Friday, March 9, 2018

On the road again

I'll be absent from this space and mostly absent from the internet for the next 9-10 days, because we are headed out on a road trip! We'll be traveling around West Texas from Big Bend National Park up to the Davis Mountains/Marfa area. It is a beautiful and varied landscape encompassing mountains, desert, and, of course, that river that gives Big Bend its name. I'll be reporting back with pictures (I hope) but probably not until I'm home again. So, watch this space! 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin: A review

I had problems with this book. Mostly confusion. This is the third book in the trilogy and by now I guess I should be used to Jemisin's method of jumping around between time periods and characters, without warning and without explaining who is what, as well as introducing new characters or concepts with no background or preparation. But this one really threw me for a loop and I spent maybe the first quarter to third of the book floundering and trying to find my feet.

In the end though, I was so bowled over by the creativity of her imagination and the uniqueness of the world that she has built for us in these books that I sort of gave her a pass on her confusing method of presenting the story. Her descriptive writing is clear enough that one can see - or "sess" - the overall picture that she is presenting even when individual parts remain baffling.

So, Syl Anagist? What's up with that? Has it been mentioned in the other books? Not that I remember. Apparently, it was the great founding civilization on the planet and they created the stone eaters as a kind of bridge - "tuners" - between ordinary humans and the powers of orogeny which the Syl Anagistans sought to control. They created the stone eaters in the image of the Niess, a tribe of people who were proficient at using magic. The Niess were destroyed and dissected by the Syl Anagistans in order to try to understand the source of their magic. (I guess the idea of just observing or asking them never occurred to the "great civilization.")

So, we get all this background on Syl Anagist, as far as I can tell, through the voice of the stone eater Hoa, who was Essun's companion and protector in the previous book. Stone eaters, it seems, live forever. Or at least for a very, very long time. And they have unique powers. For one thing, they are able to travel through the center of the Earth to get from one hemisphere to another or one side of the world to the other. Not only that but they are able to transport humans with them and that is an important factor in the development of the plot.

And the plot here is that Essun is still searching for her daughter, Nassun. Nassun, now ten years old, still has Schaffa, the Guardian, as her companion and protector. Essun continues to travel with the people from the comm Castrima as they look for a new place to live after their last community was destroyed.

Father Earth is a sentient entity and he is still furious with humans and essentially trying to wipe them off the planet in revenge for their many sins against the planet, but especially because they caused the Moon to be flung out of its orbit long ago. Earth has been wreaking vengeance against humans for the loss of his child ever since.

This, then, is the story of the separation of parent and child and of trying to get the two back together again. Essun has a plan. She will harness the power of the obelisks to bring Moon back to its orbit and make Father Earth happy again and make him end the destructive "Fifth Seasons." Meanwhile, Nassun also has a plan for harnessing the power of the obelisks. Like mother, like daughter. And Hoa will transport Essun and some members of her comm through the center of Father Earth to the place where Nassun is. The stage is set for an explosion of powerful forces.

Well, this is fantasy after all. The laws of physics do not apply. Anything goes. One just has to suspend disbelief and hang on tight for the ride. And enjoy the fantastical artistic vision and exquisite writing.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Death in Vienna by Daniel Silva: A review

This fourth book in the Gabriel Allon series was published in 2003 and once again we find the art restorer/Israeli agent dealing with surviving Holocaust victims and war criminals nearly sixty years after the end of the war. The clock is running out on these people and with it the possibility of bringing any sort of justice to either the victims or their tormentors.

This entry finds Allon still working on restoring a painting at a church in Venice. While he works there, a bomb explodes in Vienna at the Wartime Claims and Inquiries Office. The head of the office, Eli Lavon, is also a sometime Israeli agent and a friend of Allon. He is seriously injured in the blast and the two women who worked with him are killed.

Ari Shamron, Allon's former boss at the Israeli intelligence agency, arranges for him to go to Vienna to investigate. There he meets an elderly Holocaust survivor who insists that a prominent local businessman named Ludwig Vogel is actually a notorious Nazi war criminal named Erich Radek. Coincidentally, it develops that Radek was one of those at the Nazi death camp at Birkenau where Allon's mother was held. Moreover, his late mother's written testimony implicates Radek as the murderer of two of her friends and as one of her own tormentors. Also, she was an artist and some of her art works based on Birkenau experiences show Radek's activities.

