Category Archives: Library Book Club Reviews

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An Uncertain Beginning – A Review of The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare Illiterate (?) grain merchant of Stratford

William Shakespeare
Illiterate (?) grain merchant of Stratford

Much is not known about the mysterious playwright from four centuries ago. Some historians believe that the historic Shakespeare didn’t even write the plays attributed to him. The chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is just one of the things masked in the gray mist of forgotten history. Since his plays were not published until seven years after his death, records that could tell us when they were actually written simply do not exist. But careful inspection of certain phrases used in The Comedy of Errors suggest that this play was written at about the year 1594 which would have made it one of the earliest, if not the very first. It is no later than third in most chronologies attributed to Shakespeare. If it is his first play, it can be viewed as a “first effort” by someone who later became the most renowned writer in the English language.

Viewed in that light, some of the unique features of this play are much easier to understand.

  • It’s basically a knockoff of the play Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus (with additional ideas from Amphitruo, also by Plautus). A translation of the Roman play was known to be published in London at about the same time that The Comedy of Errors was written. Such blatant plagiarism wasn’t denounced as much in Shakespeare’s time. Still, it doesn’t have the spark of original creation like, for example, the more polished later plays  The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • The situations and devices used in the play are transparently impossible. The twin sons of Egeon have exactly the same names and their servants do too, even though they were separated as small children. Why would their father Egeon have given his sons exactly the same name? It’s even less likely that adoptive parents would have picked them. As what is happening becomes more and more obvious, no one even appears to suspect until the very end of the play. Really?
  • Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, there are few really quotable lines in The Comedy of Errors. Most has the emotional depth of rain on a sidewalk.
  • It’s one of only two plays by Shakespeare that follows the rigid classical rules of the “Aristotelian unities”. Shakespeare didn’t bother with such confining edicts in his other plays.
  • It’s the shortest play in the entire Shakespeare catalog.

A possible review of a very early performance of the play recorded that it, “continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors.” Not an auspicious beginning.

The most notable feature of the play is not the play itself, but rather the mirror of the time when it was written. The twin servants, both named Dromio, are beaten continually throughout the play. It was customary for masters to beat servants back then. And the relationship between husband and wife, brought out by the mistaken identity, seems to be one of commerce, not comfort. The wife of one twin describes her husband.

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.

One of the Dromio servants is even more unkind in his description of the woman he is betrothed to.

Marry, sir, she’s the kitchen wench and all grease;
and I know not what use to put her to but to make a
lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I
warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a
Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday,
she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world.

He and his master share a long scene describing where they discuss how different countries might be found on her evidently expansive exterior.

In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

It’s all a bit more crude than you expect Shakespeare to be.

Light, slapstick comedy is a tried and true way for young writers to break into the business. It only makes sense that Shakespeare tried it too. In this genre, Shakespeare is clearly second tier. For a comparison, consider a comedy of mistaken identities by masters of the art, Abbott and Costello:

Abbott: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.
Costello: Are you the manager?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names.
Abbott: Well I should.
Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy playing…
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first.
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s who’s name?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: That’s who?

But the tide of greatness, once in full flow, cannot be resisted. All boats are swept along with it from the mightiest clipper to the poorest rowboat. The Comedy of Errors is therefore accorded the same reverential awe as the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, even though, judged by its own merit, it would be a historical footnote at best.

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

Struck With Awe
A Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

ZoraWhen I put down Zora Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, I had no idea how I would write anything about it. Her evocative writing affected me so powerfully that it seemed like it would be sacrilege to even attempt to comment about it. I decided not to do it; to break my own record of writing a review of each book rather than attempt to say anything at all about it.

Not content, but resolved in my decision, I busied myself reading some of the other books that had been pushed to the back of my desk and keeping up some of the other writing that I was doing. But I had to know more about the creator of such a book, so I sent for two other books about Hurston: her own autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road and what seemed to be the leading biography of her life by Robert Hemenway.

