Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: A review

The story begins in 1999 at a luxury hotel in British Columbia. A woman with the unusual (for a woman) name Vincent is the bartender there. She is young and beautiful. Her half-brother Paul also works at the hotel. Paul had been a bit of a loser in life so far and Vincent had interceded to get him the job there. 

Fabulously wealthy financier Jonathan Alkaitis owns the hotel. On a day that Alkaitis comes to visit the hotel, a sentence etched in acid appears on its large glass window. The sentence says, "Why don't you swallow broken glass." It isn't clear who wrote the message, but we eventually learn that it was Paul, at the behest of another guest at the hotel. The message was apparently meant for Alkaitis.

Alkaitis, who is described as looking a bit like Santa Claus, is smitten with Vincent and he makes her an offer she can't refuse. She is to live and travel with him in the role of his trophy wife. She leaves with him and spends the next several years living a life of indescribable luxury.

Paul, meanwhile, continues to mess up but eventually gets his life together and earns some success and renown as a composer of music videos.

In time, we learn that Alkaitis' wealth is built on a Ponzi scheme that sounds very much like that of Bernie Madoff. And Alkaitis and his associates end up in the same place as Madoff - in prison.

Vincent cuts and colors her hair, adds glasses, and utterly changes her appearance. She escapes the public view and goes back to work in the profession that she knows best. Finally, she has an opportunity to go to sea as an assistant chef on the Neptune Cumberland. She jumps at the chance.

Back in prison, Alkaitis begins seeing visions of people that he has wronged, people who trusted him with their life savings and lost everything. In a subsequent meeting with a doctor who tests his cognitive ability, it appears that he is losing it, but we never actually see a resolution to that. 

Thirteen years after leaving that hotel in British Columbia to be Alkaitis' companion, Vincent disappears over the side of the Neptune Cumberland one night. Did she jump? Did she accidentally fall? Was she pushed?

In a very common method of storytelling these days, Mandel jumps around in time quite a lot and it's not always easy to figure out the sequence of events. Does the juxtaposition of happenings actually add anything to the story? Hard to say. It just seems to be obligatory for many modern authors of literary fiction.

Mandel's narrative seems constructed to emphasize the ways that random lives can intersect and may or may not affect each other. None of the characters in this story really "grabbed" me as a reader. They remained rather opaque and flat. The storyline of the Ponzi scheme and its effect on people's lives was fascinating and well-written. Even I could (sort of) understand it.

This was my first experience reading Mandel. It won't be my last.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Intimations by Zadie Smith: A review

This short book of essays by the wonderful writer, Zadie Smith, is chock full of wisdom and apt observations of the unique time in which we inhabit this planet. The book is only around 100 pages long, but it reads much bigger than that.

The essays all appear to have been written in this year of the pandemic, some quite recently. There is one, for example, that references the heinous murder of George Floyd and the resulting social unrest as people have continued to take to the streets in protest. The writer says in her foreword that she has tried to organize some of her feelings and thoughts about events so far (which would have been the first half of the year) in this year that begins to seem more like a decade fraught with so much anxiety and stress.  "These," she writes, "are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity." 

I think my favorite of the essays is the one titled "The American Exception," from which I offer this extensive quote about our attitude toward death in this pandemic:
We had dead people. We had casualties and we had victims. We had more or less innocent bystanders. We had body counts and sometimes even photos in the newspapers of body bags, though many felt it was wrong to show them. We had "unequal health outcomes." But, in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insurance - or none. Wrong attitude to the police officer; What we were completely missing, however, was the concept of death itself, death absolute. The kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position. Death absolute is the truth of our existence as a whole, of course, but America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole, preferring instead to attack death as a series of discrete problems. Wars on drugs, cancer, poverty, and so on. Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort - and its relative success - been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America.
In another essay called "Suffering Like Mel Gibson" the writer plays on the movie that Gibson made called "The Passion of the Christ" to talk about the relativity of suffering. She wonders whether Christ's agonies on the cross, "when all was said and done, were relatively speaking in fact better than those of the thieves and beggars to his left and right whose suffering long predated their present crucifixions and who had no hope (unlike Christ) of an improved post-cross situation." The essay is essentially about privilege and the stubbornness of inequality.

There is much to contemplate in each of these essays, written by a woman who obviously has thought deeply about the issues that she presents to us in a serious manner but not without humor. Her second job is as a teacher and she seeks to instruct us here through her writing. 

It is fitting that the royalties from this book will go to two charities, The Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: A review

I'm not sure why it took me so long to read this book. I think it had something to do with my reaction to the television show based on The Handmaid's Tale. I watched the first season and found it interesting enough, but then as the second season veered away from the book, I couldn't take it anymore and I stopped watching. Thus, my mind just wasn't ready for a sequel to the book, especially if it was going to be anything like the television show. But finally, I guess curiosity got the better of me, so here we are.

The Testaments comprises the statements or testimony of three women: Aunt Lydia; a young woman called Agnes Jemima who grew up in the nightmarish misogynistic authoritarian state of Gilead; and another young woman who was born in Gilead but whose mother managed to smuggle her out of the country and into Canada where she has been raised. We eventually learn about the connections between these three women.

Aunt Lydia's testament is in the form of a memoir that she wrote and concealed for many years. It is essentially a mea culpa explaining how she, in fact, came to be "Aunt Lydia," the forces that made her who she is.

Agnes Jemima tells of how she was raised by a Commander and his wife, whom she believed to be her parents. It was only after the wife died that she learned that she had been stolen from her birth mother when that woman was forced to become a Handmaid.

The girl raised in Canada likewise was raised by a couple whom she thought were her parents. But then the couple, who had been active in a resistance organization called Mayday that operated a kind of Underground Railroad to help women escape Gilead and resettle in Canada, were killed by a car bomb detonated by Gilead agents and the girl learned that she, too, was the daughter of a Handmaid who had contrived to get her to Canada when she was only a baby. For all the years since Gilead has been searching for her. She is known to them as "Baby Nicole," their lost child.

The Testaments is constructed as a thriller. The Resistance is hard at work in its efforts to bring down the state of Gilead, which comprises most of what used to be the United States. (The Republic of Texas has separated itself and the West Coast continues to resist.) They are aided by Mayday and also by a traitor within the state. This traitor acts as a spy and passes along information to Mayday. We suspect early on who that spy may be, but it isn't confirmed until well into the narrative.

Atwood tells her story with very broad brush strokes. The narrative is very accessible, witty, and well-paced. It is a feminist document without being the hard work that such documents sometimes are and it has the potential to appeal to readers who might ordinarily balk at the idea of reading a feminist book. It is a straightforward and thoroughly satisfying tale of how women manage to bring down the patriarchy. It was a welcome pick-me-up from the gloom of the daily news and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Poetry Sunday: Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay

There was a reference to this poem in the book that I am currently reading, and, not being familiar with it, of course, I had to look it up. I'm so glad I did for the poem seems to speak to our time even though it was written over a hundred years ago in 1917, another dark time in the world. It's quite long, much longer than the poems I usually feature here, but take time to read it all the way through and I think you'll find it very relevant to our era of pandemic and political chaos. Pay special attention to that last stanza:
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by. 

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I'll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And—sure enough!—I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I 'most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick'ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not,—nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire,—
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each,—then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more,—there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.
Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who's six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.
The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!
I ceased; and through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!
Before the wild wind's whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.
I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain's cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see,—
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—
I know not how such things can be!—
I breathed my soul back into me.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

Friday, July 31, 2020

This week in birds - #411

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

A pair of House Finches share a meal at my feeders. I almost always see these birds in pairs or family groups.


2019 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists around the world. There were 212 murdered worldwide, sometimes by their governments and most often by those who want to exploit the environment. Colombia, with 64 deaths, and the Philippines, with 43, accounted for more than half of the deaths. 


The Northern California Esselen Tribe has regained at least part of its ancestral lands after 250 years with the purchase of a 1200 acre ranch near Big Sur. The land will be used for educational and cultural purposes.


If an animal or plant relocates into a new area because the warming climate has pushed them there, should that species be considered invasive? Scientists are studying that issue.


The US exiting from the Paris Accords on climate is bad enough in itself, but it could have a ripple effect, emboldening bad behavior in other countries as well.


Can trees be immortal? Well, since we are not, we'll never be able to definitively answer that question, but we do know that many of them can live for thousands of years.


Racial injustices in the United States are being exacerbated by climate change as the killer heat that has become common in many areas disproportionately affects people of color.


The barbaric method of using glue traps to catch birds is still carried on in France. Now the EU threatens to fine the French unless they stop the practice. 


Monarch butterflies continue to decline in numbers. The primary reason is that the migrating butterflies are threatened all along their route across the continent.


Swifts are birds that live their lives on the wing. They eat and even sleep in the air. Just about the only time that they come down to earth is during the nesting season.


The population of the woodland caribou of Canada's boreal forests continues to dwindle. Predation by wolves is often blamed for the decline, but the real reasons are a lot more complicated


Buff-tailed bumblebee on apple tree blossoms. (Image from The Guardian.)

A shortage of some key food crops is being caused by the loss of bees. Both apple and cherry production has been hampered by the absence of wild bees. The bees face a panoply of hazards from climate change to pesticides and ultimately to loss of habitat. 


An analysis has found that migratory river fish around the world have plunged in population by 76% since 1970. This catastrophic loss of population was even worse in Europe where populations are down by 93% and for some groups of fish like sturgeon and eel, both of which were down by 90%.


An ambitious conservation project aimed at saving the Amazon has been launched by scientists with the support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The Science Panel for the Amazon consists of 150 experts, including climate, ecological, and social scientists, economists, indigenous leaders, and political strategists mostly from Amazonian countries.


The beautiful little Rufous Hummingbird makes a long migration flight twice each year, but a study has found that the timing and route patterns of that migration vary according to the sex and age of the birds. 


Light pollution from artificial lighting disrupts the sleep patterns of birds and that, in turn, disrupts their foraging abilities, as well as their abilities to avoid predators and to find a mate. 


The only known wolf pack in the state of California has some new members. A new litter of pups has been produced bringing the total number of animals in the pack to 14.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Wrecked by Joe Ide: A review

This is the third in Joe Ide's IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) mysteries. I accidentally read it out of order but it didn't inhibit my enjoyment of the book. In fact, this is my favorite of the IQ books I've read so far.

IQ's fame in East Long Beach has grown considerably. He has solved some high profile cases and now he is recognized wherever he goes. But he still takes the small neighborhood mysteries as well and solves them in return for bartered products or services. This does not sit well with his new partner, Dodson, his friend and former sidekick in some less salubrious past activities. Dodson has turned a page in his life. He has a wife and a new baby and he needs to be able to support them and to have the respect of the community. His demand as a partner is to be in charge of finances and to make sure that all cases in the future are accepted on a cash basis. IQ agrees but his heart really isn't in it. People in the neighborhood still expect to be able to barter with him and he's never going to turn them down.

Isaiah is approached by a young woman named Grace who wants to hire him to find her missing mother whom she hasn't seen in years. Grace is a painter and she offers Isaiah his choice of her paintings in return for his PI services. IQ knows nothing about art but he knows what he likes and it isn't Grace's abstract paintings. But he does like Grace. In fact, he likes her very, very much and wants an excuse to spend time with her, so, of course, he takes the case. Dodson fumes.

Grace's mother, Sarah, it turns out, is playing a dangerous game of her own. She is a fugitive from justice, wanted for the murder of a man who was presumed responsible for the death of her husband. Her husband had been a soldier in the Iraq war and he spent time at Abu Ghraib. There he took or at least came in possession of some disgusting and incriminating pictures of the torture that took place there. The chief torturer and star of the tapes is a former CIA sadist who is now the multimillionaire owner of a security business and some of the other torturers featured in the pictures now work for him. Sarah has those tapes and is blackmailing the man and threatening to make the pictures public if he doesn't pay her a million dollars.

The narrative starts with a bang with IQ in the clutches of the torturers and after that introduction, it goes into the backstory of just how that came to happen. The story is one of nonstop action as IQ and Dodson try to find Sarah and at the same time handle some other lower-profile cases. Meanwhile, IQ is also still trying to find a way to bring justice to the killer of his brother. It all makes for an intense and colorful tale with characters that are well-described and seem altogether believable. I was all in pulling for this modern-day Sherlock and Watson.

Joe Ide is a fine writer and he seems to have a winner in this series. I look forward to reading more in the future.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poetry Sunday: Summer Rain by Amy Lowell

When I was a young child, we lived in a house with a tin roof so I understand what Amy Lowell is referring to in her poem. Many nights I was lulled to sleep by the hypnotic sound of rain hitting that roof.

The house that I live in now does not have a tin roof, but at least we did finally have a bit of summer rain falling on it Saturday, courtesy of Hurricane Hanna that was churning in the Gulf south of us. It was rain that we badly needed. We could use more, but I'm grateful for the "cool, silver rain" that did fall. 

Summer Rain

by Amy Lowell

All night our room was outer-walled with rain.
Drops fell and flattened on the tin roof,
And rang like little disks of metal.
Ping!—Ping!—and there was not a pin-point of silence between
The rain rattled and clashed,
And the slats of the shutters danced and glittered.
But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-colored
With your brightness,
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed—orange torches against the rain.
Torches against the wall of cool, silver rain!