Saturday, March 31, 2018

Poetry Sunday: April Love by Ernest Dowson

April is a good month to fall in love, even if only for a little while. After all, it is the time of year - at least in the northern hemisphere - when Nature is renewing itself. A good time to start something new, with no vows, no promises - perhaps just to join lips for a while and then go on one's way with a sigh and a smile.

April Love

by Ernest Dowson

We have walked in Love's land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?
A little while in the shine of the sun,
We were twined together, joined lips, forgot
How the shadows fall when the day is done,
And when Love is not.
We have made no vows--there will none be broke,
Our love was free as the wind on the hill,
There was no word said we need wish unspoke,
We have wrought no ill.
So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile?

Friday, March 30, 2018

This week in birds - #297

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


It's about time for male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds like this one, which I photographed a couple of years ago, to start showing up in my yard. The adult males always lead the way on migration, followed by adult females and the subadults. By the end of April, they should all be here, but I haven't seen one yet.  

*~*~*~*

How many birds can you see in the county where you live? Matt Boone has some information about that, along with a map that quantifies the "birdiness" of counties around the country. 

*~*~*~*

Companies that cater to the needs of those who love the outdoors are very concerned about the direction that the government is taking and the damage that is being done to the places that their clients love. They are banding together in an effort to lobby those in power to protect public lands. Their aim, they say, is to "organize like the NRA."

*~*~*~*

The tragic story of North America's only native parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, extinct now for one hundred years, is still something of a mystery, but more is being learned about it. The latest research shows that the bird's likely range and climate niche was smaller than was previously thought and that at least some of the population was migratory.

*~*~*~*

Paleontologists are joining with conservationists in the fight to save the Bear Ears National Monument in Utah. It is an important site for unique fossils as well as an important wildlife ecosystem and the paleontologists fear that allowing mining or drilling in the area, as is proposed by the present administration, could destroy those fossil sites

*~*~*~*

An extinction crisis is rippling though America’s wildlife, with scores of species at risk of being wiped out unless recovery plans start to receive sufficient funding, conservationists warn. One-third of species in the U.S. are vulnerable to extinction, a crisis that has ravaged swaths of creatures such as butterflies, amphibians, fish and bats, according to a report compiled by a coalition of conservation groups. A further one in five species face an even greater threat, with a severe risk of being eliminated amid a “serious decline” in U.S. biodiversity, the report warns. Conservationists are calling for a swift, concerted effort to protect the endangered and threatened species. 

*~*~*~*

The Trump Organization's repeated environmental infractions at properties that it owns have been legion and the group's method of responding to regulators' attempts to resolve issues has been to delay, dissemble, shift blame, haggle, and get personally involved. Rarely have they ever actually paid the fines or done the clean-up required by law.

*~*~*~*

The Kirtland's Warbler has bounced back from near extinction and now new research on the bird is helping scientists to understand the important role that winter habitats play in the breeding success of migratory birds.

*~*~*~*

It has been believed that the Amazon rainforest has existed in a completely natural state without interference from or management by humans, but new information is casting doubt on that theory. Archaeologists have discovered eighty-one ancient human settlements in the Amazon basin and it appears that they may have been a part of a chain of communities that crisscrossed the entire basin.

*~*~*~*

Conservation organizations have been working with Dutch dairy farmers to try to make their farms as sustainable and Nature-friendly as possible. BirdLife International reports that considerable progress is being made.

*~*~*~*

A treaty negotiated in the 1980s could potentially give Canada the power to prevent drilling for fossil fuels in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and could help to save the Porcupine Caribou herd and its habitat. 

*~*~*~*

There has been an extreme rise globally in investments in the dirtiest of fossil fuels, such as tar sands, during the first year in office of our current president.

*~*~*~*

A citizen science project in Ontario has documented a significant decline in the population of American Woodcocks there since 1968, and the rate of decline has increased over the last ten years.

*~*~*~*

On the other hand, the South Florida Wading Bird Report, recently released, shows mixed results. Some birds have declined but others have held steady in their population and some have actually increased.

*~*~*~*

A research project among seabirds in South African coastal colonies has been halted because of an outbreak of avian flu. It was feared that researchers would accidentally spread the flu virus to other areas.

*~*~*~*

Here's a bit of good news to end with: We know that amphibians have been hard hit by fungal diseases in recent years and it had been thought that some frogs had been entirely wiped out. But now scientists have found that at least some of the frogs that were feared lost have survived and are making a comeback.

 Image from The New York Times.

Frogs like this healthy variable harlequin frog with golden coloring, found in the streams of Panama. There is still hope.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: A review

Long ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, I read a lot of Josephine Tey's books and admired her clever plots and superb writing. Last year, I reacquainted myself with her writing by rereading my favorite book of hers, The Daughter of Time. It gave me an appetite for reading more.

When I was reading her books in the past, to the best of my recollection, I never read this one. And I think I would have remembered for it is a devilishly clever tale.

It's the fourth in her series of books featuring Inspector Grant. This time he is sent to the remote English village of Salcott St Mary to investigate the disappearance of a young man.

Leslie Searle was a uniquely attractive man who was an ultra-fashionable portrait photographer from America. He was famous for taking pictures of actors and actresses, including some of Hollywood's big stars. He was talented and so good looking that he turned heads wherever he went.

But why did he go to this backwater village?

He claimed a connection to a man, now dead, who was a particular friend of one of the villagers. As he introduced himself, the villagers were completely charmed by him and accepted him in and invited him to be a guest in one of the country homes. Soon he was firmly ensconced.

He teams up with one of the local celebrities, a writer and radio personality, to write a book about the river that runs through the village. The local person will do the writing and he will take pictures to illustrate. They plan to canoe down the river and camp by it every night, but shortly after they begin their adventure, one night Leslie Searle disappears without a trace.

There is no sign of foul play and no body found. There seem to be no clues as to what could have happened, but attention focuses on the river. Was he murdered and thrown into the river? Did he accidentally fall into the river and drown? Did he deliberately jump into the river to commit suicide? Or was he kidnapped by some unknown party? The river is dragged repeatedly but no body and no evidence is found. 

Then, a young boy out fishing brings up a shoe that is identified as Searle's, but nothing else is found.

Inspector Grant proceeds methodically with his investigation but is making no headway. He's given up and is pursuing other cases, when suddenly a lightbulb goes off over his head. He has that ah-ha moment that helps him to see what might have happened and why. As Tey told us in that other book of hers, truth is the daughter of time, and sometimes it takes time and distance to be able to see the truth.

The mystery is complicated and it is not one that your typical armchair detective - of whom I count myself one - will readily solve, and yet, once the solution is explained by Grant, as we look back over the book, we see that all the clues were there. Tey has given us all the information we needed but she has camouflaged it so well that it was not readily apparent.

This is not in any way a traditional mystery. The mystery is hardly even the main point, but rather it is an exploration of psychology and personalities, identity and gender. It is, in fact, a literary mystery, full of unforgettable characters, an intricate plot, and a wonderful use of language. It is classical Tey, a thoroughly diverting and delicious read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Some birds of West Texas

On our recent trip to West Texas, I was able to get in a little birding, which is always one of my chief pleasures on any trip that we take. I also tried to take pictures of the birds that I saw, but I was generally disappointed with my efforts. I had all kinds of excuses. 

There were too many people; it was spring break week and at times it seemed the whole world had descended on West Texas, normally a sparsely populated place. At Big Bend National Park, for example, usually a place of splendid isolation with its 1,252 square miles of desert and rugged mountains, we had to wait in a mile-long queue of automobiles for forty-five minutes just to get into the place. The ranger who checked us in remarked that spring-break is a four-letter word for the staff who work there. Americans of all colors, races, and creeds seemed intent on loving the great park to death. But though I saw people of many kinds, I didn't see so many birds. One covey of Scaled Quail, some Greater Roadrunners doing their thing on the roads, and an occasional sparrow or Northern Mockingbird - that was about it.

The wind was incessant. That's one reason why you see wind farms on top of so many buttes in the region. But the wind is not a friend of small birds or of people who are trying to take pictures of them. 

Oh, well, I did my best. Here are a few of the pictures of which I am least ashamed.




I did most of my birding at Davis Mountains State Park and at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute's Nature Center. At both places, staff have helpfully installed bird blinds and feeders to make the quest of the poor birder easier. Finches of all kinds are drawn inexorably to these feeders. There were plenty of Pine Siskins, goldfinches, and House Finches at both places. But most plentiful of all was the Cassin's Finch which is identified by its bright red, slightly raised crown. This is a western bird that we don't get in Southeast Texas so I was very glad to see it.
  

Also at the feeders at the state park were a number of Lesser Goldfinches, the bright yellow and black fellow you see here feeding with Pine Siskins.



There were also lots of Dark-eyed Juncos about. Sweet little birds. Every winter I hope that some of them will make it down to my backyard and every winter except one I've been disappointed. But "hope is a thing with feathers" and springs eternal.



The juncos come in a variety of colors and subspecies.


This Cactus Wren was visiting the water feature at the nature center. A water source is always a very popular place in a desert and a good place to see birds.


The Black-throated Sparrow is just a gorgeous little bird and I was perhaps most disappointed that I was not able to get a really good picture of it. This doesn't do it justice.


Another iconic western bird is the Pyrrhuloxia.  These birds seem to be expanding their range and, in recent years, some have turned up in my area in winter, but not in my backyard yet.



You can easily see the bird's close kinship to the Northern Cardinal, although the Pyrrhuloxia's crest is much more pointed.



The Western Scrub Jays were attracted to the suet feeder provided at the nature center blind. But then all jays are attracted by suet.


This is a female Ladder-backed Woodpecker. A staff member at the nature center told me she and her mate are getting their nest ready for a brood.



This lone Black-chinned Hummingbird was a frequent visitor to the feeder at the nature center blind while I was there.



This shy Swainson's Thrush stayed under cover for the most part but finally came out to get a drink and I was able to take this picture.



I love towhees. I saw four kinds on this trip but was only able to get a picture of the Spotted Towhee.


I was fascinated by the bird's bright red eyes. That seems to be a feature of many songbirds that have black heads. Something to do with genetics, no doubt.



And here's another example - the Phainopepla that I showed you on Saturday's post.


In addition to all the western birds, there were some familiar birds that I see every day present in these very different environments. Birds like the adaptable Northern Mockingbird.



The American Robin.


The White-winged Dove.



Even our winter visitor, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, here showing just a tiny bit of that ruby crown that I almost never see in birds at home. 



I saw lots of that iconic western bird, the Greater Roadrunner, on this trip, but every one that I saw was - um - running across the road and I couldn't get pictures, so here's one that I took a few years ago on a previous trip to Big Bend. You'll just have to take my word that the ones I saw on this trip looked just like this. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson: A Review

This was the second mystery that I've read recently that was set in Wyoming. The other was one of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett books. Both of the books had visits by characters in them to the Hole-in-the-Wall, the famous hideout of outlaws, most notably of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It wasn't a major plot point in either book, but I found it interesting and coincidental that they both mentioned the place.

Another Man's Moccasins was the fourth in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series, and I approached reading it with some trepidation because I had found number three in the series to be a major disappointment. Fortunately, I needn't have worried. This book finds Longmire back in Wyoming, after his sojourn in Philadelphia and in this one the embarrassing and inappropriate interactions between Walt and his sexy chief deputy, Vic Moretti, are kept to a minimum and don't interfere with the plot, so that was a plus.

