Monday, May 30, 2016

Dust by Martha Grimes: A review

Dust (Richard Jury Mystery #21)Dust by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back to one of my guilty reading pleasures as a break from some of the more serious reading I've done lately. Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series fits the bill for that. I must say though that this time the reading was more guilt than pleasure. Guilt, as in "Why am I wasting my time reading this?"

This is the 21st entry in this series. We are nearing the end. I believe there are a couple left, although Grimes may write more. In such a long series, one expects hits and misses. I would put this one more on the "miss" side. In the end, I gave it a VERY generous three stars, mostly for old time's sake; in actuality, it probably deserved two-and-a-half at best.

The first problem with the book is its plot. A young man is shot to death on the balcony of his room at a trendy Clerkenwell hotel. The body is discovered by young Benny Keegan who is working at the hotel. Benny and his dog Sparky once saved Richard Jury's life and Jury is a friend so Benny calls him. So, even though it's not technically a Scotland Yard case, Jury comes to the scene and gets involved.

And, boy, does he get involved! We learn before he goes to the scene that he is having an affair with Dr. Phyllis Nancy, the pathologist, but when he arrives at the murder scene, he meets Inspector Lu Aguilar of the Islington police who is in charge. Inspector Aguilar is a looker. Moreover, she is originally from Brazil and is a hot-blooded, passionate, Latin woman, whom Jury takes to his apartment and has raucous, furniture-destroying, neighbor-disturbing sex with, straight from the crime scene. And his bed is not even yet cool from his night with Dr. Nancy! This is not the Richard Jury I've come to know over the past 20 books and I did not like him very much.

Neither did I like the portrait of the Brazilian inspector painted by Grimes. Really, Martha? Stereotype much?

Anyway, back to the murder victim who seemed to have been an inoffensive and quite generous rich guy, patron of the arts, who had no enemies. Who could possibly want him dead?

The convoluted plot which Grimes spins reaches back to World War II and long smoldering hatreds, but it seems to take forever to develop and it is only close to the end that we begin to get a glimmer of an inkling as to what might have precipitated the murder. Even then, it seems most unlikely.

There is a secondary plot line involving the works of Henry James. The murder victim had recently been the resident caretaker of the National Trust's James property in Rye, Sussex, a place called Lamb House where James lived and wrote what are considered his three best books. Jury, as per usual, enlists the aid of his friend, millionaire Melrose Plant, to go to Lamb House and take over the caretaker's post until a new one can be selected, and to keep his eyes and ears open and see what can be learned. In that capacity, Plant finally supplies the key that opens up the solution to the case.

Speaking of Plant naturally brings up the little village of Long Piddleton where he lives and which is where we first encounter him in this story. Long Piddleton and the louche group of Long Piddletonians, Plant's friends, who gather at the Jack and Hammer at 11:00 and 6:00 every day to drink copious amounts of booze and speak ill of all their neighbors. I confess I used to find them amusing but now I am thoroughly bored with them and irritated by them. Do they serve any purpose in life other than getting drunk and making fun of people? It doesn't seem so.

So, what did I like about the book? Well, the children and the animals. Grimes is always at her best when writing about them. Cyril the Cat is still a star and I still like Melrose Plant even though I'm annoyed by his entourage. And Sgt. Wiggins, who has grown on me over the years. I enjoyed the Henry James references that I was able to understand. Unfortunately, I'm not that familiar with his work, having only read a couple of his books, and perhaps if I were better read in the oeuvre, I might have enjoyed this book more.

Nah. Probably not.



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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Memorial Day

Lest we forget...

Memorial Day

by Joyce Kilmer (1914)

"Dulce et decorum est"

The bugle echoes shrill and sweet,
 But not of war it sings to-day.

The road is rhythmic with the feet
 Of men-at-arms who come to pray.

The roses blossom white and red
 On tombs where weary soldiers lie;

Flags wave above the honored dead
 And martial music cleaves the sky.

Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,
 They kept the faith and fought the fight.

Through flying lead and crimson steel
 They plunged for Freedom and the Right.

May we, their grateful children, learn
 Their strength, who lie beneath this sod,

Who went through fire and death to earn
 At last the accolade of God.

In shining rank on rank arrayed
 They march, the legions of the Lord;

He is their Captain unafraid,
 The Prince of Peace . . . Who brought a sword.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

This week in birds - #208

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


Black-crowned Night Heron fishing at Brazos Bend State Park.
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The Zika virus poses a significant threat to public health and safety and our Congress has responded to that threat just about as you might expect if you've been paying attention over the last ten years. Instead of appropriating more money for research and developing vaccines and therapies to fight the disease, it voted to loosen EPA pesticide rules. If this vote stands, it will allow more pesticides into our waterways and ultimately our drinking water and very likely would do little to actually contain the virus. 

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The catastrophic offshore oil spills which occasionally happen get big headlines, but, in fact, even small amounts of oil in the water can be devastating to seabirds and other sea life. Seabirds exposed to even a dime-sized amount of oil can die of hypothermia in cold-water regions, and research suggests that chronic pollution from many small oil spills may have greater population-level impacts on seabirds than a single large spill. 

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The emerald ash borer is a devastating pest from China that has wiped out millions of trees in Europe and North America. The USDA is fighting back with parasitic wasps. The little wasps are natural parasites of the borers and millions of them have been released into wooded areas in 24 states to try to slow the pest's progress.

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The government-sanctioned shooting of thousands of cormorants on the Columbia River has led to as many as 16,000 of the birds abandoning their nests on East Sand Island in the river, leaving eggs or young to be eaten by predators such as seagulls, eagles and crows. The shooting had been authorized to try to protect the imperiled Columbia River salmon. And the law of unintended consequences strikes again.

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The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, advocates for New Jersey's Pine Barrens, offers ten points to be considered when deciding on tools to be used to manage state forests.

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House Wrens can get a bad reputation with birders because they are known to evict other cavity-nesting birds to take possession of the space. Hannah Waters in Audubon argues that we mustn't judge the birds' actions by standards of human morality. They are simply responding to their survival instinct.

Hmmm...does this mean I have to rethink my attitude toward House Sparrows?

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A Unesco report on the Great Barrier Reef warns that its condition is "poor and deteriorating" and that it is "assailed by multiple threats." The Australian government has tried to suppress the report for fear it will adversely affect tourism.

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At least 13 Indonesian bird species are threatened with extinction because the birds are being illegally trapped for the pet trade.

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Despite fierce protests from environmental groups battling to save a World Heritage site, Poland has started logging in the ancient Białowieża forest, which includes some of Europe’s last primeval woodland. The forest is also home to the continent's largest mammal, the European bison.

Picture courtesy of The Guardian.
A small herd of European bison and the forest that is to be logged.
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The East Coast's Saltmarsh Sparrow is disappearing from its home and could be headed for extinction in as little as 50 years, say scientists whose work could help protect the little birds. The bird is being threatened by a rise in sea levels and by construction along the coasts where it makes it home. 

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The Totten Glacier of East Antarctica holds back more ice than any other, but scientists say it is fundamentally unstable and could eventually collapse in the warming waters, drastically raising the world's sea levels.

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Little Penguins are the only penguin species currently extant in Australia, but some 18 million years ago, things were quite different. At that time, Australia was home to a giant penguin that stood 4.2 to 4.9 feet tall, which is bigger than the biggest penguin alive today, the Emperor.

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In Canada, a rare parasitic wasp that had been being considered for endangered status has been found in several colonies on New Brunswick beaches, making it unlikely that it will have to be protected at this time. 

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Researchers recently reported that a threatened species of Arctic seagull, the Ivory Gull, had made a colony in an unusual place— on an offshore iceberg. This is the first report of these gulls breeding on an iceberg.

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The Trust for the Public Land advocates for parks in neighborhoods across the nation and ranks urban areas according to the access that their residents have to parks. Their latest rankings show the top five as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Washington, Arlington County (Virginia), and San Francisco.  Houston didn't make the top 100 list which surprises me a bit because it does have lots of parks.







Friday, May 27, 2016

Random Friday thoughts

I confess I have not closely followed the Baylor sex crimes scandal and its aftermath which resulted in the demotion of Kenneth Starr and the firing of their football coach this week. Another instance of privileged college athletes being allowed to rape and assault women without suffering consequences, in fact being protected by the powers that be at their universities? Ho hum. Such things only happen on days ending in y. To afford each such felony the outrage which it deserves would mean that I am in a constant state of outrage. My sincere apologies to the innocent victims of these crimes but I simply can't live my life like that.

Still, even though I've followed the story only tangentially, like many others in Texas - and, I suspect, elsewhere - I was surprised when Baylor fired its winning football coach this week, for, contrary to what you may have heard, evangelistic Christianity is not the number one religion in Texas; football is. To have one of that religion's successful and honored priests ousted is almost unheard of. Perhaps Baylor's board finally remembered that it is supposed to be a "Christian" university and that maybe, just maybe, that should come before the mindless worship of football.

And then there is Kenneth Starr, their former president/chancellor now "demoted" to chancellor, who did nothing about the crimes that were occurring right under his patrician nose. If you are old enough, you will certainly remember Kenneth Starr from the '90s and his Inspector Javert-like pursuit of President Bill Clinton. Just a few days before the excrement hit the fan this week, there was a story in The New York Times about how, now, all that "unpleasantness" is forgotten and Starr has only praise for Clinton. And if you believe the timing of that story was a coincidence, then you are just too naive for our modern culture.

So Clinton engaged in consensual sex with someone outside his marriage. Starr ignored reports of brutal sexual assaults on his campus and offered no support to the victims. But it's all good because now he's been "demoted." Too bad he couldn't be impeached.

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Hodor.

Yes, you can now have Hodor "hold the door" for you. All you have to do is purchase one of these Hodor doorstops. Isn't entrepreneurism wonderful?

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Dahlia Lithwick is one of the reasons I go to the Slate website every day. She writes mostly about the Supreme Court, but occasionally she covers more political subjects as well. She is unabashedly liberal and this week she took her fellow liberals to task for some of their behaviors in the current presidential campaign. Her clear-eyed analysis is worth reading.

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And one of the reasons I watch television is see Samantha Bee's take on the world. I really wish she were hosting one of the four-nights-a-week Comedy Central fake news shows, preferably "The Daily Show," but I'm just grateful that at least we get to see her once a week on TBS.

You haven't seen her show "Full Frontal" you say? Well, here's a taste - last Monday's episode.



(Update May 28: Sorry, the video has now been taken down. You'll just have to take my word for it: it's a good show!)

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Rain, rain, give me a break!

It's been an inordinately rainy spring here - roads flooded and closed, many homes flooded, lives lost. At our house, the inconveniences have been much more minor but still annoying.

Last month, around April 15, we got more than 14 inches of rain over a few days. We continued to get regular showers, some heavy, since then. And now Mother Nature is at it again. We got at least seven inches overnight and the monsoon continues. My poor garden!

The garden had just begun to recover from its April drenching when this new round of floods started. When it dries out a bit, I'm going to have to bring in the big guns to help with the weeding. Those weeds are going to be out of control.

I did manage to hobble out to the garden (strained hamstring, which is a whole 'nother story I won't bore you with) one day this week and took a couple of pictures before the new rains came. I'll leave you with those.


Another new daylily has started blooming.

The feverfew in the herb garden has been going crazy with blooms this spring.

In the past, my Justicia 'Orange Flame' has flowered mostly in the fall, but it got an early start this year. It can flower throughout the year.

You can see how it got the name 'Orange Flame.'
Happy Memorial Day weekend and if you are in the Houston area, try to stay dry!



Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: A review

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A NovelThe Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel by Dominic Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As sometimes happens with books that I end up liking very much, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos gave me problems at first. The writer intertwines three separate stories from three separate places and centuries: 17th century Netherlands, 1950s New York, and 2000 Sydney. Each chapter transported the reader to a different time and place and I just found that annoying at first. Just as I was beginning to get to know and care about one character, I would be whisked off to another continent to meet some stranger. But by book's end, I was into the writer's rhythm, and his method of telling the story seemed thoroughly natural and organic. I couldn't imagine it being told in any other fashion.

In 1635 Amsterdam, we meet Sara de Vos. Sara represents a fictionalized amalgam of several Dutch painters of that golden age. It was a time when guilds reigned over public life and endeavors in the region. To be able to participate, one needed to be a member of a guild, but in the early 1600s, it was unheard of for a woman to be admitted to a guild for master painters. Sara was the first to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke's in 1631.

Sara was married to another painter and they had a young daughter. They lived in extreme poverty but managed to eke out a living. Then the daughter fell ill with the plague and died four days later. Sara's husband had borrowed money which he could not pay back. Faced with debtor's prison a year later, he ran away, leaving Sara behind. She sold everything they had and went to work for the wealthy old bachelor who was her husband's creditor in order to pay off the debt. This turned out to be a happy placement for her, but she virtually gave up painting - except for a couple more works which we will encounter in the 21st century.

In 1950s New York, the inheritor of what is thought to be the only extant painting by de Vos, a winter landscape scene called "At the Edge of a Wood," is a patent attorney living a quiet life with his wife. The de Vos painting hangs over the bed in his master bedroom. At some point, apparently during a party that they give (although it is never entirely explained), the painting is stolen and a forgery is put in its place. The forgery is so good that the absence of the original is not noticed for months.

That forgery had been painted by an Australian graduate student in art history named Eleanor Shipley. She is doing her dissertation on 17th century women Dutch painters and is particularly fascinated by de Vos. Her decision to paint the forgery is one that will haunt her for more than forty years.

In Sydney in 2000, Ellie Shipley is a celebrated art historian and professor and she is curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters. She is shocked and appalled when both versions of "At the Edge of a Wood," the original and her forgery, are acquired as a part of the exhibit. All of her guilt over her long ago crime comes flooding back and she is faced with an ethical conundrum.

Dominic Smith weaves these three threads of his story together in a masterful way. In the process, he manages to educate us about art and the demands of the artistic life, the history of the Netherlands, as well as the life lessons that can be learned from decisions made in the past.

The main lesson seems to be that deceits of the past can continue to cast long shadows into the present. The past is never really dead; it isn't even past.


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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Borage

Borage is an ancient herb that is native to the Middle East. Long ago, it was used as an enhancement for bravery and courage. It is an annual which grows quickly. It can get up to a foot or more wide and up to two feet tall with broad, hairy leaves. All parts of the plant are cucumber-flavored and, except for the roots, all have culinary or medicinal uses. It is a free-flowering plant that will reseed itself and may reappear in the garden from year to year. 

This plant is full of buds and is just about to burst into bloom.

Maybe you can't really tell from this picture but when the blooms open, they are shaped like a five-pointed star which gives the plant one of its common names, starflower.

Borage is a very easy plant to grow and is useful for the butterfly garden. It's very attractive to pollinators of many kinds. Borage is sometimes planted with strawberries in order to attract bees and increase the yield of fruit.

Traditionally, borage was used to treat many ailments, including such things as kidney problems. Today, it has only limited medicinal uses, but the seeds are a source of linolenic acid, a substance which is an essential part of a healthy human diet.

This old-fashioned plant also has few uses as a culinary herb these days, but the cucumber-flavored leaves can be used in teas or other beverages, and the pretty little flowers are sometimes used in decorating salads or they can be candied and used in confections. The flowers are also a staple of potpourris. Bees which feed on the flowers produce some very tasty honey.

If you want to get into growing herbs and want something that is not at all fussy and is pretty as well, you might want to give borage a try.






Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Just for grins

Is your week dragging? Do you need a chuckle? Did the Chewbacca Mom not do it for you? Maybe this will make you smile.