Thursday, November 25, 2010

Grandfather and the Raven and The Old Man and the Monkey for the Holiday Season

The holiday season is a time of remembrance, celebration and giving thanks. What is there that you can celebrate and give thanks for? A person? A word? A wink? A smile? A tiny winter flower? Or were you at the right place and time when the sun set behind nearby mountains as a big golden moon rose over the river? Whatever it is, celebrate it and be thankful for its being there. Then give the gift of thanks to someone else. It doesn't have to be big, it just has to be given with kindness and grace.

I am a nut when it comes to books, especially ones that make me think, laugh, cry (sometimes at the same time), feel warm, puzzle over and return to. The Old Man and the Monkey and Grandfather and the Raven are two such books. I go back to them again and again to enjoy the warm and gentle humor between the two grandfathers and their wives … the goofy quarrels  grandfather and the raven have over the silliest things (according to grandmother) … the old monkey’s quiet grace … and the little girl who is convinced that he is really a hairy little old man and not a monkey at all, especially when, hearing her say that to her mother, he turns toward her and gives her a wink.

Grandfather and the Raven and The Old Man and the Monkey are the kind of books I enjoy receiving and giving as gifts. To sample them, go to the BookBuzzr widget on the right side of your screen, click “Read Free Sample”, and read. If you like what you read, click the “Buy Now” button and order one or more copies, one for yourself plus copies for friends and family this Holiday Season. You'll enjoy the books, and they will thank you for giving them a gift they will enjoy again and again throughout the years.

Be sure and pick up a copy before you leave … and give a copy to a friend.

Best wishes for your Holiday Season,
George Polley

Monday, November 22, 2010

An enchanting tale well told

Catherine Condie's tale of three young people and their time travel adventure from the rural vicar's house at Claybridge, England back in time to World War II and back again using a local potter's wheel as entry point to the past. It's all to save their house from being torn down by a greedy speculator who wants to turn the property into a housing development. But Connie and her brother Charlie Mouse and an accidental traveler who adds a bit of mystery to this enchanting adventure. Very well-written.

Available both in paperback and kindle editions from, and (paperback edition).

5 Stars

Sunday, November 14, 2010

James Lee Burke and Swan Peak, a Postscript

As I said in my review of Swan Peak, I like James Lee Burke's Robicheaux novels, well enough to have read sixteen of them -- I missed Pegasus Descending  (2006) and haven't yet bought his newest one The Glass Rainbow (2010) -- yet at the same time, I've found them disturbing and, especially in Swan Peak downright annoying.

The disturbing part has to do with the violence done against defenseless people by mafia mobsters, crooked politicians and wealthy elites who treat poor folks and African Americans with brutal contempt. New Orleans and Louisiana have a history of mafia control, deplorable race relations, and wonderful music and cuisine. Fascinating places that, having read the  Robicheaux novels, I've left off my travel itinerary.

The annoying part has to do with Cletus (Clete) Purcell, Robicheaux's long time partner and friend. Purcell is loyal, haunted by his upbringing and his combat experiences in Nam, quick-tempered, violent, needy, vulnerable and alcoholic. He gets into and out of jams, falls in lust with unlikely people like the FBI agent in Swan Peak, and deals with his emotional pain and loneliness by hammering back another drink with a beer chaser. Life around the poor sod just is not very pleasant, and isn't going to be as long as he continues drinking.

Clete Purcell is a certified, died-in-the-wool alcoholic who isn't going to change and isn't interested in Dave's urging him to quit drinking (alcoholics call it interfering). Watching him is like watching an out-of-control eighteen wheeler careening down a mountain road with a child at the wheel. You know he's going to crash but you don't know just when, and hope to Hell no one's in the way when he does.

What I know about alcoholics, from working with them for many years and from having spent twelve years as a practicing alcoholic myself, is that being in a relationship with one, be it as friend, lover or spouse, can be and usually is a painful experience. And Clete Purcell is a classic alcoholic. What makes matters worse is that Dave got sober several novels ago, attends AA, is happily married to Molly, and tries to help his buddy. 

There are few things as annoying to a still practicing alcoholic than having his old drinking buddy get sober because "sober" means change, Clete doesn't know how to deal with the change, and the level of discomfort (and Clete's epic loneliness) continue to rise until Clete disappears over the hill with still another woman who will "rescue" him. Which Dave and Molly know will have the same outcome as all the others have done ... and Clete will continue the same dance he has danced since the early days.

What happens with Clete in The Glass Rainbow? I won't know until I read it. At least I now know why I got so bloody annoyed with both him and Dave, and have from the beginning. Sober, Clete's sort of a lovable old cuss.

James Lee Burke also has a heart for the working stiff, the downtrodden and forgotten, and a deep sense of social justice. I like that in a writer.

The Dave Robicheaux novels are:

  1. The Neon Rain (1987)
  2. Heaven's Prisoners (1988)
  3. Black Cherry Blues (1989)
  4. A Morning for Flamingos (1990)
  5. A Stained White Radiance (1992)
  6. In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)
  7. Dixie City Jam (1994)
  8. Burning Angel (1995)
  9. Cadillac Jukebox (1996)
  10. Sunset Limited (1998)
  11. Purple Cane Road (2000)
  12. Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002)
  13. Last Car to Elysian Fields (2003)
  14. Crusader's Cross (2005)
  15. Pegasus Descending (2006)
  16. The Tin Roof Blowdown (2007)
  17. Swan Peak (2008)
  18. The Glass Rainbow (2010)
Burke has also written four Billy Bob Holland novels -- Cimarron Rose (1997), Heartwood (1999), Bitterroot (2001) and In the Moon of Red Ponies (2004); two Hackberry Holland novels -- Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971) and Rain Gods (2009); five other novels -- Half of Paradise (1965), Two for Texas (1982), The Lost Get-Back Boogie (1986), To The Bright and Shining Sun, (1995), and White Doves at Morning (2002); and two short story anthologies -- The Convict (1985) and Jesus Out to Sea (2007).

A bit of trivia about James Lee Burke is that he has staying power. He was born on December 5, 1936. Shows that when you're good, you can last a long while.

Sam Harris and The Moral Landscape

Many people, especially in the United States, will read "How science can determine human values" and recoil in horror at the word determine, especially when it is penned by someone considered an "enemy" of religion. "Only God", they will say, "determines what moral values are. Scientists should stick to science and leave moral values alone." My suggestion is that, if you are one such person, read on. Science has more to contribute to the moral landscape than you think.

"Science has long been in the value business," Harris writes on pages 143 and 144 of the paperback edition. "Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, scientific validity is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; rather, scientific validity is the result of scientists making their best efforts to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. This is how norms of rational thought are made effective... The answer to the question 'What should I believe, and why should lI believe it?' is generally a scientific one" backed up by theory and evidence that is both verifiable and verified.

"[Q]uestions about values -- about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose -- are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values... translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc... The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human value" (pages 1 & 2). What is right and wrong and what is good and evil can now, because of the advances in neuroscience, be rooted in growing evidence about how the human brain works.

Over 50% of people living in the U.S. will read this and reject it as "ungodly" heresy. It is not. Though Harris is certainly no friend of religion and faith-based thinking, what he has to say on the subject of the moral landscape show that the value of moral truths like "do to others what you want them to do to you", "treat your neighbor as yourself" and "love one another" are linked to a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience that demonstrates that what is moral and immoral "relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures" (pages 32, 33).

My work as a mental health professional supports the notion that some things contribute to well-being and flourishing and some things do not. I used to think in terms of what works to create well-being, and what destroys it and creates suffering instead. Compassion, kindness, listening to hear and understand, and attention/attentiveness contribute to well-being, flourishing and happiness. Violence, resentment, hatred, addiction, intimidation and intolerance contribute to (and create) sadness, suffering, increased violence, loneliness, destruction and death. It is nice to see my hunches supported by neuroscience.

Science can and does have something vitally important to say about human values and the moral landscape. Pick up a copy of The Moral Landscape and study it. Hopefully it is but the first in a growing number of books on the subject.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

War is Killing People, a review of "The Bomb", by Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn: The Bomb. San Francisco, Open Media Series: City Lights Books, 2010, 91 pages. $8.95

Comprised of two previously published essays on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the French village of Royan at the end of World War Two plus a new Introduction by the author. Both attacks were justified and defended as necessary in bringing the wars with Germany and Japan to an end. Yet, as Zinn and others have shown, not everyone was in agreement with that. More likely the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done to show the Soviets that we had the ultimate weapon. On the incendiary carpet bombing of the little village of Royan Zinn writes that "The evidence seems overwhelming that factors of pride, military ambition, glory and honor were powerful motives in producing an unnecessary military operation" that, like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because of the lack of viable military targets, were carried out against civilian populations to make a point: Resist us and you shall die.

In Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, September 1, 2001), British ethicist Jonathan Glover writes about "the moral slide" in reference to the decision during World War One to block aid shipments to the German people that caused thousands to die of starvation. From there it was a simple matter to push the envelope a little further and allow the bombing of civilians as a means of crushing an enemy's spirit and defeating him. Civilians, in other words, were now players in a military drama. Once frightened non-combatants, they were now an element military strategic planning, bargaining chips in an endgame that they was chosen for them by people they did not even know.

What Glover did in his masterwork, Howard Zinn did years earlier in his essay on the bombing of Hiroshima. "The strategic argument ... that there was no military necessity to use the bomb, is not enough. We need to confront the moral issue directly: faced with the horrors visited on hundreds of thousands of human beings by the massive bombings of modern warfare, can any military-strategic-political 'necessity' justify that?" (emphasis added). It is a question that each of us needs to ask ... and answer for ourselves.

In the Introduction, written in late 2009, Zinn brings the discussion into the present: "What you see over and over again in the news reports is the words 'suspected terrorist' or 'suspected al Qaeda' -- meaning that 'intelligence' is not sure whom we are bombing, that we are willing to justify the killing of a 'suspect' in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, something we would not accept from a police operation in New York or San Francisco (emphasis added). This suggests, to our shame, that the lives of people other than Americans are of lesser importance" (page 19).

I don't know if this hits you like it hit me, but when I read that I put the book down, looked out my window at my neighborhood, and thought. I thought about my country's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and its support of Israel in its dealings with the non-Jewish residents of Palestine. I thought about its deadly "Operation Cast Lead" attack on the tiny enclave of Gaza that unleashed an overwhelming rain of fire and death on everyone living there, and justified it as retaliation for a few missiles Hamas fired in its direction. I thought about the Obama administration's rejection of the well-documented Goldstone Report condemning Israel's actions as unjustified and accused its leaders of war crimes. And our long support of Israel in spite of a growing mass of evidence that shows that its treatment of Palestine's non-Jewish residence has from the beginning been a program of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

And I thought, as a citizen of the U.S.A., they are doing these things in my name. And by my silence I give my unspoken support to behavior that I do not agree with because it is morally reprehensible and wrong. It is this moral question -- are attacks against civilians morally acceptable or not -- that is the basic question for each of us. 

In his book House of War about the Pentagon, James Carroll includes an anecdote about a group of American general officers thinking about nuclear war against the Soviet Union. One of them says that since the U.S. has more of them, we would win, even if there are only two of us and one of them left standing. This is not only irresponsible, it's insane. I remember thinking "You idiot! You haven't won a damn thing! All three of you are men!"

I give Zinn's little book a 5-Star rating. If the moral issues that he raises concern you, and if they don't, buy a copy and read it.


This faces us

Friday, November 5, 2010

A People's History of the United States

Howard Zinn's book is not new, but it is new to me. First published in 1980 and most recently in 2005 as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic, it was recommended to me earlier this year by Ramzy Baroud, journalist, editor of The Palestine Chronicle and author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. Given our recent history, it is a book that ought to be on everyone's reading list, and taught in every school in the land. (There is also A Young People's History of the United States published by Seven Stories Press in June 2009, which I haven't read.) It is not, however, a book that power brokers and true believers in the American Myth about a pristine national past in which liberty and justice were from the beginning for all.
As Howard Zinn so ably shows, the history we have gone through for the past few years in which economic and political power is controlled by financiers and robber barons is older than the republic and as new as today's headlines. There are, writes journalist Bill Moyers "two Americas: A buoyant Wall Street [and] a doleful Main Street" (speech at Boston University on October 29, 2010, as a part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series). This has always been true in the U.S. From the beginning, liberty and justice were for the wealthy landowners. If you owned nothing you were not only poor, you also could not vote. 

Every bit of liberty and justice average people have in America we have struggled and frequently fought for. It has never been given to us, though that is what we are often led to believe. If anything, what we are told is that we ought to be grateful to our leaders for what we have.

In Chapter 23, he writes these words: "Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes." The reasons are all too obvious: The robber barons of earlier times have resurfaced once again, chipped away at our security and well-being, had their corporations declared "persons" so they can legally buy all the influence, stolen jobs and life savings from millions of hard-working people, and gone back to their gated communities without the slightest flutter of regret. There is no class war, writes novelist James Lee Burke; "The war ... [is] between the have-nots and the have-nots. The people in the house on the hill watch it from afar when they watch it at all" (Swan Peak).

Do yourself and your family a favor: Go out and buy a copy of Howard Zinn's masterpiece. You'll be glad you did. (But don't expect a walk-through-the-park pleasant read, because that's not what it is. It's a bracing wake-up call.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mending the hearts of the wounded

 How Can You Mend This Purple Heart? by T. L. Gould. Publisher: Night Publishing (UK) in paperback and kindle editions. Available at

How can you mend a purple heart? According to the men I've interviewed over the years, it isn't easy. My uncle Martin went to France in 1918 as a happy-go-lucky eighteen year old whom everyone loved and came home two years later emotionally shattered and alcoholic. No one ever knew what had happened to him over there except that he drove ammunition trucks to the front lines. He didn't say a word about his experiences until, at age 66 and no longer drinking, he told his sister (my mom). Two years later, his health ruined, he died, sober and a happier man than he'd been in fifty years.

The title of the novel is a good one because it describes so well the condition of men and women and women who return from combat having experienced things beyond their imagination, things that damage their hearts. My uncle's wounds shattered his heart.

Each of the young men in this story have terrible physical wounds. Their bravado and, in Earl's case their fear and doubt, reveal the deeper emotional wounds of the heart that are at least as shattering as the terrible physical wounds they have received and need mending.

How Can You Mend This Purple Heart is a worthy addition to the literature of war, soldiering, survival and recovery. I heartily recommend it.

Living inside a maelstrom haunted by ghosts

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite writers. His prose is eloquent, quotable, and graphic. He views the world from the perspective of the marginalized and maimed and forgotten, some of whom struggle to escape an ugly karma and live lives that are happy and relatively tranquil. Some of them make it, some of them don't, and some of them are left with questions that are never really answered.

In this book, and in many others he has written, the protagonists are two friends, New Iberia, Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his best friend and compatriot Clete (Cletus) Purcel, ex-New Orleans cop, private investigator, decorated Vietnam veteran and alcoholic. I like both of these men ... and they are not easy men to like because of the ghosts that haunt them both, ghosts of their upbringing and Vietnam and alcohol. 

Over the past several novels, Dave has been working on getting his act together -- he has quit drinking, joined AA, and married Molly, a wonderful ex-nun who loves him and refuses to get enmeshed in his torments. Clete is like watching a runaway eighteen wheeler careening down a mountain highway with bad brakes and a lunatic at the wheel. You know there's an awful crash waiting somewhere, but you don't know just where. The guy has an amazing ability to right himself, but you know he's ultimately going off a cliff if he doesn't stop drinking. 

Most of the Dave Robicheaux novels take place in Louisiana. This one takes place in Montana, where Dave and Molly have gone on a fishing vacation, taking Clete along to give him a break,.

"Clete Purcel had heard of people who sleep without dreaming, but either because of the era and neighborhood in which he had grown up, or the later experiences that had come to define his life, he could not think of sleep as anything other than an uncontrolled descent into a basement where the gargoyles turned somersaults like circus midgets .. His dreams clung to his skin like cobweb and followed him into the day... But on this particular morning Clete was determined to leave his past in the past and live in the sunlight from dawn until nightfall and then sleep the sleep of the dead."

But for Clete, there are no breaks, and trouble finds him on the banks of a pristine river, fishing when two men in a bright red diesel extended cab truck pull up and spoil the idyllic scene. It isn't surprising. From there events descend into the dark regions of the soul where hobgoblins dwell and hurting people struggle to live fulfilling lives and try to stay out of the way of greedy, wealthy elites who use evil as a tool to possess more. "When people talk about class war," Dave muses, "they're dead wrong. The war was never between the classes. It was between the have-nots and the have-nots. The people on the hill watched it from afar when they watched it at all." Which, I'd say, is pretty close to the truth.

I found Swan Peak a hypnotic read. It's plot is many-layered, its mood dark and heavy, with glimmers of hope for some of the hopeless characters that one least expects will make it out of the maelstrom that, Burke muses, in which we all live, "an era that is so intense and fierce in its inception ans denouement that it can only be seen correctly inside the mind of a deity."

Yet, in spite of all this, the story ends on a not of hope. Looking at fingerling salmon in a cold stream, Dave knows that when spring comes, the adult salmon will work their way into the main stream and on down to the sea. "All of these things will happen of their own accord, without my doing anything about them, and for some strange reason, I take great comfort in that fact."

A fine novel, if not, like life, always a pleasant one.