Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A review

I have resisted reading this book. It wasn't really hard. I don't usually read memoirs or biographies, so I wasn't particularly tempted. Plus, I wrote my own (metaphorical) hillbilly elegy long ago and wasn't really interested in reading somebody else's.

Yes, I grew up as a hillbilly, too. But my "hills" were several hundred miles south of the ones in Kentucky/Ohio that J.D. Vance called home. My heritage, though, is much the same Scots-Irish ancestry and culture as his.

Moreover, the rural community where I grew up was poor as Vance says his was. However, based on his descriptions of his family's holdings and income, they would likely have been considered middle-class where I lived. But perhaps poverty, at least to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder or in the perception of the one who experiences it.

At any rate, Vance's memoir of himself and his family and the poverty they experienced and how they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps stayed on the best-seller list month after month after month, taunting me it seemed. And finally, after recently reading and enjoying Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, I felt that perhaps I was ready for another. So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy.

What I found was a mesmerizing story of what appeared on the outside to be a dysfunctional family that still managed to function and care for its members on some level. The memoir part of Vance's tale was compelling, particularly his portraits of the grandparents who were the center of the family and who were his anchor and salvation as his mother descended into drug addiction and went through a long series of thoroughly hapless men, only one or two of whom actually took an interest in and tried to relate to her two children. His father had long since been absent.

His family, including his grandparents, were violent; their main claim to fame and a source of pride was their connection to the famous Hatfields of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud. Both the grandparents carried guns and Vance repeatedly refers to his grandmother, the chief influence in his life, as a pistol-packing lunatic who promised to kill anyone who dared harm him. He believed her and loved her for it. 

This portrait of a family and its rise out of poverty is paired with a good bit of right-wing political polemic which I found less mesmerizing. He writes about the country's descent into what he sees as a nanny state, with generous government benefits that suck all of the initiative from their recipients. While his family is hard-working and always striving to better themselves, he sees his neighbors as lazy and shiftless. He complains about "welfare queens" and food stamp recipients shopping at the grocery store, walking through the check-out line while talking on their expensive cell phones and paying for their T-bone steaks with food stamps. Alternatively, he complains of food stamp recipients buying nothing but sugary drinks and snacks with their benefits. He is very condescending toward these people who somehow missed the boat when the Scots-Irish stubborn pride was being distributed. He never considers that their challenges might even be greater than his and that they, too, are trying to better themselves and the lives of their children. Empathy seems a concept foreign to him. 

Having worked as a social worker and supervisor of social work for more than thirty years, I have quite another view of the poor. Sure, there are those that are lazy and lack initiative, but most are struggling for a better life. Many work two and even three jobs to try to support their families. If they receive government benefits, they are a supplement to their own efforts.

In describing his hard work to achieve his middle-class status, Vance elides over the part that government benefits played in his own rise; namely, his four years as a Marine gave him discipline and leadership skills and his service subsequently helped to pay for his education. 

In addition, he got lucky with his friends and his contacts who helped him along the way. Not everyone manages to have such luck.

This book came out in the middle of the presidential election year of 2016 and it fed into the stereotypes propounded by one of those campaigns - the undeserving poor who constantly make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty. It's wasteful and useless to spend taxpayer money on them. Conservatives ate it up.

In an afterword written later, Vance wants us to know that although he admired some things about the Republican presidential candidate such as his "outsider" status and his scorn for the "elites" (This from a graduate of Yale Law School!), he did not vote for him. No, he kept his honor and voted for the third party candidate.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper: A review

The Outback region of Australia is a hard land. People who choose to live there must also be hard in order to survive. That is the impression that one gets early on in Jane Harper's book, The Lost Man.

I had not read Harper, an award-winning Australian author, before, so I had no preconceptions and didn't really know what to expect from this book, but I had heard positive comments and decided to read it. Turns out that was a good choice.

The book at its heart is the portrait of a family and of the secrets the family keeps in order to appear "normal" to others. The family is the Brights, mother Liz and her three adult sons, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. The husband and father of the family has been dead for ten years, killed in an automobile accident that also injured Liz.

Liz, Cameron and his wife Ilse and their two daughters, along with Bub live on the family property in that unforgiving Outback. The old family retainer, Harry, and two seasonal workers also live there. Nathan lives alone, following a divorce, on the adjoining property. He is the nearest neighbor and he is more than three hours away. His ex-wife and teenage son, Xander, live in Brisbane, but at the time we meet the family, it is almost Christmas and Xander is with his father for a visit for the holidays.

