Thursday, October 25, 2012

Enjoying Big Bend National Park by Gary Clark: A review

Gary Clark is a well-known naturalist and writer on Nature in my neck of the woods. He's also an educator who has taught "leisure-living" courses on birding at the local college, one of which I took several years ago. He is a very knowledgeable guide to all the birding hot spots in Texas, of which there are many since this is one of the birdiest states in the union. 

In Enjoying Big Bend National Park, Clark has not focused on the birds of the park but has given a general guide to the interesting geology and history, as well as the wildlife and flora of that wild and beautiful area. Big Bend, named for its placement at a big bend in the river that separates Mexico from the United States, is one of the wildest and largest of America's national parks. It covers more than 800,000 acres, making it slightly larger than Yosemite National Park. Moreover, it encompasses a vast variety of ecological systems that include the Chihuahuan Desert, the rocky Chisos Mountains that reach up to 8,000 feet, steamy riparian floodplains, and cool mountain forests. 

Sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? But Clark has broken all of that down into bite-sized pieces that should lead the visitor to just the type of experience he or she is looking for. He has suggested adventures within the park that range from two-hour to half-day to full-day time frames and that can be had on foot or on a drive. He rates each trek on its degree of difficulty from easy to strenuous and includes sections for families and small children and for people with limited physical mobility. The message here is that anyone can find a way to experience and enjoy Big Bend.

Clark does not neglect the safety cautions in regard to being in the wild. He repeatedly warns about the dry air of this environment and the importance of keeping hydrated. His most urgent advice is to carry water at all times, even if you are only going on a short hike and even if you don't think you'll need it. Also, the sun is intense here and it is important to protect yourself from it with sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are not a bad idea either. And if you are going to get out of that car and go hiking, it is vitally important to have sturdy walking shoes or boots and to wear socks that will protect your feet. But if you forget every other warning, Clark begs you to remember this: "DRINK WATER! DRINK WATER! DRINK WATER!"

Big Bend has over four hundred species of birds that either live there or pass through at some time of the year and that's why I'll be heading that way in a few hours. The park also has a plethora of mammals from ground squirrels to striped skunks to gray foxes to the occasional black bear and mountain lion. One must always be on the alert when hiking or camping in this wilderness and respect these animals. 

Big Bend is also a Mecca for butterflies. Clark writes that there are "a mind-boggling variety of butterflies, many of which are still being cataloged." Yet another reason this butterfly-fancier wants to go there. 

Whether you are interested in butterflies or rocks, the Colima Warbler or the earless lizard, human culture of the past or preserving the environment for the future, Big Bend has something to offer and this guide will help you to find it.


So, I will be on the road for the next ten days, most of it spent at Big Bend, and I do not expect to have Internet access for much of the trip. If you should happen to notice my absence from this space, that will be the reason. I hope you miss me!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Disturbance by Jan Burke: A review

Stories about sociopathic and apparently invincible serial killers who love to torture their victims are not my cup of tea. Thus, I am still trying to remember how this book came to be on my to-be-read shelf. I believe it was given to me by someone who knows I read a lot of mysteries with tough women as the protagonists and probably thought I would enjoy it. Wrong. I just found it irritating, frankly.

Perhaps it would have made a difference if I had ever read any of the other Irene Kelly books. This was the eleventh in the series, apparently a successful series with a lot of fans. If I had read any of the other books, it's possible I would have had a greater appreciation of the characters. There was little character development or explication in this book. I guess the assumption was that the reader would have already read those earlier books. 

So, the reader meets Irene Kelly here as an investigative reporter for a failing newspaper, the Las Piernas News Express. She is married to Frank, a homicide detective with the local police department. She had had a horrific encounter (in the last book, I guess) with the aforementioned sociopath, Nick Parrish, who had kidnapped and tortured her. The sociopath was ultimately captured and Irene was rescued, but Parrish was seriously injured and, as a result, paralyzed.

However, after being sentenced to life without parole, Parrish received excellent medical treatment and, as a result, his paralysis was reversed. He has sworn vengeance on Irene Kelly.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, Parrish has a devoted online fan club, the Moths. (Why "Moths"? Who knows? Maybe because they circle around Parrish's bright flame.) It turns out that these Moths are sons of Parrish. Literally. Apparently he had planted his seed all over the place and now the crop has matured and is ready for harvest. 

Strange things start happening around Irene. Not-so-funny pranks are being played, and, for a woman still suffering from PTSD, they may be enough to send her over the edge.

Then her newspaper closes and her job is gone.

Then the dead bodies of women start turning up. Bodies with pictures of moths drawn on them.

Then Nick Parrish escapes from prison.

Then Irene Kelly is kidnapped once again.

Yep, even though I hadn't read the other books, I definitely felt like I had been down this road before and I didn't really want to travel it again.

I very, very rarely, as in almost never, give up on any book. If I make the commitment to read it, then I stick with it to the bitter end. My husband laughs at me for this. If a book doesn't grab him in the first twenty pages, he tosses it. Perhaps I should have adopted his philosophy with this book, but I soldiered on. However, I won't pretend that I read every word. Indeed, I quickly scanned most of it, but enough to get the gist of the thing. Enough to know that I really didn't like it.

Jan Burke is a successful, award-winning writer. This book seemed tightly plotted and written to elicit the maximum in suspense. To paraphrase a famous quote, for those who like this sort of thing, no doubt this is the sort of thing they would like. Not me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Etch-A-Sketch candidate shakes it up again

Who was that sweating man in the presidential debate last night? It certainly wasn't Mitt Romney, at least not the Mitt Romney we've come to know over the last eighteen months or so. No, this was a much milder version, a candidate who thinks we "can't kill our way out of this." That'll be a big surprise to the neocons with whom he surrounds himself and who he trusts as foreign policy advisers and who would likely serve in a Romney administration. Secretary of State John Bolton, anybody?

Last night Romney shook that Etch-A-Sketch for all it was worth. No longer is he panting to get into another war in the Middle East. Belligerence toward China is all but gone. It's right that we should get out of Afghanistan by 2014. And, of course, President Romney would have taken out Osama bin Laden! What president wouldn't?   He essentially reversed every foreign policy position he has taken in his entire campaign. He hopes that the stupid voters, especially the stupid women voters that he scared with his war-like earlier positions, will accept this new moderate Mitt, no questions asked, and forget about the old tea party Mitt. In this effort he will no doubt be aided by the lazy mainstream media that never questions anything.

I was particularly struck by something he said about the new Islamic governments in the Middle East. He wants to help them achieve democracy. Most notably, he wants to help them achieve "gender equality" in their societies. Yes, women workers and voters of America - he believes in gender equality in the Middle East, just not in the United States.

But what exactly does Mitt Romney believe? The truth is, we don't have a clue. Personally, I don't think he believes anything except that he is entitled to become president of this country and that anything that he has to say or do to achieve that goal is perfectly acceptable. In her column today, Joan Walsh refers to him as the "man without a soul," an apt description.

We don't know what he believes because he changes his message to be whatever he thinks his audience on that particular day wants to hear. And so he's been on all sides of the auto bailout, the economic stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, contraception, a woman's right to have an abortion if she believes that is the right choice for her, raising taxes on the super-rich, just to name a few issues.

Furthermore, speaking of taxes, we'll never know whether Romney paid any over the last ten years, because he is so ashamed of those tax returns that he will not reveal them. He knows if he released them, his candidacy would be completely doomed. (My personal belief is that he paid no taxes and that, in fact, he probably received refunds in some years because of all the deductions and write-offs that he took.)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about George McGovern, a man of honor and integrity who always stood up for what he believed in, even when it wasn't the popular stance or wasn't what his audience wanted to hear. McGovern had the courage of his convictions. Willard Mitt Romney - not so much.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: A review

In The Corrections, his National Book Award-winning novel from 2001, Jonathan Franzen gives us the Lamberts, an American Gothic family from the Midwest: Alfred, the emotionally constipated paterfamilias, who sacrificed himself for his family in many ways that we discover as the novel proceeds and who now faces a slow death from Parkinson's Disease; his wife, Enid, a woman who longs for a warmth from her husband and children that she has never received, a woman who lives on the expectation that things will get better; Gary, the oldest son, married and living in Philadelphia with his manipulative wife Caroline who is teaching their three young sons the art of the disdainful manipulation of their father; Chip, the middle child, who we first meet as a self-absorbed twit but who grows into something more fully human by the conclusion of the book; and Denise, the youngest child, a talented chef who betrays her employer in Philadelphia through her ambiguous sexuality and loses, if not everything, at least her sense of self and self-worth. They are truly a dysfunctional family writ large.

We first meet Enid and Alfred as they visit son Chip in New York. The only thing is, Chip skips out on them, chasing his lover, leaving sister Denise to deal with them as they get ready to embark on a cruise that Enid had been looking forward to. This first part of the book, the first 25 to 30 pages are a "hump" that the reader must get over. At this point, these characters are so unattractive and unendearing that one is strongly tempted to throw the book in the corner and forget about it. Don't do that though. The book rewards perseverance and reveals its gifts slowly.

The structure of the book is to focus on each member of the family in one section. Thus, we get to know each of them intimately. They do not necessarily improve upon closer acquaintance and yet we begin to understand why they are so messed up and why this family falls so short of the ideal. But then, don't all families?

As we come to better know each of them, our empathy is aroused and we wish that they would make better choices, that they had made better choices in their lives. Mostly, I wished that Enid would find the fulfillment so lacking in her life. She gave so much of herself to this family and seemed to get so little in return.

Enid is the eternal optimist, always looking to a future that she is sure, all evidence to the contrary, will be rosier. In particular, she looks for one last family Christmas at their home in St. Jude. She wants all three children, her daughter-in-law, and the three grandchildren to be there - one big happy family with her and Alfred. It's soon obvious to the reader that the mean-spirited daughter-in-law will not be there and that she's going to find a way to keep her children, if not her husband, in Philadelphia. Gary promises to come. Denise promises to come. But Chip? Well, Chip is in Lithuania working a dodgy scam and seems unlikely to show up. It appears that Enid's dreams will be unfulfilled once again.

Meanwhile, Alfred's mental and physical conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Changes will have to be made. How will this family summon the fortitude to make them?

I resisted reading this book for eleven years, mostly because I was irritated by Franzen's prickly personality. I eventually got over that enough to read a couple of his other books and discovered that he is, in fact, as all the critics swooned, quite a remarkable and talented writer. This book, which is essentially a tragedy, is also filled with such humor and insight and, yes, empathy for human frailties that it becomes an absorbing epic that one wishes would not end.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Lambert way of unhappiness is to keep secrets, withhold affection, and demand that others fit into the molds that you have constructed for their lives. Actually, it sounds not that dissimilar from other unhappy families I have known. Each unhappy family may have its own twist on the unhappiness theme, but there are things that they all have in common. Things that they have in common with all of us. The Lamberts as Everyfamily. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern, bleeding-heart liberal

George McGovern
1922 - 2012
George McGovern was always a hero of mine. He was a war hero, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who understood the costs of war, and always tried to stop his country from rushing headlong into ill-conceived testosterone-driven military adventures. He spoke out against what he considered the tragic mistake of the American war in Vietnam and he opposed the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a man who was firm in his convictions and never backed away from them, even when it might have been politically advantageous to do so.
When he was derided by conservatives for his liberal ideals that endorsed a progressive federal government that would protect the weak and vulnerable and expand economic opportunity to everyone, he continued to stand strongly for those ideals. As a senator, he championed civil rights and anti-poverty bills. He helped to expand food stamp and nutrition programs. Even after he left government, he continued to write and lecture about those liberal values. In a recent book, he wrote:
During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Indeed, he wore the label "bleeding-heart liberal" proudly, as a badge of honor.

McGovern has now left us, at the age of 90. He had a long and productive life, a life of service to his community, state, and country; not a life of amassing great piles of money. He will be remembered by many as the man who lost disastrously to Richard Nixon in the presidential race in 1972. It's interesting to speculate how the world might have been different had he won. Interesting maybe, but pointless. History moves relentlessly onward.

In an interview in 2006, McGovern spoke about his view of our country:  

I still think this is the greatest country on Earth. It must be great, because we make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. I saw this country survive the Great Depression through the 1920s and 1930s, when I was growing up. I saw us not only survive, but win World War II, when we had to come back from almost nothing. I see this country slowly awakening to the environmental threat and doing something about it. It must be a great place. (My emphasis.)
It might be a summation of the history of our country: We make these horrendous mistakes, but we bounce back. It's comforting to hear that reassurance from a man who lived through so much of it.

George McGovern was a man who loved his country and always tried to serve it. He was a man strong enough to be undeterred by the derision of lesser men. He was a bleeding-heart liberal, a shining example for us all to try to live up to. I consider one of the most righteous votes I ever cast the one I cast for him for president in 1972. He remains a hero to me.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A little thunder

It's been a long and in many ways frustrating week. I'm so tired of politics. So tired of lying politicians. So tired of lazy journalists who refuse to do the research and take the time to expose the lies. So tired of billionaires trying to buy my country. So tired of dishonorable state officials trying to steal the election for their party by intimidating voters to discourage them from exercising their constitutional right.


Through the magic of YouTube, all the E-Streeters live again, and help the Boss to once again bring the joy of "Thunder Road." Even in Barcelona, they know the words and sing along. Of course, Springsteen concerts are always audience participation events.

If you surveyed all Springsteen fans, this would probably be our number one favorite of his songs. I know it contains one of my favorite bits of lyric in all pop music:
"So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me."
Every time I hear it, it makes me smile and every time I imagine that he wrote it just for me.

Thanks, Bruce. I needed that.

Happy weekend!  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Does your vote count?

Less than three weeks now until election day and I get more and more frustrated and angry every time I think about it. Not about the campaigns or the candidates, although there is plenty there to be angry and frustrated about. No, what frustrates me is our antiquated system of electing presidents and the knowledge that, as passionately as I may care about this election, my vote won't make one iota of difference!

You see, I live in Texas, a state that is completely dominated politically by anti-critical-thinking, evolution and climate change-denying, gun-worshiping, anti-women, immigrant-hating, gay-bashing, Bible-thumping tea party Republicans. And those people get to decide who gets Texas' electoral votes and it's only the electoral votes that matter in a presidential election. The individual votes of people like me who do not agree with the majority do not count at all. For all practical purposes, we might as well sit at home on election day.

It is the same for citizens who would vote Democratic throughout the deep South, where Republicans currently have a strangle-hold on the machinery of government and intend to keep it that way through voter-suppression. Moreover, Republican voters in states like California, New York, and Massachusetts have the same frustration. Their votes for president are absolutely worthless, like mine, because the electoral votes in those states will be awarded to the candidate picked by the heavy Democratic majority of voters.

I have never understood why our Founders saddled us with such a clumsy way of selecting our leader. One can only surmise that they had a deep mistrust of the ability of average citizens to make these important decisions. After all, they initially didn't allow for senators to be elected directly either. That was eventually changed, but still we limp along with this clumsy Electoral College system of electing presidents.

We've paid the price repeatedly throughout our history for failing to ensure a direct popular vote election for the president, where each person's vote has the same weight as her neighbor's. Most recently, in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote in the country. Actually, he probably won the majority of electoral votes as well, but we'll never know because a meddling Supreme Court, eager for a Republican victory, stepped in and stopped the counting of votes in Florida, effectively appointing George W. Bush president. And the rest as they say is history, as are the lives of many, many thousands of innocents.

There is no way of really knowing whether a majority popular vote would select better presidents than our current system, but at least it would be fairer to all voters in all states and those of us in the minority in individual states would not have to feel that the act of voting is completely useless. I don't expect to see this undemocratic election system changed in my lifetime and so I will continue to struggle every four years with my anger and frustration. But I will also cast my protest vote, because I do not agree and it is the least - and the most - that I can do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Literary prize season continues

The latest major award to be given in this season of literary prizes was the Man Booker which was announced yesterday. And, wonder of wonders, it was given to an author and for a book that I had actually read and loved. Hilary Mantel won for Bring Up the Bodies, the second in her three book series about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. I thought it was a wonderful book, even better than Wolf Hall, the first in the series which also won the Man Booker for 2009.  (My review is here.)

Mantel is, of course, an amazing writer of historical fiction. She brings the past to life and makes her characters fully informed human beings, not just cardboard cutouts. She has even managed to make Thomas Cromwell, who has been somewhat notorious for his Machiavellian manipulations in Henry's court, into a rather sympathetic character. We can begin to understand just what motivated him and perhaps what he had hoped to achieve as minister. Now that she has brought us to this point, we can only look forward to the third in the series, which I assume will cover Cromwell's bloody downfall. It may well be a wrenching read and yet I can hardly wait!

I can't imagine any book was more worthy of this literary prize than Bring Up the Bodies, but, on the whole, I think judging one literary work (or any work of art, for that matter) against another is a very chancy thing. It has to be subjective and what is very meaningful to me might leave another reader cold. My husband, for example. We both enjoyed reading C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series, which includes Thomas Cromwell as a historical character, and so, when I finished reading Wolf Hall, I recommended it to him, thinking he might enjoy a different perspective on Cromwell. He hated it! I think he may have read twenty pages before he gave up on it. (I've just about stopped recommending anything to him. Who knows what the cranky old man likes?)

But the point that I was trying to make before I digressed into the mysteries of my domestic life is that there were five other books that were on the short list for the Man Booker prize: The Garden of Evening Mists  by Tan Twang Eng;  Swimming Home  by Deborah Levy;  The Lighthouse   by Alison Moore;  Umbrella  by Will Self; and  Narcopolis  by Jeet Thayil. I haven't read any of them yet and there are some of the writers that I'm not familiar with at all.  How do I know that one of them might not be an even more amazing and worthy book than the Mantel work? And if I read one of them on any given day it might well be more meaningful to me. 

A lot depends on where the reader is in his/her own life when he/she reads the book. And that really is one of the things that makes reading such an exciting and interactive enterprise. Getting to know a previously unknown writer can be a real adventure and sometimes a challenge, not unlike making a new friend. It can be a risky business but definitely worth the trouble, even when the relationship doesn't work out.

As for awarding literary prizes, though, if I were a judge, I'd probably never be able to make a decision. Even when people sometimes ask, "What's your favorite book?" I really have no answer. Well, today my favorite book is The Sense of an Ending, but who knows what it will be tomorrow? No, I'd never make it as a literary judge.   

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

And the prize goes to...

Now tell me honestly, did you know the name Mo Yan before it was announced last week that he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature? I freely admit that I did not know of this, apparently quite famous, Chinese author. Perhaps that is really not so surprising since there are evidently wonderful writers from the North American continent whose acquaintance I have not yet made. In fact, I'm meeting new ones all the time. It's an exciting experience for this constant reader.

I was interested to read about Mr. Mo and also about China's reaction to his selection. It seems that he is quite a popular literary light in his own country, in spite of the fact that much of his writing encompasses criticism of Chinese history and of contemporary Chinese culture. He is embraced by the Chinese Communist government and his winning of the Nobel Prize set off a national celebration. It was considered a major cultural accomplishment and affirmation and it was a boost to the national psyche.

Based on what I've read of him, it seems that although social criticism is a big part of his art, he is not a political dissident and, indeed, does not consider himself political. In that regard, I thought this quote from him that was included in The New York Times story about him was quite revealing:
A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression. Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.
I think that he sees himself not as one who shouts in the streets but who uses literature as a means of expressing opinions. I can relate to that. But not all Chinese dissident writers are big fans of his and some criticize his approach. They see him as part of a corrupt and oppressive establishment since he serves as vice-chairman in the state-sanctioned Chinese Writers Association.

At 57, Mr. Mo seems relatively young to be a Nobel winner, but he has had a very prolific writing career, stretching back to the 1980s.  Again, just based on the articles I've read since he won, it appears that his masterwork (at least so far) is Red Sorghum, an epic tale that covers the time of the Japanese occupation of the country and which came out in 1993. Another very highly praised book of his was The Garlic Ballads, published in 1995. His books are primarily about rural Chinese society and he employs a style of writing that is close to the magical realism of many South American writers. The western writers that he is often compared to are William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not bad company.

Unfortunately, I don't read Chinese, but I understand that his works, especially the most popular and praised ones, have been translated into English and are widely available. So, no excuses! Here's one more name to add to my very, very long "to be read" list.


Monday, October 15, 2012

"I'm not so sure about you."

Political cartoonists see the world with clear and cynical eyes and their cartoons often succinctly get at the truth of our modern society in a way that mere words cannot. All of that is very true, in my opinion, of this wonderful skewering of a certain segment of our "Modern World" by the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, found in today's Daily Kos.

In the world of the purist, the only one who can be trusted is oneself and there are way too many purists in our society.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: A review

This slim book by Julian Barnes which won the Man Booker Prize last year was an absolutely mesmerizing read for me. I could have read it in a single sitting, had I not had other things to do. The story of Tony Webster, a man in his 60s looking back over his life and meditating on the mysteries of how memory works and how time changes memory, hit me where I live.

Tony had passed through his early life in something of a sleepwalk. He never thought deeply about what he was doing or what was going on around him. He never understood, never bothered to try to understand the effect that his words and actions might have on others. He was simply oblivious to everything except his own senses.

As a young man, he had a coterie of three friends and a girlfriend but, eventually, the girlfriend broke up with him and as he grew older, he drifted away from all of them, finally losing contact. He went to America for a while, then, returning to England, he met Margaret and they married, had a daughter named Susie, and created a stable life together.

After several years of marriage, Margaret met another man who she found more exciting and she divorced Tony, but they continued to maintain an amicable relationship. Now in their retirement years, they are friends who lunch together and Susie is a friendly, if somewhat distant, part of Tony's life, along with her husband and their children.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, that long-ago, almost forgotten past comes surging back into Tony's life, overwhelming all the barriers he has built around himself and he meditates about how time changes one's perspectives:
But time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
It's as if he were reading my heart and mind. The entire book, brief though it is, is dense with meditations like that. Most of the action is within Anthony Webster's mind as he looks back over his life and struggles to make sense of it all. Where did he go wrong? Where did he misunderstand? What could he have done to make things turn out differently for himself and for those who were close to him? In fact, how much responsibility does he bear for the death of one friend and the ruined relationships of others? As a young man, he had only considered his own hurt pride and feelings as he lashed out at others. How self-centered that young man now appears to the Tony in his 60s.
In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities; if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse - a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred - about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded - and how pitiful that was.
Again, it is as if he were looking into my soul and teasing out the regrets that live in the shadows there. 

The philosophical ideas contained in this book are at once disturbing, suspenseful, sometimes funny, always graceful and brutally honest, and, in the end, very life-affirming. It is a complicated book, as all lives are complicated. I do not usually reread books over and over again, but this is one that I think that I will. It is so full of ideas and insights that I am sure that I missed much the first time around and I want to know them. 

Here is one more meditation by Tony that struck deeply with me:
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? And also - if this isn't too grand a word - our tragedy.
Wonderful writing.

I confess I had not read Julian Barnes before, although, of course, I knew of him and his reputation. I will definitely now be seeking out more of his work. Someone who understands me so well must have more wisdom to impart, more guidance to give. Not only did his book win the Man Booker Prize for 2011, it wins the Dorothy Borders Prize for 2012 for the most insightful and influential book I have read all year - and I have read some very good ones.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Save that bird!

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. They strive to encourage an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, and where their protection is valued by society. It is the only U.S.-based group with a major focus on bird habitat conservation throughout the entire continents of North and South America. The organization addresses the full spectrum of threats to birds to safeguard the rarest bird species, restore habitats, and reduce threats, thereby unifying and strengthening the bird conservation movement.

Each week, ABC spotlights one American bird, usually one that is threatened or endangered, and designates it as the "Bird of the Week." It sends out email newsletters with a picture of and information about the bird and describes the "threat status" of the bird. Thus, we get to learn more about the most endangered birds on the two continents, birds that we may never actually see in real life but that we might be able to help in concert with the American Bird Conservancy.

When I opened my email today, I had to smile to see who had been designated this week's Bird of the Week - the most endangered bird of all.

Bird of the Week
Big Bird

Big Bird is an eight-foot two-inch-tall bright yellow bird. He can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw, and even ride a unicycle. He lives in a large nest at 123 Sesame Street, and has a teddy bear named Radar. His lovable, innocent, and curious personality has helped endear him to millions of children and adults all over the world.

Big Bird is a flightless bird, of indeterminate species and genus, describing himself at different times as a “Golden Condor”, a lark, or a canary. Regardless of his species, he is a unique and talented creature who has helped educate generations of children, appeared on countless television shows and movies, and even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Big Bird’s conservation status is perilous. He is likely the last of his species, with no female having been found so far. He is now nearly 43 years old, but it is not known if this is past breeding age, should a mate ever turn up. However, he continues to travel around the world and has been sighted in 140 countries so far, making him perhaps the most migratory bird in history.

Big Bird’s popularity is just another example of the positive impact of birds on society and culture.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Taking down the flimflam man

Paul Ryan is a liar. He lies glibly about even the most unimportant things, like the time he ran in a long-ago marathon. Moreover, his math doesn't add up. 

One or two observers of the political scene have had the prescience to point this out repeatedly over the past few years. For their efforts, they have been derided and verbally abused by the Very Serious Pundits of the Washington Beltway. But those truth tellers have been right all along and, recently, a few of the much-maligned (and richly deserved, too!) mainstream media have begun to notice that Ryan is really, as Paul Krugman famously dubbed him, a "flimflam man" and to actually point out his prevarications and lack of substance.  

Then, of course, there was that little debate last night where Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly called him out on his lies and essentially laughed him off the stage. I didn't actually watch the debate, but I did check in on the live-blogging of it throughout the hour-and-a-half and it was obvious even from that that Biden was enjoying himself. 

Today, I've followed the news reports of it and read several of the analyses, most of which, it must be admitted, are colored by the writer's political views. Still, it is apparent that Biden firmly and vigorously defended Democratic principles in which I believe, and I am very grateful for that. All that I really require of my politicians is that they stand up for the things that are important to me and that they tell the truth, and, very importantly, that they don't let their opponents get away with telling bald-faced lies! 

I hope that President Obama will take a page from Biden's book in his next two debates. His is a very different personality from Biden, more introverted and thoughtful, and that's okay. I don't expect him to be otherwise. I do expect him to have the courage of his convictions and to fight for what he believes in and to remember that when your opponent is out to destroy everything that you have struggled so hard to achieve, it's not really necessary to be polite to him. 

In the meantime, thank you, Joe Biden, for showing how to deal with the flimflam man. As Charles Pierce of Esquire wrote today
For years, Paul Ryan has been the shining champion of some really terrible ideas, and of a dystopian vision of the political commonwealth in which the poor starve and the elderly die ghastly, impoverished deaths, while all the essential elements of a permanent American oligarchy were put in place. This has garnered him loving notices from a lot of people who should have known better. The ideas he could explain were bad enough, but the profound ignorance he displayed on Thursday night on a number of important questions, including when and where the United States might wind up going to war next, and his blithe dismissal of any demand that he be specific about where he and his running mate are planning to take the country generally, was so positively terrifying that it calls into question Romney's judgment for putting this unqualified greenhorn on the ticket at all. Joe Biden laughed at him? Of course, he did. The only other option was to hand him a participation ribbon and take him to Burger King for lunch.
You know what's the difference between Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan?
Well said. They are both flimflam people. No real substance there.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny: A review

I had never met Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, the most prestigious homicide unit in Canada, prior to Bury Your Dead. This was the sixth in the Gamache series and there have now been two more added for a total of eight. I've added all the other seven to my "to be read" list. This was a wonderful read and Armand Gamache is a wonderful character, a humane and intelligent police officer who cares about his agents and the communities in which he works and cares about getting the job done right. He cares, in short, about justice. 

We meet Gamache in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy that has hit his Surete force. Agents have been killed and wounded as a result of an investigation gone wrong. Gamache himself was grievously wounded, almost killed, but he blames himself for the deaths and injuries his officers suffered. He is on leave from his job in order to recover from his injuries, both physical and psychological. He has gone to old Quebec City to visit his friend and mentor, Emile, to find sanctuary and comfort and to try to come to terms with what has happened.

But even in Quebec City, ensconced in the home of his friend, murder manages to intrude.

Gamache has been whiling away the hours doing research on the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, at the library of the Literary and Historical Society, an organization set up to preserve and protect the Anglo culture in Quebec. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a turning point in the struggle between England and France over supremacy and control of Canada. Gamache is fascinated by the mistakes made by the French General Montcalm in the battle. He identifies with him because he feels keenly that he has made mistakes also. But one morning when he arrives at the "Lit and His" to do his reading, he finds the place overrun by police. A dead body has been found in the basement. An amateur archaeologist, obsessed with Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec, has been murdered, hit over the head with the shovel he had been digging with. When the local police realize who Gamache is, they ask him to help with the investigation.

Meanwhile, Gamache has also had second thoughts about one of his own previous investigations in the little village of Three Pines. A hermit had been killed there. The evidence led to the owner of a local bistro as the murderer. But the man's partner is convinced he didn't do it and he wages a campaign of daily letters to Gamache to convince him of this. Beset by doubts, Gamache asks his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to investigate with fresh eyes. Beauvoir also is recovering from injuries in the incident where his chief was wounded, but he takes up the investigation as a welcome diversion from dark thoughts. 

Thus, we have a story that runs on two tracks, covers two investigations. But wait! There is a third track. We get to learn, through flashbacks experienced by Armand and Jean-Guy, of the horrible incident that did so much damage to the Surete, an incident which only the action and sacrifice of the men and women of the Surete managed to prevent from doing inestimable destruction to the whole of eastern Canada and the United States. That Louise Penny is able to keep all three of these tracks going at the same time, rather like keeping three balls in the air simultaneously, is really a tour de force of writing skill.

Penny's plotting is truly amazing. Almost from the first page, the reader is on pins and needles wondering what will happen next. She builds the suspense steadily, and even though she plays fair with the clues, near the end there is a plot twist that was so unexpected it left me with my mouth hanging open.

Not only are the plotting, the characters, and the stories themselves examples of a writer on top of her game, but throughout she weaves in tidbits of the history of Canada, much appreciated by this ignorant American reader. Like many Americans I suspect, I have a great fondness and admiration for our northern neighbor, but little knowledge of the nitty gritty facts of its history. It was good to be able to learn just a little bit here. Maybe I'll learn even more from the seven other books in the series. I look forward to that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hey, where'd they go?

Remember a couple of weeks ago, before the presidential debate, when all the political polls, even the very right-wing ones like Fox News and Rasmussen, showed President Obama leading in the race? This had been the case for several weeks and the right-wingers were going crazy!

"The polls are biased!" they cried.

"They are weighted in favor of Obama!"

"The pollsters are asking the wrong questions!"

"They are interviewing the wrong people - too many Democrats, too many people with cell phones!"

Now, there's been almost a complete turnaround in the polls. Nearly all of them either show Romney leading or basically tied with President Obama. And what do we hear from all those whiners about bias in polling? Crickets. They are all too busy chortling about what a terrible debater President Obama is and how Super Mitt is headed for victory!

You don't think the whiners could have possibly been insincere in their critique of pollsters, do you? You don't think they could have been, heaven forbid, BIASED in their assessment?

Well, never mind. I'm sure if the polls reverse again next week, all the whiners will be back on Fox News in full voice, complaining about those terrible liberal-leaning pollsters.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: A review

I don't usually read Young Adult fiction for the very good reason that I am not a young adult, but my younger daughter who is, and who is also a librarian, gave me this book and recommended that I read it. She liked it and thought it was something I might enjoy. Well, she didn't steer me wrong about Harry Potter so I decided to give it a chance, and she was right again. I did enjoy it.

The novel, as most of the reading world knows by now, is set in the dystopian landscape of what was once known as North America. The society that we are familiar with has been destroyed by a combination of man-made and natural disasters. Rising ocean levels have reduced the size of the continent to a shadow of its former limits. It is now the country of Panem which consists of a shining Capitol, set somewhere in what was once called the Rocky Mountains, and twelve Districts. 

Each of the Districts has its specialty. District Twelve, located in what were formerly called the Appalachian Mountains, specializes in the production of coal. Its people, like the people in most of the Districts, are poor and live on the knife's edge of starvation. It is from this District that the story's protagonist, Catniss, comes.

At some point, there had been a rebellion in the Districts against the Capitol and, after putting it down, the Capitol keeps the Districts in line and reminds them of its all-powerfulness by demanding a "tribute" from each District every year. This "tribute" consists of two children, a boy and a girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Each living tribute must fight to the death against all the other tributes on live TV, which all the other citizens of Panem are forced to watch. These are the Hunger Games.

Each District's tributes are selected by drawing their names from all the eligible ones at a public ceremony called the reaping. When Catniss is sixteen years old, she attends the reaping, as all citizens are required to do, with her mother and twelve-year-old sister, Primrose. When the girl tribute's name is read out, to Catniss' horror, it is Prim's name. As Prim walks to the stage, Catniss jumps in front of her and offers herself as a volunteer in her stead. This is allowed and so Catniss becomes a participant in the terror of the Hunger Games.

After the books that I've been reading lately (The Canterbury Tales, The Cat's Table, etc.), this one seemed very simple in structure and language. It was an easy and quick read, very fast-paced and hard to put down once one got into it. Suzanne Collins describes her settings and her characters very well and gives us empathetic characters to root for, an important feature I think for a YA book.

This is the first in a series of three books, again as all the reading world knows, and  the trilogy was among the top ten books that were challenged in the past year, according to the American Library Association.  The books were challenged for being anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitive, having offensive language, occult/satanic references, and violence.  The only part of that that I saw in this book was violence, but it was appropriate to the story. Reading the book was my way of doing my bit for celebrating the freedom to read in Banned Books Week.

I think that I probably will go on to read the other two books in the series. Not right away though. I need a break from dystopia and teen-age angst.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: A review

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yƫ
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende...
How many of us spent part of our freshman year in college learning that prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and then struggling to recite it for our English literature professor? Surprisingly, although I can't always remember what I did last week, I can still remember much of that prologue that I learned all of those long years ago.

I think it is the lyricism, the lilting cadence of the thing, that makes it so memorable. That was a feature of the Middle English in which Chaucer wrote. This week, I read a modern English translation by David Wright for Oxford World's Classics of the entire work and I felt it had that same quality of lyricism. It seemed very true to the original.

In college, I read the excerpts that were required reading for my literature class, but I had never read the work in its entirety. Several books that I have read this year, both fiction and nonfiction, have dealt with this period in history, and, in particular, Barbara Tuchman's excellent  A Distant Mirror about the 14th century made several references to Chaucer and to his masterwork. It piqued my interest and made me decide to read the whole thing.

The setting of the tales is that a group of diverse pilgrims are about to make their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to worship at the site where Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered. To amuse themselves along the way, they agree to a competition in which each will tell a story. At the end, the teller of the story which is judged best will receive a free meal at the Tabard Inn back in Southwark, the meal to be paid for by the other pilgrims. Among the pilgrims is Chaucer who records the tales.

Many of the pilgrims are officials of the Church or are in some way tied to the Church and Chaucer is unsparing in his depiction of these characters. They are mostly venal, greedy, often licentious beings who are completely devoid of Jesus' empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

Especially are they devoid of any empathy or understanding for the lives of women. Perhaps because I am a woman, I was particularly and acutely sensitive to the portrayal of the women in the tales. For the most part, they are either idealized, chaste, saintly beings, an image worshiped by chivalric knights, or else they are complete bawds, living only for the pleasures of the bed. If they are married - and almost all of them are - their chief goal in life is to make a cuckold of their husbands. The married men in the party who tell tales of wives depict them as harridans, as violent creatures who cheat and beat their husbands and get their comeuppance in the end.

One wonders why Chaucer's tales so characterized women. Was he simply reporting the common themes of the day? Were his cartoonish portrayals of women his sly and satirical way of making a point, somewhat like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal? Was he, in short, a 14th century feminist trying to bring change to a world view that was totally hostile to women?

Incidentally, Barbara Tuchman, whose book pointed out the similarities between the 14th century and our own time, would likely be quick to see the analogy between the Church's attitude toward women in the 14th century and the Church's attitude toward women today. Not much progress there, I'm afraid.

The 14th century was, of course, a God-obsessed period and nearly all of the tales relate in some way to the Bible or theology. My two favorites among the stories, though, were mostly free of such associations.

"The Wife of Bath's Tale" introduces us to a woman who has buried five husbands and is on the lookout for a sixth! She may be as close to being liberated as a 14th century woman could be and she has a joy in life and a bawdy sense of humor which is totally infectious. I loved the Wife of Bath!

My second favorite story was "The Nun's Priest's Tale" perhaps because some of my favorite animals are chickens. This story is a retelling of a popular Middle Ages parable about the rooster and the fox. In this case, it's the tale of Chantecleer and his favorite hen Pertelote and the dastardly fox Renard. The priest does manage to get in a dig at women in that it is Pertelote's advice which causes her beloved Chantecleer to be caught by the fox. Never fear, though. As always in these stories, the rooster outfoxes the fox!

This was a wonderful read. It really stands up well over the six centuries since its writing. The bawdy, irreverent tone is not so different from something you might see on late-night television today. I'm not sure if that is such a wonderful recommendation, but I guess what I mean to say is, the world really hasn't changed much since Chaucer's time. He and his other pilgrims would fit right in today.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden: A review

(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature.)

All over the country, gardeners are facing the realities of restricted water availability. Water-use restrictions are now commonplace, not only in dry climate areas like the Southwest, but in the Northeast, the South and the West and Mid-West. It really is a nation-wide phenomenon, one that is likely to get worse as global warming continues unabated. Even in areas that do not yet have water restrictions, low-water plants are an important ingredient in planning a sustainable garden. What's a poor gardener to do?

Gardeners, after all, want their gardens to be beautiful and interesting and the common impression of a low-water garden is that it is a boring space with a limited plant selection. Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden have written a book that proves to us that this does not have to be the case. Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens: 200 Drought-Tolerant Choices for All Climates is a wonderfully practical and usable guide to what the authors consider to be the 200 best plants for low-water gardens. These are tough plants that are guaranteed to thrive under such dry conditions.

Each individual plant entry includes the common and botanical name for the plant, as well as information about the regions for which the plant is best adapted, growth and care information, notes on pests and diseases, and, of course, a picture of the plant. Moreover, the guide includes a wide variety of plants, from trees to succulents, perennials to bulbs, all selected for their wide adaptability and ornamental value. 

The Ogdens cover both humid and arid parts of zones 4 to 10 and offer choices for gardens from coast to coast. The guide also has information about companion plants and includes creative design ideas. It really is one of the most user-friendly guides that I have found. It is readily accessible to the novice gardener as well as the more experienced ones.

The writers are garden designers and horticulturists who have a wide range of experience in various climates, plants, and planting styles both in the United States and Europe. We are lucky that they have chosen to share that experience with us. I can recommend their book wholeheartedly for those gardeners who, like myself,  are genuinely interested in creating a sustainable garden.

(A copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

It's all over

Yesterday was the last day of the regular season in baseball, the last game for my beloved Houston Astros. They won't be going to the post-season again this year. The fact is, they ended the season with the worst record in baseball - 55-107.

This is the second year in a row they've earned that dubious distinction. The good news is that it makes them eligible to make the top draft pick again next year. For a team mostly stocked with 20 - 24-year-olds, that could be important. They are rebuilding from the ground up and the more talented young players they can latch on to, the better their chances of catching lightning in a bottle.

You might think that a team with a 55-107 record had a deadly boring season. You would be wrong. April and May were good for the team. They played well and showed what they were capable of. Unfortunately, those two good months were followed by three mostly bad months which wiped out the gains they had made. But throughout it all, the kids - and they are mostly kids - played hard, played with enthusiasm and never gave up. The mistakes they made were mistakes of eagerness and inexperience, but they were never dull.

In late August, they changed managers and the team responded by playing some of its best games of the year over the last six weeks of the season. The last week of the season, their last road trip of the year to Milwaukee and Chicago, saw them win four out of six games and their pitchers pitch three shutouts. Surprisingly, they also hit about 15 to 20 home runs in those games. It gives their loyal fans hope for the coming year.

If we need further encouragement, we need only look at the lineup of teams in the playoffs this year, teams that also were mostly built from scratch. It's heartening to see teams like the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, and the "Moneyballing" Oakland Athletics get their chance to make it to the World Series.

The most amazing post-season team has to be the Oakland As. At one time in the season, not so very long ago, they were 13 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West. They came all the way back to tie the Rangers for the lead and, yesterday, in the final game of the season, they beat the vaunted Rangers 12-5! They are the American League West champions!

The As are a team of nobodies, has-beens, never-wasses, and rookies, but they had a vision, starting with General Manager Billy Beane all the way down to the greenest rookie in the dugout. They believed if they played hard, played right, they could win. They did.

See that, Astros and Astros fans? It is possible.

Go Oakland! Go Atlanta!

Countdown to 2013 season: 180 days.