Monday, September 25, 2017

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré: A review

As a fan of John le Carré's George Smiley books of many years ago, I was intrigued to read in reviews of his latest book that he was getting the old gang together one last time. How could I possibly resist? Answer: I couldn't, so I immediately let this book jump the queue on my TBR list.

The book is relatively short, at around 300 pages, and is a quick read for that reason and simply because le Carré's prose flows so smoothly. Potential readers should be aware though that, in order to enjoy this book, one really does need familiarity with those earlier Smiley books, because the action in this one harkens back to those days when the Cold War was at its coldest and a physical wall was being built through Berlin to shut off contact with the West.

The time is the present and the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is in an uproar over the possibility of being sued by three children of people who died because of their work with the Circus. In order to defend - or insulate - themselves from such a lawsuit, they are reviewing the old files of cases that the dead were involved in, particularly one of Smiley's projects, Operation Windfall.

Meanwhile, in Brittany, Smiley's colleague and disciple, Peter Guillam, is living out his years of retirement on the family farmstead, along with a younger woman friend and her child. Into this bucolic scene drops a letter from the Circus summoning him to London for the purpose of reviewing files and telling the lawyers what he knows about what happened, lo those many years ago.

Peter finds that the present generation of spies in London has no memory of the Cold War and no appreciation of the choices that had to be made in those fraught days. He is pretty much the charming cad that he always was and a master of obfuscation, but in the end he finds its expedient to more or less cooperate with their investigation.

Much of the action of the book is told in flashbacks and in reviews of Agency notes and memos from the relevant period. We get to read the notes and memos as Peter does and they are fleshed out by his memories of events and people. I felt very nostalgic being once again in the company of Smiley, Alec Leamas, Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, and, yes, Bill Haydon.

The characters are the strongest part of the story; the plot doesn't quite live up to their strength. Nevertheless, it is such an unadulterated pleasure to once again sit at the feet of the master. No one can match le Carré in the writing of the spy novel. I guess you can count me as an addict. I would rush to read anything that he writes in this genre. 

Even if this was not among his best efforts, it was still a thrill for me. Even le Carré's mediocre stuff is better than most writers' A game.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

Just because I love it... 

And dedicated to the love of my life.

Sonnet 29

by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

This week in birds - #273

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

A female Downy Woodpecker enjoys a meal of suet from the bottom of the cage.


One of the notable and scary things about this season's hurricanes has been the way that they have quickly intensified. Often that intensification has come just before landfall, with disastrous results for the communities that have been in the way of that landfall. The reasons for the rapid intensification, or explosion as some call it, are not entirely understood, but climatologists believe that the unusually warm ocean waters have played their part in feeding the storms.


Puerto Rico, hit by Hurricane Irma and then completely devastated by Hurricane Maria, was already suffering environmental calamities. The storms worsen those and create additional public health problems, especially in poorer areas of the island.


The Puerto Rican Parrot is an endangered species that has been under protection for five decades. As Maria bore down on the island, the keepers of 230 captive parrots at the aviary in El Yunque National Forest were charged with making sure that the birds survived the storm. They did. They rode out the storm in a hurricane safe room, as they have many times before.


The endangered Snail Kites of Florida did not fare so well. All 44 nests of the birds around Lake Okeechobee were destroyed in the storm.


A recent DNA sequencing study of American oak trees has shown that they had a common ancestor in the northern part of the continent about 45 million years ago. That single species has given rise to 220 different species and two distinct lineages - the red oak and the white oak.


The Winter Finch Forecast is out and the prediction is that there will not be much movement southward by finches this year because there has been an excellent cone crop in the boreal forests where they spend their summers. Since there is plenty of food, there is no reason for them to leave home. The Northeast and the states nearer the Canadian border will see some movement, but here along the southern coast and throughout much of the country finch sightings will likely be few.


For 51 years, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has been central to the efforts to save and increase the population of the critically endangered Whooping Crane. Now, that project is ending because funding for it has dried up. The research center will continue with other important projects, but its flagship program, the one it was known for, will be no more.