Nathan and Bub meet up near the line between the two properties at a place called the Stockman's Grave. It's a place where many years earlier a stockman had been lost in a dust storm and had died. He was buried where he died. Now there is another body on top of his grave. It is the middle son, Cameron; Cam to his family and friends.

There are no signs of violence on the body, other than the violence done by the sun and elements. The body was found in the only shade available in the area - that provided by the stockman's tombstone. Cam's vehicle is found at a great distance from his body, too far to walk in the heat without protection and with no water. It appears that he died of exposure and dehydration and when the autopsy is completed, that is the finding. Cam had been under stress and disturbed for some time prior to his death; the ruling is that he died by suicide.

The protagonist of the novel is Nathan and we see things through his eyes. Nathan who is an outcast in the community because of an unforgivable sin he committed years ago. There are things about his brother's death that don't seem right to him and that continue to niggle at his brain. He suspects that perhaps Cam had some help in dying. But who would want him dead? He was the golden son, apparently well-liked and respected by everyone.

Or was he?

Harper is absolutely masterful in building the tension in this thriller. We know that something doesn't seem quite right but it is hard to put our finger on it. Until slowly, methodically and with great subtlety the author begins to reveal the layers of secrets and lies that the family's lives have been built on. She creates a deeply atmospheric tale with characters and action and a plot that are absolutely believable. There are no superhuman heroics here; these are just ordinary, fallible humans who have made a ton of mistakes in their lives but they are still trying to find that elusive something.  Peace? Happiness? An ability to sleep at night without sleeping pills? Safety from harm? It is not impossible to believe in and identify with the Brights.

In addition to her skill in building the suspense in her novel, I was blown away by Harper's descriptions of the Outback. For example:
At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after the other, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilised a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.
Maybe it was helped along by all my viewing of those Australian television shows on Acorn and Netflix, but I could envision the red land of the Outback very clearly, even though I've never been there. 

In spite of the bleakness of the place, there are those who love it and who understand it and its people on a visceral level. Nathan is one:
"Sometimes, the space almost seemed to call to Nathan. Like a faint heartbeat, insistent and persuasive... Life out here is hard. We all try to get through the best way we can. But trust me, there's not a single person here who isn't lying to themselves about something."
All those lies - or most of them anyway - are finally revealed in this character-driven tale. And in the end one could see that all the necessary clues to what happened to Cam were there in the narrative, hiding in plain sight so to speak, but I admit I didn't put them together until the writer revealed all in the last few pages. 

Well done, Jane Harper. My hat's off to you.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Last week I made the acquaintance of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was quite a remarkable woman.

Frances Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore to a free African-American couple. She was their only child. Unfortunately, she lost her mother when she was quite young and she was raised by an aunt. She attended a school for African-American children run by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins. She was a bright and talented child who began writing poetry in her youth. She published her first collection of poems, entitled Autumn Leaves, in 1845. She wrote other forms of literature, including short stories, in addition to poetry. In 1859, she became the first African-American female to publish a short story. The following year she married Fenton Harper who had several children by a previous marriage and she chose to retire from public life to live in Ohio with her new family. In 1862, she gave birth to a daughter.

In 1864, after her husband had died, she returned to public life and the lecture circuit. She continued writing and advocating for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of women. On the lecture circuit, she appeared with such other famous people of the day as Frederick Douglass, William Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone.

In her later years, she scaled back her activities but continued to advocate for women's suffrage throughout her life. She died in 1911 and was buried in Philadelphia in which event she was granted the wish she expressed in one of her most famous poems.

Bury Me in a Free Land

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; 
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

This week in birds - #342

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

This Red-tailed Hawk doesn't look too happy about the drenching he just got from a sudden rain shower. He's been getting a lot of those showers lately as our rainy winter/early spring continues.


Extreme weather events continue to be a common occurrence around the country and around the world. This week, for example, the city of Flagstaff in northern received three feet of snow in twenty-four hours. It was the highest single-day snow total in the 126 years that records have been kept.


Say goodbye to the Bramble Cay melomys, a tiny island rodent that the government of Australia has confirmed as the first mammal known to have become extinct because of climate change. The rodents were wiped out by sea-level rise on their island. 


A colony of these cute little Burrowing Owls is thriving alongside Los Angeles International Airport. If there is a niche somewhere, Nature will provide an occupant for it.


The current administration in Washington is assembling a panel to study whether climate change poses a national security threat. Before you get too excited about that news though, you should know that the person heading the panel is a climate change denialist who thinks that carbon emissions are an asset rather than a pollutant.


Wallace's giant bee is a bee that is as large as a human thumb and about four times as large as a honeybee. You wouldn't think such a critter would be inconspicuous, but it had not been seen for 38 years and was feared to be extinct. Recently, though, it has been rediscovered alive and well in the Indonesian islands of the North Moluccas.


And yet another giant feared to be extinct has been rediscovered: A giant tortoise of the Galapagos, the Chelonoidis phantasticus, also known as the Fernandina giant tortoise, has been found on that island 113 years after the last one was known to exist. The one discovered is a female and it is believed that others must be present on the island.


The melodic song of the House Finch is familiar around much of the country, but the song of individual birds can vary quite a bit over time and distance. Most animals inherit the sounds that they make but about half of the bird species learn to speak by imitating their elders and they don't always imitate them perfectly, and thus the language evolves from one generation to the next. The House Finch is one of those. 


The chemical additives used in plastics have been found in the eggs of Northern Fulmars nesting in the High Arctic. The fulmars are seabirds that spend most of their time at sea. 


White-nose syndrome is the fungal disease that has decimated bat populations in many parts of eastern North America and it is rapidly spreading westward. Wildlife biologists are studying bat habitats and bats in the West to try to determine vulnerabilities and try to find a way to help bats resist the deadly disease.


Many residents along the U.S.-Mexico border have come up with what they think is a much better idea than any kind of wall. They are calling it the Mesquite Manifesto. It uses the native tree that thrives in this unforgiving land as the basis of a restorative economy that will benefit communities on both sides of the border. 


How do we account for all the different shapes of skulls and bills that can be found among birds? Well, it is evolution, of course, but what drives the evolution? Since Darwin, it has mostly been thought to be a factor of how the bird forages, but a new study indicates that shared ancestry and behavior are more important than foraging activities and the food that the bird eats. 


The Kirtland's Warbler has long been one of North America's most critically endangered bird species, but the little bird is staging a comeback and gladdening the heart of bird-lovers everywhere. The latest sign of this recovery comes from Jamaica which has just reported its first ever confirmed Kirtland's Warbler. Scientists are not sure if this is a range expansion or a migration mishap but either way it is more evidence of the improving status of the little birds.


A climate scientist who worked under contract with the National Park Service for several years, studying and documenting the effects of sea rise on national parks, has lost her job because she refused to remove all references to human causes of climate change in her scientific report.


In an encouraging sign for the critically endangered right whale, seven new calves have been spotted so far this winter off Florida's Atlantic coast. Although one expert opined that it still wasn't enough, it is a vast improvement over the last calving season when exactly zero calves were seen.


Why do zebras have stripes? A study in Britain using horses dressed as zebras gives evidence that the stripes confuse flies. And maybe they confuse other critters that harass or prey on zebras as well.

Friday, February 22, 2019

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

We first met Maisie Dobbs in the years before World War I when she was a young girl who had lost her mother and was being raised by her father. Her father found a position for her as a maid to an aristocratic family. That benevolent family took an interest in the young girl and helped to educate her. Her relationship with the family was the making of her. It was through them that she became the person that she was as an adult, and eventually, she married the son of the family and emigrated to Canada. But tragedy followed her. Her husband was killed and she returned to England.

In this latest installment, we have progressed all the way to the beginnings of World War II. It is 1940 and England is on edge. It has not been attacked directly yet, but an attack is expected imminently. Meanwhile, their forces in Europe are being pushed back to the sea. The Dunkirk rescue looms.

Maisie is still pursuing her profession as an investigator and psychologist, ably assisted by her longtime right-hand man Billy Beale. 

A local pub owner asks Maisie's help in finding out what has happened to his son. The young man had taken a job with a painting firm that had a government contract to paint various government buildings with fire retardant paint. He was away in Kent doing this work and had been in contact with his family on a regular basis but now has missed calling them for a couple of weeks and the parents are worried. Maisie agrees to investigate.

Meantime, Billy is worried about his older son who is with the forces in Europe and his younger son who is chafing at the bit to get involved in the war effort. And Maisie's friend Priscilla is terrified of losing her three sons in the war as she lost her three brothers in the First World War. Her oldest is in the RAF; the middle son wants to join the military but is too young without the parents' permission; the youngest is not yet old enough but if the war continues for years, he, too, will want to be involved.  

To further complicate the book's plot, Maisie has decided that she wants to adopt Anna, the young girl that she took in as an evacuee along with her grandmother. The grandmother had subsequently died and left Maisie as the child's guardian. Now she wants to become her mother, but the authorities are reluctant to allow a single mother (widow) to adopt.

And it's all just too much. Yes, I do realize that in real life all of these things do happen simultaneously, but in a work of literature, I think it is helpful to have the focus on one or perhaps at most two events. Winspear is asking us to focus on and care about all of these different occurrences. She rushes from one storyline to another and the various stories lose some of their emotional impact in the process.

As always, Winspear does an excellent job of setting the historic scene. One can feel the fear and uncertainty experienced by those who lived through these perilous times. For those of us who take for granted our ability to travel and to communicate and stay linked to friends and family far away, Winspear helps us to feel what it was like not so very long ago when those things were not possible. 

And that is why I keep reading these books - for the historical perspective which they provide of the daily lives of ordinary people. It's there that Winspear really shines. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Throwback Thursday: What rock did these guys crawl from under?

Looking back at some of my old blog posts from years ago, I came across this one which is just more evidence that there is nothing new under the sun. Intolerance and hate have been with us forever and were alive and well nine years ago - as they are today.


Monday, February 22, 2010

What rock did these guys crawl from under?

I don't even know how to begin to say anything sensible about this state legislator from Virginia:
State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas says disabled children are God's punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.

He made that statement Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood.

"The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," said Marshall, a Republican.

"In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest."

So children that are born with disabilities are God's punishment on the mother.

And then there was this statement by a member of the House of Representatives from Iowa:
Steve King To Conservatives: 'Implode' IRS Offices

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told a crowd at CPAC on Saturday that he could "empathize" with the suicide bomber who last week attacked an IRS office in Austin, and encouraged his listeners to "implode" other IRS offices, according to a witness.

That suicide bomber with whom Mr. King "empathizes" murdered one innocent American citizen whose only crime was to go to work that day. He also seriously injured several others who committed that same crime.

I guess the only thing I can possibly say is, thank God they are not from Texas.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A review

Let me just get this out of the way right up front: I loved this book! I thought it was brilliantly written, the characters were engaging, and the pace of the plot kept me turning the pages and made it hard to put the book down and sorry to see it end. Hard to believe that this was actually Lisa Halliday's debut novel, although she has been an award-winning writer of other fiction.

The book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first part follows 20-something Alice, an assistant editor at a publishing house in New York, and her developing relationship with Ezra, a much older and much-honored writer. The second part deals with Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, detained on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan and stuck in a holding room in Heathrow Airport in London. And the final part features Ezra doing a radio interview with a public radio type.

We follow Alice as she sits on a park bench one day and is joined by a man who is perhaps in his sixties - old enough to be her grandfather. They talk briefly and each goes his/her way. But they meet accidentally (on purpose?) at the same bench several times and finally the man, Ezra, asks "Are you game?" It turns out Alice is and they become friends and lovers.

I read somewhere that Lisa Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth who was in his sixties while she was in her twenties, and it's hard to read about Alice and Ezra without speculating that the fictional relationship is informed by the real-life one. But I didn't really care. What I did care about was the asymmetry of their lives as explored by Halliday. One is entering old age, with the physical challenges that implies, while one is very young and in the full vigor of good health. One is world famous and much honored in his art while the other longs to enter that world of creativity, to become a writer. One is rich and one is weighed down by student loans and just getting by.

Theirs is the story of a May-December romance, but it is so much more than that. These two develop a deep friendship and really care for and take care of each other. The book could have easily gone on in this vein for another couple of hundred pages, but Halliday shifts course and gives us another story. Another example of asymmetry.

Amar's family were immigrants to the United States from Iraq. He grew up in America but maintains strong ties to his family back in Iraq. His older brother, Sami, a doctor, chooses to go back to Iraq, marries and has a daughter there. Amar visits him regularly. He is on his way to visit him after 9/11 and shortly after the American invasion of Iraq when he is held up in London. He is refused entry to the country and immigration authorities intend to send him back to Los Angeles. He argues that he's only there on a layover and will be flying out to Baghdad soon and that he should be allowed to take his flight. After much back and forth, his argument prevails but he is still stuck in the airport holding room for two days.

Amar's story shows us the asymmetry in the way people are treated based on where they are born, the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or anything else that singles them out as different from the ruling class. It could be a depressing story but it is lightened by his sarcasm and wit which help him to face a world which challenges him at every turn and which help the reader to view more equitably the roles that luck and birth play in all our lives. That, it seemed to me, was the philosophical center of this engrossing book.

In the final section, Ezra's radio interview, we can see a glimmer of the asymmetrical lives that coexist in this tale and that, perhaps, run along parallel lines in spite of their differences. The stories build on each other to give us, finally, a view of the world as it is.

Ezra's interviewer is a young woman and the interview ends with him saying to her, "Are you game?" We never hear her answer but I'm betting she is!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars        

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Poetry Sunday: I Opened a Book by Julia Donaldson

I happened upon this little poem early last week and it has stayed in my mind ever since. Those who love books and who lose themselves in books will understand. That's reason enough to feature it as the poem of the week.
I Opened a Book

by Julia Donaldson

I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.

I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion.
I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
And dived in a bottomless ocean.
I opened a book and made some friends.
I shared their tears and laughter
And followed their road with its bumps and bends
To the happily ever after.
I’ve finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same,
But I have a book inside me.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

This week in birds - #341

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

Is there a more attractive bird native to North America than the female Northern Cardinal? This beauty is part of my count for the Great Backyard Bird Count that is taking place this weekend. Remember: You can be a part of it, too. Just visit the website and register, then follow the directions.


Our Senate did something wonderful this week. By a vote of 92-8, they passed the most sweeping conservation bill in a decade. The legislation will protect millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of wild rivers across the country. It will establish four new national monuments, expand five existing national parks, and permanently withdraw mining claims around Yellowstone National Park and North Cascades National Park. In addition, the bill reauthorizes and funds the Neotropical Bird Conservation Act through 2022! Good on you, Senate. See what you can do when you work together?


And in another example of the good that can be accomplished by a functioning legislature, the House of Representatives passed the bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown, legislation later passed by the Senate and signed by the president. But the very good news for conservationists, especially those of us who have been worried about the fate of some of our public lands and conservation sites along our southern border, is that Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas managed to insert into the bill protections for five sites imperiled by plans for barriers along the border - the National Butterfly Center, the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, La Lomita historic Catholic chapel, and a tract of land that will be a commercial spaceport for SpaceX. It was not a minute too soon for the Butterfly Center where the bulldozers had already moved in. Thank you, Rep. Cuellar!


Receding Arctic ice has been forcing polar bears off of their preferred habitat and farther inland. Recently, dozens of the big bears have invaded and laid siege to a small military settlement in the Russian Arctic. Conservation authorities turned down a request from the settlement to shoot the bears, which are protected in Russia as an endangered species. So, the residents are just going to have to wait them out.


The pair of Bald Eagles that nest every year in a tree at the Washington D.C. Police Academy have produced their first egg of the year. You can watch the progress of the nest on Earth Conservation Corps Eagle Cam.


Temperatures have been far above normal in Alaska this winter. Readings near 40 degrees above normal are anticipated in parts of the Arctic area this weekend.


And in Hawaii, more extreme weather, including a blanket of snow on peaks as low as 6,200 feet.


A study of the effects of aboriginal fires in Australia has found that the small hunting fires used by the Martu people are actually vital for sustaining several wild species and adding to the diversity of vegetation.


A federal court in Texas has ruled that the Golden-cheeked Warbler which only nests in the Texas Hill Country is still in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.


The removal of a dam on Maine's Kennebec River twenty years ago has fulfilled its promise of the return of fisheries and new recreational opportunities and revitalization of the riverfront. Perhaps even more importantly, it has had a beneficial ripple effect on how people of the area view and utilize the resource of the river.


A rare black leopard has been caught on camera by a Contraptions camera trap in a wilderness camp in Kenya.

Although there have been reports of black leopards in Africa, this is the first photographic evidence of one in more than a hundred years. The last image was taken in 1909.


Another near-mythical creature is the Black Rail. Recently, scientists in Louisiana have been looking for the bird in the remote wetlands that are its preferred habitat. Those wetlands themselves are now endangered by encroaching seawater. 


French researchers have figured out which genes make a rose smell sweet and how they can tinker with the genome to enhance its distinctive scent. The rose they have been working with is 'Old Blush' which originated in China and was introduced to Europe in the 18th century - and one of which now grows in my backyard.

This is one of last year's blooms. The bush isn't in bloom at the moment.


Cuvier's beaked whales can dive deeper and hold their breath longer than any other marine mammal. It is frustrating for scientists trying to study them because they only emerge for a few minutes before diving again.


A 99-million-year-old bird whose foot got caught and preserved in amber had feathers. Fossilized feathered birds or feathered dinosaurs have been sought by scientists for decades so this represents a significant find


The Mandarin Duck visiting Central Park has gotten a lot of publicity this season. Well, it is a very colorful bird. But the real draw for birders is the owls of Central Park. Barred Owls, Saw-whets, and Great Horned Owls all have gotten the birders' attention.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2019

 Does one daffodil make a spring?

Maybe if you add a few narcissi. 

And some sweet little leucojum, aka snowflakes - the only kind of snowflakes we'll see here this winter. 

 The pansies have been blooming since fall and are well past their prime.

As are the violas.

The Turk's cap also has been blooming all winter, but, in the absence of a freeze, it blooms 12 months of the year in my garden. 

A few gerberas are still going. 

They just bloom on and on and on... 

The Carolina jessamine is not in full flower yet but it's getting there.

The feverfew, too, has been in bloom for quite a while and shows no sign of waning.

Salvia greggii (autumn sage) is another native plant that blooms almost year-round here.

 The white yarrow continues to bloom by the goldfish pond.

'Peggy Martin' rose has already been flowering for more than a month.

 Purple oxalis is at its best in winter here.

 The loropetalum is a mass of fuchsia blossoms now.

I do love its fringy little blooms.

Thank you for stopping by my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas this month. Spring is just around the corner here and on most days this week, it has felt as if it had already arrived.

This month, our host, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, begins her thirteenth year of hosting this monthly meme. Amazing! Twelve years of bringing together gardeners from around the world to share their gardens. Thank you, Carol. I'm looking forward to the next twelve years.

Happy Bloom Day!

Fatal Remedies by Donna Leon: A review

Paola Brunetti is a woman who feels injustice keenly. Particularly when that injustice is dealt to innocent children. She has recently become aware that travel agencies in her own city of Venice are selling sex tours to Southeast Asia. These sex tours offer children as their objects. Children are being raped for the pleasure of sick, rich men. Paola feels a compulsion to act.

The travel agencies are not technically breaking any Venetian or Italian law; their transgression is against morality. Paola decides to protest in a way that will get the attention of the agencies and, she hopes, the public. And so, in the early morning hours one day, she goes to the local travel agency with a very large rock which she hurls through the front window, setting off the burglar alarm. Then she sits down on a bench and waits to be arrested.

The two local gendarmes show up and question her about what happened, asking her if she can describe the vandal. She offers them a description and, at length, they realize she is describing herself. They take her into custody and take her to the police station where they discover that she is, in fact, the wife of Commissario Guido Brunetti. They call the Commissario and he comes to pick up Paola and manages to arrange things so that she is not charged.

Paola, however, is not content to let things lie. A few nights later, after the window she broke has been replaced, she goes to the agency again and tosses another rock through the window. This time she is charged and the local newspapers learn what has happened. A feeding frenzy ensues, much to the chagrin of Guido and Paola's father.

Meantime, Guido has been involved in the investigation of a robbery that may have Mafia connections and this leads to the death of the wife of a witness to the robbery - a death that is initially thought to be an accident but which Guido believes is murder.

Before this can be resolved, another death occurs. There's no doubt this time; it's murder by garrote. The victim is the owner of the travel agency that Paola vandalized and a note is left at the scene indicating a linkage with the vandalism. Could Paola have taken her protest to another level?

Moreover, when the police dig into the life and finances of the latest murder victim, they discover even more nastiness having to do with the shipment of out-of-date and adulterated medications for use in unsuspecting Third World countries. Was there no limit to the man's evil?

Poor Guido has his hands full, but he has his loyal helpers at the Questura, especially Signorina Elettra and Ispettore Vianello, on his team, so we can be assured that some form of justice will be achieved.

This is the eighth entry in Leon's Guido Brunetti series and it is one of my favorites. I particularly enjoyed the development of his wife Paola's character, as well as the mysterious (to Guido) workings of Signorina Elettra. This book was published in 1999 and, at this point, computers are still a complete mystery to Guido. He has no idea how to do an internet search or how email works! Fortunately for him, Signorina Elettra, with all of her contacts and her computer expertise, is on the job.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Will you count?

Presidents Day weekend is quickly approaching and that means, yes, it's time to count the birds again!

This year will mark the 22nd annual count that is held in February and I have participated in most of them. It is a fun, free, and interesting way to learn about the birds that populate your part of the world in mid-winter (for some - late winter here) and to provide scientists with valuable data which helps them to evaluate the status of bird populations and changes in birds' winter movements. 

Anyone can do it. Counting and reporting take no particular expertise. One takes at little as 15 minutes to observe and tabulate the birds in a particular area and then goes to the website,, registers the site, and reports. The website is user-friendly and walks you through the steps.

The count takes place over four days, Friday through Monday. You can choose to report on any of those days or on every day and, as I said, you can count for as little as 15 minutes or for hours - it's up to you. 

After you've made your reports you can revisit the website and watch as other reports come in from around the world. The GBBC originally took place only in the United States and North America but a few years ago it was expanded worldwide and now birders from around the world participate.  

Part of the fun of visiting the website is seeing the wonderful pictures that are submitted by many of the participants. There is a contest each year to select the best of the pictures.

So, no excuses! You can't say there are no birds where you live; there are birds everywhere, even if they are only House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, and European Starlings. They are all important. Scientists need to know where they are and how many there are and you can help. I hope you will. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Tombland by C. J. Sansom: A review

The year is 1549 and things are about to get very interesting in Tudor England. 

Henry VIII has been dead for two years. His son by his third wife, Jane Seymour, Edward VI, is now king. Edward is eleven years old and his uncle, Edward Seymour, rules as regent and Protector.

The Protector has pursued a prolonged and essentially senseless war against Scotland which has led to economic collapse with hyperinflation which makes life even more difficult than usual for the poor. Moreover, after three good harvest years, 1549 threatens to be a very lean year in the countryside. The peasants are restless and rebellion is brewing.

In London, lawyer Matthew Shardlake continues to pursue his profession, now with his assistant Nicholas. Shardlake had been employed by various members of the Tudor regime over the years, lastly by Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr. Now his services are utilized by the Lady Elizabeth, Henry's younger daughter by Ann Boleyn, who is fifteen years old. Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, is thirty-three.  

Shardlake is called to an audience with Elizabeth concerning a murder in Norwich. A woman named Edith Boleyn had been found murdered there in gruesome circumstances. Elizabeth had belatedly learned that the woman had approached her household seeking help but she had never been informed. Now the woman has been murdered and suspicion has fallen on her husband, John, who is a distant relative of Elizabeth's. She engages Shardlake to travel to Norwich to investigate the situation and ensure that justice is done and, if her kinsman should be found guilty of murder, she instructs Shardlake to request a pardon from the king.

By the time Shardlake and Nicholas arrive in Norwich, the restlessness of the peasants has found expression in open rebellion.  Thousands have banded together under the leadership of Robert Kett and have established a camp on Mousehold Heath from which they issue requests for redress of their grievances. They rely upon the honor of the Protector and the king to deal honorably with them. Inevitably, Shardlake and Nicholas are caught up in this rebellion and in Norwich, they meet another friend: Jack Barak, Shardlake's assistant and friend for many years, is there working for the Court of Assizes.

The major part of the narrative of Sansom's book deals with what is known as Kett's Rebellion. It was only one of many such peasant rebellions that broke out around the country in the summer of 1549, but it was one of the largest. Sansom's extensive research shows in the minutely detailed descriptions of the growth of this camp, its organization, and Robert Kett's insistence on maintaining the forms of legality and his refusal to allow executions in the camp. Shardlake is drafted against his will as an advisor on the law as Kett dispenses justice. Meantime, Shardlake and Nicholas are still pursuing their investigation of the Boleyn matter and trying to ensure that John Boleyn is not hanged. 

Sansom excels in his descriptions of the living conditions and social mores of the times. Those descriptions of the mud, the blood, the screams of the wounded, the rotting bodies, the shit, the flies, and the rats on the battlefields and on the streets and alleys of Norwich were enough to turn my stomach at times. But it was impossible to turn away from it. The aim of historical fiction, after all, is to transport the reader back to that time and give her a sense of what it was like to be alive then. Sansom does that very well. This book is well over 800 pages and it took me a week and a half of determined reading to get through it, but it was worth it.

That being said, I think the book might have been even better with a bit tighter editing. The transitions between the investigation of the death of Edith Boleyn and the rebellion on Mousehold Heath seemed rather disjointed at times. And I was utterly chagrined to find Sansom committing the capital grammatical offense of repeatedly misusing the pronoun "I" as the object of verbs and prepositions, as in "He gave the statement to Nicholas and I." Really, C.J.? How standards have fallen! Mrs. Rubenstein, my high school English teacher, would be appalled and I am appalled on her behalf.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Winter Syntax by Billy Collins

I love the imagery which Billy Collins employs in this poem to express the difficulty of writing literature, of expressing a complete and comprehensible thought. He likens it to a "lone traveler heading into a blizzard at midnight." As he struggles against the elements, he thinks of all the things that it would be easier for him to do. And yet he persists until at dawn a smile will appear in his "beard of icicles" and the lone traveler will, at last, be able to express a complete thought.

Winter Syntax

by Billy Collins

A sentence starts out like a lone traveler
heading into a blizzard at midnight,
tilting into the wind, one arm shielding his face,
the tails of his thin coat flapping behind him.

There are easier ways of making sense,
the connoisseurship of gesture, for example.
You hold a girl's face in your hands like a vase.
You lift a gun from the glove compartment
and toss it out the window into the desert heat.

These cool moments are blazing with silence.

The full moon makes sense. When a cloud crosses it
it becomes as eloquent as a bicycle leaning
outside a drugstore or a dog who sleeps all afternoon
in a corner of the couch.

Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.
The unclothed body is autobiography.
Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.

But the traveler persists in his misery,
struggling all night through the deepening snow,
leaving a faint alphabet of bootprints
on the white hills and the white floors of valleys,
a message for field mice and passing crows.

At dawn he will spot the vine of smoke
rising from your chimney, and when he stands
before you shivering, draped in sparkling frost,
a smile will appear in the beard of icicles,
and the man will express a complete thought.

Friday, February 8, 2019

This week in birds - #340

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

Early in the week, my birdfeeders looked something like this. They were covered in finches - here American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, but also Purple Finches. By the end of the week, most of these visitors had moved on. We had temperatures in the 70s and 80s F for much of the week so maybe that convinced the birds that it was time to migrate north toward their breeding grounds.


The bulldozers have moved in at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, and construction of a wall there is expected to begin soon. The Center is still fighting to stop the destruction of the butterfly habitat and has requested an emergency restraining order. Construction of the wall threatens the region's growing ecotourism industry and most local people oppose it.


NASA scientists announced this week that it is now official that 2018 was the planet's fourth hottest in nearly 140 years of record-keeping and it represents a continuation of Earth's warming trend.


Successful strategies for saving endangered wildlife in a land that is torn by war would seem to be an almost impossible assignment, and yet there is such a success story: The snow leopard is making a comeback in Afghanistan, a country that has been in conflict for much of the last century. Such stories must give us hope.


 And, in other happy news, Wisdom has a new chick! The 68-year-old Laysan Albatross and her mate, Akeakamai, who appears in the picture above with the new baby, have nested at this same site on Midway Atoll since 2006.


Feeding birds, especially in winter, is one of the country's most popular wildlife-watching activities, but if you are going to put up a bird feeder, it is important to keep in mind bird safety when you plan the placement of the feeder.


Two chemical components of popular sunscreens, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been shown to be damaging to coral reefs. Based on that information, some places are banning those sunscreens. The latest is Key West which will ban the sale of the sunscreens within the city limits. Earlier Hawaii became the first state to pass such a ban.


Australia has had more than its share of extreme weather this season - summer for them. Record heat waves, wildfires, and now floods. Record levels of rain have deluged northeastern Australia prompting flooding and emergency evacuations and forcing crocodiles and snakes out of their habitats and into populated areas. 


The Sarus Crane is a non-migratory member of the crane family found in various parts of the Indian Subcontinent, southeast Asia, and Australia. Like many members of that family, it has been on the decline but a concerted effort at public education by governmental and conservation agencies has helped to involve farmers in helping to protect and preserve the species and has had a positive effect on the birds' population.


In winter, European Starlings gather in great flocks called murmurations that put on incredible acrobatic displays of flying. How do they do it? And why do they do it? Maybe just for fun!


A fossil of an ancient animal from 240 million years ago called a Pappochelys has been found to have had a cancerous leg bone, proving that the disease has been present on Earth at least since that time. The animal was a shell-less ancestor of turtles. 


The Prairie Ecologist gives us more information about the migration of dragonflies.


Dead seabirds called Guillemots have been washing up on the Dutch coast by the thousands this winter. The cause of the birds' mass deaths is still unknown but a spill by a container ship is suspected.


The location of Earth's magnetic field is important to know because it aids in ensuring that navigational systems function properly. The thing is, that magnetic field fluctuates and scientists are engaged in tracking it. The magnetic North Pole wanders around the Arctic and that's the point that our compasses recognize as north, which is different from the actual geographic North Pole. 


Environmental groups and scientists have scored at least a temporary victory in the battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas explorations. The plan for seismic testing to search for oil and gas deposits has been called off for this season.

Image from The New York Times.
For now, this mother and calf from the Porcupine caribou herd of ANWR are safe from such explorations.


Three years ago a new volcanic island sprang up from the ocean surrounding Tonga. That land mass is now covered in a mysterious sticky mud and scientists are studying how the island is being colonized by vegetation and by birds.