Tuesday, December 31, 2013





'Cherry Nymph' amaryllis

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Unexpected Houseplant by Tovah Martin: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remembered Tovah Martin from some of the gardening shows I used to watch on TV, back when there were actual gardening shows on TV, so I was interested to read her book on houseplants. She is also the author of a number of other gardening books, none of which, I admit, I had ever read.

The uninitiated tend to equate indoor plants with that dusty, forgotten philodendron standing in some dark corner of the house, but according to Martin, the choices for indoor plants are much more extensive than philodendrons, African violets, and orchids. She is an evangelist for adding plants of many different varieties to the indoor garden.

She writes of using spring bulbs, lush perennials, succulents, even flowering vines and trees indoors. The key to the survival of  all these plants is, of course, light, water, feeding, grooming, and pruning, especially light and water, and Martin gives practical advice on how to provide what these indoor plants need. She gives tips on troubleshooting your plants, season by season, in order to keep them healthy.

Martin is a convincing proselytizer for the benefits of having an indoor garden. It's not just a matter of adding design flair to a home. Houseplants help to clean indoor air, which can be much more polluted than the outdoor air, and thus make the house healthier for its human occupants.

Martin's enthusiasm for her subject is obvious and she writes in a very knowledgeable and accessible manner which should be easily understandable by beginners as well as experienced indoor gardeners and decorators. Moreover, her text is illustrated by some beautiful photography by Kindra Clineff.

All in all, this is a comprehensive and useful guide for anyone who wants to add some beauty and warmth to their home with the use of houseplants. And it might even help you to keep those plants alive well into the new year!

(Helpful tip: Just don't overwater. That's always the cardinal sin that I and many other indoor gardeners seem to commit.)

Note: A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Poetry Sunday: In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

In only two more days we will be seeing in the year 2014. Where did 2013 go?

I would never have believed it when I was a child, but I have learned as I get older that time does speed up. The years whiz by before we have time to fully experience them.

And what can we do about that? Nothing. Nothing but prepare to ring in the new year and hope for better things from it than we got from the old year.

The poet Alfred Tennyson knew about that wish. One of the most well-loved of the Victorian poets, he wrote this poem about seeing out the old year and seeing in the new and about the hopes that the new year will bring good things to humankind.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

  by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

"Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good...Ring in the thousand years of peace." Let it be so.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What's my dialect?

Here's a fun activity for your Saturday. The New York Times has a language quiz that will pinpoint from where in the United States the dialect that your speak is most likely to originate. In other words, it tells you where you are from.

I was very skeptical of this. I don't think I have an accent. My speech is fairly bland and without, I thought, any particular markers that would identify my place of origin. Boy, was I wrong!

I took the test and answered the questions honestly and at the end, the map glowed red all over...Mississippi. Bingo! That is where I grew up, although I haven't lived there for almost forty years.

Will the test be able to identify where you originated? Give it a try and find out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Layered Garden by David L. Culp: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A long-time writer and lecturer about gardening, David Culp, along with his partner, Michael Alderfer, has spent some twenty years creating their two-acre garden at Brandywine College in Downington, Pennsylvania. In this book, Culp shares the lessons he has learned from that experience.

The Brandywine garden is a layered garden, which simply means that it is a garden with plantings that are planned in order to provide a succession of eye-catching combinations (layers) of interest and beauty from earliest spring right into winter. It is a true four-season garden.

The way that Culp and his partner achieved a four-season garden in Pennsylvania is not necessarily the way that I would achieve it in Southeast Texas. The plants will be different with very little overlap because our climates and our soils are different, but the principles embraced by Culp and recommended by him have application regardless of the area in which one gardens.

The design technique of layering involves the interplanting of many different species in the same area so that as one plant passes its peak, another takes over, with the result that one can have a nonstop parade of color throughout the year. It is a technique of succession planting so that an area is never lacking in color and interest.

The basis of this method is, of course, knowing how to choose the correct plants for your area by understanding how they grow and change throughout the seasons. Then, one must have some idea of how to design a layered garden and know how and be willing to maintain it.

To illustrate these basics, Culp takes the reader on a personal tour through the several parts of his celebrated garden. We get to see the woodland garden, the perennial border, the kitchen garden, the shrubbery, and the walled garden and witness how they change throughout the year.

The final chapter of the book explores the signature plants used in the garden for all four seasons. Many of these signature plants will not be appropriate for other hotter or drier areas of the country. Peonies and hellebores, for example, will not find a home in my garden. Still, there are some plants that we have in common, like roses, members of the lilium family, asters, etc., and the practical advice and ideas behind the plantings are applicable anywhere. Applying them should make it possible to have a four-season garden in any climate.

Finally, I was glad to see a listing at the end of the book of some of Culp's own favorite garden books. They are works by many of his gardening heroes and heroines who are mentioned throughout the book. They represent a veritable encyclopedic range of knowledge about the art and science of gardening, and the list includes several books that I would very much like to add to my own bookshelves.

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Bat by Jo Nesbø: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was actually the novel that introduced Harry Hole to the reading world. Unfortunately for those of us who read English, it was not translated for us until 2013. This was after I had read four of Jo Nesbø's later books in this series that, for some reason, had been translated earlier.

So I had to read The Bat out of sequence - not my favorite way of experiencing a series. It was interesting though, having read the later books, to go back and see the beginning, to meet the younger Harry and to learn more about his troubled background and particularly how alcohol came to rule his life at times.

This is a very different Harry Hole novel from the others I've read because we find our Norwegian detective in the exotic (for him) setting of Australia, where he has been sent to be the liaison for the investigation of the brutal rape and murder of a Norwegian national in Sydney. There, he finds himself partnered with an Aboriginal detective in the Sydney police department.

His new partner, who becomes his friend, is his guide through the cultural puzzle of Australian society. Often, the novel reads like an anthropological text as the detective explains to Harry some of the myths of the Aboriginal people and also some of the tragedies that have been perpetrated on them by the dominant white culture.

The woman who was a minor Norwegian television personality and who was killed had platinum blond hair. At length, the detectives discover other women with such hair who have been raped and/or killed in a similar manner and they begin to suspect that they have a serial rapist/killer on their hands. Harry's partner in the investigation seems to be trying to lead the investigation into a particular path and we begin to suspect that perhaps he knows more than he is willing to admit about just what is going on.

The plot is complicated by a traveling clown act whose schedule of performances seems to have something to do with the murders and by various encounters with street people, prostitutes and their pimps, and other people who may have information or may be connected to the crimes in some way. Harry, at a certain point, is sure that he knows who the killer is, but the person he suspects seems to have an unbreakable alibi.

Other horrific murders further complicate the story and every time I thought I had things figured out, Nesbø threw another twist into the tale. Red herrings abound and we begin to wonder, along with Harry, if the mystery will ever be solved.

The complicated plots and the misdirections seem to be a hallmark of Nesbø's mystery novels. They do add a certain thriller aura to the books and they definitely make the reader want to keep on reading to figure out just where this story is going. One can clearly see in this first of the series that the pattern is being set and future mysteries are presaged.

I really enjoy this series and I am particularly appreciative of the translator, Don Bartlett, who is able to render the stories into a very smooth and flowing narrative, something that not all translators, particularly of Scandinavian works, are able to accomplish. I now look forward to catching up with Harry Hole in the second book of the series, The Cockroaches, which has evidently this year been translated into English also.

Jo Nesbø is a talented writer and I hope there will be more entries in this very interesting series.    

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Holiday greetings

As we near the end of 2013, I want to thank all my readers for visiting my blog this year. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences with you and I look forward to doing more of that in 2014.

For the next few days, I will be busy getting ready for the holidays and then enjoying them with my family and loved ones. I hope that your holidays find you surrounded by people that you love and who love you and that the coming year is a happy and healthy one for you.

Have a joyous and peaceful holiday season.


Poetry Sunday: Christmas Bells

The Christmas season once again. Let us acknowledge it with an old favorite from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the mid-nineteenth century American poet. This poem simply reminds me that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Christmas Bells

  by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
    And wild and sweet 
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
    Had rolled along 
    The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
    A voice, a chime, 
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
    And made forlorn 
    The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    "For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

"The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail" - how fervently we want to believe that, especially at this season of the year.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Caturday: Climbing up the Christmas tree

We put up our holiday decorations a week ago and since then I've been in a constant struggle with my cats, Beau and Bella, to keep those decorations in their place. Everything is a cat's toy, according to the feline way of thinking, and that includes the Christmas tree.

Friday, December 20, 2013

My favorite books of 2013

December is the time of year when everyone is making his/her list and checking it twice for the best or worst things about the year. Time announces its person of the year and we see lists of the best and worst movies or TV shows or video games. The New York Times lists its notable books of the year.

As a constant reader, I have my own list of "notable" books, the best books I have read this year. It was a difficult list to narrow down because I have read some very good books in 2013. I tried to select my favorite book in each month and found that in some months I just couldn't do it.

Here, then, is my own highly personal list of my favorite books that I have read this year with links to my review of each book.

January: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver's novel of the effects of global warming on the life cycle and migration of the beautiful Monarch butterfly was one of the first books that I read this year and it is still one of the most affecting.

February: This was the first month in which I couldn't choose just one "favorite."

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Diaz's first novel about an amazingly sweet-tempered, grossly obese teenage geek who lives in a fantasy world of gaming, anime, comics, and The Lord of the Rings is at its heart a sympathetic portrayal of the struggle of Dominican-American immigrants and the trials of being the eternal outsider.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The "Goon Squad" is quite simply time and we all receive visits from it every day. This book is all about the passage of time and how our lives never seem to turn out exactly as we had planned.

March: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I was actually a bit disappointed in this book at the time and yet, in the end, it turned out to be one of my favorite books of the year - a tale set in Oakland, California, with its roots in the Oakland of the 1970s and the heyday of the Black Panthers movement.

April: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

This was the year that I discovered Kate Atkinson, a wonderful writer, and this was the first of her books that I read. It was the one that introduced Jackson Brodie, certainly one of the most unusual of fictional detectives, and it was a winner.

May: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

I love Penny's series about the humane Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, another very unusual detective, and this book involving a mystery in a remote monastery in Quebec is one of the best in the series.

June: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Almost any book of Louise Erdrich's that I read is destined to wind up on my list of favorites because she is such a talented writer. This particular book which details the problems of violence against Native American women by white men and the jurisdictional difficulties that arise from that seems torn straight from today's headlines.

July: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

People had been telling me for years that I should read this book, but this was the year that I finally got around to it, and I found out that those people had been 100% right! This Atwood classic has lost none of its power in the years since its publication.

August: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan   

This book, which caused some conservatives' heads to explode because a Muslim (Horrors!) was daring to write about the man whose life and death were the basis for the founding of Christianity, was really a very interesting take on the life of Jesus, the man not the Christ, and the revolutionary times in which he lived.

September: This was another month in which I had a twofer.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This is another classic which my husband had been urging me to read for years. I have to admit once again that hubby knows best, because I loved this book about the kindly Mr. Harding. Trollope's writing is lush and descriptive and slyly humorous. His style reminded me very much of the novels of manners by Jane Austen.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Much as I loved Trollope's classic, I could not list my favorite books of the year without including this tour de force by Atkinson. Her tale of alternative lives and deaths for her character Ursula Todd is, in my opinion, the very best book I have read all year.

October: Die Trying by Lee Child

It was hard to select my favorite book of October, because it probably had the weakest candidates of any month, but in the end, I had to go with this Lee Child book, the second in the Jack Reacher series. It is highly entertaining, a nonstop roller coaster ride of action.

November: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

McCall Smith's gentle mysteries featuring Precious Ramotswe and her beloved Botswana are long-time favorites and this was a strong entry in that series.

December: Again, I have two "favorites" and the month isn't even over yet!

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert's iconoclastic 19th century botanist, Alma Whittaker, is one of the favorite characters that I have met this year. Her story, told in Dickensian detail by the author, is a fascinating tour of a century of important scientific discoveries.

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

This latest in the saga of Moscow detective Arkady Renko continues to give us an insight into Russian society and also an understanding for the strength of the human desire to see justice done.

That's it - my list of favorites for this year. I'd love to hear about your favorites and especially of any that I might have missed and should add to my to be read list for 2014.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Beyond Reach by Graham Hurley: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The more I spend time in the company of Detective Inspector Joe Faraday and former Detective Constable Paul Winter the more I enjoy that company. I find myself feeling rather sad to be leaving them when the book has ended. That often happens with series that I enjoy and I do read a lot of series. Beyond Reach was number 10 in the Faraday/Winter series. Fortunately for me, there are still a couple more left.

The thing that makes this particular series so enjoyable for me are the disparate personalities of the two main characters.

Faraday is the buttoned-up committed lifer in the Job (always written with a capital J), i.e, the police. As the series has progressed, we see his frustration growing with the Job and with the direction that his society seems to be taking. Moreover, he longs for a committed relationship with a woman he can love, but it often seems that that is never going to happen. His solace from all his frustrations is Nature, and especially the birds of Nature. Some of the best (for me) passages in the books describe his birding expeditions and list the birds that he sees. They are so meticulous that one gets the idea that Graham Hurley himself must be a birder. As a long-time (now retired) government employee and a birder, I identify a bit with Faraday, especially with his frustrations with his work.

Paul Winter, on the other hand, is a bit of a free spirit, but he was no less committed than Faraday all those years to the Job. He always had a hard time playing strictly by the rules set by his employers. He was more interested in catching the bad guys and putting them away than he was in any rule. What really irritated his superiors was that his way of policing got results. He was one of the most effective coppers they had. But finally his butting heads with those in authority combined with his own frustration with the Job led him to turn in his warrant card and look for another line of work. The irony is that he found it and a lot more satisfaction working for one of the "bad guys" he had spent years trying to incarcerate. Bazza MacKenzie is now supposedly a reformed character, pillar of the community and all that, but is he really?

The story here is how routine follow-the-rule police methods can fail victims in complex circumstances.

A young man is bullied mercilessly for months and is finally murdered by his tormentors, but the police, even though it seems well known who the attackers were, are unable to secure the evidence needed to convict them. They walk free and continue their harassment with a new victim, the young man's mother who had sought justice for her son. Months later, late one night, the leader of the group is run down on the streets and he dies at the scene. The investigation leads the police to the mother of the first victim. Had she given up on the justice system ever providing closure for the tragedy she suffered and decided to take justice into her own hands?

Meantime, Bazza's daughter, a lawyer who looks after the interests of the family business, has become involved in an extramarital affair - with a policeman! Bazza is outraged and puts Winter on the case to sort things. Winter is not pleased with this domestic assignment, but at the same time he seeks to bargain in order to extricate himself from another assignment, one involving overseeing a social service organization set up by his boss.

Faraday, in trouble with his superiors because of his sympathy for the driver of the hit and run car as well as members of the community who take a stand against the neighborhood bullies who were a part of that victim's gang, is given a new assignment to keep him out of the way - working on a cold case involving a rape that happened more than twenty years earlier. He pursues the clues in the case to a surprising and heartbreaking result.

This was an intricately plotted tale that kept the reader on her toes trying to follow all the twists and turns. I actually was able to solve the final mystery well before the end of the book, but I was fascinated to follow along with how Hurley would bring the whole thing to a conclusion. All in all, an engrossing read.  

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Let those seedheads be!

I have this "weed" in my garden. Actually, I have many weeds in my garden. The weeds may even outnumber the plants that I've planted on purpose, but this particular weed turns out to be special.

In the first place, it came to me from the nursery. I had bought a white mistflower from one of my favorite nurseries. I brought it home and planted it. I noticed there was a separate little plant in the pot, but it was mixed in with the mistflower and I actually thought at first that it was part of the plant I had bought. As the mistflower grew, it became obvious that this was a separate and different plant. I dug it out from the mistflower planting and normally would have put it on the compost pile, but curiosity got the better of me. I planted it in a bed nearby and it flourished.

All of this happened last year and in the late summer, the mystery plant bloomed. The plant was still fairly small and the flowers were few but I set about trying to identify it. I decided pretty quickly that it was in the aster family, but that is one BIG family and it was harder to narrow it down to a specific plant. I finally decided that it was either camphor weed (Pluchea camphorata) or marsh fleabane (Pluchea purpurascens) and it seemed that the most likely candidate was the fleabane.

I noticed that the butterflies and bees seemed to like those blossoms and so I decided to keep this "weed," this free Texas wildflower from the nursery.

The plant had another good year and when it bloomed this year, I took pictures.

The plant was covered in these purplish blossoms and the blossoms persisted for several weeks, a real treat for the bees and butterflies.

Finally, the blooms did fade and seedheads developed. They were not particularly attractive and in the normal course of things, I might have deadheaded the plant and removed those seeds, but "normal" did not apply to my late October and November this year. I got sick and didn't get done any of the minimal fall cleanup that I would usually have done in the garden. That included removing seedheads. 

After a while, my fleabane looked like this. It's in my direct line of sight when I sit in my favorite spot on the patio, and I've been thinking that maybe I should still do a bit of tidying up there, but I just haven't got around to it.

Then this week, I was sitting on the patio, watching the birds and idly staring in the direction of the fleabane when I became aware that there was a bird in the plant. I picked up my binoculars for a closer look and smiled ear to ear when I recognized an Orange-crowned Warbler!  

Now, you may not be too impressed with that. Orange-crowned Warblers are very attractive birds, I think, but they are not one of the flashy types that birders typically set their sights for. But as a backyard birder, I keep close track of the birds that visit my yard. Orange-crowned Warblers are a winter visitor, but they have never been as numerous as our other two "winter" warblers, the Pine and the Yellow-rumped. Last year, I looked in vain for an Orange-crowned all winter long. I never saw one. And now, here a few days before winter officially begins, was one feeding on wildflower seeds in my yard.

I watched the bird for several minutes as it went all over the plant, plucking seeds. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me and could not record the event. I was afraid to get up to go get it, because I would surely have scared the bird away. So, I just sat and enjoyed the sight while it lasted.

And what, you ask,  is the lesson that we learn from this experience? It's simple. Gardeners should not be in such a rush to tidy their gardens up in the fall. Those unattractive seedheads can provide nourishment for birds or other critters. That leaf and twig debris can help provide winter homes and protection from the weather for any number of small reptiles or amphibians. Brush piles provide welcome cover for small songbirds, where they can escape from predators or even spend the cold winter nights.

We should look at our gardens as the homes for wildlife that they surely are, rather than as a reflection on our characters if they are not kept constantly neat and tidy. Nature actually prefers a bit of untidiness. As stewards of the land, we should be willing to accept that, too. I know that I'll be leaving those fleabane seedheads alone and hoping for another visit from that Orange-crowned Warbler.    

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Within a few days, the fearless reporter Tatiana Petrovna falls to her death from her sixth-floor apartment in Moscow and a mob billionaire name Grisha Grigorenko receives a bullet to the head and is buried with all the trappings of a lord.

Meanwhile, Tatiana's body is "lost" by the morgue, then found and secretly cremated. Investigator Arkady Renko is suspicious of connections between the two deaths. No one else cares to see any connections.

As usual, the cynical and analytical Renko is on his own as he pursues his investigation of Tatiana's death, even though the prosecutor's office has decided that there is no case. Tatiana supposedly committed suicide. But there is a witness who heard her screaming as she fell. Does a woman who commits suicide by jumping from a great height scream on the way down?

Renko goes to Tatiana's apartment and finds tapes in Tatiana's voice that describe horrific crimes. Her account of these crimes does not agree with the Kremlin's official versions. Did her investigations mark her as an enemy to the government and was that government involved in her death? Arkady Renko is determined to find the answer to that question.

The evidence found in Tatiana's apartment leads Renko to Kaliningrad, a Cold War "secret city" that seems to be at the center of the mystery. Tatiana's sister lived there and, there, Renko meets with a famous poet who was once Tatiana's lover. Kalinigrad also is the city with the highest crime rate in Russia. Human life seems cheap there.

The solution to the mystery lies in a notebook belonging to a professional interpreter - a professional interpreter who (coincidentally?) was murdered in Kaliningrad. The notebook is filled with cryptic drawings and mysterious symbols that constitute a language known only to the interpreter.

Arkady Renko's ward, the young chess prodigy Zhenya, gets his hands on the notebook and he and a friend, another chess prodigy, begin to crack the code and figure out what the notebook says. While they work on this project in Arkady's Moscow apartment, Arkady himself continues to pursue his investigations in Kaliningrad.

Tatiana is written with Martin Cruz Smith's typical combination of black humor, irony, and romance, as well as a keen understanding of Russian society and the way things work in the bureaucracy there. The characters are richly drawn and the story is entertaining. I didn't feel that it was one of Smith's best, but it was an enjoyable read and Arkady Renko is always a good companion.

Renko lives with an inoperable bullet rattling around in his skull and with the knowledge that that bullet could spell his doom at any time. He has been warned against exertion, but he has come to terms with the possibility of death and he chooses to pursue his calling in life, the investigation of crime, with stoicism and fatalism. And with passion, because, in spite of everything, he really does care about pursuing justice, difficult though that may be in the society in which he lives. The important thing to Arkady may not be that justice is actually achieved but that he stubbornly never gives up the fight to achieve it. Arkady Renko, cynic, may also be the last of the Russian romantics.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Shortest Day

Admittedly, it has seemed like winter for some time now, as much of the continent has been blanketed in snow and ice. And even here where I live, though we haven't had either ice or snow, we've had gray, cold, drizzly days with icy winds from the north that made us huddle in our sweaters and turn up the thermostats.

The calendar assures us that winter has not, in fact, truly arrived yet, but just a few more days and Earth will have completed its transit around the sun. The year will be complete and the shortest day will signal that the new astronomical year is about to begin.

From the earliest days of human history, this has been a time of festivals - festivals meant to hold the fearful dark at bay and welcome the light of a new day and a new year. We continue this tradition with our year-end holidays and celebrations. They connect us to our forbears, singing and dancing around the fires to drive the dark away.

The Shortest Day 

by Susan Cooper

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Caturday: Enjoy!

Putting funny captions on pictures of cats and posting those pictures on internet sites is a hobby with a certain type of person, and the rest of us owe them thanks because their hobby brings smiles and sometimes chuckles. For your Caturday enjoyment, here is a baker's dozen of such pictures that I have come across this week.

Friday, December 13, 2013

That Christmas spirit

This time of year in the northern hemisphere is especially difficult for the poor, the homeless, the sick. Many religious traditions take note of this by making special appeals at this time to their adherents to provide assistance to those in need. It is a time when people of conscience must be particularly aware of those who are less fortunate than they and wish to reach out to them and help them.

Having been raised in the Christian tradition, I always associate this desire to help with Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats as related in the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. The relevant section of the parable from the New International Version of the Bible begins with Matthew 25:34.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 

Every religious tradition that I am familiar with gives similar approbation to this human impulse toward altruism.

And then there is the opposite tradition which is embodied by certain prominent politicians and their supporters in our country. They were skewered very succinctly in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon at Daily Kos this week.

"The true meaning of Christmas" in their world seems to be "We've got ours. All the rest of you losers are on your own." The irony is that, often, what they've got has been inherited and has not really been gained through their own efforts.

Then, of course, there is the very insular and racist view of Christmas as exemplified by this news host on Fox News this week.

She and all her all-white and vociferously Christian cohorts at Fox News would likely have their minds blown by this image:

Whatever our religious or non-religious traditions, let us resist the impulse to selfishness and insularity and instead extend our compassion and altruism to all who need it at this time of year and throughout the year. That would be the true spirit of Christmas, the humane spirit.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame has written a remarkable novel featuring a remarkable woman of the 19th century. Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to the richest man in Philadelphia, grew up to become, in fact, a female counterpart to Charles Darwin in the century of Darwin, a time when the idea of a female scientist would have been laughed at.

Before we meet Alma, though, we meet her father, Henry Whittaker, a low-born Englishman who was banished because he stole plants from Kew Gardens, where his father worked as a plantsman. Instead of having him hanged, as could have happened, his father's employer sent him on an ocean voyage to assist his plant collectors. Henry already knew much about plants from his father, and now he learned even more as he traveled to exotic locations around the world. He grew into a man with an unquenchable thirst to succeed and accumulate wealth. He did both.

After his ties with Britain and Kew Gardens were severed, he went to Holland where he acquired a well-educated wife, named Beatrix, from a famous academic family. Together, they emigrated to the new country of the United States, specifically to Philadelphia and it was there that Whittaker built his prosperous plant empire. There, Alma was born and was educated by her mother and learned plants almost by osmosis it seems from her father.

Alma's world is disrupted when her parents adopt a child, a little girl whose parents died tragically on the Whittaker estate. She and her new sister, Prudence, who possesses an ethereal beauty, will never be close. In contrast to Prudence, Alma was plain as a baby and young girl and she grows into a plain woman, large, big-boned, and with an unruly crop of red hair which seems to sprout in every direction.    

Her gift is not physical beauty but a beauty of the mind. She is a brilliant child who grows into a brilliant woman, ultimately a self-taught botanist of considerable gifts and some renown.

At the age of sixteen, Alma discovers erotic literature and the capacity of her own body to give her sensual pleasure. For the rest of her life, masturbation will be a part of her routine.

While her sister and best friend marry, Alma remains single. She becomes a spinster who is most excited by her love of knowledge, but at the age of forty-eight, she does fall in love with a man named Ambrose Pike, a utopian artist who paints incomparable pictures of orchids. Ambrose leads her to delve into the realm of the spiritual and the magical - quite a journey for a clear-minded scientist like Alma.  

The two marry quickly but their marriage is doomed by misunderstandings and they soon go their separate ways. At this point, Alma's story is just beginning!

This sprawling novel takes us around the globe and is peopled by so many unforgettable characters. Among them are abolitionists, adventurers, sea captains, missionaries, astronomers, geniuses, and some who are quite mad. But most unforgettable of all is Alma Whittaker as she passes from the Age of Enlightenment to the age of the Industrial Revolution and witnesses all the extraordinary changes along the way. New ideas in science, religion, commerce, and class were coming fast and furious, and Alma is a part of it all.

Some reviewers have described this book as Dickensian and indeed it does seem to be written in the spirit of Dickens' time. But it is in a thoroughly modern voice and is very accessible, an easy read. I liked Alma Whittaker very much and I am glad that Elizabeth Gilbert chose to give her to us.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: The Chrysalis

For the last few weeks, my garden has been home to several Monarch butterfly caterpillars. This is cause for celebration because Monarch butterflies have been so scarce in the garden this year, but, finally, as the migrants have made their way south, several of them have stopped over in my yard to deposit their eggs on my milkweed plants. The eggs that successfully hatched have resulted in hungry caterpillars which have now stripped most of the leaves from those plants.

I've been on the lookout for the next stage in butterfly development, but I had not seen any evidence of it until yesterday.

I found this lovely green Monarch chrysalis hanging from the back of one of my patio chairs.

Now, butterfly development proceeds in a fairly mundane fashion up until the chrysalis point. The female lays the egg on the host plant - the milkweed in the case of the Monarch. A tiny caterpillar hatches after a few days and begins to devour the plant. All caterpillars are born hungry and, as they consume their nursery plant, they grow fairly rapidly. But when they have eaten enough, something inside them tells them that it is time to pupate, to transform into an adult.

At this point, the caterpillar generally will wander away from the plant he has been dining on and will find a sheltered, safe spot in which to attach the protective shell known as the chrysalis, inside which the critter will transform itself into a butterfly. This whole process seems like nothing short of magic.

Within the chrysalis, much of the body breaks itself down into what are called "imaginal" cells. These are undifferentiated, like stem cells, and they have the capacity to become any type of cell. The cells then put themselves back together in a whole new shape in a process called "holometabolism." For most butterflies, including the Monarch, this transformation can take about two weeks until a whole new adult butterfly emerges..

See? Like I said, it borders on the magical.

Here is a video which shows the complete life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, including the formation of that magical cocoon, the chrysalis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The war on Christmas

It's that time of year when Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, and all of their cohorts in Right-Wingnutville get their knickers in a twist over what they call "the war on Christmas." For the rest of us, surrounded as we are by symbols of Christmas everywhere we go and perfect strangers wishing us a merry Christmas, this "war" looks a lot like peace, but you'll never convince those who peddle the war stories.

It turns out, though, that the war stories they constantly peddle on Fox News and in books like Palin's book, Good Tidings and Great Joy, are mostly pure bunk.

We had an example of that bunk in Texas just this week when State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) held a press conference to crow about the bill he had introduced that had just become law. His law ensures that everyone in Texas has the right to say "Merry Christmas." Yes, the Texas legislature this year, with all the serious and real problems that this state has, took time to pass a law that we can all say "Merry Christmas" to each other. Not that anyone had been prevented from doing that before and even Bohac could not give any examples of this having occurred, but just in case, thanks to our noble legislators, our rights to give each other greetings of the season are now protected by law!

The idea that people are somehow prevented from saying "Merry Christmas" is just one of the myths that the purveyors of the idea of a war on Christmas promulgate in their annual fight to annihilate the warriors against Christmas. Some of the other myths were outlined in article in Salon.com today. They include:

"Public schools have banned the colors red and green." According to Salon, this one has been floating around the right-wing bubble for years and has now attained the status of "Religious Right urban legend." Of course, no one can offer any real evidence that this has happened - for the very good reason that it hasn't. But still, every year the old canard gets trotted out once again and gullible people believe it.

"Public schools can't recognize Christmas anymore." Of course they can, but public schools serve kids from many religious backgrounds and they must strive for balance and inclusion of all those traditions. To translate that need for inclusiveness into an idea that the schools can't recognize Christmas is just ridiculous.

"You can't use the term "Christmas tree" anymore or even display them in public." If this is true, why do I run into Christmas trees everywhere I go in public at this season? This particular myth, of course, does not recognize that the so-called "Christmas" tree is, in fact, of pagan origin, a tradition that was co-opted by Christians. (For that matter, the holiday itself is of pagan origin and was adopted by Christians as the date that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated, even though evidence indicates that the birth probably occurred in summer.)

"Cities and towns can't decorate for Christmas because someone will be offended." Same question again - if this is true, why do I see municipal seasonal decorations everywhere I go in December every year? But, again, as with public schools, these municipalities are home to people of many religious traditions and unless the governments of these places are completely tone deaf and indifferent to the sensibilities of their citizens, they will make an effort to include seasonal decorations of other groups besides Christians.

"Clerks in stores have been ordered to say 'Happy Holidays,' and store flyers and catalogs no longer mention the word 'Christmas.'" Again, stores that attempt to be inclusive of all their clientele may indeed instruct clerks to say "Happy Holidays." After all, how do they know whether you are Christian or if you celebrate Christmas or not? Are they supposed to ask first? "Happy Holidays" actually seems to me to be a very sensible way for such a business to greet their customers, but, of course, it is highly offensive to the rabid religious right which recognizes no holiday and no religious traditions except their own.

This is all such nonsense. Christmas is in no danger of being vanquished and obliterated from our calendars or our sensibilities. But Bill O'Reilly has to have something to rail against to keep those ratings up. At least while he's ranting about this, he can't be spreading more disinformation about the Affordable Care Act.    

Monday, December 9, 2013

Legacy of the Dead by Charles Todd: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Legacy of the Dead is the fourth in Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series. This is an intelligently written, literate series about a veteran of the trench warfare in France during World War I who, after the war, is trying to pick up the pieces of his life and his career at Scotland Yard.

But he carries the burden of a dark secret - namely, that he still suffers from the effects of shell-shock, as it was then known, post-traumatic stress disorder as we call it today. He carries with him the persona of a young Scots soldier named Hamish McLeod, whom he had to have executed on the battlefield for his refusal to obey an order. Hamish's cynical, taunting voice is a constant presence in his mind. One of the strengths of these books is that they deal with the issue of PTSD in a very sensitive fashion.

Ian Rutledge's superior at Scotland Yard is a very jealous man and he prefers to keep the skilled investigator Rutledge as far away as he can, so he always sends him out of town on cases at every opportunity.

This time, he is sent to Scotland which is where many of the ghosts that haunt Rutledge rest uneasily. This will not be a comfortable assignment for him.

The case that he is sent to investigate involves the weathered remains of a woman that have been discovered on a Scottish mountainside. The police believe they may be those of Eleanor Gray, a young woman from high society who has not been heard from in three years. Her mother, Lady Maude Gray, a woman of imperious bearing and ties to the British crown, professes not to believe that the bones are those of her daughter, and her objections must be handled delicately. Just the sort of thing that Inspector Rutledge excels at!

The real problem is that there is a young woman in jail who is accused of having killed the woman whose body was found and that young woman turns out to be a shocking surprise to both Rutledge and his mental companion Hamish.

We follow Rutledge through his examination of the evidence and his interviewing of many potential witnesses in the small and very insular Scottish town. He perceives early on that the accused woman, who has been enduring a campaign of slanderous anonymous letters sent to her neighbors, has become a scapegoat. He is sure that she is innocent and he hopes to be able to prove it and save her from the hangman.

There are several surprising turns in this well-written book and perhaps the most surprising is saved for the last. The plot is intricately planned and executed and it keeps the reader guessing and turning those pages right up to the end. It's easy to see why this was a "best novel" nominee for the Anthony Award when it was published in 2001.

"Charles Todd" is actually two people, Caroline and Charles Todd, a mother and son writing team. They have been very prolific. They actually have two series going, as well as stand-alone books. The Ian Rutledge series has at least ten more books, and counting, which just means lots of good reading ahead for me!

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Snowbound (The sun that brief December day)

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was an American Quaker poet who was strongly influenced by Scottish poet Robert Burns. He wrote poetry that was very evocative of time and place.

This week, as much of the country is wrapped in snow and ice, this seems an appropriate poem, with which to commemorate this season of cold.

Snow-Bound [The sun that brief December day]

  by John Greenleaf Whittier

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
    A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
    The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east: we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore, 
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.
Meanwhile we did your nightly chores,--
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd's-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold's pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the wingèd snow:
And ere the early bed-time came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

As night drew on, and, from the crest
Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,
The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank
From sight beneath the smothering bank,
We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back,--
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
The crane and pendent trammels showed,
The Turks' heads on the andirons glowed;
While childish fancy, prompt to tell
The meaning of the miracle,
Whispered the old rhyme: "Under the tree,
When fire outdoors burns merrily,
There the witches are making tea."
The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood,
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the somber green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where'er it fell
To make the coldness visible.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Caturday: You shall not pass!

Hat tip to The Huffington Post for this compilation of canine cowardice. I'm not a big Huffington fan, but I have to admit this is kinda funny.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Captain of his Soul

Photo by Darryl Hammond, Getty.
 “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.” (Nelson Mandela, 1994)

1918 - 2013

I have featured this poem on the blog before in connection with writing about Nelson Mandela, a man almost universally admired. It was a poem that was apparently very meaningful to him and which brought him comfort in his long years of imprisonment on Robben Island. It seems appropriate to feature it again today. 

If any man could ever be called the Captain of his Soul, it was surely Nelson Mandela. We are privileged to have walked the Earth at the same time as this great man. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Anti-green ALEC

Do you know who writes the bills that become law in your state? The chances are quite good that it is a right-wing lobbying group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. If you live in a state that is dominated by right-wing politics, as I do, then the odds of ALEC's involvement in the laws of your state go up exponentially.

ALEC is an organization, like most of its kind, that prefers to operate in the dark. They do their work in back rooms, meeting with state legislators and their staff members, and ghost-writing some of the most draconian of the anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-voter, anti-immigrant, and, at least in the past, anti-gay legislation that state legislatures have passed. Note that their campaigns are almost always "anti" something. I'm not aware of any positive legislation they have sponsored.  

One of their most notorious legislative campaigns which has seen success in many states around the country is the one in which they teamed up with the National Rifle Association to promote "Stand Your Ground" laws, laws that essentially permit individuals to commit murder and get away with it by claiming that they felt threatened. This was actually one outrageous law too far for many who had supported ALEC. In the last couple of years, the organization has lost the membership and support of almost 400 state legislators and more than 60 corporation largely because of the group's involvement in writing those laws. The group is now engaged in a campaign to win back those supporters and others. As part of the effort, they have pledged that they will no longer engage in writing gun laws.

Apparently they believe that a more fertile and profitable ground for sowing their seeds of "anti-ism" is in environmental policy. They are having a big summit in Washington, D.C. this week. Their keynote speaker is Sen. Ted Cruz, climate change denier. Other speakers include Rep. Paul Ryan, climate change denier, and Sen. Ron Johnson, climate change denier. Do we detect a theme here?

Some light has finally been shed on this shady organization this week by The Guardian which has been publishing reports about its activities. It has documented its loss of support because of helping to write "Stand Your Ground" laws and has reported on what appears to be the group's big push for legislation in 2014. It seems that they will be spending their time and efforts on blocking the Environmental Protection Agency's every move, attacking state clean energy laws, and fast-tracking approval of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. They will, in fact, be attacking efforts at protecting the environment and encouraging homeowners' efforts at making their houses more "green."

One of their prime goals will be to penalize homeowners who install solar panels on their houses. Most governmental and utility entities have seen such installations as a positive thing and have introduced regulations which encourage them. ALEC takes the opposite view and plans to spend 2014 attempting to weaken such laws throughout the country.

Perhaps it should be noted here that among ALEC's biggest financial supporters have been Charles and David Koch's foundations and Exxon-Mobil. As my professor in a long-ago sociology class was fond of reminding his students, "Follow the money if you want to know a person's or organization's motivation."    

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Gray squirrels - the new squirrel in town

A half-grown gray squirrel kit photographed in my backyard over the past weekend.

The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is native to the eastern and midwestern United States and to the southern portions of the eastern provinces of eastern Canada. But they have never been resident in my yard in the twenty-five years that we have lived here, and so it was a surprise when three of them turned up in my backyard over the weekend.

The first to show up was an adult female who was feeding under my bird feeders in the yard. I went inside to get my camera to document her presence, but while I was gone, she disappeared. However, in just a little while, two very young gray squirrels came to the same area to feed. The adult's babies? Maybe.

The two little squirrels were picking up seeds and also munching on some pieces of stale rolls that I had scattered on the ground. 

Now, our yard is and ever has been well-populated by fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), the big rusty colored squirrels, largest of the North American tree squirrels, but I cannot recall ever having seen the smaller gray squirrel in our yard before. Since the range of the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel do overlap - although the main range of the fox squirrel is more to the west - it's not unprecedented that they should show up in the same suburban backyard. But it certainly was cause for a double-take in my yard.

The gray squirrel is a highly adaptable and prolific species that has been introduced to some of its non-native regions in the United States and also in the United Kingdom and in Italy. Its introduction in the UK has proved to be a classic case of the hazards of introducing a non-native, potentially invasive species. It has displaced the native red squirrel there and has led to fears that the red squirrel might be completely replaced by the gray squirrel. Something similar is also happening in Italy, spreading fears that the species could become invasive in other parts of Europe.

But back here in its native territory, the expansion of the gray squirrel is kept somewhat in check by a variety of predators, including weasels, raccoons, hawks, owls, domestic and feral cats, snakes, dogs, and even humans. Squirrel hunting seasons are popular in some areas of the country.

These squirrels are most active in the early and late hours of the day. They usually avoid being out and about in the middle of the day. They are active at all seasons and do not hibernate.

Of course, gray squirrels are known for their acrobatics, particularly their cleverness in being able to access the supposedly inaccessible backyard bird feeder, where they can become a nuisance. My feeders, however, are protected by squirrel baffles and so I can just sit back and enjoy their antics as they glean under the feeders.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a Swedish husband and wife writing team, who, between 1965 and 1975, published a series of ten books featuring the detective Martin Beck. In many ways, this was an iconic series, forerunner and progenitor of some of the most popular Scandinavian mystery/thriller series of today. Writers like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Stieg Larson certainly owe a debt to the Sjowall/Wahloo team.

Over the years, I have seen references to this series in reviews that I've read of other books. Finally, I decided it was time for me to get to know the works and to find out why others spoke of them so reverentially.

This Kindle edition of Roseanna that I read had an introduction written by Henning Mankell, in which he acknowledged his debt to the earlier writers. (Mr. Wahloo is now deceased, but Ms. Sjowall is still with us - just not writing mysteries anymore.) He also mentions the influence of American detective fiction on the Sjowall/Wahloo team, especially the books of Ed McBain.

But as I was reading this first book in the series, I had to wonder if perhaps they were influenced by that Stone Age television detective series Dragnet with Jack Webb. Jack Webb's character, Joe Friday, was always famous for wanting "Just the facts, ma'am" from his overly loquacious witnesses. That is the feeling that I get from this book.

It is a police procedural that follows step by excruciating step as Inspector Martin Beck and his team attempt to solve the murder of an unidentified woman who was raped, strangled, and then her naked body thrown into a lake where it was later brought up by a dredger.

The investigation proceeds at a snail's pace as the investigators attempt to identify a body that had no identification and which no one has reported missing. The first break in the case finally comes from an unexpected source - the American embassy. It seems that an American tourist traveling in Europe has not returned as expected to her home in Lincoln, Nebraska. That tourist was a librarian named Roseanna and the investigation of her death becomes an international effort.

Even with her identification though, there are still no clues as to how or why she wound up in the lake. The second break comes when the investigators are able to determine that she was a passenger on a tourist boat.

And so it goes. Bit by bit the investigators build their case, eliminating some possibilities and following up leads on others, until finally some pictures taken by some of the tourists on the boat and Beck's intuition lead them to the solution to the case and to their killer. It is six-and-a-half months after the woman's death.

Martin Beck is a typically morose Scandinavian detective. (Are all of these guys depressed?) One can certainly see the prototype of Mankell's Kurt Wallander, for example, in Beck. Martin Beck always seems to be sick or worried about his health. He has a wife and family but he is too obsessed by his work to spend much time with them or even to relate to them as a normal husband and father might. He is driven to solve murders. Nothing else seems to matter to him.

It was very interesting to read this story from the '60s. Everybody used public telephones. There were no cell phones, no computers, no tiny tape recorders. And Sweden was very different from today. There were few immigrants and no constant flow of refugees as is very much the case today. It was a much more homogeneous society.

I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the nine which follow. I just have one silly quibble. Throughout the book, the writers always refer to their detective as Martin Beck. He's never just Martin or just Beck. It irritated me a bit after a while. Did they feel they had to continually remind us of his full name? Were they afraid we would forget it? What's up with that anyway?      

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Mad December

Here we are at last at the first day of December - last month of the year. What will the month bring? "Sickly grey" days of "puddling mud of endless dreary rain?" Or maybe bright, sunny days with clear blue skies and brisk temperatures, the last days of autumn before winter truly begins? Well, that is to be determined, isn't it? Thirty-one days of the unknown lie ahead of us. Let's make the most of them!  

Mad December      
by Thomas Horton

This is not yet the howling winter
Huffing its bluster hither and yon
Heaving its intense fury
In swells of former flurries
Gathered like an army of tiny invaders
Forming a carpet to choke the life
From all they touch

No, this is the sickly grey
Of a desolate late autumn
That has forgotten
The beauty of her childhood
Gone the leaves of fire
Against crisp blue skies
And harvested bounty
In beige fields where
Children enjoyed hayrides
And picked the perfect pumpkin
And banished their shivers
With warm spiced cider
By a crackling bonfire

All that fall fun
Lies long fallow
In the puddling mud
Of endless dreary rain
Drizzling without romance or conviction
From the bleak dishwater sky
A dismal half-day
Heralding too early
A night too cold
Too dark
And too long

This is December
And she is jealous
Of a spring she will never see
And petulantly she spits
On the barren ground
And curses the evergreens
Whose life she cannot usurp
Her peevish venom
Barely failing to freeze
And form the beauty
Of a crystalline icicle

I keep watch on December
Because I do not trust her
After the first frost
She will relent
And the quiet comeliness
Of the dim season
Will be upon us
We will soften
And our Yuletide cheer
And merrymaking
Will lull us into forgetting
The slashing pain
Of these hopeless days
And so I bite my lip
And cut my eyes
And pray
That bitter mad December
Will spare me
Again this year