Monthly Archives: April 2011

Book: “Rough Country,” by John Sandford

“Rough Country” (2009) is the third book starring Virgil Flowers, a series John Sandford started in 2008. Sandford is best known for the Lucas Davenport “Prey” series (each title includes the word “prey”). He started that series in 1989, and has now pumped out 21 “Prey” books. But the Virgil Flowers books are better. Or, at least, Flowers is a much more interesting character than Davenport (for whom Flowers works, out of Minneapolis).

I read the first two Virgil Flowers books back-to-back in January 2010, and followed them with two of the Prey books. I reviewed all four together. Plenty of the Flowers free-spirit personality comes out in “Rough Country,” all wrapped in a package which includes shoulder-length blonde hair, a T-shirt from a rock groups, a blazer, and cowboy boots. Before going to sleep, Flowers usually thinks about God.

“Rough Country” finds him fishing in a remote area outside of the Twin Cities. At a lake resort called the Eagle’s Nest, a place which attracts lesbians who want to get away, a businesswoman is murdered while canoeing. Virgil, being nearby, is asked to investigate. The plot includes a promising singer named Wendy and her all-girl band, her father, a very strange brother called the Deuce, some interested local policemen, the hotel’s owner and its prospective buyer, and a continually frustrated love entanglement.

I don’t like books where key clues aren’t divulged until the end, when the protagonist unspins how the murder happened to astonished listeners (one of whom is usually the bad guy). Some of the older writers, like Chandler and Hammett, tended to do that, and you see it a lot in movies. I don’t think that’s playing fair. The reader should have access to all of the clues that the protagonist has access to, and at the same time. We should be privy to the protagonist’s thoughts as he’s putting things together, not kept in the dark until he lays it all out.

In “Rough Country,” when the murderer was finally revealed and Flowers explains to others how he cracked the case, I realized that Sandford had dropped all of those clues along the way. Everything was there, practically staring me in the face, but I hadn’t been smart enough to put it together. That is playing fair, and playing very cleverly–telling me what happened, but without me realizing it.

As in the other two books, Lucas Davenport makes recurring appearances, usually by phone as Virgil Flowers keeps him posted about how the investigation is going.

While I enjoyed “Rough Country,” I liked the first two books, “Dark of the Moon” and “Heat Lightning,” even better. A fourth Flowers book came out in hardback in September 2010, so I can expect the paperback sometime this summer.

Sandford’s real name is John Camp. He didn’t start writing novels until age 45. Before that, he was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, a job he left after hitting it big as a novel writer. His first book was “Fool’s Run,” the first Kidd book. But then he wrote “Rules of Prey,” which Putnam put on a fast-track because it was so good. The result: the two books were coming out within months of each other. To avoid confusion, Putnam asked him to come up with a pseudonym. He chose his father’s middle name, Sandford.

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After the War for Freedom Comes Less Freedom

I previously reviewed the book “A Renegade History of the United States,” by Thaddeus Russell, who teaches history and American studies at Occidental College. It gives an alternative, sometimes politically-incorrect, view of our history.

He starts with colonial, pre-Revolution America. My image of early America revolves around the aristocrats with their fancy clothes, high morals, and impeccable manners. But Russell focuses on the far more numerous lower classes, which included hordes of immigrants fresh off ships from Europe, forced to do whatever they could to survive in the New World.

It was a free-wheeling place, with few rules, very much an early version of the Wild West. In those days, the mid-1700s, Pennsylvania was the West. Colonial America had laws, but not many. Likewise with morals. It’s not the early America we were taught.

According to Russell:

  • 40% of pregnancies in the late 18th century New England were premarital.
  • Alcohol flowed in abundance, among both men and women.
  • Far more women chose not to marry than at any other time in our history.
  • Men and women often married, and divorced, without anything “legal” from the government.
  • Among the lower classes, people of all ethnicities–including blacks and whites–mixed socially and sexually. Taverns, like brothels, were not segregated, but had all kinds of people drinking, dancing, and sleeping together.
  • One-third of the adult female population was not only unmarried, but living with nonrelatives.
  • In early America, urban women worked in every imaginable profession. Russell says historians estimate that up to half of all shops in early American cities were owned by women (true of 40% of the taverns in Boston during the 1760s). Many such taverns doubled as brothels.

Russell points out that the upper classes barred their “respectable” women from frequenting taverns. But in those days, most women were from the lower classes, and didn’t concern themselves with being respectable.

If American society was ever characterized as “free,” this was it—a time with few rules, moral or otherwise. There was very little government to interfere in anyone’s life.

And then came the Revolution, the war for Freedom.

After the Revolution, the upper classes began passing laws to regulate, if not reform, the immorality they so despised in the lower classes. They didn’t like all the drinking. They didn’t approve of women working—it wasn’t their place. They felt uncomfortable with blacks and whites mixing it up. And they especially didn’t like illicit sex. And so, they began legislating their morality.

The first target was illicit sex. Arrests for prostitution increased dramatically. Prostitutes or simply promiscuous women were confined in asylums until they were deemed “respectable.” Anti-vice organization targeted gambling houses, brothels, dance halls, and lower-class taverns.

In some places, women who bore children out of wedlock were forced to turn them over to the state, which officially labeled them as “illegitimate.” Welfare for unmarried mothers was discontinued, replaced by asylums for illegitimate children.

New medical literature described certain types of sexual activity, even among spouses, as deviant. Women were told they were inherently non-sexual. It became unseemly for women to run businesses and work in a “man’s” job.

Divorce became more difficult, no longer a matter between spouses. Now the government began regulating divorce. An abused wife seeking divorce had to show how attentive, obedient, and sexually faithful she had been while being victimized. A husband was deemed okay, as long as he provided economic support.

People were arrested for interracial sex, which had flourished before the Revolution, according to Russell. Brothel owners were charged with race-mixing. Post-Revolution America became more racially intolerant (England, of course, banned slavery long before we did).

Most of the Founding Fathers felt we should restrict voting and public office to landowners.

The new country became a place of regulated morality, rife with laws. As compared to the free-wheeling, almost-anything-goes life under the British.

In the process, the Founding Fathers, these firebrands for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, actually inflicted less freedom on Americans. Which is, of course, very ironic. Fight a war for freedom, and then become less free.

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I Agree with the Donald

I agree with what Donald Trump wrote:

“We must have universal healthcare. I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one. We should not hear so many stories of families ruined by healthcare expenses….Doctors might be paid less than they are now, as is the case in Canada, but they would be able to treat more patients because of the reduction in their paperwork….

“The Canadian plan also helps Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans. There are fewer medical lawsuits, less loss of labor to sickness, and lower costs to companies paying for the medical care of their employees….We need, as a nation, to reexamine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing.”

He wrote that in 2000 in his book “The America We Deserve.”

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Book: Renegade History of the United States

We like to romanticize the American past. Thaddeus Russell, in his book “A Renegade History of the United States,” (2010) does somewhat the opposite. He shows how our cherished, traditional views of American history may not tell the whole story. This is not a partisan book; there is no political agenda or even any political point of view. He’s just a historian who says, “It didn’t necessarily happen like you were taught.”

I love this kind of stuff. At the same time, I don’t swallow everything Russell writes as the Gospel truth; it’s dangerous, and simple-minded, to believe a writer just because you are predisposed toward their views. But, like a good historian, he documents what he writes. Most of it rings true.

His continuing thesis is that much of what made American great is attributed to the dregs of society—the underclass, the scorned, immigrants, minorities, criminals. The renegades. He brings these people to light in fascinating ways. This contrasts with the traditional narrative that America’s greatness is the fruit of brave and righteous people who fought for freedom and justice. Yes, there were plenty of those people. But he shows how America excels at assimilating renegades, and how they’ve made real contributions to Who We Are.

For instance, Russell contends that prostitutes did as much as anyone to advance women’s rights, and were among the wealthiest—and most liberated–women of the American West. He shows how mobsters advanced gay rights (most early gay bars were backed by the mob). He deals at length with some of the immigrant classes and how they were initially scorned—the Irish, Jews, Italians, and others. He delineates the contributions and culture of rednecks and hippies. He has chapters like this:

  • “How Gangsters made America a Better Place.”
  • “How Juvenile Delinquents Won the Cold War.”
  • “Whores and the Origins of Women’s Liberation.”

The most interest chapter, to me, was the first: “Drunkards, Laggards, Prostitutes, Pirates, and Other Heroes of the American Revolution.” He portrays a Colonial America far different from the genteel, astutely-dressed, well-mannered society we typically envision. Our image relates only to the upper classes, who may have held power, but they were the minority. A whole different kind of society existed for the lower classes, including the thousands and thousands of people pouring off the boats from Europe, trying to make their way in the New World. They were a rowdy, immoral bunch, doing whatever they could to survive in a land without rules.

The most controversial part of the book comes next—chapters about slavery. He paints a very politically incorrect picture, yet one which I’m sure bears much truth. It rings true to me, and fits with other things I’ve read. While he emphasizes that slavery was a horrible thing which needed to end, he portrays the daily plight of slaves as not quite as bad as we usually think.

There were parts of this book I loved, and parts I found not so interesting. But overall, it’s a book I highly recommend if you are intellectually curious enough to let your presuppositions be challenged.

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My Meniere’s Surgery, One Year Later

After my surgery, with Jordi.

Exactly one year ago, Pam and I were at a surgical center in Carmel, Ind., on the north side of Indianapolis. I had surgery to place (brace yourself) an endolymphatic shunt behind my left ear.  The day after tax season ended for Pam, we got it done. The shunt would alleviate the vertigo symptoms of Meniere’s Disease, which I’d been battling since 2004. Now, when pressure builds up in my ear, a precursor to vertigo, fluid—in this case, only a couple drops, from what I understand—is channeled into the shunt.

Dr. Jerry House, an Indianapolis specialist, performed the surgery. I had been going to a well-regarded specialist in Fort Wayne, but he just kept prescribing more and more pills to take, and wouldn’t agree that I definitely had Meniere’s (which had been diagnosed several years before). I finally left his office with yet another prescription which I never filled.

I learned about Dr. House through my family doctor, and set up an appointment. He’s been around this block many times. After hearing my story and running me through a hearing test, he said, “You have Meniere’s Disease. Here are some things we can do for it.” He then presented the various surgical options, starting with the endolymphatic shunt, which was the least invasive and had a high success rate (90% after the first year, 70% after three years). Even though Dr. House is 90 miles away, Pam and I agree that switching to him was the best thing we could have done.

Because Meniere’s is such an erratic thing—it can go away for months at a time—I figured I wouldn’t have a good handle on how the shunt was working until the end of the year or later. So now it’s been a whole year. My evaluation?

It’s been a big, big help. I very rarely experience vertigo, and when I do, it is much less severe than before. I felt the shunt really starting to work around June. Sometimes I could sense a battle of sorts occurring in my head, with the shunt winning. My body would tell me, “You’re heading for a bad episode in a couple hours.” But it would never materialize.

I entered a period where it seemed like Meniere’s was pretty much gone from my life. Then, in July, I had acute pancreatitis, followed by the removal of my gall bladder. In early August I began experiencing some vertigo, and by the end of September it had gotten pretty bad, with vomiting episodes on consecutive days. I went to see Dr. House. He told me that acute pancreatitis messes up lots of body systems. He was surprised I didn’t have vertigo symptoms during my hospital stay. He said to just give it more time, and my body would get back in balance.

And that’s exactly what happened. Within a couple weeks, I was feeling great. Pam and I went on vacation, and I had no symptoms, and very few since then. From October to March, I was pretty much Meniere’s-free.

Ironically, as this anniversary occurs, I’ve been dealing with some vertigo issues. Two weeks ago, I had two nausea and vomiting episodes, which I just have to sleep off. But I hadn’t experienced that since September.

I’ve also had about 4 episodes of what is called a “nystagmus,” which is a brief attack where the eyes jerk back and forth quickly. I’ve had a few other episodes of nystagmus since September, usually traceable to a salty meal or too much intense work at the computer.

Vision is seriously impaired, but it lasts only 20 seconds or so. But the feeling of vertigo—of imbalance and unsteadiness—is minimized. So it’s nothing severe, nothing I can’t live with. But it’s there, a feeling in my head that things aren’t in balance. I’ve been carefully watching my intake of salt and caffeine.

I know it’ll eventually go away. Meniere’s cycles in and out like that. Dr. House told me, the only predictable thing about Meniere’s is that it’s unpredictable. As I write, it’s been a week since the last nystagmus (which occurred as I was waking up last Sunday morning). In a couple weeks, I’ll probably feel normal.

So again—my evaluation of the endolymphatic shunt surgery?

It’s been a huge help to me, and I have zero regrets about undergoing the surgery. I experience a small fraction of the vertigo I experienced before, and when I do, it is minimized, not nearly as severe. I still need to watch the usual Meniere’s triggers—salt, caffeine, and stress (the fourth trigger, alcohol, is a non-issue with this lifelong abstainer). I get to feeling so good that I sometimes get cocky, indulging a bit in salt and caffeine intake—and for the most part, I’ve gotten away with it. But a smart person, which I can be on occasion, would engage in moderation ALL of the time.

My various posts about the surgery:

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Movie: The One Percent (Documentary)

“The One Percent” is about the richest of the rich in America, the 1% of people who control over half of the country’s wealth, and who keep getting richer and richer, helped along by friendly legislators and tax codes. It’s about the gap that exists between everyday Americans and the ultra-rich.

At the beginning of the movie, the young filmmaker is getting ready to crash a high-class croquet game at some country club. I figured this would be a Michael Moore kind of movie, with the documentarian squirming his way into places where he doesn’t belong.

But then we find out–Jamie Johnson, the filmmaker, DOES belong at that croquet club. He’s an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, a grandson of the founder. Which makes it all the more interesting. But it’s a different movie than what I thought it would be.

Johnson spotlights the gap between the ultra-rich and the poor. But only for a bit. The film is more about rich guilt, perhaps his own guilt at being born wealthy.

Johnson interviews some high-powered people: Milton Friedman, Bill Gates Sr., Steve Forbes, Adnan Khashoggi, and other wealthy men. It’s fascinating to hear them reflect on their wealth, and to bare some uncomfortable feelings about it.

But the most interesting interviews are with two children of privilege who have chosen an ordinary life: Nicole Buffet, a granddaughter of Warren Buffet; and a grandson of Oscar Meyer.

Jamie Johnson

Nicole Buffet works as a nanny for a rich family in California–a family which no doubt has far less wealth than the Buffets. She’s also a wannabe artist, and she lives a very normal life. The movie cemented that: by appearing in the movie, Warren Buffet disowned her, totally cut her out of his life. It’s really a sad commentary on Buffet, a man she loves and admires.

The grandson of Oscar Meyer (I can’t remember his name) is even more interesting. He, too, lives an ordinary, middle-class life. When it came time to inherit his fortune, he told his father that he was going to give it all away. He didn’t want it. This is a guy who seemed so grounded, and articulate, that I would love to spend time talking to him.

Johnson also interviews his father, sometimes in the company of their longtime financial advisor (who STRONGLY opposed the movie). His parents are both against their son doing this movie. At the least, they would prefer to be left out of the movie. And yet, they seem like very good people, likable folks, unpretentious. They wanted to be supportive of their son, yet valued the privacy he was intent on invading.

Jamie Johnson's father

There is a great backstory. Jamie Johnson’s father once made a documentary himself, about hunger in South Africa during the apartheid days. The Johnson & Johnson company was mentioned in the film. He got raked over the coals by the company, and the scars of that experience clearly linger. At one time, he was an idealistic young filmmaker; now he lives the life of a wealthy heir.

Toward the end, the father finally agrees to talk on camera with his son, who then asks him what happened years ago with the film he made. He begins telling the story, and just as it’s getting very very interesting, he quits. He doesn’t want to say more. Why? It’s hard to tell, and we’re left with no answers.

This is not the movie I was expecting, a movie about the rich-poor gap. It was somewhat about that, but much more about rich guilt. About the ambivalence some rich people feel about their wealth. It’s not a great movie by any means; I found Jamie Johnson to be a terrible interviewer. I think it was as much about his own rich guilt as anything, and I wonder if his idealism resulted in anything beyond this movie, or was just a fleeting thing.

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