Showing posts from October, 2012

Enjoying Big Bend National Park by Gary Clark: A review

Gary Clark is a well-known naturalist and writer on Nature in my neck of the woods. He's also an educator who has taught "leisure-living" courses on birding at the local college, one of which I took several years ago. He is a very knowledgeable guide to all the birding hot spots in Texas, of which there are many since this is one of the birdiest states in the union.  In  Enjoying Big Bend National Park,  Clark has not focused on the birds of the park but has given a general guide to the interesting geology and history, as well as the wildlife and flora of that wild and beautiful area. Big Bend, named for its placement at a big bend in the river that separates Mexico from the United States, is one of the wildest and largest of America's national parks. It covers more than 800,000 acres, making it slightly larger than Yosemite National Park. Moreover, it encompasses a vast variety of ecological systems that include the Chihuahuan Desert, the rocky Chisos Mountains tha

Disturbance by Jan Burke: A review

Stories about sociopathic and apparently invincible serial killers who love to torture their victims are not my cup of tea. Thus, I am still trying to remember how this book came to be on my to-be-read shelf. I believe it was given to me by someone who knows I read a lot of mysteries with tough women as the protagonists and probably thought I would enjoy it. Wrong. I just found it irritating, frankly. Perhaps it would have made a difference if I had ever read any of the other Irene Kelly books. This was the eleventh in the series, apparently a successful series with a lot of fans. If I had read any of the other books, it's possible I would have had a greater appreciation of the characters. There was little character development or explication in this book. I guess the assumption was that the reader  would  have already read those earlier books.  So, the reader meets Irene Kelly here as an investigative reporter for a failing newspaper, the  Las Piernas News Express . She is marr

The Etch-A-Sketch candidate shakes it up again

Who was that sweating man in the presidential debate last night? It certainly wasn't Mitt Romney, at least not the Mitt Romney we've come to know over the last eighteen months or so. No, this was a much milder version, a candidate who thinks we "can't kill our way out of this." That'll be a big surprise to the neocons with whom he surrounds himself and who he trusts as foreign policy advisers and who would likely serve in a Romney administration. Secretary of State John Bolton, anybody? Last night Romney shook that Etch-A-Sketch for all it was worth. No longer is he panting to get into another war in the Middle East. Belligerence toward China is all but gone. It's right that we should get out of Afghanistan by 2014. And, of course, President Romney would have taken out Osama bin Laden! What president wouldn't?   He essentially reversed every foreign policy position he has taken in his entire campaign. He hopes that the stupid voters, especially the

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: A review

In  The Corrections , his National Book Award-winning novel from 2001, Jonathan Franzen gives us the Lamberts, an American Gothic family from the Midwest: Alfred, the emotionally constipated paterfamilias, who sacrificed himself for his family in many ways that we discover as the novel proceeds and who now faces a slow death from Parkinson's Disease; his wife, Enid, a woman who longs for a warmth from her husband and children that she has never received, a woman who lives on the expectation that things will get better; Gary, the oldest son, married and living in Philadelphia with his manipulative wife Caroline who is teaching their three young sons the art of the disdainful manipulation of their father; Chip, the middle child, who we first meet as a self-absorbed twit but who grows into something more fully human by the conclusion of the book; and Denise, the youngest child, a talented chef who betrays her employer in Philadelphia through her ambiguous sexuality and loses, if not

George McGovern, bleeding-heart liberal

George McGovern 1922 - 2012 George McGovern was always a hero of mine. He was a war hero, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who understood the costs of war, and always tried to stop his country from rushing headlong into ill-conceived testosterone-driven military adventures. He spoke out against what he considered the tragic mistake of the American war in Vietnam and he opposed the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a man who was firm in his convictions and never backed away from them, even when it might have been politically advantageous to do so. When he was derided by conservatives for his liberal ideals that endorsed a progressive federal government that would protect the weak and vulnerable and expand economic opportunity to everyone, he continued to stand strongly for those ideals. As a senator, he championed civil rights and anti-poverty bills. He helped to expand food stamp and nutrition programs. Even after he left government, he continued to

A moment in Nature: Autumn blooms, autumn butterflies


A little thunder

It's been a long and in many ways frustrating week. I'm so tired of politics. So tired of lying politicians. So tired of lazy journalists who refuse to do the research and take the time to expose the lies. So tired of billionaires trying to buy my country. So tired of dishonorable state officials trying to steal the election for their party by intimidating voters to discourage them from exercising their constitutional right. I NEED SOME JOY IN MY LIFE! Through the magic of YouTube, all the E-Streeters live again, and help the Boss to once again bring the joy of "Thunder Road." Even in Barcelona, they know the words and sing along. Of course, Springsteen concerts are always audience participation events. If you surveyed all Springsteen fans, this would probably be our number one favorite of his songs. I know it contains one of my favorite bits of lyric in all pop music: "So you're scared and you're thinking That maybe we ain't that young any

Does your vote count?

Less than three weeks now until election day and I get more and more frustrated and angry every time I think about it. Not about the campaigns or the candidates, although there is plenty there to be angry and frustrated about. No, what frustrates me is our antiquated system of electing presidents and the knowledge that, as passionately as I may care about this election, my vote won't make one iota of difference! You see, I live in Texas, a state that is completely dominated politically by anti-critical-thinking, evolution and climate change-denying, gun-worshiping, anti-women, immigrant-hating, gay-bashing, Bible-thumping tea party Republicans. And those people get to decide who gets Texas' electoral votes and it's only the electoral votes that matter in a presidential election. The individual votes of people like me who do not agree with the majority do not count at all. For all practical purposes, we might as well sit at home on election day. It is the same for citize

Literary prize season continues

The latest major award to be given in this season of literary prizes was the Man Booker which was announced yesterday. And, wonder of wonders, it was given to an author and for a book that I had actually read and loved. Hilary Mantel won for Bring Up the Bodies , the second in her three book series about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. I thought it was a wonderful book, even better than Wolf Hall , the first in the series which also won the Man Booker for 2009.  (My review is here. ) Mantel is, of course, an amazing writer of historical fiction. She brings the past to life and makes her characters fully informed human beings, not just cardboard cutouts. She has even managed to make Thomas Cromwell, who has been somewhat notorious for his Machiavellian manipulations in Henry's court, into a rather sympathetic character. We can begin to understand just what motivated him and perhaps what he had hoped to achieve as minister. Now that she has brought us to this poi

And the prize goes to...

Now tell me honestly, did you know the name Mo Yan before it was announced last week that he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature? I freely admit that I did not know of this, apparently quite famous, Chinese author. Perhaps that is really not so surprising since there are evidently wonderful writers from the North American continent whose acquaintance I have not yet made. In fact, I'm meeting new ones all the time . It's an exciting experience for this constant reader. I was interested to read about Mr. Mo and also about China's reaction to his selection. It seems that he is quite a popular literary light in his own country, in spite of the fact that much of his writing encompasses criticism of Chinese history and of contemporary Chinese culture. He is embraced by the Chinese Communist government and his winning of the Nobel Prize set off a national celebration. It was considered a major cultural accomplishment and affirmation and it was a boost to the national ps

"I'm not so sure about you."

Political cartoonists see the world with clear and cynical eyes and their cartoons often succinctly get at the truth of our modern society in a way that mere words cannot. All of that is very true, in my opinion, of this wonderful skewering of a certain segment of our "Modern World" by the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, found in today's Daily Kos . In the world of the purist, the only one who can be trusted is oneself and there are way too many purists in our society.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: A review

This slim book by Julian Barnes which won the Man Booker Prize last year was an absolutely mesmerizing read for me. I could have read it in a single sitting, had I not had other things to do. The story of Tony Webster, a man in his 60s looking back over his life and meditating on the mysteries of how memory works and how time changes memory, hit me where I live. Tony had passed through his early life in something of a sleepwalk. He never thought deeply about what he was doing or what was going on around him. He never understood, never bothered to  try  to understand the effect that his words and actions might have on others. He was simply oblivious to everything except his own senses. As a young man, he had a coterie of three friends and a girlfriend but, eventually, the girlfriend broke up with him and as he grew older, he drifted away from all of them, finally losing contact. He went to America for a while, then, returning to England, he met Margaret and they married, had a dau

Save that bird!

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. They strive to encourage an Americas-wide landscape where diverse interests collaborate to ensure that native bird species and their habitats are protected, and where their protection is valued by society. It is the only U.S.-based group with a major focus on bird habitat conservation throughout the entire continents of North and South America. The organization addresses the full spectrum of threats to birds to safeguard the rarest bird species, restore habitats, and reduce threats, thereby unifying and strengthening the bird conservation movement. Each week, ABC spotlights one American bird, usually one that is threatened or endangered, and designates it as the "Bird of the Week." It sends out email newsletters with a picture of and information about the bird and describes the "threat status" of the bird. Thus, we

