Democracy

I’ve just finished reading Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America:  The Battle for Our Better Angels.  Using various periods in our history (The Civil War, the McCarthy Era, Reconstruction, etc), Meacham tries to reassure us that things have been bad in the past and we managed to survive and even move forward.  When I think about this history I am comforted until I read the news.

In today’s Daily Kos Elections email newsletter we find that the Republican Party in North Carolina has changed its mind about joining in the effort to seek a new election and that the losing candidate in a New Mexico congressional race is refusing to concede a race she lost 51-49.  Add to the mix what is happening in Wisconsin and Michigan and the only conclusion is that the Republican Party no longer believes in democracy.

From the Daily Kos:

NC-09: In a bizarre about-face, the North Carolina Republican Party is once again demanding that the state Board of Elections certify the results of the tainted race in the 9th Congressional District, less than a week after state party executive director Dallas Woodhouse all but called for a new election. Woodhouse, rather impossibly, claims that his position “has not changed”; rather, he insists, the state GOP is only objecting to the fact that the board has delayed a public hearing on the matter until Jan. 11 and has not produced “one iota of public evidence” that wrongdoing altered the outcome in the 9th.

Of course, it’s impossible to square these two things. If, as Woodhouse briefly purported to, you believe that the widespread allegations of election fraud merit a thorough investigation, then you need to allow the necessary time for that investigation to proceed. Had the board instead tried to rush matters rather than conduct a serious inquiry, then Republicans would be howling about a lack of “due process.”

And this

NM-02: Even though we’re now six weeks out from the 2018 midterms, Republican Yvette Herrell still hasn’t conceded to Democratic Rep.-elect Xochitl Torres Small, who won New Mexico’s open 2nd District 51-49 in a race that wasn’t called until the day after Election Day thanks to absentee ballots. Like many of her fellow Republicans, who’ve decided that elections aren’t legitimate when Democrats win them, Herrell has been busy sowing vague doubts about the democratic process—and, naturally, refusing to substantiate any of her claims.

While the Daily Kos makes no claims to being non partisan, the underlying facts are pretty clear:  When the Republicans lose, they no longer believe in the democratic process.

On December 11, The Guardian ran an opinion piece by Andrew Gawthorpe, a lecturer in history and international studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which did an excellent job of summing up what is going on.

America’s federal system of government is, in theory, key to the strength of its democracy. As opposed to citizens in the more centralized states of Europe, Americans get to vote for a huge array of local offices, policies and ballot initiatives that can influence their lives for the better. Innovation in the states can be healthy for the whole country, such as when healthcare reform in Massachusetts provided inspiration for the Affordable Care Act. The supreme court justice Louis Brandeis famously praised US states as laboratories which could “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”.

In Wisconsin, where Scott Walker’s loss to the Democrat Tony Evers was a national embarrassment for Republicans, the legislature has moved to seize control of welfare policy from the incoming governor. Evers will no longer be able to overturn policies that require food stamp recipients to take drug tests, or that require Medicaid recipients to meet a work requirement. Nor will the state’s new attorney general, also a Democrat, be able to withdraw Wisconsin from a lawsuit which seeks to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional.

Given that these are all policies that the incoming Democrats fought and won their elections on, we might expect Wisconsin Republicans to show some humility. But we would expect wrong. Wisconsin speaker of the House, Robin Vos, instead warned his fellow Republicans that the power grab was necessary to stop a “very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in”. Just not quite enough, that is, to actually win the election.

Gawthorpe concludes

While so much outrage is rightly directed at Donald Trump’s daily attacks on democratic norms, the growing detachment of establishment Republicans from them is arguably an even greater concern in the long run. Trump’s general incompetence and lack of focus have so far prevented him from doing serious damage to voting rights, but his administration has provoked a backlash and energized the left. This swinging of the pendulum is how democratic politics should work. But events in Wisconsin show the limits to what can be accomplished by even an energized left in the face of disciplined Republican attempts to rob them of the power that is rightfully theirs.

To see the complicity of establishment Republicans in these attempts to turn the states into laboratories of anti-democracy, look no further than Paul Ryan. Even as he leaves politics this year, the Wisconsin congressman and poster boy for a supposedly “respectable” conservatism has been silent on events in his home state and their broader implications. There is little indication that the next generation of Republican leaders will have any more scruples, and plenty of reasons to fear they will have fewer. As the incentives increase for Republicans to ignore the will of the voters, the threat to American democracy today goes much deeper than Donald Trump – and consequently will be all the harder to tackle.

Many of us, myself included, spend a good deal of energy wallowing in the latest chapter of the Trump soap opera.  Perhaps we need to spend more on saving our democracy.  But is will be difficult when on political party appears to no longer believe in our basic democratic values.  Jon Meacham tells us that things have been bad before, but we have survived.  I hope he’s right this time.

Thinking about Prequels

I just finished reading Charles Finch’s newest book in his Lennox series, The Woman in the Water, which is a prequel to the series.  It got me started thinking about the nature of prequels.  When I bought the book at my local bookstore, Mystery on Main, the owner remarked that it seemed a bit strange to have a prequel to a well established series.  Then in this morning’s New York Times Book Review Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves.”

So what is a prequel all about?  I’m thinking mainly about  some television series like Tennison, the prequel to the great Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect and Endeavor about the young John Morse as well as The Woman in the Water.  When there are great characters we always want more.  We want to know more about them.  Who exactly are they?  What makes them tick?  Where did they come from?  These three prequels attempt to answer these questions.

I have to say that I could never get into Tennison.  Maybe because there was no Helen Mirren, but I think it is because it tried too hard.  Perhaps too much focus on Jane Tennison and not enough on the stories.  But I have to admit I only watched the first two episodes.  The character seemed to be much like the older Tennison without much indication of how she got there.  The same tensions with her family and her same predilection for sleeping with the wrong men exist without much explanation.

Endeavor

Fred Thursday and Endeavor Morse.  Photo copyright by ITV,

Endeavor is another story.  I’ve read a number, although not all, of the Colin Dexter books featuring Morse and I totally missed the original Inspector Morse television series with John Thaw.  (One can purchase only the European DVDs that won’t play in U.S. machines.)  So perhaps I love Endeavor because I never saw the original series, but more likely it is because they are great stories on their own plus they have the great Fred Thursday character.  We learn a great deal about the young Morse including that he was raised as a Quaker.  Through the first four seasons, one can see him mature, but also glimpse the seeds of the irascible man he becomes, at least in the books.  But he is at the core always the intuitive detective.  One does get a glimpse of the mature Endeavor Morse through the eyes of Inspector Robbie Lewis in the wonderful TV series, Inspector Lewis as Lewis recalls his old boss in several of the early episodes.  Morse even helps solve a murder from his grave.

blue deathAfter I finished reading The Woman in the Water I went back and re-read the first book in the series, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I first bought the book for my mother who, like me  was a voracious consumer of mysteries.  I remember her saying that Finch was trying too hard to made Charles Lennox into a Peter Wimsey like character.  On my re-reading, I find that somewhat true, but also that it is not as well written as the later books including Woman.  We do learn a great deal about the 23 year old Lennox including his love for Elizabeth (Jane) and how he and his brother lost their father.  In Beautiful Blue Lennox is described as being close to 40.  I wonder if there will be other books filling in that gap.  In the meanwhile, I’m like Marilyn Staiso and just enjoying the the series.

 

 

 

Reading, thinking, and the state of things

Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker Magazine posted a few days ago something like “It has been hilarious, but can we have a real President now?”  That is how I’m feeling these days as I’m bombarded with constant misspeaking, mismanagement, and simply ignorance.  Some days I wonder if anyone in the administration ever learned any history, geography or simple arithmetic.  As a defensive measure for my own psyche, I am mostly using social media to catch up on personal things posted by friends and have drastically cut the political stuff I post on Facebook and Twitter.  My sanity demands more selectivity.

Charles Blow, in an April 17 New York Times column, expressed much better how I feel.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of his draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

And the very sad thing is that even with his approval rating hovering around 40%, his core still supports him despite the knowledge that his actions hurt them the most.

I’ve been reading a lot to escape and have found some very interesting books to recommend.  Rudolf Fisher was the first African-American to write a mystery.  His book, “The Conjure-Man Dies”, is set in a 1930s Harlem.  Fisher (1897-1934) was a doctor, music arranger, and writer, which explains his interest in using science to solve the crime.  Everyone in the book is black:  The police detective, the medical examiner, the victim, and all of the suspects.  “Conjure-Man” has just been reprinted and reissued.  In some ways, “Conjure-Man” is clearly a first mystery.  I’ve found that in many first mysteries the plotting is more complicated than needed, but the glimpse of life in Harlem is well worth the effort of getting though the twists and turns.

ows_136396805189380“Ordinary Grace” is a total opposite.  Set in the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota, it is narrated by a now middle-aged man recalling the summer.  I think this is considered to be a mystery as it won an Edgar Award for William Kent Kruger, but I thought it was just a wonderfully written novel.  I read this for my book group, Malice on Main, and I was not the only one who reported crying through much of it.  “Ordinary Grace is an extraordinary book.

My final recommendation is “Writing to Save a Life” by John Edgar Wideman.  I’m not sure how to characterize this book which tells the story of Louis, Emmett, and Mamie Till.  The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Awards call it non fiction, but some of the almost stream of conscious speculation about Louis Till seemed to be excellent fiction writing.  Louis Till, Emmett’s father, was executed during World War II in Italy for the rape and murder of a young local woman.  I have to say I still am not sure how I feel about this book, but it is fascinating reading.

Reading, baseball, and gardening this summer will save my sanity – I hope.

Agatha Goes on a Little Trip

When I was shopping for Christmas books, I picked up what looked like an interesting book on the sale table.  I just finished reading The Grand Tour by Agatha Christie.  In February 1922 Christie, her husband, Archie, and others left on what we would call a trade mission.  They went to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada with a vacation stop in Hawaii.  They got back to England on December 1st.  Christie wrote letters home as a kind of diary.  Her grandson, Mathew Prichard, put them together with photographs (largely taken by Christie) interspersed with excerpts from her autobiography.

agatha

The Grand Tour provides the reader with a glimpse of the British empire in the days when change was just starting in the colonies.  People are judged by how “British” they are; natives are treated as exotic.  There are tensions between the members of the mission.  There are injuries and illnesses.  I found her descriptions of the landscapes the most interesting.  For example her description of Wellington harbor:

Great mountains all around coming down to the water’s edge – the far off ones with snow on them.  Blue sky and deep blue water and Wellington itself nestling on the side of the mountain.

But the best part was learning about Agatha Christie as a young woman.  I don’t know about you, but I think of her as either Miss Marple or the older woman in many of her pictures, a little stout and stern.

older-agatha

But on the trip she thinks nothing of going off on an 11 mile hike, she golfs, and, most surprising, she learns to surf.  My image of her will never be the same.

If you have ever read any Christie mysteries and you like travel stories, you would enjoy reading The Grand Tour.

 

Photograph from Prezi.com

 

Going around the world without leaving home

I belong to a mystery book group, Malice on Main.  It is sponsored by a wonderful bookstore, Mystery on Main, in Brattleboro, VT.  Each year we pick a theme and the bookstore owner, David, picks the books.  2016 was international mysteries.  We read eleven books (we don’t meet in January) and I enjoyed all but one which I didn’t finish.  Looking back, I think each member had at least one they didn’t care for; sometimes they finished it any way but sometimes not.  Here is the list annotated with my comments.

China:  Death of a Red Heroine (Xiaolong Qui)  A fascinating glimpse of life and police work in present day China.  I really enjoyed this one.

Japan:  The Devotion of Suspect X (Keigo Higashima)  We had quite a discussion about the writer’s treatment of the women in the book and whether the sexism was cultural or just him or just the detective.  I read the a second book by him, Malice, and the woman was more realistically drawn and much more interesting leading me to conclude that the women in Devotion were written the way they were as part of the story.  One day I will have to read it again and see if this is correct.

Venice:  Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon)  This is Leon’s first and, having read everything she’s written, still one of my favorites.  We see her detective Guido Brunnetti as she is just starting to develop him as a character.  Plus it is an interesting death that he investigates.

Cuba:  Havana Red (Leonardo Paura)  More interesting for the picture of Cuba than the mystery.

missing-servant

India:  Case of the Missing Servant (Tarquin Hall)  A lot of fun.

Ghana:  Wife of the Gods (Kwei Quartey)  Detective Darko Dawson is sent to investigate a murder with supernatural implications and solves both the murder and his mother’s mysterious disappearance over twenty years ago.

Austria:  The Truth and Other Lies (Sascha Arango)  What happens when a death causes a life built on pretense to crumble.

 

 

Turkey:  Istanbul Passage (Joseph Kannon)  This is more of a spy thriller than a mystery.  Set in 1946 or 1947, the story is wrapped around the Jewish exodus from Europe to Palestine.  I really liked this book.

Ireland:  Elegy for April (Benjamin Black)  The search for April who disappears.  Full of interesting characters including the eccentric Quirke who undertakes to find her.

France:  How’s the Pain (Pascal Garnier)  The one book I couldn’t finish.  I found the two main characters totally unappealing.  One of my fellow book group members thought it was very existential, like a Camus novel.

crack

Argentina:  A Crack in the Wall (Claudia Pineiro)  Totally absorbing with an ending I would never have predicted.  Because it centers around architecture, one can Google the buildings she talks about.

Except for The Truth and Other Lies which could be set almost anywhere, each of these books provides a glimpse of place and culture.  One of the reasons I’m attracted to mystery stories is that a good author includes lots of descriptions.  I often think that much of what I know about England, I learned from reading mysteries.  These eleven books took me to new places and taught me new things.  But I also learned that being a police detective – or an amateur crime solver – is pretty much the same no matter where you are.

“Clouds of Witness”, a mystery by Dorothy Sayers

I was introduced to the works of Dorothy Sayers by my mother when I was in my teens and have been enamored by Lord Peter Wimsey ever since.  In fact, I named three of my cats Lord Peter (now gone to cat heaven), Harriet Vane, and Mr. Bunter.  Harriet and Bunter are now in their late teens, but still active.

After the recent election, a friend remarked that we needed to escape for the duration or, at least, periodically to help us ignore the horrors of the new administration.  For some reason I thought of reading Sayers.  Looking at my bookshelf, “Clouds of Witness” jumped out at me.  “Clouds of Witness”, set in 1926, is the second of the thirteen Wimsey novels and contains most of the important continuing figures:  Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Parker, Freddy Arbuthnot, Peter’s mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law. He has yet to meet Harriet Vane. (That happens in “Strong Poison.)

“Clouds of Witness” is an English Country House mystery – with a twist.  The house is not isolated and the occupants are not snowed in, trapped by a flood, or other natural disaster.  The action takes place at a country shooting party hosted by Lord Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver. Of course, one of the guests is murdered under mysterious circumstances.  There are too many witnesses with conflicting stories and at cross-purposes.  It takes Parker and Lord Peter, with the help of Bunter, several trips to France, an Atlantic crossing to New York by boat and back in a small plane in bad weather to exonerate the Duke.

I hadn’t read the book for a number of years, but it remains my favorite of Sayers early works.  She is still developing Wimsey, but you can see glimpses of the character he becomes.  His “man”, Bunter, is already competent beyond competent at almost everything to which he puts his hand.  You can see the beginning of the relationship between Parker and Wimsey – and between Parker and Wimsey’s sister, Mary.

Having enjoyed my re-reading, I decided to watch the 1972 production that had been on the BBC and on Masterpiece Mystery.  I found it pretty faithful to the book until the ending.  Why does television always  have to pretty up the ending?  I have to say that one of the wonderful parts of the book is the trial of the Duke in front of the House of Lords, the jury of his peers.  Sayers’  history of such trials along with her descriptions of the preparation and of the trial itself are a wonderful piece of writing and the video does manage to capture much of it visually.

If you are looking for some enjoyable distraction from reality you could do much worse that reading Dorothy Sayers.  In fact, I think I’ll pick another to read next.

Mr. Bunter grooming Harriet.

Mr. Bunter grooming Harriet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph by Robert Wyckoff.

Likable and unlikeable heroes

I’ve spent the first part of the summer reading the John Madden books by Rennie Airth, the first two Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter, and “The Truth and Other Lies” by Sascha Arango as well as dipping into “Swann’s Way” by Proust.  This reading has gotten me thinking about central characters which in this case all happen to be men.  Why do I like some of them and intensely dislike others?  What makes one continue to read when the “hero” is unlikeable?

A bit about the books first.

Airth

There are four John Madden books.  In the first, “River of Darkness”, Madden is an Inspector with Scotland Yard after World War I when a mass killing of a family.  Only the daughter has survived.  The story, as do all four Airth books, centers around the after effects of war:  the physical and psychological cost to society.  Madden struggles through what we call today, post-dramatic stress, to solve the crime.  We like him for admitting his uncertainties.  In the next three books, Madden has retired from the Yard but finds himself involved nonetheless.  These are complex stories set in the 1930s, during WWII and after WWII.  I first read them a number of years ago and re-read them this summer and found they lost nothing during the second read.  In fact, they have much to say about how we treat our veterans today.

I became addicted to “Endeavor ” on Masterpiece Mystery this summer.  There was something appealing about the very young Inspector Morse.  He comes across as smart, brave, and somewhat of an oddity on the Oxford police force.  Never having read anything by Colin Dexter, I started reading the Inspector Morse books from the beginning.  Much to my surprise, Morse is arrogant, treats his subordinates badly, and is obsessed with sex and pornography.  OK.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but just a little.  He is not the likable Endeavor Morse at any rate.  But the stories are great puzzles full of red herrings and false paths and I did enjoy going down them with Morse.

Finally, there is Sascha Arango’s “The Truth and Other Lies”.  This is a German mystery.  The translation made the 2015 New York Times 100 Notable Books list and I read it for my book group, Malice on Main.  The central character, Henry Hayden, lives a totally manufactured life.  He uses people and then seems to rid himself of them when they become inconvenient or no longer useful.  He is totally unlikeable and I almost couldn’t get through it.  If I hadn’t been reading for a discussion, I probably would not have finished it.  I kept hoping he’d get caught and exposed.

As for Proust, I haven’t gotten through enough to decide much except he paints his grandfather as a not very nice man and he appears to have had a very strange boyhood.

I can’t wait for the next John Madden (Airth seems to produce a new book every 5 or 6 years.) in January and I will probably read more about Inspector Morse even if I don’t like him much, but I am very happy to be done with Henry Hayden.  The difference between Morse and Hayden:  Morse may not be someone you want to be friends with but he does want justice for his victims while Hayden cares about no one but himself.