Sunday, September 30, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez

Paul Simon and Joan Baez are each in the midst of their "farewell tours." Allegedly, they will each be saying goodbye to the road and the touring life at the end of their tours. Reading this story earlier this week impelled me to give a listen to some of their music once again. There was a time in my personal history when they along with a few others, like Bob Dylan, provided the background music for my life, so it was a trip down memory lane for me.
Joan Baez was - and is - a great interpreter of other people's music and she is mostly known for that, but she also wrote some lyrics of her own and one of those songs is among my favorites.
The subject of "Diamonds and Rust" was her relationship with Bob Dylan and the breakup of that romance. Here are her lyrics.
Diamonds and Rust
by Joan Baez
Well I'll be damned 
Here comes your ghost again 
But that's not unusual 
It's just that the moon is full 
And you happened to call 
And here I sit 
Hand on the telephone 
Hearing a voice I'd known 
A couple of light years ago 
Heading straight for a fall

As I remember your eyes 
Were bluer than robin's eggs 
My poetry was lousy you said 
Where are you calling from? 
A booth in the midwest 
Ten years ago 
I bought you some cufflinks 
You brought me something 
We both know what memories can bring 
They bring diamonds and rust

Well you burst on the scene 
Already a legend 
The unwashed phenomenon 
The original vagabond 
You strayed into my arms 
And there you stayed 
Temporarily lost at sea 
The Madonna was yours for free 
Yes the girl on the half-shell 
Could keep you unharmed

Now I see you standing 
With brown leaves falling all around 
And snow in your hair 
Now you're smiling out the window 
Of that crummy hotel 
Over Washington Square 
Our breath comes out white clouds 
Mingles and hangs in the air 
Speaking strictly for me 
We both could have died then and there

Now you're telling me 
You're not nostalgic 
Then give me another word for it 
You who are so good with words 
And at keeping things vague 
'Cause I need some of that vagueness now 
It's all come back too clearly 
Yes I loved you dearly 
And if you're offering me diamonds and rust 
I've already paid
~~~
And here are the lyrics sung by the woman herself.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

This week in birds - #322

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

American Crow image courtesy of Pixabay.

American Crows in my neighborhood become very active and vocal as the weather cools. Every time I've been outdoors this week, I've been treated to their raucous chorus. They are an even more reliable indication than falling leaves that autumn is actually here. 

*~*~*~*

A district court judge in Montana this week returned the grizzly bears of the Yellowstone area to the endangered species list, extending protections that have been in place for 44 years. This effectively cancels the controversial sport hunt that had been planned for Wyoming and Idaho.

*~*~*~*

Environmental fallout from Hurricane Florence continued this week as floodwaters from the Waccamaw River in South Carolina threatened to spill over barriers and into a coal ash pond, potentially polluting a large area with toxic ash.

*~*~*~*

The Environmental Protection Agency under the current administration is getting rid of its science advisor, a post the function of which was to counsel the E.P.A. administrator on the scientific research underpinning health and environmental regulations.

*~*~*~*


There has been a boom in the population of Roseate Spoonbills along the coast this summer with the result that, as the young disperse, they are turning up in some very unusual places. They've been popping up around the Midwest, on the East Coast even up to Maine, and in Quebec! Needless to say, birders in those areas are ecstatic.

*~*~*~*

A new study shows that even small, remnant populations of species can be saved and deserve protection. Such populations are often fatalistically referred to as "the living dead," but conservationists say we shouldn't give up on them.

*~*~*~*

Broad-winged Hawks migrate south in large "kettles" in September and into October and back north again in June.

eBird maps showing the movement of Broad-winged Hawks across the continent in June (left) and September (right).

*~*~*~*

A study in New York City revealed that, while feral cats there are good at killing birds and other small animals, they are not so good at killing the large fierce rats of the city.

*~*~*~*

On the first day of the new Supreme Court session, the justices will hear arguments for a major case that concerns the protection of the small and endangered dusky gopher frog, as well as other climate-endangered species, and big questions about endangered species protections as climate change continues to advance.

*~*~*~*

An ambitious plan, inspired by the Netherlands' extensive flood protection projects, could potentially protect six counties along the Texas coast from the deadly storm surge of hurricanes. It would cost an estimated $12 to $15 billion and it's unlikely that the government is going to pay for it, but would the oil companies that benefit from this area?

*~*~*~*

As the planet warms, cities will need to adapt to the use of a different list of species of trees if they want to maintain their tree-lined streets.

*~*~*~*

By all standards, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has been an astounding success. It has saved from extinction around 99 percent of the plants and animals that have been listed. But industry has been an implacable foe of the Act and now, with a sympathetic administration in Washington, they see their chance to gut the law

*~*~*~*

Our national parks have warmed twice as fast as the U.S. average and they face some of the worst effects of climate change, according to a new study. In one example, the Joshua Tree National Park could become uninhabitable for its eponymous and iconic trees. 

*~*~*~*

And in more bad news for orcas, it is estimated that half of the members of that species could die from the effects of pollution.

*~*~*~*

When it comes to protecting vulnerable species, most of our attention is drawn to the big, charismatic animals like tigers and wolves. It's important to remember that other, less well-known, and perhaps even unattractive species are important to the chain of life and they deserve our study and protection as well.

*~*~*~*

And speaking of wolves, the population of wolves on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior, has dwindled to two, one male and one female. Now the National Park Service has made the decision to reintroduce more wolves onto the island to combat the overpopulation of moose.



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Throwback Thursday: Original sin, current suffering

In June 2015, shortly after the horrific incident in Charleston where Dylann Roof, a young and angry white supremacist, had gone to an African-American church one Sunday morning and slaughtered nine people, I wrote this piece for my blog.

The blot of slavery - and not just slavery but racism in general - on the history and the current politics of this country is something that has troubled me deeply since, as a teenager, I began to understand the pernicious influence of it in every aspect of our national lives. Little could I have imagined when I wrote this that things were only going to get worse in the next three years...

