Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Die Zeit ist da!

As of today we are merely two weeks away from the release of my novel, Land of Milk and Money, published by Tagus Press of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. The university has a robust program of Portuguese studies and the theme of my novel made it a natural for the “Portuguese in the Americas” series, of which my book is #18. (Collect them all!)

Of course, if my novel were only thematically significant, then it would not be likely to attract much attention. I have it on good authority, however, that it is also a rollicking good yarn. Bestselling author John Lescroart read the entire manuscript and proclaimed it excellent. Here's what he provided me for a cover blurb:
In Land of Milk and Money, the author mines rich family history to create a full-blooded tale that patient readers will find insightful, rewarding, and entertaining.
That's not bad, is it? In the note that accompanied the blurb, Lescroart said, “Really excellent work. Congratulations.”

Well-known California author Gerald Haslam also provided a cover quote:
One of the West’s singular migrations—from the Azores to California’s Great Central Valley—is given faces and voices in Land of Milk and Money. Along with its triumphs, the Francisco family embodies the challenges to an immigrant family in a new land, including the often-ignored difficulties posed by success and the loss of the old culture. A must read.
Got that? It's a must read! (And we can trust Gerry Haslam because he's one-eighth Azorean.)

Getting a novel published is a success in and of itself, especially considering that math professors are not known for their literary accomplishments. Nevertheless, it would please me greatly if Land of Milk and Money were at least a modest success, forcing Tagus Press into more than one printing. You can help, of course.

The next time you pop into your friendly neighborhood bookstore, please be sure to inquire sweetly:

“When will you have Land of Milk and Money from Tagus Press in stock?”

I would much appreciate it. No doubt hordes of inquisitive blog readers could give the book quite a boost.

I hope, too, to see some of you at book events in various parts of California. A few are already lined up and others are being sought. See the Events page at www.landofmilkandmoney.com for current details. I look forward to meeting you!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mass marketing

The Church is my bulwark

Over the years I have been to a handful of book-launch parties. The most recent—and most impressive—was for the hardcover debut of John Lescroart's The Hunter. There was food, live music, book-signing (of course), and an overflow crowd of a couple hundred people. On the other hand, I've been to book events where chairs are set up for forty and only a quarter of them get used. That can be dispiriting.

Naturally I'm concerned that my own book events—which begin next month (watch this space for more specfics)—not be wash-outs. I want crowds of eager people to hang on my every word and congregate in lines to get my autograph. Of course I do!

Sensible people know that this is not a particularly reasonable expectation for a no-name, first-time novelist, especially one whose publisher is a small academic press. Although one can never tell what strange things might occur against all expectations (after all, people bought Twilight), sometimes a bit of divine intervention might help.

Exactly! And that's what I got!

Later this summer I will be featured at a book-launch event that is expected to draw 300 people. They will treat me with the utmost respect and consideration and it's likely that several will buy my book and get my autograph. The event can hardly go wrong, for it will be sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps you are goggling in perplexity. Perhaps I took you by surprise, despite the giveaway title of this post. Why on earth would the Church be so nice to one of its lost sheep? I'll explain.

If my novel were not about a significant era in the history of Portuguese immigration to the West Coast, it would not have found a publisher so quickly. The university press that is bringing it out has a special interest in the Azorean diaspora and the professor who is its founder and senior editor was himself an Azorean immigrant to California. One of his older brothers became a priest (as so often happens in Portuguese families). As a favor to his younger brother, the priest is hosting my book-launch event. When the senior pastor of a parish crooks his finger in summons, the parishioners turn out in droves—especially in a parish full of doughty Azorean-Americans. If Father says he expects about 300 people to show up, then they'll show up. One needn't doubt it for a moment.

Has Father read my book? I don't know and I haven't asked. It probably doesn't matter. My novel treats the Church rather gently, given that the cast of characters is replete with devout Catholics. (The book is also dedicated to the memory of my baptismal godmother.) Sure, the character based on me clearly lapses in his religious practice as the plot progresses, but he's not the central figure in the novel and he doesn't spend any time on a soapbox denouncing the Church. Furthermore, his best friend heads off to enroll in a seminary.

I think Father can read my book without adding to his gray hairs. What's more, he gets to preside over a celebration of Portuguese-American culture and history, things dear to his heart. In return, I may have to sit through a mass or two. Not a problem.

Oh, and Father would appreciate it if I were to say a few words to the assembled throng in Portuguese.


This is going to take a little work, after all.

Unfair and unbalanced

So what else is new?

In an especially egregious display of chutzpah, cartoonist Lisa Benson gives her cross-eyed view of California's budget plight. Our state has, of course, suffered from the Great Recession brought on by the feckless policies of the Bush administration (and a bolder Obama administration should have pushed a larger and more effective stimulus in its initial recovery effort). In addition, the Golden State has been saddled with a Republican minority in both houses of the state legislature that knows only the word “no.” They are essentially useless obstructionists (like their counterparts in Washington).

Benson, however, persists in presenting the Republican elephant as the steady representative of fiscal sanity. Look at how he sits there on the budget teeter-totter, a modest “No New Taxes” valise by his side. In shocking contrast, the profligate Democratic donkey has loaded up his end of the seesaw with a huge steamer trunk of “Spending.” (Benson is blissfully untouched by the reality that state spending is and has been flat since the Bush recession took hold: $90.9 billion in General Fund expenditures in 2008-2009 and maybe $92.6 billion in General Fund expenditures in 2012-2013—a less than two percent increase in four years.)

How can such an unbalanced seesaw remain level despite such evident Democratic irresponsibility? Benson hastens to inform us that the California state budget is being supported by “Gimmicks” and “Borrowing” and “Programs.” Wait a minute? Programs? I guess Benson ran out of clever labels for the baggage that is supposedly propping up the state budget. (I thought Programs were part of Spending. Silly me!) This entry sets a new standard for inane cartoon commentary on the California political scene. Pure propaganda. One almost has to admire its audacity.

But I don't.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pyrrhus in the pulpit

Bill Donohue redefines victory

The e-mail announcements from the Catholic League always bear ALL-CAPS subject lines, presumably to conform to the histrionic style of its leader and bombastic spokesman, the cheerfully obstreperous Bill Donohue. Clearly the crew at the Catholic League was poised with press release ready the moment the jury weighed in on the fate of  Monsignor William Lynn. The priest was convicted on one count of child endangerment:
Monsignor Lynn served as secretary for clergy for the 1.5 million-member [Philadelphia] archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, recommending priest assignments and investigating abuse complaints. Prosecutors presented a flood of evidence that Monsignor Lynn had not acted strongly to keep suspected molesters away from children, let alone to report them to law enforcement.
The jury, however, declined to convict Msgr. Lynn on the charge of conspiracy or a second child-endangerment accusation. Thus Donohue hastened to declare victory, sort of, with a generous dollop of but-everybody's-doing-it:
The witch-hunt has come to an end, and those who have been clamoring for blood lost big time. What made this a witch-hunt was the decision of former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham to summarily ignore what she was empowered to do in 2001: she was given the charge “to investigate the sexual abuse of minors by individuals associated with religious organizations and denominations.” Had she done so, those cases of minors who may have been sexually molested by ministers, rabbis, and others, would have been investigated. Instead, absolutely nothing was done about these cases.
Nothing was done? Bill knows this, of course, because D.A. Abraham declines to confide in him concerning other investigations by the district attorney's office. Therefore these other investigations must not exist. Since the D.A. went after a Catholic priest, this is obviously a vendetta against Rome. Besides, Abraham failed to get a conviction against a second priest, hence her prosecutorial efforts are exposed as simple anti-Catholicism. At least, this is how the Catholic League sees it!

Donohue's crowing is not muted by the facts of the second case:
A second priest, the Rev. James J. Brennan, 49, was tried with Monsignor Lynn, charged with attempted rape and endangerment of a youth, but the defense challenged the accuser’s credibility.

To convict, the jury had to find that Father Brennan had not only abused that boy but continued to put children at risk over subsequent years of ministry. The prosecutors were unable to find later victims. The jury said it was deadlocked on the two counts against Father Brennan, and Judge Sarmina declared a mistrial on those charges.
Donohue, however, is certain that Fr. Brennan was small fry and not the real target of the investigation:
They wanted the big prize—they wanted to nail a high-ranking clergyman on conspiracy. Had they won on this count, they would have been in the driver’s seat to pursue other “conspirators” nationally. Looks like their car ran out of gas in Philadelphia.
Hurrah! Victory!

Just between you and me, however, I suspect the celebratory mood is rather more muted when Donohue and his minions are behind closed doors. Another molester-shuffling cleric has been caught playing “hide the abuser.” The champagne won't have many bubbles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Procrustes writes a book

Slow Denialist and the Seven Plots

Christopher Booker is the author of The Seven Basic Plots, a much-lauded book that purports to classify all literature into seven pigeon-holes. It's quite a tour de force. Of course, for every Fay Weldon who gushes “This is the most extraordinary, exhilarating book,” there is an Adam Mars-Jones who cites “distortion” and concludes that it is “a stimulating, ambitious and unsatisfying book.” Still, the estimable Margaret Atwood admires it; that should count for something.

Booker's tome is my current bedside book. I have not fully plumbed its depths, but I dig through a few more pages each evening. I frequently chuckle. As someone who is widely and eccentrically read, I am susceptible to the book's charms. Perhaps I am particularly vulnerable because I especially enjoy catching literary or cultural allusions. “Aha! I see what you did there!” No doubt there are many that sail right over my head, but The Seven Basic Plots is by its very nature a name-dropping, title-dropping work, and my decades of reading have equipped me to occasionally nod my head in a knowing way when certain books are cited. Ooh! I feel so smart!

But my bedtime browsing has not been spared the sudden twinge at odd intervals, as I purse my lips, frown, and regard some authorial pronouncement with suspicion. On page 77, Booker referred to the “Portugese explorer” in H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. Ah, careless proofreading! One demerit! But then I got to page 90, where Booker is immersed in a discussion of Robinson Crusoe and refers to a mutiny aboard a “Portugese ship.” Fie! The man cannot spell “Portuguese”! I naturally take particular offense.

It turned out he also did not know how to spell “Pharaoh.” It's an admittedly tricky word, but there's no good excuse for using “Phaoraoh” multiple times. One begins to despair!

The misspelling were merely disturbing quibbles, but perhaps they alerted me to more significant matters. My antennas were vibrating with a subtle suspicion. While introducing the plot he labeled as “the Quest,” Booker calmly said, “On the face of it, stories based on the plot of the Quest could hardly seem more disparate.” One might indeed think so, since Booker's list of examples included the Odyssey, Pilgrim's Progress, Watership Down, and The Lord of the Ring. Nevertheless, equal to the task he set himself, Booker briskly strips the various stories of most of their elements until he can stuff them into his Quest pigeon-hole. (I can imagine him huffing and puffing and muttering, “Get in there, damn you!”) Only a story's naked armature matters when performing the act of classification.

When he got to the “Voyage and Return” plot, Booker faced the problem of distinguishing it from the Quest. He proved his mettle: “The Quest is altogether a more serious and purposeful affair.” By contrast, of course, the Voyage and Return is rather a lark. Since Frodo and Sam suffer somewhat dramatically on their casual little trip to Mordor and back, Booker points out that The Lord of the Rings is really a dog's breakfast of a work that embodies all seven plots in a glorious mash-up (with due attention to the Thrilling Escape plot device, of course). By the way, the Return component of a Voyage and Return plot needn't be taken too literally. If the protagonist doesn't get to go home again, he might instead return to some condition of normality after the abnormality of his Voyage experiences. It's a Voyage and Return plot as long as the hero has to return to something.

There's no way Booker can lose.

Although I'm still enjoying The Seven Basic Plots, my delight is somewhat tempered after several examples of Booker's trim-to-fit analyses and manipulation of his rather plastic plot definitions. Yes, it's still quite an impressive achievement, but the book seems more thick than profound. At least I'm sure to meet several more old friends and acquaintances as I continue to plow through it.

There is one additional fly struggling in the ointment. After a few too many plot-rackings, I decided to check up on Mr. Booker's credentials. Is he some distinguished litérateur whose name I should have recognized? Wikipedia soon tipped me off to the awful truth. Christopher Booker is one of those self-deluded “thinkers” who imagines that he has pierced the veil of climate change's mysteries and penned a denialist book titled The Real Global Warming Disaster. Of course, when one reads history at Cambridge, one is clearly qualified to evaluate the technical claims of climatologists.

Damn. The man is unsound.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prevaricating priests

More liars for Jesus!

Former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn was talking to Bob Dunning on “The Bishop's Radio Hour” on Immaculate Heart Radio, bemoaning American Catholicism's loss of political clout and savvy. “We knew how to frame the question,” he said, explaining why Catholics were more successful in the past.

Flynn was specifically addressing the Church's difficulty in responding to the Health and Human Services mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptive services. From his point of view, it was a pity that both Catholics and non-Catholics are so accepting of birth control. Quite apart from indicating the laxity of current Catholic practice, general acceptance of birth control creates a “framing” problem for the U.S. bishops as they attack the HHS mandate on contraceptives:
We don't have that voice that is framing the question the way it should be framed, so just average Catholics picking up the newspaper or listening to the radio and casually hears the conversation or hears the headlines, you know, will be attracted to our point of view. If it's framed in a way of contraception and the bishops are trying to tell the country they can't practice birth control, then they win. There's no question about it. But if we keep it on the issue of religious freedom, first amendment, constitutionally protected human rights, religious rights, we win. So there's the battle. The battle is over terminology.
Of course, it's not Mr. Flynn's job to put things in strictly religious terms. He's a canny old politician, so political advice is what you should expect. Are the bishops listening? It seems that they are. For the benefit of his listeners, Dunning read “Protecting Consciences,” a document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It spins like a top:
The church does not ask for special treatment, simply the rights of religious freedom for all citizens.... Catholics and many other Americans have strongly criticized the recent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring almost all private health plans to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. For the first time in our history, the federal government will force religious institutions to fund and facilitate coverage of a drug or procedure contrary to their moral teaching, and purport to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit an exemption. This is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide such coverage even when it violates our consciences.

What we ask is nothing more than the right to follow our consciences as we live out our teaching.
Truly shocking, isn't it, to see how the cruel and hyper-secular Obama administration is attacking religion freedom and trampling the conscience rights of individuals. No wonder the American bishops are clutching their pearls and reeling in the face of this unprecedented attack.

Because it's convenient for them to do so.

The U.S. bishops are full of shit. They hope that people have forgotten—or never knew—how meekly they rolled over to contraceptive mandates in the past. Sure, there was a bit of whining, but most people are undoubtedly unaware that most states imposed contraceptive mandates on healthcare insurance years ago and U.S. bishops somehow managed to live with it. As the Boston archdiocese incautiously admits, “In more than half of the states, Catholic officials have been living for years with mandates that health insurance plans must cover FDA-approved contraceptives in their prescription drug plans.”

The prelates have a riposte ready for the argument that the HHS mandate is nothing that new. No, no, no! they cry. The state mandates are much less draconian than the HHS version and contain more generous conscience clauses. There is a kernel of truth in the argument. Just enough to make the lie more effective. Here's what the bishops say:
The federal mandate is much stricter than existing state mandates. HHS chose the narrowest state-level religious exemption as the model for its own. That exemption was drafted by the ACLU and exists in only 3 states (New York, California, Oregon).
Oh. So it's not “much stricter” than state mandates. Equally tough mandates already exist in multiple states. You have to love the way the bishops cite only three states, when two of them are California and New York. The mandate and its supposedly too-narrow religious exemption have been in place in California for nearly a decade. The Golden State's Catholic bishops did not feel it necessary to call down thunderbolts from heaven until the mandate went nationwide with the president's healthcare reform. Now, suddenly, it's an abomination from the pit of hell that threatens our precious religious freedom.

The California bishops who miraculously kept their peace about the existing state mandate are now singing from the same page in the political hymnal. Here, for example, is Armando X. Ochoa of the Fresno diocese, roused from his slumber and sounding an anxious call to arms:
[T]he Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).
The American bishops have lost touch with the commandment against bearing false witness. In their unremitting campaign against birth control, they have devolved into little more than the Catholic auxiliary of right-wing opposition to the president and political propaganda is their second language (if not first). The Church's radio stations lard nearly every program with extreme conservative rhetoric. The Catholic Church in the United States used to have ample cause to look down its patrician nose at the antics of the religious troglodytes at the Moral Majority or Bob Jones University.

Not anymore!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Here be dragons


The competition for stupidest creationist argument is fierce, as any perusal of WildwoodClaire's “Dim Bulb of the Week” or Potholder54's “Golden Crocoduck” competition will amply demonstrate. Undaunted, they continue to strive to outdo one another.

I just stumbled across a most delightsome example of creationist inanity, laced with a generous dollop of cryptozoology. It's a video titled “The Secret History of Dinosaurs,” and you'll be charmed to learn that it has scraped together all of the spurious evidence for the survival of dinosaurs into the modern era (you know: dragons, Nazca, Ica stones, petroglyphs, la, la, la). In addition, however, it contains one of the loveliest examples of misinterpreted evidence I've ever seen. It's a small thing, but quite entertaining.

Apparently evolutionists have been suppressing the evidence related to dragons and sea monsters, now-endangered species of dinosauria that nevertheless linger in African jungles, Scottish lochs, and other obscure ecological niches. As the narrator explains, the coexistence of man and dinosaur has been disguised by shifts in language. He flashes a page from an old dictionary and points outs that “dragon” is now a disparaged term. At 3:55 into the video, he darkly observes that “dragon” is Now Rare.
The name that you are probably the most familiar with is “dragon.” Even up until 1946 the word “dragon” was found in dictionaries and has in its definition this telling description.

But do you see what the “telling description” really means? It's just a label on definition #1: A huge serpent. Apparently people seldom refer to big snakes as dragons. It doesn't mean that we nasty old evolutionists are suppressing the word.

And, yes, the rest of the video is just about as stupid. Big surprise.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Living in Inertiaville

In the state of Catatonia

The spring semester ground to a halt several days ago. As usually occurs after a prolonged stint of intense effort, I lapsed into a semi-coma when it ended. My grades filed, I folded myself up into a tiny space of inaction.

I'm resting. Or something.

Some of my colleagues treat the filing of semester grades as a starter's pistol. Bang! And they're dashing off to foreign climes or holding parties or gorging on movies. School's out! Party time!

I can barely move.

My friends barely suspect the degree to which I shut down when the school year ends. I'm afraid I get overwhelmed by all of the deferred secondary tasks that accumulated during the busy times. Buridan's ass is reputed to have starved because he was fortuitously situated at the midpoint between two identical stacks of hay. Two stacks? Heck. I feel encircled.

Thus it has been that books remain in unsorted stacks, sheafs of papers sit unfiled, laundry rests unfolded in baskets, newspapers pile up unread in the recycling bin, blog posts remain unwritten, and an entire residence awaits a much-needed top-to-bottom clean-up job. (And let us not speak of my office at school.) Instead of attempting anything on the long list of things to do, I've slouched on the comfy chair in the living room, remote control in a flaccid hand, chuckling at the inane antics of Father Ted, the hijinks of Rocky & Bullwinkle, and bits of Fry & Laurie. I've let Simon Schama lead me through British history. (My video tastes are eclectic.)

Of course, it's not all couch-potato viewing. I also take naps. And I have been plowing through lots of books. I do that all the time, but pick up the pace during the summer. Reading is a useful and constructive activity, but I fear I'm using it in alternation with watching television as a way to avoid performing other tasks.

What to do? What to do?

My past history suggests that my suppressed sense of personal responsibility will eventually generate enough pent-up pressure that I will—any morning now—explode into a spate of furious activity that will strike out big segments of the mile-long to-do list. But it hasn't happened yet.

Perhaps writing this post is a kind of mea culpa that will nudge my conscience closer to the trigger point....

Nope. Not yet.