Thursday, July 31, 2014

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: A review

(Note: My review of this book was first published on Goodreads on October 12, 2009, but had never been posted here.)

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

This quote from near the end of the book, when Janie is telling her story to her friend Pheoby, is a summation of the tale for me.  Janie's life was like the sea, taking its shape from what it met, the things that contained it.  Perhaps that is true of all our lives.

This is, in many ways, quite a remarkable book, and I confess it is my introduction to Zora Neale Hurston.  I knew her name, of course, but had never read any of her works.  I knew of her as an anthropology student of Franz Boas.  I remember hearing of her during my own anthropology student days.

She had a wonderful ear for language and her telling of Janie's story in the vernacular of Southern Black speech seems a stroke of genius to me.  It brings Janie's story very close to the bone for me, because the cadences of the speech are so intimate and familiar to me from my own childhood.

Janie lived in a time and place when women of independence were looked at suspiciously.  (Well, that could be said of today as well, couldn't it?)  She tried living as her grandma who raised her wanted her to live.  She married the man of means that Grandma had chosen for her.  And she was miserable. When she met another man, who treated her differently and seemed to respect her desire to be her own person, she did not hesitate to run away with him.

She subsequently married Joe Starks and settled down to a life of substance and influence in the community where they lived.  But once again, she found that her husband was trying to control her, trying to mold her into his idea of the perfect wife, leaving no room for expansion to other shores.

Though she was unhappy and unfulfilled, she stayed with Starks until his death.  Soon after, she was to meet "Tea Cake," the free-spirited man of her dreams and the rest of her story is bound by those shores which she and Tea Cake explored together.

I'm very glad to have finally met Zora Neale Hurston.  She's an interesting character in her own right and the foreword and afterword, as well as discussions of Janie's feminism that were included in the book added much to my enjoyment of it.  It was a very canny decision by Harper Perennial Modern Classics to have included all that, especially for readers like me, who really knew little about Hurston other than her name.  In addition to everything else she was, she was a very good writer.    

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Praying mantis

While I was watering a pot of gerbera daisies yesterday, I became aware that the daisies had a visitor aboard.

See him? He's well-camouflaged, wearing the same color as the leaves, and sitting just to the right of the flower. That's right - he's a praying mantis, one of the most interesting of predatory insects.

Here he is from a slightly different angle.

From behind, you can get an idea of those relatively large front legs which he uses to capture his prey - things like moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, and just about any other insect that comes within reach. Those legs are equipped with spikes that help him snare his prey and hold it in place while he devours it at his leisure. Not only do the mantises eat other kinds of insects, they are also known to eat their own kind. The most notorious cannibalistic behavior is that of the female mantis who sometimes eats her mate just after, or even during, the act of mating. This however does not seem to deter the horny males. Perhaps the hint of danger gives the act an extra fillip!

Those front legs that are formidable weapons also give this insect its common name. In its resting pose, the legs are bent and held together at an angle that suggest the position of praying hands - thus, "praying" mantis.

Whatever we call them, these insects are powerful and efficient predators. They have the ability to turn their triangular heads 180 degrees on their long neck in order to scan their surroundings with their two large compound eyes and the three other simple eyes that are located between them. While doing this, they remain virtually invisible because of their cryptic coloring of green or brown that blends in with their surroundings.

Praying mantids are welcome partners in the garden because they eat so many harmful insects. Indeed, gardeners often purchase egg cases of the insect to allow them to hatch in their gardens. I haven't found it necessary to do that since I seem to have plenty of naturally-occurring ones. And so can you if you eschew insecticides. The females regularly produce an egg case which holds hundreds of eggs. When the nymphs hatch, they look much like miniature versions of the adults. I frequently see large numbers of them around the garden in summer.

Here is a link to ten little-known facts about these fascinating insects.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The unguided Cruz missile

Ever since the voters of Texas in their infinite wisdom foisted Ted Cruz onto the national politics stage of America, we have read and listened to innumerable stories about the man that tell us that, whatever else he may be, he is very, very smart. And ever since he arrived on the scene and I've been reading those stories, I've been saying "Show me the evidence!"

Just ask my husband. We've had this discussion several times, because he tends to think that Cruz is very intelligent and that he just "plays stupid" for his tea party supporters. I maintain that he isn't playing.

But you won't convince any Beltway pundits of that. The "Cruz is brilliant" meme, which I suspect was started by Cruz himself, is now accepted wisdom with the Beltway crowd, and every time anyone mentions the name Ted Cruz, it is mandatory that they mention how smart he is.

So, mine has been a lonely voice indeed, which is why I was elated to see this headline on yesterday: "The 'Ted Cruz is smart' trap: Why this garbage is false - and dangerous." 

"Yes!" I cried. Vindication at last! Someone agrees with me.

Nathan Robinson, the author of the piece, writes, "It can't really be that we think Cruz has a sophisticated mind, given that the only thoughts he produces are angry pants-on-fire platitudinous drivel. Even those who lavish praise on his oratory seem to agree that his heat-to-light ratio nears the infinite, and that 'thoughtfulness' and Ted Cruz cannot exist in the same room."

Well said, Nathan. To those who take the opposite view, I challenge them to name one original thought expressed by the man since he has been a senator or one positive and forward-thinking act taken in that period. He is a smarmy, egotistical, bomb-throwing, arrogant, destructive force, who cheerfully lies in support of his agenda in the certain belief that no one will call him on it because everyone is so intimidated by his vast intelligence. 

Moreover, Cruz seems to be thoroughly lacking in people skills and has completely alienated his fellow senators, which is apparently not all that easy to do in the clubby atmosphere of that body. He makes enemies every time he opens his mouth. Which is often. Like some other senators - John McCain comes to mind - he lives for the spotlight and, unfortunately, the mainstream media cooperates with him by shining it on him pretty much 24-7.

Nathan Robinson again:
Any definition of intelligence is destined to be highly contestable. Yet it is hard to imagine a plausible one that does not include large measures of critical thinking and self-scrutiny. As Bertrand Russell put it, it’s always a central problem that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Intelligence necessitates doubt, for doubt is the origin of wisdom. One whose mind is clamped shut cannot be intelligent, and yet Ted Cruz does not in his life ever seem to have taken on board a single challenge to his worldview.
We can be pretty sure that Ted Cruz is never troubled by doubt. Glib and loquacious, ambitious and confident he may be; a deep thinker he is not. The description once applied to Newt Gingrich - “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person looks like” - seems to fit Ted Cruz perfectly. And since there are apparently plenty of stupid people around, especially among the media, we probably will continue hearing about how smart he is.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Anodyne Necklace by Martha Grimes: A review

The Anodyne NecklaceThe Anodyne Necklace by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I could have easily read in one sitting if I didn't have anything else to do because it was just hard to put down once I got into it. But since I do have other things to do, it actually took me a couple of days. Two very pleasant days of reading.

Once again his boss sends Richard Jury off into the English countryside to solve a murder. This time it is in the tiny village of Littlebourne where a severed finger had recently been found. The finger pointed (pun intended) local constables to a boggy footpath where the corpse it had come from was found by a bird watcher out looking for a rare bird.

The murdered woman was a stranger to the village. It developed that she had probably come there for a job interview, but what was she doing on that footpath and why would anyone in the village want to kill her? Or was the deed done by some nefarious stranger?

Littlebourne, it turns out, is your typically wacky English village with eccentric denizens galore, all of whom we meet in the course of Jury's investigation. But strange things were happening in this village even before the murder. The year before had seen the theft of an extremely valuable emerald from one of the local gentry. Later, the owner of the emerald had died, leaving his widow essentially destitute and needing to sell their mansion to move on to something more manageable. The man suspected of the theft was himself killed in a road accident, but the emerald was never found.

Meanwhile, more recently, a young woman from the village had been attacked while she was in London for her violin lesson. She was left in a coma and is in the hospital, having not yet regained consciousness. Jury soon becomes convinced that all of these incidents are somehow related if he can only find the key. And if he can find that key, he can identify the murderer.

Aiding him in his search is the estimable if hypochondriacal D.S. Wiggins that we met in the first two entries in this series, as well as Jury's friend Melrose Plant who has become an amateur detective of sorts, one who enjoys assisting the police in their inquiries.

Richard Jury forms the opinion that the answer to the puzzle may actually lie in London and, returning there, he searches out a pub called the Anodyne Necklace where a game called "Wizards" is played. The game is played with a specially drawn treasure map and it seems that such a map may be instrumental in solving the murder.

But before the one murder can be solved, another one is committed in the village. It appears that a real crime wave has hit the sleepy little place and there are plenty of nasty people about who look suspicious.

As in the last book, The Old Fox Deceiv'd, Littlebourne has a charming and precocious child who figures in the plot. This time it is a nine-year-old horse-loving girl, Emily Louise Perk, and she seems to have the village pretty much under her thumb. (She actually reminded me somewhat of Alan Bradley's creation, Flavia de Luce, and I had to wonder if Bradley was possibly inspired by Grimes' child character.)

Of course, in the end, Jury, along with his "posse" of Wiggins, Plant, and Emily, manages to find the solution to the mysteries that surround Littlebourne and he wraps it all up in a neat little bow. But I'm sure his boss, who is always looking for an excuse to get him out of London, will soon find another quirky little village that is experiencing a crime wave and we've be off on another reading adventure.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

Statue of Liberty 7.jpg
Statue of Liberty 

The colossal neoclassical sculpture that is known to us as the Statue of Liberty, located on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbor in Manhattan, was originally called "Liberty Enlightening the World." It was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. Dedicated on October 28, 1886, it has become one of the iconic sights of New York and, indeed, of the country.

The statue features a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom. She bears a torch and a tablet upon which is inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. This symbol of freedom is a welcoming signal to immigrants and visitors arriving from abroad.

American poet Emma Lazarus (1849 - 1887) wrote a poem called "The New Colossus" that was a donation to an auction that was conducted to help raise money to construct a pedestal for the statue. The poem played no role in the actual opening of the statue in 1886, but later, after her untimely death, friends began an effort to memorialize the poet and her poem. Success came in 1903 when a plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal, where it remains today, a reminder to us from this "Mother of Exiles" that we are a nation of immigrants. Lest we forget...

The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Saturday, July 26, 2014

This week in birds - #118

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

It's that time of the year when some of our backyard birds begin looking decidedly strange. If you don't know what's going on, you might think they are sick, but no, it's all part of a natural process called the molt.  Summer through early fall, the adult birds, now mostly finished with their family-raising duties, begin to lose their old worn-out feathers and to put on fresh new ones for the winter.  By the time of late fall, all the transformations will be complete and the birds will be dressed in their pristine feathers for the new season. The Northern Mockingbird pictured above is getting an early start on the process.


When will architects and city planners ever begin to take the needs of migrating birds into consideration? Probably only when laws make them do so, and considering the current state of our law-making body of government, which essentially doesn't believe it should make any laws, that isn't going to happen. And so, we have structures like the new Minnesota Vikings football stadium going up. The stadium is expected to have 200,000 square feet of glass that could lure thousands of birds to their death every year. Up to 988 million birds a year die needlessly in this country through collisions with buildings, mostly glass windows, and this stadium, as it is planned, would only add to that total. Conservationists are fighting to have the design modified to make it safer for birds, but it is unclear if they will be able to succeed.


I remember very well when I saw the very first Eurasian Collared-dove in my yard. It was in February 2005 and for the next couple of years, they were the most numerous doves in my yard. Then the White-winged Doves arrived and most of the Collared-doves moved on. Since then, the Collared-doves have shown up and made themselves at home in most of the contiguous 48 states, and now, they've finally made it to New York City! In June, one was sighted by a birder in Manhattan. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.


The "Big Year" is a popular activity (sport? competition?) for obsessive listers of birds and last year was a very Big Year for birder Neil Hayward. He set out to see as many birds in North America as he could in a year, hoping to break the record of 748. By December 31, he had recorded 750 species of birds. Three of his sightings are considered "provisional" by the ABA and have not yet been certified, but Hayward thinks it might be possible to log up to 760 birds on the continent. But that birder would have to be extremely lucky.


And speaking of Big Years, a birder named Dorian Anderson is biking and birding across the country this year to raise money for conservation. His bird total as of today stands at 508. He blogs about it at Biking for Birds.


Peter Gleick writes about how California's response to the severe drought wracking the state has been complicated by its water system itself with its diverse sources of water and water rights, regulations, and demands.


A few years ago, we had a pair of Monk Parakeets resident in our neighborhood. (I should say we had two parakeets in the neighborhood - I'm not sure they were a pair because they never nested.) After about three years of entertaining us, they disappeared and we've not seen any of their species here again. But these birds are becoming numerous in many parts of the country and they are right at home on city streets.


Western states and energy companies are cooperating to try to make the world safe for the Greater Sage Grouse. Their aim is to try to keep the bird off the Endangered Species list which would give it much greater protection and impose more onerous regulations on the energy companies.


Researchers tracking migrating Wood Thrushes with the use of GPS "backpacks" have discovered that the birds that migrate farthest north in the spring also migrate farthest south in the fall, giving them overall the longest migration route in the species.


There is some good news for a change from the world of endangered species this week. A pair of wild California Condors in Utah have successfully hatched a chick in a nest there for the first time since the species was released back into that area in 1996. And farther south, a litter of five Mexican wolves were born to parents that were released into the Sierra Madre Mountains there about eight months ago.


Colombia has actually made significant strides in recent years in protecting areas for the preservation of wildlife. Now, conservation groups there have established a new protected area in the cloud forest of the mountains, an overlooked habitat. The preserve is only 750 hectares but it is a bird paradise and is home to many threatened and endemic species.


eBird reports that sea ducks have been unusually numerous this summer on the Atlantic Coast all the way from the Carolinas down to Georgia.


The United States has fallen sadly behind in the production of renewable energy like solar or wind power, mostly because of the obstructionist tactics of elected representatives who are beholden to oil, gas, and coal companies. But in some areas, the gap is being closed. California is about to break ground on another big desert solar project and additional solar power plants will be built within Los Angeles city limits.


Around the backyard:

"I tawt I taw..." 

Is it possible? Sitting in my backyard late one afternoon this week, I was gazing in the direction of a Hamelia patens ("hummingbird bush") when I became aware that the shrub was being visited by a hummer. But just as I noticed it, another hummer flashed in and chased the first one away. I sat and looked for quite some time, hoping he would return so that I could get a better look but he never did; however, in that instant that I saw him, his back appeared rusty-colored like a male Rufous Hummingbird. The other hummer was definitely a male Ruby-throat because he flashed his gorget at me.

It seems very early for a Rufous hummer to be here, but it certainly looked like one. I'm still on the lookout for him whenever I'm outside.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cop Killer by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

Cop Killer (The Martin Beck)Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't help noting the similarity in titles between this book and the first of the Ed McBain books that I read earlier this month. McBain's book was Cop Hater. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo stated that McBain's work was an inspiration and model for their Martin Beck series, so was this title an homage to McBain?

Whether it was or not, Sjowall/Wahloo's writing style continues to owe much to that established by McBain in his police procedurals. The writing is spare and straightforward, although the series does allow for considerable character development. We've gotten to know Martin Beck and the members of his team very well in the course of these books.

The books have gotten progressively better as the series has continued, in my opinion, and I have to say that this one, the penultimate entry, is my favorite so far.

Cop Killer focuses on the working relationship between Martin Beck and Sten Lennart Kollberg, his most trusted colleague. Together they go to the village of Anderslolv in southern Sweden to investigate the disappearance of a woman. A few days into the investigation the woman's body is found in an out-of-the-way  location near a lake. She has been murdered, so now the two have a murder case on their hands. They are aided in the investigation by a local policeman, Herrgott Allwright, who seems to know everything about everyone in the small village.

Suspicion immediately falls on the woman's next door neighbor who turns out to be the culprit who was apprehended by Beck and his team in the first novel, Roseanna. The man had been released from prison and was trying to make a new life for himself in Anderslolv.

Beck's superiors insist that the neighbor be arrested and Beck and Kollberg reluctantly comply although neither really believes the man is guilty and they continue investigating.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, two inept young criminals have burgled an unoccupied summer cottage and taken everything that wasn't nailed down. In their escape, they drive without turning on their headlights which gets the attention of a police patrol and they are stopped by the infamous Karl Kristiansson and his new partner (His first one was killed in The Abominable Man.) Kenneth Kvastmo, who is just as inept as his old partner but is much more zealous in the pursuit of criminals. It is Kvastmo who insists on pursuing and stopping the car and he emerges from the police vehicle with his gun drawn. Before the encounter ends, two policeman are shot and another is injured in a very weird way and one of the young criminals is dead. The other one escapes and later ditches his car and steals another one. As serendipity would have it, that car turns out to be connected to Beck's murder case!

It all turns into a typical horrible mess, again exemplifying the ineptitude of the Swedish police system. As always in these books, Sjowall/Wahloo are very critical of the brutality and excesses of the police which they see as an outgrowth of failings of the Swedish welfare state of the period. All of this is portrayed in a very sardonic way in their prose. They use humor very effectively to make their points and often the reader can't help chuckling over some of the Inspector Clouseau-like episodes.

At the same time, individual policemen like Beck and Kollberg and several of their colleagues - Gunvald Larsson, Fredrik Melander, Per Mansson, etc. - are shown as dedicated and hard-working, if flawed, professionals who doggedly pursue their investigations of criminality, even in the face of bureaucratic indifference or ignorance.

On a lighter note, we finally see Martin Beck in a satisfying romantic relationship after so many years in a very unfulfilling marriage that ended in divorce. Rhea Nielsen, a woman that he met in the last novel, has become his lover and for the first time since we've know him, he actually seems happy! But will it last?

Only one more book to go in the series. I miss Martin Beck already and he's not even gone.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trees of Western North America by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson: A review

Trees of Western North AmericaTrees of Western North America by Richard Spellenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For those readers and Nature-lovers who need a comprehensive field guide to help them identify the trees of western North America, here is your book. This new guide, soon to be published by Princeton University Press, covers both native and naturalized trees of the western United States and Canada. The territory covered extends as far east as the Great Plains.

This book is very easy to navigate. It is divided into two main sections, the gymnosperms and the angiosperms, and within those sections it is further divided into families of trees. Overall, there are descriptions of some 630 species, which the publisher says is more than any comparable field guide. (I guess I'll take their word for it!)

An important part of any field guide, maybe the most important part, is the pictures. Trees of Western North America has thousands of meticulous color paintings of trees by David More. These are invaluable identification aids. The paintings are further enhanced by the detailed easy-to-understand descriptions and the accompanying range maps which, together, provide a quick and easy view of the individual species.

There is also copious information about recently naturalized species, as well as "Quick ID" summaries which make the information on each species more accessible. There is a key to shapes and structures of leaves along with an introduction to tree identification, forest ecology, and plant classification and structure.

The book defines trees broadly enough to include in its descriptions many small, overlooked species that are normally thought of as shrubs and it includes treelike forms of cacti and yuccas. The descriptions offer details of size and shape, growth habit, bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, flowering and fruiting times, habitat, and range.

In short, the book has everything one could ask for in a field guide of trees in western North America and it certainly seems to nicely fill that niche. I think it should become a very useful and popular tool among those who are interested in this subject.

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

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison: A review

Beautiful Ghosts (Inspector Shan, #4)Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now the pattern of the plots of these Inspector Shan mysteries is well established. We've got the official from Beijing who is corrupt and criminal, who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. We've got the Chinese official who is the good socialist, who initially appears to be an enemy of Inspector Shan, but in the end proves to be an honest ally. We have the misguided American who during the course of the book is converted to the wisdom and peace of Buddhism. And, of course, we have Shan, the former inspector from Beijing who lost everything when he ran afoul of a powerful figure in the Chinese government and was sent to a work camp in Tibet, which proved to be his spiritual salvation. And we have Tan, who in my opinion is one of the most interesting characters in these books. He was the official in charge of the work camp that Shan was assigned to and it was he who authorized Shan's unofficial release after the prisoner helped him solve a mystery at the camp.

Moreover, in this book, we have a repetition of the action of the previous novels, in that Shan and his two Buddhist teachers Gendun and Lokesh accompany an expedition on a turgid progression through caves and tunnels in the mountains of Tibet. Those caves and tunnels are filled with the most preposterously elaborate Buddhist temples and treasures that are guarded by secret groups of the faithful who manage to keep Buddhism alive in the face of the strong opposition of the Chinese government. These travels continue endlessly (almost literally, it seems) and nothing much ever happens except that "old Tibetans" frequently and "suddenly" (always suddenly) give small "cries of delight" or "groans of despair" and knowing glances are passed routinely among those in the know. If I had a dollar for every time an old Tibetan or an old lama suddenly emits cries or groans in this book, I could probably go to dinner and a movie. Really, the whole thing gets extremely tedious after a while.

The first half of the book seemed utterly muddled and confusing to me, but it improved in the second half once the mystery part of the novel actually got under way. The writing seemed at least marginally sharper and better plotted.

The mystery begins at the ancient ruins of the Zhoka monastery where hill people have gathered for a celebration of the Dalai Lama's birthday. Local herders bring in a body of one of their own and claim that he was murdered by "godkillers." Then Surya, a monk who is a talented artist and an old friend of Gendun's, appears, covered in blood and announces that he has killed a man and that, therefore, he is "No more a monk. No more a human."

Confusion reigns and the ensuing investigation brings Shan's old nemesis - and savior - Colonel Tan into the picture. Before they reach the resolution of the mystery, more murders will be revealed and will occur, one of them in far away Seattle. And the source of all this evil will be revealed to be greed for the possession of art and the theft of the unique art from some of those aforementioned decorated caves. Shan finds himself teamed with an FBI agent named Corbett in trying to solve the crimes and bring a little justice to both their worlds.

One other spanner thrown into the works here is the introduction of Shan's son, Ko, whom he had not seen since he was a small child. He is now a young man of nineteen and a criminal, sent to work coal mines in Tibet. Shan is promised an opportunity to meet him if he will aid the investigation, but when he does meet him, he seems to be a cruel sociopath with no redeeming qualities. More pain for a father who has already borne so much pain.

In the end, things are, if not totally resolved, at least moved forward and, yes, a kind of rough justice is achieved. The ending between Shan and his son is actually quite moving.

The character of Shan is a sympathetic one and Colonel Tan is intriguing, and so I do find myself caring, almost against my will, about what happens in these books. In the past, I have given the author a pass on the confusion of his plots, putting it down to my unfamiliarity with the philosophy of Buddhism, but that pass has expired. I read books all the time about cultures I'm not familiar with and have no problem understanding them, when they are clearly written. Obfuscation rather than enlightenment, though, seems to be the aim of Pattison in this series and that is annoying. The other possibility is that he's just not a very good writer.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Rick Perry, presidential candidate

So, our esteemed governor, Rick ("Oops!") Perry, is deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to Texas' border with Mexico. It's unclear what exactly they are supposed to do there - other than bolster Perry's image for toughness with the radical immigrant-hating base of the Republican Party. It's that base who will select the next presidential candidate of that party, and Rick Perry is running hard for that position.

Perry just came back from a weekend in Iowa, the state that holds the first presidential primary. It was his fourth visit there in eight months. He's also making the rounds of all the right-wing media outlets, accusing the Obama administration of failing to secure our southern border, even though Obama has deported more illegal immigrants crossing that border than any other president in history and has increased the number of Border Patrol agents along the border to record numbers.

In fact, the border is most likely more secure than it has ever been, but when did a Texas Republican ever let the facts get in the way of the narrative he wants to tell? Perry is simply following the example of the master, George W. Bush, and his "Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" lie.

In order to further enhance his image, Perry has added glasses with "intellectual" frames to make him look smarter and he's ditched the ostentatious cowboy boots in favor of loafers to make him look more...urbane and sophisticated...I guess. And the whole thing has worked brilliantly!

The Washington Post proclaims that Perry is "So hot right now." Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard writes that Perry is "alive, well, and hyperactive as a national political figure." And Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin writes, “In 2014 we see a more mature and humbled version of Perry, one without the Texas swagger. It is that more serious figure, bespectacled and more relaxed, whom voters now see.” The television networks - and not just the predictable Fox News - are clamoring to have him appear on their programs where he can give his "expert" analysis of the humanitarian crisis at our border.

You can bet that not one of those television or print "journalists" is going to ask Perry about the fact that he has ordered more people executed than any other governor in modern history or the strong evidence that some of those people were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. You won't see them asking him about the millions of people in Texas who have no health insurance protection because he has refused to expand Medicaid. Texas still has the highest rate of uninsured of any state in the country. You definitely won't hear them asking about rates of teen pregnancies in the state or the fact that Texas under Perry's leadership continues to try to shut down Planned Parenthood and other such clinics that provide access to birth control information and supplies, under the pretense that all these clinics do is abortions. And they won't be asking about pervasive, entrenched poverty and the state's niggling programs to assist those (mostly women, children, and the disabled) who are trapped in its grip.

No, they will ask him about the "crisis on the border," giving him a chance to look serious and wise (thanks to those intellectual glasses frames) and to pontificate, and giving all the right wing conventional wisdom pundits an opportunity to swoon over how smart and hip and relevant Rick Perry has suddenly become.  

It is a strange, strange world that we live in when lightweights like Rick Perry are taken seriously.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Reverence

Oh, how I remember so many summer evenings like this on the farm when I was a child. And I remember them with reverence.


by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

The air vibrated
with the sound of cicadas
on those hot Missouri nights after sundown
when the grown-ups gathered on the wide back lawn,
sank into their slung-back canvas chairs
tall glasses of iced tea beading in the heat

And we sisters chased fireflies
reaching for them in the dark
admiring their compact black bodies
their orange stripes and seeking antennas
as they crawled to our fingertips
and clicked open into the night air.

In all the days and years that have followed,
I don't know that I've ever experienced
that same utter certainty of the goodness of life
that was as palpable
as the sound of the cicadas on those nights:

my sisters running around with me in the dark,
the murmur of the grown-ups' voices,
the way reverence mixes with amazement
to see such a small body
emit so much light.


Yes, on summer nights when I hear the sound of the cicadas, I still remember that "utter certainty of the goodness of life." And even though I never see fireflies now where I live, I recall the feel of their small bodies and the magic of the light they emitted on those hot summer nights long ago.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

This week in birds - #117

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Summer visitor, a Common Nighthawk, in flight in the late afternoon sky.


Plans are afoot to destroy one of Miami-Dade County's last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, one of the world's rarest forests, in order to put up a Wal-Mart, because we all know that what the world really, really needs is fewer forests and more Wal-Marts.


An interesting new study suggests that fruit colors may have evolved in order to attract the attention of birds.


Jeff of "SE Texas Bird and Wildlife Watching" has some excellent pictures of summer at one of my favorite places, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Molt migrations and postbreeding dispersal of birds is already under way. Birds tend to move around a lot in July and it is possible to see some unusual species at this time of year. There's more on the subject of migration at American Scientist which explains some of the physiological changes undergone by migrating birds.


"The Prairie Ecologist" has some good information about a fascinating insect, the longhorned flower beetle.


A mysterious bird called the Spotted Green Pigeon (Coloenas maculata), known only from specimens, has been found to be a relative of the Dodo. Both birds are apparently descended from "island hopping" species in the Pacific.


Good news from the world of puffins: The endangered Atlantic Puffin in Scotland has had a particularly successful breeding season, after a few years of failures.


The western drought continues its devastating effects. Lake Mead has sunk to a record low and continues to recede.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing its controversial policy of shooting invasive Barred Owls in territory in the Northwest where the endangered Northern Spotted Owl formerly was resident. The more aggressive Barred Owl tends to out-compete its spotted cousin and push it out of its territory. Now FWS personnel report that the project is having the desired effect. They are seeing the Spotted Owls moving back into some areas where the Barred Owls have been eradicated. One would certainly hope that all those dead owls would not be in vain.


"The Birders Report" has a portrait of juvenile Acorn Woodpeckers in northern California. The piece includes some really good pictures of this handsome bird.


The remarkable long-distance migration route of the Semipalmated Sandpiper is being mapped with the aid of modern science in the form of a GPS locator.


Hey, did you know that National Moth Week starts today? Well, it does, so spare a little love for some of our most important pollinators. Not only do moths do yeoman's work in the pollination arena, but many of them are very beautiful. They frequently go unappreciated because they are mostly active at night. Just to prove how attractive they can be, The New York Times has an essay on luna moths, among the most beautiful of the species.


Friday, July 18, 2014

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

An Incomplete Revenge (Maisie Dobbs, #5)An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been quite a while since I checked in on Maisie Dobbs. Time to remedy that.

An Incomplete Revenge is the fifth entry in Jacqueline Winspear's series of mysteries featuring psychologist/private investigator Dobbs, a former military nurse during World War I who is forever scarred, both physically and emotionally, by that experience.

The time is 1931. The world has moved on from the conflagration of war and the chaos of the immediate post-war period, but a new shadow is cast by economic uncertainty. Maisie is worried about the survival of her struggling private investigation business in such times.

In the midst of such worries, she receives a seemingly straightforward assignment from an old friend to investigate the situation in a small rural community where there is an estate that he is considering purchasing. There is a worrisome pattern of petty crimes and fires in the area and Maisie's client wants to know the origin of these incidents and if they are in any way related to the land he wishes to purchase.

Maisie's inquiries take her to a village in Kent, in an area that grows hops. During the hop-picking season - which happens during the time of this investigation - day laborers descend on the area from many quarters to gather the hops. Among them are Maisie's assistant and his family, who spend their "vacation" hop-picking, along with many others from London, or the "Smoke" as they refer to it.

Also present to help with the hop-picking, and even less welcome than the Londoners with the local villagers, are a tribe of gypsies. Upon arriving in the village, Maisie immediately senses the hostility of the villagers toward outsiders and she wonders at the source of it. She soon learns of the tragic history of the village which included a Zeppelin raid during the war and the legacy of events surrounding that raid.

There is a peculiar secrecy that hangs over this picturesque village and Maisie becomes convinced that it is related to the incidents that she has been sent to investigate. But with no one really willing to talk freely to her, how will she ever connect the dots and figure out what is going on? Well, that, of course, is where her finely honed detection skills as well as her knowledge of human psychology come into play. With a mixture of shrewd questions and keen observations, Maisie Dobbs always gets to the bottom of things and gives satisfaction to her clients.

Jacqueline Winspear is meticulous about setting the stage for these mysteries. She pays great attention to historical detail and that is one of the strengths of her writing. Her characterizations tend to get a bit syrupy and facile at times which can be annoying, but, overall, the characters are sympathetic and one wishes them well. It will be interesting to see just where she takes this series as she heads into the 1930s.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

R + L = J? Maybe...

For all of us who are frankly obsessed with George R.R. Martin's convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the lines of the story that has fascinated us and been a source of much speculation has been the parentage of the character Jon Snow. He is supposedly the bastard son of Eddard Stark of Winterfell, but that just never seemed very likely. The uber ethical, moral, and loyal Ned Stark was never one to betray his vows, even under the most extreme provocation. What is the likelihood that he would have betrayed his marriage vows?

So, after reading the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, I devised my own theory about Jon's parents. I thought I was being very clever and that I was probably the only one who had figured the whole thing out. Turns out I was only one of thousands. Maybe millions.

And now that so many of us have worked out the "answer" to this puzzle, I think we can pretty well count on Martin to make sure it is wrong. Because that's just how the man rolls. He doesn't like his readers figuring things out too soon.

Two more books to go. Write like the wind, George!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cop Hater by Ed McBain: A review

Cop Hater (87th Precinct, #1)Cop Hater by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Over my years of reading mysteries, I have often encountered writers who acknowledged the influence on their work of Ed McBain, but somehow I've just never gotten around to going to the source of all that inspiration. I decided to remedy that chasm in my mystery-reading experience this summer, starting with the very first McBain entry in his 87th Precinct series.

Cop Hater was first published in 1956 and the series ran all the way up until the year of McBain's death in 2005 with more than fifty entries overall. In the foreword to this re-publication of Cop Hater, McBain says that, when he started, his publisher was looking for someone to be a successor to Erle Stanley Gardner who was nearing the end of his long and productive writing career. It seems that the publisher struck gold when they selected McBain for that role.

Among the first things that struck me about reading this book was the similarity between styles of McBain and the Swedish duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo who wrote the Martin Beck series that I've been reading this year. The Sjowall/Wahloo series started about ten years after the 87th Precinct one. They were among those writers who acknowledged their debt to McBain. They professed their admiration for his spare and straightforward way of telling his stories and sought to imitate it in their own writing. They succeeded very well.

The second thing that hit me in the face in reading the book was the heat. The mythical city of Isola where the story is set is experiencing a terrible heat wave. It is July and all anyone can talk about is how hot it is. This novel was set contemporaneously with its time but now, 58 years later, that makes it a historical novel, taking place before the time of almost universal air conditioning. Sweat is a constant factor in the story. It runs off the characters and down the pages as we read.

A third thing that is very arresting (pun intended) about the story is that it takes place before the Miranda decision of the Supreme Court. McBain describes a very different world of interactions between arresting officers and suspects. The suspects are never advised of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer to represent them, and the police have pretty much a free hand in browbeating the people they arrest and trying to get a confession, as well as sometimes actually beating them.

The main story here involves the murder of cops - all detectives assigned to the 87th Precinct. The first two detectives that are killed, on two separate nights after they leave work, had been partners, and so the initial suspicion falls on cases that they might have been working on or had worked together. But then a third detective is killed, one who had not actively worked with the other two on anything. This leads that man's partner, Steve Carella, to begin to suspect that the killer of the men - the same gun was used to commit all three murders - was not a "cop hater" at all. Perhaps the motive for the killings has nothing to do with the fact that the men were policemen. This, ultimately, proves to be a very insightful analysis of the situation.

As I was reading the book, I couldn't help thinking that, even as later authors paid homage to McBain, he himself was influenced by the old TV show "Dragnet." Indeed, he acknowledges as much in the story. As the detectives review possible suspects, one of those suspects turns out to be in Los Angeles, and a detective in the group comments that they "can leave him to Joe Friday!"

This was an interesting reading experience, both for the obvious connections with other authors I have read and am currently reading and for the historical view it supplies on a time that wasn't really so long ago and yet is vastly different in perspective and in its approach to police work. I think it will be fascinating to continue reading the series and see how - and if - that changes over the years. After all, the series went on for another 49 eventful years after Cop Hater and I suspect that it must have evolved with the times in order to stay so popular for all those years.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - July 2014

Having missed June's Bloom Day because I was on vacation, I want to make sure that I get in on the fun this month!

Here is some of what's blooming in my zone 9a garden just outside of Houston in Southeast Texas. 

Datura, aka "devil's trumpet."

Cosmos. I love these bright blossoms.

The bumblebees love them, too! 

'Katie' ruellia is one of the better-mannered ruellias.

Blue plumbago is one of my most dependable summer bloomers, beloved by butterflies.

Hamelia patens, aka "hummingbird bush," has begun its bloom which will last for four to five months until our first frost.

Echinacea purpurea, the purple coneflower, has also begun to bloom.

While in another part of the garden, other echinaceas continue their bloom.

The humble marigold gets in on the act.

'Black and Blue' salvia.

'Mahogany' esperanza.

The ground cover wedelia sports its daisy-like yellow blossoms.

The weird and wonderful bloom of the Dutchman's pipe-vine.

Another weird blossom - the porterweed.

'Ellen Bosanquet' crinum.

The firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis, is just beginning to bloom.

But yellow cestrum has been blooming for months.

Anisacanthus shows why its common name is "flame acanthus."

These old-fashioned petunias are another long-term bloomer. They've been in bloom since spring.

Likewise, the 'Tangerine Beauty' crossvine gives its big flush of bloom in spring but continues to put out a few blooms right through summer and fall.

'Dortmund' rose - a simple, single blossom.

'Pride of Barbados' attracts butterflies like this Sulphur.

And on these hot days, the little fountain in my backyard garden attracts birds wanting to cool off, like this Northern Mockingbird.

Luckily, we have continued to have regular rain showers this summer which has kept the garden looking lush and has helped with the blooms, so color abounds in the July garden.

I hope your garden is looking lush and healthy this Bloom Day. Thank you for visiting, and, as always, thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Bloom Day. 

Someone by Alice McDermott: A review

SomeoneSomeone by Alice McDermott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book slow-going at first - maybe because I started reading it in a doctor's waiting room with all its attendant distractions. But I soldiered on and at some point something clicked and I was there. There in the mind and life of Marie whose story this is.

Marie is an ordinary woman from an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn. We first meet her when she is seven years old, waiting on the front stoop of her apartment building for her beloved father to come home from work. While she is waiting, a young woman named Pegeen, a neighbor, stops by, having herself returned from work. The two talk and Marie learns that Pegeen has suffered a fall on the subway. Later that night, Pegeen dies, perhaps as a result of that fall. This event sets the bittersweet tone of this novel, where death is always present. Death is a part of life. Especially ordinary lives.

Marie's story is told in strictly nonchronological fashion. Instead, we get her recollections as they might have occurred to her on any given day late in her life when she is the final survivor, the only one left from that early neighborhood. Those recollections are scattered from childhood to old age, with adolescence, young adulthood, motherhood, middle age all playing their part. We follow Marie through the aches and pains of adolescence, the exquisite pain of first love and sexual awakening. We feel her devastation when the adored and adoring father dies, leaving Marie, her mother, and her older brother Gabe.  

Gabe, too, is an interesting character. He is the firstborn, the golden child of whom so much is expected. A solemn scholar, he is destined for the priesthood and maybe someday the office of bishop. He makes a start on that road, but finds he cannot continue after his father's death challenges his faith. He leaves the priesthood and joins the military. This is during World War II. He is a lonely soul for reasons which Marie at first does not understand. Later he suffers a mental breakdown which will further impact the lives of Marie and her family.

Marie, meanwhile, is a bit of a tearaway, an obstinate and rebellious child. Her father indulgently referred to her as their little pagan. All that is expected of her is that she will marry and have children.

Through Marie's life we see the changing world of the Irish-American community in Brooklyn at around the mid-point of the last century. The importance of the Church, the family, the neighborhood is all there in the recollections of the ordinary daily lives of Marie and the people around her.

The grown-up Marie resists going to work, until her mother finds her a position with the local funeral parlor that is so much a part of the social life of the community. She reluctantly goes for her interview and is immediately hired. She will be a "consoling angel" at the mortuary. She will continue there through her marriage until she is pregnant with her first child.

Death is the angel that hangs over everything here. The young child Marie's best friend's pregnant mother teaches her friend to cook. When the woman's baby comes, she dies an agonizing death in childbirth. Later, Marie's mother tries to teach her to bake soda bread, but the child slyly sabotages it by putting in too much soda. She appears uncooperative and rebellious. It is only much later in the narrative that we learn that, to her child's mind, she had thought that if she learned to cook, her mother would die.

Marie's first love becomes a humiliating experience when the man she loves rejects her to marry a richer, prettier girl. She cries to her brother that no one will ever want to marry her. He consoles her by telling her that, yes, someone will.

And someone does. She marries a good and decent man and they have a long-lasting marriage and a happy life together. They have four children, the first of whom is born after an excruciating labor that had me squirming in sympathy. Afterwards, an infection almost kills her. She is told not to have any more children, but ever rebellious, she chooses the more dangerous path.

Nothing earth-shattering or terribly dramatic happens in this book. It is literally a chronicle of the everyday life of ordinary people, of the universal experience of urgent matters of life and death. But it is a finely tuned and beautiful book with haunting imagery that confers dignity and importance even to these humble, ordinary lives. I identified strongly with Marie, because I, too, have an ordinary life. Perhaps that's why I loved this book so much.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Poetry Sunday: You Can't Get There from Here

And now for something completely different...

Ogden Nash was one of those rare writers who was able to combine laugh-out-loud humor with poetry to good effect. His humor always had a point and usually had an essential truth well-camouflaged within it. He certainly hit the mark with this poem about birding.

You Can't Get There from Here

by Ogden Nash

Bird watchers top my honors list.
I aimed to be one, but I missed.
Since I'm both myopic and astigmatic,
My aim turned out to be erratic,
And I, bespectacled and binocular,
Exposed myself to comment jocular.

We don't need too much birdlore, do we,
To tell a flamingo from a towhee;
Yet I cannot, and never will,
Unless the silly birds stand still.
And there's no enlightenment in a tour
Of ornithological literature.
Is yon strange creature a common chickadee,
Or a migrant alouette from Picardy?

You can rush to consult your Nature guide
And inspect the gallery inside,
But a bird in the open never looks
Like its picture in the birdie books-
Or if it once did, it has changed its plumage,
And plunges you back into ignorant gloomage.
That is why I sit here growing old by inches,
Watching a clock instead of finches,
But I sometimes visualize in my gin
The Audubon that I audubin.

(Excerpted from "Up From the Egg: Confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider.")


"...But a bird in the open never looks
Like its picture in the birdie books-
Or if it once did, it has changed its plumage,
And plunges you back into ignorant gloomage..."

In those few words, Nash caught the essential frustration of the inexpert birder, of whom I am one of the most frustrated. The darn birds just never seem to look exactly like the drawings or the pictures in my field guides, and I'm left trying to match up the almost indiscernible marks on a creature that never, as Nash bemoans, "stands still."

Truly, if Ogden Nash was not a birder, he "audibin!"

Saturday, July 12, 2014

This week in birds - #116

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Juvenile birds, like this young male Northern Cardinal, are all over the backyard these days. Often they look very similar to adults and it may be difficult to distinguish that they are juveniles, but the cardinals make it easy. The young ones have dark bills. Only when they mature will they develop the distinctive red beaks of their species.


Environmental groups have been attempting to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change the status of the Lesser Prairie Chicken from threatened to endangered so that it can receive more vigorous protection. Persuasion has not worked so now three environmental organizations have filed suit against the agency to try to force the change.


Pesticides that get into the environment can have unintended and detrimental consequences. This is the case in the use of rat poisons in urban settings. Raptors and other predators that feed on the rats can have the poison passed on to them in the flesh of their prey and can be made sick or even killed. 


Since the early 1990s, frogs around the world have been struck by a doomsday fungus which has looked as though it had the capacity to wipe that species off the face of the planet. Scientists have now found that some frogs have been able to develop immunity to the fungus, which offers at least a sliver of hope that our favorite amphibians might be saved.


Vampires are alive and well on Wolf Island in the Galapagos. Vampire finches that is. The well-named Sharp-beaked Ground Finch that lives there has learned to survive in its harsh environment by drawing blood from other birds and feasting on it. The bird pecks away at the tail feathers of its victim until it draws blood that it then slurps up. Interestingly, the victims which are generally much larger do not really resist this invasion of their bodily fluids.


Sociable Weavers from the savannahs of southern Africa are known for being cooperative nesters. A new study throws some light on just how and why the birds, as well as other cooperative species, may be willing to work together to achieve a goal.


Long-billed Curlews that nest and summer in places like Idaho and Montana will be tracked by The Nature Conservancy. Many of these curlews, which are our largest shorebird, spend their winters along the Gulf Coast, offering a treat for those of us who enjoy birding those coasts.  
Long-billed Curlew photographed on a Rockport, Texas beach.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has caved to the objections of states where the last 300 wolverines in the country live and have decided not to list the animal as "threatened." In doing so, they have disregarded the conclusions of two independent panels which recommended the listing. 

Scientists in Europe are analyzing the diet of the threatened Bonelli's Eagle to try to find ways to increase the Mediterranean area bird's chances for survival.


Scientists studying the Japanese Quail have identified a key photoreceptor cell deep inside the brain that helps to tell the bird when it is time to nest.


A discussion in "The Nature of Cities" addresses the problem of exotic species in urban areas and ways of managing or eradicating them.


Jochen of the "10,000 Birds" blog writes about the "Best. Crossbill. Encounter. Ever!" It was with Red Crossbills in the Black Forest area of Germany and he managed to get some fantastic pictures of the birds.