Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Witch Elm: a very short review

Surely I qualify as a Tana French addict.

For one thing I have read every single one of her books, including the most recent The Witch Elm.

For another thing, I can't stop raving about her work to anyone who gives me a chance.

French is best known for her Dublin Murder Squad books, so The Witch Elm represents a bit of a diversion. True, it is still a murder mystery set in Dublin, and Dublin Murder Squad detectives feature prominently, but here they are not the protagonists of the novel.

Instead, our hero is Toby, a sort of slackabout 20-something who has made it this far through life without doing anything meaningful, and who isn't really quite sure why. "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person," says Toby, "I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about."

Toby isn't really lucky, of course. He is privileged, protected, coddled, and nursed by his cocoon of friends and family and their resources, and somehow he doesn't even notice them all as they are doing so. "Bad things just fall out of your head," says Toby's cousin Susanna, referring to Toby's extraordinarily selective memory.

As French matures as a writer, gone is the lyrical softness of her early novels, which always to me seemed to be swathed in a soft mist. In its place comes a directness and bluntness which is surely more accurate and appropriate to the emotions she is wrestling with in her stories, even if it can be rather a bit more jarring to the reader.

Silence again, and those glances. I could feel them considering, not how much was safe to tell me, but how much I would understand.

"Has there ever been someone," Susanna said, "who treated you like you weren't a person? Not because of anything you'd done; just because of what you were. Someone who did whatever they wanted to you. Anything they felt like." Her eyes on me were unblinking and so bright that for a wild moment I was afraid of her. "And you were totally powerless to do anything about it. If you tried to say anything, everyone thought you were ridiculous and whiny and you should quit making such a fuss because this is normal, this is the way it's supposed to be for someone like you. If you don't like it, you should have been something else."

"Of course there hasn't," Leon said. Something in his voice brought back the kid he had been, scuttling along school corridors, eyes down, huddled under the weight of his bookbag. "Who would ever?"

"If you don't like it, you should have been something else." It's not Burns's poetic "Man's inhumanity to man", but French's hard-knuckled prose is just as accurate, just as effective, just as on target.

I can't say that The Witch Elm is escapist fiction, or summertime reading. As with each one of French's novels, after I read it I found myself spending weeks reflecting, introspecting, decompressing.

But what I can say is that, as soon as French publishes her next book, I'll be first in line at the book store.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

True, true, it's all true!

Randall Munroe reminisces about the old days.

It's all true; I was there. I even remember my day when I had to drive the van.

Oh, you young whippersnappers, you have it so easy now...

Monday, June 22, 2020

How is your county doing?

Alameda County recently released an interesting summary of the state of affairs: Alameda County Reopening Plan.

The data is already a few weeks out of date (most of the data was accurate up to June 10), but the document I think is more interesting as an overall summary of what is being tracked, what you need to know, and how you can best be part of the solution.

Keep on Keepin' on: a very short review

I very much enjoyed Keep on Keepin' On, the absolutely lovely story of Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin.

You don't really need to know much about the history of American Jazz or about piano or trumpet, though you might enjoy the movie more if you do.

At its heart, Keep on Keepin' on is about people connecting with people, and about two wonderful talents who somehow find each other and share a most remarkable collaboration.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Interesting stock market data point

Shared without a lot of commentary: One out of Five Investors Sold All of Their Stocks

The stock market falls because people want to sell and people want to sell because the stock market falls.

Fidelity has the receipts. They showed that nearly one in five investors sold all of their stocks some time between February and May.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How is your county doing?

In California, COVID activity and protocols currently vary county-by-county.

Some counties are doing extremely well, some counties are struggling. And that simple summary contains within it a richness of complexity, variation, and nuance.

If you want to understand this at a deeper level, I recently found that the California Department of Public Health has quite a bit more information that you can see:

  • County Data Monitorting. This page contains a narrative-style summary of the counties which are currently receiving extra support from the state as they attempt to deal with the particular situations and challenges that apply to them.
  • County Data Table. This page is a very terse (yet still quite substantial) summarization of the current situation in each county along an array of different metrics.

Each county is different, and the description of the particular challenges and obstacles each county is facing is something that I find simultaneously fascinating and heartbreaking. I won't try to summarize it; if you're interested, please go read.

Knowledge is power, as they say.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

How is Alameda County doing?

Alameda County remains the hardest-hit of the Bay Area counties, with far-and-away the highest case rates. Alameda County is the second-largest county in the Bay Area by population, with just under 1.7 million residents. For the epidemic to-date, it has had 3,950 cases confirmed, and 101 total deaths confirmed.

Getting a more detailed picture, though, is a challenge.

Since around May 1, the county has been performing at least 1,000 COVID-19 tests daily, and over the last 2 weeks that number has risen to an average of 1,500 tests daily.

The percent-positive rate for the tests, which had been at about 5%, has fallen slightly as the number of tests has risen, and is currently at about 4.5%, which overall works out to about 60-70 new cases reported each day.

Case rates vary dramatically by neighborhood, with some neighborhoods reporting 15x the per-capita cases as other neighborhoods.

The testing data is not broken down by neighborhood, just the confirmed cases data.

I assume that the 1,500 daily tests are not randomly selected, but rather are being performed "for cause": a person has symptoms and the doctor orders a test; a person works in a high-risk field and gets tested routinely; etc. This, too, is not described anywhere that I can find.

I thought maybe I'd try to find a "comparable" county elsewhere in California, but have had trouble doing so. Santa Clara County and San Mateo County seem like they are probably comparable, and maybe Orange County might count as comparable?

Anyway, I don't really know how to tell how Alameda County is doing.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Got me

At least one of these must be wrong, I would think?

The study reported both results-by-country and results-worldwide, which accounts for some of the confusion, I guess?

But still.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

News of the World: a very short review

Almost as soon as I turned the last page of Paulette Jiles's marvelous News of the World, I was making plans to pick another of her books to read next.

Somehow I had not heard of Jiles before, although she's been writing for more than a decade with many awards and accolades. She lives in San Antonio and (I think) sets most of her books in Texas.

The timeframes and settings vary, I believe; News of the World is set in 1870, which was a time of great change in America as a whole, but certainly in Texas. Our hero is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71 year old veteran (of the war of 1812!) whose profession is to bring Texas the news of the world.

That is, Kidd "reads the news". In a time in which a combination of turmoil, poverty, low literacy rates and other factors meant that most people had neither the access to nor the capability of getting updates on current affairs, except what they might pick up incidentally via a trip to the grocer or the tavern or the blacksmith, Kidd provides a critical service.

So when Kidd rides into town, puts up his placards advertising the evening reading, and rents the local meeting hall or tavern for the night, townsfolk stream in and drop a dime into the can to hear Kidd read late into the night selections from the Boston Morning Journal, the New-York Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the London Times. These readings might be weeks or months old by that point, but they are still fresh news from the world at large in frontier towns such as Fort Worth, Meridian, or Bowie.

The main thrust of the book, though, is an unlikely, yet certainly plausible and well-supported by evidence, adventure story involving Kidd and a 10-year-old girl named Johanna Leonberger, who was taken captive by a Kiowa tribe five years earlier following a battle near San Antonio, and has grown up since then in Kiowa territory (the broader Great Plains region). Johanna, it turns out, has been seized back from the Kiowa by some out-of-work Civil War veterans who were hoping to collect the reward, but for complex reasons too good to spoil, it falls to the Captain to take her 400 miles from the Red River town of Spanish Fort back to San Antonio, all the while being chased by a never-ending collection of neer-do-wells intent on foiling his simple plan.

There's action galore and lovely evocative tellings of frontier life in Texas in the 1870's, but some of the most fascinating parts of the book come in those quiet times in between:

He sat on his carpetbag and leaned against a wheel. His mind kept going back to the fight and to put it aside he watched Pasha graze and drank black coffee and smoked his pipe. Johanna played in the stream like a six-year-old. She turned over rocks and sang and splashed. To comfort himself and slow down his mind he thought of his time as a courier, a runner, and Maria Luisa and his daughters. Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.

There are certainly plenty of mysteries in life, but of this I am sure: you could spend many a lovely hour with Paulette Jiles's News of the World. I can't wait to read more of her work.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Count me among the people ...

... who agree that the New York Times has no responsibility nor duty to publish Tom Cotton.

The senator has plenty of ways to make his views known. The Times does no service to anyone by publishing him.

Opinion Editor Bennet's claim that the paper "owes it to our readers to show them counter-arguments" is valid in the abstract, but not valid in the specific case here, where, as Bennet himself documents, the counter-argument in question is in fact "made by people in a position to set policy."

The media serve no purpose when they are the empty mouthpiece of the state. The state already have the ability to show their arguments. A respectable Opinion Editor of a respectable paper should certainly know that.