Sunday, May 31, 2015

Poetry Sunday: The Rainy Day

We've had very few days in Southeast Texas recently, or indeed in the last several weeks, when rain hasn't fallen, and that can begin to wear one down after a while. At such times it is good to remind ourselves, as Longfellow assured us, "Behind the clouds is the sun still shining." 

The Rainy Day 
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

This week in birds - #159

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

American Bittern making itself invisible by "freezing" among the weeds.

*~*~*~*

When oaks begin to leaf out in spring, the population of leaf-eating caterpillars explodes. It's a time of plenty for birds that enjoy dining on them and those canny birds have learned that this is a good time to raise their families that typically need lots and lots of those tiny caterpillars to grow into adulthood. They are able to time their egg-laying so that the chicks hatch during this time of plenty.

*~*~*~*

The overrunning of Palmyra by the Islamic State has many serious political and cultural implications, including the potential destruction of some of the most important archeological sites in that part of the world. Somewhat overlooked in the concerns about human structures is the potential harm that can be done to the natural environment. Among these concerns is a small breeding colony of the endangered Northern Bald Ibis that nests near the city. If these birds are destroyed, it would be a serious blow to continued ability of the species to survive.

*~*~*~*

This week the EPA announced new rules for protecting streams and wetlands from pollution. The rules aim at safeguarding drinking water for one in three Americans, about 117 million people.

*~*~*~*

Poor Greater Sage Grouse. It has become such a political football between the federal government and the states, between conservationists and business and ranching interests. This week the Department of the Interior announced its plans for protecting the imperiled bird. Predictably, the plans pleased no one.

*~*~*~*

Botany is a field of study that has fallen upon hard times in the nation's colleges. Apparently, it isn't sexy enough to attract today's students, and since fewer students are choosing it, many of the college plant collections are closing since there is insufficient interest in keeping them going.

*~*~*~*

You know how when someone in a group yawns it can start everyone else yawning? Well, it turns out that this phenomenon of copying yawns works for Budgerigars, too. So, not only do they mimic sounds, they mimic actions as well.

*~*~*~*

Hesperornithiforms were an ancient order of birds that had teeth and that pioneered the diving lifestyle between 113 and 66 million years ago. We see echoes of these ancient birds in today's grebes and loons.

*~*~*~*

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing new rules that would make it harder for citizens to petition for the protection of a species under the Endangered Species Act. It seems to be just another slow chipping away of the edifice that has done so much to protect and defend at least a portion of what remains of Nature in this country.

*~*~*~*

Pollinators affect the evolution of the species that they pollinate as those plants strive to make themselves more available and attractive to their pollinators. It happens with insects. It also happens with birds. South African and Australian scientists have observed this particularly in the study of members of the Proteaeceae family.

*~*~*~*

Even drought-tolerant trees like redwoods are being stressed to the breaking point by the ongoing drought in California. Many trees have already died.

*~*~*~*

Native oak trees, including live oaks, are among those species that are considered drought tolerant. Now there is a movement underway to bring the oaks back to Oakland. The aim is to make the city live up to its name once again by planting oak saplings throughout.

*~*~*~*

A new study by Trinity University indicates that the development of sexual dimorphism (meaning males and females look different) in songbirds may have been triggered primarily by the stresses of migration.

*~*~*~*

Birds are very adaptable creatures. It's why they are still with us when most of their dinosaur cousins are nothing but piles of bones. They make adjustments as they are presented with new challenges, and, generally speaking, if the challenge is not too abrupt, they will be able to make the necessary changes. Birds these days are attempting to adapt to the changing climate. Many of them are breeding earlier in the year. This is true of the Yellow-crowned Night Herons of the Tidewater region of Virginia. Records show that they are nesting on average more than 20 days earlier than they did fifty years ago. 

*~*~*~*

Around the backyard:

The very, very wet spring that we have experienced does not appear to have hampered the nesting season of my backyard birds in any appreciable way. Young birds of all the kinds that inhabit my yard are seen everywhere these days. Moreover, there should be plenty for them to eat with the explosive growth of the plants and the insects that feed on them. It's been a very prolific spring. Just ask the frogs.

