Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Grunt by Mary Roach



Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

Let’s get this out of the way first: I have have a serious crush on Mary Roach. It’s true. You can have your Kristen Stewarts and your Dakota Johnsons. My celebrity crushes are a bit, um, different.

Anyway, I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed a number of her books. Here are the reviews and links:

Gulp (about the alimentary canal)
Packing for Mars (about the space program)
Spook (about paranormal stuff)

Also highly recommended is Bonk, her irreverent book about sex, which I was too chicken to review at the time, but is laugh out loud hilarious. 


Roach is, as she describes herself, a writer who enjoys taking a topic and poking around in the dark corners with a flashlight, until all the creepy-crawly stuff comes skittering out. Her website even uses a cockroach liberally as her alter-ego, so to speak. There is pretty literally nothing too gross or disturbing for her to mention and make a delightfully deadpan joke about. (One of my favorites of all time is still when she footnoted “primordial soup” with “Note: Not a Campbell’s product.”) Her humor is so deliciously dry, I really don’t even care what her topic is. I know it will be fun, irreverent, and unlike anyone else’s writing on the topic.

Grunt is Roach’s latest book, and it covers a variety of interesting (and usually gross) facets of the science of keeping soldiers alive during wartime. She starts off innocently enough with an examination of the clothing of war. Which means sweat. Not too bad. But then she gets into IEDs and dismemberment in the next chapter, and it goes either downhill from there, or starts getting really fun, depending on your tolerance for crazy stuff. Yes, she talks about getting one’s junk blown off - or at least seriously compromised. One memorable line in here is the (female) army doctor’s explanation about why virtually all of their post-explosive fertility research is male-focused. “If a girl gets her ovaries blown up, she’s not going to be here.”

For me, this isn’t particularly unusual stuff. My wife is an ICU nurse, so our dinner conversation is interesting to say the least. She would be right at home in the training for medics on triaging under hostile fire. If I ever get an appendage blown off, I trust her to keep me from bleeding out as much as anyone.

Another fun topic was the prevention of heat stroke. I generally tolerate heat pretty well. (Our local track club has a summer series of runs, in the Bakersfield evening heat. (Last year, our hottest race temp was about 108͒ F.) While I am pretty dang slow in the heat, I really don’t feel like I am on the verge of heatstroke or even exhaustion. Apparently, this places me in an interesting category. Apparently about 20% of people are genetically predisposed to heat stroke, while a similar number appear to be fairly resistant. The resistant ones (like me, apparently) sweat early and often, so we don’t tend to overheat. The downside is that we guzzle water like fish, and need a healthy dose of salt and electrolytes to compensate. Which is true. Also, we are pretty gross after exercise. But we stay on our feet in the heat as long as you give us water and salt.

What else is in here? “Diarrhea As A Risk To National Security” for one. Again, I may be lucky in this matter. Although I seem to be susceptible to viral gastroenteritis, which is spread by coughing, I seem resistant to food common dysentery bugs. This is kind of interesting, because I really didn’t win the genetic lottery. I was a sickly kid, and I still have every cold bug go to my lungs. Every several years, I get flattened with a series of illnesses all winter. But apparently, I am good with heatstroke and could survive the Oregon Trail better than most. Who knew?

Stink bugs? Shark repellant? Submarine survival? Maggots? It’s all in here. (Actually, my wife has used medical maggots at work - you have to count the all every time you clean the wound. And she and Mary Roach may be the only people who know the Medicare billing code for maggot wound debridement.)

I do have to talk about a few additional quotes that made me smile. Bomb-proof underwear is intended to stop the flying sand and dirt from an explosive, not the metal fragments. “Honestly,” says one source, “if the insurgents can make a bomb big enough to blow up a seventy-ton M1 tank, they can certainly make a bomb that’s going to blow up your underwear.”

For training medics, volunteers wear all kinds of cool wound prosthetics, including a backpack with fake blood. As Roach puts it, “a sort of CamelBak for vampires…”

Another amusing incident occurs when Roach is touring the collection of fake body parts. Particularly when she has trouble finding the restroom, because “head” has a different meaning when you are seeing signs for spleens and aortas.

I’ll also mention her accurate description of the major risk of rapid underwater ascent. As a licensed SCUBA diver, I remember well all the hours of practicing this: you must NEVER hold your breath. Because when you do, your lungs expand and eventually pop, which is very ungood. So we practiced always letting a trickle of air out. Always. And doing ascents while exhaling. It is really weird to kick up from 45 feet and be able to breathe out constantly because of the expanding air, even though it takes you 30 seconds to do so. But practice keeps you alive later in an emergency.

One final mention. Sadly, I could not find a video of the paintball incident at Camp Pendleton. (Here in California between LA and San Diego - it’s the only non-urban stretch of coast from the border to Goleta, really.) So anyway, Roach asked to be shot with paintballs to see what it felt like. (I know all too well. In cold weather, it smarts like hell, and can leave a baseball sized bruise at close range.) as she puts it, “Fifteen Marines volunteered. The one who did the deed - from 70 feet, hitting me precisely where he wanted to - can be heard in the background of a researcher’s video going, ‘That was very satisfying.’ ‘It’s almost like he knows you,’ said the researcher.” Alas, I can’t find video.

At least there is plenty of video of Roach talking about her books. And she is every bit as deadpan and tongue in cheek as she is in her writing. 


There is no wrong way to discover Mary Roach. Grab one of her books. Listen to one of her TED talks. Find some footage of her talking about, well, anything. For those of us who like the dark, slimy corners of the human experience, her writing is delicious.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas Poems 2017



This is my third annual Christmas Poem post. You can read the others here:


And on a related note, last year’s Christmas Carol post.

Other posts on Christmas:


***


The previous Christmas poem posts included Ogden Nash, who apparently loved writing about Christmas. In a curmudgeonly way, of course.

Complaining about Christmas is as traditional as Christmas itself, from what I can tell. The Puritans whined about it, and went so far as to ban it during Oliver Cromwell’s government. This went exactly as well as you would expect, and was one reason the Puritans lost power soon after Cromwell’s death. Dickens railed against the commercialization of Christmas, most notably in A Christmas Carol, which remains one of the best sermons ever written. (And one that American Evangelicals seem increasingly determined to ignore…)

Ogden Nash too felt that Christmas was too commercial. This poem was written in the 1950s, which, ironically, is the era that today’s curmudgeons hold up as the last pure era in history. Apparently, the golden age exists only in our own faulty memories.

I Remember Yule by Ogden Nash

I guess I am just an old fogey.
I guess I am headed for the last roundup, so come along little dogey.
I can remember when winter was wintery and summer was estival;
I can even remember when Christmas was a family festival.
Yes, I can remember when Christmas was an occasion for fireside rejoicing
           and general good will.
And now it is just the day that it’s only X shopping days until.
I can remember when we knew Christmas was coming without being reminded
            by the sponsor
And the announcer.
What, five times a week at 8:15 P.M., do the herald angels sing?
That a small deposit now will buy you an option on a genuine diamond ring.
What is the message we receive with Good King Wenceslas?
That if we rush to the corner of Ninth and Main we can get that pink mink
           housecoat very inexpensceslaus.
I know what came upon the midnight clear to our backward parents,
            but what comes to us?
A choir imploring us to Come all ye faithful and steal a 1939 convertible
            at psychoneurotic prices from Grinning Gus.
Christmas is a sitting duck for sponsors, it’s so commercial,
And yet so noncontroversial.
Well, you reverent sponsors redolent of frankincense and myrrh, come
           smear me with bear–grease and call me an un-American hellion.
This is my declaration of independence and rebellion.
This year I’m going to disconnect everything electrical in the house and spend
           the Christmas season like Tiny Tim and Mr. Pickwick;
You make me sickwick.

The more things change…

I myself am no big fan of commercialism. I do love Christmas, however, and many of the modern trappings. I love the music. (Most of it. Could definitely do without “Christmas Shoes.”) I enjoyed playing in the local orchestra when Mannheim Steamroller came to Bakersfield this year. The kids and I put thousands of lights on our house. We watch cheesy Christmas movies. I love finding presents for family. And don’t get me started on the food.

But all these are empty without the real core of the holiday. As a Christian, the incarnation is a beautiful and central belief. God came and became one of us, suffering as we do, and triumphing over sin and death. But the life and teachings of Christ are not just about a baby born, or an ultimate sacrifice. In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ himself announces his ministry as follows:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

A bit radical, yes? Pretty much the complete opposite of the political goals of American Evangelicalism, I would say.

On that note, let me introduce Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Studdert Kennedy was a British chaplain during World War One, known for giving comfort to injured and dying soldiers. (Also cigarettes - times have changed…) The horrors of war haunted him, and he devoted the rest of his life to social justice causes, before working himself to death at age 45. He saw first hand the oppressive factory systems of the 1920s, and wrote a number of books railing against the evils of unbridled capitalism and greed. One of his most famous lines is:

"If finding God in our churches leads to us losing Him in our factories, then better we tear down those churches for God must hate the sight of them."

These words still ring true today. When he died, thousands of the poor flocked to his funeral. But he was denied burial at Westminster Abbey because of his political views.

His poems are probably better known than his prose today. I was introduced to this one by a Symphony colleague, at a Lenten concert earlier this year.

When Jesus Came to Birmingham by G. A. Studdert Kennedy

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do, '
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.

This so perfectly expresses how I feel about the social darwinism that has been wholeheartedly embraced by most of those who claim my faith. Oh, we don’t kill people anymore. We just deny them healthcare, living wages, protection against abusive employers; turn away those fleeing war and poverty; look away as they are killed by the police; and more. Oh, it’s not really killing them, just letting nature take its course…

And then we sit in our churches and pretend that God is there, but not where the working poor live. Maybe it is time to tear down our churches.  

For some reason, I never read Madeleine L’Engle when I was a kid, despite the fact that we owned A Wrinkle In Time. You can read my thoughts on discovering it and A Wind In The Door if you like. Anyway, I hadn’t really thought of her as a poet, but somewhere I ended up running across this little gem.

The Risk of Birth by Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

I remind myself of this regularly these days, having brought five children into a world more broken than I realized at the time, a world where those naming the name of the Christmas Child would embrace the crushing grip of Rome. And yet, love does take the risk of birth. While we were (and are) still hating each other, Christ came with a radical message of an upside down Kingdom, the very antithesis of Empire. Some of us still seek that.

The final selection for this year is by the “Poet Laureate of Twitter.” No, not the narcissist that got elected. The poet Brian Bilston. (“I am Cinna the poet!”) Anyway, this one has been making the rounds among some of my literary friends, so I thought I would share it. It does make me smile.

Word Needles by Brian Bilston


***
Anyway, while my heart remains heavy about the state of the world and of American Christianity, my hope remains in that pivotal moment, when God incarnate came to earth to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, and point us to a better way. May His kingdom come!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Of Course Roy Moore Defends Slavery and Segregation

Roy Moore may or may not be a new name to you, but I have known of him for literally decades. You see, he is practically worshiped in the ultraconservative homeschool circles I grew up in. It is no mystery why.

In my very first religious/political post a number of years ago, I discussed the roots of the Reconstructionist Movement in White Supremacy. It’s a long post, but there is a lot of information in it. Essentially, Christian homeschooling has followed one of two paths. One is the Raymond and Dorothy Moore (no relation to Roy, from what I can tell) path of providing individualized education. This is how and why my own family ended up homeschooling, and I think it is a positive. The other is the Rousas Rushdoony path: Reconstructionism, Culture Wars, and Theocracy.

Roy Moore is a Reconstructionist. Pure and simple. That is important to know.

***

Roy Moore has been in the news lately because the various women who he flirted with/dated/groped against their will when they were in their teens (and he was in their 30s) are coming forward and blowing his cover.

That Moore did this really isn’t a surprise to those of us who grew up in that subculture. I mean, many of the leaders from Bill Gothard to Doug Phillips (a very close friend of Moore, by the way…) have gotten busted for getting sexual with the young girls. And also, as we know, the subculture itself kind of pushes the young girl, older man dynamic for sexist reasons. See also fellow Gothardism survivor Katherine Brightbill’s LA Times article - and note Matthew and Maranatha Chapman, who were idolized in my wife’s fundie home church…) It is disappointing, but not exactly surprising that Evangelicals will defend this guy. It didn’t stop them from voting for another pussy grabber, after all. I think in particular, white baby boomer Evangelicals are impossibly clueless as to the damage their support of people like Moore has done to the reputation of the Christian faith here in America. But hey, they got their tax cut, right?

But I wanted to discuss a couple of other things about Moore.

***

Moore came to his hero status because of the Ten Commandments war, of which more later. It was his willingness to defy the law (and the Constitution) to further his view of America as a theocracy that made him popular in Fundamentalist circles.

But I think there was more to it than that. I linked my post above because there is a strong and clear connection between the Culture Wars™ and White Supremacy that continues today.

And Roy Moore is Exhibit A.

Let’s start with Segregation. Alabama, obviously, has a long and sordid history when it comes to this issue. (It also was the site of some of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest triumphs. The two are definitely related…)

Roy Moore has gone on the record several times in support of Segregation.

The Guardian in 2004 noted that Moore was one of the opponents to a ballot initiative to remove (unconstitutional) language in the state constitution providing for segregated schools.

In an address to a religious conference a few years back, he went on a familiar screed about how God has (allegedly) been removed from government. It’s a familiar bit of red meat to Fundies, of course. But it is what came next that is interesting. He went right from “kicked prayer out of schools” to...wait for it… “created new rights in 1965.”

Anyone familiar with a famous law from that year? How about the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The one that ended Jim Crow and Segregation. You can find it on video starting at about the 11:00 mark.

That’s all bad enough, right? It gets worse.

Last month, on the Scott Beason show, Moore said that “Alabama always stands up for its rights” including “the Civil War conflict.” And yes, there is video.

And also recently, in a rally in Florence, Moore was asked by one of the few African Americans in the audience when he thought America was great. Here is his response:

“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

Isn’t that interesting. He could just have left the slavery bit out of it. But he didn’t. I think it was intentional, and the middle finger of friendship directed at the African American who asked the question. The answer to “when was America great?” is - to many from Trump on down - “when n----rs knew their place.”

And one more: Moore has made a centerpiece of his campaign against his opponent the fact that Doug Jones has supported the right of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.


If the law in question were to be taken to compel a certain kind of patriotic act, it is unquestionably unconstitutional. (No one has ever tried to enforce the law in that way - it is widely considered to be a suggestion, not a binding law.)

It isn’t too hard to see what is going on here. “Ungrateful athletes” is the new version of “uppity nigger” used against African American performers who dared to protest against injustice or assert their civil rights.

Moore isn’t even bothering to use a dog whistle. He is openly stating his racism and his belief that America was greater when we enslaved brown people.

Forget the sexual predation (which is bad, don’t get me wrong). The racism should disqualify Roy Moore by itself.

Unfortunately, as I have come to understand in the last couple of years, support for slavery and segregation not only does not disqualify a candidate with white Evangelicals. It is considered by many of them to be a point in the candidate’s favor.

These beliefs are also endemic to the Reconstructionist/Dominionist belief system. See for example Doug Wilson, slavery defender and pedophile protector. And the hate groups that masquerade as “family values.” 


***

Just a bit on the Ten Commandments and Same Sex Marriage issues.

The essential problem in both cases is that Roy Moore does not believe that the law is binding on him. If he disagrees with it, too bad. He wins and can do what he wants.

This is why he has been removed from office not once, but twice, by the Judicial ethics board in a very conservative state.

In the first case, he expended public money and space on a gigantic Ten Commandments monument. There was no higher cause here, just a desire to make a statement. A statement that we are a Christian Nation™, dammit, and we need to constantly remind everyone of that. (Particularly those damn Muslims…) Basically, an ego trip for Moore, a phenomenal waste of time and money, with no benefit to anyone.

The second was also a ridiculous ego trip with no benefit to anyone. After the US Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage, Moore took it on himself to defy the ruling.

Mind you, it wasn’t that he would himself refuse to perform weddings. No, he went so far as to order ALL state officials to refuse to follow the federal law. They were literally told that they must defy a federal order or lose their jobs. Even by the standards of Alabama conservatism, this was well over the top. And so he was again removed from the bench.

It’s not really a mystery why he has done both of these things. Both go back to his Reconstructionist beliefs, which is that [the fundamentalist interpretation] of the Bible should be the law of the land. (Ironically, he also rails against the imaginary threat of Sharia Law…) Thus, it doesn’t matter what the actual laws in our nation are. He knows better. And he should be allowed to enforce his own preferences over the actual laws of our nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a time and a place for civil disobedience. Rosa Parks comes to mind, as do the thousands of brave men and women who worked on the Underground Railroad. I can even understand abortion protesters (although I think they are on the wrong track for a number of reasons.) If you are trying to help the oppressed, have at it. That is a legitimate reason to disobey a law - in the interest of true justice to those denied it.

But to do so for an ego trip over a monument? Seriously?

Or to assert your control over all the clerks in your state? It really is just a power and ego trip, which is absolutely what Roy Moore is and has always been about.

And that, as much as anything, is why he is utterly unqualified for office.

***

I was a Republican until 2013, when I realized that the values of the party had changed radically, to the point where they were willing to shut down the government in order to try to force the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Because clearly cutting people off from health care was the most pressing concern for our nation…)

I am not the only one - in general, younger people are fleeing the GOP (except for the Alt-Right sorts.) Here is an interesting article by Kurt Bardella, former aide to Darrell Issa and Brietbart staffer. Let’s just say that when you are losing conservatives like this, you have a big problem.

***

Just to be clear, I have every reason to believe that Roy Moore will be elected. Sadly, in our current political climate, the only thing that matters is whether you have an (R) or a (D) after your name. You can prey on women - or children. You can defend slavery and segregation, slander immigrants and Muslims, take away healthcare from the disabled and impoverished...doesn’t matter one bit.

And it particularly doesn’t matter to white Evangelicals. And I think that the racism and social darwinism are actually a major attraction, whether they will admit this to themselves or not.

This is and remains the part of the story that I believe is most important: the moral suicide of Evangelicalism. 

***

UPDATE December 12, 2017: Apparently I missed the time in 2011 that Moore went on a wingnut radio talk show, and said that getting rid of Constitutional Amendments after #10 would "eliminate many problems." I assume he means ones like these:

13th Amendment: abolished slavery. 
14th Amendment: among other things, allowed non-whites to become citizens, gave equal protection of the laws to non-whites, and applied the Bill of Rights protections to State governments. 
15th Amendment: gave non-whites the right to vote. 
19th Amendment: gave women the right to vote.
24th Amendment: eliminated poll taxes. 

 







Sunday, December 3, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This post is dedicated to the memory of my cousin-in-law Jennifer, who encouraged me to read this book. She succumbed to breast cancer back in October, leaving an aching void in the hearts of many, from her students and former students at Santa Monica High, where she taught English, to her many friends and relatives who loved good books, Disney, cats, and making the world a better place. 



Yaa Gyasi, like one of the characters in this book, was born in Ghana, and immigrated to Alabama. She writes, therefore, as a person who straddles two cultures, and two contrasting experiences of being black in a world still shaped by colonialism and white supremacy.

The book is essentially historical fiction, and covers a couple hundred years, from the days of the African slave trade, through what is roughly the present. The story follows two branches of an African family who take very different journeys over the course of seven generations. Effia is a beautiful young woman, who is married off to an Englishman involved in the slave trade. Her half-sister, Esi, is captured and sold as a slave in America.

On Effia’s branch, the story parallels Ghana’s history, with the various warring tribal kingdoms eventually conquered by the English, independence sought, and eventually gained. Esi’s story is that of African Americans in the United States. Slavery, Convict Leasing, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the inner city Heroin epidemic, and so on to the present, where white supremacy remains strong, if less open.

A representative of each generation gets a chapter in the book, and that chapter focuses on a pivotal moment in that character’s life. Enough background information is given to connect the stories together, but this is more of a close focus rather than landscape view. The book alternates between branches, so the parallels - and differences - of the corresponding stories are easy to spot. Gyasi doesn’t overdo the parallelism, but it can be seen both in the individuals and in the history that accompanies them.

Homegoing is not an easy book to read. Gyasi does not shy away from the horrors of slavery, the slave trade, warfare, mental illness, drug addiction, or injustice. She also does not excuse Africans for their role in the slave trade, or progressive whites who remain uncomfortable with people of color encroaching on their own families.

There are a few episodes that I want to specifically mention. The first is one set in America at the time of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. We tend to forget this one, because it runs counter to the narrative that neo-Confederates of all stripes (and that in practical terms includes anyone trying to keep monuments to Confederate leaders in places of honor, or those who claim the Civil War wasn’t primarily about slavery) want you to believe. No, the South wasn’t content to preserve their slavery-built-and-maintained way of life. They wanted the North to use its police power to seek, capture, and return the enslaved who managed to escape to freedom.

In this particular story, one of the characters happens to be a free-born black married to an escaped slave. However, she is arrested and sent to the South and slavery for her and her unborn child. Yes, this happened. It happened a lot. And therefore, a free black in the North could never rest easy, because his or her freedom was fragile, and could be terminated at any time. We forget this part of our history to our own shame.

I also want to mention an interesting story set in the time of the Great Migration, when millions of blacks left the Jim Crow South looking for better opportunity in the Northeast. (Black Boy (American Hunger) has a semi-autobiographical tale of moving north at this time.) In this story, a character is abandoned by her husband in New York, after he learns he can “pass” as white. He marries a white woman and starts a second family. Recently, DNA testing has become fairly sophisticated and affordable, and a number of friends have taken a test to show where their ancestors (probably) came from. This has led to, shall we say, some interesting revelations. I have seen a few high-profile stories that seem to involve this very thing. A light colored African American “passes” for white, and his or her descendants are shocked - shocked - to find out they have slaves in their ancestry. (Also amusing is a friend’s family who, after years of denial, was forced to admit that there was both French and German in there. This was hilarious because at least one family member cared deeply about this, and was horrified at the result. Who knew?)

In addition to the historical issues, Gyasi also takes an uncomfortable look at the role of religion. After all, it was Christianity that justified the slave trade and slavery itself using its scriptures. The contrast of the traditional African beliefs with the white man’s religion is interesting. Gyasi doesn’t make much of a value judgment. She just presents the uncomfortable truth about both. There is good and bad in each, really, and it isn’t the religion that determines whether a person does good or evil. We just use our religion to justify our behavior, good or evil. Thus, what we whites would call superstition contributes to an unlucky white traveler being burned to death. And Christian “values” are used to support Segregation, and justify beatings and torture of slaves. This is, unfortunately, the truth of history.

There is one religious issue, however, that I think really does need to mentioned. There is an issue with how we Christians tend to talk about forgiveness. I do not blame the teachings of Christ for this, as I believe they have been twisted beyond recognition. But I do believe this is a problem that pervades how we practice our religion. One character notes that the whites talked a lot about forgiveness. “Forgiveness, they shouted, all the while committing their wrongs.” This is how it has been. We talk about grace and forgiveness, and try to shut up the victims of oppression, whether they be of prejudice and police brutality, or of sexual predation by powerful men. (Hello, there, Roy Moore…) I think Gyasi has an interesting take on this. Forgiveness is supposed to take place in the future. After the bad acts have ceased. By talking about forgivness, the focus is taken off of the present - and the evil being done - and redirected to the future, when all will (allegedly) be well. I may have to write about this in a separate post, but the discomfort of American White Evangelicals right now when people like me point out that they have harmed others by voting for the openly white supremacist candidate and for social darwinist policies is due to the fact that they do not want to acknowledge that they have harmed others, repent (in the sense it is used in scripture of changing direction - doing the opposite of the harmful behavior), and ask forgiveness from those they have hurt.

I am glad I read this book, and recommend it highly. As the history teacher character demonstrates at one point, the study of history is difficult because all we have are the stories. And not all of the stories. Because history is generally told by the victors, and the victims have their stories silenced. Gyasi tells some of these other stories in this book - the stories that have been largely silenced or marginalized by the colonialist/white supremacist victors. One of the most influential moments in my own thinking was when I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk entitled The Danger of a Single Story. It was then that I really understood that it was only relatively recently that these other stories were told. I grew up reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - but that came out in 1976! My parents didn’t read books like that because they didn’t exist. I am thankful that they made sure we did. This is why I encourage my children to read stories from a variety of perspectives - particularly the ones that have been silenced in the past. While this book is a bit too intense for little kids, I think it would be appropriate for teens, who are on the cusp of going out into a world where hate and a white supremacist narrative are newly re-emboldened by their return to political power. And, as the founder of my religion understood, stories are the most powerful way to communicate truth. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Commodore by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This book is number 17 in the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels about the British Navy during and after the Napoleonic Wars. I have read all of the previous books, and reviewed the last few for my blog. Because I do not duplicate all of the background information in each post, it is probably best to read them in order. And by all means, read the books in the correct order, as a particular adventure will often be stretched across several books.

            The Nutmeg of Consolation
            The Truelove
            The Wine Dark Sea



This book picks up at the end of the fairly disastrous South American campaign in the last book. The Surprise returns to England, where both Stephen and Jack have family issues to deal with. 

Stephen’s wife, Diana, has given birth a few years back - Stephen hasn’t yet met his daughter Brigid. However, Diana, apparently overstressed by parenthood, has run off to goodness knows where, leaving Brigid in the care of Clarissa Oakes (a fascinating character from The Truelove). Brigid also appears to be autistic, unable to speak.

Jack, meanwhile, finds he has offended his wife Sophie by using some of the fabric intended for her to make a wedding dress for Ms. Oakes. (As I said, a really fascinating story…) So all is not well at the Aubry home, and Jack is predictably eager to be off on his next adventure.

If that wasn’t bad enough, one of Stephen’s enemies in Parliament has decided to make trouble for him. Technically, Clarissa is a criminal, having been transported to Australia, where she managed to stow away on the Surprise. Likewise, Stephen’s loyal assistant, Padeen, was transported a few books back for an incident involving Stephen’s laudanum. Basically, they both need an official pardon before they can legally be in England. This would be forthcoming in light of the circumstances (and Stephen’s influence), but for this enemy.

Fortunately for all concerned, a new mission is at hand. They will spend some time off the coast of Africa suppressing the slave trade while they wait for news that a French fleet has left for Ireland. They are to intercept this fleet and prevent it from inciting rebellion there.

So much for the basic setup of the plot. I won’t reveal the rest.

However, there are some great lines and passages worth mentioning.

Preserved Killick is one of the great characters in the series. Jack’s steward, he is described in this book as a “lean, cantankerous, and out of work ratcatcher.” And of course, plenty more of “Which I was already doing, ain’t I?”

Also interesting on the psychological side in this book was Jack’s response to female sexuality - both in theory and in practice. Anyone who is familiar with this series knows that Jack - particularly the younger Jack - slept around a good deal. He has an illegitimate son he fathered with an African woman, and spent a portion of the first book in bed with the wife of a fellow captain - an act which came back to bite him big time.

In a conversation with Stephen, Jack discusses a fellow captain who just came home to find his wife pregnant by another man. Jack notes that the captain “has never set up for chastity any more than I have,” and Jack reminded him of that. Of course, the captain responded with the double standard: “Oh, it is different for women.” At this point, Jack actually asserts that fair is fair.

And it is. But the problem is that Jack’s emotions do not follow his logic, and later in the book, when he believes (probably incorrectly) that Sophie is cheating on him, he cannot just let it go as “fair is fair.” Ah, such a difficult thing in practice when men are used to the entitlement to sow their oats when and how they like, but woe to the woman who does likewise.

The issue of slavery is front and center for the middle part of the book. O’Brian does not gloss over the horrors of the trade, and there are some very difficult scenes to read. (For what it is worth, I am concurrently reading Homegoing by Yaa Gayasi, which centers around the slave trade and its consequences over the ensuing centuries. Stay tuned for a review on that one.)

At one point, a particular sailor who has been stymied in his advancement is promoted by Jack, who, having a black son, understands that the “African great-grandmother” is the reason this competent seaman has been unable to become a lieutenant despite passing the test.

Another harrowing chapter in this book is the one where Stephen nearly dies of Yellow Fever. Poor Stephen has had a bad run of late, suffering greatly for his love of nature and attempts to collect specimens. Of course, back then, they didn’t know mosquitoes spread the disease, so prevention was difficult at best.

However, Stephen does manage to obtain a Potto, which is a cousin of the Loris. O’Brian manages to sneak some fauna into most of his books, and this is a particularly cute one. 


It isn’t just questions of sex that disquiet Jack in this book. There is also that of the captains he commands. For this mission, Jack is a Commodore and has several ships under his command. However, he mistrusts two of the captains greatly. One of them is a disciplinarian, intent on having the ship look good. But his seamanship is sloppy, his crew ill trained, and their gunnery is unspeakably bad. Another ship has a different problem. The captain is openly homosexual, and has a series of young men in and out of his cabin - men he then favors in front of the other sailors. Jack’s objection to this isn’t the sexuality per se: he likens it to keeping a hooker on board - it destroys morale and discipline, particularly since the captain is involved. He will not be respected if he doesn’t show respect to all his crew. So Jack is uneasy, because he does not have confidence in his captains. The one may face mutiny, and the other may not fight well at all.

Predictably, this leads to serious tension, particularly when the crews of each of the two ships get into it under the influence of adult beverages. One lieutenant insults another, and as noted in Commandment One (see below), if offense is given and no apology is forthcoming, then a duel is inevitable. Sadly, the young men forgot the 11th Commandment - shoot in the air - and they end up killing each other.

(And yes, that was definitely a good enough excuse to link “Ten Duel Commandments.”)


There is a great line before the climactic scene, where Stephen and Jack, each worried for their own reasons, exchange sympathy.

Stephen looked up, and after a moment said, “To a tormented mind there is nothing, I believe, more irritating that comfort. Apart from anything else it often implies superior wisdom in the comforter. But I am very sorry for your trouble, my dear.”
“Thank you, Stephen. Had you told me that there was always a tomorrow, I think I should have thrust your calendar down your throat.”

That’s just outstanding. And true.

One final humorous bit. Jack and Stephen are string players. (The large Jack on violin, the scrawny Stephen on cello.) Many evenings on board are wiled away with duets - and the pieces mentioned are often fun. In this book, Jack asks Stephen (again…) to borrow his rosin.

“I wonder - I have my own reasons for wondering - that a man of your I might almost say wealth, and of your standing, a member of Parliament, high on the post-captain’s list, and well at court, cannot or rather will not afford himself a piece of rosin.”

“You are to consider that I am a family man, Stephen, with a boy to educate and daughters to provide a dowry for, and clothes - half-boots twice and sometimes three times a year. Tippets. When you come to worry about Brigid’s fortune, and Brigid’s tippets, you too may economise on rosin.”

As the guy who always has extra strings, rosin, and a pencil, I sympathise with Stephen. At least my colleagues are great about paying me back.

Anyway, this book was another solid entry in a truly epic series. Unfortunately, I am nearing its end. If you haven’t discovered O’Brian, I do indeed recommend these books. But definitely read them in order.