Monday, February 28, 2011

Thoughts on a Rainy, Dreary Day in February

The temperatures are gradually creeping up but we still have a snow cover and some ice. Today it's windy and pouring rain, maybe that will get rid of some of this mess. It's so depressing when the snow is filthy, the roads are thick with sand and salt (or whatever they're putting on them this year), and you vacuum every day to deal with what you've tracked in. Bah humbug! At least tomorrow is March 1st and just the thought of March gives hope.

Discovered yesterday that the desk calendar I bought for this year not only doesn't have the day of the week for each date, it has a Feb. 29th. No wonder I was getting so mixed up. I think I need to switch to another one that makes more sense. I'm confused enough as it is.

Once again Charlie Sheen dominates the news this morning, even though it's the day after the Academy Awards. I feel badly for Martin Sheen. I read that he had tried to help his son, but Charlie doesn't listen to anyone. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to see that the man has serious mental issues; can no one help him? I suppose he has to do something drastic and illegal besides run his mouth so that he can be committed against his will. I no longer think this is addiction to booze or drugs. I think he's mentally ill.

I remember when I was younger I never failed to watch the Academy Awards - glued to the tube like this was the most earthshaking event in history. My how things have changed. Now I don't care who won; for one thing I haven't seen most of the movies, and for another I don't know most of the actors these days. Other interests have taken over my time and I don't know whether that's good or whether I've just gotten dull.

Two phenomena have captured my interest: a) the natural disasters in various parts of the world, and b) the uprisings in the Middle East. I believe the natural disasters are a product of global warming and I feel so badly for the people whose lives are turned upsidedown. I can't imagine what it must be like to have lost everything, sometimes even loved ones, and not know where to turn or what will happen. It breaks my heart.

As for the Middle East turmoil, I'm fascinated by what sparked this region-wide uprising. It doesn't seem that any one group organized it and the situation in different countries is so dissimilar that I'm puzzled. I fear for the Libyan people; they are most likely to see a violent crackdown in my opinion. Gadhafi has never, as far as I know, listened to reason and has never been willing to cooperate or compromise with anyone unless there is something valuable in it for him personally. Meanwhile we see refugees from all these countries and they are running out of safe havens. Where will they all go? Again, I can't imagine their terror.

At home we're hit in the wallet with gas prices soaring along with everything else. It hits us hard because of our fairly fixed income but it also hits working people who need gas to get to their jobs. My commute in my last job was 50 miles per day; thank heaven I'm retired. It's also a good thing that basketball season is over so we aren't driving to Binghamton so much. Ever since we moved to the country we have grouped errands, trying to accomplish as much in one trip out as possible. When gas goes up, that's even more important. However, staying home and keeping warm is high too. Can't win - another bah humbug.

As you can see, I have many reasons for longing for spring. I have cabin fever, the weather is depressing, and the economy is keeping us from doing things. Come on spring!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

Uh-oh, I'm involved in another series! The Risk of Darkness is a Simon Serrailler mystery and I do believe I'm in love. Not really, but Serrailler is a wonderfully conflicted British detective with a good heart. He is a triplet whose sister lives nearby in Lafferton, and brother lives in Australia and has little to do with the family. Simon is close to his mother but his father is rather too aloof for the triplets to feel much for him. Sister Cat is a doctor with a generous soul which often causes problems with her husband (also a doctor but burned-out), who is left to take care of their children. Handsome Simon is single and Cat thinks he has treated women badly. She's too right.

The case that involves both Simon and Cat is the disappearance of several small children. This is heartwrenching of course for everyone in the area and for Simon. Another plot line centers around a woman who dies of mad cow disease due to eating tainted meat, and her husband who is driven mad by her loss. He thinks he sees her everywhere and at one point holds a woman hostage.

The villain in the case of the children is an intense character and I never quite "got" why this person did it despite knowing of an unhappy childhood. That's part of why I liked the book though. I like having to puzzle out the why's of actions like this. Relationships between family members and coworkers are a large part of this story. Not one character is a cliche; everyone is as unique as people really are.

Susan Hill obtained star billing on my authors-to-look-for list when I read her The Woman in Black last fall. I recommend this book for anyone who likes a mystery with depth.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hoo-De-Hoo Day!

There is an annual custom in a county in Northeastern Pennsylvania that I like. Every February 18th is Hoo-De-Hoo Day when the people, particularly young children and their teachers, dress in funny hats and costumes, grab noisemakers, go outside, and yell "Hoo-De-Hoo" at the top of their lungs. The purpose of this zany exercise is to scare winter away.

It never works of course, but everyone has a great time and it breaks up the monotony of gloomy February days. The local television stations always show something funny like preschoolers and their teachers all gathered outside yelling "Hoo-De-Hoo," shaking noisemakers, and waving their arms. Picture an adorable little boy with a Cat in the Hat hat and a football jersey about ten times too big for him - just too cute.

I think we should all celebrate Hoo-De-Hoo Day next February. It's good for your mental health. :-D

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Friend's New Book

I need to preface what I want to say about Dead Center with a caveat. I have met Joanna Higgins, she lives in the same county I do, and both of us attended the murder trial this novel is based on. I was working as a journalist covering the trial, and she was there taking notes with the idea of a book. Several years later here it is and it just tore my heart out.

Joanna had written an earlier book A Soldier's Book based on a collection of letters written home by a Civil War soldier. When I read it I was stunned at her writing talent, even though I knew she had taught writing at universities and was quite a literary person. She has surpassed her earlier book with this one. I know no one who reads it will be disappointed. However, I must mention that my take on it with the background of knowing so well the real story may be different than someone who isn't familiar with what really happened.

Naturally, in writing this as fiction Joanna has changed locations, names, and many other details. She has written it from the viewpoint of the family of the accused murderer. Since I was bound to be objective during the trial, I too thought of it from their point of view, but Joanna has taken that further to just concentrate on how they felt, how they coped or didn't, and whether they were truly convinced of his innocence. As I read, I gained empathy for their situation and I'll admit I nearly cried as the book ended.

Even the dust cover of the book is absolutely perfect, showing a shotgun below blood spatter on the bold black of the letters. Once again Joanna Higgins has left me almost speechless with the thoughtfulness, empathy, and beauty of her prose. If I remember correctly, she writes some poetry as well, and this book strikes me as a long prose poem. The characters' thoughts and actions, with the exception of the accused murderer, ring so true I felt like I was in the rented house with them as the trial went on.

I highly recommend this treasure of a book, though I would remind you that I can't help being biased.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Bad Blood by Linda Fairstein

This is a three-year-old mystery novel in Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series, but it's a new series to me. I don't know how I missed these novels except that like the old saying, "So many books, so little time." Cooper is a D.A. in New York City and this book involves treachery among the sandhogs who are digging Tunnel #3 to carry water throughout the city. The old tunnels are ancient and in danger of leaking. Think of New York City with no water at all and you can see why this is important.

Sandhogs of course are the guys who dig the tunnels all over the world. One reason for the name dates from the building of the Brooklyn Bridge when caissons had to be sunk deep under the river and the major danger was being pulled down into the sand to their death. Not many people are willing to do such work for obvious reasons but intrepid Irish sandhogs are a brotherhood who continue that job through generations.

Cooper's case involves a member of one of those families. At one point she descends into the shaft to Tunnel #3 after an explosion, scared to death but persevering even though someone tries to kill her. A cold case turns out to be a part of the story as well. As Cooper was in serious danger through most of the story, I was on tenterhooks reading the book. (What are tenterhooks anyway?)

I enjoyed Bad Blood enough that I will look for more of the Cooper series. I like the courtroom drama and the involved plot with characters who are quite believable and fallibly human. I recommend this book.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb

Recently Sharyn McCrumb posted on her Facebook page that her next novel will be out in August 2011, and suggested that we should read her earlier book Ghost Riders before then. The new book will be about Tom Dooley, of "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley" fame. His lawyer in the real story was Zebulon Vance, who is a major character in Ghost Riders. By the way, Tom's real name was Tom Dula but everyone mispronounced it.

I had a copy of Ghost Riders on my shelf so I have now read it. The characters in this book are some of McCrumb's best work. A few are real, others fictional, but all totally believable and fascinating. Everyone's favorite McCrumb character, Nora Bonesteel, makes a sort of cameo appearance in it, but another character with "the Sight" is one of the main characters. He is called "Rattler" and he is inseparable from the mountains he lives in, the Appalachians of western North Carolina. He's a loner but frequently reenactors of the Civil War camp in the mountains and if he wants some conversation he'll go visit them. Problem is, their uniforms and firing of period weapons seems to be bringing back ghosts of the real war.

In flashback we meet McKesson (Keith) and Malinda Blalock, union sympathizers in a "secesh" area. This is one of the toughest couples you'll ever meet. When he is forced to join the Confederate Army, Malinda dresses like a boy and joins up too as "Sam Blalock." Turns out she's a good soldier and they plan to cross over to the Union army as soon as they can. It's only when her husband is wounded and is to be sent home that she reveals her sex and goes home with him. That isn't the end of their wartime experiences though, far from it.

There are other superbly drawn characters to fill out the story of mountain people divided by a war they have little stock in, the cruelty shown toward the women, children, and old people trying to survive at home while the young men fight and die, and the lingering feuds that result, a la the Hatfields and the McCoys. This is the war I'm interested in rather than battles and generals and tactics so I greatly enjoyed this wonderful story. Above all, the people's sense of belonging to the Appalachians and their knowledge of the mountains prevails.

I highly recommend this book regardless of whether you are a Sharyn McCrumb fan or not. If you aren't, you will be after reading this book.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

'Tis by Frank McCourt

Quite some time ago I reviewed McCourt's first autobiography, Angela's Ashes. 'Tis is the second book which picks up as Frank is sailing from Ireland to America, where he expects to see everyone has a tan and beautiful white teeth, i.e. the Hollywood version. First lesson, New York City and its people don't much resemble his expectations.

He's still poor as a churchmouse of course but he finds a job sweeping the floor and emptying ashtrays in the lobby of the Biltmore, then moves on to a warehouse job on the docks. He rents a place at a rooming house with a strange landlady and her handicapped son. Eventually he talks his way into NYU despite his lack of a high school diploma. Many of my friends will be happy to learn he got in because of his reading habit. He had read classic literature that most American youth would disdain. At length he becomes a teacher, a teacher with a girlfriend no less.

You may remember he had three surviving younger brothers; they all came to this country. His mother finally came here as well and made a career of carping about everything American. The book ends as the McCourt sons and their children take Angela's ashes back to Limerick.

I raved about the first book. I laughed my head off reading parts of it and other parts tore my heart out. Young Frankie's poverty-stricken childhood was terrible. However, I was disappointed in this book. It's written in the same stream-of-consciousness style and he has the same sense of humor, and parts of it made me laugh out loud. The adult Frank McCourt, though, isn't such a sympathetic character. There were times when I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. I wanted to say, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and for heaven's sake stay out of Irish bars!" But I must admit McCourt is a good man at heart and he's certainly a better writer than I'll ever be.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Astronaut Mark Kelly Will Command Endeavor Mission After All

I've heard some grumbling since Mark Kelly announced he's decided to go to space rather than remain at his wife's bedside. She of course is U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in the head in Tucson. People are saying he's selfish, putting his own career ahead of his wife's recovery, and on and on.

I disagree. I don't know whether she is able to communicate at all yet, but from everything I've heard about her, I think she would tell him not to pass up this chance to do what he's trained to do for so many years. If she weren't recovering well, I would expect him to stay with her and to heck with his career, but she seems to be setting a record pace in recovery and rehab. She does need him, but she'll see him every day in communications from space and he'll only be gone a couple weeks. Meanwhile she will be working hard in rehab, doing things that are tough but all he could do would be give her moral support and encouragement. Her mother will be with her and will be able to make decisions in Kelly's absence.

I would love to know more about her progress but must admit it's none of my business. And his decision and the thought process behind it is also none of my business. Doesn't stop me from voicing my opinion though, does it?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Must Have Book for Men With Prostate Cancer

If you or a man you know has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, this is one resource you should definitely own. Dr. Gerald Chodak, the author, is an expert in the disease who founded the Midwest Prostate and Urology Health Center in 1999 in, I believe, Chicago. The book is published this year so you know this is up-to-date information

I don't know of any cancer that has so many tough choices involved in selecting treatment (or not) and this book answers all of your questions in easy-to-read format without medical jargon or confusion. There is a glossary in the back and an index. In addition, the table of contents not only tells you the name of each chapter, but also in bullet points what is included in that chapter.

Because prostate cancer can develop quite slowly, sometimes the best course is to do nothing but watch the PSA (prostate specific antigen) level which can be followed with a simple blood test. That is your indicator of how slowly or quickly the cancer is growing. If you decide to proceed with a treatment, and remember it is your choice, this book explains every detail of every treatment. You know how it is done, what to expect, and possible outcomes. You have everything at your disposal to help you make the best decision for you.

The downside of this decision process is that very few controlled studies have been done on the different choices, and Dr. Chodak writes that such studies are necessary for physicians and patients both. The problem is that few men are willing to take part in studies.

In his book, the doctor is clearly in favor of radical prostatectomy (complete removal of the prostate) for most men. The exceptions are men with slow growing disease who don't have a life expectancy of more than ten years, either because of advanced age or because of other disease processes. There are nonsurgical options as well. He is straightforward with information about possible side effects of treatment such as erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence, as well as others that aren't so traumatic.

The only thing missing from this excellent book in my opinion is drawings of anatomy. Since this is written for patients and their loved ones, they are unlikely to have such drawings at hand unless the urologist has given them appropriate pictures. The descriptions of the anatomy involved are very well done, but pictures would be a great help. I can't help remembering former neighbors whose father had "problems with his prostrates" and it was obvious neither he nor his sons had a clue about it. I do like the charts showing treatments and their side effects clearly.

Again, I urge you to buy this book if you are faced with prostate cancer or your husband or father. Give it to any friends who have the disease. This is vitally important information you need to have in your home.