Monday, October 23, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A review

This one has been on my "to be read" list for months. I kept skipping over it thinking the time wasn't right or I wasn't in the mood for it. Then, last week it was announced as the Man Booker Prize winner for 2017. The time was not going to get any more right; time to read.

I had read countless professional reviews of the book and they were all raves. Moreover, the reviews on Goodreads, which normally represent a diversity of opinion, were almost universally five-star. I was intimidated before I even opened the cover, thinking that I had to love the book - or else!

Then I read it and I didn't love it. 

I didn't hate it. It's difficult to put into words my reaction to the book. It is undeniably a creative and poetic telling of a tragic story. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the scenes of Abraham Lincoln with the weight of a country at war on his shoulders grieving over his recently deceased greatly loved 11-year-old son, Willie. But the manner in which the story is told, while innovative, seemed often tedious and pretentious to me, as if the writer were saying, "Look at how clever I am to have imagined this!" 

I guess what I'm saying is that I prefer my storytellers to be a bit less...obtrusive.

So, first things first: What is the bardo? Maybe Saunders' usual audience is familiar with the term, but I wasn't, so I looked it up and found that, in Tibetan Buddhism, the bardo is a "state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death."

Saunders reports the events leading to the death of Willie from typhoid in February 1862 using facts and excerpts from contemporary news accounts, statements, and books, as well as some fictionalized accounts. The effect is somewhat like a collage of randomly pieced together narratives.

Willie's body is embalmed and laid to rest in a crypt in Georgetown. Lincoln returns to the crypt on two occasions to remove the body from its casket and cradle it on his lap while weeping and whispering to it. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. 

Meanwhile, Willie is in that "state of existence between death and rebirth," not accepting that he is dead, unable to move on. And there is a supporting cast of seemingly hundreds of ghosts in the same state who wander in from all over the cemetery. They observe the grieving and the confused little boy and try to help in their own slightly comical and sometimes menacing way. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus describing Lincoln's visits and interspersing tales of their own lives and misadventures.

Yes, a very creative telling, but after a while that numberless and cacophonous ghostly chorus lost its charm and only seemed tiresome and monotonous to me.

The best parts of the novel for me were when the focus was on Lincoln and his grief. More than just a president, he seemed a stand-in for Everyman - and Everywoman - who has had his/her dreams and hopes shattered by circumstances and who has been left feeling betrayed by fate, alone and isolated. But then that motley crew of ghosts would come storming back onto the scene and my irritation would mount.

Bottom line: My assessment is that this is a challenging read and I can understand why critics loved it and why the jury for the Booker prize selected it. But for me, reading is about enjoyment and my enjoyment of the work was less than optimum, so I can't join in the majority opinion.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Poetry Sunday: So We'll Go No More a Roving by Lord Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have been a rake and a wastrel but give the man his due: He could write a nice poem. 

Just listen to the lilting rhythms of this one.

So We'll Go No More a Roving

by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

So, we'll go no more a roving 
   So late into the night, 
Though the heart be still as loving, 
   And the moon be still as bright. 

For the sword outwears its sheath, 
   And the soul wears out the breast, 
And the heart must pause to breathe, 
   And love itself have rest. 

Though the night was made for loving, 
   And the day returns too soon, 
Yet we'll go no more a roving 
   By the light of the moon.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

This week in birds - #277

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

I didn't take this beautiful picture. (I can only wish.) I stole it from Allen Wildlife photographers. It is a Purple Gallinule, one of my favorite birds, and the picture was taken at Port Aransas on the Texas coast. In recent years, Purple Gallinules have extended their range northward and they are becoming more common all along the coast.  


Republicans moved closer to opening oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a Senate budget vote late Thursday, setting off a new political scramble over the future of the pristine habitat in northern Alaska. The ANWR consists of about 19 million acres of pristine land in northeastern Alaska. The refuge, one of the largest in the United States, is the nesting place for several hundred species of migratory birds; home to wolves, polar bears, caribou and other mammals; and spawning grounds for Dolly Varden trout and other fish.


Remember those pictures of oil-coated wildlife from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010? They were heartbreaking. But in fact research has shown that contact with even small amounts of the oil made birds sick, and the effects of that spill still reverberate throughout the Gulf region. 


Americans are still dying in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands from the effects of Hurricane Maria. Throughout Puerto Rico, much of the drinking water is contaminated by sewage. Residents are beset by water and food shortages and, in many instances, lack of adequate medical care. 


Meanwhile, Ireland has been hit hard by Hurricane Ophelia. Typically, in the past, such storms have weakened and dissipated over the cold North Atlantic but, with the heating up of the ocean's temperatures, the storms are becoming stronger and lasting longer. Northern Europe must now be prepared to deal with such events. 


New Zealand is holding a "Bird of the Year" contest. Will it be the Kea or the Kiwi? The Bar-tailed Godwit or the Hihi? You can check the pecking order on the leaderboard here.


The beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker has been in a long-term population decline and the reasons for it are unclear, but Kenn Kaufman writes that, even in the best of times, these birds go through periods of boom and bust.


"The Meadowlands Nature Blog" gives advice on how to get your backyard ready for winter birds.


Our current president has said he is pulling us out of the Paris climate accord, but the administration is sending officials to Germany next month for the next round of negotiations regarding the deal, which begs the question, what gives you the right to be a part of negotiations for a deal that you've chosen not to participate in? Awkward.


Climate change is creating a shortage of appropriate food available to birds in the Galapagos Islands. Scientists are predicting a decline in the population of the islands' famous Nazca Boobies because of the food shortages. 


A new study has shocked scientists with the findings that three-quarters of flying insects in nature reserves across Germany have vanished in 25 years. This has serious implications for all life on Earth since insects are an integral part of that life as pollinators and as prey for other species.


Canada Warbler image from The Auk.

Canada Warblers, like many species of birds, like to nest close to others of their species. This points to the need to keep adequate appropriate habitat intact so that the birds do not become overcrowded.  


"Stokes Birding Blog" has advice on how to ID those hard-to-distinguish sparrows that can look so much the same to the casual observer and also how to attract them to your feeders.


The Interior Department is preparing to set aside a decades-old ban on development in federally protected wilderness areas by pursuing a controversial proposal to build a nearly 12-mile road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in ­Alaska. Environmentalists, several native Alaskan tribes, and other critics warn that the road could disrupt the habitats of a variety of animals, most notably migratory birds that use the refuge as a crucial stopover on their marathon journeys along the Pacific Coast of North America. 


Methane emissions from Alberta's tar sands are much worse than have previously been estimated, according to a new study.


The national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges of this country make up one of our most beloved and iconic social institutions. Together they represent perhaps the greatest accumulation of collective wealth and beauty in the world. Yet our political leaders neglect these lands with shocking recklessnessAt the present moment the trails and roads, the bridges and buildings and other infrastructure on our national parks are crumbling. The Park Service reports a deferred maintenance backlog of roughly $12bn. The Forest Service, for its part, is grappling with mounting maintenance needs estimated at about $5bn. All this as public land visitation rates continue their steep and constant climb. We should insist that our politicians make the maintenance and protection of these precious lands a priority. And if they refuse to do so, we must be willing to vote for politicians who will! 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Paraprosdokians

Have you ever heard of paraprosdokians? According to Wikipedia, "a paraprosdokian (/pærəprɒsˈdoʊkiən/) is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part."

Here are some examples from a five year old post of mine. They still make me chuckle.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012


A friend sent me this today. I guess it must be making its way around the internet. It gave me a chuckle. Maybe you'll find it amusing, too. (I especially like #3 and #14.)
Winston Churchill allegedly loved paraprosdokians which are figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently humorous. Here are a few I've collected.

1. Where there's a will, I want to be in it.
2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on my list.
3. Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
4. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.
5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.
6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left.
7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
8. They begin the evening news with 'Good Evening,' then proceed to tell you why it isn't.
9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
10. Buses stop in bus stations. Trains stop in train stations. My desk is a work station.
11. I thought I wanted a career; turns out I just wanted paychecks.
12. In filling out an application, where it says, 'In case of
emergency, notify: ' I put 'DOCTOR.'
13. I didn't say it was your fault...I said I was blaming you.
14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut... and still think they are sexy.
15. Behind every successful man is a woman and behind the fall of every successful man is usually another woman.
16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
17. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
18. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
19. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.
20. I used to be indecisive; now I'm not so sure.
21. You're never too old to learn something stupid.
22. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
23. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
24. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
25. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
26. Where there's a will, there are relatives.
And my favorite is...
I'm supposed to respect my elders, but it is getting harder and harder for me to find one!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: American Painted Lady

Free Fire by C.J. Box: A review

I read the previous book in this series several weeks ago and the ending left me hanging, wondering how the main character, Joe Pickett, would respond to the changes in his life. He had just been fired from his job as a game warden for the state of Wyoming. He had finally run afoul of bureaucratic politics once too often. 

The job had defined who he was as a person. What would he do now?

The answer was that he would become a ranch foreman for his wealthy father-in-law. But, of course, that didn't last long.

Soon, the governor of Wyoming came calling with a proposition for Joe. There had been a spot of trouble in Yellowstone National Park. A lawyer had shot and killed four people, environmental activists who worked for the company that had the contract to provide visitor services at the park. He admitted to the killing, turned himself in to the rangers, and said that he had shot the people because they had insulted him.

When the justice system attempted to prosecute the man, he pointed out that the killings had taken place in a small fifty-square-mile area of the park where there is no legal jurisdiction - a "free-fire" zone where it is possible to actually get away with murder. And he did. He walked free, much to the anger and frustration of all the authorities and the community.

The governor is outraged, but he also suspects that there is something more going on in Yellowstone, something that precipitated the murders, rather than the alleged insult. He wants Joe Pickett to go there as his representative (unofficial) and investigate. He'll be back on the state payroll as a game warden, with an increase in pay, and he'll have a free hand to handle the investigation however he sees fit. Which, to Joe, means that he can get his friend, Nate Romanowski, to help.

Joe doesn't have to think about the offer for long. He accepts and heads out to Yellowstone, with Nate to follow.

The story line details how Joe proceeds with his investigation in his usual bumbling way and it emphasizes the continued tensions between federal employees at the park and state employees, with, as usual, the feds (most of them, anyway) playing the role of bad guy. Joe does find allies among the federal employees and they slowly piece together the story behind the killings in the "Zone of Death".

The governor's instinct was right. There is something very rotten in the state of Wyoming.

Box moves his plot along toward an inexorable conclusion and in the process provides a lot of information about the history and the geology of Yellowstone and the laws governing the area. It turns out that the "Zone of Death," the free-fire zone, really did exist. 

Some of the most interesting parts of the book involve the explication of the geology of the place. Having just this past week been reading about the caldera and the super volcano that underlies Yellowstone and that will one day erupt once again, my reading of this book seemed fortuitous and reinforced some of the information I had learned. 

Yellowstone is truly a fantastical place and this book, while fiction, gives a good sense of that, as well as furthering the saga of Joe Pickett and his family.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2017/Poetry Sunday: Autumn Flowers by Jones Very

First, a poem about the beauty of late-blooming flowers.

Autumn Flowers

by Jones Very
Still blooming on, when Summer-flowers all fade,
The golden rods and asters fill the glade;
The tokens they of an Exhaustless Love,
That ever to the end doth constant prove.
To one fair tribe another still succeeds,
As still the heart new forms of beauty needs;
Till these, bright children of the waning year!
Its latest born have come our souls to cheer.
They glance upon us from their fringed eyes,
And to their look our own in love replies;
Within our hearts we find for them a place,
As for the flowers, which early Spring-time grace.
Despond not traveller! on life's lengthened way,
When all thy early friends have passed away;
Say not, " No more the beautiful doth live,
And to the earth a bloom and fragrance give. "
To every season has our Father given
Some tokens of his love to us from heaven;
Nor leaves us here, uncheered, to walk alone,
When all we loved and prized, in youth, has gone.
Let but thy heart go forth to all around,
Still by thy side the beautiful is found;
Along thy path the Autumn flowers shall smile,
And to its close life's pilgrimage beguile.


And now, here are some of those late-bloomers from my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas.

The coral vine is at its best just now.

Marigolds that have bloomed all summer continue to brighten my days.


And more lantana.

And still more lantana.

Hamelia patens with bumblebee.

'Coral Nymph' salvia.

'Coral Nymph' with pink Knockout roses and porterweed.

Porterweed alone.

Rudbeckia black-eyed Susan.

Turk's Cap.



Duranta erecta, golden dewdrops.

Bronze Esperanza with bee.

A bank of blue plumbago.

And, of course, what would October be without a few chrysanthemums sprinkled in. 

Even though many of the summer flowers have faded, we find that each season does have gifts of its own. As the poet wrote:
Let but thy heart go forth to all around,
Still by thy side the beautiful is found;
Along thy path the Autumn flowers shall smile,
And to its close life's pilgrimage beguile.
I hope that autumn flowers are smiling at you this Bloom Day. Thank you Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us once again.

Happy gardening.