Sunday, May 31, 2020

Poetry Sunday: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

I have featured this poem here before in 2018, but as events unfolded over the past week, it's the poem that kept coming to mind. It has never seemed more apropos.

The Second Coming 

by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Friday, May 29, 2020

This week in birds - #402

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


An Eastern Kingbird perches on a bare limb keeping a lookout on the surrounding area. The kingbird is well-named. It definitely sees itself as king of all that it surveys and unhesitatingly defends its territory from anything deemed a threat, up to and including eagles.

*~*~*~*

The recent collapse of two dams in Michigan should be a warning to us that there are thousands of such run-down dams in our country that could create catastrophe and untold deaths if they collapse. It's all a part of the neglect of our infrastructure that has gone on far too long. 

*~*~*~*

The recent incident in Central Park when a white woman called the police about a black man who was birding there brings home the fact that many black men feel uncomfortable birding in public parks because they are always subject to being falsely accused. The birder had asked the woman to leash her dog and, in fact, birders in the park have for years waged a battle to ensure that dog walkers keep their animals on a leash as required by law in the park. The unleashed animals disturb wildlife and can be a threat to them.

*~*~*~*

Thousands, actually more likely millions, of migrating birds lose their lives each year when they collide with buildings in their path. But this is a fixable problem

*~*~*~*

Planting trees can be a good thing for the environment, but it can also be a very bad thing if the wrong kinds of trees are planted or if it is done improperly.

*~*~*~*

A U.S. judge in Montana has struck down the public lands oil and gas leasing rules of the current administration because those rules do not take into account the needs of the Greater Sage-Grouse, an endangered species in the West. 

*~*~*~*

It could be a very loud summer on parts of the Atlantic Coast this year. In parts of southwestern Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia, it's nearly time for the IX brood of CICADAS to emerge for their once-in-17-year mating season. As many as 1.5 million cicadas could emerge per acre and they can create a lot of noise.

*~*~*~*

Sun bears are the world's smallest bears. This wide-ranging native of Asia is a threatened species whose greatest threats come from poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and traditional medicine. Their status is even more complicated and dire now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

*~*~*~*

Cockatoos in captivity are among the smartest of bird species, but does their association with humans make them smarter, or are their wild relatives just as clever? Turns out they don't need humans to increase their IQ. 

*~*~*~*

Within the next fifty years, rising seas are likely to overwhelm the wetlands that line the coast of Louisiana and that offer some protection to the land mass from hurricanes and tropical storms.

*~*~*~*

Snowy Plovers, like this female at her nest, have evolved their own unique nesting strategy. Both sexes share in brooding the eggs, but once the chicks hatch, the male bird is completely responsible for them.

*~*~*~*

The island nation of New Zealand is making a concerted effort to rid itself of invasive animal species in a plan to protect its endemic species, especially native birds.

*~*~*~*

A Common Cuckoo wearing a satellite tracking device was tracked on a 7,500-mile migration flight from southern Africa to its breeding grounds in Mongolia.

*~*~*~*

The sterile monoculture of a typical suburban lawn could be made more environmentally friendly by adding plants that nourish pollinators.

*~*~*~*

A site near an ancient lake in Mexico has turned up the bones of about sixty mammoths. The 30,000-year-old bones may reveal more about the hunting techniques of the humans of that period.

*~*~*~*

There is mounting evidence that extracting oil and gas through fracking is a threat to wildlife and ecosystems as well as to human health.

*~*~*~*

Although the increased carbon produced by climate change might be a benefit to trees, the droughts that come as a result of that change can be deadly for the trees.

*~*~*~*

Slow and steady may win the race for sea turtles. Around the world, various species of the turtles are increasing in population and improving their status.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The End of October by Lawrence Wright: A review

I vowed that I would not be reading any pandemic-related or apocalyptic novels during our current public health crisis, so how exactly did I end up reading this book? I saw the review in The New York Times and the writer's name caught my attention. Lawrence Wright is a respected journalist and has written a number of well-received and occasionally award-winning nonfiction books. His most recent was a love letter to Texas called God Save Texas, another one of those books that I had always intended to read but still haven't got around to it. Wright lives in Austin.

His latest book was described as "eerily prescient." It was mostly written in 2017 with the final work on it coming in 2019. But the description proved correct; reading it was a bit like reading the daily news reports of the coronavirus pandemic. Having it all put together in a coherent narrative really made the sequence of events of the actual pandemic more understandable for me. 

Wright is, as I said, a journalist and works mostly in nonfiction and that really shows in his research for this book. It seemed impeccable to me. Perhaps an epidemiologist might find something to fault, but it all seemed pretty systematic and comprehensible to me.

Unfortunately, I can't really say the same for the editing of the book. I was reading about a third of a way through the book when I came upon a description of a character who had a "nervous tick in his eye." Immediately, I was beset by the image of an antsy arachnid waving its eight legs around on the fellow's eye. That was only one example. There were other bits of sloppy editing throughout the book, the kind of things that just really set my teeth on edge. I guess you could say it's my reader tic. But I soldiered on, endeavoring not to let the sloppy editing color my overall impression of the book.

There is, in fact, a lot to like about the book. My favorite parts were the actual descriptions of viruses and how they work, how they replicate, and the part they play in the greater environment and the process of evolution. As I said, Wright's research was extensive and his ability to popularize difficult subjects is exceptional. His storytelling craft is, unfortunately, not on the same level. The plot starts out ably enough but eventually, it becomes burdened by the writer trying to make it even more complicated and thrillerish than it needs to be. Moreover, the characters are flat, despite his best efforts. That is especially true for the female characters, or maybe I was just more sensitive to their one-dimensionality.

Wright's protagonist is Dr. Henry Parsons, head of the infectious disease section of the CDC in Atlanta. He is a world-famous microbiologist and epidemiologist and when an internment camp in Indonesia reports forty-seven people dead of an unknown acute hemorrhagic fever, the World Health Organization enlists him to go and investigate. It's the kind of thing he has done many times before. He leaves his wife and two children behind, promising to be back in a few days for his young son's birthday. We begin to suspect pretty quickly that he is not going to be able to keep that promise.

Parsons arrives in Indonesia to a burgeoning disaster. The Medicins Sans Frontieres doctors who had been sent there to deal with what they had thought was an H.I.V outbreak and who had subsequently raised the alarm are all dead. Parsons wore protective garments but may still have been exposed to the disease, whatever it is. Moreover, he has nothing to fight the illness which is raging among the inmates. He himself will have to be quarantined for two weeks, but he does manage to get a message out, and soon the camp is swarming with medical personal from many different international medical groups trying to stem the tide of the epidemic and find a way of controlling it.

Parsons muses on the young medical personnel who unhesitating throw their bodies and their energies into the fight against this mortal enemy:
Brave men and women who rushed into battle would flee from the onset of disease. Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination. And yet young people like these doctors were willing to stand in the way of the most fatal force that nature has to offer.
But now they, too, were dead.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian driver who had taken Parsons to the camp and who we realize is probably now infected, has left for Saudi Arabia. He's going on Hajj. He will soon be mingling with thousands of people from around the world. When Parsons realizes this, he determines to go to Mecca to find the driver and get him into isolation. Now, this is where the plot began to go off the rails for me. Why would Parsons himself go? Aren't the Saudi Arabian authorities fully capable of finding this needle in a haystack?

And once he gets to Saudi Arabia and makes them aware of the problem, the decision is made to shut down Mecca, and all those thousands of pilgrims are trapped there far from home, Parsons along with them.

Then through a convoluted series of events, Parsons ends up on an American submarine headed home, but it looks like in addition to the now spreading pandemic, World War III is about to break out beginning in the Middle East and the submarine is being shadowed by Russian ships. And it all just gets too complicated. 

By this time, the pandemic has spread around the world, deaths are mounting by the thousands, and governments - most especially the United States government - are not coping well and possibly even making things worse than they have to be.

Yep, a story ripped right out of today's headlines including the propensity of many to readily accept the most outrageous conspiracy theories regarding the new virus. 
These fantasies were promulgated in social media, led by Russian bots and amplified by internet rumor-mongers stirring strife by remote control, urging people to take to the streets when they had been warned repeatedly to shelter at home. 
"Eerily prescient" indeed. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


     

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Beast in View by Margaret Millar: A review

Many years ago, around the 1980s as I recall, I was a huge fan of the writing of Ross Macdonald, especially his series featuring hard-boiled detective Lew Archer. During that time, I think I must have read all or most of those books and enjoyed every one. Little did I realize at the time that Macdonald was married to an acclaimed writer of psychological thrillers named Margaret Millar. Millar's books were much-honored and her book Beast in View won the Edgar Award as the best book of the year in 1956.  There was a reference to her book in an article I read recently about classic mysteries and I was intrigued. The fact that she was married to Macdonald caught my attention, but the book sounded interesting and I decided to make Millar's acquaintance.

The book fully lives up to the article's praise of it. It is a tightly plotted, suspenseful tale with a surprising twist at the end. It evinces a feeling of the sinister throughout. Millar obviously knew what she was doing.

She gives us thirty-year-old Helen Clarvoe, living alone in a residence hotel in Los Angeles. Helen was heiress to a small fortune, which allowed her to eschew employment as a way of sustaining herself. The source of her inheritance is never really explained but is assumed to be her dead father. Her mother and younger brother Douglas are both still alive but she is estranged from them; again, we don't really know why. Even though she only lives a few miles away from the family home where both of her relatives live, Helen doesn't talk to them for months at a time.

Helen is a singularly solitary figure with no known friends and no regular human contacts other than the people who work at the hotel. And she is frightened. She has been receiving bizarre phone calls and, even though there is no overt threat, she feels threatened by them. The caller is someone who insists that Helen knows her but Helen cannot recognize the name.

She has no one she can turn to, but, eventually, she thinks of the investment counselor who advised her father and now advises her. She contacts Paul Blackshear and asks him to investigate. He is reluctant since private investigation is way beyond his skill set, but Helen seems so desperate that he finally agrees to do what he can.

As he wades into the mystery, Blackshear begins to realize that something very strange is happening here. He traces the person who is named as the caller fairly easily and he talks to Helen's mother and brother but the mystery only deepens. As he seeks an answer to the puzzle, he sees that there is a predatory and treacherous nature behind it all, but what exactly is the identity of that nature?

Millar has some truly marvelous lines scattered throughout the book. This one stands out for me, an observation by Blackshear as he meets with Helen:
Blackshear felt a great pity for her not because of her tears but because of all the struggle it had taken to produce them. 
And with that line we know that perhaps all is not quite as it seems with Helen. 

In another encounter, we get a description of the messages relayed by the mystery caller:
"She's crafty, she hasn't had to do any of the destroying herself. She just throws in the bone and lets the dogs fight each other over it. And there's usually some meat of truth on the bone."
Innuendo can be a powerful weapon indeed. 

My only real criticism of the book is that I would have liked more exposition regarding just what led Helen to be the person she is. We are left to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations and I assume that was intentional by the author, but I wish she would have fleshed out that part of the story just a bit more.

By the way, the book that Millar beat out for the Edgar Award in 1956? The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

  


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Deacon King Kong by James McBride: A review

This book was a hoot to read. Seriously, it gave me several belly laughs which were therapeutic and cleansing, I'm sure. And yet, as I reflect on it, I realize that it was, in a very real sense, a story about grief and how we deal with it.

The book is set in South Brooklyn and at the center of it is the Five Ends Baptist Church. The time is 1969. Humans have just set foot on the moon for the first time and soon the previously most hapless team in all of major league baseball, the Mets, will win the World Series. It is a time of miracles, in other words.

