Thursday, October 31, 2019

Middle England by Jonathan Coe: A review

How have I not met Jonathan Coe before? And how was I unaware that Middle England is actually part of a series, the third book in that series? Never mind, the book works perfectly well as a stand-alone. But now I really want to go back and read those other two books.

Coe's writing is humorous, insightful, and humane. This book deals with the effects of politics on families and on England and can be extrapolated to extend to other Western countries. America, for example. Reading the book gave me (finally!) a sense that I better understood the human issues around Brexit, as well as perhaps the human issues driving the wave of white exceptionalism in my own country. 

Coe's novel begins in 2010 and the narrative includes perspectives from a daunting number of characters, but all of the characters are connected in some way to two: Benjamin Trotter, age 50, who we meet as he is leaving the funeral reception of his mother along with his father, Colin, a former car factory employee; and Doug Anderton, a lifelong friend of Benjamin, who is a left-leaning journalist with sources in the staff of Prime Minister David Cameron. Through these two characters and their families, friends, and connections, Coe explores the divisive and depressing politics of England from 2010 to the current day as Brexit threatens to tear the country apart, making it a disunited kingdom.

In spite of the sad and chaotic history during the time period about which he is writing, this is quite a funny book. It is filled with wry and forgiving humor that encompasses all sides of the political spectrum. There is one particular scene just about halfway through the book that left me just about literally rolling on the floor. I laughed until my stomach hurt and my cheeks were wet with tears. It was cathartic.

Coe writes compassionately about the fear and nostalgia driving the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe feeling in Britain. He sees it as a generational phenomenon. Certainly, the younger generation is much more accepting of multiculturalism and different lifestyles. In fact, he sees their ages as the most pertinent facts about his characters. From the elders like Benjamin's father who are implacable in their opposition to the European Union and in their support of Brexit, to Doug's young daughter Coriander whose views on racism, inequality, and identity politics were utterly uncompromising, and then to Doug's and Benjamin's generation caught in the middle, each generation is defined, at least to some extent, by the era in which it grew up and in which it felt most comfortable. 

I was completely absorbed in this study of the personal and the political as told through the stories of engaging characters whose efforts to carry on with their lives in the face of chaos offered me glimmers of light through the murk of these times and gave me hope for the future. I found it interesting that one of the characters, a son of immigrants says at one point that he thinks the country's essence may have been most powerfully expressed by Tolkien when "he created the Shire and populated its pastoral idyll with doughty, insular hobbits, prone to somnolence and complacence when left to their own devices but fierce when roused." Middle England as Middle Earth. Yes, Frodo lives.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves: A review

Continuing with my reading of the DI Vera Stanhope Mysteries, I've reached the fifth entry in the series.

This one begins with Vera returning home from work to find her "hippy-dippy" neighbor, Jack, waiting for her in her parlor. He is distressed because his wife, Joanna, has disappeared. Even though she left him a note saying that she needed a break and would be gone for a few days, she didn't say where she was going and he hasn't heard from her since she left a few days ago. He wants Vera to find her. 

Well, that proves easy enough. Vera contacts the taxi driver who picked her up and learns that she went to Writer's House, a country retreat where aspiring writers go to attend lectures and workshops and polish their stories. Vera goes to the Writer's House to check on Joanna and let her know that Jack is worried. As luck would have it, her arrival at the retreat coincides with the finding of a dead body in the glass room.

The body is that of Professor Tony Ferdinand, one of the instructors. Vera is informed that the murderer has already been apprehended and they are holding her for the police. It is Vera's neighbor, Joanna, who was discovered near the body with a bloody knife in her hand. In spite of that evidence, Vera is skeptical. She calls in her team and they begin their investigation.

Vera is excited to have a murder to investigate because "everybody loves a murder".
They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.
Vera fears that she will be removed from the investigation because of her relationship with one of the suspects, but she appeals to her superintendent and he leaves her in charge. 

Cleeves is an extremely skillful plotter and all of the necessary clues are woven into the narrative, but they are so subtle and integrated into that narrative that I defy any reader to identify them and solve the mystery before the end. Moreover, there are several plot twists, the first murder is not the last, and the reader/detective must be very nimble to keep up.

As in all of the books, one of the most enjoyable features is the relationship of Vera to the various members of her team and the way she manipulates and uses them, especially her sergeant, Joe. Cleeves' characterizations paint masterful portraits of Vera and the team and she allows us to eavesdrop on the interior dialogues of Vera and Joe which gives added depth to their relationship. 

The book reminds one somewhat of Agatha Christie. It is a traditional country-house mystery in the best sense. Ann Cleeves is a worthy inheritor of the Christie mantle.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

I guess I've been in a Mary Oliver frame of mind recently. I seem to turn to her poetry often. I especially like this one.

The wild geese are returning to their winter home here on the prairies and wetlands of Southeast Texas. When I am outside, I sometimes hear their voices now as they fly "high in the clean blue air" and I think about that last passage in this poem:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

This week in birds - #375

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

This Blue Jay is checking out what's on offer at my backyard bird feeders.


Acidification of the ocean can cause the mass extinction of marine life. This is what happened 65 million years ago when the meteorite hit near Yucatan. Not only did it mean the end of the age of dinosaurs, it caused acidification which also wiped out three-quarters of marine species. It is happening again, not with a meteorite this time but with the absorption of carbon emissions which also causes the oceans to acidify. 


As large swaths of California are burning and thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes and have their lives disrupted, it brings home the question of how we are going to live in a world of a warming climate where fire is a growing problem. As hotter temperatures dry out plants making them easier to ignite, we can expect wildfires nationwide to become an increasing problem


And speaking of heat and of oceans, the news in the Pacific is that conditions there are reminiscent of the heat wave of 2014 which led to the formation of a hot spot that came to be known as the Blob. It expanded and lingered over much of the ocean from Mexico to Alaska for years and damaged coral reefs.


Evolution is such a fascination mechanism. If there is a niche in Nature, you can be sure that something will evolve to fill it. That's how we came to have butterflies. Nocturnal moths evolved to take advantage of an abundant new food source: the nectar of flowering plants. Voila! Butterflies!


Along the coasts of California and Oregon, the population of purple sea urchins has exploded and the voracious critters are ravaging the delicate ecosystems of those waters.


Leaf out and flowering are occurring earlier and migrating birds are adjusting the times of their migration but the two are not yet in sync which causes problems for the birds when they are unable to take advantage of the peak availability of the insects that feed on new leaves and flowers. 


However, there are some birds that are benefiting from the effects of climate change. This benefit may evaporate though as the changes become more extreme.


Aye-ayes are a species of Madagascan primates that are unique: They are the only known primates on Earth that have a sixth finger, a kind of "pseudo-thumb" that sprouts from their palm.


Warmer ocean waters mean more girl turtles and that's a problem. As Earth gets hotter, turtle hatchlings worldwide are expected to skew more female, creating what could become a dangerous imbalance of the sex ratio.  


This is one loudmouthed bird! In fact, it is the loudest bird in the world. It is the White Bellbird of the Amazon. Its song is described as being like a pile driver, around 125 decibels.


The delta smelt is a threatened finger-sized fish that has been at the center of California's water wars for nearly three decades. Now the current administration in Washington is proposing to lift protections for the fish and divert more water to farms, an action that could finally see the end of the delta smelt.


The Least Tern of the interior is a success story of the Endangered Species Act. The number of colonies has multiplied tenfold, from 48 to 480, and it is ready to be taken off the endangered list. 


A previously unknown to science species of leaf-tailed gecko has been discovered in Madagascar. The new species is believed to be found only in the Ankarana Special Reserve and may already be endangered.


Scientists are tracking the Long-billed Curlews that nest in Montana in order to learn more about their habits and their migration.


This little bird is causing a lot of excitement in Saanich's Panama Flats in Canada at the moment. It is a Yellow-browed Warbler, the first of its species to be recorded in Canada. It is a vagrant that flew in from Asia.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet: A review

Author Jennine Capo Crucet was recently invited to speak at Georgia Southern University. She accepted the invitation and the focus of her presentation to the students was white privilege. Some of the privileged white students at the school objected to a Latina speaking on that subject and they staged a protest during which they burned her first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, which had been published in 2015. When I read that story, I knew I had to read that book.

Crucet is a Cuban-American with ties to the Miami area. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Nebraska. The protagonist of her novel is a Cuban-American young woman from Miami named Lizet Ramirez. She is the first of her family to go to college.

She had secretly applied to an elite (fictional) Northeastern school called Rawlings College. And she was accepted! This causes consternation in her family. Her parents are separated and not on good terms and she has an older unmarried sister who has a baby. Her family had expected her to get a job after high school and get married to her long-time boyfriend and help to support the family. Instead, she is leaving home, going far away to college and continuing to be a financial drain on the family. They are not encouraging or supportive.

Still, she goes, and with financial aid, the work-study program, and some help from her father, she cobbles together a way to pay for her education. But she is woefully out of her depth, having graduated from a less than stellar high school and also having limited social and cultural experiences to guide her in this new environment. In the book, an older and wiser Lizet narrates the events of this difficult first year of her college experience.

That experience is complicated by what is happening back home in Miami.

When Lizet goes home on her first school break, a young Cuban boy has just been rescued from a raft at sea and brought to Miami. His mother had been with him on the raft, but at some point, she had been swept away and lost. The young boy - here called Ariel Hernandez - was alone. (If this sounds familiar, it should. It is a fictionalized telling of the story of Elián González, the young boy whose story and fate consumed Miami in late 1999 and 2000.)

Lizet's mother becomes obsessed with Ariel/Elián to the neglect of her own family and job. She is passionately involved in the movement to keep Ariel in America and spends all of her time protesting and organizing. Meanwhile, news of her activities has made the national news and Lizet sees her on television back at Rawlings. She is appalled. 

Crucet's telling of this story is heartfelt. Her observations of the Miami Cuban culture are sharp and the dialogue among her characters is one of the strong points of the novel. The plot is actually developed through those dialogues.

I could identify with Lizet from the beginning because we shared some of the same experiences. I came from a farm family with no background of going to college. I was the first of my family to attend college and I came from a poor rural school which certainly did not prepare me for the experience. So, yes, I could identify quite easily with Lizet's story. And I could understand the stress of a Latina student, one of few, struggling to make it in an elite school with mostly white students.

What I don't understand is why those Georgia students were so incensed that they felt impelled to burn her book. 

Well, actually, maybe I do understand.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Citizen of Dark Times by Kim Stafford

This poem is from a collection of poetry written by Oregon poet Kim Stafford after the presidential election of 2016. It was his effort, he said in an interview, to find the "flavor of unity" in divisive times. It seems particularly appropriate at the moment.

Citizen of Dark Times
by Kim Stafford
Agenda in a time of fear: Be not afraid.
When things go wrong, do right.
Set out by the half-light of the seeker.
For the well-lit problem begins to heal.
Learn tropism toward the difficult.
We have not arrived to explain, but to sing.
Young idealism ripens into an ethical life.
Prune back regret to let faith grow.
When you hit rock bottom, dig farther down.
Grief is the seed of singing, shame the seed of song.
Keep seeing what you are not saying.
Plunder your reticence.
Songbird guards a twig, its only weapon a song.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

This week in birds - #374

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

American Redstart image from

I was sitting on my favorite bench by my goldfish pond yesterday, daydreaming in the autumn sun, when I sensed movement in the redbud tree beside the pond. I looked up to see an adult male American Redstart perched on a twig looking at me, probably trying to decide if I was a threat. I sat perfectly still and tried to look non-threatening and soon he dropped down to my little fountain near the pond to have a drink. I was very excited because this was the first redstart I had ever seen in my yard. (Of course, as always happens with these serendipitous sightings, I didn't have a camera with me, so I had to borrow an image from the internet.) The redstarts and their fellow warblers, as well as other songbirds, are passing through and over my yard now in their fall migration, most of them headed farther south to Mexico and Central America. Their passage is mostly silent unlike in their spring migration when they announce their presence with a song. And so the only way I notice them usually is if I happen to see their movement in the trees. With the redstart, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. 


It's been another devastating summer for seabirds in Alaska. Thousands of carcasses of the birds have washed up on shore there. More than 9,200 of the bodies were collected. Many of the birds were Short-tailed Shearwaters. The deaths coincided with a marine heatwave but scientists are not certain yet of the cause of the deaths. These die-offs have historically occurred from time to time, but for the last five years, they have occurred annually.


The administration in Washington announced its proposal for allowing logging in Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America. Conservation groups will continue to fight in court to stop the plans.


What a very good idea! In Iowa, farmers are planting strips of native prairie among their row-crops to serve as buffers, edge of field filters, and incidentally, provide habitat for butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators and small mammals. The idea is a project of an organization called STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips) at Iowa State University.


Barnacle Geese are one of the bird species that are thriving in a world of changing climate. Their strategy has been to move their nesting area farther north.  


A federal judge has blocked the current administration's plans to lift protections for the Greater Sage-Grouse. The judge agreed with conservation groups that the administration's industry-friendly plans were illegal and restored stronger protections.


A mysterious affliction is causing a die-off of freshwater mussels at various sites around the country. The die-offs seem to happen quickly and to only affect the mussels. Scientists are puzzled as to the cause. 


A Hawaiian thrush called a Puaiohi is endangered and a study concluded that the best way to protect it and give it a chance to increase was to eradicate the invasive rat population. That would be a boon to many native island species.


The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker's adaptation to climate change has been to begin to change its nesting time. Also, birds that are located farther to the north in the species' range seem to be doing better than birds farther south.


The blog "Backyard and Beyond" makes the case against the imported honeybee, pointing out that "saving the honeybee" seems to suck all the oxygen from the room while we would be much better off trying to save our native bees.


The glass facade of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina has proved a death trap for Chimney Swifts. More than 300 of the birds crashed into the windows on a recent night.


There are some very fast ants living in the sand dunes of the northern Sahara. Perhaps the blistering heat has something to do with it. Researchers clocked the ants at speeds approaching one meter per second!


Phainopeplas, like this one that I photographed in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, practice something called itinerant breeding. They nest at one site and then migrate somewhere else and nest there. It is a rare breeding strategy practiced by only a few documented species.


New research shows that dust from an asteroid break-up that blanketed the planet some 470 million years ago may have been the event that triggered major increases in the number of animal species.


For those who don't like to rake the fallen leaves of autumn, here is an argument you can use: The autumn leaves provide winter cover and protection for many small species and help to protect and increase biodiversity.


The problems caused by climate change are so enormous and daunting that one becomes discouraged and despondent that anything can be done to reverse it. Specifically, it is discouraging to think that we as individuals can't do anything. But is that really true? Do not even the small steps that we can take begin to have some effect in the great scheme of things when added to all those other small steps taken by people everywhere? Margaret Renkl explores "The Case Against Doing Nothing".

Friday, October 18, 2019

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: A review

So, this book calls to mind Beckett's Waiting for Godot. It's all about the waiting. Waiting for someone who never comes.

The book actually reads more like a play than a novel. Reading it is a bit of a confusing slog at times because of the format. I'm not sure why some modern writers seem to have a prejudice against quotation marks, but apparently, Kevin Barry is one of them. It is not always possible to understand (without digging) just who is speaking and it isn't always clear at first that someone is speaking. In my opinion, that just makes the reading unnecessarily hard work and it annoyed me.

Apparently, it didn't annoy the Booker Prize jurors who put it on the long list for this year's award. One can see why I suppose. The language of the novel at times rises to lyrical heights and its two curmudgeonly main characters are interesting. These are the type of male characters that a certain kind of male writer seems to love to write about. Elmore Leonard and Jim Harrison come to mind and it would seem that Barry is one of their tribe. 

Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are aging Irish criminals who have long been partners in the smuggling of drugs. They are now, on the night of October 23, 2018, in the story, sitting in the waiting room of a ferry terminal in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras. They are waiting for Maurice's estranged daughter (or is she Charlie's?) Dilly. They believe she will be arriving there tonight either coming from or going to Tangier. They haven't seen her in three years but believe (we never learn why) that she may now be a part of a group of Rastafarians. They are looking for a girl with dreadlocks.

While they wait, they meet various young dreadlocked people whom they try to interrogate about Dilly and they reminisce about their past and about Dilly's mother, Maurice's ex-wife Cynthia. Their past includes drug deals gone bad, knife fights, and (perhaps) cuckolding. But the world which they knew has changed and they no longer fit in. Barry describes them thusly:
The money no longer is in dope. The money now is in people. The Mediterranean is a sea of slaves. The years have turned and left Maurice and Charlie behind. The men are elegiacal, woeful, heavy in the bones.
That paints a perfect picture of these two doleful characters.

By perhaps halfway through the book, I guess I got more used to its format and I was able to enjoy the story and the characters a bit more, but still I found it hard going.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2019

Oops! I almost forgot Bloom Day! Then I saw Carol's of May Dreams Gardens post this morning and, of course, I had to get busy and participate in my favorite monthly meme.

In fact, I really don't have much to show you this month. It has not been a great year for my garden, but still, my old reliables continue showing up month after month.

There is one new face in the crowd. The Lycoris Radiata has been in bloom all month. I prefer their common name, "Naked Ladies", so called because they pop out of the ground fully bloomed with no leaves on.

 The fall asters are well past their prime but still sporting a few blooms.

There is nothing more iconic of October in my garden than the blooms of the Anisacanthus wrightii and the little yellow Sulphur butterflies that love them.

 And, of course, the yellow bell-shaped blooms of the Esperanza.

 The large shrub reaches for the October sky.

More down-to-earth is the Mexican firebush which lives up to its common name in October as it blazes with its flame-shaped blossoms.

The blue plumbago is a bank of these blossoms.

And the old yellow cestrum continues its blooming. That's the watermelon-colored crape myrtle in the background.
 The pink Knockout rose is putting forth a few of its pretty little single blooms.

The 'Lady of Shallott' rose has been one of my most dependable and beautiful bloomers throughout the summer.

 The autumn sage is decorating the season with its flowers.

 The Vitex, aka chaste tree, is one of my garden favorites.

 The old-fashioned 4 o'clocks are undaunted.

 Lantana is at its best now. That's basil next to it.

 The Turk's cap blooms just about twelve months of the year in my garden.

The butterfly ginger has not had a good year but it is rallying to put out a few blooms now.

And the chrysanthemums are just beginning to bloom. There will be more shortly.

Jatropha blooms on.

 And my purple oxalis is enjoying the cooler temperatures we've had recently.

Strolling through my garden, even when it is not at its best, as is the case now, always gives me hope.

May your garden also help to keep hope alive. Thank you for visiting mine. Happy Bloom Day!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Poetry Sunday: Invitation by Mary Oliver

I dip into poetry throughout the week. I do it quite randomly, without a plan or agenda. But I am often astonished to find that the poem I have randomly chosen is exactly the one that I needed at that particular moment. And so it was when I landed on this poem by Mary Oliver a few days ago. She writes:
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
Yes, exactly.


by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

This week in birds - #373

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

A King Rail searches for a snack in the wetlands of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


The National Park Service is one year into its effort to re-establish wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan. But there is a problem. Of the nineteen wolves that they have relocated to the island habitat, three have died of unknown causes. Another wolf walked across an ice bridge to the mainland in January. The NPS is trying to solve the mystery of the deaths and, in the meantime, has made some adjustments to its reintroduction procedures to try to reduce stress to the animals.  


Climate change is a threat to some of the oldest living entities on the planet - the giant sequoias. The not-for-profit conservation group Save the Redwoods has plans to buy the largest privately owned sequoia grove in order to try to protect and save it.


A new study confirms that North American bird species are attempting to adjust to climate change by shifting their ranges farther north. This could result in at least eight states losing their "state bird" as those birds move out of their areas. 


When the land-dwelling ancestors of whales and dolphins moved into the seas, they shed some of the genes of traits that were no longer useful to them in their aquatic life.


Margaret Renkl discusses the fall hummingbird migration.


Birders are already seeing hints of the climate change-caused range shifting by the birds that is discussed in the recent Audubon report.


The endangered Cerulean Warbler has lost 70% of its population over the last 44 years, but now the decline of the species has slowed and the bird seems to be making something of a recovery. It's not entirely clear why but there are several theories.


A previously unknown species of a tiny primate called a tarsier was first discovered on the Togean Islands off Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 1993. It has taken until now for scientists to study the species sufficiently to describe it to science. 


One of the leading causes of extinction for many species is the global wildlife trade.


Saltwater is killing forests along the East Coast, sometimes even far distant from the sea. This leads to stands of dead trees, often bleached or blackened, known as ghost forests.


A study found that Greater Prairie-Chickens were less bothered by the sound of wind turbines than they were by inadequate ground cover when it came to choosing their territory.


Snakehead fish are an invasive species that is indigenous to Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Africa. They can breathe on land and crawl like a snake. Recently two were caught in Gwinnett County, Georgia. The blunt directive of the wildlife officials there was "Kill it! Don't let it escape."


More than half a century after being designated an endangered species, the tiny Kirtland's Warbler has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered list. It will still require careful monitoring to ensure that it doesn't slip back into danger.


The Atlantic Puffin colony on Eastern Egg Rock Island in Maine had a record 188 breeding pairs this summer. But the colony's future is uncertain as climate change and the warming ocean affect the fish that they prefer as food.


The kangaroos and other herbivores of Australia are the cause of overgrazing on some of the country's national parks and preserves.


A Least Bittern recently turned up in, of all places, Ireland. Unfortunately, the bird was in poor condition and it expired not too long after it was discovered. Even so, it was the first record of this species in Ireland.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A review

The main character in The Dutch House is the house itself. It looms over the lives of the human characters and haunts them to the very end of their days.

The house was built in a suburb of Philadelphia by a Dutch couple, the VanHoebeeks, who had made a fortune in a cigarette distribution business that they started before World War I. The facade of the house was glass; you could look right through it. The lives of the people who lived in it were never so transparent.

The VanHoebeeks raised their family there, but it was a family stalked by tragedy and by post World War II years, the only family member left was the mother who was cared for by a servant, Fiona (later nicknamed Fluffy). When the mother died, the house reverted to ownership by a bank and it was sold.

The buyer was Cyril Conroy, a man who had grown up poor but through a combination of acumen and luck had parlayed a single investment in a property into an enormous real estate empire. He was a man with a wife whom he adored and a young daughter, Maeve. He wanted to give his wife an amazing gift and the Dutch House just fit the bill.

When he took his wife and daughter to see the house and he told the wife he had bought it for her, she was astounded and appalled. She hated it! It was ostentatious, clearly the finest house in the town where it was located, but Elna was a woman who also had grown up in poverty and had flirted with the idea of becoming a nun and following Sister Theresa. She believed in the value of living simply and of serving the poor and needy of the world. She could never be happy in this house.

Nevertheless, the family moved in. A son, Danny, was born. But over the years, Elna would be absent from the home for extended periods, leaving the children in the care of their father and the caretaker "Fluffy," as well as two house servants who treated them as their own children. Finally, when Danny was three and Maeve was ten, she left for good. Her note said she was going to India.

And so we have the two motherless children and the makings of a fairy tale. Shortly, Maeve develops Type 1 diabetes, which will be another burden she and her brother will bear throughout her life. She is devoted to the care and protection of her little brother, even in adulthood. She essentially sacrifices her life to ensure that he has everything he needs.

In time, Cyril marries again to a much younger woman, the odious Andrea. Now we have the evil stepmother on the scene. We learn that Cyril's main attraction for her is in the house that he owns. She desired that house.

Maeve moves out of the Dutch House as soon as she can. Danny is left alone with Andrea and her two daughters and his father. But not for long. His father dies at age fifty-three and Andrea is in control. She kicks him out of the house.

Andrea is left in control of the business and the house. The only thing provided for Maeve and Danny is an educational trust, so Maeve devotes herself to seeing that her brother receives the most expensive education available.

I could go on and on and recite the whole plot for you, but I have to leave something for you to discover!

Patchett's prose is so straightforward and one could almost say old-fashioned. It is a very traditional way of telling a story, without tricks or embellishments, and I very much appreciated that after some of the other books I've read recently. (I'm looking at you, Marlon James!)  I loved just about everything about her book, except I was a little disappointed with the ending. It seemed to just sort of fade out and I guess I was hoping for something a little more dramatic. I should have known better - no tricks, no embellishments, only real life.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake: A review

On the surface, The Guest Book tells the story of three generations of a privileged white American family. Dig underneath that surface just a bit and you find the history of our country from the mid-1930s until the present day with the racism of the powerful who control everything always casting its shadow over events.

The privileged white American family is the Miltons and in 1935 it seemed that Ogden and Kitty Milton had everything. They were rich and good looking and their marriage was a love match which everyone who knew them envied. They had three perfect children. Nothing untoward could touch them. Perhaps that is why when tragedy did come it was so devastating.

I must say it was devastating to this reader as well. It was so unexpected and it hit me right where I live.

After the family tragedy, Kitty was unable to recover and in order to bring her back and give her a reason to live, Ogden decided to buy an island off the coast of Maine. Crockett's Island. Because I guess that's what you do when you want to cheer up your grieving wife and you are rich!

His plan works and once we see the island we understand why. Here's a partial description of her first sighting of it: "The house on the hill, the spruce line behind it, these wide verdant fields whose grasses waved like girls at a fair." Yes, I would love it, too.

For three generations, the family spends its summers there and those who visit them there sign their names in the guest book. Among those who visited in 1936 were Elsa and Willy, a German woman and her Jewish son whom Ogden had met when he was pursuing his business in Germany. Elsa makes a request of Kitty and Kitty refuses her. It is a choice that will haunt Kitty for the rest of her life, along with that first tragedy.

The children grow up and embark on their adult lives. The island is full of life and it is the place where most members of the family feel most at home. Other people come to the island, including, in 1959, a young Jewish man who was an employee of the family business, Len Levy, and a black journalist/photographer named Reg Pauling. They were invited by the Miltons' son, Moss, a wannabe composer of music who was expected to some day take over the family business. Unbeknownst to the family, Levy was also the lover of their daughter, Joan. 

Needless to say, Jews and black people were about as scarce as hen's teeth on Crockett's Island. Their presence caused some predictable tensions, but, of course, everyone was very, very nice and civilized toward them because that's the kind of people they were. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a third tragedy.

Many years later, in the 21st century, the third generation, grandchildren of Ogden and Kitty, can no longer afford the island. One of the granddaughters, Evie, is a historian who is haunted by the fact that she doesn't really know her own family's history. There was a code of silence that was never broken, and, as she begins to uncover a few previously unknown facts, she becomes obsessed with learning more.

I found this to be a fascinating study of how silences build and secrets become firmly embedded in families, even if there is no logical reason for them to be. But when the silence is about something that is considered shameful, it can build and fester and poison lives even in future generations.

(In the same way, I suppose, silences fester and poison countries that refuse to face their pasts. One wonders, for example, what this country would look like if it finally faced and acknowledged the racism at its core, lanced it and let the poison drain away. It's funny the roads that fiction can take us down.)

Sarah Blake's writing in this novel is simply wonderful. She had me from the first page. I devoured her gorgeous descriptions of the island and her on-point social criticisms of the American social scene as represented by the Miltons and their friends and acquaintances. And I loved the historical view of our country. As Evie, the historian, once observed, there are facts and there are cracks between them. What fills those cracks is history. The Miltons and people like them fill some of those cracks.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Poetry Sunday: To Autumn by John Keats

We have the hope of some actual autumn-like weather in the coming week. The forecasters are saying that our high temperatures will be in the low 80s and may even dip into the 70s on one day! And nighttime temperatures could actually get as low as the high 50s. Those are the most pleasant numbers we've seen since April. We can only hope that they materialize.

With such a prospect in view, let us dream on with one of the Romantic poets, John Keats. Here is his take on autumn.

To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,—
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.