What a life she had! It was the stuff of legend. Over and over, her life shouted to the world, “I am my own person!” She lied or told the truth as she saw fit. She wrote from her soul or from her purse as the need arose. She picked lovers, friends, and benefactors to suit whatever purpose she had at the moment. I’m reminded of the line from the musical “Cats” – Every cat has three different names, and the last one is the name that, “THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.” Hurston was a cat. She knew herself and never did confess who she really was to anybody.

With a computer search engine in one hand and her biography in the other, I went in search of Zora.

Like the canyon walls of Zion, Hurston’s life has clear, boldly colored layers. The bedrock of her life was in the rural town of Eatonville, Florida, where she found such joy as a child that it supported the rest of her life. A transition layer finds her in Washington, D. C. where she learned that joy is not given, it is seized from life. The broad, high wall of her life was in Harlem where her joy was on full display. And the deeply eroded end of her life was in Florida again where joy finally left her. Her own autobiography holds Hurston’s simple wish:

I want a busy life, a just mind, and a timely death.

Hemenway’s biography shows that she reached the first goal with glory. She fell somewhat short of the second and third. Hemenway provides generous explanations of the battles she had with every person she was ever close to. But even those who recognized her genius eventually could not endure an independence so overpowering that it dominated every relationship she had. As a result, the final years of her life were spent in poverty and isolation.

Published in 1937 at the peak of her career, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a view through a telescope into another time and a different culture. Hurston burst onto a national stage in what is now called the Harlem Renaissance by blacks and the Roaring 20’s by whites. Life might have been more free and joyful than any time since and Hurston took full advantage of it. She had achieved respectable success as an academic anthropologist, studying under the “Father of American Anthropology” Franz Boas at Columbia University and then collecting authentic folk tales back in her native environment in the South. But formal scientific study of “her people” … and they were her people … was far too narrow and cold to hold a life force as big as Hurston’s.

Today, you can lose your job and your social standing by simply using the word, “nigger” in a context where you can be quoted. Hurston called herself the “Queen of the Harlem Niggerati” and the journal she helped found was called Fire!!.  The word “nigger” is seen throughout her book. While others of her time called themselves, “black”, Hurston wrote How It Feels to be Colored Me in 1928. She distanced herself from flaming black revolutionaries like Marcus Garvey and said that the NAACP was a bunch of “negrotarians”. Rather than standing in opposition to whites as so many of her time did, Hurston simply stood apart from them. She refused to follow the rules of blacks rebelling against a white culture or the rules of whites who owned the culture. She paid a high price for her independence. Hurston’s work was lost in the literary wilderness for thirty years; almost as long as the Hebrews for the same sin of refusing to follow the rules. Hurston was no “New Negro” … she was a child of Eatonville living life to the fullest. She never forgot that and her book luxuriates in it.

According to her official website, Their Eyes was written in seven weeks while Hurston was living in Haiti working at her other profession as a cultural anthropologist. The folklore that fills the book holds it together like limestone holds the grains of sand in the walls of Zion. She used words like Van Gogh used paint – vivid color slapped on with broad brushstrokes. Hurston had no patience for polite language when there was a story to be told and she did not see herself or her people in any comparison with whites; she saw herself and her people as a culture that stood by itself.

Like a skyrocket bursting in air, Hurston’s creativity explodes in Their Eyes with a force not seen again. Alone in her own time and until the world caught up with her decades after her death, Their Eyes celebrates the black people of the rural South as a unique culture, secure and independent in their own traditions. While others wrote about rural southern blacks as downtrodden, poor, and oppressed by their former masters, Hurston rejoices in the richness and poetry of their lives. Hurston was no mirror to white expectations either. Eatonville was an all-black community that knew its own soul and Hurston absorbed this understanding completely early in life. Whites are present only as passing references when they have to be and are never central characters, just as they were in Hurston’s own life.

Her own autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942 when she was entering the last layer of her life and isn’t considered to be her best work, or even complete and honest. She hid one of her marriages and it wasn’t discovered until after her work was rediscovered in the 1970’s. At the end of her life, Hurston wrote to live rather than living to write. Their Eyes is placed in the same Eatonville that Hurston grew up in and is about a beautiful young woman in that town. In many ways, it can be thought of as the honest autobiography that Dust Tracks is not. But Dust Tracks is honest in the sense that it is more revealing. Their Eyes doesn’t have to pretend to portray her own life and she made up a life that she wished that she had. Dust Tracks uses many of the same folk stories, but places them directly in her own life. It’s easier to see what she cherished and amplified and what she despised and left out.

Their Eyes is much more than just an idealized version of her own life. As I savored the rich flavor of her writing, the strongest image in my mind was not rural black people; it was classical Greek legends and Aesop’s moral stories. The characters are deliberately writ large to make the point of their being unmistakable to any reader. The story of Janie coming of age under the pear tree in her grandmother’s front yard is, to my aging white male eyes, the most expressive view of this transformation I have ever heard:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom. The thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.

This is how the ancients told their stories – rising up out of soil into the atmosphere of imagination; full of life but rising beyond it.

TV Between Book Covers
A review of Stein, Stung by Hal Ackerman

Newton Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, once called television a “vast wasteland”. He touched a truth so deep, so penetrating that now, fifty years after his speech, it has entered the English language.  Stein, Stung by Hal Ackerman is an example of creeping literary desertification. The wasteland is creeping away from the 40 inch flat screen and into print.

It’s easy to see that Hal Ackerman is an insider. He works through a circle of friends and pays attention to his day job (UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television for twenty-four years). Actor John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun), provided the headliner review comment in both Stein, Stoned and Stein, Stung. His publisher, Tyrus Books, is a veritable factory for this kind of fiction. In their lineup we have the Moe Prager series (eight books), the Loon Lake series (fourteen books), and the Quint McCauley series (just five books). Ackerman is just getting started since Stein, Stung is only his second in the Harry Stein series. It was published in 2012 and Stein, Stoned was published in 2010. We’re due for Stein, Stuffed any day now. (I just made that up.)

Stein, Stung is a proud example of tradition of Hollywood screenwriting in novel form. The Hollywood screenwriting formula goes something like this:

Take one stock character type (private investigator), add ethnic flavor (Jewish in this case, but Italian, Polish, and French are popular choices too) and crunchy sexual situations (Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls), stir well and bake in a professional scriptwriter oven.

It’s nice to know that your reading entertainment is in experienced, well-trained hands.

Even the format of Stein, Stung is cast in the latest commercial mold. Instead of starting with Chapter One, it opens with a prologue. TV sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory start with an opening scene to snare the audience before the title even appears. All that is missing in Stein, Stung is five minutes of commercials.

As an aspiring author myself, and with full knowledge that Ackerman is also a professional educator, I couldn’t help viewing Stein, Stung as a writing tutorial. I was acutely conscious of the graceful embellishments where my own writing was as severe and stark as a software tutorial (something I can write). Was it necessary to the plot to know that the rubber-tree plant in the courtyard made it look like New Orleans? Probably not, but it put my mind more clearly into the book. Other references, even more foreign to the plot, were like biting into sweet cherries in the confection of the story. “Waste had become America’s chief manufactured product”  and “Century City smog scrapers”.

I’m betting that the three chapters, Prologue, Apologue, and Epilogue earn huge acclaim from readers … especially the Apologue. Putting the reader in the mind and body of a queen bee so empathically was positively lyrical. And the cold water of the Epilogue hit a theme that I thoroughly identify with. Ackerman’s considerable language skills sound a chord that resonates in those chapters. If you don’t want to read the whole book, read just those chapters.

