Saturday, June 30, 2018

This week in birds - #309

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

Looking something like a creature from Jurassic Park, an Anhinga rests on a downed branch over a lake at Brazos Bend State Park. The Anhinga has many common names, among them Water Turkey and Snakebird, the latter because when the bird swims only its head and a bit of neck are above water and it looks a little like a snake swimming.


The Deepwater Horizon disastrous oil spill may have faded from the news and from the consciousness of most people but it hasn't faded from the Gulf. Lingering oil residues have altered the basic building blocks of life in the ocean by reducing biodiversity near the site of where four million barrels of oil gushed into the water. Unfortunately, the environmental policies of the present administration in Washington have removed safeguards meant to prevent such disasters, making oceans around the world more likely to have such events in the future.


The state of California has announced that it is seeking to declare the Humboldt marten an endangered species because of the risks it faces from deforestation and, most surprisingly, from the cannabis industry. As the cultivation of cannabis increases, more forestland is lost and that decreases the acceptable habitat available for the martens.

Humboldt marten image captured by a remote wildlife camera.


It has long been known that New Caledonian Crows are geniuses of the bird world. Now, a new study has shown that the brainy birds use mental pictures to twist twigs into hooks and make other tools, and, not only that, they are able to pass their successful designs on to succeeding generations, one of the hallmarks of a culture.


Here's some good news from the world of public health: An ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been "largely contained" according to the World Health Organization; this thanks to the use of a new vaccine that has proved highly effective against the deadly virus. None of those who have had the vaccine have contracted ebola.


The California Condor has been given a chance to step back from extinction because of the intervention of scientists and a captive breeding program that has helped to increase the number of the big birds in existence. One of the keys to the success of the captive breeding program has been preventing the chicks from imprinting on humans and that has involved the use of condor-shaped puppets in their feeding and care. 


Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite data to track the growth or depletion of forests around the world, has reported that 2017 was a particularly bad year for tropical forests. Roughly 39 million acres of trees, an area the size of Bangladesh, were lost during the year because of a combination of development and some extreme weather events such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria. 


Looking a bit like a Battlestar Gallactica spaceship, an interstellar visitor named Oumuamua (Hawaiian for messenger or scout) has been identified as a likely comet in disguise, even though it doesn't have a tail like a normal comet. It was originally classified as an asteroid, but scientists now believe that was incorrect and that the cigar-shaped entity is a comet.

Oumuamua: Sometimes a cigar-shaped comet is just a comet.


And here's one drop of good news concerning the world's oceans and their inhabitants: The Belize Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef system in the Northern Hemisphere, has been removed from the United Nations list of endangered world heritage sites because it no longer faces immediate danger from development. The Belize government has imposed a moratorium on oil exploration in the area of the reef.


This year's Kilauea volcanic eruption has been devastating to human communities and to the native habitat as well. It has wiped out rare sites and whole ecosystems. Although mourning their loss, the people affected accept the eruption as part of the natural cycle and one of the costs of living in paradise.


Conservationists are getting very creative in using all the communication tools available to them to help educate people to protect the environment and save species. YouTube, for example. Videostreaming the activities of Hawaii's Laysan Albatrosses has helped to bring them to the public's attention and to make that public more likely to want to protect the species.


In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Cristiana Pașca Palmer, UN assistant secretary general and executive secretary of the convention on biological diversity, explains the importance of biodiversity to the survival of life on Earth.


"What did extinct animals eat?" is always a question that interests both the scientists who study them and the public that likes to imagine them. Pterosaurs are one group of such animals about which there has been much speculation - a lot of it probably wrong.


Research is showing that bumblebees, somewhat surprisingly, thrive much better in villages and towns rather than in the countryside. Bumblebees face many threats but those that live in urban areas produce more offspring, have more food stores and fewer invasions from parasitic "cuckoo" bumblebees than those that live in rural areas.


Here's some interesting news from our solar system "environment": A NASA probe has revealed blasts of ocean spray from a moon of Saturn named Enceladus and that spray contains complex organic molecules, making this the only place beyond Earth that we've found that harbors the crucial constituents for life as we know it. 


In June 2005, on a very windy day in Wichita, Kansas, two flamingoes escaped from the zoo there. One, designated No. 347, flew north and was later spotted at Michigan's AuTrain Lake in August of that year but has not been seen since. But the other, No. 492, an African Flamingo, flew south to Texas, ending up on the coast around Corpus Christi. It proceeded to make itself at home, initially teaming up with a Caribbean Flamingo that had made it to the area, but that bird later disappeared, possibly lost in a storm. Old No. 492, though, has survived. Flamingoes are not native to Texas and he may be lonely, but for thirteen years he has found a home among the seabirds along the coast and he provides an extra thrill and surprise for birders visiting the area.

No. 492 - Texas Parks and Wildlife photo.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler: A review

A recent Google doodle commemorating the birthday of Octavia Butler served to remind me that I had intended to read the second of her "Earthseed" books. I read the first one, Parable of the Sower, earlier this year and was fascinated by her apocalyptic vision of America in the 2020s. That book was published in 1993, but it seemed utterly prescient in some of its visions of how a combination of global warming, political demagoguery, a suspicion of science and education, and an all-consuming selfishness on the part of the rich and powerful were all coming together to tear apart the fabric of society. In 1993, one would probably have thought that could never happen here, but Butler could foresee such a catastrophic outcome and today it does not seem so far-fetched.

Parable of the Talents was published in 1998 and carries the story forward from 2032 until 2090. Suffice to say that in the short term at least things do not get better. In fact, they get very much worse.

In 2032, a Christian populist demagogue named Andrew Steele Jarret is elected president. His movement is called Christian America and their goal is nothing less than to stamp out vestiges of any other religious belief in the country. To do this, they are willing to kill, burn people alive as witches, rape, enslave, separate children from their parents and send them to be raised by "good" Christians, destroy or confiscate property, to do whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

Early in the book, I was gobsmacked to read this description of Jarret and his actions:
“Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, "simpler" time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stopping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country…
Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of "heathen houses of devil-worship," he has a simple answer: "Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.” (My emphasis.)
I had to pause for a bit after reading that. 

While this movement is taking hold in the country, Lauren Olamina is busy establishing her community called Acorn and further solidifying and sharing her philosophy called Earthseed; a philosophy that proclaims that God is change and that the Destiny of humanity is out among the stars, colonizing other planets, seeding humanity and Earth's plants and creatures throughout the universe. Lauren marries and in time has a baby, a daughter that she named Larkin. Her idyllic world comes crashing down when Acorn comes to the attention of the Christian America Crusaders. They are attacked, several (including Lauren's husband) are killed and the rest of the adults are enslaved. Three individuals, whose fate we never learn, escape the attack and all of the children are sent away to be adopted and raised by Christians.

I won't spoil the plot except to say that eventually Lauren does escape and is able to continue sharing and spreading her philosophy but her desperate search for her lost child is unsuccessful. 

Lauren's book which expounds her Earthseed philosophy is called Books of the Living and it contains this passage:
“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.” 
Beware cowards, opportunists, thieves, liars, and tyrants; wise advice. We should heed it.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: A review

Harry Bosch can be a grade A jerk at times and he continues to solidify that reputation in The Wrong Side of Goodbye. In this instance, where he is working as a part-time reserve officer for the police force in the small town of San Fernando, his jerkitude is shown by his refusal to abide by the rules of the department by signing in and out. Apparently, he does it for no better reason than that he doesn't like the captain and wants to irritate him. Yeah, he's a jerk.

His saving grace is that he is also an excellent and dedicated detective. He is driven to solve major crimes, especially murders, and to bring justice to "his" victims. He identifies with those victims and will never rest until those who have hurt them are behind bars or dead. Being a detective is who he is. It is part of his DNA.

So, it was a bit of a hiccup in his life when he finally had to irrevocably leave the LAPD. He was forced to retire for the second time and this time there is no going back because he sued the city for wrongfully forcing that retirement and won a big settlement. All of his bridges there were burned and he had to find some other outlet for his lifelong crusade to solve crimes and stop their perpetrators.

He didn't need to work, because, with his settlement, he's basically set for life, but he hung out his shingle as a private investigator and then was given the opportunity to work in the volunteer position as a reserve officer for the understaffed department in San Fernando. That gave him the right to carry a badge again and Harry Bosch feels naked without a badge.

In this twenty-first entry in the Harry Bosch series, we get to see Harry working both sides of the street. 

In the police department, he's helping with the investigation of a serial rapist case, called the "Screen Cutter" case because that's how the rapist gains entry to the houses of his victims. 

As a private investigator, Harry has been called to the home of a frail, elderly billionaire who is not long for this world and wants the detective to find out whether he has a possible blood heir. 

It seems that when the man was a teenager he had a brief affair with a younger teenage girl and, when she became pregnant, his father forced him to give her up. She was Latina and not acceptable to the family as the mother of his child. He lost contact with her and never knew if she actually had the child. Now, facing the Grim Reaper, he is conscience-stricken at his cowardice and wants to find out what happened to her and to his putative child and to financially provide for them. 

The billionaire's case brings up some associations in Bosch's past to his experiences in the Vietnam War, and part of the plot turns on pictures taken by a corpsman in that war; a corpsman who may or may not have been the billionaire's son. Harry doggedly follows the trail to its end, uncovering the family history as he goes.

Meantime, he's also urgently working the Screen Cutter case and its resolution leads to him being asked to come on board the SFPD as a full-time paid detective! Maybe now he'll sign in and out as required. Nah, probably not. He's still a jerk.

Michael Connelly does his usual excellent job of plotting; in this instance keeping the two cases separately on their tracks to resolution. It really is a masterful job of writing and is one of my favorites in this long series.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen

I've been in a Leonard Cohen frame of mind over the last few days. I've listened to his music over and over again. One song in particular keeps popping up and has embedded itself in my brain, becoming my latest earworm, and now I pass it on to you. 

"Everybody Knows" is perhaps one of Cohen's darkest, most pessimistic and cynical lyrics. This from a man whose default sentiment often seemed to be pessimism. The song was released in 1988 but somehow it seems to fit the times in which we live: "Everybody knows that the boat is leaking..."

But if everybody knows, why don't we do something about it? 

Everybody Knows

by Leonard Cohen 

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah, when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows


This week in birds - #308

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

The American Kestrel is the smallest and most common falcon in North America and also the cutest in my opinion. I photographed this one at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. 


Increased artificial lighting in the world is a cause for celebration in some previously dark areas as it signifies increased prosperity and better living conditions, but too much of a good thing can be very bad indeed, both for humans and animals. A survey has rated the brightest metropolitan areas in the world. Some of them might surprise you.


The Arctic sea ice inexorably continues melting and that has potentially serious implications for the world's weather. It may seem counterintuitive but the sea ice actually has a moderating effect on weather. What will happen when it is gone?

Preserved specimen of male Carolina Parakeet.

2018 marks the centenary of the death of the last of North America's only native parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, but the bird is still being studied by scientists. Recent research has revealed more about the bird's range and distribution.


The giant baobab trees of Africa are dying. The death of the trees, some of them thousands of years old, is being linked by scientists to the effects of climate change.


Shorebirds around the world are threatened by human activities, by the vagaries of weather, and, of course, by climate change, but concerned conservationists are on the front lines, working to protect and save them as a vital link in the chain of life on Earth. In Colombia, home to some 1877 different species of birds, shorebirds, as well as other birds, were threatened for years by war. With the coming of peace, conservationists there have been able to join the effort to protect the shorebirds


The Prairie Ecologist tells us about managing the various grasses of the prairie to maintain a healthy and thriving environment. It begins at the roots.


According to an analysis, the average monthly temperature in New Jersey rose nearly 2.19 degrees from 1988 to 2017. This makes it one of the fastest warming states.


National parks and historic sites like battlefields offer some prime habitat for birds and consequently are popular places for birders who go looking for them. Better habitat management of these places has increased their value and utility as public lands. They are also economic boons to the towns and cities nearby. 


A new study by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists and colleagues confirms that increasing minimum winter temperatures allow invasive beetles to expand their range; however, overcrowding can put the brakes on their population growth.


There's good news and bad news on the white-nose syndrome front. That's the fungal disease that has been killing bats by the thousands in the eastern United States for years. The disease continues to move westward and is infecting new bat species, but ongoing research now offers some hope of a way to fight back against the epidemic.


Mexican Spotted Owls, a federally threatened species, have been found near the property where Arizona Mining Inc. has had as many as 15 drilling rigs running since 2007, chasing silver, lead, zinc, and manganese.


A nondescript insect, the bogong moth, is the first insect known to use magnetic sense in long-distance nocturnal migration.


A new study confirms that warmer sea surfaces can affect the survival of juvenile albatrosses and lead to reduced population growth rates in the species.


The lethal pathogen, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans or Bsal, has been killing amphibians around the world. Although it has not yet been detected in North America, the potential for spread is there and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is proactively planning how to combat it.


The endangered parrots of Australia need lots of help, and lots of money, if they are to survive extinction and the funds provided by the government of the country are inadequate to the task. Non Government Organizations (NGOs) are trying to take up the slack.

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Venetian Reckoning by Donna Leon: A review

The political corruption and public moral depravity faced by Commissario Guido Brunetti as he attempts to do his job of maintaining law and order in his beloved city of Venice are utterly disheartening and demoralizing. Even just reading about them is disheartening and demoralizing. The depths to which human beings eagerly sink in order to gratify their desires or to enrich or empower themselves is, quite simply, horrifying. 

At one time in the not too distant past, I could have read these stories with more dispassion and objectivity. But today a society's descent into moral turpitude where the rich and powerful are able to befoul the water, air, and soil and to use defenseless fellow human beings in whatever way they choose just hits a bit close to home. Consequently, although I am as charmed as ever by Guido and his family, I found this fourth book in the series difficult reading.

The plot revolves around human trafficking. A group of powerful and influential men in Italy are bringing in women from poor countries - mostly Slavic women from eastern European countries - to be used as prostitutes or in pornographic films, including snuff films where the women are brutalized and killed, that are distributed in Europe and America. Typically, the women are promised jobs or love and marriage and a better life to entice them, but once they get to the country, their passports are taken and they are forced to do their "owners'" bidding.  

All of this, however, is revealed incrementally. We begin with a truck filled with lumber and, as it happens, eight smuggled women, slipping on a snow and ice clogged highway and sliding off the road into a ravine. The driver and all the women are killed. This happens north of Venice and Commissario Brunetti is not involved in the investigation. He is only tangentially aware of it and the entire story soon slips out of the headlines and is essentially forgotten.

Sometime later, in Venice, a rich and powerful businessman is shot and killed in a train and Brunetti is assigned to the case. 

A little later, another businessman dies from carbon monoxide poisoning in his closed garage. The initial autopsy findings show a large dose of barbiturates that would have caused him to be unconscious; then mysteriously, the autopsy findings are altered to support a finding of suicide. 

Brunetti is still puzzling over his initial case when yet another businessman is killed; this one the brother-in-law of the first who had served as accountant for that man's business. He is shot three times just as the man on the train was. Brunetti suspects that all three deaths are related and begins to probe their lives to try to find a connection and a reason why someone might have wanted the three dead.

Brunetti encounters obstacles at every turn, but he has developed his own circle of trusted confidantes, fellow policemen, and persons in positions of power who owe him favors and are willing to find and pass along information to him. He doggedly pursues his investigation, calling on those he trusts for assistance. Obviously, Brunetti has learned to operate in the toxic swill of Venetian politics and survive.

This may be the most pessimistic yet of Donna Leon's Brunetti novels and it is certainly the most graphically violent. Leon lives in Venice and one intuits that she has extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the city and what makes it run. One can only hope for the sake of the Venetians that she is exaggerating for dramatic effect.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: A review

Warlight refers to the dim lights that were used for emergency vehicles' navigation during blackouts in London in World War II. Michael Ondaatje's new novel takes place mostly in London in the years after the war. It is a story hidden in murkiness, camouflage, and intrigue with only the dimmest of lights to guide us through. 

The atmosphere is obviously intentional. The first hundred pages or so are all about atmosphere and it is there that the tone of the book is set. The plot moves with glacial slowness as Ondaatje builds his character studies and begins to hint at the drama to come.

The story begins in 1945 when two children, 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his older sister, Rachel, are left by their parents, who are supposedly going to Singapore, in the care of two men. One of the men is the family's upstairs lodger called (by the children) the Moth and the other is his friend, a former boxer known as the Pimlico Darter. The Moth and the Darter thus effectively become the guardians of the children.

Our narrator for this story is Nathaniel. We see everything through his eyes. We know what he knows or learns over the years and nothing else.

The absent father remains a complete cipher. We never really know who he is or what he did during the war, although we may have our suspicions. He never reappears.

The mother, on the other hand, continues to watch over the children from a distance. When Nathaniel finds her steamer trunk that she had packed for their supposed trip in their basement, he realizes she did not go to Singapore. In fact, their mother worked for British Intelligence and was a war hero. In the years after the war, it seems that she is still involved in some Intelligence activities and there are those who want her dead. This is why she has absented herself from the lives of her children, in order to draw the fire of her enemies away from them.

The Moth and the Darter - especially the Darter - prove to be interesting guardians. The Moth takes a fairly sober view of his responsibilities, but the Darter does not balk at involving the children in some of his dubious activities, such as smuggling illegal greyhounds into the country.

Years later, in adulthood, Nathaniel (now working for British Intelligence himself) attempts to uncover the history of what his mother, as well as the Moth and the Darter, did during the war and how those experiences led to the chain of events that broke his family apart.

I had some problems with this novel at least partly because I was reading it while traveling and I was somewhat distracted. It was difficult to focus on the storyline and that was made harder still by Ondaatje's decision to concentrate on building the atmosphere and theme of the book, rather than developing robust characters and plotline. Nevertheless, I think the point of his work, in highlighting the long dark shadow cast by war, a shadow that forever remains on the lives of those who experienced it, is accentuated by the narrative choices that he made.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars     

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Calypso by David Sedaris: A review

David Sedaris is a misanthrope and I'm okay with that; I am sympathetic to the impulse. 

At the same time, Sedaris is fascinated by people even as he is repelled by them. They are, after all, the stuff out of which he has constructed his living. His stories of his interactions with quirky people, many of them members of his own family, have now filled the pages of nine essay collections and made him a very wealthy man.

Sedaris is a master at making us laugh out loud at some of the crazy antics he and his family get up to, as well as his interactions with people that he meets at his book signings and on publicity tours around the country and the world. He does it again in Calypso. My daughter and I listened to the book, narrated by the author, on our recent road trip and at times we laughed out loud until tears rolled down our cheeks. But this book also contains some poignant tales, particularly those featuring his mother, who died of cancer, and his sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide.

One anecdote regarding Tiffany is especially filled with regret and guilt. Sedaris tells of a time, during which he was estranged from his sister and was not speaking to her, when she came to the backstage door of the theater where he was performing and wanted to talk to him. He had the security guard shut the door in her face. He never saw or spoke to his sister again.

He relates stories about his mother's alcoholism and regrets the fact that no one in the family ever confronted her about it.

He also tells an anecdote about his family in 1968, only recently moved to North Carolina. They were all having a meal at a restaurant when over the public address system came the announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis. Everyone in the restaurant except the Sedarises cheered. It reminded me of the assassination of President John Kennedy when people around me (in Northeast Mississippi) were elated and excited. I was devastated.

And then there is his incredulous recollection of the election of 2016 and how the country has been transformed since then.

But I don't want to give you the wrong impression. Most of the essays in this book are funny and they will make you smile, sometimes wryly, and occasionally the smiles will turn into guffaws. 

One of my favorite essays in the collection was his story about his Fitbit. As one who also wears a Fitbit, I could fully relate to the obsessive behavior it can engender. Sedaris started out trying to reach modest step goals, but soon his goals increased by factors of six and seven and he was going for 65,000 steps a day. Then he got an Apple watch to go with his Fitbit and wore them both because you can never have too much information about the number of steps you take! 

Sedaris is 61 years old now and perhaps the more reflective tone of this collection is related to his time of life. He shares his life freely with us, even the less than savory parts. His life is divided into three parts: his home in Sussex, England that he shares with his husband Hugh and occasional visitors; his vacation home on Emerald Isle, North Carolina that he shares with Hugh, his elderly father, his siblings, and extended family; and his life on the road where he meets the most highly unlikely people. Sedaris the misanthrope is always surrounded by people.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins: A review

I found this book to be a bit of a hot mess and something of a disappointment after The Girl on the Train which was fairly meticulously plotted. Into the Water, on the other hand, is all over the place with more than a dozen different narrators with their own points of view. Scattered hardly begins to describe it.

Part of the problem may have been due to the fact that I listened to the audio version of this book while on a road trip. Perhaps I would have been able to understand the transitions better had I seen them on a printed page, since I am more of a visual learner. As it was, I found jumping around from narrator to narrator every few minutes confusing and hard to follow. 

Into the Water is set in the small rural town of Beckford, England, a place with a long history of very bad treatment of its women, beginning with drowning troublesome women as witches back in the seventeenth century. The town is built on cliffs beside a river with a bridge and a "drowning pool." All of these features have played their parts in the killing or disappearance of those troublesome women through the centuries.  

The action of the novel includes flashbacks to some of the earlier horrific events but the main action takes place over the course of one month, August 2015. Nel Abbott, a local writer who had been working on a history about the drowning pool, herself goes "into the water." She falls from the cliff overlooking the drowning pool. Her death is thought to be a suicide, but there are those who know or suspect differently.

A few months earlier, another woman - or rather a teenager named Katie Whittaker - had also gone into the water and her death also was put down as a suicide. There is a connection between Katie and Nel and her name is Lena. She is Nel's fifteen-year-old daughter and Katie's best friend. She knew Katie's secrets.

Nel also had a sister named Julia (annoyingly called Jules) from whom she had been estranged for many years. Julia (I refuse to call her Jules) had not spoken to her sister for eight years, even though Nel had called her repeatedly, especially just before her death, and left messages begging her to call because she had information for her. After Nel's death, Julia descends on the house and the niece that she doesn't know and determines to take them in hand.

The detective assigned to the case is Sean Townsend, who, naturally, also has a connection to the drowning pool. His mother had died there when he was just a six-year-old child. He had supposedly witnessed her death, after which he was left alone with a brutal father, Patrick, also a policeman, who is still alive, living in a house across the courtyard from his son and still dominating his life. Does no one consider that it might just be a wee bit inappropriate to have Sean investigating a death so closely resembling that of his mother? 

Sean is married to Helen, whom his father selected for him. She is head of the local school. There doesn't actually seem to be much of a marriage there. Does Helen live with Sean or with Patrick? Patrick is certainly devoted to her.

Sean's partner in the investigation is Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, who is the only sympathetic character in the novel, at least for me. Erin actually seems to be a real human being and, even though everyone involved in the case attempts to mislead her, she does begin to tease out the history of the Beckford events and to understand what had happened there. I foresee a bright future for her as an investigator.

Oh, there are so many other characters: Katie's parents, especially her mother Louise; Katie's brother, Josh; a teacher at the local school, Mark Henderson; a psychic named Nickie Sage; a 17th century victim named Libby, etc., etc., etc. And we hear narration from ALL of them! Repeatedly. There's very little actual dialogue - just characters giving us their versions of conversations.

Moreover, Paula Hawkins has been unnecessarily confusing in her telling of the tale, obfuscating events in order to build suspense. Her characters do not behave logically or with any apparent motive. They just lurch about without any discernible plan in mind. 

All that being said, at the very end of her book, Hawkins does manage to tie things together a bit. Her denouement is almost Hitchcockian in its delivery.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No words are adequate

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Travels with Susan

I'm off on the road again. For the next week, my older daughter and I will be traveling to visit family and friends and paying our respects at cemeteries where family members are buried. It's an annual June ritual for me but my daughter has not made the trip in several years. She's substituting for her father who elected to stay behind this year. (I think he's been looking forward to a break from me!) 

While we are traveling, I will be absent from this spot and from the internet in general, but I'll see you here again, I hope, in about a week. Meantime, stay cool! 

Kudos by Rachel Cusk: A review

I had been looking forward to this third entry in Rachel Cusk's Outline series. I found the two earlier books, Outline and Transit, to be remarkable works that were thought-provoking reads. With the release of Kudos, one can see now that all three are pieces of a whole and they fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces in the narrative that Cusk has constructed.

Cusk's story-teller once again is Faye, a middle-aged writer divorced from the father of her two sons and now remarried, although that marriage seems to play a very small role in her daily life. Faye travels - a lot it seems. She's always on the go to conferences or literary festivals or publicity tours that her publisher has arranged to promote her latest book. And in her travels, she constantly meets people who want to talk to her, who want to tell her the stories of their lives and their innermost secrets. Faye reports these mostly one-way conversations to us unedited and there is something almost magical in the way that we get a clear picture of the person who is talking by reading Faye's transcriptions of their words.

Seldom do we hear Faye speak. She is the most self-effacing of narrators, almost never inserting her thoughts into the narrative and yet, even in her silence, we do gain a full portrait of her as well, simply by listening to the way people talk to her and the things they say to her and about her. 

She does take time and care to describe the settings of her conversations - the hotels, the restaurants, the planes, the walks on the streets of the city - and her descriptions are almost photographic in their clarity.

Not only her descriptions of the settings but her descriptions of the people who talk to her are sharply perceptive. We "see" those people as if they were standing in front of us.

But the stories these people tell are the thing. They talk about their lives, their loves, families, friends, jobs. Many of the tales revolve around marriage, separation, and children. In this, the stories reflect Faye's life as well and the life of the author since she, too, was married and divorced and is dealing with raising two sons on her own.

In Kudos, Faye travels to an unnamed sunny port city in Europe to participate in a literary festival. The theme of the book seems to be success and failure: which writer(s) will succeed and thrive; which will win the prize and what will it cost them? In Outline, we got the parameters of Faye's self-definition; in Transit, she was moving on, renovating her house, redefining her life; now we see the outcome of all that effort and where it has taken her.

Several of the stories told to Faye and her own experiences to some extent deal with sexism or ageism. The difference in how the work of women writers is judged seems a subtle theme of the book. And the final scene of the book (no spoilers here) is so gross and seemingly fraught with metaphor and symbol that it makes this point in a particularly literal and primal way. 

Rachel Cusk's accomplishment with this trilogy has been extraordinary, in my opinion. Her unique method of telling the story almost entirely through a second-person narrative was brilliantly creative. Faye's story is one that I will not soon forget.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Poetry Sunday: The Afterlife by Billy Collins

If I were pressed to name my favorite poet who is writing today, I think it might be Billy Collins. I like the way he thinks and the way he expresses himself. Most of all I like his puckish humor and the fact that he manages to see that life on Earth, even in the worst of times, is not all doom and gloom. And neither, perhaps, is the afterlife.

The Afterlife 

by Billy Collins

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

Saturday, June 9, 2018

This week in birds - #307

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

Black-crowned Night Heron thrusts after a fish in the duckweed covered waters at Brazos Bend State Park.


A contributing factor in the recent disastrous 1,000 year flood in Maryland was the amount of paving in the area that prevented the rain from soaking into the ground. This, of course, is a problem in most urban areas and could intensify future flooding. 


As the federal government reduces, or ceases, its efforts at combating global warming, states and cities are stepping up to attempt to fill the vacuum of leadership.


Controlling rodents or other pests with poisons has always been problematic, but there are alternatives. One of them is to encourage the presence of raptors, those clean and efficient killing machines. Erecting perches for the raptors and nest boxes that some owls will use make the birds welcome in an area and they pay their rent by eating the rodents.


The tap water in Appalachia is not fit to drink because of pollution from coal mining and chemical operations that has leaked into the groundwater, soil, and waterways, and yet the American public knows little about this water crisis or has been desensitized to it.


The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park has been informed that he must take a transfer to the Capital Region in Washington, D.C., an area that includes the White House and Lincoln Memorial, within 60 days or resign. The superintendent has been a strong advocate for the wildlife of Yellowstone and that, it seems, is not what this new version of our Interior Department wants. 


A two-year project of surveying the birds of Botswana has produced some alarming results: many birds of prey are disappearing from Africa's last great wilderness areas. Some species of eagle and vultures have declined by as much as 80% from the last survey.


There are more than 200,000 protected areas around the world that cover more than 7.7 million square miles, an area greater than South America. These designated areas are supposed to provide protection for the animals and plants that live there, but new research shows that human pressure on these spaces is making it impossible for some of them to serve the conservation mission for which they were established.


If you are a serious gardener, you are probably already aware that your garden is hardly the peaceful spot that many imagine. It is a place of mortal combat between predator and prey insects, as well as the critters that feed on those insects. 


Atlantic Puffin population numbers have fallen sharply. The decline of the charismatic birds is directly related to the warming ocean which decreases the abundance of plankton and interrupts the supply chain that produces the small fish that the puffin needs to survive.


The new governor of New Jersey plans to take his state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program aimed at combating climate change. He is being urged by environmental groups to clamp down on CO2 emissions from power plants as part of that initiative. 


The United States just had its warmest May on record, breaking the previous record from 1934, the era of the infamous Dust Bowl. In addition, eight states had their warmest May ever: Virginia, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma. 


There are some 3.4 million acres of primary forest in Europe that are found in a patchwork, scattered around a countryside of fields and pastures of the continent. These areas need protection as they provide important habitat for European wildlife.


The federal government, after heavy lobbying from the chemical industry, is scaling back the way it determines health and safety risks associated with the most dangerous chemicals on the market. 


It may seem counterintuitive but a new study shows that controlled burns of grasslands actually benefit butterflies


The Guardian had a story this week about the successful reintroduction of species back into areas where they had disappeared. It is called "rewilding" and it is one way of fighting back against extinction.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: A review

The Mars Room of the book's title is a strip club in San Francisco where the book's protagonist, Romy Hall, gives lap dances. Suffice to say, it is not a high-class joint. Romy, who often exhibits a dark humor about life in general, describes it thusly: "If you'd showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren't misspelled you were hot property. If you weren't five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night."

Romy ekes out a living for herself and her young son with her work at the club. Life is not exactly good but it is bearable and the love of her life is that son, called Jackson.

Romy is in her twenties, having survived a chaotic childhood that was marked by drug use and sexual licentiousness. Her father was gone and her mother was not a strong presence in her life. Predictably, that life went off the rails.

Romy spent a few years working in the Mars Room, but during most of the time that we know her, she is in quite a different room, a much more claustrophobic one: a women's prison in California's Central Valley. She has received two consecutive life sentences for killing a man.

The man she killed was someone she had met at the Mars Room. He had become one of her "regulars" and finally had become completely obsessed with her. He ended up stalking her and when she left the Mars Room and moved to Los Angeles, he discovered her address there and turned up on her front porch one night. Perceiving him as a threat to her and her son, she beat his head with an iron bar, killing him.

Her trial is something of a joke. Her public defender seems incompetent and no exculpatory evidence - such as the fact that the victim was her stalker - is presented. Conviction is a foregone conclusion.

Romy goes to prison and Jackson is left in the care of her mother. But then a terrible thing happens: her mother is killed in an auto crash, in which Jackson is also injured. Romy is not able to find out any information. She is wild with grief and worry for Jackson and is put in administrative segregation and then on suicide watch for a while. There is no other family to look after Jackson and her parental rights are subsequently terminated because of her long prison sentence and the child disappears into the foster care system. She is never able to find out what happened to her son. 

The portrait that Kushner gives us of prison life is vivid and obviously extensively researched. We learn all about the cliques, the smuggling of contraband, lice treatments, violence triggered by racism or other forms of bigotry and intolerance, and, most of all, boredom. The mind-numbing sameness of the days breeds ennui, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. Kushner tells us, too, about the inventive ways that the incarcerated women try to combat the boredom with surreptitious parties and crafting.

Romy finds some relief from the boredom when an academic who teaches at the prison brings her books to read. A burgeoning relationship develops between the two and Romy tries to inveigle his assistance in finding out what has happened to her son. One intuits that this will not end well.

I was mesmerized by Kushner's narrative right from the beginning, especially with how she echoes other writers. Dostoyevski, for example. She explores his theories about evil, about how there are many kinds but not all are recognized. In the thoughts of that teacher at the prison, "There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools." Those abstract forms are the ones practiced by societies and governments and for which they deny responsibility.

She also shares an interesting perspective and insight with the juxtaposition of the writing of two men who chose to live, in their own way, outside of society: Henry David Thoreau and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber. She quotes quite extensively from Kaczynski's diaries and, in truth, his ideas do seem to mirror in many ways those of Thoreau. Fascinating.

I have not read Kushner's earlier much-praised books, but now I certainly want to.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars