Re-reading Macbeth

I’m taking a class this fall through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).  The University of Vermont sponsors them at several locations around the state including in Brattleboro.  We are reading Shakespeare – Macbeth and a number of kings – and discussing power and what makes a good ruler.

Although I haven’t read Macbeth for a number of years, the words are familiar, full of quotations and phrases many of us use without thinking of their origin.  But then I read this bit of dialogue I hadn’t remembered.  It is a conversation between Lady MacDuff and her young, unnamed son shortly before Macbeth has them murdered.  Remember that MacDuff has fled the country after the murder of King Duncan leaving behind his wife and children.

Son:  What is a traitor?

Lady McDuff:  Why, one that swears and lies.

Son:  And be all traitors that do so?

Lady McDuff:  Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hanged.

Son:  And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?

Lady McDuff:  Every one.

Son:  Who must hang them?

Lady McDuff:  Why, the honest men.

 

We are currently being governed by men who lie and swear.  Honest men and women need to step up and realize that our democracy is at stake.  I think the House will vote articles of impeachment, but I can only hope that the Senate still has 67 honest men and women who can put country above party.

Image of Macbeth from wikipedia.

Politics and Poetry

I’m not like some who memorize great reams of poetry and can always find an appropriate quote.  I like to pick up a book of poems and look though it until something catches my attention.  Then, I’ll read it over and over for several days.  Or, I have a friend who often posts poetry on her Facebook page which I read.  And it makes me happy that The Writer’s Almanac is back.

So the other night I was thumbing through Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times and this short poem by Ginger Andrews caught my eye.

Lying around all day

with some strange new deep blue

weekend funk, I’m not really asleep

when my sister calls

to say she’s just hung up

from talking with Aunt Bertha

who is 89 and ill but managing

to take care of Uncle Frank

who is completely bed ridden.

Aunt Bert says

it’s snowing there in Arkansas,

on Catfish Lane, and she hasn’t been

able to walk out to their mailbox.

She’s been suffering

from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.

The cure for the mulleygrubs,

She tells my sister,

is to get up and bake a cake.

If that doesn’t do it, put on a red dress.

 

I had to look up mulleygrubs.  Turns out it also means the blues or sulks; a despondent, sullen or ill-tempered mood. (Merriam-Webster)

I think a lot of us are looking at the current political scene and suffering from the mulleygrubs.  So it is worth finding a red dress – or shirt – or baking a cake.  Maybe Aunt Bertha is right.

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.