Soon, Allon's informant in Vienna is himself killed and his investigation leads him to believe that the bomb blast as well as the murder of the elderly Holocaust survivor were done to prevent Vogel/Radek from being publicly exposed. Austria is in the midst of an election campaign and the leading candidate for the presidency on the right is actually the son of Radek. To expose him as the son of a Nazi could disrupt the campaign. (Or maybe not. This is Austria, the country that elected Kurt Waldheim, after all.)

Anyway, Allon follows Radek's trail after the war all the way to Argentina, in order to prove that he is who the Israelis believe he is. Then he concocts a complicated scheme to force Radek to go to Israel and to stand trial for his war crimes. The story becomes a thriller as we follow Allon and his team as they implement the plan and try to bring one more old Nazi to justice.

Parts of the book involve descriptions of the treatment of the people in concentration camps, including the written testimony of Allon's mother. These sections are graphic and disturbing and very difficult to read. On the other hand, we also see Allon's blossoming relationship with his girlfriend, Chiara, another Israeli agent who watches his back in difficult situations here.

The plot is fast-paced and full of action, but I had the sense that, in spite of the action, the character of Allon is rather static. There doesn't seem to have been much growth or development throughout these first four books in the series. Perhaps that will change in future books.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Dear March - Come In by Emily Dickinson

To celebrate the coming of March, here's a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Dear March - Come In

by Emily Dickinson

DEAR March, come in!
How glad I am!
I looked for you before.
Put down your hat—
You must have walked—
How out of breath you are!
Dear March, how are you?
And the rest?
Did you leave Nature well?
Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,
I have so much to tell!

I got your letter, and the bird's;
The maples never knew
That you were coming,—I declare,
How red their faces grew!
But, March, forgive me—
And all those hills
You left for me to hue;
There was no purple suitable,
You took it all with you.

Who knocks? That April!
Lock the door!
I will not be pursued!
He stayed away a year, to call
When I am occupied.
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come,
That blame is just as dear as praise
And praise as mere as blame. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

This week in birds - #295

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

The redbud in my backyard is just beginning to bloom and that means that this Pine Siskin and its friends, along with the American Goldfinches, will soon be flying north to their breeding grounds. 


And in Washington, D.C., the famous cherry trees began popping out blooms in mid-February. For the second year in a row, spring is coming about twenty days ahead of schedule. This is all a consequence of the warming climate and while spring is welcome to humans after a nasty winter, its early arrival has consequences in Nature that may not be positive.


In November, Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming introduced her legislation to protect energy companies from having to take responsibility for killing birds during their operations. The Audubon Society calls it "the Bird-Killer Amendment." It was attached to HR 4239 which is still making its way through the House, but is being vigorously opposed by conservation organizations. 


Ecotourism can mean big money in undeveloped areas where wildlife thrives, but it works best where the local human population is directly compensated for the wildlife observed by tourists. This gives them a stake in the operation and a reason to protect the wildlife with whom they share the area.


The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered creatures on Earth. At last count, the total population was only 458 animals and last year 17 of them died. So it is extremely worrying that at this season when the whales would normally be giving birth, there have been no signs of newborns so far. 


It is axiomatic that birds spread seeds. They eat the fruit that they like and then later poop out the seed in a new location. This has been shown to be especially true of birds and chili peppers. The birds really like the chilis and, at least in the Mariana Islands, have been very instrumental in spreading the seeds in the wild.  


Native wildflowers are well-adapted to the areas where they evolved and have strategies for coping with the harsh conditions that Nature sometimes sends. For example, wildflowers in drought areas like California have an ability to store their seeds well underground where they can wait for sufficient moisture.


When there is a heat wave in the Arctic, it can cause blizzards in the northern hemisphere. That is, in simple terms, what happened in our recent winter.  There were record high temperatures in the Arctic in February and scientists are worried that that is eroding the polar vortex, the powerful winds that once helped to insulate the frozen north and keep the extreme cold from making its way farther south. 


American Kestrels, the smallest of our falcons, feed on insects and some small reptiles or mammals. They can be an important controlling factor for insect pests and can decrease the need for gardeners or farmers to use pesticides. 


High road density leads to low grizzly bear density in bear country. Scientists at the University of Alberta say the way to put the threatened grizzly bear on the road to recovery is to close routes that drive through their habitats. Their recent study was the first to make strong links between low grizzly bear populations in areas of high road density.


Blacktip sharks that journey down the Florida coast have declined in number so sharply that researchers warn one of the largest migrations in U.S. waters could grind to a halt because of the rapidly warming ocean. Where there are usually as many as 15,000 of the sharks on any given day in February and March as the animals forge southwards from the Carolinas region in search of agreeably warm waters in winter, last year aerial surveys of the migration found this number had slumped by around two-thirds, to 4,000 sharks. 


Climate change and overfishing are pushing the King Penguin to the brink of extinction and scientists fear that the species could disappear by the end of the century.


Yellow-billed Oxpeckers make their living by cleaning parasites from the skins of large African animals such as giraffes, water buffalo, and elands. And where do the birds go at night? Photographs now reveal that they stay with their host animals. They roost on the giraffes - or the water buffalo or elands - at night. Means they don't have to fly far for breakfast! 


At a conference in Costa Rica, Latin American countries are set to agree to the world's first legally binding convention to protect environmental defenders. This comes after record numbers of land activists and indigenous people were killed on the continent last year, with an average of two Nature protectors being murdered every week.


Spicebush ( Lindera benzoin) is a widespread shrub that is native to North America and is the textbook specimen of how native plants support our wildlife in ways that are impossible for the exotic non-natives plants that are introduced everyday in our home landscapes. The shrub supports many forms of wildlife but it is particularly important to the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

It lays its eggs on the leaves and its caterpillars develop by feeding on the plant. 

And eventually that caterpillar morphs into another beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

Friday, March 2, 2018

You gotta believe

This video by Nina Paley seems to be making the rounds on the internet. At least I've encountered it on a couple of sites that I frequent, and if it's there I figure it must be in other places as well. I find it mesmerizing. I mean what could be better than images of ancient mother goddesses dancing to the Pointer Sisters singing "You gotta believe"?
Take the chain off your brain
Stop, take a look at yourself
Stop ridiculin' everybody else
You've got to believe in somethin'
Why not believe in me?
Why not indeed? 

You Gotta Believe from Nina Paley on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

(Almost) spring blooms

Finally! My garden has a few (almost) spring blooms opening up.

Carolina jessamine.

Bees of all kinds do love those jessamine flowers.


More poppies.

And more poppies.

And still more.

Purple oxalis blooms just beginning to peek out.

Sweet alyssum.

Loropetalum chinense (Chinese fringeflower).

I love these fringy fuchsia-colored flowers.

Daffodils, of course. Some in yellow.

And some in white.

Scabiosa (pincushion flower).

The flowers are actually a bit more blue than they appear in the image.

These flowers just confirm that spring really is beginning to peek over the horizon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: A review

This (mostly) delightful little book had languished in my reading queue for quite a while. Time to move it on up and tick that box.

This was the writer's debut novel, first published in 1989, and it has enjoyed continuing popularity over the years.

The story takes place at the turn of the 20th century in Mexico. Rebellion and revolution are abroad in the land. Pancho Villa and his army of followers have captured the imagination of many, while the government's army pushes back against them.

The Garza family with its three daughters, Rosaura, Gertrudis, and Tita, live quietly on their ancestral lands outside a small village near the border with the U.S. The daughters pursue their own paths in life, but as we and they learn Tita's path has been preordained for her. The family tradition is that the youngest daughter is not allowed to marry and that she must devote herself to caring for her parents in their old age. In this case, there is only one parent, Mama Elena, since the father had died years before. Mama Elena is the family dictator, a formidable force to be reckoned with.

Inevitably, Tita falls in love with a young man named Pedro and he asks for her hand in marriage. He is informed that Tita cannot marry because of her destiny as caretaker of her mother. He is instead offered the sister Rosaura as a wife. In the end, Pedro agrees to that marriage because he believes it will at least allow him to be close to his beloved.

Tita is a gifted cook, and, learning that she will not be able to marry, she immerses herself in the art of cooking. Cooking eases her emotional pain.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, but the months occur over a period of some twenty years. The passage of time is not always evident at first - only on a deeper reading of the chapter. Each chapter begins with one of Tita's unique recipes and her discussion of how to prepare it. My daughter told me when she read this book she was seized throughout with the urge to cook.

In the fullness of time, running water and electricity arrive in the area. Children are born and grow. People move on or die. Tita's mood changes affect the food she prepares, sometimes to the detriment of those who consume it. She continues to suffer emotionally and eventually has a kind of breakdown. Then, she meets a wonderful man, a widowed doctor, who wants to marry her. But her heart still belongs to Pedro, who by this time has proved himself to be something of a jerk, in my opinion.

Esquivel's employment of magical realism in the telling of this story adds to the charm and the interest of what could otherwise have been a rather ordinary romance novel. She mixes the ingredients of her novel as a cook would mix the ingredients in a recipe and the result is a tasty dish.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, February 26, 2018

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: A review

Back in October, I read Jesmyn Ward's latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing, set in the Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Bois Sauvage and the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. It occurred to me then that I had never read this earlier book, also set in Bois Sauvage, also a National Book Award winner. Ward seems to be making a habit of that.

I thought the book I read in October was amazing, but, if anything, this one is even better. It certainly packs even more of an emotional wallop. At least it did for me. I found that I could more easily empathize with these characters.

The story centers around the Batiste family, a dirt poor - literally - African-American family living on land on the bayou outside of Bois Sauvage inherited from grandparents. The family comprises a widowed father, three sons, and a daughter. Our main protagonist, the one whose eyes we look through, is the daughter, Esch. She is the third child of the family, now fourteen years old. The difficult birth of her younger brother, called Junior, resulted in the death of the wife and mother of the Batiste family and left it bereft. The father has become a heavy drinker and the children are mostly in charge of bringing themselves up. Nevertheless, this poor family is rich in love and caring for each other, as we will learn in the twelve days covered by this novel. 

It is late August 2005. The Gulf Coast is weighed down by oppressive heat and a sense of dread. It has been an active season for tropical storms and now another one has made its way into the Gulf from the Atlantic and is gathering strength in the warm waters there. Esch's father is concerned about the coming storm and is doing his best to prepare. He is old enough to remember the killer Camille that devastated the area in late August 1969. People who remember still talk about it and the Batiste children have grown up hearing those stories from their parents.

The sense of foreboding grows day by day as weather forecasters report that the storm is intensifying, but meantime, the Batiste children continue with their daily lives. Esch's oldest brother, Randall, is a gifted basketball player and is preoccupied with trying out for a basketball camp. The second brother Skeetah (Jason) cares only for his pit bull fighting dog, a bitch called China who gives birth to five puppies as the novel begins. Skeetah hopes to earn his fortune with this animal. Junior is a child, only concerned with play. But Esch has suddenly taken on some very adult concerns.

Esch started having sex with her brothers' friends when she was twelve years old, because it was easier to let them do what they wanted than it was to resist. She was a child. She didn't know she could say no. Now, at age fourteen, she realizes she is pregnant. What can she do? She is trapped.

Esch is such an interesting character. She loves literature. At one point, she recounts that in the previous year, her class had read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and that she was the only one in the class who understood Vardaman's one sentence chapter, "My mother is a fish." She is very proud of that. Moreover, she is now obsessed with Greek myths and keeps a volume under her mattress to read in bed. She particularly likes the story of Medea. She identifies with her because Medea had a brother named Jason, too. Reading all of this, truly, one's heart breaks for this child.

All of these concerns, though, are suddenly forgotten or at least pushed aside. Katrina has landed.

I read the last two chapters of this book, which cover the coming of the storm and its aftermath, in a blur of tears. The Batiste family's experience was that of so many thousands of others. They never thought the waters would reach as far as their home, but then water comes sloshing through the floorboards and over the doorsills. And it keeps rising. They seek refuge in their attic. The water rises with them and threatens to drown them there, but they escape through a hole in the roof, helping each other, clinging together, refusing to leave anyone behind. Even the dog.

This is harrowing reading, as is another section earlier in the book that describes the violence and cruelty of dog fights. A writer who can make poetry of the brutality of dog-fighting and of a monstrous killer storm is, as a famous spider would have written in her web, "Some writer!" Jesmyn Ward is some writer.

After the storm is over and the Batistes are still alive, Esch picks up shards left in its wake.
“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” 
Yes. Yes. Yes!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Laws of Motion by Nikki Giovanni

From her profile in Poetry Foundation magazine: "Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her unique and insightful poetry testifies to her own evolving awareness and experiences: from child to young woman, from naive college freshman to seasoned civil rights activist, from daughter to mother. Frequently anthologized, Giovanni’s poetry expresses strong racial pride and respect for family. Her informal style makes her work accessible to both adults and children."

Here's something completely different from what is usually featured here, but I would agree with the Poetry Foundation assessment that it is unique and insightful, as well as accessible. Enjoy!

The Laws of Motion

by Nikki Giovanni
(for Harlem Magic)
The laws of science teach us a pound of gold weighs as   
much as a pound of flour though if dropped from any   
undetermined height in their natural state one would
reach bottom and one would fly away

Laws of motion tell us an inert object is more difficult to   
propel than an object heading in the wrong direction is to   
turn around. Motion being energy—inertia—apathy.   
Apathy equals hostility. Hostility—violence. Violence   
being energy is its own virtue. Laws of motion teach us

Black people are no less confused because of our   
Blackness than we are diffused because of our
powerlessness. Man we are told is the only animal who   
smiles with his lips. The eyes however are the mirror of
the soul

The problem with love is not what we feel but what we   
wish we felt when we began to feel we should feel
something. Just as publicity is not production: seduction
is not seductive

If I could make a wish I’d wish for all the knowledge of all   
the world. Black may be beautiful Professor Micheau
says but knowledge is power. Any desirable object is
bought and sold—any neglected object declines in value.   
It is against man’s nature to be in either category

If white defines Black and good defines evil then men
define women or women scientifically speaking describe
men. If sweet is the opposite of sour and heat the
absence of cold then love is the contradiction of pain and
beauty is in the eye of the beheld

Sometimes I want to touch you and be touched in   
return. But you think I’m grabbing and I think you’re   
shirking and Mama always said to look out for men like   

So I go to the streets with my lips painted red and my   
eyes carefully shielded to seduce the world my reluctant   

And you go to your men slapping fives feeling good   
posing as a man because you know as long as you sit   
very very still the laws of motion will be in effect

Friday, February 23, 2018

This week in birds - #294

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

Chipping Sparrows are always welcome winter visitors in my garden.


There were record high temperatures this week along the East Coast, including an 80 degree day on February 21 in Newark, New Jersey, that made that the highest temperature ever recorded there in the month of February. 


In July of last year, part of the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctica peninsula split away revealing an ecosystem below it that had been hidden for 120,000 years. Now scientists are racing to explore the marine life revealed by the calving of the ice shelf. 


Image from the Academy of Natural Sciences. 

This week was the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet, a bird once so numerous that flocks in flight blotted out the sun. If such a population can be utterly extinguished, perhaps the lesson for us is that anything can be. Even us.


It sometimes seems that the aim of the current administration in Washington is to destroy everything that has been protected by previous administrations. In this endeavor, no one has been more effective than the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. He is systematically dismantling the agency and making it impossible to continue its purpose of protecting the environment. 


There is hope, however, in the fact that the administration has often been "sloppy and careless," in the words of one critic, in its assault on environmental rules. A cascade of court standoffs are beginning to slow and even reverse the EPA rollbacks, thanks to what has been characterized as the administration's "disregard for the law." 


Did American Flamingoes once roam wild in Florida? They have been showing up there over the past 70 years, but many have argued that these are escapees from zoos or wildlife parks. Others make the case that they could be a returning population from Mexico, Cuba, or the Caribbean and that they are simply reclaiming a lost part of their natural territory. 


The U.S. Climate Alliance is a group of states that has banded together to  commit to continuing to honor the Paris Climate Accord, in spite of the fact that the federal government has chosen to trash it. This week New Jersey joined the alliance.


And, in other news of resistance to the climate change deniers, more than one million trees have been pledged for "Trump Forest," an effort by environmentalists to offset the president's curtailing of Obama-era clean energy initiatives by planting ten billion trees around the globe.


A project called Safe Wings Ottawa will be exhibiting a thousand dead birds at Ottawa City Hall on Monday, February 26. They are the bodies of birds that died in collision with the glass windows of buildings in the city in 2017. All were collected by volunteers. The aim of the exhibit is to bring attention to the problem of glass for birds; they can't see it and crash into it. The hope is that it will encourage innovation in finding solutions to the problem.


Coffee plantations are good habitats for a diversity of bird species, as long as the coffee is grown in shade under larger trees. 


Image from the Shelby County Reporter.

It's a male Northern Cardinal but it isn't red. It is a bird with a rare pigment mutation that causes its feathers to be yellow. It has been making appearances in Shelby County, Alabama recently where it has been photographed by several birders.


The tropical island nation of Seychelles will create two huge new marine parks in return for a large amount of its national debt being written off, in the first scheme of its kind in the world. Swapping debt for dolphins and other sea life is an innovative plan that offers a win-win for the country and for the environment.
The Moas of New Zealand are long extinct, but a study of their fossilized droppings has given clues as to the extent to which they shaped the native landscape of the island by assisting in the spreading of fungi, which was one of their favorite foods.
A tick that is native to Asia has been found on sheep in New Jersey. It is not clear how the insects came to be there, but they represent a potential threat of becoming another invasive species.
With the rise of sea levels on one side and the encroaching industrial and housing development on the other, California could be in danger of losing its salt marshes, an important habitat for many endangered species.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: A review

The writing of Walter Mosley harkens back to masters like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain. The best of noir.

This book was Mosley's introduction of his character, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins. We meet Easy in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. He is a black man who had been raised in Houston and he had joined the army to fight Nazis during the war. He spent much of it sitting behind a typewriter, but when he had the chance, he volunteered to go with Gen. George Patton's Third Army into the heart of Europe. He fought his way through the rest of the war, including at the Battle of the Bulge, and returned home to Houston, but like many African-Americans in the South during that period, he found the atmosphere stifling and chose to move on. In Easy's case, he moved to Los Angeles, along with many others from Houston's Fifth Ward. As we meet Easy, we find that many in his circle of acquaintances in LA are former Houstonians.

I felt an immediate empathy for Easy Rawlins because of the Houston connection. His descriptions of neighborhoods and streets were places I hear about frequently. No doubt they've changed in the last seventy years, but they are still there. Moreover, there was the Patton's Army connection. My father, too, was in the Third Army and I grew up listening to stories about the Battle of the Bulge and the other lesser known battles that he fought in. As a result, Rawlins seemed very familiar to me.

Easy has just been fired from his job at an aircraft factory when we meet him. His white boss thought the uppity black man was not showing him sufficient deference. Without a source of income, Easy stands to lose the small house he is so proud of since he won't be able to pay the mortgage. 

I loved Mosley's description of that little house and lot, because it revealed so much of Easy's character. He takes pride in the order that he keeps in the house and the care that he gives the plantings around the house - the fruit trees, the perennials with their bright blooms, even the pot of African violets on the porch. This is a man after my own heart.

So, Easy has to come up with a way to earn some money fast. He goes for a drink in a friend's bar and in walks fate in the portly form of a white man dressed all in white. It seems that Easy's friend has paved the way for this man to offer him a job. The two talk and the man offers him a substantial amount of money to find a woman. She is a blonde named Daphne Monet and she has a real penchant for black jazz clubs and, incidentally, for black men.

And just like that Easy Rawlins begins his career as a private investigator.

He soon finds himself knee deep in a web of lies and murder, harassed by the police and threatened by sociopathic villains. Easy is not a violent man and he feels himself a bit out of his depth and needing someone to watch his back. He phones home, to Houston, and gets in touch with the girlfriend of one of his former running buddies, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander. He's not sure if Mouse will get the message, but just in time, he does turn up.

Whereas Easy is a pacifist, Mouse does not shy from violence and he likes Easy well enough to be just the back-watcher he needs.

Just like those earlier noir novels, this one's plot winds and wriggles around like a snake in hot ashes. So many complications, so many interconnections, and so many lies. It soon becomes clear that virtually none of these characters, besides the protagonist himself, is to be trusted.

Mosley's writing is really excellent and truly did remind me of the best of the noir masters that I have read. It makes me really happy to know that he has produced thirteen (and counting) more of these Easy Rawlins tales. And they are all just sitting there waiting for me to enjoy!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Great Backyard Bird Count

The annual late winter count of birds is over. I spent a part of every day of the four-day weekend counting the birds in my own backyard. 

I did my count while working in the yard, so I can't say that I was entirely focused on birds. Still, the count was pretty successful, with a total of twenty-eight species turning out to be counted. Unfortunately, as always, there were some species that show up regularly in the yard but didn't make an appearance during the weekend and so don't appear on my census.

The first birds to appear on my count were, not surprisingly, the ever-present White-winged Doves.

And the last one, recorded late yesterday, was a particularly colorful Pine Warbler. Looks like he's about ready for spring.

In between, here's a list of everything that I saw in, around, or flying over my yard.

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture 
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Wren
Carolina Chickadee
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

This is the eighteenth year that I've done this count and this species count is about average for most years, but the actual total of individual birds was fewer this year. I'm not sure what, if anything in particular, that means; it may just be the randomness of birds wandering or my lack of attention in doing the count. Time will tell. But it is always a revelation to me to see the number and variety of species that pass through my yard at any given period of time. It's a reminder, as if I needed one, that Nature is very much present as an actor in my garden and in my daily life.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler: A review

Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, but Octavia Butler was eerily - scarily - prescient in the mid 2020s world that she imagined. Who could have dreamed twenty-five years ago that this broken and divided country would elect a president who promised to "Make America Great Again" by eliminating the space program and getting rid of all environmental, health, and labor protection laws and opening up the nation to be carved up by large corporations and the greedy wealthy? Well, Octavia Butler did. If she were alive today, I wonder what she would think, seeing her vision come true.

This book was planned as the first in a trilogy (the "Earthseed" trilogy), but after completing the first two books in the series, Butler reportedly suffered from severe writer's block in relation to the third book and was never able to complete it. Nevertheless, we have the first two, and, judging by this initial entry, that was a remarkable achievement.

Once I started reading this book, every time I had to put it down because duty called me elsewhere I couldn't wait to get back to it. When I wasn't reading, I was thinking about what I had read. I even laid awake at night thinking about it. Perhaps that tells you everything you need to know about what an impact the book made on me.

If the book were first published today, it would be categorized as YA lit, because the protagonist is a teenage girl, but at the time that it was published, the term YA had not yet been thought up by some media-savvy publicist. So, it was just considered as dystopian literature.

It is the mid-2020s and 18-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her family in a walled middle-class community in a Los Angeles suburb. It is a California that is barely recognizable. Society is disintegrating under the pressure of global warming, wealth disparity, and economic stagnation. All communities have fortified walls to keep the predatory gangs out. Police and firefighters will only come when called if the caller will pay them, and when they come, they are just as likely to arrest the person seeking help or to pillage the home as they are to actually take action to assist.

Many people are leaving, trying to make their way north to Oregon, Washington, or Canada in search of a better and more secure life, but the borders between states and between the countries are guarded and patrolled to ensure that the unwanted immigrants do not make it through.

In the midst of this anarchy, Lauren's community is attacked and overrun, most of the people, including what remains of her family, killed, and the houses burned. Lauren had prepared for such an eventuality by putting together an emergency pack to get her on her way. (She had planned to leave anyway and go north with the other emigrants.) Now she is forced to start her trek before she had planned and she heads north with a couple of companions.

Lauren is a special person. First of all, she has a disability called hyper-empathy which means that she feels the pain that she witnesses inflicted upon others. In the violent world in which she lives, this is a serious disability indeed. If she is put in the position of having to fight for her life, how will she manage if any pain that she inflicts on her opponent is felt equally by herself?

Also, Lauren is a visionary. She has an idea for a new religion/philosophy of life and she hopes to found a community based on her ideas. She calls her vision Earthseed and she writes verses expounding upon it. It is a philosophy of self-sufficiency in which god is understood as change, but a change that can be molded and shaped by the individual.

We follow the teenage Lauren as she continues north, more people join her group, and she starts teaching them her Earthseed verses and attempting to mold them into a community.

This was a powerful and affecting read, one that I am sure I will still be considering for a long time to come.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars