Saturday, August 31, 2013

Caturday: Sad cats

I hadn't really intended to do a Caturday post this week, but then my daughter sent me this video and I just couldn't resist. After all, the world - meaning the Internet - can't have too many cat videos, can it? Enjoy!

Friday, August 30, 2013

They have a scheme

In a week when we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, it has been depressing to watch the reaction to all this from the right-wingers. Depressing but not entirely unexpected.

First of all, the right-wing media led by Fox News went into a frenzy because no Republicans or conservatives were invited to speak at the event. As often happens with this media's stories, that one was totally false. In fact, most of the names that are known as national leaders of the Republican Party were invited to attend and to speak. They all declined.   

If one of them had accepted, what could he have said? After all, this is the party that has worked furiously all year, especially since the Supreme Court decision stripping part of the protections of the Voters' Rights law, to roll back the "Dream." State after state, led by Texas, has enacted draconian voter ID laws that require identifications that many people of color, younger people, and college students do not have. They have moved polling places to less convenient locations. They have reduced time for early voting, and on and on. Anything to restrict and discourage the people that they don't want to vote from voting.

Then, of course, there is the gerrymandering issue. In states controlled by Republicans, the congressional districts have been gerrymandered to ensure that their party has an extreme advantage in elections, so that incumbent representatives become completely entrenched and cannot be thrown out of office. 

This is not democracy and this is no dream. It is a nightmare. Great democracies do not discourage their citizens from voting. On the contrary, they do everything possible to encourage people to vote and to make it easier for them. In Australia, as I understand it, it's even illegal not to vote! Now there's an idea that I could get behind.

The only hope for our democracy seems to be to get the Republicans out of positions of power, since they appear to be determined to destroy the government and perpetuate themselves and the 1% as the ones in control. Only then might there be some reasonable expectation of finally seeing the dream fulfilled.

(Hat tip to Tom Tomorrow of where I found this cartoon which really sums up the whole thing.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gardening for the Birds by George Adams: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are interested in creating a habitat garden, a garden that fits seamlessly into your local environment and is welcoming to local wildlife, this is a book that can help you achieve your goal. George Adams' emphasis is upon attracting birds to the garden, but, in fact, his gardening method will also attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, small reptiles and amphibians, as well as avian visitors. It will be a place that is welcoming to them all and that is much more interesting for any humans that spend time in it.

One of the most popular hobbies in the country is feeding birds. An entire multi-million dollar industry has grown up around supplying feeders and feed to the hobbyists, but putting up a bird feeder in your yard is not necessarily the best way to attract birds or to attract a wide range of species. You might wind up with nothing but House Sparrows, which is not what most people who want to watch birds in their yards are aiming for.

A better approach is to actually put in the effort to create the kind of habitat that the birds are looking for. The author advises us to look at our yards from a bird's eye view. When we do that, we can begin to see that a bird-friendly landscape is what they are seeking. They want plants that are familiar to them, plants that provide food, shelter, and a place to raise their young. And, of course, they want a source of clean, fresh water.

In his introduction to his book, George Adams writes:

To attract birds to your garden, the backbone of your landscaping plan should be local native plants. By putting in native plants and using an organic, sustainable approach to gardening, you establish a balanced ecosystem in your yard. A greater variety of birds and butterflies will visit and linger, insect pests will be kept under control by insect-eating birds (reducing the need for harmful insecticides), and the wonder of nature will be part of your everyday living environment.

That is a succinct summary of the philosophy behind this book and the philosophy behind habitat gardening in general. It is one that I subscribe to and try to put in practice in my garden.

Adams explains that when you use native plants, plants with which birds and other wildlife are familiar, you will be mimicking their natural ecosystems. In doing so, you will provide birds with food, water, shelter, and nesting places, so that, instead of simply visiting and passing through, they will linger. They will call your garden home and you will have the bonus of observing them, up close and personal.

This book provides helpful calendars which list native plants from each region of the country. The calendars show the light needs of the plants, which animals make use of them and which months they will bloom, as well as other useful information. There are calendars for hummingbird and butterfly flowers, wildflowers, and for seasonal fruiting.

The author shows how to develop your landscape plan, according to the properties of your own particular region. He shows that even small garden spaces can create friendly habitats for birds. He also discusses some of the problems which may arise - things like nuisance birds such as House Sparrows and European Starlings, cats, and the unwelcome guests like rats and mice that bird feeders can sometimes attract.

Finally, there is a substantial plant directory, covering more than one hundred pages, which lists native plants from all sections of the country and their needs, as well as some of the birds they may attract. And there is a cross reference directory with profiles of the individual bird species, featuring wonderful pictures, which gives information about their preferred habitat and their behavior and, most importantly, what plants you can plant to attract them. 

This book, in short, gives a helpful but not overwhelming amount of detail regarding the horticulture of the plants and the garden design strategies. It features wonderful pictures of plants and birds that should be useful to both the birding and non-birding gardener. And the charts are well-organized and easy to understand. It is a book that provides a primer for anyone who is interested in creating a bird-friendly habitat in their yard. It should find a place on the bookshelves of gardeners and birders alike. And, yes, they are quite often the same people.

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. No other compensation was given and the opinions here are entirely my own.)


Does this sound like a book you would like to have? Well, this may be your lucky day. The publisher is offering a chance to win a free book as well as a framed pen-and-ink bird illustration done by the author. Just click on the link and enter. All it takes is an email address. Good luck!

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Cicadas

Late summer afternoons in my backyard are the Time of the Cicada. The "songs" of the male cicadas as they attempt to attract mates provide a constant background music for my outdoor activities.

The males rest on tree trunks and branches and produce a periodic whine by means of two special vibrating membranes in the sides of the abdomen. The females do not sing, but they are an avid audience for the males' performance.

Here in Southeast Texas we did not participate in the periodical cicada madness that occurred earlier this year in the eastern part of the country. The 17-year cicada does not occur here, although there is one that completes its life cycle in 13 years, some of which emerge every year, rather than in massive broods. Our main type of cicada, the ones that are singing in my backyard now, are called dog-day cicadas because they emerge at this time of the year. They have life cycles of 2 to 5 years.

 These cicadas occur in a wide range of colors in brown and green. Here is a brown one...

...and here is one that is green. I generally see more of the brown variety in my yard.

The female cicadas insert clusters of eggs into twigs and small branches, using a saw-like egg laying structure. It takes six to seven weeks for small nymphs to hatch from the eggs. They drop to the ground and burrow into the soil where they find tree roots.

The nymphs molt through several growth stages, called instars. As they go through these stages, they can burrow several feet down. When the nymphs are fully developed, they burrow out of the ground at night, leaving a 1/2-inch hole behind.

The nymphs then climb onto tree trunks, low plants or other objects and the adult cicadas emerge from the nymphal stage through a crack along the back and leave the light brown cast skin behind.

When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by finding these empty shells clinging to the trunks of trees.

The adult dog-day cicada can live for 5 to 6 weeks, if they can avoid hungry birds. The adults do not feed on leaves but may suck juices from tender twigs. The nymphs feed on the sap from tree roots. Neither is considered to be a plant pest. Indeed, they are benign creatures that just want to sing their songs, mate, lay their eggs, and live out their short summer lives.

Summer would hardly be summer for me without these interesting insects. I even like their song.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing with my summer detective fiction reading orgy, I decided to pick up on a series that had been urged on me by my husband for several years, Michael Connelly's Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch. The time finally seemed right for me to begin reading it.

Harry Bosch, as all the reading world except for me probably already knew, is a Los Angeles homicide cop. He is the typical maverick that all of these heroes of detective novels seem to be. He is described again and again by his superiors as "not a team player."

He may not always play by the rules but he has a strong sense of justice and he is absolutely dedicated to his own personal vision of policing.  

Again like most such detectives, we learn that Bosch has an interesting and troubled backstory. His early life was spent in foster homes and institutional care. He joined the army during the Vietnam War era and wound up in Vietnam as a "tunnel rat," assigned to go into the tunnels used by the Viet Cong, chase and kill them if possible and destroy the tunnels.

Back home in Los Angeles after his war experience, he joined the police force and rose through the ranks. As a detective, he has earned a reputation as a bender of rules, but he is a hero to the public, his name frequently associated with high profile police actions in the news. He has also been suspended for actions taken in pursuit of criminals and he is on the Internal Affairs Division's radar.

We meet Harry on a Sunday morning as he is waking up from a dream of those Vietnamese tunnels. His phone is ringing and he is called out to a scene of death where a body has been discovered in a drainage pipe near a dam. When Harry gets a chance to closely examine the body, he realizes that he knows the man - or knew him twenty years before. He was a fellow tunnel rat in Vietnam named Billy Meadows. Harry Bosch does not believe in coincidences.

As the story and Harry's investigation unfold, it becomes apparent that what was at first thought to be just another accidental drug overdose is actually something much more sinister than that. Meadows was murdered. But why?

Following the trail of evidence leads Harry to a bank robbery the year before where the robbers had tunneled underneath the bank to gain entry. It appears that Meadows may have been one of the robbers and that his murder may represent a falling out among thieves. All of this Harry learns once he backtracks on the investigation of that robbery to the FBI.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances Harry is teamed up with a female FBI agent to continue the investigation of the murder and its relationship to the bank robbery.

Harry manages to trace the informant who called in the information about the body of Meadows in the drain pipe and it is a young street kid who goes by the name Sharkey. After he and the FBI agent interview Sharkey, the young man also turns up dead in a drainage pipe. Again, Bosch observes that there are no coincidences.

Before he manages to get to the bottom of the case, there will be more deaths and more complications of his relationship with the FBI agent and with the LAPD, but you just know that in the end Harry Bosch will get there and his hero's cape will still be intact.

I think one of the tests of a good detective story is whether the detective in question is someone that you might be willing or even eager to spend some time with. Maybe someone that you would want to meet down at the pub and have a pint with, like John Rebus, or perhaps even invite over to your house for a meal, like Tom Barnaby or Armand Gamache. Harry Bosch meets that test for me. He seems like someone whose good opinion one would like to have, someone that you might like to have as a friend - even though friendship with such a prickly personality could be problematic. But, on the whole, Michael Connelly has created an attractive character in Harry Bosch and it is easy to understand the continuing success of the series.

I was engaged by the story throughout. The plotting, pacing, and character development were enough to keep me turning the pages and, even though the ending was not a surprise to me, I was interested to see just how Connelly was going to get there. It was a good start to what promises to be another popular series for my "to be read" list.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Poetry Sunday: One Art

Losing things is something with which we are all familiar. Games. Keys. Papers. Time. Tools. Words. Various bits and pieces, detritus of our daily lives. Love. People.

There is an art to losing things without losing self and the older we are, the more practice we get at that one indispensable art.

One Art

  by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dark and stormy - the Bulwer-Lytton competition

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Yesterday, I blogged about Elmore Leonard's rules for good writing. Today, it seems only fair that I give equal time to the other side of the coin, so to speak.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an early 19th century English novelist, has the reputation of having composed some of the worst fiction in English ever, as the above example of his first sentence to his novel Paul Clifford may serve to illustrate. In fact, his beginning, "It was a dark and stormy night," has become a well-worn cliche, conferring on Bulwer-Lytton a kind of immortality which perhaps his writing does not really deserve.   

(Full disclosure: When I was a teenager, one summer, I read Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and I actually quite enjoyed it.  I also read Tolstoy's War and Peace and enjoyed it so much that I turned around and read the whole thing again. All of which probably tells you more than you want or need to know about my teenage summers.)

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Each year, they are flooded with examples of awful, terrible, no-good prose from enthusiastic entrants from around the world. This year's winners have now been announced and I would say they are definitely up to Bulwer-Lytton standards.

Here are a few of my personal favorites from the 2013 competition.

  • When the slinky redhead slunk into the throbbing, strobe-lit nightclub, Elwood’s eyes fastened on her the way a toilet plunger will fasten onto a hard surface if you shove it down just right, but her returning glance, while smoldering, was actually more caustic and burned his tender ego the way liquid Drano can burn your hand if you spill some on it, having disregarded the manufacturer’s warning. — Jeff Treder, Springfield, OR
  • Mildred, sitting under the hair dryer at The Curl & Go and thumbing through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, felt a shudder and a fleeting moment of commiseration when she saw those tiny thongs the models were sporting in the name of underwear because, as it happened, her own butt cheeks tended to gobble up her Fruit of the Loom For Mature Women white cotton panties like a pair of starving wolverines fighting over a flatfish. — Helen Grainge, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Before they met, his heart was a frozen block of ice, scarred by the skate blades of broken relationships, then she came along and like a beautiful Zamboni flooded his heart with warmth, scraped away the ugly slushy bits, and dumped them in the empty parking lot of his soul. — Howie McLennon, Ottawa, ON

The Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around the feast, a veritable cornucopia of harvest and game, a gastronomic monument to the bountiful biodiversity of the land, and while Mrs. Standish’s cranberry sauce was a far cry from the homogeneous gelatinous can-imprinted sacrosanct blob which has become the holiday’s sine qua non, the rest of the food was good. — Jordan Kaderli, Dallas, TX 
  • Seeing Mrs. Kohler sink, Detective Moen flushed as he plugged the burglary as the unmistakable work of Cap Fawcet, the Mad Plumber, for not only had her pool of assets been drained, but her clogs were now missing, and the toilet had been removed, leaving them with absolutely nothing to go on.— Eric J. Hildeman, Greenfield, WI
But this is 2013's Grand Prize winner. I think you will agree with me that even Edward Bulwer-Lytton could not have written a worse first sentence for a novel.

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch, Brookfield, WI 

Click on this link to see all the winners and many of the runners-up in this year's competition. Fair warning: You might want to invest in some nose plugs first.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Leonard's Rules of Writing

When Elmore Leonard died at age 87 this week, he left behind a prodigious body of work. I noted that several of the obituaries and appreciations of him that I read referred to him as a "man of few words," certainly an ironic epitaph since he produced so many of them.

Ironic but also true for he was a man who eschewed writerly flourishes. He wrote clean and spare prose, with no words wasted and that is what he advocated for other writers.

In 2001, Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times in its series called "Writers on Writing." In it he talked about his philosophy of writing and listed ten rules for writers. They are worth reviewing now as we think about Leonard's life's work and what he has meant to modern culture.

Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"...he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." This rule doesn't require an explanation.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Those were the rules that he professed to follow in his writing and they are good rules for any of us who attempt to put words on paper or even in the ether that is the Internet. But he followed all of those ten up with one more which he said summed up everything: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

I haven't read all of Leonard's books - well, he wrote about a million of them - but I have read a goodly number and I can say definitively that the writing in those books never sounded like writing. It sounds like two guys talking or occasionally like a man and a woman talking, but mostly two guys. Leonard specialized in bad guys, only some of whom had a heart of gold.

Of course, the people who make movies loved his books and made many movies out of them. Most memorable for me probably was Get Shorty.

Television loved his characters, too, and just recently has used them in a show called Justified. Leonard reportedly liked what they had done in adapting his writing for television and had written a couple of sequels to the original book. He was apparently working on another sequel at the time of his death, so one could say that here was a writer who died with his boots on. But Leonard would excoriate such verbiage. We'll just say he died with his pen and yellow pad in hand, which was probably just about the way he would have wanted it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbø: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book did not begin promisingly for me.

After being given the leeway to investigate the death of his friend and partner Ellen, Detective Harry Hole has spent months following leads and his intuition. He has become certain in his own mind that the man behind Ellen's murder as well as the burgeoning illegal arms trade in Norway is Inspector Tom Waaler, his colleague on the Oslo police force. He has even found one witness who is able to confirm at least part of his suspicions - a witness who promises to testify.

But when the time comes for Harry to present his story to his boss, the witness refuses to speak. Harry is left hanging with an incredible story and practically nothing to back it up. The fact that it is the truth counts for naught. As The Devil's Star begins, he has reached the end of that process.

Completely frustrated by his inability to prove his case against Waaler, Harry has been driven to drink again - literally. He has fallen off the wagon in the worst way possible and seems bent on self-destruction. He has sabotaged his relationship with Rakel and Oleg, whom he loves, and he has made it impossible for his loyal boss who has stood by him and defended him through thick and thin to continue to do so.

Reluctantly, Moller tells Harry that he has signed the papers to terminate him from his job and they have been sent on to the next link in the chain of command. As it happens, that link in currently on vacation, though, so the papers won't be signed for a couple of weeks.

Meantime, it is the middle of summer in Oslo and the city is sweltering. Everyone who can has left the city for vacation. The police force is stretched thin. As luck would have it, that is when a crime wave of murders breaks out.

It begins when a young woman is murdered in her flat. When her body is found, police discover that one of her fingers on the left hand has been cut off and that a tiny red diamond in the shape of a pentagram - a five-pointed star - has been placed under one of her eyelids.

Harry is assigned to the puzzling case along with...wait for it...Tom Waaler! Drunk most of the time and hanging on to his job by his fingernails, Harry feels that he has to play nice and cooperate in the investigation.

Then, at five day intervals, other murders occur and all of the bodies are left with the same star-shaped red diamond. It looks like a serial killer is loose in Oslo.

Harry sobers up and is determined to find the killer. At the same time, he is even more determined than ever to find proof that will expose Tom Waaler for the neo-Nazi, gun-runner, rapist, murderer that he is. It looks like, once again, Harry Hole has bitten off more than he can possibly chew!

Once I got past Harry's lost days of alcoholic stupor, the story began to pick up steam and I got really engrossed in it. Jo NesbØ is a very skillful plotter of these mysteries and he builds suspense and anticipation to a very high pitch before he gives us the climax that we have been waiting for all along. It is entirely understandable for me that his books are such best sellers throughout Europe and that his writing has been compared to people like Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, and Ian Rankin. As he becomes better known here, I think it is inevitable that his books will be best sellers in the U.S. as well.

This is the third Harry Hole mystery that I have read and I count it as the best one so far. Now, I understand that the first two books in the series, The Bat and Cockroaches, have been released in English translation so I look forward to being able to read them. And then, there are five more following The Devil's Star in the series, and counting. It is very satisfying to realize that there is lots of entertaining reading ahead as I follow the adventures of a detective who has become one of my favorites.    

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Pokeweed

If you are a person of a certain age, you may remember the summer of 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind" on the Moon. Around that same time, there was a song that was very popular and was getting a lot of play on the radio. It was called "Poke Salad Annie" and told the story of a poor Southern girl who picked a wild plant called pokeweed and cooked it as a vegetable.

Annie, however, would have actually called her vegetable "poke salet." It is a vegetable that many poor Southerners were then, and probably still are, very familiar with. It is properly known as pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and it grows wild and rampantly in the eastern United States. It is a member of a family of perennial potherbs that are native mostly in Africa and the New World.

The plant's name supposedly is derived from the Algonquian word "pakon" or "puccoon" which referred to a dye plant. It is also sometimes spelled "Polk" and its leaves were adopted as symbols in the political campaigns of the 11th president of the United States, James K. Polk.

The funny thing about this plant is that the young, tender leaves which are used as a green vegetable like spinach are highly toxic. Anyone who wants to eat it must be very careful to handle it properly or their meal could wind up making them very sick. The leaves must be boiled twice and the first water discarded.

In spite of the labor-intensive preparation needed, many people do look forward to picking those first leaves that poke out of the ground in spring. And, in fact, in some specialty markets, you can even find the canned, preserved leaves prepared and ready for you to eat.

The Allens use the traditional Southern spelling of the plant on their cans.

Several years ago, pokeweed got started as a weed in my garden, probably planted there by a birds. The berries of the plant are greatly loved by birds, and since I love the birds, every year I leave one or two of the plants to grow in my garden. From those tiny, dark green leaves that first poke out of the ground in the spring, the plant will grow rather quickly into a robust shrub. The one that is growing in my backyard this year is about eight feet tall and just as wide.

In late spring, the plant begins to produce long clusters, or racemes, of white flowers and the shrub can be quite attractive when covered in these flowers. The flowers draw the pollinators in droves and slowly those flowers become green berries. Over the summer, the berries ripen into a shiny purple-black and birds come from all around to devour them. (The toxicity of the plant seems to have no effect on birds.)

The berries don't last long once they ripen. You can see that some of the ones on this raceme have already been plucked by the birds even as some at the tip are still green. Northern Mockingbirds, in particular, love these berries and do daily battle over them.

The berries were highly prized in earlier days as a source for dye or for use as a red ink. It was sometimes even used to help color wine, a chancy practice since the berries, too, are poisonous for humans. Today, the plant is prized mostly by habitat gardeners like me and by those adventurous souls who like to live on the wild side and pluck their food from Mother Nature's own garden, the descendants of Poke Salet Annie. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Grand Ole Opry I knew was never like this

When I was a little girl growing up on a farm in Northeast Mississippi, my family did not own a television set. In fact most of the people in our neighborhood did not own televisions. What we had was a radio and we listened to that quite a lot. It was our link to the world.

One show that my parents - and, hence, I - never missed was the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from WSM in Nashville on Saturday night. Those were the days of people like Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, Cowboy Copas, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, and, a little later, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and on and on, a seemingly endless progression of country music - REAL country music, not what goes by that name today - stars.

And the songs were all about lost love, drinking, cheating, trains, honky tonkin', all the classical themes of country music. That was the Grand Ole Opry that I knew.

The Opry is still there, still broadcasting on WSM, but it has changed slowly with the times and not always for the better.

But in some ways at least the changes are for the better, I think. One of those ways is represented by a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops who make some of the sweetest music I have heard in a long time.

That performance is so pure and simple, such unadulterated beauty that it brings tears to me eyes, something that doesn't happen too often with music these days. I think I need more Carolina Chocolate Drops in my life.

(And a grateful hat tip to Paul Krugman's Friday Night Music post for bringing this performance to my attention.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters

I was saddened to read in the Times Books section over the weekend that the Egyptologist and writer Barbara Mertz had died. Mertz, at age 85, had had a long and prolific career as a writer. In all, she wrote nearly 70 books only two of which, Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, were published under her own name.

Her career as a fiction writer began in 1966 when she used the pen name (at her agent's request) of Barbara Michaels to write The Master of Blacktower, but it was as Elizabeth Peters, a nom de plume derived from combining her two children's names, that she had her greatest success. It was as Elizabeth Peters that I got to know and love her writing.

Peters wrote mysteries featuring bold and adventurous heroines, but her stories were always based on scholarly topics, usually from the world of archaeology. She was a trained Egyptologist and her most successful series was based mostly in Egypt and featured Amelia Peabody. Peabody was an amateur Egyptologist of the late Victorian/early twentieth century era. She was independent and resourceful and not inclined toward marriage. Nevertheless, she did eventually marry Radcliffe Emerson, who she considered to be the most brilliant Egyptologist of that era when archaeology was brimming with Egyptologists who were called brilliant.

Amelia reigned as the star of 19 books. She and Emerson went on to have a son, who was christened with a European name that was quickly forgotten as everyone called him Ramses and who combined the brilliance of both of his parents and was deeply Egyptian in his outlook. Indeed, one of the things that I found most amenable about the Amelia Peabody series - and I read every one of them! - was the deep empathy and respect which they showed for all things Egyptian, both ancient and modern.

The Peabody-Emerson clan had their Egyptian "family" who assisted them with their archaeological digs. The head of that family and the man in charge of the digs throughout all the early books was Abdullah. He was an important character in the books and he was, in many ways, Amelia's soul-mate and was certainly her best friend. They were so close that not even death could separate them. After Abdullah died, he would often return to Amelia in dreams at times of stress or danger, to comfort her and sometimes to give her clues that would help her solve the mysteries that always seemed to develop in the wake of the Peabody-Emersons' sojourns in Egypt.

Peters' mysteries were always very civilized, in the manner of Agatha Christie, and, as the Times noted in its obituary, they had a "dose of Jane Austen-style romance." Her heroines were always feminists who fought against the sexist mores of their times. She was a graceful, never stodgy writer, who wrote with humor and enthusiasm. Her work afforded me and many, many other readers with uncounted hours of pleasure. I count myself very lucky to have spent all that time in the company of Peters/Peabody.

I couldn't help thinking, as I was reading her obituary, about current events in Egypt. As one who obviously had a deep affection for that troubled country, it must have pained Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters greatly to see what was happening there in recent weeks. Unfortunately, some Egyptian stories cannot be so neatly wrapped up with the good guys always winning as were the inevitable conclusions of all the Amelia Peabody books. Would that it were possible.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Peace of Wild Things

Almost forty years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the writing of a man from Kentucky named Wendell Berry. He thought that, with my interest in Nature, Berry would be a perfect fit for me. He was right.

I have frequently dipped into Berry's writings over the years since then. He is a prolific writer of essays and poems, all of which have at their foundation the idea that people need to live at peace with their environment. As he wrote in 1969, "We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us."

Wendell Berry has not only written in support of that assumption; he has lived his life as an example of that assumption. Now, the 79-year-old writer has been recognized for his life's work. He has been named recipient of the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize's lifetime achievement award. The prize is called the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement award, in honor of the late U.S. diplomat who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accords on Bosnia, and it is meant to recognize literature's ability to promote peace and understanding.   

What better choice, then, for a poem to start this week than something by Mr. Berry. In this case, it is what my elder daughter says is her favorite poem. It is a poem of solace for the harried soul.

The peace of wild things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

Wood Duck drake free and at peace on the water.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Caturday: Kitten cuteness

Here's your kitty break from all the week's depressing news. The world may be going to hell in a hand-basket, but kittens will still be kittens. Which means they will play with just about anything. Sometimes Mom will even join in. Enjoy!

Friday, August 16, 2013

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the heart of the several mysteries that Kurt Wallander and his team must investigate in this seventh book in the Wallander series are secrets. The victims all have secrets which make it difficult to get a grasp on the motives and reasons behind their victimhood, and, of course, the perpetrator, a serial killer, has the biggest secrets of all.

He is a cipher, an anonymous man, someone that you would never notice. People look right through him and never see him. How will Wallander ever be able to find this invisible man?

It begins with three young friends meeting in a nature preserve, dressed in elaborate 18th century costumes, in order to celebrate Midsummer's Eve. In the middle of their happy celebration, as they are lying on the ground, a gunman steps out from behind a tree and shoots all three in the head. He then hides the bodies in a temporary grave.

Afterward, postcards start arriving from various sites around Europe informing the young people's families that they are traveling and will be returning in late summer. The mother of one of the girls doesn't believe the postcards are real. She thinks something has happened to her daughter and she harasses the Ystad police to do something about the missing trio.

The police don't really take the concerned mother's fears seriously. As long as the postcards keep coming, they see no reason to open a missing persons case.

One policeman doesn't agree. Wallander's colleague Karl Evert Svedberg smells a rat and starts investigating privately without telling anyone. He takes his annual vacation time off and spends it working on the case. Then one day, when he is supposed to have returned for work, he doesn't show up. Another day goes by and there is no word from him. That night, Wallander gets one of his famous intuitions that something is wrong and goes to Svedberg's apartment. He finds him brutally murdered.  

Sometime later, a couple goes out to the nature preserve for a Sunday of hiking and picnicking and they make a gruesome discovery - three dead and partially decomposed bodies.

All of a sudden, the Ystad police have four murders on their hands, and as Wallander digs into the cases and finds clues at Svedberg's apartment, he begins to suspect that all are related and were probably committed by one killer. Little does he know how right he is or that the horror will continue for four more killings before the madman is caught.

Meantime, while all of this is going on in his professional life, in his personal life Wallander is falling apart. Just about literally. He is overweight, approaching fifty, constantly thirsty, experiencing fainting spells and aches and pains throughout his body but especially in his legs, and he's constantly having to stop and urinate. Hmmm...could it be that our middle-aged, permanently depressed and often angry detective is suffering from Type 2 diabetes? He certainly has all the classical symptoms, and finally a trip to the doctor confirms it. He's going to have to change his lifestyle or he's going to be in big trouble. But how is he to change his lifestyle in the midst of an investigation of serial murders that keeps him working virtually around the clock?

I like to read series books in order but somehow I had picked up #8, Firewall, to read first. Having read it just a few weeks ago, I wanted to circle back and read this one while the events in that book were still fresh in my mind. As I started reading this one, I realized that I had actually seen it dramatized on PBS' Masterpiece Mystery series. But, of course, that was over a year ago and I didn't remember all the details of the story. They came back to me slowly as I read but in no way dimmed my enjoyment of the book.

Mankell is very good on plotting and pacing which are always key to the construction of a mystery and this one is up to his usual standards. Moreover, little by little we gain insight into his characters which leads us to invest empathy in these stories. Hoglund, Nyberg, Martinsson are all characters that we can care about. And Wallander, even with his irascible nature and his sudden inappropriate outbursts of temper, is someone we can admire for his passion and dedication to his job. A job that seems to be getting harder every day in a changing Sweden.

We can only hope that at some point Wallander will find some peace and happiness in his life and that he will finally get a good night's sleep and be able to make the lifestyle changes his doctor recommends. It could make a whole new man of him.

I wonder if we would still find that man as interesting.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vintage, vintage, vintage. On every page. Sometimes, seemingly, in every paragraph. For about two-thirds of this book, vintage was Sara Gran's favorite adjective. All of her characters wear vintage clothing. They all shop in vintage record shops or book stores or clothing and accessory stores. Often, they even drive vintage cars. Okay, we get the idea. It's cool to love vintage things.

This is the kind of quirk that can irritate me almost beyond endurance when reading a book - the repetitive use of a word. Yes, I realize that might be perceived as petty. So sue me! It's my pet peeve and I'm sticking with it.

At a certain point in the book, Gran seemed to realize what she was doing and she stopped using the word, cold turkey. Never used it again. But she found synonyms or other ways of conveying the same idea.

I really liked Gran's first Claire DeWitt book which was set in New Orleans, and I had looked forward to reading this one. It started off very well. I was happy to make Claire's acquaintance again and to see her in her home city of San Francisco. The mystery that she was engaged in solving - who murdered an old lover of hers - was one that intrigued me. Then I got hung up on the repetition of "vintage" and Claire's downward spiral into drug addiction and the whole thing just kind of fell apart for me.

In Bohemian Highway, we meet a Claire who is clearly out of control and not functioning well in her life's destiny as a detective. She spends much of her time searching out sources for purchasing cocaine and whenever she visits anyone's house or apartment, either as part of the investigation or just because, she seeks the bathroom and checks the bathroom cabinet for drugs. If she finds Percocet or Vicodin or Valium or anything else that will help her get high, she takes one or two of the pills and puts the rest in her purse. If she finds cocaine in the house, she steals it.

She is, in short, a mess. Her nose is constantly bleeding. Half the time it's not clear whether she's experiencing reality or some drug-induced dream. It is thoroughly depressing.

And yet, we are led to believe that her finely honed instinct for detection is totally intact and that she is able to intuit the clues that she needs to eventually solve this case. I have no experience with cocaine, but somehow, I just don't think that's the way it works, especially when you are mixing cocaine with Vicodin, Percocet, Valium, Adderall or whatever else the next medicine cabinet holds. Yes, one has to suspend disbelief when reading fiction and allow the author his/her artistic license, but this was too much for me.

Sara Gran is a talented writer and there were parts of the book that I really, really liked. They mostly occurred in the first third of so of the novel. In the end, I gave the book three stars, but if I could have given two-and-a-half, that would have been a truer reflection of my reaction.

I'm sure that Gran had a method in mind and that she was working from a plan in presenting her main character in the way she did, but I can't really discern what the purpose was. The book ended on a cliffhanger, so I am sure that another entry in the Claire DeWitt story is forthcoming. I hope that her creator will see fit to put Claire back in control of her addiction and allow her to become a more likable human being. I'll be less eager to read the next book unless I have an inkling that something like that has happened.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Summer hummers

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird photographed at Hamelia patens, aka "hummingbird bush," in my backyard, August 13, 2013.

Until recent years, we could be about 99.9% certain that any hummingbird that we saw in our garden would be a Ruby-throat. That representative of its family had a near monopoly on the territory of (roughly) the eastern half of the country.

With the changing climate and the expanding ranges of many birds, that scenario has changed dramatically. Black-chinned and Buff-bellied hummers are now, if not common, at least possible residents in summer. We also get a variety of vagrants through here at various times throughout the year. And, during the winter months, Rufous Hummingbirds are so common as to hardly evince comment anymore.

For the last couple of years, indeed, I have had hummingbirds resident in my yard twelve months of the year. The Ruby-throats show up in late March or early April and linger until November - even sometimes into December.

The Rufous Hummingbirds begin to trickle through in late August. For the last two winters, I have had two Rufous hummers that stayed in my yard through the winter and into the spring, until after the Ruby-throats had begun to return.

I occasionally see Black-chinned hummers here - at least I think I do. They can be very difficult to distinguish from the closely related Ruby-throats. I've not yet seen a Buff-bellied or any of the more exotic hummers in my yard.

Summertime, though, is still Ruby-throat time here. There is a female Ruby-throat who stays here through the summer and nests here. Occasionally, as this summer, there will be a male hanging around also, but once mating is accomplished, he plays no role in hummingbird family affairs. The female does everything: builds the tiny walnut-shell-sized nest, lays two eggs, incubates the eggs, and feeds the young once they hatch. She feeds them on a regurgitated mix of tiny insects and nectar.

Considering the metabolic rate of hummingbirds and the amount of feeding that each bird has to do just to keep itself alive, it seems amazing that one bird is able to do all of the chores related to nesting and raising nestlings. That, of course, is only one of the almost unbelievable things about this amazing bird.

Having a male bird in the yard during the summer has allowed me to see his rather fantastic display by which he attempts to entice the female into mating. First, he would swing back and forth in front of the female several times and then he would fly high into the air and dive at tremendous speed, making a u-shaped turn before he hit the ground. He would then continue to fly high into the air again and repeat that display several times. On the two occasions that I witnessed this performance, the female did not appear to be impressed. But perhaps she was just being coy.

The most fantastic part of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird's life cycle is its migration. The tiny birds may spend the summer as far north as southern Canada, but in late summer, they start heading south again. Their trip will take them into Mexico, Costa Rica, or as far south as Panama. Some seem to fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico, but most probably follow the Texas coast south. When you realize that this fall migration is carried out during the height of the hurricane season, you begin to see what a perilous journey it is.

Then, of course, in the spring, they do the whole thing over again in reverse.

Wonderful birds! Wonderful life stories.

Male Ruby-throated hummer photographed at one of my feeders in August, 2012.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Simon's Cat vs. the World by Simon Tofield: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those who know me well know that I am a big fan of Simon's cat, the wonderful, always hungry, totally self-absorbed feline who is a composite of every cat I've ever loved. It's obvious that Simon Tofield has also known a lot of cats like the ones who have populated and enriched my life and his drawings and particularly his YouTube videos featuring the animated drawings of his cat are a source of delight to me.

Imagine my pleasure, then, upon receiving this little book of cartoons as a surprise gift on my birthday a few days ago. What fun! Every page brings a smile.

In addition to the hundred pages or so of his iconic cat drawings, Tofield includes at the end of the book some lessons on how to draw different kinds of cats and one on drawing squirrels, which also frequently feature in his cartoons. He makes it look so easy that even I might be able to do it.

This book gets an honored spot on the table by my favorite chair so that I can refer to it whenever I am in need of a smile or a chuckle. Simon's cat never fails me.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders: A review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Okay, let me confess my prejudice right up front. I am really not a big fan of short stories. There. Now I have marked myself as a Philistine. (Except, of course, the Philistines weren't. They actually had quite a highly developed and sophisticated culture, but, in the end, they were defeated, and the victors got to write the histories. Thus, the Philistines have gotten a bad rap for all the years since.)

But, short stories. Perhaps my objection to them is based in the fact that I feel short-changed by them. I like to get to know fictional characters over the length of 300-400 pages and several hours of reading. If their story can be told over a period of a few pages and read in a few minutes, it just feels incomplete to me.

On the other hand, maybe I'm simply lacking in imagination and sophisticated taste. In other words, maybe I'm a, an unimaginative, unsophisticated reader.

When George Saunders' latest book of short stories, Tenth of December came out earlier this year, all the critics raved and then swooned. The New York Times Magazine reviewer famously gushed that this would be the best book we would read all year. That was written in January.

Well, now it is August and I felt compelled to read a book that was so highly praised, but - maybe my prejudice is showing here - it was not the best book I have read all year.

There are ten stories in this book and they are a varied lot. Some are funny, some are sad or poignant. Some of dystopian. More than one is science fiction. There is cruelty and ugliness here. And there is gentleness and compassion. The stories are about children and teenagers, middle-aged and old people. It seems that most readers should be able to find at least one or two stories or one or two characters here that she likes.

I found two such stories. Strangely enough, both of them deal with eccentric garden/yard art. As an displayer of some of my own garden art that might be labeled "eccentric," this was an idea that I could connect with.

"The Semplica Girls Diaries" offers a somewhat dystopian, sci fi vision. It deals with an ordinary family of mother, father, and three young children who are lower middle-class and struggling to be seen as "keeping up with the Joneses." They live in a world where poor human beings offer themselves to be used as garden art. In order to impress their neighbors, the parents take four of these individuals and install them as "exhibits" in their front yard. But this appalls their tender-hearted children and the whole scheme turns into an all too predictable fiasco for the family. This story, at 60 pages, is the longest one in the book.

My favorite of all the stories, though, was the shortest one in the book. I found "Sticks," only two pages long, one of the most poignant and affecting tales included. It tells the story of a man who constructed a figure of sticks to decorate his garden and at different times of the year, he dressed his stick figure in different costumes, appropriate for the season. He took great pride in his creation, although his family was somewhat abashed by it. He continued decorating the figure right up until the end of his life. His wife had died and the family had scattered and he was left alone, and his "decorations" at the end were apologies for his real or imagined transgressions. When he died and another young couple bought the house, the first thing they did was to take down the stick figure.

George Saunders is said to be a writer's writer, one that other writers admire. It seems that anytime he publishes anything it is automatically highly acclaimed.

He is obviously an accomplished writer and does have a way with words, but, on the whole, I failed to find or feel a connection with most of these stories. And, again, maybe it was because of my prejudice against short stories.

But then again, I really did quite like that two-page story.    

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Magpies

A hat tip to  my New Zealand blogging friend, Carole, for this week's poem. It is by a New Zealand poet, Denis Glover, of whom, I confess, I had not heard. Glover died on August 9, 1980, so it's a good time to feature one of his poems and this one, it seems, is one of his most famous. It references a situation which will be all too familiar to many people in these difficult economic times, post the burst housing bubble. 

The Magpies

by Denis Glover

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Tom's hand was strong to the plough
and Elizabeth's lips were red
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Year in year out they worked
while the pines grew overhead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

But all the beautiful crops soon went
to the mortgage man instead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

Elizabeth is dead now (it's long ago)
Old Tom's gone light in the head
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said

The farm's still there. Mortgage corporations
couldn't give it away
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

Black-billed Magpies in Rocky Mountain National Park in October.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Caturday: Happy birthday, Maru!

Actually, Maru's birthday was back in May, but I missed it somehow, so this is a belated birthday tribute. Maru's, caregiver posted this video to show that the popular star of the internet has lost none of his charm and none of his affinity for boxes. Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy birthday to me!

When I fired up the old laptop this morning and called on my friend, Google, this is what I saw.

Hmmm, I thought, some famous person has the same birthday as me. Then I ran my cursor over the doodle and read, "Happy Birthday, Dorothy!"

Wow! My friend Google remembered my birthday. I didn't know she/he/it cared. I guess it's true that Google really does know all my secrets. 

Will birthday greetings from the NSA be next?

Anyway, all of that is just to say that I'm taking a birthday break. Normal blogging will resume tomorrow...or whenever I recover from my celebration.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There has been a lot of buzz in literary circles recently about whether fiction must, or should always, have likable characters. It's a valid question, I suppose, at least for some readers. I know one who swears he won't read a novel unless there's a character in it that he can like and sympathize with. He gave up on Jonathan Franzen for that reason.

It's interesting that the current discussion seems to always involve the work of female writers. I don't see any critics asking the aforementioned Jonathan Franzen why he doesn't have more likable characters in his work.

It's quite likely that there is an element of sexism in the question, as there seems to be an element of sexism in the assessment of most human endeavors in this country. Women are trained from the womb to be "likable" and so we expect women writers to create likable characters.

The lack of a likable character, though, does not seem to have held Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl back overmuch. As I write this, the book has now spent sixty - that's 60 - consecutive weeks on the New York Times best seller list, and it has two of the most unlikable, narcissistic, downright psychopathic or sociopathic characters that you will find in the pages of a novel.

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years as the book opens. In fact, it is their fifth anniversary. The marriage started propitiously enough. They were young and in love. They were both writers. Nick wrote for a magazine. Amy constructed popular personality quizzes for magazines. They lived in New York. They were rich, courtesy of Amy's parents who were the authors of a popular series of children's books modeled on their daughter called Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy was a paragon of virtues, a perfect child in every way. Amy and Nick lived an enchanted, carefree life based on money that flowed from that perfect character.

Then they both lost their jobs and Nick's parents back in Missouri got very sick and it all began to fall apart.

They moved back to Missouri to take care of the sick parents. Amy hated the town and the people. By this time, they had lost nearly all of their money. Amy's parents were nearing bankruptcy and had to borrow money from their daughter's trust fund. Then Nick wanted to buy a bar and they used the last of Amy's money to purchase it. Nick and his twin sister Margo would run it. Everything was spiraling downward fast. Including the once idyllic marriage.

Then on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappeared.

Nick came home from work that day to find the front door of the house open, furniture in the living room overturned, and evidence that there had been blood spilled and cleaned up in the kitchen. And no trace of Amy. The police were called and the investigation began. The main question to be answered was, is Amy dead and did Nick kill her?

Flynn's method is to give us alternating viewpoints of the two main characters, so we get a chapter in Nick's words and then a chapter in Amy's words. For the first part of the book, Amy's words are courtesy of a "diary" that she left behind, a document that paints an incriminating picture of Nick. Slowly, both of the characters are revealed as sly and manipulative and strangers to the truth. Thoroughly unlikable, both of them.

I admire Flynn's plotting. It really is ingenuous, impeccable and fast-paced, designed to keep the pages turning. It achieves its aim. I raced through the book of more than 400 pages.

I have to say that one of my favorite parts of this book was something that a lot of people might not have noticed. It was Flynn's correct usage of objective pronouns and the fact that she pointed it out to her readers! Dare I guess that, like me, one of her pet peeves is the now almost universally incorrectly used "I" for "me," as in "It is important for Nick and I to have some time alone." Instead, Flynn correctly writes:

They say it's important for Nick and me (the correct grammar) to have some time alone and heal.

See, she knows that some people are going to think that "me" is incorrect so she takes pains to put in parentheses "the correct grammar." I love it!

In fact, there are lots of things to love about this dark tale. I can understand its popularity. But if you are looking for likable characters, give this book a pass.    

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