Thursday, December 31, 2015

A natural woman

Every year the Kennedy Center in Washington honors a group of people in the performing arts for their lifetime contribution to American culture. Among those honored this year was singer/songwriter Carole King.

Carole King's songs have meant a lot to me. There was a time in my 20s and 30s when her music felt like the theme song of my life. And of all her songs, probably the one that meant the most was "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
  by Carole King

Lookin' out on the morning rain
I used to feel uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But your love was the key to my peace of mind
'Cause you make me feel, you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman
When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn't know just what was wrong with me
Till your kiss helped me name it
Now I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for
'Cause if I make you happy I don't need to do more
You make me feel, you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman
Oh, baby, what you've done to me
You make me feel so good inside
And I just want to be close to you
You make me feel so alive
You make me feel, you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman 

I always liked Carole's performance of her own lyrics. The song was included on her album "Tapestry" which I bought in vinyl all those years ago. I played it over and over and I still have it. But, of course, the definitive version of the song was by the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.

When Carole received her Kennedy Center award, they had a performance of that song, maybe her most famous, and who did they ask to sing it? Well, how could it possibly have been anyone but Aretha? The reaction of Carole King when Aretha walked on stage is just priceless and the reaction of the audience including the President and First Lady to the performance is beautiful. 

You probably have already seen this. It was televised, of course, and has been all over the Internet since. But I can't think of a better way to sing out this old year and get ready for the new. So, here it is - Aretha Franklin and Carole King, two natural women.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My excellent year of reading (with update)

(UPDATE: In rereading this post, I realized I had left off one of my *favorite books of the year read in October. I've now added it, raising my total favorites to 22. And growing.)

Everybody's doing their end-of-year recaps, so why should I be any different?

The most popular way of recapping is to do the "top 10" list. I pulled up my list of books read in 2015 and tried to narrow my favorites down to a top 10. I couldn't do it.

Next I thought I would pick a favorite book from each month of reading. I've read 98 books (so far) in 2015. Surely there would be one special book in each month that would jump out at me when I tried to make my list. Nope.

I made a list of all the books that I read and truly, unequivocally loved and then tried to narrow that list down to a bloggable few. I found I couldn't bear to exclude any of them.

So, here it is - my list 21 22 favorite books
read in 2015. Some old; some new; some rereads and most read for the first time, with links to my reviews of them. They are all winners!


Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; a gripping tale of a social worker for the Department of Family Services in Montana and his efforts to save lost kids. 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; one of the best sellers of 2015 but don't hold that against it. It's a thriller worthy of that genre.


Middlemarch by George Eliot; one of those classics that I had always intended to read but never got around to. I got around to it in February. I'm glad I did. 


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; a much-praised, award-winning book that surprisingly lived up to all that hype.

Lamentation by C.J. Samson; another entry in one of my favorite historical fiction series. I'd been waiting for it for a long time. It was well worth the wait.


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen; a look at the Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer; a thriller featuring old CIA operatives and a tragedy that they can't forget.


A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson; a view of the Todd family that we met in Life After Life as seen through the eyes of another sibling. Another tour de force by Atkinson.


The Martian by Andy Weir; a stranded astronaut, his struggle to find resources to survive, and finally the desperate race of a united humanity to bring him home. It is a page-turner in the best sense. 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan; a beautifully written, thought-provoking story of the law and how it is interpreted and applied by human beings; a story about human possibilities and resilience. 

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; an oldie but goodie, the second in Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles series.


The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey; voted by many aficianados of the genre as the best mystery ever written, it is hard to argue against that assessment. For those of us who are fans of mysteries, this is one terrific read!


Dune by Frank Herbert; with this book, I returned to one of the loves of my youth and found to my delight that it was just as mesmerizing as it had been all those years ago.


Arthur and George by Julian Barnes; the creator of Sherlock Holmes is the detective/hero of his own mystery in this complex story by one of my favorite writers.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Nabokov was one of my favorite writers in my twenties. He was so good that he could almost make a pedophile understandable. At least he showed us how the pedophile Humbert rationalized his actions. 


Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford; "Love isn't a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts." Perhaps truer words have never been written.

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes; a strange little book that lingers on the bookshelves of my mind; almost uncategorizable - but maybe that was Barnes' point.

*Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff; the story of an unusual marriage as seen through the eyes of its two members - one who believes the whole thing was fate and one who knows that the furies, too, played their part. 


