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Book Review – The Stephanie Plum Novels

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 22, 2018

I’m about to lay a harsh criticism on the Stephanie Plum mysteries, written by Janet Evanovich, but they are not that bad if you like this sort of thing, so I feel obliged to tell you some good things about them first.

The Stephanie Plum Novels are a typical mystery series, with a protagonist – in this case Stephanie, of course – some continuing characters, a mystery plot or two running simultaneously and sometimes intersecting, some romance and a dollop of sex (there can’t be lot of sex like you find in series with male protagonists like, say, the James Bond novels, or Stephanie would come off as a slut, which she is not). She has a shtick. And, of course, she always gets her man….eventually.

That this is a series is unmistakable, because the titles each include a number in sequence: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to get Deadly, and so on. And, these books, like all such series, can be numbingly repetitive. The background and shtick has to be explained over again in each installment, because the author never knows which book the reader will pick up first.

Stephanie’s shtick is that she is a bond enforcement agent (bounty hunter), and an accidental one at that. She was an undergarment buyer at a small department store until being laid off. She wheedled a job with her cousin Vinnie, who runs a bonding company.

In other words, Stephanie is a rookie, green as grass. She wouldn’t have lasted long, or perhaps even survived, if it weren’t for two friends and mentors – a police detective to whom she lost her virginity at 18 and loves off and on again, and an alpha-male bounty hunter super star named Ranger, who is her mentor, temptation and occasional indiscretion.

Stephanie lacks some of the killer instincts useful in the bounty hunter trade. She doesn’t like guns – she keeps hers in her cookie jar except on rare occasions, and generally away from her bullets, when she remembers to buy some. Her other useful bounty hunter gear – stun gun, pepper spray, handcuffs – is jumbled up in her purse, not easily accessible when needed, and she doesn’t prepare ahead well for her take-downs.

Evanovich describes Plum as being “incredibly average, and yet heroic, if necessary.” I would inject only if mortally necessary, which it can take her a long time to determine. But Stephanie has a good heart, and a natural ability to attract and accept a number of oddball characters, who over time form a group of friends, posse and support.

These books individually can be very entertaining. Hell, Evanovich has sold a ton of them. I think it is not offensive in this case to state the obvious that these are “women’s books.” Men who like this genre will enjoy them too, but most of the best, funniest and most insightful scenes occur between women, who will appreciate them more. There is a mall scene in the second book, which only women could initiate, and that is one of the funniest I have read in a long time.

Now, here’s the rub. Since Plum’s shtick is that of being a novice bounty hunter, she must make the same beginner mistakes in every sequential volume. After reading eleven volumes and counting, as I have done (don’t ask why), since she hasn’t learned anything, she now comes off as exasperatingly stupid.

How many times can she stand at the door of her FTA (failure to appear) target to take him in, and have him say, “Sure, give me a minute to get my jacket,” her to say, “OK,” and him run out the back door and get away, before she catches on?

How many times can she have her pepper spray or her stun gun in her purse or pocket when approaching an FTA, and not be able to get it out in time when he charges her?

Eleven volumes in, she should have her stun gun in hand, zap her targets the instant he or she opens the door, cuff them and drag them back to jail before they even cone to. She always gets her quarry, but often through just dumb beginner’s luck.

Stephanie Plum can’t learn, and that makes the series for me a frustrating read.

Reviewing the National Press Club Dinner and other Media Foibles

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 19, 2018

As I have written recently, I am very proud of the media these days. They are performing heroically in very difficult but important times. There is little about them of which to complain. Little, but not none.

After the National Press Club Dinner, the whole point of which is to celebrate freedom of speech and the press, many Press Club members were critical, again, of their invited guest comedian – Michelle Wolf – for telling jokes about them. I didn’t watch the dinner, but I went back and listened to Wolf’s roast. It was overall wicked funny stuff, and like all good comedy, contained a lot of truth.

Among the funniest bits to me was when, sensing her audience squirming, Wolf said, “You should have done a lot more research before you got me to do this.”

I am off-put by the hypocrisy of press members complaining about a comedian’s language. With a nod to President Donald Trump, you knew she was a viper tongued wit when you invited her.

I am particularly disappointed in Andrea Mitchell, a generally credible journalist, for saying Wolf owes Sara Huckabee Sanders an apology for what Wolf said about her. Perhaps Mitchell said that because she is afraid Sanders will stop leaking to her. Nobody owes Sanders an apology. Sanders stands into front of the press every day and lies to them through her teeth. And, she is rude, arrogant and condescending doing it. She is of a piece with her administration.

By the way, I have watched a few of those press briefings and the press’ questions are often as lame as the answers are offensive lies.

I think the press club would be better off doing without a professional comedian speaker. Keep the dinner serious and on point. The fact is, the press doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, and can’t seem to take a joke, even a good one, about themselves. Reminds me of Trump.

And then there is the overwrought coverage of North Korea. The press vacillates between overhyping a possible peace agreement between the U. S. and North Korea and a war between the U.S. and North Korea, like it’s a either or game, when, in fact, neither is going to happen, least of all a war, because it is the last thing either side wants (with the exception of John Bolton).

Kim wouldn’t dare start a war with us, because he knows he would be obliterated. Trump won’t start a war with North Korea, because if his staff or Congress won’t stop him, China will. Trump started this circus himself with his bluster, and he’s riding now in part because the press let him, and now we’re off on this insane farce of a nuclear agreement negotiation.
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“Shithole”

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on February 10, 2018

I’m pretty proud of the Fourth Estate these days. The media is taking its responsibility seriously. The newspaper war between the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for scoops about the Trump administration is absolutely thrilling. It’s amazing how many reporters each paper has put on the beat, and it is paying off with great stories and increased circulation, which translates directly to advertising revenues.

That said, the media’s treatment of one story went off the rails in a way that, except for being serious, was rather funny. When President Trump displayed his racism and xenophobia by referring to Haiti, and African countries broadly as “shithole countries,” the media stumbled all over itself about how to handle Trump’s comment. Shit is one of the seven words you are not supposed to say on television.

Some wrote “S***hole” or said “S-hole.” Others just wrote or said it was a “vulgar term,” or “something that can’t be said on the air.” One news network said “Shithole” but then backtracked to “S-hole.”

Chaos doubled when one of Trump’s defenders said Trump didn’t say the word at all (he did), and redoubled when some moron defender said he said “Shithouse” instead, giving us the dictionary example of a distinction without a difference. (Samantha Bee, of course, said Shithole right off the bat, which for her is mild anyway.) Eventually, most media outlets worked up the courage to quote what Trump said directly.

With a nod to Bill Maher, New Rule: when a word is used in a quote, use the quote. Don’t try to soften it. That’s not only too politically correct, but it distorts the intended emphasis and sounds silly. This is especially true for the President, whose words, for better or worse, speak officially for the government.

For example, the word “nigger” is one I would never use…unless I was doing a public reading of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In that context, it is a quote. It is his word; Twain chose it deliberately, in this case to strengthen his pointed opposition to slavery. (“The difference between a word and just the right word, is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug”.” – Mark Twain) I cringe or scoff every time I hear or read “the ‘N’ word.” It’s so, so precious and pusillanimous.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 16, 2017

For the same reason I studied Bernard Lewis to understand Islam and how its extreme elements came to be, I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance to understand the people who voted for President Trump in numbers large enough, and in just the right places, for him to win the election. I reasoned hillbillies and many of Trump’s voters are basically one and the same…and I was right.

An elegy is a lament for the dead, technically in the form of a poem. Vance, a self-described hillbilly, doesn’t say they are dead, but he suggests they are doomed, economically at least, by their own hand absent significant changes.

The term “Hillbilly” originally applied to descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants – Calvinist Protestant dissenters – who migrated to America in the 1700s and settled mostly in the back woods of Greater Appalachia.

Vance’s description of the hillbilly culture pretty much matches up with my own, admittedly stereotypical view of them: uneducated, backward, rural, misogynistic, blame everyone but themselves, pessimistic, extremely conservative and LAZY.

I wasn’t expecting this last one at all. I thought these to be people who want to work, but just can’t find jobs. Vance says hillbillies may say they want a job, but don’t really, and even if they do, they are unwilling to do what is required to get and hold one. In other words, they’re almost unemployable.

Vance observes that hillbilly men draw “strict lines between work acceptable to men and acceptable to women.” It’s clear what “women’s work” is, but not clear what’s acceptable for men. “Apparently, not paid employment,” Vance writes.

As a result, the hillbilly population is rife with unemployment, poverty, ignorance, broken homes, drug addiction and violence out of proportion to other populations. Although Hillary was stupid to say it, these are deplorable people.

To make his case, Vance serves up his own family as typical of the breed. His father came and went; his mother, a slut and hopeless drug addict, ran through “husbands” at such a pace that Vance had difficulty keeping up with their first names, as well as his own last one. His maternal grandparents were uneducated, violent, vulgar and profane, but at least they loved him. He credits them for saving him from a hillbilly’s fate.

Most of Vance’s family members have killed someone, or tried to, including in the case of his grandparents, each other. Vance’s uncle thinks of the family as normal, but admits, “They go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.”

Judged on this scale, Vance’s family has somewhat celebrity status. One of his forebears – Jim Vance – killed Asa McCoy, which ignited the Hatfield and McCoy feud. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield%E2%80%93McCoy_feud)

Similar to the migration of southern blacks to find work in northern cities, hillbillies began migrating from Appalachia in the same general direction, to find work in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The out-migration was so great along U.S. Route 23 that it is called the “Hillbilly Highway.”

Vance grew up in Jackson, Kentucky, a rural town in the county of Breathitt, in the southeastern part of the state. Breathitt County (also formally the name of the town) was a place of such violence (much of it due to feuds) that it became known as “Bloody Breathitt,” and the feds came in to clean it up.

During the migration, Vance’s grandparents moved to Middletown, Ohio along with so many others from his home state that it was called “Middletucky.” The grandparents moved not for economic opportunity, but to avoid an underage pregnancy scandal and certain honor killing.

The migrating hillbillies were able at first to find good paying jobs that didn’t require much education, and the work became progressively easier as manufacturing technology advanced. A significant economic spread developed between the income and opportunities of those who left Appalachia and those who stayed behind, but the culture remains the same in both places.

Inevitably, things reached a tipping point when manufacturing technology advanced to the point very little labor was needed in the plants, and the work could be done in other countries with similar labor skills at much lower labor cost. The jobs disappeared, and both the Appalachian hillbillies and the transplanted ones are back in the same boat, as unprepared to compete as ever. Vance calls them “relics of American industrial glory.”

(Note: Middletown was the home of A. K. Steel, which was the employment anchor of the town. But A. K. Steel jobs declined along with the rest of the steel industry in the U.S., and though there is still a plant in Middletown, there are very few employees. Today, without the A. K. Steel jobs, Middletown is the center of opioid addiction in Ohio.)

The bleak history of Appalachia is pretty well understood, but the migration story was new to me. Put together, they explain how Trump voters came to be and how they came to be where they could nudge the election to Trump, though Vance opines that “Hillbilly” describes much of America’s white middle class today.

Interestingly, Vance goes easy on hillbillies on the Obama-racism issue. He says hillbillies didn’t hate him because he is black, but because they knew that he is simply above them. They knew he had done it right.”

Hillbillies bought into Donald Trump and vulgar rhetoric and impossible conspiracies because they are simply not able to compete and resistant to becoming so, and they have to blame others for this.

Vance believes about hillbillies that “you can’t believe these things [conspiracy theories] and participate meaningfully in society,” but hillbillies did participate meaningfully, at least to the extent that they showed up and voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s those who stayed home who failed the citizenship test. Sadly, hillbillies picked precisely the wrong man to address their problems. So, maybe Vance is right about the “meaningfully” part. Hillbillies aren’t going to participate in any meaningful way economically any time soon.

Hillbilly Elegy, informs our understanding of what went on in 2016. However, the mystery of J.D. Vance himself remains. By any measure, Vance, for all his affinity/distain for hillbillies, simply does not fit the picture.

Vance was smart enough to get accepted at Ohio State University. He was smart enough to realize how unprepared he was for the broader world, so he joined the Marine Corp to catch up before matriculating at OSU. He was smart enough to graduate from Yale Law School. He is obviously an extreme outlier from the culture in which he lived.

That said, Vance can’t be the only one. There must be more potential in the people of this community. We need to find ways to nurture it. In the meantime, I cannot respect them, or even sympathize with them. Respect for determined ignorance and violence is just not in me. But I can emphasize with them better now and realize there are more resources in the Appalachian Mountains than just coal.

Vance is surely right that there is no magic solution, no single government program to rescue this group from its status. It will take many approaches, a long time and a lot of money. But education would be a good place to start.

Two Good Books on Death and Dying

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on January 5, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi (mostly)

It was first said (circa 1665-68) by Francois de la Rochefoucauld that “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly.” Well, two fine writers have taken a crack at it recently, from very different viewpoints, and with very different styles, but each with credible results.

Consider the credentials of this 36-year-old writer: BA and MA in English Literature from Stanford; M-Phil (Master of Philosophy) in History of Science and Medicine, from Cambridge; Graduate, cum laude, from Yale Medical School; Senior Resident at Stanford Medical School. Would you consider this man capable of writing a meaningful book about clinical death? I certainly would.

Oh, and he has one more qualification: 14 days before becoming a Professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, he was observing a scan of a patient with Stage-4 lung cancer (read terminal). About which he writes, “This scan was different; it was my own.”

Such was the fate of Paul Kalanithi, a man of extraordinary intelligence with a sky’s- the-limit career before him, whose life hanged in an instant and whose death was foretold and near. His life – its length, scope and purpose had to be re-considered.

Paul planned to write a book, someday, after a distinguished career in medicine. Now the 30 or more years between his imminent graduation and far-in-the future plans are gone. He skips far ahead to book writing, but first he has cancer to deal with as best as is possible. (Note: I use Paul’s first name in this review because with all he revealed about himself to me in this book, it feels only right.)

Paul takes us through the details of his consultations, tests, treatments and results. Others have done similar recording and reporting before, though few have such professional insight or writing skills. And he adds something more. Common or rare among surgeons, I don’t know, but Paul gave a lot of thought to what it means and takes to lead a meaningful life. Ultimately, Paul came to a rather common conclusion – friends and family – which he calls, being a scientist/philosopher, “relationality.” But his thinking processes, intertwined with the events of his medical adventure, make meaningful reading.

Among the first decisions: his wife Lucy and he decided to have a baby, via in vitro fertilization, which is by now, we must infer, was all he was up to, to create a for comfort for Lucy when he is gone, and for himself if he lives long enough.

Thereafter, Paul’s life is simply a matter of living it out and recording it for us. When treatments permit, he works as long as he can as a surgeon – and then spends his remaining time with his wife, and, yes, with his new baby daughter, Elizabeth Acadia (Cady). Paul died with eight-month old Cady in his arms.
Paul did not live quite long enough to complete this book. Lucy added the finishing touches. We do not know how much of the book is truly his. Lucy wrote the Epilogue for sure, and her style seems a lot like Paul’s, which obscures the issue a bit. However, the vast bulk of the work is clearly Paul’s. The literary references and allusions are those of a Master of English Literature.

Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death
By Baron Brooke Fulke Grenville

You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.

You should read this book, but there is a caveat. The New York Times reviewer wrote that “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option,” and I think he’s right.

Old Age: A Beginners Guide

By Michael Kinsley

Having heaped all that praise on When Breath Becomes Air, you may be surprised to read that I saved my favorite of the two books for last. Michael Kinsley is one of my very favorite writers, almost an idol to me, actually. His thinking is insightful, even on subjects you might think have been completely well worn. What’s more, his work, regardless of topic, is humorous.

Kinsley’s short book is as poignant as Paul’s; more insightful about death in some ways; definitely more practical about the meaningful life and how to live it; plus it is wicked funny, in both meanings of the term, which makes death a little easier to look at directly, but leaves no doubt about its ultimate result.

Kinsley approaches his subject from the point of view of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), to which he belongs, and which is rounding the turn and beginning the home stretch to the finish. He assures his contemporaries that, “the best medical research indicates that eventually you’re going to be dead.”

Boomers are characterized by being especially ambitious and competitive, but while Kinsley thinks Boomers get a bad rap, he also acknowledges that there is some truth to this, particularly when compared to the sacrifices made by the previous, “Greatest Generation,” which won World War II and saved the world.

Kinsley admits being a classic Boomer, but with one rare difference: he contracted Parkinson’s disease at 43. This is much, much earlier than the disease generally presents. He has been fortunate in that his symptoms have been mild for much of this time, and even today are not as typically inhibiting. As he observes about Parkinson’s, “like its victims, it tends to move slowly.” Fortunate as Kinsley has been in this regard, still he has been dealing with this reminder of his mortality directly for around 25 years.

It turns out that Parkinson’s doesn’t kill that many people, though it did kill my father. Most people who get it do so later in life and usually die of something else before Parkinson’s gets them. But the diagnosis, Kinsley writes, “…is a pretty valuable warning shot from the Grim Reaper.”

This is not the case, Kinsley reminds his fellow Boomers, for old age. As for that, “We don’t need any tests. We can give you that diagnosis right now. You’ve got it, it’s progressive and (unlike Parkinson’s) it’s invariably fatal.”

Kinsley discusses the pros and cons of a number of ways to measure the value of lives in the competitive spirit of Boomers: material success (The one who dies with the most toys wins); longevity; cognition; finally settling on reputation, though only of a certain kind. (He has some fascinating ideas about reputation versus fame and celebrity.)

Fortunately, Kinsley tells us how to do this. If you want a good reputation, he says, “be good. And you better get started now, because after your dead, it’s too late.”

Kinsley even has an idea that would let the entire Baby Boom generation pass on with a good reputation, almost as good as that of the “Greatest Generation.” His proposal: pay off the national debt…about $17 trillion dollars. This will take a big sacrifice – not as big as getting shot and killed in your youth – but still huge. It will require a lot of contribution from every Boomer. It will require soaking the one percent pretty good. It will require (all but) eliminating the inheritance tax, something I’ve always advocated.

But, hey, paying off the debt would lift an enormous drag on our economy, and on the prospects of all those yet to come, and who by definition had nothing to do with creating it. Though I’m not technically a Baby Boomer – I was born a few years too early – I’m willing to chip in. How about you, young-uns?

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 23, 2016

In an interview about his new book, David McCullough opined that Wilbur Wright was “certainly a genius,” and that Orville Wright had “mechanical ingenuity as few people had ever seen.“ Read this book, which I recommend of all McCullough’s books, and you will see that he was right on both counts.

At the turn of the 20th Century, few people thought man would ever be able to fly. In fact, most people were certain we would not. There were hot air balloons, of course (Ben Franklin rode in one in France) and some gliders, but neither was hardly the same thing. (The first and best glider engineer – Otto Lilienthal – died in a crash in his own invention, but left behind some observations about flight that the brothers studied.)

Some few cranks and some serious scientists, most notably Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, with large financial backing by the War Department, experimented with manned, powered flight. You’ve seen the old film clips of their odd looking machines launching (or not) and crashing quickly to the ground. Some of those were Langley’s efforts.

The Wright brothers – brilliant, though without formal training or even a college degree – approached the problem differently. First, they began with the absolute certainty that flight was possible and the determination to be the first to do it. Second, they approached the task patiently and scientifically, in sequential steps, from research, to designs; to gliders, to manned gliders, to power source, to Voila.

Wilbur’s first, and perhaps most brilliant insight came early on. He perceived, as no others had, after watching birds soar in flight, that the more important aspect of flight was the flyer, not the machine. As a baby bird must learn to fly by practice, starting with merely flapping its wings on the edge of the nest, so the flyer must gain experience on the controls of the plane and how it reacts to changes in the air currents to the point of reflex. Thus, the patient, sequential development of their invention and its flying.

The brothers did their design and construction at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, but they wanted privacy (read secrecy) for their testing. They chose Kitty Hawk, on the outer banks of North Carolina for its seclusion and favorable winds, of which they got both in spades. (The Wrights actually went to Kitty Hawk in four successive years to further their project sequentially. Before their first flight on December 17, 1903, the brothers made over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, to become true, experienced pilots.)

Having achieved true flight – heavier than air, controlled, power driven, with a pilot – in the isolation of Kitty Hawk, with only a few locals and their own still camera to witness, the word of their achievement got out slowly, and with more skepticism than they expected. The brothers returned to Dayton and put one some exhibitions, and the news began to circulate more broadly.

There were still more skeptics and doubters than fans. The War Department, having sunk a lot of money into Langley’s spectacular, public failures, had no interest in the Wright’s claims or their machine. The two small town boys had to go to Europe for recognition (Wilbur stayed in Paris for more than a year on his first trip, yet never learned French. His sister visited him and in four months became his interpreter. Remarkable family.) In France, England and Germany, the news got the adulation it deserved.

The Wright brothers spent the next several years building better and better machines, and flying higher and faster and farther and longer, setting new world records nearly every time they flew. The possibility of manned flight having been proven, others joined in the pursuit, and progress was made quickly. In less than a quarter of a century, aviation progressed from the first short flight in Kitty Hawk to Charles Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927. (Lindberg was born the year before Kitty Hawk.)

The Wright brothers other pursuit – falling mostly on the shoulders of Wilbur – was filing and fighting lawsuits to protect their patents. Wilbur wasn’t interested in the money, but both brothers wanted it undoubted that they had been the first to fly. They won all the suits, and their recognition is undisputed. But the effort wore Wilbur down as flying never had. “It is always easier to deal with things than with men,” he wrote.  The effort destroyed Wilbur’s health. He died in his mid-40s. Orville succeeded him by 37 years.

The story of this most remarkable achievement makes great reading in McCullough’s hands. It’s a must read story of the dawn of aviation. But the most astounding factoid in it to me is that Wilbur – the genius visionary and creator of manned, powered, piloted flight – did not think that the automobile would ever become practical. Too noisy and unreliable, he thought. Orville, on the other hand, loved motor cars, and after Wilbur’s death, and when he could no longer fly, due to a bad crash, drove them all over Dayton at high speeds. The local police cringed and looked the other way.

 

 

The Bible

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 29, 2016

I’ve been thinking about the Bible. Does that surprise you? I’m aware of some qualitative research that indicates doubters think more about God than many believers. I think this may be true, because many doubters find it hard to shake the possibility (I am not one of these, but I do have thoughts), whereas many believers don’t want to think too much about God for fear doubts might creep in, and then where would they be?

My take on the Bible is that it comprises: a credible life philosophy, one among many I have read; some practical advice on diet, hygiene and finances; some ancient mythology, similar to Greek, Roman and Norse, only with less imagination, having only one deity; some oral and long-after-the-fact written history; tedious repetition; insanely out of date legal thinking, and an enormous amount of fairytale nonsense, much of it borrowed from earlier religions and traditions.

In this regard, The Bible is indistinguishable from other holy texts, and similar in many ways to an almanac.

“The Witches” by Stacy Schiff

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on June 8, 2016

In the aftermath of gruesome acts of mass hysteria, after that “What have we done?” moment, one of two roads are taken. The first is never to forget, never to repeat. The second is never to talk about it. Salem Village’s response to the Salem Witch Trials fell into the latter category. After the madness subsided, after the last “witch” was hanged in September, 1692, records disappeared, diaries were lost, and memories were suppressed. “Let’s not think or talk about it” was the village consensus.

Fascination with the events will not abate, however. Salem holds our imagination tightly. It is the ultimate mystery page turner, even though so many of the pages are torn out.

Stacy Schiff, one of my very favorite historians, has written a masterful work to address the history and the mystery of Salem’s descent into hysteria and malevolence. She lays out the known facts, provides various possibilities to fill the blank spaces, and insightful information and thoughts about the environment of Puritan New England in the late 1600s. If you want to understand the Salem Witch Trials as best they can be understood without building an entire library on the subject, Schiff’s “The Witches,” written in her remarkable style, is the book to read. Trust me, she has read the entire library for us.

Puritanism was a hellfire and brimstone religion. Its god was an angry and unforgiving god. By Puritan precepts, many were doomed even before they were born, and all others were sinners to be punished severely while on earth and judged harshly in the hereafter. It was an ignorant, superstitious religion, if that’s not being redundant.

Puritans believed in witches and the Devil. The Harvard Divinity School taught seminary students about witches and witchcraft. Two of the most prominent Harvard-educated Puritan ministers of the day – Increase and Cotton Mather – believed in and preached about witches, and were active in the Salem Witch Hunt. (Puritans brought the belief in witches with them from the Old World, but by the time of Salem, such beliefs were dying out in most of Europe.)

Even without the prevailing religious beliefs and intolerance, Salem Village was a scary place. It abutted deep, dark forest. Indian attacks and abductions were commonplace. There were no streetlights or illumination of any kind. People could get spooked by things that went bump in the night, especially people already inclined. In every way, Salem’s residents were completely in the dark.

Salem Village, where the witch hunts began (not Salem Town), was a particularly superstitious, suspicious, humorless, colorless and mean-spirited place. The village was an adjunct to the town, populated with many extreme, irritable, irritating and litigious people. They weren’t welcome in Salem Town, to whose residents they were a nuisance and a burden. Villagers sued each other chronically, and came to the Town to resolve their disputes.

Medicine in Puritan Salem was primitive, perhaps not even on a par with that of the Native Americans who surrounded and menaced them. Psychological disorders were unknown and unexcused. Children were for work and beating, not for nurturing. Children usually didn’t live long anyway. Keeping a distance may have eased the pain of loss.

The first Villagers to start seeing and feeling the effects of witches was Abagail Williams, a girl of 11. Next was Betty Parris, a girl of about eight, the daughter of the uptight minister.  Both lived in Reverend Parris’ stifling household.

The first symptoms of demons were the children’s rolling around on the floor, then their complaints of pin pricks  and bite marks, extremely easy evidence to concoct. Soon the girls were seeing apparitions flying around in the air on bars (brooms came later), choking or beating victims, and often crawling into bed with them. (A lot of crawling into strange beds appears in the accusations.) Of course, no one else could see these spectral apparitions, which made them seem to these superstitious people all the more scary and believable.  On this scant, ludicrous and spectral evidence, issuing from two adolescent children, Salem Village lost its mind.  People started seeing witches and witchcraft everywhere. Accusations sprang up like mushrooms around the Village.

Witchcraft was broadly defined. A pig falls in a ditch; a witch must have pushed it. A pot of porridge falls into the fire with no one touching it; must have been witches. Two neighbors argue, and a horse belonging to one of them dies; the other neighbor must have cast a wicked spell on the horse. The girls saw four women flying on a bar over the trees at night, even though they (the women, not the girls; well, possibly the girls, too) were home in bed. The fliers, whoever the girls say they were, must be witches.

Accusations of witchcraft began piling up like cord wood before winter, from neighbors and family members against one another. At one time, there were more accusations of witches in Salem Village, Town and surrounding communities than the entire population of Salem Village.

Thomas Putnam, prodigy of a wealthy family, an apparently unworthy man – he was excluded from major inheritances by both his father and father-in-law – was responsible for half of the accusations through August, 1692, by which time the girls (perhaps becoming an embarrassment?), had disappeared from the scene.

On June 2, 1692, important Villagers, Townspeople, clergy and prominent men from Boston formed a court of Oyer and Terminer (“to hear and to determine”) these cases, though not one of the judges was a judge or even a lawyer.

The court was, in fact, the opposite of Oyer and Terminer. The judges had already “determined,” and they didn’t want to hear anything but confessions. In fact, to plead innocent was evidence of guilt. One man was crushed with stones for refusing to confess or even appear in court. He wasn’t counted among the witches, because he wasn’t technically tried.

In the end, 19 people, mostly women, and two dogs (sex unreported) were killed for witchcraft. There were no burnings at the stake or drownings, only hangings. The dogs were not hanged, apparently, but it is unreported how they were killed.

To be sure, there was some skeptics and critics – men of intelligence, education and conscience. The first, and  perhaps the most effective at placing a mirror of reason in front of the judges and the public, was Robert Pike, who opposed the witch trials (and the persecution of Quakers, which could also be a hanging offense in Puritan New England), followed by Thomas Brattle and Samuel Willard. Their reason and eloquent opposition poured cold water on the febrile community. On October 29, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was terminated, “when the trials were reflected upon and disapproved.” The trials were over; recriminations began, and continue to this day.

Schiff considers a myriad of possible explanations and contributions to the phenomenon that was the witch trials, but the simplest seem the most likely: ignorance, superstition, adolescent drama and score settling. Adults who should have known better believed the mischief of two young girls and set into motion a hysteria that offered others the opportunity to take out revenge for previous grievances, and rid the community of “inconvenient” people. Of course, there was, as always, political opportunism.

Schiff reminds us that “we all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know which ones they are.” She also reminds us, more importantly, I think, that witch hunting did not end in Salem.

Several examples of our running amok have occurred in my lifetime. In each one, as in Salem, justice is turned completely upside down, and people are presumed guilty until – unlikely in such an environment – proven innocent.

 

These include: the McCarthy era, when people were jailed for being a Communist, even though being a Communist was not a crime; the internment of Japanese American citizens without due process,  in World War II, because they might be sympathetic to Japan; our response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, after which we tossed our privacy rights in the trash, went to war on a country that could have been drawn out of a hat, tortured people and began persecuting Muslims for their religion.

But the most vivid and egregious abandonment of justice to hysteria in my lifetime were the child sex abuse trials in the 1980s and 90s, most particularly what occurred in Wenatchee, Washington.

This story has many parallels with the Salem Witch Trials. It also began with two young girls – in this case mentally diminished – who reported to their mother about being fondled by kids at school, in 1993. Eventually, the case was referred to a Lt. Robert Perez, Wenatchee’s sole sex crime officer, with no training in the field. Perez immediately ran amok, losing sight of justice completely, and ruining many lives in the process.

When social services officers said the girls were making it all up and had told them so, Perez had them – the social services officers, not the children – arrested. One of the girls was taken into Perez’s home as a foster child, where Perez began to question her in private, without notes, recordings or witnesses, and then arrest people on the basis of these conversations. When the obvious conflict of interest was criticized, Perez arrested the critics.

By 1995, 43 adults stood accused of committing 27,726 acts of child sex abuse against 60 children.  Trials began without a speck of physical evidence and no recorded testimony.

Nobody at this point even questioned this lunacy. Justice was turned completely upside down. As in Salem, denial was considered proof of guilt. As Wenatchee Child Protective Services Supervisor Tim Abbey testified, “It’s well known that children are telling the truth when they says they’ve been abused. But [they] are usually lying when they deny it.” So, if a child says he or she was abused, you are guilty. If he or she says he or she was not abused, you are guilty.

(This exact same thing was said to me by a social worker in Dallas, which is why I loathe social workers as a class, and would not trust one with my burnt matchsticks, let alone my children. I’ve known a few competent ones, but more who have quit the field in disgust and dismay, and a couple like the one who told me the above, who clearly should not be left alone with children, let alone licensed.)

In 1998, law students and faculty at the University of Washington formed Innocence Project Northwest to address the cases of the 18 people convicted and incarcerated. Eventually, all those who were convicted were either freed by higher courts, had their convictions overturned or pleaded guilty on lesser, usually unrelated, charges in exchange for the prosecution dropping the charges of sexual abuse. Five served their full sentences before their cases were overturned; some lost parental rights. By 2000, the last person in custody, Michael Rose, was released, after a judge vacated his March 1995 convictions.

So, if you do not believe in witches, witchcraft or the devil, but enjoy a good story about them, I agree with you. But, if you still think there are no longer witch hunts, you are very mistaken.

“Killing a King” by Dan Ephron

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on May 11, 2016

“Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, And the Remaking of Israel”

By Dan Ephron

The Jewish population of Israel lies along a spectrum ranging from secular to ultra-orthodox, with perhaps another ultra or two further along to the right. At that end of the spectrum are potentially lethal religious nuts. Palestinian Muslims live in Israel too, and many of them are as religiously dangerous as the ultra-orthodox among Israeli Jews.

Many have tried – hard – to bring peace and understanding (or at least tolerance) between Israel and the Palestinians, but without much success. The right fringe of each has to date sabotaged every attempt.

“Killing a King” is an account of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister killed by Yigal Amir, a JEWISH ultra-orthodox wing nut, for Rabin’s nearly successful attempt to mind the gap.

Dan Ephron, who reported from Israel for 20 years for Newsweek and other media outlets, and who was present at Rabin’s assassination, writes thoroughly and well of the events leading up to and including Rabin’s death, and the motives of each extreme group’s opposing, but mutually responsible, politics.

The primary issue dividing Israel and the Palestinians has been since the so called “Six Day War” in 1967, Jewish settlements within Palestinian Territory. In that war, several Islamic states attacked Israel simultaneously, but were thoroughly and humiliatingly defeated. Israel captured lands from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, including the West Bank and Jerusalem, places with enormous historical and religious significance for both Jews and Muslims.

After the war, Israel’s goal – magnanimous and wise in my view – was to return the captured lands in exchange for recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and mutual access to Jerusalem’s holy sites. Palestinians choked on the offer, and their hatred of Israel continued unabated.

Many Israelis wanted to hold onto the captured land, some for security reasons, but some by the belief that all the land that had been part of ancient Israel (they refer to the entire area as Judea and Samaria) should be part of modern Israel.  After the failure of the Palestinians and Arab neighbors to accept Israel’s offer, Jews began settling in the captured territories. Needless to say, these settlement encroachments have caused enormous friction with Palestinians.

Just as the U.S. needed a reliably anti-communist like President Nixon to go to China, Israel needed Yitzhak Rabin to treat with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Rabin had led the Israeli army in the Six Day War. He was extremely mistrustful of the Palestinians and of the Muslim countries surrounding Israel. He was the one man who could be trusted by Israelis not to make a bad deal with the PLO, except for the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who didn’t want any deal at all.

Rabin considered the settlers, “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy,” but he was emotionally conflicted about the Palestinians, and therefore hesitant. He missed opportunities to confront the settlers. As any good teacher knows, or any leader of a psychiatric institution, you cannot let the students, or the inmates, take control of the classroom or the institution. This way lies chaos. Settlers kept coming. (Today, more than half a million Jews live in settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank.)

 

By 1993, Rabin had had enough of the settlers. He was ready to sign the so called Oslo Agreement, a recognition of the right of Israel to exist, and the boundaries of a Palestinian State, though not the establishment of the state itself (that was to come later, over a series of negotiated  steps), with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

The agreement was signed by Rabin and other Israelis, and PLO president Yasser Arafat in Washington, D.C. in September, 1993. Still wary of Arafat, Rabin said as the signing ceremony details were being worked out, “Alright, but no kissing!”

The signing of the agreement was met with broad approval in Israel. The agreement had immediate international benefits, as well. Jordan recognized Israel’s right to exist and made peace. Gabon and Mauritius established relationships with Israel, as did Spain and Portugal. The opposition Likud Party in Israel, among whose young leaders was a young Benjamin Netanyahu, and the settlers, however, went absolutely nuts.

In 1994, an ultra-orthodox settler from Hebron named Baruch Goldstein attacked a congregation of Muslims at prayer in a mosque, killing many of them. Goldstein became the inspiration for Yigal Amir, for, as Amir saw it, taking action rather than just talking about keeping the occupied lands for Jews, and driving the Palestinians out. He decided to take action himself and kill Rabin to put an end to his policies. Killing a king can change a nation’s politics, even its character.

It turned out to be easy. Rabin resisted security details, so as he was walking to his car after speaking at a peace rally, of all things, Amir walked up to him and shot him to death. Amir was immediately subdued. Afterward, he showed, and still shows, no remorse. This was on November 4, 1995.

Amir succeeded in his goal. When Rabin died, so died his peace movement, at least so far. Another Labor Prime Minister – Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated military officer – made another bold attempt at peace, offering the PLO almost all of what it wanted, but after Rabin’s assassination, Arafat did not have the courage nor the sense of history to take yes for an answer and accept it. After that attempt, Israel lost interest in dealing with the Palestinians or having any sincere negotiations with them.

Some say Rabin’s assassination was the beginning of the end of Israel. I disagree; I think it was the end. Since then, Israel has been governed by conservative leaders so intent on holding the captured lands in the name of “security,” that is no longer a liberal democratic county. It is an occupying country, practicing Apartheid, led today by Benjamin Netanyahu, the worst of a long line of demagogic leaders exploiting Israeli’s security fears.

With this shift away from a liberal democratic government to an occupying one, Israel has yielded its moral high ground to its detractors and its enemies. Even many American Jews, including most young ones, have lost interest in Israel. (Being ignored can be worse than being hated.) It’s clear that Obama has calculated that if American Jewish voters don’t any longer care about Israel, why should he?

This is not an observation I am happy to write. I am old enough to remember an earlier Israel, the one that won its independence, defeated its enemies and tried to return the lands it captured in exchange only for peace and recognition. The Israel of David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban. This is not the Israel of today. I cannot tolerate its current policies, and I am pessimistic about its future. Rabin may have been Israel’s last best hope, and he was murdered by his own people.

The “Qur’an”

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 9, 2015

In recent years, I have read much about politics and religion in the Middle East (which are essentially the same thing), to try to understand behavior over there. I know much, much more about the subject than the average American, which isn’t really saying that much.

However, though I have read about Islam, I had never actually read the Qur’an, at least not since I read excerpts as a child, which back then, we spelled “Koran.” I have done so, and am now prepared to compare and contrast the Qur’an with the Old Testament of the Bible and the Torah, to wit:

They Are The Same Book!

These three books are bound as tightly together as particles of an atom. They all spring from the same root. The Qur’an and the New Testament both claim simply to go beyond the Torah, which is the Old Testament, but even then they extend essentially in the same basic direction. I’ll let you decide if there is any real difference, other than greedy political history:

Here are the ways the three books are identical:

  • They are all monotheistic
  • They all date back to Abraham
  • They all have the same stories with the same characters: Moses, Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot, David, and on and on and on
  • They contain an identical moral philosophy
  • They contain some common sense advice and safety lessons, cloaked in dogma
  • They all use antiquated, rural, agrarian parables
  • They all contain fairy tales, fantasies and utter nonsense and insist they are the literal truth.

Another, frustrating way they are identical is that they are all mind-numbingly, numbingly, numbingly repetitive. Any competent copy editor could condense any of these books to a small pamphlet and not lose a thought.

Finally, each book, on each page, repeats that their God is the only God, which they acknowledge is the same god, and those who don’t believe theirs is the only true god are doomed. It’s ludicrous.

The books differ, when read objectively, only modestly, certainly not enough to fight wars over, one would think:

  • Judaism considers Jesus to be a major prophet, but not the son of god.
  • Islam considers Jesus to be a major prophet, but not the son of god. In fact, the Qur’an takes umbrage at the notion that Allah, being the one true, omnipotent, omniscient god, would have a son (my father may have felt the same way at times).
  • Islam considers the Qur’an to have been given directly to the most important prophet – Muhammad – whom they call The Messenger.
  • Christians believe that Jesus is the son of god, and part of a troika that also includes the “holy ghost.” It is a ponderous, messy concept in comparison to the Torah and Old Testament, and seems to be an embarrassment to many theologians.
  • The New Testament and the Qur’an both claim to be extensions of the Old Testament, and in much the same way….son of god, prophet, Messenger, whatever.
  • Judaism stops with the Old Testament, but includes additional writings, all of which together comprise the Talmud.

All of this reminds me of a saying in Baptist-dominated Texas that Protestants will never recognize the Pope as infallible, Jews will never recognize Jesus as the son of God, and Baptists will never recognize each other in a liquor store.