Thursday, April 30, 2015

The worm turns and about time, too!

Who could have predicted? Very few baseball people, I think, would have thought in March that the end of the first month of the new baseball season would find my lowly but no less beloved Houston Astros in first place in their division. But that's where they are! Regardless of the outcome of today's games, they will end April in first place.


LA Angels1011.4764.0

After suffering through several years of below par teams, it has been a decided pleasure to see the team playing well and performing above expectations. Can they keep it up? Who knows? It's a long time until October. But no matter what happens, we'll always have April. And hope. Hope has been rekindled.

Go 'Stros!   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason: A review

Silence of the GraveSilence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jar City, the first mystery by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason that features Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson of the Reykyavik police, traced the origins of a modern-day murder to a heinous crime that occurred some forty years before. The solution to the mystery turned on the idea of Iceland as a very insular society with a shallow genetic pool where most people are at least distantly related.

In this second book in the series, we again get a very cold case - something that occurred during World War II. But was it truly a crime or simply a situation where justice was at last served?

The story begins with the image of a baby gnawing on a human bone. A young medical student had dropped by a children's birthday party to pick up his young brother who was attending. As he sits waiting for the child to be ready to leave, he watches the honoree's younger sister who is gnawing on something that at first appears to be a toy, but, when he gets a closer look, he realizes it is actually a section of a human rib. He alerts the child's mother who asks the baby's brother what he knows about it. He takes them to the place where he picked up the interesting "rock" that he gave his sister to play with, and, there, they find more bones.

The police are called. Inspector Erlendur and his team show up and discover what appears to be a very old burial. They contact an archaeologist who assembles a team and begins to dig to free the bones. It is an excruciatingly slow process, accomplished with small hand tools.

While Erlendur is waiting around at the scene, he receives a cryptic and frantic phone call from his estranged daughter, Eva Lind, asking him to help her, but she hangs up before he can find out where she is. Eva Lind, whom we met in the first novel, is now about seven months pregnant and still a drug addict. She had had a huge fight with her father and left his apartment weeks before and he's had no contact with her since. Now he must try to find her.

Erlendur tracks Eva Lind through some truly awful drug squats with residents that seem barely human. He discovers abused and neglected children along the way and calls social services for them. Finally, on a slim chance, he goes to a maternity home and finds Eva Lind there, passed out and bleeding on the grounds.

She is taken to the hospital, in a coma, and the baby is delivered stillborn. She lingers there between life and death, never waking from the coma, with Erlendur spending as much time as he can by her side.

But back to the old bones. The initial assessment is that they are 60 to 70 years old and Erlendur begins poking into the history of the community where they had been found, trying to find out who might have lived on that site during the period in question. It's a complicated investigation, but, ultimately, he and his team do come up with a name and they uncover a horror.

At this point, the story develops on a parallel course. We learn of the family who lived where the bones were found, two adults and three children, one of them disabled. We also learn, haltingly, of the brutality which the woman and her children endured for years at the hands of the abusive husband and father. Meanwhile, the archaeologists continue their dig and eventually uncover a second set of bones on top of the first. They are the bones of a tiny baby or perhaps fetus.

One of the things pointed out by the story is how little help there was for a brutalized wife during the period when the abuse occurred. When the police actually came to investigate, they would typically ask the woman whether she had been drinking and would end up shaking hands with the husband before they went back to their station. In some places, of course, that attitude hasn't changed much in seventy years.

It's interesting to learn of this dysfunctional family in comparison to Erlendur's own fractured clan. His marriage had been broken when his children were young, and he left them. His ex-wife subsequently refused to allow him any access to the children and poisoned their minds against him, and it seems that Erlendur didn't try very hard to change that. But in this book, we do learn more of his background, his childhood, and why he behaved as he did and why he is such a morose, depressive character.

I thought Indriðason did a very good job of tying all of these disparate plot lines together and showing their interconnectedness. He also used them very skillfully to develop fully realized characters with whom one can begin to empathize. In doing so, he created a very interesting and enjoyable read.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Fourth Watcher by Timothy Hallinan: A review

The Fourth WatcherThe Fourth Watcher by Timothy Hallinan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poke Rafferty is a half Filipino, half Anglo American living in Bangkok. He is a writer, author of a series of travel books with the title Looking for Trouble in... wherever. This is the second book in Timothy Hallinan's series featuring this character.

Poke has put together a family of himself, his fiancee Rose, who is a former go-go dancer, and his newly adopted daughter Miaow, a former street kid. They live together in his apartment and he is looking forward to marrying Rose and living happily ever after.

His idyllic life in interrupted when the cleaning service co-owned by Rose and another woman becomes involved, through no fault of their own, in a counterfeit money scheme. The women find themselves under investigation by local police and a Secret Service Agent who is there because some of the counterfeit money is American. Poke, of course, jumps in to try to help them and gets on the wrong side of the Secret Service Agent.

So far, the plot seemed pretty straightforward, but then it took a radical twist when the long-estranged father whom he thought was dead turns up and contacts Rafferty. Poke has good reason to hate his father and tries to avoid becoming involved with him. But he is kidnapped and brought to meet the man and finds that involvement is impossible to avoid.

The father, Frank Rafferty, has a box full of rubies and fraudulent identity papers, which it turns out that he stole from one of the most dangerous criminals in China. He also has a daughter Ming-Li, Poke's half sister whom he didn't know he had. Soon we learn that that dangerous criminal is hot on Frank's trail. When a man who was a former C.I.A. asset and an acquaintance of Poke's turns up dead, having been gruesomely murdered, it is clear that the gangster will spare no effort to find and recover the items stolen from him and if that means a few more people have to die along the way, he's okay with that.

The plot gets more and more complicated as we learn that the counterfeit money is coming from an operation in North Korea. The repressive regime that runs that country like a Soprano's family business is utterly ruthless in pushing its main export of counterfeit bills.

The Chinese gangster, meanwhile, is determined to get Frank Rafferty and, in pursuit of that aim, he kidnaps Rose, Miaow, and Poke's friend Arthit's wife, Noi. In order to try to recover them, Poke and Arthit, a Bangkok policeman, must use every skill and every asset available to them.

Everything gets very complicated at this point - a little too complicated, actually. Hallinan seems to be straining a bit to keep all of these balls in the air. Perhaps if he could have brought himself to pare down some of the elements, he would have had a better-structured, cleaner story.

Still, Hallinan is very good at creating an atmosphere and he brings to life the streets of Bangkok in a very believable way. I've never been there, unfortunately, but he gives us a real feel for the city and its people and especially its climate of frequent rain and hot and humid weather. One can almost feel the rain running down one's back.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Double Dutch

I admit I was not familiar with poet Gregory Pardlo's work before it was announced last week that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Digest. Apparently, that was a common reaction to the announcement. He is not well-known, but, based on what I've read over the last few days, perhaps he deserves to be.

His poems - at least the ones that I've now read - seem very descriptive. He paints vivid pictures with his words, and many of the poems seem firmly based on childhood experiences or childhood scenes observed. Such is the case with his poem "Double Dutch" which paints a picture of girls jumping rope and of a jumper who "stair-steps into mid-air as if she's jumping rope in low-gravity." Can't you just see it?

Double Dutch

The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.

Friday, April 24, 2015

This week in birds - #154

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

It's been a week filled with migrant visitors here. Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings, and Yellow-breasted Chats have all put in an appearance. But, of course, we birders are never satisfied, are we? What I want to know is, where are my Rose-breasted Grosbeaks? Usually, when the Baltimore Orioles show up, the grosbeaks are close behind, but so far I haven't seen any, although they are reported to be in the area. This is a picture that I snapped of a pair that visited in the spring of 2013.


It's an ill wind indeed that blows no good, and the deaths of sea lions along the California coast this spring have provided a feast for endangered California Condors. The state's largest birds have been flocking to the sites of the unfortunate die-off of the sea mammals, where they settle in for a banquet provided by Nature. 


The humpback whale has had protection under the Endangered Species Act for decades, and that protection has allowed it to make a comeback. But is it enough that it no longer needs that protection? Well, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association thinks so. This week, they proposed removing several sites where the big whales live from the endangered list. 


The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918, a time when the major danger to migratory birds was market hunters. These days, industrial development and destruction of habitat are the main threats to bird life, and perhaps it is time for an updating of the MBTA. But it is important that any changes be done correctly. Done correctly, changes could strengthen enforcement; incorrectly, it could open the gate for further industrial harm to birds and their habitats, resulting in even more bird deaths.


Trout lilies are spring ephemerals that pop out of the ground, develop quickly, bloom, and then disappear just as quickly, not to be seen again until the next spring.


Backyard birds enhance life in urban neighborhood in many ways, but a recent study shows that residents of those neighborhoods do not necessarily have a firm grasp on the diversity of species which coexist with them. In fact, there is a much wider variety of birds than is generally known that make their homes in such places.


Western and Clark Grebes are two species that are able to run on top of water for short distances as part of their courtship display. Scientists have been studying just how they are able to do that and they now think they can explain it.


The "Bird Police" are bird records committees that keep track of reported sightings and authenticate those sightings for inclusion in the official records. With the rise in use of the online reporting system, eBird, there has been a decline in the reporting to these committees and this raises some concerns among dedicated birders.


The Ivanpah Solar Plant in the Mojave Desert of California has been problematic for birds since its opening in October 2013. In its first year of operation, between 2500 and 6700 birds were killed by contact with the facility. The most conservative estimate puts the figure at 3500. That number was comprised of 83 species. The most frequent victims were Mourning Doves.


 A new scientific paper details the diversity of beetles in northern Canada. The scientists sorted and identified over 9,000 beetles from 464 species.


The residents of Seattle really, really love their songbirds. They spend $120 million a year on birdseed, feeders, and bird supporting activities. That's approximately $12 per person.


The Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago this week, creating the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. BP has dragged its feet every step of the way in fulfilling its obligation to clean up the mess. The environment is still being damaged by the spill today.


Who is the better pollinator - bees or flies? "Biodiversity in Focus" has a comparison of the two.


Although spring has come late to the northeastern part of the country this year, in general, birds are responding to the earlier springs caused by global warming with adjustments in their time of migration and in their nesting season. 


Around the backyard:

In addition to all the migrants passing through this week, there has been a lot of activity from the permanent residents. There's been a mockingbird war going on, between this bird and his mate and another pair. Apparently, the territories claimed by the two pairs of Northern Mockingbirds overlap and there has been a constant battle to establish and defend the boundaries. The same thing is true of two pairs of Northern Cardinals that have been chasing each other around the yard all week. Other activity has been a lot more benign. We now have two sets of young Carolina Wrens following their respective parents around the yard as they learn how to be wrens. In the bluebird box outside my kitchen window, the Carolina Chickadee nestlings are getting close to being ready to fledge. And in the other bluebird box in the vegetable garden, the Eastern Bluebird babies have now hatched and their parents are kept busy from dawn until dusk filling those hungry beaks. All around the yard in shrubs and tangled vines, the voices of baby birds are being heard. It's an exciting time for backyard birders. 

The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson: A review

The Princess of Burundi (Ann Lindell, #4)The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I picked this book to read, I was under the impression that it was the first in a series featuring female police inspector Ann Lindell of Uppsala, Sweden. It soon became apparent that it was not the first. Evidently, it is actually the fourth in the series but was the first to be translated into English.

Never mind. The author actually does a good job of providing the backstories of his main characters, so I did not feel as lost as I might have.

This is a police procedural, much in the vein of Ed McBain or Sjowall and Wahloo. It features a unit of the Uppsala police that is led by Inspector Lindell, but, in fact, in this particular book, Lindell is on maternity leave and she is only tangentially involved in the investigation of the crimes detailed. This is where it would have been useful to have read the previous book in order to get the full story of how she came to be where she is in her life.

She has a nine-month-old baby son named Erik. She is a single mother, living alone with the baby in an apartment, and she is getting very antsy because she misses her job and the daily contact with her co-workers. We learn a bit about Sweden's social safety net for new mothers, which seems quite impressive. Some readers might find such details extraneous, but I actually found them fascinating.

There are two murders to investigate, as well as an assault on a woman, and it is not clear at first whether there is a connection between them. All of this is handled by the unit which Lindell left behind when she went on maternity leave. She actually doesn't make an appearance in the book until about the halfway point. But with the murder of a young man that she knew from having interviewed him in relation to a crime that happened several years ago, she feels inexorably drawn to the investigation and can't help getting involved.

I really quite liked this group of police officers. They are presented as simply ordinary, everyday people, who are engaged and involved in their community and who are trying to do the best job that they can to protect it. We get to know some of their flaws as well as their strengths. There are no bad guys among them - although one of them does have a bit of a xenophobic streak - and they go about their jobs methodically and by the book. They are quite different from some of the messed-up Scandinavian police characters we've come to know through Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, for example. No dour, psychosomatic, angry policemen (or women) here. And, yes, I was quite taken with the idea of having a woman lead the team. How refreshing!

I felt the plot and the characters were well-developed and the way the story was told did give me some insight into Swedish society and expanded my horizons. I like that in a book.

The one thing that really puzzled me at first was the title. What does The Princess of Burundi have to do with Uppsala, Sweden? But eventually we do learn where the title comes from, although even then, I felt it was a bit misleading.

I like Kjell Ericsson's style of writing and felt that this book showed great promise. I look forward to reading more in the series.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The more things change...

Recently, I happened upon a blog post that I had written in early 2012. It was published on January 9, 2012, at a time when the presidential election campaign was already in full swing. As I reread the post, I thought to myself that I could have written it today.

Here we are again with another presidential and congressional election campaign already heating up even though the election is more than a year and a half in the future. The press is thoroughly obsessed as usual but mostly with inanities. It is doubtful they will ever get around to asking the important questions.

Since today is Throwback Thursday, I'm using that as an excuse to run the post once again. See if you don't think it is still current.


The American Caste System

The New York Times last week had a report about how the myth of the American meritocracy is just that - a myth. In fact, of all the countries in the industrialized world, it is harder for a person of low economic status to rise higher in the United States than it is almost anywhere else. If America as the "land of opportunity" ever existed, it has disappeared, and this is primarily due to the policies pursued by the government. The governments of other developed countries make it their goal to protect and help their citizenry and to take care of those who are least able to take care of themselves. In this country, the government only very begrudgingly assists at all, and thus the poorest must fend for themselves and find ways to improve their economic lot if that is to be done and there will be roadblocks all along the way to a better life. Roadblocks put in place and defended unto death by the government.

This is not a pretty picture and it is certainly not the image that most Americans have of their country. Unfortunately, our government is in the grip of heartless people whose extreme wealth separates them from the masses of citizens. They've got theirs, often from the hands of lobbyists for corporations they should be regulating, and they couldn't care less about helping their fellow citizens better themselves. Thus, the country is well on its way to establishing a hide-bound caste system - whatever caste you are born into will determine your lot in life and will be the caste that you die in.

Paul Krugman's column in The Times today is on that topic, the unlevel playing field. Krugman almost always nails it in his columns, but never has he done it so well, in my opinion as in today's column. You can follow the link to read the entire piece, but let me quote extensively here:
Americans are much more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that they live in a meritocracy. But this self-image is a fantasy...America actually stands out as the advanced country in which it matters most who your parents were, the country in which those born on one of society’s lower rungs have the least chance of climbing to the top or even to the middle.
And if you ask why America is more class-bound in practice than the rest of the Western world, a large part of the reason is that our government falls down on the job of creating equal opportunity. 
The failure starts early: in America, the holes in the social safety net mean that both low-income mothers and their children are all too likely to suffer from poor nutrition and receive inadequate health care. It continues once children reach school age, where they encounter a system in which the affluent send their kids to good, well-financed public schools or, if they choose, to private schools, while less-advantaged children get a far worse education.
Once they reach college age, those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to go to college — and vastly less likely to go to a top-tier school — than those luckier in their parentage. At the most selective, “Tier 1” schools, 74 percent of the entering class comes from the quarter of households that have the highest “socioeconomic status”; only 3 percent comes from the bottom quarter.
And if children from our society’s lower rungs do manage to make it into a good college, the lack of financial support makes them far more likely to drop out than the children of the affluent, even if they have as much or more native ability. One long-term study by the Department of Education found that students with high test scores but low-income parents were less likely to complete college than students with low scores but affluent parents — loosely speaking, that smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree.
As Americans look at and evaluate candidates for political office in this very political year, they would do very well to look at whether they appear to be interested in making the field more level for all of us or whether they are only interested in protecting their own "caste." Or to quote Krugman further:
Think about it: someone who really wanted equal opportunity would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system. He would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children. He would try to improve the quality of public schools. He would support aid to low-income college students. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a universal health care system, so that nobody need worry about untreated illness or crushing medical bills.
If Mr. Romney has come out for any of these things, I’ve missed it. And the Congressional wing of his party seems determined to make upward mobility even harder. For example, Republicans have tried to slash funds for the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps provide adequate nutrition to low-income mothers and their children; they have demanded cuts in Pell grants, which are designed to help lower-income students afford college.
And they have, of course, pledged to repeal a health reform that, for all its imperfections, would finally give Americans the guaranteed care that everyone else in the advanced world takes for granted.
So where is the evidence that Mr. Romney or his party actually believes in equal opportunity? Judging by their actions, they seem to prefer a society in which your station in life is largely determined by that of your parents — and in which the children of the very rich get to inherit their estates tax-free. Teddy Roosevelt would not have approved. 
Right on, Dr. Krugman. One can only hope that your fellow Americans will heed your words.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Sneezeweed

Gail of clay and limestone hosts "Wildflower Wednesday" each month. I am happy to participate again this month.

I'm featuring a wildflower with a somewhat unfortunate name. It is a name which refers to one of the traditional uses of the plant. The dried and powdered leaves and flower heads will cause sneezing if sniffed and they were formerly used in the treatment of colds and congestion. An infusion of the leaves was also reportedly used by some Native Americans as a laxative. So, altogether, a fairly useful plant.

I don't use it for any of those purposes. This member of the aster family produces a plethora of pretty yellow ray flowers with dark brown disks. Moreover, the plants have an extremely long bloom period, beginning in April and lasting through much of the summer. I like them because they are pretty to look at.

My plants have just begun to bloom but soon they will be covered in blossoms.

Just like this plant that I photographed last summer.

I got my start of sneezeweed in a mixed seed packet that I bought at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin a few years ago. It reseeds itself around my garden each year.

Happy Earth Day!

To the lucky residents of the most beautiful planet in the universe: Happy Earth Day! Please take care of her. She's the only home we have.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Return of the orioles

The Baltimore Orioles came to town today. Or, that is, they arrived in my backyard today.

I had heard over the weekend that they had been seen along the coast, so yesterday, I filled one of my oriole feeders with their preferred jelly and oranges and hung it along with my other feeders in the backyard. And, right on cue today, there they were!


