Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: A review


This book had not been on my radar at all until I read President Barack Obama's annual list of the best books of the year. This title appeared as one of his favorites. That was a sufficient recommendation for me and I put it on my list. As I started reading it though I found myself very confused. I had understood that it was a novel and yet it read exactly like an autobiography/memoir. Had I been mistaken? But there it is right on the cover - "a novel." I looked at Goodreads and discovered that I was not alone in my confusion. A number of other readers had thought they were reading a memoir.

The book, in fact, reads like a series of personal essays. The essays illustrate different aspects of the narrator's personality and background, a background many parts of which he shares with the author. Both are American-born writers, playwrights who have won a Pulitzer Prize. Both identify as part of the Muslim world and culture, even though neither is devoutly religious.

The narrator who had labored in relative obscurity, always on the edge of penury, had suddenly become a part of the cultural elite upon winning the Pulitzer Prize, and just as suddenly he is presented with extraordinary financial and sexual opportunities. He is swept off his feet by all these opportunities and eager to partake in the fullest, as he rubs elbows with celebrities and billionaires. He is made rich himself by a sudden windfall from a shady investment, which only increases his access to the sexual buffet. Consuming from that buffet ultimately gave him a case of syphilis.

But before all that, the narrator is the child of Pakistani immigrants and his view of America was formed by his childhood in Milwaukee and by his liberal arts education. His father, who is one of the most interestingly drawn characters in the novel, is almost jingoistic in his Americanism. He is a famous cardiologist and in the 1980s he is called in to treat a New York billionaire named Donald Trump. Trump charms the doctor and involves him in some of his real estate deals. He gets The Art of the Deal and keeps it in his living room, but like many blinded by its author's fame, he loses money on those real estate deals. His family's fortunes fall but even so, years later, when Trump runs for president, the cardiologist is a rabidly devoted supporter. After Trump becomes president, it is only slowly and with reluctance his former cardiologist admits what he is and disowns his support of him.

By 9/11/01, the narrator is living in New York and experiences the attack on the city in a personal way. Like thousands of others, he queues up to give blood as a way of showing his support. As he waits in line, he is unmercifully harassed by an Islamophobic man and to his utter shame, he wets himself in terror. Afterward, in order to protect himself from further attacks, he steals a crucifix pendant at a Salvation Army store and he wears it for several months. Years later when he confesses that to his Pakistani-American girlfriend, she is shocked. She could never wear a cross, she says. Instead, her family bought flags.

In 2008, the narrator and his father travel to Abbottabad in Pakistan to visit relatives. At the home of his uncle, the uncle lectures him about the "tactical genius" of the 9/11 attacks. He speaks of a Muslim philosophy that is based on the principles espoused by the Prophet Muhammad. It is one that integrates its military and political aspirations. The narrator disagrees with his uncle, but as a guest in his home, he finds it prudent to hold his tongue. His father is appalled by his brother's view and afterward, he harangues his son about how different and, in his words, how terrible the son's life would have been if his father had not emigrated to America. It is, of course, in that same Abbottabad three years later that Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces. 

It is almost impossible for me to sum up this book in any meaningful or coherent way. It is a series of anecdotes that, in the end, create a vision for us of what it is like to grow up Muslim, to live as Muslim in America, especially in post 9/11 America. The wound inflicted on the Muslim community by that event has been deep and long-lasting. These are people for whom America was their home and who only aspired to be good citizens and live in peace. Suddenly their lives were thrown into turmoil and their dreams of belonging were tarnished in some cases for good.

As I finished reading the book, the confusion that I had felt at the beginning had dissolved. I could not imagine the story having been told in any other way. It is a very moving narrative and offers us a clear-eyed view of the stressful contradictions that are a part of American Muslim life. I came away from it with, I think, a much better appreciation of the pressures and anxieties endemic to those lives. Thank you, Ayad Akhtar.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Something Told the Wild Geese by Rachel Field

The migration of birds has always been a mysterious thing. Although much more is understood of it today than was in the past, we still wonder, how exactly do they know when it is time to go? 

There are a lot of wintering geese here in January but soon enough, in a few weeks, something will tell them to head north again. And just like that, they will be off.

Something Told the Wild Geese

by Rachel Field 

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go,
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, “Snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers,
Something cautioned, “Frost.”

All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly.
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

Friday, January 15, 2021

This week in birds - #434

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

Vermillion Flycatcher photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.


One really has to feel for the new Biden administration. What a mess they are being left with and where do they even start to clean it up? The transition team says the damage to the government's ability to address climate change has been even greater than they realized and now they will be starting from scratch to reverse all that in order to meet the administration's goals.


2020 was effectively tied with 2016 for the hottest year on record. The New York Times has a global map that illustrates where the hottest of the hot spots on Earth were.


Even so, greenhouse emissions from the U.S. actually decreased by about ten percent last year. This is almost entirely due to the effects of the pandemic, but if it could be sustained it would help the country achieve its goal for reducing emissions.


The current administration may have just sounded the final death knell for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl in the northwest. They have opened up three million acres of the bird's protected habitat for logging. Many wildlife biologists fear the species cannot survive this action. Can the action be reversed? It is one more challenge for the Biden administration.


One of the really positive effects of the pandemic has been that interest in birding and similar outdoor activities has increased. How wonderful it would be if this interest could be sustained and grown.


Officials at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have announced that several of the gorillas there have tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first apes in the nation known to have become infected. Apparently, the gorillas are experiencing relatively minor symptoms.


2021 might just be the year when offshore wind power finally begins to live up to its promise.


A small group of King Penguins has colonized Martillo Island off the coast of Argentina, nesting grounds of Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins. It is uncertain whether the colony will be able to sustain itself.


We know that insects are in trouble. Their numbers are declining drastically all over the planet. If we don't do something to save them, our species could soon be in serious trouble as well. The National Academy of Sciences has eight suggestions of how individuals can help the insects, ultimately helping themselves.


An ambitious new tracking system will allow scientists to track scores of different species of animals from space. The resulting data should shed important light on the mysteries of animals' movements.


There are glaring inequities in our system of energy production and switching to renewables will not necessarily change that. It is important to consider "energy justice" as the first order of business as plans for the transition to renewables are made.


It has been quite cold here recently and the birds have been hungry. Led by the finches - American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, as well as the usual House Finches - activity at my feeders has been constant. It has been a challenge to keep them filled. As greater numbers of birds congregate at feeders in the winter, it is important to keep those feeders clean in order to guard against the transmission of salmonella. Pine Siskins, in particular, seem to be especially susceptible to the disease. 

Cleanliness is next to godliness for birds. Got to keep those feathers clean even when the temperatures are in the 30s. This Pine Siskin is having a bath in my little fountain.


Emus do not seem to be at great risk from climate change. Emu populations are projected to continue to be fairly stable even with the effects of climate change; however, the greater threat to them is urbanization and losses from feral predators.


Dredged sand from the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway is being used to help restore saltmarsh habitats where the threatened Saltmarsh Sparrow nests. These areas are subject to increased flooding because of the rise in sea level. Using the sand to help raise the saltmarshes just a bit higher should help to prevent some of that flooding. 


Finally, there is some good news about the status of a midwestern bird, the Interior Least Tern.  Thirty-five years of legal protection and habitat restoration have brought the bird back from the brink of extinction. The species has now recovered sufficiently to be removed from the Endangered Species List.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: A review

A challenge I have set for myself in 2021 is to read more nonfiction books. This book was my first effort at achieving that challenge. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the American daughter of immigrants. Her mother is Filipina and her father is Indian. When she was growing up, her family moved around quite a bit in this country and she got to know different regions of the country well. She was always interested in the natural world and she was able to observe and gain some insight into it. She learned enough to realize that she preferred to live in an area where winters were not quite as harsh as in some of the eastern and midwestern areas where she had lived. It was for this reason that, as an adult, she turned her gaze southward. And that is how she and her husband and their two young sons ended up in Oxford, Mississippi, where she is a professor of English and writing at the University of Mississippi. Nezhukumatathil is a poet who has published four collections of poems to some renown. 

Now she has given us this short book of a collection of nature essays that is just a bit more than that. Interwoven into her observations and appreciations of catalpa trees, fireflies, narwhals, newts, Cactus Wrens, and saguaro cactus are reflections on her own existence and on her experience of growing up as a "brown girl" in America. She experienced the feelings of not belonging, of being "other," and of searching for a place that she can feel is her perfect forever home. She relates this most vividly in her observations of the red-spotted newt. This little newt wanders the forest floor looking for the perfect pond, the one where it can feel at home. When it finds it, it stays there.

The essay which I found most affecting was the one about fireflies. She talks of the fireflies she remembers from her childhood and bemoans the poverty of experience of so many children today who don't see them, even if they are all around. I, too, remember those fireflies of childhood and playing outside on late summer evenings with their lights flashing all around me. It was a magical time of day and I, too, am sad that so many of today's children will never experience that.

She writes of the Cactus Wren that builds its nests in the saguaro cactus, a good protection against most predators.  And then there is the whale shark that she encountered while scuba diving, a giant fish swimming with its mouth wide open as to filters food into its system. Even though intellectually she knew it wasn't going to eat her, it was hard to not feel fear as the critter brushed by her. She writes of monarch butterflies, flamingos, peacocks, and cassowaries, and all of these she relates to some aspect of her own story. After all, we, too, are a part of Nature.

This is just a lovely little book of memoir and reflections on the natural world. It was a wonderful respite for me from the news of the day. I am very glad I read it.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith: A review


What does it mean to be "everlasting"? I am reminded of the old Arab proverb about the pyramids: "Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." The city of Rome may not be everlasting on quite the same par as the pyramids, but it was founded in 753 BCE and thus is almost three thousand years old. It comes by its title of "the eternal city" honestly.

Those 3,000 years of history are well-documented and provide a trove of subjects for writers to elaborate upon and from Shakespeare to the present, they've never been shy about doing it. Now comes a writer of historical fiction named Katy Simpson Smith, who I frankly had not heard of before, to give us a view of 2,000 years of that history. To do that she has employed a clever hook on which to hang her story. It is, in fact, a literal hook - a fishhook discovered in an archeological dig in 2015. Carbon dating showed it to have been forged around 130 CE. Smith takes us on the journey that this particular artifact has made through the centuries.

She begins with Tom, a biologist studying the smallest of creatures. He is involved in that archeological dig, and he is suffering from the early signs of multiple sclerosis and is about to go through a divorce.

Next, we head back to 1559 and meet Giulia de' Medici, a princess of Moorish descent, a widow who has recently embarked upon her second marriage. But she enters that marriage with a secret; she is pregnant and not by her new husband but by a secret lover. On the one hand, she wishes to rid herself of this inconvenience; on the other, she wonders about passing the child off as her husband's.

On to the ninth century, 896-897, where we meet Felix, a monk charged with keeping the monastery's crypt. He sits in a catacomb with his decomposing brothers who are seated on stone toilets through which their bodily liquids slowly drip. As he watches the most recently dead, his close friend, begin to decompose, he remembers a beautiful young man named Tomaso who he loved in his youth.

And finally, back to 165 CE and a twelve-year-old girl named Prisca. Prisca's father becomes involved in a new religious sect called Christianity. Prisca sits in the shadows when her father attends meetings and she absorbs the message of the dogma. She becomes inflexible and unquestioning, as only a teenager might, in accepting the truth of this sect as she understands it and that eventually leads to her martyrdom by the Rome of Marcus Aurelius.

Smith presents her stories in a series of eight chapters, two devoted to each character. The stories, at their heart, are about the love and faith of her characters, many kinds of love from adulterous and forbidden to religious and many kinds of faith, in oneself, a higher power, and one's fellow man. It's an ambitious scaffolding for a historical novel and I wanted to like it more than I did, but I found the writing a bit pedantic and occasionally full of itself and I didn't feel a real connection with any of the characters. The writer gets points for imagination and creativity and a considerable amount of research but I do wish the execution could have been more inspired.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Poetry Sunday: One Today by Richard Blanco

This poem was actually written for President Barack Obama's second inauguration in 2013. It speaks of the fact that we live under one sky, one sun that rises every day, and we are one country still, in spite of those who would tear us apart. Perhaps it is a good time to remind ourselves of that.

One Today

by Richard Blanco

Written for the 57th Presidential Inauguration, January 21, 2013.

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello / shalom,
buon giorno/ howdy / namaste / or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together

Friday, January 8, 2021

This week in birds - #433

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

Image borrowed from AllAboutBirds.com.

At the window of my office, I trained my binoculars on the bird feeder in my front yard and noted to myself, Pine Siskins, Pine Warbler, House Fin... Wait a minute! That finch isn't red, it's purple. Purple head, purple chest, purple wash on the wings - it's a Purple Finch! And of course, my camera was nowhere nearby so I couldn't get a picture. And then it was gone. In the thirty-two years that we have lived here, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have seen a Purple Finch in my yard so Friday was definitely a red-letter day for me. Or a purple-letter day. 


By now, we must be fully aware that the current evil administration in Washington will do everything it possibly can to trash the environment on the way out the door. Those efforts continued this week, even as the president was also busily inciting insurrection and invasion of the Capitol Building and the attempted overthrow of the government. Eleven days and counting. Or maybe less.


The cost of US climate disasters doubled in 2020, reflecting the increased damage being caused by climate change. Hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters caused $95 billion in damage according to the latest data.


A new study has found that there is already enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause the planet to exceed the international agreed-upon limits to control climate change. But all is not necessarily lost. The change could be delayed for centuries if the world quickly stops emitting more greenhouse gases.


Hundreds of birders have flocked to the Washington, D.C. area to view an unexpected and unusual visitor.

This Painted Bunting, normally found much farther south, has been visiting the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, found on a bend of the Potomac River, a short journey north-west of Washington in Maryland. Needless to say, birders in the area are thrilled.


Dozens of species, including frogs, fish, orchids, and other species were likely lost in 2020 due to our damaging effect on ecosystems throughout the planet. 


The invasive Asian carp is a threat to fish that are native to the Great Lakes. Michigan, Illinois, and the Army Corps of Engineers have agreed to work together on a project on a dam and lock near Joliet that is intended to stop any of the approaching carp in the river there and prevent them from entering the lake.


Tougher building standards to address the effects of rising waters due to climate change could increase flood insurance rates and that will be one of the challenges faced by the new administration as it seeks to fulfill its pledge to help communities prepare for these effects.


Of course, one of the biggest problems facing our planet today is the disposal of plastic. This writer says that manufacturers must be held accountable for their products in order for us to control the problem.


The current administration gutted protections for migratory birds on Tuesday, delivering a parting gift to the oil and gas industry, which has long sought to be shielded from liability for killing birds unintentionally in oil spills, toxic waste ponds, and other environmental disasters. If this had been in effect at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf there would have been no penalty to BP.  It is hoped that this entire action can be reversed, along with a lot of other last-minute regulatory changes, by the new administration.


Sockeye salmon have hit a record low in Lake Washington and are in danger of becoming extinct in that lake in Seattle. 


The black-footed ferret is an endangered species, a relative of the mink. Some minks in the wild have been found to have COVID-19 which presents a further danger to the ferret. Now an experimental vaccine is being administered to the ferrets to try to protect them from the virus.


The Environmental Protection Agency under the present administration has finalized a rule to limit what research it can use to craft public health protections, a move opponents argue is aimed at crippling the agency’s ability to more aggressively regulate the nation’s air and water. This is yet another last-minute change that the Biden administration is going to have to try to reverse.


Last year, 593 manatees were found dead in Florida. Of those, an estimated 90 died after boat strikes, according to preliminary data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but that number could be higher because many of the deaths were not thoroughly investigated due to restrictions caused by the pandemic. 


New satellite data shows the long decline of Arctic sea ice.


A new study has revealed that roughly one in three of large American rivers has changed color since 1984 and scientists say this could be very bad news for human health as well as the other critters that depend on these rivers.


A study of the diet of Eurasian Eagle Owls has revealed a previously overlooked rare bush cricket species in southeastern Bulgaria.


Massachusetts is planning to end the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. In order to meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions, fossil fuel use by vehicles must be all but completely eliminated by 2050. 


In Chicago, endangered Piping Plovers have chosen a sliver of Montrose Beach for their yearly nesting ground. Conservationists are asking that this be protected by adding it to a nearby dunes natural area.