Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford: A review

This wasn't really the book I had intended to read next, but there it was, already queued up in my Kindle, so, what the heck? Might as well tick that box.

Maybe it was Fate having its way with me. After all, the Minneapolis Police Department has been much in the news recently, following a police shooting there. A civilian who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault was shot and killed by one of the policemen who responded to the call. The irony here was that the victim this time, instead of a young African-American shot by a white cop, was a pretty, blonde, white woman shot by a black cop - a Somali-American. Where are the usual suspects telling us that the victim was probably a thug who deserved it and cops are always heroes? 

Ah, well, enough editorializing. Back to the safer world of fiction where things often really are black and white.

Eyes of Prey is the third in the very long-running Lucas Davenport crime fiction series. It was first published in 1991, so it came into being in an entirely different world. Nevertheless, it seems to hold up well and doesn't feel particularly dated. True, Davenport's and his fellow policemen's reflexive attitude toward women is blatantly sexist, but I suspect that is no less accurate today than it was in 1991.

This time out, Davenport faces off with two killers who are involved in a Strangers on a Train scenario - "You kill my inconvenient wife (or, in one case, boss) and I'll kill yours." 

It all seems to go off like clockwork, with one minor hitch: When the killer goes to kill the inconvenient wife, there is another person in the house. The woman's lover comes down the stairs in time to get a look at the killer and is able to report a partial description of him.

The killers try to figure out who the lover was and they settle on a likely candidate. And one of them kills him. Except they got the wrong man.

Then they decide to kill a random woman at the mall just to muddy the waters.

The signature bit in each of these killings is destruction of the eyes, because the brains of the whole plan is a psychopath who is haunted by eyes. He sees the eyes of his victims watching him unless he destroys them. And, oh, yes, he has had many other victims. He is a serial killer.

The madness continues. One killing leads to another and police struggle to make sense of it all since the killings seem to be unrelated.

Meanwhile, Davenport is struggling with serious depression. His relationship with the married woman from the last book ended, but not before it had destroyed his tenuous connection with his on-and-off girlfriend, the mother of his daughter. He seldom sees the daughter or her mother anymore, and there doesn't seem to be any anchor or joy in his life.  

He does start up a new romantic relationship with an actress, but that does not end well. And he works his street contacts, trying to come up with a lead to solve the vicious murders.

This book, in my opinion, was an improvement on the first two of the series. The plot seemed tighter and Lucas Davenport seemed a bit more human, rather than superhuman, and thus more sympathetic. There is no mystery involved. We know who the killers are right from the first, but it is interesting to watch as the police try to work it out.

This has been a lengthy crime series that is still going and still makes it to the best seller lists. This book gives a glimmer of why that might be.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Analysis of Baseball

Baseball is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. It's only in the endless permutations of those activities that it gets complicated.

This has been a fun season for Astros fans so far. In spite of having four starting pitchers on the disabled list at one time, and, now, their All-Star shortstop and potential league MVP on the disabled list, the team has persevered and has done well. 

But it is a long season and the dog days of summer are when the true winners are finally separated from the pretenders, so we'll see. Fingers crossed...

May Swenson certainly understood the simple game of baseball and she analyzed it perfectly.

Analysis of Baseball

by May Swenson

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn't
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat's
bait. Ball
flirts, bat's
late, don't
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.

Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That's about
the bases
about 40,000
fans exploded.

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It's done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It's about
home, and it's
about run.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

This week in birds - #265

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

The secretive Clapper Rail with two chicks - photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,088 acre refuge located on the Texas-Mexico border in South Texas. It is home to an amazing diversity of birds and other wildlife and is a major tourist destination for birders from around the world. It is often called the "crown jewel" of the national wildlife refuge system. But for at least six months, private contractors and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officials have been quietly planning construction of the first piece of our current president's promised border wall. Construction could begin as early as January 2018. Such a wall would essentially destroy the refuge. 


National Moth Week begins today and runs through July 30. At the event website, you can learn more about moths and how you can participate as a citizen scientist in this project.


It may be that there is a previously unknown species in the Bird-of-Paradise family. At least the dance moves of the bird which differ from other known species suggest that that is possible. Here is the known species, the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, performing his dance.


Here's yet more evidence that crows can differentiate between people who are kind to them and people who harass them.


There is an appalling story this week about the amount of plastics produced by humans - some 8.3 billion metric tons so far. The recycling rate is low, only 9% in the United States, although it is better than that in most developed countries. Indeed most of that plastic is sitting in landfills or, even more disturbingly, floating in the oceans of the world.


Courtesy of a nest cam on Kauai, many have been watching the development of a Laysan Albatross chick dubbed Kalama over the past six months and, recently, they got to see her take her first flight.


