryst, she contacts the police, who don’t seem keen to do much until she tells them that he raped her three years ago.

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini. For bookgroup. I was not looking forward to reading this, as I didn’t like his first book, The Kite Runner, at all. But this novel was charming, the tale of a brother and sister ripped from each other when the brother was 10 and the sister 7, and their long trip back to each other. At time, the novel reads like a series of short stories, or vignettes, pieced together, but that didn’t detract for me from the whole, from humanity and gentleness of the book’s vision.

Orphan Train (2013): YA or adult novel about two orphans: Vivian, one who was on the National   Orphan Train in 1929, from New York to Minnesota (and her life in Minnesota and later, as an aged woman,  in Spruce Harbor, Maine), and Molly, a 17-year-old living in Spruce Harbor, Maine. The book is simple in plot and simply written, another gentle story told with humanity.

November

The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien. Genius collection of short stories that read like a novel, about the Vietnam War but more so about the acts of experiencing, perceiving, remembering, and telling stories that are true, whether factual or not.

How The Light Gets In (2013) by Louise Penny, in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (of the Sûreté du Québec) series. One of her best yet in this humane, soulful, psychologically insightful series. The characters — police colleagues and Three Pines residents alike — are revealed as more and more complex as the series continues, so that having read the previous books — while not absolutely necessary to enjoying the current one — lends such depth and nuance to it. Two stories alternate in the novel, one involving the murder of one of a set of famous Canadian quintuplets and the other the ongoing saga of the corruption at the highest levels of the Sûreté.  I read it in two days.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce: Fiction about a 65-year-old man who spontaneously begins walking from the south of England to a hospice in Northumberland where a friend(Queenie) lies dying, as a way to save her (or himself, as it turns out). It takes him about 3 months and during that time he takes an inward meandering path as well, learning and relearning and letting go, and knowing and being bewildered, not knowing. His thoughts and actions and his (angry, depressed, disillusioned, bitter) wife’s are contrasted throughout the book. They both face regrets, disappointments, betrayals. I liked it.

Dust (2013) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series, this one set around Cambridge MA, with Lucy assuming a greater role and Mike and Benton smaller ones. A serial killer has been at work in the DC area and in Cambridge but the FBI (Benton’s bosses) are obviously manipulating evidence and covering up for the killer. Good plot — but it’s important to read the earlier stories if you want to understand the characters and relationships in this series.

December

Some Kind of Peace (2009/2012) by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff: In the psychotherapist Siri Bergmann series.  This is the first I’ve read in this series (not sure whether it’s the first book or not; they are translated from Swedish) and I liked it. Bergmann, a 35-yr-old widowed psychotherapist living in an isolated house by the water, is being watched by someone who wishes her harm.

Noir Quotes

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Just finished reading James Thompson’s Helsinki Blood (2013), in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. I couldn’t finish the previous book in the series, Helsinki White (2011), because it was too gruesome and the torture and violence too graphic for me at the time. This book is probably just as gruesome, but Kari is changing, becoming less morally depraved, as the effects of his brain tumour and the surgery to remove it dissipate.

That said, there is still a lot of killing, and his two companions are sociopaths. The humour is dark.

‘I cruised by Veikko Saukko’s mansion,’ Milo says. ‘Sure as shit, just like his calendar says, he was out behind the house, knocking golf balls into the sea. Kind of weird, isn’t it? I’m going to kill one man practicing golf and two men playing it on the same day. Generally, people don’t consider it a dangerous sport.’

and

‘Drove him [a corpse] out to the countryside, packed his mouth with Semtex to get rid of dental records, then duct-taped is hands to his face to blow off his fingers, the point of course being to destroy his prints. And then, well, you can imagine the result. I walked about ten kilometers through woods until I came to a road with a bus stop, so no one would recall me being in the vicinity.’

“With practice, we’ve become quite good criminals.

New Year’s Meme

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(Idea from Notes of an Anesthesioboist .)

I last did this on 1 Jan 2010, then forgot all about it. I’m a little late this year.

1. What did you do in 2012 that you’ve never done before? Finished a bathroom renovation. I’d never had anyone else renovate anything in a house; this renovation started in Oct 2011 and ended in February 2012. Also, designed and planted my first permaculture garden. And met someone in person (Shelley and Gerard) whom I’d only known through Facebook!

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I don’t make them. I just do what I want when I want.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? No.

4. Did anyone close to you die? Our favourite vet died in January 2012. Bella bulldog (Shelley’s dog) died suddenly in July 2012, which was shocking to me.

5. What countries did you visit? Just this one… Jekyll Island GA, Boothbay Harbor ME, Ogunquit ME, Baltimore MD, Boston, NYC, Bath ME, Manchester VT, etc.  I would rather not use the carbon that it takes to fly.

6. What would you like to have in 2013 that you lacked in 2012? Actually, 2012 was pretty great: lots of entertaining and time with friends; lots of walking, snowshoeing and exploring; took several interesting classes; went on a number of fun trips. It was a good year.

7. What dates from 2012 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 29 July, when Bella died.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? A good balance of rest and exercise, inside and outside, solitary and social, planned and spontaneous, traveling and home.

9. What was your biggest failure? Always, a failure to love more, to be compassionate, to be fully aware and appreciative of what I am receiving.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Some upper back pain for several months.

11. What was the best thing you bought? I like my Razr Maxx droid phone quite a bit.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Journalists around the world in dangerous locations.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? My government’s.

14. Where did most of your money go? Housing/renovation, health insurance/care, retirement savings.

15. What did you get really excited about? Trip to Jekyll.

16. What song will always remind you of 2012? None.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…

-happier or sadder? happier, I think
-thinner or fatter? same
-richer or poorer? richer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Loving. Letting go. Lightening up. Meditation. The usual.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Fretting. Acting out of fear. The usual.

20. How did you spend Christmas? At home with spouse and dog,  eating take-out Indian food. The usual!

21. Did you fall in love in 2012? Of course. Almost any time I look through the camera lens, I fall in love.

22. What was your favorite TV program? None … we have almost no channels and rarely watch TV. We have been watching Frasier on dvd but that’s been in 2013.

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? I can’t think of anyone I hate.

24. What was the best book you read? When We Were the Kennedys, a memoir by Monica Wood, was very good. And the 4 books (so far) in the turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna crime novel series by Frank Tallis were excellent.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery? None. Didn’t listen to new music this year.

26. What did you want and get? A dog caretaker who would stay at our house while we’re away and ease Gretty’s stress.

27. What did you want and not get? World peace. Again.

28. What was your favorite film of this year? None, really. A Late Quartet was nice, but rescreenings of Something’s Gotta Give and My Architect were my favourites.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old are you? Hung out at home, early 50s.