...and female. Beauties, both of them.

Today's orioles were hungry for the jelly that I had put out and not so much for the oranges. Perhaps the jelly gives them a quicker boost after their long flight from South America.

I don't see Baltimore Orioles in my yard every spring, but when I do, it usually begins the first week in May. These are just a little early, but that seems to be typical of migrant birds these days as many are making their trips earlier because of the warming climate.

My little garden sun is smiling because he has some orange company in the yard once again.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen: A review

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the mid 1970s, we have not lacked for literary and film retellings and interpretations of the Vietnam War. But all of these have been told almost exclusively from an American perspective. Although the war was fought in their country, decimated their land, and killed untold numbers of their people, we have not had the Vietnamese viewpoint of events. Viet Thanh Nguyen, with his first published novel, remedies that glaring lack for us.

Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American. Born in Vietnam, he and his family were among the boat people who escaped following the fall of Saigon and the overrunning of the South by the North Vietnamese. He was raised in the United States and educated here, so he has a unique perspective of the war and its aftermath. With this novel, he has finally given voice to the previously voiceless Vietnamese people who endured the horror of the war.

The novel is written as a confession. Our narrator, whose name we never learn, is writing his account of events for the "commissar" of the Vietnamese prison/reeducation center where he is being held. We soon learn that understanding duality is key to understanding the nature of the protagonist. He is only half Vietnamese - his mother was a teenage girl who was seduced by a French Catholic priest. He was raised by his mother alone and he loves her unconditionally. She is his hero. He hates his father who never took any part in his raising, nor did he acknowledge his son. At the time that we meet him, however, both parents are already dead.

Not only is he dual in his origins, he is also balancing between two worlds, two political ideologies. He is an aide to a South Vietnamese general (also unnamed) who fought against the Communists, but, as he tells us in his opening lines, "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook,  man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, to see any issue from both sides."

He is an undercover agent for the Communists. His handler is a childhood friend named Man. Our narrator is blood brothers with Man and another childhood friend, Bon. Bon is a "genuine patriot" of the South and is an assassin for the C.I.A.; Man is the true-believer Communist; the narrator is the man in the middle.

The action of the novel begins in the chaotic and terror-filled days of the fall of Saigon. The narrator wants to stay and take his place in a reunified Vietnam but he is ordered by Man to go with the general as he flees to America and to keep an eye on him there. Working through the C.I.A., the narrator manages to bribe the appropriate people to facilitate an air evacuation of the general and his extended family, as well as Bon and his wife and child and himself. As they flee, they are under fire from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and Bon's wife and child are killed before the plane takes off. The others make good their escape, first to the Philippines and later to California.

In Los Angeles, the narrator continues his spying and continues reporting to Man through an intermediary in Paris. He lands a clerical job with one of his former professors (he had been sent to attend college in California years earlier), and he engages in an affair with an older Japanese-American woman. He continues to observe and report on the activities of the local Vietnamese refugees, and he is able to alert Man when the general begins plans for a reinvasion of Vietnam through Thailand.

As the ragtag army comprised of former South Vietnamese soldiers who are armed and funded by Americans makes plans for its return, Man orders the narrator to stay in the United States and continue reporting, but Bon is going with the army and the narrator feels that he must accompany his blood brother to try to keep him safe. He disobeys Man's directive to his great regret.

In the last chapters of the book, we see the narrator, Bon, and the group they are with captured and imprisoned. The narrator must now endure the harsh interrogation techniques that he was taught by the Communists when he first joined their crusade. These chapters are dark indeed and were very difficult for me to read. They are the main reason that I give the book four stars instead of five. Readers with stronger stomachs might well give it five, for it is a remarkable book. It is a valuable insight into the Vietnamese view of that awful war that so consumed us, particularly people of my generation, in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Poetry Sunday: A Book

Here's short poem but one that will be very meaningful to those who love their books. Readers will certainly understand and appreciate these sentiments as expressed by Emily Dickinson, a poet who always got straight to the point!

A Book

by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul! 


As a constant reader, I am well aware of "the chariot that bears a human soul." I ride in those chariots - books - every day of my life. Perhaps you do, too.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

This week in birds - #153

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

Our backyard birds are busy nesting and raising their young and so are the birds of the wetlands, seashores, and swamps. Here, a Clapper Rail leads two of her chicks on an expedition through the weeds at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

In a story that illustrates the harm that can be done by dumping unwanted pets in the wild, a Colorado lake has been infested with thousands of goldfish. You might think that goldfish are pretty and benign, and in habitats that are designated for them, they certainly are. But in this lake, they have brought diseases that the native fish there are not equipped to deal with and they are destroying the plant life within the lake and upsetting the balance of Nature.  


But here is another view on invasive species which basically states that they are the wave of the future and that we should learn to accept them and coexist. Essentially, the theory is that the fittest species will survive and that's okay. Most conservationists do not accept that view, of course, because it legitimizes human interference in Nature's plan since most invasive species are introduced, either deliberately or accidentally, by humans.


Another example of human interference in Nature, Fukushima in Japan was the site of the disastrous nuclear accident four years ago. Since then the avian population of the area has dropped drastically.


A new study quantifies the amount of carbon stored and released through California forests and wildlands. The results indicate that wildfires and deforestation contribute more than expected to carbon emissions which may affect the state's ability to meet its goals of reduction of greenhouse gases.


The water shortage in California gets most of the headlines but, in fact, the Rio Grande watershed has been drastically depleted as a result of the drought as well and, in places, the once mighty river is nothing more than a trickle.

As it is here. This is the Rio Grande River as it flows through Big Bend National Park. I took this picture some eighteen months ago, but I feel sure the situation hasn't gotten better since then. On the right side of the river is Mexico and the U.S. is on the left.

A study of African birds in the nation of Malawi revealed that 79% of them were infected with the parasites that cause malaria.


Jonathan Franzen is best known as an author of literary fiction but he is also a birder and is prominent in conservation movements. He recently provoked a firestorm of criticism with a essay published in The New Yorker which, among other targets, criticized the Audubon Society and its study on climate change and birds. The problem that many had with his criticism is that he lauded the American Bird Conservancy, a rival to Audubon, without disclosing that he is on its fundraising board, which certainly should be taken into account when evaluating the accuracy and potential bias of his complaints.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed yet another bat species, the Northern Long-eared, as threatened.


(Picture courtesy of Reuters.)
It's not often - probably never - that you encounter a black flamingo, but a melanistic Greater Flamingo has been sighted this spring feeding with other normal-colored flamingos on the Akrotiri salt plain on the island of Cyprus. Birders are flocking from far and near to see the rare bird.

A new study evaluating the contamination of waterways by insecticides has concluded that that contamination is significantly worse than has been supposed. 


A Global Big Day is being planned for May 9. Birders from around the world are being encouraged to count and report birds on that date, which just happens to be International Migratory Bird Day. 


There are only five northern white rhinos left on the face of the planet and only one of them is male. This lone male is under armed guard 24 hours a day in Kenya to try to save him from poachers. Even so, it may not be enough to preserve the species.

(Photo courtesy of CNN.)
His name is Sudan and he is the last known male northern white rhino. He and his female companions are under constant vigilant guard.

Around the backyard:

The winner of the "Who'll be the first to fledge?" sweepstakes, again this year, as it is most years, is the Carolina Wren. One of the two pairs that were nesting in my backyard led their brood from the nest yesterday. I watched the chicks following their parents around the yard yesterday afternoon. Total cuteness! I saw at least three chicks but there may have been more among the dense shrubbery and vines. This was not the family that is nesting on my back porch. Those chicks are probably still a week away from fledging.