Here in darkest Utah, the language and situations in the book may upset some but I found that part of the book entertaining. People … some people … really do talk that way. Some even act the way they do in the book. But other things seemed out of scale. Fourteen thousand dollars to repair a hot tub? Fourteen hundred a month for a walk-up two bedroom apartment? Five thousand for an insurance claim interview? Was Ackerman just setting us up? Is that what things really cost in California? No wonder they all want to come here.

It’s clear from the first paragraphs that this is pure entertainment and not a moral guide, but the total lack of a character who seems to have any consistent moral values is jarring. The hypocrisy of Stein worrying about his daughter having sex with her boyfriend at the exact moment that he is having sex with his own casual girlfriend is just too much to take. It stops being even entertaining.

“Character development” is a key part of this genre of book and Ackerman gives it a game try. The descriptions of the four members of the Peering family are painted in bright, primary colors. The daughter is “slouched into an impenetrable C-curve”. Father and son have white hairless legs exposed below Bermuda shorts. Yet, the brilliant prose doesn’t make them interesting. They’re as different as he can make them, yet they’re still stereotypes. The daughter is pouty, the son nerdy, the wife repressed and the husband emasculated. They’re right out of a sitcom.

Later, all of the characters start to seem the same, in part because they all speak the same language: California Snark. None of them seem to be able to speak a normal sentence without turning it into a sardonic snarl. The coroner, who works on dead people side by side with his wife, excuses her saying, “She’s grown to have more affection for the dead than the living.” The cop who pulls Stein over on the freeway asks for Stein’s pilot’s license and says, “Weren’t you trying to do loop-de-loops back there?” I can almost hear the laugh track in the background.

Two different married women committed cold blooded murder, not to protect themselves or for greed or jealousy, but because someone was making their husbands look bad. Barb Peering killed the truck driver Monahan because, “He took my children’s respect for their father away. That I could not abide.” Ruth Ann Greenway drove a maguey spike through Henny Spector’s skull … twice … as, “a response to seeing how completely the man had her husband Hollister under his thrall.” Indeed, the murder back story … the only other actual murder in the book … framed the constancy of womanly true love. Commodore Bancroft killed his rival Sunny Cataluna so he could steal the love of Lucy Lester away from the man she really loved. Lucy loved Sunny so deeply that three-quarters of  a century later, she dropped the man she had been married to all that time at the first suggestion of foul play from a total stranger with a plastic likeness of her former lover’s face. One wonders why Ackerman thinks women act this way. One wonders whether Ackerman thinks women should act this way.

In the real world, a transmission doesn’t fall completely out of a car and bounce down the freeway. A 93 year old woman can’t do a cartwheel and then the splits on stage. And a housewife doesn’t have the strength, the tools, or the time to destabilize the load of a 40-wheeler while she’s supposed to be in the ladies room. We need the break of an audio enhanced commercial assuring us that the right drug can make old age disappear to remind us that nothing here is real.

The most believable characters are the ones that have only an ephemeral existence in the book. As a result of their brief existence, their character is consistent, yet interesting. Examples are Skip, the walking encyclopedia son in the Peering family and Henny Spector, the urbane philistine crook who gets murdered too soon to become incongruent. Other characters, especially the women, are examples of literary shape shifters. Barb Peering, for example appears three times and each time is a totally different person. In her first incarnation, she is a repressed housewife; in the second, a lover out for revenge at any personal price; in the third, a murderer driven insane by the need to protect her family. Who is Barb Peering? I don’t know and the book leaves me confused and, well … uninterested anymore.

The essential problem is that the reader isn’t invited into the unreality of Stein, Stung. Unreal worlds have a proud tradition in literature. Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels come to mind. But Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift let the reader travel with the story from a sane, logical universe to one that makes no sense for a reason. Alice had to go “down the rabbit hole” before things got weird. The Red Queen has a distorted sense of morality that the reader is invited to think about. In Stein, Stung, one is left with the impression that all you have to do is drive west from Primm, Nevada for reality to evaporate and motives to lurch around randomly, but the reader is never brought along for the ride.

I freely confess that I indulge in the mindrot of TV as much as the next guy, but I demand more of books. TV sitcoms are the diet Coke of mental activity. Books can be, and with me, should be the main course. I’ve never liked diet Coke. It leaves a slightly unpleasant aftertaste with me.

The Euphoria of Despair
A review of Canaries on the Rim by Chip Ward

PoisonI was one of the last people in America to be drafted – they did away with the draft not long after they got me during the Vietnam War. So in a sense, early in life I was a victim of military-industrial overreach that Chip Ward documents in his book Canaries on the Rim, and a veteran of the struggle to stop it before that.  Now, in the late afternoon of my life, I think I know a thing or two about the struggle against power. I can tell you this: appeals to reason, fairness, economics, justice – none of that works. The thing that worked in Vietnam was that too many of the sons of America started coming home in body bags. That has been the thing that has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan too, except that since the draft has been abolished, it’s hasn’t worked as well. Ward uses Vietnam over and over as a metaphor for our nation’s blind willingness to sacrifice everything to defend our own tribal myths.

It’s a metaphor that Ward himself doesn’t appreciate enough. Throughout the book, Ward maintains two opposing points of view. The first is thoroughly justified by his own metaphor: the people in charge are stupid, incompetent, corrupt, or all three and disaster is inevitable. The second is that we can change. All we need to do is organize well enough and keep the faith. My own experience supports the first one. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during most of the Vietnam War, confessed on his deathbed that he knew all along that the war was futile and “terribly, terribly wrong”. Did it change anything?

Reason and justice is a poor match for money and power.

One explanation is the one Ward illustrates with the boiling frog analogy. (I hate that image, by the way. I wish people wouldn’t use it.) Death by ecocide doesn’t have the direct impact of a body blown apart by war. Cancer could be caused by eating too much nitrate laced bacon, genetics, or just bad luck. And not everyone lives next to the Love Canal. It’s all too easy for people to think that there is no nuclear waste in their back yard, convince themselves that it’s not a problem, and go on with business as usual. Ward uses the phrase, “cancer and illnesses woven through the fabric of western civilization”. It’s easy for primary causes to get lost in that complicated weave.

For example, in the first chapter, Ward and his brother-in-law Bill share a lunch of bratwurst and argue about a disease of an endocrine gland. Do they concern themselves about the damage to the endocrine system that can be done by what is in that bratwurst? No-o-o-o-o! Ward may have finally decided that he’s boiling to death like the frog, but it took too long. His life story really illustrates the conclusion that the vast majority – to use that phrase from politics past, “the silent majority” – never will figure it out.

One vivid example of the continuing victory of lies is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. When it opened in 2005, downwinders tried to stage a protest, pointing out that it is, “like visiting a museum that historically documents the Holocaust but leaves out the stories of the victims.” A visit to their web site shows that nothing there has changed.

Another reason that money and power wins is that they can buy minds. Literally. The public comments to this Deseret News article about the Tooele incinerator finally being shut down show the kind of minds that can be bought. Contrast what the US Magnesium website says about their environmental record with what Wikipedia says about it. Who do you think Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia believes? Ward quotes one of his neighbors in Grantsville talking about the smell of poisonous chlorine gas from MagCorp, “Smells like jobs to me!”

You and I can be outraged by Ward’s book, but nothing changes. It was published fifteen years ago. Has anything changed? Fifteen years and there are exactly 9 reviews at The last book of the Harry Potter series has over 8,000 reviews. Fifteen years, and the nerve gas incinerator kept on keeping on. The incinerator is finally being dismantled only after doing its worst for fifteen years. US Magnesium is still using the same electrolysis technology to produce three pounds of the poison that killed a hundred thousand soldiers in WWI for every pound of magnesium. Ward concludes his chapter on MagCorp by claiming victory and writing, “MagCorp is already a relic.” Not so fast. His own HEAL website documents the latest struggles. It looks like déjà vu all over again to me.

Like hyenas snarling around a buffalo, Ward and his allies have only irritated the power interests.

In spite of this, I found the book to be enjoyable. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Ward’s description of cows. I grew up in cow country without much water too. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, had a constitutional objection to going anywhere that didn’t at least have the possibility of gaining material benefit. So we went out on the desert and picked up rocks that could be brought home and squirreled away like nuts for winter. (The rocks are still there in the old family home.) As a kid, I seldom saw water that wasn’t surrounded by about a quarter mile of cow shit.

Since my wife and I have become vegetarians, I can now condemn cows with a righteous fervor unmatched even by Jerimiah of old … or Chip Ward. (It’s coffee bean plants that are A-OK with us.) As I read the tale of the cow in Chimney Canyon, I wondered how a cow could survive year after year in a place where cougars are supposed to be native. It says a lot more about cougars than it does about cows. I thoroughly agreed with Ward’s conjecture that, “The agents of Western federal lands would have no hesitation in calling up a sharpshooter in a helicopter if a cougar was even suspected of harming some rancher’s sheep or cow.” I had an uncle who made a living being the pilot for those sharpshooters. Ward wrote that he had never seen a live cougar. Neither have I. People who demanded that home-grown communists eight thousand miles away be exterminated in their own country until 55,000 of our native sons had died in the attempt aren’t bothered much by the loss of a few cougars. Ward made the same point.

I also enjoyed Ward’s description of Ronald Reagan. I had a hard time deciding which was worse, Reagan or cows. I decided it was Reagan. Cows may be ruining the land, but they don’t lie to you. I was amazed at the description of the environmental destruction that would have been required to build the MX missile. Amazed, because I was reading the newspapers back then and I didn’t know all that.

OH! I just remembered. I was reading the newspapers in Utah. That explains it!

Another reason the book was good for me was because it’s fifteen years old. I was living in Salt Lake then and reading about all these confrontations. It was a walk back through my old memories. Larry Anderson and Khosrow Semnani! I remember them! Although Larry Anderson ended up being sentenced to 14 months in jail, Semnani prospered and sold his company to a New York investment company. The sports arena in Salt Lake is named after his old company. (No! Not Radium Stadium or the Tox Box … EnergySolutions Arena!) Everything old is new again.

Ward has a real flair for colorful descriptions of his enemies. Tooele County Commissioner Gary Griffith is “the head pimp in an environmental red light district.” The general manager of the munitions incinerator was called, “Harry ‘Kiss Their Ass’ Silvestri”. In describing the entire military establishment, he wrote, “Stupid or crazy? Take your pick.” Ward’s detailed descriptions of what actually happened thoroughly justify the name calling and it is great fun, but it doesn’t help the cause much. One suspects that deep down, Ward may have given up and is just doing it just for the fun. (Just like me.)

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the cause of the downwinders, especially since through relatives and marriage, I am one, but I think their tactics are often misguided. Too often, their only goal is to get compensation … money … for the damages suffered. Isn’t exchanging personal harm for money exactly what the Tooele County Commission and the Goshute Indians are doing by another means? I have long believed in the slogan, “Whenever anyone says, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the principal!’ you can be absolutely sure of one thing. It’s the money.” Long observation of corrupt bankers, lawyers, politicians and other assorted lowlifes has convinced me that, however much money you take away from them, they will just figure out how to get more. Forcing them to give you money doesn’t create change. If anything, it makes you one of them. I recently read a forum message from someone who wrote, “We only change when it is too painful not to.” So true!

The logical conclusion is that the only thing that deters white collar crime is personal punishment – usually a prison sentence. The silver lining is that personal punishment actually works quite well with white collar criminals.  For your average liquor store holdup artist, a stretch in the pen is like graduate school. But for the white collar criminal, it’s a convincing argument to reform. It has a profound impact on the criminal’s friends in the same business too. The dark cloud inside the silver lining is that white collar criminals are the least likely to suffer personal punishment for their crimes. Ward gave us a great example of this point in describing how a vice-president of the company owning “the dirtiest industrial operation in America” was able to plea-bargain a rape at knife-point down to “sexual misconduct” and three years’ probation … and kept right on pulling down the big bucks at his old job. After paying bribes to poison people in Utah, Semnani paid a fine and walked.

What a great book to stimulate an orgy of righteous indignation! We can churn up our sense of doom and gloom and condemn like there’s no tomorrow. (You might seriously ask yourself whether there actually is.) We can condemn “the government” and pretend that “they” is not “us”. How ironic is it that Ward and his wife worked for the government? So did Edward Abbey. How many of us who rail and moan about the Chimney Creek cow ate beef last week? Show of hands!

Ward describes Rocky Flats just outside Denver as a military “sacrifice zone”. Yes, it is. But it’s fascinating to discover that it’s more than that now. Today, it’s also a wildlife refuge. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the other side of Denver is another one. And Chernobyl is turning into an amazing wildlife zone. Animals that haven’t been seen in decades are thriving there now. The primary technique to heal the environment is to simply leave it alone.

At one point, Ward reports, “When mother rats are given doses of dioxin equivalent to the amount most of us are already carrying in our bodies, their male offspring are born with tiny penises and can’t reproduce.” Hmmmmm … could be a subtle solution to the problem there

Although Ward’s methods are undoubtedly doomed to … not “failure” … “irrelevance”, they do have one advantage that he describes. It keeps your soul alive to do something. Standing by and just watching is a sort of death to the soul. This death happens to a lot of people long before their body dies. I have to give him credit for not having a dead soul. He’s still fighting the good fight and campaigning for his cause. HEAL is still in business. (FAIR appears to have disappeared into the quicksand that dooms most volunteer protest movements, however.)

But you can’t do everything. To be effective at all, you have to pick your methods and choose a target for change. (My website is my method and my target for change is the Zion Canyon Community. I may be irrelevant too, but I know why I’m doing it.)

In his “Letter of Apology to My Granddaughter” (found on a website) Ward writes, “I know a better world is possible.” I don’t know that. I don’t think Ward does either. Ward calls my attitude cynicism and claims that it’s just another form of denial. I claim that Ward is an unrealistic optimist.

Ward’s soul may still be alive but his granddaughter doesn’t have the chance of a jackrabbit at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945.

A Book That Rang My Bell
A review of The Nine Tailors by Dorthy L. Sayers

My wife listens to murder mystery novels while she quilts. (The most recent was a Dean Koontz novel. Gaaack !) It gets the quilt done, but at what price to sanity, I cannot say.

ChurchBellsSo I was relieved to discover that the murder mystery The Nine Tailors by Dorthy L. Sayers was published in 1934. That makes it, at least, historical rather than just pulp fiction. I was further encouraged by reading the recommendation of Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry) and Christopher Morley (Kitty Foyle) on the back cover. The foreword let me know that bell change-ringing was a central part of what the book was about, so I read about that for a while and learned the definition of ‘campanology’. The Ring Out Your Dead episode of the popular Midsomer Murders was all about bell change-ringing too. Who knew that bell change-ringing could be such a deadly hobby?

I read in front of my computer with its all-knowing search engine. I learned the etymology of ‘morris dancing’ for example. (Lost in antiquity, but cognates are spread all over Europe.) Blending of old (this 1934 book) with new (Internet search engines) is a bonus we get from living today. One of the first names in the first chapter was ‘Tebbutt’. I wonder if there is a linguistic relationship with my own, ‘Mabbutt’. Few people even recognize my name as English. And I read that fixing a bent axle on a car is a job for a blacksmith in 1934. Connecting with the past is a great reason to read older books.

The book is also a great example of the cultural difference between then and now. For example, when the murdered body is discovered, the entire rural community becomes involved and everyone contributes their time and property without even thinking about it. The body is moved to a neighbor’s outbuilding with perfect confidence that the neighbor will agree. They know immediately that the victim was a stranger and when he was last seen because everyone knows everyone else and what everyone else is doing and has done. In a suburb today, unknown authorities would take care of everything. Even close neighbors might only know what they see on the news. The necessary handling of the body would be done by paid specialists from somewhere else. Springdale isn’t that far along in the anonymity of neighbors, but we’re getting there.

When you start reading, you are thrust into a total immersion course in gobs of characterization, rhapsodizing about scenery in the English fen country, and cultural aggrandizement. Too much of that in one sitting would be an overdose. So to begin, I read it in small sips rather than one continuous chug-a-lug. That turned out to be a great way to get into the spirit of the book, layered as it is with effusive language and the local color of rural England in the 1930’s. The first third of the story seems to be just a bare framework necessary to support the aureate effluence of prose. The murder doesn’t actually take place until over eighty pages have been turned and the deed itself is spread out over another ten.

Around page 130, the style changes abruptly from overloaded prose to continual dialog as Sayers gets into the actual murder mystery. Dialog is the only way to convey unfolding events to the reader. By this time, it comes as a welcome change. I noticed how Sayers uses the young girl Hillary as a device to avoid having to describe what the detective Wimsey is thinking and doing. Hillary makes statements and guesses and all Wimsey has to do is confirm them. (Hillary is also used as a way to clothe our hero in virtue at the end of the book. After all, he is a titled member of the nobility.)

The social climate of England in the 1930’s is exposed between the lines too. A major plot line turns on the fact that one of the characters is willing to sacrifice his life to avoid the unbearable disgrace of living and having children with a woman to whom he is not legally married, even though it’s accidental. (Over forty percent of children are born to unmarried persons in the US today.) The lives of whole families, condemned to crushing poverty by events in the book, is hardly mentioned since it’s not important. The status of peers of the realm is featured prominently and the inferiority of the French is taken as granted. The way the author assumes certain social truths in worth keeping in mind in this age of Muslim hijabs (head scarfs) and the use of recreational marijuana. (More than 41,000 Americans are in state or federal prison on marijuana charges right now, not including those in county jails.) See my article, I Don’t Know! for more on this theme.

I congratulate Sayers for writing a detailed and air-tight mystery. You can have fun with today’s throw-away mysteries by poking huge holes in the stories, but not this one. There’s a lot of detail and I couldn’t find any part of it that didn’t fit. Sometimes, today’s mysteries use unknown details that the author pulls out at the end to tie up messy loose ends, but this one unfolds gradually and graciously, like a well-planned banquet. By the time I reached the final third of the book, the answer to the final mystery was obvious but I still couldn’t put it down and read until well after midnight to confirm my guess and simply because the book was such an enjoyable reading experience.

Pro ASP.NET 4.5 in VB

Since this is a site that is supposed to be all about ZiCC (Zion Canyon Community), you might reasonably ask why a post about an obscure computer programming technology is here.

Because I wrote it … that’s why.

In a shameless display of self-promotion, I’m proud to announce that my book has finally shipped. You can see it here or here. Twelve hundred pages of single-minded determination to get to the last chapter, let me tell you!

At this point, I have to confess that I’m listed as the first author only because I did a conversion of Adam Freeman’s C# book into Visual Basic … so I was the last person to work on it. (Doesn’t the Bible have some verse about “the last shall be first” ?) I don’t know why Matthew MacDonald’s name is on it. As far as I know, he was only involved in the previous edition and this was a complete rewrite … must be some kind of contract thing.

I wasn’t aware that Niles Ritter (Niles lives in Virgin. He also has a web page here.) was a computer professional until we started chatting about it during one of the Springdale Library Book Discussion Group meetings. I promised Niles that I’d give him a copy when it was published.

ZiCC has some amazing people in it so maybe there’s another computer professional out there. If there is, I’ll gladly pass along another free copy. Just send me an email.

Who knows? You might have a table with a really short leg that needs propping up.