Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you ever want to confirm your impression that middle America is populated entirely by racist whites devoid of any moral values, you need not look just at the recent presidential election. This book will prove it beyond any doubt. The Osage Indians were forced onto what was believed to be useless rocky land in Oklahoma by the U.S. government but they kept the mineral rights to their native land. When it turned out that land was sitting on top of rich oil deposits, they became incredibly wealthy. They then became the victims of hordes of white people who proceeded to steal their money in quite a number of imaginative ways. Most common was marrying an Osage then killing him or her to inherit their “head rights” to the oil revenue. One man blew up his own family including his children. Another common way was to have the Osage declared legally incompetent and to become the guardian, who of course controlled the wealth. Although there was one particularly powerful and violent man controlling a cadre of killers, virtually the entire white society in Osage County was complicit. It took corrupt bankers, undertakers, sheriffs, judges, and doctors for the murderous conspiracy to succeed and continue for decades. This book lays it out in detail. In short, the entire white society subscribed to the old saw that the only good injun was a dead injun.

The FBI was born during this time and this was then J. Edgar Hoover’s biggest case. A dedicated and competent FBI agent named White continued to pursue the case until the worst culprits were caught and convicted, but much like the Vietnam War, Hoover declared victory and closed the case, despite the fact that the killings continued to occur and that many of the worst offenders were never prosecuted or even publicly accused.

The book is a heartbreaking read as it can destroy your faith in humanity, assuming you ever had any. It’s not necessarily a fun read, nor is it particularly well-written. It is one of those duty reads we all need to make from time to time to keep ourselves grounded.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Persuasion is not Austen’s very best work, but for an Austen fan like me, it is still a delight. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the middle daughter of a baronet, Sir Walter. Her elder sister Elizabeth is her father’s favorite, and like her father is concerned primarily with wealth, station, and appearances. Sir Walter himself is a vain fop who dislikes Bath because there are too many plain women there. He’s a spendthrift and outright fool. Anne’s younger sister Mary, an airhead and whiner, is married to a gentleman who once showed an interest in Anne, but whom Anne rejected. Neither her father nor her sisters pays Anne any attention although she is the only family member with any intelligence and common sense. Anne’s mother is deceased and the role of protector and friend, indeed mother substitute, has been filled by Lady Russell, a good woman with much good sense who loves Anne dearly. Anne seems destined for spinsterhood and the role of surrogate mother for Mary’s neglected children.

As any Austen fan knows, the plot centers around finding a match for our heroine, but not just any match. It must be her lost love Captain Wentworth, the young naval officer who once made his intentions known to Anne, only to be rejected due to Lady Russell’s persuasion and Sir Walter’s objection as Wentworth was then near penniless and had no family connections. Now, years later, Wentworth returns with a fortune made at sea, but Anne is pursued by a fine-looking wealthy young fellow, her cousin in fact, who is the heir to the baronetcy and the entailed estate of Sir Walter since Sir Walter has no male children. She can be the lady of the estate and wife of a baronet, but she has doubts about her cousin’s character. I need not describe all the other relatives and characters as the direction of the plot cannot be a mystery to any reader.

What I love about Austen is how she writes with such intelligence and is not afraid to assume a similar intelligence on the part of the reader. Her sentence structure is elegant, her vocabulary immense and yet natural in the dialog of her characters, and her wit delightful. Of course the style is dated and out of fashion now, and the overt class prejudice is so blatant, even to some extent with her virtuous and open-minded heroines, that it can be off-putting to our modern ears. If words like thither, innoxious, plighted, and hitherto throw you for a loop, then Austen is not for you. Her prose is replete with sentences like: “She reentered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being possible to last.” They parse exquisitely for a grammarian but sag thickly like an overdecorated Christmas tree to others.

I first read this book in the 1970s when I needed a pocket book to read on the New York subway commuting to work. This time around I listened to the audiobook, which is perfectly read by Nadia May. I recommend it highly.

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to classify. There are plenty of killings, but it’s not a murder mystery. There isn’t a single cop or detective working on any of them, at least reported in the story. The title refers to the many shooting incidents in which the title character, Sam Hawley, takes a bullet. Sandwiched between these episodes of violent gunplay, most of them in the distant past, are chapters of Hawley’s current life with his teenage daughter Loo. Those chapters form a rather standard coming of age story.

I can’t say I liked the story all that much, but it wasn’t as repellent as the level of violence would suggest. The characters were interesting; credible – not so much. I’ve seen many caper movies or similar escapist fare where you are to root for the criminal. I have no problem with that when the crooks are ripping off the bigger crooks (e.g. The Sting). I don’t have that feeling with the real scumbags (e.g. Bonnie and Clyde). I think Tinti was trying to hit that spot where the protagonist is likeable enough that we cheer him on. Unfortunately, she missed it, at least for me. Bear in mind I’m retired FBI and do not like criminals. Hawley is a rather despicable character, even though he loves his daughter and makes an effort to leave “the life.” I found myself rooting for him to survive his many criminal escapades solely for Loo’s sake, but the nature of the format is such that you know he will at least until the very end, so there is no suspense.

I can’t help but feel that the excessive violence was just a form of pandering to the baser readership instincts that drive book sales. I never developed an empathy for the characters. This resulted in a reading experience much like reading a series of police incident reports. Just the facts, ma’am. It was just good enough to keep me reading to the end, although I came close to putting it down and not picking it up again several times. Some long waits in the doctor’s office helped keep me on track with it.

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Anagrams on the News – sad

Once again we have proof that the real threat of violence in America is not from Arab terrorists but from white American men who like guns.


Two anagrams on the news:

O, those deadly American bump stocks

(Los Angeles Times)

O, those deadly American bump stocks ~ must be yoked; splotch on America. Sad!

Anagram: Russ Atkinson
Image: Christopher Dombres

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stephen Craig Paddock = then a sick dog crapped

Anagram: Russ Atkinson

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryOperation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For fans of classic WWII derring-do or the early James Bond novels, this book is not to be missed, not only for its complicated and nail-biting plot, but because it is the real deal that inspired that sort of fiction. It is the non-fiction account of the wartime disinformation operation already well-known from the book and movie The Man Who Never Was. The British floated a dead body ashore in Spain costumed to appear as a Royal Marines officer, carrying (actually chained to his wrist) a satchel with counterfeit top secret war plans intended to fall into the hands of the Germans, who had great influence in Franco’s Spain at the time. The plans were intended to persuade the Germans that the invasion of southern Europe would come in Sardinia or Greece rather than its true target, Sicily.

That much we learn early on, but all the planning, politics, and operational problems that stood as obstacles to the plan were so vast, it is astonishing that the plan was eventually carried out. As Robert Burns, the Scottish poet wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” And agley they did gang, indeed.

I was initially reluctant to read this because I had read the original book and remembered much of the story. It is well-known among intelligence and counterintelligence personnel, of which I was once one. It was, however, the book chosen by my book club, so I dug in. The beginning was, as I expected, somewhat of a rehash of what I already knew. But the latter half of the book especially filled in details I’d never heard or at least didn’t remember. I believe this is a much fuller and more credible account that what has been told before. I found it hard to put down after the midpoint. I’m not a huge fan of the writing style as the author tended to exaggerate mercilessly. Every person was the most brilliant, most gullible, most devious, most corrupt, or most eccentric man to have ever walked the earth. The flourishes and color – make that colour since it was all too, too British – were a bit too much, but the story was riveting enough that it didn’t distract. It was a cracking good read.

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Unisex baby names

The names we give our children can tell us something about the society we live in. I’ve posted about this a few months ago. This data is from the U.S. Census Bureau. Take a look at the following chart.

The name Leslie can be male or female. It seems that in the 1940’s and 1950’s it became popular for baby girls. About that same time, it became less popular for boys. I speculate that in those days it was important that boys not be saddled with a “girl’s name.” Now compare it to this one:

Drew is another unisex name. However, it became popular with both sexes at about the same time, mostly in the 1990’s. I suspect that issue is not so important now since the whole LGBT wave hit. It’s not hard finding other unisex names in the last twenty to thirty years to support this latter conjecture, e.g., Jamie, Shawn, Cameron. It’s not as easy to see other examples to support my earlier speculation about boys not wanting girls’ names. Jackie did decline as a boy’s name in the 1960’s as it became popular during Jackie Kennedy’s tenure as First Lady, but it had already begun a slide for boys.

In my previous posts I showed how pop culture made some names more popular. It was easy to spot when certain singing or movie stars began their rise by looking at baby charts. It was true even back in the 40’s and 50’s, too, although to a lesser extent. Dwight became popular when Eisenhower was winning the war or in the oval office. Stan became briefly popular during Musial’s reign at the ballpark.  Jamie’s rise for both boys and girls matched very closely with the popularity of The Bionic Woman TV show (main character Jamie) and M*A*S*H (Jamie Farr played Klinger). It’s a bit harder to pinpoint why some names made their surge. Drew, for example, got popular for girls mostly in the early to mid 1990’s. It started earlier for boys. It’s tapered off for both, but stayed fairly popular for boys. The girl’s part might be attributable to Drew Barrymore’s brief time in the spotlight, but she wasn’t that major a media star that I recall. Drew Carey had a successful long-running comedy show, but his character was nerdy, hardly the kind of star power to inspire naming your child after him, and in any event, the rise for boys’ names began before that show.

Consider the next chart:

Pamela is a made-up name from the famous novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson (1740) but I haven’t been able to find any reason for its resurgence in the middle of last century. Similarly, I don’t know why Beau is suddenly popular for boys. Fashion may explain a lot of this of course, but I find it odd that Beau’s newfound popularity seems to be centered in Montana, Idaho, and Utah when state records are examined. Is there a popular white supremacist named Beau that I haven’t heard about? I always thought Beau was short for Beauregard, a name I associated with the South, but that is the region where Beau is the least popular. Penny had a similar surge almost identical to Pamela’s, but unlike poor Pam, Penny has come back into popularity a bit in the last few years.

The charts can be compared to each other time-wise, but not on the height of the popularity bars because they are at different scales. To judge absolute popularity, look at the notation in the lower left giving the maximum popularity. That tells you the scale. Just find the tallest bar and the number tells you what percent of babies that year of that sex were given that name. Other bars on the same chart are to the same scale.

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' LivesThe Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brown captures the drama and tension of high-stakes medicine in this non-fiction description of a single 12-hour shift as a nurse on a cancer ward. It is very reminiscent of the Boston Med or New York Med TV series. It is a short read and fast not only because of its shortness but also because it is riveting. Brown is a Ph.D. in English who taught at Tufts University before giving up teaching for nursing. As one might expect, her writing is polished and clear, mixing the human interest elements with clinical detail. If the grim reality of cancer is not something you can stomach, then pass on this one, but I found it fascinating.

As a word maven, or grammar Nazi if you prefer, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of errors. On page 170 she says “I … peak under the bed.” I smiled when I read that, thinking most women would brag about peaking in the bed, but whatever floats your boat. She also got the punch line to a joke wrong. The correct line is “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” These peccadillos notwithstanding, I highly recommend this book.

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Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James

Picture Perfect Murder (Ryli Sinclair Mystery #1)Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ryli is a photographer working part time for both the local newspaper and the police, or so she is described. I don’t think she did any photographing – or work, for that matter – throughout the story. When the town’s school superintendent is brutally murdered, Ryli goes around with her friend and her aunt asking everyone where they were when it happened. Meanwhile she lusts after the hunky police chief. There is no explanation for why she chooses to do this “investigating” and she fails miserably at it, putting herself in danger not once but twice in quick succession by failing to see the obvious attempts the murderer is making on her life. The cover bills it as a “daring and hilarious cozy mystery.” It was nowhere close to daring or hilarious, although I think I smiled once or twice while reading it. It was, however, a cozy mystery with the usual elements: female non-professional protagonist, lots of talk about the women’s outfits (and I mean lots), cooking, and interior decorating, a cute pet, and zero knowledge of police procedure. The one difference from the usual cozy, however, is that here Ryli does not turn out to be the strong, confident woman who solves the mystery; she turns out to be a blubbering incompetent who has to be rescued by the hunky chief.

The best I can say about this is that it was inoffensive and worth the 99 cents I paid for it. It got me through a dull day when my electric service was off for maintenance. Lovers of good writing are warned to stay away. The writing is ham-handed, cliche-ridden, and in need of a good proofreading.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 419-page tome (318 if you skip the Acknowledgements and Footnotes) is an academic’s look at morals and how people determine or judge right and wrong. Its overarching goal seems to be to make people understand that those with opposing views are not evil or stupid but think the way they do because there are valuable principles on the “other” side that have served communities and individuals well throughout human evolution. As he says in the final sentence of the text: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

That sounds like little more than Rodney King’s famous line, but the book is really quite intellectual and academic in tone and backed by solid research. I hated the social science classes in college and this reads very much like a textbook in a Psych or even Poli Sci class. It does have descriptions of a lot of academic research in this field, however, including many cleverly designed experiments. Most of them proved the same principle which put simply is that people believe what they want to believe. When people argue they don’t use logic to try to understand who is right but instead use it to try to develop counterarguments to rebut their opponent. This may seem unsurprising, but it was rather startling to me how researchers have proven that people will absolutely ignore compelling evidence that proves their view about something wrong even very simple demonstrable things. In short, people are not persuaded by facts.

Some insights were surprising, however. Until reading the book I did not realize how large a role genetics played in forming an individual’s position on the basic conservative-liberal scale. Conservative in Haidt’s sense is the desire to preserve the status quo and resist change, while liberal is the opposite – the desire to change, to experience new things. Experiments have proven that this dynamic is largely fixed and observable in toddlers. That doesn’t always translate into political conservatism or liberalism, but they appear to be somewhat related.

I can’t say the book was enjoyable reading per se; rather, it was informative and valuable, which makes it enjoyable in a different way.

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North Korea

I try not to get too political here, but this North Korea thing is getting to me. Why all the fuss? How many nuclear (i.e. weapons) countries are there now – a dozen? US, UK, France, Israel, S. Africa, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, N. Korea, probably Iran. OK, not quite. Keeping new weapon technology from adversaries has always been impossible from the slingshot to the longbow, to the catapult, to the rifle, to the nuclear bomb. Kim has had the technology for years now and could have used it on the US at any time. He doesn’t need an ICBM to nuke the US. He could have slipped an atomic bomb, a dirty one at that, onto a tramp freighter or a whole fleet of them and chugged into every major harbor in the US and shot them up one or two hundred feet and detonated them if he’d wanted to long before now. But he doesn’t want to. He has no reason to. Even if he did want to, he is deterred by the simple fact that he knows the US would retaliate massively and obliterate him and his entire country from the face of the earth, just as every other country is.

So why all the hype? It’s a battle of egos by two insane egomaniacs. Kim feels disrespected by the world in general and the US in particular. The same with Trump. It’s a couple of schoolboys yelling “Yo mama” at each other. I wish everyone would just shut up before one of these two idiots gets angry enough to nuke the other. That could lead to some horrible consequences. Just ignore each other, guys, and go back to running your countries.

Venona Returns

There may be a few readers of this blog who are puzzle mavens but who are not Bay Area geocachers. If so, you may want to look in on a thread in the Geocachers of the Bay Area (GBA) forum. It’s a bit hard to explain, but a mysterious Russian figure calling himself Venona has emerged from his cold war socialist crypt to pose challenges to us stupid American capitalist morons. You may have to join the GBA, but it’s open to everyone and it’s free. Even if you don’t actively participate, it’s fun just to read through the thread and check back from time to time to see if the American morons have defeated Venona’s evil schemes. The link to the thread is below.

Venona Returns

The Cryptic Crossword Caper

It’s here and it’s only $2.99. The price will never be lower.

Mags, recently widowed, has retired to tiny Buck’s Gap off the Big Sur coast, content to work her crosswords and discuss mysteries with her book club. Then she discovers the body of a murder victim, a professional puzzle-maker, and is drawn into the investigation. Soon a glamorous FBI agent arrives in town trying to find some stolen diamonds from a long-ago heist that she thinks may be connected. Mags is happy to help the police chief, but she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Fortunately, she has the Buck’s Gap Women’s Auxiliary by her side.

There are several puzzles in the book which can be worked by the reader, including a hybrid cryptic crossword, a Sudoku, and two cryptograms. These provide clues to the murder. The crossword and Sudoku are available online where they can be worked interactively or downloaded and printed out to be worked on paper. Details on how to do so are available in the Appendix.

A cozy mystery

Total eclipse – why bother?

I totally don’t get this obsession with the upcoming eclipse. Sure, it’s rare, but so what? You can get the exact same experience every night by walking outside. You are in a total eclipse every moonless night between sunset and sunrise. It’s just the Earth that is blocking the sunlight, not the moon.

This cartoon from XKCD sums up my feeling (especially the panel in the lower left corner).

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Little DeathsLittle Deaths by Emma Flint
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This very weak entry by Flint was plagued by ridiculous characters and unfathomable dialog. Nothing any of them did or said was even slightly plausible. It took forever for the plot to get going, almost 2/3 of the way through the book before the defendant was charged. The trial was replete with errors. Any prosecutor who conducted himself like this one would be disbarred. No judge would allow the kind of conduct depicted and if he did, he would be immediately reversed and probably disciplined. It was even worse than a Soviet show trial. Pete, the reporter, is even more preposterous. Even the book cover is wrong. The main character is a strawberry blond and the cover shows a brunette with only the tiniest amount of red and no blond at all. There was not one conversation in the book that I thought could have occurred. Actual humans don’t talk like that.

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Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Trail of the Spellmans (The Spellmans, #5)Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd Spellman mystery I’ve read (actually listened to) and in my opinion the best. At least half the credit goes to narrator Christina Moore who is a fabulous actress. She does at least a dozen voices and is somehow able to make each one immediately identifiable while still maintaining impeccable comic timing. Izzy, the narrating character, channels Paula Poundstone at times. She is almost reasonable and sane in this fifth installment in the series, a departure in that respect.

There are no murders but there are several mysteries apropos a San Francisco family private eye business. Cheating spouses, helicopter parents, and unexplained behavior by the Spellman clan itself among them. The author makes them all intriguing enough to keep you speculating while you’re laughing at the dialog.

I can pick at a few things as I usually do. For example, Izzy shows someone the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) in order to point out a Penal Code section. Huh? The Penal Code and CCP are two separate, unrelated codes. Neither one is the same as the Code of Criminal Procedure, either. The few peccadilloes of that nature did not get in the way of the story at all. If you want blood and sex, try something else, but if you enjoy a humorous mystery, this is your ticket.

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Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vance, a Yale law school graduate, grew up in a hillbilly family, moving back and forth from Kentucky to southwest Ohio. This memoir depicts a largely dysfunctional family and greatly dysfunctional societal milieu. The family he describes includes a mother who marries repeatedly only to repeatedly divorce for such things as stealing her husband’s antiques to support a drug habit. His grandmother curses a blue streak, threatens people at gunpoint with some regularity, vandalizes the store where she thinks a clerk disrespected her grandson by asking him not to break a toy, and she’s the best example in the family. To top that, his family seems to be a notch above the rest of hillbilly culture surrounding them. In Chapter 9 especially he lights into the “culture” with a vengeance, describing a violent society of drug addicts, welfare queens, absentee fathers, sluggards who won’t work hard or stay at a good job, hypocritically religious people who don’t go to church or practice Christian values yet are bigoted against those they think aren’t Christian (like President Obama, who is) and so on.

Vance nearly flunked out of high school in his freshman year but began to excel by his senior year. His SAT scores told him he was college material, but he knew he wasn’t ready and entered the marines instead. Clearly he was right about that and the marines did an admirable job of turning him into a responsible adult. He whizzed through Ohio State and made it to Yale, where he recounts some rather amusing stories of how ignorant he was of middle and upper class values and customs in general. He learned there was more than one kind of white wine. That people wore suits to job interviews.

The book is well-written and held my interest throughout, but it had its drawbacks, too. Much of it is condemnatory toward the community from which he came, but he glosses over his own participation in its darker aspects. He includes his family’s constant F-bombs in his quotes and what most Americans would consider filthy, vulgar, hurtful language yet never quotes his younger self as saying anything other than “yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Yet he obviously had something of a reputation as hell-raiser. He owns up to some irresponsible or just plain stupid conduct but tends to attribute it to the bad start he got in life (which no doubt is largely true), but a lot of it occurred when he was old enough to know better and take responsibility. He mentions that his community and some of his family were bigoted, but avoids describing how they talked in his family. How many N-words and F-bombs did he drop in his day? I won’t bother with listing specific incidents, but I got a very distinct feeling that he wasn’t giving a fair account; his own part of the blame was seldom brought out. He brags more than is seemly about his very remarkable and admirable academic achievements. The book could use a big deflation in the ego department while the author deserves full credit for his bootstrap success.

Before reading the book, I had a rather unfavorable impression of the Appalachian or hillbilly community but also something of a romanticized view of it. I was willing to view it as a bit rough around the edges and a poorly educated lot, but generally hard-working and salt of the earth kind of down-home folks. I love much of their music. After reading this, that naive view is gone. The community he describes is the trashiest of white trash beyond my worse imagining. They are quite literally the deplorables that Hillary Clinton mentioned and who put Donald Trump in the White House. I will never forgive them for that. Although my opinion is based largely on the portrayal in the book, i.e., on the author’s own words, I have the feeling that the author would take offense at my saying it and want to fight me if I said it to his face. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with his roots and a perverse pride in the very values he decries. He still has his hillbilly values at times, it is clear, as he described how close he came to getting out of his car to fight a driver who flipped him the bird. He can insult his own relatives and own people, but if anyone else does it, them’s fightin’ words. Even his dear Mamaw, although among the best part of the culture, doesn’t escape the white trash rubric in my view. I can assure you of one thing: if I had a magic wand and could instantly swap every Appalachian hillbilly for the refugees from those seven Muslim countries in Trump’s travel ban and all those brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking refugees from the other side of the non-existent wall Trump is pretending to build, I would do it in a heartbeat. The welfare rolls would drop 90%, crime would go down 90%, and a few employers at least would come back to Appalachia.

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