Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wait'll next year and hope

The baseball season is over. All 162 games are in the books. My Houston Astros won't be going to the playoffs. Again. But at least this year they didn't end up in last place in their division.

In fact, the team made considerable improvement. Last year they won only 51 games. This year they won 70. Still not .500 but getting closer.

More importantly, all of their (very) young players got another year under their belts and they form the nucleus of what could be a very good team in the future and for years to come. The core of that nucleus is their talented second baseman, Jose Altuve.

Altuve played 158 games out of 162 this year, including the last one. For that last game with the Mets, the brain trust of the team debated keeping him out of the lineup. He was leading in the batting title race by a few points over Victor Martinez of Detroit. If he didn't play, there was a good chance that he would back into the championship. If he did play and had a bad day and Martinez had a good day, there was always the chance he could lose the batting title on the very last day of the season. In the end, he played which was the way he wanted it. He got two hits. Martinez played, too, and didn't get a hit. Altuve won the batting crown with a .341 average, the best not only in the American League but in the major leagues.

That .341 average was earned with 225 hits, also the best in the majors. He had 660 official at-bats with 36 bases-on-balls. Of all those times that he walked to the plate, he struck out only 53 times. That means that his bat made contact with the ball 607 times! In other words, he almost always hits the ball.

In addition to all those hits and walks, when he got on base, he stole base 56 times, and when in the field, he rarely made an error. He is the sparkplug of the team, the main reason for their nineteen game improvement this year and if he doesn't get the Silver Slugger award for second base this year, it will be a travesty.

He really should also get strong consideration for the Most Valuable Player award. True, that award usually goes to one of the players on one of the winning teams, but if one judges MVPs by where their team would be without them, it is hard to see how any player could be more valuable than Altuve.

So, now, all we Astros fans get to wait'll next year and hope. I think 2015 may be much better still than 2014 or any recent year. It would be even better if the team could resolve its television coverage issues so that most of us fans could actually follow the team on television once again. (Oh, for the days of Brownie and J.D.!)

Meanwhile, the playoffs are about to begin and Astros fans do have some skin in those games. Our old favorite, Brad Ausmus, the long-time Astros catcher and all-round good guy, in his first season as a manager, took the Detroit Tigers to the title in their division. Now, they get to play the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of playoffs. I know who I'll be pulling for to go all the way.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Deer Leap by Martha Grimes: A review

The Deer LeapThe Deer Leap by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All the usual elements of a Martha Grimes mystery are here - the sleepy and quirky English village where everybody knows everybody's business; the beautiful women who are attracted to Superintendent Richard Jury and he to them; the hypochondriacal but indispensable Sgt. Wiggins; Jury's civilian sidekick Melrose Plant; the charming children; and, of course, the animals.

It is the animals that are at first the center of this mystery in the village of Ashdown Dean. Something terrible is happening to the pets of the community. Several have disappeared and some have later been found dead. The pets have a champion in the person of fifteen-year-old Carrie Fleet who lives on the estate of the "Baroness" and operates a pet sanctuary there. She rescues them whenever she can - sometimes at the point of a shotgun.

One of the animals that she unfortunately wasn't able to rescue was a dog belonging to the local post mistress. The dog is later found in the woman's garden shed - dead from poison. The event is almost enough to cause a fatal shock to the dog's elderly owner who has a heart condition. A few nights later the woman's telephone goes out and she walks up the hill to the public call box to make a call.

Mystery writer Polly Praed is in town, staying at the local B and B, which doesn't have telephone service for its guests. She walks to the booth to make her call, opens the door and the elderly woman's dead body falls out of the booth at her feet. She is questioned by the local constable and she calls her friend Melrose Plant for help. Melrose, in turn, calls Richard Jury and they both descend upon Ashdown Dean.

At first the dead woman appears to have died of natural causes, but Jury is suspicious and begins to ask questions and investigate further. Soon, the mystery deepens when another local woman, the wife of the local pub owner who was a bit free with her sexual favors, dies under strange circumstances. Again, there is no obvious cause of death other than natural, but it all seems just a little too convenient.

In the course of asking questions, Jury discovers another mystery - Carrie Fleet. It seems that the Baroness "discovered" her in London where she was a child living with a family in rather squalid circumstances, but she was not a member of that family. She had been found wandering in a park with a head wound and apparent amnesia. She couldn't say who she was or where she came from. She couldn't even remember her name and chose "Carrie Fleet" on her own.

The Baroness gave the family a thousand pounds for Carrie and took her home to Ashdown Dean where she has lived since. The irascible Baroness is quite fond of her and nobody else and, as much as she cares for anybody other than animals, Carrie seems to care for her. Jury is intrigued by her history and determines to discover who she is and where she came from. As luck would have it, Carrie's history turns out to be at the center of the Ashdown Dean mysteries and the ultimate reason for the deaths of two people.

I was quite enjoying this book up until about the last third and then the whole thing just kind of petered out for me. I couldn't really get too excited about the ending. Still, overall, it was another pleasant entry in the Richard Jury series.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Poetry Sunday: October

Where did September go? It seems only yesterday that we were saying goodbye to August and now, in only a couple of days, we'll be saying hello to October. As the old song said, the days really do get shorter when you reach September. Time speeds up.

Slow down, October! Let us savor these days of autumn.


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

This week in birds - #127

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

Baltimore Orioles have been passing through the area on fall migration and although I haven't actually seen any in my yard, it gives me an excuse to again run these images of a male (left) and female (right) bird that I took in my backyard in May, 2013 when we had a virtual invasion of the beautiful birds that lasted for several days. It was wonderful! In spring of this year by contrast I only saw one bird in the yard.   


The Winter Finch Report for 2014-15 is out. This report has relevance primarily for Canada and the northern tier of states, particularly the Northeast, but it does offer some clues as to what we might be able to expect in the way of winter visitors this far south. In general, a poor year for irruptions is predicted because food crops in the north appear to have been sufficient to keep the birds there, but there is a possibility that Purple Finches might wander farther south, as might our little friends the Pine Siskins. It is also possible that we might see more than usual of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.


On Thursday, President Obama signed a proclamation to expand a protected marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean. It will mean that a total of 370,000 square nautical miles are off limits to commercial fishing and will protect the coral reefs and the unique marine ecosystems that are threatened by that fishing and by the effects of climate change.


Scientists continue to study the migration of the Monarch butterfly and try to figure out just how they are able to do it. Meanwhile, this week a mysterious cloud appeared on the weather radar screens around St. Louis. It was one giant cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky and meteorologists were at first unable to explain it, but apparently, it was a mass of Monarch butterflies making their way toward the mountains of Mexico for the winter. Interestingly, the cloud itself was rather butterfly-shaped.


The once-extensive Aral Sea in Central Asia has been shrinking since the 1960s, but this summer, for the first time the eastern lobe of the sea dried up completely.


Horseshoe crabs are an important link in the food chain for many migrating shorebirds along the East Coast. More specifically, their eggs are a valuable resource for tired and hungry spring migrants making their way up from South America. This week, thousands of the crab hatchlings were released into Delaware Bay to help boost the population there.


A new lawsuit alleges that the federal government broke the law when it approved construction of a wind power facility too close to nesting areas of Golden Eagles in eastern San Diego County in California.


One of the treats that we look forward to each winter is visits by the dapper Cedar Waxwings, Their flocks begin small in December and grow sometimes to hundreds of birds by the spring. But there is another slightly larger waxwing, the Bohemian, that visits the more northerly parts of the continent. "Earbirding.com" has an appreciation of the bird.


A most unusual sight in the deserts of California - mushrooms! They sprouted after recent hard rains there.


Four Whooping Crane chicks, raised by their parents at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland were released to the wild in Wisconsin this week. They have become part of the Eastern Migratory Flock that flies to wetlands in the Southeast for the winter. This is all part of the continuing effort to increase the number of the big birds in the wild.


The gluttonous and highly predatory lionfish has been introduced to the Gulf waters around Florida and in the Caribbean. It was an aquarium fish that was released, either accidentally or on purpose, into the wild and has thrived and reproduced there. Now it is wreaking havoc in those waters and authorities are attempting to at least slow its progress with an import ban and the introduction of spearfishing.


The current conservative government of Australia seems bent on undoing every bit of environmental progress that the country had made during its years of being led by the climate-conscious Labor Party. They are overturning laws and regulations as fast as they can, encouraged by the Rupert Murdoch-dominated press in the country that fulfills the same role of spreading lies, fear, and conspiracy theories as it does in this country.


Abundant supplies of natural gas may not be the boon to the environment that its supporters claim. Indeed, it is expected that the cumulative effect of its usage will do little to reduce harmful emissions that help cause climate change.


Many migratory shorebirds that must navigate the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are facing annihilation. The best-known of these is probably the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.


An effort to reintroduce the Scarlet Macaw into the wilds of Mexico has had some notable success. The population has been increased by 34 percent in one year.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Nutmeg of Consolation (Aubrey/Maturin, #14)The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the beginning of The Nutmeg of Consolation, we find Captain Jack Aubrey, Dr. Stephen Maturin and the rest of the surviving crew of the Diane right where we left them at the end of The Thirteen-Gun Salute - shipwrecked on an island in the South China Sea where they were tossed by the typhoon that destroyed their ship. They've been there for a while now and foodstuffs on the island are getting low. Their situation is becoming more desperate.

