Friday, November 30, 2012

THE BLACK BOX by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch fans, it's time to pour yourself a Fat Tire (one of Bosch's favorites), put Art Pepper's "Patricia" (Bosch's birthday gift from his 16-year-old daughter, Maddie) on your iPod, and settle down for an engrossing read. If you haven't yet read any of the Harry Bosch books, that's OK too. You can start with this one and pick up the others later.

--from my review of The Black Box, now up on the Books and Culture website.
Click here to read it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

'Tis the season to read something relaxing

Renoir, La lectrice, 1874
Thanksgiving down, Christmas coming. Parties to attend. Christmas greetings to send. Gifts to buy. Travel arrangements to make. Groceries to buy. Meals to cook. Guest rooms to get ready. Decorations to display. Checks to write.

Nerves to calm.

I dedicate this blog post to my friend Karen, and to everyone else who needs to pour a comforting drink, sit down, elevate feet, and read a diverting novel--one that engrosses you, makes you smile, lets you relax, does not leave you with the taste of ashes.

Actually, you may need more than one such novel. So despite my inordinate fondness for one-offs like Sarah Dunn's Secrets to Happiness and Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I'm going to give you a list of novels any one of which can lead you to four or a hundred similar delectable books.
My rules for series fiction:
1. Start with whatever book grabs your attention. It doesn't have to be the first in the series.
2. If you don't like it, don't bother with the rest of the series unless at least three of your friends have recommended it--in which case, try a second book.
3. If you like either the first or second book reasonably well, read two more books in the same series. By then, you'll either be in love with the series or you'll be ready to try something else.
Here are ten of my favorite authors of series fiction. The links will take you to reviews I've written either on this blog or in magazines.
  • Michael ConnellyThe Reversal (and others). Detective Harry Bosch is the best in the business. Connelly has written 25 books, 18 about Harry. Newest, The Black Box, came out two days ago. Not a bad place to start. But if you'd rather start with a legal thriller, go for The Lincoln Lawyer.
  • Margaret FrazerThe Apostate's Tale. The indomitable nun Dame Frevisse gets involved with a lot of 15th-century mayhem. I like Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael books, but I got even more attached to Dame Frevisse.
  • Sue GraftonV Is for Vengeance. Start with A Is for Alibi. If the fourth sentence doesn't grab you, nothing will: "The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind." W-Z are still to come, but you have 22 books to read before you run out.
  • P.D. JamesTalking About Detective Fiction. First, read P.D. James's mysteries. They're all good, and you don't have to read them in order. Or just watch the TV adaptations starring Roy Marsden. Talking About Detective Fiction is Dame James's discussion of great mystery writers--dozens of them. Follow her leads and you'll have enough to read until you retire.
  • Donna Leon, Death and Judgment. Oh, just start with Death at La Fenice and read all of Leon's Venetian mysteries featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. He's a lovable cop, and the Italian ambiance is a treat.
  • Peter Lovesey, Cop to Corpse. Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond presides grumpily over the Avon and Somerset murder squad. You may not care for him at first--his coworkers certainly don't--but he grows on you.
  • Alexander McCall Smith, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth. I find Scottish author McCall Smith more relaxing than a wee dram of single malt. His characters are quirky, funny, and fundamentally good. My review mentions several of his series; fortunately for his fans, he tends to write three books a year.
  • Spencer Quinn, To Fetch a Thief. Chet the dog narrates, but these stories are rarely cutesie. They can be pretty darn funny, though--especially to those of us who live with dogs. And there's always an interesting plot.
  • C.J. Sansom, Dissolution. Sansom is writing a series of fantastic 16th-century (think Henry VIII) mysteries. These are large books, a bit more serious than some on this list, but utterly engrossing. You can have Wolf Hall and its sequel: I'll take Sansom any day.
  • Jennifer Weiner, Good in Bed / Certain Girls. Bright and sassy chick lit. Weiner is a Princeton grad with a rowdy sense of humor. Not to be sexist or anything, but I'm guessing these aren't for guys.
And there are others ... so many others. Laurie R. King is a delight. She's been turning out a lot of books in the Mary Russell (Mrs. Sherlock Holmes) series as well as several stand-alone volumes, but my favorites are her Kate Martinelli books. Jane Langton, who is about to turn 90, wrote a lot of gently humorous New England-based books about ex-cop/current Harvard professor Homer Kelly and his brilliant wife, Mary.

