Sunday, November 29, 2015

Poetry Sunday: To Autumn

For this week's featured poem, here is a classic - John Keats' ode to the season. The beautiful pastoral imagery of the poem evokes a time long past, but even so they are images that seem somehow familiar and recognizable. Perhaps they are in our blood.

                                 TO AUTUMN

                      by John Keats (1795-1821) 

    SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
        Steady thy laden head across a brook;
        Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -" Don't be envious of Spring, the poet seems to be saying, for you have your own unique beauty and music, Autumn. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a glorious autumn day would certainly agree.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: A review

The Japanese LoverThe Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Isabel Allende's inspiring fiction. Her soul-baring stories most often feature female protagonists and are told through multigenerational family sagas. She continues that tradition with The Japanese Lover.

Allende's method is to tell her story through the voice of the all-knowing third person narrator, but, although the narrator may know all, it is revealed to us very slowly, as one after another of the narrative's layers is peeled away. Her style of writing is deceptively simple and unadorned. At least, that is the feeling that I get reading the books in translation. One has to acknowledge that this may be at least in part attributable to the art of the translator, in this case two translators, Mike Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

In The Japanese Lover, all the major characters are guarding secrets that are considered shameful at the time. In the course of the novel, all of those secrets are uncovered and proven to be not so shameful after all. The ability of the holders of the secrets to share them with others who love them eventually offers a lifting of their burdens and redemption for their spirits.

As always in an Allende novel, spirits are important in the telling of the story - both the spirits of the living and those of the dead that are always present with those who loved them in life. Magical realisim rules and it is a benevolent monarch.

The main characters here are Alma Belasco and Irina Bazili. Alma Mendel had begun life in Poland with her Jewish family just before the beginning of World War II. As her parents saw the shadows of the coming war lengthening, they determined to get Alma out of Poland and into a safe haven. They sent her to San Francisco to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle there, the Belascos. It was there that eight-year-old Alma met the two people who would be her best friends and more for life, her cousin Nathaniel and the son of the family's gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. They were her solace in those first bleak years. Then the unthinkable happened.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant in the country and a political decision was made to send citizens who had been born in Japan or were of Japanese descent and born in this country to internment camps. The Fukuda family was swept up and sent with thousands of others to one of those camps, Topaz in Utah. Alma and Ichimei attempted to stay in touch through letters, but Ichi's were heavily censored. He was a gifted artist and he started sending drawings instead.

Allende describes the internment camps and the struggle of the people imprisoned there to keep up their morale and to prove to their captors that they were loyal Americans. This part of the story has some sad parallels to the plight of refugees and immigrants to this country in 2015 and the way they are portrayed by certain politicians seeking to curry favor with their racist base. It is chilling to realize that this is exactly the way that the Japanese were portrayed in order to justify their internment.

We learn Alma's story through her much older self, a woman in her eighties living in Lark House, an eccentric assisted living facility, as she nears the end of her long and eventful life. We learn that Alma and Ichimei have carried on a love affair for more than fifty years, reuniting again and again throughout their lives, in spite of their own separate marriages and the families they created.

It is at Lark House that Alma meets the second woman whose haunted life rounds out this tale.

Irina Bazili is a Moldavan refugee who is a care worker at the assisted living center. She has her own troubled past and secrets that she is hiding. She is assigned to help Alma and the two forge a friendship. Moreover, Alma's grandson, Seth, meets and falls in love with Irina. He steadfastly pursues her even though she does not give him the slightest encouragement.

Both Seth and Irina love Alma and they are intrigued by mysterious gifts and letters that she receives. They do some investigating and come to believe that the gifts and letters are coming from Ichi and that he and Alma are continuing their passionate affair into their ninth decade.

The narrative shifts from past to present and back again from the 1940s through 2013, and through it all, the notion of a spirit world hovers. That notion is finally made real in the novel's poignant denouement, and, as is Allende's trademark, she leaves us with these progressive and hopeful spirits.

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The more things change, the more some people deny change

"This Week in Birds" is taking a Thanksgiving vacation and will return next week. Instead, this week on the eve of the big conference on climate change in Paris, I am rerunning a post that I did in April 2012. It concerned a New York Times poll that found that a majority of Americans believed that global climate change was affecting the weather. However, the comments from Times readers about the story told a very different tale of climate change denialism. Three-and-a-half years later, has anything changed? Is there any more acceptance of the truth of human-caused climate change and the urgency of taking action to stop it? Well, certainly not in Washington where denialism still prevails in Congress. 


April 18, 2012

Climate change affecting the weather? Ya think?

Headline in The New York Times today: In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change. The story under the headline relates how a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

Can this really be true? After years of being in denial despite climate scientists' best efforts to make the case that human-caused climate warming is happening and that we need to try to slow or reverse it, is the public finally ready to accept the truth of climate change?

“Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,” said Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll. “People are starting to connect the dots.”
Maybe. But after reading the story in the Times, if you follow up by reading the reader comments on the story, you may be excused for wondering if that is really true. There are too many people out there who still believe, in all seriousness, that the whole thing about climate change is just one big conspiracy of those damned scientists and the liberal media.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Addams Family Values - Wednesday Addams explains Thanksgiving

For my Thanksgiving post in 2011, I featured this "Addams Family Values" video. Let's repeat it for this Thanksgiving, and, as we sit down with our families for this holiday meal, perhaps it will give us something else to be thankful for!


Addams Family Values - Wednesday Addams explains Thanksgiving


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Blue Last by Martha Grimes: A review

The Blue Last (Richard Jury Mysteries, #17)The Blue Last by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All the usual Martha Grimes ingredients are here: precocious and charming children; clever cats and dogs; quirky villages and villagers; memories of World War II; quaintly named pubs, of course; in London, Richard Jury, Wiggins, Cyril the Cat, Carole-Ann, and Mrs. Wasserman, and in Long Piddleton, Melrose Plant, Marshall Trueblood, Aunt Agatha, and all the other villagers we've come to know and expect. And, naturally, there is the typical convoluted Grimes plot that bobs and weaves and circles back on itself. In Grimes books, it is always the journey itself that is most satisfying; often, the conclusion is less so. That is the case with this book.

A friend of Jury's in the City of London police asks his assistance in solving a mystery. Some bones have recently been uncovered on the site of a pub, "The Blue Last," that was destroyed in the blitz during World War II. They are the bones of a woman and child. Ostensibly, they are the bones of the daughter of a wealthy family and a child who was the daughter of that family's nanny. Jury's friend, however, believes that the child was actually the daughter of the woman who died there. The nanny, who survived, he believes, substituted her own baby for the baby of the wealthy woman who died. That baby, now grown up, stands to inherit millions upon the death of the family patriarch.

An additional mystery is added to the plot when a man who is close to the family, and who is researching a book about the period in which the pub was destroyed, is murdered. Jury's policeman friend was also a friend of this family and he often visited the man who was murdered. Jury suspects that his murder was somehow related to the book that he was planning to write, but his manuscript and all his notes as well as his laptop were all taken at the time that he was killed. No one seems to know just what was in the book.

Adding even more confusion, the nine-year-old girl who is a ward of the family patriarch believes that someone is trying to kill her, and, indeed, there was a shot fired into the greenhouse while she was there. It's all a real muddle and there don't seem to be any obvious suspects.

Once again, Jury calls upon his friend Melrose Plant to go undercover to help with the investigation. This time he is to pose as the undergardener on the family's estate and gather information as to what's really going on with these people. As usual, Melrose has several scenes with the precocious child on the estate, as well as her friend and his dog, and, as usual, these scenes are a delight.

We also have a subplot with Marshall Trueblood, the Long Piddleton antiques dealer, who believes he may have an authentic Renaissance masterpiece, and persuades Melrose Plant to accompany him to Italy to consult experts who may be able to confirm the artwork's authenticity. Their trip is a lark worthy of Grimes.

One reads Grimes' novels for their settings and their characters and her use of language in describing them. The intricate plots are sometimes difficult to follow, and, as in The Blue Last, the endings are not always satisfying. But her characters have such winning personalities that one keeps coming back for the pleasure of interacting with them once again.

Overall, this was a fun read. I debated about whether I should award it three stars or four stars. In the end, I decided to be generous, even though the cliff-hanging ending truly left me hanging and unsatisfied. I guess I'll just have to read the next book in the series to find out what happened.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
                                                                   - Sinclair Lewis
I thought of that famous Sinclair Lewis quote this week as we watched and listened in disbelief as people who think they are qualified to be the next president vied with each other to see which one could out-fascist the rest in their response to last week's bombing in Paris and the plight of Syrian refugees trying to escape the horror of ISIL/ISIS/Daesh - whatever you want to call that terrorist organization. It has been a thoroughly disgusting display of fearmongering and politicizing a tragedy and I suspect we'll be in for more of the same and probably worse in the months to come.
As we consider the plight of the unfortunate refugees, perhaps we need to remind ourselves of just who we are and how our country was founded and grew to be what it is today. We are first and foremost a nation of exiles. When we choose to deny sanctuary to those fleeing war and tyranny, we dishonor our history and we besmirch the names and lives of those immigrants who made us what we are.
There's really only one poem that seems appropriate for this Poetry Sunday.

The New Colossus

 by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

"Mother of Exiles"