They have been busily engaged in building a schooner with timbers salvaged from the wrecked Diane. They hope to escape the island in it and sail to Batavia where they can find assistance. Before that can happen though, they are visited by a group of Malays who at first seem friendly and are engaged to carry a message to Batavia for the castaways. Unfortunately, the Malays turn out to be pirates and return later to ravage the camp, killing many of the crew and setting fire to the half-completed schooner.

In the end, Aubrey and his men are able to repel the attackers and utterly destroy them and their boat, but they are left without their schooner and must start over again. The situation is not looking hopeful.

But their luck turns. While Stephen is out hunting for their dinner, he comes across some children, one of whom has an injured leg. They are from a junk lying just off shore that is captained by their father. Stephen treats the boy's injury and in return the junk picks up the stranded men and finally delivers them safely to Batavia where Captain Aubrey is given another ship to command, a recently captured Dutch vessel. Finally, the new vessel is stocked and Aubrey and his crew are on their way again, headed to their rendezvous with Captain Tom Pullings and the Surprise.

Nothing ever comes easy in these Patrick O'Brian adventures, of course, and before they can hook up with the Surprise, they encounter a French ship and a chase ensues, ending in the destruction of the French vessel and the happy discovery that it had been commanded by an old friend whom they take aboard.

Reunited with the Surprise and finally on their way again, they plan to stop off at a particular island to pick up fresh fruit to help stave off scurvy, but when they reach the island, they find to their horror that it has been visited by small pox. Everyone in the village is dead - except for two small girls. The little girls have barely managed to survive on their own. Stephen takes them aboard along with the fruit they've been able to gather.

And now they are headed for a stop at the dreadful penal colony at New South Wales and their adventures have only begun!

In an author's note at the beginning, O'Brian details some of the research that he did for this book. He relied heavily on contemporary newspapers and the Naval Chronicle as well as several books about the times and the places in this story. As always, he has been meticulous and the writing rings true. One feels that one in there in the early 19th century world. The language is elegant and layered and once again I am reminded very much of the books of that period by Jane Austen. The subject matter is certainly different but the language feels much the same and I can offer no higher praise to O'Brian's work.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

21st century book banners

The last week in September every year has for the last several years been designated as Banned Books Week, an event celebrating the freedom to read. It is sponsored by the American Library Association and a number of other groups interested in access to books and the freedom to read. It brings together readers of all types with librarians, publishers, journalists, booksellers, and teachers, all of whom are united in the support of the free expression of ideas, even those that may be controversial or unpopular.

In a world where information on just about any subject is only a click away, it seems an exercise in futility for anyone to try to ban or censor a book, and indeed it is. And yet people still try. The books featured on lists published by the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. But even if a book is banned, in most cases it continues to be available. At its most extreme, burning the book will not suffice in the age of Kindles and other eReaders.

It must be said that the motives of many of those who seek the removal of some books are pure if misguided. They sincerely feel that the dissemination of certain ideas, particularly in children's books, is harmful. They do not take into account that ideas are stubborn and elusive things that cannot be contained. It is better to let them flow freely and discuss them openly. Oppose them, argue against them if you must, but don't try to impede their expression.

Year after year, the top reasons for challenges to books remain much the same. "Sexually explicit" material leads the list, followed by "offensive language," "unsuited to age group," "violence," and "homosexuality." There are also a significant number of challenges due to "occult" or "Satanic" themes or "religious viewpoint," and a goodly number because the complainant viewed the book as "anti-family." Books are sometimes challenged for multiple reasons.

Here are the ten books that were most challenged in 2013, along with the reasons for their challenges.

  1. Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence.  
  2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence.  
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group.
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit.
  7. Looking for Alaska by John Green: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  9. Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit.
  10. Bone (series) by Jeff Smith: Political viewpoint, racism, violence.  
I confess what surprises me most about this list is that Fifty Shades of Grey was challenged because it was deemed "unsuited to age group!" Really? I would have thought the target demographic was probably middle-aged housewives. Do we seriously need to protect their delicate sensibilities? 

And I read The Hunger Games and was blissfully unaware of any particular "religious viewpoint." 

Anyway, there you are - a list of what is deemed the most dangerous books in America. Why don't you pick one up and read it this week? Celebrate your freedom to read!

(UPDATE: Here's a link to graphics which display clearly the most challenged books and authors in recent years and the reasons for those challenges and also the places where the most challenges were filed in the past year. Can you guess which state had the most challenges? That's right - Texas! We're No. 1! Again.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Rainbow Connection

On September 24 (Corrected from 21), 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi, a genius was born. True, it took the world a few years to recognize and acknowledge that genius, but by the 1970s when James Maury Henson joined "Sesame Street," he was already well on his way.

It was "Sesame Street" and a certain green frog that made Jim Henson a star and a household name. Henson continued with the show until his untimely death on May 16, 1990. During those years, he also created films like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper and was involved in creating the puppets for Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, as well as the television show "Fraggle Rock." All of these titles were staples of my daughters' childhood. They watched them - and I watched with them - over and over again. We never tired of them.

Henson's creations live on and continue to entertain and inform children - and adults - right around the world. How fortunate we are that that is true.

On what would have been his 78th birthday, I want to send my thanks to his memory for all those hours of pleasure and for teaching me and my children to believe in rainbows.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Prayer of the Dragon by Eliot Pattison: A review

Prayer of the Dragon (Inspector Shan, #5)Prayer of the Dragon by Eliot Pattison
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Omit needless words," wrote William Strunk Jr. in The Elements of Style. It is a dictum that Eliot Pattison could profit by following. He seems to suffer from diarrhea of the pen or word processor. Words pour forth in great profusion, often repetitively and to very little effect. The words do not really seem to advance the narrative or provide enlightenment. They simply occupy space on the page. One would think that Pattison is being paid by the word.

Not only is he overly wordy but Pattison has certain writing tics that get under my skin. For example, the repetition of the descriptive phrase "the old Tibetan." This appears on practically every page of the book and sometimes more than once on the page. We get it. There are no young lamas, but find an alternative way of describing them, for Buddha's sake!

What irritates me most about this series is that I really, REALLY want to like it. I keep picking up the next entry in the series every few months in the hope that the execution might finally live up to the promise. So far, disappointment has been my only reward.

In every book, the former Beijing inspector Shan and his two friends and companions, the monks Gendun and Lokesh, wander endlessly over the mountains and through the caves of Tibet where every rock seems to have been painted with a sacred symbol of some deity or demon. They are repeatedly caught and beaten and tortured, but they persevere, with Shan investigating murders which the authorities don't pursue or don't even know about. Those ever-present deities and/or demons will somehow prove to be involved and, in the end, Shan will reveal all in a meandering narrative.

Oh, and also, there will be an American in the mix. The plots are really very predictable.

In this entry, Shan is summoned to a remote village (apparently, all villages in Tibet are remote) where a comatose man was found with two dead bodies. The headman of the village drew the conclusion that this man was the murderer and now they are waiting for him to wake up so they can execute him.

Almost immediately, Shan intuits that something is unusual about this man, but it is only when he finally wakes up that he is able to determine that the man, in fact, is not Tibetan but Navajo. He was in Tibet with his niece, a researcher investigating ancestral ties between the Navajo people and the Bon, ancient ancestors of the people of Tibet. She was seeking to prove that they were two branches of the same stream. Now she has disappeared and her uncle is seriously injured and accused of murder.  

Shan sets out to discover what really happened on the mountain where the murders occurred and the Navajo man was injured. He quickly learns that these were not the first murders in the area. Indeed, there has been a pattern of murders here in recent years with the most curious feature of the crimes being that the hands of the victims are being removed by the murderer.

Shan's investigation reveals a tangled web of relationships between the unmapped mountain village, illegal gold miners, and, as always, corrupt officials in Lhasa and Beijing. How he puts all of this together to arrive at a solution to the murders and to again save Gendun and Lokesh involves lots of wandering and finally solving the riddle of Dragon Mountain, the place "where the world begins" in thunder and lightning.

By the last couple of chapters, I had lost interest and was scanning the pages pretty quickly, but I doubt that I missed anything truly significant.  

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Willie does his trick

It's Monday and my mind feels dulled after a weekend of frivolity and riotous living.

Well, not really, but the part about the dull mind is true.

So, instead of boring you with my dullness, let me introduce you to someone who is sharp as a tack - Willie the cat. He may be a one-trick cat, but it is quite a trick, I think you'll agree.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Ode To Autumn

Autumn, the season we have been longing for for weeks, arrives here officially tomorrow night, September 22, at  9:29 PM.

One hundred and ninety-five years ago, September 22, 1819, John Keats wrote a letter to a friend referencing a poem that he had just completed in praise of the new season. And here it is - the poem of the week.

Ode To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
          To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
        With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
          For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

  Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
  Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
  Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
      Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
          Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
  And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden head across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
          Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

  Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
  While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
  Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
          Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
  And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
          And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
                                   ~ ~ ~

"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—..."

Autumn's music is bittersweet and reflective. It is the season of remembering and sometimes of regret but a season of beauty nevertheless. That hasn't changed since the time of Keats.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

This week in birds - #126

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

The most ubiquitous gull along the Gulf Coast at most seasons is the raucous Laughing Gull, seen here in flight over Galveston Bay.


According to the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the combined average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 was a record high for the month, at 0.75 degrees C (1.35 degrees F) above the 20th century average of 15.6 degrees C (60.1 degrees F), topping the previous record set in 1998.


A new study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal states that the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf in 2010 dumped 22,000 tons of oil on the Gulf Coast, mostly on Louisiana.


"The Prairie Ecologist" writes about the effects of fires on the prairie. The frequency of the fires determines to a large extent the effects that will result.


A creek is more than just a flowing stream of water. Creeks and rivers are the basis of riparian habitats that provide water, food, shade, cover from (and for) predators, and breeding and nesting sites. Some of the species found there exist nowhere else.


No one knows for sure how Monk Parakeets first arrived in New York, but it was most likely through the pet trade. However it happened, the birds have invaded the city and have adapted to life there. They seem to be thriving.

Also on the subject of Monk Parakeets, a new study details the complex social relationships of these birds when they are in captivity.


"Birding is Fun" has a post about one of the most beautiful of our shorebirds, the American Avocet.

I photographed this small group of Avocets along a beach at Rockport, TX.


What is fracking and what are its benefits and its dangers? We all need to understand it as that practice becomes more common. "From Quarks to Quasars" explains.


Many birds in arid lands are in serious decline while many in wetlands are thriving due to more extensive conservation practices for those areas. This was one of the findings outlined in the State of the Birds report that was issued last week.


Here are some striking pictures from the Bird Ecology Study Group of the Asian Glossy Starling.


"Bug Eric" writes about an amazing insect called the blue-winged grasshopper.


In New Jersey, a group of legislators is introducing a bill to increase planting of milkweed in the state, in an effort to aid the seriously declining Monarch butterfly. 


The Larsen B ice shelf along the Antarctic Peninsula is likely to collapse because of warming temperatures in the area


Around the backyard:

Warblers have been passing through on migration this week. Late Tuesday afternoon, just at dusk, I had the rare pleasure of watching a lovely little Yellow Warbler in its fall feathers enjoying a bath in my little fountain. The bird had been attracted by the sound of the trickling water and it spent several minutes splashing in and out of it. I knew there was some reason I installed that fountain!

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Pusher by Ed McBain: A review

The Pusher: An 87th Precinct NovelThe Pusher: An 87th Precinct Novel by Ed McBain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is more like it! It seems for years I've been reading about the 87th Precinct series - what a groundbreaker it was and how Ed McBain has been such an influence on writers of mysteries since the 1950s when this series started.  But after reading the first two entries in the series, I confess I was disappointed. As far as I could see they were mostly just interesting for their historical value, but I didn't find them particularly entertaining.

Then I picked up The Pusher, third in the series. He had me with the first sentence. And with the first couple of pages of that wonderfully evocative description of the city in winter, I was hooked. I could have read the book in one sitting, except I had to stop and do other things for a while. I rushed back to it as quickly as I could.

It seemed to me that McBain really hit his stride with this book. The 87th Precinct and the city began to come to life for me. I began to care about the characters.

The story starts with a patrolman walking a beat a few days before Christmas. It is bone-numbingly cold. He sees a light that shouldn't be there and goes to investigate and finds a young Hispanic man's body in a tenement basement. There is a rope around his neck and a syringe on the cot beside him. At first, it appears to be a suicide, but an autopsy reveals he had a massive dose of heroin which actually killed him and the rope around his neck was not tied in a way that the victim could have done it. It was murder.

Detective Steve Carella and newly minted detective Bert Kling catch the initial assignment. Carella has a lot of questions about the scene of the crime. Why was it set up as an obviously phony hanging? There are fingerprints all over the syringe that was found but whose are they? There is no record of them in police files. The victim was a penny ante pusher of heroin. Who was his supplier?

As Carella and the other detectives pursue answers to those questions and others, another murder occurs. This time it is a young Hispanic woman, a known prostitute. She was savagely slashed. Much of her blood had drained away before she was discovered and taken to the hospital, but she did not survive and was not able to speak. Turns out that she was the sister of the first victim - which only raises more questions.

Carella hits the streets in search of the dead pusher's possible supplier - a punk who goes by the name of Gonzo. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Byrnes of the Precinct is receiving phone calls implicating his teenage son in the crimes. He must make the decision of whether or not to reveal this to Carella as he struggles to save his drug-addicted son.

As the painfully slow step-by-step process of sorting evidence and following up clues continues, there will be even more drama for the 87th Precinct when another dead body turns up and then one of their own in shot. This is engrossing stuff. I didn't want to put the book down until all the issues were resolved.

Interestingly, in an afterword, McBain reveals that the ending of the story was not the one that he originally wrote. His publisher argued against that ending and convinced him to change it. Good decision.

The writing here is just sparkling. I found myself rereading descriptive passages time and again, just for the pure pleasure of the way the words were strung together. Okay, I do begin to see why so many writers of mysteries revere Ed McBain.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jacqueline Winspear still mines the trenches of World War I in this seventh entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. It is 1932, more than a decade past the end of hostilities and yet the war continues to have repercussions in Dobbs' life and the lives of her clients.

Her clients this time are an elderly American couple searching for their son's past. Mr. and Mrs. Clifton have recently been informed that their son's remains - he had been listed as missing in the war - have been found in France. Among their son's belongings were found some letters from an English nurse whom he had met and had apparently had an affair with. The parents hire Maisie to find the woman, who must now be in her thirties.

The son, Michael, had been a gifted cartographer and it was in that capacity that he served the British Army. In August 1914, he had been mapping the land he had just purchased in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, believing that there was oil beneath it, when he heard that war had been declared in Europe. He felt a responsibility to go to England, the land of his father's birth, and join the fight.

The value of the land that Michael had been surveying is considerable and, as part of his estate, certain parties are now anxious to have its ownership resolved, but the plot thickens when a postmortem exam of Michael's remains indicate that he was not killed by shelling as originally thought but that he had actually been murdered before the shelling.

The plot thickens even further when Michael's parents are attacked and almost killed in their hotel room. Could this attack have anything to do with the fact that they have hired Maisie Dobbs? Was the attacker trying to recover Michael's belongings, the letters perhaps? Did it have something to do with the fact that their son was murdered? Maisie's famous intuition tells her that everything is related and to solve one crime may be the key to solving the other.

While Maisie and her assistant Billy Beale pursue their inquiries, they must also deal with upheaval in their personal lives. Maisie's beloved mentor, Maurice Blanche, is very ill and it seems that he may not survive for much longer. She wants nothing more than to spend all of her time with him and yet she must meet her responsibilities to clients. Maurice would expect that.

At the same time, she begins to have romantic feelings for the son of her patroness who has sponsored and nurtured her through the years. That these feelings are obviously returned does not assuage her concern that the man's rich and powerful family may consider this a match that is beneath him.

As for Billy, his wife has recently been released from the mental hospital where she was being treated for depression following her inability to cope with the death of their daughter and now the family is trying to get back to normal, but it is not clear that that will ever happen.

And so Maisie must deal with The Mapping of Love and Death both as it pertains to her clients and to her own personal situation. It is a quandary, but Maisie Dobbs, as always, is up to the task.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes: A review

Jerusalem InnJerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard seems to constantly be meeting beautiful women to whom he is instantly attracted, but the attraction never goes anywhere. The women never stick. That's true again in Jerusalem Inn, but at least this time the beautiful woman has a good reason for not pursuing a relationship. She's dead.

Jury meets the lovely Helen Minton in a snow-covered graveyard in the Newcastle village of Washington at Christmastime. He has taken days off to spend Christmas with his cousin's family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and, delaying the inevitability of their company on a afternoon, is taking a walk in the graveyard when he comes upon Helen. She seems unwell and he walks her back to her home and makes a date to have dinner with her. But, on the appointed day, when he goes to collect her at the Old Hall museum where she works, he finds the local police already there. Helen Minton has been discovered dead.

She had a heart condition and at first it appears that her death may have been due to natural causes, but a postmortem confirms that she was poisoned.

Jury sets off through the snowbound countryside to find her only known relative, a cousin who is in a nearby village. Meanwhile, his aristocratic frequent sidekick, Melrose Plant, is already headed for that same village, along with Aunt Agatha and Vivian Rivington, one of Jury's previous "beautiful women who didn't stick." Melrose, Agatha, and Vivian are going to a Christmas house party at a famous critic's house, along with a number of writers and artists.

Tensions are apparent from the beginning among the various house partiers, but who would ever guess that those tensions would end in murder? Well, only someone reading a Martha Grimes cozy mystery perhaps.

Soon, a thoroughly disliked member of the party is found dead in the snow, having been shot, and Jury and the local constabulary, as well as Melrose Plant, seek the murderer. But was this murder somehow related to the murder of Helen Minton and why does the critic's wife seem to be fading fast? Another case of poisoning perhaps?

Well, we can be sure, of course, that Superintendent Jury will make all the necessary connections and that murder will out and justice be served. In a manner of speaking anyway.

This series is a fun and light read, not at all taxing for a hot summer day. All problems are solved and inconvenient facts are swept under the rug by the ending.

And the handsome Richard Jury who is always very attractive to the women and young girls in his cases still hasn't found a woman who'll stick.  

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2014

Welcome to Bloom Day in my September garden. Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting this monthly tour of gardens around the world once again.

Here in Southeast Texas, for the last two days we have been enjoying our first really cool and pleasant weather since spring. The official beginning of autumn is still a week in the future and yet one might almost believe that it has arrived early.

My mid-September garden does not have an abundance of blooms. We are in transition here. The summer bloomers are slowly shutting down and fall bloomers are just beginning. Still, there are some colors to be found in addition to the falling leaves.

Some of the color is provided not by blossoms but by berries. Beautyberries, in this case. This shrub with the white berries still remains mostly untouched by the birds, while the shrubs with purple fruits have already been pretty much stripped of their berries.
 Lantana is in its glory at this time of year.

Here is the cream and gold.

The purple trailing lantana.

And 'Dallas Red.'

Autumn clematis lives up to its name.
 The esperanzas, too, enjoy the late summer/early fall weather.

The mahogany esperanza.

And the traditional yellow, known familiarly as "Yellow Bells."

All of the basils look forward to autumn. None more than African blue basil, a favorite with bees. 

The butterfly gingers continue their bloom.

Turk's Cap - a favorite with the migrating hummingbirds. 

The weird little purple blossoms of porterweed.

Blue plumbago is one of my most dependable summer and autumn bloomers.

Crossvine is covered in these trumpet-shaped blossoms in spring but continues to send out a few of them right through the summer and fall months.

The salvia named 'Coral Nymph.'

The datura sends out a quantity of these creamy blossoms every night. By midday the next day, they have closed. 

Finally, the pineapple sage also is blooming, another boon to passing hummingbirds.
It may be that we have seen the last of our mid-90s F. weather with triple digit heat indices for this year and we look forward to mild days ahead. If those mild days can provide us with occasional rains - well, indeed, my gardener's cup will runneth over!

Happy Bloom Day!

Poetry Sunday: September

Saturday was the first cool day we've had since spring. The temperature never got above 80 degrees F. and a cool breeze ruffled the leaves all day, making them fall even faster. One could actually begin to believe that autumn is almost here, playing hide and seek with us, peeking from behind that tree, winking at us from scudding gray clouds.

Autumn is a season loved by poets. And by me.

Looking at poetry of the season this week, I came across this description of September, written by an early 20th century poet, Hilaire Belloc. It paints a vivid picture of these days "with summer's best of weather, and autumn's best of cheer" and reminds us in the last stanza of why September is so special for many of us.


by Hilaire Belloc

 The golden-rod is yellow; 
 The corn is turning brown;
 The trees in apple orchards
 With fruit are bending down.

 The gentian's bluest fringes
 Are curling in the sun;
 In dusty pods the milkweed
 Its hidden silk has spun.

The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook,

From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes' sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.

By all these lovely tokens 
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather,
And autumn's best of cheer.

But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.

'T is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

This week in birds - #125

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

House Finches are among my favorite visitors to my feeders at all seasons of the year.

The female...

And her mate.
Finches frequently visit in family groups, so if you see one, there's a good chance you might see four or five at least but you can be pretty well assured of seeing a pair. They are inseparable.


The big news in the world of North American birds this week was the report by the Audubon Society which detailed the anticipated effects of climate change on the species that make their homes here. The prospects are grim. A study, the results of which were announced on Monday, found that climate change is likely to so alter the bird population of North America that about half of the approximately 650 species will be driven to smaller spaces or forced to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years. If they do not or cannot, they could become extinct.


The annual State of the Birds report, compiled and sponsored by a number of conservation groups, was also released this week. It gives us a snapshot of what bird life on the continent is like in 2014, 100 years after the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon


In an article published online by Science magazine on Thursday, scientists described the discovery of a bizarre-looking predatory dinosaur that was larger than Tyrannosaurus rex and that swam and dined on fish.  


In a report that buoys the spirits of those of us of a certain age, scientists say that elderly seabirds are able to dive every bit as well as their younger counterparts.


A decade of research on Common Loons in the Adirondacks has identified threats to the birds in that area and has provided suggestions on how best to protect them.


Rhinoceros beetles are so named because of the impressive horns on their heads and their fighting styles make full use of those weapons.


A new report shows that concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013. Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose at a record-shattering pace, surprising scientists and spurring fears of an accelerated warming of the planet in the coming decades.


Old World vultures have learned to use social cues from birds of prey, like eagles, to help them find food. They watch the raptors to learn where there might be a carcass on which they can feed.


In more bad news from the climate change front, a new report states that iconic pine and aspen forests in the Rocky Mountains are dying off at an alarming rate because of the warming climate.


Ring-billed Gulls along the southern shores of Lake Michigan have learned to hunt migrating songbirds as a part of their diet.


If you are a person with an insect phobia, you need to get over yourself! In fact, most insects are either beneficial or at least harmless and, of course, many of them are beautiful and quite fascinating. Without them, life as we know it would not exist, because that life depends on pollination, and pollination, to a very large degree, depends on insects.  


Rails are a fascinating family of birds. Once scattered over the islands of the Pacific, at least two of their species became extinct as a result of World War II. But these days, rails are making a comeback on the islands. A new wave of different species of the birds is successfully colonizing there.


Finally, in some very good news, a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that dangerous pesticide levels have dropped dramatically in U. S. rivers and streams since 1992 due to the development of safer pesticides and stricter legal restrictions on their use. At the beginning of the study, virtually all streams nationwide contained toxic levels of pesticides, but in the most recent decade of the study, only one stream was found with such concentrations. 


Around the backyard:

Hummingbird activity in the yard has become frantic this week as more and more migrants come through.

Most of the visitors this week have been female Ruby-throats, like this one photographed at one of my feeders today, along with some juveniles. I also saw at least one adult male RTH.

But I'm also seeing more Rufous Hummers, like this female feeding at one of my hamelia shrubs today. I think this one may actually be one of the birds that has wintered with us for the last couple of years, because whenever she finishes feeding, she heads straight for the exact perch that has been favored by one of those birds.

And here she is - surveying her domain.

Friday, September 12, 2014

My father's war

Like very many people of my generation, I grew up with stories of World War II. My father had been a soldier in the infantry in the Third Army commanded by Gen. George Patton. As such, he walked over a good part of Europe and saw quite a lot of action. It was the defining experience of his life and he talked about it until the day he died - perhaps to rid himself of some of the memories that haunted his dreams.

I got tired of all those stories after a while and began to tune them out, but things that are embedded in one's memory in early childhood are never really forgotten. Bits and pieces come back to me at unexpected moments and I often wish I had listened more carefully to what he had to say and that I had taken notes. Still, some images are hard to forget.

I remember him talking about his regiment's attempt to cross the Moselle River. It was a hard fight. He and one of his buddies had taken shelter behind two trees along the river. There ensued an intense firefight in which all his attention was focused on firing at the enemy that was trying to stop them. Finally, there was a lull in the battle and he turned to his friend to speak. His friend was lying dead on the ground beside the tree.

I was reminded of that recently when I cleared out a storage bin in one of my closets and found some memorabilia from my father including a battle awards program that detailed some of that battle on the Moselle. The battle took place seventy years ago this week.

Here's that old program with its stains and my father's doodles and notes. The date of the program was July 4, 1945, a celebration of battles completed and won, with the motto, "The 80th Only Marches Forward" and a list of the campaigns in which they had served - Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe.
My father remembered this battle as one of the closest calls he had in the war and reading the program today brings that home to me. My father was a member of the 317th Infantry Regiment which made the initial attempt to cross the river. The enemy was dug in and well-prepared for them and they were near to being overrun when the 313th Field Artillery Battalion was thrown into the battle. Among the battle honors on July 4, 1945 was a citation of the 313th's heroics.

This is the section of the program which details the actions of the 313th for which they earned their honors and in the margins are my father's notes that speak of his memories of that day.
Here is an excerpt from the program:
On 14 September 1944 the situation became critical. An attack by enemy infantry and tanks, supported by heavy concentrations of mortar and artillery, was directed against our lines. This attack succeeded in penetrating deep into our positions. Without hesitation, and based upon a sound plan, all men of the 313th Field Artillery Battalion, including Service Battery and Headquarters personnel, except the minimum necessary to serve the pieces, were deployed as infantry. Making use of bazookas, machine guns, carbines, and their primary weapons, the 313th Field Artillery Battalion, from their defensive positions, repulsed the attack without the loss of materiel. 
The program goes on to say that during the period September 12-16, the 313th was the only artillery unit east of the Moselle.

From my father's notes in the margins of the program:
Our artillery saved us here. Read this (the program) and you can see what a close call were were having here. After crossing the river, they would counter attack us every morning. We would drive them back after a hard fight. But on the morning of September 14, they broke through our lines. The situation was critical that morning but the 313th Field Artillery threw everything they had at them and some of them fought with their rifles just like we did. We made it. It was no easy job. All that went in didn't come out. Lots of them fell on the battlefield.  

My father was one of the lucky ones. He came out. 

The Battle of the Bulge and the final push against the enemy in Europe lay just ahead. 

Yes, I wish I had been a more attentive listener.