Monday, May 10, 2021

Seventy-seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler: A review


Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series is a favorite with my husband who has read about half of them. (There are twenty books in the series so far.) Periodically, he recommends the reading of them to me and I say that I will get to them. As a matter of fact, I have read two of them; the first one, Full Dark House, I read in 2014 and the second one, The Water Room, I read in 2017. Now it's four years later and I decided it was probably time for number three. So on to Seventy-seven Clocks.

The chief detectives of the PCU are two elderly men, John May and Arthur Bryant. May is the dapper, organized one who follows clues where they lead. Bryant is the disheveled, instinctive, aging hippie type. Their skills complement each other and together they are a formidable team. The events of this book take place in 1973 and the idea of the narrative is that the events are being relayed to a reporter by Bryant at a later date.

The plot of the novel involves a large, unruly, and mostly despicable family, the Whitsables, and their history with the goldsmith and watchmaker guilds. The watchmaker guild was actually an offshoot of the goldsmith guild and it was a johnny-come-lately to the world of guilds having been formed in the 16th century. Most of the other guilds had been formed in the 14th century. The founder of the Whitsable clan had been deeply involved with the watchmakers. In the 19th century, he set up a group and a plan to protect his family's business interests by sabotaging or taking out anyone who competed with them. A hundred years later, his devious plan is still in place and still apparently working. But then something goes horribly wrong. 

It begins with an act of vandalism. A senior member of the Whitsable clan dressed in Edwardian garb goes to the National Gallery where he flings acid on a famous painting. Then various Whitsables and associates, including the art vandal, are killed, one by one, in a variety of imaginative ways. One dies from snake venom, except the snake doesn't exist in England. Another victim explodes. Two are killed by a Bengal tiger. One is poisoned by rat powder added to her face powder. And the deaths continue, with no apparent suspects. Bryant and May are flummoxed.

The plot starts out being complicated and it only becomes more tortuous and downright labyrinthine as the story progresses. I was okay with that at the beginning and was thoroughly enjoying the book until about three-quarters of the way through when the plot just became so outlandish and unbelievable that I sort of lost interest and by the end, I didn't really care anymore. I was just glad to see it end.

On the other hand, Bryant and May themselves with their eccentricities and quirky relationships are great fun to read about. Moreover, the secondary characters here were appealing, especially a young woman named Geraldine (Jerry) who is fascinated by the investigation and manages to help it along. Maybe the PCU should hire her.

Christopher Fowler is quite a talented writer and the book does have interesting characters and a lot of humor and some wonderful moments. Even though the last quarter of it dragged a bit, on the whole, it was a fun read. Maybe I won't wait another four years before I read the next one.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Poetry Sunday: What I Learned From My Mother by Julia Kasdorf

First of all, it must be admitted that not everyone has the blessing of an admirable mother. In fact, there are and have been some pretty awful mothers in the world and to the children of those mothers, all I can say is I'm sorry. 

I did have an admirable mother and I learned many things from her, mostly from her actions rather than her words. 

I think perhaps the most important thing I learned from her was empathy, caring for others. She spent her life caring for others. She had had a lot of tragedy in her life. The first one was losing her mother when she was only ten years old. She was a devoutly religious woman and I can still remember as a child hearing her pray that God would allow her to live until she could see me grown up. Of course, I did not then understand the source of the grief that led her to make such a prayer. 

Because she had suffered loss, she understood the loss suffered by others and she always made a special effort to be there for them, to offer what comfort she could. And that's what I remembered when I read this poem.

What I Learned From My Mother

by Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Reba Cromeans Aldridge, my mother, in the year that she became my mother. Now gone from this life since 2004. I miss her still.

Friday, May 7, 2021

This week in birds - #449

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

A Clapper Rail with one of her chicks. There were four altogether, but I could never get them all to cooperate and pose for a picture. They were photographed at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.


The previous administration in Washington had seriously weakened the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is the main legal protection for migratory birds in North America. Now the Biden administration has proposed its new rule that will revoke that change and restore the protections originally provided by the 102-year-old law. 


Last Friday was Arbor Day which has been marked by Americans for 149 years. The emphasis of the day is planting trees but it is just as important to protect and preserve the ones that we have.


The Biden administration has canceled all construction of the southern border wall that had been financed with funds from the Defense Department's budget. It is not clear yet if the cancelation will also include parts of the wall that were financed from the DHS budget.


Lawsuits are still pending against privately funded sections of the southern wall, particularly the part that runs through the National Butterfly Center. There is also a criminal case pending against Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon of the We Build the Wall nonprofit alleging that they swindled the contributors to that fund.


Raptors have found the high rises of New York City an amicable habitat in which to build nests and raise their families. One New York apartment dweller got to view the entire life cycle of a Red-tailed Hawk family up close and personal when a pair of the raptors nested on his fire escape. 


Florida legislators have struck a bipartisan deal for wildlife corridors that are intended to help protect the endangered Florida panthers. There are currently only about 230 of the big cats left in the wild and the greatest danger to them is road accidents. The wildlife corridors would help to alleviate that danger.


Did the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia on the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis commit ecocide causing it to be abandoned in the fourteenth century? The reason for the decline of the thriving city has long been a mystery of North American archaeology but recent excavations there give the lie to the idea that ecocide was the reason and point to other causes.


On Monday, the Biden administration said it has approved a major solar energy project in the California desert that will be capable of powering nearly 90,000 homes. The $550 million Crimson Solar Project will be sited on 2,000 acres of federal land west of Blythe, California, the Interior Department said in a statement.


The Brood X cicadas are beginning to emerge in the East and the website Cicada Mania has all the news you want to know about what is happening with their favorite insects, "the most amazing insects in the world."


Any bird lover would be thrilled at the chance to observe endangered California Condors up close, but for one woman in California, they have gotten a little too close. Fifteen of the big birds have decided that they really, really like her yard and deck and they spend a lot of time hanging out there. It seems that the woman's property is smack in the middle of the condors' traditional habitat. The problem is these are big birds and big birds make a big mess.


California’s governor has moved to ban new fracking permits by 2024 and halt all oil extraction by 2045. California, the most populous US state, produces the third largest amount of oil in the country. It would be the first state to end all extraction.


The Gulf Stream is moving. It is migrating closer to Canada and that has some serious implications for warming waters, affecting the wildlife that live in those waters, and for affecting weather patterns. 


A Broad-billed Hummingbird, thousands of miles out of its normal range, has made its way to Chicago where it found refuge in the LaBagh Woods forest preserve and is thrilling local birders who flock to see it. The species normally does not get much farther north than the Mexico/New Mexico/Arizona border.


Do streams and lakes have rights? Orange County, Florida maintains that they do and they are suing a developer and the state to stop a housing development from destroying a network of lakes, streams, and marshes.


Even if the rich nations of the world meet the goals they have set for greenhouse emissions it would mean that the planet would heat up by 2.4 degrees Centigrade by 2100 which is substantially above the goal set by the Paris climate agreement. Obviously, more is needed. 


A Bornean subspecies of the Rajah Scops Owl has been observed and documented for the first time since 1892. The bird was seen in the mountainous forests of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia. 


In El Tuparro National Natural Park in Colombia's Orinoco region, the unique wildlife of the area are being documented using forty-four camera traps. They have photographed jaguars, pumas, tapirs, peccaries, and deer reflecting the park's healthy ecosystems.


Climate change has killed off most of the world's sunflower sea stars. Now scientists are breeding sea stars in a lab with the hopes of being able to rehabilitate the warming oceans by reintroducing them.


Scientists have discovered that cocoa farms in Africa are able to provide great habitat for birds if nearby trees are left standing.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: A review


Libertie is the daughter of an African-American homeopathic practitioner in pre-Civil War New York.  Her father had died years before and her mother was left with the full responsibility for supporting herself and her daughter and raising the daughter alone. Her mother's fondest dream for Libertie is that she should go to medical school and that the two of them should practice the healing arts together.

Both mother and daughter are freeborn, but the mother is so light-skinned that she could pass as White and this works to her advantage later when she is able to treat both White and Black women at her clinic. Libertie, in contrast, has very dark skin like her father. 

The mother is active in helping the enslaved reach freedom. One of those she helps is a man known as Ben Daisy who arrives at her clinic in a coffin. Libertie becomes fascinated with Ben Daisy and his pet name for her is "Black Gal." But he is a very troubled man who is haunted by the loss of the woman he loved. Libertie's mother tries to heal him of both the mental and physical effects of the brutalizing that he suffered in enslavement, but the attempt is doomed to failure when, in a bit of magical realism, the ghost of the lost love entraps him. Nevertheless, Ben Daisy and his fate play an important role in the narrative.

That narrative takes us through the years of the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era. During this era, Libertie's mother does begin to treat White women as well as Black. By this time, Libertie is assisting her mother in her practice, but the White women do not wish to be touched by this black-skinned young woman. Libertie, not unjustifiably, resents these women and their biases. Her release comes when she goes to Cunningham College in Ohio to study medicine, as her mother had dreamed. But Libertie soon learns that she does not have a facility for this study. Instead, she develops a passion for music and the arts. She meets two young women who perform as "the Graces" and she has the opportunity to sing with them. She realizes that she never really wanted to practice medicine and that is not where her talent lies. She is failing at her studies, a fact which she keeps from her mother.

Meantime, back home, her mother has taken on an apprentice, a young Haitian man called Emmanuel. He is a recent medical school graduate and he, too, has a light complexion. (A theme of colorism runs throughout the novel.) When Libertie goes home for a visit and meets him, the mutual attraction is immediate. He soon asks her to marry him and accompany him back to Haiti and his home in Jacmel. He assures her that they will have a "companionate marriage" because "it is only logical that a man and wife should share friendship and charity and understanding." But once they are on the ship to Haiti, the marriage starts to look quite different from what he had described.

Greenidge's descriptions of place, whether Kings County, New York or Jacmel, Haiti, or the ship, are very evocative and paint a vivid picture for the reader. They help us to understand the strictures felt by Libertie in her roles as her mother's assistant, as a student, and finally as a wife. She is freeborn but the societal confinement of assigned gender roles makes it impossible for her to be truly free. She finds that Haiti, while it may indeed be governed by Black men, is not necessarily a haven for Black women, especially a woman who doesn't understand the language or the culture.   

The descriptive passages were the strongest part of Greenidge's narrative, in my opinion. The development of her characters was less successful. Although they lived in fraught and dramatic circumstances, they came across as somewhat bland and unformed. One didn't get the feeling that they truly "felt" those circumstances in which they lived. The only character who really seemed vivid to me was Ben Daisy. 

The narrative did, however, offer a view of the barriers faced by Black women, even in the post-Civil War world in which barriers had supposedly been removed. Any reading of the daily news will convince one that, to a discouraging extent, many of those barriers still exist.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Monday, May 3, 2021

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman: A review


Writers writing about writers writing is a popular theme with today's novelists. It feels like every second book I pick up to read has a writer as the protagonist. And here we go again with Jen Silverman's We Play Ourselves. Her book is about a struggling playwright named Cass, now thirty years old, who has labored in New York for years trying to get her plays staged. We meet her at what might be her breakthrough moment. She has been named co-winner of a prestigious literary prize and her play will be produced with a talented director in charge. The only fly in the ointment is her co-winner, Tara-Jean, a college student playwright barely out of her teens. Her play is to be produced also.

On the opening night of Cass's play, she can hardly contain her excitement and nervousness. She feels that the performance goes well and at the after-party, she anxiously waits for the publication of the reviews. The most important one, the Times review lands with a thud. The reviewer mercilessly pans her play. Cass is devastated; nevertheless, the performances of the play continue.

Then Tara-Jean's play opens. The reviews come out and it is a triumph! The Times raves and everyone else follows suit. Cass is there for the after-party and she does something so outrageous that it seems unlikely she will ever be able to live it down. Her humiliation is complete and it seems that New York is not big enough for both her and Tara-Jean.

Cass needs to get away and, fortuitously, she has a friend who has a house in Los Angeles. She asks if she can come and stay with him and his partner for a while. The couple welcomes her and she settles in.

Soon she meets the next-door neighbor who is a filmmaker. She is presently making a documentary featuring several young women. Cass becomes involved in that project and, for a while, it appears that this may be her salvation, her way back to respectability. But the filmmaker is fairly unscrupulous in her manipulations of the young women in her documentary and when this becomes apparent, Cass is disillusioned.

Then Tara-Jean turns up. But it seems that she hardly even remembers who Cass is and if she does remember, she doesn't care. She doesn't hold a grudge. The two spend some time together and Cass has a kind of epiphany that allows her to understand the source of her jealousy of Tara-Jean and to begin to put all of that behind her. It helps that she has recently also found a new outlet for her creativity (no spoilers here), one that does not find her competing with Tara-Jean.

This, I thought, was an extremely well-written book. The images of the characters are razor-sharp. They are real people with all their warts but still sympathetic. The plot is well thought out and moves along at a good pace. I was never bored with the narrative and always felt compelled to turn the page and see what happened next. The bottom line is it was a very entertaining book to read. The situations presented were sometimes absurd but the humanity of the characters and their actions always shone through. Silverman, who is herself a playwright, obviously knows the life of the theater and those who work in it very well and she is able to present the intense environment of that milieu to the readers of this, her first novel, in a very readable fashion. I think she, too, may have found another outlet for her creativity.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Poetry Sunday: It will be Summer - eventually by Emily Dickinson

According to the calendar, we are now well into spring in the northern hemisphere and headed toward summer, even though some parts of the northernmost hemisphere hardly seem to have advanced beyond winter yet. But Emily Dickinson assures us that summer is indeed coming. In my part of the world, it usually comes sooner than we would wish and lingers long after its welcome has worn thin. In Emily's world, it seems the most perfect of seasons.

It will be Summer - eventually

by Emily Dickinson

It will be Summer — eventually.
Ladies — with parasols —
Sauntering Gentlemen — with Canes
And little Girls — with Dolls —

Will tint the pallid landscape —
As ’twere a bright Bouquet —
Tho’ drifted deep, in Parian —
The Village lies — today —

The Lilacs — bending many a year —
Will sway with purple load —
The Bees — will not despise the tune —
Their Forefathers — have hummed —

The Wild Rose — redden in the Bog —
The Aster — on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion — set —
And Covenant Gentians — frill —

Till Summer folds her miracle —
As Women — do — their Gown —
Or Priests — adjust the Symbols —
When Sacrament — is done —

Friday, April 30, 2021

This week in birds - #448

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

The Eastern Kingbirds have arrived in the area, along with tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and, allegedly, Baltimore Orioles, although I confess I haven't yet encountered any orioles. Nevertheless, my oranges are out and waiting for them!


Scientists have counted more than 25,000 barrels in waters off the California coast that are believed to contain DDT-laced industrial waste. It is believed that this may help to explain the extraordinarily high rate of cancer in adult sea lions in the area. Some of the barrels may have been languishing there for at least 70 years. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.


On Wednesday, Senate Democrats employed an obscure law in order to resurrect Obama-era regulations on limiting emissions of methane. The regulations had been wiped out by the previous administration.


Native American lawmakers in Montana have called on President Biden to help craft a plan to reintroduce bison to the landscape in and around Glacier National Park and the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge. The request was presented in a letter addressed to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.


Advances in the use of weather surveillance radar are making it possible for scientists to better track and understand the nocturnal migrations of songbirds. This, in turn, is helping them to advocate for protections for the birds as they fly, particularly the effort to turn off lights in highrises at night that can be deadly for the migrants.


In the last fifty years, humans have become more aware of the role of whales in the environment and of the need to protect them. Considerable advances have been made during that time increasing public awareness and protections for them, but there is still much work that needs to be done.


Most of us are probably at least somewhat aware of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened and endangered animals, but did you know that they also have a green list? It exists and it is cause for hope in what sometimes seems like a losing battle.


Trees are our friends and allies and planting them seems like a good thing, but the Prairie Ecologist makes the point that the planting needs to be of the right kind of tree for the particular environment in which it is placed.


Among all the other problems they face, the endangered Swift Parrots of Australia have a sex ratio problem. They produce more male than female chicks which leaves many males without mates when they get to maturity. Swift Parrot mothers are able to know the sex of their chicks while still in the egg and it seems they are sexists that prefer and offer more protection to the male chicks, thus more of them survive.


Bobcats are thriving in many parts of the country and that includes New Jersey. The population there is still small, estimated at 106 animals, but it is growing.


The administration's infrastructure plan includes money to fund the chronically underfunded Superfund that is charged with cleaning up toxic sites.


One important element in any plan to combat global climate change is the need to protect healthy ecosystems in our public lands.


A rehabbing eagle that had been shot in the leg. She recovered and was able to be returned to the wild.

The Chaco Eagle, also known as the Crowned Eagle, is endemic from southern Brazil to central Argentina. It is endangered, with possibly only about 1,000 adult birds left in the wild and they face a wide variety of dangers including drowning, electrocution, shooting, poisoning, and habitat loss.


What is more powerful, a $27 million a mile wall or a $5 ladder? You may not be surprised to learn that it is the $5 ladder, combined with a little human ingenuity.


Here's an interesting story (at least to me) of how meteorites made a 22-million-year journey from the asteroid belt to southern Africa, landing in Botswana, and just how scientists were able to figure out where they came from and how long it took.


Drought is too small a word to describe what is happening in the western part of our country because of global climate change. "Megadrought" or "aridification" more accurately describe the process and there is some hope that using more accurate descriptive words may actually help to spur action to slow or reverse the process.


Mangroves help to protect the southern tip of Vietnam from the encroaching sea. People there are undertaking a conservation effort to protect and restore mangroves as a way of increasing protection for remaining coastal lands.


Conservation efforts have aided much of the wildlife that lives in Puget Sound but orcas are still struggling there primarily because the Chinook salmon which they eat are also struggling.


During the massive Australian wildfires last year, heroic and harrowing efforts were undertaken to save plants and wildlife. Among those was a scheme to protect a stand of ancient Wollemi pines.


The celebrated cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. are threatened by the encroaching rising seas and by land subsidence. A recently created Tidal Basin Ideas Lab has commissioned five landscape architecture firms to come up with plans to protect the area.


What would you consider to be the most photogenic bird in the world? It might not be the Tawny Frogmouth but according to researchers in Germany who surveyed social media, this perpetually angry-looking bird is it! One does have to admit that it has a striking and unforgettable appearance.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood: A review


The Life of the Mind might have been more accurately called The Life of the Uterus because that is the locus of the action in this book. It is particularly focused on the events in the uterus of the protagonist who has suffered a miscarriage and been treated with the drug that induces medical abortions in order to clear the uterus of the debris from the miscarriage. She was told to expect bleeding for about ten days, but weeks later, she is still experiencing the after-effects. Then later her best friend decides to have an abortion. So, yes, uteruses rule in this tale.

But perhaps I am being unfair because the protagonist whose name is Dorothy also thinks a lot so her mind is engaged. She thinks a lot about the miscarriage although she doesn't particularly grieve about it. Mostly she thinks about it because she hasn't told anyone except her partner. She has withheld the information from her best friend, the one who later decides to have an abortion. And she has withheld the information from her therapists, both her first therapist and the second one that she sees to complain about the first one. Second-guessing her actions seems to be second nature with Dorothy. She can't seem to make a decision without reviewing, rethinking, and replaying it in her mind.

Dorothy is an adjunct professor at a private university where she teaches two to four courses per semester including one course called Writing Apocalypse. Her students are encouraged to write about an apocalypse to come. The context for the course seems to be global anxiety perhaps in regard to the environmental crisis or a political crisis or maybe both. It isn't altogether clear. But Dorothy herself seems less concerned with any of that than she is with what she terms "disappointed cynicism, hatred of groups and existential damage that manifests as useless contrarianism and resignation." Her mind focuses on this and her thoughts swirl endlessly and claustrophobically around this center.

As for the novel's plot, there really isn't much of one. The writing is incisive and it moves along at a fair clip, but nothing much happens and there doesn't seem to be any defining moment of truth or crux to it all. Indeed, at one detour point in the narrative, Dorothy goes to an academic conference in Las Vegas. Why? There doesn't seem to be any particular reason for it and it doesn't reveal anything new to the reader. It's just a distraction.

Moreover, a considerable portion of the narrative is spent describing scatological matters and Dorothy's hygiene, or lack of same. The first sentence of the book finds her sitting in a public toilet and musing over the fact that she is still bleeding from her miscarriage after six days. And that sort of sets the tone for what is to follow. Again, why this emphasis? Perhaps the writer did it for its shock value, but it's all a bit disgusting and I couldn't really see that it served any great purpose.  

Disaffected and dissatisfied seem to best describe Dorothy. She leads a rather bleak life but it was hard for me to work up much empathy for her, in spite of the fact that we share a name. Smallwood's writing is fairly stream-of-consciousness in style and the story is undeniably creative, unique even. But I do like books to have a point to them and this one just didn't seem to. Then, again, maybe pointlessness was the point.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Monday, April 26, 2021

Girl A by Abigail Dean: A review


I generally try to avoid books about the suffering of children and animals, especially when that suffering is caused by deliberate torture, so what am I doing reading - and enjoying - this book which is about the confinement, starvation, and torture of seven children over a period of years in a "house of horrors" by their parents? Perhaps there really are exceptions to everything.

This book grabbed me right from the first chapter and it was propulsive reading from there right through the end. It is a psychological family drama with a bit of thriller thrown in as the reader wonders how and if these children will ever escape their captivity. Well, in fact, we know they did because the book begins with the mother's death in prison and learning that she had designated her oldest daughter Alexandra ("Lex") as the executrix of her will. Lex is now a successful New York-based lawyer and she returns to England to fulfill her executrix duties.

We learn that Lex is Girl A. The children were designated by letters of the alphabet to protect their identities during the trial. Lex, who was a teenager at the time, is the one who was able to escape from the house and summon the police. Subsequently, all the surviving children were adopted, each by separate adoptive parents. Lex was adopted by one of the policemen who investigated the case. He and his wife provided a safe and loving home which gave her a start toward a successful life.

When the police swarmed the family's home after Lex's escape, (Spoiler alert) the father, who was quite mad and the main perpetrator of the abuse that the children endured, killed himself by taking poison. The plan had been for his wife to follow suit, but she didn't do it. Thus, she was the one to survive and stand trial and be sentenced for the horrors.

The children who survived learned to cope with their past in various ways. Lex and her older brother were the most successful in putting it all behind them and getting on with their lives. The youngest was still a baby at the time and never remembered any of that earlier life. It was the middle children who had the most difficulty. Now, with the death of their mother, they are all drawn back in to greater or lesser degrees because they have been jointly left the "house of horrors" where they all lived together plus twenty thousand pounds in cash. Lex must oversee the disbursement.

The author provides a multi-layered view of this whole tragic family drama. It is quite well written, especially for a debut novel. It contains an absorbing study of the characters involved and the bounds of human endurance, resilience, and the instinct for survival. Although the story is dark, bleak, and often heartbreaking, it was relieved from the first by the knowledge that Lex and others had survived and had made successes of their lives. I think that is what sustained me while reading this narrative and actually allowed me to enjoy it. Overall, it is a memorable start for this writer.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Democracy by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was arguably the best and most famous African-American poet of the twentieth century. His poems spoke for people who, even one hundred years after the end of slavery, were not fully free, were not fully able to participate in what we like to think of as our democracy. His poems speak for any who are denied full participation in the political and social life of the country. They still speak for people who cannot wait for things to "take their course" because what good is freedom when they are dead?


by Langston Hughes

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
  Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
 To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

     Is a strong seed
     In a great need.

     I live here, too.
     I want freedom
     Just as you.

Friday, April 23, 2021

This week in birds - #447

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

The Barn Swallows are nesting.


President Biden has pledged to slash the country's greenhouse gas emissions by one-half by the end of the decade. The action is part of an aggressive push to combat climate change and to persuade other countries around the world to take similar steps. 


Hope is the thing with feathers as Emily Dickinson once told us. It is also an essential element in saving the things with feathers, as well as the rest of Nature. Hope and conservation go hand in hand.


The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf happened eleven years ago and its effects are still being felt. We have learned a lot about the ecology of the Gulf and about the risks of deep water drilling in the past eleven years, but are we now any safer from another such disaster?


And what about the animals that were rescued from that disaster eleven years ago? Many of the birds were taken to Georgia to avoid the ongoing spill and to be rehabilitated and now one of those birds, a Brown Pelican, has returned home. Over a decade after its traumatic ordeal, the bird made the 700-mile flight back to Louisiana where it was photographed in March.


Achieving the goal for greenhouse gas emissions that has been set by President Biden will require eliminating the use of energy produced by burning coal. 


An important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be the actions taken by individuals. Although our individual actions may seem insignificant, they do add up and they do have an effect. One important action individuals can take is to give up their manicured lawns and opt to grow native plants instead.


Another goal to help combat global warming is the 30x30 plan. The idea here is to protect 30% of Earth's land and water by 2030. This would include not only public lands but private as well.


In Monmouth County, New Jersey, authorities took the occasion of Earth Day this week to open a fish ladder that is meant to facilitate the migration of herring species that live in salt water but do their spawning in fresh water. The ladder will aid them in getting from the sea to the fresh water of Wreck Pond where they spawn.


The narwhal's tusks are a bit like tree rings in that they provide a record of the animal's diet. Recent analyses of the tusks are showing an accumulation of mercury - not a good thing - and a change in diet as sea ice retreats.


What passes for "normal temperature range" is changing as the global climate warms and NOAA is making adjustments to reflect these changes. The last time the agency had updated its Normals was in 2011. 


Masked Crimson Tanager in Ecuador.

Male birds are generally brilliantly colored and the brilliance of their feathers is supposed to reflect their health and their worthiness as a mate,  but male tanagers have a trick that allows them to appear to be more attractively colored than they truly are. 


The tyrannosaurus rex has long been thought of as a solitary hunter but recent discoveries at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument reveal a different story. It seems likely that the giant dinosaurs hunted in packs. Imagine a pack of tyrannosaurs!


The Florida reef gecko is the most endangered reptile species in the United States. Its continued existence is threatened by rises in the sea level.


You can chalk this one up to karma: A suspected poacher in South Africa was trampled to death by a herd of elephants last week.


New projections show that Lake Mead on the Colorado River could sink to a new record low later this year as a result of the continuing megadrought in the region.


Earth has amazing tools to protect itself. As we attempt to reverse the effects of climate change, our greatest ally in the effort is the planet itself.


This just boggles my mind and hurts my heart: In Idaho, a Republican-dominated state Senate committee on Tuesday approved legislation allowing the state to hire private contractors to kill about 90% of the wolves roaming the state. It is hard to imagine any action that could be any more wrongheaded.


In spite of border walls and other depredations along our southern border, recent sightings of jaguars on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border are raising the hopes of conservationists for the recovery of the species.


Margaret Renkl reminds us that we are creatures of Nature, born to be wild, and it is never too late to become a naturalist.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Mona by Pola Oloixarac: A review


How do I even begin to review this book? How can I sum it up? It is an Argentinian writer writing about a Peruvian writer who lives in California and is nominated for a prestigious Scandinavian literary award so she travels to a small gray village in Sweden near the Arctic Circle where she hobnobs with other writers from around the world all of whom seem to engage in the insufferable and self-important behavior that one might expect from a group of pretentious posers. It is (I think) meant to be a satire on literary festivals and prizes and in that regard, it is quite successful. It is somewhat less successful in making the namesake narrator known to us but that may be because that narrator doesn't really know herself.

Here's what we know about Mona: She is a prolific user of drink and drugs to the point where she loses herself and loses memory. On the day she is to fly out for the Scandinavian literary festival, she wakes up with extensive bruises on her body and no memory of how they came to be there. She is apparently involved with two different men one of whom may - or may not - be responsible for the bruising. Throughout the days that follow she will be receiving texts from these men, some of them threatening, and she ignores them all. During the festival, she takes care to hide her bruises but she is haunted by the fact that she cannot remember how she got them. Her affect is cynical and sardonic. She presents a tough gal exterior to the world but underneath all that she is a mess and she keeps getting flashes of a violence which she cannot explain.

The depiction of the international set of writers at the festival is often quite amusing. The writer employs stereotypes of many of the nationalities represented such as the Japanese, French, Colombian, Swedish, Icelandic, etc., for comic effect. Mona herself cannot quite believe that she belongs in such company and that she has been nominated for the prestigious prize. She has no expectation that she will actually win and she continues to be tormented by demons that she can't really understand.

Oloixarac gives us a unique view of the literary world and a memorable character study of a disaffected writer. There was much that I really enjoyed about the book but in the end, I felt that the narrative didn't quite come together. The descriptive style became a bit vexatious, including the extensive use of stereotypes, and I found the ending less than satisfactory. I had not read Oloixarac before. This is her third book and her first one, Savage Theories, in particular, was highly praised. She is a talented writer and I would be interested in reading more of her work. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia: A review


Gabriela Garcia's debut novel gives an account of five generations of women from four different countries: Cuba, the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador. Each generation of women has in common their victimization by brutal men and, in some cases, by brutal governments.

The first woman in the line is María Isabel from Camaguey, Cuba. It is the nineteenth century and María Isabel works in a factory that rolls cigars. She is the only woman working there. Each day, while the workers roll the cigars, a reader reads for them from a book. María Isabel falls in love with the reading and with the reader.  The reader gives her copies of two books, Cecilia Valdés and Les Misérables. (These books will make a reappearance in the story generations later.) The couple marries and their daughter is born on the same day that her father is brutally executed by the state for alleged crimes against the government. The daughter is named Cecilia.

Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century in Cuba, a time of revolution. Cecilia's daughter, Dolores, has two daughters of her own, Carmen and Elena. Carmen emigrates from Cuba to Miami. Elena stays put. There is a rift in the family wider than the 90 something miles between Cuba and Florida. That rift might have been attributed to politics but in fact was much more complicated than that.

In Miami, Carmen raises her daughter, Jeanette,  and in Cuba, Elena has a daughter named Maydelis. The two never meet or have contact until Jeanette reaches out as an adult.

It is Jeanette who is actually at the center of this generational story. It is her story that reveals the rest of the family story. When we first meet her, she is in recovery from an addiction to painkillers and she is emerging from an abusive romantic relationship. One day, she watches as ICE officers arrive in her neighborhood and take her neighbor, an El Salvadoran refugee whom she barely knows, into custody. Later she sees the woman's young daughter dropped off after her day at school. She doesn't know if there is anyone to care for the girl and she decides to go next door to check on her. When she finds the child alone, she persuades her to accompany her to her apartment until her mother comes home. She cares for her for a few days but is incapable of following through with her caring. She contacts the police who come and pick up the girl, who is named Ana, and send her to Texas where her mother, Gloria, is being held in an immigration facility prior to being deported. 

Gloria is bullied by an immigration official into signing away her rights to a hearing regarding her refugee status and she and her daughter are deported to Mexico and told they must find their own way back to El Salvador. There is nothing but brutality waiting for them in El Salvador and Gloria makes the decision to try to make a life for them in Mexico. (As with the books, Ana, too, will make a reappearance in the novel as a teenager back in Miami, looking for the woman who she thinks of as her benefactor.)

Meanwhile, Jeanette has made a decision of her own. She wants to go to Cuba to meet her grandmother, her aunt, and her cousin. She wants to find her roots. Her mother is vehemently opposed, but Jeanette is determined and does manage to make her way there and meets her relatives. She also finds the copies of Cecilia Valdés and Les Misérables on her grandmother's bookshelves and realizes that the old and rare books are probably quite valuable. How will she use that knowledge?

The stories of each of these women are distinct enough that this could be a collection of discrete but linked stories.  But they are held together by blood and by the common theme running through their stories. They have each been unlucky in love and have had to struggle to make their way in the world. They have been weighed down by tragedy, in Jeanette's case the tragedy of her addictions and abuse. Each of the women's stories in the María Isabel line is layered and nuanced; we learn of their strengths and of their failures. The story of Gloria and Ana is less well-developed and the reader could have wished for more from it. There would seem to have been a wealth of possibility there for more refinement of that aspect of the tale. As it is, all we really learn of them is the trauma of their history. 

Overall, with minor quibbles, I thought Garcia did a good job of presenting these women's lives to us. Her first novel was a very promising effort.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Poetry Sunday: Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

I'm currently reading a biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. I'll be reading it for quite some time yet for it's about a thousand pages long and I'm only up to her twentieth year when she was a student at Smith College. It is rich with the most minute details of Plath's life. She was a prolific journal keeper. She was extraordinarily explicit about her experiences. She maintained correspondences with several people who kept her letters and all of this material was available to Clark in writing her book.

I've never read very much of Plath's poetry. I did read her one novel, The Bell Jar, which I found fascinating. But of course, it was the poetry for which she was primarily famous. Clark makes reference to several of her poems in the text of her book. One that she particularly references is this one, "Lady Lazarus."

Throughout her early life, in her journals and correspondence Plath made frequent reference to suicide. It was obviously a thought that returned to her time and again and, tragically, she did eventually commit suicide in 1963 at age 30. "Lady Lazarus" is generally accepted to be an expression of her suicidal thoughts and impulses. She writes of attempts at suicide and says:

Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

Sad. If only she could have seen that living is an art, too, a more complicated and difficult one than dying. 

Lady Lazarus

by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.   
One year in every ten   
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin   
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,   
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine   
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin   
O my enemy.   
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?   
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be   
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.   
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.   
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.   
The peanut-crunching crowd   
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.   
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands   
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.   
The first time it happened I was ten.   
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.   
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.   
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.   
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute   
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.   
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge   
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge   
For a word or a touch   
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.   
So, so, Herr Doktor.   
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,   
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.   
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,   
A wedding ring,   
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer   

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.