Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Gravel Road by Glenna L. Redcliffe: A review

Many of us who love language and reading have probably dreamed of writing a novel, maybe even the Great American Novel. Most of us never act on that dream and so those who do are in a special category and deserve our respect. It must take a certain amount of courage, not to mention purposefulness and perseverance to stick with the task of writing that book and then sending it out into the world, hoping that it will find an audience. I freely admit that those are all qualities which I lack.

These days, many first-time authors are taking the self-publishing route to getting their work out. It is a chancy course to take, because a book without one of the publishing houses behind it to publicize and bring it to the attention of the reading public already has two strikes against it and the possibility of it ever finding an audience are slim indeed.

And yet that is the path that Glenna Redcliffe has taken with her first book. It is a self-published spy novel/psychological thriller featuring a strong female protagonist in Samantha Albright, "Sam" as she is called throughout the book.

Sam has a backstory of a violent childhood in rural North Alabama which she has sought to escape first through an ill-advised early marriage and, after the marriage ended, through education. She is in the final semester of working on an accounting degree in an Alabama college when she becomes involved with a professor who may not be quite what he seems. 

Subsequently, she is approached by a U.S. intelligence agent who seeks to recruit her to become an informant concerning the activities of the dodgy professor. She accepts the challenge and thus begins her dangerous adventure as a spy playing cat and mouse with man who may well prove to be the embodiment of evil.

Her adventure takes her to some exotic locations as she tries to get the information needed to stop what could be a bioterrorism catastrophe. She shows an unexpected aptitude for the task and one doubts that she is ever going to finish that degree in accounting.

One piece of advice that the so-called experts always give fledgling writers is that they should write about something they know. Redcliffe has taken at least some of that advice to heart in that most of her novel is set in Alabama where she grew up and where she earned an accounting degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Moreover, according to her biography at the end of the book, some of the events in the book may be based on her own childhood experiences.

Her idea for her plot was an interesting one. The execution of the idea showed her inexperience. The novel is much too long at 460 pages of very small print, much too wordy. Conversations between characters seem to go on and on - and on - for pages without really advancing the story. "Brevity is the soul of wit" wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. And Shakespeare knew whereof he wrote.

I suspect the wordiness is just one of the many pitfalls of the self-published novel. What was really needed here was a disinterested and ruthless editor who would guide the writer to streamline her story and help it to move along more quickly and cleanly.

Nevertheless, this was a creditable first effort and I hope the writer will try again, perhaps with the further adventures of Sam.    

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo: A review

Everybody's Fool once again takes us to the small upstate New York town of North Bath just a bit more than a decade after the events of Nobody's Fool. The town is still the hapless poor relation of its neighboring town and chief rival Schuyler Springs and on the surface things seem pretty much as we left them. But, inevitably, time has made a few changes at least in the cast of characters.

Sadly, Miss Beryl, the woman who taught eighth grade for many years at the local school and whom we met as Donald (Sully) Sullivan's beloved landlady in the last book, is no longer on the scene. However, even though she may be physically absent, her spirit lingers and as we visit North Bath this time around, the town is getting ready to honor her memory during Memorial Day festivities by renaming the school after her. 

Sully is still there and he and Miss Beryl seem to have exchanged roles. For many years, he had been her boarder in her big Victorian house on North Main Street; now it seems that Miss Beryl is his boarder, having taken up residence in his head where she continues to carry on the conversations that they both enjoyed over the years.

Most of the other quirky characters that we met in Nobody's Fool are still here, with a few changes in their circumstances. Doug Raymer, the policeman whom we last saw accidentally discharging his gun and getting decked by Sully, is now, surprisingly, the chief of police. He is beset by insecurities, believing that he is no good at his job and, furthermore, he is obsessed to the point of distraction over learning the identity of the man that his wife had been planning to run away with a year earlier. The getaway had never happened because she was killed in a freak accident as she was getting ready to leave.  

Poor hapless Rub Squeers is still around, as well, still beset by worries that he's not really Sully's best friend. But at least his financial circumstances are somewhat improved since he now has a regular job with the city.

It is Sully's circumstances that have changed most drastically. He had an incredible run of good luck following the end of Nobody's Fool and, finally, in his eighth decade, he is free of worry about where his next dollar is coming from.

All is not rosy for Sully, however. A life of drinking too much, smoking too much, eating the wrong things, and generally not taking care of his body is catching up with him. The cardiologists at the VA clinic have told him that, at best, he might have two years left, but more likely one, and he's often in pain and out of breath. But irascible and stubborn as ever. His friends, including Ruth, the woman with whom he carried on an affair for so many years, worry about him. They can see that something is wrong, but he hasn't confided in any of them.

One new character bears mentioning. Charice works behind a desk at the police department and longs to get out into the field and do real police work. She is the smartest person in the department and she harbors an affection for the chief although she would never let on. Raymer, likewise, has an unacknowledged interest in Charice, but would this stuck-in-the-past town ever accept a white police chief's romantic alliance with a black subordinate? 

And so time and events rock on in North Bath. People plan and scheme and mostly their plans and schemes go awry. A very bad guy finally gets his comeuppance but not before he has done inestimable harm to others. And the irrepressible Sully faces his own mortality.

Richard Russo really knows how to tell a story of these small towns. He fills North Bath with characters that are irresistibly human with all their foibles and sometimes their unexpected nobility. He tells their stories with great humor and empathy and makes us see them as three-dimensional individuals that we can care about and perhaps learn from. That is a significant achievement by a writer and Russo excels at it.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Abandoned Farmhouse

An old abandoned farmhouse reveals the lives of the people who once lived there. The story is there for the poet to interpret and relay to us. A sad story of lives interrupted.

Abandoned Farmhouse

by Ted Kooser

Related Poem Content Details

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house; 
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

This week in birds - #257

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

Five fledgling Barn Swallows wait for their parents to bring them a meal. Picture taken at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The Global Seed Vaultdesigned as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever, is buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle. It was thought that the permafrost would protect it, but now it has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel. No seeds have been lost, but scientists are rethinking the strategy and endeavoring to come up with alternative solutions to protect the seed bank. 


Does Nature evolve toward beauty or is it all utilitarian function? Ornithologist Richard Prum argues that esthetics are also a feature of evolution. He has written a book called The Evolution of Beauty that uses the examples of dancing birds, duck sex, and human orgasm to argue his point.


Henderson Island in the South Pacific is an isolated and uninhabited island that is far away from anywhere. No ship ever goes there unless it is on some specific mission. And yet this island "paradise" is covered in plastic, the detritus of human activity.

This is what we have done to our beautiful planet.


The current resident of the White House has plans to cut the Energy Department's budget for its renewable energy and energy efficiency program by seventy percent, according to the draft 2018 budget proposal.


Whooping Cranes have slowly edged away from the brink of extinction with the help of protective laws made by concerned humans, but now here come climate change which threatens to finally undo all those efforts and wipe the species from the face of Earth. The cranes depend on wetlands as their nesting ground, but the warming climate threatens to dry those places out.


The National Weather Service is predicting a warmer than usual June, July, and August for much of the United States. And in news of other effects of long-term weather patterns, i.e., climate, scientists and conservationists are beginning to plan how to deal with sea level rise as a result of the planet heating up.


We think of Antarctica as a pristine white landscape, but, in fact, Antarctica is turning green. The quantity and rate of plant growth has increased dramatically on the continent over the past 50 years because of climate change and that has serious implications for changes in the ecosystem. 


The Kokako is bird that is endemic to New Zealand and one of many that have become endangered mainly as a result of depredation by introduced species on the island nation. A program has been underway to reduce or eradicate those non-native species and that has resulted in a modest rise in the Kokako's population. Now the bird will be reintroduced to some areas where it had been extirpated.


A new paper published in the journal Atmospheric Environment makes the argument that hedges are just as important in cities as trees. Trees help to remove pollution in the air in open areas, but hedges between the streets and human habitations can be very effective in helping to protect residents from the effects of pollution. Hedges of native shrubs are always the best choice.


Chlorpyrifos is a highly toxic pesticide that was on course to be banned by the Obama Administration because of its threat to human health as well as the environment; then the election happened and the new administration reversed that ban. Now at least 50 farm workers in California have been sickened apparently by exposure to that chemical. Although the farm where they worked did not use the pesticide, it was carried on the wind from other farms that did. 


Migrating birds must time their arrival to their breeding grounds accurately in order to have the best chance to successfully raise their young, but, in some cases, the climate is changing so rapidly that birds have not been able to adjust their timing and they are arriving at nesting sites late. This has dire implications for the success of those nesters.  


Common Terns have not been all that common around New York Harbor for a while, but now they are back, nesting and feeding there. Conservationists are continuing their restoration and preservation efforts for the bird, hoping to make it common once again.


Migrating birds use their built-in magnetic compass to help them find their way, but what about non-migrating birds? A study of non-migrating Zebra Finches showed that they, too, use those compasses to help orient themselves.


I've watched various songbirds take dust baths over the years. They really seem to be enjoying rolling in the dirt. Something about it must feel very good to them and it may be helpful in removing parasites from the feathers. Bigger birds also engage in the activity. Egyptian Vultures, for example. They actually engage in mud bathing in the red soil of the Canary Islands, dying their naturally light colored feathers red in the process. 


An article in the new environmental news website The Revelator asks how we can keep from being overwhelmed by all the bad news about the environment. It's a question that I ask myself every week as I collect the news for this roundup. Their article offers some practical advice on the subject from some who are engaged in the fight to protect what remains. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Between Them by Richard Ford: A review

I don't usually read memoirs. Perhaps I have an unreasoning prejudice against them born of some reading experience in my distant past, but, generally, I just don't enjoy them. But I will always make an exception for Richard Ford.

Ford has written this short (less than 200 pages) memoir of his parents and of his experience growing up with them. It essentially consists of two long essays written some thirty years apart in time. 

Both were written after his parents' deaths. The one about his mother was written first, although she was the second one to die. The second one about his father was written many years after his father died in 1960. Ford was only sixteen years old at the time.

In the book itself, the essays appear in the order of the deaths, so the one about the father is first, followed by the one about the mother.

We learn that Richard was an only child and his arrival was a bit of a surprise for his parents. They had been married for fifteen years when he was born. Apparently, those fifteen years had been happy ones that his parents spent mostly on the road. His father was a traveling salesman for the Faultless Starch Company and his mother went with him as he made his rounds to a number of southern states in his territory.

Both his parents were from Arkansas and that remained their home base in their years of travel, but with the expectation of a baby arriving on the scene, they decided to make a move. His father's employer encouraged him to move to a more central location within his territory so that he would be able to spend more time at home. Thus it was that they decided to move to Jackson, Mississippi, a town where they knew virtually no one. It was there that their son was born and where he spent the formative years of his life.

I've always felt a connection with Ford because of where he was born and grew up, for I was growing up in that area during much the same period, the '50s and '60s. Our family situations were quite different. My family were farmers and factory workers. His father was the aforementioned traveling salesman and his mother, after Richard's birth, was a stay-at-home mom. But we were both only children and we both grew up as observers, witnessing first our own families and then the larger society. And we both got out when we could.

This memoir seems to be Ford's attempt to give his witness of the lives of two ordinary, unremarkable people and perhaps to fix in his own mind his memories of them. Maybe it is his acknowledgement, too, that he wouldn't be the man he is, seventy-two years on, had it not been for them and his experiences as their son. Of course, the truth is he wouldn't be, period, had it not been for them.  

A child never really experiences what life is like for his/her parents. How indeed can we ever truly understand the inner lives of even the people closest to us? The borders of their minds are closed to us. But Richard Ford, the observer, has put together his memories of actual events with his imagination and supposition of what his parents' lives must have been like, how they responded to events, what they felt. In doing so, he has given us an affectionate, insightful, and altogether tender portrait of two white people born in the South in the early part of the 20th century; two ordinary people who never made headlines or were noticed by the world outside their own circle of friends and family. And yet they managed to produce one extraordinary writer.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars     

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A review

This is not a sequel, but it would certainly enhance one's pleasure in reading the book to have first read Strout's previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton. In fact, I can't imagine reading Anything is Possible without first having read that earlier book.

Lucy Barton appears physically in only one of the stories here, but her spirit and memories of her are the connective tissue that binds all the stories together.

Those who have read My Name is Lucy Barton will remember that Lucy and her family were from the small town of Amgash, Illinois. The Barton family were dirt poor when Lucy was growing up and the children were conscious of other children, other families feeling superior to them. Moreover, in later life, Lucy and her two siblings remember the daily slights and humiliations, but they also remember those who treated them kindly.

This book takes us back to Amgash and we get to hear many of the stories of those people who interacted with the Bartons, both the ones who were nasty and the ones who were kind. The events of the book take place many years later, when Lucy and the children she grew up with are in middle age and the parents of those children are elderly or dead. 

Lucy had gone on to college and had become a successful writer, with occasional appearances on television. She is a point of pride for many of the inhabitants of Amgash, but she never goes back there. At the time of this book, she had not visited since her father died, fifteen years before. 

When Lucy and her mother were gossiping in My Name is Lucy Barton, we learned many of the names of the residents of Amgash. Now those names become real, fleshed-out characters as they tell us their own stories. We learn that each of them had his/her pains, his/her desires, his/her joys, and his/her tragedies. 

Many of the characters, like the Bartons, had "humble beginnings" and it slowly dawns on the reader (slowly at least for this particular one; maybe others are quicker on the uptake) that what Strout is really exploring here is the question of class. Class as in one's economic and cultural station in life. 

Most of the characters who started out poor have at least become somewhat more comfortable in their circumstances and some, like Lucy Barton, have made the dramatic transition to being financially well-off. But can one ever truly escape those early years of privation? If a child is poor, isolated, and abused, does that experience not color everything that happens in later life, even if that person, as an adult, chooses not to dwell on those unfortunate details? Is it, in fact, true that "anything is possible"?

I thought Strout's exploration of her theme was simply brilliant. She gives us a wide-angle and three-dimensional view of a group of people bound by a particular time and place and by their interactions with a particular character and, through that exploration, has created a complex and rich tableau that gives us a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. What a pleasure it was to read this book!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Backyard Nature Wednesday: What was that?

I was trying and mostly failing to get a decent picture of this Rose-breasted Grosbeak at one of my backyard feeders when this guy showed up:

Wha...??? Is it a skeksis? No, it's actually a cardinal. A bald-headed cardinal.

Birds go through an annual molt, generally in mid to late summer after all nesting duties are completed and the kids are fledged and on their own. As you can imagine, feathers take quite a beating what with migration, then establishing and defending a territory, building a nest and raising a family. By the end of summer, they have been seriously degraded, so over a period of weeks, the bird gradually shucks them off and grows shiny new ones in their place. These bright new feathers take them through fall, winter, spring, and partway through summer until its time to shed them in turn and grow new ones. 

As a bird gradually sheds and grows new feathers, it is not unusual to see a bald-headed Northern Cardinal or Blue Jay or Common Grackle. I've even seen an almost naked Carolina Wren in late summer. But I don't recall ever seeing a bald-headed bird this early in the season.  

So, is this cardinal molting? It seemed to be perfectly healthy and active with no other noticeable symptoms other than the bare head, but the nesting season is not over yet and it seems too early for a molt. Something else may be at work - possibly a heavy infestation of feather mites. 

Or maybe he's just an early molter.

At any rate, whatever his problem, it hadn't interfered with his appetite as he spent several minutes chowing down on my birdseed.