Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wednesday in the garden: Fast and furious edition

Yes, fast and furious is how the flowers are coming these days.

The first sunflower of the season.

Tawny orange daylily.

Lemon yellow double daylily.

Raspberry salvia.

Scarlet salvia.

Blue morning glories.

Blackfoot daisies.

Yellow cestrum.

'Julia Child' rose, just a bit faded on its third day. 

'Darcy Bussell' rose.

'Christopher Marlowe,' another David Austin rose.

Orange milkweed.

Orange cannas.

Oakleaf hydrangea.

And even more coming along every day. It's a great time to be in the garden.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis: A review

This historical novel of the beginnings and rise of popularity of the tango could have been a conventional tale of a character's journey from poverty to - if not riches - at least comfort and security, but it is much more than that. 

The character at the center of the story starts as a teenage girl in the village of Alazzano in Italy. Her name is Leda, like the swan. She comes from a poor but respectable family. Her father is a consummate violin player and he teaches Leda's older brother to play. Leda wants to learn also but women are not allowed to play the violin. Women are not allowed to do many things in early 20th century Italian villages.

Nevertheless, Leda watches the lessons and learns the fingering of the instrument and all the motions of playing even if she is not allowed to handle it.  

Leda is pledged to marry her cousin, Dante. Dante emigrates to the New World, to Argentina, to make a new life. Argentina, at this time, has an open door policy for immigrants from Europe, at least partially to overcome the population of descendants of African slaves who threaten to become a majority in the country.

In time, Leda is married by proxy to Dante and leaves home on a voyage to Argentina to join him. Before she leaves, her father gives her the family violin as a present, he says, for Dante.

Leda arrives in Buenos Aires to learn tragic news: Dante has been killed, shot by the police in a labor demonstration. She is on her own in a strange city where she knows no one. How will this naive 17-year-old survive? 

She settles down in the crowded conventillo where Dante had lived, inhabiting his old room. She finds kindness among the other residents of the conventillo. She begins sewing with some of the women there in order to make enough money to live. Sewing is one of the few jobs respectable women could do. Other than that their options were to become a whore and earn their living on their backs or to find a man and get married and depend on him to provide. 

Leda soon learned that sewing would not earn her enough money to truly live independently. She had to make another plan. 

Since a woman was not allowed to work at a job that would support herself, Leda decides to be a man! She will become Dante, taking her late husband's name and wearing his clothes. She is a tall, slender woman which makes her gender-bending more feasible and more believable.

She abandons the conventillo where they know her, finds a room in another one and then a job in a cigarette factory. But all the time what she really longs to do is play the violin.

The tango phenomenon is just reaching its peak at this time and musical groups all over Buenos Aires play that music at cabarets and nightclubs, feeding the frenzy. If only Leda/Dante could find a way to become a part of such a group...

How she reaches that goal and what happens afterward make up the critical part of this story. It gives the novel a depth that it would not otherwise have and allows the author to explore the role of gender and the many ways that women were kept "in their place" and not allowed to be full participants in society. And though things have improved somewhat in the last hundred years, we still see these same attitudes and these same efforts to stifle women today.

There is also a secondary plot involving Leda's childhood friend, Cora, Dante's sister. The tentacles of this sad story reach out through a community that failed Cora and that continued to deny what happened to her, and all the way to Buenos Aires and later Montevideo where Leda/Dante finally understands what she saw in Alazzano as a twelve year old child. It is a tragedy that is all too familiar.

I found this entire story very affecting, very moving. I was on tenterhooks, fearing the worst for Leda/Dante throughout, but, in fact, though bad things happened, in the end s/he was able to live the life s/he chose - as a man. What a relief!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Poetry Sunday: the hidden

When I read this poem last week, it made me think of all the refugees trying to escape the horrors of war on boats, rafts, or on their feet, crossing borders, seeking a place in alien countries; countries that are often not welcoming, too wrapped up in their own narcissistic, self-centered, self-absorbed concerns to see those in need of the simple necessities of life; to see the hidden.

When I read the lines of the second stanza -
she is the mother of five a wife
a widow it is easy to forget
her strength in its subtlety
she keeps it hidden
- I thought of all those refugee women with their subtle strength that they keep hidden, the strength which gives them the fortitude to carry on against impossible odds. Would I ever have such strength if I were in their place?

the hidden
by Truong Tran

known for her cooking the consistent
perfection of spring rolls evenly fried
her secret to brush it
with just a hint of apple juice
to add some color give some flavor

she is the mother of five a wife
a widow it is easy to forget
her strength in its subtlety
she keeps it hidden

like the smell of apple juice
that reminds me
of my family the eighteen days
we spent on a tanker

the sticky metal floors streaked
with the vomit of children crying
a pearl a day she removed
from a string milky white marbles

on an army issued blanket
a make-shift playground
that kept what was ours
i would have to be good
no crying no complaining
it was mine to keep it was mine to lose

being thirsty that i remember
drinking juice from a can tomato
apple a concoction of both
my mother traded her red jade bracelet

for a jar of water
the kind you drank if you had money to buy
if you spoke korean the kind
that was plain without the taste of salt

she said uống từ từ—drink it slowly
i was given a third of this precious water
the rest she saved  hid in a suitcase

Saturday, April 22, 2017

This week in birds - #253

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

My backyard saw its first Baltimore Oriole visitor of the year this week, a bit ahead of schedule. Got to get those orange feeders stocked with orange halves and grape jelly to welcome the colorful migrants.


Hundreds of thousands of climate researchers, oceanographers, bird watchers, and other supporters of science rallied in marches around the world on Saturday, in an attempt to bolster scientists’ increasingly precarious status with politicians. Wherever we are, whoever we are, we must do whatever we can to defend science and the Earth from the know-nothings. 

Also, this has been National Park Week. Our parks, too, need our support and defense against those who would destroy the system that has meant so much to Americans everywhere over the last hundred years. The parks are especially appreciated by birders as they are among some of the best places to see a diversity of birds. The National Parks Conservation Association lists the 25 best national parks for birding. Three of them are in Texas and one I featured in a post here earlier this week - Big Bend National Park. 


Are birds adjusting their migration schedules to respond to climate change? My anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that they are, but, of course, scientists do not accept anecdotal evidence. They are studying Barnacle Geese to determine how the birds are responding to the challenge of a warming world.


Five environmental groups, pointing to trophy hunting by Americans as a main cause in the threat to the continued existence of giraffes, have lodged a formal request with the United States to list the animal as endangered in order to forestall the "silent extinction" of the species.


To all my readers in Mississippi, you have an opportunity to support an effort at a "Mississippi Big Day" on Monday, April 24. Or it could be Sunday. Or Tuesday. The Big Day is being attempted by a conservation group called Delta Wind Birds and they will be attempting to livestream and/or live tweet their activities all day. They hope to beat the previous record of 175 set in 1989. They also hope to raise money for their cause and the public is invited to make pledges for the Big Day attempt


Although the remoteness of Antarctica may afford it some protection from the effects of climate change, it faces degradation of its biodiversity from tourism, transnational pollution, warming oceans, melting ice cover, and other threats.


In what The San Diego Union-Tribune called an "irony alert," the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum has installed 80 solar panels on its roof in an effort to save on its monthly electric bill. Kudos to them for facing the reality of the present and planning for the future instead of living in the past.


Knowing where migrating birds came from and where they are headed is essential for their conservation. Scientists are studying the isotopes in the feathers of ducks harvested by hunters in order to get some of the answers to the questions of where they came from and where they go. Their information points to the importance of boreal wetlands to the birds' life cycles.


Since the first confirmed wolf wandered into Oregon from Idaho in 1999, the state's known wolf population has grown to 112 animals, up two from 2016, according to a recent report. Scientists who study the animals expect the formation of additional packs in southern Oregon.


Have you heard about "The Case of the Disappearing River?" The Slims River, which flowed from a Canadian glacier, abruptly and unexpectedly disappeared over a course of four days when the glacier melted and receded last year. Where the Slims once flowed, Dall sheep from Kluane National Park are now making their way down to eat the fresh vegetation.


Birding by ear is a useful tool for the dedicated birder since many birds, especially those that live in heavily wooded areas, are easier to hear than to see. Audubon online offers some instructions on how to be a better ear-birder.


It's cicada season and the "song" of the cicada is heard once again in the land. "Cicada Mania" explains how the insects make those sounds.


A study of Eastern Wood-Pewees reveals that the birds sing shorter songs in response to traffic noise in urban areas.


The giant shipworm was known to biologists for hundreds of years only from shell fragments and a handful of dead specimens. This "worm" is actually a giant clam and the home of the creature has now been revealed. Biologists are happily able to study the living specimens.


The 2016 Garden BirdWatch citizen science project in Great Britain revealed that some birds are flourishing while others seem to be experiencing difficulties. In general, it seemed to be a good year for thrushes and a bad year for Greenfinches, a species that has been in general decline.


The EPA may, in some part, be a victim of its own success. It has overseen the cleaning of our air and water and environment since its inception, and even though problems still exist, things are so much better than they were, for example, in the '50s and '60s that generations have grown up without understanding the trouble we would be in if someone weren't there to make companies obey the law and clean up their messes. Their success may have made it easier for the know-nothings running the government to attack them.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani: A review

This book tells something of the history of the land that was to become Kenya and how that country came to gain its independence from Great Britain. It is historical fiction laced with cultural insight into the three societies that struggled with each other and finally combined to form something new and unique. We have the native African culture, the English culture, and the Indian culture. Each in its own way contributed to the making of Kenya.

This is also the story of three men and how their personal histories became tangled together. Richard Turnbull was a preacher from England whose mission was to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Ian McDonald was the British colonial administrator sent to oversee the construction of a railway from Mombasa to the coast. Babu Salim was a technician from Punjab who worked as a surveyor and assisted in the construction of the railway. The lives of the three intersected around the turn of the the twentieth century and for the next sixty plus years those lives are woven together in a loose tapestry, the connecting thread of which is the controversial birth of the granddaughter of a local African chief.

The birth is controversial because the mother, the chief's daughter, was not married and the father of the child was not known. Initially, Babu Salim was thought to be the culprit, but when the baby emerged from her mother's loins with bright blue eyes, the chief absolved Babu and looked elsewhere for the father. The mystery of the little girl's parentage remains until near the end of the tale.

The child is adopted and raised by Richard Turnbull. Meanwhile, Ian McDonald proceeds with the construction of his railway, riding roughshod over the rights and the lands of the locals in the process. Babu, who had absconded after being accused of fathering the child, finds a different path in life, and his wife, Fatima, who had stayed on the coast where they had landed in their journey from Punjab, made her own success as a small businesswoman. 

Many years later, Babu's beloved grandson, Rajan, makes his living as a singer at the Jakaranda Hotel. (The Jakaranda was originally built as a house for Ian McDonald. He planned to welcome his wife, Sally, from England and impress her with its magnificent structure. Sally, though, took one look and turned around and went back to England.) Rajan is a local favorite who sings the stories that Babu has told him about his epic adventures in building the great railway. Then one night in the darkened hallway of the nightclub Rajan is kissed by a mysterious woman. It is an incident that will once again tie the lives of those three old men from sixty years before together and begin to illuminate their shared history and heritage.

This is an extremely diverting and well-crafted story. Moreover, it is written with great humor, occasionally laugh-out-loud humor, but more often the sly grin and chuckle kind. In addition to weaving the plot-line so expertly and with such grace and wit, Peter Kimani writes in a clear and understated style which makes the very complex story that he is telling easy to follow. Relating the tale of colonial rule and its fallout could have been a much grimmer story - and no doubt there is a grim story to be told - but Kimani manages to present that hurtful past in a straightforward manner that does not shortchange it but makes it simply one element of a greater whole. It is a subtle and multilayered story that takes us on a long journey through time and place and right into the hearts and minds of his characters of all races and colors.

On a personal note, I was delighted to discover, while reading the acknowledgements and the writer's biography at the end, that Peter Kimani is a product of the University of Houston, my younger daughter's alma mater and current employer. He earned his doctorate from their acclaimed Creative Writing Program in 2014 and acknowledges their help, along with that of many others, in writing this book. UH should be proud of Mr. Kimani and I'm sure they are.

This is Kimani's third book. I hope there will be many, many more.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin: A review

This is the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin's fantasy Earthsea series. In the first, A Wizard of Earthsea, we met Ged/Sparrowhawk as a young child who would be trained as a wizard. In the second, The Tombs of Atuan, we scarcely meet him at all until near the end when he encounters Tenar, the high priestess of Atuan, and together they take the lost half of the sacred ring of Erreth-Akbe from the said tombs. The whole ring, when reforged by Ged's magic, will help to ensure peace in Earthsea. Now, we meet him as a middle-aged man in his full power as a wizard. He is the Archmage (I imagine it as something like the pope) and he is a dragonlord, one who can ride dragons.

But all is not well in Earthsea. The world has fallen on hard times and darkness threatens to overtake it. The wizards who have kept things on a peaceful, even keel are losing their powers. Ged is determined to find out the cause of this disastrous turn of events.

He embarks on a treacherous journey to the ends of Earthsea to discover the cause of the evil that threatens to overwhelm his world. With him, he takes a young man named Arren, a prince of Enlad. In order to fulfill their quest, they must travel to the farthest reaches of their world and into the realm of death itself.

I have noted in my previous reviews of this series that it is unusual for a fantasy series in that it does not feature death and destruction on a massive scale and the protagonist does not seek the annihilation of anyone other than the evil force that threatens Earthsea. That continues to be true in this entry. His philosophy - and this book contains a lot of philosophical musings - is rather one of acceptance. Acceptance of what life brings and, finally, acceptance of death as a part of life. Ged says at one point, "A man does not make his destiny: he accepts it or denies it."

And again:
“Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them, all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal?-What is it but death-death without rebirth?” 
This was, without a doubt, my least favorite of the three books I've read. I began to find the prose really labored and difficult to read. Often I would find myself losing focus halfway through a passage and would have to stop and think, "Now what was this about?" Sometimes I had to reread a section to remind myself. Certainly this could partly be my fault as a reader, but clean, crisp prose would have made my reading task a lot easier.

There were parts of the book that I did really enjoy, my favorite being the descriptions of the Children of the Sea, people who live entirely on rafts that are connected together and float about in the great ocean, following the gray whales in their migration. It was a pleasant interlude in a book that otherwise did not give me great pleasure.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars