Book Review: The Entrepreneurial Parent” Run Your Business, Raise Your Family, Keep Your Sanity!

by Chandra ClarkeTerence Johnson

The only real criticism I have of this book is that its title may mislead (dissuade) potential readers. The only people I can think of who wouldn’t benefit from this book are those born to fabulous wealth and have no living who beings whose care and welfare is their concern and/or responsibility.

Do you have to be an Entrepreneur to glean some excellent pieces of advice from this book? No.. Anyone who has invested some time or effort in learning a skill, landing a job, attending post secondary school or being certified has invested in their own future. Anyone who has bought a house, signed a long term lease, bought a car or borrowed money has invested in a business (themselves, their families and/or their future.)

Do you have to be a parent to glean some excellent pieces of advice from this book? No. Only the proverbial “human island” is without responsibilities/ties to others. We have parents, pets, colleagues, teammates, and dependents.

Disclosure….I know both authors. Which means that I know the business success story is accurate, their involvement in their community is real and their children are flourishing.

Book Review: The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel

In the foreward the author writes, “I have come to know a number of individuals who wear what the late Hervey M. Cleckley, once
the world’s foremost authority on sociopathy, termed “The Mask of Sanity,” yet at their cores proved incapable of feeling empathy or compassion for their fellow human beings. What follows is an effort to capture as authentically as possible the mind-set of one such miscreant.”

What follows is a deeply disturbing, compelling, well-written examination of the world from the point of view of what can only be described as a well-socialized sociopath. The protagonist is all the more frightening for being, from all outward indications, so well adjusted and both professionally and personally successful.

Balint, is not an outsized evil genius, nor is he a mustache twirling villain. He has no basement filled with grotesque trophies. You don’t wonder why none of his neighbours realized the evil that lived next door. He is a successful doctor who loves his wife and children. And granted his premises his actions seem logical and even obvious.

Fair warning, the book doesn’t “let you off the hook” by having the protagonist act in ways that allow you, the reader, to feel assured that you would not be deceived by Balint were you his colleague. You are left with the disturbing sense that perhaps you too have worked next to, or even collaborated with, a sociopath.

Appel’s writing style is perfectly tuned to the task at hand. I literally didn’t stop reading after what I had intended on being an initial quick glance at the foreward until I started to see double from tiredness and realized I had read the first 189 pages at one clip.

Book Review: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that there is nothing much to say beyond “good,” “bad,” “the type of thing I think you would like”, or “how did this ever get published?”

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that any book review that did it justice would have to be at least as long as the original book.

Jane and Prudence falls into that second category of book.

So, to begin by getting some of the business done before moving on to the meat of the review.

This is an excellent book. I feel that on technical points the writing itself falls short of the standard set by Pym in <em>Excellent Women</em> but it surpasses that book in terms of the nuanced exploration of character and the entwined exploration of the themes of class and religion in England in the 1950s and class, gender and food rationing in England in the 1950s.

Warning the first: For those who have yet to read <em>Excellent Women</em> — one scene in this book containers spoilers about characters in that book.

Warning the second: This is one of those books which should be read without first reading the publisher’s description. For example, that of the Chivers Press edition of the book contains no information that cannot be gleaned without in the first few minutes of reading and mischaracterizes both the major characters, their interactions and what happens to each of them over the course of the story.

Jane and Prudence is set in the post WWII England when much of life still revolves around the problems and irritations that arose from the rationing of food. Rationing began January 8 1940 and continued even after the end of the war. Gradually, over the years, restrictions were dropped on various items such as clothes, chocolates, flour and soap but some items, particularly meat, were still rationed until July 4, 1954. These forced food shortages had the unintended consequence of making people much more consciously aware of how class, gender and social networks impacted who had access to which items.

The importance of meat is signaled early in the story, “people in these days do rather tend to worship meat for its own sake,’ said Jane, as they sat down to supper. ‘When people go abroad for a holiday they seem to bring back with them such a memory of meat.’” [1] (22)

Men, we learn as we read, can not be expected to endure the same dietary hardships as the women around them. For example, Jane and her husband Nicholas are having a meal at a local tea shop.

[

at last Mrs. Crampton emerged from behind the velvet curtain carrying two plates on a tray. She put in front of Jane a plate containing an egg, a rasher of bacon and some fried potatoes cut in fancy shapes, and in front of Nicholas a plate with <em>two</em> eggs and rather more potatoes.

Nicholas exclaimed with pleasure.

‘Oh, a man needs eggs! said Mrs. Crampton, also looking pleased

This insistence on a man’s needs amused Jane. Men needed meat and eggs–well, yes, that might be allowed; but surely not more than women did? Perhaps Mrs. Crampton’s widowhood had something to do with it; possibly she made up for having no man to feed at home by ministering to the needs of those who frequented her café.

Nicholas accepted his two eggs and bacon and the implication that his needs were more important than his wife’s with a certain amount of complacency, Jane thought. But then as a clergyman he had had to get used to accepting flattery and gifts gracefully.. (p. 65)

But, the reader soon learns, Nicholas wasn’t getting extra meat just because he was a clergyman:

Mrs. Crampton now returned and set down before Mr. Oliver a plate laden with roast chicken and all the proper accompaniments. He accepted it with quite as much complacency as Nicholas had accepted his eggs and bacon and began to eat.

Jane turned away, to save his embarrassment. Man needs bird, she thought. Just the very best, that is what man needs. (67)

Jane isn’t the only woman who is consciously (and sardonically) aware that society seemed to feel that it was vitally important that men have their meat:

‘Mr. Driver! Mr. Driver!’ Mrs. Arkright came out on to the lawn calling. ‘Your steak’s ready!”

‘Ah, my steak.’ Fabian smiled. ‘You will excuse me, Miss Morrow?’

‘Of course. I should’t like to keep you from your steak. A man needs meat, as Mrs. Crampton and Mrs. Mayhew are always saying.’ She waved her hand in dismissal.

Fabian hurried away, conscious of his need for meat and of the faintly derisive tone of Miss Morrow’s remark, as if there were something comic about a man needing meat. (73, 74)

Pym is also clear-eyed and politely but firmly aware of the class presumptions that underline the religious habits of the British gentry.

One may wonder when Pym allows the reader into the shallow and self-centered “musings” of Fabian Driver if that sharp eye is trained only a particular type of person–someone who is facile and in the end desires social approval more than the approval of God:

He walked slowly down the main street, past the collection of old and new buildings that lined it. The Parish Church and the vicarage were at the other end of the village. Here he came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity. Even if truth were to be found there. A little further on, though, as was fitting, on the opposite side of the road, was the little tin hut which served as a place of worship for the Roman Catholics. Fabian knew Father Kinsella, a good-looking Irishman, who often came into the bar of the Golden Lion for a drink. He had even though of going to his church once or twice, but somehow it had never come to anything. The makeshift character of the building, the certain discomfort that he would find within, the plaster images in execrable taste, the simplicity of Father Kinsella’s sermons intended only for a congregation of Irish labourers and servant-girls–all these kept him away. The glamour of Rome was obviously not <em>there</em>.(70, 71)

Yet Pym later reveals not dissimilar thoughts in the mind of one of the more sympathetic characters, the sophisticated and educated Prudence

But then she imagined herself sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair after a day’s work, listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself. Better, surely, to go along Farm Street and be instructed by a calm pale Jesuit who would know the answers to all one’s doubts. Then, in the street where she did her shopping there was the Chapel, with a notice outside which said: ALL WELCOME. The minister, the Rev. Bernard Tabb, had the letters B.D.; B.Sc. after his name. The fact that he was a Bachelor of Science might give particular authority to his sermons, Prudence always felt; he might quite possibly know <em>all</em> the answers, grapple boldly with doubt and overcome it because he knew the best and worst of both worlds. He might even tackle evolution and the atomic bomb and make sense of it all. But of course, she thought, echoing Fabian’s sentiments as he walked in the village one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Not even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on back of the <em>New Statesman</em>, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.(284,285)

Reading Pym makes this reader wonder if the petty and long lasting nature of the privations after the Second World War played a major role in breaking down (some) of the class structure and gender relations in England. People learned new skills during the war and they called on their bravery to withstand the dangers and the rigours of that time. After the war people were expected to return to their old jobs and their old ways of life as if they had not learned or experienced anything. Women who had held down jobs were expected to get married and settle done. But there weren’t enough men around to marry even if the women wanted to do so. And the pettiness of the privations without actual physical danger to ameliorate their sting made people edgy and more likely to be critical and cynical.

The peace, even more than the war, was undermining in the old England much more than threats from foreign country. Men had gone off to fight a war to preserve the England in which they had grown up leaving behind women who were called to do things they never would have done in that old England. England was not conquered but nonetheless the old England was no longer there to return to and many of the women, if not the men, were questioning if they wanted to go back to the way things were before:

[1] All quotations are from Pym, Barbara (1986:1953) <em>Jane and Prudence</em>. Bath, UK: Chivers Press

Book Review: Lucia’s Progress (aka The Worshipful Lucia)

Lucia’s Progress (or The Worshipful Lucia) by E F Benson (1935)

Over the last several days I have been browsing through the introductions to a number of the E. F. Benson books that I own and found myself disagreeing for a number a reasons with the critical pronouncements in some of them.

Warning: spoilers abound in the discussion below. If the reader has not already read all of the Mapp and Lucia books information about was has (or will have) happened to the characters will leak out from among the sentences. As I great fan of all of the books in the series I advise that those who have not already read them do so. Of this book I can say without spoiling anything that it rated 4 stars the first time I read it, 4-1/2 the second and that the spoiler-filed discussion below explains why I now give it 5 stars.

In his introduction to E. F. Benson’s An Autumn Sowing John Julius Norwich writes of Benson:

despite the liveliness of his style and the deadly accuracy of his social satire, the vast majority of his work is now forgotten; he lives on, above all, in the ‘Lucia’ series — of which Queen Lucia and Lucia in London are the best[1]

By what criteria I wonder does Mr. Norwich considers those two novels the best of the ‘Lucia’ series? The answer to that question is implied later in the same sentence when he refers to those who realize who Dodo of the ‘Dodo’ book was based on as the “true cognoscenti.” For those who read Benson’s books in order to decode what real life person each character might be based on and thus what snide and arch things Benson might have been saying about some society figure–then I would agree Lucia in London is, without doubt, the best of the Lucia books. However if one reads Benson for his insight into the realities of the lives of the (financially, socially and culturally) declining gentry the latter books in the Lucia series are far more rewarding.

On first reading The Worshipful Lucia is just another charming series of events and episodes in the ongoing battle for the social supremacy of Tilling between Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Mrs. Mapp-Flint. On repeated readings I have found the book to be subtle and light-handed examination of the economic and social fluctuations of the English gentry in the last decade before the beginning of the Second World War.

Those fluctuations can be traced by noting the successes and failures of three women: Lucia, Elizabeth Mapp and Dame Catherine Winterglas. Lucia (Mrs. Emmeline Lucas) was one of the principal characters of Benson’s earlier books Queen Lucia, Lucia in London and Mapp and Lucia. Elizabeth Mapp Rating: 5 stars


[1] Benson, E. An autumn sowing. London: Hogarth Press, 1988.

Translating genius

One of the challenges of the reader who wishes to read a book written in a language they themselves cannot read is to select the best translation. Readers may fall back on the advice of reviewers or use the literary reputation of a proxy, for example an editor or series such as “Penguin Classics.”Of course the choice challenge presupposes that the reader has access to more than one translation. It also suggests that there is a single “best” translation for all readers. In many cases neither is true.

Kit Whitfield‘s excellent series of deconstructions / analyses of the first sentences of famous and notable books has fostered in me the habit of thinking of “first sentences” as I reshelve my books. So, earlier today I noticed my copies of Eugénie Grandet as I filed some of my Austens away, and pulled them out to consider whether I should nominate the first sentence of that book for analysis. But which first sentence I wondered, the English or the French. The English first sentence didn’t completely evoke the French book that I remembered. So I sat down and read the first several pages in French and then in the English of more than one translation. All of which made me think about the problem of translations. We talk about reading The Iliad or The Aeneid or The Bible or Beowulf but few of us are actually reading the words originally written. We are experiencing these works of genius through the eyes and minds of translators. So we do not really have, as readers, an opinion about any of those works–we have an opinion of those works as mediated by those who translated them.

Look, for example, at the first several hundred words of Eugénie Grandet:

Note #1: for those who don’t read French–just skim down to the English translations. The point I am making in this piece does not require knowledge of that language.

Note #2: in French there are several more sentences before the first paragraph ends. The different font colours indicate the places in the text translators added paragraph breaks.

This is how Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet begins:

Il se trouve dans certaines provinces des maisons dont la vue inspire une mélancolie égale à celle que provoquent les cloîtres les plus sombres, les landes les plus ternes ou les ruines les plus tristes. Peut-être y a-t-il à la fois dans ces maisons et le silence du cloître et l’aridité des landes et les ossements des ruines. La vie et le mouvement y sont si tranquilles qu’un étranger les croirait inhabitées, s’il ne rencontrait tout à coup le regard pâle et froid d’une personne immobile dont la figure à demi monastique dépasse l’appui de la croisée, au bruit d’un pas inconnu. Ces principes de mélancolie existent dans la physionomie d’un logis situé à Saumur, au bout de la rue montueuse qui mène au château, par le haut de la ville. Cette rue, maintenant peu fréquentée, chaude en été, froide en hiver, obscure en quelques endroits, est remarquable par la sonorité de son petit pavé caillouteux, toujours propre et sec, par l’étroitesse de sa voie tortueuse, par la paix de ses maisons qui appartiennent à la vieille ville, et que dominent les remparts. Des habitations trois fois séculaires y sont encore solides quoique construites en bois, et leurs divers aspects contribuent à l’originalité qui recommande cette partie de Saumur à l’attention des antiquaires et des artistes. Il est difficile de passer devant ces maisons, sans admirer les énormes madriers dont les bouts sont taillés en figures bizarres et qui couronnent d’un bas-relief noir le rez-de-chaussée de la plupart d’entre elles. Ici, des pièces de bois transversales sont couvertes en ardoises et dessinent des lignes bleues sur les frêles murailles d’un logis terminé par un toit en colombage que les ans ont fait plier, dont les bardeaux pourris ont été tordus par l’action alternative de la pluie et du soleil. Là se présentent des appuis de fenêtre usés, noircis, dont les délicates sculptures se voient à peine, et qui semblent trop légers pour le pot d’argile brune d’où s’élancent les oeillets ou les rosiers d’une pauvre ouvrière. Plus loin, c’est des portes garnies de clous énormes où le génie de nos ancêtres a tracé des hiéroglyphes domestiques dont le sens ne se retrouvera jamais. Tantôt un protestant y a signé sa foi, tantôt un ligueur y a maudit Henri IV.[1]

Here are the first two paragraphs of Marion Ayton Crawford’s Penguin Classic translation[2] of the same book:

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weights as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land. These houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins. Life makes so little stir in them that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless gaze of some motionless human being, who face, austere as a monk’s, peers from above the window-sill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.

One particular house front in Saumur possesses all these gloomy characteristics. It stands at the end of the hilly street leading to the castle, in the upper part of the town. This street, which is little used nowadays, is hot in the summer, cold in winter, and in some places dark and overshadowed. One’s footsteps ring curiously loudly on its flinty cobble-stones, which are always clean and dry; and its narrowness and crookedness and the silence of its houses, which form part of the old town and are looked down upon by the ramparts, make an unusual impression on the mind. There are houses there which were built three hundred years ago, and built of wood, yet are still sound. Each has a character of its own, and their diversity contributes to the essential strangess of the place, which attracts antiquaries and artists to this quarter of Saumur.

Here is how Katharine Prescott Wormeley’s translation[3] begins:

There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.

In each case the translator was faced with the same task. They needed not to translate Balzac’s original word for word but meaning for meaning and theme for theme. They needed to use words to paint the picture that Balzac wanted his readers to have of that town and that house. Balzac’s style was inextricable from his themes. Yet the translator is also faced with the task of translating the original book so that it is accessible and understandable to readers who come from a different literary tradition. Such a reader might respond quite differently to the paragraph and sentence structure of the original that would have someone from the original audience. The (French) opening of the book is an extended word picture of a time and place. The sound of the language carries part of the load of “setting the scene.” Reading the French out loud carries quite a different feeling than reading the English out loud.

Each translator chose to break up the original long, uninterrupted opening, into smaller paragraphs. I don’t know to what degree the existence of earlier translations affected the two quoted above, however both chose to insert paragraph breaks at the same points in the text. I have read other translations that inserted them at different points.

To get a sense of just how difficult it is to pick the “best” translation consider the following. I originally read Eugénie Grandet in French. I was looking for an English “version” more for annotations and footnotes than for a translation of the words since I was sure that I was missing some elements of the book that readers of Balzac’s time would have appreciated. I agree that for the modern reader, especially for the modern reader brought up within the styles dominant in the English reading world, stylistic changes may make the book more readable. However, in my opinion, none of the translators quite nails that opening sentence. None of them are able to translate Balzac’s opening into one that would repay the type of attention Kit Whitfield brings to the opening sentences she has analyzed.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of translators in general or these translators in particular. Perhaps Balzac’s opening sentence could only be translated into English by Balzac himself–if he was fluent in the language. Perhaps the particular quality of that sentence cannot be duplicated in the English language. I don’t know. I do know that the more I grapple with that single sentence the greater my admiration and respect for translators.

Note #3: One of the wonderful bonuses of Kindle/Amazon ebooks is that one is usually offered the option to download a sample of the book, generally the first chapter. This allows readers the opportunity to browse books much as one would in a book store or library. One doesn’t need to own a Kindle to do this. The “Kindle for your computers” software is available for free. The sample chapter is downloaded to your computer and you can peruse it at your leisure. I looked for an number of translations of Balzac’s books before I wrote this piece and ended up buying my third copy of the book.


[1] Eugénie Grandet is in the public domain. The French text in this article is from the version on the Gutenberg.org website.

[2] Balzac, H. Eugénie Grandet. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955.

[3] Also available on Project Gutenberg.

Book Review: Letter of Intent

Letter of Intent by Ursula Curtiss (1971)

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

Letter of Intent is a difficult book to rate, an interesting book to read and one which describes a world as different from our own as many one finds in science fiction or fantasy. If you are interested in a book about a woman, a book told from the point of view of a woman, a book that celebrates a woman\’s ambition to achieve comfort and status, or a book that relates, without any censoriousness, a woman who values men only for their instrumental utility then you will find this a compelling read.

Unfortunately after the reader follows the protagonist across years, the continent and several classes the ending is abrupt and in the opinion of this reader, unsatisfying.


Warning, past here there be spoilers.

From the time Celia (whose full last name the reader never learns) arrives cold, wet and with a sketchy grasp of English, at the Stevenson’s to begin work as their new maid she begins to reshape herself. Celia telescopes her last name to Brett and leaves behind one employer after another as she works herself up the social ladder. She seldom finds men as useful or interesting as women for it is the women who have the skills she wishes to master (how to organize a dinner party, how to have enough food and liquor without spending unnecessarily, how to dress properly.)

Curtiss makes Celia believable. She has strengths (and weaknesses) that are believable of someone who had come from that particular place in American life. She leaves behind her a trail of broken lives and even deaths and yet she never actively works to harm anyone. She merely acts only and always in her own best interests.

When I first read this book (not long after it was first published in 1971) it stood out because it was a book about a woman who had no interest in men and yet, on the surface, was everything people expected of a woman. She cooked, she cleaned, she sewed, she dusted, she learned how to entertain, she learned how to be an interesting companion to the men she found useful. But she had no more real interest in any man than she had in a good coat. They were enjoyable as long as they fulfilled their function and would be discarded when they no longer did so.

On my most recent rereading of the book I also realized that Celia’s is a story that would have to be told very differently today. Celia is able to escape the home she grew up in, change her name and discard former acquaintances as she moves up through East Coast society and then West Coast society in a way that no one could do now without paying for new paperwork and employing experts to build a new identity. Letter of Intent is written in a world where no one asks for anyone else’s Social Security Card, where most transactions were still in cash, where you could open a bank account with almost no documentation and where by moving to a new town one could establish a new life.

Letter of Intent is also a book that passes the Bechdel test on the first page and never looks back. It is not a book that exudes conscious feminism but it is, in may ways, the most feminist of books. It is a book set in a world of women, that proceeds from the assumption that woman are a likely as smart, silly, slow, weak, strong as men. It is a book that stands back and looks with cold clarity on the ways and means through which women can fulfill their ambitions and until the very last page, it never suggest that a rational person would respond in any other way.

22 years ago: A massacre in Montréal

Late in the afternoon of December 6 1989 the man, armed with a rifle and a knife, walked into one of the classrooms at the École Polytechnique engineering school (Université de Montréal.)[1] He ordered the (approximately forty to forty-five) men to one side of the room and the nine women to the other. When the students did not immediately respond to his demand he fired a shot into the ceiling. Then he ordered the men to leave the room. The man told the remaining women that they were \”une gang de féministes\” and said \”J\’haïs les féministes [I hate feminists].\”

The man then shot all nine of the women, six fatally. Exiting the classroom the man went up and down the halls of the École Polytechnique demanding \”I want women.\” He went in and out of rooms, he went into the cafeteria and he shot one woman through the closed and locked door of her office. When the man heard one of the women he had shot crying for help he returned to where she was lying took out his knife and stabbed her to death.

The man injured ten women, four men and killed fourteen women.

Finally, the man shot himself

The initial response of the Canadian public was horror and anger. Why did this happen, people asked. And others answered, Why are you so surprised that something like this finally happened? The Montréal massacre (as the event became known) seemed emblematic to many of the endemic levels of misogyny in much of Canadian life. Women came forward with stories of the verbal (and sometimes physical) brutality in Canadian universities in general and engineering schools in particular.

The man had left behind him notes and letters that indicated that he believed that the only reason he had not been accepted into engineering school was because open slots were being taken by women. Yet even with the statements he made and the writings he left behind there was a backlash against seeing the man\’s actions as anti-feminist. Some who resisted that interpretation looked for some clue in the man\’s childhood. Others framed any emphasis on societal misogyny as anti-male. Barbara Frum (famous in her own right as a television journalist in Canada and, yes, the mother of that David Frum) claimed that to say that the man\’s actions were a hate crime was to \”diminish\” their horror. Yes, Barbara Frum argued that it would diminish the death of fourteen women if we were to acknowledge that they had died because they were women.

The following summer I sat in a science class at a different university and listened to the (male) Professor apologize that both his Teaching Assistants were women \”they make us give places to women these days\” he explained. I can\’t remember the rest of the lecture that day. I stayed after class and approached the Professor, \”don\’t you think it is a bad idea to complain about being forced to give assistantships to women after what happened in Montréal last year?\” I asked. \”Typical woman,\” he answered, \”over reacting to everything.\”

As I left the classroom I noticed another student had also remained behind–a sad looking woman. We made eye contact as I passed her, \”thank you,\” she said, \”I don\’t think you were over reacting at all.\”

In memory of my fourteen sisters:

  • Annie St-Arneault
  • Annie Turcotte
  • Anne-Marie Edward
  • Anne-Marie Lemay
  • Barbara Daigneault
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz
  • Geneviève Bergeron
  • Hélène Colgan
  • Maryse Laganière
  • Maryse Leclair
  • Maud Haviernick
  • Michèle Richard
  • Nathalie Croteau
  • Sonia Pelletier

[1] For those who don\’t know the details of the Montréal Massacre Wikipedia is a good place to start.&#8617

Maureen Dowd almost "gets it" – but not quite

In her New York Times op-ed column of December 3 2011, Out of Africa and Into Iowa, Maureen Dowd gets off some great lines and comes close to a moment of political insight before backing away from such dangerous territory.

I am anything but a fan of Newt Gingrich but neither am I impressed with an argument against him that begins with ad hominem attacks.

Newt Gingrich\’s mind is in love with itself

proclaims Dowd as the first line of the piece. Well yes, I suppose that is an accurate statement to say that Gingrich thinks well of his intellectual capabilities. But Dowd should know, as someone who has spent so many years around politicians and politics, that the same statement can be made of a significant percentage of those who run for office (and perhaps an even larger percentage of those who succeed in that endeavor.) Unless people are engaged in politics for purely venal reasons they basically have to believe that their abilities / qualities are, in at least one crucial area, superior to those of their opponents. Even the venal candidates must believe they are better at something (even if is just the belief that they are better at stealing or lying and getting away with it) than than those they are running against.

So, Dowd\’s catchy opening line really reduces to the simple statement, \”Gingrich thinks he is smart,\” or \”Gingrich thinks he is clever\” to which the response of this reader is \”yes, so what? In what way does that make he different from hundreds of other people in Washington today?\”

Dowd goes on to accuse Gingrich of being a \”promiscuous\” thinker without making it clear exactly what a \”promiscuous\” thinker might be. She states he is not a \”serious\” thinker, again without clarifying exactly how one recognizes the seriousness of another\’s thoughts. Perhaps she means he believes things that she doesn\’t take seriously. Perhaps she means that he doesn\’t spend his time talking about the things she thinks a serious person should talk about.

These same charges are made by pundits of the right about politicians on the left and pundits of left about politicians on the right. They have no essential substantive critical value.

Gingrich, Dowd goes on to tell us, \”plays air guitar with ideas\”–another charge that feels witty and cutting and yet reduces to vague meaningless when one examines it closely.

Dowd does attack Gingrich on more specific matters when she discusses his 1971 Ph.D. thesis “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.” It isn\’t clear from this op-ed whether Dowd herself has read the entire thesis or is responding to it based posts and comments on blogs. Gingrich wrote that thesis forty years ago and it would not be surprising to find that his opinions and conclusions may have evolved over the intervening time. The thesis was written by an academic who had never held a serious electoral or administrative position. It would be interesting to read the thesis in its entirety and then sit down with the former Speaker and ask him just that \”have your opinions or conclusions changed now that you have held high political office?\” I won\’t get a chance to do that and in the middle of campaigning season he would be foolish to offer anyone that opportunity.

What Dowd argues is that the thesis established Gingrich as an anti-anti-colonist and given his statements in the intervening years nothing has happened to suggest he has changed his opinions on colonialism in Africa. It is at this point that she makes the pithy charge

He’s Belgium. The poor are Congo.

And this is where Dowd demonstrates that she doesn\’t really get it.

Gingrich isn\’t Belgium, although he may be analogized as a senior colonial administrator. He is wealthy but he is not a plutocrat. He is a well paid and powerful functionary but he is not the locus of power. The 0.1% of are Belgium.

And while the poor are Congo so are the middle class and the working class and everyone but the 0.1% Congo. The richest of the rich are treating Americans and American resources as King Leopold treated the resources of the Congo.

Dowd, like so many American political pundits is being distracted by the show of partisan campaigning from even looking to see whose hands are actually on the levers of power.

100 Years ago today: "I could not work any harder than I had been doing."

One hundred years ago Mrs. Anna Godfrey collapsed on a bench in a \”fashionable\” part of Chicago. Her hair was cut short and she was wearing men\’s clothes and so was charged with \”masquerading in male attire.\” Mrs. Godfrey explained to the judge that she had dressed as a man and set out on a ten mile walk in order to get a job as a farm laborer. Her husband was bed ridden and she and her oldest boy each were able to bring home only a few dollars a week to support the family of six. Mrs. Godfrey dreamed of giving her four children a better place to live than than their home on a alley. As reported in The Tacoma Times (December 2, page 8)

Judge J. R. Caverly….discharged her. \”You are a brave woman,\” he said, \”and deserve praise rather than punishment for your act.\”

but the only relief he could offer was

to take her children away from her and place them in a home

an offer Mrs. Godfrey turned down.

\”No,\” she replied, \”I will go back to the factory, where I worked the last four years, or I will get work as a scrub-woman, but I want to keep my babies in our own home….I told my husband that something would have to be done. I decided to get a job on a truck farm, thinking that if I did well I could bring the family out and that would be better for the children than to stay on the alley. I didn\’t have a cent of money, so I started out to walk. For ten miles I went along, resting when my feet got sore and tired, and then starting out again.
   \”My husband thought that farm work would be too hard for me but I told him that 1 could not work any harder than I had been doing.\”

I hope Mrs Godfey was able to keep her babies. I hope she was able to make life better for her children. I hope that life got easier for her and not harder as the years passed. Take a look at this picture of Mrs. Anna Godfey in The day book (Chicago, Illinois. December 2, page 9) and remember her face every time a politician tells you that anyone can get ahead in America if only they are willing to work hard because many Americans, like Mrs. Godfrey, couldn\’t work any harder than they have been doing.

Book Review: Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers (1931)

In short:

  • I don’t care what happens to these people.[1]
  • This isn’t a novel it’s a cross between a railroad time schedule and a crossword puzzle.
  • That isn’t Lord Peter Wimsey–he’s a generic wealthy, privileged member of the upper class who is given unreasonable amounts of access and information by local legal authorities.

Rating: 1-1/2 stars


Warning, past here there be spoilers.

It is difficult to know where to start with “what bothered me” about this book. Instead of just not caring what happened to these people (which might result in me simply not finishing the book) I came to be actively annoyed and resentful of the characters and thus, of course, the author.

First, when last the reader encountered Lord Peter Wimsey (Strong Poison) he had just had what seemed, to readers of the time, a life altering experience. He had finely met a woman (Harriet Vane) he could truly love, proved to the world (and more importantly the English justice system) that she was not guilty of having poisoned her ex-lover, and had his marriage proposal to her turned down. The reader might deduce that a wise man would give Miss Vane some time to recover emotionally from her recent travails and an even wiser man might be endeavouring to solve the problem of removing the shadow of King Cophetua from his sudden attraction to Vane. A few sentences from Sayers would have sufficed to suggest to those who had read the most recently published to Wimsey’s exploits that he has retreated to the artistic colony on Galloway in order to recover from recent events. In fact that ploy (man removing himself from his recent haunts to avoid the pain of love lost) was an extremely common one in British fiction at the time. Alternatively Sayers could have indicated in the text that the events of this book preceded those in Strong Poison.

Second, Wimsey was not a character created new for this book. The reader has had a chance to learn how he entertains himself, what things he finds interesting, what people he likes to be around and what he does with his time when he isn’t solving mysteries. The Wimsey in this book is hardly recognizable as the same man. I prefer to believe that the person styling himself “Wimsey” is actually a young male relative who shares the same first name and enjoys being taken for his more famous kinsman.

Third, the Bunter of this book is not the Bunter of the previous Wimsey books. Nor is he well used. Much of the story surrounds issues of alibis and no one is better situated to confirm (or explode) an alibi than a domestic servant. Yet, with a few exceptions, Bunter’s “way with” female servants is not employed. Further, Bunter’s numerous skills with photography and chemical analyses are not well used either. I prefer to believe that “Lord Peter” has calls to his servant “Bunter” rather his real name as part of the masquerade.

Fourth, I very much dislike the use of the ploy in which the murderer when faced with what the police say is evidence just rolls over and tells the entire story. This is a way for the author to avoid the issue of whether the charges (or the evidence) would have stood up in a court of law. In one of the early Dalgliesh novels P. D. James’ detective is left, near the end of the book, sure that a particular character had committed a crime although he never presses charges. That character later writes to him: They [referring to his superiors] wouldn’t believe you but you were right[2]. Dalgliesh’s thoughts when he read the letter?

She was wrong, he thought. They hadn’t disbelieved him, they had just demanded, reasonably enough, that he find some proof. He had none, either at the time or later, although he had pursued the case as it it were a personal vendetta, hating himself and her. And she had admitted nothing; not for one moment had she been in any danger of panicking. (297-8)

Fifth, the class relationships/privilege that underlie and intertwine with the plot of the book make the “murderer told all” ploy both necessary and extremely unlikely.

  • It was necessary because throughout the novel the police treat members of the gentry with kid gloves. A murder was committed and a very limited number of people (given the theory of the crime) could have done the deed. The police have reason to believe that the murder accidentally took an object from the scene of the crime. Yet at no point are the only individuals that the police consider likely suspects asked to go to the police station, their homes are not searched and (more important to the theory of the crime) neither is their painting equipment searched. I think that Sayer’s herself was aware of that problem and that was one of the reasons that she waited so long to share with the reader what object Wimsey realized was missing even though he shares that information with the police.
  • It was extremely unlikely because the accused man was a member of a class used to being treated with kid gloves by the police. His first response would probably have been to contact the family solicitor. And the family solicitor would have pointed out that there was a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation of the crime.

Sixth, a good lawyer could make a very reasonable case that Lord Peter Wimsey was, if not the actual murderer, an accessory to the crime.

  1. Wimsy had opportunity to remove the missing tube of paint himself from the scene of the crime. Neither the Sergeant nor the Constable were with him as he searched the deceased’s effects. The solicitor might suggest to the police that Wimsey had in fact killed Campbell and now realized that he had a chance to muddy the waters by throwing suspicion on others. Since the police at the scene did not search Wimsey before he left there is no way to prove that he did not exit the premises with the tube of paint in his pocket. He would have no worry that Bunter (or faux-Bunter) would report any smears of white paint that were later left in his pocket.
  2. Wimsey had an opportunity, during his first visit to Ferguson’s place to plant Campbell’s tube of paint in Ferguson’s kit.
  3. We have only Wimsey’s word for it that he cannot paint well. For someone who “doesn’t paint” he knows a lot about painting. And he did, after all, chose to spend his vacation among painters.
  4. How many “lucky breaks” are we to accept in order for Ferguson to have made it to Glasgow in the way Wimsey “proved.” Given how extremely important the creation of his alibi was how likely was it that he wouldn’t notice that his watch had stopped? How likely was it when Ferguson on his bicycle missed the train that a car would have driven by at just the right moment so that he could hold onto the back and make it, with his bike, to the next station in time to catch the train? How likely is it that the driver of the car would have not noticed that he was trailing a bike behind him? How likely was it that not a single person would have noticed the car trailing a bike behind it? How likely was it that a man who had never been involved in crime would have been so successful at forging his train ticket and how likely that the forgery was flawed “just enough” to be noticeable when Wimsey needed it to be noticed?

If Ferguson had just stayed silent I doubt the police would have pressed charges. As for all the details Ferguson supposedly supplied? Well, we only have Sayers’ word for them don’t we?

Me, I have an alternative theory of the crime. Campbell was about to expose the faux “Lord Peter,” they struggled and “Lord Peter” accidentally killed him (much as Ferguson supposedly did.) “Wimsey” and the faux “Bunter” work together to stage Campbell’s accident but when “Wimsey” realized that the police would probably work out that Campbell had died hours before the apparent accident he began to remove and plant evidence that will muddy the investigation. After “Wimsey” and “Bunter” have checked out all the alibis of the six suspects they work together to incriminate Ferguson. The careful reader with notice that “Bunter” is for the most part absent from the later portion of the story as he worked in the background to lay down all the clues for the police to follow.
Why didn’t Ferguson fight harder? Chief Inspector Parker mentioned to his wife (the sister of the real Lord Peter) that her brother was involved in investigating a crime in Galloway. Lady Mary knowing where her brother actually is informs her rather stodgy elder brother. The faux Lord Peter is the black sheep in the family and they are used to paying people off to cover up for his various escapades. Ferguson is offered a very substantial “gift” in return to agreeing to claim guilt. A few words to the wise and the judge in Scotland was happy to lead the jury to return a sentence of manslaughter with a recommendation of mercy. And faux “Wimsey” and faux “Bunter” are on their way to the colonies on the next available ship.


[1] The eight deadly words in any book review. As per Wikipedia: “The phrase was coined by Dorothy J. Heydt in a June 11, 1991, Usenet posting to rec.arts.sf-lovers in reference to The Copper Crown, a novel by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison:

[2] James, P. Shroud for a nightingale. London: Sphere, 1977.