Friday, March 27, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead: A review

My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having recently read Middlemarch for the first time and having loved the experience, I was intrigued by this title. I remembered having read a couple of positive reviews of the book when it first came out over a year ago and I decided that now was the time for me to read it, while Middlemarch is still fresh in my mind.

Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, first read the book when she was seventeen. She has reread it numerous times in the decades since then and feels a strong connection with it. She sees connections between the text and her own life and between George Eliot's life and hers. This book is an exploration of all those connections. It is part biography of Eliot, part autobiography, part literary criticism and memoir of how the book came to be written. Some critics described it as a bibliomemoir and that seems apt.

I actually felt the title proved to be a bit misleading. The book was more about Eliot's life and times and the writing of the book than it was about the author's life. We learned some basic facts of her life and, indeed, she spent a considerable chunk of the book in detailing her research, her visits to museums and libraries to review original texts, her visits to the places where Eliot lived and wrote, but, in the end, I did not feel that the life of Rebecca was revealed to us by these descriptions.

We learn a great deal about the unconventional life that Eliot and her life partner, George Henry Lewes, lived. In Victorian England, divorce was virtually unheard of and unobtainable and Lewes was married to another woman with whom he had a family. But at some point, they grew apart, she took up with another man, and they started having children together. Lewes magnanimously allowed her to continue to use his name and gave his name to her children by the other man so that they would not be stigmatized by illegitimacy. Eliot had never married and when she met Lewes in her middle age, she could not legally marry him since he was already married. So, they simply lived together to the consternation of many of her friends and family, some of whom cut off all contact with her because of the scandal.

Eliot and Lewes, both described as physically unattractive people, had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances which seems to have included every famous Victorian you've ever heard of. They never had children of their own, but Eliot assisted in the upbringing of his three young sons from his marriage and she was apparently quite close to them. After Lewes died at age 61 and Eliot decided to marry, the eldest and only surviving Lewes son gave her away at her wedding.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the parallels which Mead was able to draw between Eliot's life and the lives of her Middlemarch characters, especially her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Mary Garth. Surely, many of the characteristics which she gave to her book people were taken from her experiences, her own personality or what she observed in her family and friends. That could no doubt be said of most if not all fiction writers, but a truly inspired writer like Eliot is able to make those connections seamlessly.

It was a pleasure to spend time in this book and to experience the characters and events of the wonderful Middlemarch through the eyes and understanding of someone, who, unlike me, first met the book as a teenager and has returned to it many times over the years. I feel it has deepened my understanding of the classic and has made me want to read it again. While I'll never be the constant Middlemarch reader that Rebecca Mead is, maybe I will reread it again some day. I think I would appreciate it even more the second time around.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Forever young

It's my sweetie's birthday, and it's a big one this year. One of those with a zero. It's time to pause and be thankful for all those years, especially the forty spent with me!

So, another year older, but never mind. My heart's eyes will always see him as forever young.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Wild onion

It's Wildflower Wednesday once again, the meme hosted each month by Gail of clay and limestone. It's a chance to feature and recognize the wonderful native plants that live in our gardens and habitats, plants that are happily utilized by the wildlife that also share our living spaces.

Today, I'm featuring a plant that managed by some mysterious means to reseed itself into my yard a few years ago. I happened to notice it and liked the look of it, so I dug it and potted it up to see what would happen. The next year it came back and bloomed again and I decided to plant it in the corner of one of my beds in the garden. It has lived there happily ever since and it continues to multiply, getting bigger and providing more blooms every spring.

Wild onion, or Allium canadense to give it its proper name, is a member of the lily family. It has a long bloom cycle that can last from March until May. It is a low, upright clumped plant that grows from a small bulb and has no stem. It may grow from 8" to 24" high. Mine is on the lower end of that range. The flower color can vary from a very pale to a dark pink. Again, mine are of the darker variety. In Nature, it grows in various types of soils including prairies, brushlands, rocky slopes, stream banks and edges, and openings in woodlands. It is native in much of the eastern half of the country. Wild onions were traditionally used by Native Americans in cooking and have also been simmered into a syrup and used medicinally for colds, croup, and pneumonia. Some native peoples also reportedly crushed the plant and applied it to bee and wasp stings to relieve pain. 

As for me, I just use it to please my eye and for the benefit of several small butterfly species that seem to like it as well. This is a Funereal Duskywing enjoying its nectar on a spring day.

Happy Wildflower Wednesday and let's all resolve to plant more natives in our gardens this year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Valley birds

I guess I've complained enough about my rain-spoiled birding vacation in the Rio Grande Valley. It was a week I had long looked forward to, since it is one of the birdiest places on the planet. I was hoping to see lots of new birds. That didn't quite work out, thanks to the weather, but, in fact, I did see quite a few birds. I even managed to get pictures of some of them.

This group of Roseate Spoonbills was resting at mid-day in the wetlands of the World Birding Center on South Padre Island. 

Also at South Padre was this Long-billed Curlew.

A pair of Mottled Ducks napping in the sun - the first sun we had seen in several days.

This was one of the two Red-breasted Mergansers I saw and was able to photograph at South Padre.

Green-winged Teal were quite common in the ponds at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Lovely ducks!

As were the very distinctive Northern Shovelers.

I wasn't able to photograph very many songbirds that I saw, but this little Savannah Sparrow was cooperative.

This Tri-colored Heron is well-dressed in his showy breeding plumage.

Black-necked Stilts are fairly common shorebirds at this time of year, but I never get tired of observing and photographing them. 

This was a small section of a very large flock - over 100 birds - of White Ibises in flight that we saw on South Padre island.

A male American Wigeon enjoying a swim.

This little Pied-billed Grebe was having a vigorous wash-up and seemed very happy about it.

A male Blue-winged Teal resting on a fallen tree at Estero LLano Grande State Park. 

Who knew that Orange-crowned Warblers enjoy oranges? I certainly didn't, but now that I do I will try to provide some when they come back to us next winter. 

Another very common shorebird, the Killdeer

The Great Blue Herons also were dressed in their showy breeding feathers. This one was resting from its labors.

The Plain Chachalaca, a large chicken-like bird, is a Valley specialty. They are more often seen on the ground but a pair of them were feeding on some sort of berries in the trees around the visitor's center at Estero Llano Grande State Park, and I managed to get a few pictures.

One of the highlights of my trip was being able to get several pictures of this little Sora at South Padre Island. I saw a King Rail, a Clapper Rail, and a couple of Soras in the wetlands, but this Sora was the only one who was cooperative enough to let me photograph it.  

It wasn't all about the birds, although it was mostly. This very large alligator, viewed from the boardwalk at the World Birding Center on South Padre Island, caught the eye and the camera lens of a lot of the birders on this day.
In the end, I didn't really add many new birds to my life list, but, fortunately, I'm not an obsessive lister. For me, it is mostly just about enjoying the experience and I never get tired of watching birds, even those that are familiar to me. Throw in a nice alligator or two and I'm one happy birder!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd: A review

A Matter of Justice (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #11)A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A London financial advisor named Quarles is respected and admired by his compatriots in the City, but he lives a different life altogether in the small village where he maintains a second home where he can "rusticate" to get away from business. There, he is known as a man who pursues women against their wishes, often married women or very young girls. He is just about universally hated by his neighbors there and so when he turns up dead in rather appalling circumstances, most of them will freely admit that they are glad he is dead and would have been happy to kill him themselves. All of which does not make the work of the police investigating the crime any easier.

The man was very important in the business world and lived as the local squire in the village and so when he is murdered the local constable calls on Scotland Yard for assistance. If it means a trip to the provinces, it's another chance for his superior to get Inspector Ian Rutledge out of his hair and his sight for a while. Rutledge is therefore dispatched to deal with the crime.

There is a bit of a twist in the telling of this story. At the beginning of the book, we meet Quarles and his later business partner Penrith as they are serving in South Africa during the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Something happens at that time which will be the precipitant of later events. We also meet the brother of the lieutenant with whom Quarles and Penrith served. The lieutenant and all the others under his command, except for Quarles and Penrith, had died in a Boer ambush. Knowing all of these facts in advance, we are far ahead of Rutledge and the local police in determining motive for the murder and seeing how it was planned and executed.

We get to watch as Rutledge wades through all the false trails and possible suspects, including those who are all too willing to admit to the crime for reasons of their own. It's easy to feel his frustration as it becomes clear that no one is really telling him the whole story, including the obviously not grieving widow. It's hard for him to hold on to his temper as he has to deal with their obstructionism, as well as the lack of support from his superiors in London. But he is tenacious in his quest for the truth and for justice, even for a victim who was an odious example of humanity.

Once again, Rutledge is hounded and in some instances aided by the presence in his mind of the Scottish soldier Hamish whom he had had to execute during his time in the trenches in World War I. Hamish's voice is much more active in this book than in the most recent one of the series that I read, and he helps to explicate what Rutledge is thinking and why his mind works the way that it does.

All in all, this was an interesting and enjoyable read. There was one incident that seemed entirely anomalous and unnecessary to me and I never really figured out why it was a part of the story. During the investigation, Rutledge, lacking sleep, had made a late-night run from the village to London and he had an accident in which he received an almighty bump on the head and possible concussion. But it really played no part in the plot. What was the purpose? That part of the mystery remains a mystery to me.

This, by the way, was the eleventh entry in the series. I accidentally read it out of sequence. Now, at some point, I'll need to go back and pick up number ten, obsessive reader that I am.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring

The changing of the seasons is another occasion for us to reflect upon the meaning of Nature and the place of humans in it. And while we glory in the beauties of early spring, it is also rather appalling to see "what man had made of made." That was obvious even long ago to William Wordsworth. The more things change, the more they remain the same. 

Lines Written in Early Spring

William Wordsworth1770 - 1850
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;                         
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.                              

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

This week in birds - #149

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

When we visited Estero Llano Grande State Park last week. the pond near the visitor's center was full of ducks, including all three species of teal. When I uploaded my pictures later, I realized I had captured all three of the species in this shot. The Green-winged Teal is on the far left and far right. A male Cinnamon Teal is second from the right and a male Blue-winged Teal is third from the right. The other two birds appear to be a female of one of the species and another Green-winged male - all beautiful birds.


The famous Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California traditionally returned to their nesting grounds on March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph. Through the years, the numbers of the birds that nest at the mission have declined. Few nest there today, but still many people turn their eyes to the skies over the mission on that date, watching and waiting for the birds' return

In our own area, the swallows are returning as well. The Purple Martins are here and when we were at Estero Llano Grande last week, the skies there were full of the birds. Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows are returning as well and will soon be building their nests if they haven't already started.


A lot of attention and publicity has been paid recently to the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and the harm they can do to honeybees as well as to native insects. But the decline of honeybees, which has been of concern for a number of years now, is much more complicated than poisoning by pesticides. There appear to be a number of factors involved


Light pollution from our human-made light sources can upset the internal clocks of songbirds and influence the timing of their seasonal vocalizations.


This winter, scientists at Michigan's Isle Royale National Park tracked a wolf crossing an ice bridge to the island, which may explain how wolves and other animals came to be on the island in the first place.


Every week there seems to be another story in the news of Bald Eagles nesting in a place from which they had long been absent. This week it is the National Arboretum in Washington. It is thought that the eggs in the nest may have already hatched.


Native bees are actually much more important to the environment than are the imported honeybee. Here is an introduction to the many species of native bee endemic to North America.

And here's one of them on the redbud tree in my backyard today. There were several species of bee present today. Bees do love redbuds!


Peregrine Falcons love the high rise buildings in cities. They mimic the high cliffs that are their natural habitat and the birds have learned to adapt to these faux cliffs. That is true not just in this country but around the world, including in Ireland.


The University of Texas has a crowdfunding project under way to finance publication of the images of insects into the public domain. So far they have raised about half of the $8,000 needed. 


Avian cholera is rampaging its way through the flocks of geese wintering in Idaho. Thousands of the birds have already died.


Phoebes are charming flycatchers endemic to open country. They have the distinctive habit of pumping their tails while perched. Why do they do it? It may be a signal to predators that the bird knows they are there and is ready to flee. 


A species of Asian wasp that is an enemy of stink bugs has been found to be present in the United States.


The number of seabirds in North Pacific waters along the Alaska coast has dropped, in some cases drastically, over the past several years. The main cause of the decline is thought to be related to global warming and the heating up of the ocean's waters. 


American Coots are very common in the wetlands in our area. One can hardly visit a park without encountering them. I can't say that I have ever noticed them being particularly contentious, but perhaps their Eurasian cousins are different - at least so says the story in Scientific American entitled "Curious Complex Contentious Coots."


Around the backyard:

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have arrived! The males always precede the females in their spring migration. There were at least two of the pugnacious little critters vying over my feeders in the backyard today.