Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer reading-- quick reviews of six books

Murphys, Ca -- Between travel and hot afternoons I have been reading a lot of different  books in the past few weeks, most of them older books. Some were fun reads, some challenging and a couple were disappointing. Here's how I reacted:

"Bad Monkey" by Carl Hiaasen:

This is Carl's 23d book,  his 14th novel, so he must be doing something right.
 His hero has the usual fun attributes: bad employment history; raging hormones; hatred of the people who have destroyed Florida as he knew it; disrespect for authority, and an inner quality and honesty that makes you like him.
In this book it is a failed detective-turned-food-inspector who spots a murder no one else sees, and pursues it despite various bosses and killers trying to stop him.
The setting is Florida and the Bahamas, territory Hiaasen knows and describes well, and just romping along with him is fun no matter where the story goes.
I thought this book was a little less edgy than earlier works, but it still will keep you up late at night or glued to the beach chair till the very end, which is never the ending you expect. A good read, full of murder, sex sand greed as always, from a truly gifted writer. Four out of five stars.

"Rainbow Pie" by Joe Bageant

This is a non-fiction look at social class in America -- mostly telling us why the author thinks poor Southerner white people are the way they are. (I meet two of the three categories, so consider this acknowledgment of my bias.)
The book blurbs call it "touching" and "majestic," but the book bogs down almost immediately and becomes a series of well written anecdotes spaced out by long rants about how unfair life can be and you just don't understand my people.

His focus in on what he calls "the white underclass," and there certainly is such a thing, but he doesn't make a compelling case that poor whites are all that different from all other poor people.

He mixes colorful stories of his upbringing in a Scots-Irish family in the early 1950's in West Virginia, and the writing in excellent in short bursts. He is very angry at our leadership, and the way it has damaged the country and its people-- opinions I happen to share.
But then what? Then he starts telling us what  he thinks it all means, which is mostly opinion without any clear support.
A good friend liked this book and thought it had something important to say. I thought it was mostly a waste of ink and paper, and I sure hope no one thinks this is the definitive work on the culture of the South, or white people, or anything else. This is a person with writing talent who needs to focus on clarity. Two of five stars.

"Death of a Doxy" by Rex Stout

                                         Argosy Magazine illustration

This was one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries written in the 1960s I ran across in a used book store. Narrated by his witty and flirtatious sidekick Archie, and full of the usual Nero Wolfe stuff, this is a well-told tale about a murder. But in this case the accused is one of Wolfe's regular private detective employees, so they have to prove him innocent and do it in a clever way that will allow Wolfe to collect a large fee without compromising his honesty. He is a clever fellow.
Stout died 40 years ago, and his books are still enjoyable, weaving stories in a captivating way and rarely giving away the end until -- you guessed it -- the end. If you are a Nero Wolfe fan, this is a five star production.

"Shattered" by Dick Francis

This mystery by Dick Francis was originally published in 2000, and joins the long list of entertaining mysteries he wrote through the years.  His great talent seems to me to be writing in an easy style that always teaches you about something you did not know -- in this case glass art blowing and manufacturing -- and pitting a fairly ordinary person against truly bad people.
This is a complex book, taking you through art galleries and horse tracks, dealing with rich aficionados and racetrack thugs, all in search of a video tape the hero is supposed to have, but doesn't.   Along the way we learn how to blow glass artwork, what sells and what doesn't, and how dangerous the tasks can be. Horses are in the background.
 There's a hint of romance but the book is more about solving the puzzle and good people versus bad people.  Five stars.

"The Making of Yosemite: James Mason Hutchings and the Origin of America's Most Popular National Park" by Jen A. Huntley

This is a book I had been watching develop for almost a decade. I knew it was being written through historian friends in Yosemite, some of whom helped the author with her research. I  always found Hutchings to be a fascinating and somewhat overlooked character in the history of the park,  collected material on him at one time and looked forward to someone providing insight into what must be a complex person.
I am still looking for a good book on the man. You won't learn a lot about him in this book, but you will know what the author thinks it all means.
As the over-long title suggests this is a screed that reads like a defense of the graduate thesis that started the author on the way to the book. Here it is spelled out in the book flap: "...Hutchings was effectively written out of its(Yosemite's) history, and today he is largely viewed  as an opportunist who made a career out of exploiting Yosemite."
Only he wasn't, and isn't, in my opinion. He was apparently an odd person, but he made a lot of friends and influenced a lot of people, but not much money.
Hutchings, a prolific author in his day, is widely known as the first person to expose Yosemite to the world's view, a major accomplishment in his day. He did this by taking artists and writers and influential people into Yosemite, even when it was an arduous trek. He personally published magazine articles and books. Almost all the early drawings and paintings of Yosemite Valley are directly as a result of his effort to bring influential people to the Valley. For almost 25 years he personally appeared in most of the photographs of the park, because he led the photographers on their journeys and happily posed on horseback or in a boat on the river when they needed a human model. He ran a hotel, and fought the state (and lost) over his right to own the land under it as a settler, but he is mostly remembered as a writer  and promoter who opened Yosemite for the nation to see.
 I would argue, having read a lot about Hutchings from other sources, that the claims are mostly wrong and this tedious book doesn't prove much of anything.
The author uses Hutchings to argue about the clash of "class dynamics" in the 19th Century.  According to this book he "framed the debate" that led to the national park system and the way we see it today.
She did a lot of research, and had access to a lot of primary materials including Hutchings' diaries.
And yet you don't learn much about him, you simply read a lot of intellectual arguments about the meaning of everything that happened -- without much factual data to back it up.
I suspect this book was briefly popular with academics who specialize in California and Yosemite.  The respected California historian Kevin Starr  wrote a jacket blurb calling the book "innovative in its interpretation." I've loved Starr's writings, but I was disappointed.
In really want to know what kind of a person Hutchings was, what he did and what conclusions we might draw.
That book has yet to be written.
Two stars, because it may be useful to cultural anthropology students who need this sort of analysis.

"Pleading Guilty" by Scott Turow (1993)

Turow uses  the law, finance, and fascination set of imperfect characters to tell a really good story.
The main character is a rough-around-the-edges former cop turned attorney who his given the assignment to locate a missing law partner and $5 million or so that has disappeared.
The maneuverings within the law firm to avoid responsibility for anything, while maintaining a proper public face, provides the hero (or anti-hero) a free field for chasing down the presumed bad guy, not to bring him to justice but to avoid embarrassment for everyone and protect their incomes.
The hero falls off the wagon, and into bed with a partner, and then he has to face the choice of doing the right thing, or not.
Therein lies the tale, and it is well told so I won't give it away.
Four stars

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A cooling off trip

Murphys, Ca -- Back home in time for the Fourth of July, and 100 degree heat, I need to share a few items from our recent vacation trip to the California coast.
If you have not been to this part of the world, it is hard to imagine the variety and the beauty of the coast. That's true north and south, but for this trip we went first to the San Francisco Bay area for some sailing, and then drove north for a week or so of camping with friends and family.

Here's a rare photo of s/v Good News with Oakland in the background, heading out for the bay. It turned out to be a lot windier than we expected, so it was more exciting than planned.

The next day I decided to pull down a sail that needed minor repair, and replace it. Bad decision, as we ended up with a jammed halyard that I will have to fix next time.

I did not get our boat problem fixed, but I was able to help out a neighbor who cranked me up his/her mast to retrieve a loose shackle and lanyard. It is easy: all you do is sit in the Bosun's Chair while someone else does all the hard work. Easy in a calm harbor, that is. The top is about 50 feet up.
We then drove north on Highway 101, aka the Redwood Highway, and made an overnight stop at  Richardson Grove State Park, along the Eel River, the first test of our new "instant" tent. It worked fine and the next day we drove on up through Coastal Redwood forests and along the coast to our destination: Patrick's Point State Park, where we settled in for almost a week with family and friends.

Here's Pat enjoying a bit of sunshine at our campsite. Just beyond the trees on the right is the top of the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a place we visited for sunrises and sunsets.

 This is the view from just south of the camp area, looking north into the little harbor at Trinidad. Picturesque, and fully equipped with good clam chowder and colorful people.

Pat with daughter Ruth on a hike. The extended family present included 18 people! Ruth and Brian and their kids, Brian's folks and sister Tammy and her kids, his cousin and his family, and our friends and neighbors Gary and Jeri Carson Hull.

Just another stunning view.

Jeri and Gary, probably looking for the warm sunshine.
Agate Beach at the state park. Yes, you can find and bring home agates. 

On the way to and from Oregon we stopped by a meadow at Prairie Creek State Park to share a lunch and watch the elk. The new babies were gamboling on the meadow. Really.

And then to the southern Oregon coast. This is at, you guessed it, Arch Rock, just north of the California border.

Our next-to-last night was spent at Gold Beach, Oregon, where our room balcony overlooked the Rogue River very near where it meets the sea.

We drove through the Trinity Alps area, including Weaverville, spent one night in a so-so motel, and got home about ten days after we left.

The views were obviously spectacular, but the best memories are of the family and friends we were with, the new people we met and simply being together in a wonderful place and time.

We did have one serious discussion with Gary and Jeri, trying to decide what we are vacationing from, since we are retired. Gary suggested we were vacationing from volunteering, which is probably as good an answer as any other.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Congress can change, really!

another century, similar views -- from the Library of Congress

Murphys, Ca  -- About the only thing U.S. citizens agree upon these days is that Congress is awful.
Not as in “awe-inspiring,” but as in “terrible.”
Congress is less popular than the media.
Congress is even less popular than the President.
We all have different reasons for disliking Congress, or our congressional representative, but at least we can all agree they collectively do a lousy job.

So, I think it is time to reform Congress, and it should not be too hard to do. Change a few laws.  Change a few rules.

Here are a few ideas and reforms that kept me awake last night, and I would appreciate it if you who read this will take the time to express your opinion, either in the comments section below, or on Facebook, or on a local soap box. Just speak up.

1.  Let’s get serious about time limits for the House and Senate. I propose two four-year terms for House representatives, and two six year terms for the U.S. Senate.  These suggestions are not unique: President Eisenhower begged us to make this change as he ended his tenure in office. He cited the same reasons we would:  every congressman is always running for reelection and therefore does not devote time and energy to the job at hand. They are too busy pandering to would-be voters to do what is right and necessary.
You can pick your own example, but there are many. We have way too many old white guys (like me) making decisions. Let the younger folks have a shot.

2.  Change the congressional pay to be less of an incentive. Today the House members get a base salary of $174,000. The average U.S. wage earner makes $44, 321.67. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and  pay them twice what most of use make: around $88,000 per year should be about right. (The first representatives got $6 a day, but only for days they worked.) You may have noticed that Congressmen are mostly rich, averaging a million dollars a year from private and public sources. That’s one reason they don’t act like normal people.

3. We want our elected officials to reflect us, right? So let’s limit the trappings of power that we now spend billions on. Start by limiting every representative to one secretary/administrative assistant, and one staff member, and one taxpayer funded office in Washington and one in the district.  You will note that I have eliminated every “spokesman” we now pay with tax dollars. Let the congressmen we elect speak for themselves.
Have you ever asked your congressman how many people work for him?
Has he ever answered you?

4.  Require representatives to actually work five days a week, 48 weeks a year. I’d be generous and give them the 4 weeks vacation, so long as they pay for travel and accommodations  themselves. That means they have to keep office hours either in Washington or at home districts, just like normal people.

5. Ban all gifts worth more than $25 to  representatives, and staff. They don’t need all those freebies and it looks bad. Stinks, actually.

6. We all understand that running for office takes money, and since we want to be fair, let’s have the same rule apply to all officials: contributions can come from anywhere so long as they do not exceed $25 and the name and employer of the donor are public record.

7. Congressmen complain that they have so little time and so many people want to see them, so let’s help them by setting a rule that says the priority for an appointment goes to a person from their district, second priority to individuals from their state, and last priority to representatives of corporations or organizations (we call them lobbyist).  And to make everyone have a chance, let’s limit all visits to 30 minutes for people they represent, and 15 for lobbyist, whether they are from the corporate timber company or the Sierra Club. Fair's fair.

8. Congressmen need a travel allowance (they actually have a generous one already), so we will let them keep enough to pay for four trips back to the district every year, but ban anyone else paying for or providing transportation. No corporate jets. No limos in New York City. No trips to ski resorts or Hawaii for “consultations.”

9. No relatives on the congressional payroll, any time, anywhere.

10. Since our elected officials are working for our interests, and we are paying them, we need to make sure everything they do while in office is open and visible to the public. That means all correspondence (national security is exempt) is available, all meetings are logged and subjects disclosed, and if minutes are kept, they should be made available to the public, at a charge not to exceed the per page cost at the closest Kinko print shop. Yes, that means e-mails and Facebook postings when done on government time.

This list could go on and on, and surely you have some ideas of your own. Feel free to add them, or challenge these.