Monday, January 30, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A review

A book about racism, segregation, slavery that is laugh-out-loud funny? Yep, that would be The Sellout in a nutshell!

It's easy to see why this book won all those awards last year, including the first Man Booker for a work by an American author. It is a tour-de-force of writing, a biting social satire that makes its point not with a bludgeon but with a delicate literary sensibility firmly based in historical authenticity.

Beatty has given us a protagonist/narrator who is a young black man from the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, a neighborhood on the outskirts of southern Los Angeles. He was raised by a single father, a sociologist who used his son as the subject of his weird, often outlandish psychological studies of the roots of fear and of racism. 

The son grew up to become a farmer who raised delicious fruit of many kinds, the most delicious of all being satsuma oranges. He also grew watermelons and weed, one of the finest varieties of which he called "Anglophobia."

He lost his father along the way to a policeman's gun. The man was shot essentially for driving while black, a sad and familiar story in our country. At least, the resulting financial settlement with the city of Los Angeles made life a bit easier for the son.

Over time, our narrator watches the decline of his neighborhood, until, finally, Dickens no longer even appears on California maps, at which point our hero decides on a social and psychological experiment of his own, one that will put Dickens back on the map. With the help of the town's most famous resident, the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, he comes up with an outrageous plan; he will reinstitute slavery and segregation in Dickens. That should get California's - and the world's - attention!

Thus it is that Hominy becomes his willing - even eager - slave and he begins a stealth campaign to reinstitute segregation in the local school. His plan is a roaring success! Soon the students at the all black - well, black and Hispanic and Asian - school are doing better than ever, succeeding as never before.

Sure enough, this does bring him and Dickens attention and he winds up before the Supreme Court in a very funny scene, which I can't even begin to describe.

Along the way, the author pricks the hot air balloons of just about every black American cultural icon and cliche that one could think of - from Mike Tyson to Bill Cosby to George Washington Carver to Tiger Woods to Clarence Thomas and so many more. They are all here. Also lawn jockeys, cotton picking, Saturday morning cartoons, as well as the American liberal agenda all come in for a skewering. The comic writing sometimes made me wince or shrug wryly, but mostly it just made me grin. 

This is a zany book that employs racist terms in the service of humor - words that are never spoken in polite society. It's a way to shock the reader and get his/her full attention. Suffice to say if you are one who is offended by the language in Huckleberry Finn, you'll be absolutely appalled by the language in The Sellout.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Mending Wall

Walls are much in the news these days, which, of course, brought to mind one of my favorite Robert Frost poems.

Two neighbors meet in spring to repair the winter damage to the wall between their properties. Frost makes the argument to his neighbor that they really don't need a wall. After all, neither has any cows: 

     "...Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
     What I was walling in or walling out,
     And to whom I was like to give offence.
     Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
     That wants it down."

But his neighbor stubbornly clings to what he was once told by his father, with no better reason for wanting a wall:

     He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
     Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
     He will not go behind his father's saying,
     And he likes having thought of it so well
     He says again, " Good fences make good neighbours."

Let us not move in darkness but examine in the light of day why we think we need to build walls.

Mending Wall

by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, " Good fences make good neighbours."

Friday, January 27, 2017

This week in birds - #241

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

Sandhill Crane photographed at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.


Several years ago there was a flurry of excitement over the reported sighting in an Arkansas swamp of a bird that had been thought to be extinct. However, no definitive photographic evidence of the sighting was ever presented and eventually the excitement and the talk about the possibility that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still lived subsided, and the bird was once again consigned to the rolls of the extinct. Some researchers remain true believers in the bird's existence, however, and recently a new paper has been presented outlining evidence that the bird may still survive in Florida. Audubon online sums it up for us


Among the flood of executive orders signed by the president this week was one reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, both of which pose significant threats to the environment as well as the Dakota Access being a threat to burial grounds sacred to the Lakota Sioux nation. 


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled its long-planned climate and health summit as the new climate change-denying administration was taking office, but now the summit is back on, to be held at the Carter Center in Atlanta. It is being sponsored by non-governmental entities such as Harvard Global Health Institute, the Turner Foundation, and the Climate Reality Project which was founded by Al Gore.


Using autonomous recording devices that can be placed in a location and left for weeks or months to record sounds, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, working with First Nation scientists in Canada, is hoping to get better information on some of the birds that inhabit the most remote parts of the Boreal region. 


Mary Tyler Moore, who died this week was a hero and a glass ceiling breaker for many women, but birders may best remember her for the time she stood up for a Red-tailed Hawk. When the co-op board in charge of the luxury Fifth Avenue apartment building where she lived had the famous Pale Male's nest removed from the building, Moore and other residents were incensed. They mounted a successful protest that convinced the co-op board to make a nesting site available for Pale Male and his mate and to leave them in peace. 


At the end of the last Ice Age, Australia was populated by a large number of massive mammals, but they have all disappeared. Their extinction has been thought to have been caused by humans, but a new study postulates that it was primarily caused by a changing climate, to which the animals were unable to adjust. That mass extinction could help to predict what the present-day human-caused climate change might  bring. 


Last Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency staffers were ordered by the new administration to freeze all of the agency's grants and contracts, cutting off financial support for many state and tribal environmental protection programs. The gutting of this agency's functions would undo many of the protections that people like Rachel Carson fought for. 

Incidentally, the PBS program "American Experience" has a terrific documentary on Rachel Carson that is running this week. Look for it. If you've missed it on your local channel, you may be able to watch it online. Trust me - it is worth the effort.  


Laysan Albatrosses stubbornly return to the same site each year to nest. But what if that site is right next to a U.S. Navy runway in Hawaii? The Navy, along with the help of biologists, is taking fertilized eggs from the nests of the birds and moving them to foster parents that nest in a safer location. The chicks should then imprint on that new location and return there when they are adults ready to nest. 


Canadian scientists went through a period when their government was hostile toward science and tried to shut them up, during the Steven Harper administration. They are now reaching out to their colleagues in the United States to explain how they fought back and to try to help them protect data so that it cannot be expunged by anti-science apparatchiks.


Volunteers are working to protect areas of the New Jersey shore to allow plants to grow and birds to breed without human interference. They are accomplishing this by cordoning off sections of the shore area. 


New evidence appears to indicate that Earth is warming even faster than was previously thought, meaning that we have even less time to try to reverse or slow the trend which would ultimately make the planet uninhabitable for humans.


More scientists are getting actively involved with politics and are considering running for office to try to combat the anti-science, anti-intellectual bias of the government.


The proposed wall between Mexico and the United States is a human rights issue but it is also a threat to a number of migratory species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it would be detrimental to 111 endangered species and 108 migratory birds.


For more than 40 years, the Endangered Species Act has been the cornerstone of the nation's environmental laws and a lifeline to prevent the extinction of rare and endangered species. But now the Act itself may be facing extinction, put to death by a hostile Congress and executive branch.


A wet winter has provided some relief to drought-stricken California, but unless the state can begin to manage it water resources in a more sustainable way, that advantage will not be sufficient.

Civil servants as heroes

Our national park system has been referred to as "America's Best Idea." I would not argue with that. And to think, it was all started by a Republican.

The national park system and the rangers who are its caretakers have some of the highest approval ratings of any institution in the country. Everybody loves parks; what's not to love? And everybody appreciates those guys (and gals) in the funny hats who are always around to offer directions, explain the features of the land under their care, tell us about the history of our country, and tell us that, no, we should not try to pet the bears or the bison.

Park rangers are civil servants and, as such, they are nonpartisan. They serve an ideal not the political party that happens to be on top at any given time.  I, myself, was a civil servant for my entire working life. During more than 30 years in various jobs, most of my service was done during times when I strongly disagreed with the governing philosophy of the elected officials at the head of the government. But I was not there to serve an elected politician; I was there to serve the people and I always tried to do that to be best of my ability. Most civil servants do.

Perhaps because of my personal history, when I see someone showing contempt for these caretakers of our land and our system of government and trying to bully them into either being quiet or lying to support the party line, it frankly makes my blood boil!

I found it very interesting and heartening this week to see the response of many civil servants, including those who work in the national park system, to efforts by the new administration in Washington to get them to be quiet or to support the lies that the new president was telling about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, as well as being silent about public health issues, dangers to the environment, the progress of climate change and anything else that doesn't fit with the "alternative facts" promulgated by this president and his spokespersons. Instead of sitting down and shutting up, they stood up and they spoke out.

It started with Badlands National Park and a tweet about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being more than at any time in the last 650,000 years, but soon other parks joined in, tweeting out inconvenient truths to the nation. Soon other civil servants were speaking out, sometimes anonymously and as whistleblowers, and some forthrightly, even to the extent of resigning their positions rather than serving a lie. They make me proud to be one of them.

But what of the future? The pressure on civil servants to toe the political line will continue and is likely to become intense. So far the lies they are asked to support are relatively inconsequential, always, it seems, something to do with the size and enthusiasm of a crowd. But what is going to happen when those same civil servants are asked to support a lie about a foreign threat or about job numbers or the national deficit? Let us hope that their truth-telling will continue. At this time in our history, we badly need heroes to step up. Who cares if they wear funny hats?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Innocents by Ace Atkins: A review

And now for something completely different. At least different from all the literary fiction I've been reading lately. 

No one could accuse Ace Atkins of writing literary fiction, but his books are well-written and are fast-paced reads. The Innocents, the latest in his Mississippi noir series featuring ex-Army Ranger Quinn Colson, is no exception.

I enjoy reading this series, first because it is well-written and carefully plotted, but also because I know from my childhood growing up in the area that Atkins writes about that he's got the place just right. The cadences of speech, the interactions between people, the insularity of that society, Atkins, who still lives in Oxford, Mississippi, understands it all and he writes about it with clear-eyed vision while retaining his empathy for his characters who live in this hidebound place. Which is all probably just a long way of saying that Atkins' characters are believable, and that is some of the highest praise you can give a writer.

As we meet Quinn Colson this time around, he has recently returned from Afghanistan where he had been working under a contract to train the Afghanis in police work. He took this job after he had lost the election for sheriff. 

But almost as soon as the new sheriff was sworn in, he was killed. That left Colson's friend and chief deputy Lillie Virgil in charge and she is still the acting sheriff. 

Colson returns to the messed up personal life that he had left behind. He's still carrying on his affair with a married woman, who is now talking divorce from her husband. His long estranged father, Jason, is back in town and has big dreams about establishing a dude ranch on property adjoining Quinn's. Unfortunately, that property is owned by Quinn's nemesis and now federal prison inmate, Johnny Stagg. 

Quinn's sister, Caddie, seems to have straightened out her life and is now running a church/homeless shelter/food pantry called The River. And his mama is still the rock of the family and still in love with Elvis. 

Evil still lurks in Tibbehah County. (Tibbehah is fictional but seems to be an amalgamation of Tippah and Octibbehah, both of which are quite real.) Even though Johnny Stagg is gone, there's a new owner of the local pole-dancing, lap-dancing, and assorted other activities club; she is a tough, no-nonsense woman named Fannie Hancock, and she immediately butts heads with Lillie Virgil.

But there is a greater evil abroad in this county. We don't see its black heart revealed until late in the book, although I admit I began to suspect the truth fairly early in the game. The impetus for getting to the bottom of this terrible corruption is another horrific event - the murder of a young woman.

Millie had once been the top cheerleader at the local high school, but she had dropped out and seemed on a fast track to nowhere. She came from truly awful family circumstances and the great tragedy of her life was the apparent suicide of her brother, Brandon. Then one night a trucker finds her walking down the highway engulfed in flames. He stops to help her and she's taken to the burn unit in Memphis but she does not survive her ordeal.

It looks like a torture/revenge killing. Lillie asks Quinn to come back and work for the sheriff's department in investigating the crime. He had been planning to return to Afghanistan but accepts her request, and we watch these two as they run down every lead in attempting to find a killer. In the end, they get help from an unexpected quarter in solving the mystery, but the truth is not something the people of Tibbehah County want to hear and soon the community is in turmoil.

Well, there's another election for sheriff coming soon and the candidates are lining up - one who (figuratively) wants to build a wall around Tibbehah County and one who wants to ban Muslim immigrants from the county and enforce the law according to the Ten Commandments. And then there's Quinn Colson, who Lillie has persuaded to stay and run for his old office. Wonder who'll win?  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

Monday, January 23, 2017

Outline by Rachel Cusk: A review

What do we know about the narrator of Rachel Cusk's novel? Her name is Faye. She is a writer. She lives in London and is divorced. She is the mother of more than one child. She has taken a job teaching a summer writing course in Athens. That's about it. We never get below the surface with her. She remains a cipher.

This cipher, however, seems to have the ability to inspire other people to reveal their deepest secrets. Throughout this very unusual and very intelligent book, Faye has a number of conversations with people that she encounters and all of these people end up telling her stories about themselves and all the people they are closest to in their lives.

Her first encounter happens on the plane when she is flying from London to Athens to take up her summer job. She sits next to an older man, a Greek who is returning home. He unburdens himself about his failed marriages. Initially, he mentions only two but we learn later that he has actually had three. He talks about his children who have various problems. The conversation will continue in Athens when he contacts Faye and takes her out on his boat a couple of times and eventually makes a pass which she spurns.

But there are several other encounters; with her students in the writing class; with fellow writers; with people whom she meets for coffee or for dinner. Always these meetings turn into confessionals with the other person revealing intimate details of his/her life to Faye.

All of these conversations are reported to us in the voice of Faye, the observer and writer. Faye shares several characteristics with the author and it is tempting to see this as a kind of memoir. It is difficult to tell where the line is drawn between autobiography and fiction.

Somewhat curiously, while these people's stories are told in Faye's voice, we almost never hear that voice as a part of the conversations. She's simply telling us what the other person said, but she's not saying much about herself or voicing her opinions. Hers is a disembodied voice and she remains a cipher. Even her family - the children she left in London - seem to factor only very minimally in her day-to-day life and to have no impact on her interactions with others. 

So this book is a collection of conversations. It is reporting on an intellectual level. Very little emotion is involved. And yet one feels an intimacy in these interactions that might not have been present if the stories were told emotionally. The reader has a clear-eyed view of the encounters and is able to make up her own mind about them without being prompted by the author.

This is one of the more unorthodox books that I have read in a while. In fact, I can't think of another that is quite like it. Perhaps the closest was Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I thought the writing was brilliant and inspired. It certainly was original in its concept and execution.

I've learned that this was the first in what is planned as a trilogy. That's very good news. I look forward to reading the later entries.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Phenomenal Woman

Here's a poem that I will dedicate to all the phenomenal women around the world who marched yesterday to say,  "We are strong and we are not going anywhere!"

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman 
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

This week in birds - #240

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

Eastern Bluebirds are searching for nesting sites and starting to build their nests already. If you have a bluebird box, make sure it is cleaned and ready for habitation. If you are thinking of putting up a nesting box, now's the time! A few weeks from now will be too late. 


The first act of the new administration in Washington was to take down the climate change page from the White House website. There you go, America! Problem solved. No more climate change.


Back in the reality-based universe, scientists announced this week that 2016 set a new record for high temperatures on our planet. It was the third consecutive year that Earth's temperatures have reached a new high. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have surpassed previous records for three years in a row.


Since the 2009 accident when a jetliner was forced to land on the Hudson River after birds were sucked into its engines, nearly 70,000 birds have been killed in New York in an attempt to clear a safer path for planes landing and taking off.


Red-breasted Nuthatches are one of those northern birds that periodically irrupt far south in their winter wanderings. In some years they even reach my backyard here in Southeast Texas. 

I haven't seen any of the little birds this winter but here's a photo (not particularly good) of one that visited here in the winter of 2012-13.


Birds flock together as a defense against predators. The larger the flock, the more likely the predator is to be confused and unable to focus on one bird as its prey.


National parks are places where wild things can exist in their natural habitat, but they are also popular tourist spots and at times it can be a challenge to manage Nature while also allowing access to it.


Core samples from Pelham Bay in New York City have provided scientists with a glimpse into the past to study historic sea levels and to see what may lie ahead for the area as sea levels continue to rise in response to the melting of ice packs around the poles.


A new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses the mitochondrial DNA of Heermann's Gulls to draw conclusions about how their population has expanded in the Gulf of California since the time of the glaciers, and, by extension, how human-caused climate change may affect them in the future.


There is alarming news for primates this week. According to recent studies, over half of the world's wild primates are facing extinction. Researchers warn of an approaching "major extinction event" if effective action is not taken to protect around 300 species of gorillas, chimps, lemurs, and lorises. 


The Black Rail is a reclusive, secretive little creature, sometimes called the "feathered mouse." So it may be hard to notice that the bird is disappearing. But that is what is happening. It is already gone from much of its historic habitat along the East Coast and the continuing sea level rise is rapidly robbing them of their habitat, triggering what could become a catastrophic decline in population.


The fleshy frontal shield, like the one that appears above the beak of this Purple Gallinule, is a sign of dominance in birds of the swamphen family. The condition of the shield is a measure of the dominance of the individual bird. The bigger and flashier the shield the more dominant the bird.


Since humans have appeared on Earth, the planet has never experienced a time when global sea ice was so weak and reduced. Why is this important? Blogger robertscribbler explains.


The domestic terrorists who invaded Malheur National Wildlife Refuge early last year dug a couple of trenches into archaeologically significant sites in the refuge. So far repairing those trenches has cost more than $100,000 of taxpayers' funds. 


The tomatillo is the tomato's oddball cousin, a member of the extensive nightshade family of plants and the main ingredient of tasty and tangy salsa verde. Scientists had estimated that the nightshade family was about 30 million years old, but recently, paleontologists in the Patagonia region of Argentina have discovered fossilized tomatillos that date to 52 million years ago. So, it is possible that the dinosaurs nibbled on nightshades.  


The attack on the Endangered Species Act has begun with the introduction of a bill in the Senate (sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats) to remove protection from the gray wolf. The sponsors insist that the bill will not modify the Endangered Species Act, but many conservationists see it as the opening shot in a war whose ultimate aim is the repeal of the act and the rescinding of protections for wildlife and the environment.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill: A review

Nathan Hill begins his novel by retelling the Buddha's story of the blind men and the elephant. A king commands that all the blind men in the town be brought into the presence of an elephant. Each of the men experiences a different part of the animal. One feels an ear, one the trunk, one the tail, and so on. Then they are asked to describe what they have felt and, of course, they all describe different things, even though they have touched the same animal. The king is highly diverted.

Hill then proceeds to show us his "elephant" as it is seen by many different characters. Although it is the same story, each one has experienced it from his/her own unique perspective and so each person's truth may be different from all others.

The New York Times review of this book referred to it as "the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." I can see that. The multiple story lines, the wordiness, the different styles of writing that are employed at various times throughout the book, and the seeming reluctance of the author to edit out any anecdote or observation that he's ever heard or made; these could all remind one of those authors. But frankly, I found this book much more enjoyable than anything I have read by them.

I don't know how to even begin to sum up the plot of The Nix. It's a novel that encompasses political history from 1968 to the present, that discusses addiction to playing online games, childhood tragedy and grief, academic entitlement, social mores, the decline of journalism, and military misadventure. It flits from the midwestern U.S. to New York to Chicago to Norway to Iraq and back to New York. It sounds like a crazy mix and it is, and yet somehow the author manages to make it all hang together in a way that makes for a prodigiously entertaining read.

We start during the presidential campaign of 2011. The authoritarian demagogic governor of Wyoming is running for president. At a campaign appearance in Chicago, he is pelted with a handful of gravel thrown by a woman described as an aging hippie.

That aging hippie turns out to be the mother of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, professor of English literature at a small midwestern college and an online gamer too addicted to a game called World of Elfscape to notice what is happening in the real world. He has recently challenged a young woman student over her plagiarized work and told her she will be given a failing grade. She admits the plagiarism but sees nothing wrong with it and fights back by complaining to the dean.

Now, the aging hippie gravel-thrower had abandoned Samuel and his father when Samuel was eleven years old and he has had no contact with her since then. But her lawyer contacts him for help with her case and he meets her for the first time in twenty years.

Flashback to 1968 and the riots around the Democratic convention in Chicago. The aging hippie was there, although she was then a young college student and not really a hippie. She has friends who are hippies, though, and she is caught up in their demonstrations and ends up spending a night in jail because of it.

During his adolescent years, young Samuel was friends with twins, Bishop and Bethany. He was in love with Bethany, who was a talented violinist. She later becomes an acclaimed professional musician and, after many years absence, comes back into Samuel's life at about the same time as his long, lost mother. 

