Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A review

Hidden amid the back streets of Barcelona is the Cemetery of Lost Books, a repository of out-of-print books that have been salvaged by people who love them. It is there that on a trip with his bookseller father ten-year-old Daniel Sempere discovers a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.  The book is given to him and he reads and rereads it. It thoroughly captures his imagination and he becomes obsessed with the writer. He wants to learn everything about him and to find other books he has written.

But as his investigation soon reveals, this may not be possible. It seems that the book that he has is the last surviving copy of that work. Carax's books are being sought out and destroyed by a strange figure who calls himself Lain Coubert. His life's work is to destroy all copies of Carax's books. The really strange thing is that Lain Coubert is the name of one of Carax's characters. In the book, it is the name of the Devil. 

Daniel spends the next decade of his life following his obsession with Carax. He works to piece together the events of the writer's life and discover where he is if indeed he is still alive. His investigation comes to the attention of an enemy of Carax, a sadistic policeman who begins to take an unhealthy interest in Daniel's life as well.

In fact, as Daniel learns more about Carax, we learn that in many ways the lives of the two parallel each other. The main story takes place in Daniel's Barcelona, but through his inquiries, we discover Julian's pre-Spanish Civil War and World War II world. It was a time when aristocracy and one's family connections to it were everything and the ordinary people had few protections. But one thing they did have was mutual support as they looked out for and took care of each other. Their sense of community in the face of adversity was strong.

For me, this was one of the charms of this book, the writer's celebration of the accord and camaraderie that existed in the neighborhoods of Barcelona. In the face of tyranny, these people persevere and rescue their humanity and honor. And in all of the vicissitudes faced by the characters, books are a refuge. The Cemetery of Lost Books and the bookshop that Daniel and his father run are sanctuaries for those who love literature while those who support tyranny generally do not care for books if they read at all.

I confess I wanted to love this book. I moved it to the top of my reading queue when I heard of the recent untimely death of the author. It started well for me but as I read further, I began to be irritated by the wordiness of it. Zafon seemed incapable of using one word where ten or a hundred would serve. Added to that, the cast of characters soon seemed to encompass the entire population of Barcelona and I found it hard to keep all the relationships straight. 

Also, the book didn't quite seem to know what it wanted to be. A coming-of-age tale? A thriller? An unlikely love story?  And throughout there was also a touch of the supernatural. Books don't necessarily have to fit into neat categories or genres, but a clear vision and purpose is a helpful guide to the reader.

By the time I got to the very, very long post mortem letter by one of the characters that explains all the mysteries of Julian Carax's life, I really didn't care any longer. I just wanted to get it over with. I'm disappointed that I couldn't love it as much as many of the reviewers that I've read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poetry Sunday: America by Claude McKay

Claude McKay was a Jamaican writer who moved to the United States in 1912. He was a prominent and influential voice in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, he wrote this poem expressing his feelings about America. I think many of us can appreciate and empathize with those feelings. I am particularly affected by that last stanza:

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Often the days ahead appear particularly dark just now and we may feel that we are sinking, but perhaps it really is darkest before the dawn. Here's hoping...


America

by Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

This week in birds - #407

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


This is the time of summer when Purple Martins start leaving our area to begin their journey south for the winter. The birds are among the earliest migrants to return in the year, arriving here in late January or early February. By July 4, they have finished raising their families and are ready to go.

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Global warming reaches the ends of the Earth - even to the poles. Scientists say that the South Pole has been warming three times faster than the global average since the 1990s.

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As climate warming accelerates, millions more U.S. homes will be subject to flooding than had been previously known.

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The pandemic lockdown has created an "anthropause" in which humans have been more absent from some of the spaces they normally occupy and that has given other animals an opportunity to reclaim them. And it has given scientists new opportunities for studying those animals.

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The Prairie Ecologist celebrates color, movement, and noise in the evolving prairie.

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The attorney general for Washington D.C. has sued four of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, asserting that they have engaged in a multimillion-dollar campaign over decades to deceive District consumers about the effects of fossil fuels on climate change.

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A new study has found that 60% of fish species may not be able to survive in their present areas by 2100 if present trends of warming water temperatures and reduced oxygen levels continue.

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When you think of elk, if you think of them at all, you probably don't imagine them in the wilds of Kentucky. But that is where a lot of them are these days. A reintroduction effort has given the state the largest elk population east of the Mississippi. Their homes are reclaimed coal mines.

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DNA researchers have now uncovered a vivid and genetically detailed picture of the oldest known case of selective breeding of dogs, the creation of Arctic sled dogs at least 9,500 years ago. A picture of the process was developed using both fossils and modern DNA.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service is once again using cyanide bombs to kill animals that ranchers and farmers consider pests. The problem is the bombs don't only kill "pest" animals; they kill everything and can seriously sicken humans who come in contact with the areas poisoned. There is little oversight of these actions.

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The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl of Arizona is losing ground due to the loss of habitat in one of the fastest growing states. Conservationists want it to be put back on the endangered species list but opponents say this is unnecessary.

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National Moth Week, July 18-26, will offer citizen scientists a chance to report their observations and increase scientific knowledge of the mostly nocturnal insects. 

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A disturbing story from Botswana, home of the world's largest elephant population. Hundreds of elephants have mysteriously died in the Okavango Delta. The cause of the deaths has not yet been established.

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How do bees avoid bumping into hazards on their flights? Scientists have been studying that and they have some answers.

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Picture of Saltmarsh Sparrow courtesy of Audubon.

Saving the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow means saving endangered salt marshes, providing spaces into which they can "migrate" as seas rise and human developments along coasts increase. 

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Flying snakes? Well, yes, they do exist in a manner of speaking.

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The fast pace of urbanization in the capital of Madagascar is putting the endemic birds of the area in danger due to the pollution and degradation of their environment.

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Audubon, bless their hearts, have gathered together some good news from the world of birds with which to cheer us in these troubled times.

Among those stories is Wisdom, the 69-year-old Laysan Albatross who still lives and is still raising chicks.


Friday, July 3, 2020

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: A review

Her name was Magda. No one will ever know who killed her. It wasn't me. Here is her dead body.
Thus begins the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, she of the mordant prose and biting sense of humor. I loved her last book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and had eagerly awaited this new one.  I learned that, in fact, Death in Her Hands was not new. She had written it earlier in her career and put it away. I'm not sure why. I'm just glad it is finally here.

Those words that begin the novel were written on a note that was left on a trail through some birch woods where recently widowed Vesta Gul, age 72, walks her dog, Charlie. The note is weighed down by some black rocks. Vesta finds the note, picks it up, and so begins her adventure as a murder mystery investigator. She determines to find out who Magda was, where her body is, and who killed her.

But there is no body, so what's an investigator to do? Vesta is an avid reader of Agatha Christie novels and she takes her cues from them. From her secluded cabin on a lake and with little experience in her sheltered life to guide her, she begins to imagine who Magda was, what she might have looked like, who her associates were, and how she might have come to her sticky end. What she doesn't do is notify the police about the note or discuss it with anyone else.

But then who would she have discussed it with? She has no friends and only minimal contact with her neighbors, none of whom live close to her. Vesta had moved to the cabin from across the country, after the death of her husband, Walter, and she's made no effort to become a part of the community.

Walter was a scientist and an academician and Vesta tells us in her first ruminations about him that he was a loving husband. But as the story develops and we gradually learn more about him, we find that he was actually a womanizer who preyed on his young female assistants and who belittled and psychologically tormented Vesta. He was a German with suspected Nazi leanings, and at one point as Vesta laments her misspent life, she cries that she wishes she had never met that "awful, deleterious, pompous man" who she describes as her captor.

Perhaps because her life has been so circumscribed, Vesta's imagination is vibrant. She experiences life through her imagination. Her only regular interaction is with her dog and her ventures out to buy food or go to the library. She has no phone, no computer, and so she goes to the library not only for books but to use their computers to find out about Magda and how to investigate her "murder." She visits a web page called "Top Tips for Mystery Writers" and fills out a questionnaire that is intended to help writers develop their characters.

When she actually encounters real, live human beings, Vesta's reaction to them reveals her utter snobbishness. She feels revulsion at overweight mothers who she sees shopping. She describes them as "dull heifers" and wonders if they are even able to reason. They appear idiotic to her, like cattle, half asleep and chewing their cuds while awaiting their slaughter.

In imagining Magda, we begin to suspect that Vesta may actually be composing a narrative of her own life. Magda becomes a dark presence who was a bully who routinely performed everyday vile cruelties and maybe deserved her death. Vesta begins to be consumed by that dark presence, imagining someone watching her from the woods or that someone has been in her house during her absence. Has Vesta lost her mooring to reality altogether?

This book would obviously not appeal to everyone. There are readers who require constant action in the narrative to retain their attention. (I live with one of them.) The action in this novel occurs in Vesta's mind and that would just be too tedious for those readers. Vesta's vivid interior life contrasts with the pallid person which others experience, as the constant frenetic activity of her mind is the antithesis of her dull routine inactivity.

I loved this book while I read it. I was fully invested in the colorful landscape of Vesta's mind. I love it even more now that a week has passed since I finished it. It has grown in my own mind as I contemplate its structure and the writer's vision. That's the kind of impact that a really talented writer can have and damn, Ottessa Moshfegh can write!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Force of Nature by Jane Harper: A review

This is Jane Harper's second book featuring Australian Federal Police financial investigator Aaron Falk. In the first one, her debut novel The Dry, she took us to the drought-ridden Australian outback and made us feel the parched, desiccated landscape. I had to keep my water bottle by my side while reading it. The descriptions were that evocative. In this follow-up, we visit the cold, wet, windy, and wild Giralang mountain range north of Melbourne, and Harper makes us shiver and reach for a sweater while reading. The woman really does excel at mood and atmosphere setting.

The story begins as a weekend corporate teambuilding retreat in the mountains. Selected employees of the BaileyTennants financial firm are sent to the Giralang mountain range for the retreat. There will be two groups, one composed entirely of women and the other of men, and they will follow separate courses set up by the company that devises the exercises and will meet up again at the end of the weekend. The women's group comprises five mostly reluctant women. The rules of the weekend are that all phones and personal communication devices must be left behind; they would be useless in the mountains anyway. But one woman, Alice Russell, manages to conceal her phone and take it with her.

From the beginning, the group is tense and disputative and, as we gradually learn, each member is beset by her own personal anxieties and worries. This does not bode well for building a team.

At the end of the weekend, the men's group emerges from the mountains, but where are the women? The original feeling of annoyance with the women quickly turns to unease and apprehension as they fail to appear. Eventually, four of the women do trail out of the mountains, one with snakebite and others with various injuries, but where is the fifth woman? Where is Alice Russell?

This is a concerning question for Aaron Falk and his new partner, Carmen Cooper because they had been investigating irregularities in the financial dealings of BaileyTennants and Alice Russell had been their informant. She had been set to provide the documents to back up the information she had provided, and now she's missing. Does her disappearance have anything to do with her secret cooperation with investigators?

Falk and Cooper join the massive search party combing the wild bushlands looking for Alice. As time goes by, hope for finding her alive in the cold, rain, and isolation of the mountains diminishes. When her body is finally found with a head wound the apparent cause of her death, the search turns to finding her killer. Falk and Cooper are also hoping to turn up those documents she had promised.

Jane Harper continues to impress me with her ability to set a scene and an atmosphere with no extraneous wordiness. Her writing might well be described as spare; it seems that every word has a purpose and nothing is wasted. She brilliantly describes her characters by sketching their family dynamics, their histories, and secrets. We come to feel that we have met these people, we know them. The psychological tensions built into their complicated relationships become the heart of the story and it was only near the end that I was beginning to get a glimmer of the truth of the matter.

Aaron Falk is an appealing character. I wonder if more Harper novels featuring him might be forthcoming.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Tattoo by Ted Kooser

I'll be honest. I've never really understood the attraction of tattoos. Maybe it's a generational thing. Certainly, the younger generation seems much more enamored of them than the old fogey generation of which I'm a part. But Ted Kooser puts his finger on one of the problems with tattoos; a tattoo that might look okay on taut young skin could have a different aspect altogether as that skin gets older and...ah...softer and looser. What do you think?

Tattoo

by Ted Kooser
What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

This week in birds - #406

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

A Double-crested Cormorant rests on a post in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

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A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change.

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Did you ever think you would live to see a time when temperatures reached 100 degrees F in the Arctic Circle? That is the situation in which we find ourselves in 2020. In the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, last Saturday the temperature topped out at 100.4 F.

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Here are some tips about making your garden a more welcoming place for birds.

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What lies off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in the Coral Sea? A recent expedition to the inky depths of those waters revealed an unknown world of creatures and geologic features.

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While people in this country are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, the cratering economy, the fight against systemic racism and police brutality, and the lack of leadership at the federal level, the Bureau of Land Management is churning out rapacious public lands projects at breakneck speed. Deforestation and sagebrush removal seem to be their priorities in response to requests from ranchers and oil drillers. Damn any vulnerable plant or animal species that may be affected!

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Zoonotic diseases (those that can jump from animals to humans) happen most often at the edges of the world's tropical forests, so cutting down those forests may bring humans more in contact with such diseases and make transmission more likely.

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Here's a hint that maybe scientists shouldn't be quick to declare a species extinct: A flowering tree species, known only as Wendlandia angustifolia, was declared extinct back in the 1990s, but in fact, some of the trees have been found alive and well and living in India’s Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. 

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo, colloquially known as Rain Crow.

Protecting birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo may have the added benefit of protecting western rivers.

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Two new studies find an increasing likelihood of wildfires becoming more common in California and the Northwest, but the studies also offer some solutions to the problem.

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A coalition of Native American tribes and conservation groups is working together to try to save and protect the cougars in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.

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The endangered seabirds of Hawaii are facing extinction unless nonnative invasive predators such as feral cats can be controlled.

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Stuck at home during the pandemic lockdown, two entomologists have discovered nine new insect species from specimens collected by citizen scientists. 

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Wind farms can provide clean, renewable energy, but they can also be devastating to bird and flying mammal populations unless they are correctly located. This is the problem currently facing the Icebreaker Wind project on Lake Erie. 

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Grassland birds are rapidly losing their habitat and gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as the current administration in Washington is trying to do, will make the problem much, much worse. 

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A North Atlantic right whale has been found dead off the New Jersey coast. There are only about 400 of the whales left on the planet. 

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The National Park Service stopped staging pyrotechnics at Mount Rushmore in 2010 out of concern that it could ignite wildfires under drought conditions. But when Donald Trump wants fireworks on the site on the Fourth of July, it seems no concerns will stop him - not the prospect of wildfires or of spreading the deadly coronavirus.

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Oystercatchers sleep with one eye open when there is human activity around, so it's likely they have been sleeping much more soundly during the pandemic lockdown!

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Three Southeast Asian leaf monkeys have now been determined to be three separate species whereas they had previously been lumped together as one.

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Piping Plover

A new scheme for mining in The Bahamas would threaten the winter home of vulnerable migratory shorebird species like the Piping Plover and Red Knot.

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In the future, California will require that trucks sold in the state be zero-emissions. The first stage will require half of them to meet this standard by 2035 and all must meet it by 2045.

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Margaret Renkl has an appreciation of the shy, often misunderstood, and maligned rattlesnake.