Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rant or Rave: Uncle Tom's Cabin

As part of my "Catching up on all the books I probably should've read when I was younger but somehow never got around to," tour of literature, I recently read Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Classic title, about which I knew next to nothing except that it was vehemently anti-slavery and had a major impact on the abolition movement in the mid-1800s, culminating ultimately in the Civil War. That's about it. Things I did not know about Uncle Tom's Cabin:
  • It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, selling over 300,000 copies in its first year of publication, and the second-best selling book to the Bible.
  • It was made into a multitude of different plays and dramatic performances during the second half of the 19th Century, none of them authorized by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  • That there was a controversy regarding Stowe's descriptions of southern slave life since she never actually visited any southern plantations, relying instead on written narratives and interviews with escaped slaves.
  • My understanding that the Uncle Tom character of the book was a race traitor, a figure to be scorned, even a villain, came from the unauthorized plays and 20th Century literary criticism, not from the book itself.
The writing in Uncle Tom's Cabin is good. Not great, but good. Actually, at its best it is great, but the book is quite uneven-- some sections are extremely engaging and well-written, while others suffer from either heavy-handed "preaching" from the author or over the top melodramatic prose.

But while Stowe's actual writing is inconsistent, the story and the subject of the book are not-- her vivid depiction of the evils of slavery, the negative, nearly inconceivable harm it did to so many people-- comes through brilliantly. To get a true sense of what slavery was like as little as 150 years ago, read this book.

So, a nearly unqualified rave for Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is a powerful, generally well-written and engaging story that will give you a new appreciation for just how awful an institution slavery was, and is, in our world. The only qualification is to be aware that at times the author does interject herself too much into the narrative-- telling, rather than showing-- and this can be distracting and annoying on occasion.

Final note-- if anyone ever calls you an Uncle Tom, simply smile at them and say "thank you." It will likely confuse them, and then you can tell them that Uncle Tom was a compassionate, kind and spiritual man, who always helped others and sacrificed himself to protect others from harm and injustice. Stowe's book is a Christian book, strongly grounded in 19th Century Protestant Theology, and Uncle Tom is in many ways a Christ-like figure. Never violent, willing to bear physical and emotional wrongs stoically to help others with the support of his faith, Uncle Tom is not a race traitor or a subservient whipping boy. He is a strong, principled man who doesn't compromise his beliefs even when it costs him severe beatings.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Signs of Spring

It was quite pleasant out this afternoon-- sunny, low 40's, hint of warmth and growth on the breeze. Rotund rodent from Pennsylvania to the contrary, it seems that maybe spring is at least dabbling its toe in the waters around this area. Felt good.

Some other signs that spring is preparing to enter, stage right:
  • The first baseball game of spring training was on the radio yesterday. What a treat and a thrill to hear Bob Uecker's unmistakable commentary-- Brewers fans are lucky to have Mr. Baseball calling their games. He will be missed when he retires.
  • Girl Scout cookies have arrived! As a hopeless addict of the Thin Mints, the day of delivery for those yummy little cookies is always a happy one.
  • The first green sprouts can be seen, here and there. Daffodils, I think, but I'm not certain-- I don't have a brown thumb, but it isn't green, either.
  • The college basketball season is winding down, with March Madness visible in the distance.
Spring isn't my favorite season, but I do enjoy the sense of rebirth and new possibilities it brings after the cold and huddled indoorsness of winter. 50 degrees or bust!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bad Predictions Review

During the NFL football season, I enjoy reading Gregg Easterbrook's weekly column Tuesday Morning Quarterback at After the football season is over, I love his annual Bad Predictions Review column-- because many of the things the so-called "experts" and "pundits" predicted were so horribly wrong! And because experts and pundits rarely get called to the carpet for their really awful predictions-- though many are quick to highlight the predictions they nailed.

The whole column is a blast to read, but here are a few of the predictions that were particularly awful, and amusing:
Tom Curran of MSNBC forecast Percy Harvin as a draft bust: Harvin was Offensive
Rookie of the Year.
John Clayton of ESPN Predicted:
... a Super Bowl of Steelers over Giants; neither team made the playoffs. He
used an incredibly scientifically advanced formula to predict the Bears,
Bills, Browns, Redskins, Seahawks and Texans would make the playoffs; none did.
Clayton forecast the Saints to finish 8-8; they won the Super Bowl. He said the
Jets would finish 6-10; they reached the AFC Championship Game.
For kicks, there are some horrendously wrong non-football picks included in the column as well. Including this beauty:
In 2002, Joseph Stiglitz, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and
Peter Orszag, who is now director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote this paper which concludes "the risk to the government from
a potential default on [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] debt is effectively zero."
Stiglitz and Orszag claimed to have used a computer model to run "millions of
potential future scenarios" and found there could never be any situation in
which taxpayers were harmed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans. So far, the
Fannie-Freddie bailout has cost taxpayers $112 billion, with a potential
ultimate loss to taxpayers of $1.9 trillion.
Aye Carumba! Anyway, check out the whole thing. It is well-worth the read, even if you aren't a football fan.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rant or Rave: Star Trek

Yes, I'm a little behind the times, but I finally got a chance to watch last year's "reboot" of the Star Trek series. It was an enjoyable film all the way around, with some good acting, an interesting recasting of the origins of Captian Kirk, Mr. Spock and the rest of the gang.

I was skeptical at first when nearly all of the original crew members of significance meet, or already know each other, before being assigned to the Enterprise. But after it becomes clear that this is an alternative future and not meant to be the exact past of the original series it makes more sense. As with most time travel scenarios, it doesn't necessarily make complete sense, because we don't even know that time travel is possible, much less how it actually works, but it is believable enough to allow the suspension of disbelieve and to enjoy the show.

The visual effects are terrific, the bad guy is pretty good, though not on a par with Khan or the Borg, the two best bad guys in the Star Trek universe, and the plot holds together pretty well. Toss in some good to very good acting and a pretty well-written script and you've got a fun new addition to the Star Trek pantheon. A guest appearance by Leonard Nimoy is very good, and the way that Scottie is re-introduced to the crew is quite fun.

Ovearll, the film does a nice job of retaining the core "feel" of the original series and Enterprise crew while still re-imaging enough of the original show connections (Spock and Kirk despising each other, Sulu as a martial artist as well as a navigator, etc.) to keep things fresh. The time travel scenario is a little strained, but less so than most time travel storylines-- you can tell the writers put some time into thinking through how time travel might actually work and to incorporate that into the plot.

So, a fairly strong rave for Star Trek. As a definite Trekkie (as opposed to a Star Warsian), I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to future storylines in the alternative timeline established in this film. Will they revisit some of the Enterprise's more memorable encounters, but with a different dynamic to the crew and some variations to the ultimate outcomes? Or, just develop brand new adventures? Either way, it could be a lot of fun and I hope future films are as good or better than this one.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Book Cart!

The March book cart is now open for business-- this month brought to you by The Three Stooges! Yes, it is idiots and dummies month, wherein we feature many, though not all, of the Complete Idiot's Guide to... and the ... for Dummies books. We have Complete Idiot's Guides to financial planning, natural remedies, job interviews, chemistry and much more. Or, if you prefer, Raising Chickens, Acrylic Painting, and Beekeeping for Dummies (not all in one book-- those are three separate titles. Though a Raising Chickens and Bees While Painting with Acrylics for Dummies book would be interesting!).
There's a lot of great titles available in these two series, so check out the cart and see if we can help unidiotify or dedummy you on some topic you've always wondered about but never explored. Personally, I'll be checking out Facebook for Dummies when it comes back in. Possibly The Complete Idiot's Guide to Speed Reading in the meantime.