The report that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke completed on the status of national monuments has been leaked, and it is just as bad as we suspected. It would modify at least ten of the sites, shrinking the boundaries of four of them. And all of the public lands would be subject to what the administration calls "traditional uses," by which they mean grazing, coal mining, logging, and commercial fishing.


Photo courtesy of Audubon.

This is the 'I'iwi, or Scarlet Honeycreeper, a native Hawaiian honeycreeper which, like many Hawaiian birds, is threatened by loss of or degradation of habitat and by the effects of climate change. This bird was once one of the most common in Hawaiian forests. Now the 'I'iwi will be given protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It is hoped that this will be the first step to its recovery.


The future of the oldest tree species on Earth is in peril because of climate change. The bristlecone pine needs to move its range northward and into the mountains in order to survive, but the trees, which can live for 5,000 years, must compete with other trees in that habitat and cannot seem to move fast enough to escape the danger.


The ABA Blog continues the fight to save the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge on the Texas/Mexico border from the ill-conceived idea of a wall built through the middle of it. They urge everyone who loves wildlife and wild places to speak out against the project. With all of the catastrophic news of earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires over the last several weeks, this story has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, but it's still out there and it still needs to be stopped!


At the West Coast Wildlife Center in New Zealand, a 23-year project to save the Kiwi, the country's most iconic animal, is underway. Operation Nest Egg takes Kiwi eggs from the wild, incubates them, and raises the chicks until they are big enough to fend for themselves before releasing them back into the wild. This has had the effect of increasing and stabilizing a population that has been at risk.


Agents who signed on with the EPA to investigate complex environmental crimes are instead being assigned to give 24/7 protection to the head of the agency, Scott Pruitt, something which no other EPA head has required. This is having a detrimental effect on the agency's ability to investigate environmental crimes - which may be the whole point.


Bird migration has long mystified the humans who observed it, but, thanks to modern technology, we are getting more and more data to begin to understand it. One of the surprising facts learned is that many small songbirds eschew overland routes and instead strike out over open oceans to reach their destinations. 


The California Condor is a success story. In 1987, the last remaining 22 birds in the wild were all captured and taken to San Diego and Los Angeles zoos to be bred in captivity. Thirty years later there are roughly 450 of the huge birds with the 10-foot wingspan. This includes about 270 in the wild in California, Arizona, Utah, and northeastern Mexico. The birds still face danger, especially from mercury and lead poisoning, but the slow and steady climb in the population is a very hopeful sign.      

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In Plain Sight by C.J. Box: A review

And now for something completely different - a western mystery.

It has been three years since I last read one of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett mysteries, so it was time for me to check in once again on the Saddlestring, Wyoming game warden and his family. This is the sixth book in the series and here's a caveat for potential readers: Don't read this book until you've read the previous five; you will be lost. 

Joe is still the game warden in Twelve Sleep County but that's one of the few constants in this story. The old sheriff of the county, Joe's nemesis, is gone. There is a new sheriff in town and he has quickly become another Pickett nemesis, mainly because he seems incapable of caring about or upholding the law.

Joe's old supervisor, who had helped shield him from some of the bureaucratic minutiae and infighting that he hates, is gone. There's a new head of his department who has taken over the direct supervision of his Twelve Sleep game warden, with an eye to "getting the goods" on him so he can finally push him out.

His friend and ally, Nate Romanowski, is out of the picture - at least at the beginning of the book. Various law enforcement agencies are looking for him, especially the FBI. Joe doesn't know his whereabouts and hasn't heard from him, but before Nate absconded, Joe had promised to feed his hawks and he still honors that promise.

Joe's wife, Marybeth, has started a successful accounting business, which is a good thing because Joe's job doesn't pay much. Their two daughters are growing up and Marybeth is saving for their college education.

In Plain Sight finds Twelve Sleep County in turmoil because the matriarch of the most powerful family in the county, the Scarletts, has gone missing. Opal Scarlett had spent her life setting her sons against each other and now the two older of them are at war over who will control the vast family ranch holdings. The prevailing opinion regarding Opal's disappearance is that one or the other of her sons has killed her and disposed of the body, but the local sheriff doesn't seem to be too eager to investigate.

Meanwhile, a ghost from Pickett's past (which is why you need to read those earlier books) is stalking the family. A series of violent acts involving the killing of wild animals Joe is sworn to protect and leaving the carcasses on or near their house is distressing to the family. Joe searches his memory to try to think who would do such a thing, but he doesn't have a clue.

Box does a good job of describing the Wyoming landscape and the isolation of the inhabitants. His Joe Pickett is a multifaceted character. He first presents as a rather bumbling, ineffective upholder of the law, but there is more there than meets the eye and, as one of the other characters opines, it is dangerous to underestimate him.

The plot moved along at a good pace which kept me turning the pages. There's not a lot of nuance in the characters; they are either good or evil. On the whole, I found this to be an interesting reunion with the Picketts and the ending of the book left me wondering what's going to happen next, so I don't think it will be another three years before I pick up the next one.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


Monday, September 18, 2017

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: A review

Mrs. Fletcher is Eve Fletcher, a 46-year-old divorcee whose adored son, Brendan, her only child, has just left for his freshman year in college, leaving her with the proverbial empty nest. In her loneliness, she casts about for something that will bring meaning to her life.

It's not as if "empty nest" means an empty life. Eve has a satisfying job as the executive director of a senior center. She has friends and interacts daily with her staff and with the seniors who come to the center, but she definitely feels that something is missing.

She signs up at the local community college to take a course on Gender and Society at night. The course is taught by a fascinating transgender instructor and the other students are an interesting mixed bag of personalities and life experiences at all stages of life. Eve becomes engrossed in new avenues of thought that are opened up for her by the course.

At some point, after Brendan leaves for college, she receives an anonymous text message: “U R my MILF!” Who would have sent her such a message and why?

Thinking of MILFs leads her into thinking of porn and soon she finds herself watching porn on the internet every night. She is especially obsessed with a particular lesbian MILF site. She can't stop watching! She is quickly becoming addicted to web porn and her fixation threatens to spill over into her real life in unexpected and embarrassing ways.

Meanwhile, Brendan, the jock and aspiring frat-boy, is finding that college does not live up to his sex-crazed expectations. He was expecting to pursue a hard partying lifestyle, but a few weeks into the college year, he finds himself lost at sea. He is floundering in all of his classes and he finds that his attitude of smug white-dude privilege and chauvinistic ideas about sex do not find favor with the female students with whom he comes in contact.

In short, as the autumn progresses, both mother and son must face the consequences of bad decisions and mistakes they have made. 

Perrotta presents his characters' conundrums with a wry humor along with sharp social commentary. He deals with the various permutations of sexuality and identity with a provocative and always witty frankness.

This is, on one level, a very funny book, but it is much more than that. Perrotta gives us an unflinching look at some of the darker corners of modern society and how we deal with our fellow men/women/humans. And even as he presents his perspectives with humor, he leaves us with a lot to ponder in our more sober moments. 

Overall, I found this to be a quick read, because once I got started, it was hard to put down. I was completely engaged by the story.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Giant of the Senate by Al Franken: A review

I was reading a column by James Fallows in The Atlantic yesterday in which he referenced this book. He said that this is the kind of book that Will Rogers would have written if Will Rogers had been in the Senate. High praise indeed!

And probably true.

My husband and I had been listening to the audible version of the book over the last couple of months whenever we had some free time or were spending more than just a few minutes in the car. It began to seem as though we were never going to finish it. But perseverance had its reward and we finally did hear it right up to its end this week.

I don't mean to make it sound like listening to it was a chore. It wasn't. Al Franken is a very funny fellow, even though he says that, being in the Senate, he's had to learn to tone down the funny or jettison it altogether. It seems that constituents don't want a funny man as their representative; they want someone who takes them and their problems seriously and who shows that through his actions.

After a career of more than thirty years in comedy, though, it wasn't easy for Al to make that transition. His first instinct is always to see the humor in any circumstance and to handle tense situations by diffusing them with a joke. That being the case, it would seem like politics would be a very uncomfortable fit for him.

And the way he describes it, it was definitely uncomfortable at first. He ran for senator in Minnesota in 2008 after the death of his friend Paul Wellstone whom he had admired as a senator and revered as a human being. He ran against an incumbent senator who waged a pretty nasty campaign against him. When the votes were finally counted, the two were in a virtual tie and it would take eight months, the longest recount in history, to sort it out.

But, in the end, Al Franken was the new senator from Minnesota.

He applied himself to learning the ropes, learning how to be an effective senator, how to be "a workhorse, not a showhorse". To that end, he steered clear of the national press, whose main concern seemed to be leading him into saying something funny.

He made the effort to connect with his fellow senators, Republicans as well as Democrats. His portraits of some of these senators and his tales of his interactions with them are some of the most interesting and the funniest parts of the book.

He is very gentle with his fellow senators, with one exception. That one exception gets a chapter all of his own. It is, of course, Texas' very own Ted Cruz. Franken writes:
The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted—and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted—is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate. 

And elsewhere:
I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.  
It's an emotion that many of us Texans completely share. 

Al's efforts to become a serious and effective senator were evidently successful in the eyes of his fellow Minnesotans. The freshman senator who had barely squeaked by in his first election won reelection in a landslide in 2014.

Al Franken is passionate about the issues that are important to him. Most importantly, he is passionate about making the lives of people better. Since I am in agreement with him on most of these issues, I found his autobiographical narrative (he narrated his own book) often uplifting and optimistic but sometimes thoroughly depressing and totally disheartening, as for example when he wrote about the presidential campaign of 2016.

Moreover, the nuts and bolts of just how government works and what it takes to get something accomplished in Congress can be mind-numbingly dull and tedious. But Al approaches it all with his sense of humor still intact. He's going to have to work a lot harder if he wants - as his staff has directed him - to eradicate it altogether. Here's hoping he never succeeds. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Far Afghanistan by James Taylor

My poem of the week this week is a song lyric.

I have felt the need for comfort music lately and when I think of comfort music, the first artist I think of is James Taylor. James and I have a long history together and when I've needed him, his voice has never failed me.

I love his old songs, of course, the songs that he wrote in his 20s and that I listened to in my 20s and have continued to listen to through the years, but recently I've also been listening to some of the newer stuff, including an album from 2015 called "Before the World".  That's where I found this song.

We are coming up on the 16th anniversary of the war that we have conducted in Afghanistan. And what has changed in all those years? What have all our efforts produced? What has been made better by all the blood that has been spilled there?

This lyric may not exactly qualify as "comfort music" but it certainly expresses things that it is hard for those of us who are not James Taylor to express.

Far Afghanistan 

by James Taylor

Back home Indiana, we just learn to get along
Civilized and socialized they teach you right from wrong
How to hold your liquor and how to hold your tongue
How to hold a woman or a baby or a gun
But nothing will prepare you for the far Afghanistan
You can listen to their stories and pick up what you can
You listen to their stories maybe read a book or two
Until they send you out there, man you haven’t got a clue

Oh the Hindu Kush, the Band-e Amir, the Hazara

They tell you a tradition in the hills of Kandahar
They say young boys are taken to the wilderness out there
Taken to the mountain alone and in the night
If he makes it home alive they teach him how to fight

They fought against the Russians, they fought against the Brits
They fought old Alexander, talking ‘bout him ever since
And after 9/11 here comes your Uncle Sam
Another painful lesson in the far Afghanistan

I was ready to be terrified and ready to be mad
I was ready to be homesick, the worst I’ve ever had
I expected to be hated and insulted to my face
But nothing could prepare me for the beauty of the place

No matter what they tell you all soldiers talk to God
It’s a private conversation written in your blood
The enemy’s no different, badass holy wind
That crazy bastard talks to God and his God talks back to him

Saturday, September 16, 2017

This week in birds - #272

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

A male Wood Duck is right at home swimming among the grasses in a marsh.


Among all the other problems caused by Hurricane Irma in Florida was the massive overflow of raw sewage, highlighting the dangers of an aging infrastructure amid the increased flooding caused by the effects of climate change. The sewage has created a public health issue as well as potential damage it does to the greater ecosystem.


Meanwhile, back in Houston, testing organized by The New York Times found that floodwaters there are contaminated with bacteria and toxins that can make people sick. One would think that such testing would be organized and warnings to the public given by the EPA or even by our state environmental quality agency. Apparently, you would be wrong. It is indeed a new world that we live in.


Of course, it wasn't just humans and animals who live on land whose lives were disrupted by the hurricanes. On a Texas City beach on the Texas coast after the storm passed, this strange creature was found after having been washed ashore.

After a lot of speculation and wild guesses, it was identified as a fangtooth snake-eel (Aplatophis chauliodus), an animal that lives quietly in burrows on the bottom of the sea and darts out occasionally to feed. So there it was, placidly living out its life somewhere in the Gulf, and then along came Harvey.

Incidentally, when I first heard about this and saw the picture, I was reading The Essex Serpent, so the picture will always be my image of the "serpent". 


The National Audubon Society is keeping track of how the hurricanes have affected birds and birding sites. They are on the ground in Texas where they have found that in spite of the damage done, coastal ecosystems are tough and resilient. In Florida and the other states affected by Irma, as well as in the Caribbean, Audubon is also present and recording and analyzing the damage done.


City life is tough on fledgling birds. A lower percentage of birds hatched there manage to make it through their first year. But if they do, they are tougher and more impervious to the effects of stress and more likely to survive into the future. 


The International Union for Conservation of Nature has released its annual "red list" of endangered species. Some once-common species like North American ash trees are now on the list. The ash trees are there because of the depredations of the emerald ash borer beetle, an invasive insect.


There's good news for another endangered species. In Australia, another population of the Night Parrot has been located, leading to hopes that there may yet be other pockets of population of the elusive bird that have not yet been discovered. 


Heliotropism is the tendency of a plant to seek to sun, to grow in the direction of the sun. This can be observed especially in flowers such as the sunflower that tend to track the sun through the sky each day. How all of this happens is an interesting phenomenon for the study of scientists.


De-extinction of species that have long been extinct, or even of those recently extinct, continues to be a hotly debated issue. Although it is theoretically possible to bring species back, the real question is, should they be brought back?


An experiment involving the playback of birds' songs has found evidence of as many of 21 tropical avian species that have been previously unknown.


We know that plastic that winds up in our oceans is a huge environmental problem that does untold damage. Here is visual proof of the disruption the Nature of such refuse.

California-based Nature photographer Justin Hofman recently captured this image of a tiny seahorse gripping a Q-tip in the waters off Indonesia. A newborn seahorse would normally latch onto a blade of grass. This one has been fooled into mistaking a manmade plastic implement for its natural perch.


More hurricane related news: The ABA blog has information about some very unusual sightings of birds, particularly seabirds like Sooty Terns that were blown inland by Hurricane Irma.


A volunteer-run study of Cooper's Hawks in Seattle has been going since 2003 and finds that the birds are doing well there. This year they have documented 40 nests in the city. 


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts surveys to track and analyze the outdoor activities engaged in by Americans. Their latest survey shows that 86 million people engaged in watching wildlife in 2016, an increase of 20 percent over 2011. Meantime, the number who engage in hunting animals continues to decline.


To close on a positive note, there is very good news concerning the black-footed ferret, an animal that was once thought to be extinct. Several years ago, a few of the animals were found living and they have now been introduced into some of the areas where they previously existed. This year, wildlife biologists in Wyoming have spotted the first wild-born black-footed ferrets in 35 years on a ranch outside of Meeteetse, where they were reintroduced just last year. This is a heartening indication for the future survival of the species.

Black-footed ferret photo by USFWS. Live long and prosper, little guy. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2017

I didn't get to participate in Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens in August, first because I was otherwise engaged at the time and second because I really didn't have much to show anyway. Now here we are in September and there's probably even less to show, but I'll give you a peek at what I've got.

In the interim, of course, we had a bit of excitement when Hurricane Harvey came calling. He was actually relatively gentle with my neighborhood. We had no destructive winds and we only got 24 inches of rain. Two feet of water is less than half of what some areas got. But even a "gentle" hurricane was no fun for my garden.

Plants that were in bloom at the time had their blooms shredded and knocked to the ground by the pounding rain. Several shrubs and perennials had many or most of their leaves knocked off and a lot of the leaves that were left quickly turned yellow. In short, it left the garden in a mess and, since I've been busy with other projects recently, more than two weeks later it is still in pretty much of a mess.

But enough with the moaning and groaning. Here's what is still blooming.  

Looking like the burning bush of fables, Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush or hummingbird bush, never skipped a beat. It is undaunted by hurricanes or drought. When the shrub is in full bloom, as it is from early summer until first frost, it can truly look like a bush on fire.

If it is September, it must be time for the asters to be in bloom

The candy-striped flowers of the milk and wine lilies keep popping up throughout summer and fall.

I love the daisy-like blossoms of the ground cover wedelia. It makes me happy just to look at them.

The tiny blue flowers of bindweed (Convolvulus) close up by mid-day, but while they remain open, they have a cooling effect.

Lantana is another tough plant that is a butterfly attractant.

This pink crape myrtle continues to bloom all summer long. It lost a lot of leaves in the storm, but, oddly, the fragile-looking flowers stood up well.

The weird little flowers of porterweed don't look like much to humans but butterflies find them really beautiful

Butterflies like this Painted Lady. Apparently it is Painted Lady season because there have been a lot of them in the garden this week.

The yellow cestrum is another shrub that had a lot of leaves knocked off or yellowed by the storm, but it still sports quite a few of these blossoms.

The old canna still has a few blooms as well.

On one of the bare branches of the yellow cestrum, this red skipper dragonfly was sunning itself.

The Duranta erecta has been covered in these golden berries that give the plant its popular name of "golden dewdrop". These berries are greatly loved by birds and you can probably see that a lot of them have already been stripped off by the hungry critters.

The Duranta still carries a few blooms as well. They are very attractive to butterflies of all kinds.

The beautyberries virtually glow, as they wait for hungry birds to find them.

On the muscadine vines, the grapes are beginning to turn color.

It's still summer for another week and the summer phlox still have a few blooms left.

Yellow milkweed in flower.

The 'Pride of Barbados' shrub has been in bloom since early summer and its flowers still hang on and are still visited by Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies.

Another shrub damaged by Harvey's hard rains was the blue potato bush, but it still manages to produce a few of its pretty blossoms.

This butterfly ginger bloom looks distinctly bedraggled but the butterflies and hummingbirds don't mind.

Observers report an increase in the number of Monarch butterflies this summer and here is another pair, perched on my crape myrtle tree, doing their part to ensure the continuation of their species.

The dwarf ruellia, 'Katie', blooms on.

Turk's cap blossoms are a favorite of migrating hummingbirds.

In the little goldfish pond, the water lilies continue to send out the occasional pretty flower.

I look forward to my walk around the garden each day to see which hibiscus is in bloom. Today it was this one.

I'm so glad you decided to spend some time in my garden this Bloom Day. I hope both you and your garden are flourishing. 

Happy gardening!

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: A review

What a pleasure it was to read this book. From the first sentence to the last I was captivated. I didn't mind at all that the plot was slow in developing. The elegant language alone was enough to hold my interest.

Sarah Perry's book is set in the late 19th century and it takes the form of a gothic novel. This was an exciting period for scientific discoveries and intellectual debate and such debates are at the heart of this book as we watch two people, each from very different worlds, come together and form a unique relationship bond.

Cora Seaborne is from London. She has recently been released from a loveless and occasionally abusive marriage by the death of her husband. She admits at one point in the book that the day of her husband's death was probably the happiest day of her life. She still bears scars from that relationship, including a painful physical scar on her neck which she hides with scarves.

Cora was left quite well off financially by her husband's death and she decides that she will now live as she chooses to live, unconstrained by society's expectations.

She has a son named Francis, who would today be diagnosed as fitting on the autism spectrum. In the 1890s, he's just considered very odd and no one quite knows what to do with him.

Cora takes her son and his nanny, her friend Martha, to the Essex village of Aldwinter where she hopes to pursue her interests as a naturalist. She's never happier than when she is out slopping through the mud by the river looking for fossils, dreaming of finding evidence of some previously undiscovered species, like a plesiosaur.

While walking around the marshes one day, she comes upon a man struggling to free a sheep that is stuck in the mud. She plunges in to help and so encounters the local vicar, Will Ransome. They don't actually introduce themselves at this time and it's only at their second meeting that each actually learns who the other is.

Will is married to the beautiful - both inside and out - Stella and they have had five children, of whom three are still living. He dotes on Stella and his children and is passionate about his faith and about sharing that faith with his parishioners.

These representatives of science and faith meet and hit it off immediately as they engage in long intellectual discussions, sharing ideas. They become friends and it looks as if that friendship may blossom into an even deeper relationship.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Stella is not well. Her illness that the local physician has diagnosed as flu hangs on for months and finally is determined to be consumption. The outcome does not look hopeful for her.

At this time, the village of Aldwinter is engulfed by rumors of a great serpent, a dragon perhaps, that lives in the waters off shore and sometimes comes on shore to take animals or humans. No one has ever seen the animal, but many have caught glimpses or seen what they regard as evidence of the beast. Will Ransome considers his parishioners' agitation as nothing more than a form of mass hysteria, a relinquishing of their faith. He doesn't believe that such a creature exists.

Cora hopes that it does exist and that it is her much wanted undiscovered species. She hopes to discover it and donate her find to a museum.

The story switches back and forth between London and Aldwinter and there are several other prominent characters who contribute to the exposition of the plot. The tale is told with grace and intelligence and we come to care deeply about all these characters and to hope for the best outcome for each of them.

This was simply a delight to read from beginning to end, thoroughly satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. Sarah Perry is a very gifted writer.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A review

Several years ago, I took a continuing education course entitled "The Great American Novel" at our local college. One of the works discussed in the course was The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I never actually read the book during the course, but I've always been curious about it and it had long languished on my TBR list. Time to tick that box.

This short novel - actually more a novella or long short story - was published in 1892. It was inspired by the author's own experience with mental illness. Following the birth of her child, she suffered from what we would now recognize as severe postpartum depression. 

Both her husband and her brother were agreed that the best treatment for what ailed her was the "rest cure," which was recommended by a specialist. It was essentially a period of enforced inactivity and solitude. And so this was the treatment which Charlotte endured. Her opinion on the matter was not solicited.

Then, some years later, she fictionalized her experience in The Yellow Wallpaper. One wonders what her husband and brother thought when they read it. We may have a partial answer in the fact that Charlotte and her first husband were divorced in 1894.

In the book, a woman suffering from an unnamed mental disorder is taken to a house in the country to rest and recover from her illness. A nurse cares for her baby. Her husband is a doctor who works long hours. She is left mostly on her own in a room that was once a nursery and which is papered in a yellow wallpaper with a busy Romanesque pattern. She is told to sleep as much as possible.

As she lies in bed staring at the paper, she begins to see different patterns in it. Eyes staring back at her. Bars, as in a prison. A malevolent woman who crawls around the room on the paper...

As she becomes completely obsessed with the wallpaper, she descends further into madness. She attempts to talk with her husband to tell him what she is seeing and feeling, but he will not listen to her. In these attempted conversations, her husband constantly refers to her as "baby" or "little girl". He no doubt sees these as terms of endearment but they are diminishing to a woman who has faced the life-threatening, certainly life-altering, experience of childbirth and come through it. 

But All-Wise Man knows best and does not need input from a mere woman.

When The Yellow Wallpaper was first published, it was read as a bit of horror fiction. Gilman always insisted, however, that it was meant as a cautionary tale, warning people of the potential harm to be done by this sort of solitary confinement, especially to the mind of a person who is already depressed or distressed. She sent a copy of it to the specialist who had recommended her own "rest cure" and he subsequently altered his practices. 

With the coming of the struggle for equal rights for women, The Yellow Wallpaper has become a feminist classic. It details 19th century attitudes toward women's mental and physical health issues and the fact that women's opinions about those issues were never asked for or considered. Men made all those decisions for them.

And here we are in the 21st century and men in government are still making the decisions about women's health issues, without input from women. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars