Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

A wonderful saxophonist and I performed the third movement of Lawson Lunde's Saxophone Sonata.  This summer I am learning the first two movements because we'll be performing them as a part of a recital this fall.  After we record, maybe I'll post the link to our performance.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Tom Walsh's rendition.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was not what I was expecting. What was I expecting? An adequate description of a largely forgotten ethnic group in America: the poor whites of the Appalachian region. I also thought the author was going to provide lucid reasons as to why this group is forgotten, why they are so poor and what solutions might help.

This book is part memoir, part sociological observation and I would also say part therapy for Mr. Vance to work out his own feelings and anger at the bum deal he got growing up in poverty with a mentally ill mother, revolving door of fathers and dysfunctional extended family.

J.D. Vance was born in Appalachian Kentucky to poor parents that did not stay together. He describes his extended family as largely dysfunctional due to alcohol and drug abuse. He seems to consider this a unique trait of the Appalachian region when in fact it is the life story, indeed symptomatic, of most poor people regardless of race or region, urban or rural.

However, being poor does not necessarily equal trashy. Vance seems to revel in just how trashy his parents, and especially his grandmother could be. For those of you not from east Texas (where I live) "white trash" is a term to describe behavior more than economic level.

Basically white trash is someone with a filthy mouth that usually has a Marlboro hanging out of it, who does not mind starting fights over the most trivial of reasons at ball games ("my son wasn't out you ----- of an umpire! I'm gonna slash yer tires!"); with their neighbors ("yer dog pees in my yard one more time, I'm gonna shoot his legs off!")

Or like my neighbors behind me. Their stupid Schnauzers kept barking at my dogs, who then proceeded to eat their way through my fence to get at them. The old lady would jump on the fence and scream she was going to sue my a--- if I did not control my dogs. Some people are so edgy.

I should also mention that "white trash" really isn't limited to an ethnic group, either, but that's beside the point.

There is more to people than swearing, dropping the f-word like piles of excrement everywhere they go; drinking themselves blue; and getting into fights both domestic and with everyone else, but you would not know it from Vance's description of his family.

Especially his grandmother. He talks of her fierce love and loyalty to her family, but it was not enough to keep her and his grandfather from trying to kill each other over every minor offense. Or his grandfather from coming home drunk and keeping his two daughters, one of them Vance's mother, in constant upheaval and fear.

Vance's mother grew up to be a drug addict and alcoholic. She had a constant stream of men living with her, which makes me think she must have been attractive on one level, but her violent tendencies usually chased them away.

At one point he goes to live with his birth dad who gave him up. It turns out that his father really wanted him, but the custody battle became so nasty, he thought it was in his son's best interest to just stay away.

His father had by this time converted to Christianity and was Pentecostal. While he respected how religion helped his father get his life together, keep a stable family without domestic squabbles (he was impressed how nobody in his father's house screamed at each other, the normal form of communicating in his mother's home), he felt that Christianity produced too much of an "us and them" mentality and after a few years returned to his mother's, breaking his father's heart.

At this point Vance makes some general remarks that the average Southerner as a church going Christian is a myth and that "Bible belt" actually has the lowest church attendance in the country. Where he gets his information he fails to say.

He also makes an obvious conclusion that people are products of their environment. And yet he admits that is not always so. His sister did not turn out like their mother and their mother's sister grew up to have a stable life and marriage. He does not dig into why this might be so.

He also describes his own success. He became a marine, went to Ohio State and eventually Yale Law School. His methods of success is interesting. Basically you need to network and befriend someone already "in" to get a job. Don't think your resume alone is going to hire you. I would like more information from other sources on that.

In fact, I would like to read other sources of information about Southern poverty and particularly the Appalachian region.

I read this book in one sitting because I found it rather unpleasant reading and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

Playing is Mozart's  "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", performed by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra.  

 A month ago Josh and I flew up to Virginia to see our son, Derek, graduate from college.  As a little graduation treat we then took him up to Williamsburg and Washington D.C.  While flying up there I finished a couple of books, some hard copies, others on my Kindle.  Usually I don't read my Kindle at home, but it is a great traveling companion because I can carry hundreds of books in one little electronic device.  I am a sucker for free downloads, so most of the books on my Kindle are public domain.  Naturally some are better than others.  One I read was fantastic.  Of course, when I bought it on eBay, I thought I was getting a hard back.  No wonder it was a great price.  Word of caution.  Make sure you are not buying a electronic download when you buy on eBay, unless that is what you want.  Sometimes we can be blinded by the cheap price and miss a crucial detail like that.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian MedicineThe Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Simply fascinating account of the life of Joseph Lister and his efforts to decrease the mortality rate of hospitals in the 19th century.

It's amazing to us, but back then doctors did not realize that they were spreading disease among their patients by not washing or changing clothes after dissecting cadavers and then proceeding straight into the wards to treat sick patients.

Microbes were not discovered at the time. The microscope had been invented but was considered a rich man's toy to look at butterfly wings and such with. Joseph Lister changed that by studying germs. He also realized that carbolic acid could be used as an anti-septic to reduce the chance of disease. He proved this by raising the survival rates of patients in the hospital wards.

His discovery was met with great resistance by the old guard of doctors. Why? And why did other doctors not arrive at the same conclusions, especially when they knew that city hospitals were notoriously unclean and killed more people than they saved? A couple of reasons were responsible for the lack of progress among doctors.

One, public hospitals were free. They were where poor people went to get treated. People who could afford it went to private practice. Doctors were not paid to work in hospitals, they were paid in private practice and as professors in medical schools. City hospitals were nothing more than a place to provide practice for students and professors to teach. Because the patients were poor, it was not a major concern to anyone if they lived or died. In fact, one could say that the objective wasn't to save lives as much as it was to practice the craft of medicine.

This changed with Joseph Lister. A devout Quaker he believed life was sacred and all humans should be afforded the same dignity and care regardless of their status in life, hence his scrupulous care and tireless efforts at improving the sanitary conditions of hospitals and reduce the spread of infectious disease.

He made little headway with his colleagues but they gradually aged out and were replaced by new and eager young medical students who wholeheartedly embraced his theories of antiseptic and hygiene.

Eventually he made his way to the United States where he was met with the same stubborn resistance. His methods were banned from some hospitals and if doctors were found using antiseptic they were threatened with firing.

But the United States finally saw the light and Lister spent his final years as a hero. A couple of brothers by the name of Johnson were so impressed with Lister's work, they were inspired to start a medical supply company.

A chemist by the name of Joseph Lawrence showed his appreciation of Lister by naming an antiseptic mouthwash he developed after him. (I'll let you guess it's name. He named it after "Lister", get it?)

This book provides wonderful, vivid, and at times gruesomely graphic accounts of the history of medical practice during the Victorian age and I found it enthralling.

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Me and my baby boy.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

Parting from the norm, here.  This song is by an indie band out of Seattle:  Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes.

The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art TheftThe Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy Bostonian who spent liberally on priceless works of art. Eventually she built a museum to house them and it opened in 1904.

In 1990 two men dressed as policemen demanded to be let into the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum. Against instructions, the security guard let the policemen in. The men lured the young man away from the panic button that would have notified police and called the other guard down. They then hog-tied the two of them with duct taped and hand-cuffed them to pipes in the cellar.

The men raided the museum, making off with a Vermeer, Rembrandt, a couple of sketches by Degas, Manet and Titian as well as some others. Although there have been a number of suspects, no one has been convicted of the theft and the art, to this date, has never been recovered.

Ulrich Boser does a thorough job tracing the crime and providing several clues as to who stole the art. He starts with biographical information of Mrs. Gardner, how she acquired her art and built the museum. He also gives a brief history of the individual pieces that were stolen.

But what makes this book as suspenseful as any spy novel, is the chase Boser engages in to track down the culprits.

Boser inherits the case from Harold Smith, a man renowned for finding lost or stolen works of art. When Smith died of cancer in 2004, Boser collected his information and took on the mantle. His investigation took him on a seamy journey through the underworld of organized crime and terrorist organizations. After four years, Boser offers his conclusions as to who he thinks stole the paintings and his argument is persuasive.

Whoever it was, we learn how and why art gets stolen in the first place and it is never because some big underworld boss, a Dr. No sort, is looking to add to his collection of stolen artworks. Mostly it is organized crime and other criminals who steal the art to use as bargaining chips to reduce a prison sentence, or to negotiate deals with other crime bosses and terrorist organizations.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Columbo or Hercule Poirot, who work mostly solo as they put together a series of clues and solve the crime, real-life investigators rely heavily on informants. These informants tell what they know in order to rat out a competitive crime gang, or to reduce their prison sentence, or get immunity from any kind of sentencing. Sometimes they just want to be an important person.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of cranks who pose as informants for the same motives. These "false witnesses" wasted a lot of Busor's time by causing him to chase dead ends.

But it's a dangerous game. Many key informants in this book end up murdered. It is even possible that the original thieves have since been murdered.

It is disheartening to see how many deadly criminals have been granted immunity because of their willingness to cut-throat other criminals. There is one particularly hair raising case where a Crime Boss worked with an FBI agent to get all of his competition behind bars and then took over their turf and businesses while enjoying the immunity granted to him by the agent.

Another disheartening fact is lawyers who make careers out of getting criminals off the hook. One of the primary suspects for the Gardner Heist was a known criminal in organized crime, committing all sorts of murders, and robberies only to get off due to the expert handling of his attorney.

Who was his lawyer? John Kerry.

In fact there is more than one politician listed in the book with connections to organized crime. A scary thought.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I randomly came across some Renaissance music.  The instruments are recorder and lute.  The piece is by Spanish composer Diego Ortiz (1510-1579).

The FeastThe Feast by Margaret Kennedy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two Anglican Priests get together once a year to visit, play chess and otherwise enjoy each other's company. This year it is not to be. Father Bott must write a funeral oration. Father Seddon does not understand why this particular funeral should intrude upon their annual visit. Father Bott sits down with his old friend and explains the peculiarity of this funeral.

A once wealthy family owns a mansion at the foot of some cliffs, near the sea. It is 1947 and the Second World War has put many families in dire straits. The Siddal family has since had to convert their home into a guest house for tourists.

The war has also left something else: mines drifting along sea currents. One finds its way into a cave under the cliffs near the Siddal mansion. Fissures have been detected and inspected by government officials. A letter has been sent out to Mr. Siddal but no response has been received.

It has not been received because none has been sent. The warning letter was never read. Mr. Siddal is an indolent man who can't be bothered to read his mail.

No warning is ever heeded and finally the cliff comes crashing down, burying the mansion and the people in it.

Of the guests and hosts, of which there are twenty-three, some are going to be buried and some are going to survive. If you have a copy of this book with the dust cover, be sure not to read the inside flap because it obnoxiously gives the ending away.

The suspense of wondering the fate of each person is increased as the story develops and we get to know each person. Some are people one really wants to get to know and be friends with, others are odious. I read later that some of them were supposed to represent each of the seven deadly sins. After reading that it was apparent which person embodies which sin and also the others who are plagued by them.

All in all, a fairly quick page turner. Kennedy has the ability to paint compelling characters and draw the reader inside their reality. Rather like a soap opera but with complex characters that demand our sympathy.

Except for seven who inspire our revulsion.

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