Friday, November 30, 2018

The Children Return by Martin Walker: A review

Easily the best thing about these Bruno, Chief of Police, books is the descriptions of food and wine, the food usually cooked by Bruno and served along with local wines to his friends in long, leisurely meals. There wasn't much of that in this particular entry and I missed those interludes.

This is the seventh book in this series and the plot develops along three parallel paths that finally converge.

The first plot line concerns French Muslims. First, the tortured and murdered body of an undercover Muslim cop in found in the woods around Bruno's town of St. Denis. It develops that the cop had been investigating a mosque in Toulouse that may be a center of jihadist activity. Then it turns out that a local young autistic man who had been sent to a special school at the mosque had gone missing and had ended up in Afghanistan where his special skills had been exploited by the Taliban for making bombs. Now, the young man, Sami, has escaped and found his way to some French troops and is being returned to France.

Secondly, a bequest from a recently deceased Jewish doctor who, along with his sister, had been hidden from the Nazis by a family from St. Denis during World War II, offers the town a possibility of making some much needed civic improvements if they can come up with a proposal that meets the approval of the surviving sister. The sister and her grandson travel to the area to examine the sites where the two children were sheltered during the war and to view the town's proposal.

Third, the town's doctor, Fabiola, is confronted with a dark and humiliating secret from her past which threatens to destroy her fragile new relationship with the journalist Gilles, and their good friends, Bruno and his long-time paramour Pamela, rally round to try to ferret out the secret and to aid the new relationship.

Oh, and if that weren't enough, there's an intriguing American diplomat/FBI agent (a beautiful and accomplished woman, naturally!) thrown into the mix and Bruno is instantly attracted to her. 

How will all these various tales sort themselves out? Well, Martin Walker does manage to weave them all together in the end, but it is not seamless. In fact, it is a bit of a strain. 

Bruno and his puppy, Balzac, are charming characters and the best entries in this series - in my opinion - are strong on the interaction between them and their neighbors and friends, the animals on the farm, and the garden and woods which provides the ingredients for Bruno's gourmet meals. More of that, please!

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: A review

Is it my flawed memory or have there been an unusual number of new books out this year that have featured a house as a central character? It seems to me that many of the books that I've read recently have had a house as an important element in the plot. And now here comes Barbara Kingsolver's contribution to the genre. 

Perhaps the emphasis on houses - shelters - is a reflection of the unsettled times in which we live when it seems only natural to long for sanctuary and asylum from the daily onslaught of ineptitude, belligerence, and outright brainlessness that seem to rule our national life. There is the understandable fear that the shelter which has always protected us is being ripped apart piece by piece. We are literally becoming unsheltered.

Then again perhaps I am projecting my own opinions onto the author.

Nevertheless, the characters in Kingsolver's book are in danger of becoming unsheltered as the house in which they live is unstable with the roof caving in and walls collapsing. It is true of two distinct sets of characters, with whom she presents us, from two different centuries. 

First we meet Willa Knox and her family. It is 2016 and Willa and her husband have just lost their jobs in Virginia - Willa as a magazine editor and her husband as a professor - when both of the entities they worked for closed. The family has moved to a house that Willa inherited in the community of Vineland outside of Philadelphia where her husband has obtained a new job. The house, like their lives, is falling apart.

Our first view of Willa is at her meeting with a contractor who tells her, "The simplest thing would be to tear it down." To do the necessary renovation and repairs would be prohibitively expensive.

The more than century-old house is a shambles but it will shelter Willa, her husband Iano, Iano's Greek immigrant father Nick, Willa's and Iano's daughter Tig (Antigone), and soon their son Zeke's newborn son for whom he, as a single and destitute father after the suicide death of the boy's mother, is unable to care. Oh, yes, and their ancient dog named Dixie. The shambles of a house is matched by the shambles of their lives.

Nearly 150 years earlier, in the 1870s, another family lived on the same acreage. Schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood and his new wife Rose, her mother Aurelia and her sister Polly along with two large hounds named Scylla and Charybdis live in a decaying house and they, too, do not have the money to do repairs and so must endure the privations. 

Thatcher and Rose are poorly matched; he is a man of science and she is only interested in society and appearances. Theirs seems a doomed alliance from the start.

In time, Thatcher meets their next door neighbor, Mary Treat, a real-life naturalist who carried on extensive correspondences with Charles Darwin as well as many other scientists of the day. They are kindred spirits and she becomes a major influence on his life and work.

Willa Knox hopes to prove that their house has historical significance because of the Treat/Greenwood connection and thus to get a grant to restore and preserve it. It's the only hope she has for saving it.

The tracks of the lives of these two families run parallel in many ways. Not only do they occupy crumbling houses but they each live in a time of economic uncertainty when the truth of scientific inquiry is denied and all of its evidence dismissed because it doesn't agree with the "gut feeling" of its "very intelligent" opponents. In the case of the Greenwood family the scientific inquiry is Darwin's and in the Knox family's lives it is the conclusions regarding global climate change. 

These two parallel narratives reflect each other occasionally in surprising ways, but, taken together, they present a thoroughly absorbing story of human adaptability and survival instinct. They also provide us with a cautionary tale of where fear and denialism can take us:
“I suppose it is in our nature,” she said finally. “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Bless Their Hearts by Richard Newman

"Bless his heart!" It's a phrase that is well known in the South, something we all grow up with. It is understood that you can say anything negative that you want to about a person, as long as you add "Bless his heart!" The magic phrase absolves you.

Imagine my delight then when I ran across this poem last week. I laughed out loud as I read. It just gave me one more thing to be thankful for.

Richard Newman - bless his heart!

Bless Their Hearts

by Richard Newman

At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add 
“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say 
whatever you want about them and it’s OK. 
My son, bless his heart, is an idiot, 
she said. He rents storage space for his kids’ 
toys—they’re only one and three years old! 
I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned 
into a sentimental old fool. He gets 
weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting 
on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came 
someone else blessed her office mate’s heart, 
then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts 
of the entire anthropology department. 
We bestowed blessings on many a heart 
that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart. 
Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting 
much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts. 
In a week it would be Thanksgiving, 
and we would each sit with our respective 
families, counting our blessings and blessing 
the hearts of family members as only family 
does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please
bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

Friday, November 23, 2018

This week in birds - #330

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

Pine Siskins have been reported in the Houston area already. Usually, when we get them at all it is not until later in December, but apparently they have arrived early this year. I have not seen any in my yard yet. I photographed this one in a previous year.  


A major scientific report issued by 13 federal agencies on Friday presented the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States, predicting that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end. The report is notable not only for the precision of its calculations and bluntness of its conclusions, but also because its findings are directly at odds with the current administration's agenda of environmental deregulation.


In this week when turkeys play a major role in many American families' dining plans, they are also playing a part in the plans of wildlife experts in New York where a strategy is being devised to round up around 250 Wild Turkeys that have made their home on Staten Island and have complicated life for the humans living there. The birds are to be rounded up and moved to a wildlife sanctuary in upstate New York.  


Americans are literally loving their national parks to death. Visitors to the parks are at record numbers and in our eagerness to experience Nature, much of what we love most about these places is being lost.


A wildlife biologist who has spent thirty years tracking raptors from Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain has seen the recovery of these birds from their low point due to the effects of DDT and is now seeing their migration patterns change as a result of climate change.  


Half the population of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot disappeared after Hurricane Maria destroyed their habitat and food sources. Conservationists are now trying to rebuild that population and bring it back from the brink of extinction. 


A new study has reinforced once again the importance of native plants in maintaining healthy populations of birds. Thus, one of the most helpful things homeowners who want to encourage bird populations can do is to plant native plants in their landscapes.


Among all the terrible news regarding the recent wildfires in California, here is some good news: At least twelve of the thirteen mountain lions being tracked with radio collars in the Santa Monica Mountains were alive and moving around outside the burn area this week. One lion is so far unaccounted for.


Broadleaf trees like aspen and birch can provide a natural fire break between stands of more flammable conifer trees, but often forest managers have those trees sprayed with herbicide to make way for planting more conifers.


Global warming is messing with the jet stream and that, in turn, is creating more extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere.


The latest Red List of Threatened Species is out and it shows that some bird species, like the Northern Bald Ibis and the Pink Pigeon, have made partial recoveries in the past year. Overall, 31 species were moved to lower threat categories while 58 are experiencing increased threats to their continued existence.  


Litigation continues over protecting the habitat of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The combatants are familiar - environmental groups against oil companies that want access to the habitats for drilling. 


Photo by Tim Proffitt-White.

This is the remarkably colorful Ocellated Turkey, cousin of our own Wild Turkey. It is a tropical turkey of Mexico and Central America and some of them have made it into South Texas. The species is in danger because of overhunting, especially in the Yucatan but it may be saved by ecotourism.


A new study postulates that the U.S. could cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by more than one-fifth by natural climate solutions like reforestation.


A three-year effort led by BirdLife International, American Bird Conservancy, and the International Union for Conservation of Nation has mapped the ranges of 1483 highly threatened bird species in hopes of being able to better protect those ranges.


The aba blog has further confirmation of the irruption of winter finches and their early arrival in many places.


More good news! Mountain gorillas seem to be staging a comeback. Their status has been upgraded from critically endangered to merely endangered. Baby steps but important steps and a reason to be thankful.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: A review

A writer's lifelong friend and mentor (also a writer) unexpectedly commits suicide. He leaves behind a 180 pound harlequin Great Dane. His third wife, now his widow, informs the writer that her dead friend had expressed the desire that if anything happened to him, she should take the dog. The writer lives in a 500 square foot apartment on the fifth floor of an apartment building in New York. Her lease forbids dogs. Nevertheless, she decides to take the dog. How could she not? Philosophizing and magical thinking ensue. The end.

There you have the gist of this rather strange little book which just won this year's National Book Award for Fiction.

The heroine of the story is that unnamed writer who rents the tiny apartment and who takes in the giant dog. Not only is the heroine unnamed, none of the characters in the book (with three notable exceptions) are named. They are all referred to by their role titles: Wife No. 1, Wife No. 2, Wife No. 3, student, landlord, professor, etc. The notable exceptions who are given names are the Great Dane (named Apollo), a miniature Dachshund named Jip, and the apartment super Hector.

The heroine is not a dog person. She has always considered herself a cat person, and yet she becomes completely devoted to Apollo because he helps her feel closer to her absent friend. At some point, he seems to become, in her mind, an incarnation of the friend that she has lost. Thus, the magical thinking. 

The dog is grieving, too, and so she devotes herself to trying to assuage his grief, and, in doing so, to alleviate her own. She meditates on the nature of grief and the nature of her relationship with her lost friend. She has sessions with a therapist who tells her that she was actually in love with her friend and that is why she is so bereft. She wonders if that is true.

Included in her narrative are anecdotes about and quotations from the works of many authors. These flow effortlessly and naturally through the chronicle, as do her meditations on the workings of the male brain and the basis of misogyny. At one point she opines:
“Tempted to put too much faith in the great male mind, remember this: It looked at cats and declared them gods. It looked at women and asked, Are they human? And, once that nut had been cracked: But do they have souls?”
She references reading several current day writers, including Karl Ove Knausgaard whose book Apollo destroys, causing her to have to get a replacement. She is, in fact, a constant reader and she learns that Apollo is calmed and soothed by her reading aloud. He is a literary dog. 

This is a book in which nothing much happens. It exudes a mournful tone throughout as we follow the year and more progression of the woman's and the dog's grief as they soothe and comfort each other. There are moments of humor as there would almost have to be with such a large dog living in such a small apartment and the jokes pretty much write themselves. And there is some drama when the heroine is threatened with eviction because of the dog. But, primarily, this is a meditation about friendship, love, and grief.

The book is unique. The writer whose work I can most readily compare it to is Rachel Cusk. There is something about the rhythm of the sentences and the structure of the story that reminds me of her writing.

I don't know that I would necessarily agree with the jury that chose this as the National Book Award winner; there are so many outstanding works of fiction out this year. But it certainly deserved to be considered.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly: A review

If anyone does police procedurals better than Michael Connelly, I don't know who it is. He takes us step by step by step through investigations and describes the actions of the police, warts and all. We see when they step over the line into criminal behavior in order to catch a criminal. In Connelly's world, though, their motives are always righteous.

Dark Sacred Night, the title taken from a phrase in the lyrics for "What a Wonderful World," is Connelly's latest effort and it features two of his characters: Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch. Detective Ballard is still working for LAPD on the "late show," the night shift of the department working the streets of Los Angeles. Harry is still working as a reserve officer with the San Fernando Police Department, assigned to working cold cases.

It's a cold case that brings the two together. Harry is working on the case of a 15-year-old runaway named Daisy Clayton who was brutally raped and murdered and her body dumped on the streets of Los Angeles several years earlier. He has a connection with Daisy's mother who he helped to get clean from a drug habit and who he's now trying to keep clean. He has promised her that he will find the person who killed her daughter and bring him to justice.

His investigation takes him to the LAPD and Ballard discovers him there where he has picked the locks and is going through the files. She ushers him out but is intrigued by his interest in this old case and after finding out more about it, she finds herself drawn into it, also. She offers to work with him on the case, working on it in her spare time as a "hobby case." Thus a partnership is born.

Ballard, of course, has a full-time demanding job and Connelly shows us how most of her time is taken up with handling the cases assigned to her in that job. She works on the Clayton case on her own time.

Bosch, too, has other responsibilities with the SFPD, responsibilities that he doesn't seem to be handling very well these days. In fact, he makes mistakes which result in a witness being murdered and then one of his fellow cops trying to kill himself while in Bosch's charge. Maybe Bosch is finally past it and ready to retire. For the third time. In the end, his boss makes that choice for him and suspends him indefinitely. It's unlikely he'll be working for SFPD again.

At least that frees him up to work full-time on the Clayton case.

Connelly, as always, does an excellent job of describing the painstaking and mind-numbing detail involved in looking through records and running down clues to finally isolate potential suspects in a case that is years old and has gone very, very cold. Of course, Ballard and Bosch get there in the end. Was there ever any doubt?

I found it interesting that Connelly referenced several current day events and phenomena in the telling of his story. He referred to the #MeToo movement and in one instance alluded to Stormy Daniels. Moreover, he gives a lot of free publicity to Uber; everybody "Ubers" in the book. Apparently, it is now a verb.

My only problem with this book was the switching back and forth between hot current-day cases and the cold case. It was a bit hard to keep focused and occasionally I lost the thread and had to go back and read a chapter - or at least part of it - to remind myself of where I was. But the story of Daisy Clayton and her mother, Elizabeth, was heartbreaking and the efforts of Ballard and Bosch to bring justice to the case were compelling. It was a good read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Monday, November 19, 2018

How to be an Urban Birder by David Lindo: A review

One of the really neat things about birds is that they are very adaptable creatures and they can be found almost everywhere on Earth. There is virtually no place you can go where there will not be at least a token presence of feathered flying critters.

Of course, some places are birdier than others. I am fortunate to live in Southeast Texas which much of the North American population of birds passes through at some time in the year, either headed to more northern climes in the spring or to Mexico and Central and South America in the fall. Many of them do, in fact, linger with us throughout the year. So, I'm never at a loss for birds to watch in my own backyard.

One might assume that the urban areas of the world would be unlikely places for people who enjoy watching birds, but one would be wrong. David Lindo in his recent book, How to be an Urban Birder, shows his readers just how wrong that assumption is.

Lindo is a U.K. birder and most of the birds that he discusses in his book are European species, but they all have counterparts in North America (and indeed on every continent except possibly Antarctica) and the lessons that he gives on the art and science of birding, where to find birds in the urban landscape, how to attract birds, what to look for at various times of the year, and the helpful tools of the trade are applicable no matter in which urban setting you happen to live.

I found the chapters on gardening for birds and on the tools of the trade especially interesting. Cultivating a wildlife-friendly garden, particularly if one is able to include a water feature, such as a pond or bog garden, is a wonderful way to bring the birds in close so you might not even need binoculars to view them. But, really, binoculars are perhaps your most important tool of the trade and Lindo's section on how to choose binoculars for your hobby is quite helpful, especially for the novice.

Overall, the book is written in a conversational and easy-to-understand style. Lindo never talks down to his readers and his enthusiasm for the hobby of birding - or twitching, if you prefer - is infectious. It would be most recommended for the person living in an urban area who is new to this leisure pursuit and wants to learn more about finding a greater variety of species of birds beyond House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Common Rock Pigeons.

(Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was provided to me by Princeton University Press for the purpose of this review. The views expressed here are entirely my own.)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Enlightenment by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey is a much honored American poet who has twice served as the nation's poet laureate and who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. Trethewey was born in Mississippi and grew up in the South, the daughter of an interracial marriage. Her father was a white Canadian emigrant, a poet and professor. Her mother was a black social worker from Mississippi. Much of her poetry explores the lives and challenges of being a black person in the South.

She has a new collection of poems just published called Monument which tells of American history, personal history, and the lives of people who are often overlooked by history and poets. It has received quite a bit of critical acclaim.

This is a poem from an earlier collection, published in 2014, but it also addresses American history and her personal history. The last line here about history that links us but "renders us other to each other" I find inestimably sad.


by Natasha Trethewey

In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
        at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
his forehead white with illumination —

a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow,
        darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.

By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
        he was already linked to an affair
with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue

and ethereal, a wash of paint that seems
        to hold him in relief, Jefferson gazes out
across the centuries, his lips fixed as if

he's just uttered some final word.
        The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:

how Jefferson hated slavery, though — out 
        of necessity, my father said — had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant

he could not have fathered those children:
        would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between

word and deed. I'd follow my father from book
        to book, gathering citations, listening
as he named — like a field guide to Virginia —

each flower and tree and bird as if to prove
        a man's pursuit of knowledge is greater
than his shortcomings, the limits of his vision.

I did not know then the subtext
        of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson's words made flesh in my flesh —

the improvement of the blacks in body
        and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the whites — or that my father could believe

he'd made me better. When I think of this now,
        I see how the past holds us captive,
its beautiful ruin etched on the mind's eye:

my young father, a rough outline of the old man
        he's become, needing to show me
the better measure of his heart, an equation

writ large at Monticello. That was years ago.
        Now, we take in how much has changed:
talk of Sally Hemings, someone asking,

How white was she? — parsing the fractions
        as if to name what made her worthy 
of Jefferson's attentions: a near-white,

quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.
        Imagine stepping back into the past, 
our guide tells us then — and I can't resist

whispering to my father: This is where
        we split up. I'll head around to the back. 
When he laughs, I know he's grateful

I've made a joke of it, this history
        that links us — white father, black daughter — 
even as it renders us other to each other.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

This week in birds - #329

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

I photographed this Spotted Towhee on the grounds of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Nature Center in West Texas last March. Those ruby red eyes are mesmerizing.


The devastating wildfires raging in California are creating problems not only for those whose homes have been destroyed or who have lost loved ones in the flames. The smoke from the fires is affecting air quality in the region. The air was so thick on Friday that it ranked among the dirtiest in the world. The fires are being fed by the driest vegetation ever measured in Northern California so late in the year. The dry vegetation is the result of an exceptionally hot and dry summer and that, in turn, can be traced back to the changing climate that continues to heat up. 


On Friday, the current president announced his intention to nominate a former coal lobbyist to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.


The petrochemical industry anticipates spending a total of more than $200 billion on factories, pipelines and other infrastructure in the United States that will rely on shale gas. Construction is already underway at many sites. The building spree would dramatically expand the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical corridor (known locally as “Cancer Alley”) and establish a new plastics and petrochemical belt across states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. All of this is very bad news for a world already drowning in plastic.


A new study has revealed that birds in the Andes are moving up the mountains to get to a cooler climate and escape the hotter conditions below, but there's only so far that the birds can go. What will happen when they've reached the limit of appropriate habitat?


A study of beetles has revealed one possible contributing factor to the worldwide loss of insect population. It seems that heat waves affect the insect's ability to reproduce by reducing male fertility.


On the other hand, it seems it takes more than a category 4 hurricane to discourage the spotted seatrout from reproducing. On August 25, 2017, when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast with 145 MPH winds, it passed over the spawning grounds of the seatrout which were in the midst of mating. Undeterred, they just got on with it! 


Meanwhile, research has confirmed that climate change is increasing the strength of hurricanes and making them more destructive. Scientists predict that rainfall from hurricanes could be increased by a third and wind speeds boosted by 25 knots if global warming continues.


Evening Grosbeaks are stunningly beautiful birds and seeing a flock of them is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. I have vivid memories of the winter when thousands of the birds descended on our yard in northeast Texas. They are known to be enthusiastic winter wanderers, though I've never seen them this far south. They have been visiting in New Mexico recently, however. Maybe there is hope for us this winter.

  Evening Grosbeak photographed by Sarah Nelson in northern New Mexico.

Scientists behind a major study that claimed the Earth’s oceans are warming faster than previously thought now say their work contained inadvertent errors that made their conclusions seem more certain than they actually are. Two weeks after the high-profile study was published in the journal Nature, its authors have submitted corrections to the publication. Because when scientists make errors they point it out and correct it.
Buried beneath a half mile of snow and ice in Greenland, scientists have uncovered an impact crater of an asteroid large enough to swallow the District of Columbia. It is the first impact crater found under Earth's ice sheets. The finding suggests that the giant iron asteroid smashed into what is today a glacier during the last ice age, an era known as the Pleistocene Epoch that started 2.6 million years ago. When it ended only 11,700 years ago, mega-fauna like saber-toothed cats had died out while humanity had inherited the Earth.


Maybe size really doesn't matter. At least to House Sparrows. There has been a hypothesis around for a while that the larger the black bib of a male sparrow the higher his status in the flock. Now an international team of researchers has knocked holes in that hypothesis, showing that there is really no evidence to support it.


The Yellowstone National Park that will be visited by future generations is likely to be quite different from the one that we know and love because of the effects of a warming climate. 


Reintroducing big cats, like tigers, to areas where they have been extirpated requires a lot of preparation and education of the local population to teach them how to live with the animals once again. 


One approach to helping the critically endangered red wolf increase population is to introduce captive bred pups into wild-born litters to be fostered. The Fish and Wildlife Service has done this successfully in some cases.


The Willow Warbler is a tiny bird and yet it has one of the longest migration routes for a species weighing ten grams or less. It typically flies more than 8,000 miles to reach its destination. Birds never cease to amaze me. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Godsend by John Wray: A review

This novel is different from any that I can ever recall having read. It is a coming-of-age story, but it is no ordinary coming-of-age story.

John Wray was inspired to write his book by the story of the young American, John Walker Lindh, who became known as the "American Taliban." Lindh was captured as an enemy combatant during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, but he was a rather pitiable character who had apparently been originally inspired by idealism and a desire to study Arabic, for which purpose he had traveled to Yemen. Somewhere along the way he became radicalized and went to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan and he had the misfortune to still be there when the Saudi-led attack on the United States occurred.

Wray's main character is an idealistic 18-year-old from Santa Rosa, California, who makes a plan to travel to Peshawar, Pakistan, to study Islam at a madrasa. So far, not so different from Lindh, but there is one very important difference: She is a young woman.

Aden Grace Sawyer was an outsider, a loner. She had only one real friend. Her parents were separated and she lived with her mother, a hopeless alcoholic. Her father, who had been unfaithful in the marriage and had moved out, was a secular scholar of Islam. Aden despises her parents and her life and seeks to escape. She feels empty and wants something to fill her life with purpose. She becomes intrigued with the idea of studying Islam and devoting herself to the "struggle," and with her friend, Decker, develops the plan to go to Pakistan.

They get financial help for the trip from their local mosque and Aden shaves her head, binds her breasts with an Ace bandage, and secures a supply of pills to stop her menstrual cycle. As a woman, she could not study at the madrasa and so she will be a man. This may remind you of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story of Yentl, the rabbi's daughter who disguised herself as a boy in order to study at yeshiva. I find the parallels both revealing and ironic.

Once the two adventurers arrive at the small rural madrasa where they will study, they must choose new names. Aden takes the name Suleyman, which was also the name - or similar to it - that Lindh adopted and she begins her training.  It begins with learning the suras of the Qur'an by heart and progresses on to actual military training. Through a series of events, she ends up on the front lines of battle in Afghanistan just prior to the attacks of 9/11.

Aden/Suleyman is never completely trusted by the militants. They see her as something exotic. She is constantly in fear of being found out and knows the fate that would await her if she is.

The men continue to be suspicious of her and don't seem to know what to make of her, but she does become close to one of them, a leader who may, in fact, have known her secret.

Wray writes very convincingly about Islamic theology and about the religious fervor that motivates his characters. This is, in some ways, a religious thriller with the main character experiencing the terror of potential discovery. The writer makes this terror palpable and it is obvious that he has spent some time mastering the subject of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan and warfare as it is practiced there. He makes it all very real for the reader and he builds the tension to an intensely devastating ending.

I don't remember where I first heard of this book, but I was intrigued by its premise and immediately put it in my reading queue. I'm very glad I did. It's a book and an ending that I won't soon forget.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day - November 2018

Welcome to my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas where we had our first light freeze of the season last night. The temperature barely dipped below the freeze mark but it was enough to turn many of my garden plants to brown mush. I had proactively taken my succulents and a few other potted plants to the garage to protect them, but those that were in the ground were on their own.

This freeze was actually a few weeks early. Our normal average first freeze date is December 10. Does this portend a colder than usual winter like we had last winter? We know that our weather patterns are changing but it is not yet entirely clear how they are changing or to what extent. Time will tell.

The cold night did not affect my roses that were in bloom.

'Lady of Shallott.'

'Peggy Martin' blooms profusely in spring but she also gives us some secondary blooms in the autumn.

'Julia Child.'

The freezing temperatures nipped the tips of some of the petals of this 'Belinda's Dream' bloom but it was mostly unaffected.

However, a lot of my plants looked like this porterweed today. It'll have no more blooms to feed the butterflies this year.

The Hamelia patens shrubs were frostbitten on top but the leaves nearer the ground were still green. All the blooms were gone, though.

When I knew cold weather was coming, I took some pictures over the weekend. This was the lantana then.

And here it is on Wednesday. Like the Hamelia, the bottom portion of the plant was not affected and the leaves are still green.

Which is probably good news for this caterpillar which was still feeding on the leaves today.

This red dahlia was blooming beautifully on the weekend. No more.

And the marigolds have been at their absolute best over the last couple of weeks.

Looking at marigolds in bloom always makes me happy.

Turk's cap was a bit frostbitten but still in bloom today.

And so are the chrysanthemums.

More chrysanthemums.

The Cape honeysuckle won't last long if we get much colder weather, but so far so good.

And, surprisingly, the blue plumbago was not affected. Apparently, the micro-climate where it lives stayed above freezing.

This 'King Humbert' canna was just about to bloom, but it won't now.

My few purple echinaceas are hanging in there.

And the few leaves still hanging on my little Japanese maple have turned this brilliant shade of burgundy. Nice to have some color still in the garden.

Thank you for visiting and participating in Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day and thank you Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us.

Happy Bloom Day and happy Thanksgiving.