Taking down the flimflam man

Paul Ryan is a liar. He lies glibly about even the most unimportant things, like the time he ran in a long-ago marathon. Moreover, his math doesn't add up.  One or two observers of the political scene have had the prescience to point this out repeatedly over the past few years. For their efforts, they have been derided and verbally abused by the Very Serious Pundits of the Washington Beltway. But those truth tellers have been right all along and, recently, a few of the much-maligned (and richly deserved, too!) mainstream media have begun to notice that Ryan is really, as Paul Krugman famously dubbed him, a "flimflam man" and to actually point out his prevarications and lack of substance.   Then, of course, there was that little debate last night where Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly called him out on his lies and essentially laughed him off the stage. I didn't actually watch the debate, but I did check in on the live-blogging of it throughout the hour-

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny: A review

I had never met Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, the most prestigious homicide unit in Canada, prior to  Bury Your Dead . This was the sixth in the Gamache series and there have now been two more added for a total of eight. I've added all the other seven to my "to be read" list. This was a wonderful read and Armand Gamache is a wonderful character, a humane and intelligent police officer who cares about his agents and the communities in which he works and cares about getting the job done right. He cares, in short, about justice.  We meet Gamache in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy that has hit his Surete force. Agents have been killed and wounded as a result of an investigation gone wrong. Gamache himself was grievously wounded, almost killed, but he blames himself for the deaths and injuries his officers suffered. He is on leave from his job in order to recover from his injuries, both physical and psychological. He has gone to old Quebec Cit

Hey, where'd they go?

Remember a couple of weeks ago, before the presidential debate, when all the political polls, even the very right-wing ones like Fox News and Rasmussen, showed President Obama leading in the race? This had been the case for several weeks and the right-wingers were going crazy! "The polls are biased!" they cried. "They are weighted in favor of Obama!" "The pollsters are asking the wrong questions!" "They are interviewing the wrong people - too many Democrats, too many people with cell phones!" Now, there's been almost a complete turnaround in the polls. Nearly all of them either show Romney leading or basically tied with President Obama. And what do we hear from all those whiners about bias in polling? Crickets. They are all too busy chortling about what a terrible debater President Obama is and how Super Mitt is headed for victory! You don't think the whiners could have possibly been insincere in their critique of pollsters, d

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: A review

I don't usually read Young Adult fiction for the very good reason that I am not a young adult, but my younger daughter who is, and who is also a librarian, gave me this book and recommended that I read it. She liked it and thought it was something I might enjoy. Well, she didn't steer me wrong about Harry Potter so I decided to give it a chance, and she was right again. I did enjoy it. The novel, as most of the reading world knows by now, is set in the dystopian landscape of what was once known as North America. The society that we are familiar with has been destroyed by a combination of man-made and natural disasters. Rising ocean levels have reduced the size of the continent to a shadow of its former limits. It is now the country of Panem which consists of a shining Capitol, set somewhere in what was once called the Rocky Mountains, and twelve Districts.   Each of the Districts has its specialty. District Twelve, located in what were formerly called the Appalachian Mount

Silent Sunday: The bird with the golden slippers


The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: A review

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour, Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open yë (So priketh hem nature in hir corages), Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende... How many of us spent part of our freshman year in college learning that prologue to  The Canterbury Tales  in Middle English and then struggling to recite it for our English literature professor? Surprisingly, although I can't always remember what I did last week, I can still remember much of that prologue that I learned all of thos

Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden: A review

(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature .) All over the country, gardeners are facing the realities of restricted water availability. Water-use restrictions are now commonplace, not only in dry climate areas like the Southwest, but in the Northeast, the South and the West and Mid-West. It really is a nation-wide phenomenon, one that is likely to get worse as global warming continues unabated. Even in areas that do not yet have water restrictions, low-water plants are an important ingredient in planning a sustainable garden. What's a poor gardener to do? Gardeners, after all, want their gardens to be beautiful and interesting and the common impression of a low-water garden is that it is a boring space with a limited plant selection. Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden have written a book that proves to us that this does not have to be the case.  Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens: 200 Drought-Tolerant Choices for All Climates  is a wonderfully practical and usable

It's all over

Yesterday was the last day of the regular season in baseball, the last game for my beloved Houston Astros. They won't be going to the post-season again this year. The fact is, they ended the season with the worst record in baseball - 55-107. This is the second year in a row they've earned that dubious distinction. The good news is that it makes them eligible to make the top draft pick again next year. For a team mostly stocked with 20 - 24-year-olds, that could be important. They are rebuilding from the ground up and the more talented young players they can latch on to, the better their chances of catching lightning in a bottle. You might think that a team with a 55-107 record had a deadly boring season. You would be wrong. April and May were good for the team. They played well and showed what they were capable of. Unfortunately, those two good months were followed by three mostly bad months which wiped out the gains they had made. But throughout it all, the kids - and th