Monday, January 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2018

Zero. That's the number of blooms in my garden this month. In my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas, it is definitely Garden Bloggers' No Blooms Day. 



Much of the garden looks very much like this clump of lemongrass. It isn't dead; it's only sleeping. But it is sleeping very soundly at the moment.

The reason for all this brownness is that we've actually had winter this winter. In our last winter, we had two days of below freezing temperatures. The winter before that we had NO days of freezing temperatures. So far in the winter of 2017-18, we've had THREE TIMES as many days of freezing weather as we had had in the last two years combined. And we are expecting more temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit this week. All of that and we actually had snow on one day in early December. This qualifies as a harsh winter for us. (Don't laugh, all you Northerners!)

This is all I can show you in the way of "blooms" this month.



The white yarrow by the pond still has buds and looks like it might actually provide a bloom soon. 




Likewise the Carolina jessamine - only buds so far.


In the wildflower bed, the sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), whose identity I was confused about last Bloom Day, is still sending out its sweet little blooms.

Fortunately, there are other things for me to look at in the garden. Birds, for instance.



House Finch.




Pine Warbler.



Red-bellied Woodpecker.


And, of course, American Goldfinches.


My garden is resting and so have I been, but that's about to change. It's cleanup time, beginning with some pruning this week. Got to get ready for all that new growth. Spring comes early here and it quickly morphs into summer.

But meanwhile, for a little time, I can sit on my favorite bench and meditate with my favorite little buddy.




He's not bothered about winter!

Happy Bloom Day! I hope you have blooms where you are and thank you for visiting my bare, brown garden this month.

Don't forget to visit Carol of May Dreams Gardens as well and see all of those gardens that do have January blooms to show you.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

It just seems the perfect poem for the middle of January when much of the continent is covered in snow.

We are well past the "darkest evening of the year" now, or at least the darkest evening of the season. Every day the light lasts just a bit longer, but still we have "miles to go" before spring arrives.

And let us not be distracted by the lovely woods - we have "promises to keep." Let us resolve to keep them.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


by Robert Frost (published 1923)

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

This week in birds - #288

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



A couple of Snow Geese foraging for food at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


*~*~*~*


2017 was the third warmest year for the contiguous United States since record keeping began in 1895, behind 2012 and 2016, and the 21st consecutive warmer-than-average year for the U.S. (1997 through 2017). The five warmest years on record for the contiguous U.S. have all occurred since 2006.


*~*~*~*


Moreover, with three strong hurricanes, wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought, the United States tallied a record high bill last year for weather disasters: $306 billion. The U.S. had 16 disasters last year with damage exceeding a billion dollars, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday. That ties 2011 for the number of billion-dollar disasters, but the total cost blew past the previous record of $215 billion in 2005.


*~*~*~*


Noise pollution from oil and gas drilling in western deserts is being blamed for disrupting the reproduction of birds and causing Western Bluebirds to hatch fewer chicks than they historically did.


*~*~*~*


Outbreaks of botulism among waterfowl have become more frequent and widespread in recent years, causing scientists to study the cause. The botulism has been linked to warming waters and the growth of algae, yet another effect of global warming.


*~*~*~*


The first year in office of the current administration has been a boon for the coal industry, with the  rolling back of regulations on coal-fired power plants and withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate change agreement. It seems that the administration has been following a blueprint from the coal industry, specifically a wish list of environmental rollbacks that Robert E. Murray of Murray Energy gave the president just weeks after his inauguration. This, after he had donated $300,000 to the inauguration.


*~*~*~*

The use of rat poison to control pests at marijuana farms in California is having a detrimental effect on the endangered Northern Spotted Owl as well as other predators in the area. When they capture and eat rats or mice that have been poisoned, they ingest the poison in the carcass, which can result in their death. 

*~*~*~*

"The Prairie Ecologist" celebrates the diversity, beauty, and secret lives of grasshoppers.

*~*~*~*

North America's fresh waterways are becoming saltier and that could create big problems. Cities dump ice-melting salt on their roadways in winter and when the ice melts and runs off into streams, it carries that load of salt with it, eventually making rivers and streams saltier and more alkaline with harmful effects on the greater ecosystem. 

