Feb 19 2013

Tragedy in the Henhouse

Thora killed one of our chickens. This happened a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t have the heart to write about it until now. She came trotting into the house with a chicken wing in her mouth: I screamed, everyone came running, there was yelling, and Thora dropped the severed wing and went tearing all around the house peeing and defecating everywhere to signal her submission and distress. A few minutes later she puked up a belly full of chicken innards. As apologies go I must say it is the worst I have ever received.

Eventually we comforted the dog, Sam went outside to gather up the remains (it was not an open casket funeral), and we gave Penny a decent burial. I said a few words. Her sisters did not attend the ceremony: chickens are not sentimental creatures. Sam said they were busy cannibalizing the corpse when he arrived at the scene.

We have mostly processed the whole episode at this point. The boys wanted to talk a bit about death and what it means: for Robin, it seemed to bring up some dim memories of Marlis, because he began saying things like “We used to have a cat but we don’t have a cat now.” I reiterated some of the things that I told him when Marlis died. I told him that death means you aren’t in the world any more. I told him that everything that is alive dies eventually, but that he and we are young and won’t die for a long, long time. I told him that when someone dies you can be sad and cry because you miss them a lot, and also that sometimes you might not feel sad, even though you still miss them. I suppose this is one of the benefits of keeping livestock: kids grow up experiencing the natural cycles of life.

For a while Davy and Robin would say “Thora is a bad dog!” because one of the things I yelled over and over, when I was yelling, was “Bad dog! Bad dog!” So I also had to explain that actually Thora is a good dog who did a bad thing. And that it is not really her fault, she was just being a dog. (Although I have to admit that it changed the way I look at her a bit. “She’s a murderess,” I told Sam, who responded quite reasonably that her kill count is nowhere near the total that Marlis racked up. “Yes,” I said, “but Marlis never killed anything with a name!”)

The boys also seemed to just like to tell the story of what happened: “Thora killed our chicken and then you screamed,” one of the boys would say, out of the blue. And I would just say, “Yep, that is what happened.” “And then you cried.” “Yes, I cried because I was sad.” We must have had that conversation ten or fifteen times in the first few days after. At this point they don’t seem to need to go over it so much.

Robin is very keen on getting a new hen. “We need to get another girl chicken with a bow,” he says. I did try to explain to him that not all creatures that are girls wear bows on their head, but he is quite certain that the next hen ought to come beribboned.

In fact we probably will want to replace Penny at some point, but introducing a new hen to an established flock isn’t necessarily easy. The existing chickens will try to drive off any bird they perceive as an interloper, and can injure or even kill a new hen by relentlessly pecking her. One way to get around this is to wait until one of the hens goes broody and then to slip some fertilized eggs underneath her, letting nature take its course from there. So I’m inclined to give it some time and see if Henrietta or Genevieve show any signs of wanting to be a momma.

Meanwhile Thora and the chickens are no longer allowed to share the yard. Instead we keep the hens cooped up until late morning, giving Thora a chance to run around for a bit, and then the chickens are let out and Thora is kept inside until sundown. (She also gets a walk in the early afternoon.) Once the chickens have put themselves away, Thora gets free run of the yard again. In some ways it’s a better arrangement anyway, because I don’t have to worry about the dog finding eggs before I do.

Here is a picture of Thora looking angelic. (Murderess!)

mastiff on the rug

Feb 16 2013

Book Reviews: The Secret History of Moscow, Who Could that Be at This Hour?

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

The rap on this book is that it’s “like Neverwhere, but bleaker and more depressing.” I bought it because I love Neverwhere, and then let it sit gathering dust on my shelf for a year because I didn’t feel like reading a really depressing book.

Now I wish I hadn’t waited so long. The Secret History of Moscow takes its characters on a quest through the underworld of Russian folklore to rescue a stolen sister: I found it beautifully written and, actually, a lot of fun. I wouldn’t call it “depressing” so much as “Russian,” though I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference. Yes, the urban landscape is harsh and the characters all marked by poverty and alienation. But the story is about love, the plot is one of magic and adventure, and the ending is triumphant if not exactly happy. It’s a bittersweet story but I didn’t find it depressing.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Series of Unfortunate Events—I read the first three and got a little bit bored with the central gimmick. There was plenty to like: they were well-written and amusing little books. But I didn’t feel impelled to read any farther in the series.

Who Could That Be At This Hour lands in a similar spot for me. It was fun—I don’t want my time or money back—but nothing about it grabbed me enough to seek out the sequels.

Feb 13 2013

Bookselling Update and Giveaway

I missed this somehow when it first went up! My friend Megan (this is you, isn’t it, Megan?) did a very nice write-up of The Millennial Sword for her review blog:

This is, to a certain extent, one of Those Books, and reads like a debut indie novel in a popular subgenre. If you like that sort of thing—that is, if you enjoy an author riffing on a theme because she’s enjoying herself—then you are likely to enjoy yourself. Particularly since Phillips knows how to incorporate her research without resorting to the sort of extended infodumps that can temporarily transform fantasy novels into pages from the D&D Monster Manual.

That part made me smile because I tend to describe the book to people as “the sort of thing you might like if you like that sort of thing.”

Book-selling updates: the e-book version of The Millennial Sword is now available in all formats, for all devices. I’ve made a dedicated page here listing all the buying options. One discovery I made is that many independent bookstores have partnered with Kobo to sell books through their websites—and Kobo, it turns out, is something of a dream to work with, providing by far the nicest direct-publishing platform of any of the sites I worked with. I will seriously consider buying a Kobo-compatible device as my next e-reader simply in order to be able to support my local bookstore (the wonderful Laurel Book Store) when buying e-books.

Somewhat distressingly, though, after I finally succeeded in withdrawing the book from Amazon’s “Select” program, sales there have flatlined. Part of the draw of the Select program is that Amazon gives those titles more visibility in search results, and the effect, I can now say, is quite significant. It remains to be seen whether Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple’s iBooks store, and the other e-book channels will be able to compensate. I want to support a diverse bookselling ecosystem, so in the interests of fairness I’m running the same promotion for Kobo that I did for Amazon: the book will be free there till Monday. Barnes and Noble and Apple don’t allow you to give away books, or I’d make it free there too, but I’ve also generated a coupon code for Smashwords that will allow folks to download The Millennial Sword for free in any e-book format: that code is CM23R, and is applied at checkout. It will work through Monday, so feel free to share it around!

Feb 11 2013

Book Review: The Round House

So here’s what I originally wrote about this book on my Goodreads account:

Louise Erdrich is one of my very favorite authors—I’ll read anything by her. She works in a magical-realist vein informed by her Ojibwe heritage, writing portraits of modern-day reservation life where ageless tricksters and powerful animal spirits move in the margins. She’s also just an immensely powerful writer, creating striking and indelible characters and gorgeous passages of haunting prose.

All that said, I’m going to classify The Round House as my least favorite Erdrich novel (that is, if you don’t count The Crown of Columbus, which I don’t). It’s one part lurid crime thriller, one part “message” tract, and a third part that stands as a companion piece to her other work. I really liked that third part (I always love a Nanapush story) but I was much less taken with the other aspects of the book.

The problem with this summary, or at least the element I’m still thinking about, is the “message tract” aspect of the book.

The Round House opens with a brutal rape that takes place on the boundary of Indian land, and proceeds to illustrate the hurdles that prevent the woman and her family from seeking justice. Essentially, the case can’t be prosecuted until it’s known where jurisdiction lies—with the tribal police (if the assailant is an Indian and if the crime was committed on tribal lands), with the state police (if the crime was committed on non-Indian soil), or with the Feds (if the crime was committed on tribal lands but the assailant was a non-Indian). A lot of the book’s plot basically serves as an illustration of the ways in which violence against Native women goes unpunished under our schizophrenic justice system. One character, a tribal judge, is even given a few pages to deliver a lecture on the legal underpinnings of the tribal court system, and to make the case that the tribes should have the power to investigate and prosecute these kind of crimes whether or not non-Indian offenders are involved.

The thing is, this is kind of clumsy storytelling. Erdrich pulls it off well, but there’s no escaping that this book Has A Message, and at times the story serves mostly as a delivery vehicle for the moral.

On the other hand, I didn’t know about this issue until I read the book, and after reading more about it I realize that outrageous miscarriages of justice very similar to the one depicted in the book are in fact happening all the time. The New York Times today has an article on the problem:

At 26, Diane Millich fell in love with and married a white man, moving with him in 1998 to a home on her native Southern Ute reservation in southern Colorado where, in short order, her life was consumed by domestic violence.

Her story of beatings and threats, reconciliations and divorce—painfully common among Native American women—had a twist. Because her husband was white, the Southern Ute Tribal Police could not touch him, and because she was a Native American on tribal land, La Plata County sheriff’s deputies were powerless as well. She said she tried going to federal law enforcement, which did have jurisdiction, but that went nowhere.

After one of his beatings, she said, he even called the county sheriff himself to prove to her that he could not be stopped. Only after he stormed her office at the federal Bureau of Land Management and opened fire, wounding a co-worker, was he arrested. And even then, law enforcement had to use a tape measure to sort out jurisdiction, gauging the distance between the barrel of the gun and the point of bullet impact to persuade the local police to intervene.

“It was just crazy, now when I think back on how insane it was,” Ms. Millich said in an interview.

If a Native American is raped or assaulted by a non-Indian, she must plead for justice to already overburdened United States attorneys who are often hundreds of miles away.

The Violence Against Women Act, currently up for reauthorization in Congress, has added a new section that would allow these victims to seek recourse in the tribal courts, with provisions to ensure that non-Indian defendants retain their rights to representation and to a jury of their peers. But House Republicans are seeking to block it:

“This is a bill which could do so much good in the battle for victims’ rights, but unfortunately it is being held hostage by a single provision that would take away fundamental constitutional rights for certain American citizens,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “And for what? For what? In order to satisfy the unconstitutional demands of special interests.”

Unconstitutional demands of special interests. By that he means the right of Indian women—who are disproportionately victimized by rape and domestic violence—to seek justice. They aren’t victims, you see: they are “special interests.” And their attackers are fine, upstanding “certain American citizens.” (The women are American citizens too, of course, but you get the sense that Cornyn doesn’t quite believe it. Certainly not the kind of citizen who has “fundamental constitutional rights.”)

This is revolting. The contempt in those words—unconstitutional demands of special interests—God, it’s sickening.

So, I’m torn. On the one hand, I think Erdrich is bringing attention to an issue that needs attention. She’s created a searing portrait of real-world injustice, and part of me responds with a “sing it, sister!”

But on the other hand, the book is really really message-y, and even though the message is strong and important and moral and timely, I do think it weakens the storytelling. I don’t know if this is inevitable in books that have a political point to make. Trying to think of counter-examples, I flashed to Toni Morrison’s (flawless) Beloved: but that novel doesn’t really have a message so much as a complex emotional truth to convey. Something like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is more of a “message” book, and let’s face it, that was a pretty crappy novel. Strong and important and moral and timely (for its time)—but as a piece of literature, it’s weak.

The Round House, I think, is in a similar space. It’s no Love Medicine. But I am rooting for it to have the same kind of social impact that The Jungle had in its day.

Feb 7 2013

Veggie Valentines

The kids have been home sick from school all week, though they’re on the mend now—I think they’ll be able to go back tomorrow. Still, it’s been a pretty wretched week of coughing and snot and being all cooped up in the house. So this afternoon I decided it was time to do something fun, and I set the kids to a project of making Valentines for their preschool friends.

This year we went all Martha with it. I found this idea for making Valentine’s cards using vegetable stamps on the Martha Stewart website, and it seemed both cute and fun, so we tried it out. The radicchio we brought home was too wide to make a good stamp, but we had better results with Brussels sprouts and the end of a head of celery:



The kids really enjoyed playing around with the vegetable stamps (and the white-ink pen), although their cards tended to fill up quickly with undifferentiated smudges and scribbles. So I ended up making most of the Valentines that we’ll actually give out. Still, the results are cute and a good time was had by all, so I’d call this project a win. Thanks, Martha!

Feb 6 2013

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

This book was Sam’s Christmas present to me, since I like all right-thinking people was obsessed with Nate Silver’s blog during the election season.

I liked the book a lot better than the title. Well, actually, the title is fine, but the subtitle—Why So Many Predictions Fail…but Some Don’t—is terrible. It makes it sound like you’re in for some kind of dry introduction to the fundamentals of statistical analysis. The book is actually far more interesting than that. It’s about the ways in which the edifices of our society—financial, political, even physical—are built on “knowledge” that in some cases is flawed at the very root.

Just as an example, there’s one part of the book where Nate Silver pulls off one of the strongest gut-punches I can remember experiencing as a reader. It starts off with him discussing, innocuously enough, the science of weather prediction. It turns out that the science is better than you might think, but that local weather forecasters deliberately skew their predictions in order to account for some common biases in the audience. For instance, people want their weather forecasts to err on the side of caution. They would much rather be told to tote an umbrella, and have the day turn out to be sunny, than to be assured their Sunday will be nice and then get caught out on the golf course in a sudden thundershower. So local weather forecasters, understanding this preference in their audience, will routinely inflate their estimates of the likelihood of bad weather. If the weather model says there’s a fifty percent chance of rain, you’ll hear on the news that there’s a sixty or seventy percent chance.

This all seems interesting, if academic: it’s a neat bit of trivia, right? Then Silver sinks in the knife:

The weather forecasters did not make any apologies for this. “There’s not an evaluation of accuracy in hiring meteorologists. Presentation takes precedence over accuracy,” one of them told Eggleston. “Accuracy is not a big deal to viewers,” said another. The attitude seems to be that this is all in good fun—who cares if there is a little wet bias especially if it makes for better television? And since the public doesn’t think our forecasts are any good anyway, why bother with being accurate?

This logic is a little circular. TV weathermen say they aren’t bothering to make accurate forecasts because they figure the public won’t believe them anyway. But the public shouldn’t believe them, because the forecasts aren’t accurate.

This becomes a more serious problem when there is something urgent—something like Hurricane Katrina. Lots of Americans get their weather information from local sources rather than directly from the Hurricane Center, so they will still be relying on the goofball on Channel 7 to provide them with accurate information. If there is a mutual distrust between the weather forecaster and the public, the public may not listen when they need to most.


Silver goes on to discuss Katrina in a lot of detail, and he’s very evenhanded about the multiple factors that made the disaster so awful, but from his perspective the most relevant detail is that it was predictable. We knew what was going to happen in New Orleans, we knew the city had to be evacuated, and yet the evacuation was botched. And one of the factors working against those who struggled to convince New Orleans residents to leave their homes before the flood came was this widespread skepticism about disaster predictions, a skepticism that is in fact rational given the fact that bad weather predictions are routinely inflated and overhyped for the sake of news ratings.

Silver’s book covers a lot of topics. Sports, the stock market, politics, even national security—his comparison of the fields of earthquake prediction and terrorism prediction is really fascinating. At base it’s a book about how we make decisions, how we gain knowledge about the world, how we know what we know. And how our unexamined biases undermine us, and destabilize our society. It’s a great read.

Feb 1 2013

Best Ultrasound Ever

I got a much-needed boost this afternoon: I had an ultrasound scheduled, to check on the positioning of a previously low-lying placenta. (As expected, it’s moved into position now and everything is green to go.) But while we were peeking around in there, the baby showed up clear as day playing with his toes! It was absolutely the cutest thing, seeing those little fingers grabbing and then releasing his own foot. I laughed so hard the sonographer had to ask me to hold still.

Sol is doing fine by the way, measuring at four and a half pounds (though ultrasound weight estimates are not terribly accurate, and in any case he’ll put on a couple more pounds before he’s born). I’m closing in on my due date—March 13 based on the first couple ultrasounds, though his growth seems to have slowed a bit recently, and the latest ones have suggested an adjusted due date of March 20. I’m starting to get excited. I think this weekend I’ll get the baby clothes out of storage and give everything a good washing.