Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: A review

Chinua Achebe was the first African writer, published in English, who received wide acclaim by critics and others in the West. He was really the forerunner who paved the way for such modern writers as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Achebe was Nigerian and was from the Igbo culture which he wrote about in Things Fall Apart, his first and what many consider his best book. It was published in 1958, the first of a trilogy.

Things Fall Apart tells the story, in three parts, of an Igbo (called Ibo in the book) man named Okonkwo. 

The first part establishes Okonkwo in his village/clan and describes how he was a respected member of that community because of his prowess as a wrestler and as a warrior who had taken heads of his clan's enemies in war. As we meet him, he is a successful farmer of yams, the primary crop of the area and he has three wives and several children. He is a brutal man who beats his wives and children, but that is exactly what is expected of men in this society. His wives live only to serve him.

Part two covers Okonkwo's fall from grace after he accidentally kills a fellow clan member and is ostracized from the village for a period of seven years. During those seven years, he takes his family and goes to the village from which his mother came and lives among them. Although his mother's family treats him well, he is not happy there and waits impatiently for the seven years to end so that he can return home.

Part three finds him and his family returning home, but it is a home village that has changed in the interim. Soon Christian missionaries arrive on the scene to proselytize and try to turn the villagers away from their traditional gods. Okonkwo deeply resents the Christians and wants the village to rise up in war against them, but many villagers, including Okonkwo's oldest son, are converted to the new religion and want to go to the schools run by the missionaries.

This then devolves into a tale of a clash between cultures, between animism and Christianity, between colonialism and traditional culture. It also is a tale of an unabashedly misogynistic society that does not value women except as objects to gratify men's sexual desires and to bear and raise their children.

It is a society where many children are born, but many, perhaps most, die in their first few years. Moreover, it is a society that is superstitious about twins, seeing them as a bad omen; consequently, they are abandoned in the forest when they are born and left to die.

To modern sensibilities, Okonkwo is a thoroughly unlikable, even despicable,  character and yet he is completely a creature of his time and place. In the end, it is impossible not to feel a bit sorry for him as he sees his world crumble around him and he is cut adrift from all that he values.  

Achebe interweaves Igbo folk tales and proverbs into his novel and in this way gives the reader a greater understanding of the traditional culture and how it operated. I found the story disturbing because of the misogyny and the devaluing of children's lives that were so much a part of this society. And the tale seemed dated - which, of course, it is. But, on the whole, I found it interesting and a worthwhile read. In the end, it gave me an even greater appreciation of the work of Adichie whom I much admire.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson: A review

The last book I read was Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. Then I opened this book and read the first sentence: "They used fire, back in the day." I had to chuckle. What a segue! Perhaps I had been fated to read this book next.

That first sentence is spoken by a gravedigger, attempting to dig a hole in the middle of a Wyoming winter. He's referring to the practice of building a huge bonfire on top of the spot where a grave was to be dug in hopes of thawing out the ground enough to dig.

The gravedigger has a lot of miscellany about the disposal of earthly remains that he happily shares with Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County as he digs and Walt stands by watching and freezing. In fact, it is a constant irritating stream of information, until finally, Walt can stand it no longer.
I turned and looked down at him. "Do you ever shut up?" 
He tipped his battered cowboy hat back on his head and took the final swig, still smiling. "Nope."
Like Jules, all the characters in Craig Johnson's books are never at a loss for words. Not for them the strong, silent Westerner stereotype. And the dialogues between these characters are a pure delight to read, often laugh-out-loud funny. 

This is the second book in the series. I read the first only a few weeks ago and couldn't wait to continue with the next one. I think I may be falling in love with Craig Johnson/Walt Longmire.

The action in this book is only a few weeks after the ending of the first one. (The grave that Jules is trying to dig is for one of the leftover bodies of that book.) The case begins with the death of an elderly woman at the Durant Home for Assisted Living. The death appears to be from natural causes, but the former sheriff of Absaroka County who is a resident at the home insists that it is murder and Walt decides to take a closer look.

An autopsy reveals that the old sheriff was right; the woman was poisoned.

The victim's name was Mari Baroja and she was Basque. Looking into her history in search of a possible motive for her killing gives Walt a view into Basque customs. He also learns of an appalling history of domestic abuse which the woman endured from her violent husband. But in the early 1950s, while the former sheriff now in the assisted living home was in office, that husband disappeared, leaving Mari with three children to raise.

And raise them she did, although the oldest, her son, was killed in Vietnam. Her twin daughters and the son's daughter survive her. Now, Walt finds that Mari's land has a methane drilling operation on it and the old woman in the Durant home was, in fact, a multi-millionaire. Reason enough perhaps for her descendants to wish to hasten her demise.

Of course, it's a lot more complicated than that, and soon the number of dead bodies is mounting and Mari's granddaughter is the victim of a vicious attack. 

Never mind, Walt will sort it all out with the help of his friend Henry Standing Bear, his foul-mouthed deputy Vic Moretti, his brand new deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria, and assorted other friends and helpers. 

One thing is for sure: Walt Longmire will never be "without company."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars      

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Annie Proulx nails it

Annie Proulx was recently given the National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. In her acceptance speech, she spoke about the unique times in which we live and the challenges we face. The speech is brief and well worth reading in its entirety. As she does so often in her work, she has spoken for us all and she has absolutely nailed it. 

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…
I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too. 
We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending. 
To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations. 
Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do. 
The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.” Darwin: They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds—nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged, he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough with dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggle to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to a happy ending, at least in fiction, with its micro-scales. 
Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.

Poetry Sunday: This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin

The book that I recently read, Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, made reference to this poem and, since I wasn't familiar with it, I looked it up. I found myself nodding and smiling in recognition and some chagrin as I read.

Ng's book was about mums and dads, especially mums, and about how families shape us. Philip Larkin made the same point and a lot more succinctly, summing it all up nicely in that last stanza.

This Be The Verse

by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Friday, November 17, 2017

This week in birds - #281

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

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker image from WhatBird.

And yet another of our winter birds made its first appearance in my neighborhood this week. I've been hearing the squeaky call of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker all around my yard, although not actually in my yard, all week long. The birds favor the huge pine trees that stand in my next door neighbor's backyard.


The Keystone Pipeline had a leak that spilled about 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota this week. It was in an agricultural area of the state and apparently the oil has not gotten into the waterways. Coincidentally, the public service commission in Nebraska is set to announce in a few days its decision on allowing the pipeline to be extended through that state.


An entire flock of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrots disappeared following the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Conservationists have been searching for them since. Some individual birds have been found alive and some are known to be dead, but, as yet, many are not accounted for.  


Global carbon emissions have been flat for the past three years, but this year they are on the rise again. They are up by about 2 percent. Most of the increase is attributable to China.

Donald Trump, Jr., the mighty elephant hunter, holding the trophy severed tail of the elephant he's just killed.

In their rush to undo every accomplishment of the Obama administration, the current administration in Washington announced this week that they would allow the importation of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Obama administration had implemented a ban on such imports in 2014. 

However, after a storm of protest, the president tweeted on Friday that he was putting the announced action on hold until he could "review all conservation facts." 

Here's a thought: Perhaps he should try reviewing all the facts before he announces an action.


A new study of birds in California reveals that, in an adaptation to the warming climate, many of the state's birds are nesting at least a week earlier than they did a century ago.


We know that many bird species as well as other kinds of animals have made the successful transition to city living. Now we learn that bats, too, are finding the city a welcoming place and perhaps a haven from some of the diseases that have plagued them in recent years. Bats seem to particularly like Washington, D.C.


Chaco Canyon in New Mexico contains a concentration of ancient Pueblo culture structures that were abandoned around 1200 AD. The site is as close as the US gets to Egypt’s pyramids and Peru’s Machu Picchu, but recent years have seen drilling pressing closer to the park’s boundaries, now aided by the current administration’s work to accelerate oil and gas development. Scientists and conservationists fear that drilling in the area could destroy important archeological information and artifacts.


At one time, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America and, quite possibly, the world, but their abundance did not protect them. They were hunted to extinction, the last one dying in a zoo in 1914. Now, a study of their DNA has shown that they possessed a unique genome that made them well-adapted for their preferred life style.


John Rakestraw writes about two subspecies of Cackling Geese and describes the subtle differences that allow them to be differentiated.


Natural forest restoration is a lot more successful than human engineered restoration. That's not too surprising since Nature has been doing this a lot longer than we have.


Many seabirds are accidentally killed by commercial fishers. The deaths could be reduced or perhaps prevented by some simple changes to equipment or technique.


From the Everglades to Kilimanjaro, climate change is destroying world wonders. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has announced that there are at least 62 world heritage sites that are already being damaged and are at risk from the effects of climate change.


It's an uphill battle for survival for the endangered African Penguin. They are being put at risk by oil spills, commercial fisheries, climate change, disease, and predators. Rehabilitation of injured or ill birds is an important factor in trying to optimize the species' chances for survival.


Allopreening, i.e., the preening of one bird by another bird, is uncommon in the avian world, but it does occasionally happen and "The Rattling Crow" was able to snap some pictures of Common Moorhens in the act.


The colorful Jackson's climbing salamander was discovered in Guatemala in 1975 and had not been seen since. It's continuing existence was in doubt - until a forest guard recently sat down to have his lunch on the edges of the Finca San Isidro Amphibian Reserve. There he found what dozens of previous surveys could not – a small juvenile salamander, black and gold. It seems that the species is still alive and well; perhaps not numerous, but it does exist.

The pretty little salamander that the forest guard saw. Long may it live and climb.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A review

I am bereft. I have exited the world of Mia Warren and her various relationships and I feel a bit lost and unmoored.

The world of Mia and her daughter Pearl and the Richardson family and all their associations in the planned community of Shaker Heights ("Most communities just happen; the best are planned.") have been the society in which I have been living these past few days. My sojourn there gave me a lot to think about and I didn't want it to end.

We visit Shaker Heights in the mid-1990s and meet the Richardson family on a day of tragedy for them. Someone has set fire to their comfortable home and uprooted their comfortable lives. In fact, someone set not just one fire but "little fires everywhere", pouring accelerant on three beds in the house and setting them ablaze.

Mrs. Richardson was in the house asleep at the time and we first encounter her standing on the sidewalk in front of the house in her robe and slippers as the firemen work to contain the blazes. Along with her are three of her four teenage children, Trip, Lexie, and Moody. They are soon joined by Mr. Richardson who has returned from work when notified of the fire. The fourth and youngest child, Izzy, is not present and is unaccounted for, and suspicion soon rests on her as the starter of the fires.

Slowly, the author draws us into this family's story and we learn about their tenants in a duplex rental property in another part of the Heights. Mia and Pearl Warren had moved in eleven months earlier. Mia is an artist, a photographer, who has led a vagabond existence for several years. She and Pearl travel in their Volkswagen Rabbit wherever Mia's inspiration takes them and at each new location, she begins a new photography project.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl has begun to long for some stability and roots and, when they came to Shaker Heights, Mia promised her they would stay. Now, all these months later, the two families, the Warrens and the Richardsons, have commingled. Pearl has become a fixture in the Richardson household and she and Moody are best friends. Meanwhile, Izzy is drawn to Mia and is learning about her art, helping her with it almost every day after school.

Soon, the community of Shaker Heights is divided over a child custody battle. Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant, had given birth to her daughter, May Ling, a year earlier. She was alone and without resources, working a minimum wage job, and she was in over her head, suffering from postpartum depression, and unable to properly care for her baby. Realizing this, she wrapped the baby in blankets and left her in a cardboard box at the door of a fire station. 

The firemen found her, of course, and delivered her to social services and social services, in turn, delivered her to the McCulloughs, a rich white couple who had tried for years to have a baby. They were ecstatic.

The McCulloughs showered their love and their considerable worldly goods on the child, whom they named Mirabelle, for a year. By then, the birth mother, Bebe, was in a better place financially and emotionally and she wanted her baby back. The ensuing custody battle had wide-ranging and unexpected reverberations that would eventually touch the Warrens and the Richardsons and change the course of their lives.

This is a novel about families, about class and race, adolescence and sexuality, about art, and about what defines an individual's sense of right and wrong. But most of all it is about motherhood, about what makes a real mother: Is it blood or is it love? The author gives us nuanced and sympathetic portraits of all her characters that help us to see all sides of the moral questions which the book asks.

At one point, Lexie, the blond, white "girl-next-door" Richardson who has a black boyfriend, says, "I mean, we're lucky. No one sees race here." That is the fantasy of the Shaker Heights world and it is not even close to the truth, but in the 1990s, it could serve as an innocent delusion. Part of the magic of this book is that Celeste Ng draws us in and even makes us a part of that delusion.

There is, in fact, a lot of magic in this book which is why I was so sad to turn that last page.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - November 2017

November. It always sneaks past me. Barely has it begun when I look up and it's Thanksgiving. Somehow, I always think I have more time to prepare, but suddenly there it is! Sigh. You'd think I'd learn after all these years.

And here we are, in the middle of the month already, and, yes, there are still a few blooms around the garden. Let me show you.  

November is the month when Cape honeysuckle shines.

The plant is covered in these bright blossoms just now.

It's also the month when yellowbells (golden Esperanza) is at its best.

The bronze Esperanza is a little past its prime but still has a few blooms and its contingent of bees.

The trailing purple lantana is covered in pine needles from my neighbors' large pine trees, as, in fact, is everything in my backyard when the wind blows at this time of year.

The yellow lantana rested for a while but now it, too, is blooming again.

As is the peaches and cream lantana.

'Cashmere Bouquet' clerodendrum is sending out what is probably its last blooms of the year.

The weird little blooms of porterweed always seem to be covered in butterflies like this tiny skipper.

The groundcover wedelia is in full bloom.

'Coral Nymph' salvia.

Salvia greggii (autumn sage).


And more marigolds.

Blue potato bush (Solanum rantonnetii).

And a relative, the ornamental potato vine (Solanum jasminoides).

The fragile-appearing blossom of Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Queen,' which is actually not a bit fragile but practically indestructible.

Blue plumbago, another indestructible.

The tubular blossoms of the flame acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii) are a magnet for nectar sippers like hummingbirds and butterflies.

Butterflies like this Monarch, passing through on its way to the mountains of Mexico for the winter.

The delicate little flowers of convolvulus 'Blue Daze'.

A second generation tithonia. This volunteer plant was reseeded from its parent that was planted in the spring.

The funky blossoms of the shrimp plant.

Golden dewdrops (Duranta erecta).

Past its prime but still blooming - chrysanthemum.

Yellow cestrum. The plant has been blooming since spring.

And then there is this. Several of these interesting mushrooms have sprung up next to beds bordering my patio recently. I haven't been able to identify them yet, but I find them quite pretty in their own unique way.

There you have it - your Bloom Day tour of my Southeast Texas garden. Thank you for visiting and thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for hosting this meme each month.

Happy gardening.