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? I can’t think of anything. Perhaps more time at the ocean.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2012? One basic uniform for winter, one for summer. Fall and spring are slightly problematic.

32. What kept you sane? Time alone. Time outside. The camera. The garden. Meditation. Exercise. Fiction. Friends. Stable marriage.

33. What celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? I still like Pema Chödrön a lot. And Rene Girard.

34. What political issue stirred you the most? US: gun control reform (please), drone killing, health care reform (more, please). Globally: Scapegoating, witch hunts, and all other forms of mimetic violence. Torture as legal punishment. Oil/resource wars.

35. Whom did you miss? My friends from my former community. My dad. Rachael and Charlie. The ocean.

36. Who was the best new person you met? Many … I met Caroline and Jim, Candis, Liz, Ann, Natalie, Mary Lou and Larry, and others between 2009 and 2011, but really got to know them all better in 2012.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2012. Nothing stays the same.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:

A new Moon leads me to
Woods of dreams, and I follow.
A new world waits for me;
My dream, my way…

I know that if I have Heaven
There is nothing to desire.
Rain and river, a world of wonder,
May be Paradise to me.”

– Enya, “China Roses

This is no consolation

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I. Several years ago for a Tennebrae or perhaps a Good Friday service, I was asked to come up with contemporary songs to match the traditional seven words Jesus said on the cross as he was dying:

  1. “Forgive them, Father! They do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
  2. “I tell you this: Today you will be in Paradise with me.” (Luke 23:43)
  3. He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ (John 19:26-27)
  4. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
  5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
  6. “It is finished.” ( John 19:30)
  7. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)

skyreflectedinlake8Nov2011elongated

II. I can’t recall the songs I chose for any but the first, and it’s running through my mind and heart again this Lenten season. I chose the 10,000 Maniacs’ “Please Forgive Us:”

"Mercy, mercy," why didn't we hear it?
"Mercy, mercy," why did we read it 
buried on the last page of our morning papers?
The plan was drafted, drafted in secret.
Gunboats met the red tide, driven to the rum trade 
for the army that they created.
But the bullets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done
in our name.

There'll be more trials like this in mercenary heydays.
When they're so apt to wrap themselves up
in the stripes and stars and find that they are able
to call themselves heroes
and to justify murder by their fighters For freedom.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
Could you ever forgive us? I don't know how you could.

I know this is no consolation:
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we didn't know.

Could you ever believe that we didn't know?
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, and you never will.

skymountainshorelinereflected8Nov2011elongated

III. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE I just finished taking a “History of U.S. Foreign Policy” class through the local college, where we learned or were reminded of the many covert operations the U.S. CIA has led to overthrow governments and assassinate those it considered enemies. From the formal creation of the CIA in 1947 (and the creation of the covert arm in 1948), there are many examples, in places like Vietnam, Hungary, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Greece, Bolivia, Cambodia, El Salvador, and the countries below:

>> The overthrow of the IRANian government (1953): Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA (featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, and Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr.) and the UK worked to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran, led by Mohammad Mossadegh, “who had attempted to nationalize Iran’s petroleum industry, threatening the profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” (now BP). The U.S. and UK imposed a boycott on the country and “conducted a massive covert propaganda campaign to create the environment necessary for the coup,” both in Iran and in the U.S. They portrayed it as a spontaneous popular uprising when it was anything but. They installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who formed a military government, ruled as an autocrat, and was heavily supported by the U.S. until he was overthrown in 1979. “Over the next 25 years, more than $20 billion in U.S. taxpayers’ money would pour into a decidedly undemocratic Iran, most of it military aid and subsidized weapons sales for the Shah’s armed forces and SAVAK, his secret police”(from The Oily American, referenced below).

>> GUATEMALA (1954): CIA overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán because the powerful U.S. company, United Fruit Company — with whom both Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, Allen, the CIA director, had financial, personal and legal ties — objected to Árbenz’s plan to reappropriate (with compensation based on tax statements) unused land that had been taken from the Guatemalan people. Or as Schlesinger (see citation below) puts it, “Washington feared Arbenz because he tried to institute agrarian reforms that would hand over fallow land to dispossessed peasants, thereby creating a middle class in a country where 2 percent of the population owned 72 percent of the land. Unfortunately for him, most of that territory belonged to the largest landowner and most powerful body in the state: the American-owned United Fruit Company.”

United Fruit Company staged a PR campaign in the U.S. to convince us that Guatemala was a communist threat to the U.S. and pushed Eisenhower (and the CIA) to get involved, or they would seem “soft on Communism.”

As Wikipedia says (see also Watch Out for the Top Banana by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006): “In 1954, for his clients, the Eisenhower Administration and the United Fruit Company, the public relations expert [and nephew of Sigmund Freud] Edward Bernays engineered American popular consent for the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état to overthrow a capitalist democracy in Central America. The propaganda operation used the North American press to frighten the US public into believing that President Árbenz was a Communist and a political puppet of the USSR, and, therefore, that Guatemala had become a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, the backyard of the United States.”

The CIA harrassed Árbenz, cut off aid and embargoed arms (while increasing arms shipments to neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua), planted Soviet-made weapons on the border to imply that Guatemala was getting arms from the Soviets. As noted in Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1993), “Such economic sabotage of Guatemala was secret, because economic warfare violated the Latin American non-intervention agreement to which the United States was a signatory party; public knowledge that the US was violating the non-intervention agreement would prompt other Latin American countries to aid Guatemala in surviving the American economic warfare.” The CIA also created a small mercenary army of about 500, which they trained in Nicaragua and Honduras. They hired pilots to drop propaganda about the army and they created a fake radio station to tout its supposed victories. Though this mercenary army was no threat to the Guatemalan army, the Guatemalan military feared that if they defeated the CIA invasion, the U.S. would intervene and occupy the country. Panicked Guatemalan officers sent Árbenz into exile. The CIA’s chosen man, Col. Castillo Armas, became the new president, massacring people and wiping out dissent until he was assassinated by his body guard in 1957, when Guatemala then went from military government to military government for the next 30 years, supported by the U.S.

As a review of Weiner’s book on the CIA (cited below) puts it: “Guatemala was made safe for United Fruit — talk about banana republics — but not for democracy. A series of military dictators followed the CIA coup, with death squads and repression in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans perished.”

>> The Bay of Pigs (CUBA, 1961), the unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba and attempted overthrow of the revolutionary leftist government of President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado by a counter-revolutionary military trained and funded by the CIA (still under Allen Dulles, with Richard M. Bissell, David Philips, Gerald Drecher and E. Howard Hunt), first authorized by Eisenhower and his National Security Council, and then continued under John F. Kennedy. It was defeated by the Cuban military, under Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s command, within three days. This victory for the Castro administration eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

>> The ‘secret war’ in LAOS (1961-1975): “As the Vietnam War raged, Washington noticed that communist forces had spilled over into Laos. In response, the Americans launched what was later called a secret war. At the time, Laos had been declared ‘neutral,’ but with a growing communist presence, the CIA saw it as the next front in the conflict. A handful of CIA agents were flown in to build on existing tensions between the Hmong and the Laotian government, led by the communist Pathet Lao” (Wikipedia).  The CIA helped train and arm more than 60,000 Hmong fighters, who were to disrupt communist supply lines while the Americans set up a major military airport in Northern Laos. The CIA gave the fighters their own airline, Xieng Kouang airlines, which aided the already bustling opium trade in the region. Even though the U.S. used the Hmong to fight — and was spending $2 million a day carpet bombing Laos — it finally admitted defeat before the stronger communist army and fled. The secret war lasted 15 years during which it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 Hmong died. There are apparently still Hmong people hiding in the jungles of Laos.

>> The overthrow/killing of Salvador Allende in CHILE (1970-1973). When Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile (Sept 1970), U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered that he “not be allowed to take office.” Nixon “pursued a vigorous campaign of covert resistance to Allende, first designed to convince the Chilean congress to confirm Jorge Alessandri as the winner of the election. … Once Allende took office, extensive covert efforts continued with U.S.-funded black propaganda, … strikes organized against Allende, and funding for Allende opponents. … Following an extended period of social, political, and economic unrest, General Augusto Pinochet assumed power in a violent coup d’état on September 11, 1973; among the dead was Allende” (Wikipedia). The CIA says he committed suicide; others say he was massacred.

>> AFGHANISTAN (1979-1989): When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. “President Jimmy Carter, concluding that the Soviet army was passing through Afghanistan to seize the Middle East oil fields, sounded a warning: ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ Reagan replaced Carter as president in 1980, his administration got money from Congress (based on a faulty 1977 CIA report of faltering Soviet oil production) to arm Afghan insurgents and establish a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, and “the CIA began one of its longest and most expensive covert operations, supplying billions of dollars in arms to a collection of Afghan guerrillas (including Osama bin Laden) fighting the Soviets. At the same time, the U.S. was secretly supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran after Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. The State Department removed Iraq from its list of countries supporting terrorism, so that they could buy weapons. At the same time, we were selling weapons to Iran in the Iran-contra scandal…

>> Iran-contra war against NICARAGUA (1981-1990): Attempts to destabalise and overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, whose democratically elected president was Daniel Ortega. The CIA created a group whose task was to “sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it.” That group is best known for mining Nicaraguan harbors, sinking several Nicaraguan boats and damaging at least five foreign vessels, which led to international condemnation of the U.S. in 1984. The contras, based in Honduras, were waging a guerrilla war to topple the government of Nicaragua. The U.S. financed, armed, trained, and advised them. And even though the Boland Amendment made it illegal under U.S. law to provide arms to the contra militants, the Reagan administration nonetheless armed and funded them, secretly selling weapons to Iran (also in violation of U.S. law) in exchange for cash that they used to supply arms to the contras.

As CIA Director Bill Casey (1981-1987) said: “It takes relatively few people and little support to disrupt the internal peace and economic stability of a small country.”

skyreflectedinlake8Nov2011elongated

IV. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE of our ongoing drone strikes in other countries, killing civilians and combatants without any due process whatsoever. We have two drone programs running now, the covert drone strike program, run by the CIA, and the military drone program, run by the Pentagon. The Pentagon administers its drone program in war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and also in Yemen and Somalia, where it’s carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command. The CIA began its program in Yemen in 2002, expanding in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2004, and ramping up dramatically there and in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 under President Barack Obama. The CIA has never publicly acknowledged its covert drone program.

Estimates for the number of people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen vary widely — partly because the U.S. reportedly counts as a militant any military-age male killed in a drone strike — from about 2,500 to 4,800 — including militant/enemy deaths (2,300 to 3,900) and civilian deaths (170 to 900). Drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2012 are estimated to have injured another 1,300 people.

In May 2012, John Bellinger, former legal adviser for the National Security Council, said on the Diane Rehm show on NPR that the Obama administration “dramatically ramped up the program far more than the Bush administration, perhaps because they learned the lesson of what happened by capturing and detaining people. And we saw what happened with Guantanamo. So they’ve largely been focusing on killing them with several hundred drone strikes, killing thousands of people in several different countries … If the Bush administration had acknowledged a wide-ranging program to kill thousands of people in multiple countries around the world, including a number of civilians, the human rights groups and Europeans would have been outraged. I’m sure they would have accused the president of being a war criminal, grave breaches of international law. What we’ve seen up to this point, and even after this point, is at least European countries have just looked the other way.”

As Hina Shamsi of the ACLU said, on the same Diane Rehm show: “We believe [the drone strokes are] unlawful because the world is not a battle place and because people are being killed in places where the United States is not at war. … [T]he danger here is that the Obama administration, even though it has rightly turned its back on the nomenclature of a global war on terror, is essentially carrying forward the Bush administration’s claim of a worldwide battlefield.”

A detailed legal analysis — looking at legality of drone strikes in terms of Pakistan’s sovereignty, under international humanitarian law (which states, in part, that intentional lethal force is allowed “only when necessary to protect against a threat to life, and where there are ‘no other means, such as capture or non-lethal incapacitation, of preventing that threat to life'”), under U.S. domestic law (including in the context of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed one week after 9/11), and in terms of accountability and transparency — is available in the Stanford report (citation below).

skymountainshorelinereflected8Nov2011elongated

V. Perhaps in the past we didn’t all know about covert actions, “done in our name;” perhaps they were “on the last page of the morning paper,” hidden from all but the most diligent (and literate); but now we have no excuse. We do know what is done in our name, with our dollars, with our bullets.

Mercenary heydays.

Mercy. Mercy.

———————–

SOURCES

Drones

Added: “The Killing Machines” by Mark Bowden, in The Atlantic, 14 Aug 2013

“Number of drone strikes is rocketing, but who’s counting?” by Michael Evans, in The Australian, 12 March 2013

Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer, in The Long War Journal, last updated 10 March 2013

CIA’s covert drone program may shift further onto Pentagon, by Ken Dilanian, in the Los Angeles Times, 17 Feb 2013.

