Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy Year of the Horse!

It is New Year's Day of the year 4712 in the Chinese calendar. It is the beginning of the Year of the Horse. So happy New Year!

The Chinese calendar is an interesting way of perceiving and reckoning the passage of time. The month is determined by the phases of the moon. Each month begins with a New Moon, the darkest time of the moon's passage. Last night saw a New Moon and so today begins the New Year.

Chinese New Year festivities are not just a one day or one night affair. They start on the first day of the month and last until the fifteenth, when the moon is full and at its brightest. Traditionally, the Chinese people might take weeks to prepare for and celebrate this holiday, and, in some places, they still do.

One of the most interesting things - to me - about the Chinese calendar is the concept of naming each year after an animal and attributing to people born in that year the supposed characteristics of that animal. Those born in one of the Years of the Horse, for example, are supposed to be good with their hands, witty, perceptive, skillful with money, and cheerful.

There are twelve animal years in the Chinese zodiac and, of course, there is a legend behind that.

The legend is that, in ancient times, the Buddha invited all the animals to meet him on the first day of the New Year. Twelve of the animals came and the Buddha honored them by naming a year after each one and stating that those born in each animal's year would share some of the characteristics of that animal's personality.

The zodiac occurs within a regular twelve year cycle, beginning with the Year of the Rat and ending with the Year of the Pig. Here is that cycle along with some of the traits which people born in those years supposedly share.
Animal Personality Traits
  • Rat: quick-witted, smart, charming, and persuasive
  • Ox: patient, kind, stubborn, and conservative
  • Tiger: authoritative, emotional, courageous, and intense
  • Rabbit: popular, compassionate, and sincere
  • Dragon: energetic, fearless, warm-hearted, and charismatic
  • Snake: charming, gregarious, introverted, generous, and smart
  • Horse: energetic, independent, impatient, and enjoy traveling
  • Sheep: mild-mannered, shy, kind, and peace-loving
  • Monkey: fun, energetic, and active
  • Rooster: independent, practical, hard-working, and observant
  • Dog: patient, diligent, generous, faithful, and kind
  • Pig: loving, tolerant, honest, and appreciative of luxury
Looking at my own family, I have two roosters and I, myself, am a monkey.  But my older daughter is a horse, so this is her year. Energetic, independent, impatient, and happy traveler that she is, I can only hope that the year 4712 is an especially good one for her.

And for you, too. Happy Year of the Horse!


Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly: A review

The Concrete Blonde (Harry Bosch, #3)The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This third entry in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series begins as a courtroom thriller. Four years before, Harry had killed a man believed to be the Dollmaker, a serial killer of women. Now the man's wife is suing  Harry for wrongful death in the case. She is being represented by one of the premier civil rights lawyers in Los Angeles, a woman who is not used to losing. Harry is being represented by a city attorney who is not in the same league with her. His chances do not look good.

At the time Harry had killed the man, it was believed that he was responsible for the murders of eleven women, but at the beginning of his civil trial, evidence becomes known that seems to indicate that two of the later victims may actually have been killed by someone else. And now a third body has been found that follows the pattern of the other murders - a woman who was killed at least two years after the death of the Dollmaker. The inevitable conclusion is that there's a serial killer still out there, one who is copying the work of the Dollmaker.

The action in the court was fascinating and I thought Connelly was particularly adept at his sketching of the characters and personalities of the various people who were involved. The court case takes up about three-fourths of the book, during which Harry's attention is divided between what is happening there and the investigation of the newly discovered serial killings. The whole purpose of his life is to put bad guys away and so he is obsessed with this new investigation, to the point of giving very little concern or attention to the outcome of his trial.

In the latter part of the book, both sides in the case have rested and Harry is able to join the task force investigating the killings full time. Then the book's action begins to pick up speed.

Throughout all of this, we get to learn a bit more of Bosch's back story and also his present relationship with Sylvia, the widow of a cop whose alleged suicide he had investigated in the last book. That relationship has intensified and it seems that Sylvia may be a keeper. If Harry can manage to keep from pushing her away.

Finding the copycat killer, known as the Follower, is a daunting task. There are so many possible suspects. The killer has to have been someone with intimate knowledge of the Dollmaker murders. Could it be a cop? Someone from the Medical Examiner's office?  A reporter who wrote about the cases? A psychologist who studied the cases and advised the police, helping to create a profile of the potential murderer?

In addition to the overwhelming number of possible suspects, there is the fact that time has passed while the perpetrator went undetected. Time that may have destroyed clues. It's impossible to even know how many victims there might be. Are there more than three?

Harry puts his analytical mind to finding answers to all of these questions and, relatively soon, comes up with someone who fits the profile and who just might be their killer. The reader soon suspects that he is barking up the wrong tree and, through the skillful use of various red herrings, we are led to believe that we have solved the case and that we know the true murderer. But it turns out we are just as misled as Harry, and the ending, after another particularly brutal killing, comes as a surprise.

I felt the plotting and the character development in The Concrete Blonde were especially strong, more so than in the two previous books. This has to be my favorite in the series so far.      

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Climatologists explain it all

Some parts of the country continue to be hit by some pretty freaky cold winter weather. How can this be happening if global warming is for real and not a hoax as the right-wing deniers claim? Well, very easily actually.

Here's a short film that was put together with input from several meteorologists that explains it all rather succinctly.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pity the poor billionaire

There has been a lot of comment about the letter from billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins that the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal thought was important enough to give space in their newspaper recently.

Oh, you haven't heard about this? Well, in his letter, Perkins compared today's "progressive radicalism," by which he apparently means having the richest one-percent among us pay a fair share in taxes, to Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jews.  Specifically, he made reference to the Nazis' attack on Jews and Jewish businesses known as Kristallnacht. The final paragraph of his letter seems to sum up his thought processes:
This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?  
Of all the comments that I have seen on this, I think it is best answered by Jen Sorensen in a cartoon in today's Daily Kos. (A cartoon does seem the most appropriate way to answer him.)

And on a related subject, have you noticed how people of a certain line of political thought are always comparing everything they don't approve of to Naziism? Either that or Communism - and sometimes both in the same sentence. It's evident that they have no understanding of the meaning of either philosophy, or else - what is more likely - they simply have no concern for the truth. These are the same kind of people who compare the Duck Dynasty guy to Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or who say that something like offering all Americans a chance at getting health care is just like slavery!

Truly, at times I do despair for this country.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley: A review

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce, #6)The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alan Bradley's eleven-year-old (almost twelve, as she constantly reminds us) budding chemist/detective, Flavia de Luce, is a charming creation in one of the most innovative of recent cozy mystery series. In the sixth entry of the series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Flavia is still charming, but the plot seems a bit contrived and strained, and by halfway through the book, I just wanted to get it over with.  Overall, I still rather enjoyed it - if I could give it two-and-a-half stars, I would, but since I can't, I'll opt for the more generous three stars - but it definitely was not one of my favorites.

There are two related mysteries for Flavia to solve this time. First, who pushed the man under the wheels of the moving train in the English village of Bishop's Lacey? Or was he pushed? Did he simply stumble and fall?

Second, the reason that all the village had turned out at the train station to meet the train was that Flavia's mother was coming home on it.

Actually, Flavia's mother's body was being sent home on it. Flavia's mother had died in a fall in the Himalayas ten years earlier and her body had just recently been found. The question now is, was her fall an accident or was she pushed?

It becomes evident that the sainted Harriet, Flavia's mother, was a spy for England and that she was on a mission at the time that she died. It seems very likely that her death was no accident, but how will Flavia ever prove that or find the person responsible for her death?

A few minutes before the death of the man at the railway station, he had whispered a cryptic message into Flavia's ear. Winston Churchill is also at the train station and he, too, speaks to Flavia using words that make no sense at the time. Later, when she finds some old film and develops it, it reveals her mother mouthing to the camera the same phrase used by Churchill. What is the connection? What is the meaning of that cryptic phrase?

Flavia, of course, is intrigued and must get to the bottom of the mystery, but meantime, she hatches a plan that she hopes will resurrect her dead mother who has been encased in ice for ten years. Yes, this eleven-year-old girl is convinced that she knows how to raise the dead, and she is determined to do it in order to put a smile on the face of her dour, tragically unhappy, and much-loved father. As I said, it all seems just a bit contrived and a stretch even for so imaginative a creature as Flavia.  

In this book, we meet the same characters that we've come to know in previous series entries. The wonderful and mysterious (at least to Flavia) Dogger, the family's general factotum. Aunt Felicity, Flavia's father's sister, who it seems also had a role to play in the intelligence service of her country during World War II. Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper/cook who keeps the family going through all manner of trials and tragedies. And, of course, the two older hated/loved sisters, Daphne (Daffy) and Ophelia (Feely), and all the villagers that Flavia regularly comes in contact with.

But here we also get introduced to a couple of new de Luce family members, cousin Lena and her young daughter, Undine. Undine seems a very precocious child in the same mold as Flavia and I suspect we will be seeing much more of her in future books.    

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Poetry Sunday: People Who Take Care

We recently watched what I thought was a brilliant comedic series on HBO called "Getting On." The setting is an extended care facility for elderly women in a hospital in California. The series focuses on the stories of the ill and often confused patients and the overworked and underpaid staff, their relationships and interactions. The stories are told with great humor but with an underlying compassion and a real empathy for the people in this facility. I loved the series - which probably means it will never make it to a second season, but we'll see.

I mention this show because I just came across a poem this week which perfectly expresses the spirit of "Getting On," and so, it had to be my featured poem of the week.

People Who Take Care 

by Nancy Henry

People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody
people who take care of people
are not worth much
except to people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor
people who take care of people
are not important to most other people
are not respected by many other people
come and go without much fuss
unless they don’t show up
when needed
people who make more money
tell them what to do
never get shit on their hands
never mop vomit or wipe tears
don’t stand in danger
of having plates thrown at them
sharing every cold
observing agonies
they cannot tell at home
people who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift
that moves with them from room to room
that keeps them on the floor
sometimes they fill a hollow
no one else can fill
sometimes through the shit
and blood and tears
they go to a beautiful place, somewhere
those clean important people
have never been.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Caturday: The cat is sat

We're planning an out-of-town trip soon which means that the cat sitters will be making an appearance. Fortunately for our cats, their sitters are much more competent and empathetic than the buffoon that poor Henri has to deal with...

Friday, January 24, 2014

How and where do birds sleep?

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

There's a really interesting piece in today about the way that birds sleep. It seems that a lot of people have misconceptions about that. They think that birds sleep in their nests. But the sole purpose of nests is to provide a place to hold eggs and chicks, and once that purpose is fulfilled, that nest is so nasty that no self-respecting bird is going to want to sleep in it.

The main concern of a bird looking for a bed for the night is to find a place that is safe from predators. A second concern may be to have some protection from the weather, but first and foremost is always the fear of predators.

The predator problem is such a threat to birds' survival that they have evolved a brain that will help them to meet it. They are essentially able to sleep while one-half of their brain stays awake and alert for danger.

This technique, called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) allows the bird to have one hemisphere of their brain in a deep sleep while leaving the other hemisphere awake and alert. They are also able to turn USWS on and off depending on how safe their roost is. The Slate story gives the example of a large flock of ducks roosting on an open lake. The birds at the center of the flock are pretty safe and can shut down completely, while the birds on the outer edge are more vulnerable and have to keep half the brain alert.

So, birds, it turns out, sleep - it's called "roosting" as anyone who has ever raised chickens knows - in a lot of different places depending on what kind of birds they are. Big water birds like geese and ducks will generally sleep floating on the water. Big wading birds, like herons and egrets, usually will sleep perched in waterside trees. Shorebirds sleep in large flocks and utilize USWS and they are cryptically colored to fool predators. Hawks, eagles, and owls sleep pretty much wherever they want to. Grouse and quail which are favorite foods of so many predators depend on their coloring and on vegetation to hide, and they also generally sleep in flocks with half a brain awake. Woodpeckers roost in protected places like tree cavities or under roofs and bridges. Birds like crows, swallows, swifts, and starlings roost in large - sometimes gigantic - flocks for safety.

But the birds that we are most familiar with, the perching birds from the order Passeriformes, tend to roost in dense vegetation. These are our backyard birds like cardinals, sparrows, jays, and finches and around dusk you can see them flying into bushes, hedges, and trees where they will grab onto a a twig that suits them and settle down for the night.

So the next question is, how do they keep from falling off their perch while they are asleep? The answer once again is evolution. The perching birds have evolved "flexor tendons" in their legs that involuntarily clasp shut when a bird sits on a perch and they won't relax and release again until the bird straightens its leg. The grip is so tight that some birds, such as hummingbirds, have been observed sleeping upside down in apparent safety and comfort.

So the next time you see a cartoon of a little bird crawling into its nest at night and pulling a tiny blanket up to its beak, you'll know that it is just that - a cartoon. The true story of how birds sleep is a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Far Side of the World (Aubrey/Maturin, #10)The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two years ago, I started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series after years of prodding by my husband who insisted that the books weren't really war adventures - which I would hate - but were more about the relationships of the men on the ships. Finally succumbing to his persuasion, I found that hubby was right. Again.

In fact, I do like this series very much. I've been reading it now at a rate of about five books a year, more or less, and if I continue on that pace, I should have at least two more years of good reading ahead. So far, I have not found a stinker among the books and this tenth one is, I think, my favorite of all that I've read.

The bromance between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin continues in The Far Side of the World. Aubrey is still captaining the Surprise which, much to his distress, had been designated to return to England to be decommissioned and possibly broken up for scrap. But he and the ship get a reprieve. He is commanded to take the ship to protect English whalers and to stop the American frigate, the Norfolk, from interfering with them.

The Surprise chases the Norfolk all across the Atlantic, along the coast of South America, and finally around Cape Horn and into the vast openness of the Pacific Ocean. They never come very close to catching the Americans and they have many adventures along the way.

The trip sees one of the most serious disagreements ever to occur between Aubrey and Maturin when Aubrey refuses to allow Maturin and his friend, the parson Martin, time to explore the Galapagos Islands. The captain is convinced that they are getting closer to Norfolk and he will not dim his chances by slowing down for science.

Maturin is angry, but his is not a nature that can hold a grudge for long.

Sometime later,  through a combination of circumstances, Maturin, who has never really mastered the art of seamanship in all his years as a ship's surgeon, manages to fall from the ship into the Pacific. Aubrey turns to speak to him and finds him gone. He realizes almost immediately what has happened and jumps in to save his friend, who is not a proficient swimmer. He gets the doctor stabilized and begins to hail the ship to bring them on board, but there is a noisy celebration going on and the crew cannot hear him. The ship obliviously continues on its course, leaving the two treading water in the middle of the Pacific.

Things do not look hopeful, but there follows some of the most exciting adventures encountered by Aubrey/Maturin in all their years together. It won't really be a spoiler to say that they do survive. Since there are ten more books in the series, that's pretty evident, but how they survive is the real heart of this book and the bang-up ending just puts the capper on it.

Some of the recent books have put the emphasis on Stephen Maturin's secret work as an intelligence agent. This one is centered on Jack Aubrey's skills as a sailor and his knowledge of the ocean - if not always of human nature. Their relationship continues to deepen and grow stronger through their shared experiences. They often give a thought to their wives back in England, and Aubrey to his children there, but, in fact, they are more married to each other than to any woman. They spend more time with each other than with any other humans. They are very much like an old married couple - each knowing what the other is thinking even before the thought is expressed. The other members of the crew, like Aubrey's man Killick and Maturin's Padeen, make up their extended family. The Surprise is very much a family and these stories, while nominally following the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812, are really about the relationships of this family and how they care for each other in often trying circumstances. So, yes, hubby was right about that.

One of the many pleasures of these books is the language. O'Brian obviously was a careful researcher and his language feels true to the period about which he is writing. I'm not competent to assess the accuracy of his nautical terms, many of which my eyes glide right over, but I suspect they are spot on. The language that really grabs me, though, is that of the dialogue. It is full of such humor and it just seems to be the way that sailors of the period would talk. It is a real treat to read a conversation between Maturin and Aubrey and, in this particular book, between Maturin and his friend Martin.

Both Maturin and Martin are enthusiastic naturalists and most of their conversations concern the flora and fauna of the places they visit. They are particularly good on the birds of those areas. For a backyard birder like myself, those conversations are really some of my favorite parts of this book.

There was, of course, a movie made a few years ago - "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" - which mostly relied on the events from this book. I saw the movie in the theater at the time and quite enjoyed it, although, now, I can't really recall too much about what happened in it. Now that I've read the book, maybe I should see it again.      

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

An infrequent but always welcome winter visitor to my backyard is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Just this week, I have observed my first one of this winter.

 This medium-sized woodpecker spends its summers in the far northern parts of the United States and in Canada, but in fall and winter, it wanders south and some of them make their way to the Gulf Coast and even farther south, into Mexico and Central America.

The bird prefers mixed woodlands for its habitat. It nests in such places and is especially fond of aspens. In winter, it also prefers woodlands for its home, but is not so picky about the kinds of trees it contains. 

Sapsuckers get their name from their habit of drilling small holes in the bark of trees from which they sip the sap and also feed on the insects that are attracted to the flowing sap. Many other birds, including hummingbirds, make use of the tiny holes to extract sap or catch insects. Some of the insects attracted to the holes include flies, butterflies and moths, and, of course, bees. 

The birds are sometimes persecuted by tree-owners who don't want them pecking holes in their trees, but in fact the trees are perfectly able to tolerate the holes. Nearly all the trees in my yard have the parallel lines of holes which mark the sapsucker's presence. That presence doesn't bother me or the trees.  

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, like most of our native woodpeckers, is clothed in black and white feathers with a red crown on the head and, in the case of the male, a red throat. They might be mistaken for a Downy Woodpecker or a Hairy Woodpecker. In fact, they are just between those two woodpeckers in size, larger than the Downy but smaller than the Hairy.

Here is a video from YouTube of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers visiting a tree in which they have drilled holes.

They are very interesting little birds. If you are lucky enough to have one visiting your yard this winter, make him welcome.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Trees at mid-winter

(Here's a favorite post from the archives of my other blog Gardening With Nature, while I enjoy the day set aside to celebrate the life of a great American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree," the poet Joyce Kilmer wrote just before he went off to serve in World War I, where his life ended. His poem lives on, and no one has ever better described the mystical hold of trees on the human psyche.

At all seasons of the year, trees have a kind of beauty and poetry and majesty of their own. In mid-winter, as at every season, they are the anchors of the garden.

Live oaks, of course, are much the same at all seasons. They never get fully undressed, although they do shed their leaves in spring as new leaves are being produced. In winter, their leaves offer shelter and sanctuary for birds who need a safe haven from predators or from the weather.

The same can be said of the magnolia trees, a favorite roosting place for many birds in winter.

The bottle tree never loses its leaves either - but I haven't noticed any birds roosting here.

The sycamore hangs on to a few of its leaves until they are finally displaced by new leaves in the spring. Every passing breeze brings a shower of sycamore seeds cascading down from the plentiful seed balls. These seeds are favorite winter foods of many birds including the goldfinches who spend hours each day picking them out. 

The old apple tree, too, keeps a few of its leaves even as it prepares to open its swelling buds to the bees in late winter.

The corkscrew willow gives it all up, every leaf, and stands naked against the winter sky and the background of the neighbor's pine trees that tower over everything. The twisted limbs and twigs of the willow give some extra interest to the winter garden. Last summer, I learned that its leaves are hosts to some species of butterflies and moths. I knew there was a reason why I liked it.

This old crape myrtle was planted many years ago by birds, and it still feeds birds in winter with its seeds.

The upright limbs of the Shumard red oak seem to be lifted to the sky in praise and exultation.

None of these trees is old, as trees go. Except for the magnolia and the crape myrtle, we planted them all, but all of them, except for the willow, are now more than twenty years old. They have stood in our yard through drought and flood, heat and cold, and hurricane winds and they have been undaunted. Their leaves have shaken with our laughter, and in times of sadness, they have given me strength and consolation. They've always been there for me to lean on. They are friends to me.

I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as my trees. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Poetry Sunday: In Texas

If you've ever traveled the roads in the vast empty spaces of West Texas, this poem may resonate with you.

In Texas
by May Sarton

In Texas the lid blew off the sky a long time ago
So there's nothing to keep the wind from blowing
And it blows all the time. Everywhere is far to go
So there's no hurry at all, and no reason for going.
In Texas there's so much space words have a way
Of getting lost in the silence before they're spoken
So people hang on a long time to what they have to say;
And when they say it the silence is not broken,
But it absorbs the words and slowly gives them
Over to miles of white-gold plains and gray-green hills,
And they are part of that silence that outlives them.
Nothing moves fast in Texas except the windmills
And the hawk that rises up with a clatter of wings.
(Nothing more startling here than sudden motion,
Everything is so still.) But the earth slowly swings
In time like a great swelling never-ending ocean,
And the houses that ride the tawny waves get smaller
As you get near them because you see them then
Under the whole sky, and the whole sky is so much taller
With the lid off than a million towers built by men.
After a while you can only see what's at horizon's edge,
And you are stretched with looking so far instead of near,
So you jump, you are startled by a blown piece of sedge;
You feel wide-eyed and ruminative as a ponderous steer.
In Texas you look at America with a patient eye.
You want everything to be sure and slow and set in relation
To immense skies and earth that never ends. You wonder why
People must talk and strain so much about a nation
That lives in spaces vaster than a man's dream and can go
Five hundred miles through wilderness, meeting only the hawk
And the dead rabbit in the road. What happens must be slow,
Must go deeper even than hand's work or tongue's talk,
Must rise out of the flesh like sweat after a hard day,
Must come slowly, in its own time, in its own way.

May Sarton was the pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton (May 3, 1912 - July 16, 1995), an American poet, memoirist, and novelist. She was born in Belgium but her family moved to Boston in 1915 and she lived in the United States for the rest of her life. She was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Caturday: The cat in the box

Another year, another visit from Simon's cat, and nothing has changed. A cat's best toy is still a cardboard box.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Watchers of Time by Charles Todd: A review

Watchers Of Time (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #5)Watchers Of Time by Charles Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The action in this fifth entry in Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series begins only a few weeks after the end of the last, which left Rutledge seriously injured and lying bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. Rutledge has recovered enough to return to work but is not yet able to resume his full duties.

When a Catholic bishop contacts Scotland Yard and asks them to oversee the investigation of the murder of a priest in the little village of Osterley, it seems an ideal assignment for the inspector. All he has to do is consult with the local police and make sure a full and appropriate investigation of the crime has taken place. But the reader knows well from the previous four books that the role of overseer is not one that Rutledge can easily fill - especially when he suspects that a miscarriage of justice is taking place.

He arrives in Osterley to find that the police have arrested Matthew Walsh, an outsider, for the murder. The motive was supposedly theft, as a few pounds were taken from the priest's office where he was killed. But as Rutledge observes and talks to people, he becomes convinced that the truth is a lot more complicated.

Not long before his murder, the priest had been called to the bedside of a dying man, Herbert Baker, a former chauffeur for the richest family in town. Baker was not a member of the priest's congregation, he was not even a Catholic, but he insisted on talking with the priest before he died.

Soon after, Baker was dead and buried. Then the priest was murdered. Rutledge comes to believe that the two events are somehow related.

Inspector Rutledge draws on his years of experience and his well-honed intuition to pursue secrets that the local authorities would prefer not to see explored. They don't want to consider the possibility that there might be a member of their tightly knit community who would commit such a horrendous crime as the murder of a priest. But Rutledge soon learns that the priest was not universally loved and there were those who held grudges against him that had little to do with God or the Church.

As Rutledge pursues his investigation, he continues to be haunted by the voice of Hamish MacLeod, a soldier he was forced to have executed for refusal to obey an order during the recently concluded World War I. MacLeod is by turns his partner and helpmate in the investigation and a hectoring, taunting voice that he can never silence.

Todd writes movingly of the plight of soldiers now home from the war and trying to find their place in society. He weaves this theme into each of these mysteries and it is one of the things which give the stories a verisimilitude that they might not otherwise have. One empathizes deeply with the shell-shocked Rutledge and with the other veterans he encounters in his investigations. And one can see that the struggles of such former soldiers to again blend in with life in their communities and to resume a normal existence has not changed much in a hundred years. Indeed, it has probably ever been thus. And, unfortunately, ever will be.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hugging the Shore by John Updike: A review

Hugging the Shore: Essays and CriticismHugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been periodically dipping into this book for months now and finally I feel as though I've read, if not every word, at least enough of them to have formed an opinion. Although I must say that writing a review of a book by John Updike in which he reviewed and offered criticism of the work of other writers is a rather daunting prospect.

Updike was, of course, a famous reviewer of books, especially for The New Yorker, in his day. This particular collection was published in 1983 and it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism that year. Sometime after that - I don't remember when - I purchased it at Barnes and Noble and it has languished on my bookshelf ever since, waiting to be read. Last summer, I decided it was time and so I began and now in the new year I am prepared to mark the book "read."

Updike explains the title of his book as an allusion to the critic who does not venture far from the shore or go into the deep waters. Instead, it is the creator of fiction, the dreamer, who sails far out to sea, where the safe sight of land disappears from view and one is entirely on his/her own. He obviously was an admirer of those who took the risk to expose the worlds of their creation to the critical view of the readers.

Most of the writers whom he reviewed were his contemporaries, but we also get three long essays, appreciations really, of writers he terms "American Masters" - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. As a long-time admirer of Melville, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about him, and I was struck again with the sad fact that so much of Melville's work, including his master work, Moby Dick, was not really appreciated during his lifetime.

Here we have Updike's thoughts on the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Iris Murdoch, Italo Calvino, and many more. It is such a pleasure to read his perspectives on these authors, even when I don't necessarily always agree with him. His reviews are always thought-provoking.

In addition to his reviews of works by professional writers, we also are able to read his criticism of memoirs by people like Doris Day and Louise Brooks. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Doris Day when I grew up, but had I had any idea of some of the sorrows of her life perhaps I would have looked elsewhere for a role model. On the other hand, she survived and overcame her troubles, so she was not a bad role model after all.

This is a very long book, stretching out to well over 800 pages, and it is not just book reviews and criticism. There are a number of essays included on a variety of subjects which interested Updike, not least of which was golf and golfers like Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. In fact, there are two essays on golf.

Updike was a master wordsmith. He could string words together with the best of them, and it is a pleasure to read his smooth and flowing sentences, even when those sentences were written on a subject that didn't necessarily interest me, like golf. Just to view his writerly craftsmanship was an instruction in the art of writing. I expect I will continue to dip into this book for months to come.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Succulents Simplified by Debra Lee Baldwin: A review

Succulents Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care VarietiesSucculents Simplified: Growing, Designing, and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties by Debra Lee Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Succulents are described as the plants that drink responsibly. Requiring very little water in order to thrive, they are the perfect kind of plants for areas where water is a scarce commodity and must be conserved. There are likely to be many more such areas in the future. It is good to know that even in these circumstances, there are plants that we can grow successfully.

Debra Lee Baldwin has written a book that is a useful introduction to these trendy, low-maintenance plants. In Succulents Simplified, she gives advice about how to choose the appropriate plant for the site or the indoor project that you have in mind. She gives step-by-step instructions that can help the reader whether she has an acre to plant or is intent on filling only a few windowsill pots.

I enjoy succulents and have several pots around the house as well as a few in the garden. Over the years, I have learned through bitter experience that the worst thing you can do to these plants is to overwater them. I admit I have killed more than a handful in this way. Perhaps if I had had Baldwin's book to guide me, I might have been a better and more successful succulent gardener. Well, I guess I have no excuse in the future, do I?

I think the great appeal of succulents lies in their sculptural and geometric shapes. These are forms that blend well with modern design, but, in fact, they can accent almost any style, regardless of what your individual preference might be. I suspect that succulents, which are hot right now, will become even hotter in the future as more people come to realize just how easy and care-free they are.

For the crafty gardener, a category that doesn't really include me, Baldwin includes information and instructions for several projects. Things like turning a cake-stand into a planter/centerpiece for succulents. She also shows how to make vertical gardens with the plants or to create a topiary sphere. Personally, I prefer a more naturalistic look, letting plants grow naturally into their own space, but to each his/her own.

Baldwin's easy-to-follow text is illustrated with some beautiful photographs of these versatile plants. Most of the photographs were taken by her. The credits for other pictures appear in the back of the book.

She gives us a list of her 100 favorite plant picks for all uses and she explains how to care for them and keep them fat and healthy regardless of where you live. She is obviously well-versed on the subject and writes from a wealth of experience. Also, her enthusiasm for succulents is contagious and the humor with which she writes helps to convey that contagion.

This was a fun and interesting book to read and from it, I picked up several ideas for including succulents in my landscape and I am looking forward to getting to work on that. I am especially excited about the diverse colors that are available and that were shown throughout the book through the remarkable photography.

If you have an interest in succulents, this might just be the book to help you get started. And if you don't have that interest, it might be the book to give it to you!

(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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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The best comedy series on television???

Last Sunday night provided an embarrassment of riches for television watchers. Or at least more than the usual interesting choices for watchers. You had "Downton Abbey," the new HBO show "True Detective," the premiere of the new season of the old HBO show "Girls," and the evening-long Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted "Golden Globe Awards Show." So, what to watch?

We solved the conundrum at our house by watching HBO and recording "Downton Abbey" and the awards show.

"True Detective" looks interesting and promising. "Girls" was not nearly as irritating as it sometimes is.

We saved "Downton" and watched it yesterday, but we watched the Golden Globes, or at least most of it, Sunday night. Recording awards shows so that you can zip through the commercials and the boring or embarrassing speeches is about the only way I can tolerate watching them. It was fairly entertaining, watched in that way.

I admit that I had not seen many of the movies and TV shows that were up for awards, so, obviously, I can't necessarily judge whether most of the winners were deserving. I had seen "American Hustle" just recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were both very good in it so I was glad to see that they won in their respective categories and that the movie itself won the best comedy, musical, etc. award.

There were several other awards for shows and actors - at least among those that I had seen - that I thought were well-deserved, but there were a couple that completely flummoxed me and they were for the same show. I'm talking about "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and its star Andy Samberg.

When that show started last fall, I watched the premiere and I thought it had promise. I watched a couple more after that and got more and more annoyed with the show's silliness and with Andy Samberg's character's personality. After that, I knew this show was not for me.

Then, it and its star are nominated for Golden Globe awards!

And they win!

I don't remember who all of Samberg's competition was, but I do remember Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory." Now, Parsons' mantle is already overflowing with awards for his acting in that show, but there is a reason for that. He's brilliant in it. Samberg is not worthy to polish his trophies.

As for the show itself, it was up against "The Big Bang Theory" and "Parks and Recreation," two shows that are well-written, well-acted, and that actually seem to have an idea of what they are doing. It was also up against "Girls," which, yes, can drive me crazy at times, but it, too, is well-written, well-acted, and has an idea. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine's" only idea seems to be to cram as many lame and manic jokes as possible into a half hour time slot. It's really a mystery to me why it won.

The New York Times put forth an interesting theory on that.  Their story on the upset win said that many of the voters apparently voted for the show and the star because they think that it is going to be the next big thing in television and they wanted to get ahead of the curve and be considered prescient. They compared it to "The Office," a quirky show which took a while to find its audience and then went on to greater acclaim and glory.

It could happen, I suppose. But, the best comedy series on television? The best actor in a comedy series on television? No, I don't see it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Death Is Not As Natural As You Fags Seem to Think

American poet Amiri Baraka, born Leroi Jones on October 7, 1934, died this past week. He was a controversial and profane poet, but his poetry drew praise from many critics and fans for its originality and honesty.

I never really was a big fan of his poetry, perhaps because I just didn't understand it, but anyone of my generation was certainly aware of Baraka and his work. He was a cultural icon for many.

Reading through several of his poems recently, in search of one to feature on this Poetry Sunday, I came across this one, which seemed both ironic and very appropriate, given the circumstances.   

Death Is Not As Natural As You Fags Seem to Think

I hunt
the black puritan.

in dull tones
of another forest.

Respecter of power. That it transform, and enlarge   
Hierarchy crawls over earth (change exalting space   

Dried mud to mountain, cape and whip, swirled   
Walkers, and riders and flyers.
Language spread into darkness. Be Vowel
                                                            and value   
                                                            and direction.   
Rather the lust of the thing
than across to droop at its energies. In melted snows   
the leather cracks, and pure men claw at their bodies.   
Women laugh delicately, delicately rubbing their thighs.

And the dead king laughs, looking out the hole   
in his tomb. Seeing the poor   
singing his evil songs.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Poverty in political discourse

There's been a lot of talk about poverty in America this week. The impetus for all the talk was, of course, the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty.

A lot of the talk has been scoffing at the whole idea of a War on Poverty and of the various programs that were first implemented in the '60s to try to help the poor. There is a segment of our population and of our political thought that believes that any attempt to help the poor to pull themselves out of the downward spiral of poverty is doomed to failure. Indeed, any such efforts will just make the poor lazy and rob them of the desire to better their lives.

On the contrary, the people who subscribe to this line of thought believe that government should aggressively institute policies that will benefit the rich and make them even richer because this is obviously good for society! This is the kind of thought that has dominated a large part of our politics for many years. It is how our country came to have the greatest income inequality in the industrialized world.

This political philosophy was summed up by Jon Stewart on one his Daily Shows this week. As usual, he got it just about right.

Jon the 2008 election, Stewart is increasing his influence exponentially this year. And a big part of the reason why is the Web. After some messy quarrels with YouTube over illegal copies running on the video service, Comedy"I think I'm beginning to get it: if it's a policy that benefits the rich, then it doesn’t have to be paid for, should last forever, and is good for America. But if it benefits the poor? We can't afford it, we should end it as soon as possible, and it will destroy our nation from within. Because when you give money to people who don’t have it, it corrupts them. But people who are already rich have a 'money immunity' built up already. Handouts don’t hurt them." (My emphasis.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: A review

And the Mountains EchoedMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book begins with a bedtime story. A horrifying bedtime story for Abdullah, age 10, and his sister Pari, age 3. They beg their father for a story and finally he gives them one. It is the tale of a div, a supernatural being who lives in the mountains of Afghanistan and periodically comes to take a child from their village.

In the story that the father tells, there lives a family of a man and woman and their five children in a village. They are very happy. The man loves all his children but the greatest joy of his life is the baby of the family, his youngest son, a three year old boy.

One night, the most dreaded terror of all occurs. The div comes to the village and, of all the village families, it chooses this happy family and tells the parents that they must give it one of their children. They must choose which one. They have until morning to make the choice or they will lose all.

The anguished parents cannot decide, but finally, in desperation, they write the name of each child on a rock and mix the rocks all together. Then the father reaches out to take one. When he looks at the name on the rock he has selected, he is devastated. It is his baby, his best-loved child.

When morning comes, the parents keep their bargain with the div, they give it one child to save all the others. The div takes the child away to the mountains.

Months go by and the father grieves. Finally, he can stand it no longer and determines to go to the mountains and take back his child. He makes it to the div's stronghold and is rebuffed by the being, but when it comprehends the father's anguish, it takes pity on him and takes him to see his son. He is not able to touch him or talk to him, but he can see him playing with other children. He is well-dressed, well-fed, and happy. He will grow up to be an educated man and go into the world to help his people.

The div sends the man back home, but not before giving him a potion to drink along the way, one that will erase his memory and ease his pain.

We wonder how this story will have significance for the 350 or so pages to follow, but we soon learn that it is very relevant.

The day after telling the story, the father takes Abdullah and Pari to Kabul. He tells them that he has a job there. He had only intended to take Pari, but Abdullah follows and makes such a fuss that he relents and allows him to come, too.

It turns out there is no job. The man is taking Pari to Kabul to sell her to a rich couple. The payment that he receives will sustain him and the rest of his children and wife, the stepmother of Pari and Abdullah. The transaction takes place. Pari and Abdullah scream and cry and fight at being parted, but ultimately Pari is left with the family in Kabul and Abdullah returns home with his father.

What follows then are several chapters that give takes on this sad story from the perspective of the ever-widening circle of people who are affected by it. We learn about the step-uncle who worked for the family in Kabul and who watched over them and his niece. We meet NGO humanitarian agency doctors and nurses who have come to war-torn Afghanistan to treat the victims of the conflict there. We meet Afghan-American tourists deeply affected by the plight of the less lucky Afghans who have been left in their home country and we are appalled at some of their actions - or lack of action.

That one transaction, made in anguish by a father trying to save his family, will have ripple effects in and implications for the lives of so many people who would never really know of it or know what part it had played in their own lives. But, in the end, all of their stories are connected. It all holds together.

I loved this book! I felt connected to it from the first few pages. It is a story with heart and empathy about a people who have endured so much tragedy and heartbreak and yet who retain their essential dignity. But it is really a universal story. It could be set almost anywhere in the world. I had read both of Khaled Hosseini's previous books set in Afghanistan and enjoyed both of them, but this is definitely my favorite.

This story stretches all the way from Kabul and the villages of Afghanistan to Paris, Greece, and, finally, San Francisco, but everywhere it goes, it is about family relationships and how we love and take care of those closest to us and what we owe not only to parents, children, and siblings but also uncles, aunts, cousins, and all those with whom we share blood. It is a multigenerational story about how decisions and choices made today can resonate and affect future generations.

This is an emotionally powerful and complex novel. There is much to think about here and I feel sure I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.          

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: The goldfinches

The most recent book that I finished reading, just a few days ago, was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The MacGuffin of that book is a small painting of a pet European Goldfinch that was painted in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. It seems coincidental and somehow appropriate then that the stars of my backyard these days are the American Goldfinches that visit us in the late fall and winter.

The goldfinches arrived in my yard several weeks ago, around the end of November. As soon as I saw the first ones in the area, I filled my nyger seed feeders and hung them in the backyard. They continued to hang there unutilized until this week.

Finally, this week as the extreme cold hit our area along with most of the rest of the country and as the wild food for the birds began to be depleted, the goldfinches have started visiting my feeders.

Even though the nyger seed feeders were waiting for them, the first feeders the finches visited were those filled with black oil sunflower seed. This is their pattern every year - they always go for the sunflower seeds first.

 But, finally, yesterday they began visiting the feeders that had been hung just for them.

The number of goldfinches in my yard has been down quite a bit this winter over recent years. Last winter, for example, by this time, I was seeing flocks of more than fifty of the little birds around my feeders and those numbers were swelled even more by the addition of their cousins, the boisterous little Pine Siskins.

We have no siskins this year, though, which in fact had been predicted by the Winter Finch Forecast. Some years they don't make it this far south, and, indeed, fewer goldfinches also seem to have come south this year. What I'm seeing now are flocks of 10 to 20 birds.

I suppose the flocks could still grow as more of the wild food is exhausted farther north and the cold weather may continue to push them southward, but so far it has been a very lightly populated winter on the finch front.

Though we have no Pine Siskins and fewer American Goldfinches than in some years, we do still have our resident House Finches to help the goldfinches in brightening our winter days.

A House Finch and an American Goldfinch share a feeder in the backyard.

As a family, the finches are certainly among the most beautiful and the most interesting of our backyard birds.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Stupid human tricks

The polar vortex evidently is messing with some people's minds and making them even more stupid than usual. Maybe their brains are frozen.

It seems that there is this idea abroad in the land about throwing boiling water into the cold air and watching it turn into snow. I'm not sure just how it got started. Probably has something to do with Twitter.

Apparently a lot of people are trying it and not all of them are drunk at the the time. They toss the boiling water into the air and the utterly predictable happens. It falls on them and burns their heads or arms or whatever parts of their bodies happen to be in the way. Many people have been painfully burned.

The lesson here is that the laws of physics are not repealed by the polar vortex. Boiling water is more likely to burn you than to turn into snow in the few feet that you are able to toss it into the air - regardless of how cold that air is. And if there is wind, as there usually is these days, you may just get the whole thing blown back into your face and wind up with a very red face.

Really, is there no end to human idiocy?

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Donna Tartt's latest is a doorstop of a book at almost 800 pages long. It was also one of the books of the year for 2013, the book that all the critics raved about and many of them put at the top of their lists of the best books of the year.

I read several of those rave reviews and I was interested and excited to read the book myself. Perhaps I am overly suggestible but I find that I usually am in agreement with those reviewers whom I respect, so The Goldfinch shaped up as a very pleasurable read for me. But, in truth, I found that I couldn't love it quite as much as all the enthusiastic professional reviewers. It seemed over-long, over-wordy, and told me much more than I wanted or needed to know about the conservation and reproduction of fine furniture.

That is not to denigrate Tartt's talents in putting together this tale that has been described by many as Dickensian. The comparison is apt, both as to the length of the book and the complexity of the coming-of-age plot. It reminds one somewhat of Great Expectations with its story of the bereft orphan and his emotional and moral education.

The many characters that are a part of this tale are well-drawn. The reader feels as though she knows them personally, but frankly, I didn't particularly like many of those characters, including two of the main characters that readers were clearly meant to like and to sympathize with. That colored my overall feelings about the book.

This is the story of Theodore Decker, who narrates the book. We meet him when he is 13 years old and living in New York. He has been abandoned by his father and he and his beloved mother are on their way to his school for a conference with the headmaster when they are caught in a rainstorm and duck into a museum to wait out the rain. While they are there, a terrible thing happens. A bomb goes off and many people are killed, including Theo's mother. He was in a separate gallery from his mother and he survived the blast.

Theo finds an old man in the wreckage who was injured and is dying and that man gives him his signet ring and whispers "Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell." The man also begs Theo to take a small painting of a goldfinch to save it from the fire and smoke. Teenage Theo follows instructions and stumbles out of the museum with the two objects. Objects that will mysteriously impact his life for years to come.

The orphan Theo is taken in by the Barbours, the Park Avenue family of his best friend, Andy. Months later, he is finally able to decipher the message of the dying man at the museum and he finds his way to an old curiosity shop type establishment run by one James Hobart.

Hobart was the partner of the man who had died in the museum. He accepts Theo, becomes his friend and benefactor, and through Hobart, Theo meets the beautiful girl named Pippa who had earlier been with the dying man at the museum before the bomb exploded and who was also gravely injured in the blast.

Just as Theo's life has finally achieved some stability and normalcy, his disreputable father, Larry, turns up to claim his son but mostly to claim any financial benefit that he might derive from that relationship. Larry is a gambler and he and his girlfriend, Xandra, take Theo with them to their home in Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, Theo meets the person who will be his best friend and one of the most influential people in his life, Boris Pavlikovsky, also a motherless teenager living with a neglectful and abusive father. Boris is a street smart kid who has lived all over the world. He has boundless energy and apparently a boundless appetite for all kinds of drugs and all kinds of experiences. He soon introduces Theo to the pleasures of the drugged out life.

And this is just where I got a bit irritated with the book. I know I was supposed to be sympathetic to these two adolescent boys who had no real supervision or direction, but I got very impatient with their behavior. Maybe it was the mother in me. I just wanted to sit them both down and tell them to shape up! They never really did anything to engage my empathy and understanding.

Anyway, the story continues with many twists and turns, and I don't want to give away any spoilers here, but Theo eventually winds up back in New York with Hobart (Hobie) who becomes his caretaker/guardian and teaches him the furniture trade. Theo loves Pippa but becomes engaged to Andy's sister, Kitsey, who also loves somebody else. It's a mess really.

Then Boris enters the picture again and he and Theo travel to Amsterdam and become involved with art thieves and gangsters and the fate of "The Goldfinch," that famous painting which is always at the center of the action in this story, is very much in question. At this point, the tale becomes a bit of a suspense novel.

Tartt writes with a complete command of her subject. This is an authoritative narrative that seems to proceed with a certain inevitability. One can't imagine things turning out any differently for Theo than they do. She is a writer of enthralling talent and I can understand why so many have loved this book.

I would have loved it more had it been just a bit shorter and had Theo exhibited a little less egoism and more altruistic concern for others. Even so, it was a good book and I'm glad I invested the time to read it.

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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Snowfall Is So Silent

It's winter and snow is falling over much of the northern hemisphere and so we need a poem about the snowfall on this first Sunday in January.

As the white stuff blankets much of the country, let us celebrate the silence of the winter snowfall, so unlike the boisterous rainstorms of spring and summer.

The Snowfall Is So Silent

  by Miguel de Unamuno
translated by Robert Bly 

The snowfall is so silent,
so slow,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless; 
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls, 
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off 
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness 
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.