Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco: A review

Private VenusPrivate Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in Kiev to a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, but at an early age, his family emigrated with him to Rome. He wrote in Italian and in the 1960s, which seems to have been a very prolific and creative period of the mystery genre, he essentially founded the the school of Italian noir fiction. Private Venus was the first entry in that new field of fiction.

This book was the first in a series known as the Milano Quartet. Other books in the series are Betrayers of All, The Boys of the Massacre, and The Milanese Kill. The first one was published in 1966 and the last one in 1969. Unfortunately, Scerbanenco died prematurely in late 1969, so the literary world never got to see where he might have taken his new genre.

Private Venus introduces us to the main character, the "detective" in the series. He is Dr. Duca Lamberti. We meet him just as he has been released from prison after serving three years for assisting one of his patients, an old lady dying painfully of cancer, to die. Though euthanasia was against the law, there was a lot of sympathy for Dr. Lamberti and once he is released, one of his connections, a policeman who was friends with his father, helps him in getting a job.

He is hired by a friend of the policeman, a millionaire plastics tycoon, to babysit his son. The son is in his twenties and his life has gone seriously off the rails. He is slowly drinking himself to death. The father fears that the son has become a hopeless alcoholic, but he wants the doctor to keep him away from alcohol - maybe even cure him of his craving.

Lamberti observes the young man, Davide, and becomes convinced that he is not, in fact, an alcoholic and thinks that he can wean him from drink. He believes there is some hidden underlying reason for the drinking and he soon discovers what it is. Davide is convinced that he is responsible for the death of a beautiful young woman a year before. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she was with Davide in the hours before she died and he believes that if only he had stayed with her, she would be alive. He drinks to forget his guilt.

In time, a vital clue is discovered - a role of film - that convinces Lamberti that the death was not a suicide at all, but a murder. When he is able to tie it to the death of another young woman, the first victim's friend, in Rome, he is certain he is right and sets out with Davide to prove it, with the help of a cooperative policeman, as well as a very brave young woman who willingly offers herself as bait to uncover a vicious ring of white slavers.

Throw in a mandatory Mafia connection and you've got a pretty nasty stew, one which the obsessive, world-weary Duca Lamberti, no longer licensed to practice his profession, is determined to sort out into its constituent parts and bring some justice to two victimized women - and peace of mind to his client, Davide.

Reading books in translation is always an adventure and a bit of an iffy thing. I've seen several reviews of this translation by Howard Curtis that have praised it. On the whole, it seemed adequate to me but there were times when the wording seemed a bit awkward and clunky and I had to wonder how it might have flowed more easily in Italian. But since I don't read that beautiful language, I can only speculate.

I think the second book in the series has now been translated. I'm not sure about the others, but I've got them all on my TBR list for some later date.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 20, 2014

Just because...

Just because I need to be reminded that there are some good people in the world...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Poetry Sunday: At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

Living in Texas and having traveled along our border with Mexico, I'm always bemused by all those "patriots" who are constantly moaning about our "porous border." Truly, I seriously doubt they have ever been there or they would see that in fact it is quite secure and well-policed.

The same people never seem to worry about our border with Canada, even though there is much more of it and it is certainly equally as "porous" - with more points for all those "Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists" to slip across and spread their disease. (Yes, we do have more than our share of very silly and foolish people in this country.)

As a country, we are very fortunate in our neighbors - both Mexico and Canada. Some poets have even taken note of that. William Stafford for one.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed - or were killed - on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This week in birds - #130

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

This is why they call it "hummingbird bush." This little Rufous female in particular loves this Hamelia patens shrub and considers it her personal territory. She chases other hummers who try to feed there. 

But it is not just hummers who love it. Butterflies love it, too, especially the little yellow sulphurs of autumn. This is a Dog Face Sulphur enjoying a sip from the blossoms.


Capturing carbon that is emitted into the air is one way of helping to reduce greenhouse gases and ultimately reduce global warming, and a Texas company is preparing to do just that. For profit, of course. The Skyonic Corporation of Austin will open a factory next week at a cement plant near San Antonio that will make industrial chemicals. In order to make the chemicals, the plant will capture the carbon emitted from making cement and reuse it. This technique holds promise for being a practical and profitable solution to a thorny problem.


The Northern Bobwhite is in trouble. Its numbers have plummeted in recent years and it is close to extinction in some parts of its range. There is an effort under way in New Jersey to increase its numbers there and to reintroduce it to some areas of its former range where it has all but disappeared.


Another animal that is in trouble is the wolverine. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently made the decision not to list it as a threatened species, but many conservation groups disagree and are suing to have that decision reconsidered. The main threat to the wolverine is a warming planet that is reducing the heavy snowpack in the mountains that it needs for its breeding dens.


Skinks are interesting little reptiles that do not seem to be in any trouble judging by the numbers that I observe slithering quickly away from me when I work in my garden. In fact they are one of the most successful groups of lizards, accounting for about 25% of the species in that family. "Tetrapod Zoology" has more information about the little critters.


Plants manage to survive and thrive in a world where they are tops on the menu for many, many two-legged, four-legged, and six-legged creatures. How do they do it? It's called "evolution." Over time, they develop formidable defenses against those that would devour them. This may include toxins in the leaves and stems, tough leathery leaves, and thorns. Thorns are a popular innovation. Studies have determined that plants are able to respond when threats from herbivores are reduced. They become less thorny.


Conservation groups are alarmed at the steep decline in population experienced by the Tri-colored Blackbird of California. They are asking the state to list it as endangered and to take emergency action to prohibit plowing and harvesting on fields where the birds are breeding.


Okay, I admit it. I love spiders. They are fascinating creatures and they do their part to help keep us from being knee-deep in insects. When I accidentally walked through a web earlier this week in my garden and destroyed all the poor spider's hard work, I felt very guilty. Africa Gomez of "BugBlog" would probably have the same reaction. She's a spider admirer, too.


Pound for pound, methane is 20 times more effective at trapping the sun's heat than carbon dioxide, and so it becomes particularly vital that we control the emission of methane into the atmosphere if we hope to have a positive impact on global warming. A new study has found a surprising methane hotspot: New Mexico's San Juan Basin. It is thought that this may be an indication of oil and gas deposits there similar to the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Fracking to extract these deposits releases methane, so this is now a new concern for environmentalists and climate scientists.


Brazilian scientists have discovered a near-intact fossilized bird egg -- the country’s first -- in Sao Paulo State. Compared to the abundance of eggs from non-avian dinosaurs, finds of complete eggs from Mezosoic birds are relatively scarce.


Texas, along with several other states, will experience the emergence of a brood of seventeen-year cicadas next year. Several states in the southeast and midwest will also have thirteen-year cicadas emerging and a few of these states will overlap with the seventeen-years. That should present quite a chorus!


In our solar system, the smaller planets like Mercury and Venus tend to orbit closer to the sun while larger ones such as Jupiter and Saturn are farther away, but not all solar systems behave like this, scientists have discovered. Each seems to have its own set of rules.


Birds are magnificent fliers. After all, it is their strategy for life. They have developed many techniques for handling different air currents. One of those techniques is collapsible wings in response to extreme turbulence. The birds simply fold their wings and ride the turbulence.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola is coming! We're all gonna die!

That's what you've heard recently if you have ventured into the right-wing echo chamber. It starts with Fox News and resounds through various fear-mongering websites and is finally spouted through the megaphones of people like Ted Cruz and Steve King and Joe Wilson. It becomes a torrent of sound with which the simple unembellished truth cannot compete. The voices of those who try to impart common sense and actual scientific facts about this disease are drowned out.

And that's how we get people in small towns and villages and large cities all over the country totally panicked that the Ebola monster is coming for them. Maybe through ISIS or Hamas fighters infecting themselves then sneaking over our southern border to spread disease throughout the country. (Did you ever notice how in these narratives the enemy is always sneaking over the SOUTHERN border? Now, I wonder why that would be? Obviously, their maps are defective and do not inform them that we also have a much longer NORTHERN border.)

The reaction of the media and the people in this country to two people who have become infected on American soil and a handful of others who have been treated here is really enough to make any sensible person who loves her country despair. Truly, it does not reflect well on the mental toughness of the country. If we were faced by an actual imminent and overpowering threat, our reaction to the Ebola stories leads one to think that we would probably be paralyzed by fear, unable to act.

Certainly if any action against the threat depended upon our elected representatives in Congress, we would be doomed. Their reaction would be to run to the nearest microphone and shout about how it is all Obama's fault, and why doesn't he do something to stop it? Preferably close the borders and reduce taxes - because, you know, that's their solution to everything.

There are certainly things that can be legitimately criticized in regard to the way our experience with this awful disease has played out so far. The hospital in Dallas where the visitor to our country from Liberia died and where two of their nurses were infected blew it. Big time.

When Mr. Duncan showed up in their emergency room with a fever of 103 degrees and informed the nurse who took his information that he had recently come here from Liberia where Ebola has been raging and people have been dying by the hundreds, you would think that might have put them on alert to check for that disease. But no. Their most important question to him from the hospital's point of view was, "Do you have insurance?" When they found out he didn't, they decided that, sick as he was, he didn't need to be admitted. So, they gave him antibiotics and sent him home.

He was sent home, I firmly believe, not because he was black or because he was not a citizen, but simply because he didn't have insurance. Citizens of Texas are turned away in just this way by hospitals all across this state every day for the same reason. And some of them die, too. Anonymously. The state, to its shame, continues to have the highest rate of uninsured (24.81%) of any state in the country and it is estimated that between 1840 and 3035 human beings die here each year because of that.

Both of those numbers could be cut considerably if Texas would expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act and as all sensible states that care about the health and welfare of their citizens have done. That will not happen as long as the state is dominated by men whose only concern is perpetuating themselves in office, rewarding the oil and gas companies that support them, and, of course, keeping women "in their place."

And so, we continue to blunder around, taking our information from people like Gretchen Carlson and Sean Hannity and refusing to listen to the medical experts who can actually explain what is happening and tell us how we need to respond. And our Congress continues to refuse to even confirm a Surgeon General who would be able to lead a public information campaign, because the man nominated by President Obama - who everyone agrees is highly qualified - is opposed by the NRA because he has pointed out that guns are a public health issue in this country, where over 30,000 people die each year from gun violence. Moreover, 10,000 children are killed or injured by gun violence each year in the United States. (Explain to me again how we are so "pro-life.")

One death from Ebola as opposed to 30,000 from guns - and which gets the screaming headlines?

So, the bottom line is, yes, we are all gonna die. But most likely NOT from Ebola!

(UPDATE: Here's another writer's take on this.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn: A review

Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels, #1)Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saving grace of this book is that it's short. If I had been forced to read ten more pages, I think I might have slit my wrists.

Not that it is a terrible book. Actually, it is quite a good, well-written book. Edward St. Aubyn is a skillful writer adept at telling the story that he wants to tell. But the story that he tells is so unrelentingly depressing that it is a very fortunate thing that there are only 132 pages of it.

The characters in the book are for the most part simply awful people and the most awful of the lot is the pater familias David Melrose. David is sadistic and utterly without morals, cruel to both humans and animals. He delights in torturing ants with his lighted cigar, but not as much as he enjoys torturing and humiliating his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor has retreated and descended into addiction as an escape from the cruelties she endures. She drinks incessantly, striving for a constant state of drunkenness, and she augments the liquor with pills.

These, then, are the two parents that five-year-old Patrick Melrose is encumbered with - a father who controls and tortures him and a mother who is barely aware of him through her alcoholic haze.

The events of this novel take place on one day of Patrick Melrose's young life. A momentous day as it turns out.

In the first interaction of the day between Patrick and his father, David lifts him off the floor by his ears! Patrick manages to escape and hides, but later when he is afraid of missing lunch, he comes out of hiding and his father discovers him and commands him to come to his bedroom. There, he pulls the boy's pants down, puts him over his knees and beats his bare bottom with his slipper.

But that isn't the end. Apparently, the beating only served to arouse David and, not to put too fine a point on it, he rapes his son. His five-year-old son. Afterwards, he warns the boy that he must never speak of it or he will be punished very, very severely.

Then David goes on with his day as if nothing had happened and gets ready to entertain "friends" for dinner.

Those friends are two couples, Nicholas and Bridget and Victor and Anne. Of the group, Nicholas seems most in thrall to David and seeks to make common cause with him in all things. That extends to the humiliation of Eleanor.

Bridget is a bit of a free spirit. She is repelled by David. There may be hope for her.

Victor is a writer/philosopher and Anne his American paramour. They seem to see David pretty clearly for what he is and, in the middle of dinner, as David continues his repulsive behavior, Anne signals Victor that it is time for them to go and they leave. There may be hope for them as well.

No hope I'm afraid for Eleanor and certainly not for Patrick and probably none for Nicholas who seems to aspire to be another David.

As I was reading this book, I found myself remembering The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, a book set in North Korea that I read last year. I thought to myself that the society of the Melrose household was very much like that of North Korea. It was completely controlled by a narcissistic sociopath who only sought his own pleasure. If that pleasure involved pain for others, it only made it sweeter.

Yes, St. Aubyn was very wise to make this book short. Apparently the other four books in the "Patrick Melrose series" are short, too, which is likely also a good thing. I'll probably read them. Just not soon.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day - October 2014

October Bloom Day in my Southeast Texas garden is much like September Bloom Day. There are still quite a lot of blossoms around, but they are mostly my "old faithfuls" - blooms that I've shown you many times before. Nevertheless, get ready, because here they come again! My October parade of flowers...

Orange cosmos reaching for the sun-drenched sky. A sky in the shade that I always think of as "October-blue." 

Gotta have marigolds and here they are.

I like the look of these orange ones in combination with the purple basil.

It hasn't been a great year for brugmansias but the cooler weather is encouraging some blooms.

The same could be said of my roses. They've mostly been a flop this year, but here's pretty 'Peggy Martin' showing a few late blooms.

'Molineux,' a David Austin rose.

And 'Caldwell Pink,' my favorite old rose.


The Knockouts have continued to bloom when few of the other roses did. Here's pink Knockout. 

Even 'Old Blush' is getting in on the act - belatedly.

It's always nice to find unexpected reseeds like these zinnias in pink...

...and white.

Red gerbera daisy.

Hamelia patens - "hummingbird bush."


What would the fall garden be without a few chrysanthemums scattered around? These lived in pots last fall and I planted them out in the garden after they finished blooming. Now they are beginning to bloom again.

Summer phlox lingers well into autumn.

Lantana 'Dallas Red' - a butterfly magnet.

The purple trailing lantana is at its best in autumn.

Jatropha was late coming back after last winter's freezes and has been late to bloom this year.


'Chi chi' ruellia can be a thug in the garden, which is belied by its pretty dainty pink flowers. 


'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendrum.

'Mystic Spires' salvia.

'Coral Nymph' salvia.

'Black and Blue' salvia.

Mahogany Esperanza.

The more traditional yellow Esperanza.

The flowers of okra are pretty enough to give it a place among the ornamentals.

Pineapple sage.

'African Blue' basil - beloved by bees. It is constantly covered with them all day long. If you look closely, you can see a couple of them here.

Turk's Cap.

And Dutchman's Pipe.

Blue plumbago.


Almond verbena.

Crossvine 'Tangerine Dream.'

It may look a bit pinkish in the photo but it is actually 'Blue Mist.'

An old species canna.

And, finally, here's another fortunate reseed. I didn't plant any Tithonia this year but this one came back all on its own, a "volunteer." I just love such surprises - a bit of garden lagniappe.

Thank you for visiting my autumn garden and I hope you will come again. A big thanks also to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Bloom Day once again.

Happy gardening!