Giant hogweed, which can grow up to 20 ft. tall, has become an invasive nuisance in Great Britain. It is native to the Caucasus Mountains area and was first imported into the country during the Victorian era. It has since escaped from gardens and colonized the wild. Contact with its sap can cause severe burns which can take months to heal. Efforts are being made to eradicate it.


A new study of the effects of oil on birds' feathers shows that even the smallest amount of oil can make it difficult for birds to fly.


Area residents in Washington County, Maryland, are protesting and resisting efforts by a subsidiary of TransCanada to build a natural gas pipeline through their area that would be routed under the Potomac River. 


Ontario birders are happily welcoming an invasion of Dickcissels this summer.


Wolves do not pay attention to the lines on a map and studies find that hunting and "controlling" wolves in the areas adjoining wildlife refuges has an adverse effect on the population of wolves within the refuge. 


The various species of cowbirds are nest parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species of birds, often smaller species. This is a particular problem since, when the eggs hatch, the cowbird chick is bigger and apt to win the struggle for food, as well as sometimes actually pushing its step-siblings out of the nest. A study has found that prairie songbirds, most of whom are already threatened, are having to cope with increased nest parasitism in areas which are disturbed by agricultural and industrial development, a further threat to their survival.


North America has the richest diversity of freshwater mussels of any continent, but almost all of them are in trouble and some are threatened with extinction.


You would think that a bird would have no hesitation in flying across a roadway to avoid or escape a predator, but apparently you would be wrong. A new study has revealed that birds find roadways threatening and are hesitant to cross them.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an essay about the wonders of the egg which includes many pictures of beautiful and diverse bird eggs.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare: A review

I first read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for my high school literature class many, many years ago. Time has dimmed my memories of much that occurred during that period, but I have a pretty clear recollection of this play and my reaction to it. I found it fascinating, particularly the characters of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

That fascination was recalled to me a few years ago when HBO ran its excellent series set in that period, Rome, with Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and the wonderful James Purefoy as Antony. That series owed a lot Shakespeare's writing, as has probably every new artistic interpretation of that period. 

Shakespeare's language is so much a part of our collective unconscious that we quote him, both figuratively and literally, often when we are not even aware of it. Remember these quotes from this play?
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones...
Beware the ides of March.
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune...
His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Let me have men about me that are fat... Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.  
It was wonderful to stroll down memory lane with William. The words seemed just as fresh as when I first read them back in 19whatever.

What prompted me to reread the play was the notoriety it has caused this summer. Its production by "Shakespeare in the Park" in New York has been in the news because it updated the play to portray Caesar as a well-known current day politician and his rabid followers took great exception to that, disrupting the play and invading the stage to stop it. 

Who would ever have imagined that a 400-year-old play could have such relevancy and could cause such a reaction? Perhaps only Shakespeare. One imagines him chortling and rubbing his hands in glee as he surveyed that scene!

Rereading the play - the plot of which is too well-known to bother summarizing here - I still found it fascinating. I was struck this time especially by the fact that Mark Antony has the best lines in the play - his funeral oration for Caesar and his words on the death of Brutus. (Perhaps my reaction is colored by watching James Purefoy play him!) 

At any rate, I'm glad to have read it again and I am somehow comforted to know that Shakespeare's words still have the power to garner a forceful reaction even from people who may not fully understand them.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Death at the Chateau Bremont by M.L. Longworth: A review

This series was recommended to me after I recently read one of Martin Walker's mysteries set in France. Death at the Chateau Bremont is the first of a series that is set in Aix-en-Provence and features the chief magistrate of Aix, Antoine Verlaque, and law professor Marine Bonnet who was a former lover of his and, it seems, may become a current lover. 

The author of the series, M.L. Longworth, is a reporter and magazine writer, who has written in - among other venues - Bon Appetit magazine. That was certainly evident in this book in which much of the description was devoted to foods and to wines. It seemed that Longworth was eager to show off her knowledge of these things. Maybe she should have stuck to writing for Bon Appetit

The mystery here begins with the death of a nobleman named Etienne de Bremont who took a header out the window of the attic in the family chateau. At first, it appears to have been accidental, but two of his cousins who are lawyers are not so sure and request an inquiry into the circumstances. Thus enters Antoine Verlaque.

Six months before, Verlaque had broken off his long-running romantic relationship with Marine Bonnet - or did she break it off with him? Like many things in this book, that is a bit of a muddle. But Verlaque knows that Bonnet knew the Bremont family and grew up with the man who was killed as her playmate. He contacts her to ask for information about the family and she becomes involved in the investigation.

There is a lot of fairly aimless wandering around Provence with the main purpose seeming to be the tasting of wine rather than the solving of a mystery. We get copious descriptions of the countryside and the wines but not much description of any investigatory action. That all seems quite haphazard and off the cuff. Somehow I don't think this is representative of French police work. (I did watch The Tunnel on PBS, so obviously I am something of an expert. At least as much an expert as someone who has spent her career writing for posh foodie magazines.)

Anyway, the plot meanders along and then we have a second death - the brother of the first man who died. There's no doubt about how this one happened; he was strangled.

Even so, this doesn't seem to light a fire under Verlaque. He's still more interested in pursuing a resumption of his relationship with Bonnet and in enjoying fine food and superlative wines in 3-star restaurants and savoring his fine cigars (He belongs to a cigar club!) than in finding out what happened to these two men and who is responsible.

I give up! The plot and the characters in this book are just a big, fat mess! 

And that reminds me: At one point, Marine is ruminating on the looks and manners of the tourists that flock into Provence and she expresses her disgust at all the fat American and English women who carry around their gallons of water with them. It was an utterly gratuitous insult which contributed nothing to the plot and just made the "heroine" out to be a pompous jerk.

Finally, we do find out what happened in regard to the first death, but the mystery of who killed the second man and why is never solved unless it was in one of those passages where my eyes glazed over as I was speed-reading through the last chapters. Maybe the mystery was carried over to be solved in the second entry in the series, but I'm not curious enough to find out.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wednesday in the garden: Justicia chrysostephana 'Orange Flame'

Justicia chrysostephana 'Orange Flame' 

In my zone 9a garden, it is a very rare winter when we get temperatures below 20 degrees F. Indeed, in recent years, it's been a rare winter when temperatures dip below freezing. In our most recent winter, we had two days in January that had temperatures below 32 degrees F. That was it.

Our relatively mild winters offer us the option of being able to grow some tropical plants. One of the ones that I grow is the medium-sized shrub 'Orange Flame'.

My plant has been in the ground for several years and is well-established. It does lose its leaves and dies back in the winter but comes back strong in the spring. It lives in a bed where it gets bright light but is in shade much of the day. It is protected by the thick leaves of an old magnolia tree that towers over it.

The blossoms are big and bright and showy and do, in fact, look a lot like flames. They really pop in a shady area. The leaves of the plant are attractive as well. They are a lush, dark green.

This is an extremely easy plant to grow in this area. It thrives in high humidity and rich, humusy soil, both of which I can provide. About the only care it needs is to be cut back in late winter to encourage it to produce a bushy plant with lots of those lush green leaves.  

It wouldn't work for my friends in colder climes, but for us zone 9 gardeners, 'Orange Flame' is a real winner.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Austen's powers

July 18 is a date of some significance to my life. Most importantly, it is the birthday of my late mother, Reba Cromeans. Were she still alive, she would be 96 years old today.

Reba in her mid-twenties, one of my favorite pictures of her.

My mother, like most of us, was anonymous. The world did not note nor remember the date of her birth. Or her death. That is left to those of us who cared for her.

That is most certainly not true of the other woman important to my life for whom July 18 was a significant date. Her name was Jane Austen. You may have heard of her.

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. This two hundredth anniversary of her death has given an excuse for her legion of fans and admirers to pen tributes to her. For example, seven present-day writers make the case for each of their favorites among Jane's novels.

In the Times, Radhika Jones makes the point that unlike some famous writers of today (Here's looking at you, George R.R. Martin!) Jane Austen never killed off any of her major characters. Although death plays a significant role in some of the plots - Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice spring immediately to mind - the deaths themselves occur or are anticipated off stage.

Also in the Times, there is a fun quiz (if you are into such things) about Jane's life and afterlife. Answer the questions and find out how much of a Janeite you are. I got only 5/10 right, so I hardly even qualify.

And the articles go on and on.

But what accounts for the power of Jane Austen's writing? Why does she still exert such a hold on so many of us 200 years after she left us?

For me, the answer is clear: She wrote about us or our 18th - early 19th century equivalents. People with whom we can identify. Ordinary, anonymous, flawed, often annoying human beings. Human beings who live our lives within the circumscribed limits of our acquaintances and of society. Even when we rebel against those limitations, we are ultimately, in ways that we may not acknowledge, enclosed by them.

In fact, Jane wrote about human beings not unlike herself. Or my mother.

A little known fact about my mother is that when she was young, she very much wanted to be a writer. She never got that chance, but both she and Jane used the talents and resources they had to live the most productive lives that they could. Jane produced six novels and other writings for the ages. My mother produced me.

Weighed in the balance, I can't compete with Jane's writing, but, on the whole, I'm happy to be my mother's one masterpiece.