Monday, January 23, 2017

Outline by Rachel Cusk: A review

What do we know about the narrator of Rachel Cusk's novel? Her name is Faye. She is a writer. She lives in London and is divorced. She is the mother of more than one child. She has taken a job teaching a summer writing course in Athens. That's about it. We never get below the surface with her. She remains a cipher.

This cipher, however, seems to have the ability to inspire other people to reveal their deepest secrets. Throughout this very unusual and very intelligent book, Faye has a number of conversations with people that she encounters and all of these people end up telling her stories about themselves and all the people they are closest to in their lives.

Her first encounter happens on the plane when she is flying from London to Athens to take up her summer job. She sits next to an older man, a Greek who is returning home. He unburdens himself about his failed marriages. Initially, he mentions only two but we learn later that he has actually had three. He talks about his children who have various problems. The conversation will continue in Athens when he contacts Faye and takes her out on his boat a couple of times and eventually makes a pass which she spurns.

But there are several other encounters; with her students in the writing class; with fellow writers; with people whom she meets for coffee or for dinner. Always these meetings turn into confessionals with the other person revealing intimate details of his/her life to Faye.

All of these conversations are reported to us in the voice of Faye, the observer and writer. Faye shares several characteristics with the author and it is tempting to see this as a kind of memoir. It is difficult to tell where the line is drawn between autobiography and fiction.

Somewhat curiously, while these people's stories are told in Faye's voice, we almost never hear that voice as a part of the conversations. She's simply telling us what the other person said, but she's not saying much about herself or voicing her opinions. Hers is a disembodied voice and she remains a cipher. Even her family - the children she left in London - seem to factor only very minimally in her day-to-day life and to have no impact on her interactions with others. 

So this book is a collection of conversations. It is reporting on an intellectual level. Very little emotion is involved. And yet one feels an intimacy in these interactions that might not have been present if the stories were told emotionally. The reader has a clear-eyed view of the encounters and is able to make up her own mind about them without being prompted by the author.

This is one of the more unorthodox books that I have read in a while. In fact, I can't think of another that is quite like it. Perhaps the closest was Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I thought the writing was brilliant and inspired. It certainly was original in its concept and execution.

I've learned that this was the first in what is planned as a trilogy. That's very good news. I look forward to reading the later entries.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Phenomenal Woman

Here's a poem that I will dedicate to all the phenomenal women around the world who marched yesterday to say,  "We are strong and we are not going anywhere!"

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman 
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

This week in birds - #240

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

Eastern Bluebirds are searching for nesting sites and starting to build their nests already. If you have a bluebird box, make sure it is cleaned and ready for habitation. If you are thinking of putting up a nesting box, now's the time! A few weeks from now will be too late. 


The first act of the new administration in Washington was to take down the climate change page from the White House website. There you go, America! Problem solved. No more climate change.


Back in the reality-based universe, scientists announced this week that 2016 set a new record for high temperatures on our planet. It was the third consecutive year that Earth's temperatures have reached a new high. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have surpassed previous records for three years in a row.


Since the 2009 accident when a jetliner was forced to land on the Hudson River after birds were sucked into its engines, nearly 70,000 birds have been killed in New York in an attempt to clear a safer path for planes landing and taking off.


Red-breasted Nuthatches are one of those northern birds that periodically irrupt far south in their winter wanderings. In some years they even reach my backyard here in Southeast Texas. 

I haven't seen any of the little birds this winter but here's a photo (not particularly good) of one that visited here in the winter of 2012-13.


Birds flock together as a defense against predators. The larger the flock, the more likely the predator is to be confused and unable to focus on one bird as its prey.


National parks are places where wild things can exist in their natural habitat, but they are also popular tourist spots and at times it can be a challenge to manage Nature while also allowing access to it.


Core samples from Pelham Bay in New York City have provided scientists with a glimpse into the past to study historic sea levels and to see what may lie ahead for the area as sea levels continue to rise in response to the melting of ice packs around the poles.


A new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses the mitochondrial DNA of Heermann's Gulls to draw conclusions about how their population has expanded in the Gulf of California since the time of the glaciers, and, by extension, how human-caused climate change may affect them in the future.


There is alarming news for primates this week. According to recent studies, over half of the world's wild primates are facing extinction. Researchers warn of an approaching "major extinction event" if effective action is not taken to protect around 300 species of gorillas, chimps, lemurs, and lorises. 


The Black Rail is a reclusive, secretive little creature, sometimes called the "feathered mouse." So it may be hard to notice that the bird is disappearing. But that is what is happening. It is already gone from much of its historic habitat along the East Coast and the continuing sea level rise is rapidly robbing them of their habitat, triggering what could become a catastrophic decline in population.


The fleshy frontal shield, like the one that appears above the beak of this Purple Gallinule, is a sign of dominance in birds of the swamphen family. The condition of the shield is a measure of the dominance of the individual bird. The bigger and flashier the shield the more dominant the bird.


Since humans have appeared on Earth, the planet has never experienced a time when global sea ice was so weak and reduced. Why is this important? Blogger robertscribbler explains.


The domestic terrorists who invaded Malheur National Wildlife Refuge early last year dug a couple of trenches into archaeologically significant sites in the refuge. So far repairing those trenches has cost more than $100,000 of taxpayers' funds. 


The tomatillo is the tomato's oddball cousin, a member of the extensive nightshade family of plants and the main ingredient of tasty and tangy salsa verde. Scientists had estimated that the nightshade family was about 30 million years old, but recently, paleontologists in the Patagonia region of Argentina have discovered fossilized tomatillos that date to 52 million years ago. So, it is possible that the dinosaurs nibbled on nightshades.  


The attack on the Endangered Species Act has begun with the introduction of a bill in the Senate (sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats) to remove protection from the gray wolf. The sponsors insist that the bill will not modify the Endangered Species Act, but many conservationists see it as the opening shot in a war whose ultimate aim is the repeal of the act and the rescinding of protections for wildlife and the environment.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill: A review

Nathan Hill begins his novel by retelling the Buddha's story of the blind men and the elephant. A king commands that all the blind men in the town be brought into the presence of an elephant. Each of the men experiences a different part of the animal. One feels an ear, one the trunk, one the tail, and so on. Then they are asked to describe what they have felt and, of course, they all describe different things, even though they have touched the same animal. The king is highly diverted.

Hill then proceeds to show us his "elephant" as it is seen by many different characters. Although it is the same story, each one has experienced it from his/her own unique perspective and so each person's truth may be different from all others.

The New York Times review of this book referred to it as "the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." I can see that. The multiple story lines, the wordiness, the different styles of writing that are employed at various times throughout the book, and the seeming reluctance of the author to edit out any anecdote or observation that he's ever heard or made; these could all remind one of those authors. But frankly, I found this book much more enjoyable than anything I have read by them.

I don't know how to even begin to sum up the plot of The Nix. It's a novel that encompasses political history from 1968 to the present, that discusses addiction to playing online games, childhood tragedy and grief, academic entitlement, social mores, the decline of journalism, and military misadventure. It flits from the midwestern U.S. to New York to Chicago to Norway to Iraq and back to New York. It sounds like a crazy mix and it is, and yet somehow the author manages to make it all hang together in a way that makes for a prodigiously entertaining read.

We start during the presidential campaign of 2011. The authoritarian demagogic governor of Wyoming is running for president. At a campaign appearance in Chicago, he is pelted with a handful of gravel thrown by a woman described as an aging hippie.

That aging hippie turns out to be the mother of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, professor of English literature at a small midwestern college and an online gamer too addicted to a game called World of Elfscape to notice what is happening in the real world. He has recently challenged a young woman student over her plagiarized work and told her she will be given a failing grade. She admits the plagiarism but sees nothing wrong with it and fights back by complaining to the dean.

Now, the aging hippie gravel-thrower had abandoned Samuel and his father when Samuel was eleven years old and he has had no contact with her since then. But her lawyer contacts him for help with her case and he meets her for the first time in twenty years.

Flashback to 1968 and the riots around the Democratic convention in Chicago. The aging hippie was there, although she was then a young college student and not really a hippie. She has friends who are hippies, though, and she is caught up in their demonstrations and ends up spending a night in jail because of it.

During his adolescent years, young Samuel was friends with twins, Bishop and Bethany. He was in love with Bethany, who was a talented violinist. She later becomes an acclaimed professional musician and, after many years absence, comes back into Samuel's life at about the same time as his long, lost mother. 

Along the way, we also meet other Elfscape addicts, as well as Samuel's father and his Norwegian-American grandfather, Walter Cronkite, Hubert Humphrey, Allen Ginsberg, and other assorted relatives, business associates, friends, and enemies of Samuel and his mother. The book goes on for more than 600 pages and it is full of wit and energy and brilliant writing. Even though I can't help but think that it might have benefited from some judicious editing.

This is Nathan Hill's debut novel, hard as that is to believe. It seems like the work of a much more experienced writer. It is a sprawling story, both funny and sad at times. 

Of all the themes that are tackled here, the one that stands out for me, probably because this is January 2017, is the political one; the presidential candidate who is a wildly gesticulating billionaire bully running on an offensive platform of xenophobia and bigotry. In portraying a society that could conceivably elect such a person as president, audacious surrealism may be the only path to take. Nathan Hill treads that path without inhibition but he always seems to know just where he's going.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Anahuac NWR in January

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast is one of my favorite places for birding. It's an hour-and-a-half drive from my house, if the traffic is light, but it is well worth the effort.

In the past, we've had a family tradition of visiting Anahuac every January, often on January 1. It's a nice way to start off the year. We haven't made the trip yet this year, but I'm hoping we will be able to in the next couple of weeks.

Looking back over my records from previous January trips, I selected some of my bird photographs to show you. The refuge is visited by more than 300 species of birds throughout the year. Not all of them are there in January, but here are a few that are. 

American Coots with their striking red eyes are always plentiful on the refuge.

Forster's Tern searching for lunch over the bay waters.

A small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers bob along in the waters.

Willets look like very plain birds until they take flight and you can see their colorful underwings.

Black-necked Stilts search the marshes for their lunch.

There are thousands of Snow Geese at the refuge in January and most of them are truly snowy, but a few are of this dark phase variety. They do stand out in the flock.

Pied-billed Grebes are present every month of the year.

Where the flocks of geese go, flocks of raptors of many kinds follow. Often they are difficult to identify, but there is no doubt about this guy's identity; it is a Red-tailed Hawk

Little Savannah Sparrows are numerous at the refuge.

I think the Green Heron is one of the most attractive members of the heron-egret family.

Double-crested Cormorant posing for its portrait.

Several Great Egrets with a few White-eyed Ibises in the foreground.

This Greater Yellowlegs seems to be wondering what that object is that I'm holding.

Both Brown Pelicans and White are present on the refuge. Here is one of the Whites in flight over the bay.  

Any visit to the refuge would not be complete without encountering at least one Great Blue Heron.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Infinite Jest reconsidered - maybe

Are you a David Foster Wallace fan? Most literary critics are it seems; most of his fellow writers, too. Whenever his name comes up, they wax rhapsodic about his prodigious talent and bemoan the tragic loss of that talent that occurred when Wallace was finally overcome by his depression and killed himself in 2008.

I admit that I totally missed out on the Wallace worship of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was entirely ignorant of him. Obviously, my head was somewhere else at the time.

In fact the first time I really became aware of him was in late 2010 when I saw an article entitled "13 books that everyone says they have read - but haven't." I wrote a blog post about it in which I said that I had no intention of reading Infinite Jest, Wallace's book that was on the list. 

But I felt bad about cavalierly dismissing a book that so many people seemed to adore and the next year my conscience - and my curiosity - got the better of me and I committed to reading it. 

I didn't like it much.

Lately, I've been giving some thought to the book and wondering if perhaps I should give it another try. After all, all those very smart critics keep telling me what a wonderful, world-changing book it is. Did I utterly misjudge it?

Have you read Infinite Jest? If you have, I would be interested in your thoughts on it. Here's what I thought about it back in 2011.


June 28, 2011

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: A review

I will freely admit that I may just not be smart enough to understand this book. I've read a few reviews of it by people who obviously are more versed in modern literature than I, and, for the most part, those reviews have ranged from mildly positive to raves. Moreover, looking at Mr. Wallace's biography, one sees that he won multiple prizes for his writing and some of them were for this book. That biography also tells us that the themes and style which he used in his writing were metamodernism and hysterical realism. I would have to say that the emphasis was more on the hysterical than the realism.

The events of this book take place in the not-too-distant future, when Canada, Mexico and the United States have come together in an organization of North American states, abbreviated as O.N.A.N. (Wallace makes a fetish of using abbreviations, often without explaining what they mean.) It is a time when vast herds of rampaging feral hamsters overrun the wastelands of the Northeast.

There is no real protagonist here, no one that the reader can identify with and pull for. The action takes place at two main sites, the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a sanctuary for recovering addicts and the psychologically impaired.

Enfield was run by a genius named James O. Incandenza who ultimately ended it all by sticking his head in a microwave, but he is survived by three sons, one a pro-football punter, one a severely deformed child who is filming a documentary of his world, and one (Hal) who is a tennis prodigy who is also mentally gifted. To the extent that the book has a central character, it is Hal.

At Ennet, we see Joelle van Dyne, a recovering freebase habitue', and another addict named Gately. I could never really get a clear picture of either of them.

Tennis is an obsession of many who people these pages and long, tedious passages are devoted to the minutiae of the sport.

The action switches back and forth between the two main venues and sometimes veers off into the Arizona desert and introduces other characters who never develop or seem to have anything interesting to tell us.

More confusing still for the unwary reader is the fact that time is no longer measured in numerical years like 2011 or 1985. Now, the naming rights to years are bought by companies and products. Thus we have the Year of Depend Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Whopper or the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.

Parts of this book are beautifully written with a clarity that makes the reader long for more, but typically those passages are followed by page after page after page of what I can only describe as incomprehensible dreck. The book is more than a thousand pages long. One gets the impression that the editors were so intimidated by Wallace's genius that they were reluctant to suggest removing a single word. They did the reader no favor with their shyness.

My overall impression of the book was that it was written by a terribly confused and unhappy author. Was my impression influenced by the fact that I knew that Wallace suffered from depression and later killed himself? Maybe. But it seems clear to me - hindsight is 20/20 after all - that the seeds of his obsession with suicide are discernible here.

As I was slogging through this book, sighing and cursing with just about every page, my husband asked me, "With all the good books out there that would give you pleasure, why are you reading one that you clearly don't enjoy?" Good question. I had challenged myself to read the book and I stubbornly perserved until I had met my challenge. Or at least until I had turned every page.