And if you're feeling really, really tired--as I was after open-heart surgery last year--M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series are silly fun. I read 30 of them while convalescing, and I'm feeling fine, thanks!

Please, readers, add comments (here, and not just on Facebook) about series fiction you've enjoyed...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday at the pet store

The dog is right - this is the only Black Friday sale I was interested in. In fact, it's the only Black Friday sale I've ever gone to. And the only reason I went to this one is because my scruffy little terrier urgently woke me up at 6:00 this morning. This is the dog who, most mornings, would sleep as late as a teenager if we didn't drag her out from under the covers. I guess she knew about the sale.

So I dragged my protesting carcass to Pet Supplies Plus, vowing to come back home immediately if parking was hard to find - and snagged the space right next to the handicap space by the door.

Inside, a check-out line stretched from the cash register to the west wall of the store, angled right and continued to the premium dog foods on the north wall. A second line heading due north looked equally long. I noticed one shopper in pajamas.

No more shopping carts were available, so customers were using toddler-sized customer-in-training carts, stockroom carts, and dollies. No more of them were available either. Never mind. To save 30%, I was willing to schlep a 26-pound bag of Wellness Core Grain-Free Ocean Formula, a 5.5-pound bag of Orijen Adult Dog Food, a tube of poultry flavored toothpaste, and 2 packets of FrontLine Plus from the back to the front of the store.

The experience restored my faith in human nature.

Nobody was trampled. Nobody shoved. No voices were raised. Even the two dogs in line near me sat patiently - for 50 minutes, which is how long it took to get to the head of the line.

The man in front of me kindly held my place while I went in search of doggy toothpaste.

At 7:45, he commented that the sale was likely to be over before we made it to the cash register. At 7:50, however, an employee distributed cards marked "30%" to all of us in line.

I waved to a friend who was about 10 people ahead of me. After she checked out and unloaded her purchases, she brought her cart back into the store and gave it to me. I then shared it with the man in front of me, whose dog food bag was even bigger than mine.

The check-out clerk was efficient and pleasant. A smiling shopper came up to me as I headed for the parking lot and said, "I'm going to follow you and take your cart when you're done with it." I was happy to give it to her.

Everyone was so helpful and agreeable, in fact, that it felt like the way neighbors bond after a major snowstorm, or survivors after a disaster. Were we all thrilled to have escaped Black Friday unscathed? Or are animal lovers just really nice people?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A JANE AUSTEN EDUCATION by William Deresiewicz

I loved William Deresiewicz's op-ed piece "A Matter of Taste?", a look at how "foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture." If you didn't read it, now's a good time.

Be sure to read the author's bio at the end. If you're like me, the next thing you'll do is buy or borrow his 2011 book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.

The book is part memoir, part literary interpretation, part wisdom literature. The three parts aren't seamlessly integrated, and that bothered some reviewers. I enjoy all three genres and appreciated the author's - let's call him Bill - self-deprecating humor, so I wasn't bothered.

Here's the plot: Bill recounts how he moved from disdaining Jane Austen to adoring her and eventually writing his Ph.D. dissertation about her. In the process, he also moved from being a (self-described) dumb 26-year-old with daddy issues and a dismal romantic life, to being a grown-up guy with an apartment, a job, good friends, and a wife.

Jane Austen, it turns out, was his life coach.

If you already like Jane Austen, you'll probably enjoy Bill's ideas about the messages underlying her six novels.

If you read Jane Austen a long time ago - or just saw the movies and TV miniseries -  don't hesitate to pick up this book. Bill gives enough context that you'll know exactly what's going on.

If you don't like Jane Austen (but have to read her for class), or if you've never tried her at all, go ahead and see if Bill can get you interested. His book is at least as much about "the things that really matter" as about Jane.

Thanks to Bill, I'm now rereading - well, listening to an audiobook of - Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's hilarious send-up of gothic fiction. It's read by one of my favorite narrators, Wanda McCaddon, under the name of Nadia May (she is also widely known as Donada Peters).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mr. Metz's 5% health-insurance surcharge

I'm having trouble understanding today's news about "Florida based restaurant boss John Metz, who runs approximately 40 Denny's and owns the Hurricane Grill & Wings franchise." According to an article in the U.K.'s Mail Online, Mr. Metz "has decided to offset [the extra cost Obamacare will bring] by adding a five percent surcharge to customers' bills and will reduce his employees' hours."

Here's what scares Mr. Metz: By 2014, Obamacare will require employers (of more than 50 workers) to provide adequate health insurance for full-time employees or risk paying a penalty (you can learn the details at the Kaiser Family Foundation's website).

If he's scared, it must be because his restaurants do not provide adequate health insurance for their full-time workers. Actually, Denny's does provide what their New Employee Enrollment Guide calls "affordable limited benefit medical plans to all eligible employees." (That was from their guide for hourly employees; salaried employees also get health insurance.) Is Mr. Metz ignoring Denny's benefits package? Or does he believe that the insurance is so inadequate that employees will choose to get insurance elsewhere? Or are his workers paid so poorly that they can't possibly afford even the low-cost option? Or does his own chain, Hurricane Grill & Wings, not offer this benefit at all? Because if he's providing decent health insurance that his employees can afford, he will not have any extra charges and so has no reason to add a surcharge to his meals.

So why is he adding a surcharge and downgrading his workers to part-time status?  According to Fox News, "To further offset the costs, Metz, who oversees roughly 1,200 employees as president and CEO of RREMC Restaurants, LLC, said he also will slash most of the staff's time to fewer than 30 hours per week." If Mr. Metz is providing inadequate insurance - or no insurance at all - to his full-time employees, I can understand why he would want to make all jobs part-time. That way he would face no government penalties for his miserable benefits policy. But if by reducing hours (and hurting his workers even more than he's already doing) he manages to escape the penalties, then why is he adding the surcharge?

Mr. Metz seems to be sending the message that he hates Obamacare. He may not realize it, but he's also sending the message (whether true or not) that he's a rotten employer who provides inadequate employee benefits, would rather cut workers' hours than be required to treat them humanely, and then is willing to make diners pay more for supposed additional costs - even though he has managed not to incur them.

I was going to end there, but then I got to thinking: maybe this isn't only about Mr. Metz. Maybe he really can't give his workers adequate pay and benefits and still stay in business. Maybe this is really about us.

We Americans in the upper 53% have relatively inexpensive houses and cars and clothing and groceries and restaurant meals (when compared with the rest of the world). We manage this by sending much of our manufacturing overseas and by paying squat for services

The people who grow our food, process our meat, bring the food to our tables, wash our dishes, clean our offices, and care for our aging parents often do not earn enough to support their families and must rely on tax-supported programs just to survive (in Florida, Mr. Metz's home state, a person working two 24-hour-a-week minimum-wage jobs, 52 weeks a year with no time off, would bring in $19,144 before payroll taxes; in neighboring Georgia, where Mr. Metz has a few restaurants, the minimum-wage two-job worker would make just $12,854).

But we Americans have relatively low taxes - which means that our social safety net has a lot of holes in it.

Did you know, for example, that "Wal-Mart's poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store[?]. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps" (check it out here).

So what happens to these underpaid workers if we continue to demand lower prices and lower taxes?

Obamacare, though it needs improvement, is an important step toward justice. Mr. Metz's surcharge could be another step in the right direction if it enables him to insure all his employees.

However, if diners reduce their tips by the amount of the surcharge, restaurant workers will end up with even less take-home pay than before. If Americans continue to push for lower taxes, more and more of the working poor will fall through the safety net. And if Mr. Metz goes ahead and reduces the hours of his full-time workers so that they won't qualify for health insurance, the extra 5% will go directly into his pocket.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"We're the greatest" - an empty boast or a call to action?

I believe we can seize this future together -- because we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America. And together, with your help, and God’s grace, we will continue our journey forward, and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.
--President Barack Obama, 7 November 2012

Yesterday I joined a Facebook exchange about whether the United States is indeed the greatest nation on Earth. By quite a few objective criteria, I argued, we trail other nations: health care accessibility, lifespan, maternal mortality, education, infrastructure development, employment, equality of opportunity ... well, the list is frighteningly long. We are clearly not the greatest nation on earth by any standards that people from other nations would accept, and we are becoming less great every year (for a European view of America's decline, read this sobering article - in English - from Monday's Der Spiegel).

Yesterday I also told my two little dogs - Muffin the poodle mix and Tiggy-Winkle the terrier - that they are the best little dogs in the world. By quite a few objective criteria, I am deluded about my dogs. Tiggy  digs holes in upholstered furniture, and she barks so much that she was nearly kicked out of obedience school ("Just give up," the trainer advised; "she's going to bark, whatever you do"). Muffin snores, refuses to cooperate with her groomer, and bites large dogs. But I love my dogs passionately. I wouldn't trade them for any Westminster champions or obedience winners. Several friends, watching me interact with Tiggy and Muffin, have said they would like to be my dogs.

Some people who say America's the greatest really believe that we have the best health care, the best education, the highest incomes, the most liberty, the least corruption, and the most opportunities to succeed. Sadly, these people are deluded. That may have been true in the 1950s, but it is not true today.

However, I suspect that most people who say America's the greatest, including our president, aren't thinking about data at all. They are saying they love America passionately and that they wouldn't consider moving elsewhere even if they found a country that surpasses America in every quantifiable area. They are saying they believe in our founding fathers' vision of America as summarized by Abraham Lincoln: "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." They are saying they love the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountain majesties, the fruited plain - and especially the patriot dream that sees beyond the years (I really think "America the Beautiful" should be our national anthem). They are saying they are willing to work hard to make the dream the reality.

The people who truly believe America is greater than any other country need to check their data. They might also want to read Jesus' story about the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-14) or Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" or Carl Sandburg's "Four Preludes on Playthings in the Wind." Hubris does not make America strong. To the contrary, by blinding us to our problems, it keeps us from fixing them.

But the people who know that America has serious problems and yet love her anyway - love her so much that in their enthusiasm they sometimes say America is the greatest nation on Earth - are the people who can lead our country back to equality of opportunity, who can work to improve our schools, our health care, our roads, our businesses, our environment, our immigration policies, and our working conditions. Most important of all, these are the people who can encourage us to be concerned not only for ourselves but also for one another.

When people in other countries hear Americans say America is the greatest nation on Earth, they tend to think this is an empty boast from a nation of bullies (after all, we do have the biggest military on earth, outspending the next 13 countries combined). If, however, they understood us to mean We love America and want to make it great, I suspect they would be more indulgent toward us, even if they didn't care for our word choice. In the interest of international understanding, we would probably do well to change our diction.

In the late 1930s, as nationalism intensified and much of the world was on the brink of war, Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness wrote words to the tune Finlandia that express American patriotism at its best. Here are two of its verses:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is the language of hope and love, not of bluster.

It is the language President Obama used in his victory speech:
What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That's what makes America great.
It is the language that can lead us to "crown [our] good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea." And beyond.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Advice for November 6: Choose your battle wisely

Vice-President Aaron Burr spoils his political career by
killing former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.
Yesterday during the Prayers of the People at St Barnabas, someone in the congregation spontaneously thanked God that the American election season is almost over. Everyone laughed.

One reason this election has brought out the worst in us is that we are fighting two battles at once. I fear that, no matter who wins the presidency, we will continue to fight these battles. We will probably still be fighting them in 2016.

We are fighting an economic battle between those who believe that the federal government should spend tax dollars on the military and little else, and those who believe that the federal government should also play a major role in assuring health care for all, supporting the indigent and elderly, rebuilding our infrastructure, and aiding disaster-stricken areas.

At the same time, we are fighting a moral battle between those who believe the federal government should allow individuals the freedom to decide whom to marry and whether to carry a child to term, and those who believe the federal government should outlaw abortion and recognize only heterosexual marriages.

The two major parties have divided up our concerns in unexpected ways. The Democratic ticket is communitarian in economics and libertarian in morals; the Republican ticket is just the reverse. This creates a problem for people who are consistently communitarian or libertarian.

A lot of students at Miami University of Ohio, as Bill Keller points out today in "The Republican Id," are consistently libertarian: they are enthusiastic about Republican economics but reject Republican morals. For them, economics trumps morals: the majority support Romney.

Most Catholic bishops, on the other hand, are consistently communitarian: they support Democratic economics but reject Democratic morals. For many bishops, morals trump economics (see David Gibson, "Catholic bishops make last-minute push for Romney"): they too support Romney.

The students are far smarter than the bishops.

If Romney and Ryan are elected, there's a good chance that federal programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be gutted (click here for five good reasons to be worried, even if you're over 55), along with smaller programs such as highway construction, education, and food stamps. There's not much chance, however, that abortion or gay marriage will go away. Overturning Roe v. Wade would not outlaw abortion; it would return the question to the states. As long as a woman had enough money, she could simply travel to wherever abortion was available.

If you're a student at a highly rated university like Miami, you probably figure you'll be one of the elites that would be helped by Romney/Ryan economics. As one of those elites, you could find your way around Republican moral strictures. So yes, as long as you're not concerned about people who haven't done as well as you, it makes sense for you to vote for survival of the fittest. (In a decade or two you may discover you're less fit than you thought you were, but you can vote differently then.)

The Catholic bishops, on the other hand, are showing themselves to be as wise as doves and as harmless as serpents. Even if they get their way - in the name of religious liberty! - Americans will continue to use contraception. They will continue to marry or live with whomever they please. They will continue to get far too many abortions (though if abortion goes underground, a lot more women will die).

Catholic bishops have little effect on American morals (even among their own parishioners: click here to see statistics on abortion rates and here to see statistics on contraceptive use among Catholics), but if they tip the election to Romney/Ryan, they may have a major effect on American economics - an effect that goes against more than a century of Catholic social teaching. In the name of freedom and small government, more families will struggle to put food on the table, to send their children to college, to find adequate housing, to care for their aging parents. Americans will continue to die younger than people in countries with universal health care. Our highways and bridges will deteriorate, and environmental pollution will increase. We may tumble back into recession or even depression.

Here's my point. Our next president's policies will probably have a major effect on America's economic health and, very likely, the economic health of the world. His policies will probably have a minor effect, if any effect at all, on America's morals.

If you like Romney/Ryan's Darwinian proposals, if you think the financiers who are paying for their campaign will help the middle class, if you believe that trickle-down economics help the poor (or if you think the poor shouldn't be helped), if you think business can thrive in the absence of a strong infrastructure, if you think climate change is a hoax, and if you trust for-profit health insurance companies with your life, then by all means vote for Romney-Ryan.

Just don't think they're going to bring about moral renewal in America.