Little green tree frog.

Southern leopard frog.



Friday, May 29, 2015

Everything's bigger in Texas - including the hypocrisy

I have lived in Texas for forty years, during which time I have given birth to two full-blooded Texans. And still, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a Texan. 

In fact, I don't think of myself as a Texan. I think of myself as an American.

My discomfort with being labeled a Texan has everything to do with the political image and leadership of this state where paranoia and a sense of superiority and privilege run deep. It has nothing at all to do with the ordinary people of Texas who are friendly, helpful, and good neighbors to have. 

With that in mind, I have been somewhat bemused but not really surprised by the actions of those said politicians this week - the week of the Great Texas Flood of 2015.

Keep in mind these are the same leaders who were last seen assigning the State Guard to keep an eye on a U.S. military training exercise called Jade Helm because it was seen as a potential move by that dastardly Obama to "take over" Texas. (Never mind the fact that there are already thousands of U.S. military personnel in the state at the many military installations located here.)

But as flood waters inundated much of the state this week, sweeping away cars, houses, businesses, and people, some of whom are still unaccounted for, the first reaction of political leaders was to ask that same dastardly Obama to intervene. Send help! Send money!

Many have pointed out, quite reasonably I think, that these same people sing quite a different tune when it is another part of the country that is in trouble and needs help. Sen. Ted Cruz provides an excellent example.

When the Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in 2013, the devastation was terrible. The states that were hit hard turned to the federal government for disaster assistance. 

When the bills for such aid were considered in Congress, can you guess how the Texas delegation voted? Most in the House did actually vote for the bill but eight members including the execrable Louis Gohmert voted against it. Both of our esteemed senators, Cornyn and Cruz, voted against the bill.

Here was Ted Cruz doing what he does best, demagoguing, during the Sandy Relief Bill debate: 
"This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington – an addiction to spending money we do not have. The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt."
And here is Ted Cruz this week on requesting aid for his drowning state: 
“The federal government’s role, once the Governor declares a disaster area and makes a request, I am confident that the Texas congressional delegation, Sen. Cornyn and I, and the members of Congress both Republicans and Democrats will stand united as Texans in support of the federal government fulfilling its statutory obligations, and stepping in to respond to this natural disaster."

Cartoonist Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sums it all up quite nicely. 




Thursday, May 28, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: A review

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Those of us who read and loved Kate Atkinson's last book, Life After Life, have looked forward to and been curious about how she would follow it up, and maybe we worried a little bit that she wouldn't be able to again reach the high standard she had set for herself. We needn't have worried. This is a wonderful book, every bit as imaginative in its way as the hugely successful book that preceded it.

And right up front, I'll give you a piece of free advice. If you haven't read Life After Life, read it before you read this book for this is a companion piece to that book. Not a sequel as such but simply another part of the story.

In Life After Life, we met the Todd family of Fox Corner. The focus of that book was one of the Todd daughters, Ursula. Atkinson imagined various scenarios for Ursula's life. In some of those scenarios, the life was brief, tragic, and uneventful. In others, the life stretched through most of the 20th century and affected world events.

Ursula had a beloved younger brother named Edward (Teddy). A God in Ruins tells his story and, in so doing, reveals more aspects of Ursula's life, as well.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” War, says Atkinson, is humanity's great fall from grace and fall from innocence, and, make no mistake, this is in large part a novel about war and about whether a war even if engaged in for righteous purpose may, in the end, become an exercise in savagery that victimizes the very people civilization is supposed to defend.

Atkinson tells this story through the experiences of Teddy in his life as an RAF Halifax pilot. We learn of his harrowing experiences on his bombing runs over enemy territory. He served three tours of duty, some 60 missions in all, and was one of the few such pilots to survive for a life afterward. Fewer than half of them did survive.

During his bombing runs, Teddy tries not to think about the people on the ground where his bombs are falling, but he vows to himself that if he survives, he will always be kind in his afterlife. The evil that he saw and experienced in the war forged in him the will to always be a good man, and it took an inordinate amount of evil to create the Teddy who became so unstintingly generous in his later relationships.

