Sunday, November 12, 2017

Please, writers, do some research

It's pretty much a given that any time I watch a television program I'm going to start muttering about how lazy, uniformed, or stupid the writers are. I watch the shows anyway because I figure all fiction is allowed some creative license, but some series are a lot worse than others.

For example, as a former federal employee, I find myself doing a lot of willing suspension of disbelief while watching shows like "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds." It's pretty clear no one on the writing teams for those particular police procedurals has any clue just how federal employment works. If you're wondering, my favorite rant tends to be about federal mandatory retirement ages for active law enforcement -- there is a nifty catch-22 in federal hiring rules for commissioned law enforcement that basically guarantees you're not going to see anyone past the age of 57 running around out in the field with a gun (LeRoy Jethro Gibbs should have either retired into being a fulltime basement boat builder or lateralled into a purely desk job long ago) -- but I could go on at length about other howlers in the shows. Ever notice what weird hours the NCIS team works? Has any one of them ever put in a normal 8 hour day, bitched about having to take comp time instead of getting paid overtime because of their grade level, or whined about "use it or lose it" in a holiday episode?  I also love the streamlined hiring process -- someone shows up on a temporary detail, Gibbs decides  he likes that person and, voila, instant hire. No posting the job, no hiring review panel sifting through applications and doing interviews, just instant employment.

It was not "NCIS" that got me to ranting last night, though. It was "Longmire." Holy wah. I can semi-understand the writers having a piss poor minimal understanding of treaty rights and how it relates to law enforcement (e.g., what local and state law enforcement can and cannot do on a federally recognized reservation) because that area can be a mess (some tribes, states, and local governments are really good about cooperating and doing cross deputization; others are not) but it would have been nice if they'd done a little research into the provisions of the Indian Gaming Act before they decided to make an Indian casino a key element in the show. A little time spent looking into typical tribal politics would have been useful, too, because they could have come up with far more colorful plotlines than just portraying the casino manager as some sort of autocrat with not a whole lot of oversight, either from a tribal council or from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Then again, maybe after talking with a few of the Native cast members (and "Longmire" does seem to have a decent percentage of actual Indians playing Indians) they decided tribal politics are too Byzantine to be believable.

I'm not even going to get into how bizarre it is that way too many of the Cheyenne characters in the show seem to have been stuck with names out of a Dickens novel: Malachi, Mathias, etc. I don't know if that's a scriptwriter's quirk or a problem that Craig Johnson (the author of the Longmire novels had; I've only read one Longmire novel to date), but I have a hard time picturing any parent, Cheyenne or otherwise, thinking Malachi would be a good name for a child born in the mid-20th century. . . unless, of course, that parent is a member of some weird fundamentalist cult and thinks the Old Testament is a good place to go trawling for baby names. Although I have to admit that Malachi fits Graham Greene's character better than a more typical mid-century name like Jerry or Rick would have. As names go, Malachi comes close to being the male version of Maleficent. But I digress.

Last night's WTF moment in "Longmire" came when Walt Longmire and his deputy went to talk to a school teacher about one of her students. The 10 year old had some significant problems. Her father was dead, an apparent homicide victim, and her mother was so wasted on pain pills she could barely talk. It was obvious there was stuff going on in the kid's life that she wasn't talking about. We the viewers got treated to several minutes of dialogue in which the teacher does a fair amount of tap dancing and dithering about confidentiality and worrying about what would happen if other parents found out she'd said anything about a student's home life.

I repeat, WTF? Obviously, the writers for "Longmire" have never heard of "duty to report" laws. Every state has them. In some states any professional whose job involves working with children is considered a mandatory reporter. That is, if a teacher suspects a child is being abused or neglected, that teacher must report it. Wyoming doesn't specify teachers -- they turn every adult in the state into a reporter. If you're an adult in Wyoming, the supposed location of the Longmire series, and you think something hinky is going on in the life a child, you are required by law to contact law enforcement or Child Protective Services. I found this out through the magic of Google, a technological marvel that most scriptwriters are apparently unaware exists. (I already knew about duty to report laws; I just didn't know the specifics for Wyoming.) In short, when the county sheriff showed up asking if the kid had any problems at home, the teacher should not have hesitated, or, if she did, it should have been a different sort of CYA dance.

It occurs to me that minor annoyances like that are possibly the reason we don't binge watch anything. If we did, the cumulative bloopers would have me vowing to never watch another episode of The Walking Dead/Longmire/Bosch/whatever long before we got to the end of the series. As it is, we move through the Netflix queue and what's on Amazon Prime at the proverbial snail's pace. By the time "Longmire" comes around again I'll have forgotten how annoyed I got at it this time.

The S.O. also has some pet peeves that come up while watching television or movies, but his usually involve aircraft, like if we're watching something that's supposedly a flashback to the Vietnam war and he spots wire-strike protection on the helicopters.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Signs of the Apocalypse

I went to a meeting hosted by the Archives at the Michigan Tech library yesterday. A strange thing happened. There was a surplus of parking. I came prepared to circle like a shark hoping to find a space or, alternatively, to park somewhere far, far away from my destination and do a really long hike. Instead I discovered a plethora of empty spaces within literal spitting distance of my destination.

Guys, this isn't normal. Parking at MTU (Michigan's Toughest University) has always been a bitch. Back when I was a commuting student it was horrible. It was horrible when I taught there and had access to faculty parking. It's been horrible whenever I've had to go up there for various events or do some research. It is like a law of nature. Parking at Tech is bad, an exercise in survival skills. To get there on a weekday morning and have an actual choice in where to park, to see not just one empty slot close to the library but a dozen or more? This is not normal. Any time now it's going to start raining frogs or a giant chasm (aka Hellmouth) is going to open where we least expect it, like in the middle of a Girl Scout camp instead of under the state Capitol.

As for the meeting, it was useful. The Historical Society of Michigan is encouraging the formation of regional alliances for the various local museums and historical societies in the state. The western Upper Peninsula alliance would cover Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Gogebic, and Iron counties. The concept makes sense. There are several dozen organizations within that geographic grouping, including everything from groups that do just one thing (preserve a one room school or a historic house) to more general purpose historical societies like the Covington Township Historical Museum. The thinking is similar to what led to the formation of the Northland Historical Consortium -- encourage us all to talk to each other, share ideas, pool resources occasionally. I think it's a good idea, especially if it's under the umbrella of the HSM it's got a more permanent foundation than the Northland consortium, which has had to rely on the support of essentially one person with an academic job.  However, I'd be a tad more sanguine about its possible success if there'd been more than four organizations represented. There were supposed to be more, but a number of groups that had initially expressed interest didn't send a representative after all.

Still, despite the low turnout, the morning session led by a guy from HSM was worth the drive. I learned a number of interesting and/or useful things. Then in the afternoon there was a workshop on archives. The focus was on techniques to use when introducing elementary and high school students to working with primary sources. Schools have focused so much in recent years on using the Internet for research that kids don't know how to utilize primary sources like hard copies of newspapers, old photographs, business records, and so on. They are blown away when they discover they can go to an archive and actually touch original documents like personal letters and hard copy photographs of historic events. In fact, until an archive does outreach to a local school, both the teachers and the students may not be aware a local archive like ours even exists.

The highlight for me was from a group of photographs from August 1913 showing Mother Jones front and center leading a parade of striking miners in Calumet. Mother Jones! A typical high school student's reaction would have been different, of course. Instead of going, wow, my hero! the student would (hopefully) wonder just why there was an old lady with a typical old lady's purse marching with a bunch of men -- and that would be the gateway to learning more about labor history in general, not just the strike in the Copper Country.
Photo from Michigan Technological University Archives

After we talked about introducing students to using archival material, we were given a tour of the actual archives. The usual wave of envy swept over me when I saw the gazillion flat files filing cabinets. I fantasize about getting flat file cabinets for the museum's maps and other oversize material. One of these years -- everyone talks about getting grant money for that type of purchase, but the reality is that grant money for storage/archival supplies is hard to find. Grants to underwrite activities and events (collecting oral histories, hosting a guest speaker) are common. Grants for supplies and/or capital improvements are like unicorns.