~~~

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Original sin, current suffering

Slavery was the original sin of my country. Or maybe it was hypocrisy. After all, a country that, with a straight face, claims to be founded upon the principle that all men are created equal while simultaneously keeping in enslavement a good percentage of the men who live in that country is a country that practices mendacity and dissimulation even in its founding documents. Two hundred and thirty-nine years have, unfortunately, not been sufficient to wipe away the stain of that original sin, the original lie, and we still suffer the consequences of it today.

The acceptance of slavery at the founding of the country has cast a long, long shadow across attitudes toward those who were enslaved and their descendants. It continues to affect our society and our politics in pernicious ways. It has repercussions on how we deal with social inequities and why we have been more reluctant than any other modern Western country to implement policies that would serve to enhance the equality and the quality of life of its citizens.

I was thinking about this last week as a result of the latest racist atrocity to claim our attention when I came across a posting on Paul Krugman's blog that referenced a paper published by the Brookings Institute that explored why the approach of the United States to assisting its impoverished citizens has been so different from - and so lacking in comparison to - European countries. The title of the paper is "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?"

The authors conclude that the reasons mostly have to do with our attitudes toward race, which have their basis in that original sin. One quote from their paper summarizes their conclusion:
Racial discord plays a critical role in determining beliefs about the poor. Since racial minorities are highly overrepresented among the poorest Americans, any income-based redistribution measures will redistribute disproportionately to these minorities. Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies. Across countries, racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution. Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state. 
Of course, it doesn't help when one of the major political parties in the country uses this race-based rhetoric to win elections and extend its power. It gives aid and comfort to those who feel the need to keep others powerless and disenfranchised in order to inflate their own feelings of self-worth. It is a malevolent ideology, one that you would hope would have no place in 2015-16 politics. You would hope in vain.

And so we seem doomed to continue to live under the shadow of this original sin and suffer its consequences - for example, the refusal of some states to implement Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act because it would help too many of the "wrong people."

And, in some cases, we even seem doomed to live under its odious symbols.

Unless the South Carolina government acts quickly - which seems unlikely - this symbol which inspired the terrorist who murdered nine of its citizens in a Charleston church last week will still be flying at its capitol when one of those victims, a state legislator, lies in state there later this week.

The state flag of Mississippi. I grew up under this flag and never thought about the fact that the Confederate battle flag was a part of it. In fact, I never thought about that flag, period. The United States flag was my flag. Still is. But this symbol is a slap in the face of much of the population of Mississippi. Kudos to the Speaker of the House (a Republican) in Mississippi for recognizing this and calling for this symbol to be removed from the flag. It won't happen tomorrow, but it is a start.  

Several of the formerly slave-holding states allow these images to be put on their license plates. The Supreme Court just ruled that Texas(!) can refuse to allow that flag on their license plates. The governor of Virginia (a Democrat) has now ordered the phasing out of the symbol on that state's license plates.

Will other states take the hint? Time will tell.


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

I have been faithfully reading the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series for many years now, but it had been more than two-and-a-half years since I last read one. The time seemed propitious to pick it up once again.

A series called "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" might sound like mysteries featuring women detectives and, indeed, on the surface that is how it is styled. But, in fact, it is more philosophy than mystery. McCall Smith has another series that he writes, set in Scotland, that actually features a philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie, but this series, set in Botswana, might just as correctly be called the "No. 1 Ladies' Philosophers." 

The main philosopher/detective is Precious Ramotswe and she is ably assisted by her partner, Grace Makutsi. The starting point of each story involves their being presented with a puzzle surrounding some simple everyday problem. It might be someone pilfering from his employer, a straying husband or wife, an orphan trying to trace his family, or, as in this case, someone unjustly fired from her job.

The story is brought to them by their part-time assistant, the meek and mild Mr. Polopetsi. He relates to them the tale of a woman who has been dismissed from her job at an office furniture store because she was rude to an important customer. She claims that the incident never happened, but she was summarily dismissed without a chance to defend herself.

Appalled at the idea of such injustice occurring in her beloved Botswana, Mma Ramotswe begins her investigation and discovers a tangled web of industrial intrigue with a familiar nemesis as the source of it. She must then devise a scheme to restore the wronged employee, while at the same time preserving the dignity of everyone involved.

While engaged in this endeavor, things are happening in her personal life that cause tension, consternation, and, of course, eventually, resolution. There is always resolution and release from tension in these stories. They are a bit like a warm bubble bath after a hard day of gardening. That's why I keep returning to them year after year.

Alexander McCall Smith's love and admiration for Botswana and the culture of its people shine brightly in all these stories. He lived there for some years and he writes in the cadence of the speech of the region, which lends an air of verisimilitude to the tales. As always, the defining mark of the series is the generosity of spirit of the characters and the good humor and value on friendship that mark their days. Reading one of the books offers much needed relief from the venality that seems too much with us in our daily lives.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Banned Books Week 2018

All of the books depicted in the above graphic have at one time or another been banned or removed from the bookshelves of school libraries or public libraries because of challenges from the public. 

Each year the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes statistics about censorship attempts in U.S. schools and libraries and designates a week in September as Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the freedom to read. This year Banned Books Week runs from September 23 - 29 and the theme is "Banning Books Silences Stories." The week's activities are intended to call attention to the need for all of us who love and enjoy the freedom to read to speak out against what has become a rising tide of efforts to censor what can be read. 

Usually the attempt to censor stems from the fact that a book simply expresses ideas that disagree with the would-be censor's view of the world. The ALA annually releases a list of the ten most challenged books from the previous year. This year they have produced a video introducing those books and the reasons that they were challenged. Here is that video.  


Monday, September 24, 2018

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: A review

I know people who say they can't abide reading books that don't have characters that they can empathize or identify with. It's easy to understand that instinctual need to feel good about the characters that populate the book one has committed to reading. But I would argue that sometimes there is much to be learned from reading about unsympathetic characters; characters who, not to put too fine a point on it, are complete and total jerks. Barry Cohen is such a character.

Barry is everyone's stereotype of the narcissistic Wall Street hedge fund manager, who lives in his own self-deluded fantasy world and persuades others to trust him with their money and then loses it while amassing his own personal fortune. Investigated by the SEC, he skates free by paying a large fine but never spends any time in jail and never gets banned from further trading and so he continues to do the same thing over and over again. Sound like a story you might have heard in the news?

