Saturday, May 25, 2019

Mother-Murder or the Right to Choose

Unplanned by Abby Johnson

There was a time in our lives when, spotting a protest outside a Planned Parenthood building, my spouse and I would make a point of crossing that line to go inside and express our support of the organization. If challenged by the protestors, we might tell them, "You just got Planned Parenthood a donation."

Then came the surprising revelation from a college friend, still single decades later, that she had obtained an abortion for herself just after graduation, and it had "ruined her love life." She confessed that every time she got into a serious relationship, the thought of that murdered motherhood (her words) eventually ate away at her.

Our friend's story might have been anecdotal, but the phrase, "murdered motherhood," began to resonate. It sprang to mind during the "partial-birth abortion ban" discussion, when pro-life advocates framed the argument "as one in which a partially-born infant's life is disposable, whereas pulling the infant only a few more inches down the birth canal automatically transforms it into 'a living person, possessing rights and deserving of protection'." In the end, the Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart simply "criminalized such a procedure only if an 'overt' fatal act is performed on the fetus after 'partial delivery'," leaving Planned Parenthood (and other abortion providers) free to kill the late-term infant in the womb before extracting it.

I remembered it when the videos of Planned Parenthood staffers negotiating for the sale of aborted fetal tissue emerged a few years ago. The material they were trying to sell was surely just surrendered tissue, voluntarily given up by the nascent mothers, whether in the first trimester or later in the infant's development. Still, I began to be uncomfortable with the idea that a human body, potentially capable of surviving outside the womb, was for sale after its killing by the agents of its death. And further, that the original agent of its life could legally choose to surrender that life, thus murdering motherhood.

In the midst of the latest arguments for "full birth abortion," notably in the debate for relaxing Virginia's abortion restrictions (“In just a few years pro-abortion zealots went from ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to ‘keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide,” said one Republican senator), I began reading Unplanned. The author of this book had been a Planned Parenthood clinic director in the years when its mission was precisely that, to make abortion safe, legal, and above all, rare. 

Johnson details how, despite the concerns of her parents, her pro-life husband, her church, and her own experience of abortion, she continued to believe in that mission. It was not until she was faced with the reality of the abortion procedure, at the same time being pressured to increase the number of abortions at her clinic to boost revenue, that she switched sides.

Unplanned is not dramatic in the sense of a theater production, but more in the sense of a pregnancy, undergoing various medical and emotional threats, finally culminating in a live birth and the welcoming of a new human into the world of life. 

Welcome, Abby Johnson.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Coming of Age as a Saint

Review: The Kevin Kirk Chronicles: My Mom's a Mortician, Funeral Home Evenings, Early Morning Cemetary, and The Final Farewell by Patricia Wiles

Kevin Kirk is that perenially endearing character: a young boy on the verge of life. Young Kevin does have a cross to bear. In My Mom's a Mortician, his parents have moved the family to a small town to manage a funeral home—and it will be Kevin's home as well!

This story of the way Kevin copes with, and eventually comes to terms with sharing his house with dead bodies, even as he discovers his goal in life and makes friends in a new town, is a most entertaining read. I was so pleased with it, I immediately went out and bought the other three books in the Kevin Kirk Chronicles. I was not disappointed. 

In Funeral Home Evenings, Kevin's family life expands to include the couple who work at the funeral home. Meanwhile, his goal to become a National Geographic naturalist seems closer than ever as he joins a special science class. To his horror, however, every step forward becomes a misstep, while his spiritual development begins to conflict with his dreams. 

Kevin's life as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints becomes more apparent in this second book. (The book's title is a play on the practice of "family home evenings" in the Church.) As with the first book, Kevin grows through the guidance of the adults in his life, for a satisfying story arc, and a promise of more to come.

Early Morning Cemetary (another play on a Church practice, "early morning seminary"), sees Kevin and his friends approaching adulthood in their community by way of exploring graveyards and making tombstone rubbings. 

At home,  the young couple who work for the funeral home want to renovate a delapidated house so they will have their own home in which to raise their child. Kevin and his father work to find a way to help them afford this purchase. Unfortunately, just as they seem to have it worked out, a figure from their past arrives with claims on their attention, love—and funds.

Hints of religious bias rise in this novel, adding to Kevin's burden. His growth is driven by these struggles, including an unwelcome guest, a series of items that go missing, and the accusation that Kevin is the thief.

In the end, The Final Farewell sees Kevin making a choice between his long dream of becoming a National Geographic naturalist, and taking the expected step for young adult in the Church, serving as a missionary. I am still reading this one, so I will say no more than it has been a worthwhile journey, a Gentile traveling with young Kevin through his Chronicles, as he finds his spiritual balance, becomes a young adult and an upstanding Church member, and reveals a few of the processes by which that faith guides his growth. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A River Runs Through It

Review: River Run (Forensic Geology Series Book 5) by Toni Dwiggins

Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the forensic geologists we met in Badwater, Quicksilver, and Volcano Watch (reviewed here in December 2013's Truth as Solid As Rock) and again in Skeleton Sea (reviewed here as Hematite and Franciscan Melange in May 2015) are back again with a mystery set in the awe-inspiring canyon walls that tower above the Colorado River.

There are many ways to die on the river, as this novel states from the outset. Our geologists, in the area to supply their expertise for a documentary film about the Colorado, are tapped to help solve the puzzle when a fishing party of four is lost from a raft found adrift on the river. Grand Canyon Park rangers hope they can narrow the search area based on a baggie of rock chips left on the raft, and recover the lost rafters alive.

The mystery deepens when the raft party leader, Reid Lassen, is found alive. He was the only one of the four in his party wearing a PFD (personal flotation device). Reid's an old geologist friend of Walter Shaws, but Walter had been told he was dead, decades before. And he can't help with the search for the other rafters, because he's got amnesia. So Cassie and Walter go back to searching for rock sources, including one for a new specimen found in the cargo pocket of a rafter who didn't survive. 

Every new specimen serves only to widen the search area. And time is running out for survivors who have yet to be found.

The action of the novel switches breath-takingly from geology to techniques of river rafting and suspicions of eco-terror. It's exactly like a raft trip through Class Ten rapids on the Colorado: terrifying, engrossing, thrilling, and exciting at turns (and sometimes all four simultaneously.)

As with the other novels in the series, River Run succeeds in making the science accessible and integrating the experience of field geology with the needs of ordinary people. In this story, these are all the water-using groups along the river's run: park rangers, rafters and canyon hikers, ranchers and farmers, communities and resorts.

Read it as a mystery; read it as a thriller; read it as science/fiction in the best sense of that term—but read it! 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Standing Firm with a PatriotCane

Basic Black (Gun-metal)

Review: PatriotCane: Stability and Self-Defence

The first time I saw the PatriotCane, I wanted one. I would buy one for its gun-barrel styling, and check it out. The concept was straight-forward: if you walk with a cane, you signal vulnerability to muggers. You may make yourself a target just by using this aide to balance.

The folks at PatriotCane had a better idea. They took a good, solid cane design with a pistol-grip handle, and added a strategically-placed weight system. This cane is loaded! 

The addition of the weight gives the cane a heft I hadn't anticipated—especially since, just before I actually received my cane, I managed to tear something in my left foot. 

In one day, I went from a "style reviewer" to someone to needed a cane to get around.
It arrived in a hand-made, cane-shaped box.

The weight at its base makes this cane swing naturally, compared to a standard walking cane. It is easy to see why that factor alone would increase confidence in its users. Knowing that the cane can double as a self-defense tool adds an additional layer of, well, swagger to walking with it.

The weighted end and pistol-grip handle provide another side-effect. Hang the cane from the edge of a counter, table, or other surface, and its low center of gravity swings the base below its hang-point. This angle catches the finger-dimples in the rubber grip, preventing the cane from sliding to the floor.

The cane comes in a wide variety of custom colors, patterns, and options, including flags, and military mottos. I'm even informed the wife of the company owner will add spangles to a cane for the user who prefers sparkle to swagger.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ PatriotCane

5 Stars: Style, substance, swagger, and sweet self-defense action! 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Here Be (More) Dragons

Review: Dragon’s Kin by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

There are worlds we adore from the first novel: Harry Potter. Honor Harrington. Flinx and Pip. For many of us, the first of those instant loves was with the third world of Rukbat, called Pern. Here, there were dragons.

Together with Anne McCaffrey, we explored the consequences of a telempathic, flight-capable companion which selected its life-long partners. Every lonely child could dwell for the space of reading in a place where one might be plucked up from the ordinary and removed forever to the realm of heroes.

McCaffrey’s own hobbies and interests echoed throughout the Pern novels. Song and music, art and craft- and cot-hold technology flavored the tales of great dragons and tiny fire-dragons. 

Then between one breath and the next, it seemed, the author lost the taste for dragons. She launched the Acorna series. She co-authored novels with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Elizabeth Moon. Meanwhile, Pern languished unconsidered.

With Dragon’s Kin, 
Anne got back on the dragon. The novel is a real addition to the Pern oevre, with the genuine flavor of McCaffrey’s writing, and the adolescent heros that won us to this world in the first place. Co-authored by Anne’s son Todd, the book tells how miner’s son Kindan finds the dragon-power and kinship in the watch-whers. 

Todd’s story is slightly darker than his mother’s have been. No less than ten miners die in the course of the story, and Kindan and his friend Zenor are both orphaned. But like all of the Pern stories, the story ends with growth and satisfaction, not fairy-tale happiness—and the promise of a sequel. 

That’s happy ending enough for me!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

My DNA Made Me Do It!

Review: Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner

Not since the Age of Enlightenment had the world seen such a crew of intellectual cutthroats, divinely assured of their rights of succession and their place in history. The philosophes of the Enlightenment also had their share of tall, thin, prognathous young men, and many of their contemporaries found them (in the words of Horace Walpole) “solemn, arrogant, dictatorial coxcombs—I need not say superlatively disagreeable.”

This book is the tale of the “intellectual cutthroats” who tracked down the mechanism of Mendelian inheritance, DNA. 

From Watson and Crick (whose names are famously linked to the discovery) to Brooklyn-born Seymour Benzer (whose name is virtually unknown, even in scientific circles outside DNA research), Weiner has put together a brilliant presentation of the unfolding of a new science.

After the eureka of Watson and Crick, one of the challenges for the new science (which did not yet call itself molecular biology) was to connect these classical maps of the gene with the new model of the double helix. It was Benzer who thought of a way to do it. Not long after Watson and Crick announced their discovery, Benzer hit on a plan that might unite the old revolution and the new revolution: classical genetics and molecular biology.

Weiner’s “cast of characters” reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century iconoclastic science: Richard Feynman, Max Delbrück, E.O. Wilson, geneticists Watson and Crick and Ronald Konopka, and the “Fly Room” scientists T.H. Morgan (whose name was given to the chromosome map unit “centimorgan”), Alfred Sturtevant and Ed Lewis. At the center of the tale, though, is Seymour Benzer, an innovative thinker who took the inheritance paradigm one step further, asking, can behavior be inherited?
With the discovery of the clock gene, the sense of time, mysterious for so many centuries, was no longer a mystery that could be observed only from the outside. Now it could be explored as a mechanism from the inside. This discovery implied that behavior itself could now be charted and mapped as precisely as any other aspect of inheritance. Qualities that people had always thought of… as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.

Benzer’s band of “cutthroat intellectuals” would have to battle for the new paradigm, both within the scientific community and outside it. Weiner’s book is, therefore a war story; but one in which the victories are celebrated by all combatants, and coups are bloodless. 

For those interested in behavioral science, genetics, or the concept of paradigm change, it is a fascinating read.

Liner Note:

I was surprised that the ground-breaking crystallography of Rosalind Franklin, whose photographs of the helical structure supplied the data that Watson and Crick used to achieve their leap of insight, was scarcely mentioned. Of course, since Franklin died before the Nobel was awarded, she was not a recipient. And like Benzer, she might have been forgotten, aside from DNA researchers, had it not been for an amazing BBC Life Story episode usually referred to as The Race for the Double Helix. The movie, which gives full weight to Franklin's contribution, was only released on VHS, and is largely unavailable now.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Revolt Against Asimov’s Second Empire

Review: Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury

One of the pillars upon which the giant reputation of Isaac Asimov still rests is the sweeping Foundation Trilogy.

These three novels detail how mathematician and historian Hari Seldon foresaw a 30-millennium-long Galaxy-wide collapse of civilization, and devised a plan to shorten those coming dark ages to a single millennium. Seldon planned an openly-acknowledged path of historical development for the newly-created Encyclopedia Foundation located on a world at the fringe of the Empire whose collapse Seldon predicted. 

Periodically, this Foundation would face a Seldon Event, a psychohistorical crisis, in which a threat to its existence which would constrain the nascent second empire to follow a single, pre-determined, path. To keep the Seldon Plan on track, a second, hidden foundation consisting of heirs to Seldon’s science of psychohistory would act as “wizards behind the screen” to ensure the coming of the Second Empire.

In Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury looks at the re-established Second Empire, over 2700 years after the crafting of the Seldon Plan. In this far-distant future, Seldon’s name is lost in the mists of history, and psychohistory is a occult practice, whose “Psycholars” maintain their Galactic rule by keeping the tenets of their science a deep secret. Citizens of the second empire exist in their complex society only with the aid of a mind-enhancing outgrowth of Asimov’s mind-probe, the quantum-mechanical familiar, or “fam”. On the surface, all is pleasant and peaceful.

Beneath that calm, however, are roiling currents of revolution. And bobbing along, pulled this way and that by these currents, is Eron Osa, a mathematical genius with a modified fam. We meet Osa as he is stripped of his fam for an unspecified crime. Condemned to live without his memories (but warned by the rebel Psycholar Hahukum Konn not to use the “prosthetic” fam supplied by the ruling council), Osa is forced to live by his native wit—even to the extent of actually reading with his eyes (gasp!) a purloined book of the Founder’s lessons as he attempts to recover the science he has lost.

We then flash back to Eron’s childhood, where we meet Hiranimus Scogil, another rebel, who is seeking a brilliant student to place as a sleeper in the Psycholar’s Lyceum on “Splendid Wisdom,” the seat of the Second Empire. Scogil places his student in the hands of Nemia of l’Armontag, who modifies his fam, ostensibly to give him faster access times, but with a longer-term plan to allow the mysterious Oversee organization to activate their sleeper when desired. 

We meet Kikaju Jama, yet another schemer bent on manipulating events by training and releasing agents, the tattooed barkeep Rigone of Splendid Wisdom, and Frightfulperson Otaria of the Calmer Seas, all of whom have designs upon the mind and future of Eron Osa. In deliciously complex inter-woven character histories, Kingsbury examines the human desire to manipulate others, on the personal as well as the Galactic scale.

Wrapped in layers of philosophy, history, metrical science and astrology, Kingsbury has also given us a closer look at the central premise of Asimov’s trilogy: that what men can predict, men can control. He then challenges this premise, exploring themes of free will vs. prediction; the scalability of government styles, knowledge acquisition and knowledge retention; and the quantum-cat nature of both prediction and history.

This is a demanding read, with sly references to a wide range of science-fictional works in addition to its densely-woven core story. You can enjoy the novel as a mystery (why does Eron Osa merit the execution of his fam?), as science fiction (will the various rebels succeed in overthrowing the Psycholars’ rule, and what is the mechanism by which knowledge slides into myth?), or as skillful homage to Asimov. 

However you read it, the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Liner Note

At the time of this review, the book was not available on Kindle.