The plot of the book takes us to two different locations and two different periods in time: there is present day Absaroka County, Wyoming and 1968 Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam. Both places and times are seen through Longmire's eyes.

I found it quite interesting to get some of the backstory of Longmire's - and, incidentally, Henry Standing Bear's - time in Vietnam. We learn that Longmire served as a Marine Corps investigator there and that he befriended a young prostitute in the bar that he frequented. This becomes important because, forty years later, the body of a young Vietnamese woman who had been murdered is dumped in a road ditch in Absaroka County and when he goes through her effects Walt finds a picture of that other young woman that he had befriended and in the background of the picture, playing the piano, is none other than a young Walt Longmire. What could be the connection between these two women? And what could have possibly brought the murder victim to Absaroka County? Was she looking for Walt? And if so, why?

Things become complicated when it turns out that the place where the murder victim was dumped is near a culvert where a homeless Crow Indian named Virgil White Buffalo has been living. Virgil is a giant of a man who is also a veteran and who has had a checkered history, having been imprisoned not once but twice for crimes that he did not commit. And now the sheriff of Absaroka County is arresting him again on suspicion of murder, even though Walt is unconvinced that he has any connection to the crime. His presence in the vicinity of the body and the fact that he attacked Walt at the scene is enough reason to put him behind bars.

Meanwhile, there is a subplot of Walt's daughter, Cady, recovering from the injuries that she sustained in Philadelphia in book number three, and a visit by her new Philadelphia boyfriend, Michael Moretti, Vic's brother. Moreover, we get to better know some of the other new deputies in the sheriff's department, especially the Basque nicknamed (by Vic) Sancho. He gets a fairly major role in this story.

All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying read and I feel that Johnson is back on track now. I just hope that in the future he lets Walt stay in Wyoming where he belongs and - please! - let's have no more of the May-December romance between Walt and Vic. It's just off-putting.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring by William Wordsworth

When you think of spring, does any particular poet come to mind?

For me, that would be William Wordsworth. So many of his poems with which I am familiar seem set in spring. One suspects that perhaps he had a special affection for the season.

Here is one of those "spring" poems. It is, in some ways, a bittersweet look at the season. While the poet reflects on the happy thoughts brought by spring, as expressed in birdsong and in the beauty of spring flowers, this also brings to mind thoughts of how man has squandered that beauty. Mankind, he seems to say, has not lived up to the example of beauty and purity offered by Nature.

The poem was written in April 1798; the character of humankind has scarcely improved in the 220 years since.


Lines Written in Early Spring

by William Wordsworth


I heard a thousand blended notes, 
While in a grove I sate reclined, 
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts 
Bring sad thoughts to the mind. 

To her fair works did Nature link 
The human soul that through me ran; 
And much it grieved my heart to think 
What man has made of man. 

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes. 

The birds around me hopped and played, 
Their thoughts I cannot measure:— 
But the least motion which they made 
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

The budding twigs spread out their fan, 
To catch the breezy air; 
And I must think, do all I can, 
That there was pleasure there. 

If this belief from heaven be sent, 
If such be Nature’s holy plan, 
Have I not reason to lament 
What man has made of man?

Friday, March 23, 2018

This week in birds - #296

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



This was a life bird for me - the Phainopepla, photographed here at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Nature Center near Fort Davis in West Texas. In previous visits to the area, I had always managed to miss seeing this bird, even though it is not particularly uncommon, but this time I got good views of it on several occasions and finally was able to take its picture at this water feature in the Nature Center. Beautiful bird! Those glossy black feathers are almost iridescent and I love the brilliant red eyes.

*~*~*~*

The impact of the effects of global climate change on various bird species is still unknown, but it seems very likely that national parks will be hosts to even more of them in the future and that they will be increasingly important in the efforts to protect the birds. And that is a very good reason to protect the parks themselves from exploitation and development.

*~*~*~*

The Tongass in Alaska is the world's largest intact temperate rainforest. It has trees that are more than 1,000 years old, but there are those who would cut them all in the name of "progress." Many politicians, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, are pushing for more old-growth loggingIf their efforts are successful, the country stands at risk of losing some of its last remaining coniferous old growth in order to sustain south-east Alaska’s last industrial-scale sawmill.

*~*~*~*

Eagle cams that give us a view of the activities at eagle nests around the country are very popular internet viewing sites. On St. Patrick's Day, the camera trained on the nest above the Metropolitan Police Department Training Academy in Washington, D.C., recorded the hatching of the first Bald Eagle chick at that nest. 

*~*~*~*

A group of present and former Environmental Protection Agency employees is organizing to try to save and protect the agency from the efforts at its destruction at the hands of Scott Pruitt, the present administrator of EPA.

*~*~*~*

Dozens of species of birds of the French countryside have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by as much as two-thirds, as a result of the use of pesticides which destroy the insects which they would normally feed upon. 

*~*~*~*

Seventy-nine thousand tons of plastic debris, in the form of 1.8 trillion pieces, now occupy an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, a scientific team reported on Thursday. The amount of plastic found in this area, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is “increasing exponentially,” according to the surveyors, who used two planes and 18 boats to assess the ocean pollution.

*~*~*~*

Scientists in Australia have enlisted the help of the public in finding and tracking the movements of Australian birds. Banding has been less than successful and so the scientists are asking citizens to pick up feathers which they find in their area and mail them in for identification and tabulation. So far, the response has been heartening and the data base is growing.

*~*~*~*

The National Park Service announced plans this week to move forward with its proposal to put 20 to 30 wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior over the next three years in order to bolster the nearly extinct wolf population on the island and control the growing herd of moose.

*~*~*~*

Sadly, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the wild died this week. That leaves only two females, his daughter and granddaughter, and thus the species is, for all intents and purposes, extinct. However, conservationists have some small hope of keeping the species alive with the use of in vitro fertilization.

*~*~*~*

More than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand, and polluted supplies, according to a UN report on the state of the world’s water. The comprehensive annual study warns of conflict and civilizational threats unless actions are taken to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs.

*~*~*~*

In Iceland's Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Arctic foxes are thriving and offering hope that the species will be able to adapt to a warming climate. They are also giving scientists a chance to observe first hand how the species evolves or modifies behavior in order to adjust to the changing climate.

*~*~*~*

Wyoming is proposing to allow the hunting of grizzly bears. It would be the first such hunt allowed in the 48 contiguous states since the bear was put on the endangered species list in 1975. The current administration in Washington has removed that protection, opening the way for the possible hunt. The proposal is now open for public comment before it can be implemented. A final decision is expected by May.

*~*~*~*

Aerial surveys of the wintering Red Knot population in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America revealed a new low total of 9,840 birds. As recently as the year 2000, 50,000 Red Knots were counted in the winter survey there.

*~*~*~*

According to new research, the quality of the insect diet of birds has declined dramatically over the past century. This conclusion was reached through the study of museum specimens from that earlier period.

*~*~*~*

Mia McPherson's On the Wing Photography has a series of pictures of Greater Sage-Grouse displaying on their leks.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker: A review

St. Denis is a small town set smack in the middle of the Perigord region of France, an area known for its gourmet foods and fine wines and for its caves. The region is dotted with them. Many served as shelter as far back as the Neanderthals and some have the magnificent paintings on their walls that bespeak the artistry and culture of long-dead peoples. 

Those caves also played an important role in the Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. The caves were hiding places for people, supplies, and arms. That particular bit of history still looms large in St. Denis where there are people alive who still remember it. 

One of the caves that played such a role is the so-called Devil's Cave of this book's title. It is also integral to the mystery which Bruno Courr√®ges, Chief of Police of St. Denis, must try to solve.

The case begins on a fine spring day as the local church choir is practicing for its Easter concert. Bruno is observing and enjoying the practice when he receives a call that tells him that a body has been found.

In fact, the body is that of a naked woman that has been laid out on a punt floating down the river. The body has a pentagram painted on her abdomen, black candles around her, and a decapitated black cockerel beside her. The scene gives all the appearances of the trappings of a Black Mass. 

There is no identification on the body or in the boat and no one recognizes her, but Bruno is finally able to identify her as the daughter of a famous woman who was part of the Resistance and who, it turns out, is still alive and living in St. Denis but has supposedly been lost to Alzheimer's Disease.

The death of the woman at first appears to be suicide, but when the autopsy is performed, it becomes apparent that it is really a case of murder. As Bruno investigates, he finds that the death may somehow be related to a scheme to build a resort village in St. Denis, something that is touted as bringing jobs, money, and prosperity to this quiet region. Digging deeper, he begins to suspect that those involved in the planning and construction are actually perpetrating a fraud on his beloved St. Denis, something they have already done in another nearby town.

In the midst of this complicated investigation, another death occurs. This time it is a local drunk and wife beater whom Bruno had recently interacted with and the death looks like a traffic accident. But once again, the autopsy gives the lie to that supposition. Bruno, in fact, has two murders on his hands, but are they related?

I'm beginning to warm up to Bruno. In previous books, I've sometimes found him smug to the point of obnoxiousness, but he came across as quite a likable human being in this book, one who really enjoys cooking for his friends and sharing his wine with them. I find reading about his food preparation as one of the more endearing aspects of these stories. 

One of the "gourmet" dishes he cooked in this book was "beer can chicken" which he learned about from a Texan with whom he was stationed in Sarajevo. That's one of the few dishes he's cooked that I'm actually familiar with!

His love of animals is also endearing. His beloved basset hound was killed in the previous book, but now here comes his friend/lover from Paris, Isabelle, with a replacement, a basset hound puppy named Balzac. I feel sure we will get to know Balzac much better in coming books. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Below Zero by C.J. Box: A review

Six years before the events of this book, Joe and Marybeth Pickett's foster daughter, April, had apparently died in a fiery explosion when the FBI raided the camp of a group of militia-types who were squatting on public lands near Saddlestring, Wyoming. April's birth mother had taken her to the camp. After the fire, the bodies of a woman and a young girl were found in the trailer where Joe had seen April. It was assumed that the body was hers. The Picketts buried the child and grieved for her.

But was the body really April's? That is thrown into question because now, out of the blue, the Picketts' older daughter, Sheridan, is receiving text messages from someone who claims to be April. Is it possible? Where is she, this child who would now be fourteen years old?

Joe Pickett is in disgrace in his job after the events of the last book, in which he abetted the escape from custody of that noted criminal, and Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski. It is only his relationship with the governor that has saved him from being summarily dismissed, but, as punishment, he has been assigned a post far from his home and family. When he learns of the text messages that his daughter is receiving, he asks the governor to release him from duty so that he can investigate.

He checks the text messages and finds that there is information there that would have been known by April. Can she really be alive?

He gets help from a contact in the FBI in tracking the cell phone that the messages are being sent from and notices a troubling fact: The points from which messages are sent seem to be aligning with reported murders. He learns that the teenage girl - whoever she is - may be traveling with a Chicago mobster and his son who is an environmental warrior. What can possibly be the meaning of all this?

One of the strengths of this series is the well-developed characters of the Pickett family - Joe, Marybeth, Sheridan, and Lucy. But in this book, I felt that the family members' characters were being distorted and that they were cardboard figures, not fully developed people. Moreover, the plot seemed contrived and fell a bit flat for me. I just really had a hard time believing in it or caring much about where it was taking me.

There were some interesting parts of the story, including the efforts of the environmental warrior and his gangster father to reduce the father's carbon footprint on the planet to "below zero" so that the mortally ill father can die in peace. Of course, the ways in which they attempt to reduce the carbon footprint involve creating a very large moral stain, so perhaps not the best choices.

At one point in the book, Box puts the argument between believers in and deniers of human abetted climate change in the voice of Nate Romanowski. Nate reckons that he hasn't really decided what to believe because there are credible arguments on both sides of the issue. No, Nate (and Box), there really aren't, and I think it was just about at this point that I began to lose patience with the book.

Overall, it was in some ways an interesting read but certainly not my favorite of the series.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon: A review

I read a lot of mysteries on our recent vacation. This was one of them.

This was the second in Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series.  Although two is not a large sample, I am very much enjoying these stories so far. Brunetti is a very likable chap and I especially enjoy his relationship with his family and the fact that the family is shown as an integral part of his life. It's not something one always finds in one's favorite fictional detectives and it gives an added resonance to the tales. 

The death referred to in the title is the death of an American soldier stationed at a nearby base at Vicenza. His body is found floating in a Venetian canal. He had been stabbed and it appears that his death may have been the result of a mugging gone wrong. But Brunetti finds reasons to be skeptical of that explanation.

Sgt. Michael Foster was a public health inspector at the army base and Guido suspects that his death may somehow be related to his job. Perhaps he had uncovered problems related to public health that those in authority did not want brought to the attention of the media and the public.

Brunetti travels to Vicenza, talks to Foster's commander, who it turns out was also his lover, and his sense of uneasiness that something is very wrong with the whole situation grows. Returning to Venice, he learns from his blustering boss, Vice-Quetore Patta, that the case is to be closed and it will go into the books as a mugging gone wrong because that's what those in power want. 

Brunetti is incensed by the miscarriage of justice, even more so when he continues to follow clues and learns what it may be that Foster had uncovered: a conspiracy among the U.S. and Italian governments and the Mafia to cover up illegal dumping of toxic waste. 

Then Foster's commanding officer/lover also turns up dead from an overdose. Was it suicide? Did she take her own life because she was despondent over Foster's death? Or was she killed to keep her quiet and her death made to look like suicide? Brunetti, of course, suspects the latter.

In order to get to the bottom of these events and resolve his investigation, Brunetti needs help. He calls upon his father-in-law, a wealthy and powerful man who has connections both in government and apparently in the Mafia. The father-in-law readily assists the husband of his only child. Once again the family connections in these books loom large in what seems like an accurate depiction of Italian society.

Donna Leon is especially skilled at describing the Venetian landscape - or should that be seascape? - and the Machiavellian nature of its society. She truly makes the reader see and understand how the culture has evolved and how it operates. It may not be transparent and straightforward, but it does seem to work and even though the end result may not be justice as we (or Guido Brunetti) would recognize it, a kind of equity is achieved.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, March 19, 2018

Home again!


Home again, just in time to greet spring. 

As we traveled east on our way home from the mountains of West Texas, the landscape around us got greener and greener. The wildflowers along the roadway verges were in full bloom, a riot of colors - bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and many others. (Thank you, Lady Bird!) And as we arrived in our own backyard, we found that spring had already got there before us. 


The old azalea was in full bloom.


The redbud that had just begun to bloom when we left ten days ago had already passed its peak and dropped some of its blossoms but there were still plenty left.



The Indian hawthorn was in full bloom.



And so was the coral honeysuckle.


The autumn sages are beginning to bloom. Here's the raspberry.


And here's the red. 


'Belinda's Dream' rose has fat buds that are just about ready to open.



While 'Old Blush,' the antique rose, has been blooming for a while now.



And 'Peggy Martin' has many of these little nosegays covering the plant that sprawls on the side of the garden shed.


A few poppies are still in bloom.



I was delighted to find the Satsuma mandarin orange tree in full flower. With any luck, we'll get a good crop of these little oranges this year.


And the crossvine is starting to bloom, just in time for the Easter season.

Has spring arrived where you are? I know some parts of the country are still enduring winter storms, but hold on! Spring is on its way to you, too.