There is, of course, more to Barry. He has a wife named Seema, who is a first-generation American of Tamil Indian parents. She is an extremely smart non-practicing lawyer who gave up her career to stay home with their autistic son. Yes, the tragedy of the otherwise dream life that Barry and Seema live is that their three-year-old son, Shiva, is profoundly autistic - or "on the spectrum" in current terminology. He cannot speak and is unresponsive to his parents. He has a full-time nanny, a Philippine immigrant, who actually cares for him, and he has an entire team of therapists who work with him weekly to try to bring him into a functioning relationship with the world around him. This is all very expensive. Lucky that his parents are billionaires.

When the walls begin to close in on Barry - his hedge fund fails; the SEC investigators are getting closer; he can't deal with the fact of his son's autism; his marriage is failing - he flees. He takes a Greyhound bus to go and "look for America," as Paul Simon once wrote. (He can leave because he knows that Seema will stay, that she will not abandon their son as he is doing.)
"Like your first ankle monitor bracelet or your fourth divorce, the occasional break with reality was an important part of any hedge-fund titan's biography."
In fact, Barry is looking for the simpler life that he once lived as a college student with his first love. He goes in search of that woman, hoping to reclaim the magic of that time in his life. 

His college love was from Richmond but now lives in El Paso. He heads south. Through Baltimore, then Richmond to stop at his girlfriend's old home and visit her parents, south to Atlanta, then west through Birmingham, Jackson, Dallas, and finally on to El Paso. At each stop along the way, Shteyngart gives us quick portraits of communities and people all of which reveal another layer of Barry's self-absorbed and egotistical personality. Essentially, it is self-obsession all the way down.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Seema is facing her own demons, beginning an affair with a neighbor, and finally taking her own trip west, to the Midwest in her case, to visit her parents and perhaps reclaim her own personhood. 

These are, in short, two imperfect characters flailing around in a world of self-deluded chaos of their own making, and the background of the whole thing is the presidential campaign of 2016 which just lends further impetus to the descent into entropy. 

I thought the novel was brilliant. I didn't like Barry one little bit, although in the end I did have the faintest bit of sympathy for him and a bit more for Seema. I think if we are honest we can concede that there may just be the tiniest particle of Barry/Seema lurking in all of us. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sunday Poetry: Leaves Compared With Flowers by Robert Frost

So autumn has arrived at last. It seemed a long time coming. But it has been presaged for weeks now by falling leaves. As summer wanes, the poor tattered leaves that have been through months of blistering sun and scorching temperatures began to turn brown (we don't really get brilliant fall colors here) and flutter to the ground. The big wave of falling leaves is still to come in October but already the grass is littered with the ones that have left their posts early.

I love the falling leaves of autumn almost as much as I love the soft green new leaves of early spring. Apparently, Robert Frost had an affection for leaves as well. At least this strange little poem of his that I came across last week seems to indicate such feelings. 
Leaves Compared With Flowers 
by Robert Frost
A tree's leaves may be ever so good,
So may its bar, so may its wood;
But unless you put the right thing to its root
It never will show much flower or fruit.

But I may be one who does not care
Ever to have tree bloom or bear.
Leaves for smooth and bark for rough,
Leaves and bark may be tree enough.

Some giant trees have bloom so small
They might as well have none at all.
Late in life I have come on fern.
Now lichens are due to have their turn.

I bade men tell me which in brief,
Which is fairer, flower or leaf.
They did not have the wit to say,
Leaves by night and flowers by day.

Leaves and bar, leaves and bark,
To lean against and hear in the dark.
Petals I may have once pursued.
Leaves are all my darker mood.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

This week in birds - #321

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



One of the prettiest of backyard birds, in my opinion, is the softly colored female Northern Cardinal, seen here politely waiting her turn at the feeder.

*~*~*~*

Hurricanes are known for many things, mostly destructive, and, happening as they mostly do during the fall migration season, they can seriously upset a bird's travel plans. While it may be distressing to the birds, it is often a boon to birders who may get to see birds that they had not seen before. Florence, for example, recently deposited a Trinidade Petrel in the Raleigh area in North Carolina. 

*~*~*~*

The annual "Winter Finch Forecast" is out and things are looking very promising for those of us in the lower parts of the continent to get visits from several irruptive species this winter. The cone and birch seed crops have been poor in much of Canada this year which should send many of the finches south to look for food.

*~*~*~*

The flooding from Hurricane Florence has surged into coal ash ponds and lagoons of pig waste spreading all that toxic waste over the landscape, potentially polluting water supplies and increasing the misery of the victims of the storm. 

*~*~*~*

The Bradford pear was produced by botanists and was introduced in the 1950s as an attractive landscape tree for suburban neighborhoods. As so often happens in these stories, it didn't stay where it was put. Its seeds were spread far and wide and it has become a pernicious invasive weed in many areas. Truly, it is not nice - or wise - to mess with Mother Nature.

*~*~*~*
Though not widely known, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law in 1964 with the goal of protecting natural areas and cultural resources and increasing recreational opportunities, has benefited virtually every county in the United States during its existence. In its more than 50-year history, the fund has helped 42,000 projects across the country, ranging from wilderness areas and historic battlefields to local tennis courts and trails. And now it is running out of moneyIf legislators fail to reauthorize the program before September 30, the fund will immediately run dry and will no longer be able to dole out money, which in recent years has averaged about $450 million annually, a significant boost to the economy of many communities.

*~*~*~*

Scientists have identified what, to this point at least, is the oldest known animal life form which existed at least 20 million years before the explosion of life during the Cambrian period. The fossil is 558 million years old and is a simple oval-shaped member of a group of organisms called Ediacarans.

*~*~*~*

The first ever national bird count using weather radar indicates that about 4 billion birds make their way south from Canada across the continent in the fall, while up to 4.7 billion leave the U.S. for Mexico and points farther south. In the spring, 2.6 billion return across the border into Canada, while about 3.5 billion cross the southern border into the United States.

*~*~*~*

Some of the places in our public lands, parks and national monuments, are sacred to Native American tribes and are culturally, spiritually, and economically vital to those tribes. Visitors to those areas need to remember and respect that.

*~*~*~*

New Mexico and California are suing the federal government to try to stop its plan to roll back regulations that forced energy companies to capture methane, a key contributor to climate change that is released in huge amounts during drilling.

*~*~*~*

Most of the smuggling of ivory out of Africa is handled by three cartels, as discovered by research on the animals' DNA using their poop and their tusks.

*~*~*~*

Like so many other species, nearly half of all freshwater turtles and tortoises are at risk of extinction. The usual culprits are to blame: habitat loss, illegal pet trade, and consumption for food and traditional medicine.

*~*~*~*

Fragmentation of their habitats is a problem for many birds. One way to address at least one aspect of the problem is to plant more trees in pastures to create more acceptable habitat for forest birds.

*~*~*~*

A beach in Greece has been covered in spiders' webs at least 300 meters long. It is the mating season of these spiders of the genus Tetragnatha and the interconnecting webs allow them to party, mate, reproduce, and provide for the new generation. If you are an arachnophobe, this beach will probably not be on your vacation plans for the next few weeks.

*~*~*~*

A joint study by universities in the U.K. has revealed that moths may play a much bigger role as plant pollinators than was previously known.

*~*~*~*

An organization called SavingSpecies is leading a reforestation effort high in the Andes in Colombia which it is hoped will protect one of the world's most renowned biological hotspots. The Western Andes cover about three percent of the planet's land area but they are home to about 20 percent of all known species, among them many species of those flying jewels of the bird world, the hummingbirds.  



Friday, September 21, 2018

Naked ladies


We call them "naked ladies" because they pop out of the ground unexpectedly with no clothes on - just a bright green stem with a bud at the top. But soon enough that bud opens up to reveal the "lady," a beautiful flower.

Technically, and correctly, called Amaryllis belladonna, they grow as wildflowers in South Africa and they prefer hot and dry conditions. I can provide the hot if not the dry, but last fall I planted several of these bulbs in one of the driest beds in my garden and recently a few of them have come up to remind me of the bulbs I had almost forgotten. Not all of them have emerged by any means, but I live in hope.

Later, by spring, the leaves should emerge around the base of the stem to provide nourishment to the bulb and, if all goes well, the ladies themselves will pop up again next fall.

The plants have other popular names such as surprise lilies and resurrection lilies, both for obvious reasons. Some even call them hurricane lilies because they do emerge at the height of the hurricane season. But, personally, I prefer the more salacious and descriptive name. It'll always be naked ladies for me!