The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende; another mutigenerational family saga featuring a strong woman at it center - Allende's specialty. I love her writing.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; rereading Flaubert's masterpiece after many years was a strange experience. I was able to see it from a different perspective but found that the story had lost none of its power.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; reading this story of two brilliant young girls growing up in a violent and stultifying Naples society of the 1950s was an incredible and eye-opening intellectual and emotional experience.

The Narrows by Michael Connelly; I do love reading mystery series and Michael Connelly's rate at the top of my favorites. This book quite surprised me by being perhaps my favorite in his Harry Bosch series so far.

It was a real struggle for me to narrow my list to only these 21 22; there are several others that missed the list by only a hair. I really have had a most excellent year of reading in 2015. On to 2016!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A year of blooms - and other things

This year, as every year does, held challenges for the gardener. And yet, in spite of uncooperative weather, a plague of weeds and occasionally insects - not to mention garden "helpers" who didn't always follow instructions - it turned out to be not an entirely bad year in the garden. Here are some of my favorite pictures from each month.

In January, the Christmas poinsettias were still in full bloom.

I do love the sweet little leucojum blossoms that brighten dull February.

By March, the redbud was in full bloom, a cafeteria for bees.

April is amaryllis month. This frilly one held hidden treasure between petals of its blossom - a little green treefrog. Love those eyes!

In May, the water lilies began blooming.

And by June the crocosmias were finishing up their blooming. 

What would July be without sunflowers and bumblebees enjoying them?

By August, the blossoms of the beautyberry had begun ripening into its eponymous berries.

Bright coral vine blossoms covered this section of garden fence in September.

Justicia 'Orange Flame' was a star of the garden in October.

Shrimp plant blooms were part of my November Bloom Day post.

And December saw my 'Graham Thomas' rose bush with its best flowers of the year.

When a gardener looks at her garden, the tendency is to see everything that is wrong with it - every plant that is in the wrong spot, every plant that isn't living up to its promise, every weed and every insect-chewed leaf. But it is nice once in a while to stop and remind ourselves that there are a few things right with the garden as well. It gives us hope that things might get even better in the new year. 

Birds of 2015

One of my goals for 2016 is to work on improving my bird photography. I can't claim any outstanding shots of birds in 2015, which is one of the reasons I know I need to improve! The birds were there; I just didn't always capture them with my camera. 

Nevertheless, good or bad, here are some of my favorite pictures that I featured in the blog throughout the year.

A regular visitor to the backyard in January was this Cooper's Hawk.

I photographed this Common Gallinule on a trip to Brazos Bend State Park in February.

By March, the American Goldfinches were beginning to get their new feathers, changing into their colorful courting duds.

In April, the first of the Baltimore Orioles showed up.

The Northern Mockingbird is always here, in May and throughout the year, the sentinel of the backyard.

A female Eastern Bluebird checking on her chicks in June.

Another permanent resident, the Blue Jay, in July. 

By August, the first of the fall migrants were coming through. This Black-throated Green Warbler was one of them.

We had a constant stream of warblers, including this Wilson's, passing through the yard in September.

Wild Turkeys photographed in a previous October in Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, House Sparrows are ubiquitous in November and every other month.

And in December, I featured this picture of a Red-breasted Merganser that I had photographed in the waters off of Corpus Christi in the previous March.
A year filled with birds - what could be better? The Earth has music for those who listen. I always listen to the birds.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Lonely Death by Charles Todd: A review

A Lonely Death (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #13)A Lonely Death by Charles Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is 1920 and ex-soldiers who survived the horror of the trenches in World War I are being killed in a particularly gruesome manner in the quiet countryside of England. Three men have been garroted, and in the mouth of each has been found one of the identification discs that World War I soldiers carried into battle. However, the identification disc with which each man was found is not his own, and, in fact, appears to be unrelated to that particular ex-soldier. It seems a classic case of misdirection.

Scotland Yard is called in to help with the investigation and Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent as the agency's representative. But sending in the Yard does not halt the murders. After Rutledge arrives, another man - another ex-soldier - is killed in the same manner. Where will the serial murderer strike next?

The clear implication is that all of these deaths are somehow related to something that occurred during the war, but all of Rutledge's efforts to uncover some link reveal nothing. He comes to believe that this may be another case of misdirection and that the true link between the men might lie in their backgrounds in growing up together. He begins to explore that possibility and finds that his investigation is digging into the well-hidden secrets of some of the locals. Soon a complaint is made against him to his superiors back in London.

Meanwhile, there is a subplot carrying on in the background. A friend of Rutledge's, recently retired from Scotland Yard, has shared with him information about a cold case that he was never able to solve. It involves the murder of a man whose body was found in 1908, laid out like a sacrifice, at Stonehenge. The murderer was never found but it haunted the investigator, Cummins, over the years and he continued to search for the answer to the puzzle. Now he has passed it on to Rutledge.

Soon after Cummins tells him the story, Rutledge comes across a clue that seems like it might be related to the case. And within weeks, the whole mystery of that 12-year-old murder is solved! That solution was just a little too pat and neat and involved too much coincidence. It seemed an obvious way of tying up some loose strings in the story and writing some recurring characters out of the action.

The same serendipitous happenstance applied to the character Meredith Channing, a woman that Ian Rutledge has been romantically drawn to for a while. The author wraps up Channing's story in this book and sends her off to Belgium to oversee the care of her grievously wounded husband who has been found there. She no longer loves him - never did really - but feels morally bound to stay with him. Will we ever see her again?

In fact, I am struck by how often in these books women are trapped in loveless marriages. It is a recurring theme. In addition to Channing, we have the example of Mrs. Winslow in this story, and the whole series seems littered with them. Perhaps it is a social commentary on the powerlessness of women to control their destinies in the early twentieth century.

Back to the main mystery of A Lonely Death, after many miscues, Rutledge finally gets on the right track and runs the killer to ground, but it had been obvious to the reader for quite some time just who the murderer was and what his motive was. Maybe Ian Rutledge needs a refresher course in the art of detection.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Redeemers by Ace Atkins: A review

The Redeemers (A Quinn Colson Novel)The Redeemers by Ace Atkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Ace Atkins' fictional county of Tibbehah in North Mississippi, Quinn Colson, the ex-Army ranger, has just lost his re-election as sheriff. The corrupt money in town had backed his opponent, an insurance salesman, and that won the day for the man. 

In Colson's last few days in office, he is still trying to find a way to bring down his main nemesis and the purveyor of corruption, Johnny Stagg. Stagg is well-entrenched in the halls of power in the county and the state and putting him behind bars will not be easy.

Colson is aided in his quest by his estimable assistant, Lillie Virgil. Lillie is one of the few - maybe the only - truly virtuous characters in this southern noir suspense novel. Most of the characters, including the sheriff who is carrying on an illicit affair with his former high school sweetheart, are flawed in the extreme.

As the novel begins, Quinn and Lillie are in Memphis waiting outside a house of ill repute for the appropriate moment to go inside and bring out Quinn's sister, Caddy. An extremely troubled woman with a history of addiction, she had gone off the rails again following the murder several months before of the man that she loved. Quinn and Lillie are able to extract her and take her home to be admitted to a rehab center in Tupelo.

Then, Quinn settles down to see out his last few days in office and to concentrate on Johnny Stagg.

In his efforts to bring Stagg to justice, he has the clandestine help of an undercover federal agent, also a former Army ranger. But right smack dab into the middle of their plans comes a quartet of inept thieves and housebreakers, three of whom manage with great difficulty to steal a safe from the home of a local businessman. 

The safe contains almost a million dollars, plus jewels, homemade porn tapes, and books which outline the illicit transfers of funds to corrupt politicians in return for favors. The books incriminate the businessman as well as Johnny Stagg and powerful state politicians. Although by this time Quinn is no longer the sheriff, his lover, who is the niece of the businessman's wife, asks him to investigate.

Ace Atkins is a talented writer and this book, as all of his books do, shows a professional at work. He is from the area that he features in these Quinn Colson books, as, in fact, I am, and I can attest that he vividly brings to life the atmosphere of the small town and rural community where everybody knows everybody else's business. He has an ear for the speech cadences of the area and I have no trouble hearing the voices of his characters as I read.

That being said, there are things about the voices of his characters that I began to find extremely annoying after a while. I don't think I am any more prudish than your average reader, but I got really, really tired of reading the references to boobies, titties, shitheels, pussies, poon hounds, cornholing, etc. that are liberally sprinkled on almost every page of the book. Such language seemed like a lazy shortcut that the writer was using to create certain images in our minds. 

Those images are well-known stereotypes of ignorant and sex-obsessed Southern characters. I'm sure the language and the stereotypes that it sketches have strong appeal to some readers, but a little of it goes a very long way with me and after a certain point, I find it offensive. Frankly, I do not think that I am the reader that Mr. Atkins seeks.

This is the fifth book in this series. The last couple of books had shown growth in some of the recurring characters, but this one just seemed like a step backwards to me.

And what's up with all those subtle hints at a possible romantic relationship between Colson and Lillie Virgil? Is that where this is headed? I'm not sure Colson deserves such a highly intelligent and capable woman. He seems inexorably drawn to quite a different type.

Overall, I guess I'm just a bit disappointed in the character of Quinn Colson and in the direction in which Atkins seems to be taking this series. Maybe it's time for me to quit it for a while and move on to something else.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Festivus for the rest of us and all those other holidays

I doesn't seem much like Christmas. Winter Solstice has come and gone and still we've had no frost. Our high temperature today is predicted to be 80 degrees F. but will probably go higher. The high for Christmas Day is projected to be 82. Santa is going to be very uncomfortable in that red wool suit with the fur trim. He might want to wear a Speedo instead.

Whether or not the weather seems appropriate, however, the winter holidays relentlessly continue their march through our calendar. Today, Festivus; tomorrrow, Christmas Eve; then Christmas, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve and Day...

Blogging will be sporadic for the next several days as I celebrate with my family. Whatever holidays you celebrate at this time of year, my wish for you is that they be filled with peace and joy. As for my house, just now it looks a little like this:

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: A review

My Brilliant FriendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With the publication of The Story of the Lost Child in 2015, Elena Ferrante completed her quartet of extravagantly praised "Neapolitan Stories." It seemed about time for me to get on board with reading the books to find out what all the shouting was about.

My Brilliant Friend, published in 2012, was the first of the series. It begins with the main protagonist, Elena, learning that her friend Lila has disappeared, not for the first time. Elena and Lila are now in their 60s and Lila's latest disappearance causes Elena to reminisce about their long friendship and the events which marked and shaped their lives. My Brilliant Friend is a telling of those reminiscences.

Elena and Lila grew up on the outskirts of Naples. It is the 1950s when we meet them. Both girls are six years old. They live in a neighborhood where violence is an everyday fact of life. Men settle their inevitable disagreements on the streets with fisticuffs, knives, or guns. Then they go home and continue to take out their anger on their families, beating their wives and children. A child turning up at school with bruises, or a wife doing her shopping with a black and blue face and arms are not instances to be remarked upon - it's just the way of the world.

In this fraught atmosphere where girl children are, on one hand, guarded as priceless treasures - any man or boy who dares to even look at one risks his life - and, on the other hand, seen as totally worthless for anything except as wives, mothers, and household drudges, Elena and Lila dream big dreams. They are both extremely intelligent and competitive with each other. Their competition pushes each of them to try to achieve more both academically and in other areas of life.

This book takes the girls through their teenage years. It is a meditation on the diverging and converging paths of their friendship over the years, and, through their friendship, we see their neighborhood, their society, beginning to change. The girls rely completely on each other even as their paths in life diverge and their destinies become separate in surprising ways. They remain always the best of friends, each knowing that her friend is the one that she can call on if she is in need.

The girls' neighborhood is home to a bewilderingly huge cast of characters. I found it difficult at times to keep all the names straight, but the author has helpfully included a list of the characters and their relationships and interrelationships at the beginning of the novel, so if the reader gets too confused, she can always return to that list.

Some of the major influences on Neapolitan society, as it is explored in this book, are tradition (of course), the Church, and an organized crime group known as the Camorra. All are intertwined and have their role to play in the highly structured and stratified way of life of the inhabitants. Both Elena and Lila, each in her own way, struggle to escape its tentacles.

I begin to see why these books have been so highly praised and I look forward to reading of the further adventures of Elena and Lila in 2016. 

If I had to select one word to describe My Brilliant Friend, it would be "fascinating." I was fascinated by the narrative from the first few lines. The plotting is masterful, invisible almost, and the narrative details and characterizations are abundant to the point of being almost overwhelming at times. The reader feels totally immersed in the stultified society in which these two brilliant girls are growing up and trying to find their way. Ferrante's style of writing renders her portrait of the two and their neighborhood in meticulous and unforgettable detail.

My only criticism of the book is that it seemed to lose a bit of its steam toward the end. I think one of the most difficult things for a writer to do is to write a bang-up ending that brings all the loose threads of the narrative together and provides a satisfying conclusion for the reader. In this case, since there are still three more entries in the story of Elena and Lila, perhaps the writer can be forgiven for easing off a bit on the ending.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Amazing Peace

My featured poem this week is by Dr. Maya Angelou and it celebrates the season. It gives voice to the hope that we all have for the year-end holidays that we celebrate, whatever they may be. "It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time," she writes. Would that it could be true.

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem

By Dr. Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth's tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

This week in birds - #186

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

"Snow birds" is what we called them when I was growing up because they usually showed up with the first snow of winter. They are Dark-eyed Juncos, a very pretty member of the sparrow family. No snow and no juncos so far here in the subtropical South, but I photographed this one a few years ago on an autumn visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Christmas Bird Count is underway. It started on December 14 and runs through January 5. The is the 116th consecutive year that it will have been conducted, making it perhaps the oldest of the Citizen Science projects that are now so popular. It is the forerunner of projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch.


2015 has been a memorable year in the world of science. Here is a list of some of the most significant scientific events of the year.


One important scientific study of 2015 has uncovered the origins of modern birds. The DNA-based work found that birds emerged in what is now South America some 90 million years ago and radiated extensively around the time of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs.


Last month was the warmest November on record worldwide since records have been kept. It seems a near certainty that 2015 will be the warmest year on record.


One important way that birds and mammals adapt to heat and cold is through size, but there are other tools in the animals' repertoire that they are able to utilize. 


Here are some stunningly beautiful pictures of the Painted Bunting that has been hanging out in Prospect Park in Brooklyn this fall.


Hawaii's endemic birds are facing so many challenges, not least of which is climate change, that one despairs as to whether any of them will long survive.


The Tricolored Blackbird, once the most common songbird in California, is being considered for protection under the state's Endangered Species Act because of its rapidly diminishing numbers.


The Red-breasted Nuthatch is one of the winter migrants that we always hope to get here as a visitor for the season. I haven't seen or heard any this year but hope springs eternal. "Union Bay Watch" blog has an appreciation of the wonderful little bird.


One of the marks of intelligence in an animal is its ability to use tools. Well, birds are no slackers in this regard. A recently discovered example is the Greater Vasa Parrot which uses pebbles to get food.


Darwin's Medium Ground-Finch in the Galapagos Islands is being threatened by an invasive parasitic fly.


Hummingbirds generate a lot of heat with their constant activity. A new infrared video shows how they are able to dissipate that heat.


In addition to the fact that it has been a mass murderer of birds and flying mammals, the Ivanpah Solar Project in the Mojave Desert has not been able to generate enough power to meet the terms of its contracts with Pacific Gas and Electric. It now risks default.


Argentina is setting up additional protected areas for its native Magellanic Penguins.


The only effects that we in this area have seen so far from this season's much-vaunted El Niño is a very wet autumn, but the effects are expected to intensify over the next three months. Who knows? We may yet get some frost!


Around the backyard:

Things continue to be unusually quiet around the backyard feeders. American Goldfinches are present in good numbers but not visiting the feeders yet. They continue feeding on crape myrtle seeds. News reached me recently that there are Pine Siskins in the area! This is quite unexpected. I'm hoping some of them will reach my yard before the winter is over.

Pine Siskins at one of my feeders on their last visit here in the winter of 2013. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason: A review

HypothermiaHypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title Hypothermia could refer to a tragic incident in Inspector Erlendur's childhood when he and his younger brother were lost in a sudden blizzard while out helping their father look for the family's sheep. The two brothers became separated in the storm and the younger one was never found. He was presumed dead. Erlendur survived - barely. He was covered by several feet of snow and suffering from hypothermia and frostbite when found, but the searchers were able to save him.

The title could also refer to a technique of deliberately lowering the body's temperature to the point that the heart stops and the person is clinically dead. If not too much time has passed, the person can then be revived by medical personnel and brought back to life. Supposedly, while the person is "dead," he can visit "the other side" and see what, if anything, waits for us there. As it turns out, such a medical experiment plays a part in the mystery which Erlendur is called upon to investigate in this entry in Arnaldur Indriðason's Icelandic mystery series.

Erlendur is just as much of a morose sad sack as ever, but, for some reason, I did not find him as annoying as he has been in previous books. He seemed somewhat more sympathetic this time around and I felt that I could understand his motivations just a bit better. Perhaps he has good reasons for his irascible personality.

Erlendur and his team are called out to a holiday cottage on a lake where the body of a woman has been found hanging from the ceiling. Maria had suffered from depression and various neuroses and had never recovered from her grief over the death of her mother two years before. Her death at first seems a straightforward case of a distraught person unable to face continued life and deciding to put an end to it all. There is no evidence to suggest anything other than suicide. And yet, something about the situation seems off to Erlendur.

That feeling of discontent stays with him even after the verdict of suicide is returned. Then, he is contacted by one of Maria's friends who gives him more information about her terror of the dark and about the fact that she had been visiting mediums in an attempt to contact her mother and get proof of whether there is life after death. He begins an unofficial investigation which uncovers painful family secrets going back many years to the death of Maria's father. When she was just a child, he had drowned in the lake by the cabin in which she later died.

While Erlendur pursues his off-the-record inquiries, he is also consumed by two missing persons cases from long ago. In fact, from around the same time that Maria's father died. The cases have long gone cold with no leads to give a clue as to what happened to the two people. The cases were separate. There was never anything to connect the two people who disappeared, but after reinterviewing family and friends, Erlendur begins to suspect that the cases may be related.

The process by which the inspector pursues these separate cases is slow and methodical and revelatory of his dour, melancholic personality. While he is putting together the puzzle of what happened, he is interrupted by his own family matters. His daughter, Eva, a recovering addict, is obsessed with trying to get her two parents to be friends or at least to talk to each other - something which they haven't done for years. To please his daughter, Erlendur finally reluctantly agrees to meet with his ex-wife. It is not a happy encounter.

In addition to Erlendur seeming more fully human and humane in this entry, his two grown children, especially Eva, were also considerably less annoying. There were definitely fewer histrionics this time, an improvement all around.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

In December of 2013, I read a book by Elizabeth Gilbert that I thoroughly enjoyed. No, it wasn't Eat, Pray, Love. It was a novel written after that blockbuster book. It was about a woman scientist in the 19th century and that book was recently recalled to mind by something that I read. I reread my review of it and decided to feature it as a "Throwback Thursday" post. I hope you enjoy it.


The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame has written a remarkable novel featuring a remarkable woman of the 19th century. Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to the richest man in Philadelphia, grew up to become, in fact, a female counterpart to Charles Darwin in the century of Darwin, a time when the idea of a female scientist would have been laughed at.

Before we meet Alma, though, we meet her father, Henry Whittaker, a low-born Englishman who was banished because he stole plants from Kew Gardens, where his father worked as a plantsman. Instead of having him hanged, as could have happened, his father's employer sent him on a ocean voyage to assist his plant collectors. Henry already knew much about plants from his father, and now he learned even more as he traveled to exotic locations around the world. He grew into a man with an unquenchable thirst to succeed and accumulate wealth. He did both.

After his ties with Britain and Kew Gardens were severed, he went to Holland where he acquired a well-educated wife, named Beatrix, from a famous academic family. Together, they emigrated to the new country of the United States, specifically to Philadelphia and it was there that Whittaker built his prosperous plant empire. There, Alma was born and was educated by her mother and learned plants almost by osmosis it seems from her father.

Alma's world is disrupted when her parents adopt a child, a little girl whose parents died tragically on the Whittaker estate. She and her new sister, Prudence, who possesses an ethereal beauty, will never be close. In contrast to Prudence, Alma was plain as a baby and young girl and she grows into a plain woman, large, big-boned, and with an unruly crop of red hair which seems to sprout in every direction.  

Her gift is not physical beauty but a beauty of the mind. She is a brilliant child who grows into a brilliant woman, ultimately a self-taught botanist of considerable gifts and some renown.

At the age of sixteen, Alma discovers erotic literature and the capacity of her own body to give her sensual pleasure. For the rest of her life, masturbation will be a part of her routine.

While her sister and best friend marry, Alma remains single. She becomes a spinster who is most excited by her love of knowledge, but at the age of forty-eight, she does fall in love with a man named Ambrose Pike, a utopian artist who paints incomparable pictures of orchids. Ambrose leads her to delve into the realm of the spiritual and the magical - quite a journey for a clear-minded scientist like Alma.

The two marry quickly but their marriage is doomed by misunderstandings and they soon go their separate ways. At this point, Alma's story is just beginning!

This sprawling novel takes us around the globe and is peopled by so many unforgettable characters. Among them are abolitionists, adventurers, sea captains, missionaries, astronomers, geniuses, and some who are quite mad. But most unforgettable of all is Alma Whittaker as she passes from the Age of Enlightenment to the age of the Industrial Revolution and witnesses all the extraordinary changes along the way. New ideas in science, religion, commerce, and class were coming fast and furious, and Alma is a part of it all.

Some reviewers have described this book as Dickensian and indeed it does seem to be written in the spirit of Dickens' time. But it is in a thoroughly modern voice and is very accessible, an easy read. I liked Alma Whittaker very much and I am glad that Elizabeth Gilbert chose to give her to us.

View all my reviews