Monday, December 31, 2018

My "Best of 2018"

Oh, my, that was hard! In 2018, I read 95 books, which was 11 more than my goal of 84, or seven per month. But that wasn't the hard part. 

What was really, really hard was coming up with a list of the best from that group, because, in fact, most of the books I read this year were good. There were very few stinkers. So, I had to set parameters to narrow the field.

I had several rereads, or in some cases first reads, of classics; books like The Great Gatsby, 1984, Oryx and Crake, As I Lay Dying, and Heart of Darkness, and soon-to-be classics like Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones. I enjoyed them all but immediately eliminated them from consideration, deciding to include only recent publications of this or the last year.

The next cut was really a no-brainer: I would include only those books that I had rated at five-stars. That should narrow things down, right? 


Actually, that left me with 24 books to be considered, an unwieldy number. Surely I could shrink that list a bit more to the "Very Best of the Best."

But no, I couldn't. Each of these 24 was exceptional in its own way and comparing them would have been like comparing apples to oranges. One is not better than the other; it just depends on one's taste at any given time. Honestly, how do those Pulitzer or Man Booker juries ever make up their minds?

So, here, without apology and in no particular order, is my unwieldy list of the 24 best books of 2018, along with links to my reviews of them.

The Written Word: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner - Puchner discusses the foundational texts of civilization and the philosophical, political and religious ideas that sprang from those texts.

Circe by Madeline Miller - Miller retells the Greek myth of Circe as a kind of autobiography in which Circe is a feminist heroine battling against the constraints that bind her.

The Overstory by Richard Powers - This is the story of trees as sentient beings that shape our world; beings on which we and all life ultimately depend. But, of course, since we are such narcissistic creatures, the trees' stories are told through their interfaces with human beings. 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner - Kushner gives us a portrait of life in a women's prison where the mind-numbing sameness of the days seems designed to extinguish any spark left in an inmate's soul. But sometimes it has the opposite effect.

Kudos by Rachel Kusk - This is the third in Kusk's trilogy, a subtle theme of which is the way that the work of women writers is judged differently from men writers. The main character, Faye, and her stories and experiences deal with ageism and sexism. 

Calypso by David Sedaris - David Sedaris is a very funny fellow with lots of weird and wonderful family and friends. He proves all that again with this book. Highly recommended as an audio book for long road trips! 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - This is the story of a middle class black couple who did everything right but still got caught in America's racial prejudice trap, resulting in the man being falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. The struggle to preserve the marriage is the focus of the novel.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer - The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is the story of Arthur Less, a mediocre writer of moderate success. It is also one of the funniest, most enjoyable books I read this year.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer - Wolitzer's novel is full of wit and insight for everyone for whom, to paraphrase the words of Barack Obama, men have been getting on their nerves lately.  

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler - What can I say? I'm a sucker for Anne Tyler but I did love and identify with her Willa Drake. 

There There by Tommy Orange - Orange's tale of a group of "urban Indians" whose lives converge at the Big Oakland Powwow made just about everybody's "best of" list this year. 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens - If I were absolutely forced to name my favorite book of 2018, it might just be this one. Owens' story of an abandoned child learning to make her way in the world alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast spoke to me on many levels.  

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen - One of just a handful of non-fiction books that I read this year (I do tend to stick to fiction), this was a fascinating, I could even say mind-blowing, history of the discovery of a "third domain" of life on Earth, something distinctly different from plants and animals.

Presidio by Randy Kennedy - This was one of the many first novels by writers that I read this year and this Texas noir tale about a professional car thief was a winner!

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart - This story of a frankly unlikable character and his road trip across America against the background of the 2016 presidential election was one that I found mesmerizing and hard to put down.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith - The fourth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott mystery series is the best one yet, in my opinion.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh - A narcissistic (size 2, she wants to be sure we know) woman in New York City decides to spend a year on retreat from the world with the help of pharmaceuticals. Her year culminates just before the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2011. It makes for a strange and captivating novel.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson - A rousing good tale of espionage as practiced in World War II and its later consequences. Nothing and no one here is exactly what appearances suggest.

The Witch Elm by Tana French - I'll read anything this woman writes! Her mysteries just get better and better.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry - This story of an undead observer who bears silent witness to the cruelty and violence of which humankind is capable took a while for me to get into, but once I did, the momentum of the unusual story pulled me along right to the bang-up ending.

Shell Game by Sara Paretsky - If there is anyone who writes better, more literate and humane mysteries than Paretsky, I haven't met him/her. Her protagonist V.I. Warshawski never lets me down.

Godsend by John Wray - No ordinary coming-of-age story, Godsend tells the tale of an idealistic young woman from Santa Rosa, California, who travels to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she will pass as a man in order to study the Qu'ran at a madrasa. She becomes radicalized and finds herself behind enemy lines on 09/11/01.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver - Another book set with the background of the 2016 presidential election and another book with a house as one of the main characters. (And isn't it interesting that both Kingsolver and Anne Tyler have main characters named Willa in this year's books?)

Florida by Lauren Groff - The Sunshine State is not all fun in the sun. Some of its stories are pretty dark but all are absorbing. 

2018 has been a thoroughly depressing year on most fronts, but when it comes to literature, it has been a winner. There are a lot of good books being written these days and I've been privileged to read many of them this year. I can't wait to get started on 2019. The best may be yet to come!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Note to my readers

"This week in birds" and "Poetry Sunday" will return next weekend. On Monday, I'll give you my "Best of 2018" list of books.

I hope you and your loved ones are enjoying a wonderful holiday season because you deserve it! And may your 2019 be happy and healthy.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson: A review

Ask your average birder about what families of birds are most difficult to correctly identify in the field and I can pretty much guarantee that gulls will rank high on their list. I mean they are all combinations of gray, white, and black. What can the poor birder latch onto as an easy way to distinguish individual species?

Since the sainted Roger Tory Petersen published his first field guide to birds back in 1934, field identification of birds has focused on plumage - its colors and patterns. But this just doesn't work really well for gulls. In addition to the fact that they are generally combinations of the three aforementioned colors, or non-colors, they go through a series of plumage changes over the years from their juvenile feathers to adulthood. Moreover, even in adulthood, the plumage of a gull in winter can be drastically different from that during the breeding season. Again, what's the poor birder to do?

Well, Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson have some thoughts on that subject and have come up with a method of comparison that should prove useful to serious birders. It essentially involves a focus on size, body shape, and structural features, along with plumage details, in order to make identification in the field easier. Mastering this method, one could potentially identify a gull based on only seeing its backlit silhouette. As a guide, the book features pictures of such silhouettes of the twenty-two species (including one that has two sub-species) that occur regularly in North America.

The book also contains plentiful full-color pictures of the gulls in their habitats, along with all the information that any good field guide has about distribution, the status of the species, unique tidbits about their habits, food, and nesting. Gulls typically mate for life and both members of the dyad feed and protect the nestlings.

Gulls are intelligent and adaptable birds and this book should give all its readers better skills at being able to identify individual species, as well as a greater appreciation of the family as a whole. It is written in an easily understood conversational style that is appropriate to the information being presented and that makes it a very useful addition to the birder's library.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Thursday, December 27, 2018

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier: A review

Okay. I tried. I really did. I tried to like Tracy Chevalier's new book but I just couldn't get into it. I admit part of the problem may have been the constant distractions of the holiday season during which I was reading it.

This is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which modern writers reimagine Shakespeare's works in their own settings and plots. Chevalier took Othello as her source and pattern. That would be a daunting task for anyone.

She chose to retell the story of the Moor of Venice as essentially a YA novel featuring the characters as 11-year-old schoolchildren. All the action takes place in one day at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, with only a few weeks left in the school term. On this eventful day a new boy is enrolled in the school. His name is Osei Kokote. He is the son of a diplomat from Ghana. Apparently, he is the only black child entered in the school, and so he is a figure of great curiosity for the other children and for the teachers, some of whom seem particularly vexed by the idea of having to teach him.  

A teacher assigns Dee, the most popular girl in school and the teacher's pet, to show Osei around the campus. The two hit it off almost instantly, much to the consternation of Ian, the school bully who harbors his own interest in Dee, although he is the boyfriend of her friend Mimi (who is his very reluctant girlfriend). Ian sets out to disrupt and destroy the budding relationship between Dee and Osei at any cost. The consequences of his single-minded campaign will have far-reaching effects on the lives of all the main characters. 

In telling this story, Chevalier manages to hit all the major themes of the Shakespeare original. Racism, check; love, check; jealousy, check; betrayal, check; revenge, check; repentance, check. It's all here but reduced to the puerile level of children just beginning to discover the wide world and their own sexuality. I suppose that Chevalier's point is that all of these various human emotional reactions and needs have their roots in childhood. It's where the personality is formed and where one develops one's view of the world as either a benevolent and welcoming place or an unkind, zero-sum place where everyone is either winner or loser and you don't want to get caught on the wrong side of the line. The child is truly the father/mother to the man/woman. Seeing Othello, Desdemona, Iago, etc., as children might give us some insight into the adult characters.

In theory, it's an interesting concept and a unique way of presenting Othello, and this book has been highly praised by many, but, in practice, eleven-year-olds falling in and out of love in an afternoon on the playground and plotting to destroy their perceived enemies using an errant pencil box as a tool...I just couldn't love it.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Noble Radiance by Donna Leon: A review

These Donna Leon books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police have become some of my favorite guilty reading pleasures over the past year. Time to squeeze in one more before the year ends!

A Noble Radiance is the seventh in the series and once again it highlights the corruption and intrigue which seem to be hallmarks of public life in Italy - at least in public life as told by Donna Leon.

The plot begins with the discovery of a body, not an unusual event in a murder mystery. In this case, the body is that of a young man, long dead and mostly decomposed. The body is discovered when an abandoned and derelict farm in a village near Venice is purchased by a German doctor from Munich as a retirement home. He starts the process of renovating and upgrading the house and the land around it. As one of the fields is being plowed, the plow uncovers the remains which had been in a shallow grave. The case is assigned to Brunetti.

Along with the body, a ring is discovered. The ring bears the crest of the Lorenzoni family. As it happens, two years earlier, the twenty-year-old son of that family, Roberto, had been kidnapped. A ransom was demanded but his father was not able to access the money to pay it, thus it was never paid. The family never had a second request from the supposed kidnappers and they've never heard from or seen their son again. His body was never found. The experience has completely destroyed the boy's grieving mother.

Soon the authorities are able to confirm that the body that was found is Roberto's and the old kidnapping case that was never solved is reopened as a murder case.

As Guido investigates, he senses that there is something "off" about the family relationships, particularly the father and a nephew who is now the family heir. He begins to suspect that Roberto's disappearance may not have been a clearcut kidnapping and that the family may be involved.

As the Commissario investigates, he goes home each day to his own family of a wife and two teenage children and we see the contrast between this loving unit and the Lorenzoni family. Brunetti's relationships with his family and with the co-workers whom he trusts, like Signorina Elletra, sustain him and make it possible for this clever, empathetic, and philosophical detective to maintain his integrity in a corrupt system. Time spent with him always leaves the reader with the sense that continuing to fight the good fight is a worthy goal in and of itself.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

The website reported last week that this poem was the work most accessed on that website during 2018. It makes sense, I think. We are all searching for a little kindness these days.

Naomi Shihab Nye had a Palestinian father and an American mother. She was born in St. Louis but calls San Antonio her home.

Nye was inspired to write this poem while traveling through Colombia, a country whose natural beauty and richness is contrasted with its problems of social oppression, governmental corruption, drug trafficking, and violent crime. Within these contrasts, she found reason to believe in the power of kindness to change things. To change both the giver and receiver of the act.


by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

This week in birds - #334

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

A colorful little Pine Warbler visiting the bird feeder system in my backyard. Along with Yellow-rumped Warblers, these are the most numerous of our three winter warblers. The lovely little Orange-crowned Warblers are less frequently seen.


Usually, people are happy to have newly discovered species named for them. I'm not sure about this one. A newly discovered blind amphibian that buries itself in the sand is being officially named Dermophis donaldtrumpiin recognition of the US president’s climate change denial. The small legless creature was found in Panama and it was remarked that its ability to bury its head in the ground matched Donald Trump’s approach to global warming.


The Interior Department on Thursday took a key step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Arctic Alaska, putting forth proposals it said would protect the animals there but that would end decades of environmental protections. After a 45-day public comment period, the bureau is expected to select one of the alternatives and approve a final report early next summer. If the process survives expected court challenges by environmental and conservation groups, as well as efforts by the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to slow it down, lease sales for rights to drill for oil and gas could be held before the end of 2019. So, not quite a done deal - yet.


And in more news from the Arctic, as temperatures there continue to heat up, ground-nesting birds can no longer count on the area as a safe haven for raising their young. Incidents of predation have already increased by threefold, according to a new analysis.


Birds continue to try to make adjustments in order to deal with climate change. We've already seen that insect-eating birds are breeding earlier in order to have a supply of insects for raising their young, but now there is evidence that seed-eaters also are adjusting their schedule to better take advantage of the peak seed season. 


In Puerto Rico, about 30 million trees have died or are dying as a result of Hurricane Maria. A research group from Columbia University is attempting to document the changes that have taken and are taking place in the forests there. 


High levels of plastic contamination have been found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, emphasizing just how pervasive such pollution has become. Meanwhile, a plan to clean up some of that trash is not working as plannedA giant floating barrier launched off the coast of San Francisco as part of a $20m project to clean up a swirling island of rubbish between California and Hawaii, is failing to collect plastic. The plastic is leaking back through the barrier. Scientists are working on a fix for the project.


When did feathers evolve? That's long been a source of disagreement among scientists, but recent discoveries have pushed the date of the origin of feathers back by about 70 million years. It is hoped that more specimens can be found to confirm that earlier origin. 


This year has been the third warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine and it has been disastrous for puffins, turtles, and kelp.


The Christmas Bird Count is continuing but there is also another annual bird-related citizen science project going on now and continuing through early April. It is Project FeederWatch, an effort to document the birds that visit our feeders, or otherwise feed in our yards, during the cold weather months. Anyone can participate. You just have to sign up and pay a small fee. 


First Nations communities in Canada are leading the effort to try to save that country's last caribou herds. The herds have been devastated by logging and oil drilling activities.


Scarlet Macaws are spectacular birds and that makes them prime candidates for exploitation by wildlife traffickers. The traffickers stalk and capture this already at-risk species in Guatemala.


There is an ongoing effort to save the endangered Miami Blue butterfly by returning captive-raised butterflies to the areas formerly inhabited by the creature.


This famous photograph of Earthrise as seen from the moon was taken by astronauts fifty years ago this week. It struck a chord with humans reminding us, "This is where we live. In space. On a marble fortified against bottomless blackness by a shell of air and color, fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble." It helped to spur an environmental awakening, inspiring many to make efforts to protect and conserve this blessed planet.

But what have humans done for that planet lately? And would it be such a bad thing for the planet if the human race became extinct? A philosophy professor from Clemson University discusses that question.


And on that cheery note, let me wish you a happy holiday season and thank you for visiting and reading my thoughts here this year. Blogging will be sparse from now through the end of the year, but I'll be around and hoping to bring you happier news in 2019.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny: A review

This is the fourteenth in Louise Penny's popular Armand Gamache detective series. Gamache has long been a favorite of mine. He is a complicated and well-developed character, a humane and philosophical policeman who always has his eye on the bigger picture of how the work that he does affects society as a whole.

Moreover, he and his beloved Reine-Marie are now living in that quirky little Canadian village that time and the mapmakers forgot, Three Pines, with all of its eccentric inhabitants. Spending time with them is like sliding into a warm bubblebath on a cold winter night. You can see then why I always look forward to these visits with Gamache and his coterie. 

This time around, Gamache is still on suspension from his position as head of the Sûreté du Québec as a consequence of the action in the last book, Glass Houses. His son-in-law and protege, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is now acting head while the investigation of that action continues.

The fallout from the action and the investigation represents one line of narrative in this entry. Another part of the narrative involves Armand and his friend, Myrna Landers, bookshop owner in Three Pines, along with a young carpenter named Benedict, being requested to be the liquidators (executors) of the will of an elderly woman who has just died. The mysterious thing is that none of the three knew the deceased.

The woman called herself "the baroness" and she believed that she was the heir of that title and a vast fortune that went with it. She left it all to her three children, two sons and a daughter. The liquidators meet at the old farmhouse owned by the baroness, a farmhouse that had been vacant for many years and is now slowly falling in on itself. After discussing the will with the heirs, they all leave in a snowstorm. But during the night, Benedict returns to the house and while there, it collapses around him, trapping him. He is found by Gamache and Myrna and a neighbor, but when they attempt to rescue him the house finishes falling down and they are all trapped. 

But with them also is the dead body of one of the old lady's sons. He had been murdered.

So, we have the murder to investigate, which turns out to be a very complicated matter, and we have the ongoing internal Sûreté investigation and with it Gamache's desperate gambit to keep a deadly opioid shipment off the streets of Quebec. Truly, our investigatory cup runneth over.

The book starts out strong and I was immediately invested, but soon I began to feel that the pace was stagnant and somewhat disjointed. Parallel storylines are a popular technique in fiction today and often they work very well as the stories contrast and play off each other; at other times, they are not as successful and I felt this was one of those times. They just made for choppy reading which was an energy-killer.

And there was one particular writing quirk that simply annoyed me no end: It was the phrase "junkies and trannies and whores" repeated incessantly in the parts of the book pertaining to the character Amelia. Used once it would have been acceptable perhaps, but the constant repetition became irritating and offensive.

The final denouement with all the usual gang sitting around the fireplace and discussing the case(s) is something that we've seen so often in these books that it has become a cliché. In fact, the entire book was stale, a bit like putting on old, well-worn shoes. It was comfortable enough, a pleasant read, but not much excitement there. I could see all of the twists and "surprises" coming from a mile away.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Poetry Sunday: It sifts from Leaden Sieves by Emily Dickinson

This wonderfully descriptive poem by Emily Dickinson chronicles a winter snowfall. She captures in a few words the movement of the snow and the way it settles upon the winter landscape, obscuring the familiar and making everything look different and strange. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the poem is that it never mentions the word "snow" and yet we instinctively know what the poet is referring to and her words capture the spectral beauty of a new snowfall perfectly.

It sifts from Leaden Sieves 

by Emily Dickinson

It sifts from Leaden Sieves -
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road -

It makes an even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain -
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again -

It reaches to the Fence -
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces -
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack - and Stem -
A Summer’s empty Room -
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them -

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen -
Then stills its Artisans - like Ghosts -
Denying they have been.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - December 2018

The host of this monthly meme, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, likes to remind us of this quote from gardener and garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence: "We can have flowers nearly every month of the year."

That's true enough but the pickings do get a little slim around this time of year. Most of what I have to show you this month are some pots of pansies and violas scattered around my patio. But in mid-December I'll settle for that for I do love pansies and violas.

In addition to the pansies and violas, the firespike (Odontonema cuspidatum) has been in bloom for about a month and continues to offer a bit of bright color in our gray December.

Likewise, these happy little gerberas are real day-brighteners. (Excuse all the pine straw in the picture. When the wind blows from the north as it has this week, my neighbor's pine trees spread their bounty all over my yard.)

 More gerberas - and pine straw.

 And still more gerberas.

The Turk's caps are still in bloom as well.

And the blue plumbago still has a few blossoms, although it will soon go to sleep for the winter.

A few of the lower buds on the Cape honeysuckle survived the light freeze and frost which we had just before last Bloom Day and they are now in bloom.

The jatropha is a tender perennial that dies back to the ground each winter, but this one lives on the south side of the house in a protected spot and it escaped the frost and continues to send out flowers like these.

Thank you for visiting my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas this month. Although the blooms are sparse, each one is treasured.

Happy Bloom Day!

This week in birds - #333

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

White-throated Sparrow perched in a crape myrtle tree. The seeds of the crape myrtle are a major source of food in our area for members of the sparrow and finch families in the late fall and winter, one very good reason why gardeners should not prune those trees until late winter or early spring, if at all.


The Audubon Society's 119th Christmas Bird Count starts today, December 14, and continues through Saturday, January 5. It is one of the largest citizen science events of the year and provides much valuable information about the winter population and location of birds. 


Climate change is beginning to bite farmers in our midwest and even many who have been reluctant to accept the science are beginning to be alarmed and to advocate for measures to combat the problem.


At the U.N. climate summit in Poland, as nations urged action to counteract climate change, the U.S. delegation pushed for more use of fossil fuels, eliciting derision and laughter as well as some protests.


Wolves have been returned to the wild in Denmark after an absence of 200 years and scientists are trying to assist the human population to learn to live in peace with them.


It's been a while since there has been any good news to report about coral reefs, but, recently, scientists have found some glimmer of hope in their data. There is some evidence that the more heat-tolerant and robust parts of the reefs may survive and be able to adapt to the new climate. 


The prevailing winds play a big role in the migration of birds. It appears that the changes in those winds caused by climate change may make it harder for North American birds to migrate south in the fall but could make spring migration easier.


And speaking of migration, the blog "Cool Green Science" has a list of ten "snow birds," birds that disperse to various parts of the continent in winter. Some of them may show up in your area. The blog post includes some wonderful pictures of those birds.


A stand of 500-year-old blackgum trees is being slowly killed by encroachment of rising sea water in a primeval New Jersey forest. It's a preview of things to come in many areas near the sea.


The American bison is an important icon in the spiritual belief system of several Native American tribes and they are working to bring these animals that are so vital to them and to the environment back from the brink of extinction.


Earth has a vast underground ecosystem that contains billions of organisms and is twice the size of the world's oceans. Despite extreme heat, no light, minuscule nutrition and intense pressure, scientists estimate this subterranean biosphere is teeming with billions of micro-organisms that are hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet.


Scientists have long studied birds in the parrot family and they have come to the conclusion that the long-lived and clever birds are as different genetically from other birds as humans are different from other primates. In fact, their genes may give parrots the claim to being the humans of the bird world. (Or perhaps humans are the parrots of the primate world!)


A concerted conservation effort in Nepal is making a difference to the survival prospects of the nation's endangered vultures. Finally, the population is slowly increasing.


The native bees of North America are vitally important to the pollination of plant life on the continent and these bees are particularly susceptible to the effects of pesticides.


The current administration in Washington, in its continuing war against the environment and the health and safety of its citizens, is attempting to weaken federal clean water rules designed to protect millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams nationwide from pesticide runoff and other pollutants. Environmentalists say the proposal represents a historic assault on wetlands regulation. 


Persistent warming in the Arctic is pushing the region into “uncharted territory” and increasingly affecting the continental United States, scientists reported this week. The Arctic has been warmer over the last five years than at any time since records began in 1900, according to the new report, and the region is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet.


Hummingbird gardens in Mexico City provide refuge for seventeen species of hummingbirds that are endemic in the area and they provide an opportunity for scientists to more easily monitor and study them.

Milkman by Anna Burns: A review

I had seen and heard quite a bit of comment about Anna Burns' book, not all of it complimentary. In fact, there were a couple of reviews in the national publications that I read that were downright negative. Then the Man Booker Prize committee chose Milkman for their prestigious award for 2018. Inquiring minds wanted to know: Who was right - those negative reviewers or the Man Booker people? So, I decided to read it myself and decide.

I found out right away that the book is somewhat challenging to read, at least at first. It is written in a stream of consciousness style with sentences that seem to run on, paragraphs that often go on for pages, and seemingly neverending chapters. Finding a place to stop, or at least to pause, is not easy and that can be somewhat annoying for those of us who are unable to sit down and read straight through a book but have to stop occasionally to do other things. But I managed to work around the problem by making my own artificial stopping places.

The narrator of this stream of consciousness storytelling is an eighteen-year-old girl in an unnamed country and city, although it soon becomes clear from the context that it is Northern Ireland and most likely Belfast. The story takes place in the 1970s during the "Troubles."

The narrator (who also is unnamed) is a nonconformist in a society that seems to value conformity above all else, with everyone thinking and behaving the same. She initially draws attention to herself because she likes to walk around town reading books as she walks. Her choice of reading material is generally 19th century novels. It is her way of rejecting and expressing her hatred of the 20th century in which she lives and withdrawing from her oppressive society.

That she is a walking reader is bad enough but then a local "renouncer" (IRA) leader, who is in his 40s and married, notices her and seemingly becomes obsessed with her. He turns up everywhere she goes and talks to her, making clear his interest in her, although he never touches her. This man, for reasons that are not clear at first, is called the Milkman, although he isn't a real milkman.

The neighborhood soon jumps to the conclusion that the narrator has become the mistress of Milkman. Her own mother makes the same assumption. Everyone treats her as though this were a fait accompli and they react to her accordingly. Her mother engages in long harangues about her "fallen woman" status.

Meanwhile, the narrator continues an affair with a young man from another part of town, her "maybe-boyfriend" with whom she has been in a secret relationship for almost a year. Her family is completely unaware. He is never allowed to come to her house.

None of this sounds like a likely source of humor and yet this novel is often very funny. One can feel the narrator's frustration at being so misunderstood and being trapped in a suffocatingly self-righteous society which inflicts its own brand of political oppression on its members, but she writes of it in a light manner that makes it possible to actually laugh wryly at it all.

While I was reading this book, I was also watching HBO's series My Brilliant Friend and I couldn't help noting the similarities in the oppressive patriarchal society of 1950s Naples and 1970s Northern Ireland. Lenu and Lila in Naples adopted an affectless demeanor to deal with the violent atmosphere in which they lived. Milkman's narrator, too, does not show emotion as she wanders around her dangerous city. It is their way of dealing with the almost unbearable stress of their daily lives.

So what was my conclusion after all that? Did I agree with those negative reviewers or with the Man Booker committee? 

On the whole, I come down on the side of the Man Booker folks. The book is extraordinary in its storyline and its telling of what is essentially a tragic story in a manner that is often exceptionally funny. The humor makes the whole thing bearable and the story even more human. It takes a very good writer to do that.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars      

Monday, December 10, 2018

My Year in Books (according to Goodreads)

I read 30,195 pages across 89 books
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We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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52 pages
We Should All Be Feminists
656 pages
Lethal White
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
339 pages

people also read
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
How to Be an Urban Birder by David Lindo
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people also read
How to Be an Urban Birder


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing
4.63 average
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Autumn by Ali Smith
My first review of the year
it was amazing 
I finished this book a couple of days ago but just couldn't immediately think what to say about it in a review. I wasn't even sure how I felt about it. It really was unlike anything I had ever read before.

After giving it much thought - and there truly is a lot to think about here - I came to the conclusion that the book is brilliant. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. In that, I found myself in agreement with the Man Booker Prize c
Autumn by Ali Smith
it was amazing
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
No Shred of Evidence by Charles Todd
Blood Trail by C.J. Box
The Rat Catchers' Olympics by Colin Cotterill
The Written World by Martin Puchner
1984 by George Orwell
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
Artemis by Andy Weir
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
it was amazing
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
A Death In Vienna by Daniel Silva
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon
Below Zero by C.J. Box
The Devil's Cave by Martin  Walker
To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey
it was amazing
Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr
Solar by Ian McEwan
it was amazing
Missing Person by Patrick Modiano
Black and White Ball by Loren D. Estleman
Circe by Madeline Miller
Macbeth by Jo Nesbø
Nowhere To Run by C.J. Box
Dressed for Death by Donna Leon
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
it was amazing
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Calypso by David Sedaris
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
A Venetian Reckoning by Donna Leon
The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
it was amazing
Racing the Devil by Charles Todd
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Prince Of Fire by Daniel Silva
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Resistance Man by Martin  Walker
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
it was amazing
Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson
Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
There There by Tommy Orange
Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin
Don't Eat Me by Colin Cotterill
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Billy Boyle by James R. Benn
Desolation Mountain by William Kent Krueger
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
it was amazing
The Tangled Tree by David Quammen
Acqua Alta by Donna Leon
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
it was amazing
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
IQ by Joe Ide
The Witch Elm by Tana French
As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson
Quietly in Their Sleep by Donna Leon
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
Shell Game by Sara Paretsky
The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
Godsend by John Wray
it was amazing
Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
How to Be an Urban Birder by David Lindo
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
The Children Return by Martin  Walker
Florida by Lauren Groff
A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson

A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson
My last review of the year
really liked it 
Time to check in once again on Sheriff Walt Longmire and the quirky residents of Absaroka County, Wyoming. This time there is definitely something rotten in the county but at first it is not clear just what it is.

The action kicks off with an old lady telling Walt about the angels that have been helping her out by doing repairs and chores around her house. It seems that she leaves out a list of the things she needs to have done and somehow they al