Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Melmoth by Sarah Perry: A review

This is a ghost story. Or, perhaps more properly, it's a story of the undead. Not vampires. No, this undead persona does not suck the life's blood of those still fully alive; she is merely an observer. She bears witness to all the cruelty and violence of which humanity is capable and, in her continued existence, we see the toll that such witness-bearing takes.

Melmoth is a character from a gothic masterpiece called Melmoth the Wanderer, written in 1820 by Charles Maturin. In that work, Melmoth was a man. Others have written tales since that featured the character but always as a man. Perry updated the myth, changing the central character to a woman and including various folklore and Christian images.

I loved Perry's last book, The Essex Serpent, and I came to this one expecting to love it, but I found that I didn't. At least not immediately. I found it hard to get into at first, I think, primarily because the central character, Helen Franklin, is a bit of a cipher at first. There's not much to distinguish her or to make us want to know more about her. She is, in fact, a rather lonely and pitiable character.

Helen is English, but when we meet her she is living in Prague where she is a translator of implement instruction manuals. She is described as small and insignificant with an air of sadness and even self-hatred about her. Only much later do we begin to understand the source of that sadness and self-hatred.

Helen has a friend (one of her few) named Karel and it is through him that she first learns the myth of Melmoth, or Melmotka, as she is known in Prague. Karel gives her a collection of texts that tell of a weary wraith-like figure in black who wanders the earth with bleeding feet as she bears witness to sorrow. Perry introduces us to these various texts.

They tell of Josef Hoffman who grew up in wartime Czechoslovakia and who first sees Melmotka as he is marched off to a concentration camp. There is also a letter from Sir David Ellerby written to his wife, Elizabeth, whom he tells of meeting a woman in an inn who had encountered Melmoth. We read the "Cairo Journals of Anna Marney," which tell of the life of a Turkish beggar who in his earlier life had been a cog in the bureaucratic machine that brought about the massacre of Armenians. These historical notes are compelling and it was with them that I really began to appreciate what Perry was doing.

We keep coming back to Helen's life and, finally, her great and original sin is revealed, involving a stint in Manila where she fell in love with a young Filipino trainee doctor and met a woman who had been attacked with acid by her ex-lover. I don't want to reveal any plot spoilers, so I won't say more.

In the end, I found myself greatly admiring Sarah Perry's work here. She builds her postmodern gothic piece by piece and manages to maintain throughout that atmospheric sense of something, some shadowy presence, just there beyond the limits of our vision. We know she is there, watching, witnessing all the scenes of horror that we have been a party to throughout our lives. But she views us with pity and sorrow. And with longing. She is so, so lonely.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Halloween horror in modern America

There's the phony, made-up horrors:

 Hat tip to Daily Kos.

And then there are the real horrors that have become an everyday staple of life in modern America.

Tried to break into an African-American church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, in order to kill worshipers. When that didn't work, he went to the local Kroger's and shot and killed an elderly African-American couple who were shopping there, telling a white shopper, "Whites don't kill whites."

Left: Attempted to assassinate with bombs numerous prominent Democrats including two former presidents and media critics of the president who, in his rallies, frequently praises those who commit political violence.

Right: Went to a synagogue in Pittsburg during the Saturday service and murdered eleven people because he had been riled up by the president and his propaganda arm, Fox News, about an "invading caravan" of refugees entering the country, allegedly abetted by a Jewish group which aids refugees.

These three might be brothers. Indeed, they are brothers in hate.

Dare I say "Happy Halloween"?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon: A review

Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venetian police is approached by a young woman who looks familiar but whom he can't quite place and who wants to tell him about what she fears has been happening at a nursing home where she recently worked. Only after she identifies herself does he realize that she was a nun who once cared for his mother at the nursing home where she is a patient. She had subsequently left that nursing home and worked at another, the one about which she is reporting to him. But then she grew disillusioned with life as a nun and left the Order to take up a secular life. She's no longer dressed in a nun's habit which is why he didn't recognize her.

What the young woman reports to Brunetti is her concern about the deaths of some of her former patients. Their deaths were somewhat unexpected and she believes they may have been helped along. All of the individuals were wealthy and she believes they may have been influenced to make their wills in favor of the nursing home.

