Monday, May 28, 2018

Dressed for Death by Donna Leon: A review

A dead body is found in a field near a slaughterhouse in Marghera, near Venice. At first glance, it appears to be one of the prostitutes who work the area around the abbatoir. But on examination, it turns out to be a man dressed in a woman's red dress and underwear and red silk shoes. The victim has been beaten about the head and face so badly that he is rendered unrecognizable.

When his gender is discovered, the assumption becomes that he is a transvestite prostitute and the investigation of the death at first proceeds on that theory. But you know what they say about assuming things...

It is the middle of August when all of this happens, vacation time for Italians. Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family have plans to escape the oppressive heat of Venice for two weeks on a refreshing trip to the mountains where, even in mid-summer, sweaters are required. Then he gets "the call." He has been assigned to head the investigation of this appalling murder. His wife and children go on to the mountains without him and he is stuck in the steamy, suffocating atmosphere of Venice trying to, first of all, learn the identity of the murder victim and then find out who killed him and bring that person to justice.

As the investigation proceeds, the body count mounts and Brunetti must once again wrestle with the corrupt bureaucracy of Italy where powerful people are able to buy the police and ensure the outcomes that they desire from government offices. Hmm...that does hit a bit too close to home. 

Brunetti, of course, will not be bought. He is an upright and honorable man who loves his wife and children and goes home at night to eat peaches and read from Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome. While his wife is gone, he cooks wonderful, healthy meals for himself and cleans up after himself. What a man!

I really like the characters of Brunetti and his family. This is the third book in the series and the third one I have read and I find my affection for the characters growing with each installment.

That being said, this particular entry was not my favorite. I think I was put off in part by the constant references to the oppressive heat and humidity. I do know something about oppressive heat and humidity. It's late May here and our daily temperatures in Southeast Texas hover in the upper 90s F with humidity to match. Working in the garden for an hour requires a complete change of clothes when one comes inside else one drips all over the floor and furniture. So, yes, I do understand the pervasiveness of that particular climatic feature and how it dominates every other consideration, and I can understand that the author felt the need to continually refer to it. I guess I just found that a bit of overkill since I was living it every time I stepped outside. Another reader might have a completely different reaction.

Donna Leon is a very good writer and this was certainly not a bad book. It's just that, on the whole, I found it a bit bland. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Losses by Wesley McNair

Losses are a part of life and how we deal with them, one could argue, says just about everything anyone needs to know about the kind of person we are. 

I love the images of Wesley McNair's poem about loss, particularly the part about the widower who "can't stop reaching for the other side of the bed" until finally one odd afternoon...  
"watching something
as common as the way light from the window
lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves
on his backyard tree change colors all at once
in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,
as if all his loss has led to finding just this."

Loss can teach us, if only we are open to learning.


by Wesley McNair

It must be difficult for God, listening
to our voices come up through his floor
of cloud to tell Him what’s been taken away:
Lord, I’ve lost my dog, my period, my hair,
all my money. What can He say, given
we’re so incomplete we can’t stop being
surprised by our condition, while He
is completeness itself? Or is God more
like us, made in His image—shaking His head
because He can’t be expected to keep track
of which voice goes with what name and address,
He being just one God. Either way, we seem
to be left here to discover our losses, everything
from car keys to larger items we can’t search
our pockets for, destined to face them
on our own. Even though the dentist gives us
music to listen to and the assistant looks down
with her lovely smile, it’s still our tooth
he yanks out, leaving a soft spot we ponder
with our tongue for days. Left to ourselves,
we always go over and over what’s missing—
tooth, dog, money, self-control, and even losses
as troubling as the absence the widower can’t stop
reaching for on the other side of his bed a year
later. Then one odd afternoon, watching something
as common as the way light from the window
lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves
on his backyard tree change colors all at once
in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,
as if all his loss has led to finding just this.
Only God knows where the feeling came from,
or maybe God’s not some knower off on a cloud,
but there in the eye, which tears up now
at the strangest moments, over the smallest things.