Though we don't get serial lives for Teddy as we did for Ursula, the author does bend time by switching back and forth to different eras of his life from chapter to chapter, and so we see him at Fox Run with his family in the '20s in one chapter, and perhaps in the next chapter he's with his own family of wife Nancy and daughter Viola in the '50s or even in the 21st century when he is alone. It's a technique that works surprisingly well to give us the fullest picture of the man. We see him in his youth, as a brother and friend, and then as husband, father, and grandfather and we learn how each role had been informed and influenced by the earlier ones.

Teddy's life is not without tragedy. His beloved father dies just on the cusp of the beginning of Teddy's War and then there are all those friends and companions that he lost in the war. The love of his life, Nancy, dies a premature death, leaving him to raise daughter Viola on his own. It would have been a daunting task under the best of circumstances and Viola is definitely NOT the best of circumstances!

At the end of his long, long life, all of Teddy's loves are gone except for his two grandchildren, one of whom is half a world away, and his cold fish of a daughter who may as well be a universe away. Fortunately, his greatly loved and loving granddaughter Bertie is at his side to escort him on his final flight from his nursing home bed as, in his mind, he struggles one last time, with shells bursting all around, to keep his Halifax on a level flight.

I love the way that Atkinson tells this story in a circular, non-chronological fashion. It makes the tale more enticing, more revealing of the personalities and motivations of the characters, I think, than a straightforward chronological narrative would have. It is the art of the writer to have chosen this inventive method of story-telling. Everything is interconnected. Minor details have great import to later events. So, stay alert throughout, reader: Attention must be paid!


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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Monarda citriodora

Monarda citriodora, a flowering plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is native to much of the United States and Mexico, has many common names. It is variously called purple horsemint, lemon beebalm, lemon horsemint, purple lemon mint, and other iterations of those names. The plant grows 1 - 2 feet tall and has unusual tuft-like, lavender to pink, whorled flower heads. Each separate whorl in the elongated spike of bloom is subtended by leaf-like bracts. Several stems grow from the plant's base and these stems have pairs of lance-shaped leaves.

This plant is extremely attractive to bees and butterflies, which accounts for one of its common names, beebalm. It has a very distinctive citrus or lemony scent when the leaves are rubbed or crushed. It is easy to grow and, over time, will form large colonies. It is classified as an annual but readily reseeds and comes back year after year. It has an exceptionally long bloom period from May through July and often, with enough water, will continue blooming even further into the summer. The plant can be susceptible to powdery mildew, but, on the plus side, it is deer-resistant.

Purple horsemint, the common name that I prefer, has many uses, primarily as a nectar plant for bees, butterflies and other insects, as well as hummingbirds. But it has also been used as food for humans. It can be used raw or cooked in salads and as flavoring in cooked foods, and a refreshing tea can also be brewed from its leaves.

Seeds of the plant are readily available. I got my start from seeds purchased at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  
Today, I am linking to Gail's "clay and limestone" monthly Wildflower Wednesday meme. Visit her site to learn more about wildflowers and meet other participants.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Game of Thrones and rape

HBO's superseries Game of Thrones has now completely left behind the creator of Westeros and Essos. Television moves faster than that glacially slow writer George R.R. Martin and so the series writers are now creating their own scenarios and storylines, presumably in consultation with Martin. I mean he is still writing those books. Allegedly. He or his spokesperson has said that number six will be out before season six of the television series starts. Personally, I'll believe it when I hold it in my hands and read it.

Of course, the series has always had some differences from the books. After all, television is different from literature. What can be explained in great and loving detail in a book has to be translated to a few seconds or a few minutes of action on the screen. Dramatic license applies here. 

Some of the changes made by the series runners are not so easily explained away, however. That notorious rape scene between Jaime and Cersei last season springs immediately to mind. It was very different from the scene in the book, and what was the reason for that? It seems the same purpose could have been achieved by following the book.

And now we have the complete change of course in the arc of Sansa Stark's story. She's deposited at Winterfell by Littlefinger and married off to the sadist Ramsay (Snow) Bolton, who, quite predictably immediately rapes her, tortures her, and humiliates her. Where exactly are they going with this? 

And what exactly is up with their obsession with the rape, torture, and humiliation of women, scenes of which are visited upon their viewers almost every week? Certainly, life was violent and rape was sometimes a feature of the life of women in the novels. But not to the extent that the show would have it.

Okay, we get it. Life was hard for women in Westeros. And here's a bulletin for you: Life is still hard for most women in the world, including many in the United States. Just ask the Duggar daughters, for example. Or not. It's likely they are so brainwashed that they believe they are to blame for their own abuse.

But back to the more pleasant world of Westeros and Essos for the moment.

Game of Thrones has rightfully received kudos for its portrayal of many strong women characters, from Arya Stark to Daenerys Targaryen. It's something that we don't get to see much of on television, but its constant reliance on brutality toward many of its women characters as the center of its action each week is troubling to me. It's not the kind of thing that I would normally watch, and I know some women have stopped watching because of that brutality. Had I not read and loved the books, I might have already joined them. I still hold out hope that the show will find a way to resolve the issues that it continually raises with this violence. But what exactly would such a resolution look like in Westeros?

Take Ramsay Bolton, for example. Please! Take him far, far away!

Ramsay spent much of a season torturing Theon Greyjoy and turning him into the creature we now know as Reek. It got to the point that I couldn't watch any more. I closed my eyes and ears whenever he came on the screen. And now he has a new victim in Sansa.

He is beyond redemption. So what would justice look like for him? 

It certainly wouldn't be a fast and easy death. He would have to be excruciatingly tortured over several episodes, ending probably in being flayed alive. 

Perhaps, on the other hand, the writers will find a way to keep him alive and lurking, an example of pure evil.

Three more shows in this season. Before the credits roll on the last one, we'll probably know the answers to these questions. One can only hope that, moving forward into the sixth season, the writers might become a bit more creative and find other ways to depict drama rather than by the weekly rape of women. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

I never knew that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but he did write at least one. It's a poem that commemorates one of the most terrible battles of our own Civil War, the battle at Shiloh in 1862 and it is my poem of the week on this Memorial Day weekend.

I've been to that battlefield many times for it is near the place where I grew up. I've walked its rolling terrain and the trails along the river, admired the many monuments from various states that were represented on those bloody days in April, 1962. Today it is a quiet, sacred place, a place where, 153 years ago, in a few hours, so many suffered and died in the name of politics which most of them probably barely understood.

It is the same with most battlefields, of course. The blood of the dead waters and fertilizes the fields, the survivors move on, and Nature takes over once again. The songs of birds and frogs and cicadas are heard once more in the land and swallows dip and dive and twitter over the places where many breathed their last.

Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

BY HERMAN MELVILLE
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
      The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
      Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
            And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
      Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
      But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
      And all is hushed at Shiloh.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

This week in birds - #158

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

Everybody's favorite backyard bird, the Northern Cardinal.

*~*~*~*

We may as well get the really bad news out of the way first - another terrible oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It develops that the company in charge of the pipeline that leaked all that black goo onto pristine beaches had accumulated 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006. The news gets even worse. The spill has moved south to Coal Oil Point Reserve which is the nesting grounds of the threatened Western Snowy Plover, which is now in the middle of its nesting season. Conservationists are working hard to try to protect the area and the birds.

*~*~*~*

What does the Sage Grouse have to do with military spending? Not a thing unless you live in the world of congressional politics. The threatened bird has become the latest political football in Washington. The Interior Department is considering whether the bird should be added to the endangered species list which would mean that the areas where it lives would have to be protected from development. Republicans in the House have added language to the military spending bill - that's right, military spending - that would block the Interior Department from giving protection to the bird. It's just another example of the nefarious ways that enemies of the Endangered Species Act are attempting to weaken and, ultimately, kill it.

*~*~*~*

There's an interesting report out this week that says that other species of animals pay attention when birds give their alarm calls. Makes sense. After all, the predators that threaten birds - hawks, cats, snakes, etc. - present a threat to other animals as well and it wouldn't take long for a prey animal to recognize that and take advantage of the warning system. 

*~*~*~*

Caledonian Crows are well known as being among the brainiest of birds. Their use of tools has been well-documented. Now comes word that the birds store their tools when they are not in use, so that they will be available when needed.

*~*~*~*

The decline of many pollinators has been of concern for years. Now, the Obama Administration has announced a "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators." A paper detailing the effort was released on May 19. 

*~*~*~*

New research has found that the lineages of dogs and wolves actually diverged much earlier than previously thought, some 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. Moreover, the most ancient breeds appear to be Siberian Huskies and Greenland sled dogs which have inherited a portion of their genes from a newly discovered ancient species called the Taimyr wolf. 

*~*~*~*

Male Java Sparrows accompany themselves on the drums when they sing. They click their bills to provide percussive accompaniment. 

*~*~*~*

Another Javan bird, the Javan Myna, appears to be displacing the Common Myna in Singapore. Conservationists are reporting that the Common Myna is becoming increasingly uncommon in the area and the invasive Javan species seems to be taking over the niche once held by that bird.

*~*~*~*

In more news of invasive species, a new study of nearly all the trees in the Appalachian region reveals that roughly half of those trees trace their origins to Asia. The others most likely originated in North America.

*~*~*~*

A study of tissue from the cells of dead dolphins along the northern Gulf of Mexico reveals that many of deaths were brought about or at least contributed to by the huge BP oil spill of 2010. There is every reason to believe that the long-term effects of this oil spill are still playing out in the Gulf environment.

*~*~*~*

Chilean authorities are trying to determine the cause of death of about 1300 seabirds that washed up on a beach in their country.

*~*~*~*

An analysis of the blood of Griffon Vultures in the wild in Portugal and Catalonia reveals that they have been exposed to high concentrations of lead in their diets.

*~*~*~*

A study has shown that shade-grown coffee and cocoa plantations are much better for birds and the entire ecosystem than plants grown in the open sun.

*~*~*~*

Around the backyard:

Firsts for this week:

  • First cicada heard "singing."
  • First "rain crow," more properly known as the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. This is another favorite summer visitor of mine and some years I don't hear or see them at all in my neighborhood, so I was very glad to note the presence of the bird this week. The legend or myth is that the call of the bird signifies that rain is coming. It appears that they must have been singing just about constantly in Southeast Texas over the last couple of weeks!
  • First tiny frogs observed. My little goldfish pond has been teeming with tadpoles for a while now. At least some of the little guys have now made the transition to frog-hood. It's a joy to encounter them. The world needs more frogs.   

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

Leaving Everything Most Loved (Maisie Dobbs #10)Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to go ahead and read the last Jacqueline Winspear book that I had on Kindle just to get it out of my queue. It had been there for a long time and I was tired of seeing it. It turns out that this entry marks something of an end to one chapter of Maisie Dobbs' life and so it is a good "ending," a good place for me to pause in my reading of the Dobbs saga and move on to something else for a while.

Dobbs is dissatisfied with her life. She is a successful businesswoman, fabulously wealthy thanks to a bequest from her mentor, has a good and caring (and rich) man as a lover, and is well-respected everywhere she goes. In short, everyone loves Maisie, so why wouldn't she be discontented? Yeah, right!

This is actually one of the things that annoys me about this character. She really seems to have little actual depth of understanding of just how lucky she is. Oh, she gives lip service to such understanding, but it seems about paper-thin depth. Moreover, she never really faces any disapproval from society about her life or any major obstacles to her achieving her aims. Yes, everyone loves Maisie. It strains credulity.

Maisie's discontent this time is rooted in the fact that she doesn't really want to get married, although her lover is pressing her to do so, and she wants to travel, to visit distant lands as her mentor Maurice did. To do that would mean closing down her detective agency, but then what would become of her two employees? Not to worry! Everything falls magically into place, as it always does in the world of Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie decides that she wants to go to India, and what do you know? Just a couple of months before, an Indian woman living in London was murdered. The police have been unsuccessful in solving the crime. Indeed, they don't seem to have expended much effort on it. As Inspector Caldwell admits to Maisie, no one was pressing them for a solution.

Then the woman's brother shows up. He has traveled from India to light a fire under the investigation and find out what happened to his sister. Maisie Dobbs' name was given to him by one of his fellow countrymen who had been another mentor and adviser to Maisie. When he speaks to Caldwell, the police agree to contract with Maisie to carry on the investigation and try to bring some justice to the dead woman.  

It turns out to be a complicated mystery that has roots stretching all the way back to India, and soon it becomes even more complicated when a friend of the murdered woman is also killed in the same manner as the first. As Maisie becomes more deeply involved in the investigation, she is more and more intrigued by Indian culture and by the Indians that she meets in the course of her inquiries, all of which makes her more definite than ever that she wants to travel to that exotic land.

But first she has to wrap up her investigation.

She does, of course, with minimal help this time from her assistant Billy Beale who is still suffering from the injuries that he sustained in Elegy for Eddie or her secretary Sandra who is slowly emerging from her widow's shell and taking an interest in life once again.

So, everything gets tied up in a neat little bow. The villain is arrested, but he isn't really such a villain, even though he has murdered two women. He's a victim, too.

The lives of everyone she cares about have now fallen into place, just as Maisie would have wanted, so she is free to move on to her own future. That moving on proceeds slowly as we are treated to a long summing up of Maisie's life so far and as she looks forward to her trip to India. But finally, she's on the boat and on her way.

It's a little difficult to see just where Winspear is going with this, but there are several more entries in the series, so undoubtedly, she has a plan. I think it would be interesting to see, just once, something not work out exactly as Maisie wants it to. Maybe the ship sinks on the way to India, or she loses all her money and is left with nothing but her native resources, or her lover James finally gets fed up with her dithering and marries that dashing young aviatrix with whom he seems to have a lot in common. Well, I can dream, can't I? 


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: A little backyard porn

I can hardly step into my yard these days without encountering a shameless exhibition like this. A pair of green anoles intent on doing their duty to perpetuate the species.

I find it interesting that, during copulation, the female in the pair assumes a duller color. Sometimes I see pairs where the female is almost brown during this sensitive time. I don't know how to interpret this, or if it really means anything. Maybe it's just a random thing.

But a few minutes after copulation ends, the female begins to regain her brighter green color, just like the male. With any luck, in a few weeks we'll start seeing tiny green anoles, just out of the egg. They'll be joining hundreds of others in my backyard.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Pale Horse by Charles Todd: A review

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man who is of interest to the British War Office has disappeared. He is a chemist whose work during World War I was so secret that the War Office withholds information about what he did or even his real name. But they want someone to go and try to find what has happened to him. Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Rutledge.

It's not the first time his superiors have sent him on what appears to be a "mission impossible" since he returned to his job just over a year ago after having suffered shell shock during the war and being hospitalized after it. In spite of the demons that haunt him and the constant presence in his head of Hamish, the Scottish soldier whom he executed at the front for failure to obey orders, Rutledge is a very good investigator and in spite of the ill will of his supervisor, Superintendent Bowles, he's been able to solve every case that has been assigned to him. This one, though, begins to look like it may be unsolvable.

Rutledge heads out to Berkshire, to a group of cottages standing in the shadow of a great white horse cut into the chalk hillside, where the missing man lived. He discovers a group of inhabitants who are outcasts, all of whom are hiding from something in their past. In that, the man who went by the name of Partridge fit right in.

Rutledge learns that Partridge had a habit of wandering off from time to time and so no one has really missed him or worried about him, but then the inhabitants of these cottages don't really interact with or take an interest in each other, so why would they worry?

At length, Rutledge learns that the body of a man wrapped in a cloak with his face covered by a gas mask has been found in the ruins of Yorkshire's Fountain Abbey, and he goes to investigate. He comes to suspect that the body may be that of the missing man, but how did he wind up in Yorkshire, far afield from his cottage in Berkshire? There is no easy explanation.

The local policeman in charge has convinced himself, for his own selfish reasons of revenge, that the dead man is one who, years before, had accidentally scarred the face of a local woman while he was in a drunken stupor. He wants to believe that the woman's husband, the local schoolmaster who was a conscientious objector during the war, has killed this man. The policeman's motives are based in the fact that he once wanted to marry the woman who was scarred and she turned him down in favor of the schoolmaster. This angle of the plot never was really resolved to my satisfaction. It was just sort of left hanging when Rutledge's investigation veered off into another avenue. It was one of my few complaints about the book.    

Rutledge's investigation eventually leads him to an estate called Partridge Fields which had been the home of a family named Parkinson. It seems that Parkinson was the true name of the missing man. His wife was long dead, a suicide, but there were two daughters; however, these daughters are not easy to locate and once located, they are so filled with hatred of their father that they are uncooperative in discovering the truth.

In fact, that's another of my complaints about these books. Everyone in these villages, from the occupants to the local police, is always uncooperative and downright obstructive with Rutledge's investigations. He seems like such a caring and competent man that it is a mystery to me why everyone seems so obstreperous and deceptive in his presence.

Ah, well, nothing can really obstruct him for long. We know that, in the end, Rutledge will solve another case and will again receive no appreciation of that fact from the execrable Superintendent Bowles. What will it ever take to finally have his brilliance recognized?


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Monday, May 18, 2015

Murder by Parnell Hall: A review

Murder (Stanley Hastings Mystery, #2)Murder by Parnell Hall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stanley Hastings is a hoot. This actor/writer/private detective wannabe has failed at just about everything he's tried in life, but with a stay-at-home wife and son to support, he keeps plugging away, trying to earn enough to stay ahead of the debt collectors.

His most steady job is that of sign-up interviewer with an ambulance-chasing law firm. His assignment is to meet with potential clients who have been injured, interview them about what happened, get them to sign a commitment form, and take it all back to his employer, Richard Rosenberg, for a decision about whether he will take the case. His job takes him all over New York, but in this entry to the series, it seems to take him mostly to Harlem, to some very sketchy neighborhoods where he is constantly afraid of being beaten up.

This book was originally published in 1987 and it seems very dated in many ways, in its attitudes but particularly in technology. Stanley carries a beeper by which the law firm pages him when they have someone for him to interview. Then he has to search around for a pay phone where he can call in and find out what the assignment is. By now, that seems almost stone age in its concept.  

This time, however, Stanley gets to put his private detective skills to work on behalf of a friend of his wife's. The woman is the mother of one of their son's schoolmates and part of their school carpool. She is in a real mess. She had agreed to help a former friend from college days who had asked her to take her place in an escort service one day because the woman had to go out of town to visit her dying mother. She kept the date for her and ended up being raped and then blackmailed and forced into prostitution. Her pimp has starred her in some porn films, some with her knowledge and some without, and now she is in so deep that she can't get out.

Enter white knight Stanley Hastings.

Stanley goes to see the pimp at his apartment in Harlem and finds him dead with a carving knife stuck in his back. Thinking fast, he calls a friend and has him call the law firm, pretending to be the dead man, and feigning an injury for which he wants the firm to represent him in litigation. The secretary beeps Stanley and sends him to the man's apartment. Now that he has an excuse for being there, he feels he can legitimately call the police and report the death. Smart Stanley!  

Unfortunately, the sergeant who is sent to investigate is one who remembers Stanley from a previous case that he had interfered in just a few months before. He is understandably suspicious and Stanley goes high up on his list of possible murder suspects.

After being exhaustively interviewed by the police, Stanley continues to bumble around, trying to help out his client but also trying to clear his name. Those are two ends which may prove mutually exclusive.

Living by his wits and practicing some of his acting skills while dealing with the bad guys, Stanley does manage to extricate himself and his carpool-mate in the end but not before exposing us to many examples of the Hastings quick and inventive humor. Or at least what passes for humor.

That humor is very broad and over-the-top and sometimes downright annoying, but, on the whole, this proved to be a quick and fun read. I think I'll probably be returning to this series from time to time when I want something light that doesn't tax the brain.



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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Phenomenal Woman

Let's have something by Maya Angelou for this week's poem of the week. I like this one - a poem about a REAL woman!

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

This week in birds - #157

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

White-winged Doves are flocking to my feeders these spring days. They are beautiful birds with voracious appetites and when there are 20 - 30 of them at the feeders, they can empty them in short order. They are now the dominant dove in my yard after first showing up here only nine years ago. Eurasian Collared-doves, which had been numerous before the advent of the White-wingeds, are now less seldom seen, as are my favorites, the Mourning Dove and Inca Dove.

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The avian flu epidemic is still sweeping the Midwest, resulting in poultry farmers having to cull many of their flocks. It is still not clear how the virus came to be spread to the domestic birds. Few wild birds have been found to have the virus, only some 60 so far throughout the West. The latest to be found with the virus was a Snowy Owl in Wisconsin. Conservationists and biologists are concerned because the flu does have the potential to be devastating to wild populations if it spreads. 

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A sharp spike in honeybee deaths over the last twelve months has brought that concern to the forefront once again. A recently released survey of 5,000 beekeepers shows a loss of 42.1 percent of their hives during the twelve month period ending in April.

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A group of scientists is attempting to reverse engineer birds in experiments with chicken embryos. They are attempting to reverse the evolutionary process and turn birds' beaks into dinosaur snouts, the point being, apparently, to gain a better understanding of just how evolution worked to create birds from dinosaurs.

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For many North American birds, Canada's boreal forest is home and sanctuary in the summer. Here is a list of seven species, including the endangered Whooping Crane, that would find it hard to survive without that forest.

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Many of those residents of the boreal forest irrupt in large numbers into the southern part of the continent during winter. Birds such as Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Scientists believe they can tie these erratic irruptions to shifts in the climate.

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The moonfish, or opah, is a silvery fish the size of an automobile tire that is found in oceans around the world. It is the first fish that has been discovered to be fully warm-blooded.

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The bloated dead bodies of dozens of diamondback terrapins, a species of turtle that can be found in coastal wetlands along the East Coast, have washed up on the shores of several beaches since April. It has not yet been determined what has caused the die-off.

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We think of Washington as a state where rains are pretty constant and dependable, and, indeed, the rains have been normal this year. What was not normal was the winter snow. The mountain snowpack is at 16 percent of normal and some streams are already drying to a trickle. As a result, Washington's governor has declared a drought emergency in the state

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House Sparrows are probably the least favorite bird of most birders in this country, simply because of all the problems they have caused for many of our beloved native birds. But it is hardly the bird's fault that it was kidnapped from its native lands and brought here to proliferate at the whim of some misguided humans. If one can manage to rid oneself of prejudices and look at the bird objectively, it has many interesting qualities. Above all, it is a survivor. "10,000 Birds" blogger has an appreciation of this most unappreciated bird.

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To the bitter disappointment of conservationists, the Obama Administration has given "conditional" approval to Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic Ocean. A major oil spill there would be devastating to that fragile environment.

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"The Rattling Crow" blogs about the cawing display of the Carrion Crow.

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Woodlands everywhere are important for soaking up the excess carbon dioxide and helping to protect the greater environment. This is true even of small or new forests. A few trees can do an almost inestimable amount of good to keep the balance of Nature.

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Many of the olive trees that have existed across the stony heel of Italy for centuries are dying, attacked by a bacterial outbreak called Xylella fastidiosa. It is an insidious disease that has also attacked citrus trees in Brazil and vineyards in California. This is a threat to the livelihood and, indeed, the way of life for Italian olive growers.

*~*~*~*

Around the backyard:

After several days of incessant rain, I emerged from my lair today to find that, during my absence, a family of young cardinals had fledged and found their way to the backyard feeders. Two of them were feeding on the ground under the feeders as I watched. Immature cardinals are easy to distinguish from their parents, even though they are the same size, because of their dark beaks. This is not a very good picture, but I think you can tell that the bird has a dark gray beak. Adult cardinals have distinctive red beaks. This bird's beak will be red by late fall or winter.