Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Luster by Raven Leilani: A review


When we first meet Edie she is an assistant book editor at a publishing house in New York. She is a 23-year-old Black woman whose main focus in regard to her workplace seems to be sleeping with as many of her male colleagues as possible rather than actually engaging in doing the work. Not that these sexual adventures appear to provide her with any pleasure; instead it is evident that she seeks them out as a way of escaping from self. 

It is interesting to read the descriptions of corporate life as seen through Edie's eyes. At one point, we get her take on the "diversity" offerings of her publishing house: These include "a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father's estate; a slave narrative about a runaway's friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teachers her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a Black maid who, like Schrodinger's cat, is both alive and dead." I believe I discern a pattern here.

When she is finally called into the Human Resources office and fired for sexual impropriety Edie doesn't even bother to ask for an explanation or to protest. She packs up her office and goes.

Not only has she been engaging in serial sexual encounters with multiple partners from her workplace but she is infatuated with Eric who is a much older white man in an open marriage with his wife, Rebecca. This started with an online courtship and progressed not as rapidly as Edie would have liked to a physical relationship. On one occasion, Eric even took her to his home for a romp while his wife and daughter were out.

After Edie is fired, she manages for a while with spot delivery jobs. She has a roommate to help with expenses. But then the roommate moves out and Edie still hasn't found another job. Soon she is drowning in debt.

In this state, she goes to her lover Eric's house; it's not really clear why. She enters the bedroom where she and Eric had sex and is going through his wife's closet when the said wife comes home and discovers her there. Rebecca accepts her presence calmly. She obviously knows who Edie is. In fact, she invites Edie to move into their guest room.

Her interest in Edie becomes apparent when we learn that she and Eric have a 12-year-old adopted daughter, Akila, who is Black. Akila is one of very few Black children in a White suburb and she is lonely and isolated. Rebecca seems to see Edie as a possible friend and counselor for Akila. Eric is out of the country on a business trip and the three females settle down together in a kind of spiky relationship.

Akila is not particularly accepting of any counsel from Edie, but eventually, she does accept her help with her hair. Thus, we get what for me were intriguing conversations and narratives about the care of Black hair. It is fragile in a way that the hair of White people is not and it requires handling by someone who understands its properties. 

In fact, hair is an important plot point in the book. It seems to be one of the first things that Edie notices about other women. And not only does she spend time teaching Akila about the products that she needs to properly care for her hair, at one point, she also carefully dyes Rebecca's hair in response to her request. After Eric returns home, these relationships continue for a while, even as she and Eric resume their sexual adventures.

The narrative proceeds in a fairly linear fashion with the exception that we do get Edie's backstory of her upbringing which includes her father's philandering and her mother's addiction. We get to know a lot about Edie, maybe even too much, but mostly as a list of symptoms and actions rather than a fully-formed character. I freely admit I didn't like her much and I couldn't work up any empathy for her. Is that because of our generational divide or our differences in background? I couldn't say. I can only say that I fully understood the other characters' impatience with Edie as she continues her transgressions against society's norms with little consciousness of the damage that she does to others or to herself.

This is Raven Leilani's debut novel and it was highly touted by critics for its boldness and sexual frankness. It does show promise but a lot of the writing seemed repetitive and flat to me. The pace of the plot is brisk and the atmosphere of the writing is pulpy. The greatest weakness, in my opinion, was a failure to develop the characters beyond their surface appearance and actions. I would rate it at three-and-a-half stars, generously bumped up to four.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Searcher by Tana French: A review


Critics and readers in general often assign Tana French to the niche of crime fiction writers, but that really undervalues her art. Her novels could be more accurately described as thoughtful literary fiction in which a crime takes place. That has never been more true than in her latest novel, The Searcher

Several critics have noted the debt this particular novel owes to the classic Western movies, particularly collaborations between John Ford and John Wayne. The very title of the book is a nod to the Ford/Wayne movie "The Searchers." But there may be just a touch of "The Quiet Man" here, too, in the American who moved to western Ireland and became a part of the local scene in a small village. 

The American here is Cal Hooper, a Chicago cop for twenty-five years. Cal has just endured a rancorous divorce and his adult daughter has moved to Seattle. There seems to be nothing keeping him in Chicago except the job. A job from which he is eligible to retire. And that's exactly what he does. He invests in a fixer-upper cottage in a bucolic Irish village and moves there to set about repairing and upgrading it. It seems the perfect escape for the quiet life that he envisions. He gets acquainted with his neighbors, makes himself known at the local pub, and generally goes about settling into his new life.

Then his cop sense begins to twitch. He begins to suspect that someone is watching him, even to the point of looking in his windows at night. He sets a trap by spreading smooth soil under his windows to capture footprints of the suspected interloper. And sure enough, in the morning, there they are - proof that someone was spying on him.

He stays alert over the next several days and finally, his stalker shows up.  It's a kid - a thirteen-year-old named Trey. Trey comes from a hardscrabble family living on the mountain adjacent to Cal's place. There are six kids in the family and a mother trying to keep them all fed and together. The father is nowhere to be found. Some months earlier, the oldest child, a boy named Brendan, had disappeared. No one has heard from him since and there seems no clue as to where he has gone or if he is still alive. Trey thinks he was kidnapped and wants Cal to find out what happened.

Cal doesn't want to get involved, but once again that cop sense kicks in and he feels a need to solve this mystery. Also, he's becoming attached to Trey who helps him with chores around his place. His conversations with the child inevitably lead him to start asking questions. And that's when he begins to suspect that there are hidden layers to life in this quiet village and that there are dangerous secrets that he would be wise not to disturb. Cal's neighbor, Mart, who had taken the American under his wing and eased his entry to the village delivers an oblique warning that Cal is about to poke a hornet's nest. The warning doesn't take. As Cal goes about asking his inconvenient questions, the reader has a growing sense of dread that this is not going to end well for him or for Trey. 

French builds her plot ever so slowly and carefully with full attention paid to the beauty of the Irish landscape and to the insularity of village life. She makes us feel Cal's loneliness as he longs for his daughter, feeling that perhaps something is wrong in her life but unable to discover what it might be or do anything about it. He even misses being able to discuss things with his ex, Donna. And he begins to suspect that his neighbors are not to be fully trusted.

Some critics have complained that this book is very different from French's Dublin Murder Squad series or her most recent book, The Witch Elm, and they seem disappointed with it for that reason. To which I reply, yes, it is different and why on Earth would you require a talented writer to write variations on the same story every time out? This is a story in which right and wrong are not simple and they are definitely not black and white. These characters' lives are filled with gray areas and morality is a complex issue. It is a narrative that gives the reader much to consider, the kind of thing that one would expect of the best literary fiction.

I liked Cal Hooper quite a lot. Maybe I even fell in love with him a little bit. And Trey is a marvelous and ambiguous character. I did not want my time with them to end. This rates right up there with my favorite French novels. Her artistry and creativity are in full flower.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Poetry Sunday: As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes

As children, we all have dreams of how our lives will play out. Most of us probably imagine ourselves as heroes, accomplishing great deeds for which we will gain fame and fortune. Few of us actually see those dreams come true, at least in quite the way we had imagined. The most fortunate of us may see some form of the dreams come true for us. For others, the dreams are edited and changed through the years as imagination bumps up against reality.

This scenario may be true of all people but especially for those whose goals in life are hampered by society's expectations of them, and most especially when those expectations are overlaid by such things as racial prejudice. The acclaimed African-American poet Langston Hughes was well aware of how dreams can be stunted by a wall of prejudice that grows around one and inhibits the ability to act and achieve. As an older man, he wrote about it.   

As I Grew Older

by Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

Friday, October 23, 2020

This week in birds - #423

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

One of the winter visitors whose arrival we always look forward to is the Yellow-rumped Warbler Pine Warbler. I don't think they've arrived yet this year. This picture was taken in a previous year. 


Like much else of our society, environmentalism has some of its roots firmly based in racism. This article explains how we might correct that.


The unexplained deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds in the Southwest this late summer and fall still remain a mystery but are thought to be somehow related to the massive wildfires that afflicted the region. Scientists are attempting to get to the root cause and explain the possible connection.


The election is just a week and a half away and environmentalism is very much a part of the decisions that voters will make. The New York Times explains.


We know something of the damage that plastic waste in the ocean can do to the fish and mammals that live there but it can also damage bacteria that are essential to the oxygen cycle, thus making it more difficult for us to simply breathe.


Older male chimpanzees are known to form close reciprocal relationships with a few good friends with whom they interact. No grumpy old men here!


An interesting find this week from the world of archaeology: The image of a huge cat was found among the Nazca lines in Peru. This joins such previously found images as hummingbirds, monkeys, and an orca. The feline line drawing has been dated to 200 - 100 BCE.


The Tawny Frogmouth is one of Australia's most beloved birds and they are found throughout that country. Here are some interesting facts about the birds.


As sea level rises, king tides are becoming a big problem for communities along the East Coast. Floods that used to come only during storms now can happen even on sunny days.


Ethiopia is facing a plague of biblical proportions from desert locusts. Swarms of the insects have damaged 200,000 hectares of crops in a region that was already struggling with food insecurity.  


Tardigrades are tiny organisms less than 1 millimeter in length but they have the knack for surviving in the extreme environment of the Arctic. The creatures, nicknamed water bears or moss piglets, have an uncertain future in our world with its changing climate. 


An uncounted number of North American shrubs, trees, herbs, and other plants have gone extinct since Europeans came to the continent. Here are five that botanists have documented.


Corvids are well known for their intelligence and ability to solve problems. They are perhaps less known for another of their capabilities: generosity and empathy. Their social life is a major factor in determining to what degree they possess these capabilities. Those that raise their offspring cooperatively are more likely to engage in actions that benefit the entire community.  


Countries in Europe that are making positive efforts to control global warming are looking to America's upcoming election with some trepidation and hoping that the new year once again brings them an ally in these efforts.


The description of the Amboteryx as a flying dinosaur is a bit generous. Based on an analysis of its fossils, it appears to have been rather spastic and flight-challenged and likely was only able to hurtle and glide from tree to tree.


A shocking number of birds are killed each year by colliding with buildings. Identifying them is just the first step in understanding the problem. Here is the story of a researcher's efforts to understand and find a solution to the problem.


An attempt to reintroduce the 'Alala, or Hawaiian Crow, to the wild has failed in its first effort. Thirty of the birds had initially been released but they have not had an acceptable rate of survival. Finally, the five remaining birds were recaptured and brought back in order to prevent the extinction of the species. Further study is needed to try to aid the birds' survival in the wild.


Finally, Margaret Renkl makes a plea for voters to consider the health of the planet when they go to mark their ballots.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A review


I have not read Yaa Gyasi's first novel, Homegoing, but after reading this, her second, I certainly intend to. 

The main character in this book is called Gifty and she shares some biographical information with her creator. Both are children of Ghanaian immigrants to the United States and both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. It is not clear if any of the other parts of Gifty align with the author's own but any character created by a writer must be informed to some extent by that writer's life experiences. 

Gifty is a brilliant neuroscience graduate student at Stanford. The focus of her research is a study of reward-seeking behavior in mice. Her choice of subject was suggested by her obsession with her brother Nana's struggle with opioids and his subsequent death as a result of that addiction. Her mother's response to her son's struggle and death was to sink into an almost catatonic state of depression. She finally leaves Huntsville, where she has little support, to stay with her daughter at Stanford. Her depression continues and she spends most of her time in bed with her face turned toward the wall.

The one bit of support that the mother had in Huntsville was from the Church of God that she attended. When she first came to Huntsville, she did not understand that she might need to search for a Black church, so the church that she chose had a White congregation and pastor. Hers was the only Black family there. One wonders how her life might have been different if she had found a Black church to attend. When her son fell victim to addiction after a doctor had prescribed OxyContin for a basketball injury, the church members were unsurprised because "their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs." But she stuck with that church through the years and the pastor at least did provide some care and concern for her. Even after she moved to California, Gifty would contact the pastor to try to help her mother deal with her sadness.

As for Gifty's father, he was out of the picture by then. When Gifty was a small child, he had returned to Ghana for a "visit" from which he never returned. He subsequently divorced his wife and remarried in Ghana. Gifty's mother had raised her two children alone in a strange country.

The book's narrative progresses in an elastic time frame. It stretches back and forth from Gifty's childhood and her brother's death from an overdose to her experience at Harvard and the rest of her elite education and encompasses her mother's own suicidal depressions. The back and forth of the narrative seems to mirror the rhythms of a depressive life, one that is not able to leave behind the shadows of the past. At one point, Gifty refers to a study of schizophrenics in India, Ghana, and California in which the voices that the subjects heard were found to be quite different. The voices heard by the Indian and Ghanaian subjects were friendly, sometimes belonging to friends or family members. Those heard by Californian subjects were harsh, hate-filled voices of violence and intrusion. The way that mental illness was experienced seemingly differed from one side of the ocean to the other and depended very much on the surrounding culture. 

Gifty remains something of an enigma to the reader. Although we know the outlines of her brilliant performance as a student and her drive to understand and possibly find a way to cure addiction, her interpersonal experiences remain a bit vague. We do get to know her best through her interactions with her lab partner, Han, but most of her other relationships and feelings are only seen through a glass darkly. The mother is actually the one who is most richly portrayed. Gifty calls her a "matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman, exactly, but something quite close to cruel." She is, in fact, an extremely vulnerable woman who puts on the cloak of stoicism as a defense against the wounds of the world.

The story of Transcendent Kingdom is of two women learning to survive in a hostile environment and of somehow maintaining their primal connection in spite of all that the world throws at them.  It is a story that is told brilliantly.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Poetry Sunday: End of Summer by Stanley Kunitz

Summer does not typically end for us in September. Instead, it lingers through most of October and even sometimes into November and December. Wearing shorts on Christmas Day is not unheard of in these parts. But at the end of last week, we did get a glimpse of autumn and were allowed to hope that 90 degrees F days might be over for a while. Daytime temperatures hovered in the 70s and at night dropped all the way into the high 50s. Higher temperatures will likely return this week, but it has been nice while it lasted.

Stanley Kunitz in this 1953 poem celebrated the changing of the seasons. I was particularly struck by his reference to "the unloved year." If ever a year was unloved, it is 2020.

End of Summer

by Stanley Kunitz

An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.
Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.

Friday, October 16, 2020

This week in birds - #422

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

A Red-tailed Hawk views the world from the top of a utility pole, backed by an October blue sky.


Winter is the peak season for feeding birds in one's yard. Here are some hints about how to do that more effectively.


Earth just recorded its hottest September on record since at least 1880. The year is now on track to possibly become the hottest year on record, breaking the previous record set in 2016.


The Pantanal wetland in Brazil is still burning. Roughly a quarter of the ecosystem has been consumed by wildfires that have been exacerbated by climate change.


A slow-motion ecological catastrophe is occurring at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge on the California-Oregon border. A massive outbreak of avian botulism has killed 40,000 birds so far, mostly waterbirds that gather in the refuge is vast numbers during migration. 


Climate change is causing irreversible shifts in the Asian ecosystem. The Central Asian steppes are being transformed into a desert and perhaps permanently reducing the biodiversity of the region.


When a whale collides with a fast-moving ship, it is generally very bad news for the whale. A new technology called Whale Safe aims to reduce such encounters and make the oceans just a bit safer for sea mammals.


A study by a group of Harvard researchers has found increased radiation downwind of U.S. hydraulic fracturing drilling sites. The significantly higher radiation levels pose a potential health risk to nearby residents.


Bar-tailed Godwit image courtesy of The Guardian.

A Bar-tailed Godwit flew 7,500 miles in a non-stop flight from Alaska to New Zealand breaking the previous record for such avian flights.


The rapid intensification of hurricanes as they near landfall has been linked to the warming ocean currents that have accompanied climate change.


Historically, smalltail shark populations had been among the most abundant of fishes in Brazil, but rampant overfishing over the past 40 years has transformed it into a critically endangered species. It is now perilously close to extinction.


The Arctic region is unraveling faster had been predicted and could well be in an irreversible death spiral. Without drastic action to control climate change, it may be too late to save the Arctic as we know it. 


One of the helicopters making water drops over the huge Creek Fire in California had a close encounter with a Western Screech Owl. The owl actually flew into the cockpit of the copter and sat on the console looking at the crew, seemingly unconcerned. After resting for a few minutes, the bird flew out again.


A global review has found that governments are falling far short of protecting enough of the right areas of their ecosystems to protect biodiversity. 


A mystery regarding the Bearded Vulture that has been causing a stir with its tour of the UK in the past few months has now been solved. A genetic analysis of some of the bird's feathers shows that it is a female bird that was hatched in the wild in the French Alps in 2019.


A COVID-19 outbreak at Utah fur farms has killed 10,000 minks, but a state veterinarian says humans are not at risk from the eruption of the virus.


Birds with large eyes that are adapted for seeing in the darker parts of forests are more affected by artificial lighting in human-altered landscapes and are less able to compensate for it.


The International Energy Agency confirms that solar is now the cheapest electricity in history with technology cheaper than coal and gas in most countries.