Monday, July 31, 2017

Fallout by Sara Paretsky: A review

Oh, V.I. Warshawski, how I've missed you! It seems an age since we had our last adventure, although, in truth, it has only been two years since we solved the mystery of Brush Back together. But what a pleasure it is to be once again in your company.

I've been making these periodic visits to Warshawski-World since the 1980s when Sara Paretsky started this series. Paretsky, Warshawski, and I have aged together through the years. There are a few more gray hairs among the blonde on Warshawski's head these days and, if the truth be told, on mine as well. 

But Warshawski is still the wiry, fit detective that we first met in Indemnity Only all those years ago. And she's still the same indomitable, uncompromising seeker after truth that we've come to know and admire in that and all the subsequent seventeen V.I. books. She only gets better with age and experience.

In Fallout, V.I. leaves the comfort zone that she knows so well, Chicago, and heads out to Lawrence, Kansas, searching for an actress and a videographer who have disappeared there. The actress is Emerald Ferring, who grew up (as did Sara Paretsky) in Lawrence, and the young videographer is August Veriden, who is a cousin of Angela Creedy, a teammate of Bernadine Fouchard, goddaughter of V.I. who we met in Brush Back. Got all that?

Bernadine (Bernie) and Angela want V.I. to go to Lawrence to find the two who have gone missing and Vic finds a paying customer willing to make it worth her while to take the case. And so she makes the drive to Lawrence with her dog, Peppy, as company. (Her other dog, Mitch, gets to stay in Chicago, and be boarded.) 

Lawrence proves to be a close-knit, close-mouthed community with a racial divide. African-Americans live mostly on one side of town while white people live on the other. The two people that Vic is looking for are African-American and she finds Kansans very suspicious of her and hesitant to share any information. Moreover, she has no resources in Kansas to fall back on. Even the local police seem unwilling to cooperate in any way in looking for Emerald and August.

The body count begins to mount and Vic uncovers some local secrets that everyone would prefer remained secret, including information about biochemical weapons research that was conducted in the county back in the 1950s. She discovers a right-wing militia group that is active in the area, as well government officials who may be trying to cover up a disaster that took place during the biochemical weapons research. But she's making no progress on finding her missing persons.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, her lover Jake, the jazz musician, is touring in Europe and wanted Vic to go with him. When she went to Kansas instead, he was seriously put out and it looks as though the relationship may not survive. Poor Vic! She never did have very good luck with men.

This is one of Paretsky's more complicated plots, but she never falters and it all comes together and makes sense in the end. And as always, there are clues strewn through the text for the sharp-eyed reader. I was right there with her all the way through, enjoying every minute of the story. This may be my favorite of all the Warshawski books. If not, it's right near the top.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Poetry Sunday: A Dirge

Here's a short poem by Christina Rossetti. A dirge that references the end of summer "when lithe swallows muster for their far off flying from summer dying..."

Summer won't be dying here for several more weeks, but some of the "lithe swallows" are already gathering. Purple Martins, for example. They are among the earliest of our summer birds to arrive, in late January or early February, and the earliest to leave, often in early July. 

Last week, though, I still heard some late-goers flying about in my neighborhood, gathering for their long journey south, reluctant, perhaps, to say a final good-bye to summer's abundance. 


A Dirge


by Christina Rossetti
Why were you born when the snow was falling? 
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling, 
Or when grapes are green in the cluster, 
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster 
For their far off flying 
From summer dying. 

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping? 
You should have died at the apples’ dropping, 
When the grasshopper comes to trouble, 
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble, 
And all winds go sighing 
For sweet things dying. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

This week in birds - #266

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


Image from the Internet because of course I didn't have my camera on me!
While working in my garden yesterday, a bird call that sounded something like a Wood Peewee caused me to look up. It was a bird much larger than a peewee - a Mississippi Kite, circling slowly over my yard. Mississippi Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites are members of the hawk family that are sometimes seen here in summer, although if they are silent, they may well pass unnoticed. I was just fortunate that this one decided to announce itself. Kites generally feed on insects, including large ones like dragonflies. Plenty of those around here. 

*~*~*~*

Here's an update on that baby Red-tailed Hawk that I told you about a couple of weeks ago, the one that was captured as prey for Bald Eagle chicks but was unaccountably adopted by the Bald Eagle parents and became part of the family: He's still thriving! Wildlife biologists' fear that the eagles would at some point decide he was prey and eat him seem unfounded. They are continuing to keep an eye on him and say that he thinks he is an eagle, even though the eagles are four times bigger than him. Conservationists are waiting to see if he can make it as a hawk since he hasn't had hawk parents to show him what to do. If he appears to be unable to make the transition, the plan is to try to capture him and rehab him, training him to survive as a hawk.

*~*~*~*

More on the plan to build a wall through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas border with Mexico: The plan is being vigorously opposed by conservation organizations like the American Birding Association and American Bird Conservancy as well as residents in the area and other local conservation groups. The ABA blog has some suggestions about what birders can do to help. 

*~*~*~*

National Moth Week, which strives to bring attention to the needs of these nighttime fliers, draws to a close tomorrow, July 30. Many moth species are in decline and one way to help them would be to reduce light pollution at night

*~*~*~*

The Bikini Atoll in the Pacific is where the United States exploded 23 nuclear bombs in tests during the 1950s. It was declared a wasteland and its human inhabitants were relocated to other islands. But recently, a team of scientists from Stanford University have been surprised to learn that there is an abundance of marine life apparently thriving in the crater of the island. Just proving once again that Nature is resilient.

*~*~*~*

The "Dark Ecology Project" is developing methods for estimating the numbers of birds that are migrating in a particular area by using weather radar data.

*~*~*~*

Laura Erickson has a timely essay about the evil that is done to the environment by our partisan divide and stubborn refusal to look for common ground and find compromises that each side can live with.

*~*~*~*

DNA tests have proved that two butterflies that had been thought to be separate species are actually male and female of a single species.

*~*~*~*

As the people in charge of our federal government continue their attacks on the protections afforded public lands, timber industry advocates are pushing to remove protections for the giant sequoias in California's Giant Sequoia national monument. Yes, they want to cut down the 2,000-year-old trees.

*~*~*~*

Orangutans are able to make homes even in forests that have been degraded by logging and other human activities, proving the need to provide protections for those forests as well.

*~*~*~*


An Indigo Bunting feeding on the ground under one of my feeders in April.

The beautiful Indigo Bunting migrates through our area and can be found during summer in northern parts of the U.S. and into southern Canada. The eBird website has provided an animation of the bird's migration from Central American through North America.

*~*~*~*

The Breeding Bird Survey is now fifty years old and continues to document the changing ranges of birds throughout the country. 

*~*~*~*

Scotland's famous bird, the Capercallie, is in decline. The bird's low level of breeding success appears to be related directly to the wetter summers that are a consequence of climate change. 

*~*~*~*

The iNaturalist website has a app that can help with identification of critters based on their images.

*~*~*~*

In further proof that it is an ill wind that blows no good, the emerald ash borer that is devastating ash trees in the East has provided a smorgasbord for woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are feasting on borers this summer and doing really well.




Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Wednesday in the garden: Bullfrogs

I was seated in my meditation spot by my goldfish pond earlier this week when I sensed movement at the edge of the pond. I looked up to see a slimy gray-brownish monster climbing out onto the rocks.

Image from the Internet, courtesy of MurrayState.edu

A bullfrog! I had no idea there was such a creature in my backyard. 

This one looked as big across as my hand - I don't think I'm exaggerating. It covered most of the large rock where it rested. According to my field guide, they can grow 3.5 to 6 inches long and the largest one recorded was 8 inches long. They can weigh more than a pound and they are, of course, used as food by some people, although I've never eaten one. (My husband says they taste like chicken!)

I was shocked to see the bullfrog because I'm used to seeing the small leopard frogs or tree frogs around the pond; although, now that I think of it, I haven't seen any lately and the bullfrog may be the reason for bullfrogs eat other frogs. In fact, according to what I've just read, bullfrogs will eat just about anything they can get their wide mouths around.


And it is a wide mouth.

They've even been recorded capturing and eating small birds and mice.

The American bullfrog is endemic throughout the eastern and central U.S. and may be found near any aquatic habitat. Such as a goldfish pond. It has also been introduced to other areas where it sometimes becomes a pest because of its voracious appetite which has occasionally led to the local extirpation of some other amphibians and reptiles. (I do hope that hasn't happened to my local frogs.)

So, how did this one come to be in my backyard? Spring Creek and its adjacent wetlands are less than a mile away, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.


Maybe he saw my little meditation buddy and thought he would be welcome here!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Eyes of Prey by John Sandford: A review

This wasn't really the book I had intended to read next, but there it was, already queued up in my Kindle, so, what the heck? Might as well tick that box.

Maybe it was Fate having its way with me. After all, the Minneapolis Police Department has been much in the news recently, following a police shooting there. A civilian who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault was shot and killed by one of the policemen who responded to the call. The irony here was that the victim this time, instead of a young African-American shot by a white cop, was a pretty, blonde, white woman shot by a black cop - a Somali-American. Where are the usual suspects telling us that the victim was probably a thug who deserved it and cops are always heroes? 

Ah, well, enough editorializing. Back to the safer world of fiction where things often really are black and white.

Eyes of Prey is the third in the very long-running Lucas Davenport crime fiction series. It was first published in 1991, so it came into being in an entirely different world. Nevertheless, it seems to hold up well and doesn't feel particularly dated. True, Davenport's and his fellow policemen's reflexive attitude toward women is blatantly sexist, but I suspect that is no less accurate today than it was in 1991.

This time out, Davenport faces off with two killers who are involved in a Strangers on a Train scenario - "You kill my inconvenient wife (or, in one case, boss) and I'll kill yours." 

It all seems to go off like clockwork, with one minor hitch: When the killer goes to kill the inconvenient wife, there is another person in the house. The woman's lover comes down the stairs in time to get a look at the killer and is able to report a partial description of him.

The killers try to figure out who the lover was and they settle on a likely candidate. And one of them kills him. Except they got the wrong man.

Then they decide to kill a random woman at the mall just to muddy the waters.

The signature bit in each of these killings is destruction of the eyes, because the brains of the whole plan is a psychopath who is haunted by eyes. He sees the eyes of his victims watching him unless he destroys them. And, oh, yes, he has had many other victims. He is a serial killer.

The madness continues. One killing leads to another and police struggle to make sense of it all since the killings seem to be unrelated.

Meanwhile, Davenport is struggling with serious depression. His relationship with the married woman from the last book ended, but not before it had destroyed his tenuous connection with his on-and-off girlfriend, the mother of his daughter. He seldom sees the daughter or her mother anymore, and there doesn't seem to be any anchor or joy in his life.  

He does start up a new romantic relationship with an actress, but that does not end well. And he works his street contacts, trying to come up with a lead to solve the vicious murders.

This book, in my opinion, was an improvement on the first two of the series. The plot seemed tighter and Lucas Davenport seemed a bit more human, rather than superhuman, and thus more sympathetic. There is no mystery involved. We know who the killers are right from the first, but it is interesting to watch as the police try to work it out.

This has been a lengthy crime series that is still going and still makes it to the best seller lists. This book gives a glimmer of why that might be.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Analysis of Baseball

Baseball is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. It's only in the endless permutations of those activities that it gets complicated.

This has been a fun season for Astros fans so far. In spite of having four starting pitchers on the disabled list at one time, and, now, their All-Star shortstop and potential league MVP on the disabled list, the team has persevered and has done well. 

But it is a long season and the dog days of summer are when the true winners are finally separated from the pretenders, so we'll see. Fingers crossed...

May Swenson certainly understood the simple game of baseball and she analyzed it perfectly.

Analysis of Baseball

by May Swenson

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn't
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat's
bait. Ball
flirts, bat's
late, don't
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.

Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
Sometimes
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That's about
the bases
loaded,
about 40,000
fans exploded.

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It's done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It's about
home, and it's
about run.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

This week in birds - #265

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


The secretive Clapper Rail with two chicks - photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

*~*~*~*

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,088 acre refuge located on the Texas-Mexico border in South Texas. It is home to an amazing diversity of birds and other wildlife and is a major tourist destination for birders from around the world. It is often called the "crown jewel" of the national wildlife refuge system. But for at least six months, private contractors and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officials have been quietly planning construction of the first piece of our current president's promised border wall. Construction could begin as early as January 2018. Such a wall would essentially destroy the refuge. 

*~*~*~*

National Moth Week begins today and runs through July 30. At the event website, you can learn more about moths and how you can participate as a citizen scientist in this project.

*~*~*~*

It may be that there is a previously unknown species in the Bird-of-Paradise family. At least the dance moves of the bird which differ from other known species suggest that that is possible. Here is the known species, the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, performing his dance.



*~*~*~*

Here's yet more evidence that crows can differentiate between people who are kind to them and people who harass them.

*~*~*~*

There is an appalling story this week about the amount of plastics produced by humans - some 8.3 billion metric tons so far. The recycling rate is low, only 9% in the United States, although it is better than that in most developed countries. Indeed most of that plastic is sitting in landfills or, even more disturbingly, floating in the oceans of the world.

*~*~*~*

Courtesy of a nest cam on Kauai, many have been watching the development of a Laysan Albatross chick dubbed Kalama over the past six months and, recently, they got to see her take her first flight.



*~*~*~*

Giant hogweed, which can grow up to 20 ft. tall, has become an invasive nuisance in Great Britain. It is native to the Caucasus Mountains area and was first imported into the country during the Victorian era. It has since escaped from gardens and colonized the wild. Contact with its sap can cause severe burns which can take months to heal. Efforts are being made to eradicate it.

*~*~*~*

A new study of the effects of oil on birds' feathers shows that even the smallest amount of oil can make it difficult for birds to fly.

*~*~*~*

Area residents in Washington County, Maryland, are protesting and resisting efforts by a subsidiary of TransCanada to build a natural gas pipeline through their area that would be routed under the Potomac River. 

*~*~*~*

Ontario birders are happily welcoming an invasion of Dickcissels this summer.

*~*~*~*

Wolves do not pay attention to the lines on a map and studies find that hunting and "controlling" wolves in the areas adjoining wildlife refuges has an adverse effect on the population of wolves within the refuge. 

*~*~*~*

The various species of cowbirds are nest parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species of birds, often smaller species. This is a particular problem since, when the eggs hatch, the cowbird chick is bigger and apt to win the struggle for food, as well as sometimes actually pushing its step-siblings out of the nest. A study has found that prairie songbirds, most of whom are already threatened, are having to cope with increased nest parasitism in areas which are disturbed by agricultural and industrial development, a further threat to their survival.

*~*~*~*

North America has the richest diversity of freshwater mussels of any continent, but almost all of them are in trouble and some are threatened with extinction.

*~*~*~*

You would think that a bird would have no hesitation in flying across a roadway to avoid or escape a predator, but apparently you would be wrong. A new study has revealed that birds find roadways threatening and are hesitant to cross them.

*~*~*~*

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an essay about the wonders of the egg which includes many pictures of beautiful and diverse bird eggs.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare: A review

I first read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for my high school literature class many, many years ago. Time has dimmed my memories of much that occurred during that period, but I have a pretty clear recollection of this play and my reaction to it. I found it fascinating, particularly the characters of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

That fascination was recalled to me a few years ago when HBO ran its excellent series set in that period, Rome, with Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and the wonderful James Purefoy as Antony. That series owed a lot Shakespeare's writing, as has probably every new artistic interpretation of that period. 

Shakespeare's language is so much a part of our collective unconscious that we quote him, both figuratively and literally, often when we are not even aware of it. Remember these quotes from this play?
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones...
Beware the ides of March.
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune...
His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Let me have men about me that are fat... Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.  
It was wonderful to stroll down memory lane with William. The words seemed just as fresh as when I first read them back in 19whatever.

What prompted me to reread the play was the notoriety it has caused this summer. Its production by "Shakespeare in the Park" in New York has been in the news because it updated the play to portray Caesar as a well-known current day politician and his rabid followers took great exception to that, disrupting the play and invading the stage to stop it. 

Who would ever have imagined that a 400-year-old play could have such relevancy and could cause such a reaction? Perhaps only Shakespeare. One imagines him chortling and rubbing his hands in glee as he surveyed that scene!

Rereading the play - the plot of which is too well-known to bother summarizing here - I still found it fascinating. I was struck this time especially by the fact that Mark Antony has the best lines in the play - his funeral oration for Caesar and his words on the death of Brutus. (Perhaps my reaction is colored by watching James Purefoy play him!) 

At any rate, I'm glad to have read it again and I am somehow comforted to know that Shakespeare's words still have the power to garner a forceful reaction even from people who may not fully understand them.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Death at the Chateau Bremont by M.L. Longworth: A review

This series was recommended to me after I recently read one of Martin Walker's mysteries set in France. Death at the Chateau Bremont is the first of a series that is set in Aix-en-Provence and features the chief magistrate of Aix, Antoine Verlaque, and law professor Marine Bonnet who was a former lover of his and, it seems, may become a current lover. 

The author of the series, M.L. Longworth, is a reporter and magazine writer, who has written in - among other venues - Bon Appetit magazine. That was certainly evident in this book in which much of the description was devoted to foods and to wines. It seemed that Longworth was eager to show off her knowledge of these things. Maybe she should have stuck to writing for Bon Appetit

The mystery here begins with the death of a nobleman named Etienne de Bremont who took a header out the window of the attic in the family chateau. At first, it appears to have been accidental, but two of his cousins who are lawyers are not so sure and request an inquiry into the circumstances. Thus enters Antoine Verlaque.

Six months before, Verlaque had broken off his long-running romantic relationship with Marine Bonnet - or did she break it off with him? Like many things in this book, that is a bit of a muddle. But Verlaque knows that Bonnet knew the Bremont family and grew up with the man who was killed as her playmate. He contacts her to ask for information about the family and she becomes involved in the investigation.

There is a lot of fairly aimless wandering around Provence with the main purpose seeming to be the tasting of wine rather than the solving of a mystery. We get copious descriptions of the countryside and the wines but not much description of any investigatory action. That all seems quite haphazard and off the cuff. Somehow I don't think this is representative of French police work. (I did watch The Tunnel on PBS, so obviously I am something of an expert. At least as much an expert as someone who has spent her career writing for posh foodie magazines.)

Anyway, the plot meanders along and then we have a second death - the brother of the first man who died. There's no doubt about how this one happened; he was strangled.

Even so, this doesn't seem to light a fire under Verlaque. He's still more interested in pursuing a resumption of his relationship with Bonnet and in enjoying fine food and superlative wines in 3-star restaurants and savoring his fine cigars (He belongs to a cigar club!) than in finding out what happened to these two men and who is responsible.

I give up! The plot and the characters in this book are just a big, fat mess! 

And that reminds me: At one point, Marine is ruminating on the looks and manners of the tourists that flock into Provence and she expresses her disgust at all the fat American and English women who carry around their gallons of water with them. It was an utterly gratuitous insult which contributed nothing to the plot and just made the "heroine" out to be a pompous jerk.

Finally, we do find out what happened in regard to the first death, but the mystery of who killed the second man and why is never solved unless it was in one of those passages where my eyes glazed over as I was speed-reading through the last chapters. Maybe the mystery was carried over to be solved in the second entry in the series, but I'm not curious enough to find out.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars 

     

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Wednesday in the garden: Justicia chrysostephana 'Orange Flame'

Justicia chrysostephana 'Orange Flame' 

In my zone 9a garden, it is a very rare winter when we get temperatures below 20 degrees F. Indeed, in recent years, it's been a rare winter when temperatures dip below freezing. In our most recent winter, we had two days in January that had temperatures below 32 degrees F. That was it.

Our relatively mild winters offer us the option of being able to grow some tropical plants. One of the ones that I grow is the medium-sized shrub 'Orange Flame'.

My plant has been in the ground for several years and is well-established. It does lose its leaves and dies back in the winter but comes back strong in the spring. It lives in a bed where it gets bright light but is in shade much of the day. It is protected by the thick leaves of an old magnolia tree that towers over it.

The blossoms are big and bright and showy and do, in fact, look a lot like flames. They really pop in a shady area. The leaves of the plant are attractive as well. They are a lush, dark green.

This is an extremely easy plant to grow in this area. It thrives in high humidity and rich, humusy soil, both of which I can provide. About the only care it needs is to be cut back in late winter to encourage it to produce a bushy plant with lots of those lush green leaves.  

It wouldn't work for my friends in colder climes, but for us zone 9 gardeners, 'Orange Flame' is a real winner.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Austen's powers

July 18 is a date of some significance to my life. Most importantly, it is the birthday of my late mother, Reba Cromeans. Were she still alive, she would be 96 years old today.


Reba in her mid-twenties, one of my favorite pictures of her.

My mother, like most of us, was anonymous. The world did not note nor remember the date of her birth. Or her death. That is left to those of us who cared for her.

That is most certainly not true of the other woman important to my life for whom July 18 was a significant date. Her name was Jane Austen. You may have heard of her.

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. This two hundredth anniversary of her death has given an excuse for her legion of fans and admirers to pen tributes to her. For example, seven present-day writers make the case for each of their favorites among Jane's novels.

In the Times, Radhika Jones makes the point that unlike some famous writers of today (Here's looking at you, George R.R. Martin!) Jane Austen never killed off any of her major characters. Although death plays a significant role in some of the plots - Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice spring immediately to mind - the deaths themselves occur or are anticipated off stage.

Also in the Times, there is a fun quiz (if you are into such things) about Jane's life and afterlife. Answer the questions and find out how much of a Janeite you are. I got only 5/10 right, so I hardly even qualify.

And the articles go on and on.

But what accounts for the power of Jane Austen's writing? Why does she still exert such a hold on so many of us 200 years after she left us?

For me, the answer is clear: She wrote about us or our 18th - early 19th century equivalents. People with whom we can identify. Ordinary, anonymous, flawed, often annoying human beings. Human beings who live our lives within the circumscribed limits of our acquaintances and of society. Even when we rebel against those limitations, we are ultimately, in ways that we may not acknowledge, enclosed by them.

In fact, Jane wrote about human beings not unlike herself. Or my mother.

A little known fact about my mother is that when she was young, she very much wanted to be a writer. She never got that chance, but both she and Jane used the talents and resources they had to live the most productive lives that they could. Jane produced six novels and other writings for the ages. My mother produced me.

Weighed in the balance, I can't compete with Jane's writing, but, on the whole, I'm happy to be my mother's one masterpiece.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: A review

The gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. A former member of the landed aristocracy from the beautiful region of Nizhy Novgorod, famous for its apple trees, Rostov was a resident of the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922. He had been living in a luxury suite in the hotel and enjoying a life of culture and leisure. But then came the revolution.

The triumphant Bolsheviks set about ridding their new society of aristocrats. Rostov was called before a tribunal and was sentenced by them to a life under house arrest. But instead of continuing to live in his luxurious suite of rooms, those rooms, along with most of his furniture and other possessions, were taken from him and he was moved into a small 100 square foot room in the belfry of the hotel. This would be his home - and his prison - for the next thirty plus years.

In addition to being a man of culture, erudition, and wit, Rostov possessed an indomitable spirit and an ability to deal with reality without blinking. He took steps to make himself as comfortable as possible in his new surroundings and continued his daily routine at the hotel.

That daily routine included interactions with several of the staff members as well as other residents. The staff members who became his fast friends and surrogate family included: Emile, the head chef of the restaurant; Andrey, the maitre d'; Marina, the hotel's seamstress; and Vasily, the concierge. This "family" became increasingly important in Rostov's life as events unfolded. 

Rostov proves to be a charming man of hidden depths and his life changes drastically when he meets a nine-year-old resident of the hotel named Nina. Nina is an endlessly curious, adventurous, and precocious child, and the two become unlikely best friends. As Nina explores all the interesting nooks and crannies of the great hotel, Rostov becomes her companion and follower. Through their adventures together, a whole new world opens up for him. 

Eventually, Nina's father moves her out of the hotel, but Rostov continues to find adventures. His new outlook on the world leads him to seek employment and he becomes the headwaiter in the restaurant at the hotel, a position for which his experience and knowledge suits him right down to the ground. 

He settles into a comfortable routine with his friends from the hotel and occasional visits by friends from past life, but, of course, he is never able to leave the hotel.

Then one day, Nina comes back into his life. She is a grown woman, married, and with a child in tow. She relates an all-too-familiar tale of the new Bolshevik utopia. Her husband has been arrested and sent to Siberia. She plans to follow him and find a place to live there. But she cannot take her five-year-old daughter with her. She wants to leave Sofia with Rostov, saying that she has no one else she can turn to and she will return in a month or so after she finds a place to live and retrieve her daughter. How can Rostov refuse?

And so the count's life changes drastically once again. His next fifteen years are devoted to raising Sofia, who becomes his adopted daughter because her parents never return and are never heard from again.

The cast of characters in this engrossing novel are compelling, top to bottom. Not just the main characters but all the secondary supporting cast are thoroughly human, completely realized personalities. They are, for the most part, a humane and lovable lot, with only one real notable exception. But then every tale needs a bete noire.

The story really gets going once Sofia comes into Rostov's and his "family's" lives. It is amazing and yet thoroughly believable the adjustments that are made by these people to ensure that Sofia is properly cared for.

I admired the way that Towles seamlessly wove in bits of Russian literary history as well as the political history of the twentieth century, as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on the reins of the country. Moreover, he was able to relate his tale with wit and an intentional lightness of spirit. We are never weighed down by tragic events. Although we are always made aware of what is happening outside the hotel, the focus is quite personal and individual, a testament to the undaunted human spirit. 

Towles never loses sight of his end game and how the plot should be directed. As he brings the book to its very satisfying end, he manages to draw all of his important themes together: the gravitational pull exerted by one's home, parental duty, the pivotal role of friendship and romance in our lives.

I loved this book and the character of Count Rostov. From the first sentence to the last, I was completely captivated.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Macavity: The Mystery Cat

I have long had a affinity for cats. It's something that I share with a lot of writers, both living and dead.

Among the most famous advocates of cats among the community of writers was, of course, T.S. Eliot, he who wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which Andrew Lloyd Webber later took and turned into his musical, Cats.

All of the poems in that book show a deep understanding of the often inscrutable and enigmatic personalities of cats. None more so than the one about Macavity, the Mystery Cat. Having known and cherished many mystery cats over the years, I have a particular fondness for this poem.

Macavity: The Mystery Cat

by T.S. Eliot

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw—
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it's useless to investigate—Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
It must have been Macavity!'—but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumb;
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN'T THERE !
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!


Friday, July 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - July 2017

Summer has arrived with a vengeance in my part of the world. Heat and humidity prevail and make the days miserable for plants and for the gardener. But at least we've been having regular late afternoon showers to provide some relief. Still, the garden is definitely showing some stress, although many plants are still bravely sending out their blooms. Here are some of them.


The flame-shaped flowers of the flame acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii) are drawing bumblebees by the dozens to sip their nectar.


Another bee and butterfly favorite is the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).


This native sunflower continues to send out plenty of blooms, undaunted by the heat.


And if it is summer, then of course the summer phlox is in bloom.


July is hibiscus season.


This one is a particular favorite.


When I first saw this one early in the day, it was perfect and gorgeous, but by the time I got back out with my camera, it was already past its prime. That's the one bad thing about hibiscus flowers; they only last one day.


The Blackfoot daisies, on the other hand, stay pretty and fresh for a very long time.


The blue potato bushes that I added in the spring have been doing very well.


And, of course, 'Pride of Barbados' continues to do me proud.


The Duranta erecta has been in bloom for a while and the blooms are now giving way to the "golden dewdrop" berries that give the plant its popular name.


Bronze esperanza is full of blooms.


And so is its yellow cousin.


The gaillardias have been doing well.


Here's another slightly different one.


Yellow milkweed.


And orange milkweed.


The ornamental pepper that reseeded itself from last year is becoming more...ornamental.


Hummingbird bush (Hamelia patens).


Most of the roses are resting just now but 'Darcy Bussell' is still sending out blooms.


I do love portulaca for its ability to stand up to the worst that Texas summers can throw at it. You can see the bloom's similarity to the rose; thus, its popular name "moss rose".


Yellow yarrow.


Dwarf ruellia 'Katie'.


The funky little flowers of the buttonbush. They start out as creamy white but turn color as they age.


The pretty little blossoms of convolvulus 'Blue Daze' don't stay open for very long. By mid-day the petals are already folding for sleep. But while they are open, they brighten their spot next to my goldfish pond.  


Yellow cestrum, another butterfly favorite.


And finally, here's a delicate creamy pink water lily just after one of those late afternoon showers.

I'm so glad you decided to visit my garden and my blog this month. I hope you'll come back soon.

Thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for once again being our host this month.

Happy gardening and happy Bloom Day.