Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Has spring sprung?

Maybe one daffodil doesn't make a spring. 

Or one "snowflake."

Maybe not even one camellia - even if it's a camellia that doesn't usually bloom until the first of April. 

But how about the first rose of the season?

Or the first redbud blossom? It's nearly three weeks until the calendar says it has arrived, but spring is definitely peeking over the windowsill. At least here in Southeast Texas.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Killer's Wedge by Ed McBain: A review

Killer's Wedge (87th Precinct #7)Killer's Wedge by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A woman in black walks into the squad room of the 87th Precinct's detectives. Four detectives are there, going through another routine day of complaints, interrogations, reports, holdups, beatings, rapes, and murders. The woman in black changes their day forever.

She reaches into her coat pocket and brings out her hand holding a gun - a .38. She has the drop on the four men. They are her prisoners.

The woman is on a mission. Her aim is to kill Steve Carella. As it happens, Carella is out when she arrives. He had taken his wife to the doctor's office and then had gone to investigate an alleged suicide. No one knows when he will return. The woman says she will wait. They will all wait.

The woman blames Steve Carella for the death of her husband. Sometime earlier, Carella had surprised the man in the process of holding up a service station. He had shot and blinded the station attendant. Carella overcame and arrested him. He was tried, convicted, and sent to prison and while there he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. And now he has died. Obviously (to his wife, at least), it is all Steve Carella's fault and he must die.

After she has disarmed the detectives, the woman reaches into her purse and brings out a jar of a clear liquid which she says is nitroglycerin. Any false moves from anybody and she will blow them all to Kingdom Come.

While all this drama is happening in the squad room, Steve Carella is out doing his job, investigating the "suicide." A man has been found hanging in a locked (from the inside) and windowless room. It's the classic locked room mystery. And just as in all such mysteries, something smells funny about the crime, although Carella can't put his finger on it. He proceeds to interrogate the family and the butler who was on the scene and slowly begins to work out just how murder might have been accomplished and made to look like suicide.

Back at the precinct, the tense situation continues and is heightened when another policeman comes into the squad room and the woman with the gun shoots him. He lies bleeding  on the floor and the woman in charge will not allow his co-workers to get medical help for him.

Various detectives imagine various schemes for alerting the outside world to their plight, but nothing works. All their attempts are thwarted. Things are not looking bright as the day recedes into evening.

Ed McBain has conjured up a prickly and difficult conundrum for his detectives. Do any of them dare to try to be a hero? Are they willing to sacrifice their colleague, Carella's, life for their own? How can they possibly disarm a woman with a gun and a bottle of nitro without blowing up themselves?

This is another typical McBain tale, sharply written, brief, with swift-moving action. It was far from my favorite of the ones in this series that I've read so far. As with the last couple of books, I was really put off by the  attitudes and the language of the detectives in their dealings with the public, including suspects. They are so very misogynistic and rude. I try to bear in mind that this was published in 1958, almost 60 years ago, in a very different society, but, as a woman, it is hard not to be deeply offended by it.

One hopes that in the intervening 60 years cops might have learned a few things and may no longer wear their prejudices proudly along with their badges and brutalize the people in their custody and at their mercy. One can hope, and undoubtedly some policemen have learned, but when one reads the daily headlines it seems unlikely that such change has been as widespread as one would wish for.

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Poetry Sunday: You and I have Learned

Did you know that Leonard Nimoy, who died on Friday at the age of 83, was not only an actor and director but that his artistic nature led him into other avenues of expression as well? Those included photography for which he seems to have had a particular talent. There were several exhibitions of his work over the years. 

Those artistic urges also extended to poetry.

Poetry was certainly a secondary artistic expression for the man, but as I read some of his poems yesterday, I found them simple and heartfelt. One would have expected nothing less from the man who was able to bring the logical Spock to life. Here is one of his poems.

You and I have Learned

by Leonard Nimoy

You and I
have learned
The song of love,
and we sing it well
The song is ageless
Passed on
Heart to heart
By those
Who have seen
What we see
And known
What we know
And lovers who have
Sung before
Our love is ours
To have
To share
The miracle is this
The more we share…
The more
We have

And so we have to say goodbye to the man who has left our earthly presence, but fortunately for us, the character that he created lives on. Spock, that most human of souls, will continue to inspire us.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This week in birds - #147

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

The bird of the Week as designated by the American Bird Conservancy is the beautiful Evening Grosbeak. This bird wanders widely in winter. One of the most memorable winters of my life was that of 1977-78 when a massive irruption of the birds occurred and they descended by the hundreds into our yard in the little East Texas town where we lived at the time, covering our trees and shrubs and emptying our bird feeder. They arrived just before Christmas and stayed until spring. It was truly one of the most amazing events I've ever witnessed in birding. Sadly, the Evening Grosbeak has declined throughout its range over the last twenty years and was listed on the State of the Birds Watch List in 2014 for the first time. It would be sad beyond words to lose such a wonderful bird.


One of the most hopeful environmental stories I've read this week is this one about two boys who grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe and both of whom loved birds and other wildlife. They later teamed up to help make the former path of the Iron Curtain a green belt.


It has long been known that there are natural oscillations in climate cycles and scientists say that these can either enhance or ameliorate the effects of human-caused changes in the climate. There are indications that these oscillations may intensify warming of the climate in coming years.


In other climate news, it was revealed this week that a prominent climate change denier, Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, received $1.2 million from fossil fuel companies for writing scientific papers questioning climate change.


The American Bird Conservancy is requesting that wind projects be required to obtain permits under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to ensure that such projects are made as safe for birds as they can be.


"Bug Eric" gives us a nice portrait of green-eyed wasps, a very interesting insect.


I had completely missed the fact that this was National Invasive Species Awareness Week, but you can read all about it at their website.


The chickadee family, in general, includes some amazingly adept little birds, but researchers have found that Mountain Chickadees from higher elevations are faster problem solvers than those from lower elevations. Perhaps it is a survival requirement.


I find that, in my garden, several pepper plants are favorites of birds. "10,000 Birds" writes about Brazilian peppers in Florida and the birds that love them.


Birds are dinosaurs. That has been pretty definitively established. But when did dinosaurs become birds? To put it more succinctly, when did dinosaurs learn to fly?


The Snowy Owl echo irruption, following the big invasion that occurred last winter, continues in the East.  


Downtown Sacramento is hosting a massive roost of crows this winter.


Another critically endangered plant with brilliant purple flowers has been discovered in Hawaii. It is sad that so many of the species of plants and animals endemic to the islands are already on the brink of extinction when they are discovered.


Southeast Brazil, including Sao Paulo, is enduring a crippling drought. Lack of water is a crisis that is being faced in many parts of the world and is expected to become even more widespread in coming years.


Around the backyard:

The Carolina Chickadees are busy building their nest in this bluebird box outside my kitchen window. If the chickadees are at it, other birds won't be far behind. Spring is coming.

I hope the birds in your yard are providing entertainment on these often gray wintry days and that you are taking the time to enjoy them. Happy birding! 

And, most importantly, live long and prosper.

Friday, February 27, 2015

I Am the Only Running Footman by Martha Grimes: A review

I Am the Only Running FootmanI Am the Only Running Footman by Martha Grimes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Having just finished Middlemarch, I felt the need for a short, light, quick read to give myself a change of pace. Well, Martha Grimes' Richard Jury mysteries usually fill that bill and I've been slowly reading my way through them, so I decided to pick up the next one in the series, I Am the Only Running Footman. It was indeed a quick read, but that's just about the only praise I can give it.

What was the woman thinking? Her writing is usually pretty crisp and flows smoothly, but this book, published in 1986, was confused and disjointed in its plotting. I had a hard time maintaining interest and it was a struggle  just to finish it. If it hadn't been so short, perhaps I wouldn't have. Really, the book had the feeling of having been cobbled together with leftover ideas from other plots and they didn't hang together very well at all.

This book again features Macalvie, the obsessive but brilliant policeman who was introduced in the last book. He's an attractive character, but I don't know why Grimes stuck him in this story because she barely used him.

The same might be said of Melrose Plant, Superintendent Richard Jury's friend from the provinces who frequently assists the police with their inquiries. He's present but hardly heard from.

We do hear quite a lot from Sgt. Wiggins who, in spite of his annoying hypochondria, is presented as an invaluable assistant to Jury and an empathetic interviewer for crime victims and their families.

The mystery here involves the murder of two women. The first one was killed on Macalvie's patch and he was unable to solve the crime which rankles him. Almost a year later, another young woman is killed in a similar manner in Mayfair and Jury is assigned to that case. Soon the two cases are melded and Jury starts looking for connections between the two victims.

He eventually finds a possible link to a very close-knit family, a member of whom had been involved romantically with the Mayfair victim. That person has an alibi, though it seems a bit flimsy. But what could be the motive? The key to the mystery lies in the family's tragic past, but will Jury ever be able to make the connections?

On the list of things that annoyed me about this book, number one is the abrupt ending. Jury finally has one of his patented epiphanies and supposedly figures the whole thing out, but I read the ending twice and I'm still not sure what happened or which of two characters was the perpetrator. Moreover, I did not see any real clues sprinkled throughout the narrative and that's just not playing fair. Oh, for the days, when Hercule Poirot gathered everyone together in the library and laid it all out for us, step by step, leaving no confusion.

I won't give up on this series. Yet. I do like the characters of Jury and Wiggins, and especially Cyril the cat who inhabits the offices of Jury's superior, to his enormous irritation. But I'm going to take a break from it for awhile and I certainly hope Grimes picks up her game with the next entry.     

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Know Nothings redux

In the mid-19th century, the United States was home to something called the Know Nothing movement. It was a political movement that was anti-intellectual, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant. Its aim was to "purify" American politics. Its adherents ignored history and inconvenient facts which did not support their beliefs.

It seems that now, in the early 21st century, we are seeing a revival of that movement. Science and education are under attack in our society by the followers of this philosophy. From climate science and evolution theory through acceptance of hard-won medical technology or even basic hygiene like having your waiter wash his hands before he serves your food, know-nothingness is on the march and it apparently will not be satisfied with anything less than returning us to the Dark Ages.

It's not just science that is under attack; it is the whole concept of the scientific method of testing hypotheses with experimentation and unbiased observation. The Know Nothings know what they know because it feels right to them and they don't need any of the stinking facts developed by your scientific method. Any facts that do not support their intuitively felt conclusions are jettisoned.

Tom the Dancing Bug reminds us that the Know Nothings have a lineage. Galileo and Copernicus had to contend with them, just as Michael Mann and Neil deGrasse Tyson do today. He shows us the effect of the modern Know Nothings in nine frames.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday - February 2015

Today I am linking up with Gail Eichelberger's "Clay and Limestone" which is celebrating its fifth anniversary of the regular feature, Wildflower Wednesday. Congratulations to Gail.


I'm featuring a wildflower that is a pernicious weed in my garden, pushing its way into just about every one of my beds sooner or later. While I pull many of them out, I do continue to tolerate the weed because at this time of year, it features one of the few points of color in my garden.

Oxalis violacea, or violet wood sorrel, is such a delicate looking plant, you'd never suspect it of thuggish behavior, but any gardener who has ever tried to completely eradicate has learned that it is indomitable!
This member of the wood sorrel family is a low, delicate, somewhat succulent, smooth perennial. The plants spread from underground runners and will form small colonies quick as a blink of the eye. The flowers form in clusters at the tip of long, leafless stalks that rise above the leaves. They close up at night and often during cloudy days as well.

The plants will bloom twice a year, first in early spring and again in fall. This year they are blooming in February, possibly because we have had such a mild winter here. After the plants bloom in spring, they become very inconspicuous, another reason why it is possible to tolerate them.

Violet wood sorrel was historically used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. A mild tea brewed correctly from the leaves is said to be beneficial to the blood and a cold leaf tea can be used to control vomiting. The leaves of the plant have an agreeable sour taste when chewed but care must be taken because large amounts of the leaves can cause violent convulsions due to the presence of poisonous oxalic acid.

There are also cultivated varieties of this plant, particularly a pretty purple-leafed one, Oxalis triangularis, which I grow extensively in my garden. On purpose.