Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Funnies: Cats stealing dogs' beds

Anyone who lives with cats can attest that the furry beasts are no respecters of personal property. They consider your favorite chair or your bed to be their own. And furthermore, that goes for the dog's bed, too...

Hat tip to Jayne Wilson for pointing this out on YouTube.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert: A review

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."
                                 - Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich

As far as science has been able to determine, there have been five mass extinctions of life on Earth in the history of our planet. The first of these occurred at the end of the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era about 450 million years ago. The second occurred less than 100 million years later in the late Devonian period. There followed the End-Permian extinction of some 250 million years ago, the Late Triassic extinction of 200 million years ago, and finally, the last one and the one we are most familiar with, the End-Cretaceous extinction which occurred about 65 million years ago. That's the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. (Well, almost - except for the ancestors of birds.)

The best evidence seems to indicate that all of these extinctions except for the last one were the result of climatological events, often relatively sudden events to which plants and animals did not have time to adapt. The cause of the fifth one was also a change in climate but it was brought about by a collision with an asteroid. That cataclysmic event so altered the climate of the planet for a time that many, many species died out either suddenly or over a period of years.

Scientists believe that we are now in the midst of the sixth extinction which Earth has endured and that this extinction is entirely human-caused. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in this book about how our species has altered life on the planet as no other species has before. It's not just that we are changing the climate for the worse, although that certainly is a big part of it, we also have altered the face of Earth and the chemistry of the oceans to the detriment of very many species.

One of the biggest problems that we have created for other species is simply the fact that we move everything around and wherever we go on Earth, it seems that some species hitch a ride with us. So a species from Asia that would never under normal circumstances make it to the Americas is brought here either wittingly or unwittingly and it wreaks havoc. Kolbert points out that the most endangered family of animals on Earth today are the amphibians. They are being wiped out by a fungus that has been spread around the world by humans.

Kolbert writes about a dozen species, some of them already irrevocably lost and others on their way out. Through these very personal stories of that wonderful bird the Great Auk, the Panamanian golden frog, staghorn coral, the Sumatran rhino and others, the reader is moved to begin to understand the enormity of what is happening. What we are causing to happen to our world.  

It all reminds me a bit of another subject that I wrote about here recently - the nihilistic ramblings of Rust Cohle, one of the detectives on the HBO series, "True Detective." At one point, he delivers this soliloquy:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Reading Kolbert's book is enough to make one think that perhaps Cohle is on to something there.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that the concept of extinction is not a very old one. Kolbert points out that it was first articulated by Georges Cuvier in the revolutionary Paris of the 18th century. As always it seems, with any new scientific idea or concept, it took a while for it to be accepted, but later work by paleontologists has confirmed Cuvier's findings.

This is a well-written book which can popularize scientific concepts and principles for a mass audience. It is an easy read and a fairly short one at less than 300 pages. Kolbert includes extensive notes and bibliography for those who wish to read more on the subject.

View all my reviews

(Update: There is an interesting article entitled "The Mammoth Cometh" in The New York Times Magazine today about the effort to recreate some extinct animals through cloning.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The springtime garden

Is it only me or has winter been going on way too long? It's almost enough to make me long for summer once again. Almost, but not quite.

A much better alternative is spring and this week it seems as though spring is returning to my garden. And not a moment too soon!

Nothing says "spring" quite like sweetly fragrant hyacinths. These bloom in a pot beside my front entry door.

Well, the little Leucojum snowflakes run the hyacinths a close second in the spring department. I do love these little bulbs. One of the things that I love best about them is that they are so easy to grow.

All around the garden, the shrubs and trees are beginning to put out green buds.

 New growth from a mahogany Esperanza planted last year.

Yellow cestrum bloomed right up until the mercury dipped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Then it lost all its leaves, but now it is putting on new growth. Soon it will be blooming again.

Likewise, the almond verbena was blooming until our first spell of really cold weather hit. Now it is coming back.

The pomegranate, too, is well on its way.

Some of the shrubs started early and are already blooming.

 The blueberries, for example.

 And the loropetalum is covered in its fuchsia blossoms.

I finished pruning the last of my roses today. Some of the plants that I pruned first - a couple of weeks ago - already have flower buds. Here, 'Darcy Bussell.'

 A pot of dianthus offers its cherry red blossoms from a pot on the patio.

 And on the back porch, this sunny yellow kalanchoe brightens things.

These pansies were the only blooms I had in the garden for several weeks. Now they have competition from other plants, but they continue to make me smile.

Even the birds know that spring is almost here. Many of our winter visitors have already flown, as I wrote yesterday, but their place is being taken by birds that wintered farther south.

The American Robins have arrived. I love listening to their songs.

And in the backyard, the female Eastern Bluebirds are investigating likely places for building their nests.

Yes, spring is coming. Even if all my weeding isn't done and all my plants haven't been pruned. Even if all the plants I had planned to move to new beds are still in their old beds. Inexorably, spring approaches and somehow everything that really needs to be done will finally get done. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Where'd they go?

It was just over a week ago that I participated in the annual mid-winter census of birds known as the Great Backyard Bird Count. During the weekend over which the count occurred, my backyard and my bird feeders were covered in birds, especially our winter visitors, the American Goldfinches. It was common to see the finch feeders carrying at least thirty of the little birds in their greenish winter feathers as they gobbled up my nyger seeds. I was refilling the nyger seed feeders on a daily basis. In addition to the thirty or so on those feeders, there were even more of the birds on the black oil sunflower seed feeders and on the ground under the feeders picking up fallen seeds. A flock of more than 100 birds would fly up when I ventured too close.

But a few days ago, all of that changed. I looked up one day to find that there were no birds on the nyger feeders and the seed levels hadn't gone down for a couple of days. I looked around the yard and found that there were still a few American Goldfinches there, but they were no longer in their winter greens.

The few that remained behind seemed to be changing color almost as I watched, putting on their gold and black and white formal wear that would signal they were ready for a new nesting season, but the great body of the flock that had feasted on my seeds only last week had already moved on, anxious to get back to their breeding range.

I started looking around for my other winter visitors. The little Orange-crowned Warbler that had been a faithful daily consumer of my suet cakes for many weeks was nowhere to be seen. The Yellow-rumped Warblers that had been present in good numbers throughout the winter were down to only a few birds. I looked in vain for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It seemed that all of these birds had taken their cue from...somewhere...that it was time to get a move on in order to get on with the business of producing the next generation.

It's funny how that happens almost overnight. One day they are all present and accounted for, noisy and busy, the next day the yard is relatively silent and still.

Of course, the numbers are not down for all the backyard birds. As these winter birds have left us, American Robins have moved in en force. The song of the robin is omnipresent, the background music of my life outdoors these days.

And harmony for that song is provided by the Cedar Waxwings. Throughout the winter, there have been about fifty of the nattily dressed waxwings around my yard. Yesterday I looked up to see a flock that I estimated at around 400 in the trees! They are gathering for their trip north, but they will continue with us for several weeks yet. They are always the last of my winter visitors to leave.

It always makes me a little sad to say goodbye to the goldfinches and the warblers as they head north, but it is good to know that they will gladden the hearts of birders all across the continent as they continue their journey. And meanwhile in my own yard the Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Chickadees are checking out the nesting boxes.

The seasons are changing. Winter is handing off to spring and soon the sounds of baby birds will be heard around the yard again. Something to look forward to!

Monday, February 24, 2014

The most interesting hour on television

HBO's Louisiana bayou noir series "True Detective" has kept me looking forward to Sunday nights during this late winter period which has proved mostly barren for TV watching. The show features detective partners Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), a metaphysical philosophy spouting loner, and Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson), the ultimate macho bearer of the sexual double standard who is a philanderer in his own right but who can't abide the thought that his daughters or wife or women in general might do the same thing. Were any two television detective partners ever more ill-matched?

If you are unfamiliar with the show,  it's a bit difficult to describe the attraction - and the action.

The events of the story take place over a period of about twenty years. Cohle and Hart had investigated the disappearances and murders of women and children in the 1990s and had ultimately supposedly solved the case and taken out the bad guys, for which they had received great acclaim. But sometime after that, Cohle suspects that the case hasn't really been solved and that the horror hasn't been ended.

He comes to believe that women and children are still disappearing in the Louisiana bayous and that nobody is paying attention. He suspects there may be corrupt officials in high places who are helping to cover up the crimes. He begins to investigate on his own. When he mentions his theories to others, he's written off as a conspiracy theorist nutjob.

Cohle doggedly pursues his clandestine investigation without the help of his partner. They have grown increasingly distant from each other and, finally, in 2002, something happens to rip the partnership apart.

Subsequently, Cohle is suspended without pay from his position for a month and he then quits. Hart continues working for the state police, but his personal life has fallen apart. He and his wife are divorced and he is estranged from his daughters.

Then, ten years later, the past is dredged up again as two new detectives with the state police named Papania and Gilbough call both Cohle and Hart and, finally, Hart's former wife in for "conversations." It seems they are looking into that old investigation and trying to find some connection to later murders of women. Over the course of these conversations, it gradually becomes clear that they suspect Cohle of involvement and they are trying to find a tangible link, something that will allow them to arrest him.

The show flashes back and forth between the 1995-2002 period and the latter day investigation of 2012. The thing that remains constant through all this time is the misogyny and the victimization of women, but that seems to be the whole point. This is a story about a place and time in which women's lives - and deaths - don't matter, except maybe to one iconoclastic detective. Or is that all a ruse? Is he really the culprit and this is just his way of bringing attention to himself?

And what about all those metaphysical philosophical spoutings? At one point during his conversation with the 2012 detectives, Cohle gives them a lecture on something called "membrane theory." He tells them that "time is a flat circle."
It's like, in this universe, we process time linearly. Forward. But outside of our space-time, from what would be a fourth-diminensional perspective, time wouldn't exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it, we'd see our space-time look flattened, like a seamless sculpture. Matter in a super position - every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension - that's eternity. Eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it's a sphere. But to them, it's a circle.  
Moreover, he explains that in that circle, we are doomed to keep repeating the same cycle over and over again. Death, rebirth into the same life, repeating the same actions, same mistakes, ad infinitum. You can just about see the two detectives' heads exploding at this point. Indeed, I can just about feel my own head exploding!

The performances of McConaughey and Harrelson - especially McConaughey - are mesmerizing and in the latest episode, last night, the former Mrs. Hart (played by Michelle Monaghan) finally gets to show some chops as an actress.

I actually like Monaghan's character quite a lot. She is a strong woman, struggling pretty much on her own to hold a family together, and it was she, when first introduced to her husband's new partner, Rust Cohle, who was able to see through the metaphysics and the social awkwardness to the real human being beneath. There was always a connection and an attraction there and the fact that she finally used that attraction to punish her philandering husband was not a worthy action on her part, but from a woman's point of view, it was certainly understandable.

The cage is closing in on Cohle and maybe on all of these characters. Only two more episodes left to resolve all the issues. I only hope that it does resolve them and doesn't leave us hanging out somewhere on that space-time continuum, doomed to repeat the same action forever.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Poetry Sunday: To Daffodils

Spring-like weather made its appearance last week. We had temperatures in the mid-70s Fahrenheit on most days. It was a pleasure to get out into the garden once again.

And a pleasure to see that the daffodils were blooming, the harbinger of spring. They are lovely while they last, but like too many good things, they "haste away so soon" as the poet Robert Herrick wrote.

To Daffodils

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
         You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
         Has not attain'd his noon.
                        Stay, stay,
                Until the hasting day
                        Has run
                But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
         We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
         As you, or anything.
                        We die
                As your hours do, and dry
                Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

Daffodils blooming in my garden today.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Caturday: The suitcase

Anyone who has ever tried to pack a suitcase with a cat in the room can relate to this one. Simon's Cat is truly EveryCat.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø: A review

Cockroaches: The Second Inspector Harry Hole Novel (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original)Cockroaches: The Second Inspector Harry Hole Novel by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It seems that Harry Hole has become the go-to guy when Norwegian authorities need to send someone abroad in connection with a criminal investigation. That strategy turned out well when Harry was sent to Australia to help track down the killer of a Norwegian citizen there in The Bat.

Now, another Norwegian has been killed abroad, this time in Thailand, but it's not just any Norwegian. It is Norway's ambassador to Thailand. There may be political implications to this killing and the authorities are anxious that the whole thing be handled discretely. In other words, they want it hushed up. But is Harry really a likely candidate to accomplish that?  The powers that be seem to think so and soon he is winging his way to Bangkok.

The ambassador had been found in a hotel room that was an extension of a local brothel, with a ceremonial knife sticking out of his back. The implication is that he was waiting for a prostitute when he was killed. Harry finds anomalies that make him question that analysis and he soon comes to the conclusion that this was no random murder. He uncovers a nasty web of corruption and sexual perversion that he soon is persuaded to believe was actually behind the killing of the ambassador. Will he do what the authorities want and hush the whole thing up? That doesn't seem to be Harry's style.

The most interesting parts of this book for me were the descriptions of Bangkok, the structure of its police department, and of the various people, both Thai and foreigner, with whom Harry interacts during the course of his investigation. I have never been to Thailand, so I really have no way of judging if these descriptions were accurate, but they had the feel of realism to them.

Nesbø describes Bangkok as a very busy place, a city that never sleeps and that has round-the-clock traffic noise. Harry spends a lot of time visiting the underbelly areas of the city - go-go bars, opium dens, tourist traps - and he learns that the streets of this city, like most busy cities in the world, can be a dangerous place. What he must sort out is whether something about those streets caused or contributed to the death of the ambassador, and he will do that even though no one in authority seems to want it.

This was the second in Nesbø's Harry Hole series, but it was only recently translated into English. The third and later novels were translated before the first and second in the series. I don't know why that choice was made, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the third and later novels are stronger than the first two.

This one in particular I thought was rather weak. It did not do much to flesh out the character of Harry and the ending left some stray ends that didn't get tied up, and, in general, I just found the ending unsatisfactory. If I had read the first two novels before reading the others, I might not have been tempted to pick up The Redbreast and all the later books in the series, so even though I am usually a stickler for reading series books in order, in this case, it's probably a good thing that I didn't.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rare Birds of North American by Steve N.G. Howell: A review

Rare Birds of North AmericaRare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers might at first be misled by the title of this book. Rare Birds of North America is not, in fact, about the endangered and rare species of endemic birds of this continent. Rather, it is a comprehensive illustrated guide to the birds that don't belong here but manage to find their way here anyway.

These are the birds that are referred to as vagrants. They are native to some other part of the world - East Asia, Western Eurasia, Africa, the Southern Hemisphere, islands - but, for some reason, they have turned up on this continent.

The book explains how and why these vagrants arrive here.

The "how" is simple enough. Birds have wings and they tend to use them to fly to different places. Though they generally follow fairly well-defined routes in migration and in their wanderings about the planet, sometimes when they are in flight something might happen to steer them in a different direction. Most often this is probably related to weather, but other factors may play a role as well, and the authors explore some of the means of dispersal of species.

But why do birds end up in places where they shouldn't be? Again, this is probably most often related to weather conditions, but sometimes birds might simply overshoot their mark. Or, as the population of a particular species increases in one place, they may begin to expand their range and disperse into other areas. This is how many Central and South American species have come to find their way into the states along the southern U.S. border and some have moved even farther north. There is also the possibility that disorientation or misorientation might play a role in the dispersal of species to new areas.

However the vagrants manage to find their way here, when a birder spots one of them and gets the word out, other birders race to the scene, eager to add that bird to their life list. We love watching and documenting the everyday and familiar birds of our region, but the possibility of seeing something exotic from a whole  different part of the world is an opportunity that no self-respecting birder would care to miss. And now we have an illustrated guide to help us identify and learn more about these unexpected visitors.

The authors define rare vagrants as those which have had five or fewer individuals reported annually in North America since about 1950. They include species accounts of 262 such birds. These accounts give identification field marks and also discuss the patterns of vagrancy and where the bird might be most likely to be found.  The text is accompanied by 275 informative color plates by Ian Lewington.  

The book includes helpful appendices which provide a list of birds that are new to North America from 1950 to 2011 and also explanations of why some birds that have hypothetically occurred on the continent are not included in this book.

Overall, I think this book should be a valuable resource for any birder interested in the "birds that shouldn't be here but are." And that, I believe, includes most birders.

(Note: A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review of it. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own. )

View all my reviews

Monday, February 17, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

How did you spend your Presidents' Day weekend? I spent mine counting birds.

Yes, this was the weekend for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an activity that has now gone global. Beginning last year, the Count started accepting reports not just from North America but from all around the world. When I last checked the website, reports had been received this year from every continent except Antarctica. Participants count birds in their own yards or other designated places.

This year, I counted birds in my yard as I always do, and on Saturday I also did a count at Brazos Bend State Park. We had a family cookout there to celebrate our older daughter's birthday, and, of course, I insisted that we go on a bird walk after lunch.

In fact, the highlight of my weekend counting came on that walk. It was around 3:00 in the afternoon and we were walking around Forty-Acre Lake when we heard two Barred Owls calling to each other in the woods nearby.  Since I do my bird counting during daylight hours, it isn't often that I get to list an owl species, but Barred Owls frequently become active in mid to late afternoon hours and, fortunately for me, these two certainly were!

I ended my day with 31 species counted at the park. With more time and effort, I could have probably doubled that, but, after all, birding was my secondary activity on this particular day.

On the other three days of the four-day holiday weekend, I observed and counted birds in my yard. My goal for the weekend was 40 species, but I ended with only 34. As always when I do an official count of birds in my yard, I was frustrated by the no-shows, the birds that I know are there but that just didn't turn up during my count period.

Where was that Pileated Woodpecker that has been so active in the area in recent weeks? Where are the Eastern Phoebes? I haven't seen one in my yard all winter. Where was the Red-tailed Hawk that flies over my yard every day - except for this weekend? That Killdeer that flies over and calls noisily on occasion - where was it this weekend?

And on most days I can count on flyovers in the late afternoon from a number of waterbirds and waders, but this weekend? Nary a one showed a feather.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, the tiny Brown-headed Nuthatch did not make an appearance. I didn't even hear it calling during the time that I was counting.

For most of the weekend, I thought I would have to include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on my list of no-shows, but just at about 6:00 this afternoon as the light was fading and I was about to call it a count and head indoors, I heard the sapsucker calling in the big pine tree just across the fence in my neighbor's yard. I looked up and finally was able to find it far, far up the 100+ foot tree.

 It was really too dark for this picture, but I had to give it a try after waiting so long for him.

Encouraged, I decided to wait just a few more minutes to see if something wonderful might turn up. Nothing did. My last bird of the day, the last bird of my count was that Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.


Here are the 34 species that did deign to show themselves for my yard count.

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove 
Inca Dove
Rufous Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin 
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-Winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird 
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


And here is the species list from Brazos Bend.

Blue-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
White Ibis
Glossy/White-faced Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Loggerhead Shrike
American Crow
Tree Swallow 
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Poetry Sunday: O Tell Me The Truth About Love

Valentine's Day may have come and gone already but love is a popular topic for poetry on any day of the year.

Here's a poem on the subject by a very famous 20th century poet born in England who later became an American citizen, W. H. Auden. It's one that I like very much.

O Tell Me The Truth About Love

Some say love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn't over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan: A review

AlenaAlena by Rachel Pastan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is the sentence with which Daphne du Maurier began her iconic novel Rebecca. For me, that is one of the three most memorable beginnings of all the books I have ever read. The other two?

"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick)

And, of course, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." (The Hobbit)

But those two are very different kinds of novels, and the beginning of Rebecca, I think, is the most memorable for me.

When I was a teenager, I was under the spell of du Maurier and her books. I read them over and over again, but none more often than Rebecca. Somewhere in there I also saw Alfred Hitchcock's movie which was a wonderfully faithful realization of the much-loved book. When I heard a review on NPR's "Fresh Air" a few days ago of Rachel Pastan's new book Alena and the reviewer mentioned that the book was an homage to Rebecca, of course I had to read it.

Pastan begins her book with a very conscious tip of the hat to du Maurier. "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again," she writes. With that beginning, she reimagines du Maurier's novel in all of its essential details.

Instead of the innocent young ingenue rescued from a boring life as a traveling companion to a rich, older woman by the dashing Maxim de Winter, we get an innocent young curatorial assistant from the Midwest arriving for the first time at the Venice Biennale with her boss, a demanding middle-aged woman curator who seems determined not to allow her assistant to see any of the art in Venice. Enter wealthy museum director and art-world gadfly Bernard Augustin who has a small contemporary museum on Cape Cod. Our young narrator, who remains nameless just like the narrator in Rebecca, catches Augustin's eye and when her boss insists on leaving the Biennale early, cutting short her assistant's chance to experience the art of Europe, he offers the young woman a job as a curator at his museum and invites her to stay in Europe and travel with him.

Of course, she accepts. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a story.

In a twist on the original novel, there is no romantic relationship between the young woman and Augustin. He is, in fact, gay, but theirs is a relationship founded firmly on their love of art.

On returning to Cape Cod and the museum called the Nauk, we learn that the museum has been closed for two years ever since its former curator, Alena, disappeared. It is believed that she went swimming in the surf one night, as she was wont to do, and that she drowned. She never returned and has never been heard from again. Her body was never found, but her spirit - her ghost - haunts the Nauk and all the people associated with it.

Soon it haunts the new curator as well, as she is constantly compared (unfavorably) to Alena. Alena was knowledgable, sophisticated, and daring in her choices for the museum. How can a novice possibly live up to that?

The malevolent Mrs. Danvers role is taken here by the museum's business manager, Agnes, a childhood friend of Alena's who was completely devoted to her and who doesn't think much of the new curator. All the other members of the cast that we remember from Rebecca are represented in different guises as well. They are mostly snobbish and unpleasant people except for the dishy local police chief who soon discovers a mutual attraction for our young narrator.

All in all, this is a patient and fairly faithful rendering of the old story that I knew so well, and much of the writing was really good, I thought. Sometimes though it wanders off into the esoteric, self-referential language of the art world. Maybe this was meant as a deliberate skewering of a group of people who perhaps take themselves far too seriously, but at times it became just a little too campy for my taste.  

Still, it was a fun read, and if it does not quite rise to the level of du Maurier, it is a worthy effort, even if I won't necessarily be adding "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again" to my list of most memorable beginnings to novels.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Backyard predators

This is a busy time at the backyard bird feeders. When I step out into the yard, it is common to see a hundred or more songbirds at the feeders and on the ground around the feeders. It is no accident that February is designated as National Bird Feeding Month and that the Great Backyard Bird Count which surveys where birds are in mid-winter takes place on this coming weekend. This is the month when birds are most visible in our yards.

And where the little birds gather, the larger birds that prey on them soon follow. In my yard, this means the two Accipiters, Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

The larger of the two is the Cooper's Hawk, which is a permanent resident in our area, and I do see him around the yard throughout the year, chasing the birds that come to my feeders. Seldom do I see him actually catch one. There is plenty of cover in the yard and at the first warning cry from a Blue Jay, all the birds scramble for it.

In the field, it is very hard to discern the difference between the Cooper's and the Sharp-shinned. They are very similar in appearance. The Cooper's Hawk is bigger, but there is a difference in size between the sexes among these raptors; the females are quite a bit larger and so it is that a female Sharp-shinned might be as large as a male Cooper's. The most reliable field mark, I find, is the shape of the tail - if you can see it. I think you can tell from this picture that the end of the bird's tail is rather rounded. That is a trait of the Cooper's.

The Sharp-shinned, on the other hand, has a squared-off end of the tail. This bird, half hidden among the leaves of a tree, has that squared tail which marks him as a Sharp-shinned. The Sharp-shinned is a winter visitor to our area and, at this time of year, I see this bird almost daily when I am outside.

Both of these raptors are magnificent birds and it is a great honor to have them as a part of my backyard ecosystem. Some bird lovers who maintain bird feeders for songbirds hate the birds that prey on them and try to discourage them, but I see them as an essential part of the habitat.

They are beautiful birds and, after all, they have to eat, too. Nature made them to eat other birds and we can hardly fault them for fulfilling that function.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stupidity reigns - even in the doctor's office

One of my daughters tells a story about her friend who recently visited her doctor's office here in the Houston area. A prominent sign in the doctor's waiting room proclaimed, "WE DO NOT ACCEPT OBAMACARE!"

Which just goes to prove that apparently you don't have to be very smart or well-informed to be a doctor. I'm not sure I would want to trust my life to that particular doctor.

The thing about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is that the insurance is provided by private insurance companies. Contrary to the lies told by its opponents, it is not government-provided insurance. The government mandates that the insurance policies must meet certain standards and must provide a minimum of services and, in the case of some low income people who qualify, it will provide subsidies to help pay the premiums. But the insurance policy itself comes from Blue Cross or Cigna or some other private insurance company and that is what the person's insurance card will show.

So, how exactly are that doctor and his staff going to determine if an individual seeking medical care has "Obamacare"? Are they going to interrogate all their patients by asking them, "Did you get your insurance because of the provisions of Obamacare?" And then turn them away if the answer is yes?

Actually, I don't think I would be surprised if they did exactly that.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck #2)The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poor Martin Beck. He just can't catch a break. He has just started his month-long summer vacation with his family on a small island off the coast of Sweden when he receives a call to return to duty.

It seems that a Swedish journalist has gone missing in Hungary and Beck's superiors want him to go to Budapest to act as liaison to the investigation. He's told that he can refuse the assignment since he is technically on vacation. But, of course, he can't. Not really. So he packs his bag and heads off to Budapest.

These books were written in the 1960s and so we find a very different Eastern Europe described here to what we would read in a novel set in the present day. But Beck is struck with the beauty of Budapest and we learn a little bit about its history and the layout of the city.

Beck's investigation proceeds slowly at first, but then he meets his local counterpart and is very impressed with the organization and efficiency of the Budapest police. He finds that he is being followed by someone and at first suspects that it is the police, but finally learns that it is some associates of the journalist he is looking for. Indeed, the police save him from an attack by these associates.

He learns that the missing journalist is a misogynistic boor and bully and he is not much liked by anybody. In fact his disappearance is not a cause for sorrow for anyone, except perhaps his employer. Beck and the local police uncover the fact that the man had been involved in the trading of hashish from Turkey. Some of his associates would  smuggle the drugs from Turkey and the journalist would pick them up in Budapest or some other Eastern European city and then take them back to Sweden where he would sell them at great profit.

The mystery is that none of his associates will admit to having seen him when he was supposed to have last been in Budapest in June. In May, yes, but not in June. Beck begins to suspect that they are telling the truth and that the journalist did not actually travel to Budapest in June, even though he shows to have been registered at a couple of hotels then. He suspects that the solution to the puzzle will be found back in Sweden.  

What great fun this book was to read! And the fun begins right up front with Val McDermid's wonderful introduction. Martin Beck is aptly described as "not some solo maverick who operates with flagrant disregard for the rules and thinly disguised contempt for the lesser mortals who surround him. Nor is he a phenomenal genius blessed with so extraordinary a talent that mere mortals can only stand back in amazement as he leads them unerringly to the solution to the baffling mystery." No, indeed, Martin Beck is an ordinary man, a middle-aged hypochondriac whose marriage and family life is slowly disintegrating under the pressure of his obsession with his job.

Moreover, Beck works as a part of a team and we get to know the members of that team and learn how their strengths and weaknesses balance each other. This seems a truthful representation of the real nitty-gritty world of police work. At the time that Sjowall/Wahloo were writing these books, that seems to have been a new concept.

One of the great pleasures of reading this book was the descriptions - both of people and of places. Another pleasure was the sly humor which underlay so many of those descriptions and the conversations between Beck and his colleagues. As an example, here's a brief description of a man and woman that Beck saw in a hotel in Budapest.
Martin Beck turned his head and saw a person staring at him: a sunburned man of his own age, with graying hair, straight nose, brown eyes, gray suit, black shoes, white shirt and gray tie. He had a large signet ring on the little finger of his right hand and beside him on the table lay a speckled green hat with a narrow brim and a fluffy little feather in the band. The man returned to his double espresso.

Martin Beck moved his eyes and saw a woman staring at him. She was African and young and very beautiful, with clean features, large brilliant eyes, white teeth, long slim legs and high insteps. Silver sandals and a tight-fitting light-blue dress of some shiny material.

Presumably they were both staring at Martin Beck - the man with envy, the woman will ill-concealed desire - because he was so handsome.
I would recognize those people if they walked into my room right now! Especially that woman with her "high insteps." It must be said that Beck seems to have a bit of a foot fetish going because one of the things that he always notices about women is their feet.

Well, I could go on, but let me just sum this up by saying that I loved this book and I look forward with eager anticipation to reading the next eight in the ten book series. And while I'm reading, I'll be looking for the ways in which Sjowall/Wahloo's Martin Beck was the forerunner of so many other popular dour, dyspeptic Scandinavian policemen of modern-day fiction.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Poetry Sunday: In the Park

American poet Maxine Kumin died last week. She had an illustrious and much-honored career as a poet and essayist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for Up Country, her fourth volume of verse. She was the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, as the United States poet laureate was then known, from 1981 to 1982; from 1989 to 1994 she was the poet laureate of New Hampshire, where she and her husband lived for many years.

In their obituary for the poet, The New York Times described her poetry as  "spare, deceptively simple lines (that) explored some of the most complex aspects of human existence — birth and death, evanescence and renewal, and the events large and small conjoining them all..." That aspect of her poetry is displayed in her poem "In the Park."

In the Park
You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you're a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
--you won't know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park.He laid on me not doing anything.I could feel his heart
beating against my heart.
Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them.For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels.Certain
animals converse with humans.
It's a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven's an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there's a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,

and no choosing what to come back as.
When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot.In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin: A review

Saints of the Shadow BibleSaints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Rebus flirted with retirement for a while but found out it didn't suit him. He went back to the Borders and Lothian Police in a civilian capacity, working on cold cases, in Standing in Another Man's Grave but that just increased his itch to get back into the fray once again.

When the retirement rules were loosened, allowing old guys like him to continue to work, he applied to get back in harness. He was given a job, but since the police had no openings for Detective Inspectors, he had to take a position as a Detective Sergeant. That's all right with Rebus. For him, it's never been about the title; it's all about the work.

Ironically, DS Rebus's boss is his former DS, now Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. Together again but now in reversed positions, the two are still an effective team.

Rebus is investigating a car accident where a young woman has been injured when news arrives that a case that he worked on 30 years before is being reopened. Rebus had been a rookie policeman at the time and the team that he became a part of was suspected of helping a murderer escape justice in furtherance of their own pursuit of getting bad guys off the streets. In that pursuit, they often chose to be judge, jury, and executioner. As the new guy on the team, it's not clear just how much a part of all that Rebus ever was.

Malcolm Fox, the internal affairs (The Complaints) cop, is charged with finding out the truth and exposing the miscreants. He has butted heads with Rebus before and now he needs to get his cooperation in finding out the truth about the 30 year old case.

Soon, though, the past collides with the present as assaults and murders in the present day seem to be tied in somehow to that old case. Rebus signs on to help Fox with his inquiries, but is he really to be trusted?

Back in the day, Rebus' colleagues in the old unit called themselves "The Saints" and they swore an oath of allegiance to each other on something they called the "Shadow Bible," really just a copy of Scots Criminal Law. And so they were known as the "Saints of the Shadow Bible." Some of them still hold to those oaths all these years later.

All of this - crimes of the past mixed with crimes of the present - is overlaid with the stench of politics as the campaign to decide Scotland's future heats up and everyone is choosing sides.

Ian Rankin has skillfully brought together his two detectives, Fox and Rebus, in this tale. The two start out from a position of distrust and contempt but somehow manage to work together as their desire to solve the puzzle preempts their personal feelings. This is to be Malcolm Fox's last case with the internal affairs unit. One is left wondering if perhaps he and Rebus have a future together.

Meantime, it turns out that the irascible Rebus has his admirers among those of his colleagues who appreciate diligent police work. Thus, we get these thoughts from a young woman who has just helped him find some information that he needed on the computer, even though she knows their superior, James Page would not approve. As he leaves the room to do his legwork, she stares at the computer screen.

"Maybe," she said to herself. "Just maybe..." She fixed her eyes on the the doorway. She hadn't known John Rebus long, but she knew he was good at this, like a bloodhound given a scent and then left to do what it was best at. Form-filing and protocols and budget meetings were not Rebus's thing - never had been and never would be. His knowledge of the Internet was rudimentary and his people skills were woeful. But she would lie for him to James Page, and take the rap if caught. Because he was a breed of cop that wasn't supposed to exist anymore, a rare and endangered species.

And she would miss his kind when they did - as they would - eventually vanish from the world.

We will all miss Rebus should he vanish from our world of detective fiction, as he did once before after Exit Music.  But let's hope that that doesn't happen again for a long, long time.

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: A review

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Slaughterhouse-Five was Kurt Vonnegut's noble effort in 1969 to make sense of a lunatic universe in which a whole city could be destroyed and 130,000 people killed, not because the city had any military value or the people posed any military threat but as an instrument of terror to discourage the enemy and bring a swifter end to a terrible war.

Vonnegut had been there on February 13, 1945, a 23-year-old prisoner of war imprisoned in Dresden, the city that was the target of American fire-bombing. He had experienced the destruction of the city from a safe underground bunker, a former slaughterhouse. He was one of the few who survived and he said in the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the book, that he had been trying to write about it ever since.

In that introduction, where Vonnegut speaks in his own voice, he says that there is "nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." He solves that problem by not actually writing about the massacre itself. Instead, he writes around it. We see the dissolved city through the eyes of the American prisoners who survived and we experience the terror and the absurdity of their situation.

The book is fact and fiction combined - the fact that Vonnegut was there to experience the slaughterhouse which Dresden became and the fiction of the story that he tells that centers on Billy Pilgrim.

Billy is described as a tall and weak man, shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle. He is barely out of adolescence and attending night sessions at the Ilium School of Optometry in his home town of Ilium, New York, when he is drafted into the military. He is assigned to the infantry and his job is to be an chaplain's assistant.

He quickly finds himself sent to Europe and in Luxembourg, his unit is thrown into the Battle of the Bulge. Very soon, everyone in the group he is with is killed and he wanders away where he is eventually captured by the Germans.

By this time, the war is nearing its end. Billy survives and returns to Ilium where he marries, fathers a son and a daughter, and becomes a rich and successful optometrist.

Fast forward to 1968. His son has entered the military and is in Vietnam. And Billy finds himself once again the sole survivor when the plane he is on crashes in Vermont. While he is in the hospital, his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning as she drives to be with him.

The most remarkable thing about Billy is that he has become "unstuck in time." He is a time traveler moving back and forth through past, present, and future. Well, maybe that isn't the most remarkable thing about him. Perhaps that distinction is held by his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians take him back to their home planet and put him on display in a zoo. Eventually, he is presented with a companion from Earth, an actress from a pornographic movie whose name is Montana Wildhack. They settle down together in the zoo and make a baby.

Billy learns many things from the Tralfamadorians. Mostly things about the concept of time. They see everything in the fourth dimension and they teach Billy about time's relation to the world, about fate, and about death's indiscriminate nature.

This is a short book written mostly in brief, declarative sentences. It is an easy and quick read, but it is incredibly rich in eloquence and humor. One would think that it would be an almost impossible task to write a funny book about the massacre of 130,000 people and other horrible experiences of war. And yet, Vonnegut managed to do it, and in doing it, he made a poignant plea against butchery in the service of authority. This is an imaginative and humane appreciation of all that is life.

I suspect the book would have had even greater power if it were read close to the time of its publication, but it holds up well even forty-five years later. Tragedy and absurdity are still the stuff of life. And so it goes.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Two poems

Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most popular writers of his time, the Victorian Age, and he is still often quoted today. 

Stevenson was a rather sickly person and, apparently, the thought of death was much on his mind. Several years before his death, he wrote this famous poem, part of which was eventually used as his epitaph.


by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

Curiously, when the poem is quoted today, the person who is quoting it will often remember it as "Home is the sailor, home from THE sea." But in fact, in the original poem, Stevenson did not use the definite article to describe the place from which the sailor had returned.

Later, the English poet, A.E. Housman wrote a poem in tribute to Stevenson and his Requiem. It, too, is often quoted, and people sometimes mistakenly think that the lines which he reuses here originated with him.

Home Is the Sailor

by A. E. Housman

Home is the sailor, home from sea:

Her far-borne canvas furled

The ship pours shining on the quay

The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:

Fast in the boundless snare

All flesh lies taken at his will

And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,

The starlit wave is still:

Home is the sailor from the sea,

The hunter from the hill.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Are you ready for some football?

Okay, I'm not really a football fan. I'm more inclined to watch the Puppy Bowl than the Super Bowl, but I confess I love this.

It seems that two of our long-time favorite Sirs, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are ready for some football - in all its forms. Sir Ian seems to be pulling for a Broncos victory and Sir Patrick is hoping for the Seahawks to win.

View image on Twitter

You gotta love those expressions!

And even though I'm not really a football fan, as I've mentioned here before, I am a Manning family fan, so I'll be hoping that Peyton can prevail. One more time.