Monday, October 6, 2008

To Edinburgh!

What do Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, Robert Burns, known as the Ploughman Poet or the Bard of Ayrshire, Sir James Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, Sean Connery, the actor best known for playing James Bond, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Alexander Fleming, credited with discovering penicillin, Eric Henry Liddell, the Olympic athlete whose life was immortalized in the film Chariots of Fire, John Muir, considered the father of the modern environmental movement, Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, Alastair Sim, best known (to me) in the role he played as Scrooge in the 1951 film, Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for his adventure stories, Kidnapped and Treasure Island have in common?

Why, they along with scores of other famous artists, scientists and historical figures were all born in Scotland!

And on Wednesday, Scott and I will be on our way to visit Scotland for ten days. Scott was invited along on a trip with about ten other American painters and yours truly will be along for the ride.

Despite the fact I lived in England from 1981-1983, I never made it to Scotland, so I'm really looking forward to the visit.

Our stay will be split between two different Manor Houses -- and the first is apparently within fifty yards of Rosslyn Chapel. We'll have a rental car and we plan to keep our plans pretty fluid, so wish us luck.

To be honest, I am looking forward to leaving the country and unplugging for ten days because frankly, I think I'm at the limit of sensory overload with all the news about the election and the economy. And despite the last post I did about progress on my own work, I've not yet found the end of The Foundling Wheel, so I hope the time and distance from my job and the day to day distractions will give me some room to spend time with my characters and work this out.

In the past, long flights have been a great environment for writing -- at least as long as the laptop battery lasts. Nothing promotes "ass in chair" quite like a transatlantic flight. I've also been choosing, discarding and re-choosing those few books from the TBR stack that I want to take along, but I've also loaded the Kindle up. Not only do I have ebooks, but I've also downloaded Crime and Punishment from, so I have lots of options for reading.

I hate to say that we're leaving not a moment too soon. Tomorrow night the second Presidential Debate will be on and of course we'll be watching, but the last couple of days have given me a queasy, creepy feeling. the campaigns are getting uglier and for the same reason I don't watch reality TV, I don't want to watch as the rhetoric becomes even nastier.

I'm looking forward to lots of productive writing time, whether it's on TFW or even random observations as we meander from village to village.

I read at Therese Fowler's blog, Making it Up that October is National Book Club Month, and it got me thinking. So many of us have towering TBR stacks, wouldn't it be nice if we could choose a book that lots of us want to read and target some future date that we'd like to blog about it? Just an idea. October is too far gone, but I'll take my inspiration from this month. Perhaps we could choose a book sometime over the next few weeks and then choose a date around the first of the year to blog about it -- no need to pressure ourselves more than we already do.

We've got people with tastes all over the map, but we might just get lucky and if four or five of us can agree on a selection, I think that would be pretty cool. Think about it and let me know if you'd be interested and if so, maybe suggest a list of books you're interested in reading that might be more interesting if you knew others were reading them too.

I've got at least a couple of hundred books in my TBR stack (seriously), so I'll try to come up with my own list of suggestions if there's interest.

There are lots of good Scottish sayings and one I find would serve me well in my writing is, "say but little and say it well." For more Scottish wisdom, see a longer list here or here.

And on that note, I'll be back on line on October 18th or 19th, unless I'm shocked and find that one of the spooky old manor houses has wireless...hmm.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

* * *

The painting is one Scott painted and it's called "Evensong". It was the view from a New Hampshire bed and breakfast where we stayed for several days in the fall of 2004. This poem always makes me think of the woods in New Hampshire and I suppose it's because that's where Robert Frost lived and it's a place I've returned to on and off all of my life. If I had to pick a favorite poem, this would be it. I cannot remember a time when I didn't know it.

What poem is like an old friend to you?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka on Racism and Obama

This speech brings out the truth of the racism that still exists in this country, but it makes me believe we really are turning a corner. His passion brought tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Books I Read in September 2008

I got lots of reading done this month and since I've been doing so many serious posts on election issues recently, I need to lighten things up with a major change of subject. So here are the books I read in September:

Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones is a fictional account of the period around 1979-1982 when the Atlanta child killer was at large and murdered 29 African American children. The story is told from the points of view of three fifth-grade classmates. Tayari Jones gives voice to a unique and terrifying period from the perspective of three very different children. Reading as a writer, I was particularly taken by the fact that the author successfully pulled off shifting points of view using third person, first person and even choosing to use the unusual second person for one character. The children's voices were authentic and powerful. This book was frightening, heartbreaking and beautifully written. It was selected as One of the Best Books of the Year in 2004 by the Washington Post. Tayari Jones, also the author of The Untelling (on my TBR stack) is one of my favorite blogging authors and you can read her posts, filled with insights, observations and links to all things literary here.

Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster is the story of 72 year old August Brill. An insomniac and a retired book critic, he is recovering from a car accident at his daughter's house in Vermont. He is immobilized, with two broken legs and is still grieving his wife's death. His middle aged daughter is alone after a painful divorce and his granddaughter has also come to stay after losing her boyfriend to a horrific murder. In order to deal with his insomnia, Brill imagines a parallel world where 9/11 never happened and instead of going to war with Iraq, America is at war with itself as a result of the 2000 election. After reading Man in the Dark (a quick read at 180 pages), I picked up The Brooklyn Follies on the B&N clearance table. Auster, who has written many novels, but was new to me is one of my best finds this year.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama is a book I hadn't gotten around to reading until after the nomination. Since the author had his sights on the Presidency when the book was written, it is a detailed vision of his views on our two-party system, values, the Constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, race, the world and family. This book is not quite as personal as the memoir that preceded it by some ten years, but it provides an excellent perspective on how Barack Obama sees the possibilities for our nation -- and I like his views. He's the first politician who has ever inspired me and given me hope, something we sorely need right now.

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson is the author's fifth novel, but the first I've read. She's an English author, living in Edinburgh and this is her second mystery featuring a retired police officer, now millionaire. Atkinson has a unique, sardonic voice and the story, told in multiple points of view is packed with eccentric characters. The story is kicked off when a good Samaritan helps the victim of a beating incited by a case of road rage and somehow everyone involved becomes part of the sinister story that follows. To be truthful, I wasn't expecting a mystery, but I just love Atkinson's style. I've got Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet on the TBR shelf and will be reading them shortly. To be honest, I'd read an interview with Kate Atkinson before reading any of her work and she seems kind of -- cranky. That appealed to me.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wrobewski has been getting lots of attention, particularly since Oprah selected it for her book club. Fortunately, I was in the middle of reading it when the announcement was made, otherwise my irrational reverse snobbery about popular novels probably would have led me to ignore the book for quite a while. The hype is true and you can read reviews galore on this one, along with the most complimentary blurb -- from Stephen King, no less -- that I have ever read by an established author about a debut novel. A fellow blogger (after seeing me Twitter my enthusiasm while reading the book) Twittered back that the book is "awful" and found a bad review to back up her opinion, so fair warning, not everyone shares my glowing views but overwhelmingly, the book has gotten great reactions. The author (who lives in Colorado) spent over ten years writing this story and then rewriting and revising it. It is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, set in early 1970's rural Wisconsin on a small farm where the Sawtelle family raises a fictional breed of dogs. I should also disclose that I love Hamlet and I own three different film adaptations of it on DVD. If the reader was unfamiliar with the story of Hamlet, I have no idea what kind of a reaction he would have to this story, but the prose is undeniably beautiful. I am guilty of being biased toward books for many reasons and I confess to being especially enamored of this one because of the Hamlet connection and because I have such great admiration for this debut author (a software developer by day) who took the time to learn how to write a wonderful story and then made it big. Congratulations to David Wroblewski and his Cinderella story and I hope a second novel will follow -- when he's ready.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer was quite successful and there was a lot to like about it. The plot device is that the main character is born with the physical appearance of an elderly man and he grows older mentally like any other child, but his body appears to age backward and grows younger every year. The tragedy of the story is that Max is able to try to win the heart of the woman he falls in love with at three different times in his life although she never recognizes him for who he is. The book is set in turn of the century San Francisco and the writing is unquestionably beautiful, although the prose is written in a formal, almost stilted fashion so I was somewhat relieved that the book ended when it did. Perhaps my expectations were too high and I've never been a huge fan of historicals so I enjoyed, but did not love this book. The story arc was almost too inevitable and I just wasn't surprised, sympathetic or intrigued enough by Max Tivoli's plight. Andrew Sean Greer is a talented author and his other works aren't written in quite this style. I've got his short story collection, How it Was For Me, his novel The Path of Minor Planets and his newest book, The Story of a Marriage on my TBR shelf and I do look forward to reading them.

Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death, by Kurt Vonnegut was the audio book I went to sleep to for several nights this month. Vonnegut's words, as read by Ethan Hawke were oddly, the perfect bedtime story. From the Audible website: "Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes 'unstuck in time' after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden." I had never read this book and I just loved it. I think the firebombing of Dresden was an event that really defined Kurt Vonnegut, and for good reason. Incredibly, it's a chapter of World War II that most people don't seem to know much about, although the destruction allied bombing caused to civilian men, women and children could be said to have rivaled that in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

* * *

By next month, I hope to have finished Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama. I was about 250 pages into it when Scott happened to pick it up and commented that he'd really like to read it -- so I'll finish it after he does. This memoir was written in 1995 when Obama was selected as the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review and it provides a very personal perspective into who this man is. If he hadn't become a politician, he would have had a successful career as a novelist. He's an excellent writer.

Tomorrow night is the Vice Presidential debate, so we'll be in front of the TV with popcorn and Twizzlers because there's really no telling what we're going to see, but it will certainly be historic.

Despite any political differences we may have, there lots of amazing bloggers in our online community. If you haven't already, please take a look at Moonrat's raffle to help a friend in need and Travis Erwin's very noble cause to help spread literacy.

I would promise to exclusively get back to my regularly scheduled posts about books and writing, but this election is just too important. I want to share what I learn about the issues here in the hope that some of it may be helpful to others and in the hope that it might generate some discussion. And hey -- I'm pretty proud of us. So far, despite the number of issues related posts, we've all been civil and that's a great thing. Thank you for that and remember that no matter how wound up we get about the politics, this is what's important.

And now -- with all the heaviness of the news of the world behind us, PLEASE share something positive! What have YOU been reading lately? Has anybody read any of the books I listed and if so, would you care to comment on them? Seen any good movies? Heard any uplifting anecdotes? Get any good news? What keeps you going?

Please Don't Turn Away From This

We have all been preoccupied with the recent disaster on Wall Street and in trying to second guess what our government will do to try to mitigate the damage. Prior to recent events, both candidates focused a great deal of time talking about alternative forms of energy and the need to break our dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic. The candidates have talked about the things that matter to us here. They've talked about health care, the unemployment rate and education.

I have been surprised that going into this election, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the greatest concern of Americans.

And with the exception of a brief exchange on the use of torture during the debate on Friday, I have been shocked that more Americans have not demanded a commitment from the Presidential Candidates to end all torture including water boarding, to end the practice of extraordinary rendition and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

When I was stationed in Germany, I took a train ride to Dachau and I toured the Nazi concentration camp there. Most of the original structures had been destroyed, and a few replicas stood in their place. Some crematory ovens remain. The iron gates with the adage "Arbeit Macht Frei" remain. A memorial museum houses thousands of artifacts from the millions who were exterminated: prisoner uniforms, the clothing of men, women and children, and thousands of photographs documenting the incarceration and murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and others.

I gasped out loud and I cried the first time I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib. My mind immediately went to the photographs I saw that day at the Nazi death camp. But these were Americans standing over the naked, beaten, humiliated bodies of other human beings. It was 2004.

None of us knew then what we know now.

When you think about all of the issues that are important to you before you cast your ballot, please think about what America once represented to the rest of the world. Think about the position of moral superiority we, as Americans have always felt when we looked at the inhuman practices and human rights violations we know exist in other, less civilized countries.

The America I was born into does not torture other human beings, nor does it incarcerate them indefinitely without charge.

Please review where your candidate stands on these issues before you cast your ballot.

The following analysis was taken from Citizens for Global Solutions:

ANALYSIS: Obama vs. McCain on Torture

Josh Rovenger
May 29, 2008

(This is the second in a series of papers analyzing the global and foreign policy views of the presumptive presidential nominees and how each candidate may govern as our nation’s next president.)

It’s become quite apparent that Senator Barack Obama is going to do whatever he can to link Senator John McCain to the Bush administration. Obama has labeled the Iraq War, the president’s economic policies, and the president’s foreign policy perspective as the ‘Bush-McCain War’, the ‘Bush-McCain tax cuts’ and the ‘Bush-McCain worldview’, respectively. However, given McCain’s history as a legislature on the issue of torture, and his experience in Vietnam, conventional wisdom would suggest that Obama is going to have a much harder time tying McCain and Bush together on this issue.

The past seven years have been marked by an administration willing to depart from long-standing precedents. While torture has been continuously condemned in this country, the president has virtually sanctioned it. The Bush administration has denied basic legal rights and treatment to detainees at Guantanamo, has approved tougher interrogation techniques towards suspected terrorists and has overseen the brutal treatment of prisoners at prisons such as Abu Ghraib. The administration has also initiated an extraordinary rendition program in which suspected terrorists are sent to countries specifically known for their harsher interrogation techniques. In fact, Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog organization, recently released a scathing report criticizing the administration for not closing down Guantanamo and its failure to ban all torture.

Although Obama and McCain may be closer to one another on the issue than either is to the president, upon further analysis it becomes clear that Obama is going to have a much easier time framing the issue in his favor. Thus far, he has targeted the current president’s policies as fundamentally unacceptable, while McCain has had to walk a fine line, balancing his loyalty to the GOP, his party’s current president and his own personal views and experiences.

On one hand, Barack Obama has consistently made clear that if he’s elected, “we’ll reject torture-without exception or equivocation.” This includes “ending the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.” If his rhetoric is any indication of his policies, he is likely to reverse the actions of the Bush administration. He would reject the practice of torture as policy, and his “administration will close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.” The only question that arises on Obama’s position is what his reaction would be in a highly pressured situation. “Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations that I will make that judgment at that time.” Ultimately though, he argues “what we cannot do is have the President of the United States state, as a matter of policy, that there is a loophole or an exception where we would sanction torture.”

On the other hand, McCain has historically been one of the staunchest advocates against torture. Although he can claim some success, as of late he’s been placed on the defensive. For instance, in 2005, he spear-headed a successful challenge to President Bush by garnering support for the Detainee Treatment Act. The amendment ensured that “no person in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense or under detention in a Department of Defense facility shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.” Although the legislation does not mention water boarding specifically, McCain has continuously indicated his belief that it is an illegal interrogation method for any governmental agency.

His position seemed even clearer in the 2007 primary debate season when he was the sole dissenter who claimed that, “We do not torture people. It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.” On a practical level he added, “The more physical pain you inflict on someone, the more they’re going to tell you what they think you want to know.” As for Guantanamo Bay he has said, “I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control.”

Questions about his position have arisen because of his decision this February to vote against, and support the President’s veto of, legislation that would have applied the army field manual standards to the CIA. This legislation would have limited the CIA’s ability to use controversial interrogation techniques. “I believe that our energies are better directed at ensuring that all techniques, whether used by the military or the CIA, are in full compliance with out international obligations and in accordance with our deepest values. What we need is not to tie the CIA to the army field manual but rather to have a good faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible in the CIA program.”

McCain should reconsider his position on this issue. Regardless of whether McCain was correct in his analysis, the real meaning of the vote was its potential symbolism as a challenge to the president’s position on torture. The bill arose after mounting criticism towards the president’s stance on water boarding and acted as a manifestation of this criticism. A vote for the legislation represented a rejection of the president’s position, while a vote against it represented nothing more than a capitulation. While McCain’s position may be coherent and quite nuanced, he would serve his values better by reconsidering the decision he made and incorporating the policy into his platform.

Citizens for Global Solutions believes that torture, in any situation, is fundamentally averse to this country’s deeply rooted values and to the fundamental rights of all humans. It also tremendously weakens our standing and leadership capabilities in the international community. As such, both candidates should continue to speak out against the status quo, and should agree to create an independent bipartisan commission on torture and U.S. interrogation policy to fully dissect and ameliorate the current problems. Obama has said that he would consider such a commission but believes, “we already know how detention and interrogation policy should be handled.” He voted favorably in the 109th Congress to an amendment that would have created a national commission on policies and practices on the treatment of detainees since September 11th, 2001. McCain’s position is not as clear, as he did not vote on the measure, nor has he signified his desire for the creation of such a commission. While the two candidates may not agree on everything in regards to this issue, they come a lot closer to one another than either does to the current president."

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf