Friday, October 31, 2014

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving: A review

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After hearing a discussion of Washington Irving's classic on the Diane Rehm Show earlier this week, I decided to re-read it in honor of Halloween. After all, it is relatively short and wouldn't require a commitment of an excessive amount of time, so it was something I could easily accomplish before the spooks and goblins descended on Halloween night.

It had been many long years since I first became acquainted with the story of Ichabod Crane and his encounter with the Headless Horseman. It was in elementary school, which, I suppose, is where many people meet him. (I don't know - do they still teach Irving in elementary school? For that matter, do they still teach literature in elementary school?) I remember being fascinated by the story then, especially by the wonderful language of Irving. On re-reading it, I found that it holds up quite well. It is still a great tale.

The story itself has now been retold so often and in so many ways - through movies, television, plays, music, even opera - that it is thoroughly ingrained in the cultural memory. Even those who have never read the story know it.

Irving wrote of Ichabod Crane, the lanky and lean and excessively superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut who had come to the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town in New York to teach. Specifically, he lived and taught in the secluded glen which had earned the name Sleepy Hollow because of the "listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants...A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere."

Dreamy the place may have been but it was also renowned for its ghosts and the many superstitions of hauntings that pervaded the imagination of the residents. And it was to this hotbed of belief in supernatural beings and events that the very jittery Ichabod had come.

Ichabod became obsessed with the idea of wooing and winning the hand of Katrina, the 18-year-old daughter of a local wealthy farmer. But he had a rival for Katrina's affections in Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, a local hero and merry prankster.

One night Ichabod attends a party at Katrina's family's home and, as he leaves, he engages Katrina in conversation but she rejects him. Morose and dejected, he sets out on the trail to the home where he is presently being quartered, but, on the way, he encounters many terrors and, finally, the ultimate terror - the Headless Horseman himself.

Ichabod presses the broken down plow horse on which he is riding into a reckless ride for his life but the Headless Horseman keeps pace with him until they finally come to a bridge next to the Old Dutch Burying Ground where the Horseman supposedly would vanish according to the tales that were told. But to Ichabod's horror, the ghostly apparition clambers up the bridge and rears his horse and hurls his severed head at the terrified pedagogue.

The next morning, Ichabod has disappeared. His horse is found near his owner's gate. The saddle is found trampled. And near the bridge where Ichabod and the ghost were last seen lies a shattered pumpkin.

Brom Bones, who "looks exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related," later married Katrina and, in a post note, we learn that Ichabod has turned up in another community where he studed law and become a lawyer.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of the earliest American tales to gain enduring popularity. It follows a tradition of folk tales involving supernatural wild chases, a tradition which includes such well-known classics as Robert Burns' Tam o' Shanter. Irving's tale is a worthy member of that club.



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Happy Halloween from Simon's Cat

Simon is so proud of his new sofa. Simon's Cat will soon cure him of that!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole: A review

Every Day is for the ThiefEvery Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first clapped eyes on the title of this book, I had no idea what it meant. Now that I've read the book...I still don't know.

The author says that it comes from a Yoruba proverb which says, "Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner." Well, that clears things right up, doesn't it?

I suppose it must refer to the fact that Nigerian society, as explored by Teju Cole, is a miasma of thievery. There seems to be no such thing as an honest policeman, government bureaucrat, taxi driver, shopkeeper - you name it. In Cole's telling, the entire country is corrupt and a system of extortion and bribery is what makes it work even as well as it does.

This book was first published in Nigeria in 2007, but it has recently received some notice in this country. His other book, Open City, which I have not read, was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, as well as several other literary awards, and it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Cole was born in the United States but raised in Nigeria. This book, as well as his other one, is classified as fiction, but it reads like a memoir and one gets the feeling that many of the incidents recounted here may have their basis in events of the writer's life or that he has observed in others' lives.

The tale begins with a Nigerian living in New York going to the Nigerian consulate to get his papers in order for a visit to that country. He finds inefficiency, disorganization, and consulate employees who expect one to bribe them in order to get the papers they need. He had expected to encounter such corruption in Lagos, but to experience it in New York was a shock.

That is our first introduction to the truth of the idea that "Every day is for the thief."

The unnamed narrator of the book does manage to get what he needs and takes his flight to Lagos. It is his hometown and now he sees it from the perspective of both a foreigner and a native.

During his weeks-long visit, he will reconnect with some of the friends of his childhood. As he wanders the streets of Lagos, he introduces us to many of the tableaus of life there. He encounters the teenagers who perpetrate their e-mail frauds from internet cafes. He sees a woman on a public bus reading a book by Michael Ondaatje and he longs to connect with her. He visits the woefully impoverished National Museum and compares the pitiful artifacts of Nigerian archaeology that he finds there with the gleaming exhibitions of them in museums in New York and other major cities. It seems the history is unappreciated at the place of its origin.

The narrator compares the Lagos of his memory with that which exists today and finds that it is not only the city that has changed. He has changed also.

I have not traveled to Lagos, or indeed to Nigeria, and I'm certainly not competent to judge whether this is a factual portrayal, although it does seem to comport rather closely with the Nigeria that we read about in today's newspapers and internet news sources. Teju Cole is a talented writer and perhaps an accurate reporter.



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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Little green treefrog

Sitting on my patio the other morning, I happened to spy a spot of green where there shouldn't have been any green. I looked closer and here is what I discovered.

It's a little green treefrog! Surely one of my very favorite backyard critters. He was pretending that the leg of one of my patio chairs was a tree trunk. He was sure that he was wearing his cloak of invisibility and that I could not see him, so I went for my camera and started recording his visit.

Here is a side view that shows that wonderful eye and his white lateral stripe. Isn't he adorable?
Green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) are typically 1 1/4 to 2 1/4 inches in length. I think this one was about 2 inches. They are usually bright green, like this little guy, but their color can be variable. 

Their range includes most of the southeastern part of the country all the way to the middle of Texas and right up the Atlantic Coast all the way to Maryland and perhaps beyond. 

In our area, they are known to breed anytime from March to October, so it's possible this one was looking for a mate. If so, I hope he (she?) finds one. The world needs more little green treefrogs.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

VOTE!!!

Have you?
Early voting in Texas and many other states runs through Friday, October 31, Halloween. How appropriate is that? Failing to vote this year is the really scary thing. So make sure you exercise your constitutional right to cast that ballot.

My vote may not change the outcome of the election. In fact, in the congressional district that I live in, I can just about guarantee that it won't. But it does ensure one thing - I will have a right to complain when the bastards who DO get elected screw up! I plan to fully exercise that right.

The illustrated news of (cable) America

Sometimes the most sensible way to view the world is through a cartoon. Hat tip to Daily Kos where this Tom Tomorrow cartoon first appeared. It sums up quite succinctly the response of a certain segment of this country to its (perceived) threats, don't you think?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fade Away by Harlan Coben: A review

Fade Away (Myron Bolitar, #3)Fade Away by Harlan Coben
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to admit this series is actually growing on me. After reading the second book in the series, I was ready to swear off it forever, but a year and a half later I finally read number four (out of sequence) and liked it. So, I decided to go back and pick up number three, Fade Away, and once again I found the book was not awful. In fact, I quite enjoyed it as a diverting read.

This time, the sport is basketball, which was Myron Bolitar's game before his knee was injured in a terrible smash-up with another player. That injury changed the course of his life and he went to law school and became a sports agent instead of a professional basketball player

Now, several years later, he is established in his profession and he has a promising romantic liaison. Everything seems to be coming up Myron.

Then he receives a blast from the past when the man who was responsible for drafting him with the Celtics all those years before contacts him and offers him a job. He wants him to make a comeback with the team that he presently owns, but he has an ulterior motive. It seems that one of the stars of the team, Greg Downing, has disappeared and the owner wants Myron on the team so he can pick up any clues as to where Greg might be. His real job will be to find Greg.

This is complicated because in his basketball-playing days, Myron and Greg were rivals. Not only on the basketball court but for the affections of a certain woman as well. Greg ultimately married the woman, but at some point, she was unfaithful to him. With Myron.

So Myron has all this guilt in regard to Greg and he accepts the commission, both to play on the team and to try to find the missing player.

It turns out that Greg's disappearance is related to the fact that he has lost a lot of money - in fact just about all he had - to gambling. At the same time, he is going through a nasty divorce and is faced with the prospect of losing his children. In order to find him, Myron has to sort out the tangled web of his life and figure out who among his associates may have a clue to his whereabouts.

When one of those putative associates turns up murdered, it seems that Greg may be number one on the list of suspects.

Meanwhile, those professional gamblers to whom he owes all the money are looking for him as well, and they think Myron may know where he is. That does not bode well for Myron's state of health. Fortunately for him, his friend and partner, Win, has his back.

The body count of the sociopathic Win is lower than usual in this book - only one that I can remember. Although, we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end with some indication that that count might be about to go up to two.      

Yes, on the whole, it was a satisfying read and I'm glad that I gave the series another chance. I suspect I'll be adding it to my long list of series to follow.



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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Raven

In just a few days, it will be Halloween. For Halloween week, there's only one poem that will do.

The Raven

BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
            Merely this and nothing more.

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
            She shall press, ah, nevermore!

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

This week in birds - #131

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently did a poll to determine its most popular migratory bird and the winner, perhaps surprisingly to some, was the Sandhill Crane. These cranes return by the thousands to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico each fall and the FWS has been posting pictures all week of the birds coming back to their winter home. The wildlife refuge hosts its "Festival of the Cranes" in November each year to celebrate the birds. I wish I could be there for it this year, but anyway, I have my memories. We visited Bosque in the fall a few years ago in late October and that is when this picture was taken. There were hundreds of the birds, along with many geese, already there with many more to come.
*~*~*~*

So, apparently this memo went out to all Republicans some time back, and it said that if anyone asks you a question about what should be done about climate change or even if climate change is a real thing, you are to answer, "I'm not a scientist..." They all do it. No freethinking here. (Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them from giving their opinions about other scientific matters - e.g. how to fight Ebola.)

*~*~*~*

"eBird" is an invaluable citizen science project and website for many reasons. Most recently, it is helping California conservationists to identify areas of critical shorebird habitat in the Central Valley of California.

*~*~*~*

Phragmites australis is an invasive reed that is wreaking havoc in areas of the eastern United States and Canada. Land managers there have waged an ongoing fight against it for the last 30 years, but so far it has been a losing battle. Now, however, they have gained a new ally for the "coalition" - one that might actually be able to make a difference. The new soldier in the war? Goats! Apparently they have a taste for the stuff and a herd of them can wipe it out right down to the ground.

*~*~*~*

It's a finding that seems counterintuitive, but then scientific discoveries often are. Researchers have found that House Sparrows roosting in large groups are less likely to contract West Nile virus than those roosting individually or in small groups.

*~*~*~*

Have you read the story about "puppy spiders" making the rounds on the internet this week? It seems there are these spiders that weigh as much as puppies. Virtual Shelobs! Be afraid. Be very afraid. Well, as usual, it's an exaggeration. The spiders are big but not as big as, say, a St. Bernard puppy. Maybe as big as a smallish Chihuahua at birth.

*~*~*~*

Australia is a dry land at the best of times and so it is to the advantage of any animal trying to make a living there to be able to follow the rains that do occur. One bird seems to have perfected the ability to predict rain. The Banded Stilt often shows up en masse in areas where rain occurs within a few days. Scientists are studying how the bird is able to do this.

*~*~*~*

September was the hottest September on record and April through September were the hottest six months recorded in 130 years of tracking. NASA's Earth Observatory explains where this data comes from and why it is important.

*~*~*~*

Birds that migrate between Europe and Africa have suffered extreme declines in population. Some show a reduction of as much as 70 percent since the 1980s.

*~*~*~*

Recordings of birdsong made in California forests reveal how the populations of birds there have changed over a ten year period. The forests have gotten quieter. You can listen to some of the recordings at this link to hear the effect for yourself.

*~*~*~*

"Camel crickets" are not true crickets, according to "BugEric," and their spidery appearance freaks some people out.

*~*~*~*

The Sage Grouse is threatened by a constantly receding habitat as the areas that it  favors disappear beneath human developments, but a new study finds that it is possible for the grouse and oil drilling to coexist amicably. I'm skeptical, but I guess we'll see.

*~*~*~*

Sparrows, in general, have to rank as among some of my most frustrating birds - frustrating because so many of them are so similar and difficult to distinguish. One birder writes about his obsession with sparrows. Specifically an obsession with finding Nelson's Sparrows. Spoiler alert: He was successful.

*~*~*~*

Around the backyard:

Many of my hummingbirds disappeared this week, moving farther south with the season, but I still have at least three hangers-on. This week, though, marked my first sighting of a "winter" bird. The Ruby-crowned Kinglets have arrived! Well, at least one of them has. I first heard him in the shrubbery on Tuesday.

This isn't him. It's a picture from last year. But he looked just like this!





Friday, October 24, 2014

Paul Krugman, contrarian

With President Obama's popularity at its lowest ebb according to all the opinion polls, the Inside-the-Beltway commentariat class loves to pile on, basically assigning him, somewhat prematurely, to the ranks of presidents who are considered inept and failures. Thus, many of these worthies were shocked and rather outraged recently when the latest edition of Rolling Stone featured a cover story by Paul Krugman praising the Obama presidency.

I seriously doubt that Krugman has lost any sleep over the shock and outrage expressed over the article. After all, he's used to it. He does not run with the herd and he never hesitates about expressing his opinion, whether or not anyone else agrees with him.

Some of the surprise, certainly, was due to the fact that Krugman has been a frequent critic of Obama. When he first ran for president in 2007-08, Krugman considered Hillary Clinton the more experienced candidate who was better prepared to lead. He was not wrong about that. He thought that Obama was naive and much too trusting of Republicans' willingness to compromise and work with him for the good of the country. It took the president years to begin to recognize the scorched-earth policies they were pursuing and the fact that they were not concerned about the good of the country but only in perpetuating themselves in power. Even now it is questionable whether he has completely accepted that fact of politics as presently practiced in Washington, D.C.

But in spite of all that, Krugman looks at his presidency and sees a clear record of accomplishment.
  • Health Care: The Affordable Care Act has been, in Krugman's words, a "perils-of-Pauline" experience. It is a jerry-rigged law that was crafted along conservative Republican guidelines for public health policy. In fact, it was lifted almost completely from a plan devised by a conservative think tank. It could have been much better but in the political climate of the time, it was probably the best that could be achieved, and it is working quite well, contrary to what you will hear from Republicans and their pundit supporters. Millions of people now have insurance who didn't have it before and millions more could if only the Supreme Court hadn't opened a giant loophole in the law and if only Republican governors were not such intransigent jerks. 
  • Financial Reform: The Dodd-Frank law is often derided as worthless. Krugman, the economist, doesn't agree. Again, it could have been much stronger, but still, it manages to do some important things. As Krugman writes, "It may not prevent the next financial crisis, but there's a good chance that it will at least make future crises less severe and easier to deal with." And that's nothing to sneeze at. Plus, it authorized the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has already done some important work, in spite of Republican obstructionism.
  • The Economy: The economy was set to fall off a cliff in 2008. That it didn't and that it began a slow climb out of the abyss in 2009 is due to Obama and his team's leadership. But he gets practically no credit for that.
  • The Environment: Because the Congress is packed with science-denying troglodytes, it is virtually impossible to get any legislation passed that protects the environment or addresses climate change. Thus, Obama has begun to work through the agencies of the Executive branch and through powers available to him as president to do what he can, and he has been pretty effective in doing that. Once again, he gets no credit for it.
  • National Security: Bottom line is that he has kept the country safe, even though he has been a disappointment to the liberals who were so excited about his election because they thought that all the people who took us to war on false pretenses would be held accountable and that the reach of the national security state would be curbed. That hasn't happened, but there is still time for some achievements in this area. Guantanamo may yet be closed on his watch.
  • Social Issues: Issues of race and religion and income inequality still plague our country and yet enormous progress has been made in the last six years and it has become so commonplace that, to some extent, we take it for granted and do not pause to appreciate the enormity of it. One only has to think back ten years to the way homosexuals were thought of and treated in this country and compare it to the more open and accepting attitude of a majority of the country today to begin to see how far we have come. As for women's issues of equal treatment under the law, equal pay. equal access to health care, no, we're not there yet and we haven't made nearly the progress that we should have, but there is hope. And in many other areas of our society, incremental baby steps forward have been taken and much of that is due to the leadership and example of Barack and Michelle Obama.

  • That is a pretty impressive record, one that it is likely that history will view kindly. Or, again, in Krugman's words:
    This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don't care about the fact that Obama hasn't lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn't quite say, a big deal.
A very big deal, indeed.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Teddy Bear the porcupine loves his pumpkins!

Have you met Teddy Bear the porcupine? He REALLY loves pumpkins and he'll be glad to tell you all about it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco: A review

Private VenusPrivate Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in Kiev to a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, but at an early age, his family emigrated with him to Rome. He wrote in Italian and in the 1960s, which seems to have been a very prolific and creative period of the mystery genre, he essentially founded the the school of Italian noir fiction. Private Venus was the first entry in that new field of fiction.

This book was the first in a series known as the Milano Quartet. Other books in the series are Betrayers of All, The Boys of the Massacre, and The Milanese Kill. The first one was published in 1966 and the last one in 1969. Unfortunately, Scerbanenco died prematurely in late 1969, so the literary world never got to see where he might have taken his new genre.

Private Venus introduces us to the main character, the "detective" in the series. He is Dr. Duca Lamberti. We meet him just as he has been released from prison after serving three years for assisting one of his patients, an old lady dying painfully of cancer, to die. Though euthanasia was against the law, there was a lot of sympathy for Dr. Lamberti and once he is released, one of his connections, a policeman who was friends with his father, helps him in getting a job.

He is hired by a friend of the policeman, a millionaire plastics tycoon, to babysit his son. The son is in his twenties and his life has gone seriously off the rails. He is slowly drinking himself to death. The father fears that the son has become a hopeless alcoholic, but he wants the doctor to keep him away from alcohol - maybe even cure him of his craving.

Lamberti observes the young man, Davide, and becomes convinced that he is not, in fact, an alcoholic and thinks that he can wean him from drink. He believes there is some hidden underlying reason for the drinking and he soon discovers what it is. Davide is convinced that he is responsible for the death of a beautiful young woman a year before. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she was with Davide in the hours before she died and he believes that if only he had stayed with her, she would be alive. He drinks to forget his guilt.

In time, a vital clue is discovered - a role of film - that convinces Lamberti that the death was not a suicide at all, but a murder. When he is able to tie it to the death of another young woman, the first victim's friend, in Rome, he is certain he is right and sets out with Davide to prove it, with the help of a cooperative policeman, as well as a very brave young woman who willingly offers herself as bait to uncover a vicious ring of white slavers.

Throw in a mandatory Mafia connection and you've got a pretty nasty stew, one which the obsessive, world-weary Duca Lamberti, no longer licensed to practice his profession, is determined to sort out into its constituent parts and bring some justice to two victimized women - and peace of mind to his client, Davide.

Reading books in translation is always an adventure and a bit of an iffy thing. I've seen several reviews of this translation by Howard Curtis that have praised it. On the whole, it seemed adequate to me but there were times when the wording seemed a bit awkward and clunky and I had to wonder how it might have flowed more easily in Italian. But since I don't read that beautiful language, I can only speculate.

I think the second book in the series has now been translated. I'm not sure about the others, but I've got them all on my TBR list for some later date.



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Monday, October 20, 2014

Just because...

Just because I need to be reminded that there are some good people in the world...



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Poetry Sunday: At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

Living in Texas and having traveled along our border with Mexico, I'm always bemused by all those "patriots" who are constantly moaning about our "porous border." Truly, I seriously doubt they have ever been there or they would see that in fact it is quite secure and well-policed.

The same people never seem to worry about our border with Canada, even though there is much more of it and it is certainly equally as "porous" - with more points for all those "Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists" to slip across and spread their disease. (Yes, we do have more than our share of very silly and foolish people in this country.)

As a country, we are very fortunate in our neighbors - both Mexico and Canada. Some poets have even taken note of that. William Stafford for one.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed - or were killed - on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This week in birds - #130

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

This is why they call it "hummingbird bush." This little Rufous female in particular loves this Hamelia patens shrub and considers it her personal territory. She chases other hummers who try to feed there. 

But it is not just hummers who love it. Butterflies love it, too, especially the little yellow sulphurs of autumn. This is a Dog Face Sulphur enjoying a sip from the blossoms.

*~*~*~*

Capturing carbon that is emitted into the air is one way of helping to reduce greenhouse gases and ultimately reduce global warming, and a Texas company is preparing to do just that. For profit, of course. The Skyonic Corporation of Austin will open a factory next week at a cement plant near San Antonio that will make industrial chemicals. In order to make the chemicals, the plant will capture the carbon emitted from making cement and reuse it. This technique holds promise for being a practical and profitable solution to a thorny problem.

*~*~*~*

The Northern Bobwhite is in trouble. Its numbers have plummeted in recent years and it is close to extinction in some parts of its range. There is an effort under way in New Jersey to increase its numbers there and to reintroduce it to some areas of its former range where it has all but disappeared.

*~*~*~*

Another animal that is in trouble is the wolverine. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently made the decision not to list it as a threatened species, but many conservation groups disagree and are suing to have that decision reconsidered. The main threat to the wolverine is a warming planet that is reducing the heavy snowpack in the mountains that it needs for its breeding dens.

*~*~*~*

Skinks are interesting little reptiles that do not seem to be in any trouble judging by the numbers that I observe slithering quickly away from me when I work in my garden. In fact they are one of the most successful groups of lizards, accounting for about 25% of the species in that family. "Tetrapod Zoology" has more information about the little critters.

*~*~*~*

Plants manage to survive and thrive in a world where they are tops on the menu for many, many two-legged, four-legged, and six-legged creatures. How do they do it? It's called "evolution." Over time, they develop formidable defenses against those that would devour them. This may include toxins in the leaves and stems, tough leathery leaves, and thorns. Thorns are a popular innovation. Studies have determined that plants are able to respond when threats from herbivores are reduced. They become less thorny.

*~*~*~*

Conservation groups are alarmed at the steep decline in population experienced by the Tri-colored Blackbird of California. They are asking the state to list it as endangered and to take emergency action to prohibit plowing and harvesting on fields where the birds are breeding.

*~*~*~*

Okay, I admit it. I love spiders. They are fascinating creatures and they do their part to help keep us from being knee-deep in insects. When I accidentally walked through a web earlier this week in my garden and destroyed all the poor spider's hard work, I felt very guilty. Africa Gomez of "BugBlog" would probably have the same reaction. She's a spider admirer, too.

*~*~*~*

Pound for pound, methane is 20 times more effective at trapping the sun's heat than carbon dioxide, and so it becomes particularly vital that we control the emission of methane into the atmosphere if we hope to have a positive impact on global warming. A new study has found a surprising methane hotspot: New Mexico's San Juan Basin. It is thought that this may be an indication of oil and gas deposits there similar to the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Fracking to extract these deposits releases methane, so this is now a new concern for environmentalists and climate scientists.

*~*~*~*

Brazilian scientists have discovered a near-intact fossilized bird egg -- the country’s first -- in Sao Paulo State. Compared to the abundance of eggs from non-avian dinosaurs, finds of complete eggs from Mezosoic birds are relatively scarce.

*~*~*~*

Texas, along with several other states, will experience the emergence of a brood of seventeen-year cicadas next year. Several states in the southeast and midwest will also have thirteen-year cicadas emerging and a few of these states will overlap with the seventeen-years. That should present quite a chorus!

*~*~*~*

In our solar system, the smaller planets like Mercury and Venus tend to orbit closer to the sun while larger ones such as Jupiter and Saturn are farther away, but not all solar systems behave like this, scientists have discovered. Each seems to have its own set of rules.

*~*~*~*

Birds are magnificent fliers. After all, it is their strategy for life. They have developed many techniques for handling different air currents. One of those techniques is collapsible wings in response to extreme turbulence. The birds simply fold their wings and ride the turbulence.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola is coming! We're all gonna die!

That's what you've heard recently if you have ventured into the right-wing echo chamber. It starts with Fox News and resounds through various fear-mongering websites and is finally spouted through the megaphones of people like Ted Cruz and Steve King and Joe Wilson. It becomes a torrent of sound with which the simple unembellished truth cannot compete. The voices of those who try to impart common sense and actual scientific facts about this disease are drowned out.

And that's how we get people in small towns and villages and large cities all over the country totally panicked that the Ebola monster is coming for them. Maybe through ISIS or Hamas fighters infecting themselves then sneaking over our southern border to spread disease throughout the country. (Did you ever notice how in these narratives the enemy is always sneaking over the SOUTHERN border? Now, I wonder why that would be? Obviously, their maps are defective and do not inform them that we also have a much longer NORTHERN border.)

The reaction of the media and the people in this country to two people who have become infected on American soil and a handful of others who have been treated here is really enough to make any sensible person who loves her country despair. Truly, it does not reflect well on the mental toughness of the country. If we were faced by an actual imminent and overpowering threat, our reaction to the Ebola stories leads one to think that we would probably be paralyzed by fear, unable to act.

Certainly if any action against the threat depended upon our elected representatives in Congress, we would be doomed. Their reaction would be to run to the nearest microphone and shout about how it is all Obama's fault, and why doesn't he do something to stop it? Preferably close the borders and reduce taxes - because, you know, that's their solution to everything.

There are certainly things that can be legitimately criticized in regard to the way our experience with this awful disease has played out so far. The hospital in Dallas where the visitor to our country from Liberia died and where two of their nurses were infected blew it. Big time.

When Mr. Duncan showed up in their emergency room with a fever of 103 degrees and informed the nurse who took his information that he had recently come here from Liberia where Ebola has been raging and people have been dying by the hundreds, you would think that might have put them on alert to check for that disease. But no. Their most important question to him from the hospital's point of view was, "Do you have insurance?" When they found out he didn't, they decided that, sick as he was, he didn't need to be admitted. So, they gave him antibiotics and sent him home.

He was sent home, I firmly believe, not because he was black or because he was not a citizen, but simply because he didn't have insurance. Citizens of Texas are turned away in just this way by hospitals all across this state every day for the same reason. And some of them die, too. Anonymously. The state, to its shame, continues to have the highest rate of uninsured (24.81%) of any state in the country and it is estimated that between 1840 and 3035 human beings die here each year because of that.

Both of those numbers could be cut considerably if Texas would expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act and as all sensible states that care about the health and welfare of their citizens have done. That will not happen as long as the state is dominated by men whose only concern is perpetuating themselves in office, rewarding the oil and gas companies that support them, and, of course, keeping women "in their place."

And so, we continue to blunder around, taking our information from people like Gretchen Carlson and Sean Hannity and refusing to listen to the medical experts who can actually explain what is happening and tell us how we need to respond. And our Congress continues to refuse to even confirm a Surgeon General who would be able to lead a public information campaign, because the man nominated by President Obama - who everyone agrees is highly qualified - is opposed by the NRA because he has pointed out that guns are a public health issue in this country, where over 30,000 people die each year from gun violence. Moreover, 10,000 children are killed or injured by gun violence each year in the United States. (Explain to me again how we are so "pro-life.")

One death from Ebola as opposed to 30,000 from guns - and which gets the screaming headlines?

So, the bottom line is, yes, we are all gonna die. But most likely NOT from Ebola!

(UPDATE: Here's another writer's take on this.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn: A review

Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels, #1)Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saving grace of this book is that it's short. If I had been forced to read ten more pages, I think I might have slit my wrists.

Not that it is a terrible book. Actually, it is quite a good, well-written book. Edward St. Aubyn is a skillful writer adept at telling the story that he wants to tell. But the story that he tells is so unrelentingly depressing that it is a very fortunate thing that there are only 132 pages of it.

The characters in the book are for the most part simply awful people and the most awful of the lot is the pater familias David Melrose. David is sadistic and utterly without morals, cruel to both humans and animals. He delights in torturing ants with his lighted cigar, but not as much as he enjoys torturing and humiliating his wife, Eleanor.

Eleanor has retreated and descended into addiction as an escape from the cruelties she endures. She drinks incessantly, striving for a constant state of drunkenness, and she augments the liquor with pills.

These, then, are the two parents that five-year-old Patrick Melrose is encumbered with - a father who controls and tortures him and a mother who is barely aware of him through her alcoholic haze.

The events of this novel take place on one day of Patrick Melrose's young life. A momentous day as it turns out.

In the first interaction of the day between Patrick and his father, David lifts him off the floor by his ears! Patrick manages to escape and hides, but later when he is afraid of missing lunch, he comes out of hiding and his father discovers him and commands him to come to his bedroom. There, he pulls the boy's pants down, puts him over his knees and beats his bare bottom with his slipper.

But that isn't the end. Apparently, the beating only served to arouse David and, not to put too fine a point on it, he rapes his son. His five-year-old son. Afterwards, he warns the boy that he must never speak of it or he will be punished very, very severely.

Then David goes on with his day as if nothing had happened and gets ready to entertain "friends" for dinner.

Those friends are two couples, Nicholas and Bridget and Victor and Anne. Of the group, Nicholas seems most in thrall to David and seeks to make common cause with him in all things. That extends to the humiliation of Eleanor.

Bridget is a bit of a free spirit. She is repelled by David. There may be hope for her.

Victor is a writer/philosopher and Anne his American paramour. They seem to see David pretty clearly for what he is and, in the middle of dinner, as David continues his repulsive behavior, Anne signals Victor that it is time for them to go and they leave. There may be hope for them as well.

No hope I'm afraid for Eleanor and certainly not for Patrick and probably none for Nicholas who seems to aspire to be another David.

As I was reading this book, I found myself remembering The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, a book set in North Korea that I read last year. I thought to myself that the society of the Melrose household was very much like that of North Korea. It was completely controlled by a narcissistic sociopath who only sought his own pleasure. If that pleasure involved pain for others, it only made it sweeter.

Yes, St. Aubyn was very wise to make this book short. Apparently the other four books in the "Patrick Melrose series" are short, too, which is likely also a good thing. I'll probably read them. Just not soon.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day - October 2014

October Bloom Day in my Southeast Texas garden is much like September Bloom Day. There are still quite a lot of blossoms around, but they are mostly my "old faithfuls" - blooms that I've shown you many times before. Nevertheless, get ready, because here they come again! My October parade of flowers...

Orange cosmos reaching for the sun-drenched sky. A sky in the shade that I always think of as "October-blue." 

Gotta have marigolds and here they are.

I like the look of these orange ones in combination with the purple basil.

It hasn't been a great year for brugmansias but the cooler weather is encouraging some blooms.

The same could be said of my roses. They've mostly been a flop this year, but here's pretty 'Peggy Martin' showing a few late blooms.

'Molineux,' a David Austin rose.

And 'Caldwell Pink,' my favorite old rose.

'Ducher.'

The Knockouts have continued to bloom when few of the other roses did. Here's pink Knockout. 

Even 'Old Blush' is getting in on the act - belatedly.

It's always nice to find unexpected reseeds like these zinnias in pink...

...and white.

Red gerbera daisy.

Hamelia patens - "hummingbird bush."

Porterweed.

What would the fall garden be without a few chrysanthemums scattered around? These lived in pots last fall and I planted them out in the garden after they finished blooming. Now they are beginning to bloom again.

Summer phlox lingers well into autumn.

Lantana 'Dallas Red' - a butterfly magnet.

The purple trailing lantana is at its best in autumn.

Jatropha was late coming back after last winter's freezes and has been late to bloom this year.

Wedelia.

'Chi chi' ruellia can be a thug in the garden, which is belied by its pretty dainty pink flowers. 

Abelia.

'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendrum.

'Mystic Spires' salvia.

'Coral Nymph' salvia.

'Black and Blue' salvia.

Mahogany Esperanza.

The more traditional yellow Esperanza.

The flowers of okra are pretty enough to give it a place among the ornamentals.

Pineapple sage.

'African Blue' basil - beloved by bees. It is constantly covered with them all day long. If you look closely, you can see a couple of them here.


Turk's Cap.

And Dutchman's Pipe.

Blue plumbago.

Firespike.

Almond verbena.

Crossvine 'Tangerine Dream.'

It may look a bit pinkish in the photo but it is actually 'Blue Mist.'

An old species canna.

And, finally, here's another fortunate reseed. I didn't plant any Tithonia this year but this one came back all on its own, a "volunteer." I just love such surprises - a bit of garden lagniappe.

 
Thank you for visiting my autumn garden and I hope you will come again. A big thanks also to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Bloom Day once again.

Happy gardening!