*~*~*~*

Too many Florida panthers are being killed by encounters with traffic. The animals are unable to reproduce fast enough and in sufficient numbers to offset these unnatural deaths, all of which makes the endangered species even more endangered

*~*~*~*

A federal appeals court in San Francisco has upheld a plan by wildlife officials to kill invading Barred Owls in order to study the effect on the endangered Spotted Owl. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that the experiment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't violate a federal law protecting migratory birds. The court says that law doesn't prevent killing one species to advance the scientific understanding of another. In recent years, the more aggressive Barred Owls have expanded their range and moved into the territory of the more timid Spotted Owls. The USFWS arrived at the plan to kill some of the Barred Owls as a means of protecting the endangered species. 

*~*~*~*

A rare Ivory Gull from the Arctic was discovered and documented at Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake, Illinois last week. These birds are not often seen south of their Arctic home.  

*~*~*~*

"The Afternoon Birder" has a project going to warm the heart of any birder/reader. She's planning a "Big Year" of reading about birds. She will read at least twelve books, one per month, about birds and birding.

*~*~*~*

Last week, the administration announced plans to open up virtually all of America's coasts to oil drilling leases.  After complaints from Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott, Interior Secretary Zinke announced that Florida would be exempted from this dramatic expansion of drilling. Now, other governors and attorneys general concerned about drilling and its potential effect on the environment, beaches and tourism industry, which is worth billions of dollars, are asking why Florida is so special and vowing to wage a fight against new drilling, in court if necessary.

*~*~*~*

North America and much of the northern hemisphere has experienced extremely cold weather in recent weeks, but, in fact, these cold snaps are much less common than they used to be and they are warmer on average. Scientists say that a cold spell like this one is 15 times rarer than it was just a century ago.

*~*~*~*


Under new rules that went into effect this month, Ohio has taken the drastic step of outlawing the sale and distribution of 38 species of destructive, invasive plant species. The list will limit plant selection available to nurseries and landscape artists, but it’s a small price to pay compared to the cost of having to instruct professional landscapers and the public that some species do more harm than good.




Friday, January 12, 2018

Blood Trail by C.J. Box: A review

What a ride! What a read! I think C.J. Box has got the hang of this Western thriller thing. This is the eighth entry in his Joe Pickett series and they've gotten better and better. This is easily the best one yet, in my opinion.

The events in this book take place a bit less than a year since the last book, Free Fire, which was set in Yellowstone National Park. We find that Joe, who was fired from his position as game warden in Saddlestring, Wyoming, is still on board as a special agent for the governor, which means that he's at the governor's beck and call to handle whatever assignments he decides to hand out and be the governor's eyes and ears on the ground.

For the first time in their lives, Joe and his wife Marybeth have bought a house. They are no longer living in government housing and are enjoying(?) the status of homeowner with all its responsibilities and the headaches of living up to their neighbors' expectations of yard and home care. Their older daughter, Sheridan, is now a teenager and experiencing the upheavals of that fraught chapter of life.

Meanwhile, Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski, who was betrayed and arrested by the Feds at the end of the last book, is languishing in prison, awaiting trial for allegedly murdering a sheriff.

All of these changes to his life are making Joe Pickett a very unhappy camper.

Then, suddenly, Joe is shocked out of his personal ennui by a series of murders. Hunters are being hunted and killed and their bodies mutilated. The first two killings in different parts of the state were ambiguous and might have been hunting accidents, but then the body of a man is found at a hunting camp in the Saddlestring district, strung up from a tree, gutted and flayed and the head removed as hunters would do for an elk. This was no accident.  

Hunting is important to the economy of Wyoming and the governor is concerned that he's going to have to shut it down in the interests of public health and safety. He assigns his man, Joe, to help with the investigation. He hires a famous man tracker to come and try to track down the perpetrator. 

The tracking does not go well and soon there are more dead bodies on the ground, including the tracker himself.

The investigation regroups and Joe advocates for bringing Nate in because he knows the area and is himself an expert tracker. The governor agrees and, over FBI objections, Nate is released into Joe's custody. Now that the two are reunited readers of this series will feel confident that the mystery will be solved and justice - at least a rough justice - will be served.

I thought Box did a great job with the plotting and pacing of this thriller. The writing was tight, spare, and clean. He gives us a narrative by the hunter of the hunters, as well as the third person report of Joe's and Nate's perspectives. Speculation about the identity of the killer ranges from an anti-hunting activist to a lone psychopath or to someone with a personal vendetta. But what could that personal vendetta possibly be? There seems to be no connection between the victims, other than the fact that they were hunters.

Box plays fair with his clues and I am proud to say that I began to get a glimmer of the solution to the mystery perhaps halfway to two-thirds through the book. By the time of the conclusion, I was pretty confident in my reasoning. I will just say that reading this book at this time of heightened sensitivity to the issue of sexual harassment and violence probably gave me added insight to the possible motive behind the killings.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars    

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

No Shred of Evidence by Charles Todd: A review

I'm slowly overtaking Charles Todd's series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge. This is the eighteenth in the series with one more to go, but I believe number 20 will be coming out this year. More reading to do.

After spending all this time with Rutledge through the past few years, I've come to the conclusion that he is a very nice man but maybe not a very good detective. He often seems more intent on not rocking the boat than with getting to the bottom of things, particularly when he is dealing with upper class women, as he often seems to do in these cases. 

In this case, it is four young and beautiful upper class women in Cornwall who have been accused on the word of one man of attempted murder. When the victim later dies from his injuries, it becomes murder. I found the whole scenario of the so-called attempted murder and the witness's statement rather implausible. It was just one of my problems with the plot.

These four women decide on a sunny afternoon to take a rowboat out for a pleasure ride on the river. In the course of their trip, they come across a local man who is standing in his dinghy on the water and waving to get their attention. At first they think he is just flirting with them, but then two of the women notice that the boat appears to be sinking and he is trying to get them to help him. They row toward him and soon he is in the water and trying to get aboard their boat while two of the women try to pull him in and the other two balance and steady the boat. They are losing the battle and it looks like the man will drown when a man who saw what was happening from shore swims over and helps to pull the man in. Once the injured man is in the boat, the good Samaritan rounds on the women and demands, "Why were you trying to drown him?"

The local constabulary is called in and, based on the man's statement, the women are taken into custody. The rescued man is unconscious from a head injury and unable to tell what happened.

Because the women are "gently bred," they are not kept in the local jail but are under house arrest at the home of the magistrate, who just happens to be the father of one of the girls. Scotland Yard is called in, but the first inspector who is sent suffers a heart attack and dies before he has gotten very far into the investigation. At which point, Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent to take his place.

Rutledge proceeds as though walking on eggshells in interviewing the women and then in interviewing their accuser. It's obvious to the reader that something isn't right here, but Rutledge only pursues it in a very roundabout way, trying not to upset anyone. When the victim dies, his parents refuse to talk to the police and simply insist that the women be prosecuted, and Rutledge doesn't challenge their decision not to be interviewed. I know this is 1921 England and a whole different political and cultural landscape but...really?  

Then, of course, other people start dying violently and the plot thickens.

I have really enjoyed reading these historical mysteries, not so much for the mystery aspect but for the insight they provide to the history of the period. In particular, they reveal - without making a point of it - the classism and sexism that seem to have been endemic to that time. And much of this seems to relate back to the unbelievable devastation caused by World War I in which England, as well as other European countries, lost a substantial percentage of their young male population. Moreover, many of the young men who managed to survive the war, like Ian Rutledge, were permanently damaged by the experience. It has been fascinating to read how Rutledge has dealt with his shell shock. Now, two years after the end of the war, he is stronger but still shackled and haunted by his memories and by his constant companion, the voice in his head of Hamish, the young soldier from his command that he executed in the field. 

The far-reaching impact of the consequences of that war were changing the society and slowly eroding the edges of the classism and sexism that seemed an ingrained and impermeable part of the culture of the time. Over a hundred years later, we can look back on the sea change that has taken place in society, even though a hard remnant of those attitudes remain to vex us.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: A review

It begins with a suicide. Jim, a young Irish Catholic immigrant in Brooklyn, recently fired from his job as a subway motorman for being chronically late or absent, decides that he'll show his former bosses and his wife that he is the one who is in charge of his life. 

The way he will show them is to end that life. And so he opens the gas taps in their apartment while his wife is out and he lies down to die. Yes, that'll show them! 

His pregnant wife returns home to find a burned apartment - someone struck a match - and a dead husband. And now no means of support. 

Enter the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. The nuns provide medical care for the sick of the neighborhood who cannot afford doctors. They take charge of the widow and her unborn child. They find employment for her at their convent and they provide emotional and financial support for the family in the difficult months and years ahead.

The Ninth Hour is the story of that family and these nuns. The widow, Anne, gives birth to a daughter, Sally, who becomes a child of the convent. And the story is narrated by Sally's children, so we get, essentially, the perspective of three generations of the family, as well as following the nuns on their rounds in the community.

Sally, as a child, greatly admires the nuns and she wants to be like them. When she is old enough, she decides that she has a vocation to become a nursing nun. Her mother and the nuns put her on a train to Chicago where she is to receive her training. 

But her interactions with her fellow passengers on the train are a rude awakening to what the world and its great unwashed humanity are really like. By the time she reaches Chicago she has "thought better of it" and she turns around and goes back to Brooklyn. 

The time period of this story is never explicitly stated but seems to be in the first half of the twentieth century. It's at a time when milk is still delivered in a bottle by a milkman and that milkman plays a big part in this story.

McDermott tells her tale quietly, with great subtlety. These characters are ordinary people who live their lives imperfectly, with mistakes and wrong turns aplenty, but through it all they persevere, keep moving forward and trying to do their best for themselves and their families. 

In the end, their ordinary lives show us something extraordinary about humanity. The Irish Catholic immigrant experience in early twentieth century Brooklyn becomes a lens through which we can see the best and worst of humanity and understand the commonality of what we all share.

Although the book's narrative dragged a bit for me at times, on the whole, I really enjoyed McDermott's style of writing. Simple and matter-of-fact, it seemed to fit the story she was telling. We were introduced to a lot of characters and never really got to know most of them well, except for Sally, but these are people who earned our empathy.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Sick by Shel Silverstein

When my kids were little, like most children, there was nothing they loved better than being read to. What is it about a parent sharing a book with a child that is such a powerful and, I would argue, a life-changing experience, both for the child and the parent?

Some of the favorites of my daughters and myself were poems by Shel Silverstein. Silverstein had the knack for unerringly expressing the feelings of what it was like to be a child. Especially what it was like to be a child who really, really didn't want to go to school that day!

Sick

by Shel Silverstein, 1930 - 1999
“I cannot go to school today,"
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

Saturday, January 6, 2018

This week in birds - #287

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



Blue-winged Teal pair; male on left, female right. 

*~*~*~*

Did you know that 2018 is the "Year of the Bird"? Several conservation organizations, including Audubon and National Geographic, have joined together to jointly proclaim this as the Year of the Bird to commemorate the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed and a main reason why many more North American birds have not gone extinct in the past hundred years. Unfortunately, even the best laws depend on humans to enforce them and, as I reported here last week, the humans currently in charge of administering the MBTA will not be enforcing some of the regulations that protect birds. 

*~*~*~*

And in other news of the rape of the environment currently occurring before our eyes, the current administration in Washington unveiled a controversial proposal Thursday to permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers, and the Defense Department.

*~*~*~*

Meanwhile in Texas, many citizens of the northern part of the state have become alarmed over the increase in earthquake activity there and they are sure there is a connection between that and the increased hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection as a means of extracting gas and oil from the ground.

*~*~*~*

Bloggers have been busily putting up their "best of 2017" lists over the last several days and a bird blogger in England, the "Wanstead Birder," has joined the party by putting up his ten best bird pictures of the year. They are really beautiful and some are downright amazing. Well worth a look.

*~*~*~*

White nose syndrome has been devastating bat populations in the eastern United States for several years. Now comes new research which indicates that the fungus that causes the disease cannot withstand ultraviolet light and that gives scientists hope that they have at last found the key to combatting the deadly affliction. 

*~*~*~*

We know that birds are adaptable creatures. It's how their ancestors survived when other dinosaurs vanished. But can they adapt fast enough to respond to the challenges of global climate change? A new study by UCLA biologists of the Yellow Warbler explores that question.

*~*~*~*

The "dead zones" of no oxygen in oceans have quadrupled since 1950 and the number of very low oxygen sites near coasts have increased tenfold. Most sea creatures cannot survive in these zones and current trends would lead to mass extinction in the long run, risking dire consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea.

*~*~*~*

Off-road vehicles in shorebird nesting areas can prove devastating. Now, an economic analysis by North Carolina State University, Oregon State University and RTI International finds that the economic benefits of biodiversity and habitat preservation significantly outweigh the costs of off-road vehicle regulation. The study sheds light on the relative economic value of efforts to balance environmental protection with human access to public lands.

*~*~*~*

An unidentified small bird - some say a sparrow, some say a hummingbird, but a sparrow seems most likely - recently held up a Delta flight in Detroit that was bound for Atlanta. The bird somehow got into the cockpit of the plane and there was a long delay before anyone could finally capture it to be returned to the outdoors and allow the plane to go on its way.

*~*~*~*

A memo leaked last year shows that the Interior Department has been directed to take into account political concerns rather than scientific information when considering plans for protecting endangered species. Why am I not surprised?

*~*~*~*

In their campaign to undo the protections to the environment afforded by previous administrations, the current administration in Washington has announced plans to shrink three major marine monuments and allow commercial fishing. This has produced anguish and anger in environmental groups that have fought for these protections. Suing to stop the plans is most likely their next step.

*~*~*~*

Scientists say that some of the effects of global warming are unavoidable but that if we can manage to keep the planet's rise in temperatures under the 2 degree Centigrade mark, we may be able to avoid the worst consequences.

*~*~*~*

Birds that mate for life, or at least for long periods, have an advantage over those that must seek a new mate each year, since they don't have to waste time attracting a mate and can get right down to the business of building a nest, defending a territory, and procreating. A new study of Bullfinches confirms that they are among the species that form long-term pair bonds.

*~*~*~*

New research has shown that wildlife-friendly farming practices can help bird populations bounce back. For example, planting wildflowers that attract insects and nectar and seed eaters is one way to help support birds. 

*~*~*~*

Ironically, global warming may be fueling the cold blasts that are currently affecting much of the northern hemisphere. The loss of sea ice may be weakening the polar vortex, allowing colder weather to dip south from the Arctic, across North America, Europe and Russia, a new study says.

Meanwhile, when your climate change-denying friends chortle about how we could sure use some global warming about now, you might remind them that we are in the northern hemisphere and it is winter here. Before they get too complacent they should check the temperatures today in Rio or Sydney or Capetown.
 



Thursday, January 4, 2018

Autumn by Ali Smith: A review

I finished this book a couple of days ago but just couldn't immediately think what to say about it in a review. I wasn't even sure how I felt about it. It really was unlike anything I had ever read before. 

After giving it much thought - and there truly is a lot to think about here - I came to the conclusion that the book is brilliant. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. In that, I found myself in agreement with the Man Booker Prize committee which shortlisted the book for 2017.

Autumn is the first in a planned series of four books named after the seasons, but you would be wrong to think of the books as related to Earth's seasons. Instead, it would seem that they will be more about the seasons of our lives, what time is and how we experience it. This book explores pop culture and its influence on our lives and how the present is informed by the past. I'm once again reminded of William Faulkner's quote from Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

The time of this novel is the present in England, post-Brexit election. The main character, Elisabeth (with an s) and her acquaintances are appalled by the implications of the election. Their distress is shown in their Google searches about moving to Scotland or to Ireland, in hopes that those countries that voted to stay in the E.U. will find a way to do so. They are well and truly disgusted by the politics of the times. At one point, there is a soliloquy expressing Elisabeth's thoughts which could speak for many of us.
I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful.
Exactly.

The other main character in Autumn is Daniel. In the present, he is one hundred and one years old and is in a care home where he is thought to be near death. He is either in a coma or asleep - it isn't entirely clear which.

Twenty years earlier, Elisabeth and her mother had moved in next door to Daniel. Elisabeth was a little girl at the time, but she struck up a friendship with Daniel. They spent hours together, walking around the neighborhood or just sitting and talking. Daniel introduced the child to Pop Art and to the work of the artist Pauline Boty. Their conversations about art were to have a long-term influence on Elisabeth, who later studied the history of art in college and wrote her dissertation on the work of Boty.  

Although Elisabeth lost track of Daniel in the intervening years, he was always a part of her unconscious. At one point her boyfriend asked her who this Daniel was that she always talked to in her sleep. 

When she learned that Daniel was in the care home, Elisabeth started visiting him there, and even though he was in a coma/asleep she would read to him. It seemed the thing to do, because back when their friendship was new, he would always greet her with the question, "What are you reading?"
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
This is a book that defies summing up. Just let me say that after giving it some thought, my considered opinion is that it is an extraordinarily inventive celebration of language and friendship and life and that I look forward to Ali Smith's next "season."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 
   

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A review

How do you decide what books to read? I read reviews by reviewers whom I respect. I take recommendations from family and friends who know what I like to read. I look at the best sellers lists. I look at the magazine Bookmarks, which compiles reviews from various places and assigns a rating to books. And then I choose from all those sources the books that appeal to me and that I think I might enjoy reading. It's a system that works well for me. I rarely pick up a book to read that turns out to be a total stinker.

And then there are some favorite authors that I will read regardless of what the reviews say or whether anyone recommends them. Louise Erdrich falls in that category.

Her latest book, Future Home of the Living God, got very mixed reviews and, for the most part, they were not kind. Bookmarks' assessment, after compiling the reviews, was "Not recommended, even for Erdrich fans." But I was undeterred.

I thought the book had an interesting concept. It seems that the world as we know it is ending and evolution is reversing itself. The birds in the sky are becoming more dinosaur-like, reverting to Archaeopteryx type. Cougars are becoming more saber-tooth cat-like. And humans? Well, that is the question. Are they destined to go all the way back to Australopithicene form? And just how did this reversal of evolution come about? The answer to that question is, in fact, one of the many holes in the plot.

Erdrich tells her story through the character of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an Ojibwe woman who was adopted as a child by a white liberal upper middle class Minneapolis couple. When we meet Cedar, she is four months pregnant and in hiding with the child's father, Phil. The narrative is told through a diary which Cedar is writing for her unborn child. 

The United States has elected a repressive religious government that closely monitors pregnant women through a robot called "Mother" and all pregnant women are forced to report to a government birthing center. Cedar is trying to avoid that. But she feels compelled to go and meet and get to know her birth family on the reservation.

Soon she is discovered and imprisoned in one of the birthing centers. Her efforts to escape complete the main action of this (very) dystopian novel.

Erdrich started writing this novel in 2002 and abandoned it. Last year, after the election of 2016, she was inspired to pick it up and finish it. Unfortunately, I never really got the sense that Erdrich had committed herself to the story. It felt rushed and incomplete and there were holes in the plot that one could drive a truck through. I think she might have been well advised to leave it back in 2002.

Louise Erdrich is such a gifted writer and even here her brilliant way with words shines though and we get flashes of that imagination and wit which make reading her books a special experience, but in the end, this effort just fell flat and I have to concur with Bookmarks' assessment: "Not recommended, even for Erdrich fans."

I'll still read her next book though.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars 

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2017

In 2017, I read 88 books. Of that total, I rated 24 (27.3%) of them as "5 star" reads. Yes, I read a lot of very good books in 2017.

In looking at the list of my favorites, I was interested to see that 17 of them (slightly more than 70%) were written by women. I'm not sure what, if anything, that says about me as a reader. Moreover, thirteen of the books were set wholly or partly in another country.

A five star rating from me does not necessarily mean, of course, that the book is great literature, although some of these certainly are. It just means that the book really connected with me and that I found it exceptional. 

If you look at my list, you'll see that there are three titles there from Tana French, because I was reading her "Dublin Murder Squad" series last year and I really, really liked those books! Also, you'll see titles there from old favorites Sara Paretsky and Michael Connelly. Of all Connelly's Harry Bosch books, The Crossing may just be my favorite, and I thought Paretsky's Fallout was one of her best in her V. I. Warshawski series. 

There are several titles on my list that fall into the category of books that I had long meant to read but never got around to, at least one that is a reread, and fourteen that were published in recent months, several by writers that I had never read before. 

Here, then, is the list of my favorite reads of the year, in the order that I read them. I've given you links to my original reviews should you wish to look at them. (Incidentally, I was interested to see that in Barack Obama's list of ten favorites of the year, he had three books that also made my list.)  

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Faithful Place by Tana French

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Broken Harbor by Tana French

The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani

Between Them by Richard Ford

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Fallout by Sara Paretsky

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Trespasser by Tana French

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Crossing by Michael Connelly

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee