Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, died on the 13th July at the age of 90.  She was a political activist all her life, but her protests were directed where she felt things were wrong, not by any political agenda.  She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and greatly admired him, and she supported his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, but she was strongly outspoken about his AIDS denialist policy.  She organized writers in South Africa to oppose the recent law here which restricts newspaper reporting under the 1984esque titled Protection of Information Bill.  (I wrote about it at the time in No News is Good News.)  She refused to compromise on her principles.  Ever.  She demanded that her name be removed from the short list for the Orange Prize for literature because it is only open to woman writers.

The day after she died, I heard an interview about her with one of the younger literary fiction writers in South Africa who knew her and whom she helped.  One of the questions he was asked was whether her writing would last, given that it was so much set in the political era of Apartheid and the struggle against it.  Of course he said that her writing would transcend its context, but I thought it was a fair question.  Motivated by that question as well as her death, I reread July’s People. I chose that particular book because its backstory is an apocalyptic collapse of Apartheid through a black revolution with support from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the communist states.  It was published in 1981 and such a scenario seemed anything but farfetched at the time.  When the book was published in the US, a review in the New York Times said: “Since Nadine Gordimer writes more knowingly about South Africa than anyone else, this may be history in the making we are reading.”  The book was immediately banned in South Africa as subversive.  After the new government it was accorded the status it deserved, but in 2001 one of the provincial education departments removed it from the school reading list describing it as “deeply racist, superior and patronizing.”  If you’re making everyone unhappy, you must be doing something right!

The July of the title is a gardener for a reasonably well-off liberal white family living in Johannesburg.  Of course that’s not his real name, but we don’t learn that until three quarters of the way into the book.  He has worked for them for many years, initially illegally because of the abominable pass system.  He is regarded as 'one of the family'.  That is, from the perspective of his employers, the Smales – husband, wife and three young children.  The adults toy with emigrating, but just don’t get around to it.  When the rioting and fighting approaches their neighborhood, they know they have to leave, but have nowhere to go.  July says they can come to his home where his family lives in the country.  When the story opens, the five Smales find themselves in a round hut with nothing but the few things they managed to grab as they fled and a single bed.

This much I remember from the first time I read the book many years ago.  What I didn’t recall as clearly was the relationships that developed between the participants in the village – July, Maureen and Bam Smale, the children – differently depending on their ages – and their counterparts in the village.  Bam comes with a yellow ‘bakkie’ – a small van – and a shotgun.  These are status.  All the rest is based on the historical relationship between servant and employer and between cultures that think and behave very differently.  How much do the Smales know about the man who works for them – this ‘member of the family’ - about his background, his real family? How much do they really want to know?  How much does anyone from one culture and social group want to know about others beyond polite friendliness and mild curiosity?

Many novels have been written about this ranging from amusing to tragic.  I can’t think of any one where the relationship is exposed in this way through enforced integration into the poor rural culture.  Now I can’t think of any other way you could do it as well.  (Of course it takes a genius to see that in the first place.)  The relationships are laced with the racial background, of course, but that is almost secondary to the cultural one.  I think of the people who work at my townhouse complex and how little I really know about them.  This writing is as true today as it was thirty years ago.  So I have my answer.

Hamba Kahle, Nadine.  You will not be forgotten.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

These are the voyages...

I've traveled to places that many people would consider exotic. All over China, including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. I just went to Russia for the first time this year. But I'm finding that my home town of San Diego is as exotic as anyplace I've ever visited.

Submitted as evidence: Comic-Con International.

Comic-Con started as a small gathering of comic book creators and fans, science fiction and fantasy writers and readers, and, well, Trekkies. Hey, I can say "Trekkie." I was an early adopter. 

"This is our Superbowl," Captain Kirk Shoe Shine explained earnestly to a customer

My sister and I attended one of the early Cons, back when it was held at the El Cortez Hotel, in a seedy part of downtown San Diego (actually, nearly all of downtown San Diego was seedy then, as I recall. How times have changed). I was somewhere in my early teens, my sister three years younger. "I'll pick you up in three hours," my dad told us, on his way to a three-martini lunch.

My sister and I ran around like wild things for those three hours. What I remember the most vividly are two things: We were in the company of strangers who liked the same weird stuff that we did. And it was the first time I saw the original "Star Trek" bloopers.

Now, as Geek culture has become mainstream culture, Comic-Con is an international phenomena, attended by 130,000 people a year, the place where Hollywood reveals teasers for the upcoming next big things. It's grown way too large for the San Diego Convention Center, so it's taken over parts of downtown San Diego as well, including Petco Park for a zombie run:

 -- and entire sections of the Gaslamp and the Embarcadero:

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming. The crowds are huge, lines are long, events are impossible to get into. People argue that Comic-Con has grown too big, that it's no longer as relevant, that smaller, more intimate conventions are taking its place. And I think there's some truth to all of those assertions.

But still. 130K people with a love of comics and science fiction and fantasy and popular arts descend on my city, once a year. A lot of them cosplay--create really elaborate and beautiful costumes to express themselves. It's sort of like Geek Mardi Gras.

And there's just something pretty awesome about that.

Submitted as evidence, the following photos…

There are more and more of these "Christian" protestors every year. But they are greatly outnumbered

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Beauty of the French Countryside

Cara has been unavoidably detained--no, not by the gendarmes--and so in lieu of prose we're offering a bit of the French countryside in music and photos, as created by The Children of the Aurora.


For Cara--Tuesday 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Day I Met a Pangolin

Within minutes of learning there was such a creature I was touching one!  I was visiting a game reserve in South Africa, when our ranger got a call on his walkie-talkie.  Another group out and about late that afternoon had spotted what he described as the most difficult of African creatures to find.  (My further research has confirmed that it really is an unusual sighting.)

Our guide drove our Land Rover like a bat out of hell to reach it before it disappeared into the evening gloom.

And there it was.  It looked like pinecone lying in the grass, but as soon as the ranger touched it, it rolled into a ball.

Pangolins are found throughout the tropical regions of Asia and Africa.  There are eight species left; a number of others are already extinct.

Like you and me, the pangolin is a mammal.  Its name derives from a Malay word meaning “it rolls up,” which is what this fascinating critter does when it is threatened.  It tucks its face under its tail and makes itself safe from say a lion who might want to take a bite.

The pangolin’s body is covered with large, overlapping scales that form a nearly impenetrable armor once it is in a tight ball.  The scales are keratin, like your fingernails, but they are thick and overlap very like the leaves of an artichoke.  They’re sharp, further discouraging any animal with big teeth and yum on its mind.

Further defense comes in the form of a nasty-smelling oil, a little like the spray of a skunk.  But the pangolin doesn’t spray the stuff—probably because it doesn’t need to.  It’s pretty well defended as it is.  Watch this to see its defenses in action:

(You can turn the sound down if the voice of the TV announcer has the same effect on you that it had on me—nails on the blackboard.)

Pangolins are insectivores.  They sport long claws to help them dig their meals out of termite burrows and anthills.   They go about at night and find their food with a keen sense of smell.  Like a lot of anteaters they have long tongues (up to 16 inches, 40 cm) for scooping the goodies.  Some live in trees; others dig burrows, like groundhog tunnels.  They don’t look it, but they are good swimmers.  Their front claws are large and ungainly for walking, so on land they move on their hind legs, using their tails for extra balance.

They are solitary and meet up only to mate, typically but once a year, when the males mark their territory with feces and urine.  Unlikely as it seems given the nature of the come on, the females seek out the males, mate, and leave.  If two males are approached by the same female, they fight it out, using their tails as clubs, to get the girl.  African pangolins give birth to one offspring at a time.  These are all behaviors often found in endangered species.   Pangolins were labeled as such in 2010.

Sad to say, despite the international ban, there is growing illegal trafficking in pangolin scales.   It does not surprise me that most of the illegal sales are to China.  Here is a quote from a web magazine for massage therapists. 

“In traditional Chinese medicine, pangolin scales are associated with the Liver and Stomach meridians, and are considered to have salty and slightly cold properties. The scales of the pangolin are used in conjunction with herbs to treat a host of conditions, including masses in the abdomen, amenorrhea, rheumatism, arthralgia, postpartum galactostasis, skin and external diseases, and scrofula (tuberculosis of lymph nodes, especially in the neck). Pangolin scales are also used to invigorate the blood and promote menstruation, promote lactation, reduce swelling and dispel pus.
How much pangolin scale should I take?
The typical dose of pangolin scale is between 3 and 10 grams, taken as a decoction or 1-1.5 grams when ground into powder for oral administration.
What forms of pangolin scales are available?
Pangolin scales typically come dried and whole, and can be ground into a powder. They are extremely difficult to obtain.”

You can go here to find out more about the trafficking:

Before you go, turn up your computer sound and take a look at this brief National Geographic film on pangolin basics, where you will see one in action—something we safari-goers never got to experience that day.  We stayed with the creature only a few minutes, took our pictures and retreated, leaving it to go its way in safety.


Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guest Blogger: R.J. Harlick--The Mystical Islands of the Haida

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today RJ Harlick, author of the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. RJ divides her time between her home in Ottawa and her log cabin in Quebec. And like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. There are 6 books in the series. The 4th, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. In the latest release, Silver Totem of Shame, Meg travels to Canada’s west coast, to Haida Gwaii, the mystical islands of the Haida, where she unravels a story of shame and betrayal that reaches back to when the Haida ruled the seas. She is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada. For more, see her website,

Welcome, R.J.

I love being in the great outdoors. So when I was deciding on a setting for my Meg Harris mystery series, it took me less than a second to choose the Quebec wilderness surrounding my log cabin, where I like to say trees outnumber people a million to one and lakes a thousand to one.  This photo is taken during a canoe trip in La Verendrye Park.

While the first three books were set in this northern paradise, when it came time to write the fourth Meg Harris mystery, Arctic Blue Death, I decided Meg would travel to Canada’s far north, a place I had always wanted to visit. So Meg and I flew up to Baffin Island and spent a week exploring the exotic barren tundra of Iqaluit and Pangnirtung and getting to know the people who call it home.  I enjoyed researching and writing Arctic Blue Death so much I decided that I would have Meg travel to a different Canadian wilderness in every other book. Though this blog is not about the Arctic, I thought I would sneak in this spectacular view of Pangnirtung Fjord.  

For Silver Totem of Shame, my latest book, I once again chose a place I had always wanted to visit, the Queen Charlotte Islands or as they are now officially called Haida Gwaii, meaning ‘islands of the Haida’. They are an archipelago of sunken mountain tops lying on the edge of the continent about 80 kilometres from the mainland of British Columbia.  And as the name suggests they are the home of the Haida, a people who have lived on these islands for thousands of years

As part of my research for Silver Totem of Shame, I spent a fabulous week exploring the many islands of the archipelago and getting to know its people. The majority live on Graham Island, the northern and largest island, which because of its size and less mountainous topography is the most inhabitable. There are two main Haida communities, Skidegate and Old Masset and several small towns, with Queen Charlotte (photo) being the centre for most government services.  There is also a military base on the northern end of Graham Island.

For me the most intriguing part of the archipelago was the southern half, which comprises the mountainous and largely uninhabited Moresby Island and hundreds of smaller islands.  In 1993, much of this area became Gwaii Haanas National Park in order to conserve and protect not only the natural wonders of the islands and the surrounding seas, but also the ancient heritage sites of the Haida. These include four ancient villages and a sacred hot spring, which was soothingly hot when we visited. Today, however, these springs are barely warm after a powerful earthquake in 2012 turned off the hot water tap.

Since the only way to explore these islands is via boat, I and Meg along with my husband took a four day adventure tour in a zodiac down to the southern islands.  

The surrounding cold Pacific waters support an abundance of sea life, including salmon, halibut and spot prawns, along with many colourful varieties of starfish and sea anemone and larger sea mammals such as orcas and seals. These curious seals watched us as we floated past the kelp bed providing their breakfast.

The islands are also home to the world’s largest black bears. This bear was walking along the beach flipping rocks in search of crabs. I watched one unfortunate crab’s legs wriggle as it slowly disappeared down the bear’s gullet.

With an annual rainfall of over 150 inches, the trees grow large. Unfortunately much of the ancient forest covering the islands has been logged out, but it is still possible to come across thousand year old grandmother trees that rise hundreds of feet off the forest floor.

I must not forget to mention the all pervasive moss that covers everything including this wagon that had been left behind when this logging operation was closed down in the 1920s or 30s.

The highlight of the trip was visiting the ancient village sites. A hundred and fifty years ago, a person arriving at a village’s beach would have been greeted by a line of totem poles, sometimes two and three deep standing in front of fifteen to thirty longhouses, each of which would’ve housed an extended family and its slaves of twenty or more people.  The photo of Old Masset is courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History.

Today little remains other than a few badly eroded totem poles and rotting longhouse beams. The villages were abandoned in the late 1800s after European diseases decimated the Haida population. But I swear as I walked where the ancestors had once walked that I could hear their whispers in the forest canopy above my head.  

After learning from one of the Haida watchman who watch over the ancient villages, that totem poles are meant to tell stories, I decided to interweave the carving of a pole into Silver Totem of Shame. It would tell the story that reached back to when the Haida ruled the seas.

As for murder. I learned from a local RCMP constable that the last time there had been a murder on Haida Gwaii was in the 1970s.  I told him I was now going to raise the statistic exponentially. The fun of being a mystery writer.

Guest Blogger R.J. Harlich--Sunday