Friday, May 25, 2018

This week in birds - #305

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

Clapper Rail with chick, photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Every single month since February 1985 has been warmer than normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That's 400 months in a row. Anyone born after that month has never experienced a “cool” month for Earth, let alone a normal one.


Just to underline that point, dozens of people have died recently in Karachi, Pakistan from a suffocating heat wave that has paralyzed the city. On Monday, a temperature of 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in the city, which is often referred to as a concrete jungle because it lacks large areas of plants or trees. And that, of course, is part of the problem. 


A long-delayed study of how rising sea levels might damage national parks has finally been released by the National Park Service after charges of scientific censorship.


Feral cats do inestimable damage to wildlife around the world, but Australia has found a way to protect some of their endangered species. They have built a cat-proof fence surrounding a 94 square kilometer sanctuary.


Image from Bird-the-Rock blog.

Purple Gallinules are wonderful birds that have become fairly common in wetlands around Southeast Texas, but you wouldn't exactly expect to find one in Newfoundland! The thing about birds, though, is that they have wings and those wings will sometimes take them to some very unexpected places. This one has certainly given the birders of Newfoundland something to cheer about recently.


The current administration in Washington is proposing to loosen federal hunting regulations in national parks in Alaska. The practices which were banned by the Obama Administration but which now would be allowed would include: taking any black bear, including cubs and sows with cubs, with artificial light at den sites; harvesting brown bears over bait; taking wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season (between May 1 and August 9); taking swimming caribou; taking caribou from motorboats under power; taking black bears over bait; and using dogs to hunt black bears. Hunters would be able to shoot bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens.


According to a new study, it is likely that the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs also killed off tree-dwelling birds because the trees were destroyed. The researchers postulate that ground-dwelling birds survived the apocalypse and lived to generate the diverse avian species that we see today.


Light pollution is a serious problem for birds in North America because the lights can throw birds off their migration routes at night when many birds, especially small songbirds, migrate. And some of the brightest spots in this country are not the cities but oil and gas fields. The Revelator has a map that shows where the bright spots are.


In 2006 a team of paleontologists in Utah were examining the fossils of a large dinosaur when they discovered beneath its foot a tiny skull unlike anything they had seen in the areaNow, scientists have found that the fossilized cranium belonged to an ancient relative of modern mammals that once scurried around North America some 130 million years ago. The new species, called Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch, is a member of an extinct group of animals known as the haramiyids, which some researchers think bridged the transition between reptiles and mammals.


Scientists in Europe have been studying White Storks with cellular tracking devices and, based on the data they have accumulated, they are able to predict which storks will migrate to Africa in autumn and which will remain in Europe.


Atlantic Puffins that breed in the Farne Islands have shown a drop in population that is concerning conservationists.

Atlantic Puffins on Farne Islands, image from BBC.


The most ancient bird species found had teeth. Why did succeeding avian generations lose them? A new study argues that it was Nature's way of reducing the time it took birds to form and mature in the egg, thus reducing the time to hatching


The Prairie Ecologist makes an argument for making species identification of plants more accessible to the masses. I second his motion!


Lead poisoning of birds and other wildlife continues to be a major problem around the world. This is primarily a problem for the "clean-up crew", the scavengers that consume carcasses of animals shot by hunters and left in the wild. It is an especially concerning problem in parts of Africa that are the habitat of endangered species of vultures. 


Coyotes are easily North America's most successful canid. They have conquered the continent and are now found in even the most unexpected places, including cities. And now they are heading south to colonize new areas. In 2010, they crossed the Panama Canal Zone and now they appear to be headed farther into the South American continent.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Nowhere to Run by C.J.Box: A review

After successively reading two relatively long and dense literary novels with complicated plots, I felt the need for something simple and undemanding. I thought of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett series.

This is actually the tenth book in that series. Hard to believe I've read that many; they all sort of elide together in the memory.

I like Joe Pickett and his family. He's an honorable man trying to do a job that he loves and believes is important. His wife and daughters are believable people with whom the reader can empathize. 

In the last novel, the Picketts learned that the foster daughter who they thought was dead was very much alive and living in Chicago in rather desperate circumstances. They brought her home but she has many problems emanating from her hard life and she is a disruptive influence in the family, constantly at war with her two sisters.

Joe had been sent away from his home and family for a year to be the temporary game warden in Baggs, Wyoming. At the beginning of this book, he's in his last week of that assignment and looking forward to going home. Somehow the reader suspects that this is not going to go off on schedule.

The first part of this book is a nail-biting thriller in which Joe comes up against two seemingly superhuman mountain men (brothers) who have been terrorizing the region and, most importantly from Joe's point of view, breaking game laws. When he tries to hold them accountable for their breaches of the law, their ruthless and violent nature is revealed. They follow him as he leaves their camp, eventually attacking him and his horses. They kill the horses, wound him, and take all his supplies. He's left with nothing but his service weapon and the clothes on his back.

Of course, Joe is used to surviving in the wild, so, in spite of his serious leg wound, he continues on his way down the mountain, even as he's being tracked by a pack of wolves - wolves that aren't supposed to be there. 

Eventually, he happens upon the cabin of a recluse woman who dresses his wound and shelters him. But then the crazy brothers, who are friends and protectors of the woman, show up and Joe has to escape out a back window and later watches from a distance as the three burn the cabin.

Okay. So far the story was an exciting, page-turning read, as we wonder how Joe is going to escape from another fine mess he's gotten into. But then the narrative takes a turn and becomes essentially a right-wing libertarian screed. Government bad! Mountain men good! Even when they terrorize the neighborhood and destroy other people's property, slaughter wildlife, attack a game warden just trying to do his job, and eventually kill at least four people. They just want to be left alone! And being left alone to do as one pleases is the highest good in this philosophy.

A great proponent of this philosophy is Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski, and most of the arguments for it are spoken by him, as were, in the last book, the arguments regarding denial of human-caused climate change. He finds a soul mate in the woman recluse on the mountain, both of them great fans of Ayn Rand, and we are treated to their admiring discussion of Atlas Shrugged and their denigration of European socialism. 

One suspects that C.J. Box, too, is an admirer of Ayn Rand and that his writing is influenced by her. He manages to get those arguments against government and any kind of regulation into every one of his books, and always - ALWAYS! - the law enforcement authorities from the local sheriff to the FBI are corrupt and only out to thwart the work of the only honorable man, Joe Pickett. Joe Pickett who strongly objects to being referred to as "the government man," even though that's exactly what he is.

I don't know. The plot of this book has holes that a herd of pronghorns could run through and I'm beginning to lose patience with Box, but then I've never read Atlas Shrugged so before I write him off completely, maybe I should read it. At the same time, I would encourage him to study the benefits of European socialism a little more closely and with an open mind.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars      

Monday, May 21, 2018

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo: A review

Shakespeare's Macbeth is his shortest tragedy and one of his shortest plays. Jo Nesbø's Macbeth, which is the latest in the Hobarth Shakespeare project in which modern writers are invited to reimagine one of the bard's works, goes on and on and on for nearing 500 pages of dense prose. It took me a full week of reading whenever I had the opportunity to finish it. Admittedly, I was occupied with other things as well, but still.

But the description of the book as 500 pages of dense prose is not meant to imply that it is in any way boring or not worth the trouble. In fact, it is a bit of a page turner in the Nesbø tradition of tightly plotted thrillers, but it is not an easy read.

Nesbø sets his reimagining of the classic in 1970s Scotland in a city that is never actually named but a couple of the reviews that I've read have inferred that it is Glasgow based on the description and the evidence presented. Apparently, Glasgow in that period was a pretty grim place fighting loss of jobs and rise in drug abuse with all the attendant problems that those two facts would suggest.

This Macbeth is told as a crime noir tale. This is a city that has been led by corrupt men out for their own empowerment and enrichment. It is mired in a mud made of that corruption that has encouraged gangs and drugs and the debasement and cheapening of human life and dignity.

In his play, Shakespeare didn't spend much time on the backstories of his characters. Nesbø, in contrast, is very interested in the psychology of the characters and he gives us a pretty complete picture of how these people came to be who they are. We learn, for example, that Macbeth and Duff (Macduff), who are now policemen, were orphans who grew up together in an orphanage. They were friends who looked out for each other, even to the point of one of them committing a murder to protect the other.

Lady, Macbeth's wife, was raped and became pregnant at age 13. She was unable to care for the baby, whom she named Lily, and dashed the child's brains out rather than see her suffer. This is the blood of the original sin that stains her hands and that she continually tries to wash away. She, almost inevitably it seems, became a prostitute and, from that position, the owner of a swanky casino, which was where she met Macbeth.

At the beginning, Nesbø's Macbeth is a good policeman in a corrupt system, doing his best to uphold the law and rid his city of crime. But soon enough his hunger for the power and success that promotion in the department will bring leads to his corruption. He becomes addicted to power as to a drug, but he's addicted to actual drugs as well.

The drug which here is called "brew" entraps Macbeth as it has so many of his fellow citizens. The entrepreneur who produces it, Hecate, becomes all powerful, in effect ruling the city. Hecate is opposed by a motorcycle gang that does its own drug dealing called the Norse Riders. These forces vie for control of the city.

So, as we expect, Duncan is killed, Banquo is killed but continues to haunt Macbeth, and the blood flows freely. Almost everyone in this story is ethically compromised in one way or another and yet the ending that Nesbø gives us offers a sliver of hope that if the brave stand together they can defeat the dark forces that seek to overwhelm them. It is a story that is relevant for our times. Perhaps our times are not so different from those of Shakespeare after all.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Another School Shooting, Too Fucking Close by peachpit

I went looking for poems about school shootings and found this one by a poet who goes by the moniker peachpit. It reeks of the anger and frustration that so many of us feel. I offer it here without comment.

Another School Shooting, Too Fucking Close

by peachpit

A school shooting so damn close to home
I know everyone says it but
You never expect it to happen so close to you.
Always seems so far away when it's on the news
Until it happens to you
Classmates tell about friends of friends dying
Friends are injured
We give our condolences 
But it's all we can do

Gun control
As if this will every happen
They shot up small children at Sandyhook
That's literally the worst case scenario of a school shooting
But nothing happened
No new regulations 
No gun control
If they didn't do anything there
Why would they now?
As long as they can keep their guns 
They're happy

"Oh it was just mental illness. The RESPONSIBLE gun owners
would never do this."
Fuck you
Who gives half a damn
Take away all the damn guns for all I care
Why the FUCK do you need automatic rifles and shit?
Machine guns? 
You really need all that bullshit to protect yourself with?
You NEED a fucking gun that can kill twenty people in less than thirty seconds?
Fucking mental.
Get fucked man.
You don't give two fucks until it's your own kids dying at school
Who knows
Maybe even then your deranged minds will think
"But if the students had guns
They could've protected themselves."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

This week in birds - #304

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

It's been a bit of weird spring for birds in my yard. As I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, I had not seen any Common Nighthawks or Chimney Swifts in the skies over the yard, although they normally arrive around the end of March at about the same time as the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds - who were also late this year. Well, the swifts and the nighthawks have now shown up. I saw my first ones in the late afternoon of May 14. But now I'm wondering where are the Baltimore Orioles like the one pictured above that visited in a previous year? We usually see them in the first week of May, but so far not a one this year. I have heard the song of the Orchard Oriole in the neighborhood, although I haven't actually seen one in my yard. But where are the Baltimores? 


CFC (Chloro-flouro-carbon) is a chemical that is known to destroy the ozone layer that protects our planet from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Its production was banned around the world under the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s and all nations are committed to enforcing the ban. But recently scientists have detected a sharp and mysterious rise in the substance from somewhere in East Asia. The detective work is on to discover just what is going on and stop it.


The New York Historical Society is marking the centennial of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act Treaty by featuring an exhibit of the women's hats that almost spelled doom for many birds of that period before the treaty. Yes, women's hats were the instrument that came near to causing the extinction of many egrets, swans, eagles, and even hummingbirds. The birds were hunted for their feathers to adorn the hats. The treaty put an end to that and is credited with saving the Great Egret, the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Feathers belong on birds, not decorating fancy hats!


American Kestrels make their living feasting on many of the destructive insects which are the enemies of farmers and orchard owners. Encouraging the birds to nest around farms and orchards can reduce the need for the use of pesticides.


A rare plant native to North Africa has been declared extinct after an exhaustive five-year search failed to turn up any sign of its continued existence. The plant's scientific name was Adenocarpus faurei and it was a yellow-blooming shrub. Its disappearance offers a warning about other similarly rare plants that grow in poorly protected areas. Many may be disappearing unnoticed. 


Members of what is being described as a "demented social club" in Oregon and Washington are being charged with illegal poaching. The hunters allegedly killed dozens of animals and left their bodies to rot. 


Guess who's making a plan to fight climate change? Would you believe the Republican-stronghold of Alaska? The state is already seeing the dramatic effects of global warming firsthand, making it difficult for even the most hard-line deniers to ignore. And so they've begun planning how to address the problem.


The endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher has been pushed to the threshold of extinction by loss of habitat and by the activities of the nest predator, the Brown-headed Cowbird. Now it is beset by a third implacable foe, climate change. 


And speaking of very rare birds, a Kirtland's Warbler, probably the rarest among American songbirds, showed up in Central Park in New York this week causing paroxysms of delight and excitement among birders who rushed to the area to get a glimpse of the bird.


Butterflies are not known for their ability to adapt. In general, they lead very constricted - and short - lives feeding on very specific plants. But the little Edith's Checkerspot butterfly has shown that adaptation is possible among the Lepidoptera. They are laying their eggs on a new plant and the caterpillars make use of that host plant as they grow.


The Canadian Rockies are a place where birds from the East and birds from the West meet, and often those birds get together and produce a new hybrid


The National Audubon Society is launching a new citizen science project to study how birds are adjusting, or not, to climate change and it is calling for volunteers to participate. The project will focus on nuthatches and bluebirds.


I have very little patience with people whose automatic response to seeing a spider (or a snake) is to kill it. These critters are important linchpins that help to hold the ecosystem together and maintain stasis. Moreover, they are friends to the home or yard owner in that they kill and devour many insects that would be pests.


One of the things that hippopotamuses are known for is the prodigious amount of feces that they produce. In fact, sometimes they produce so much poop that it kills all the fish in the water.


Africa's most endangered parrot is the Cape Parrot, of which there are estimated to be about 2,000 left. Conservationists are attempting to restore the parrot's habitat in order to aid in its survival.


Non-migratory tropical songbirds are threatened as global temperatures continue to rise but the rising temperatures may actually be a benefit to songbirds that migrate north in the spring, improving their chances at nesting success.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - May 2018

May flowers. The words seem to go together, don't they? Perhaps that's why Carol calls her blog "May Dreams Gardens." 

Here are some of the May flowers that are bringing color to my garden.

The gerbera daisies are in bloom.

And so are the marguerite daisies.

The old species cannas are showing their colors.

As are the gaillardia.

And blanket flowers.

A few of the daylilies are blooming.

Here's another.

And yet another. This was actually the first one to bloom this year.

The yellow cestrum is flowering.

The blue plumbago was killed back to its roots during the winter and took its time coming back this spring, but now it, too, has begun to bloom.

The potato vine sports a few flowers.

And the volunteer snapdragons have just begun to snap.

Salvia greggii in red.

Salvia greggii in white.

Salvia greggii in raspberry.


We think of chrysanthemums as fall flowers but these bloom in the spring, also.

Tropical milkweed in red.

Red yucca is not really a yucca but it is a tough native Texas plant.

Here's a closer view of the red yucca's bloom, which hummingbirds dearly love. 

The oakleaf hydrangea still blooms by the back porch. It has been in bloom for weeks now and you can see that some of the blooms are beginning to turn the pinkish color that shows they are drying out. They are still attractive when dry.

Most of my roses are resting just now but 'Old Blush' continues to produce blooms.

'Belinda's Dream' is in full bloom.

This is a new hybrid salvia I've recently added to the garden. It is called 'Wendy's Wish.'

This lantana is blooming profusely.

While this one has just begun to bloom.

Mirabilis jalapa, the 4 o'clock plant.

Sunflowers are brightening the garden with their sunny faces.

No flowers here but this is the latest addition to my garden. It is a Japanese maple 'Bloodgood,' a Mother's Day gift from my thoughtful daughters.

Is your May garden full of flowers? I look forward to visiting and seeing them. Thank you for stopping by my garden this month.

Circe by Madeline Miller: A review

Having long been captivated by the Greek myths that explain creation and how the universe works, how could I resist Madeline Miller's wonderful telling of them in Circe?

Her story reads like historical fiction and it is told in the manner of an autobiography in the voice of Circe herself.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of all the Titans. From the beginning, she was different from the other children of Titans. She did not possess the powers of her father nor the allure of her mother, and, strangely, she seems drawn to mortals for their companionship. In time, she discovers where her true power lies: She possesses the power of witchcraft by which she can change her rivals into monsters and can threaten the gods themselves.  

When Zeus realizes what Circe is, he demands her banishment. He and Helios arrive at an agreement on sending her to a deserted island of Aeaea. There, she tames the wolves and lions of the island and they become her companions. She hones her craft, learning the properties of all the herbs that grow on the island. 

Meanwhile, although the island is deserted, it does lie in the path of ships that ply the sea and Circe is sometimes visited by the sailors from these ships. The visits are not always benevolent and peaceful. When things turn violent, Circe avenges herself by turning the crews into pigs. One could argue that it was their nature all along.

During all this time, Circe crosses paths with many of the gods and goddesses as well. In the house of her father, she had met and interacted with Prometheus. Once on her island, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, often visits. At one point, she goes to Crete when Pasiphae, her sister and wife of King Midos, calls for her. Pasiphae, who is also a witch, needs her sister's help in delivering her baby. The baby turns out to be the Minotaur, and so we get the telling of that myth.

There, Circe also meets Daedalus and his son, Icarus, and we learn about the design and building of the Labyrinth as a structure to contain the fearful monster that was the Minotaur. Circe also relates the story of the wonderful wings built by Daedalus to facilitate escape for himself and his son and of the tragic mistake made by Icarus when he flew too close to the sun.

We meet Medea and Jason who visit Circe's island and we hear their story. Time and again the gods come calling and Circe is forced to either help them or to defend herself against them.

Finally, a ship of mortals anchors by her island. The crew comes ashore and their bad manners result in another porcine transformation. Then their captain comes ashore looking for them. It is Odysseus, making his way back to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

The attraction between Circe and Odysseus is instantaneous and when he leaves the island several months later she is pregnant with his child. The remainder of Circe's narrative details the events that follow from that fact.

I was enthralled by Madeline Miller's novel from its first paragraph. It was almost as if Circe had beguiled me with one of her spells. Miller weaves together with seeming effortlessness all the stories of the various gods and goddesses and the heroic humans with whom they interact so that, even if we are familiar with the myths and we know what is coming, we hang on every word of her retelling of them. In the end, this becomes the story of Circe's search for ultimate freedom from the constraints that bind her. That is something with which most of us can identify.

I have not read The Song of Achilles, but now I certainly will, and I hope there will be more retelling of the myths by Madeline Miller. Wonderful writer! Great stories!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars