Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Butterflies

A major topic of conversation among gardeners this spring and summer has been the scarcity of butterflies. I have written about it several times in my other blog, Gardening With Nature, and it was even expressed as a source of concern at my Mystery Book Club meeting this month. 

The scarcity seems mostly related to an unfortunate series of weather events that has been unfriendly to the production of butterflies, but it is likely that the profligate use of pesticides by gardeners and farmers also plays a part.

Butterflies appear to be such fragile creatures and yet they have been around on Earth since the mid Eocene epoch, between 40-50 million years ago, so obviously, they have found ways to survive in tough conditions before . The evolution of butterflies is closely linked to that of flowering plants, since both adult butterflies and caterpillars feed on such plants. 

Of the 220,000 species of Lepidoptera, which includes both moths and butterflies, about 45,000 species are butterflies. Butterflies are found throughout the world, except in Antarctica, and are especially numerous in the tropics; they fall into eight different families, most of which are represented in my garden at various times throughout the year.

And even though the numbers are down, my garden does still get butterfly visitors. Here is a baker's dozen of the ones that have been present in recent months.

 Variegated Fritillary

 Red Admiral

 Black Swallowtail

 Gulf Fritillary

 Giant Swallowtail

 Fiery Skipper


 Spicebush Swallowtail

 American Painted Lady

 Tiger Swallowtail

 Pipevine Swallowtail


Tropical Checkered Skipper

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the tourist haven of the Florida Keys, a middle-aged pair of those tourists rents a charter fishing boat for a day in the Gulf. Instead of catching tarpon or sailfish though, the man hooks the severed left arm of an adult human Caucasian male with a platinum wedding ring on its finger.

When the boat makes it back to port, the third mate who had been instrumental in helping the tourist remove the arm from his hook and, later, in taking pictures of him and his wife with the arm and with the fish that she caught, informs the captain that he has unexpectedly come into some money and doesn't need his job any more. He quits.

A few weeks later, the third mate and his girlfriend are coming out of a Key West eating establishment when the man is shot dead by an assailant.

Could there possibly be a connection between these three events, you say? This is Carl Hiassen, so we know that there is a diabolically ingenious plot at work, and, yes, there must be a connection.

That connection will eventually be exposed by Andrew Yancy, formerly of the Miami Police and now busted from detective in the Monroe County sheriff's office down to a gig as Health Inspector, checking whether restaurants meet standards - a job known in the trade as Roach Patrol. Yancy loved being a detective and longs to have his old job back. He's determined to find a way to impress the sheriff and get him to reinstate him.

Yancy thinks he may have found his opportunity when the sheriff asks him to transport the aforementioned severed arm to the medical examiner's office in Miami.

In Miami, Yancy finds more than he bargained for when he meets the lovely medical examiner, a Cuban-American woman named Rosa. In time they will become lovers, but before that can happen Yancy has to extricate himself from an affair with a hot-blooded former teacher from Oklahoma who turns out to be on the run from a conviction for corrupting a minor. She had an affair with one of her high school students.

The plot gets more and more complicated as we meet the widow of the severed arm, as well as a Bahamian voodoo witch, avaricious real-estate speculators, and many, many more twitchy characters, including that eponymous monkey and his caregiver.

All of this, of course, is just foreplay for Hiassen's main theme which, as always, revolves around the actions of the incredibly greedy and corrupt despoilers of the pristine natural wonderland that once was Florida. This time the degraders of Nature have extended their depredations to the Bahamas as well.

We know that Hiassen will find a way for his villains to get their comeuppance in the most unexpected and mordantly funny way possible, and he does not disappoint. And, yes, one of the instruments in the final denouement is that bad monkey of the title, a monkey that allegedly appeared in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie with Johnny Depp, but was fired for his very bad behavior. Since the end of his movie career, his bad behavior has, if possible, worsened, but he gets to play a hero in the end.

Carl Hiassen is a very funny writer, but his wickedly humorous tales do have a serious point and that point is his obvious anguish over the despoiling of a state that he passionately loves. Using his wildly unpredictable characters in wildly unpredictable events is his way of exposing some of the unintended but wholly predictable consequences of unbridled greed. We may laugh, but in the end, what we are left with is not a pretty picture.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a lot of mysteries and so one might think that I would have developed some expertise in picking up clues over the years. But, in fact, I've only recently noticed that nearly all of the fictional detectives that I read about are recovering from or battling some addiction.

Booze, pills, hard drugs, you name it - if it's addictive there must be a fictional detective out there who is suffering from it and that usually also results in dysfunctional personal relationships. Rare indeed is the normal, average, middle-class detective with no dark side and a normal, average, loving family and normal productive relationships. DCI Tom Barnaby of Midsomer Murders is the only one who springs immediately to mind.

I suppose this is a device to humanize the character and make the reader feel more sympathetic toward him or her. And, of course, when it's done well, it does work that way. Millions of fans of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus can attest to that. In other instances like the last book I read, White Heat by M.J. McGrath, it didn't really have that effect on me. But Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police falls more in the Rebus category.

I met Harry in Jo Nesbo's previous book in this series, The Redbreast. The story in Nemesis is a continuation of some of the unfinished business in that earlier book - namely Harry's investigation into the murder of his partner Ellen. The supposed killer was himself killed by a policeman named Tom Waaler, but Harry's instinct tells him that there was more to the story. That instinct is fed by the fact that Ellen had tried repeatedly to reach him by phone on the night she was killed to tell him that she had discovered something important about the case they were working. Harry is haunted by her enigmatic voice mail messages.

But all of that is in the past and it will have to wait because Oslo has a crisis on its hands.

A man in a black balaclava walks into an Oslo bank and puts a gun to a cashier's head. He tells the young woman to count to twenty-five. When the robber doesn't get his money by the time the woman gets to twenty-five, he shoots her and then escapes with the money without a trace.

Harry Hole is assigned to the case and, in addition to Halvorsen, his usual partner, he is assigned a young woman named Beate whose father was a policeman who was killed in a bank holdup years before.

In time, more bank holdups with the same modus operandi occur but without any more murders. The robbers are highly professional and Harry seeks the help of a professional bank robber in prison in order to catch the perpetrators. (Harry Hole is a believer in unorthodox methods!)

Meanwhile, on the personal front, Harry's girlfriend and her son are in Russia where she is in court, fighting for continued custody of her son whose father is Russian. While they are gone, an old flame named Anna invites Harry to dinner and he goes to her apartment. Harry is on the wagon, but the evening ends with Harry waking up on the stairs outside the apartment with a thundering headache and no memory of what has happened in the past twelve hours. This does not bode well. Sure enough, Anna is found shot to death in her bed in what looks at first like suicide. But is it? Did Harry kill her? He can't remember.

All of the various strands of this plot eventually intersect and intertwine and the dogged persistence of Harry and his team finally achieve results in at least some of the mysteries.

Still unanswered though is the question of who was responsible for Ellen's death. At the end of the book, Harry is beginning to have a glimmer of the truth. We'll have to look to the next installment to see whether that glimmer sheds sufficient light to solve the puzzle.

Jo Nesbo's detective has been a big hit internationally and this particular book was nominated for some of the major mystery genre awards. I don't think he is really as well known in this country as some of the other Scandinavian writers. Henning Mankell, for example. But Harry Hole is an enormously attractive and sympathetic character and I would expect his popularity here to grow as the series continues and more readers discover him and talk him up. I know I'm looking forward to reading the next entry.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Poetry Sunday: We are Seven

Here's a poem by a famous poet of the English romanticist period. 

William Wordsworth is often thought of as a poet of Nature and indeed he is, but he is also a poet of human nature and human emotion. In this poem, an adult speaks to a child about how many brothers and sisters she has and learns that she still counts those who are dead among members of her family. She continues to stubbornly maintain that position even when the adult points out that, obviously, those who are dead no longer walk among us.

The child is wiser than the adult, I think, because those whom we love are never truly gone as long as we draw breath and remember them. They continue to live through us, as we will continue to live, as long as we are remembered and loved.

 We Are Seven

  by William Wordsworth
—A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.

"Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?"
"How many? Seven in all," she said,
And wondering looked at me.

"And where are they? I pray you tell."
She answered, "Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

"Two of us in the churchyard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the churchyard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother."

"You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet maid, how this may be."

Then did the little maid reply,
"Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the churchyard lie,
Beneath the churchyard tree."

"You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the churchyard laid,
Then ye are only five."

"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
The little maid replied,
"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
And they are side by side.

"My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

"And often after sunset, sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

"The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

"So in the churchyard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

"And when the ground was white with snow
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side."

"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little maid's reply,
"O master! we are seven."

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Caturday: Kitty porn

The name of the person who discovered that human beings can be endlessly amused by videos and pictures posted on the Internet of cats being cats will probably never be revealed and never make it into the history books. But what a service that person has provided for his/her fellow humans! How many millions of hours each week are spent viewing those videos and pictures? How many millions of smiles, chuckles, and laughs are generated by such viewing? Yes, Anonymous, you have made the world a better, happier place. What a humanitarian!

Here are some favorite pictures from and other sites around the Web this week.

The most wonderful thing about animals in general and cats in particular is that they are always themselves. It would never occur to them to try to be something they are not. That's why we love them, I think.

Happy weekend to you and your animals.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Netflix is the new HBO? Maybe.

Netflix seems to be on to something with its original content productions. Earlier this year, we were addicted to their very fine show House of Cards. And it wasn't just us. The folks who nominate shows for Emmys liked it, too. When the nominations were announced, House of Cards was right up there with the big guys like Mad Men and Game of Thrones.

Now Netflix has given us another new quality series in Orange is the New Black, a story about a privileged white girl, a Smith graduate named Piper Chapman, who gets sentenced to 15 months at Litchfield women's correctional institute almost ten years after a youthful indiscretion with a heroin importer named Alex who was her girlfriend. Piper had once transported a large quantity of drug money for her lover and long after she has put all of that, including her lesbian experimentation, behind her, she's busted and sent to prison. It turns out that Alex is serving her time in the same prison.

There are dozens of inmates at Litchfield and we get to know many of their names and stories. They are all races, all ages, and all stations in life. Litchfield is a great leveler. We meet crazy Jesus freaks, a transgendered former New York fireman now female hairdresser, ex-junkies, a fierce Russian cook, a mother-daughter duo, even a nun, and so many more. At first they all seem like caricatures, stereotypes of the most blatant kind, but over several episodes, we get to know them and their back stories and they become fully realized human beings worthy of our sympathy and respect. We learn to care about these uproarious, diverse, distinctive women.

This is a "dramedy," a hybrid of comedy and drama, and it has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other moments are so poignant that I sometimes find myself tearing up. What truly captivates me is the respect that the show gives the inmates. They are never treated in a condescending or phony politically correct way. Their stories are real and are told with all the warts showing but with real affection for the characters.

Moreover, this is a series that proves that you don't need a macho-man vibe to carry a show and make it interesting. The only "macho-man" here is a prison guard referred to as Pornstache who is a jerk. He's also pure evil. I'm currently on episode 10 and I'm hoping that by the end of the final episode, number 13, he'll get what's coming to him.

No, the female dynamics, be they maternal, romantic, familial or tribal, are more than enough to build a strong show around, a show that will keep us interested and provide enough viewers to justify a second season, which I understand Netflix has just authorized.

I also like the fact that Netflix streams these shows so that we can watch them on our own schedule. If you want to binge watch the whole series on one day, you can do that. We've spread this one out over several days, watching one episode each night, and I find myself looking forward to that hour at the end of the day.

As I said, I think Netflix is on to something here and if they continue producing such interesting shows, we may indeed find that Netflix has become the new HBO, producer of innovative television for which the viewers clamor.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

White Heat by M.J. McGrath: A review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the hardest parts of reading this book, which was the July selection of my local Mystery Book Club, was reading the descriptions of the food enjoyed by its half-Inuit heroine. Seal blood soup. Fried blubber. Bloody fish just pulled from the water. Walrus guts. The writer lovingly describes all of this, as well as other aspects of Inuit culture. While I admire the Inuit's ability to survive the harsh environment of the frozen North and I understand that to do so they must use what is available to them, as a wannabe vegetarian who abstains from red meat in the diet, I found the descriptions of the food stomach-turning in the extreme. An Inuit would probably find my fondness for green beans, broccoli and carrots equally stomach-turning.

The second hardest part of reading the book was...reading the book. The writing was just sort of all over the place. The plot meandered along, zigzagging here and there to no real purpose that I could discern. I felt the book could really have used a good, strong editor to cut through some of that turgid, dull writing. The basics of an interesting story were there; they were just scattered and unfocused.

The writer seemed to have a hard time deciding from whose viewpoint she should tell the story. We've got her jumping from Edie, the hunter/guide/part-time teacher to Derek, the policeman/would-be lemming scientist. The two are allies, sort of, but they spend most of the book apart and pulling in opposite directions. Moreover, we do get some character development, or at least exposition, for Edie, but very little for Derek, or, indeed, any of the other characters. They are flat and uninteresting.

The story briefly is this: Edie Kiglatuk is a guide for outsiders coming to her corner of the Arctic, an isolated community on Ellesmere Island. The village elders who rule the community are less than supportive of her because she is a woman. She must supplement her income by being a part-time teacher.

Edie, along with her stepson Joe, is hired to take two men out, allegedly to hunt ducks although they do not really seem interested in hunting. One of the men winds up dead, shot either by accident or on purpose. The village elders, seeking to sweep the whole thing under the rug opt for "accident." Edie isn't so sure.

The survivor of that expedition later returns with another man, a descendant of an explorer of that area of the world. They want to look for the remains of that explorer. They say. Edie and Joe take them out and the party splits in two to search. A blizzard comes. Edie and her man make it back safely to the village, but Joe and his guy don't show up. Finally, Joe does make it back on skies, disoriented and suffering from hypothermia, but he has been separated from the man he was guiding. Later searches for the man or his remains prove fruitless.

Joe is treated at the local clinic and then taken back to Edie's place to recuperate. But sometime that night, he dies. It appears to be a suicide. Again, Edie isn't so sure.

After this event, Edie, the recovering alcoholic, goes off the track and starts drinking again. (Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to be  very big problems in this community.) The story went off the track, too, and I really lost interest, but I forged ahead since my book club meeting was coming up this week.

This was M.J. McGrath's first novel. She is a journalist with extensive experience in writing non-fiction. That experience shows, I think, in this book. It is heavy on information about the Inuit culture and language, but offers little in the way of exploring the inner lives of its characters. It doesn't really make us feel for the characters.

Other than the fact that I felt really bad for Edie having to eat all of that blood soup and walrus guts.      

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Fairy rings

An incomplete fairy ring, or fairy circle. More like a fairy semi-circle. 

After several weeks of dry weather, we had rain last week and after the rain, the mushrooms started popping up around the yard. Some of them formed circles, or parts of circles like the large one above that appeared in my front yard in an area of patchy grass.

These naturally occurring rings or arcs of mushrooms are commonly known as fairy rings or fairy circles. You may also sometimes see or hear them referred to as elf rings or pixie rings. Because the mushrooms pop up overnight as if by magic, folk tales have associated them with these magical folk.

In folklore, these phenomena are said to result from the dancing of fairies (or elves or pixies) on moonlit nights. These beings were thought to dance in circles; thus, the mushrooms that became visible in daylight marked the area of their nighttime frolics.

If you are more inclined to a scientific explanation, you'll be interested to know that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and that they poke their heads above the soil after rainstorms.

But mushrooms are not individual organisms. They are just the visible part of a huge network of thread-like mycelia, branching filaments of the organism,  that are hidden underground. Mushrooms feed on dead organic matter and the fairy ring manifests itself in a necrotic zone, an area in which grass or other plant life has withered or died, as has happened in the picture you see above.

Not perhaps the best sort of thing to have growing in your front yard. Still, since the rain and the full moon on Monday night, the rings are popping up everywhere. I think the fairies have been celebrating the breaking of the long dry spell.

One of the individual mushrooms in the ring. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Write like the wind, George!

George R.R. Martin's fans have been waiting impatiently since 2011 for the next entry in his fantastically successful Song of Ice and Fire saga. Of course, long-time Martin fans have grown accustomed to waiting. Maybe it is those newcomers among us (like me) who only discovered him after the start of the HBO series Game of Thrones who really haven't absorbed the lessons of the last seventeen years.

As all true fans know, Song of Ice and Fire was conceived as a seven book saga. The first entry in the series, which was entitled Game of Thrones, was published in 1996. It took only two years for the next book, A Clash of Kings, to gestate. And then two more years for A Storm of Swords to reach the salivating fandom. But then things slowed down.

The books got longer and (if possible) even more complicated and it took five years before A Feast for Crows saw the light of day.  But that was as nothing compared to the SIX YEARS that it took to produce A Dance with Dragons which came out in 2011.  As soon as that book was out, the watch was on, somewhat like the one for Kate and William's royal baby, but with a lot longer gestation period and a lot less patience.

The latest word from the author and publisher is that the sixth entry, The Winds of Winter, will be out next year, 2014. We'll see.

Meanwhile, the geek world is doing everything it can to encourage its favorite author, up to and including the composing of songs like this one by the duo Paul and Storm.

Poor George. It must be getting really hard for him to go out in public with people shouting at him, "Get back to your keyboard and finish the damn book!"

At least he has the consolation of his two cats, Augustus and Caligula. Hmmm...I wonder if those two inspired any of his characters.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another of those books that my daughter has been nagging me for years to read, but I could never quite get in the mood for it. However, now seemed a particularly relevant time to make the book's acquaintance, what with Texas and other states that are controlled by tea party Republicans doing everything in their power to limit or roll back women's rights. I found it to be a powerful, disturbing, and affecting story.

The book was published in 1985 and is a dystopian vision of the near future in a place called Gilead. Gilead used to be known as the United States of America. The president and all the elected representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives were assassinated in order to overthrow the government and set up this new state.

The purpose of this new theocratic and totalitarian state seems to be to return society to an ideal that supposedly existed in the distant past. This "ideal state" is a place where men are completely dominant and women have no rights. They cannot own property. They cannot work outside the home. They are not allowed to read or to write. Their role in life is to produce babies, but this is getting harder and harder to do. The fertility rate is falling and many of the pregnancies that do get started end in miscarriages, stillbirths, or defective children that are referred to as "shredders."

Low fertility seems to be a particular problem among the elite of the society. That's where the handmaids come in.

The handmaids are women who were in second marriages or in a sexual relationship without benefit of marriage and they had proved their fertility by giving birth to a child. In the new theocracy, only first marriages are considered legal and unmarried relationships are totally illicit, so the state dissolves those marriages and removes all the children of these relationships and gives them to an elite childless couple to raise. The women are sent to be trained as handmaids.

The handmaid Offred whose tale this is had had an affair with a married man named Luke. He divorced his first wife and married Offred - whose real name prior to the revolution we never get to know. They had a daughter and lived happily until the theocracy was imposed. They tried to escape to Canada, but they were caught. When we meet her, Offred does not know if her husband and daughter are still alive. She has been "reeducated" to serve as a handmaid and she has been assigned to a man who we know as the Commander. (His name is Frederick. Thus, all the handmaids that become assigned to him are simply called "Of Fred." They have no individual names.)

The Commander has a barren wife named Serena Joy. Offred's duty is that once a month, when she is ovulating, she will lie on Serena Joy's bed with her head propped on Serena's pubic bone as the wife holds her hands. Then she will open her legs to the Commander who will do his duty by trying to impregnate her. It is an entirely loveless and emotionless exercise. And it isn't working.

At length, Serena slyly suggests to Offred that perhaps the Commander is unable to make her pregnant and suggests a liaison with the chauffeur, Nick. Meantime, the Commander has begun instructing Offred to come to his study at night. She is now doing this on a regular basis. In the study, she and the Commander play Scrabble and she is allowed to read!

Even in such a bleak and dark society, Offred finds that human nature has not been repealed. Alliances are formed. She learns that there is an underground movement of resistance called Mayday. She also learns that all those sexual "perversions" that have supposedly been stamped out in the new republic still exist and elite men are free to engage in them.

Punishment of those who are less than elite when they are found to be breaking the rules is too horrible to contemplate, and, inevitably, Offred feels the noose tightening around her and expects to be taken away and disposed of. Surprisingly, Nick comes to her rescue and manages to have her ferried out of the Commander's house, but what happens to her after that? Well, we don't know. Perhaps she escaped, or perhaps she was captured again.

But at least she managed to tell her story on tapes, tapes that were found and transcribed a couple of hundred years later.

There is a postscript to the story in which scholars in the year 2195, long after the fall of Gilead, are studying and analyzing Offred's tale at a symposium. They discuss Gilead in a very dispassionate, objective, and analytical way. They express regret that the ultimate fate of Offred is unknown.

Offred's tale reveals the record of an observant mind that is struggling to make sense of a harsh and dissonant world. She is a straightforward, linear narrator, with occasional lapses for flashbacks to her former life. But her story is told in simple language that somehow makes it even more chilling.

Reading the news today makes Margaret Atwood's futuristic vision of the fall of the United States and its reemergence as a theocratic state seem perhaps not as fanciful as it was in 1985. The Handmaid's Tale is a sobering and scary book, most of all because we know that there are people in this country who would institute this state of Gilead in a heartbeat if they could.

Atwood has said that her book was not meant to be political; nevertheless, in today's political climate, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a cautionary tale. Forewarned is forearmed, and we have been warned.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

Billy Collins is a very successful modern American poet. He has served as Poet Laureate of the country in the early part of the century, and he is lauded and praised by critics. Moreover, his books of poetry are moderately successful in sales, which is not something you can say about a lot of poets.

I've always enjoyed Collins' poetry. He writes with a quirky sense of humor which I appreciate. One such poem that reveals that sense of humor is this one.

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

by Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure--if it is a pleasure--
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one--
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table--
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

I might say that I have experienced fishing on the Susquehanna in 
July in the same way as Billy Collins and I have enjoyed it every bit
as much as he did!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Caturday: Simon's Cat

The title of the video says "Simon's Cat," but it could just as accurately say "Dorothy's Cat." Yes, I admit it. I have one of these. His name is Beau and he is utterly incorrigible.

Why, oh why do Simon and I put up with this?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Climate Change 101

Maybe we should have more sympathy for the climate change deniers. After all, it's complicated, right?

For one thing, climate change, even the more rapidly changing climate of our time, happens over the long term. We, with our lives that are only a blink in time in relation to Earth's history, experience weather as a day to day, week to week, month to month event. We might remember what the weather was like a year ago or five years ago but our memories are probably distorted by other events that happened at the time or since. That's just the way we are. So how can our puny little minds even begin to comprehend the enormity of the threat of a changing global climate?

Luckily, there are humans whose minds are less puny than yours and mine and they can understand these things. And some of them, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, can explain them to us in terms that even we can understand.

If I had the power, I would force all of our elected representatives in Congress to watch this brief video. Perhaps then they would stop making statements about how carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas and nothing we should be concerned about, or how a warming planet is actually beneficial to life. And perhaps they would even get off their butts and actually do something to ameliorate the situation.

Nah. Probably not. When did common sense or science ever sway these guys?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Drop Shot by Harlan Coben: A review

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The stench of testosterone emanating from the pages of this book made me want to open a window to get some fresh air while I was reading it. Or maybe go outside and take a walk in the sunshine instead of reading it.

This is the second in Harlan Coben's sports agent/detective Myron Bolitar series. I read the first one for my Mystery Book Club last year and I liked it well enough to give the second one a try. I have two more in this series on my Kindle but I don't think I'll be turning to them anytime soon.

Myron Bolitar is portrayed as the tough but tender agent. He represents young athletes and protects them from the vultures who are just waiting to take advantage of them. He is, of course, irresistible to women and his world is peopled with beautiful women, but the most beautiful and desirable one of all is his and his alone. He plays in some very rough leagues and he's able to defend himself physically, but he doesn't like to carry a gun. That's okay though because he has a wing man looking out for him.

That wing man, Win, is fabulously wealthy and deceptively slight in stature, but he is an implacable killer who is able to snuff out the lives of anyone who is a threat to Myron with ease and then dispose of the bodies where they will never be found. And so he is never exposed, never called to account for any of his kills. His body count in this book, if my math is right, is four.

The focus of the action this time is on tennis. Myron is representing the latest wunderkind who looks like he might win the U.S. Open. He's a young African-American, a street kid with a nebulous background who somehow managed to pick up the skills needed to be not just a tennis pro but a champion.

While he is playing a match at the Open, another former wunderkind, a young woman, is shot to death in another part of the sports complex. The investigation uncovers the fact that she had called the current wunderkind a couple of times in the days before her death. He claims he didn't know her and didn't speak to her.

This young woman, it turns out, was no stranger to murder. Six years before, her boyfriend, the son of a powerful U.S. senator, had been murdered at a swanky tennis club, allegedly by a knife-wielding young African-American intruder. The intruder had a companion, another young African-American man. The police arrived on the scene and one of the intruders was shot and killed. The other one escaped and was never found. So, we have one rich white kid and one poor black kid dead. Surprisingly, the whole thing is almost immediately hushed up. But the young female tennis player had seen the two black kids up close.

It all becomes a tangled web in which no one is telling the truth and when the young woman is killed six years later at the Open, Myron, who was just about to ink a deal to represent her, becomes involved. He is determined to find out what happened, who killed her, and to do so he has to follow the trail all the way back to that earlier murder and solve it, too. Because, you see, the police who investigated both murders are utterly hopeless buffoons. Only Myron and Win have the brains and the balls to solve these crimes.

One passage from the book will sum up Myron's thought processes about the violence which permeates this tale:

Myron had indeed seen plenty of violence, but the sight of blood still made him queasy once the danger passed. He didn't like violence, no matter what he'd told Jessica before. He was good at it, no denying that, but he did not like it. Yes, violence was the closest modern man came to his true primitive self, the closest he came to the intended state of nature, to the Lockean ideal, if you will. And yes, violence was the ultimate test of man, a test of both physical strength and animalistic cunning. Man had - in theory anyway - evolved for a reason. In the final analysis, violence was indeed a rush. But so was skydiving without a parachute.

See? We get both his tender side, i.e. he doesn't like violence and the sight of blood makes him queasy, and his tough, manly side, i.e. "violence was indeed a rush."

But this story is nowhere near that ambivalent. It glories in the violence and wallows in the blood and gore. Excuse me while I go open that window.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Dragonflies

It has not been a good year for most of the butterfly species that frequent my yard. The spring was unusually cool and wet. Then, all of a sudden, in late May, it turned hot and dry with a vengeance. Especially the dry part. We continue to be in a drought here and that doesn't really favor most of my backyard critters.

One that has not seemed to be adversely affected by the weather has been the dragonfly. They've been abundant around the yard this summer and they are fascinating creatures to watch.

I found this one hanging out by the goldfish pond, a popular spot for a lot of wildlife, a few days ago. Now, I'm not great at identifying dragonfly species, but I think this is one of the skimmers - possibly a Blue Dasher. (If you know different, please correct me!)

Dragonflies are very beneficial insects. They are predators which consume vast quantities of pest insects, both as aquatic larvae and as flying adults. For example, they find mosquitoes very tasty.

Plus they have a unique beauty all their own. It is no accident that dragonflies are often found as motifs in arts and crafts.

If you encounter dragonflies around your yard, take time to observe and appreciate them and don't do anything to discourage or harm them. They are your friends.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: A review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Metamorphosis is one of those world classics that I have always intended to read but somehow just never got around to. Then the Google Doodle recently reminded me that it was the 130th anniversary of Franz Kafka's birth and I decided that July 2013 was the appropriate time to finally fulfill this particular resolution.

Even someone like myself who had never read the (blessedly short) novella is familiar with the basic story if they are even tangentially educated in the Western literature canon. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning in his familiar bedroom in the family home to discover that, overnight, he has turned into a giant insect. What ensues is a senseless and disorienting story of menacing complexity and surreal distortion. In other words, it is the pure definition of Kafkaesque.

Gregor lives in a home with his parents and a sister, and the family employs at least a couple of servants. The most amazing thing about this amazing story for me was the fact that neither Gregor nor the household seem to show much surprise at his transformation. They (even Gregor himself) never seem to wonder why or how this has happened. They never call a doctor to try to find a cure for this unprecedented malady. They just accept it and try to adapt to the situation. They accepted the very unlikely event of a man turning into a giant insect as an unsurprising possibility.

When Gregor wakes up and realizes he is an insect, his first thoughts are about how he is going to get dressed and get to his job! Prior to his transformation, it seems that he was the sole support of the household. His life was his job. He found his self-worth in performing it. In fact, he lived a rather alienated and automated existence which seemed devoid of normal human emotion. In many ways, his life was already insect-like. Thus, his primary concern, post metamorphosis, is to be able to continue that existence. He is horrified at the thought that he might lose his work and his source of income.

His family, it seems, had taken Gregor and his financial support of them all for granted and they are appalled that this support will apparently not continue, but where is their concern for the personhood of Gregor?

At first, the sister shows some sympathy for her unfortunate brother's plight. She brings food to his room and attempts to keep the room clean, but as time goes by and she must begin to work, along with her mother and father, to help sustain the household, her care and concern for her brother begin to flag.

Gregor, meanwhile, continues to try to adapt to his new body. He tries to find the best way to walk, the best place to sit and to sleep, and the best food to devour. He finds that rancid food is the best. Fresh food is disgusting. He tries to talk and communicate but finds that humans can no longer understand him.

The family find themselves in increasingly degraded circumstances as they try to make ends meet. They rent a room to boarders for the extra income. Gregor becomes more and more of a burden to them and their attempts to keep him alive become feebler. Inevitably, so does Gregor and eventually he dies, in essence freeing the family to continue their own insect-like existence.

So, just what is the meaning of this weird tale? It seems a harsh critique of human existence. In Kafka's world, it seems that human lives are essentially meaningless and can be transformed overnight into an automaton-like existence. It's a dark and pessimistic, absurdist view of humanity but perhaps relevant for the way modern human lives have evolved.      

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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Last Word, latest in Lisa Lutz's series about a wacky San Francisco family of detectives, is well-named, for Lutz tells us it is literally the last word we will have from Isabel (Izzy) Spellman. She insists that she will not be writing any more of these adventures in Izzy's voice. There may be more Spellman stories but they will likely be told by Izzy's younger sister Rae.

That's probably a good thing because, frankly, Lutz seems a bit bored with Izzy in this one. Maybe she's just run out of ideas for her madcap adventures. Anyway, as Izzy is pushing ever closer to forty, her juvenile attitude toward life begins to seem a bit cloying and inappropriate to say the least.

We meet Izzy again here after she has managed a hostile takeover of the family private investigation business. She has the assistance of her two siblings in this, but her parents know who is to blame. Izzy becomes CEO, CFO, president, and whatever other titles add up to translate as "boss." Immediately, the power goes to her head.

She starts sending out memos with high-handed instructions to her employees and with changes in company policies and procedures. Her employees rebel. Especially her two most important employees, her mother and father. They simply stop working.

The flow of clients slows to a trickle. Little money is coming in and lots is going out. Then, unexpectedly, $10,000 turns up in the company bank account. But what is its source?

After some investigation, Izzy discovers that the money has been embezzled from her most important client, the fabulously wealthy Edward Slayter. Fortunately, he is not only her employer, he is her friend and he trusts that she is not an embezzler. But she must find the true malefactor, and she must do it while the FBI is investigating her.

The family company is on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy. Izzy has managed to piss off the computer guru who usually takes care of their technological problems and now he may be hacking their systems and planting bugs there. Rae has a new business model that she is implementing which may be unethical and maybe even illegal. On top of all that, Henry Stone, Izzy's former boyfriend for whom she still has strong feelings, has a new girlfriend and she is pregnant. They are planning to get married. And then something really awful happens - Izzy's father is diagnosed with leukemia.

Izzy has been able to hold everything together with a very slender thread, but it looks like that thread is about to snap. Things just aren't funny anymore. There's no way she can scheme or charm her way out of this one.

I wouldn't want to mislead you. There are still some very funny bits of the typical Spellman variety in this book, but the story is somewhat darker and more serious than we are used to in this series. Perhaps that is because the Spellmans' creator is getting ready to turn the page and move on in another direction.

She says that there will be a next book in this series and that it will be written in Rae's voice, and all the usual characters will still be there. For those of us who have enjoyed the series thus far, it will be interesting to see just how that changes things.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Mimesis

On July 9, the local Houston Chronicle featured a story about a local poet, Fady Joudah. Joudah is a Palestinian-American, a physician, husband and father, and all of these roles inform his poetry. He has a new volume of poetry, Alight, out this year.

I admit I had not heard of Joudah before, but I was touched by some of the examples of his poetry that were included in the story and, in particular, this one:


My daughter
            wouldn't hurt a spider
That has nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn't a place to call home
And you'd get to go biking

She said that's how others
Become refugees isn't it? 

This poem is powerful for me first because I have two daughters who would do that. And secondly because of the girl's reasoning and her understanding of the situation as expressed in that final question, "She said that's how others become refugees isn't it?"

In those few words, she identifies one of the major tragedies of the human race - our tendency to disregard the rights of others when they conflict with what we see as our own. And so we push them out, make them refugees, condemn them to lives with no place they can call home. What we fail to realize is that when someone more powerful comes along, they will evict us. We will become the "others" who are "refugees." And so the sad cycle continues.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


This is billed as the "Best Cat Video You'll Ever See." Well, I don't know about that. I've seen some pretty amazing cat videos, but I will admit that this one has some funny and fantastic sequences, some of which look almost impossible. But as all of us who live with cats know, practically nothing is impossible for a determined cat...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran: A review

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always such an unexpected pleasure to meet a writer previously unknown to you who is simpatico, someone whose style you really like and appreciate. I had that experience earlier this year with Kate Atkinson. And now I have met Sara Gran.

I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR recently when their book reviewer started talking about Gran's latest book, her second in a series featuring a detective named Claire DeWitt. The reviewer's description of the detective and of the plot grabbed my attention and I knew I had to have that book.

But since I am an OCD kind of reader, I certainly could not start with the second book in a series. I had to get the first book, which turned out to be Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I'm really glad I did.

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator - the world's greatest, in her own words - from California, out of Brooklyn by way of New Orleans and many other stops along the way. She is, to put it mildly, an extremely unorthodox investigator. Her primary investigative tools are dreams, drugs, the I Ching, and a dog-eared book that she found in a dumbwaiter in her parent's crumbling mansion in Brooklyn when she was a teenager called Detection by a writer named Jacque Silette. Detection is her religion and Detection, the book, is her bible.

As we meet Claire, she is barely recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by extensive fasting and drug use. She is contacted by a man from New Orleans who wants to hire her to look into the disappearance of his uncle after Katrina. It is early 2007, eighteen months after the storm. This is a very cold case.

Claire had not been back to New Orleans since the woman who was her mentor, the previous greatest detective in the world, had been shot to death along with several other people in a French Quarter restaurant. The murderers were just kids and they were never brought to justice. This is not unusual in the New Orleans that Claire knows.

Vic Willing was a successful New Orleans District Attorney, who, apparently, made it through Katrina but then disappeared without a trace. His nephew, who is the sole heir to his estate, is feeling guilty about accepting his inheritance without knowing what happened to his uncle. Thus, he calls Claire.

The initial investigation of Willing shows him as a very public, political persona, a stereotypical "great guy," but provides very few details about his personal life. Claire gains entry to the missing man's elegant apartment, which she finds to be magazine-spread ready, but on the patio she finds a broken bird feeder and spoiled birdseed. And a parrot - in fact, a Monk Parakeet, sometimes known as Quaker Parrot.

Each clue you find is like a pair of new eyes. Now I looked around the street, and in the trees nearby I saw more birds: finches, pigeons, a female cardinal, a grackle on the ground by the door to the building. I hadn't see them before. But they were there.

Claire's theory of detection is that the clues are all there in the ether, just waiting to be recognized, like the birds that are always there but to which most people are oblivious.

Claire's investigation takes her into the streets of New Orleans, the world of the teenage street gangs and the Black Indians. I found Gran's portrayal of these teenagers particularly poignant, full of empathy for all they had been through in a dysfunctional society that just wants them to disappear. They struggle to create a caring society of their own, a family where they can find value. Gran appears to understand that and to empathize with their plight in a way that most writers who depict New Orleans do not - or at least they do not bother.

It turns out that Vic Willing's world intersected with the world of the teenage gangs and that he had an unexpectedly dark side to his persona, one that ultimately led to his "disappearance." In talking to one of the gang members who had contact with Willing, Claire watches his reactions and all the clues in the ether come together.

It wasn't a hard tale to read. Just an old, sad one. One I knew better than I wanted to.

As we follow Claire DeWitt through this investigation, we are also privy to her memories, memories which come flooding back when she is alone at night, in her dreams or in the altered states created by her use of drugs. We learn about her teenage years in Brooklyn and her "undying" friendship with two other girls, one of whom is now dead and the other of whom is no longer speaking to Claire. We learn about her time in New Orleans with her mentor, where she prepared herself to be the world's number one detective. And we learn about her time shoveling goat manure in California as she was recovering from her breakdown.

DeWitt is a prickly personality, a perfect detective for a modern day noir mystery. Not everyone will love her, but I found her fascinating and I look forward to getting to know her even better in Gran's second book in what I hope will be a long series.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The invasion of the habitat snatchers

There are many challenges facing the environment around the country, indeed around the world, these days, but among the most deadly and seemingly intractable of these are the invasives.

Invasives are plants or animals from someplace else in the world that have been brought to our shores, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident, and released or escaped here. Often these plants or animals find a hospitable habitat with none of the natural enemies or controls which they encountered in their native land. The predictable result is that their population explodes. They compete with native species and sometimes overcome them, even wiping them out. They become habitat snatchers. 

In the island nation of New Zealand, for example, where non-native rats and stoats have become entrenched, they have been primarily responsible for the extirpation of at least 19 bird species.    

In the United States, one of the most famous invasives is the House Sparrow, which was deliberately introduced in New York in the 19th century. It quickly spread and began to compete with native hole-nesting birds like Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Sparrows, contributing to a decline in these as well as other species before human intervention began to give the natives a fighting chance.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, with the globalization of the economy and the ease of tourism between countries, the rate of introduction of invasives exploded. No state in the country has suffered more from this phenomenon than Florida where new invasives seem to be added to the list on an almost daily basis.

From walking catfish, Asian swamp eels, Cuban tree frogs, monkeys, iguanas, and, most famously, Burmese pythons, the state's ecology  is overrun by these outsiders that are making themselves right at home. Indeed, the pythons have been so successful in the Everglades that they have virtually wiped out the small mammal population there. This, of course, has disastrous and long-term effects on the native predators in the area that normally depend on these mammals for food.

Even the alligators there have had trouble holding their own against the pythons. Bodies of the native reptiles have been found in the stomachs of big pythons that have been captured and killed.

As if all of this were not enough, Florida is now battling another invasive - giant African land snails, sometimes called GALS. These snails can get up to 8 inches long. Each snail contains both male and female reproductive organs and every mated snail lays about 1200 eggs a year. As of June 22, Florida state officials reported that they had captured and killed more than 124,000 of the snails in the area around Miami.

These snails pose a major threat to gardens and to farmers' crops because they will feed on and destroy at least 500 different types of plants. But it's not just plants that they gobble. They will also chew on plaster and stucco, thus causing damage to homes. And, one other thing: They also carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans. Unbelievably, these critters were deliberately  smuggled into the country by a religious cult which uses them in their "healing ritual."

Florida is fighting a war against its invasives with all available resources, but in all too many instances it seems to be losing the battle. But the battle may spread to other states.

There is always the chance that many of these species will be able to spread to other hospitable habitats, especially in adjoining states along the Gulf of Mexico. And as the climate changes, becoming warmer, the possibility of some of the species being able to even move into other areas of  the country only increases.

The temperature of the planet continues to rise with nine out of the ten hottest years on record having occurred in this century. Moreover, three out of those hottest years have been within the past five years, so we can't depend on a hostile climate to be a barrier to the invasives.  

All of this, the invasive plants and animals plus the warming climate, could prove to be devastating for our native plants and animals. The decimation of species which Florida has experienced could become more widespread. It is a nightmare scenario, one that desperately needs a solution but for which no real workable solution seems in sight.

(An earlier version of this was posted at Backyard Birder and Gardening With Nature.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Southern Leopard Frog

There are five species of Leopard and Pickerel Frogs that occur on the continent. The ones that are present in my area of Southeast Texas are the Southern Leopard Frogs, an example of which you see here. This little frog and several of his relatives are present in my little backyard goldfish pond this summer. They love to sit and bask on the lilypads in the late afternoon as this one is doing.

It's easy to see why these little frogs are called Leopard Frogs. They are strongly marked with spots just like a leopard. They range in color from green to brown. The ones in my pond show some variation but most are shades of brown.

Southern Leopard Frogs are generally 2 - 3 1/2 inches long. The longest one on record was 5 inches. My frogs are on the smallish side and are incredibly cute! They are very welcome backyard visitors.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Firewall by Henning Mankell: A review

The dour Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, is now 50 years old. He has been diagnosed with diabetes, and he is making an effort to live a healthier life. He has taken up walking. He tries to eat and drink more sensibly. The result has been that he has lost some weight and he actually does feel better, at least physically.

Emotionally, he's still a mess. His promising relationship with the Latvian policeman's widow, Baiba, has ended. He doesn't have a woman in his life. He's lonely and he has a tendency to become obsessed with every new woman he meets. His daughter suggests that he sign up with a dating service, but he is resistant to that idea. 

At work, Wallander is frustrated. He feels unappreciated. His superior does not seem to trust him. He would like to quit, but his options are limited and he's looking at perhaps ten more years as a police detective whose career is going nowhere. He's a policeman whom technology is leaving behind. He doesn't understand computers. How can he function effectively in the technology age?

So, in short, Wallander is still the morose old bugger we've come to know and love, frequently out of his depth, always short on energy, and now facing one of the most complicated cases he's ever had. 

It begins innocently enough with a supposed death from natural causes. A man on his evening walk stops to use an ATM. He takes his receipt, turns to walk away, and falls down dead. At first, it is thought to be a heart attack, but his physician and others who know him insist that he was very healthy and had no heart problems.

Then his body disappears from the morgue and, in its place, a piece of equipment from a power substation is found. 

The dead man was a consultant on computer systems and technology. The investigation reveals an office where he has a mysterious computer. Mysterious in the sense that it seems to be totally locked behind a firewall that cannot be broken by Wallander's most tech-savvy team member. 

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated incident, a taxi driver is brutally murdered by two teenage girls who, when arrested, immediately admit their culpability but demonstrate a complete lack of remorse for their actions. While in police custody, one of the girls unaccountably escapes and disappears without a trace. 

Next in the sequence of events, an electrical blackout covers half the country. When an engineer arrives at the malfunctioning power station, he makes a grisly discovery.

Then, a young man who was a supposed boyfriend of the girl who escaped flees the country, only to be found dead later in the engine room of a ferry. 

Kurt Wallander is an instinctual detective and he is certain that all of these incidents, involving four unexplained deaths, must somehow be linked. He is hampered in his investigation by the discovery of betrayals in his own team and by his own tendency to lose control of his temper at inopportune moments. Lonely and frustrated, Wallander seems to have lost confidence in himself and in his ability to do the job. Nothing seems to connect. This starts to look like the case where the famous detective will finally be stymied.

Henning Mankell has done such of good job of drawing the image for his readers of his detective's personality in the previous seven entries in this series that we now meet Wallander as an old friend. We know his weaknesses and his strengths. We may get impatient with his self-pity at times, but now at least he, too, seems to realize that it is self-pity and, in his own way, he struggles against it. In other words, Mankell has drawn a very human character, one with plenty of flaws, and that is something with which most of us can identify.

I like Kurt Wallander and I hope at some point in the future he will find happiness and contentment. But not too soon. Maybe not for another ten years.