Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor: A review

Oh, my, this was hard to read! It is an unrelenting verbal torrent of barbarity, trauma, and unrelieved evil written by its author in the grip of what feels like white-hot ferocity. Melchor is an acclaimed Mexican writer and this is her first book that has been translated into English, which is how I read it. My grasp of Spanish was not up to the task. Melchor's theme is the misogyny which seems endemic in Mexican society and the unthinkable violence against women that flows from it. The women characters in her novel are routinely abused, beaten, raped, and murdered and it seems that there is little consequence to the perpetrators. Thus, the understandable source of the writer's white-hot ferocity.

She tells us a story of the Witch; that's how she is known to locals. She is actually the Young Witch. Her mother, the Old Witch, is dead, but before she died, rumor had it that she had seduced and killed an old gentleman and his riches all came to her and are now hidden somewhere in the house where her daughter, the Young Witch, still lives. All this imagined great wealth elicits the envy and resentment of her neighbors.

But although they may resent or even hate her, under cover of darkness they come as supplicants seeking her help. Women who want help ridding themselves of unwanted pregnancies, jilted wives who want revenge against their wayward husbands and the husbands' paramours, and young men who have heard rumors that the Witch will pay for sex - they all beat a path to her door to present their pleas. 

All of this passion, of course, is destined to end in tragedy. The Witch ends up dead in an irrigation ditch, one of the hundreds of yearly victims of "femicide" in her country. 

Matosa, the village where all this horror takes place, is a cluster of cinder block shacks surrounded by cane fields. It is near the city of "Villagarbosa" which is Melchor's pseudonym for Veracruz. There is little work here and residents eke out a living from those who travel the highway, serving the sugar cane workers, truckers, drug traffickers, and the engineers traveling to the nearby oil fields. The atmosphere of the town is fraught with anxiety and dread as everyone in it is just one step away from becoming someone's victim.

The murder at the center of the story is examined from the perspective of four different characters: Luismi, a drug-addled former lover of the Witch; Luismi's cousin Yesenia who is one of the abused women who populate this story; Brando, a "park rat" who is an associate of Luismi; and finally Norma, a pregnant 13-year-old who is fleeing her pedophile stepfather and is taken in by Luismi and later assisted to an abortion by the Witch. All of the characters are in some way connected to Luismi who is in many ways a loathsome but also pitiable Melchor creation.

Melchor's writing is, as I at first described it, a torrent of words, reminding one, in fact, of the torrential rains accompanying hurricanes. The hurricane season of her creation features run-on sentences that sometimes go on for pages. Her language is lurid and filled with a profanity that seems to fit her subject matter. I find it very difficult to rate the book; I found it so hard to read that I'm afraid I'm not doing it justice. The jurors of the International Booker Prize didn't have my difficulty; it is shortlisted for the 2020 award. Oh, well...

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Dry by Jane Harper: A review

I read Jane Harper's The Lost Man a year ago and promised myself that I would read more of her books. Finally, I'm fulfilling that promise.

The Dry was actually Harper's first published novel. It came out in 2016 and was a big hit, winning many awards in Australia, her home country and the place where her novels are set. The book introduced Federal Agent Aaron Falk who has just returned from Melbourne to the small town of Kiewarra where he grew up in order to attend a funeral. The town is full of secrets and now is reeling from the shock of three violent deaths which have been presumed to be murders and a suicide. The presumed murderer is Aaron's childhood friend, Luke Hadler, and the other two victims are his wife and young son. His thirteen-month-old daughter was left alive and unharmed in her crib. Luke's parents cannot believe that their son could have killed his family and they ask Aaron to look into it. Aaron normally investigates financial crimes. Investigating murder is not exactly his forte. But Luke's mother is the closest thing to a mother that he ever had - his own mother died when he was born - and he can't turn her down.

Aaron's return to the town is complicated by the reason why he left in the first place. He and his father had left the town twenty years earlier when Aaron was sixteen and a girlfriend of his had been found drowned in the nearby river. The death was ruled to be a suicide but there were those who didn't believe it and ugly rumors spread that Aaron was somehow responsible, but he was provided with an alibi for the time of the girl's death by his friend, Luke. The rumors were spread mostly by the girl's father. Aaron's father decided it was best if they moved elsewhere rather than try to fight small-town rumormongers. Twenty years later, the girl's father and her cousin still live there and they are still spreading rumors.

The town that Aaron returns to has been enduring the worst drought in Australian recorded history for the last two years. The countryside is a tinderbox. Many farmers are destroying their animals because they can't provide food and water for them. The town itself seems to be dying. Harper describes the parched and desiccated landscape so realistically that the reader can taste the dust and feel the heat of the unrelenting sun.

The other characters in the town are described in such vivid terms that we feel we have met them. Aaron himself is a bit of an enigma; he's smart, a loner with secrets, and he can find his way around financial records and that's where he starts his investigation. Luke's wife had handled the finances of the local school and so he reviews her records, hoping to find a clue that might explain what had happened. In the end, he finds a lot more than he bargained for. 

Harper's debut novel made for propulsive reading. It was a fast read because it was so hard to put down. There was a sinister sense of foreboding and I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. Best of all, she hid her perpetrator in plain sight and I didn't figure out whodunit until near the end. 

This didn't really have the feel of a first novel at all; it was a very accomplished effort. The strongest part of the novel for me was the writer's descriptions of the setting. I got thirsty just reading it. Moreover, her descriptions of the characters and the construction of the plot were just spot on. In fact, I have no criticism to make of the book. I don't see how it could have been made any better.

This was apparently the first book in a series that will be featuring Aaron Falk. I look forward to reading more and getting to know this charismatic and somewhat mysterious character better.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

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