Saturday, November 30, 2013

Caturday: Santa Claws

'Tis the season. Thanksgiving is past. Time to get the house decorated for the year-end holidays and that, of course, means a tree. That can be a challenge though if you have a Simon's Cat in the house.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading a No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel is like being in the presence of an old and well-known, well-loved friend. It's a warm hug from a someone who knows just when you really need that hug.

These books are classified as mysteries, but they might as easily be called philosophy, because they are filled with Precious Ramotswe's ruminations on life, on what makes people behave as they do, on her beloved Botswana, on Africa.

All of the "mysteries" that she is called on to solve are, at their core, puzzles of human nature and why one person seeks to cause mischief for another. There are no car chases, no gunfights, no bloodshed. There is simply Mma Ramotswe meditating on the personalities of those involved in her current cases and using common sense and her well-honed instinct to sort through all the motives and possibilities to a logical conclusion. The great Sherlock could not do more.  

As this book opens, we learn that Mma Ramotswe's associate, the recently married Mma Makutsi, is pregnant and soon to deliver her child. But, out of some superstition that things may go wrong, she does not want to talk about it. She almost refuses to even acknowledge that she is pregnant and she will not discuss her plans after the birth of the child. Will she be coming back to work at the detective agency? Will she need maternity leave and, if so, how much?

One day, a lawyer comes to the agency and wishes to hire Mma Ramotswe to investigate circumstances regarding a will that she is charged with probating. A rich farmer, with no direct descendants, has died and has left most of his estate to a nephew, son of his brother, who often visited the farm as he was growing up. The lawyer suspects that the young man who seeks to claim the inheritance is not really the nephew and that some sort of fraud is being perpetrated by the farmer's sister and this young man. Mma Ramotswe agrees to investigate, but, as often happens in these stories, she finds that things are much more complicated than they appear on the surface.

Meanwhile, Grace Makutsi has her baby, a boy, whom she names for her and Mma Ramotswe's great hero and guide to the art of detecting, Clovis Anderson!

Mma Ramotswe chances to encounter the proprietor of the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. She has just moved her business from the shack that it did occupy into shiny new modern quarters and is ready for her grand opening, but all of a sudden, she finds herself the victim of a campaign of intimidation. Someone sends her the feather of a ground hornbill which is supposed to portend some evil coming to the recipient's life.  Then there is a whispering campaign of scurrilous gossip about the salon and its products. It seems as though that triumphant opening of the new salon will never happen. Mma Ramotswe must find out who wishes ill for her client and get to the bottom of the vicious gossip which threatens to ruin her.

And so, Mma Ramotswe travels about the neighborhood in her ancient and beloved little white van to uncover facts, gather impressions, listen to people, and, finally, to weave it all together in a solution to her clients' problems. And as she rambles about we get to share her thoughts and her philosophy, a philosophy that is grounded in the very soil of Botswana. It is a gentle and always life-affirming trek that leaves one refreshed and wanting more.

Indeed, that might be my only complaint about this Alexander McCall Smith series - the books are just too short.  

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Addams Family Thanksgiving

Yes, it is that time of year again. Time for another Addams Family Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

I hope your Thanksgiving is a peaceful one with no flaming arrows and no scalpings.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Opossums

The Virginia opossum, more familiarly known as possum.

The opossum, or possum, is the only marsupial animal found in the United States and Canada. They are also frequently found in my backyard at night.

Possums are scavengers and are always on the look-out for something that can become their next meal. They are attracted to garbage cans, dumpsters, and other such containers. They also will eat carrion and can sometimes be found near roadkill. They will hunt small animals. In past years, when we had a backyard flock of chickens, the possums were a threat to them. They are omnivorous and will eat just about anything they can get their mouths around. I even sometimes see them under my bird feeders where they pick up nuts and fruits that have fallen from the feeders.

As a member of the marsupial class of animals, female possums give birth to tiny babies, about the size of honeybees. There may be as many as 20 babies in a litter, but, generally fewer than half of them will survive. After birth, they go into their mother's pouch where they continue to develop. As they get bigger, they will go in and out of the pouch and sometimes will ride on their mother's back as she hunts for food.

Grown opossums cannot be said to be particularly attractive animals, but the young ones, like this one, are rather cute, I think.

Possums are excellent climbers and much of their time is spent high up in trees. Their climbing is aided by very sharp claws and a long prehensile tail that can be used like an extra limb. Possums nest in holes in trees or they take over dens that were constructed by other animals.    

Opossums are an ancient animal and they are survivors. They are highly adaptable, as is shown by their ability to find a niche in which to thrive in suburban or even urban settings. They've been a part of the world of Nature for a very long time. It is likely that they will continue for a long time to come and that they will continue to be a part of my backyard ecosystem.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Say goodbye

I've often written here and elsewhere about the plight of the Monarch butterflies and of the bees. They are iconic insects that can be recognized by most people, even those that are fairly ignorant about other insects, and they are hugely important cogs in the ecosystem.

The migration of the Monarch is a tale which borders on the magical. A fragile insect which makes the long trek all across the continent from Canada to Mexico is something which catches people's imagination as a thing that is really quite marvelous.

The Monarch's migration is particularly important and is cause for celebration in Mexico where the butterflies have traditionally wintered. A story in The New York Times this week ("The Year the Monarch Didn't Appear") emphasized that important cultural link.
On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.
The story in the Times goes on to report how that return on November 1 did not happen this year. The Monarchs did not return then. It was only a week later that they began to straggle in in record-low numbers.

Last year saw the lowest ever recorded numbers of the butterflies to winter in the Mexican mountains at about 60 million. So far this year, only about three million have shown up. Some Monarch experts express fears that the spectacular migration of the colorful insects could be about to end. What a loss that would be!

Think of the Passenger Pigeons which in the early part of the 1900s blotted out the sun for days with their mass migrations. And yet, before the century was one quarter gone, humans had completely wiped out the species. Passenger Pigeons were extinct. Could the same thing happen to Monarch butterflies?

There are several factors that are related to the decline in Monarchs, as well as in bees and in insects in general.

Perhaps the number one enemy of the butterflies, bees, and other insects is the profligate use by farmers and gardeners of nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids which kill indiscriminately. But even if those insecticides were no longer used, butterflies and bees would still be in trouble.

A huge problem for insects, as indeed for all animals, is the loss of native vegetation, i.e., the loss of appropriate habitat, across the United States. Typically, all the native plants in an area may be uprooted and destroyed for housing developments, roads, shopping centers, parking lots, etc. The landscaping that replaces them may consist of  imported, invasive species that the local wildlife cannot utilize. Thus it becomes a food desert for those critters.

Another problem is the prevalence of farming with Roundup. This is a herbicide that kills virtually all vegetation except for crops that are genetically modified to survive its application. As a result of its usage, millions of acres of native plants, including milkweed, the plant on which Monarchs are completely dependent for the nourishment and survival of their caterpillars, have been wiped out.

Of course, another big challenge which bees, in particular, face is disease. Viruses and parasites may weaken them to the point that they are not able to overcome the other stressors in their lives - for example, flying farther afield to find food when the supplies closer at hand have been wiped out.

The plight of the butterflies and bees is getting more press and more attention from the public and there are a number of organizations that continue to try to educate us about the need to preserve native vegetation and to plant native plants in our landscapes. Gardeners across the country, for example, are being encouraged to plant more milkweed in their gardens to try to compensate for all the native vegetation that has been lost to the bulldozer or to Roundup.

It is hard, if not impossible, to replace all those millions of acres that have been lost. One is chilled by the thought that in our lifetimes we might have to say goodbye to the Monarch butterfly, as our forbears did a century ago to the Passenger Pigeon.

But meantime, keep planting that butterfly weed. It is better to light one candle, however small, than to curse the darkness or to give in to despair for the fate of the beautiful Monarch.

Female Monarch on milkweed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second in Michael Connelly's popular Harry Bosch series was published twenty years ago in 1993, but it still seems fresh today. Reading it actually reminded me quite a lot of watching Breaking Bad with its aura of violence from Mexican drug cartels and the introduction of a new drug - in this case, something called "black ice."

Harry is still relegated to the Hollywood Division, apparently the armpit of the LAPD, where he continues to investigate homicides in his own inimitable independent fashion. It's a fashion which does not endear him to his superiors.

This particular case starts with him investigating the death of a low level criminal whom no one seems to care much about. He follows a lead to the narcotics division and he meets with an LAPD narcotics officer to try to get more information. Sometime later, a corpse that appears to be that same LAPD narcotics officer is found in a seedy hotel room. His face has been blown away by a shotgun blast and the police quickly mark the death down as a suicide.

It's not Harry's case, but he gets involved anyway and some things about the death don't add up for him. There are some inexplicable details at the crime scene, plus he keeps running into connections with the dead narcotics officer in other cases that he is investigating.

Also, there is the fact that Harry is sent to notify the deceased's widow of his death and he is immediately attracted to her. The attraction seems mutual.

As is his habit, he decides to follow the trail wherever it leads. In this instance, it leads him to Mexico and into a dangerous labyrinth of shifting identities and deadly corruption. How can he determine who can be trusted in this netherworld?

His contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency warns him not to trust anyone in the Mexican police forces or government, and yet his instinct tells him that one of the men that he meets with is trustworthy and he partners with him in his investigations in Mexicali. The narcotics officer who was killed had connections in Mexicali and the suspicion is that he had "broken bad" and was working with the drug dealers.

Meanwhile, another LAPD police officer is murdered, and, again, it is someone that Harry had just met with to get information before he headed to Mexico. Do we see a pattern developing here? Is someone trying to frame Harry?

The LAPD brass insist that Harry come home immediately, but, of course, he doesn't. He continues his investigation, collecting clues, following his instincts all the way to their conclusion.

Michael Connelly is really a very good writer. He plots his stories carefully. He creates characters - especially his main character - that are interesting. The characters engage the reader and make her want to know how things are going to work out - or not - for them. Moreover, he is able to build a sense of excitement that keeps one turning the pages to find out what's going to happen next.

Obviously, I am coming late to this series, but I find that is no barrier to my enjoyment of it. There are many more Harry Bosch books and I look forward to reading them all.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Troubadours Etc.

The National Book Awards were announced this past week. The prize for poetry was awarded to Mary Szybist, a poet with whom I admit I was completely unfamiliar.

It is always exciting to meet a poet one hasn't known before. I read several of Szybist's poems in recent days to try to learn more about her. Her poems often feature images and ideas from Nature. I was particularly struck by this one - I think because of its images of Passenger Pigeons. Such an iconic and once ubiquitous bird. Now it is no more. "At what point is something gone completely?"

The Troubadours Etc.

Just for this evening, let's not mock them.
Not their curtsies or cross-garters
or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
promising, promising.

At least they had ideas about love.

All day we've driven past cornfields, past cows poking their heads
through metal contraptions to eat.
We've followed West 84, and what else?
Irrigation sprinklers fly past us, huge wooden spools in the fields,
lounging sheep, telephone wires,
yellowing flowering shrubs.

Before us, above us, the clouds swell, layers of them,
the violet underneath of clouds.
Every idea I have is nostalgia. Look up:
there is the sky that passenger pigeons darkened and filled—
darkened for days, eclipsing sun, eclipsing all other sound
with the thunder of their wings.
After a while, it must have seemed that they followed
not instinct or pattern but only
one another.

When they stopped, Audubon observed,
they broke the limbs of stout trees by the weight of the numbers.

And when we stop we'll follow—what?
Our hearts?

The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.

Think of days of those scarlet-breasted, blue-winged birds above you.
Think of me in the garden, humming
quietly to myself in my blue dress,
a blue darker than the sky above us, a blue dark enough for storms,
though cloudless.

At what point is something gone completely?
The last of the sunlight is disappearing
even as it swells—

Just for this evening, won't you put me before you
until I'm far enough away you can
believe in me?

Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Have you heard the good news about Obamacare?

The national media, especially that portion of it that is located inside the Washington beltway, seem to have completely adopted the Republican line on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. It's a "train wreck." The website is a disaster. Repeal is inevitable.

But if you get past the front pages where all these horror stories appear, you may find quite a different tale, buried somewhere on page six. This week, for example, we saw headlines like these:

No big drop in Obamacare support


Obamacare enrollments surging

and website working better

The stories that appear beneath these headlines detail the fact that support for the health care program is holding essentially steady, that enrollments in the program during the first two weeks of November were more than twice what they were for the entire month of October, and, finally, that the glitch-prone website is now working for at least 90 percent of its visitors. These are all hopeful signs that point to the eventual success of the process and the program itself.

While the federal exchange still lags behind where it should be, many of the states which operate their own exchanges - notably Kentucky, Connecticut, and California - are exceeding projections and signing up people faster than had been expected. The states that are working well for the most part have Democratic governors who have worked to make the program a success. These states have also expanded Medicaid so that more of their citizens are now able to be have insurance through that program.

In mean-spirited states like Texas, which have done everything possible to throw a monkey wrench into the works of the federal exchange servicing the states and have refused to implement expanded Medicaid to help more of their citizens, sign-ups for health care have lagged. But even here, people are clearing the hurdles and getting through. As the website begins to work better, as it now is beginning to do, more and more people will be able to take advantage of the insurance plans on offer for their area. By the end of the year, I would expect to see enrollments "surging" there, too.

So, in spite of what you might hear from the national media and from the obstructionists who keep trying to kill it, all is not doom and gloom with Obamacare. Indeed, there is light at the end of the tunnel and it does not appear to be an onrushing train.

Meanwhile, there was this little-noted story from yesterday's news. Yes, that implacable foe of affordable health care, Speaker of the House John Boehner, is now a fully signed up member of Obamacare!  

Friday, November 22, 2013


FDR famously spoke after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 of "a day that will live in infamy." It was an apt and memorable phrase, one that I am sure was engraved on the hearts of all Americans who heard it.

That "day of infamy" was well before I was born and so I never heard that speech in real time, although obviously I've heard the recording of it many times. Sadly, there have been other days of infamy in our country's history since then. The one that I remember most, the one that affected me most - even more than 9/11/2001 - was 11/22/63, the day an American president was murdered in cold blood on the streets of a major American city. It has been said that that was the day America lost its innocence. In very many ways, it was the day that I lost my innocence. Things were never quite the same for me after that.

I had idolized John F. Kennedy. I was inspired by him. Even though I was too young at the time, I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I wanted to work in the State Department. I wanted to be a part of the government, to serve my country. I dreamed of the day when I would be able to do all that, when I would be able to make a difference in the world. Yes, I believed that I could make a difference in the world. Kennedy made me believe that.

On November 22, 1963 at 1:30 in the afternoon, I was in French class. Sometime after the class began, the door to the classroom burst open and one of the other teachers came and spoke to my French instructor, telling her in a voice loud enough for all of us to hear that the president had been killed in Dallas. My teacher's reaction was, "Well, I'm not a bit surprised!" She then continued the class as if nothing had happened.

I was stunned.

Later in the hallways, I was further stunned and appalled to see groups of students standing around laughing and joking about the assassination. I had never felt so alone in my life. I retired to one of the bathrooms and locked myself in a stall where I could cry alone.

That was a Friday. A couple of days later on Sunday, I went with my parents to church. I vividly recall one of the deacons getting up in church that day and talking about how the assassination had all been a part of God's plan, that God had wanted John Kennedy dead. No one contradicted him. That was the day that I began leaving the church. If that was God's plan, then I didn't want any part of such a God.

This was Mississippi in 1963. I had to get out.

I suffered from a deep depression long after that fateful day. My parents worried about me. I remember my mother telling me repeatedly that I had to "snap out of it" and get on with life. Eventually, I did, but my life and my personality had been permanently marked by the experience.

Fifty years later, the memories are somewhat faded. So many other memories have overlaid them. Most of the principal actors in the day's drama are long dead. Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, even John Kennedy, Jr. - John-John - all dead. And, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot down on live television by Jack Ruby. We never got to hear Oswald's story and that, in itself, is part of the tragedy. He should have been brought to trial and everything exposed to the air and sunlight of an open forum. Instead, we were robbed of that possibility and all kinds of conspiracy theories have sprung up to fill the vacuum of what will never be known.

Those of us who lived through those awful days and are old enough to clearly remember them will surely never forget and can never completely escape the consequences of November 22, 1963. We'll never know how the world might have been different but for the actions of Lee Harvey Oswald on that day.

But life goes on. The Kennedy legacy goes on. All the people that he inspired in his all-too-brief presidency continue to honor that legacy. And the Kennedy daughter, Caroline, goes on, the final survivor of that family. A staunch supporter of another groundbreaking president, Barack Obama, she now serves as ambassador to Japan. One imagines that her parents would have been very proud of her.

As for me, I did get away from Mississippi, although not as far away as I had once hoped. Today, I can view the state in a somewhat more balanced and compassionate way than when I saw it as nothing but a hate-filled closed society from which I had to escape. Even Mississippi has changed and mostly for the better in the last fifty years. I hope that I have, too.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Sickle-winged Skipper

Sickle-winged Skipper butterfly (Achylodes mithridates), aka Bat Skipper, perched on a lemon tree.
This very unusual and fairly large (1 1/2 to 1 7/8 inches) butterfly is easily identifiable in any setting because of the shape of its wings. In addition to their unusual shape, they are striking because they are glossed with an iridescent sheen of lavender and copper and crossed by bands of bluish gray spots. Thus, a butterfly which at first glance seems to be a rather dull brown, on closer examination is actually quite colorful.

This is a butterfly of South and Central America and the West Indies, which ranges into southern Texas where it is a year-round resident. It is rare for them to wander as far north as my backyard just north of Houston, but this one did. When seen in this area, it is generally in the months from August to November. Some have even strayed as far north as Arkansas and Kansas but that is extremely rare.

This skipper is at home in tropical thorn-scrub forest or in city gardens. It perches with its wings spread wide as seen in the photograph above and often seeks shade or shelter on the undersides of leaves. It visits a variety of different flowers for nectar.

The mature caterpillar is bright green with a yellow stripe on each side. Its food plants are lime prickly-ash and citrus plants.

The Sickle-winged Skipper is an infrequent but very welcome visitor to my habitat garden.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Philippa Gregory's series about the women of the Cousins' War, the 15th century conflict between the Yorks and the Lancasters over who would rule England, continues with this account of the life of Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth was born a princess of the House of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, who we learned about in The White Queen.

As a youngster, Elizabeth is betrothed to Henry Tudor, who will become Henry VII and found the Tudor line. Henry and his uncle Jasper had fled to France when Henry was still a child to avoid being destroyed in the cousins' conflict. Eventually, Henry returns to England with an army and manages to defeat Richard III, the last of the York kings, on the fields of Bosworth.

In Gregory's telling, the princess Elizabeth had been in love with Richard III, her uncle, and, in fact, was his lover. She grieved for his death at Bosworth. Henry, who took the crown that day, chose to honor his betrothal to Elizabeth and to marry her in an effort to unite the country and put the Cousins' War behind them.

Thus, Elizabeth embarks on a loveless marriage, becomes queen of England, and bears five children with Henry. In time, as she learns to understand him better and to empathize with him, she even learns to love him.

Meanwhile, the issue of Elizabeth's brothers, the two York princes who were imprisoned in the Tower of London, continues to haunt the country and to haunt Henry. No one seems to know what happened to them. They disappeared, but their bodies were never found. Richard always claimed that he did not know what happened to them. And now, all these years later, with a Tudor on the throne, there are rumors that one of the brothers survived, that he is mustering an army and planning an invasion. Is he truly a York prince or merely a low-born pretender?

Henry becomes obsessed and fearful of this threat to his rule. He is paranoid, believing that the country will not support him if an invasion comes, and his paranoia makes him cruel.

Elizabeth is torn between her self-interest which lies with Henry and the inheritance of her children and the possibility that her beloved younger brother may actually be alive and the rightful heir to the throne.

This was in many ways a compelling story, although, frankly, the paranoia concerning the possibility of the survival of a York prince which consumes at least half the book becomes a bit tiresome after a while. Also, the constant reminders by our narrator, Elizabeth, about the outstanding beauty and charisma of the whole York family (including herself) as compared to the ordinariness and fearfulness of Henry Tudor become very repetitious and somewhat annoying after a while. I mean, we get it - the Yorks are rock stars and Henry Tudor is just an ordinary man. No need to keep whacking us over the head with it.

Anyway, if the Yorks were so charismatic and greatly beloved by everyone, why did all those people spend so many years trying to overthrow Edward IV? Why did the country spend two decades in constant conflict? But Elizabeth is a York daughter, so I guess we must allow her her prejudices.

This is a worthy addition to the saga of the women of the Cousins' War and it was, for the most part, an enjoyable read. It will be interesting to see if Gregory continues with this series. I wonder what she would make of the Virgin Queen?  

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2013 is the centennial anniversary of the publication of the first volume in Marcel Proust's epic, Remembrance of Things Past. In commemoration, many book clubs, literary groups, and fans of the work have organized marathon readings of it. I decided it was time for me to do my own commemoration by reading it. After all, isn't it something that all literate people are supposed to have read?

I had actually attempted to read the book several years ago. I read perhaps thirty pages and was completely daunted. I just couldn't go on with it. But these days, I am made of sterner stuff, plus I have more time on my hands, so I persevered.

And, believe me, reading Proust does require perseverance. His convoluted, complex sentences go on for half a page or more with no relief. If the reader's attention wanders for even a few seconds, she can be irretrievably lost and has to go back to the beginning to pick up the thread of the narrative. I confess this happened to me more than once. The reading was a long, hard slog.

The narrative proceeds on two tracks. The first revolves around a younger version of the narrator who relates his experiences in and memories of the town of Combray. These experiences are triggered by the dipping of a Madeleine into hot tea. In fact, Madeleines play a central role in his memories of times past.

He writes of his fear, as a child, of going to bed at night. He would often wake up in the middle of the night in terror because he was disoriented and couldn't remember where he was. He hated sleeping alone and remembers with great pleasure one night when he was so sad and fearful that his beloved Mamma spent the night in his room.

It was in Combray that he became inclined toward becoming a writer. He is particularly struck by the beauty of the countryside around Combray, and especially loves the blossoms of the hawthorns which line the path to neighbor Charles Swann's house. He sets himself the task of describing everything that he sees to the best of his ability.

The second track of the narrative relates the backstory of a love affair between Charles Swann and a woman named Odette. Swann does not realize that Odette has a terrible reputation. He idealizes her as the embodiment of a beautiful painting by Botticelli. They marry and have a daughter named Gilberte, with whom Marcel later falls in love.

Odette quickly tires of Swann and proves to be a faithless wife, just as her reputation would have suggested. Swann is at first devastated by the betrayal and suffers the pangs of unrequited love. Eventually, he confronts Odette and learns the truth about all her sexual escapades.

Disappointed in love, Swann returns for comfort to the high society of aristocrats and royalty of which he had been a part before he met Odette. Eventually, he comes to see Odette as a very un-Botticelli-like figure and wonders at the fact that he could have ever experienced this great love for someone who wasn't even his "type"!

Marcel Proust's literary talent was nourished by the rich cultural and intellectual atmosphere in which he grew up. He was a noted socialite whose extraordinary intelligence and charm made him a favorite among the Parisian elite. He was a regular in many of the most sought-after salons in Paris. His experience as a member of the most exalted elite in society is reflected in a certain snobbery toward the bourgeoisie and working classes that is evident in his writing.

Reading this work was an exercise in patience. It forces one to slow down and pay strict attention if she does not wish to be lost forever in its maze-like sentences.

When I started reading, I had grandiose plans to push right on with reading all four volumes of this work, without a pause. I'm glad that I finally managed to read Swann's Way, but I definitely need a vacation from Proust before I proceed with the rest of his remembrances. Probably a long vacation.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Autumn Waiting

We're coming to the latter third of autumn. Some days we get a taste of winter. On other days, it seems like summer again. The season can't seem to make up its mind. It is waiting for something - a cold wind, perhaps? - to tip the balance.

Autumn Waiting 

by Tom Hennen

Cold wind.
The day is waiting for winter
Without a sound.
Everything is waiting—
Broken-down cars in the dead weeds.
The weeds themselves.
Even sunlight
Is in no hurry and stays
For a long time
On each cornstalk.
Blackbirds are silent
And sit in piles.
From a distance
They look like
Spilled on the road.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Caturday: Adam and Eve's pets

The Story of Adam and Eve's Pets
(No, you won't find it in the Bible.)

Adam and Eve said, "Lord, when we were in the garden, you walked with us every day. Now we do not see you anymore. We are lonesome here, and it is difficult for us to remember how much you love us."

And God said, "I will create a companion for you that will be with you and who will be a reflection of my love for you, so that you will love me even when you cannot see me. Regardless of how selfish or childish or unlovable you may be, this new companion will accept you as you are and will love you as I do, in spite of yourselves."

And God created a new animal to be a companion for Adam and Eve.

And it was a good animal and God was pleased.

And the new animal was pleased to be with Adam and Eve and he wagged his tail.

And Adam said, "Lord, I have already named all the animals in the Kingdom and I cannot think of a name for this new animal."

And God said, "I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, and his name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him DOG."

And Dog lived with Adam and Eve and was a companion to them and loved them.

And they were comforted.

And God was pleased.

And Dog was content and wagged his tail.

After a while, it came to pass that an angel came to the Lord and said, "Lord, Adam and Eve have become filled with pride. They strut and preen like peacocks and they believe they are worthy of adoration. Dog has indeed taught them that they are loved, but perhaps too well."

And God said, "I will create for them a companion who will be with them and who will see them as they are. The companion will remind them of their limitations, so they will know that they are not always worthy of adoration."

And God created CAT to be a companion to Adam and Eve.

And Cat would not obey them. And when Adam and Eve gazed into Cat's eyes, they were reminded that they were not the supreme beings.

And Adam and Eve learned humility.

And they were greatly improved.

And God was pleased.

And Dog was happy.

And Cat...

Didn't give a shit one way or the other!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Crossley ID Guide, Britain & Ireland by Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens: A review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The unique Crossley ID guide series continues with this volume covering the birds of Britain and Ireland. This beautiful book covers all the regularly occurring birds in Britain and Ireland. Several of them will be familiar to American birders, even those who have never traveled to either location. This is especially true of the shorebirds and raptors, many of whom are international fliers.

These guides are geared toward beginner and intermediate birders, but even advanced birders will find their approach to identifying birds an innovative one that will not bore them.

Richard Crossley's method is to use actual photographs of each species of bird in many different poses and place them against a background which shows appropriate habitat for that species. In many ways, it combines the best of the traditional field guides which use paintings of the birds to emphasize their most noticeable field marks and the newer guides that use photographs of birds. His method allows one to see the bird in naturalistic poses within the type of habitat where it would be expected to be found. It really leaves very little excuse for not being able to identify that bird.

The images and settings of the birds are accompanied by a concise text provided by Dominic Couzens, one of Britain's leading nature writers.

This user-friendly guide features over 300 species. I have not birded Britain and Ireland and so I was somewhat surprised by that low number. There are more species of birds than that to be found in my corner of Texas in a year's time, but one has to remember that these are relatively small islands. The species that are represented here are those that one could likely see within the right habitats on those islands.

The guide emphasizes size and shape of birds, as well as having images that demonstrate flight patterns, plumages, and unique behavior. It really is a very usable reference work and one that should find a home with anyone planning to do some birding in Ireland or Britain. For birders (twitchers?) living in that area, here is a new book for your bookshelves, one that will help you be a better birder. Highly recommended.

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

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

CBS fail

For those of us who are old enough to remember CBS News when it actually stood for integrity and truth-telling, their current debacle with their fake, sexed-up Benghazi story is especially infuriating. This is the kind of phony journalism that we've come to expect from Fox News. We had looked for something better from the network of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow.

The 60 Minutes story that was presented as an eye witness account to the attack last year on our consulate in Benghazi was trumped up from beginning to end. Their "eye witness" was a liar, whose lies were easily disproved by actual journalists who bothered to check. He was never actually there on the night of the attack.  CBS now says it is undergoing a "journalistic review" of the story which started as soon as they learned there was an issue with it. The question is why was there no journalistic review before the story ran? Why was it not vetted and confirmed before it was shown to the public and offered aid and comfort to the nutcase conspiracy theorists who have been beating their drums ever since the incident?

Moreover, there are other problems with the story beyond the fake eye witness account. There's the issue of conflict of interest.

As McClatchy News laid out in their excellent dissection of the story, their eye witness, Dylan Davies, was the author of a soon-to-be-released book published by a CBS-owned publishing company that features the work of politically conservative authors. This was never mentioned in the CBS report.

There is also a question of the impartiality of the reporter who presented the story, Lara Logan. She repeatedly referred to al Qaida as being solely responsible for the attack. She made no mention of Ansar al Shariah, the Islamic extremist group that is basically in control in Benghazi and has long been suspected as being behind the attack. Logan offered no source for her assertions about al Qaida's involvement and, indeed, there seem to be no such sources. There was merely her unsupported insistence which, frankly, stinks of preconceived notions and an axe to grind.

And the list of inaccuracies and unsupported speculation goes on and on.

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes tacked on at the end of its broadcast a brief mea culpa by Lara Logan for her discredited reporting. It was essentially a statement that "mistakes were made" but it didn't begin to address the true depth of duplicity that she and 60 Minutes perpetrated on their audience.  

It will be interesting to see just where CBS's "journalistic review" takes them. Will any heads roll as a result? I doubt it because I no longer have any faith in the integrity of this organization. I count them as part of the same fetid swamp of so-called news organizations as Fox News.

If Murrow, Cronkite, and Sevareid were alive today, they would never be a part of this dishonorable group.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

No Lovelier Death by Graham Hurley: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bazza Mackenzie, Portsmouth's drug king turned (mostly) respectable businessman, lives in an upscale neighborhood of the city next door to a judge, his wife, and teenage daughter. Like any good neighbor, Bazza promises to keep an eye on the judge's house while he and his wife go on a South Sea sailing adventure.

The teenage daughter is left behind on her own and while the parents are away, she decides to throw a party. She announces the party on her Facebook page, and on the designated night for the party, more than 100 kids descend on the house. Things get quickly out of control and the party turns into a riot. The judge's beautiful house is completely trashed.

Bazza and his wife, Marie, had been out that night to their own party. They came home late to find the riot in progress. Bazza wades in to try to bring order and gets a beating for his trouble. Marie calls the police and waits outside for them to arrive. When they do, she turns to go inside by way of their pool, and there she makes another horrifying discovery - two dead bodies.

The bodies turn out to be teenagers, obviously from the party. One of them is the judge's daughter and the other is her boyfriend.

This is a nightmare for DI Joe Faraday and his team - a judge's daughter dead and over 100 suspects in the death and the national media screaming for a quick result.

A quick result seems to be the last thing possible as the police go about the methodical process of sorting through evidence, interviewing suspects and witnesses, and trying to make sense of a completely chaotic scene. They throw all of their considerable resources into finding an answer to the mystery of the deaths, but progress is very slow.

Meanwhile, neighbor Bazza is personally affronted by the mess in his neighborhood and he feels responsible since he had promised to keep an eye on things. He and Marie are initially arrested when the bodies are found by their pool, but it is quickly determined that they were not involved and they are released.

Out of jail, Bazza pursues his own investigation of matters. He calls on his trusty lieutenant, ex DC Paul Winter, to find out what happened and provide him with the names of the guilty.

This, of course, is Winter's forte and he is happy to take up the challenge. He hits the streets in his inimitable fashion, talking to people and, more importantly, listening, and slowly building a picture of what happened on the fateful night. The investigation turns into a bit of a contest between the police and the lone wolf Winter. Wonder who will reach the solution to the crime first?

Graham Hurley has created very interesting characters in Faraday and Winter that it has been fun to follow in all their adventures through the years. Theirs has always been a prickly relationship but one that is founded on a certain respect. That continues, even though Winter is now on the other side of the fence, so to speak.

The dynamic of the relationship has changed, but essentially the two are still after the same thing - a result. It's always fascinating to see how they arrive there, each in his own separate way.  

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Project FeederWatch

Throughout the year, I enjoy participating in several citizen science projects, mostly related to birds but some of them tracking butterflies and other insects. One of my favorite annual projects started last weekend. It is Project FeederWatch 2013-14.

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long project which surveys the birds that visit feeders or other food sources like berry or fruit bearing shrubs in backyards or nature centers, community areas, and other public locales. Participants count the birds at their designated sites on a regular schedule, usually once a week, from early November through early April. They do the counts over two consecutive days and then report those counts to Project FeederWatch. Most participants enter their totals directly online, but there is a provision for those who prefer to report manually, by mail.

One doesn't have to have any particular expertise in order to participate in this project. You only have to be able identify the species and to count. People of all skill levels including children, retired persons, youth groups, bird clubs, classrooms, and average backyard birders like me are doing the count.

New participants get a research kit that instructs them on how to participate. The participant provides the seed and feeders or plantings, water, etc., to attract the birds.

Project FeederWatch is sponsored jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Participants in the United States receive the Lab's newsletter Living Bird News, while Canadian participants receive BirdWatch Canada. There is a participation fee, $12 for Cornell Lab members and CAN $35 for citizens in Canada. This covers all the materials, web design, staff support, as well as a year-end report, Winter Bird Highlights.  

The data reported by participants help to track the winter movements of birds across the continent. The numbers reported allow scientists to detect changes in the wintering ranges of species and can give early warning of declines in species and of species that may be at risk of becoming threatened or endangered.

The massive amounts of data collected by FeederWatchers across the continent, once collated and analyzed, help scientists to understand:

  • long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance
  • the timing and extent of winter irruptions of winter finches and other species
  • expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • the kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders  
If you live in North America and would like to be a part of this important work in gathering information which will help to plan for the protection of the birds we love, by all means visit the Project FeederWatch website and join today. It's not too late to become a FeederWatcher. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

Today is that special day when we stop to honor and thank all those who have served and are still serving in our armed forces. 

Today I remember all those in my own family, including my father, uncles, and cousins who served in World War II and Korean War, as well as childhood friends who served in Vietnam - some of whom did not make it home again. 

And, of course, I honor my favorite veteran, my husband. 

Thank you for answering the call to service when our country needed you.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Poetry Sunday: Bones and Shadows

Today we have a ghost story. The tale of a ghostly cat and the woman who couldn't let him go.

Bones and Shadows

She kept its bones in a glass case
next to the recliner in the living room,
and sometimes thought she heard
him mewing, like a faint background music;
but if she stopped to listen, it disappeared.
Likewise with a nuzzling around her calves,
she’d reach absent-mindedly to scratch him,
but her fingers found nothing but air.
One day, in the corner of her eye,
slinking by the sofa, there was a shadow.
She glanced over, expecting it to vanish.
But this time it remained.
She looked at it full on. She watched it move.
Low and angular, not quite as catlike
as one might suppose, but still, it was him.
She walked to the door, just like in the old days,
and opened it, and met a whoosh of winter air.
She waited. The bones in the glass case rattled.
Then the cat-shadow darted at her,
through her legs, and slipped outside.
It mingled with the shadows of bare branches,
and leapt at the shadow of a bird.
She looked at the tree, but there was no bird.
Then he blended into the shadow of a bush.
She stood in the threshold, her hands on the door,
the sharp breeze ruffling the faded flowers
of her house dress, and she could feel
her own bones rattling in her body,
her own shadow trying to slip out. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Caturday: Never give up!

Today, Maru, the famous Japanese cat star of YouTube, gives us a lesson in persistence. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. There may be a tasty treat waiting for you at the end of your labors.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Cruelty as a governing philosophy

One in four people in Texas do not have medical insurance. That is the highest rate of any state in the country. These people suffer every day because they cannot afford to go to the doctor when they are sick or their children or sick. When things get bad enough, they wind up at overcrowded emergency rooms and, ultimately, we all pay the bills for that care - if in fact the hospitals get paid at all.

The state government of Texas had an opportunity to cure part of this problem by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but that wouldn't fit with their philosophy. That philosophy, to sum it up in one word, is cruelty. Cruelty toward anyone who isn't a millionaire and who isn't able to contribute large sums of money to their political campaigns.

Indeed, it is not enough for Rick Perry to reject the expansion of Medicaid and deny its benefits to about a million needy Texans. No, he wants to restrict the current very limited Medicaid program in Texas even further. This is one mean-spirited son of a bitch.

The irony is that Perry goes around the country spouting about the wonderful climate for business in Texas, but his decision to reject Medicaid will cost the medical industry, one of the biggest businesses in Texas - and especially the Houston area - tens of billions (that's billions with a "b") of dollars.

We have some of the finest medical facilities in the world in this state. People come from around the world to be treated here. But failing to accept Medicaid funding will ensure that many of the people who actually live and work here will be unable to take advantage of these facilities. Their inability to seek treatment will cost each of these facilities significant amounts of funding.

Local hospital district officials, chambers of commerce, economists, and others have all pleaded with Perry to see reason on this issue. But he is a stubborn, spiteful, and, frankly, not very intelligent man who, once he has taken an intransigent position, seems incapable of admitting that he might be wrong.

And so the people of Texas continue to suffer under his overweening pride and his governing philosophy of cruelty to anyone who doesn't have the power to help his political ambitions. His governorship has been and continues to be an unmitigated disaster for the ordinary people of this state.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dangerous Admissions by Jane O'Connor: A review

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

When I read recently that there was a mystery series featuring a copy editor as the sleuth, I was intrigued. Having been married to a copy editor for many years with a chance to observe his powers of deduction up close and personal, it occurred to me that a word sleuth might make a very good detective. So, of course I had to read it, and since I am an obsessive kind of reader who likes to read series books in order, I started with the first one, Dangerous Admissions.

While the concept seemed a good one, the execution was amateurish and, frankly, had little to recommend it. I struggled through it to the bitter end, but only because I like to finish what I start.

The protagonist is a divorced single mother living in New York. She was formerly employed by one of the big publishing houses, until she made an egregious mistake on the reissuing of a Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock. She failed to notice that the "l" was left out of "clock." Seems an incredibly stupid mistake for an experienced copy editor to make. Maybe she deserved to be fired.

Now she spends her time free lancing and working part time at the posh high school that her teenage son attends. She also has an older daughter who is in college. They all live very privileged lives with no visible means of support.

The director of college admissions at the posh school is an elderly man and one morning he is found dead at his desk at the school. At first it is assumed to be natural causes. He was known to be ill. But an autopsy proves it was actually murder. Poison. Who had a motive and opportunity to kill him?

Not long after, an English teacher at the school, one who had been close to the first murder victim, is shoved off a balcony to her death. The plot thickens. Well, not by much. This is pretty thin gruel.

I didn't like any of these characters. Indeed, the most fortunate characters in the book were the two murder victims who were soon out of it. Everyone in the book seemed like a cardboard cutout or maybe reality show participants. They just never seemed like real people.

The writer throws in a few sex scenes in an apparent attempt to liven things up a bit, but those scenes, too, seem stilted and not very interesting.

I still think the idea of a copy editing detective might work, but it needs a much more interesting copy editor and a writer who is able to construct and execute a plausible plot.    

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Winter finches

We call them winter finches. They are little songbirds that spend their summers in the boreal forests of Canada and north woods of the United States and then move southward to spend winters. Some of them make it all the way to the Gulf Coast.

The movements of winter finches, like the movements of most birds, are related to finding food. In years when there is a heavy crop of seeds, nuts, and berries in the north, relatively few of the little birds travel very far to the south. It is not the cold of winter that they flee. It is lack of food. As long as they have a sufficient supply of food they can survive the cold.

When the food crops fail or are less than normal, the lower 48 states can expect to see irruptions of birds such as Common and Hoary Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins, as well as some of their fellow travelers like Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings. Those are very good years for birders throughout the country.

Now, of all these winter finches and irruptive passerines, the only ones that occasionally make it as far south as my backyard in winter are Purple Finches, Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches. The last couple of winters in particular have been good ones for these visitors.

 A Pine Siskin that lingered into spring in my yard this year.

I look forward to those Pine Siskin winters. They are fun birds to have in the yard. But the forecast indicates that I probably won't be seeing them this winter. It seems that there has been a bumper crop of food sources in the north and that will probably keep the birds up there.

Oh, well, thank goodness for American Goldfinches. That's one "winter finch" that we can depend on to visit and how they do brighten our dullest season.

An American Goldfinch in April of this year is beginning to change into its breeding colors.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø, translated by Dan Bartlett: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jo Nesbø is a master of misdirecting attention. He had me thoroughly confused about the true source of the sense of evil that pervades The Redeemer. It was with some surprise that I learned just how wrong I had been.

The book begins with the brutal rape of a 14-year-old girl at a Salvation Army summer camp. It is a crime, like all too many rapes, that is never reported but one that will reverberate throughout the novel.

A dozen or so years later, in modern day Oslo, Inspector Harry Hole's life is more or less back on track after he fell off the wagon and went off the deep end a year ago. His lover Rakel kicked him out after that episode because she didn't want a drunk to be a part of her son Oleg's life. Oleg, however, loves Harry and is determined to keep him in his life and it seems that Harry has worked out a relationship with them.

On the job, things are changing. Harry's friend, protector, and boss at the Oslo PD is leaving. The new administrator may be less forgiving of Harry' methods.

It's the Christmas season and Salvation Army bands are serenading on crowded streets. As a crowd of shoppers gathers round one such group, a gunshot cuts through the music and one of the singers falls dead with a single bullet wound through the forehead. The shot came at point-blank range, from someone in the crowd. But nobody saw anything.

The young man killed was supposedly liked by everyone and there is no apparent motive for murder. No weapon is found and there are no suspects.

The victim had a brother, very similar in appearance, who is an officer of some importance with the Salvation Army and Harry develops the theory that the murder was a professional hit gone wrong - that the wrong man was killed. This seems confirmed when another attempt is made on the brother's life.

Harry follows the scant clues he has to the city of Zagreb in the former Yugoslavia and gathers information and makes contacts that will eventually, in a highly circuitous route, lead him to solve the case in his own inimitable, intuitive fashion. And that's when we learn that things are never necessarily exactly as they appear in these books.

Nesbø has a gift for describing the Norwegian landscape, culture, and people. I live in a hot and humid place, but, reading his words, I can feel the cold of Oslo's streets at the darkest time of year creeping into my bones. This sense of place, I find, is always an important part of the story.

Moreover, his description of the organization and culture of the Salvation Army, an organization about which I have only passing, rudimentary knowledge, was important to the story. Apparently, it is an organization that is well-respected by Norwegians and plays a significant role in the care of the homeless on Oslo's streets. That dark underbelly of the city where so many hopeless and homeless junkies reside is also an integral part of the story.

While I was reading this book, I learned that Nesbø has a new entry in the series that was recently published. That makes me happy - more good reading ahead. This has, in fact, become one of my very favorite mystery/thriller series and I look forward to reading more.

Just one more thing. Reading books in translation is always a chancy thing. One has to wonder if one is getting the true flavor of what the author intended, and often the language seems stilted and awkward. I found that to be true, for example, in some of the early books by Henning Mankell that I read. The story was hard to follow because the language did not flow. It got in the way. Nesbø is very fortunate to have Don Bartlett as his translator. There's no awkwardness here. The subtleties and nuances of details are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. The art of the translator is often underappreciated, I think. But not by me.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Poetry Sunday: The Tyger

My elder daughter, who is school secretary at an elementary school in the Houston area, told a story this week about a parent who had visited her office. The mother and her child were waiting in the office. On the wall there was a poster with a picture of a tiger and the caption on the poster read "The Tyger." The mother looked at the poster for a while and then turned to her child and said, "This can't be a very good school. They don't even know how to spell tiger!"

Well, tyger was the spelling used by William Blake in his famous poem and it's good enough for me. The poem was always a favorite of mine in my high school literature studies. I passed that love on to my daughter and it became a favorite of hers, too. Let's make it the poem of the week.

The Tyger
by William Blake
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Friday, November 1, 2013

What bug?

Several days before I got sick in October, I stepped out onto my patio one morning to find this rather elegant and gaudily dressed beetle crawling across.

Well, well, I thought, what bug are you? I don't believe we have met before. I snapped his picture and later started researching, trying to learn his name. I knew enough to call him a beetle, but that was able all I knew. But at least that narrowed the field a bit.

I finally found him in an old field guide I owned, A Field Guide to the Insects by Borror and White. Turns out my little visitor is a scarab beetle of the family Scarabaeidae, subfamily Scarabaeinae, or dung beetle! Yes, that elegant-looking little beetle makes his living from dung or carrion.

The little guy, whose proper scientific name is Phanaeus vindex, is also known as the rainbow scarab, which I like much better than dung beetle so I think that's what I'll call it.

The rainbow scarab beetle is resident in the eastern U.S. all the way to the Rocky Mountains, so if you live in that area, you might have encountered one. But I really don't recall ever having seen one before that lucky find on the patio. I was glad to make his acquaintance.