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Throwback Thursday: The Muppet Personality Theory

Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street are making headlines again this week. Not bad for almost fifty-year-old beings made from felt. Of course, the reason they are in the news is a bit weird. Some people have their knickers all in a twist because they have decided that Bert and Ernie are gay. Let me break this to those people gently: Bert and Ernie are muppets. They are made of felt. They do not have a sex life! 

Anyway, in looking at the traffic on my blog the last few days, I noticed that several people had accessed a post that I wrote back in June of 2012 called "The Muppet Personality Theory." So, thank you, Bert and Ernie!

My post had been in response to a piece that I read in Slate. Dahlia Lithwick, in case you don't know, is a talented journalist who covers the Supreme Court for Slate and also frequently appears on various television and radio news shows to share her expertise. She's the main reason why I still include Slate in my daily roundup of news feeds. And here is that post that I wrote in response to her long-ago article.

~~~

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Muppet Personality Theory

The wonderful Dahlia Lithwick of the online magazine Slate has a very perceptive and funny piece in the magazine today called "Chaos Theory: A Unified Theory of Muppet Types." It's worth your time to go and read the whole article but here's the capsule version.

Lithwick maintains that human beings can be categorized as either one of two kinds of Muppets: Chaos Muppets or Order Muppets. As one who grew up with my children as they watched Sesame Street and learned their ABCs, colors, numbers, shapes, and much else from the Muppets, I have to say that her theory makes a whole lot of sense to me.
Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.
Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. 
See? Doesn't that make it all perfectly clear? It's the most transparent and understandable theory of personality types that I have ever read! I speak as one who struggled through many college psychology and sociology classes and scratched my head over Freud and Jung and Adler.

Lithwick goes on to say that opposite Muppet types do attract (Think Bert and Ernie.) and that they often wind up married to each other. That's not necessarily a bad thing because the two personality types tend to balance each other and make a unified whole. Just think what a disaster a marriage between two Chaos Muppets might be like! The only thing worse might be a marriage between two Order Muppets.  (Come to think of it, that may go a long way towards explaining the divorce rate.)

So, what kind of Muppet are you? I think I probably fall more in the Chaos category. One look at the closets in my house would convince you of that. But in my professional life, I had to masquerade as an Order Muppet. Maybe that's why I was often miserable there. I sat at my desk crunching numbers and dreamed of skipping down the street hand-in-hand with Big Bird and Cookie Monster, leaving a trail of yellow feathers, cookie crumbs, and happy smiles in our wake.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Acqua Alta by Donna Leon: A review

I needed a reading palate cleanser - a quick and easy read to bridge the gap between two more serious literary works. I decided to go with one of Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, a series that I've discovered fairly recently. It has provided dependable reading pleasure.

Acqua Alta is the fifth book in the series. The title, meaning "high water," refers to a time during full moon in winter when tides bring the waters of the Adriatic into Venice, inundating the barriers meant to hold it back and sloshing into the ground floors of buildings. This phenomenon, aided and abetted by torrential winter rains, creates hazardous conditions in the city.

It is during one of these events that Brett Lynch, the American archaeologist that we met in the first Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, is accosted in her own home and severely beaten by two "gentlemen from the South," a phrase used to denote that organization which must not be named by Venetians but which we would call the Mafia. During the beating, the men warned Brett not to keep her appointment for a meeting with the director of one of Venice's famous art museums. The men are driven off by Brett's lover, the acclaimed opera singer Flavia Petrelli who was in Brett's apartment with her at the time.

The crime is assigned to the regular uniformed branch of the police for investigation, but then Commissario Brunetti notices the name of the victim on a report that crosses his desk and remembers her from his earlier case. He goes to the hospital to visit her. Flavia contacts the high brass of the police and demands that Brunetti be assigned to the case, and since that is the way things work in Venice, he is.

He has hardly begun his investigation when another crime occurs; the art museum director whom Brett was to meet is found dead, beaten about the head, in his office at the museum. It seems clear that the two crimes are connected and Guido Brunetti must call on all the influence he has with various government agencies, as well as that of Signorina Elletra, the glamorous and talented secretary of his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, to find the information he needs to determine what is happening and why.

Guido Brunetti continues to be one of the most engaging characters that I've met in the world of detective fiction. With his wife, Paola, and their two teenage children, he shares a perfectly normal life, virtually unique among all the detectives with dysfunctional private lives that are the norm among the books of this genre.

Moreover, the city of Venice is one of the main characters, perhaps THE main character, in these books, and Donna Leon, who has lived in that city for many years, lovingly describes it with all its eccentricities and makes the reader feel as though she is sloshing along those celebrated streets or traversing the canals in one of the traditional gondolas. It's a city where the culture of ignoring and evading the laws is thoroughly ingrained, making the lot of an honest policeman like Guido, who is not willing to accept the corruption, not a happy one. But this week a visit with Guido was just what I needed.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, September 17, 2018

Presidio by Randy Kennedy: A review

Lee Child did not steer me wrong. I read his glowing review of Randy Kennedy's first novel in the Times and knew that I had to read that book. 

He did not exaggerate. Presidio is a terrific example of Texas noir, with an engaging and somewhat unexpected main character who is a professional car thief.

The novel is set in the Staked Plains and borderlands of West Texas in the early 1970s. Among the best things about the book - among a wide choice of very good things - were the photograph-like descriptions of that arid and spare but beautiful landscape of flat plains rolling into mountains, and country roads where you can see for miles and miles. It's a landscape marked by the occasional nodding pump jack, long before the coming of the wind farms that dot the area today. The 1970s were another country; a country without the internet and cell phones and being constantly connected to the outside world; a country where the border between Texas and Mexico is an amiable line of traffic over a wooden bridge where people come and go more or less at will to work or to buy and sell. It's a country that Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry have traversed successfully in many books. Now, Randy Kennedy adds his name to that list.

Troy Falconer is Kennedy's protagonist. He is a vagabond who has been on the road for many years, earning his way as a thief. Specifically, as a car thief. He steals cars, usually from motel guests, often taking their belongings from the motel room as well. He has perfected his technique over several years and has never been caught. He never keeps any car for long, swapping each one for a different vehicle at his first opportunity.

As we meet Troy, he is returning to the rural West Texas town where he grew up to help his younger brother, Harlan. Harlan's wife had recently absconded with all of the money that he had. Not much to be sure, but he wants it - if not her - back. Troy is there to help him find the wife and get the money. 

When they head out on the trail of the wife, Harlan's old truck doesn't get them far and Troy's skills as a car thief are immediately pressed into service. He steals a station wagon at a convenience store and the two men head south. What they don't realize at first is that there is a third person in the station wagon. Ten-year-old Martha Zacharias, a Mennonite girl from Mexico, currently living in Texas with her aunt, whose car it was, was lying down on the back seat of the vehicle when it was stolen. She stays quiet and they don't realize she is there until one night, while the men are sleeping outside, she attempts to drive the station wagon away. When they discover her, she demands that they take her to El Paso where she can meet her father. They compromise on taking her as far as Presidio and buying her a bus ticket to El Paso.

The narrative of their trip south is interspersed with the narrative that introduces Martha's family and background and a remarkable set of notes that Troy has written and leaves in the glove compartments of the vehicles he drives. The notes are styled as "Notes for the police" and they consist of a kind of journal of his explanation of what he has done and how he came to be the person that he is. (The first line of the book is: "Later, in the glove box, the police found a binder of notes.") These notes also include some darkly humorous stories of his time on the road and some of the people he has encountered along the way. It is through the notes that we get to know Troy and Harlan and their now dead father and we learn what happened to their mother.

The propulsion of the plot is the brothers' flight to the border with their accidental kidnap victim, looking over their shoulders all the way, expecting to see the police. The plot moves almost organically and those pages keep turning almost by themselves as everything converges at Presidio for the final denouement.

It's hard to believe this is Kennedy's first novel. It is a very accomplished effort with characters that seem real enough that one could reach out and touch them, a landscape with an aridity that one can taste on the tongue, and a plot filled with a comedy of errors that somehow doesn't seem fanciful at all. 

All of which brings to mind a line from Troy's "notes": "Just because a story isn't real doesn't mean it isn't true."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Poetry Sunday: September Tomatoes by Karina Borowicz

Pulling up those last tomato plants always seemed a bit sad to me. They were planted with so much hope and high expectations in the spring and nourished all through the long summer months, but now their "whiskey stink of rot has settled in the garden" and it is time for them to go to the compost pile.

I had never heard of Karina Borowicz but she is a prize-winning poet from Massachusetts and she must be a gardener because she understood so well the regret I feel about those last tomatoes of September when she wrote this poem back in 2013. 

That last verse about her great-grandmother and the girls of her village pulling flax may seem out of place, but I know what she means. Their actions seem to "turn the weather," change the seasons. Pulling out September tomatoes has the same meaning for us. And it worked; after all, in a few days it will be fall.



September Tomatoes

by Karina Borowicz

The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises 
when I touch the dying tomato plants. 

Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots 
and toss them in the compost. 

It feels cruel. Something in me isn’t ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I’ve carefully cultivated all these months. 
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit. 

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village 
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2018

Recent rains have kept me and my camera out of the garden but this morning the sun came out and I was finally able to get out and record some of what is growing - some of it even blooming - in my garden this September.



No blooms here. The muscadine grapes are well on their way to ripening and the mockingbirds keep close watch on them. The purple ones don't last long.



The Duranta erecta sports its "golden dewdrops" - at least the ones the birds haven't got to yet.


My little Satsuma tree is heavily loaded with fruit.



And so are the purple beautyberry shrubs.



The 'Pride of Barbados' still has a few blooms.



But most of its blooms have already matured and ripened into seeds. The shrub is full of these "beans" and if I don't remove them, my yard will be full of little volunteer 'Pride' shrubs next year.

All of these plants with their loads of fruit say that summer is ending and autumn is almost here. And not a moment too soon for me.


The little 'Pinball' gomphrenas have been covered in little pink blooms all summer long.



Salvia farinacea (blue salvia) has come on strong in the last couple of weeks.



This fuchsia-colored angelonia has perked up, too, since the temperatures have moderated a bit.



My coral vine harbored dreams of world domination and threatened to start by covering my backyard this summer. I had to cut it back severely about a month ago to discourage its over-exuberance and that caused it to pause in blooming for a while, but it has stopped its pouting now and is beginning to bloom again.



'Big Momma' Turk's Cap has many, many blooms, a boon to the passing hummingbirds.



I find the blossoms of porterweed quite weird in appearance, but that doesn't bother the butterflies which love them.



And next to the porterweed is a plant beloved by bees - basil.



My crape myrtles are winding down but they still have a few watermelon-colored blooms.



The almond verbena, on the other hand, shows no signs of winding down. It is covered in these sweetly scented blossoms.



The tropical milkweed carries a few blooms and I occasionally see Monarch butterflies visiting them but I've yet to see any eggs or caterpillars this year.



The bronze fennel is blooming, too, and I planted it mostly for the swallowtail butterflies that use it as a host plant, but I've seen no caterpillars munching on the plant.



A pretty pink waterlily bloom is mostly hidden by overarching leaves.



The wedelia has loved our rather wet summer and has responded with a growth spurt and a bloom spurt.



Purple oxalis in its pot on the patio has a few blooms.



The tiny blooms of Tradescantia 'purple heart' go mostly unnoticed.



This lantana has been a magnet for butterflies recently. Naturally, there were none around when I went to take this picture.


The blue plumbago took a long time to hit its stride this year, but lately it has been looking happier.


The Hamelia patens is ablaze with blooms, food for the hummingbirds.



Nearby, a few of these daylilies still bloom.



Like many of the plants in my garden, the pentas are showing the stress of our long summer but they still bravely send out their blooms.


All over the garden, the fungi are on the march!


These little mushrooms growing next to one of the weed-choked beds in my resting vegetable garden look almost good enough to eat. Hmm...



This is yet another type of fungi,  seen half in shade from the redbud tree and half in bright sun.



And then there are these interesting little guys growing near the north side of the house. I wish I were more knowledgable about fungi and could actually identify all of these mushrooms.



Finally, this bromeliad was supposed to be a houseplant, but then my naughty cats chewed every single leaf on the plant! And then threw it all up, of course.  I decided the only way to save the poor plant was to send it out into the world, so it now sits near my front door entry.

One week until fall starts. I am ready!

Thank you for visiting my garden this month. And thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, as always.

Happy Bloom Day!