Monday, September 15, 2014

Pulitzer Project: The Way West

A few months ago when I mentioned that The Way West was coming up next on the Pulitzer list, BBC commented that I'd enjoy reading it. He was right. There are some dark themes in the subtext of The Way West, but overall it does qualify as "light reading." I breezed through it pretty quickly.

The book has a sticker on the spine indicating that the library that provided it through Interlibrary Loan considered it a Western when they cataloged it. Technically it is -- it's the story of a group of people who decide to emigrate from Missouri to Oregon in the 1840s. Along the way they have all the usual adventures and mishaps typical of pioneers who decide to travel by wagon train: encounters with various Native American tribes, wagons breaking down, people dropping dead from fever or snake bite.

As might be expected, there's a potentially volatile mix of personalities in the wagon train company. The group's self-appointed leader, Tadlock, is a bit of a bully, a bigot, and remarkably inflexible, one of those people who's convinced he knows it all so he resents the hell out of having to listen to advice from the "pilot," the experienced mountain man they've hired to guide them from Independence, Missouri, to the Dalles on the Columbia River. He's also not real interested in listening to the company as a whole; he's pretty much a "my way or not at all" type of guy. It takes a few hundred miles, but eventually Tadlock's personality forces the group to think about a change in leadership.

There's soap opera material -- a married couple that's unhappy in the bedroom so the husband strays and in the process "ruins" a naive teenage girl. There's the usual colorful character, what I think of as the Festus type, the fellow who gets written into scripts for comic relief, although he's missing from the cast list for the movie version. No doubt the script writers tweaked another of the supporting characters to incorporate occasional humor just as they turned Mercy McBee's naivete into what one movie review described as Sally Field's on-screen debut as a tramp.

Although a goodly number of various characters are introduced, the narrative pivots around two men: Lije Evans, a farmer who mixes personal ambition with a desire to be part of something bigger, and Dick Summers, the mountain man. Summers is described as one of the oldest characters in the book -- he's 49 -- and there's a lot of concern expressed by the men organizing the wagon train company that Summers is too old, too much of a geezer to stand up to the rigors of the trip. Once the trek actually begins, of course, it's obvious Dick is one of the few people with the stamina and the smarts to make it all the way to Oregon.

Lije and Dick are among the handful of characters in the book who have actual first names. Most of the others are referred to only as "Daugherty" or "McBee." As the novel progresses, we view the action primarily from the perspectives of Lije and Dick, although there are occasional insights from supporting characters. Lije is looking forward to a new life in Oregon; Dick is looking back at his old life as a mountain man.

Overall, The Way West is an enjoyable read that manages to avoid sentimentalizing the hardships of pioneer life. Life isn't easy, but that's just the way it is. The characters who do muse about tough times also acknowledge they had a pretty good idea of what they were getting into before they headed out on the Oregon Trail.

I have not seen the 1967 movie based on this book. It starred Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Sally Field. Based on the Wikipedia summary, the movie deviates wildly from the book -- about the only plot points they seem to have in common is there's a wagon train going west and a married man cheats on his wife. I liked the book so I think I'll pass on seeing exactly how it got mutilated for the big screen.

As far as where this book ranks in the overall list of Pulitzer winners, I'd put it in the middle of the pack. It's not up there in the top tier, but it's definitely readable. Some of the language is a little dated (the infamous N word gets bandied about a fair amount, which is a tad odd considering there are no black characters in the book), but not to the point where it slows a reader down. So would I recommend this book to anyone else? Yes, especially if a person likes historical novels or Westerns.

Next up? The Town by Conrad Richter.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Summer's over

We had our first Fall frost yesterday. As what seems to be becoming typical of the weather, which no longer does anything in half-way measures, it was a doozy. There was a time when Summer would kind of amble out gently, subtly hinting that it was leaving by toying with a few "light" frosts, the kind that would nip a few leaves in the garden and remind you that, hey, it's time to pick the tomatoes before they turn into ice cubes on the vine. Not this year. Moderate temperatures one day, definitely below freezing the next. There was none of that hovering coyly right around 32 and gently hinting -- it was barely 30 degrees and a total zapping of everything except the broccoli and aptly named snow peas. There wasn't so much frost coating everything as there was ice, thanks to the day or two of rain that preceded the cold snap.

So now it's September, we're having to put a fire going in the woodstove each morning, and I find myself thinking I need to start buying the L'Anse Sentinel again. Unless you're a big fan of local high school sports, the Sentinel is good for maybe three things: lining bird cages, housebreaking puppies, and starting fires. We don't need it for the first two so we only buy it during the cold months. But that's a digression.

What's actually on my mind is prepping the Guppy for travel. We're scheduled to spend the month of October as campground hosts at Montauk State Park in Missouri so need to finish a few minor things we've realized we needed (e.g., curtains for the cab) and make sure we've got everything stashed that we want to bring with us. It does help that the weather turned cold -- it'll make it a lot easier to remember to carry cold weather gear with us if we're wearing it. And we definitely need cold weather gear because we'll be back here in early November. I do not want to arrive home in a snowstorm dressed in high water pants and Teva sandals.

Earlier this week the S.O. took care of what was probably the most important part of prepping for hitting the road. He took the Guppy down to the local propane dealer and had the regulator replaced. We have now checked out all the systems on the Guppy when it comes to what we need to live in it, the Guppy itself is mechanically sound (tuned up and raring to go), the tow dolly is in good shape, and things in general are looking good. The S.O. picked up a bunch of cheap DVDs at a rummage sale recently so we'll even have some new (to us) movies to watch in the evening. At this point, we could take off tomorrow if we didn't have stuff we need to get done around here before we leave. Here's hoping the weather stays dry for a few days so we can get it all done without feeling rushed.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Here we go again

As I listen to NPR this morning, it appears that President Obama has forgotten that his stated Middle East foreign policy was to avoid doing anything stupid. The Stupid has begun -- we're about to start spending a gazillion dollars on air strikes against an amorphous threat that can't be defeated with high dollar, kills from a distance weaponry. The Islamic State (ISIS) is highly mobile and can easily fade back into the general population in major cities like Mosul. As soon as we start targeting urban targets, we've stepped up the jihad recruiting drive. There's nothing quite like losing kids or elderly relatives to a U.S. drone strike to turn people from neutral civilians into active anti-American jihad supporters. Scriptwriters for television shows and movies have figured this out, why don't the policy wonks in DC get it?

IMHO, you know what our foreign policy in the Middle East should be? We should just walk away. Not our circus, not our monkeys. Let the Sunnis and the Shi'ites and the Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, you name it, just slug it out among themselves. We don't need the region's oil, we ignore humanitarian crises all the time if it's not in corporate interests to pay attention to them -- if you don't believe that, look at how quickly Congress said no to providing additional funding to help fight the spread of Ebola in west Africa -- so why do we care about ISIS? Yes, the execution of those journalists was barbaric, but (to be totally cold about it) those guys knew journalists get killed in war zones on a regular basis. They walked into a killing zone with their eyes wide open. Would we all be freaking out about taking out ISIS now if James Foley or Steven Sotloff had died by getting hit by a stray bullet or an IED blowing up their vehicle?

I know, I know. . . there's been a lot of handwringing about how some Americans, along with assorted European idiots, have managed to get recruited into ISIS and they could "bring the terrorist threat home." Oh really? And how are they going to do that? The last time I looked, you couldn't walk from Iraq to the U.S. What's the point of having customs officials at airports if not to prevent suspicious characters from entering the country? Instead of wasting money on drones and missiles, the U.S. should be stepping up intelligence gathering and figuring out just who some of the young idiots are that have been seduced by the prospect of LARPing Counter Strike or Call of Duty. Because, let's face it, the demographic ISIS and the other jihadi groups want to recruit are not geeks or serious religious scholars; ISIS wants the dudes in their late 'teens and early 20s who get off on shooting stuff. Their fantasies aren't about creating a caliphate that follows a pure version of Islam; they're still suffering from testosterone poisoning and dreaming about impressing everyone with just how bad ass they are. And, if they're lucky, they'll get laid in the process. Anyone who doesn't think that's part of the ISIS playbook hasn't been paying attention: kidnapping women and girls and doling them out as rewards to the "warriors" is SOP.

You know, if we really wanted to stop ISIS we'd figure out a way to cut off the flow of money. ISIS is managing to sell oil in Turkey -- how hard could it be to stop that business? But we're not going to do that -- and you know why? Because if we cut off the flow of money and ISIS withered into a nonthreat, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the other defense contractors would end up with unsold inventory. Marketplace Money had a report yesterday on how much the various munitions cost. Every time the military uses a Tomahawk missile, it's just spent over $1 million. War is good for business; peace is not.

