Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dead Land by Sara Paretsky: A review

Can this really be the twentieth in the V.I. Warshawski series? It seems like only yesterday that I was reading the first in the series, Indemnity Only. But that book was published in 1982 and I read it probably within a year, so, yes, Paretsky has been writing these books for almost forty years and I have been reading them for almost that long.

The wonderful and unusual thing about this series is that the quality has stayed consistent. In a long series, you almost always get one or two books that are real clunkers. Not with Sara Paretsky. I've read them all and I can't think of a single one that wasn't good. Sure, there have been some that I've liked better than others, but there's not a one that hasn't been good and a worthwhile read.

Another great thing about the series is that V.I. has been allowed to age naturally and she has grown and learned things throughout the series. She's had many romantic relationships over the years, and now she is involved with an archaeologist. I remember Agatha Christie's comment about being married to an archaeologist that the older you get the more interesting you are to them. So perhaps this relationship of V.I. and the archaeologist will last.

And yet another thing that I like about this series is that Paretsky is never afraid to tackle difficult and complicated subjects and she and her detective have a clear and unwavering moral compass. That moral compass guides Warshawski to fight for the underdog and to oppose injustice and sharp practice wherever it occurs. Living and working in Chicago, she has her work cut out for her. 

The plot of Dead Land is even more complicated than usual, involving an attempted land grab in Chicago that is somehow connected to a mass shooting that occurred in Kansas a few years before and a rich and politically connected family in Chile. How Paretsky weaves all of these disparate strands together into a tapestry that presents an understandable picture is a joy to read.

Another side note: It is interesting (to me at least) that Paretsky grew up in Kansas and her recent books have worked a Kansas connection into the plot.

This one starts with a nighttime call to Warshawski from her goddaughter, Bernie, who has been arrested following a disturbance at a public meeting regarding a plan for the development of a Chicago park area. Warshawski goes to her rescue and thus becomes involved with Bernie and her current boyfriend who is a computer geek working as a volunteer for a community group called SLICK that is involved in the development plans. And things spiral from there.

A famous singer/songwriter is found living on the streets and it turns out she has been traumatized and is unable to speak or function normally because of that mass shooting I mentioned. It was at a festival in Kansas and she and her lover, a Chilean-American were performing when the shooting took place. Her lover and several other people were killed and many others were injured. In her current situation, she is watched over by a mysterious man named Coop and his dog Bear who seem to be the only ones she trusts and interacts with.

That Chilean-American was the nephew and heir of that powerful Chilean family and he had wanted to turn the mines owned by the family over to the miners. This was not a popular stance among other members of the family.

Back in Chicago, the land grab involves repurposing some public lands for the convenience of the rich and powerful. "Pay to play" Chicago politics is at the heart of the dastardly plan.

All of this finally comes together and makes sense, although some of it is a bit of a stretch I admit. And in the process V.I. is shot at and missed but otherwise injured on more than one occasion. That just makes her more implacable and relentless.

V.I. may have lost a step but she is still formidable in her passion for justice. She is a worthy hero for our times.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars        

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: A review

This book is an amazing work of imagination. N.K. Jemisin imagines that we live in a world where cities become living, sentient beings by picking a human to be their avatar and becoming animate through that person. The avatar is assisted in becoming by the previous city that was "born" through this process. That avatar then becomes the protector of its city and when the city is in danger, the avatar can marshall all the resources of the city to fight for it.

Does this sound weird and crazy? Only at first. Jemisin seduces us into this fantasy world and we accept it and just go with it.

The city of the title is New York and New York's birth is a bit more complicated than some cities because it is made up of five distinct and different boroughs. There is actually a New York City avatar extant at the beginning of this tale, but he had already fought his city's enemies and won temporarily, but it cost him. He is in a coma, hidden away under the city. In order to assist him, the boroughs will each choose its own avatar and they will form a team to defend the city. And there you have the basics of the plot in a nutshell.

The book can be seen as a love letter to New York. Jemisin writes in the afterword: "I have hated this city. I have loved this city. I will fight for this city until it won't have me anymore. This is my homage to the city. Hope I got it right." I can't really say whether she got it right, but it sure sounds to me, from my distance, that she caught the personalities and the spirit of the various boroughs and of the big city as a whole.

We are introduced first to Manny representing Manhattan, a young black man who appears at Penn Station with no memory of how he got there. He has come from someplace else and he had another life and another name, but all of that is wiped clear and he begins anew, as so many have, in New York.

Next, we meet Brooklyn. She is a black middle-aged city councilwoman and former rapper who is devoted to her family.

Bronca for the Bronx is a Lenape Native American woman in her 60s. She is a lesbian. She works in an art gallery and she is very tough because she's had to be. 

Queens is represented by a South Asian graduate student who is something of a whiz at math.

Finally, Staten Island is represented by Aislyn Houlihan, a young white woman who has grown up sheltered by a racist, xenophobic, abusive cop for a father. In time, we learn that she has absorbed his attitudes.

The city will need all of these avatars to survive because there is a powerful Enemy that threatens to devour it. The Enemy comes from another universe and its infectious presence is spreading throughout the city as white, feather-like entities. How each of the avatars responds to this entity, which is represented by a Woman in White, makes for an exciting and thoroughly engrossing story. 

Here is the only real problem I had with the story, once I accepted the author's concept. She gives us something of a backstory for the Enemy which seems to be a way of legitimizing its attempt to take over as a way of ensuring its species survival. It tends to distort the clear lines between "good guy" and "bad guy" and sort of undermines the theme of the book regarding the strength of the city when diverse groups work together.

Nevertheless, this is at base an exciting, joyful, fast-paced tale with a lot of humor that was fun to read. One had the feeling that Jemisin also had fun writing it.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Poetry Sunday: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

This is quite a well-known poem, unlike many that I feature here. Well-known and well-loved. I remember it, and perhaps you do too, from high school days. Wordsworth was a popular and easy introduction to poetry. He's also pretty good, as I'm sure you will agree. 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Friday, April 24, 2020

This week in birds - #398

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

Male Baltimore Oriole on feeder.
The spring migration has continued in full swing this week. When I stepped outside on Monday, the first sound I heard was the unmistakable call of the Yellow-breasted Chat. There seemed to be several of them all around the yard giving their whistles, chuckles, rattles, and squawks. It always makes me smile to hear them. The Great Crested Flycatchers arrived the same day, but the stars of the show had to be the Baltimore Orioles. It's always a thrill when they pass through. Some years the yard has been filled with them, but I've only seen a few this year so far. They do love their oranges as the one in the picture shows.

*~*~*~*

For Earth Day, The New York Times offered a crash course on climate change on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

*~*~*~*

As the price of crude oil collapsed this week, producers were forced to shut down rigs. The shale oil industry is expected to shrink. This would seem like a good time to wind down dependence on fossil fuel and switch to cleaner sources of energy.

*~*~*~*

Blue Tit image from The Guardian.
This little bird is a Blue Tit and something very bad is happening to its species in Germany. More than 11,000 instances of sick or dead birds have been reported within the last couple of weeks. A bacterial infection seems to be the cause.

*~*~*~*

One of the unexpected effects of climate change is an alteration to Nature's soundscape.

*~*~*~*

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that there is a 75% chance that 2020 will be the warmest year on record, beating out 2016.

*~*~*~*

A global study has found that there has been a 25% decrease in insect populations since 1990. Since insects are a vital link in the food chain, this is a very worrying statistic.

*~*~*~*

Red Knots will be arriving in the Mid-Atlantic area over the next few weeks on their long migration route. Although they come in fewer numbers these days, their migration is still one of the wonders of Nature. 

*~*~*~*

A study of outdoor domestic cats using tracking collars found that they do not stray far from their homes, but they have an enormous impact on wildlife in that area, killing more than their owners are aware of. They have a bigger impact, in fact, than wild predators.

*~*~*~*

Decades of dam building and water extraction have had an effect on the ecosystem of San Francisco Bay. The ecosystem is collapsing under the weight of the demands made on it.

*~*~*~*

Would you be surprised to learn that the groups protesting stay-at-home directives are financed by the same people who have been financing climate change denialists? Incidentally, some wags on Facebook have dubbed the protestors the "Flu Flux Klan" or the "Branch Covidians." Seems about right to me.

*~*~*~*

About 40 million years ago, frogs lived on Antarctica. Of course, it was a lot warmer then. A fossil frog has been found from that period and it appears to be related to modern-day frogs in South America. 

*~*~*~*

A new study traces the evolution of bird brains from tyrannosaurs to modern crows. The study found that those birds that evolved later, like crows and parrots, have bigger brains.  

*~*~*~*

The side-effects of the pandemic on Nature offer a vision of an alternative future of the possibility of a healthier relationship with the natural world.

*~*~*~*

Tiny primates called tamarins are one of the more charismatic and beloved symbols of conservation in Brazil, where they are building an overpass over a major highway for the little critters to keep them safe from traffic.

*~*~*~*

A large tree fell in Panama in October 2015 and it took a lot of its neighbors with it. After the clearing of the area, the number of hummingbirds there has increased.

*~*~*~*

Not all pigeons, or more accurately, Rock Doves, are from the same gene pool. Along the Atlantic Coast, for example, researchers found that there were two distinct populations, the New York branch and the Boston branch separated by Connecticut.  
     

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: A review

Louise Erdrich builds the characters in this book with infinite patience and care until they completely come alive for the reader. We feel as though we could reach out and touch them, have a conversation with them. Perhaps they are so real because they are based on real people that the author loved. All of the books in her ongoing Chippewa chronicles feel personal, but this one feels almost visceral. It is a story derived from her family history.

The night watchman of the title is Thomas Washashk (the word means muskrat) and he is based on Erdrich's grandfather who was, in fact, a night watchman. Thomas works guarding a factory where the women of the Turtle Mountain clan work during the day to fashion gemstones as drill bits for Defense Department ordnance and for watches. The factory must be protected at night from potential thieves. It is the major employer on the reservation and vitally important to the Turtle Mountain economy.

One of the women who work in the factory is Thomas's niece, Patrice, also called (much against her will) Pixie. Erdrich tells her story through these two characters.

The time is 1953 and a Termination Bill has been introduced in Congress that promises to "emancipate" America's indigenous people from their lands and their tribal affiliations. The effect of the bill would be to abrogate all those treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government. The treaties that had promised to be in effect "as long as the grass shall grow and the water run." It would "free" Indians to be just like any other citizens with no special protections or acknowledgment that the land had been theirs. When Thomas understands what the bill portends, he determines to fight it for the Turtle Mountain clan. He embarks on a letter-writing campaign to every politician who he imagines may have some influence in the matter and he takes delegations of his people to meet with many of them, culminating finally in a trip to Washington to testify before Congress.

Patrice, meanwhile, is fighting her own battles. The main battle is simply to survive, to get enough food to keep her family fed. She and her mother are haunted by the disappearance of Patrice's sister, Vera. She had moved to Minneapolis and then the family had lost all contact with her. Eventually, Patrice gets together enough money and gets time off from her job to go to Minneapolis to look for her. On the journey, she is accompanied off and on by a Turtle Mountain boxer called Wood Mountain. In the city, Patrice becomes entangled in a toxic and surreal world which frankly defies description. Just know that I will never be able to forget the image of the "waterjack." You'll have to read the book to understand.

The horror discovered by Patrice is reflective of the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Native American women and the scandal in that so little attention is paid to it. Erdrich manages to convey this, without overwhelming us, with a series of unforgettable images. And about halfway through the book comes a chapter entitled "Agony Would Be Her Name." The chapter is only nine sentences that describe the experiences of a victim who may be Vera. It is searing, shattering.

Patrice does not find her sister but she does find her baby that the family did not know existed. She and Wood Mountain take the tiny boy back home.

Thomas and his supporters find the government mostly unresponsive to their inquiries and their petitions regarding the Termination Bill. At one point, one of his supporters, Eddy, speaks these prescient and profound lines:
"Government is more like sex than people think. When you are having good sex, you don't appreciate it enough. When you are having bad sex, it is all you can think about."
Indeed.

At the risk of revealing too much, let me say that the Turtle Mountain clan survives. It is not "terminated," but some other Native American groups are not so lucky, and in an afterword, Erdrich notes that the Trump administration has tried to revive the policy (which was itself terminated during the Nixon administration) to apply to the Wampanoag, "the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving."

This is one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time. Erdrich's novels are like that, and this one is one of her best, in my opinion. I will not soon be forgetting Thomas and Patrice and all of their family and friends. In the final two sentences of her afterword, Erdrich writes: "Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart."

It does. Thank you, Louise.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars




Sunday, April 19, 2020

Poetry Sunday: Time for Serenity, Anyone? by William Stafford

Serenity might be something we all wish for in this time of chaos. Nature goes on, goes its own way, unmindful of human trials and tragedies, and I find that a source of serenity. I hope you have a source of serenity in your life as well.

Time for Serenity, Anyone?
by William Stafford
I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

Friday, April 17, 2020

This week in birds - #397

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


Female Indigo Bunting image by Morris Finkelstein.

We've had lots of neotropical migrants passing through the yard this week, mainly videos and buntings. On Thursday, a female Indigo Bunting, like the one in the image, dropped in on my little fountain to have a drink and take a bath. She's not as colorful as her bright blue mate, but isn't she a lovely bird?

*~*~*~*

As our country and the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a bright spotlight on the governor of New York and his daily briefings, and yet New York has in many ways been a tragic example of the price of delaying in response to the warning signs of oncoming disaster. A better example of success has been on the West Coast. California, Oregon, and Washington were hit early by the virus but acted quickly to contain it and now show signs of flattening their curves.

*~*~*~*

The American Southwest has been in the grip of a drought since 2000 and scientists say it is as bad as or worse than droughts in that region over the last 1,200 years. The difference is that this one has been caused primarily by humans through the agent of climate change.

*~*~*~*

Perishable foods like milk and eggs are being wasted during this pandemic because of a breakdown in supply lines and a faulty economic system that has allowed the waste to happen. 

*~*~*~*

There is no clear answer to how the COVID-19 virus was generated and initially spread, but it is very likely that when the answer is determined it will trace back to the wildlife trade.

*~*~*~*

The Museum of the Earth has a virtual exhibit available on bees, diversity, evolution, and conservation.

*~*~*~*

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the effects of that oil spill are still damaging the ecology of the region.

*~*~*~*

The Environmental (non)Protection Agency strikes again. The agency is changing the way it calculates the benefits of mercury controls, a move that will have the effect of loosening the rules on emissions of other pollutants. Mercury is a heavy metal linked to brain damage in humans.  

*~*~*~*

A new study published this month in the magazine Nature indicates that there could be a more abrupt collapse of animal species as a result of climate change than had previously been thought. Instead of being on a downward slope, it could be more like falling off a cliff. 

*~*~*~*

Katharine, a great white shark, was tagged with a tracking device on August 20, 2013, and the public avidly followed tales of her travels for years. There was a ping heard on May 12, 2019, about 150 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Then nothing and she was feared lost. Then at the end of March came a faint ping and a few days later on April 4 three more pings were heard. They pointed to a location about 200 miles off the coast of Virginia. So, perhaps she wasn't lost after all. Maybe she was just practicing her social distancing. 

*~*~*~*

A plan to turn marginal cropland in Maryland into a friendlier habitat for Northern Bobwhite Quail is expected to also benefit the Chesapeake Bay by reducing runoff into its waters

*~*~*~*

The endangered woodland caribou is further endangered when forests in its habitat are logged out. The logging encourages moose and wolves to move in, one a competitor and the other a predator of the caribou.

*~*~*~*

The Shore Plover is a rare and endangered New Zealand bird. Recently five of the little shorebirds were transported to a remote predator-free island, in spite of the coronavirus lockdown, to give them a better chance of survival. 

*~*~*~*

Poachers in Africa are freer to move around because of pandemic lockdowns and the absence of tourists and that has meant that more threatened and endangered animals, including rhinos, are being killed. 

*~*~*~*

A recent aerial survey for Bald Eagles by the Arizona Game and Fish Department revealed this first-ever documented nest of an eagle in a saguaro cactus. 

*~*~*~*

One of the easiest ways to support conservation and the environment is to plant native plants in your yard. These attract and support local insects and other wildlife and help to strengthen the food chain.

*~*~*~*

There have been many stories recently about wild animals moving into areas that have been vacated by humans, but there is none more dramatic than this:

A ranger in South Africa took this picture of a pride of lions settled down for their catnaps on a now-abandoned roadway in Kruger National Park. The ranger was able to get fairly close; the lions were oblivious.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I was recently reminded of this book by my blogging friend, Judy Krueger, and I've been thinking about it for a few days. I read it a couple of years ago and loved it but it seems even more timely now as so many of us are sheltering in place. Our shelters have become increasingly important to us. And what of those who have no shelter? The characters in this book faced that prospect.

~~~


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: A review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2020

In my zone 9a garden near Houston, the March showers have brought April flowers in abundance.


 All the roses are blooming, none more profusely than this pink Knockout rose.


 'Julia Child' with a little visitor on one of the petals.


This rose was actually a "volunteer" in the garden and I have no idea what its name is, but I like it.


 'Belinda's Dream.'


And here is the 'Lady of Shallott.'


 Isn't she lovely?


This is a wildflower called Texas groundsel that has seeded itself in my garden beds. I've let it grow there because I think it is quite pretty.


And this is another wildflower that seeded itself in a garden bed last year and has now returned. It is called Philadelphia fleabane.


 My camellia still has a few blooms.


 And nearby, the Encore azalea has been blooming.


 Red hibiscus with a few dianthus blossoms.


 And white hibiscus, variety name unknown.


This plant caught my eye on a spring trip to Antique Rose Emporium and I just had to get a few for my garden. It's from Western Australia and it's called kangaroo paws.


 This is 'Hot Lips' salvia.


White yarrow.

 Amaryllis 'Apple Blossom.'


 Amaryllis, variety name lost in memory.


 Butterfly iris.


 Clematis 'Niobe.'


I gave the oleander a severe haircut a few weeks ago but it has recovered enough to bloom. 


 Red columbine.


The bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas. They have been blooming gloriously in the wild for more than a month, but the ones in my garden have only started blooming within the past week.

During our period of necessary isolation, the garden has been a great comfort to me. I spend hours in it each day working and sometimes just sitting and enjoying it. I feel quite sorry for those in isolation who do not have access to a garden.

I hope you are enjoying your garden in this season and that both it and you are doing well. Thank you Carol of May Dreams Gardens for bringing us all together again this month. Happy gardening to all and stay safe.   

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler: A review

Micah Mortimer, aka the Tech Hermit, may know a lot about computers, but he doesn't know beans about relationships. Especially relationships with women. When his woman friend (he refuses to think of a woman in her thirties as a "girlfriend") of three years tells him that she is afraid that she is going to lose her apartment and be homeless, he jokes that at least she has her own car to sleep in. 

Shortly thereafter she comes to his apartment and finds that he has invited the son of one of his college sweethearts to sleep on his daybed. A person with any insight might have intuited at that point that there was a chilling of the atmosphere, but when she later breaks up with him, declaring the relationship over, he is totally surprised.

And about that son of his college sweetheart, he had turned up on Micah's doorstep, after an estrangement from his mother and stepfather, declaring that Micah is his father. But since Micah never had sex with the young man's mother, he's pretty sure he is not his father. Nevertheless, he takes him in until he can get sorted out and reconciled with his mother.

Meantime, Micah continues his one-man business as the Tech Hermit. After college, he had been involved in an IT startup but after a misunderstanding with his partner, he had walked away and started his own business. Now he spends his time visiting the little old ladies in his neighborhood who are barely computer literate and who are his main clients. He mostly just unplugs and then reconnects the machines and then everything works fine. It's not exactly challenging work.

In addition to his work with computers, Micah is also the caretaker of the apartment building where he lives, doing general maintenance and odd jobs. For these services, he lives rent-free. He lives alone, except when he's taking in sons of former sweethearts, and he has a housework routine that is set in stone. He has a day designated for vacuuming, one for dusting and general cleaning, one for mopping floors, etc. Before the breakup with his woman friend, that, too, had settled into a solidified routine.

Anne Tyler is a wonderful creator of characters and many of her best characters are men. I would rate Micah right up there with some of her most memorable like the brothers in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist. He is an oddball and a bit of a fussbudget who lives a rigid life that is about to be disrupted and thrown completely out of balance by circumstances. Micah is at a loss as to how to react and how to fill the aching emptiness that he feels after his routines are thrown into confusion.

In spite of the quirkiness of his character, Micah's heart is really in the right place. We care about this guy and want him to be happy even when we sometimes want to shake him. Tyler is so good at this, at giving us someone we can root for. And we can be pretty sure that she will bring everything full circle, finally letting Micah learn something about what is important in relationships and maybe giving him a happily ever after. 

I have read most of Anne Tyler's books over the years and there have been a lot of them. This is her twenty-third. This is one of her best, in my opinion. The only criticism that I might make of it is that it is too short. I wanted my visit with Micah to last longer.

Oh, and that "redhead" by the side of the road? It's not at all what you might think.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   

Poetry Sunday: To be of use by Marge Piercy

I've been thinking a lot over the past week about the people that help. The people who, as Marge Piercy says in her poem, "do what has to be done, again and again." We see them all around us, even - or maybe even especially - in chaotic times like these. When things seem to be falling apart around us, they are the ones who step up and accept responsibility for trying to make things better.

I especially like the sentiment expressed in the last stanza:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
The thing worth doing is to be of use and when we can accomplish that, our work has a shape that satisfies, that is clean and evident. 

To be of use

by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Friday, April 10, 2020

This week in birds - #397

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


Image from allaboutbirds.com.
All week long there has been a Barred Owl calling from the trees outside our bedroom window around midnight every night. The calls can be raucous at times, but I find them restful. I suppose it reminds me of my childhood when I would fall asleep most nights to the sounds of Barred Owls calling from around the farm. This particular owl has a very distinctive timbre to his voice that makes him easily recognizable, so I'm sure it is the same one every night. He spends several minutes calling from the red oak tree and then he moves on to mark and claim other parts of "his" territory. 

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From the category of "it's an ill wind that blows no good" news comes word from scientists that, as much of the world is on lockdown and humans are staying indoors, Mother Nature is taking the opportunity for a bit of a renaissance. There are fewer pollutants in the air and the atmosphere over many cities is beginning to clear and blue sky can be seen once again. Wild animals are moving into niches that humans have abandoned, and, with less traffic on the roads, roadkill of animals has been substantially reduced. Wouldn't it be something if one result of the pandemic was that the emission of greenhouse gases was actually reduced this year?

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With people staying at home, it is also a great time for them to connect with Nature in their own backyards and become a backyard naturalist.

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Birds that are omnivorous and can easily adapt to new foods and new survival strategies are much less likely to go extinct.

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Preserving established habitats with mature trees can do more to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than planting new trees can.

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The great American suburban love affair with lawns has never been good for the environment, so it's a good thing that more homeowners are looking at rewilding their yards in ways that are more compatible with the ecosystem. 

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This is the South Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher. It is rare and has proved very elusive and difficult to photograph, but recently a vitreoretinal surgeon and amateur photographer in Mindanao got lucky. He took this photograph of an adult bird as well as a fledgling.

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There are four endangered species of fish in the Yampa River in Colorado that could greatly benefit from the closing of coal-fired power plants along the river over the next several years.

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A little thing like a pandemic will not be allowed to interfere with the construction of the wall along our southern border. Indeed, it is full steam ahead with the project and the environment be damned.

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A study of Brazilian birds revealed that the birds would quickly recolonize a reforested area after fragmentation.

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The Great Barrier Reef has suffered its most significant bleaching on record. This event was even worse than the 2016-17 bleaching.

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The federal government is considering removing threatened species protections for the lynx. However, studies indicate that the lynx has actually lost population in the Northwest in recent years.

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The warming climate will allow more species to invade Antarctica where, until now, the cold has protected the continent from such invasions. The first of the wave seems to be a Patagonian mussel.

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Another effect of the pandemic is that food supply chains have been disrupted with the result that a lot of food that would normally go to restaurants and grocery stores is going to waste.

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Clever black rhinos! It seems the beasts listen to the alarm calls of Red-billed Oxpeckers to alert them to the presence of humans.

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Finally, in an essay, Jane Goodall urges us to take the pandemic as a motivation to establish a new and more productive relationship with the natural world.