Drones And Their Use In Counterterrorism, The Diane Rehm show, 7 Feb 2013.

Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes by Cora Currier at ProPublica, 5 Feb 2013

The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2013, at New America Foundation.

Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Bob Barry, in The Long War Journal, last updated 23 Jan. 2013.

Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (182-page PDF), a report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at
NYU School of Law, Sept. 2012. Summary here. Legal analysis here.

US Drone Strikes, The Diane Rehm show, 31 May 2012

Iran – overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh (1953)

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

Guatemala – overthrow of Árbenz (1954)

“Ghosts of Guatemala’s Past” by Stephen Schlesinger, in The New York Times, 3 June 2011.

“Watch Out for the Top Banana” by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006.

1954 Guatemalan coup d’état at Wikipedia. (Much the same version that I heard in my class this winter, from a history professor with a specialty in Latin American history.)

Bay of Pigs (1961)

Bay of Pigs Release, Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 2 Aug 2011: 769 documents (thousands of pages) of material, including the CIA Inspector General’s Report on the CIA’s ill-fated April 1961 attempt to implement national policy by overthrowing the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba by means of a covert paramilitary operation, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs, and a commentary on that report written by the Directorate of Plans. Also National Security Council briefings.

‘Secret war’ in Laos (1961-1975)

The CIA’s ‘Secret War’ by William Lloyd-George, in The Diplomat, 25 Feb 2011.

Chile – overthrow of Allende (1970-73)

CIA Activities in Chile, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 September 2000. Includes Overview of Covert Actions (Support for Coup in 1970, Awareness of Coup Plotting in 1973, Knowledge of Human Rights Violations, etc.), The ‘Assassination’ of President Salvador Allende; Accession of General Augusto Pinochet to the Presidency; Violations of Human Rights Committed by Officers or Covert Agents and Employees of the CIA.

The Church Report: Covert Action in Chile 1963-1973, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 Dec. 1975

Afghanistan (1979-1989):

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

General Info on CIA Covert Actions

Covert United States foreign regime change actions, Wikipedia. Well-documented article.

TO READ

Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, which summarizes fourteen government overthrows by the US during the past century and a half.

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (2007) by Tim Weiner. Reviewed here.

U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare, and the CIA, 1945-53 by Sarah-Jane Corke, 2008. Reviewed here.

Invention

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He thought of Dante struggling with the napoletana and went into the kitchen. The inventor was trying to assemble the machine upside down.

“‘What an odd contraption,’ he said.

“‘Give it to me.’

“‘I was almost there, you know.’

“Bordelli took the pieces out of Dante’s hands.

“‘See? This goes here.’

“‘I’d thought of that, but it seemed too banal.’

“‘Not everyone has your imagination.’

“‘Compliment accepted….’

– from Marco Vichi’s Death in August (2011)

Expect the End of the World. Laugh.

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I’m in a local group reading through Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook together. It posits climate change and peak oil — two separate but intertwined phenomena — and looks for ways local communities can become more resilient and vital in the face of greatly reduced energy resources and a planet where weather, habitat, and even masses like glaciers and seas are more and more in flux. (You can read more about the problem at Why Transition? There is also a 12-page leaflet that summarises the handbook.)

Hopkins’ suggestions and examples are meant to be hopeful, positive, creative, proactive, community-building. Ideas include generating fuel, food and housing locally, developing local currencies, sharing tools and skills, etc.  His vision is of an evolution in our vision and our systems that helps us to weather a low-carbon, End-of-the-Oil-Age future. It’s certainly worth reading.

I’ve also been reading some articles lately that have a different perspective from The Transition Handbook. The point of view of both of these — Quote Of The Year. And The Next. at The Automatic Earth and The Road Down From Empire at Resilience — seems to be more an expectation of adaptation or collapse — rather than the evolution Hopkins envisions and hopes for. These writers seem to expect that we’ll deal with it when it happens (adaptation) or we won’t (collapse).

And that feels most likely to me. I think we humans respond to what feels urgent, in our hearts, to our senses — and not what we are told or even what we consciously think and intellectually agree is urgent. And climate change and the waning of liquid fuel don’t feel urgent to most Americans, including me. If one year is 1 degree warmer than other years, it doesn’t feel like anything. And, as most of us have experienced, sometimes what does feel urgent in life isn’t nearly as important or critical in the long run as it feels in the moment, and I think this tempers our response to complex crises, as does hearing, year after year, that something is a crisis. We get weary of responding, even if we respond only in our imaginations.

I really gravitate to the acceptance that disaster will happen, whether environmental or otherwise. For me, expecting that we won’t avert disaster doesn’t change at all my desire to do more with less; to be continually less involved with a consumerist/capitalist/growth-focused culture; to want and to work for a strong community where I (and others) have strong connections with neighbours, acquaintances and friends; to be in physical touch with the Earth around me and the other animals and plants living here; and to live a creative, centered  and connected life.  Accepting that we humans will probably fail to make needed changes  — if we even really knew what they were, the system being so complex and dynamic naturally without even accounting for political, financial and economic, and technological complexity — feels freeing to me.

When I started making changes, years ago, to align my actions more with my values (still very much a work in progress), it wasn’t because I was afraid we were going to run out of oil, though I knew even then that we probably would if we kept doing what we were doing, because it is a finite resource, or and it wasn’t because I thought my actions would have any significant impact on the course of events beyond my life, and maybe not even in my own life. It was only because these actions brought me joy and made me feel whole(r), because they felt right (true, real, alive) to me. And that’s the only way I really want to speak about or “do” resiliency with other people, from the place of “what actions align most fully with what we/you value?”

I guess in perhaps a perverse way, I value relaxing and letting go of expectations in the face of probable impending doom. One of my favourite poems (The Dakini Speaks, by Jennifer Welwood), about personal loss, is applicable for me here:

Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like human ripe beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.

Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability. …

For me, this isn’t a call to be passive, to do nothing, to roll over. Far from it. It’s a call to dance. We still act, every day, and it’s good to be aware of the stakes of our actions (for every being, insofar as we can know them) and to think about how to act well, and to do it. I’m an utter (yet subtle) evangelist for what I care about, but I harbor no notion that most of us will change our minds or our actions until it feels urgent to do so. And being told that a situation is urgent — in the words of TV infomercials, “You must act now!” — sometimes just increases the listener’s resistance to any message that follows (it does so for me, anyway).

For me, the poem I quoted is a reminder that no matter what we do, life (and “lifestyles”) will always always change, and everything will end, we will all end, in some way, even if we then begin again (or not). For me, it all starts with that in mind.

When people talk about hope, or try to find hope in situations or imagined situations, I can’t join in. I’m just not hoping for outcomes. More and more (though not fully) in the last 15 years or so, my practice goes another direction. It seems to be the direction of no-hope, at least when it comes to wanting or hoping for a specific outcome.

I’ve written about this quite a lot before. I wrote in April about environmentalists giving up. One, Paul Kingsnorth, says we need to replace “hope” with “imagination:” “I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.”

Imagination is, I think, the basis of The Transition Handbook: communities envisioning their own rebirth and resiliency. But if we are envisioning the world we want for the future, if we are trying to find a way to make it less disastrous, isn’t that also keeping control? On the other hand, what else can we do? I do have a vision, of sorts, which I’ve written about before, of the completely gratuitous, prodigal embrace of the loving, forgiving victim. Of the joyous revelation of love. Of grace.

So “no-hope” doesn’t mean that I am in despair, though I may be grieving losses. It doesn’t mean I’m passive, though I may think that no action (or no speaking) is the best action to take. It doesn’t mean — in the context of transition, climate change and peak oil — that I’m not interested in being part of a vital community, in resiliency (personal and communal), in gardening, public transportation, being outdoors more, doing what benefits the web of all life, reducing and reusing, lightening my footprint on the earth, and so on. I’m excited about all those things.

It just means that I’m not looking for anything to give me hope. To the extent I have hope, or faith, or joy, it’s not related to outcomes, to a vision, to what might or might not happen in the future. I feel willing to receive what arises, and to the extent that I’m not willing, this is my practise, to open my arms wide.

It’s like Wendell Berry says, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So, you know, I’m FINE (Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical). And I have no hope that I will be much else, but I am opening my arms to receive what arises.

As I wrote several years ago, part of a longer poem:

When nothing is sure, everything is possible.
(Margaret Drabble)

No hope.
No hope for the planet, for creation,
for my own violent nature,
for human progress,
for better living through science,
for community through technology,
for peace through meditation and prayer.

I pray, meditate, participate
virtually, locally.
When I notice, barely, my own violence
I offer it solace and wait in it, fidget,
pray for sustainable peace.
I am learning non-violence.
I am getting to know the Earth.

But: no hope.

Faith.
Faith that love will always embrace,
disarm, and absorb the power of hate.

What that looks like,
is looking like,
will look like,
is beyond me. Or perhaps within me.

Whatever it is,
I rejoice with the stars
to flicker for a moment.

2012 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74

(still have to compile 2006-2008)

number of books read in 2005:  37
number of books read in 2004: 46

average read per month: 4.2 books

average read per week: almost 1 book
number read in worst month: 1 (Jan)
number read in best month: 7 (May and June)
percentage by male authors: 40% (20)
percentage by female authors: 60% (30)
fiction as percentage of total: 88% (44 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 82% (36 of 44 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 12% (6 books)
percentage of total liked: 56% (28 books)
percentage of total ambivalent: 28% (14 books)
percentage of total disliked:  16% (8 books)

Notes:

The limiting factor in my reading again this year was availability of books I wanted to read. I kept running out of books I was interested in and ended up reading what I could find even if the books didn’t much appeal to me. I feel like I spent a lot of time not reading much of anything.

As usual, most of my non-fiction reading is online these days, in the form of essays and articles. I read several hundred pages of law for a Constitutional change class I took in the fall.

Books Read 2012 – Final

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Once again (2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Red Mist (2012) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Kay Scarpetta series. This one is set entirely in Savannah, GA, which was fun for me because I’ve visited it four times and recognised street names and places. The first-person narrative doesn’t really work well at the start of the book, and the writing for the first 50 pp or so feels somewhat contrived, because “Kay” has to explain who she is, who her husband and niece are, and, particularly, what happened in the last book, Port Mortuary, because this one is directly connected — and I can’t say more without revealing too much. As usual, I wish Lucy were more present in the plot (she is there at the end, and off and on throughout). Marino and Jamie Berger are featured, with Benton in a small role. Some say the old Scarpetta is gone, that something is lacking in the more recent books, but I like this Scarpetta: I like her flaws, her need to shield Lucy and to not make any mistakes or let anyone down, her weird marriage to the too-calm, too-rational and too-jealous Benton (do they respect each other? does he treat her like a child while she hides things from him? are they dysfunctional or perfectly matched, secure with each other?), her often-too-careful negotiation of volatile relationships, her fearlessness (carelessness?) when it comes to her own safety and reputation, and so on. These things seem to me to flow directly from her childhood experiences and from the life she’s chosen since then, and for me, they make her soulful and human.

February

The Rope (2011) by Nevada Barr, a prequel in the Anna Pigeon National Parks series, this one set in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah. Anna, a New York stage manager, signs on as a seasonal worker in the park after her husband Zach dies. Unbelievable amount of damsel in distress in this book, from beginning to end. There is some character development for Anna, as she comes to love silence and darkness. This was a welcome return to the wilds — canyons, cliffs, lakes, sandstone, and trails — after Barr’s last book in this series, set in New Orleans.

Believing the Lie (2012), in the Inspector Lynley series. Lynley is covertly sent to Cumbria (northwest England) to investigate the apparently accidental drowning death of Ian Cresswell; he takes his friends Simon St. James and Simon’s wife Deborah (Lynley’s lover from a long time ago) to play undercover roles. Deborah is agonising about not being able to have a child; she and Simon are considering a surrogate, and though Simon wants to, Deb realises this route is not for her. Her angst about this, and their conflict about it, is important because  one of the many subplots involves the cousin of the deceased, a prodigal son whose wife is not getting pregnant, much as he wants her to. Havers stays in London, where her neighbors (her little friend Haddiya’s parents) are having their own conflict. I’ve enjoyed the last two books in the series; I think Lynley is a better character with Helen gone (even though she’s never far from his thoughts).

1222 (2011) by Anne Holt, in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, set almost entirely at a hotel 1,222 meters above sea level during a snowstorm of historic proportions. Wilhemsen, almost 50 and somewhat misanthropic, is a former Norwegian police officer who was paralysed when shot on duty in 2002. She finds herself trapped with about 200 other people in a hotel (Finse 1222) after their train crashes into a tunnel on its way to Bergen. Two murders and several other deaths occur, but the focus of the book is as much on group behaviour under stress as anything else, with much description of and dialogue between people of various backgrounds, professions, roles and ages —  dog owners (and 4 dogs), a teenage girls’ sports team, a church group, doctors, a TV personality and her followers, some Germans, etc. — as they coexist together with life-and-death events and changing expectations.  This seems to be the first book published in the series, but the first book IN the series (which takes place before this one) is to be published this summer.

No Mark Upon Her (2011) by Deborah Crombie, 14th in the Kincaid/James Scotland Yard series. This one takes place mostly in Henley on Thames and involves the sport of rowing, as the woman murdered, Becca Meredith is a serious rower and possible Olympics contender as well as being a senior police officer with West London Major Crimes.  Duncan and Gemma’s domestic arrangements now that they’re married with 3 kids is also front and center.  Good plot, some interesting relationships.  A sort of cozy police procedural.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (2009) by Toby Hemenway. Non-fiction, philosophy and practice of permaculture gardening, which looks to nurture and cultivate conditions for natural processes to occur in the garden/yard/home forest. Helpful.

March

Before the Poison (2011) by Peter Robinson, a stand-alone about two people, primarily: Grace Fox, a woman who was hung in 1953 for murdering her physician husband in their home, Kilnsgate House, during a snowstorm that stranded them and their dinner guests for a night; and Chris Lowndes, a film score composer and native Yorkshireman, newly widowed, who returns from years of living in southern California and ends up buying that same house. He plans to write a piano sonata but becomes fascinated by Grace’s story.  The story alternates between Chris’s first-person narration (set in fall and winter of 2010) and both a contemporary account of Grace’s trial and her wartime journals. I love the Banks/Cabot series and found this novel a little lackluster for some reason.

Cutting for Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese, about twin orphaned sons born in Ethiopia to an Indian mother who’s a nun and a father who’s a surgeon. Interesting look at Ethiopia (and Eritrea) in the 1960s-1980. Much description of various surgeries, diseases, and other medical whatnot. Read for bookgroup.

Helsinki White (2011) by James Thompson, in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. Kari has just had successful surgery for a brain tumor, leaving him unable to feel emotions, and he’s been asked to run a covert (extra-legal) operation that strays onto morally ambiguous ground. I couldn’t finish (no pun intended) this book; it was too gruesome and the violence too graphic. I got about 3/4 through it and decided I’d had enough. Very Nordic noir.

April

A Field of Darkness (2006) by Cornelia Read, first in the Madeline Dare series. This one is set in Syracuse, NY (a place Madeline despises). I almost gave up 10 pages in, because I felt I was reading a creative writing class manuscript, the phrasing and word choice seemed so self-conscious, but I had nothing else to read so I kept going. The plot, involving blue-blood Madeline putting herself and others in danger while trying to determine if her adored older cousin, Lapthorne, was involved in the killing of two young women years ago, was better than the writing. I’ll try another.

The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012) by Anne Tyler, a short quiet novel set in Baltimore, as usual. It’s a story of grief, ghosts, family, and negotiating relationships. After Aaron loses Dorothy in a freak accident, he considers their relationship and ponders how to go on in life.

The Crazy School (2010) by Cornelia Read, 2nd in the Madeline Dare series, this one set at a boarding school for disturbed teenagers in the Berkshires (Mass.)  I liked this one better than the first.

May

Death and Judgment (1995) by Donna Leon, 4th in the Commissioner Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. “High-powered lawyer Carlo Trevisan is found shot to death on the Padua-Venice train. The police write it off as a robbery gone bad, but Brunetti isn’t so sure. When an accountant who worked for Trevisan is found dead a short time later, Brunetti sees a connection, which eventually leads him to an international drug and prostitution ring run by some of Venice’s most influential citizens” (per Booklist). This is my third try with this series and it’s just not working for me.

The LeopThe Leopard coverard (2011) by Jo Nesbø, in the Harry Hole series. Harry is retrieved from Hong Kong to help solve a two murders that look suspiciously alike. Quite grisly and atmospheric (some of the action takes place not in Oslo but in remote ski huts and in the Congo), with the usual internecine political machinations of Nesbø’s series.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), a novella by Edgar Allan  Poe, “one of Poe’s least accessible works … ‘at once a mock nonfictional exploration narrative, adventure saga, bildungsroman, hoax, largely plagiarized travelogue, and spiritual allegory’.” Later works Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1910), HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2001) all seem to derive from this novella in some way.  Lots of inconsistencies, obvious fabrications and seemingly hallucinogenic scenes in this sea story, which winds from Nantucket to the South Seas to the Antarctic, to an island of natives, to a white, vapourous, and ashy chasm. Themes of order and chaos, natural and unnatural, white and black, satiation and starvation, water in all forms, etc.

Pym (2011) by Mat Johnson, a sort of satirical continuation of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, focusing on the racial aspects of the original (black and white, tropical island and snow-land, etc). Very funny, especially if you’ve read the Poe and if you’re familiar with the craft of American painter Thomas Kinkade.

Appointment with Death (1938) by Agatha Christie. Poirot. When I checked Wikipedia, I realised why it seemed familiar and yet not … the film adaptation varies considerably. Set in Jerusalem/Transjordania (?), plot concerns a tyrannical mother and her long-suffering children. Not one of her best, IMO.

The Writing Circle (2010) by Corinne Demas, for bookgroup. Set in New England. With some wariness, Nancy, who is writing a novel based on an event in her father’s life, joins a writing group and finds herself in the midst of minor dramas among her fellow writers and their families. The story is told from multiple points of view, but Nancy’s voice is the primary one. It was OK, though none of the characters felt entirely real to me, and the ending — Gillian’s response to events — felt out of character.

Invisible Boy (2010) by Cornelia Read, in the Maddie Dare series, this one set in New York City. This is the third book I’ve read in the series and the last … I can’t get past the unbelievable amount of drug-taking and constant swearing in the books (and swearing doesn’t offend me, but this feels very gratuitous, harsh and not in character with the ethos of the characters); and in this one, I couldn’t stop gagging at the constant exclamations of outraged pity for the victim. Not that one wouldn’t feel pity and sadness, but it was so far overdone and overexpressed as to be at best a sign of poor editing and hitting the reader over the head to make a point, and at worst, patronizing, self-congratulatory (“What great humans we are to care so much!”) and almost satirical.

June

Vienna Blood (2006/2008 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, second in a series featuring turn-of-the-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve a series of gruesome and seemingly unconnected murders. Lots of interesting elements here: Freemasons, Aryan sentiment and movements, opera and classical music, dueling, misogyny, Darwinism, Freud and psychoanalysis, HG Wells’ idea of a human and subhuman race (one living above ground, the other below), and so on. One of the better written books I’ve read in years. Highly recommended. Now I have to go back and read the first one, A Death in Vienna (aka Mortal Mischief).

Burned: A Novel (2010/2011) by Thomas Enger, set in Norway, with Henning Juul as an investigative reporter just back to work after two years away, following a house fire that scarred him and killed his young son. A woman has been murdered by being buried, flogged, and stoned, and her Muslim boyfriend has been arrested. But did he do it? Plot fairly complicated, writing pretty good, but I was spoiled by Tallis’s deftness.

A Death in Vienna (2005/2006 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, the first of a series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt. When a medium is killed, the locked room and vanishing bullet lead some to wonder if the murder was supernatural. The Riesenrad, a gondola-ferris wheel contraption also seen in The Third Man (1949), is mentioned several times.

Fatal Lies (2008/2009 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, third in the series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt. This one features trouble at a boy’s boarding school, some espionage, and Liebermann’s love life. Also waltzing, Freud, absinthe drinking, police politics. And I notice a lot of description of pastries in this series….

The Coffin Trail (Lake District Mysteries; 2007) by Martin Edwards. Daniel Kind, popular historian, and his new girlfriend, Miranda, leave Oxford and on impulse decide to chuck their jobs and settle in the Lake District, in a house where Kind’s friend Barrie Gilpin had once lived; Gilpin was the main suspect in the murder of an attractive woman several years ago, but he fell to his death before he could be questioned. Now that case is about to be reopened by Kind’s father’s protégé, DCI Hannah Scarlett. The detective story, and exploration of several relationships, are interesting enough but something is lacking.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) by Stephen Greenblatt. Non-fiction, for a bookgroup. The book is about how Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things — which is full of Epicurus’s ideas about many things, including how all things are made of atoms, the nature of the afterlife (a void) and the soul (material and therefore mortal), the un-centrality of humans in the universe, the cruelty and superstitious nature of all religion, and his proposal that the pursuit of happiness is the highest good in life — was rediscovered in 1417, centuries after it was written. Started out interesting, bogged down in the middle, and never quite grabbed my attention again. Felt very padded.

The Weird Sisters (2011) by Eleanor Brown, fiction for bookgroup. About the three grown Andreas sisters, all avid readers, daughters of a Shakespearean scholar who named them for characters in the bard’s plays and who often speaks in couplets (so do the girls, having been trained from an early age). All three are failures in their own ways, and they are not close to each other but now are spending months together at their childhood home with their parents, while their mother is undergoing breast cancer treatment. Light and engaging.

July

Vienna Secrets (2009/2010) by Frank Tallis, 4th in the Liebermann series, set in 1903 Vienna. Brutal beheadings amidst an atmosphere in Vienna of animosity between Christians and Jews, with anti-Jewish sentiment running through corridors of power. An Hasidic sect, plague statues, Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and Freud, the myths of the golem and of Lilith, the domes of Brunelleschi, the Catholic newspaper Das Vaterland (which both advocated Catholic socialism and was anti-Semitic and anti-Liberal; capitalism and the ‘Jewish spirit’ were seen as synonymous; more here) all figure in the plot.

Walking into the Ocean coverWalking into the Ocean (2012) by David Whellams, a debut novel and the first in a projected trilogy featuring Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Cammon.  One of the better written crime novels I’ve read. The plot is complex —  a mechanic seems to have murdered his wife before himself drowning in the English Channel, and meanwhile several girls have been murdered at various intervals along the nearby cliffs, all leading Cammon back and forth from London to Dorset, and Devon to the island of Malta — but it’s almost beside the point. And don’t get me started on the several churches and priests, and the Annunciation-themed shadow boxes Cammon likes to construct in his shed. If you like atmospheric, careful (almost ponderous) prose, you’ll like this. Reminds me of some of Reginald Hill’s books.

Dead Scared (2012) by SJ Bolton. Bringing back characters DC Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury from Now You See Me (2010) and psychologist Evi Oliver from Blood Harvest (2011), this novel is set at Cambridge, where too many students, mostly females, have been committing suicide in usually complex and violent ways. Lacey is sent in, posing as a student, and finds herself drawn into a deadly game.  A page-turner.

Murder in the Bastille (2003) by Cara Black, 4th in the Aimee Leduc series, set in Paris. This book was interminable. The pacing was off, the plot and cast of characters got so convoluted I had no idea and didn’t care whodunit, and the ending was completely unsatisfying. The only thing that kept me reading was the Aimee’s character is mildly interesting (and I had nothing else else to read).

August

Have Mercy on Us All (2001/2003) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. This is the first book I’ve read in the series (the only one my local library had) and I promptly interlibrary-loaned the rest. Well-written, interesting plot — this one has a Black Death connection — and characters (not just the recurring flics).

Broken Harbor (2012) by Tana French.  Set in the languishing seaside development of Ocean View, at Broken Harbor, not far from Dublin, this novel’s protagonist is Detective Sargent Mick Kennedy (also in Faithful Place) of the murder squad. He and his new rookie trainee, Garda Richie Curran, are assigned to the case of a family killed in their home. The plot is complex and interesting, character development solid, philosophical musings and explorations somewhat nuanced. I think I still prefer French’s first book, In the Woods, but this novel is very good.

The Chalk Circle Man (1991 L’Homme aux cercles bleus/2009) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. This is the first book in the series and very similar in many ways to the plot of Have Mercy on Us All. Someone is drawing blue circles around items on the sidewalks in Paris; eventually a corpse shows up in one, as Adamsberg has been expecting. This book introduces Matilde, Camille’s mother.

The Prague Cemetery (2010/2011) by Umberto Eco. Interesting book reminiscent of The Secret Sharer. Set in mid-to-late-1880s, mostly in Paris. Forger Simonini, at age 68, seems to have developed amnesia, or does he have two personalities (or states), or is he actually sharing his flat with a priest? To determine what’s up, he writes down his life story, hoping it will reveal what’s caused this gap in his consciousness. His life seems to have been spent spreading a conspiracy theory about the Jews/Masons/Jesuits. A bit difficult to follow, mainly because there are so many characters!, but interesting and well-written.

Night Watch (2012) by Linda Fairstein, the 14th in the Alex Cooper (Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor) series. Set first in France, then in New York, much of the plot is based loosely on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case in 2011, with the usual history lessons thrown in. Alex is still dating Luc, who is opening a restaurant in NYC.

September

Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (2004/2007) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. A killer from Adamsberg’s past commits new murders with the unmistakeable signature of a trident weapon. Set in Paris and in part of Quebec province in Canada.

Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis, for bookgroup. A classic I had never read, the book takes on issues of conformity, anti-immigration sentiment, progressivism vs. conservatism, class stratification, sexism, reform vs. revolution, idealism vs. contentment, and more in the 1910s, before, during and after World War I.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2006) by Richard Rhodes: For a bookgroup. This was a slog. More than 400 pages of small print, but what made it difficult is that there are hundreds of names and dates that turn out to be insignificant to the layperson, but the (conscientious) reader doesn’t know what’s going to matter so has to read them all, and it’s slow going. I think the book is meant to be a scholarly, comprehensive biography of Audubon (1785-1851), but its audience is likely not scholars. I learned some things, like for how much of a marriage couples might live apart in frontier days (though the Audubons were unusually separated), and about early American economic crises and mass bankruptcies (e.g., following the War of 1812 and the Louisiana Purchase).

October

An Uncertain Place ( 2009/2011) by Fred Vargas, in the Adamsberg series, this one set mostly in Serbia and concerning a (true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Plogojowitz) vampire story.  Interesting, and well-written, as always.

When We Were the Kennedys coverWhen We Were the Kennedys (2012) by Monica Wood. Excellent memoir of one pivotal event in Wood’s own life in 1963 and its reverberations. Set mostly in the paper mill town of Mexico, Maine (near Rumford).

November

The Beautiful Mystery (2012) by Louise Penney, eighth in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, but this one is almost entirely set at Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups monastery in remote Quebec, home of the Gilbertines, who sing Gregorian chants. One of their order has been murdered in a private garden, and Gamache and Beauvoir have to find the culprit while learning about neumes, chants, church history and chickens, and in the midst of tension between two factions of monks, between Gamache’s boss (who eventually joins them at the monastery) and his underlings, and between Gamache and a still-fragile Beauvoir.

Bones are Forever (2012) by Kathy Reichs, 15 in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropology series. Not her best. A newborn baby found wedged in a vanity cabinet in a rundown apartment near Montreal leads Brennan and Ryan to the Canada’s Northwest Territories, to Edmonton and then farther north to Yellowknife in a convoluted plot that involves diamond mining, prostitution, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, Edmonton’s growth and conflict with indigenous peoples, etc. Boring.

The Bone Bed (2012) by Patricia Cornwell: 20th in the Scarpetta series, set in the Boston area. Not a gripping read but pretty typical of a Scarpetta crime novel. In this one she does a harbor dive to bring up the body of a woman (who was attached to a very large sea turtle that was clinging to life when discovered), who might or might not be the wife of a wealthy man on trial for her murder, at whose trail Scarpetta has to unwillingly testify. Lucy figures a bit (not enough, IMO), Marino less than usual. Her relationship with Benton is as fraught with distrust and anxiety as always. Scarpetta spends a lot of time worrying about whether Benton’s had an affair, and he’s worried she is going to have one. Jealousy fuels their sex life and their dysfunctional marriage. I also noticed that the connector “and” is used entirely too much in Cornwell’s books.

DaVinci’s Ghost (2012) by Toby Lester. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. (Read for a bookgroup.) It’s disorganized, the writing prosaic in the extreme, and, like The Swerve, a book it strongly resembles — in fact, I am starting to feel that this sort of forced enlargement of one small historical work or event is the template for non-fiction these days — it fails to make its point, which is, I think, based on the subtitle, that Leonardo “created the world in his own image” — because he sketched Vitruvian Man based on proportions in a 1st-century B.C. text? There is so much conjunction and supposition throughout this book that eventually it felt to me that there was little substance here.

December

Introduction to Permaculture (1991) by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay: Read this for my permaculture discussion group from Oct-Dec. Some of it was useful in a northern, temperate climate, but about 1/3 of it was really geared to tropical or desert areas. Mollison is from Tasmania and the frequency with which he talks of volcanoes, bamboo, acacias, etc., makes the book not quite as useful for most of North America as it might have been. There were also a few chapters devoted to raising animals, which is not something I plan to do. That said, it was a good reminder of some permaculture principles and practices. The chapter on Understanding Patterns in Nature was my favourite.

Phantom (2011/2012) by Jo Nesbø: In the Harry Hole series.  Harry returns from Hong Kong when he’s told that Oleg, the son of his sometime girlfriend and true love, Rakel Fauke, has been arrested for the murder of his flatmate and drug dealing pal Gusto. The engine of this book’s plot is an injectable drug called Violin, a homemade super-heroin now all the rage in Norway.  The story is told in the present and through the pov of the dying Gusto. Quite gritty, even for Jo Nesbø.

Kissing Christmas Goodbye (2007) by M.C. Beaton: In the Agatha Raisin cozy series set in the Cotswolds. A domineering, cruel matriarch contacts Agatha because she thinks one of her family will kill her, and, surprise, one of her (rather nasty) family does kill her. Agatha has a new assistant, Toni, 17. who is already a gifted detective but has family problems of her own. This is the first I’ve read in the series and it’s pretty bad, even for a cozy. The writing is pathetic (especially the dialogue), the plotting is fair, there are almost no descriptive passages, and this book — which was billed as Christmas fare — is set in late fall, with only the last 20 pages or so having anything to do with Christmas.

Busy Body (2011) by M.C. Beaton: In the Agatha Raisin series. I took this one and Kissing Christmas Goodbye out of the library before Christmas, so I went ahead and read this one, too. The plot — first an oppressive codes enforcement officer is killed; next, someone who hires Agatha to clear her name, and then that woman’s American relatives are involved and Agatha goes to Philadelphia, and so on — was slightly more complex than KCG but it was also quite preposterous in places. The writing was slightly better, I thought, though there were some dialogue clunkers. Again, purported to be set at Christmas but only the first and last bits were (though it is somewhat central to the plot motivation). Probably my last of this series.

A Holly, Jolly Murder (1997) by Joan Hess: In the Claire Malloy cozy series. Malloy runs a small bookstore in Arkansas (though the place hardly matters) and solves murders in her spare time. This one really is set at Christmas: the subplot involves a mall Santa, while the main plot involves a small community of neo-Druids, Wiccans, and other assorted solstice-celebrating pagans who keep involving Claire in their business then accusing her of being involved in their business. This book is much better and more amusingly written than the Agatha Raisins (above) but the plot device of the amateur sleuth being unable to say “No” to the most ludicrous, dangerous and inconvenient requests is old.

Sugar Cookie Murder (2004) by Joanne Fluke: “A Hannah Swensen Holiday Mystery with Recipes.” Predictable plot and disappointing ending, but amusing writing, interesting cast of characters (Hannah, her boyfriends, her mother, her sisters). Set in small-town Lake Eden, Minnesota, the action begins at a town-wide Christmas recipe-testing buffet party. The whole book is 341 pp but the mystery is only 168 pp … the rest is recipes! If you like culinary mysteries or are looking for something with a Christmas feel, this one’s for you.

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