But I digress. Besides envying the cabinetry, I was surprised to learn that in some ways I've been doing a more thorough job with the museum's archives than MTU has with theirs. Granted, I'm working with a lot less material but I'm doing it part-time and as an amateur. When I went looking for advice on how to organize the museum's archives and to create finding aids, all the experts as well as the online advice said that first step is to figure out what it is you have. End result is that as I went through the files, I indexed it as I went. The goal was (and still is) to index and then go back to see if categories need to be expanded, compressed, or eliminated. There has been no taking a box of stuff, calling it the Local Important Person Collection, and shoving it on to a shelf. If documents haven't been indexed, they're not in our Guide to the Collections/Finding Aids.

As for other signs of impending Armageddon on campus, there were no parking Nazis visible. We were in a room with windows overlooking the parking area all morning and I never saw someone checking meters and writing tickets. That is flat out not normal. Michigan Tech loves writing parking tickets. Brace yourself. Thunder snow and frogs falling from the sky are going to happen any time now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Humboldt's Gift

Humboldt's Gift is an odd book. I had no trouble reading it -- Saul Bellow could write -- but I did kind of wonder why I was bothering. Humboldt's Gift  is told from the perspective of a successful writer, Charlie Citrine, a guy who is apparently somewhere in his 50s at the time. The narration shifts back and forth from the present (early 1970s) to memories of the narrator's friendship with a renowned poet, Von Humboldt Fleischer.

Referred to as Humboldt by his friends and wide circle of acquaintances, Fleischer enjoyed early success but then kind of stalled out. He's able to earn a living, has an influential position as an editor and as visiting faculty as Princeton University, but his poetry doesn't have the impact he desires. He's sliding into becoming irrelevant, one of those authors whose early work gets described as "ground breaking" or "seminal" while the still-living author gets talked about as though he's dead. As time passes, Fleischer abuses drugs and alcohol more and more, becomes increasingly eccentric and paranoid, and ends up dying alone and unrecognized in a cheap New York City SRO hotel.

When the novel opens, Charlie Citrine is living in Chicago, his hometown. Fleischer has been dead for awhile, long enough that he's become the subject of Ph.D. dissertations, so Citrine finds himself pursued by graduate students hoping for some special insight or biographical tidbits that will make their research stand out. Citrine really doesn't want to talk about Fleischer or their friendship. His own life is enough of a mess that he's not interested in taking trips down Memory Lane with strangers. He's in the middle of a messy divorce, his writing has kind of stalled out, and he's involved with a youger woman, a person he admits he's seeing primarily for the sex. He recognizes that her primary interest in him is the money she thinks he has. The truth is, of course, that between his lack of recent work and the efforts of his wife to suck every last dime from him in divorce proceedings, he's got a cash flow problem.

In any case, the book flips back and forth between Citrine's current messed up life and his memories of Fleischer. He recalls Fleischer befriending him when Citrine first came to New York as a young, naïve wannabe writer and how their career trajectories intersected. Citrine went from being unknown to successful; Fleischer slid from famous and successful into obscurity. Their friendship splintered as the older writer became increasingly self-destructive. Citrine remembers the last time he saw Fleischer on the street in New York. The sight of Fleischer looking like a down and out wino spooked Citrine so much he found himself unable to cross the street to talk to his old friend. Instead, he had a panic attack and dashed back to the safety of Chicago. Shortly after that almost meeting, he learned Fleischer is dead.

Saul Bellow has Citrine revisit this memory multiple times in the book. You can tell it preys on Citrine; he's carrying a fair amount of guilt around for losing contact with the man who had been his mentor and had encouraged his ambitions back when he was unknown and struggling. At the same time, he's trying to deal with his wife's legal machinations, his girlfriend's mercenary instincts, a borderline Chicago mafia type who inserts himself into Citrine's life over a gambling debt, and his increasing financial woes. Citrine is a mess.

He's also not particularly likable. He's basically your standard issue self centered middle aged white guy misogynistic racist pig. I kept hoping the minor league Mafioso would decide to shove Citrine off a high-rise construction girder or stuff him into a garbage truck. No such luck. Four hundred plus pages and the jerk kept breathing. There was no happy ending in this book, unless Fleischer getting moved to a grave in a better location counts as one.

After I finished the book, I did some Googling. I try not to do that before reading the books on the list because I try to approach the Pulitzer winners with an open mind. Turns out that Humboldt's Gift is autobiographical. It's a fictionalized version of Saul Bellow's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwarz. Given that I had never heard of Delmore Schwarz but was familiar with Bellow's name (although I hadn't read anything he'd written) it does appear there were strong parallels when it came to the rise and fall of name recognition/notoriety/success. I also learned that the first incarnation of Humboldt's Gift was a short story published in Playboy. How a short story goes from a few thousand words to filling 400+ pages is a mystery, but Bellow must have been feeling inspired.

Would I recommend the book to other readers? It's a toss-up. Bellow could write. The book does have a certain flow and some of the elements do suck you in -- why does the Mafioso type decide he wants to be Citrine's friend instead of fitting him with cement shoes? how did Citrine become a supposedly successful journalist with access to political figures like Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy when he's so clueless about people in his social life? -- but Citrine himself is sufficiently repellant that by the time I got to the end I was feeling like I'd just escaped from having lunch with Harvey Weinstein.

Next up on the list: Elbow Room, a collection of short stories by James Alan McPherson. This is the first book where I had to make a choice -- skip it or buy it because it was not available through Interlibrary Loan. I bought it, which means it won't get read for awhile.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Major archeological find

Back in 1992, we decided to build a deck by what is now the entrance to the Woman Cave. At the time, the structure was the back porch we'd added on to the Shoebox, the ratty mobile home we'd lived in off and on since the '70s. The kid did the excavating, the S.O. then built a decent sized deck using rough lumber from a local mill. He treated it with Thompson's Water Seal a few times, but basically the decking was cheap untreated rough lumber, mostly hemlock and spruce, that then sat there exposed to the weather for a couple decades.

Every so often one of those boards would decide it had suffered long enough, it was time to rot. We usually discovered this by stepping through it. Annoying, but not exactly life threatening when the drop was barely 6 inches. We'd slap a patch over the hole and move on. This summer we figured out the patches took up more square footage than the original material. The time for replacement had come. So the S.O. pulled up the boards.

Lo and behold! Major archeological find. I guess it counts as historic archeology because the artifact came complete with a date embossed on the bottom. That date, however, raises an interesting  question: the Big Mac Transformer is copyright 1987. The deck didn't get built until 1992. How did it get under there? Tammi did a really nice job of leveling the space; it was definitely bare dirt when the S.O. framed the deck.
I suspect, of course, that one of the cats carried it under the deck while playing with it. No chew marks on it so it wasn't the dog.

Minor digression: it just struck me that even a plastic Big Mac looks more edible than the real thing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Talk about shooting yourself in the metaphorical foot

Listening to NPR this morning. For a change, the most interesting news is international, like the troubled election going on in Kenya. Kenyans had voted earlier this year, but that election was nullified by the courts due to overwhelming evidence of widespread election fraud. I'd say this election is the mulligan, the do-over because they screwed up the first time, but it's apparently actually the third time this year that the Kenyans have tried to hold a nation-wide election.

Well, in what has to be one of the more bizarre opposition ploys I have seen, people who oppose the current government of President Uhuru Kenyatta are boycotting the election. You read that right. In order to register their opposition and try to bring about change to the existing government, they're going to stay home, just sit it out. The only people voting will probably be Kenyatta's supporters. Assuming, that is, that anyone at all votes. The latest report on the BBC mentioned violence and physical attacks on polling places, but it wasn't clear just who was instigating the violence -- the opposition? The party currently in power? Who knows. In any case, none of should be surprised when we hear that Kenyatta won re-election by an overwhelming margin.

I'd say people talking about boycotting voting in Kenya has to be the dumbest electoral ploy I've ever seen except it's not unusual. Not long ago the same thing happened in Spain. People who opposed the separatist movement sat out the election held in Catalonia to determine whether or not Catalonia should become an independent nation. Naturally, when most of the people voting were the ones who supported separatism the election results were in favor of independence. This happened despite the fact various polls showed that the separatists were a distinct minority in the region. If all the people who opposed separatism had bothered to vote Catalonian independence would now be a nonissue.

Apparently opponents of the existing government in Venezuela also did something similar a few months back -- decided they weren't going to dignify the socialist regime of President Maduro by participating in the election -- so, wow, what a surprise, Maduro is still in power. The country is a mess, but at least the opposition has its dignity intact.

We saw something similar happen in this country a year ago. Lots of people who didn't like either candidate very much, who claimed that they didn't want to vote for the "lesser of two evils" opted to not vote at all. We saw how well that worked out.

The stupid, it burns.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Speaking of planning

One of these days I need to learn to plan better

The S.O. and I have been involved with some remodeling/renovating at the museum. I mentioned a few weeks ago we were going to pull out a window and then drywall that section of wall. Well, the window came out a couple weeks ago, and the hole got covered from the outside. At the time, we were thinking the drywall part would be easy.

Why would it be easy? Because the space was basically 12 feet wide and not quite 9 feet tall. All we had to do was get two 12 by 4 feet sheets of drywall, put them up horizontally, and that would be that. So when the S.O. and another historical society member framed in the hole where the window had been, a space that was 5 feet high and 8 feet wide, more or less, they didn't worry much about the spacing on the studs. They set them at 24 inches on center. When the dry wall seam was going to be horizontal, it didn't matter much what the spacing for the vertical studs was.

Well, then we did the shopping for drywall. That's when we got reminded that stuff is heavy. Even the lightweight stuff weighs quite a bit. I knew it was going to be me and the S.O. hanging that drywall. The more I thought about it, the less enthusiastic I became about the idea of having to lift a 12-foot long sheet of drywall on to the top half of the wall. We're old. We're not quite feeble, but we're getting there. Trying to lift a large awkward chunk of something weighing well over 100 pounds did not strike me as a fun way to spend our time. I started having visions of us being flattened by a sheet of drywall, pressed like oversize butterflies on to the museum floor. So when we were almost to Menard's I asked the S.O. for his thoughts. He didn't take much persuading. . . and once we were in the store and cursing as we got the actual sheets of drywall on to the cart, shifting to using the 8 foot lengths looked even more attractive. If we had trouble getting a 8 foot sheet on to a cart a couple inches off the floor, trying to lift a much longer sheet up almost five feet on the wall would have really sucked.

Of course, when it came time to actually hang the drywall, we discovered that we could not simply set the 3 sheets vertically. Nope. The studs in the hole didn't line up right. Coming over four feet from one side of the wall put the edge of the sheet about a foot too far from the framing. That's when the S.O. got to be creative. Three sheets of drywall wound up as six pieces, each one a different size, and multiple short seams instead of one long one. But at least it's up and we can move on to the next step.

I suppose we could have rented a drywall jack and that would have solved the handling problem for the longer sheets, but it seemed rather silly to spend more on rental fees than the material we were installing cost, especially when it would have been needed for just one sheet.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your tax dollars at work

Given that the typical VA patient, at least based on what I've seen in the waiting rooms in Iron Mountain and Hancock, looks like he or she is older than the proverbial dirt, I find it oddly reassuring that the Veterans Administration thinks they have clients who can still use this particular product. I picked up the brochure at the clinic in Hancock where it seemed like everyone other than the S.O. was definitely mobility challenged.

Then again, just because a person's knees or hips have decided to stop working doesn't mean that everything else has closed up shop. (And if it has, the VA also prescribes Viagra.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

It's still Amateur Hour at the White House

Ever wonder what life would be like if Cliff Clavin got elected President? I thought not. Most of us don't waste much time fantasizing about could happen if an annoying character from a 1980's situation comedy wound up in a position of power. Maybe we should have, because that's basically what the American populace allowed to happen when Donald Trump made it into the White House.

For those of you who aren't up on American television trivia, Cliff was the know-it-all postman who was a permanent fixture at one end of the bar. Cliff was a font of trivia -- you name it, he was sure he knew all about it. And even if he didn't have a clue, he refused to change his mind. Once he'd said it, whatever came out of his mouth had to be true. Sound familiar?

Back in January I told a friend that I thought a major problem with The Donald was that he had no idea how government actually worked. Coming at it from the outside, he had the same misguided view of the role of the executive that most of the public does: he thought that being President of the United States was like being the CEO of a corporation. The CEO issues a directive; minions immediately scurry around making it happen. You know, like Picard at the helm of the Enterprise.

The reality, of course, is that the Presidency comes close to being a figurehead, someone who has to work closely with Congress if he (or someday she) wants to get anything done. Can't really fault Trump for not understanding that when he entered office because most Americans are equally naïve -- we attribute all sorts of power (and blame) to the President when most of the time we should be recognizing that Congress is responsible for whatever we're complaining about.

But it turned out The Donald's ignorance didn't end with simply no working knowledge of how the government actually functions or who's responsible for what. Nope. Turned out he's amazingly, astoundingly blissfully clueless about just about everything. After witnessing him thinking the U.S. Virgin Islands are a foreign country, I'd be willing to be that if you asked him to list the fifty states, he'd draw a blank after rattling off the ones that have Trump hotels or golf courses.

And then there's been this most recent debacle. This was the week when we learned for sure that The Donald has the people skills of a rock. Tone deaf is an understatement. How hard can it be to offer condolences when someone dies? The stock phrase, the one that every adult should know, is "I am sorry for your loss." Period. No embellishments. That's all he had to do -- tell the widow he was sorry her husband was dead. You'd think that would be impossible to screw up. You'd be wrong. How can someone who starred in a scripted reality show manage to not parrot a few simple platitudes is a mystery, but The Donald did it. Whatever he meant to say, the way it came out registered as remarkably insensitive.

And then instead of having the simple courage to admit he'd tripped over his own tongue, he declared war on the widow and her friends.

Okay. I was wrong. The American populace didn't elect Cliff Clavin. They elected the annoying barfly, the aging frat boy who runs his mouth constantly about how wonderful he is and is oblivious to everyone else, the armchair warrior who hangs out at the VFW cloaking himself in stolen valor by waxing nostalgic about risking his life in rice paddies in Vietnam when he actually spent his years in the Army manning a typewriter in Louisiana. You know the type -- the dude who manages to bluster his way into the chairmanship of the local Eagles club and then drives the rest of the membership away. The mediocre but loud woman who insists on being put in charge of the Parent Teacher Organization and succeeds in persuading the other parents that maybe their kids would be better off in a different school. First they bluff, then they bluster, and finally they rant and blame everyone else on the planet for whatever went wrong.

Anyone want to make book on how much longer General Kelly is going to last as chief of staff? It must be exhausting trying to work with the world's oldest toddler.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book review: The Red Line

Anyone who's ever wondered why their immigrant ancestors came to this country needs to read this book. I know quite a few third or fourth generation Finnish-Americans who have made the pilgrimage back to the old country, been blown away by what a lovely place Finland can be (especially if you're a tourist), and wondered why on earth their grandparents or great grandparents ever left. Track down an English translation of Punainen viiva (The Red Line) and it'll be crystal clear. When your kids are going barefoot in Finnish winters and you're surviving by mixing pulverized pine bark with flour, the uncertainties of the New World had to look like a much better deal than anything Finland had to offer at the time.

The Red Line is set in rural Finland right after the Finnish national assembly passed legislation in 1906 granting universal suffrage. There was a literacy test, but other than that all adults age 24 and above could vote -- men and women, landowner and tenant farmer, rich and poor. Finland was, in fact, the first country to give women the vote. The literacy test, incidentally, was not much of a bar to any adult voting. Even Finns living in abject poverty who tended to view newspapers as something primarily used to line walls for insulation were literate. They had to be. You couldn't get married if you weren't a church member, and you couldn't be a church member if you couldn't read the Lutheran catechism. Despite Finnish being an extremely difficult language for non-Finns to learn, it's actually pretty easy to read for a native speaker. Each letter has a unique sound. Once you've mastered an aapinen* you can read anything by sounding it out. You may not understand what the words mean, which becomes clear as the protagonists in The Red Line try to figure out just what an "agitator" is (they have no clue whether it's a good thing or a bad one), but you'll know what they sound like.

The first general election was scheduled for March 1907. The months leading up to the election witnessed party advocates fanning out across the country. A socialist party worked particularly hard at turning out the rural vote, getting the dirt-poor crofters and others at the bottom of the economic scale to buy into their campaign promises. Never having gone through a truly general election before, voters tended to be a bit . . . gullible. To them, the campaign promises sounded like magic: vote for the socialist candidate and the whole system that kept poor tenant farmers in rags while the rich dressed in silk and had coffee every day would be overthrown instantly. The characters in this book truly believe that things would change overnight. If they vote socialist, their lives will see an immediate improvement. Instead, after agonizing over whether or not to believe the agitator and vote against the monied interests, they draw the red line, go home, and slowly realize nothing has changed. If anything, things get worse -- Fate (or, more accurately, the author) has some nasty surprises to throw at them before the snow is gone.

The red line, incidentally, refers to the mark, a diagonal red line on the ballot, voters made and not to the socialist party.

I found The Red Line interesting, but I did have some quibbles. I think the author kind of went overboard in his descriptions of the desperate poverty of the crofters. Yes, I believe there were poor farmers who lived so close to starvation at least part of the year that they had to resort to pine flour** to survive. Famine was a recurring problem in a country that practiced slash and burn agriculture and had an astoundingly short growing season. On the other hand, in this book the farmers are practically starving and worrying about every bite when it's still more than a month until Christmas. They're also short on hay for their animals (a cow, a calf, and some sheep). It struck me as a bit unbelievable that the farmers would be running out of hay barely a month into winter.

I was also more than a bit skeptical about the descriptions of the farm house/hovel as being filthy. I'm not sure why so many authors seem to conflate dirt-poor and dirty, but it happens all the time. Don't have any money? Than obviously you also don't know how to use a broom or to wash the communal stew bowl occasionally.

On the other hand, the cockroaches living in the filth were amusing. They were better read than the humans, although one does lament the fact he can't read Latin.

I will not claim to have read this book in the original Finn, although I wish I could have. The author includes dialect (Finland has a bunch of regional dialects) and I'd love to read Finn well enough to be able to pick up on the way a Karelian accent gets rendered compared with an ordinary crofter's and the more educated characters in the novel.

*aapinen -- children's primer used to teach the alphabet

**pine flour -- literally made by drying and grinding the inner bark of pine trees. The S.O. remembers a Lutheran minister describing it to his catechism class back in the early 1960's. Many rural families survived by mixing pine flour with wheat, rye, or barley. It didn't provide any nutritional value because humans can't digest cellulose, but it stretched the grain flour supply and helped stave off hunger pangs. There were good reasons many Finnish immigrants never felt any nostalgia for the Old Country.