Along the way, we also meet other Elfscape addicts, as well as Samuel's father and his Norwegian-American grandfather, Walter Cronkite, Hubert Humphrey, Allen Ginsberg, and other assorted relatives, business associates, friends, and enemies of Samuel and his mother. The book goes on for more than 600 pages and it is full of wit and energy and brilliant writing. Even though I can't help but think that it might have benefited from some judicious editing.

This is Nathan Hill's debut novel, hard as that is to believe. It seems like the work of a much more experienced writer. It is a sprawling story, both funny and sad at times. 

Of all the themes that are tackled here, the one that stands out for me, probably because this is January 2017, is the political one; the presidential candidate who is a wildly gesticulating billionaire bully running on an offensive platform of xenophobia and bigotry. In portraying a society that could conceivably elect such a person as president, audacious surrealism may be the only path to take. Nathan Hill treads that path without inhibition but he always seems to know just where he's going.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Anahuac NWR in January

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast is one of my favorite places for birding. It's an hour-and-a-half drive from my house, if the traffic is light, but it is well worth the effort.

In the past, we've had a family tradition of visiting Anahuac every January, often on January 1. It's a nice way to start off the year. We haven't made the trip yet this year, but I'm hoping we will be able to in the next couple of weeks.

Looking back over my records from previous January trips, I selected some of my bird photographs to show you. The refuge is visited by more than 300 species of birds throughout the year. Not all of them are there in January, but here are a few that are. 

American Coots with their striking red eyes are always plentiful on the refuge.

Forster's Tern searching for lunch over the bay waters.

A small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers bob along in the waters.

Willets look like very plain birds until they take flight and you can see their colorful underwings.

Black-necked Stilts search the marshes for their lunch.

There are thousands of Snow Geese at the refuge in January and most of them are truly snowy, but a few are of this dark phase variety. They do stand out in the flock.

Pied-billed Grebes are present every month of the year.

Where the flocks of geese go, flocks of raptors of many kinds follow. Often they are difficult to identify, but there is no doubt about this guy's identity; it is a Red-tailed Hawk

Little Savannah Sparrows are numerous at the refuge.

I think the Green Heron is one of the most attractive members of the heron-egret family.

Double-crested Cormorant posing for its portrait.

Several Great Egrets with a few White-eyed Ibises in the foreground.

This Greater Yellowlegs seems to be wondering what that object is that I'm holding.

Both Brown Pelicans and White are present on the refuge. Here is one of the Whites in flight over the bay.  

Any visit to the refuge would not be complete without encountering at least one Great Blue Heron.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Infinite Jest reconsidered - maybe

Are you a David Foster Wallace fan? Most literary critics are it seems; most of his fellow writers, too. Whenever his name comes up, they wax rhapsodic about his prodigious talent and bemoan the tragic loss of that talent that occurred when Wallace was finally overcome by his depression and killed himself in 2008.

I admit that I totally missed out on the Wallace worship of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was entirely ignorant of him. Obviously, my head was somewhere else at the time.

In fact the first time I really became aware of him was in late 2010 when I saw an article entitled "13 books that everyone says they have read - but haven't." I wrote a blog post about it in which I said that I had no intention of reading Infinite Jest, Wallace's book that was on the list. 

But I felt bad about cavalierly dismissing a book that so many people seemed to adore and the next year my conscience - and my curiosity - got the better of me and I committed to reading it. 

I didn't like it much.

Lately, I've been giving some thought to the book and wondering if perhaps I should give it another try. After all, all those very smart critics keep telling me what a wonderful, world-changing book it is. Did I utterly misjudge it?

Have you read Infinite Jest? If you have, I would be interested in your thoughts on it. Here's what I thought about it back in 2011.


June 28, 2011

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: A review

I will freely admit that I may just not be smart enough to understand this book. I've read a few reviews of it by people who obviously are more versed in modern literature than I, and, for the most part, those reviews have ranged from mildly positive to raves. Moreover, looking at Mr. Wallace's biography, one sees that he won multiple prizes for his writing and some of them were for this book. That biography also tells us that the themes and style which he used in his writing were metamodernism and hysterical realism. I would have to say that the emphasis was more on the hysterical than the realism.

The events of this book take place in the not-too-distant future, when Canada, Mexico and the United States have come together in an organization of North American states, abbreviated as O.N.A.N. (Wallace makes a fetish of using abbreviations, often without explaining what they mean.) It is a time when vast herds of rampaging feral hamsters overrun the wastelands of the Northeast.

There is no real protagonist here, no one that the reader can identify with and pull for. The action takes place at two main sites, the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a sanctuary for recovering addicts and the psychologically impaired.

Enfield was run by a genius named James O. Incandenza who ultimately ended it all by sticking his head in a microwave, but he is survived by three sons, one a pro-football punter, one a severely deformed child who is filming a documentary of his world, and one (Hal) who is a tennis prodigy who is also mentally gifted. To the extent that the book has a central character, it is Hal.

At Ennet, we see Joelle van Dyne, a recovering freebase habitue', and another addict named Gately. I could never really get a clear picture of either of them.

Tennis is an obsession of many who people these pages and long, tedious passages are devoted to the minutiae of the sport.

The action switches back and forth between the two main venues and sometimes veers off into the Arizona desert and introduces other characters who never develop or seem to have anything interesting to tell us.

More confusing still for the unwary reader is the fact that time is no longer measured in numerical years like 2011 or 1985. Now, the naming rights to years are bought by companies and products. Thus we have the Year of Depend Adult Undergarment or the Year of the Whopper or the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad.

Parts of this book are beautifully written with a clarity that makes the reader long for more, but typically those passages are followed by page after page after page of what I can only describe as incomprehensible dreck. The book is more than a thousand pages long. One gets the impression that the editors were so intimidated by Wallace's genius that they were reluctant to suggest removing a single word. They did the reader no favor with their shyness.

My overall impression of the book was that it was written by a terribly confused and unhappy author. Was my impression influenced by the fact that I knew that Wallace suffered from depression and later killed himself? Maybe. But it seems clear to me - hindsight is 20/20 after all - that the seeds of his obsession with suicide are discernible here.

As I was slogging through this book, sighing and cursing with just about every page, my husband asked me, "With all the good books out there that would give you pleasure, why are you reading one that you clearly don't enjoy?" Good question. I had challenged myself to read the book and I stubbornly perserved until I had met my challenge. Or at least until I had turned every page.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2017

Well, it was nice while it lasted. The end of our tropical "winter" came about ten days ago when our nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 20s F for two consecutive nights. That put paid to nearly all the blooms in my garden and left a lot of blackened and mushy plants to be pruned back and made neat in anticipation of spring. At such a time, we'll take color wherever we can find it.

We find it in the indoor garden. Amaryllises gladden our hearts with their frilly blossoms - with the promise of more to come.

Outside, violas are undaunted by cold weather.

As are their cousins, the pansies.

Then, of course, there is the reliable old Carolina jessamine for which the butterflies of January are extremely grateful.

By the goldfish pond, the pink flamingoes do their bit to provide color to the garden.

Last but not least, my bottletree blooms on in spite of everything and the Texas sage behind it retains it gray-green foliage.

Even though the predominant color of the garden this month is brown verging on black, I celebrate the brighter colors wherever they exist.

Happy Bloom Day and thank you for visiting my decimated January garden. Thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for hosting this monthly meme.

Poetry Sunday: Let America Be America Again

I've featured this poem here at least a couple of times before, but it is a favorite of mine and, frankly, it has never seemed more appropriate than now when one has reason to fear that the ideal of America may be lost forever.

Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the 20th century, and he was well aware that America had not lived up to the ideal imagined for it by our founding documents. It is an ideal that still eludes women and minorities in this "homeland of the free." 

On this weekend when we celebrate the life of another great African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as we anticipate the inauguration of a demagogue as our president, all our hopes and all our efforts should be directed toward letting America be America again.

(The emphasis on the last three stanzas is my own.)

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes (1935)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed -
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek -
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed! 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean -
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today - O, Pioneers! 
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home -
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?  

Who said the free? Not me!
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay -
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O,  let America be America again -
The land that never has been yet -
And yet must be - the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine - the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME -
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose -
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,

I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath -
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain -
All, all the stretch of these great green states -
And make America again!