Brunetti has nothing to go on except the woman's word but he remembers her as a great favorite of his mother because of her tender care and he decides to look into the situation to see what he can find out. In the midst of his inquiries, the woman who had come to him with the report is run down by a car and left for dead. She is in a coma and unable to tell the police what happened. Brunetti suspects that this was no accident and that it was related to his investigation. He determines to make a more intensive effort to find out what's going on and why someone might want to kill her. 

This sixth entry in the Commissario Brunetti series tells a complicated story of abuses in the Catholic Church that seems as though it could be taken from today's headlines. It touches on the handling of priests who are accused of the sexual abuse of children and the cover-up of those abuses, greed and corruption, and looming over it all the shadowy organization of Opus Dei. The author deals with the somewhat incestuous relationship between the Italian government, the mafia, and the Church and with the resultant corruption which makes the lot of the honest policeman not a happy one. I feel the frustration of Brunetti as he tries to cut through the tangle of obstacles placed in his way to obstruct him from finding the embarrassing - and deadly - truth.

The Commissario and his family, as well as his associates with the police, are, as usual, attractive and sympathetic characters and the plot was an interesting one. I was happy enough with my reading experience here up until near the end and then it just all fell apart. The central mystery of the plot is never resolved; instead, the narrative just peters out into a most unfulfilling conclusion. It seemed as if the author simply lost interest and decided to end it in mid-stream. This certainly colored my opinion of the book and left me unsatisfied.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015

In a few days, we'll be celebrating Halloween with parties and festivals, costumes and candy. "Trick or treat!"

This poem by Craig Santos Perez contrasts that happy kitschy holiday spirit with some of the real atrocities that are all too much a part of our real world and the time in which we live, the Anthropocene epoch.

From Poetry Magazine's analysis of the poem:
Perez toggles between blissful American play and abusive foreign labor, between carefree and careworn children, between—more horrifyingly—live children and dead. Black boys, “enslaved by supply chains” rather than literal chains, carry “bags of cacao,” raw material for the treats the Disney princess begs for. Her costume, like most Americans’ clothes, is the product of “brown girls” at risk of perishing in sweatshops. The ninja-wannabes are relying on a stereotype of real Asians, some of whom make the “toys and tech” that Western children adore. A “chain” of cause-and-effect links the barbarities of child labor to the joys of American kids who, despite all they have, are asking for more: “give me something good.”

The poem itself aims to “cut through,” to “unthread,” the masquerades not only of Halloween but also of the West in general. “Pray for us,” Perez writes, “because our costumes / won’t hide the true cost of our greed.” Like naïve children, he suggests, Westerners play a kind of dress-up, deceiving ourselves about the catastrophes just over the horizon—catastrophes from which we may well benefit.
The “true cost of our greed” is, among other things, environmental destruction, and—as if to emphasize that cost—this poem links elements of the Halloween scene with manmade ecological disasters.

Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015

by Craig Santos Perez

Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume.
The moon reflects bleached coral. Tonight, let us
praise the sacrificed. Praise the souls of  

black boys, enslaved by supply chains, who carry
bags of cacao under West African heat. “Trick
or treat, smell my feet, give me something good

to eat,” sings a girl dressed as a Disney princess.
Let us praise the souls of   brown girls who sew
our clothes as fire unthreads sweatshops into

smoke and ash. “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me
something good,” whisper kids disguised as ninjas.
Tonight, let us praise the souls of Asian children

who manufacture toys and tech until gravity sharpens
their bodies enough to cut through suicide nets.
“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me,” shout boys

camouflaged as soldiers. Let us praise the souls
of  veterans who salute with their guns because
only triggers will pull God into their ruined

temples. “Trick or treat, smell my feet,” chant kids
masquerading as cowboys and Indians. Tonight,
let us praise the souls of native youth, whose eyes

are open-pit uranium mines, veins are poisoned
rivers, hearts are tar sands tailings ponds. “Trick
or treat,” says a boy dressed as the sun. Let us

praise El Niño, his growing pains, praise his mother,
Ocean, who is dying in a warming bath among dead
fish and refugee children. Let us praise our mothers

of  asthma, mothers of  cancer clusters, mothers of
miscarriage — pray for us — because our costumes
won’t hide the true cost of our greed. Praise our

mothers of  lost habitats, mothers of  fallout, mothers
of extinction — pray for us — because even tomorrow
will be haunted — leave them, leave us, leave — 

Friday, October 26, 2018

This week in birds - #326

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

Yellow-rumped Warbler image courtesy of

Yellow-rumped Warblers are making their way back to our area to spend the winter. They are always welcome winter visitors and fun to have around.


Many species of small songbirds, like the warblers, attempt to make their way across the Gulf of Mexico on spring and fall migration. Many don't make it. Those that do, research has shown, are generally the ones with more fat packed on to their bodies. Wind direction and strength is also a major factor. Those that leave on days when they have prevailing tailwinds are more likely to make it to the other side of the water.


The water that those birds pass over in their migrations contain some of the most active areas of off-shore oil drilling platforms and the inevitable spills that come with them. One of those spills has been continuing now for fourteen long years! The platform, owned by Taylor Energy, leaks between 300 and 700 barrels of oil a day, and, with no fix in sight, it threatens to overtake the BP Deepwater Horizon as the biggest oil spill disaster ever. 


There is substantial evidence that the big oil companies have long known of the dangers that their products pose to the planet because of their role in hastening global warming. Now, the State of New York has filed suit against Exxon Mobil, claiming that the company defrauded shareholders by downplaying the effects of climate change. 


A University of Delaware research team has collected data on the relationship between non-native plants in urban landscapes and the population of birds in those areas. They found that the non-native plants provide less sustenance for the insects in the area which in turn reduces the availability of the kind of insects which the breeding birds need to feed their chicks. That has a deleterious effect on the ability of those birds to successfully raise their offspring.


Happy Bat Week! October 24 - 31 is designated as Bat Week, a time to celebrate the diversity of these often misunderstood critters who are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. (I'm sure the timing of Bat Week has nothing to do with the fact that it ends on Halloween!)


Sadly, the United States has refused to step up to leadership in the fight against climate change. You might be surprised to learn of some of the countries that have been willing to shoulder the burden. For example, Iran


Of course, within our country, many of the states, cities, and even private companies are doing what they can to pick up the slack of the federal government's climate change denialism and refusal to act. In Washington, D.C., a proposed bill would make the city move toward 100% renewable energy by 2032.


The home stadium of the Minnesota Vikings has proved to be a horrendous death trap for migrating birds, killing thousands of them every year. Now Minnesota's professional soccer team, the Loons, is getting a new stadium built but they are taking a radically different approach to design and construction.


East Island, a remote spit of gravel and sand that sat atop a coral reef and was a part of the Hawaiian Islands system, was utterly wiped off the map, destroyed by powerful Hurricane Walaka that hit the islands earlier this month. Despite its small size, East Island was important to local wildlife, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, many of which raised their young on that island.


In more news of Hawaii, the Hawaiian Gallinule is a homebody that tends to stay in its home area, refusing to disperse to other islands. This makes the species more vulnerable to catastrophic weather events or other environmental problems.


Hydropower dams may seem like a clean and easy solution to humans' need for a source of energy but they block the movements of fish and have detrimental effects on the surrounding ecosystem. 


As if the Great Barrier Reef didn't already have enough problems, on August 26, a cruise shipped dumped - apparently accidentally - 27,000 liters of food waste and gray water on it.


Saltmarsh Sparrows are critically endangered, and as the planet's oceans rise and take over more of the land mass, this little sparrow's habitat is increasingly squeezed. Saving the Saltmarsh Sparrow is an urgent problem but a successful solution to that problem would benefit very many other species as well.


Rote Leaf-Warbler image by Philippe Verbelen.

A previously unknown species of warbler has been discovered in Indonesia. It has been named the Rote Leaf-Warbler after the island (Rote) on which it was discovered. 


The European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, plates, cutlery and cotton-swab sticks within the European Union by 2021, joining a global shift as environmentalists emphasize the urgency of halting the use of materials that are detrimental to the planet.


Hunting and gathering was the way that our ancestors sustained themselves over thousands of years of their existence. It is a dying way of life in today's world. The Hadza, a tribe in Tanzania, is the last hunter-gatherer tribe in that country. They are an indigenous ethnic group located near Lake Eyasi in the Rift Valley and they have occupied their land unchanged for thousands of years. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Did you vote?

So, did you vote? No, not in that election - in the one about books. 

As you probably know, PBS has been conducting a poll over the last six months to determine America's favorite book. I confess I did not vote in that particular election. (But I have cast my vote in the midterms and you should, too!

More than four million people did participate in the poll, however, and this week PBS announced the results: America's favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird

On reflection, I guess I'm not too surprised. The book has had a lot of good PR over the years, plus it had that really good movie starring Gregory Peck going for it. I think a lot of people are probably a lot more familiar with the book because of that movie - perhaps even more than have actually read the book.

Anyway, the public has spoken and now we know.

Interestingly, four of the top five books on the list of 100 were written by women; namely, in addition to Harper Lee, Diana Gabaldon for her Outlander series, J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter series, and Jane Austen for Pride and Prejudice. The only man to make the top five was J.R.R. Tolkien for The Lord of the Ring series.

Many of the books which made the list of "100 Greatest Reads" are not great books, but they all probably do qualify as great reads. I counted 49 that I have actually read and I was interested to see that some recent books like Americanah, White Teeth, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made the list. We live in what must be one of the golden ages of literature; there are so many wonderfully talented writers at work today. If I made my own personal list of 100 Greatest Reads, I think quite a few current books would be on it.

Here is the PBS list. I've highlighted the ones that I've read. Some of the others are on my TBR list and I still hope to get to them at some time.

How many have you read? 

Full Results
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Outlander (Series)
  3. Harry Potter (Series)
  4. Pride and Prejudice
  5. Lord of the Rings
  6. Gone with the Wind
  7. Charlotte's Web
  8. Little Women
  9. Chronicles of Narnia
  10. Jane Eyre
  11. Anne of Green Gables
  12. Grapes of Wrath
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  14. Book Thief
  15. Great Gatsby
  16. The Help
  17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  18. 1984
  19. And Then There Were None
  20. Atlas Shrugged
  21. Wuthering Heights
  22. Lonesome Dove
  23. Pillars of the Earth
  24. Stand
  25. Rebecca
  26. A Prayer for Owen Meany
  27. Color Purple
  28. Alice in Wonderland
  29. Great Expectations
  30. Catcher in the Rye
  31. Where the Red Fern Grows
  32. Outsiders
  33. The Da Vinci Code
  34. The Handmaid's Tale
  35. Dune
  36. The Little Prince
  37. Call of the Wild
  38. The Clan of the Cave Bear
  39. The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy
  40. The Hunger Games
  41. The Count of Monte Cristo
  42. The Joy Luck Club
  43. Frankenstein
  44. The Giver
  45. Memoirs of a Geisha
  46. Moby Dick
  47. Catch 22
  48. Game of Thrones (series)
  49. Foundation (series)
  50. War and Peace
  51. Their Eyes Were Watching God
  52. Jurassic Park
  53. The Godfather
  54. One Hundred Years of Solitude
  55. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  56. The Notebook
  57. The Shack
  58. A Confederacy of Dunces
  59. The Hunt for Red October
  60. Beloved
  61. The Martian
  62. The Wheel of Time (series)
  63. Siddhartha
  64. Crime and Punishment
  65. The Sun Also Rises
  66. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  67. A Separate Peace
  68. Don Quixote
  69. The Lovely Bones
  70. The Alchemist
  71. Hatchet (series)
  72. Invisible Man
  73. The Twilight Saga (series)
  74. Tales of the City (series)
  75. Gulliver's Travels
  76. Ready Player One
  77. Left Behind (series)
  78. Gone Girl
  79. Watchers
  80. The Pilgrim's Progress
  81. Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
  82. Things Fall Apart
  83. Heart of Darkness
  84. Gilead
  85. Flowers in the Attic
  86. Fifty Shades of Grey
  87. The Sirens of Titan
  88. This Present Darkness
  89. Americanah
  90. Another Country
  91. Bless Me, Ultima
  92. Looking for Alaska
  93. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  94. Swan Song
  95. Mind Invaders
  96. White Teeth
  97. Ghost
  98. The Coldest Winter Ever
  99. The Intuitionist
  100. Doña Bárbára

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson: A review

Needing a bridge, something that wouldn't tax my brain too much, to take me between more serious readings, I turned to Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series.

I don't mean to denigrate Johnson's writing. He's very entertaining and he writes with a light touch and a lot of sardonic Western humor. Sometimes that is exactly what a reader needs and this was one of those times.

As the Crow Flies is the eighth book in the series. Having read the first seven in order, I was ready to see where Walt's and Henry Standing Bear's adventures would take them this time. I was amused to learn that their latest caper was as wedding planners.

Walt's daughter, Cady, is getting married in two weeks at the time that the novel begins, and Walt and Henry have been tasked with securing a venue and making the plans. Things are not going swimmingly.

Cady wants to get married on the Reservation and Henry believed he had reserved the site for the occasion, but then the person in charge of the place informed him that she had okayed the site for another purpose on the date in question. Now Henry and Walt must find a new site or find a way to change her mind.

They opt to look for a new venue and head out to an area of scenic cliffs. While looking around, they observe a woman on top of one of the cliffs. And then they see her fall onto the rocks below. They manage to reach her just at the moment of her death.

Walt's dog (unimaginatively named Dog) was with them and he finds a bundle that had rolled away from the woman's body. It is a blanket wrapped around a baby. It's evident that the baby was in the woman's arms when she fell and he is alive and not seriously hurt.

Since they are on Reservation land, they contact the new Chief of Police there, a young woman named Lolo Long. She has a prickly relationship with the two and with almost everyone else with whom she comes in contact, but, of course, she and Walt wind up working together to investigate the death.

Things become more complicated a few days later when the dead woman's abusive alcoholic husband is found dead also. He had been shot. There's no question that this was murder, but was the woman's death murder, suicide, or accident? Is someone trying to get rid of the family? What motive could possibly exist?

Walt and Lolo, along with Henry, negotiate the convoluted Reservation relationships and attempt to piece together what has happened and who is responsible. Meanwhile, Cady and her soon-to-be mother-in-law arrive in town and begin making the arrangements for the wedding themselves.

This was a very quick and highly entertaining read. There were none of the things in this narrative that I've sometimes found annoying in the earlier books. In fact, I would say this is my favorite Walt Longmire novel so far. The plot moves quickly and most of the characters are old friends and the new ones, like Lolo, are nicely fleshed out with interesting back stories. I think Johnson is on a roll with this series.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French: A review

Wow! That woman can write!

Not that this was a new discovery. After all, I had read all of Tana French's six previous books, each of them a part of the "Dublin Murder Squad" series. There's not a bad book among them and I had been looking forward to number seven. I was disappointed when I read a few months ago that her next book would be a stand-alone mystery, not part of the series. I needn't have worried. 

In The Witch Elm, Tana French has surpassed herself, in my opinion. I think this is her best book yet. And although it doesn't have the members of the Dublin Murder Squad as characters and narrators, it does feature some Dublin police detectives as integral parts of the plot.

Our narrator here is one Toby Hennessy. He is the public relations handler for a small Dublin art gallery. He is a young man who has built his life on his ability to charm his way into and out of situations. The first sentence of his narrative is, "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person." 

Luck is a recurring theme throughout the book, both its presence and the lack of it. It could, in fact, be seen as a meditation upon the source of luck: Is it something that is bred in the bone, or is it something that is bestowed by some outside force?

As we meet Toby, the art gallery's current show features some street artists, some of them homeless, "skangers," as the Irish slang would call them. One of the skanger-artists is called Gouger and seems to show some particular talent, but maybe not quite enough. A gallery employee, Tiernan, decides to help things along by touching up the artist's work to make it more interesting and salable. Toby catches him at it but keeps quiet. Then the gallery owner discovers the fraud and fires Tiernan but keeps Toby on. There's that luck again.

Soon after, Toby goes home to his apartment and sometime during the night his home is burgled, and when he wakes up and discovers the two invaders ransacking his living room, they beat him within an inch of his life.

Sometime later, he wakes up in the hospital with gaps in his memory, a drooping eyelid, a limp, aphasia, and PTSD. As he regains consciousness, a doctor comes to check on him and tells him, "You were very lucky."

Recovery is a very halting process, but he is attended throughout by his saint of a girlfriend, Melissa. He is visited repeatedly by two detectives who are investigating the case. They search for clues in his relationships. Who had he offended? Who had reason to hate him? They don't seem to be making any progress, but one of the detectives tells him that he always gets his man in the end.

But all of this is merely prelude. It is not even the main story of The Witch Elm.  

Toby has a beloved uncle named Hugo who has never married and still lives in the family home called Ivy House, a place where Toby and his cousins spent idyllic summers when they were growing up. It transpires that Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer. He only has a few months to live and he needs someone with him at all times. Since Toby is the member of the family not presently working and who has plenty of time on his hands, he and Melissa take up residence in Ivy House, living with and caring for Hugo.

Every Sunday, the entire family descends on Ivy House for family luncheon. The children of the family play in the enclosed back garden and in that back garden is a 200-year-old elm tree, a wych elm. While playing on the tree, as luck would have it, one of the children finds a human skull tucked into a hole in the tree. The police are called in and soon an entire skeleton is unearthed and, at length, is identified as that of a young man, an acquaintance of Toby and his cousins, who had been thought to have committed suicide by drowning ten years before, although his body had never been recovered. How his skeleton came to be in the tree and his relationships with the cousins in the last summer before his death make up the main story of the book.

The two cousins who play important roles in this story are Susanna, who was a nerdy teenager who grew into a bit of a wild-child and then chucked it all to become a suburban wife and mother; and Leon, a gay teenager dealing with the prejudices and taunts of his peers who grew into an "I'm-gay-so-deal-with-it" young adult. Their teenage experiences are central to the story French tells us.

That story is one of literary mystery/suspense. The most compelling parts of it for me were the relating of the casual sexual harassment that was a part of these teenagers' lives and how it affected the course of their lives; it was so integral to their experiences in that fateful summer that it wasn't even noticed. It wasn't remarked upon. It was just an accepted part of the landscape of being a vulnerable teenager. (Perhaps the current political situation in our country has made me extra sensitive to such storylines, but it seems that every book that I read these days speaks to the subject of sexism and misogyny.)

The two detectives assigned to the skeleton in the tree case doggedly pursue their investigation, returning again and again to interview Toby about his relationship with the victim. The problem is that Toby can't remember much. He seems to have been a pretty oblivious teenager and since the attack his memory is shot anyway. He struggles to recall anything from that summer.

French builds her case and the tension with slow but inexorable force. The denouement when it comes is both unexpected and, upon reflection, perfectly inevitable. And it is brilliant. What will she ever do to top this one?

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

Was there any subject that William Shakespeare never addressed poetically? Well, there probably is, but his appetite for topics was pretty omnivorous. That is certainly true when it came to anything in Nature.

And here he addresses the season of autumn and the seasons of his own life. Who but Shakespeare would think to describe the naked or almost naked boughs of trees in autumn as "bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" and compare the season to "That time of year thou mayst in me behold"? There's a reason why he was the one and only Shakespeare!

Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold

by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Friday, October 19, 2018

This week in birds - #325

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

Savannah Sparrow photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of southeast Texas. 


The devastating red tide that continues to affect Florida's coast is now having an impact on the fall migration of birds. Shorebirds like Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Red Knots are turning up sick because of it.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued its outlook for the winterBecause of a likely El Niño, which is the episodic warming of the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean, NOAA is predicting above average amounts of precipitation along the southern tier of the United States, creeping up the East Coast through the Mid-Atlantic. This could mean heavier snowfalls, depending on the strength of the El Niño system.


How do scientists know that human activity is affecting the global climate? Here's a short review of some of the information that makes them so certain.


And here's a bit of irony for you: It seems that Hurricane Florence has finally convinced at least some Republicans in North Carolina that global warming and its effects on the climate and weather events is actually a thing!


The quaking aspen forest that covers 106 acres of Fishlake National Forest in Richfield, Utah, is made up of a single clone and is the most massive organism on Earth. It has existed for thousands of years and even has a unique name: Pando from the Latin word for "I spread." But now the continuing existence of this unique forest is being threatened by overgrazing by herds of hungry animals and human encroachment.


Climate change affects many systems in Nature and one of those is the balance between winter ticks and their hosts, the moose. Climate change has been delaying snow's arrival, allowing the ticks to multiply to unheard of numbers. One dead moose calf was found with around 100,000 of the creatures on it. The calf died of anemia caused by the parasites. The ticks may cause deaths directly or may make the animals so unhealthy that they are unable to fight off disease or survive difficult weather conditions.


And although these ticks may be thriving at the moment, a number of long-term studies have documented dramatic declines in invertebrate populations around the world. Insect populations are in crisis and this has a domino effect on the birds, amphibians, and reptiles that feed upon them.


Vandalism in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has increased since the current administration has reduced the size of it.


Tahane, a 16-year-old wolf that was a resident at Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Florida, escaped from his enclosure when the fence was damaged during Hurricane Michael last week. The Preserve has issued an urgent plea for residents in the area to be aware of the animal and to please not shoot it. They are hoping to recover him.


How do you solve a problem like a giant lagoon of pig feces? This is a major problem in places like North Carolina where large pig farms exist, especially when a hurricane dumps a lot of water and spreads the toxic feces all over the landscape.


Architects of high rise buildings with a lot of glass are becoming more aware of the problem of bird collisions with their buildings that result in massive numbers of deaths each year. Although advances have been made, almost a billion birds are killed in these collisions in the United States every year.


The deadly fungus called white nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada. Now the plague appears to be moving farther west and scientists are trying to get ahead of it to prevent further spread. 


The current administration is moving to restrict the release of information about its decisions on endangered species. The move comes as wildlife advocates and scientists accuse the government of attempting to weaken protections for wildlife, including wolves, grizzly bears and sage grouse, while boosting domestic energy production and mining in crucial animal habitat.
Strict managing of hunting of rare species of birds can help those species become more common once again. 
Many species in the satyrine group of butterflies - which includes such well-known species as Monarchs, Emperors, and Admirals - have swollen veins at the base of their wings that serve as a kind of "ear" that is sensitive to low frequency sounds.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

IQ by Joe Ide: A review

I recently read a review of Joe Ide's (pronounced ee-day) just published new entry in this series and was intrigued by it. I wanted to read it, but the reviewer cautioned me that I really needed to start with the first book and read them in the order published. Rats!

Well, the good news is that I don't have to go back to 1984 and read thirty books in order to get to the one I actually wanted to read. No, the first book, IQ, was published just two years ago and the latest one is the third in the series. It seemed doable. And that's how I came to be introduced to Isaiah Quintabe - IQ.

Isaiah is an African-American man from one of Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods. He lost both of his parents when he was quite young and he was raised by an older brother, Marcus, whom he idolized. 

Marcus was a jack-of-all-trades and a young man of great integrity and a high moral standard and he set about teaching all of that to his younger brother. Isaiah was a prodigy, possessed of a remarkable intelligence and reasoning ability, and Marcus devoted himself to making sure that his brother had a chance to get the best education and a chance to succeed in life.

The future was full of promise for both brothers. Then, when Isaiah was sixteen, they were out walking and Marcus started to cross a street when he was mowed down by a hit and run driver. He died on the pavement in front of Isaiah's shocked eyes.

So, at sixteen, Isaiah had to figure out how to make it on his own. It took some time but he arrived at a strategy which involved quitting school, taking multiple low-paying jobs, and taking in a roommate to help pay the rent.

That roommate is Dobson, who makes his living dealing drugs, but at least he keeps the drugs far separate from his living space and he turns out to be a neat housekeeper and a pretty good cook! Things are looking up.

When money gets tight for Isaiah, he and Dobson turn to a career in burglary which eventually goes all wrong and entails long term consequences and obligations for both their lives.

The part of the novel I've just described takes place in 2005. The action of the novel switches back and forth between 2005 and 2013. By the later date, Isaiah has recognized his calling in life which is to be a sort of latter-day Sherlock Holmes, helping people by solving their mysteries for them. In payment, he receives whatever his client can afford, often payment in kind with services or goods.

But finally he needs a good paying job because he needs some money to meet one of those obligations I mentioned. Dobson introduces him to a rapper who is being threatened and believes his estranged wife is behind it. He wants an investigator to prove it and he's willing to pay big bucks for the work.

Isaiah agrees to take the job which leads him into conflict with some real lowlifes, not to mention a giant and vicious pit bull and a lunatic professional hit man. The case gets more and more complicated the further he gets into it and he wonders if he'll ever be able to solve it. More urgently, will he come out of it alive?

Joe Ide has created an appealing character in Isaiah and has given him an interesting and complicated backstory. Moreover, he's a character who seems to have room for growth and, even more importantly, an ability to grow. I think he may be able spin a lengthy and successful series from those ingredients.

As for the plot of this one, well, it kept my interest, although I felt it drag a bit at times. But not a bad first effort. I think it's worth three-and-a-half stars but, generous soul that I am, I'll give it four.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, October 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2018

Happy Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day and welcome to my zone 9a garden here in Southeast Texas. Maybe you'll already visited our host blog, May Dreams Gardens, and seen some of the wonderful gardens that are participating this month.

Bloom Day here brought us temperatures in the high 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time since spring. Maybe our long, hot summer is truly over. Or perhaps it will return tomorrow for such is our changeable weather.

But what's blooming, you say? Well, here are some of my October flowers. 

 Duranta erecta, aka golden dewdrop.

 October means chrysanthemums, of course.

 And more chrysanthemums.

Hamelia patens, aka Mexican firebush or hummingbird bush, is at its best in October.

 And so is the coral vine.

'Pinball' gomphrena hasn't paused in its blooming since early summer.

Porterweed, the weird little flowers of which are greatly loved by butterflies and bees.

 Yellow cestrum.

Crossvine blooms profusely in the spring but it sends out a few blossoms in fall just to remind us it's there.

 'Julia Child' rose.

Mexican sunflower, Tithonia 'Torch', is at its best at this time of year. This type does not attain the gigantic size of the older varieties.

 The daisy-like blossoms of wedelia.

 Autumn sage living up to its name.

The pentas are almost finished for the year but still send out a few flowers for the butterflies.

 Pink Knockout rose.

The milkweed blooms on but there have been few Monarchs and no Queens that I have seen visiting and none of their caterpillars found.

 Sweet-smelling butterfly ginger.

The blooms of blue plumbago seem to get bluer as the season advances.

Lantana is seldom without its butterfly accompaniment. Here it is a Long-tailed Skipper.

No blooms on the rue but here's a butterfly in the making - a Black Swallowtail caterpillar.

And speaking of metamorphosis, several weeks ago, my goldfish pond was teeming with tadpoles. Now the backyard teems with small frogs and toads. These little frogs have not moved far from their nursery. They sit on lilypads in the pond.

The new salvia 'Wendy's Wish' has been a real winner for me in the garden this year.

 And the old cannas never fail me.

 'Belinda's Dream' rose.

My purple coneflowers have been a major disappointment this year but some of the plants still send out a few flowers.

 Jatropha - just beginning a new cycle of bloom.

The limbs of my little Satsuma orange tree are dragging the ground in places as the fruits get heavier and heavier. A few of the fruits are just beginning to show the slightest hint of orange. 


And last but hardly least, if it is October, it must be Cape honeysuckle bloom time. My plant is just beginning to show these flame-colored flowers. The migrating hummingbirds are very grateful.

Thank you for visiting. I look forward to visiting your garden to see what's in bloom for you this month.