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Thursday, April 20, 2017
I've been having migraines for the past few weeks. This is the first time since 2012 I've had the pain part...mostly I just get eyegraines, with the trippy Egyptian/Art Deco/Paisley hallucinations. I kinda sorta enjoy those, at least they keep me entertained.
These suckers, while mild by migraine standards (I know people whose suffering with the migraine events in their lives make me weep in sympathy), are stinkin' miserable and make me want to do socially unacceptable things to my TV-watching neighbors and roommate. With headphones on, eyes behind sleep mask, and endless rain sounds at a precisely tuned volume, I get through the 2-3 hours they last. Then sleep.
All of this is bad for reading and worse for reviewing. To the writers and publishers to whom I've promised reviews, they will happen, though timing is going to be off. I apologize all over myself, I regret any miffed feelings my brain's treason is causing (if any), but regularly scheduled curmudgeonliness will resume the instant I can get a handle on what brought this wretched plague back.
My next visit to the eye guy for a prescription check-up, eliminating the possibility that it's just horrific eyestrain (it's not, but I'm thorough), was moved to April 28th. Glaucoma? Some other eye disease? Elimination round begins then.
Think kind, soft, TV-less thoughts at me, please.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Saturday, April 8, 2017
WILBUR SMITH (Ancient Egyptian #4)
St Martin's Press
$9.99 mass market, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Wilbur Smith has earned international acclaim for his bestselling River God, The Seventh Scroll, and Warlock. Now, the unrivaled master of adventure returns with the eagerly awaited sequel to his thrilling Egyptian series with his most fantastic story yet. The Quest continues the story of the Warlock, Taita, wise in the lore of the gods and a master of magic and the supernatural.
Egypt has been struck by a series of terrible plagues, killing its crops and crippling its people. Then the ultimate disaster befalls the kingdom. The Nile fails. The waters that nourish and sustain the land dry up.
Something catastrophic is taking place in the distant and totally unexplored depths of Africa, from where the mighty river springs. In desperation the Pharaoh sends Taita, the only man who might be able to find his way through the hazardous territory to the source of the Nile and discover the cause of all their woes. But not even Taita can have any idea of what a terrible enemy waits in ambush in those dark lands at the end of their world.
No other author can conjure up the violence and mystery of Ancient Egypt like Wilbur Smith. The Quest marks his stirring return to the acclaimed series and proves once again why fans such as Stephen King praise him as the world's "best historical novelist."
My Review: Okay. I started the series with an historical novel, shifted into overdrive as a fantasy element came to the fore in Warlock, and now we're in full-blown fantasy mode. The story isn't remotely believable as history, but it's s a good deal of fun.
What's disturbing to me is the squicky sexual politics. A eunuch is de-eunuched supernaturally to make the beast with two backs with a (young) reincarnated version of his long-dead love. I'm not sure that makes me all warm and fuzzy about love spanning the ages or really, really uncomfortable with old men sexing up little girls. Well, okay, she's not an actual little girl. But something just doesn't sit right with me. I don't know exactly what it is, in that the author isn't in any way making this prurient and sexual but is presenting it as lovers separated by death being reunited. I am not, however, comfortable with it, and it significantly clouded my enjoyment of the exciting, adventurous, and action-packed Wilbur Smith novel surrounding it.
The goddess battle was, I'm sorry to say, not a worthy end to the build-up we got. It was almost an afterthought, and it should have been a centerpiece. On balance, the Smith novel aspects are redeeming only to a middling extent. The pages turned, they will for all Smith readers, but the essential backing of history's known Egypt wasn't quite enough on this outing.
SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW
$14.00 trade paper, available now
The Publisher Says: In this magically evocative novel, William Maxwell explores the enigmatic gravity of the past, which compels us to keep explaining it even as it makes liars out of us every time we try. On a winter morning in the 1920s, a shot rings out on a farm in rural Illinois. A man named Lloyd Wilson has been killed. And the tenuous friendship between two lonely teenagers—one privileged yet neglected, the other a troubled farm boy—has been shattered.
Fifty years later, one of those boys—now a grown man—tries to reconstruct the events that led up to the murder. In doing so, he is inevitably drawn back to his lost friend Cletus, who had the misfortune of being the son of Wilson's killer and who in the months before witnessed things that Maxwell's narrator can only guess at. Out of memory and imagination, the surmises of children and the destructive passions of their parents, Maxwell creates a luminous American classic of youth and loss.
My Review: What a beautiful but sad book.
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.So speaks out narrator as he sets out to recreate the end of his childhood. The last gasping breath of an unhappy lad's, I think innocence is too light-hearted a term for it, ignorance of the full measure of unhappiness that others can bear in addition to himself, even if he waits a half-century to get to the meat of the pain:
Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops."Cletus" brought to life as an Einsteinian thought experiment, a boy whose remembered existence is defined by a murder committed or a suicide perpetrated or both. Or neither?
His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it.
Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.
But let me say this. My confusion about this issue is paralleled by the narrator's confusion about his own place, his very existence in the world of this little prairie farming town. His father isn't much for feelings, and he's a "sissy" and an artistic child...except for music, the art form his father loves and he knowingly resists learning as his only somewhat outward act of rebellion.
As he turned away I had the feeling he had washed his hands of me. Was I not the kind of little boy he wanted to have?What strikes me as hilarious, in a not-funny-at-all way, is:
We were both creatures of the period. I doubt if the heavy-businessman-father-and-the-oversensitive-artistic-son syndrome exists anymore. Fathers have grown sensitive and kiss their grown sones when they feel like it, and who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.Well now, this novella having a publication date of 1980, all I can think is that Maxwell intended this as sly humor. Or else he was deaf and blind.
Sly humor it is.
And it's of a piece with the Maxwellian phrases that abound in this book. It's always so tempting to rush to the Goodreads quotes page and add...almost every line he writes. Retyping the entire book being, then, a real temptation, I add no quotes to the ones already found there. I rely on the mathematical certainty that all of us together are smarter than any one of us individually. Let the hive mind decide which of these sentences are crucial, which best illuminate Maxwell's writerly chops as well as his storyteller's acumen.
But the title of this review gives me away. I want to add something to the quotes page. I can't, though, because even I the "oh-so-what-about-spoilers" King-Emperor feel the last two pages of the story can't be excerpted without making the point of reading the book evaporate.
It is damned near heartbreaking, what those pages say and what it means. I was perfectly glad to read this book, and rate it close to four stars. Then the ending hit me with Negan's baseball bat.
Maxwell wrote a good little story and a perfect ending. That deserves recognition. Read it, please, it won't take long and it will give you something beautiful in return.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
BP BLOWOUT: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster
Brookings Institution Press
$23.00 hardcover, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: BP Blowout is the first comprehensive account of the legal, economic, and environmental consequences of the disaster that resulted from the April 2010 blowout at a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident, which destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killed 11 people. The ensuing oil discharge—the largest ever in U.S. waters—polluted much of the Gulf for months, wreaking havoc on its inhabitants and the environment.
A management professor and former award-winning Justice Department lawyer responsible for enforcing environmental laws, Daniel Jacobs tells the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard: how the company and the government fell short, both in terms of preventing and responding to the disaster.
Critical details about the cause and aftermath of the disaster have emerged through court proceedings and with time. The key finding of the federal judge who presided over the civil litigation was that the blowout resulted from BP’s gross negligence.
BP has paid tens of billions of dollars to settle claims and lawsuits. The company also has pled guilty to manslaughter in a separate criminal case, but no one responsible for the tragedy is going to prison.
BP Blowout provides new and disturbing details in a definitive narrative that takes the reader inside BP, the White House, Congress and the courthouse. This is an important book for readers interested in the environment, sustainability, public policy, leadership, and risk management.
THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU.
My Review: At the very beginning of this infuriating book, the author makes this statement:
The federal government brought criminal charges against BP and four of its employees. The company pled guilty to manslaughter and other charges to resolve the criminal case, agreeing to pay a record $4 billion in fines and penalties. Two BP employees were acquitted, and two pled guilty to misdemeanors. No one will go to prison for the accident. In stark contrast, the federal government prosecuted hundreds of individuals for filing false claims against BP. Seventy-five were incarcerated.And this was under the late, lamented Obama administration. Can you even imagine what would happen if this were to happen under the current kakistocracy? The peons would be out polishing BP's tankers, chanting how sorry they were for the trouble their childrens' deaths were causing the corporation, the US Army guarding them with live ammunition in their guns.
The book is a good case study, at a high level, for what lies at the root of the epic disaster that has spawned a CGI-fest of a film, though few other tangible results outside the Gulf Coast. The disaster is, in hindsight, apparent from the get-go. BP filed the paperwork to gain drilling rights to this piece of the Gulf of Mexico that was, shall we say, slipshod:
On March 19, 2008, BP purchased from the federal government for $34 million the lease rights to a nine-square-mile area off the coast of Louisiana anomalously named the Mississippi Canyon. After making the purchase, BP went through the process of submitting to federal regulators the necessary plans to obtain permission to drill a well in the area.Sea lions in the Gulf. Man, I must have worse vision than I thought, living down there and going to the beach all those years and never so much as catching sight of one. So clearly we're not talking about a regulatory agency with much interest in the paperwork that's submitted to it. Not even the most cursory glance could possibly have been given to this farrago and had it pass muster.
BP's lengthy Initial Exploration Plan (EP) for the Macondo well was submitted in February 2009. In the section entitled "Blowout Scenario," BP wrote that "a scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP." In other words, the worst case scenario question was not applicable.
BP also submitted an Oil Spill Response Plan. It described the various species of wildlife that supposedly could be affected by an accident in the Gulf. In an indication that the Macondo plan was a cookie-cutter extract from another plan, some of the species identified in it (such as sea lions, sea otters, and walruses) exist not in the Gulf's warm waters but in frigid Alaskan waters. ... William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and later co-chair of the Presidential Commission investigating the BP disaster, said that he was "shocked" that BP was not better prepared than Exxon had been more than two decades earlier.
And yet it did pass, like intestinal gas, and it's symptomatic of a far nastier problem that was fixing to blow. BP has a long history of taking the easiest way to get to its profits. It has been fined many times for careless operations resulting in human and environmental problems. Nothing, however, has yet been seen to equal the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. The event itself is largely offstage for most of the book, forming the backdrop for the author's primary focus: and then what happened? The answer is, for all that it's contained in under 200 pages, admirably complete. Author Jacobs is in his element when relating the details of the disaster to the people and places they describe:
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, is conducting the GuLF Study, the largest ever study of the potential health effects associated with exposure to oil. The study plans to follow more than 30,000 members of the affected communities (cleanup workers and local residents) for ten years.After noting the clarity of Author Jacobs' presentation of the facts, I'll note their worrisome content and fret over the likelihood of the current administration's having cut or eliminated the funding for this study and its eventual report. The data would, I have little doubt, be very useful to the anti-oil lobby and will most likely be sent to live with the three-eyed, five-finned fishes around Macondo.
Preliminary results, reported in 2014, revealed that cleanup workers were 30 percent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. Results reported in 2015 showed that the incidence of wheezing and coughing in cleanup workers was 20-30 percent higher than normal.
An issue that arises in almost every debate I've ever had with right-wing radicals is the stupidity of charging corporations with other-than-civil-law crimes. A corporation isn't a person, I've trapped a few into saying; if that's so, I counter, why does the law treat the corporation as a person? And after a horrible event like the Macondo well blowout that was primarily caused by the careless actions and reckless inactions of BP, can the fact of criminal culpability really not be considered and assigned?
What purpose is served by pursuing a corporation criminally instead of civilly when the primary sanction to be imposed in either case is a monetary penalty? The company itself cannot be sent to prison, and its directors, officers, and employees cannot be punished for the company's own ctiminal acrs. ... Reasonable minds differ on the question, with some legal scholars taking the view that the criminal justice process is wasted on corporations when civil sanctions are available. Although the concept of double jeopardy does not bar the government from seeking both criminal and civil penalties for the same transgression, arguably there is some overkill in its doing so.The nightmare that millions of people will continue to endure, in the form of a radically degraded environment that most likely will continue to suffer consequences of BP's bad business practices, seems to me to call for assignment of criminal culpability. Luckily, the courts agreed; also luckily, BP itself realized it was in new territory here and pled guilty to and/or settled almost all the suits brought against it.
In BP's case, however, there was very little overlap between the criminal offenses and the civil violations. Of the criminal charges brought against BP, the only negligent discharge count also constitutes a civil violation under the Clean Water Act. Moreover, when a company is responsible for such a huge calamity as the BP disaster, arguably it should be subject to both civil and criminal enforcement actions.
This was not cheap, and it will continue to be not cheap for quite some years to come:
The nation's worst offshore oil discharge has resulted in what appears to be the world's most expensive manmade corporate disaster. At $61.1 billion, BP's estimate of its total costs broke all known records.BP's share price took a big hit after the Macondo disaster. The company used accounting chicanery to disguise the fact that, as a whole, it has yet to break a sweat paying the bills from their collective wrongdoing. They're profitable in spite of a lower market valuation. They're still drilling in US waters, in fact. Earning money from robbing the same nest they've already epically fouled. So their shareholders, from state pension funds down to index-fund shareholders, aren't in danger of losing real as opposed to fantasy money. That hasn't stopped a plethora of shareholder lawsuits from being filed. Some well-intentioned, suing to prevent the corporation from abusing the value of their shares by taking stupid risks, down to stupid stuff meant to be just annoying enough to get the suing parties a go-away payoff.
Significantly, the taxpayer bears all the risks of any unknown natural resource damage costs that exceed [a court mandated] $700 million cap. Depending on those potential costs—as well as how other societal costs are valued—all told the cost of the disaster might wind up growing substantially.
No matter how one values the costs of the BP disaster, they were enormous. Enormous for the company, its shareholders, the American taxpayer, and society as a whole. BP may have all but closed its books on the disaster, but the taxpayer and society may be left holding the bag.
Ain't greed grand.
Author Jacobs advocates for a retreat from that kind of shareholding, described as shareholder-value management. The central presumption of this system is that managers have an affirmative legal duty to place the maintenance of shareholder value above any and all other concerns insofar as no laws are broken. There's a wink in there. No *important* laws, meanong ones that anyone can enforce expensively to the company's detriment. He cites a distinguished Cornell law professor, Lynn Stout, who claims that's a self-serving myth, "[c]hasing shareholder value is a managerial choice, not a legal requirement." Author Jacobs continues:
[Stout] maintains that BP shareholders do not necessarily want to raise share value to the exclusion of any other interest. "Real human beings own BP's shares, either directly or indirectly through pension and mutual funds, and real human beings care about much more than jusr whether BP stock rises."The operating company that was supposed to save value for the shareholders by cutting corners has, with this disaster, received its death blow in my opinion. The current U-turn in social thinking will, I am confident, be short-lived. Too many people understand what it means and oppose its efforts.
A more enlightened current view of a corporation's purpose is known as the stakeholder theory. It teaches that a corporation owes a duty not just to its shareholders but to all of its stakeholders. These stakeholders include its business partners, customers, employees, and communities, among others. ...[M]any of BP's stakeholders were adversely affected by the BP blowout. They included BP's shareholders, whose stock plummeted. [The CEO]'s focus on being [primarily] an "operating company" backfired from any perspective.
Chapter 12, "Have We Learned or Only Failed?", is probably the most iportant part of the book. The question as phrased contains a big clue to the author's apparent purpose in writing this careful, complete overview of the Deepwater Horizon's death while drilling the Macondo well: Is past prologue, as it almost always is? "It depends," says Author Jacobs. It always depends. This book came out mere weeks before the 2016 election. The somewhat dubious tone of chapter 12 might have turned apocalyptic had it been published even a month later. The quoted paperwork above, filed by BP in pursuit of profits from the Macondo well, might be appalling but the agencies now in charge of licensing and inspecting oil drilling are not going to get larger or better funded now. The past is prologue. This time even the preface hasn't changed. It will most likely get worse before it gets better.