The protagonist of this story is Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of that aforementioned Baptist church but in this neighborhood in Brooklyn, no one is called by his/her legal name. Everyone has nicknames. The deacon is mostly known as Sportcoat, or, somewhat more derisively, as Deacon King Kong after a locally made hooch which he freely imbibes called King Kong. Deacon Cuffy/Sportcoat/Deacon King Kong is just one more miracle. He has cheated death more times than anyone can remember, surviving three strokes and several other near-fatal afflictions. But he may have just signed his final death warrant by shooting off the ear of the local number one drug dealer, Deems Clemens. Deems is backed by "organized crime" and his backers may take exception to the deacon assaulting one of their major earners.

Before Deems started plying his trade, he had been the star of the community's baseball team and Sportcoat had been his coach and a father figure for him, but the team is now disbanded, although Sportcoat still has dreams of getting it started again.

Sportcoat engages in long conversations - aka "fusses" - with his beloved wife of 40 years, Hettie. Perhaps the only unusual thing about that is that Hettie has been dead for two years having drowned in the harbor in full view of the Statue of Liberty. Hettie was very active in the church and she had been in charge of the Christmas fund that congregants contributed to through the year so they would have money to buy presents at Christmas. She had hidden the money and no one, including Sportcoat, knew where it was. That is now the subject of many of their arguments as Sportcoat tries to get her to tell him where the money is because he's afraid the church will think he has stolen it.

Sportcoat spends his days visiting his friends Rufus and Hot Sausage, hitting the King Kong, and attending to his various jobs. He is the mainstay handyman of the neighborhood, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. His most productive job and the one he is really good at is as a garden helper for an elderly Italian woman. The two traipse around the area rescuing plants like pokeweed and datura (moonflower) from abandoned lots and the verges of the railroads. They plant the plants in the woman's garden. 

The Cause Houses neighborhood was home to a changing population at this time. Earlier immigrants such as the Italians and the Irish were giving way to African-Americans from the South and to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic newcomers. There was a rich melange of cultures represented and James McBride gives us a glimpse of how it all might have worked. We get to know a vast number of characters from several of these groups in the process and the storyline is almost too complicated to render into a brief synopsis. There are several of those characters, like Sister Veronica Gee and Hettie, that I would like to have known better, but it is, after all, Sportcoat's story. And a cracking good story it is, told by a masterful writer. James McBride has produced another winner.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Poetry Sunday: Fictional Characters by Danusha Laméris

I came across this poem last week by a poet I had never heard of and I just sort of fell in love with it. I love the image of fictional characters getting fed up with the stories they have been written into and stepping out, "roaming the city streets rain falling on their phantasmal shoulders." 

And wouldn't we all at times love to step out of the story we are living and leave it all behind...
all its heat and toil nothing but a tale
resting in the hands of a stranger,
the sidewalk ahead wet and glistening.
Fictional Characters
by Danusha Laméris
Do they ever want to escape?
Climb out of the white pages
and enter our world?
Holden Caulfield slipping in the movie theater
to catch the two o’clock
Anna Karenina sitting in a diner,
reading the paper as the waitress
serves up a cheeseburger.
Even Hector, on break from the Iliad,
takes a stroll through the park,
admires the tulips.
Maybe they grew tired
of the author’s mind,
all its twists and turns.
Or were finally weary
of stumbling around Pamplona,
a bottle in each fist,
eating lotuses on the banks of the Nile.
For others, it was just too hot
in the small California town
where they’d been written into
a lifetime of plowing fields.
Whatever the reason,
here they are, roaming the city streets
rain falling on their phantasmal shoulders.
Wouldn’t you, if you could?
Step out of your own story,
to lean against a doorway
of the Five & Dime, sipping your coffee,
your life, somewhere far behind you,
all its heat and toil nothing but a tale
resting in the hands of a stranger,
the sidewalk ahead wet and glistening.

Friday, May 22, 2020

This week in birds - #401

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


A Common Nighthawk perches on a barbed wire fence in Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. This picture was taken during spring migration a few years ago, but this year's flight of nighthawks has now reached my area. I've heard them in the skies over my yard on several occasions in the late afternoon this week. Flying insects, beware!

*~*~*~*

Dam failures in Michigan this week caused a deluge that flooded a Dow Chemical plant and made the release of toxic chemicals into the environment a possibility, although the company put out a statement saying that the flooding had been kept under control and mixed with water in their containment ponds. They stated there was no danger to the public.

*~*~*~*

Climate change is making another Dust Bowl such as occurred in the 1930s more likely to occur again. They could become a regular feature every twenty years or so.


*~*~*~*

In Maine, there was a recorded instance of a Common Loon killing a Bald Eagle by stabbing it in the heart with its beak. The eagle was threatening the loon's chicks. Hell hath no fury like a nesting bird protecting its chicks.


*~*~*~*


Whale watching has long been a thing among conservationists but there is at least one place where whales turn the tables and become people watchers. The belugas of Manitoba seem to enjoy observing those crazy humans!


*~*~*~*


Noted bird field guide author David Sibley has seven tips for watching birds during the lockdown.


*~*~*~*

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show, a transformation partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.


*~*~*~*

There is a shortage of horseshoe crab eggs for migrating shorebirds on New Jersey's Delaware Bayshore. This is problematic most especially for the endangered Red Knot.


*~*~*~*

Praying mantises are active hunters that can calibrate their attacks to more efficiently capture prey that flies by at different speeds.


*~*~*~*

joint relocation effort by wildlife biologists in Colorado and Kansas has been successful in establishing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in a grassland area along the border of the two states.


*~*~*~*

The extremely rare blue calamintha bee has been found in Florida this spring for the first time in many years. It had been presumed extinct.


*~*~*~*

A new study identifies the ten most worthy areas in the ocean that need protection in order to ensure biodiversity.

*~*~*~*

Need something to read this summer? Here's a list of 18 new environmental books covering everything from fungi and butterflies to elephants.

*~*~*~*

New research confirms what climate models have shown, namely that climate change is making hurricanes stronger

*~*~*~*

Sea turtles can get sneaky in an attempt to protect their nests from predators. They make decoy nests to distract the predators away from the real nest.

*~*~*~*

While the human population of Earth deals with the coronavirus pandemic, another virus is decimating rabbit populations. It is Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Type 2 and it does not affect humans or other animals, but is deadly for rabbits, hares, and perhaps for pikas, another rabbit-like animal.

*~*~*~*

With automobile traffic down, thanks to the pandemic, the roads have become safer for migrating salamanders

*~*~*~*

A new study shows that monitor lizards, which have been thought to be invasive species on some Pacific islands, have actually been there much longer than humans.

*~*~*~*

Worldwide lockdowns have triggered a dramatic fall in greenhouse gas emissions, down 17% by early April compared to 2019 records, but once things start opening up, much of that progress will be negated. 

*~*~*~*


A plan by the administration to open up Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging has received strong pushback from the public. Ninety-six percent of comments favor maintaining protections.








Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: A review

Reading this book reminded me in some ways of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Like Didion, Julia Alvarez's protagonist Antonia Vega lost her beloved husband less than a year ago and she's finding it very difficult to cope with life without him and just to get on with it.

Antonia is a recently retired educator and a writer who lives alone now in rural Vermont. Her late husband, Sam, was a much-respected doctor who was an integral part of the community, caring for the locals as well as for immigrants, mostly undocumented, who came to work the local farms. Antonia herself is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and that is an essential part of her self image. Since her husband's death, she finds herself more and more coming to embody his attitudes and his caring nature, while during his life, she played the "bad cop" to his "good cop." She muses at one point that Sam is taking over, that she is becoming Sam. Well, she could do worse.

Antonia has no children; what she does have is three sisters scattered over three different states. Regardless of their physical distance, they are very close emotionally and those emotions frequently boil over. In this, they are like their mother, or as Antonia says, "The mangoes didn't fall far from the tree." The oldest of the "mangoes" is called Izzie and she is particularly erratic and impulsive, bordering on bipolar or perhaps having taken up residence there. At one point, while she is headed to Illinois for a reunion with the sisters and celebration of Antonia's birthday, Izzie disappears, causing consternation and growing panic among her sisters.

But before that happens, much else has occurred to upset Antonia's quiet life.

Antonia has a neighbor who is a dairy farmer and that farmer employs two undocumented immigrants from Mexico to care for his cows. One day her neighbor stops by her house and mentions that he's noticed her gutters are overflowing with debris. He offers to send one of his workers over to clean them out and that is how she comes to meet Mario. She converses with him in Spanish and when he finishes with his task, he hesitantly asks for her help. It seems he has paid a coyote to bring his girlfriend from Mexico and now they are in Denver, but the coyote is demanding more money and Mario needs to contact his girlfriend to find out what's going on. Antonia assists him to make the phone call and thus becomes further involved in Mario's life.

The girlfriend, Estela, eventually makes it to Vermont, but she has a surprise. She is heavily pregnant, almost ready to deliver. Since Mario had been gone from Mexico for two years, that presents a problem.

Meantime, Izzie has disappeared and Antonia must go and look for her. When she returns home, she finds Estela miserably living in her garage. Mario has kicked her out. At this point, Sam takes over and Antonia becomes the "good cop" who takes Estela in - temporarily - feeds her, finds some clothes for her, and installs her in the guest room. She arranges medical care and assistance for Estela and goes to work persuading Mario to take her back. To complicate matters, the friendly local sheriff keeps dropping by. The sheriff who turns a blind eye to the many undocumented immigrants living in his county, not a wise political move in the Trump era, but Antonia isn't sure how far she can trust him.

But Izzie is still missing and Antonia is soon on the road again, trying to track her down. In her anxiety, she seeks solace in self-help podcasts and in remembering verses of her favorite poets. Her concerns for Izzie and for Estela and her unborn child and Mario all begin to meld together in a solicitude that extends not just to her blood family but to her human family. In trying to get her arms around all this she repeats the self-help mantra "you have to start by taking care of yourself" but in the end, she comes to see that as essentially selfish and to acknowledge the need for a simultaneous attentiveness to oneself and to others.

There is no sudden flash of enlightenment here. Change for the world and for those of us, like Antonia, who are aging and set in our ways, comes slowly. And yet it does come, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Alvarez's depiction of the lives of the undocumented in our society feels real and authentic, unlike some other recent portrayals of that experience. She writes with an easy humor and a sharp observation for the working of human relationships and most particularly for the intimacies of the immigrant sisterhood. Antonia learns that although there may be painful holes in our lives that can never be filled, they don't have to exist at the expense of others. There is a way forward even in the most broken of worlds.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars      

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves: A review

After plowing through several consecutive books with heavy themes, I decided it was time for something a bit lighter. I settled on a tale about a triple murder as told by Ann Cleeves.

This is the eighth and latest book in the D.I. Vera Stanhope series and it is a very good one. And, of course, the tale isn't primarily about three murders; it's about Vera and her A-team of Joe, Holly, and Charlie, and how they work together to solve puzzles.

This is a particularly complicated puzzle because two of the aforementioned murders had occurred back in the 80s, the remains only recently discovered. They were discovered because Vera was selected for a public relations stint. 

She was assigned by her boss to make a presentation to convicts at a local prison about how crime affects the victims. She went, grudgingly, to give her spiel and in the audience was a former copper named John Brace. John Brace was a bent copper who had finally received his comeuppance in relation to a scheme in which a local gamekeeper was killed. John Brace was also a member of a Gang of Four who used to go tramping around the countryside stealing eggs from birds' nests for sale and sometimes trapping raptors to sell. All highly illegal, of course. The other three members of the gang were Robbie Marshall, someone known only as "the Prof," and Hector Stanhope, Vera's reprobate of a father.

Brace immediately recognizes who Vera is and devises a plan for getting her to look in on his daughter and her children, whom Brace is worried about, in exchange for information about the whereabouts of a body. It seems that Robbie Marshall has been missing for years and the police have never found a trace of him. But Robbie, as Brace knows, is dead because he hid the body back in the 80s when he was still with the police.

Vera meets with Brace and they make the deal. She is to check on the daughter, Patty, who was the product of his affair with a junkie who was the "love of his life," a woman named Mary-Frances Escuola, who, coincidentally, had disappeared around the same time as Marshall. The child had been given up for adoption and had grown up to marry a loser named Gary Keane, who has now abandoned her and their three children. After Vera meets her and reports back, Brace will tell her where the body is buried.

Vera finds Patty to be clinically depressed and sinking fast and her hitherto unsuspected maternal instincts take over. She befriends Patty and her kids and reports back to Brace who keeps his end of the bargain by telling her that Robbie Marshall is buried in a culvert, the location of which he gives. When the search team goes to look, sure enough, they find the bones of Robbie Marshall, but there is also a second set of bones, apparently female. Could it be Mary-Frances Escuola? Did Brace kill them both?   

Vera and her team get to work trying to find the answer to those and other questions about what happened all those years ago, and then, in the middle of their investigation, Gary Keane is murdered. Surely that can't be a coincidence.

Watching Vera and her team work is such a pleasure. We are privy to their thoughts as they go about the investigation, which, in the case of her team members all seem to focus on "What would Vera think about how I'm interviewing this person, or how I'm scrutinizing the evidence?" They are all eager to find some nugget to bring to her that will help to break the case open.

I do find these four people so engaging to read about. Cleeves has given them backstories and personalities that make them real to the reader. Moreover, her plotting, while complicated, is impeccable and always plays fair with the reader. This was just the kind of page-turning read that I needed at this time.

In the end, of course, Vera figures it all out on a dark and stormy night. And then her house ("Hector's house," as she always thinks of it) burns. We'll have to wait until the next book, due out in September, to learn how Vera copes.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars    

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Poetry Sunday: In the Park by Maxine Kumin

Time is both a finite and a relative concept. Objectively, sixty seconds make a minute, sixty minutes make an hour. But subjectively, some minutes drag for us and one of them can seem like an hour. And if, for example, you are confronting a grizzly bear that lies/lays on you for a time, that time, if you survive to reflect upon it, could certainly feel like the forty-nine days of the Buddhist bardo, that time between death and rebirth. Maxine Kumin describes such an encounter in Glacier Park. 

In the Park
by Maxine Kumin
You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you’re a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
—you won’t know till you get there which to do.
He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. He laid on me
not doing anything. I could feel
his heart beating against my heart.
Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them. For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.
I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels. Certain
animals converse with humans.
It’s a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven’s an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there’s a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,
and no choosing what to come back as.
When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot. In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

TWIB next week

"This week in birds" is taking the week off. It will return next weekend.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - May 2020

What's been blooming in my zone 9a garden near Houston in May? Here's a look:


May is the month when the old southern magnolia tree in the backyard is in its glory. It almost makes us forget what a messy tree it is the other eleven months.

The pot of pansies on the patio, on the other hand, are well past their glory which came in the winter months. And still, they hang on even unto May.

'Belinda's Dream' rose on its second cycle of blooms.

 'Old Blush' antique rose.

'Julia Child' rose.

 Pink Knockout.

'Lady of Shallott,' a David Austin rose with gorgeous squashy blooms and a wonderful rose scent.

'Caldwell Pink' rose, an antique polyantha, with just a bit of bluebonnet in the background.

This sunflower was planted by the birds. The ones I planted are not blooming yet.

 Oleander.

This pot of petunias on the patio are plants that "volunteered" in the garden this year. I believe they have reseeded from the 'Laura Bush' petunia that I grew a few years ago.

Wild elderberry growing in an unused corner of my backyard.

 Cestrum. The hummingbirds love it.

 Red yucca.

 Shrimp plant.

 My Easter lilies bloomed just about a month late.

 Plumbago.

 The blue columbine, just beginning to bloom.

And the red columbine in its chicken pot with the lime sedge continues its month-long bloom.

 Purple trailing lantana.

 And bush lantana.

 Hibiscus.

Datura 'Purple Ballerina.' The blooms do look a bit like a tutu.

 Blanket flower.

 The kangaroo paw plants have been in bloom since March and show no signs of stopping.

 Dianthus.

 And more dianthus.

 Raspberry pink salvia.

 Canna.

 Duranta erecta, aka golden dewdrop plant.

 'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendrum.

Last but not least, vitex, aka chaste tree, is in full bloom.

In this time of cocooning in our homes as we try to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, our gardens continue to be a solace and a place where we can find calm from the stresses of the day. I hope that all of you, dear readers, are staying safe and healthy and that you are finding peace in your gardens.

Happy Bloom Day!

Linking to Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: A review

I read Carolina De Robertis's previous book, The Gods of Tango, and liked it quite a lot and so I was eager to read her new offering. 

The previous book was about a woman who was unable to fulfill her life's ambition to play the violin simply because she was a woman. So, after emigrating from her home country to Argentina and finding herself in difficult circumstances there, she ultimately made the choice to live as a man and play the violin for tango bands. The current book details forty years of the lives of five women beginning in Uraguay in 1977. These five women are lesbians who came together for friendship and support (and occasionally sex) in a hostile society. They were unable to be themselves, to live their lives openly and honestly. I think I am sensing a common theme in De Robertis's books.  

As a queer woman herself, it is likely the De Robertis has faced some of the prejudice and discrimination that the women in her novels have faced. Thus, she is perhaps fulfilling the prime directive for writers of writing about what you know.

"Cantoras," literally "women who sing," is, it seems, a Uruguayan term for lesbians. As a book title, I suppose it has a bit more resonance than "Lesbians."

The five cantoras of the novel are Flaca, Romina, Anita (aka La Venus), Paz, and Malena. The five take a trip together to an isolated and sparsely inhabited Uruguayan cape called Cabo Polonio. They set up in an abandoned shack on the coast and it becomes their sanctuary. In time, they come up with a plan to buy the shack and repair it to make it more habitable. It will continue throughout the years to be their safe place.

These are not rich women and they have difficulty coming up with enough money to buy the place, but Malena, the quiet one in the group, says that she will get the amount that they are short. And she does. None of the other women seem especially curious as to what she did to get that money.

They purchase the property in all of their names. They are to be equal owners even though some contributed more to the purchase price than others. Paz, who is still a teenager escaping from a home where she is misunderstood and unappreciated, has little money at all to contribute, but it was her idea to buy the place, suggested to her by one of the locals who had befriended her.  

Of the five women in the group, I confess I felt the most compassion and empathy for Paz and Malena. Although I certainly felt sympathy for the mistreatment by society of the other three women, I just didn't find their personalities to be particularly admirable or something that I could easily identify with.

In 1977, a military dictatorship was in power in Uruguay and it brutally crushed political dissent. The human rights of its citizens were disregarded and people were arrested without cause, locked away where their families couldn't find them, tortured, and sometimes disappeared altogether. Homosexuality was a crime to be ruthlessly punished, so it was in that atmosphere that these five women had banded together. Through the next forty years, they became each other's family and continued to support and sustain each other through all the trials of their lives, and through the serial affairs of each member. Some of the other partners in those affairs became like extended family. We see the evolution of Uruguayan society through these years until finally, Romina is able to marry her longtime companion and she is elected to political office, after being an activist for change for many years.

I wanted to like this book, and indeed, there was much to like about it, but I found that I just couldn't get into it in the way I had hoped to. Toward the end, I found myself rushing through, bored with all the mind-blowing sex and the repetitious odes to female friendship. It certainly was not a bad book, but it didn't live up to my hopes for it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars