Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Who should vote?

Shouldn't voting require a bit more for eligibility than just a pulse? Although even the dead are being resurrected long enough to vote. So maybe a pulse isn't even necessary.

ACORN has outdone themselves in voter fraud this election. With all our advances in technology why can't we create a better system for protecting against voter fraud? It shouldn't be this easy, right?

I understand now why the Founding Fathers said only those who own property should be allowed to vote - though by that criteria I would be ineligible. If you owned property, chances are you had a healthy interest in politics and kept yourself informed since politicians and the government were the ones who think it's in your best interest for them to relieve you of your property (or your wages). If you don't own anything or pay taxes, there's a greater probability that you'll vote for the government to take from your neighbor to give to yourself. The Founding Fathers wisely understood this quirk of human nature and were trying to protect against it with their voting restrictions. Unfortunately today, many politicians understand this same human failing, but instead of trying to protect against it, they choose to exploit it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Speaking of...

As I mentioned below, I love crime and detective fiction. I read more from that fiction genre than any other (I generally read more nonfiction than fiction). For those who may be interested in this genre but don't know where to begin here's a list of British mystery writers I've enjoyed. The first four set their mysteries in the first half of the 20th Century (because that was when they were writing). The last four are all modern writers.

1. Dorothy L. Sayers and her dashing detective Lord Peter Whimsey
2. Josephine Tey and her inscrutable Inspector Alan Grant
3. Ngaio
Marsh and her unflappable Inspector Roderick Alleyn
4. Margery Allingham and her puckish detective Albert Campion
5. P.D. James and her sensitive poet Inspector Dalgliesh
6. Elizabeth George and her Lord of the realm Inspector Thomas Lynley
7. Martha Grimes and her urbane Inspector Richard Jury
7. Ian Rankin and his incorrigible Detective John Rebus.

Of these my favorites are Sayers, Tey, and James. I have read almost all of George and Grimes (so obviously I like them) but think their earlier works are their better works. My problem with them is that their plots start to run together and I can never remember what I've read or haven't read. But any of their books are still great airplane reading.

The beauty of these authors is that most of their books, with the exception of Josephine Tey and possibly Martha Grimes, have been made into BBC mysteries. Some are better than others of course, but if you love this genre than there is much television viewing pleasure waiting for you on Netflix.

Having had my fill of British authors and the landscape and setting of Great Britain, I wanted to read about detectives going about their work in other countries. The more exotic the better. To that end, I googled and found a splendid article in The Independent, "Crime Fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths." Using that as my springboard, I have dived into a few of these books. Here's my take on what I've read so far in the order of preference:

1. Martin Cruz Smith: His Inspector Arkady Renko is one of my favorite. The setting is Russia and acts as an additional character in his novels. Renko isn't blind to the harsh realities of his homeland, and yet he can't leave it because of his own identification with the landscape of Russia (both the physical and personal). That tension is another reason I love these books. Smith's novels start during the era of the Soviet Union and progress to present day Russia. Besides his use of setting, I think he has some of the best dialogue I've read in modern detective fiction. He's written other novels (Rose and December 6) that aren't considered detective fiction though a mystery is at the heart of those plots as well. Whenever I get his books, I blitz through them in one day. His first Renko book was Gorky Park. I suggest starting with this one and working your way through to his last (so far) Stalin's Ghost. Don't do what I did and read them in reverse order otherwise you'll get spoilers to the previous books.

2. James Church: This author wasn't listed in the above article, however, he's an up and coming detective novelist that has come out with two books. Church was an intelligence officer in Asia for the CIA and upon retiring started writing. His character Inspector O attempts to solve crimes in North Korea. As with Martin Cruz Smith, setting plays a huge supporting character role. Like Renko, Inspector O loves his country despite the oppressiveness and irrationality of its totalitarian bureaucracy. He isn't complicit with the government nonsense, but instead works around it to get to the truth despite any adverse consequences to himself. A Corpse in the Koryo is Church's first book, but his second, Hidden Moon, is even better.

Smith and Church are now the standard by which I judge non-British detective fiction. They weave together sympathetically flawed characters with intricate plots and malignant settings to create unforgettable reading. The following authors did not meet the standard because they didn't deliver a complete package of character, plot, and setting. Some had great characters, but were less than stellar in the other two areas or vice versa. However, I would read them again if nothing better was available. Some of them would make better movies than novels simply because of their exotic setting and their plot could be worked out in two hours or less.

Pavel Kohout: Kohout is a much better writer than those that follow below. His novel The Widow Killer takes place during Nazi occupied Prague. I found his writing to be more literary than the rest with many beautifully phrased sentences. And yet, I didn't finish the book. I became impatient with the progress of the plot. About half way through, I knew where he was going and decided I didn't want to join him any longer on this journey. Still a worthy read if you have the patience.

Henning Mankell: Detective Kurt Wallender solves crime in Sweden. Mankell doesn't invoke setting like Smith and Church do, but he did include commentary on social issues facing modern day Sweden (like open borders). I could read more from him, but I wasn't enamored with his detective. Wallender wasn't thoughtful, didn't seem particularly intelligent, and didn't have any sympathetic character flaws. More often than not, I wanted to boot him rather than root for him.

Karin Fossum: Her Inspector Sejer is more likable than Wallender, but not as fleshed out as a Renko or O. Though set in Norway you wouldn't know it except by the names. She does less with her setting than Mankell.

Qui Xiaolong: Inspector Chen's beat is Shanghai. I thought the exotic location would be enough for me to love these books but alas, no. I really wanted to like this series since it would keep my addiction going for awhile. One reviewer called his work preachy or pedantic. I agree. He puts so much social commentary into the characters' dialogue that their conversations don't sound genuine. He needs a better editor.

Colin Cotterill: His main character is Dr. Siri Paiboun the chief coroner for Laos. Paiboun is helped by spirits and other supernatural visitations during the course of his sleuthing. Good use of setting to make you feel as hot and sweaty as the characters. However, compared to the writers above this is detective fiction lite. Easily digestible with little nutritional value.

If anyone reads other authors from this article, please comment on what you like or didn't like.

I Want to Know!

Leonard Chang and I share a passion. A passion for crime and detective fiction. The difference between us is that he carried his passion beyond just reading this great body of literature and wrote his own noir trilogy. His mysteries aren't great and some of the loose ends get tied up rather too neatly, but his detective is compelling and sympathetic. His reluctant sleuth is a Korean-American named Allen Choice who excavates his own heart while getting to the truth behind the mysteries he's pulled into solving. Incidentally, one of the best tidbits in Chang's first novel is how Allen got the last name Choice (it's based on a true story). In his essay "Why I Love Crime Fiction", Chang traces how his love of philosophy led him to write crime fiction:

You remember more of your childhood reading, connect them to your interest in philosophy, and conclude that both are premised on the impulse to figure out the world, to analyze in a methodical way the elements that have created chaos and disorder. The analyst, whether a private investigator or a rationalist philosopher, seeks within his or her own moral and personal code to discover and articulate what has gone wrong, to right these perceived wrongs, to find a view of the world that is worth living in, to reorder and contain the chaos. What is a private detective but a philosopher in a trench coat?
Chang articulates for me why I love the genre but he also hits on why I want to study philosophy and have since started pursuing a graduate degree in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. In both crime fiction and philosophy, there is an acknowledgement that truth can be known even if known imperfectly. As he says in his essay, there is an attempt to bring order out of chaos to understand reality as it really is not how we wish it were. I have this desire to know. Studying philosophy or theology or science or literature are refined ways of feeding the urge to know.

As a child I had less refined urges to know (and truth be told I still do) that explain why I had to read my sister's journals or steam open her love letters. My intent wasn't malicious, I just wanted to know what she was thinking or what boyfriends say to girlfriends and I wanted to know if steaming open letters really worked. It explains why I opened both my and my sister's Christmas presents and then taped them back up again. It explains why I snooped through houses I was babysitting in. I would look through cupboards and drawers in almost every room in the house. I wanted to know how people lived through what they owned and what they tried to hide. I would fake being sick just so I would have our house to myself to poke around undisturbed in everyone's closets to find out what they were hiding.

The urge to know explains why even today I want to know the backstory on the quirky characters I meet. Like Judy, the Asian grocery store check-out clerk with buckteeth and a sweet smile. Does she work the weekend night shifts because she doesn't have a boyfriend and doesn't want to be home alone? Does she live with her parents and do they give her grief for working at a grocery store instead of something more glamourous? Is she the life of the party with her friends or still as shy as she seems to be at Albertsons? What are her dreams and aspirations? What makes her laugh until she can't breath? I WANT TO KNOW.

The down side to this urge is dilettantism. I found it very difficult to pick one area of study in college and then later to figure out what I wanted to pursue as a career since almost any field and almost any kind of job was interesting (at least for a little bit) to me. I think the ideal outlet for a dilettante or for one who wants to know how the world works and how all the different areas of study are interconnected is writing. A writer can explore and research any topic for a period of time, create a finished product, and then move on to the next subject. The research /exploration phase can include reading, interviewing, and traveling all things I love to do. All in all sounds like the perfect career to me! Why am I not pursuing it? Oh yeah, I'm a dilettante and therefore have other interests that bring satisfaction as well when pursued. Perhaps one day all my interests will coalesce. And that's when I know I'm dead.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Wisdom of Tocqueville

Every day we hear from politicians about how the government can and will solve our every problem. The more people hear this message, the more they begin to believe that the government really does have the responsibility to provide a solution. Alexis De Tocqueville gives us good reason to resist this type of thinking as he defines "what sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear". Here's an excerpt from Democracy in America:

I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words "despotism" and "tyranny" are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.

...Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself....

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd....

A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large....

It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other. Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity....

It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.
Tocqueville certainly was prescient!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Joy of Fiber

At a party Saturday night, a friend said to me "I only get serious about two topics of conversation: politics and nutrition." I'd say that's true in his case, but I can't say nutrition gets me too hot under the collar. Until now. I am getting quite passionate about fiber, but for good reason.

One thing I'm learning as a pregnant woman who is about to become a post-pregnant woman is that your bowel movements are serious business. You want to maintain regularity while pregnant to avoid hemorrhoids and post-pregnant to avoid any additional pain "down there". I've heard enough horror stories (especially from the post-pregnant perspective) to ensure my diet has enough fiber. But one thing I found out is that not all fiber is equal. You can read Nutrition Action's report on the types of fiber found in all sorts of foods here. Inulin is a cheap substitute often found in high fiber foods, yet is doesn't do the body much good. There are a couple others that add heft to the fiber grams on the nutrition label, but have few healthy benefits.

I love eating cereal in the morning 'cause it's so darn simple (it's also the best food to eat while reading since I'm less likely to make a mess while doing both). But few cereals pack a high fiber punch. I can't stand the traditional Fiber One of those twiggy looking things with no taste. I don't care if there's a weeks worth of fiber in one bowl, they're disgusting. So I got Fiber One Flakes instead. They're not bad, but they leave a weird after taste in the mouth. The culprit is sucralose. At least it's not aspartame or sacchrine, but it still has that fake sweet taste. The other strike against FOF is that the fourth ingredient is inulin - the fake filler of the fiber world. FOF is off my list of approved high fiber cereals. But with 13 grams per bowl what could replace it? Trader Joes came to my rescue. They sell Kashi brand "Good Friends". Each bowl has 12 grams of fiber. 11 grams of that are insoluble fiber, the kind that reduces your chances of getting hemorrhoids and constipation. One gram is soluble fiber good for regulating blood glucose levels and lowering cholesterol. Fortunately the cereal tastes better than the unattractive packaging would suggest. Best of all, it retains its crunchiness to the end. No soggy flakes or twigs in your last bites (unless you're a really slow eater).

This is the end of my public service announcement.