Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Travels with Susan

I'm off on the road again. For the next week, my older daughter and I will be traveling to visit family and friends and paying our respects at cemeteries where family members are buried. It's an annual June ritual for me but my daughter has not made the trip in several years. She's substituting for her father who elected to stay behind this year. (I think he's been looking forward to a break from me!) 

While we are traveling, I will be absent from this spot and from the internet in general, but I'll see you here again, I hope, in about a week. Meantime, stay cool! 

Kudos by Rachel Cusk: A review

I had been looking forward to this third entry in Rachel Cusk's Outline series. I found the two earlier books, Outline and Transit, to be remarkable works that were thought-provoking reads. With the release of Kudos, one can see now that all three are pieces of a whole and they fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces in the narrative that Cusk has constructed.

Cusk's story-teller once again is Faye, a middle-aged writer divorced from the father of her two sons and now remarried, although that marriage seems to play a very small role in her daily life. Faye travels - a lot it seems. She's always on the go to conferences or literary festivals or publicity tours that her publisher has arranged to promote her latest book. And in her travels, she constantly meets people who want to talk to her, who want to tell her the stories of their lives and their innermost secrets. Faye reports these mostly one-way conversations to us unedited and there is something almost magical in the way that we get a clear picture of the person who is talking by reading Faye's transcriptions of their words.

Seldom do we hear Faye speak. She is the most self-effacing of narrators, almost never inserting her thoughts into the narrative and yet, even in her silence, we do gain a full portrait of her as well, simply by listening to the way people talk to her and the things they say to her and about her. 

She does take time and care to describe the settings of her conversations - the hotels, the restaurants, the planes, the walks on the streets of the city - and her descriptions are almost photographic in their clarity.

Not only her descriptions of the settings but her descriptions of the people who talk to her are sharply perceptive. We "see" those people as if they were standing in front of us.

But the stories these people tell are the thing. They talk about their lives, their loves, families, friends, jobs. Many of the tales revolve around marriage, separation, and children. In this, the stories reflect Faye's life as well and the life of the author since she, too, was married and divorced and is dealing with raising two sons on her own.

In Kudos, Faye travels to an unnamed sunny port city in Europe to participate in a literary festival. The theme of the book seems to be success and failure: which writer(s) will succeed and thrive; which will win the prize and what will it cost them? In Outline, we got the parameters of Faye's self-definition; in Transit, she was moving on, renovating her house, redefining her life; now we see the outcome of all that effort and where it has taken her.

Several of the stories told to Faye and her own experiences to some extent deal with sexism or ageism. The difference in how the work of women writers is judged seems a subtle theme of the book. And the final scene of the book (no spoilers here) is so gross and seemingly fraught with metaphor and symbol that it makes this point in a particularly literal and primal way. 

Rachel Cusk's accomplishment with this trilogy has been extraordinary, in my opinion. Her unique method of telling the story almost entirely through a second-person narrative was brilliantly creative. Faye's story is one that I will not soon forget.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Afterlife by Billy Collins

If I were pressed to name my favorite poet who is writing today, I think it might be Billy Collins. I like the way he thinks and the way he expresses himself. Most of all I like his puckish humor and the fact that he manages to see that life on Earth, even in the worst of times, is not all doom and gloom. And neither, perhaps, is the afterlife.

The Afterlife 

by Billy Collins

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

Saturday, June 9, 2018

This week in birds - #307

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

Black-crowned Night Heron thrusts after a fish in the duckweed covered waters at Brazos Bend State Park.


A contributing factor in the recent disastrous 1,000 year flood in Maryland was the amount of paving in the area that prevented the rain from soaking into the ground. This, of course, is a problem in most urban areas and could intensify future flooding. 


As the federal government reduces, or ceases, its efforts at combating global warming, states and cities are stepping up to attempt to fill the vacuum of leadership.


Controlling rodents or other pests with poisons has always been problematic, but there are alternatives. One of them is to encourage the presence of raptors, those clean and efficient killing machines. Erecting perches for the raptors and nest boxes that some owls will use make the birds welcome in an area and they pay their rent by eating the rodents.


The tap water in Appalachia is not fit to drink because of pollution from coal mining and chemical operations that has leaked into the groundwater, soil, and waterways, and yet the American public knows little about this water crisis or has been desensitized to it.


The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park has been informed that he must take a transfer to the Capital Region in Washington, D.C., an area that includes the White House and Lincoln Memorial, within 60 days or resign. The superintendent has been a strong advocate for the wildlife of Yellowstone and that, it seems, is not what this new version of our Interior Department wants. 


A two-year project of surveying the birds of Botswana has produced some alarming results: many birds of prey are disappearing from Africa's last great wilderness areas. Some species of eagle and vultures have declined by as much as 80% from the last survey.


There are more than 200,000 protected areas around the world that cover more than 7.7 million square miles, an area greater than South America. These designated areas are supposed to provide protection for the animals and plants that live there, but new research shows that human pressure on these spaces is making it impossible for some of them to serve the conservation mission for which they were established.


If you are a serious gardener, you are probably already aware that your garden is hardly the peaceful spot that many imagine. It is a place of mortal combat between predator and prey insects, as well as the critters that feed on those insects. 


Atlantic Puffin population numbers have fallen sharply. The decline of the charismatic birds is directly related to the warming ocean which decreases the abundance of plankton and interrupts the supply chain that produces the small fish that the puffin needs to survive.


The new governor of New Jersey plans to take his state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program aimed at combating climate change. He is being urged by environmental groups to clamp down on CO2 emissions from power plants as part of that initiative. 


The United States just had its warmest May on record, breaking the previous record from 1934, the era of the infamous Dust Bowl. In addition, eight states had their warmest May ever: Virginia, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma. 


There are some 3.4 million acres of primary forest in Europe that are found in a patchwork, scattered around a countryside of fields and pastures of the continent. These areas need protection as they provide important habitat for European wildlife.


The federal government, after heavy lobbying from the chemical industry, is scaling back the way it determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. 


It may seem counterintuitive but a new study shows that controlled burns of grasslands actually benefit butterflies


The Guardian had a story this week about the successful reintroduction of species back into areas where they had disappeared. It is called "rewilding" and it is one way of fighting back against extinction.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: A review

The Mars Room of the book's title is a strip club in San Francisco where the book's protagonist, Romy Hall, gives lap dances. Suffice to say, it is not a high-class joint. Romy, who often exhibits a dark humor about life in general, describes it thusly: "If you'd showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren't misspelled you were hot property. If you weren't five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night."

Romy ekes out a living for herself and her young son with her work at the club. Life is not exactly good but it is bearable and the love of her life is that son, called Jackson.

Romy is in her twenties, having survived a chaotic childhood that was marked by drug use and sexual licentiousness. Her father was gone and her mother was not a strong presence in her life. Predictably, that life went off the rails.

Romy spent a few years working in the Mars Room, but during most of the time that we know her, she is in quite a different room, a much more claustrophobic one: a women's prison in California's Central Valley. She has received two consecutive life sentences for killing a man.

The man she killed was someone she had met at the Mars Room. He had become one of her "regulars" and finally had become completely obsessed with her. He ended up stalking her and when she left the Mars Room and moved to Los Angeles, he discovered her address there and turned up on her front porch one night. Perceiving him as a threat to her and her son, she beat his head with an iron bar, killing him.

Her trial is something of a joke. Her public defender seems incompetent and no exculpatory evidence - such as the fact that the victim was her stalker - is presented. Conviction is a foregone conclusion.

Romy goes to prison and Jackson is left in the care of her mother. But then a terrible thing happens: her mother is killed in an auto crash, in which Jackson is also injured. Romy is not able to find out any information. She is wild with grief and worry for Jackson and is put in administrative segregation and then on suicide watch for a while. There is no other family to look after Jackson and her parental rights are subsequently terminated because of her long prison sentence and the child disappears into the foster care system. She is never able to find out what happened to her son. 

The portrait that Kushner gives us of prison life is vivid and obviously extensively researched. We learn all about the cliques, the smuggling of contraband, lice treatments, violence triggered by racism or other forms of bigotry and intolerance, and, most of all, boredom. The mind-numbing sameness of the days breeds ennui, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. Kushner tells us, too, about the inventive ways that the incarcerated women try to combat the boredom with surreptitious parties and crafting.

Romy finds some relief from the boredom when an academic who teaches at the prison brings her books to read. A burgeoning relationship develops between the two and Romy tries to inveigle his assistance in finding out what has happened to her son. One intuits that this will not end well.

I was mesmerized by Kushner's narrative right from the beginning, especially with how she echoes other writers. Dostoyevski, for example. She explores his theories about evil, about how there are many kinds but not all are recognized. In the thoughts of that teacher at the prison, "There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools." Those abstract forms are the ones practiced by societies and governments and for which they deny responsibility.

She also shares an interesting perspective and insight with the juxtaposition of the writing of two men who chose to live, in their own way, outside of society: Henry David Thoreau and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber. She quotes quite extensively from Kaczynski's diaries and, in truth, his ideas do seem to mirror in many ways those of Thoreau. Fascinating.

I have not read Kushner's earlier much-praised books, but now I certainly want to.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Monday, June 4, 2018

Dark Horse by Craig Johnson: A review

Well, that was fun. This fifth entry in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series was a quick and entertaining weekend read. It contained all of the elements that have made this such a likable series for me and few of the ones that I have found annoying in the past.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming is called on to go undercover in The Dark Horse. The problem is that his undercover work is to be done in an adjoining county, in fact the county where he grew up and where the old Longmire family home is. He's not unknown in these parts, so being an anonymous undercover cop is a challenge to say the least.

The challenge comes about because Absaroka County has been sent a prisoner to house. They don't have enough criminals to keep their cells filled so when other counties have an overflow and need additional cells, they send them to Absaroka. But the sheriff of the adjoining county, an old friend of Walt's, might just have an ulterior motive in sending him this particular prisoner.

She's a young woman accused of having shot her husband in the head six times and then burning the house down around the body after he had burned her horses alive. She has confessed to the crime, but the sheriff has some concerns about that confession and wants someone he trusts to take a look at the case. Enter Walt Whitmire.

Walt goes to the little town where the crime occurred in the guise of an insurance investigator. It's a town with a population of forty souls. It is called Absalom, which gives Craig/Walt a chance to muse on how the town got such a name and to show off his knowledge of the Bible and of Faulkner.

There are some interesting characters in this mini-town. First among them is a barmaid named Juana. She is an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who came to Absalom by way of Chicago where she had married a Cheyenne construction worker. They had a son named Benjamin. After her husband was killed in an accident, she brought her half-Cheyenne son to Wyoming near the Cheyenne reservation and has been attempting to make a life for them there. She went to the local community college and took a course in criminal justice but was unable to finish because she ran out of money. But she is an enthusiastic practitioner of the investigatory skills that she learned and it doesn't take her long to rumble Longmire's cover.

Then there is an old cowpuncher named Herschel who worked for the couple at the center of the tale, the alleged victim and the alleged murderess. He despised the victim and idolized the murderess. Juana, who also worked for the couple, had the same opinion, as did, it seems, just about everyone in the town. I'm sensing a theme here.

As Walt is able to talk to his prisoner by bribing her with his dog (named Dog), he learns more about her, including the fact that she is a sleepwalker who takes Ambien(!). She was a barrel racer and owned a championship racer, a black mare named Wahoo Sue, who her husband hated and took out of the barn one day and told his wife later that he had killed her. The wife, knowing how he enjoyed torturing things, doesn't believe him and thinks the horse is still alive somewhere but in great pain. How did her S.O.B. of a husband live as long as he did?

Well, all of this makes for an intriguing plot and we get to follow Walt as he proceeds with his investigation and talks to the locals. Craig Johnson's ear for the vernacular is astute and it is a pleasure to read these conversations and to enjoy the dry wit with which they are imbued. 

Humor and Johnson's use of language in conveying a sense of the fantastic setting that is Wyoming are two of the strong points of this series. Both are on full display here.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Sound of the Trees by Robert Frost

I spent the last week reading Richard Powers' wonderful book, The Overstory, and thinking a lot about trees.

There is something about trees that seems to inspire poets. There are certainly plenty of poems about them and even more that employ the imagery of trees to make the poet's point about something. Robert Frost, in particular, seemed to have a special affinity for trees and wrote about them often. This is one of my favorites.

The Sound of the Trees

by Robert Frost1874 - 1963

I wonder about the trees.  
Why do we wish to bear  
Forever the noise of these  
More than another noise  
So close to our dwelling place? 
We suffer them by the day  
Till we lose all measure of pace,  
And fixity in our joys,  
And acquire a listening air.  
They are that that talks of going       
But never gets away;  
And that talks no less for knowing,  
As it grows wiser and older,  
That now it means to stay.  
My feet tug at the floor 
And my head sways to my shoulder  
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,  
From the window or the door.  
I shall set forth for somewhere,  
I shall make the reckless choice 
Some day when they are in voice  
And tossing so as to scare  
The white clouds over them on.  
I shall have less to say,  
But I shall be gone.