Monday, September 8, 2014

News of the News

For the past decade or so we've been listening to newspapers and magazines whine about the death of print. The Internet was killing traditional publications. Subscription rates were plummeting, ad revenues were down, life in general sucked if you were a newspaper or magazine publisher. At the same time, those publications created web sites that allowed the entire world to read their content for free. Oddly enough, people don't place a real high value on stuff that costs them nothing. Why subscribe to a hard copy of a newspaper when you could read what you wanted online for free? Eventually most newspapers swung back the other way and began erecting pay walls. You want to read The New York Times or The Washington Post? You get a limited number of free articles each month, and then you hit the pay wall.

Now the AJC -- the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- has joined the pay wall crowd, albeit with a twist. They must know their audience pretty well. You can still read the news at the AJC site, but apparently they've figured out not many people are actually interested in the news. What do they have hidden behind their pay wall? The games: the crossword puzzles, sudoku, the Jumble, Word Search. . . .  The S.O. is not happy.

Then again, neither am I. It was the AJC, after all, that allowed me to earn my title of Sudoku Queen while working occupying an office at the CDC.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Summer is officially over

The driveway plowing bill for the 2014-2015 season was in the mail yesterday. Can this be far behind?
Even more depressing than the sight of the bill was the letter enclosed with it. The County Road Commissioners voted at their July meeting to discontinue the driveway plowing program. This coming winter will be the last one where I can do the dashing out to snap photos of the grader in our front yard; starting in 2015 we're going to have to keep our 600 feet of driveway open ourselves. Not a happy thought -- we can do it if it's a normal winter, but if we get one of those storms that dumps 3 or 4 feet of white stuff in a day? Well, let's just say we'll be happy we own snowshoes.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

It's that time of year again

Before canning
It's September, and once again I've been busily channeling my pioneer ancestors. The days get shorter, migratory birds start flocking up to prepare for the trek south, and I feel the urge to get out the canning kettle. Twenty-two pints of pressure-canned purple-hull beans that turned green when cooked, several batches of cucumber pickles, pickled cauliflower, Frog Balls (pickled brussels sprouts),  a batch of hot pepper slices, plum jam, 12 quarts of peaches, and I'm feeling compelled to can more.

After canning. Maybe next year I'll invest in a Frencher.
My You Can Can book has multiple recipes I'd like to try. Tomatillo salsa -- the tomatillo plant in the garden is loaded with fruit; there must be enough to make 6 or 7 pints of salsa verde. I've never canned salsa. Homemade fruit cocktail -- that's something that it never occurred to me to try making myself. Watermelon relish. Yellow squash pickles.

But even without the cookbook, I can think of things to make this fall. Awesome Relish -- a person can never have too much Awesome Relish on hand. Apple juice -- granted, there aren't very many apples in the orchard this year, but there are some feral trees near by that are loaded. Apple pie filling -- some of those feral trees must have good pie apples. Last year I put up about a dozen jars of apple pie filling -- they all got used. Ditto apple sauce. Green tomato pickles -- the tomato plants in the garden are loaded with tomatoes, and there's no way they're going to ripen before we have a hard frost. I'd rather turn some into pickles than deal with having multiple boxes of green tomatoes slowly ripening in the house. At this point, the big question is which I'm going to run out of first: ideas or jars. And once the jars run out, I can always buy more.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

More blogger weirdness

A photo completely unrelated to the contents of this post.
For some inexplicable reason, no doubt known only to the Powers That Be at blogger.com, my blog rolls are doing strange things. They're alternating between displaying the way they should with the most recently updated being at the top of the list and showing the title of the most recent post and displaying as a randomized list with no information about recent posts. In the latter configuration, if I click on any of the links the result is a display that's solid HTML. Very, very strange -- not to mention hard to read.

I'm going to take this as a sign to walk away from the computer for the rest of the day.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A genre to avoid

Mystery/romance. Or romance/mystery. I'm not sure just what to call a genre that crosses Harlequins with what is supposed to be a thriller, but apparently it's a genre that is Carla Neggers's forte. Too bad she is, at best, a thoroughly mediocre writer.

I just finished a book called Cold Pursuit. It's apparently the first in a trilogy of books about a female Secret Service agent and her love interest, a former Special Forces soldier. I assume it's a trilogy because the L'Anse Public Library tries to label books that are part of a series, and when I plucked this gem off the shelf it had a number 1 label on the spine. The next two books on the shelf were marked 2 and 3 so it's probably safe to assume that agent Jo Harper and ex-Sgt. Cameron will continue to have hot and steamy sex while investigating a suspected ring of international assassins that for some bizarre reason are apparently based in rural Vermont. 

You know, I am continually being surprised by the places that I find lady porn. What I can't help but think of as the Jean Auel model keeps popping up all over the place. I call it the Jean Auel model because, so far as I can recall, Clan of the Cave Bear is the first place I encountered the formula: a certain number of pages of narrative to move the plot forward, then a couple pages of hot hetero sex, then back to so many pages of narrative, more hot hetero sex scenes, all tastefully written but making it pretty damn clear what was happening, then more narrative. It took awhile to get going in the first book in the series, but after that it was pretty much guaranteed that every 70 pages or so Jondalar was going down on Ayla. Apparently Cro-Magnans were big making women happy with lots of cunnilingus, "worshipping the goddess" so to speak, because Ayla seemed to be on the receiving end a lot more than Jondalar was. Auel really knew how to tap into women's fantasies.

Anyway, since then the lady porn has evolved. It's gone from being tasteful and intermittent in fiction targeting women to being basically the whole book (e.g., 50 Shades of Gray). It's also gone from euphemistic to blunt (in the Outlander series Claire Beacham wraps her hand around Jamie Fraser's cock and describes the organ in affectionate detail; she doesn't just admire his manhood). Cold Pursuit falls kind in the middle on the descriptive scale -- lots of "plunging" that makes intercourse sound a lot like trying to fix a stopped up sink drain -- which could be one reason it felt so much like a Harlequin.

Now, I know that there are a lot of "mysteries" out there that fall into mutant genres, too. Janet Evanovich's books all mix romance, mystery, and humor. J. D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) mixes romance, mystery, and science fiction. Laurel K. Hamilton mixes horror, romance, and mystery, although the biggest mystery with her Anita Blake series is why Anita is still capable of walking after banging half the population of the western hemisphere. Some are more readable than others. So why have I singled out Neggers? I have no clue. Maybe it's because after I finished the book I found myself thinking, well, there went another 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back.  Maybe it was because the attempt to blend two different themes (romance and mystery) was so clumsily done.It felt like she wrote two separate books and then did some cutting and pasting to merge the two. And maybe it's because it's Sunday morning, I'm  bored, and I don't feel like doing anything more productive than whine about mediocre books.  

It's a mystery.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Never attribute to malice

that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, or so the old adage goes. I used to occasionally wonder what would happen if the two factors (malice and stupidity) happened to merge. I wonder no more. We've got the police force in Ferguson, Missouri, providing a prime example.

First, they wallowed in the Stupid for a few days: they had an officer-involved shooting but totally blew the response. The list of ways they managed to screw up is a long one, but a few gems from the first few hours after the incident include failing to secure the scene, bungling the communications with dispatch (the 911 dispatchers learned about the shooting from the news media, not from cops on the scene), allowing the body to remain in the street for over 4 hours while the neighborhood worked itself into a frenzy, and then responding to protests by sending in riot police that looked like they were invading Fallujah. In short, the first 24 hours or so leaned pretty heavily towards Stupidity in its purest form.

Then came the malice: smearing the victim, portraying him as a thug, emphasizing that there had been a robbery reported in the neighborhood even though the police themselves admitted that the officer involved in the shooting had no knowledge of a robbery, and similar efforts. Those efforts included releasing a video tape that purportedly showed the dead teenager pulling off a strong arm robbery a few minutes before the shooting.

And this is where stupid and malice cross: it has now come out that the police did selective editing. The complete video surveillance tape shows Michael Brown paying for the cigarillos. He apparently didn't have enough money on him for as many of the nasty little cigars* as he wanted as the tape also shows him handing some cigars back to the cashier. Even more telling, the store owner is now stating loudly that there was no robbery, they never reported a robbery, and they're really, really upset that the police are claiming that there was.

Another old adage says that when you realize you're in a hole, you should stop digging. Apparently the cops in Ferguson haven't figured out that they're down well past their ears and that it's time to put down the shovels.

It's unclear what's going to happen long term, but a good start to defusing the current situation might be to start housecleaning in the local police department. Given the apparent stunning incompetency of just about everyone in it, they'd probably be better off just firing them all and starting from scratch.

The S.O. says that if the grand jury in Ferguson is smart they'll indict the cop on homicide charges. It'll thoroughly piss off his supporters but, hey, when white people riot they buy T-shirts. Long-term I doubt if the guy would be found guilty of anything -- cops rarely are -- but by providing the illusion of accountability it could have the short-term effect of eliminating one of the reasons people are protesting.

*If the news reports are accurate, he was buying Swisher Sweets, one of the more disgusting tobacco products on the planet. Why anyone would ever want to smoke them is a total mystery; the only thing they have going for them is they're cheap.