Monday, October 5, 2015

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey: A review

Kushiel's Dart (Phèdre's Trilogy, #1)Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fantasy is not a genre that I often read, although some of my all-time favorites fall roughly within the bounds of that territory. Books like Lord of the Rings, Dune, Game of Thrones. When I recently read a critic's column in Salon that extolled the Phèdre trilogy by Jacqueline Carey and compared it to some of those beloved books, I was curious enough to look further at it. One of the points that the critic made was that this series features a strong woman protagonist, somewhat unusual in fantasy, and since I generally enjoy stories featuring strong women characters, this looked like it might be worth my time and I committed to reading it. That turned out to be an unfortunate decision.

So, 934 pages and one precious week of my life later I'm wondering, why? Why did I spend all that time on this book which brought me no pleasure at all? Why didn't I give it up halfway through when I realized that this just wasn't for me?

Phèdre, the protagonist, of this story enjoys physical pain. Whipping her, cutting her gives her earthshaking orgasms. Maybe I enjoy mental BDSM? No, that can't be it. This book definitely didn't give me any orgasms.

I don't know if I can sum up a plot covering 934 pages in a few words but I'll try.

The action takes place in the world of Terre d'Ange, a place modeled on Earth, specifically medieval Europe. The geography described by the author seems to locate Terre d'Ange in France. It is a culture founded by fallen angels who procreated with humans. Thus, the inhabitants are the progeny of those couplings, except for one province, Cassiel, which chose to remain loyal to the commandments of the One God and not commingle with mortals. (Yes, the author took her inspiration from the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament.)

The world is ruled by a monarchy - natch - and as we enter it, this world is bordering on chaos as the old king fades, and it is surrounded by enemies without and beset by traitors within. Phèdre is a child who is sold by her mother to one of the houses which take and train children. She had been born with a red mote in her left eye, which supposedly marks her as one who associates pain with pleasure, and this, for some reason, seems to make her particularly valuable as a courtesan. Apparently, the highborn part-angel, part-human residents of Terre d'Ange really get off on inflicting pain on their sexual partners, and they are willing to pay good money for the chance to do it.  

Phèdre's bond is purchased by a nobleman, Anfiel Delaunay, and he takes her into his household when she is ten years old and trains her to be a courtesan, and, incidentally, a spy. A few years later, having completed her training, Delauney essentially begins pimping her out to his fellow highborns, both men and women, and she quickly earns a reputation which makes her very, very popular among this society.

Skipping ahead through interminable repetitions, everything begins falling apart, politically, in the kingdom, as the old king nears death and those who would take his throne circle like vultures. Delauney uncovers a plot against the king and his designated heir and works to thwart it, but then he and all of his household are murdered by the king's enemies. Everyone except Phèdre and her bodyguard who happened to be away at the time.

Phèdre and her bodyguard go to the king's palace seeking refuge but they are betrayed by one of the traitors and sent into slavery among Terre d'Ange's enemies. Eventually, they escape, of course, and start making their way back to the city to warn the new queen of imminent invasion. They face many perils and overcome them all, and so on and so on and so on.

There is A LOT of repetition in this plot and the writer rather clumsily, in my opinion, foreshadows everything that happens so that nothing is ever really a surprise. Moreover, her prose is exceptionally portentous, sometimes hilariously so, and, after a bit, predictably so. Her wordiness knows no bounds. If the book had been edited for repetitious plot devices, not to mention grammar and unnecessary euphemisms (which I suppose are meant to make the practices described sound more poetic?), then it could have been half as long and it might have been a better book.

As for the BDSM parts, they are not erotic at all. In fact, the author writes very matter-of-factly of the various kinds of pain that are inflicted on Phèdre during sex with her many, many partners. These passages are not steamy, arousing, or stimulating in the least. Well, not to me anyway.

Apparently, this series has many devoted fans, to whom I say more power to you and to each his/her own. Far be it from me to denigrate anyone's reading taste, but I don't think I'll be visiting the world of Terre d'Ange again.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Landscape, Dense with Trees

Did you see the story about the MacArthur Genius Grants that were announced this past week? As always, the 24 fellows for 2015 make up a diverse and fascinating group of people, but I was especially excited to see among that list of mostly fairly young or at least middle-aged people the name of a 72-year-old poet! 

Ellen Bryant Voigt's poems, in the words of Poetry Magazine, "often traverse the worlds of motherhood, the rural south, family, and music," all worlds with which I am intimately familiar. Ms. Voigt also has a strong sense of the natural world. I find this poem particularly evocative of Nature, the rural south where both she and I grew up, and family.

Landscape, Dense with Trees

When you move away, you see how much depends   
on the pace of the days—how much
depended on the haze we waded through
each summer, visible heat, wavy and discursive   
as the lazy track of the snake in the dusty road;
and on the habit in town of porches thatched in vines,   
and in the country long dense promenades, the way   
we sacrificed the yards to shade.
It was partly the heat that made my father
plant so many trees—two maples marking the site
for the house, two elms on either side when it was done;   
mimosa by the fence, and as it failed, fast-growing chestnuts,   
loblolly pines; and dogwood, redbud, ornamental crab.   
On the farm, everything else he grew
something could eat, but this
would be a permanent mark of his industry,
a glade established in the open field. Or so it seemed.   
Looking back at the empty house from across the hill,   
I see how well the house is camouflaged, see how   
that porous fence of saplings, their later
scrim of foliage, thickened around it,
and still he chinked and mortared, planting more.   
Last summer, although he’d lost all tolerance for heat,   
he backed the truck in at the family grave
and stood in the truckbed all afternoon, pruning
the landmark oak, repairing recent damage by a wind;   
then he came home and hung a swing
in one of the horse-chestnuts for my visit.
The heat was a hand at his throat,
a fist to his weak heart. But it made a triumph   
of the cooler air inside, in the bedroom,
in the maple bedstead where he slept,
in the brick house nearly swamped by leaves.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

This week in birds - #176

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

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, like this pair, are among the autumn migrants currently passing through our area.

The leading edge of the fall Monarch butterfly migration streamed into Oklahoma this week. Next up: Texas. Texas gardeners and butterfly lovers, be on the lookout.


The winter finch report is out. Every year Ron Pittaway gives us his prognostication of whether there will be significant movement of finches south during the coming winter. He's saying that this year looks like a light one, so perhaps no Pine Siskins for us if his prediction holds true. 


One of the big news stories of the environment this week was Shell's decision to give up trying to drill offshore in the Arctic. 


Crows are very smart birds, but are they able to learn from the death of one of their fellows so that they can perhaps avoid that fate? A research project in Seattle is investigating that question.


Some of the western wildfires have been exceptionally intense this year, creating changes in the ecosystem. Proving the adage that it is an ill wind that blows no good, these fires may actually be aiding a rare weasel, the Pacific fisher.  


Logging activities are frequently detrimental to the survival prospects of many birds, but, in Russia, there is at least one bird that seems to benefit from them - the Blakiston's Fish Owl.


There is a new longevity record for the North American Herring Gull. A banded gull has been photographed on the southern shores of Lake Michigan that turned out to be 29 years and 3 months old.


Windfarms are a good way of producing renewable and clean energy, but they do provide a threat to birds and flying mammals. A new report indicates that offshore installations may be more of a risk to Northern Gannets than previously thought.


Three common Pacific seabirds, the Laysan Albatross, the Black-footed Albatross, and the Bonin Petrel, are in significant danger from the rising seas that result from global climate warming.


Migration can sometimes go awry for a bird because of winds or some kind of disruption in its built-in compass. When they show up in unusual places, they can create quite a stir. Thus it has been with a rather nondescript North American bird that has somehow found its way to England this fall. An Acadian Flycatcher is drawing birders from near and far to the place in Kent where it is currently hanging about.  


Solar power towers seem to be giving way to other technology for capturing solar energy in the state of California.


The Smooth-billed Ani is a Florida specialty bird. Like many "specialty" birds, it is in serious trouble and needs protection in order to survive in that increasingly urbanized ecosystem, but so far the state of Florida has declined to give it that protection


Native plants are the most encouraging to insect diversity, but closely related non-native plants can also have a beneficent effect. Less useful are the non-native plants that bear no relationship to the native plants of an area.


Oyster farming on the East Coast may be detrimental to some threatened shorebirds, like the seriously endangered Red Knot.


The EPA this week set new national standards for the smog-causing gas, ozone. The standards are tighter than those in place that were set during the Bush Administration, but they are not as stringent as many public health advocates and environmentalists had urged.


Around the backyard

It's been an interesting week in my backyard as migrants continue to stream through. Of course, the highlight of the week was the visit by two Great Horned Owls last Sunday night, which I told you about earlier in the week

Also, on Sunday afternoon, I had two Brown-headed Nuthatches at my backyard feeder. I hear these nuthatches around the neighborhood throughout the year, but I rarely see them at my feeders except during winter.

On Monday, I had another visit from a Wilson's Warbler and this one also spent a considerable time dunking itself in my fountain, just as the one that I wrote about earlier had.

Tuesday, another highlight was a visit by a Brown Thrasher. He was devouring pokeberries and beautyberries along my back fence. These birds pass through every year, of course, but I very seldom see one in my yard. And, naturally, when I do, I never have my camera in hand. 

We've also been visited by what, to me, is one of the loveliest of the little birds, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

On the hummingbird front, all my hummers have absconded - Rufous, Ruby-throated, and Black-chinned - save for one immature male Ruby-throat. But the next weather front may bring another wave to me.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Deja vu all over again...and again...and again...

I wrote this post just a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, I could probably repeat it every few weeks and it would be relevant to the day's news. 

The top line on the graph has had a substantial number added to it in the past couple of weeks, most recently with the mass murders in Oregon yesterday. And the unacknowledged, and seemingly unending, war goes on.


The unacknowledged war

Perhaps we need to reexamine our definition of what

 constitutes war. Deaths from gun-related violence in this 

country from 1989 through the end of last year outnumber 

all the U.S. military deaths from wars that this country 

has been involved in since its founding. Does that not sound

 as if we are engaged in a war within the borders of this 

country? Moreover, this is a war that is waged in large part

 against unarmed women and children. 

I wonder if there is anything that could be done to stop this 



Thursday, October 1, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Are Americans dummies about religion?

Religion continues to be a flashpoint of disagreement among Americans, who often seem to have very fixed, deeply entrenched opinions about what religion is and how religious people should behave. But how much do we really know about religion, especially religions other than our own? Not much, according to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in 2010. I wrote a blog post about their findings in October of that year. Sadly, the findings still seem relevant today.


Are Americans dummies about religion?

You probably have seen or heard about the recent story regarding a poll done by the Pew Research Center to ascertain Americans' knowledge about the world's religions. (Nicholas Kristof had a column about the story in The Times a couple of days ago in which he included an abbreviated version of the poll.)

The results of the poll are a mixed bag and are complicated by several factors, but the bottom line is that Americans really don't know much about religion. I guess we can add that to science and math and history and the long list of other things that we don't know much about.

Some professed surprise that the group in the survey who knew most about religion were atheists and agnostics. I'm surprised that they were surprised. After all, atheists and agnostics are generally people who have given a good amount of thought and study to religion. Most do not come to their disbelief easily. Quite often they are people who grew up in religious households but who, upon adult reflection, found their family's belief systems unacceptable.

Religious people, on the other hand, at least in my experience, are often people who, almost by definition, take things on faith. They don't give a lot of thought to the history or philosophy of their religion. Indeed, often, I think, they prefer not to know. It makes things too complicated, so they just accept what their theology tells them as truth, without questioning it. And it would never occur to most of them to study another religion, to look at it with an open mind. (And, yes, I do know there are religious people with very curious minds who do study and think about other religions and still manage to hang onto their own faith.)

Given that, it should not surprise us that Americans, who overwhelmingly profess to be religious people, are rather ignorant about the religions of the world. It shouldn't surprise us, but it should, perhaps, sadden us and cause us some chagrin. Americans in general seem to have very definite and firm opinions about the religions of the world - especially Islam - and yet they know so little about them!

Full disclosure: Religions and myths, and especially comparative religions, have long been a keen interest of mine. The most fascinating time I ever spent with my television was in watching the mini-series on PBS of conversations between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers about The Power of Myth in 1988. I later obtained audio tapes of the conversations and have listened to them several times over the years. And so, I find stuff like this Pew quiz irresistible.

Religions and myths have had such power over human beings ever since we have been human beings and they continue to hold sway over us today. Why can't Israel live in peace with its Arab neighbors? Why are American military personnel fighting and dying in Afghanistan? Why is there periodic conflict between India and Pakistan? Why does China continue to try to exterminate the Buddhism of Tibet? Look around the world today, and wherever you see conflict, if you trace it to its source, you will find a religious or mythic belief - something that tells a people that they are special and that they were chosen by their god for some holy purpose.

Perhaps it would behoove us to learn more about these powerful forces and to try to understand what makes them so powerful. Of course, that would mean opening our minds to new and different ideas, which can be scary. But, be brave! You can begin by going to the Pew website and taking a brief 15 question quiz that will give you some idea of just how much you know about religion.

Are you a dummy? Actually, I'm willing to bet you are pretty smart.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Coral Vine

Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus) is a native of Mexico that is widely cultivated in Texas gardens and throughout the Gulf South. It has striking, lacy pink or, in some cases, white or dark rose flowers. The vine that I grow in my yard is the traditional pink.

One of its several common names is "heavenly vine" and it certainly is that as far as bees are concerned. Honeybees, in particular, love the flowers and you can find them working those blossoms from early morning until late afternoon.  

This is a very vigorous vine that must have support from a sturdy trellis, fence, or even a tree. It has pretty, light green, heart-shaped leaves. It is not evergreen and the top growth of the plant will be killed by the first hard frost of the year, but well-established plants will come back from the roots in the spring.

Coral vines are easy to grow as long as they have good drainage and at least partial sun exposure. They are drought tolerant, thriving through a long, dry summer, but they only begin their major bloom display once the rains of late summer and early fall come.

These vines are easily propagated from seed, or large plants can be divided.

Coral vine is a valuable plant for Gulf South gardens, especially gardeners, like me, who like to do everything possible to encourage pollinators. The plant is a magnet for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and even migrating hummingbirds. And it provides beauty for the human psyche. A winner on both counts.    

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Exercise your right to read!

September 27 through October 3 is Banned Books Week, a yearly event sponsored by the American Library Association to call attention to the still ongoing effort in some quarters to censor our reading material.

These days, it seems that the main push to ban books comes through school libraries, usually middle school libraries. Parents and/or teachers express concerns about allowing children access to certain ideas. Usually, these are ideas with which the adults disagree but there is really no evidence that they would damage young minds.

A major objection to books in recent years, for example, are those which depict gay marriage or other non-traditional family situations. There are also sometimes objections to having women characters who are strong and independent and pursue "unfeminine" professions.

This is a list of the ten most challenged books during the past year and the reasons for their being challenged:
  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, anti-family, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depiction of bullying. 
  2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: Gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint, graphic depictions.
  3. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell: Homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, homosexuality, unsuited for age group, "promotes the homosexual agenda."
  4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, "contains controversial issues."
  5. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  6. Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples: Anti-family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group.
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Offensive language, violence, and unsuited for age group.
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Homosexuality, sexuality explicit, offensive language, "date rape and masturbation," drugs/alcohol/smoking.
  9. A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit.
  10. Drama by Raina Telgemeier: Sexually explicit.
These books join an honor roll of books from our history that have actually been banned when first published, including The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Ulysses, Beloved, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Lolita, just to name a few.

So, exercise your right to read this week, maybe by reading one of these "banned" books. Most importantly, don't ever let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn't read or enjoy reading.