Showing posts from 2013



The Unexpected Houseplant by Tovah Martin: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars I remembered Tovah Martin from some of the gardening shows I used to watch on TV, back when there were actual gardening shows on TV, so I was interested to read her book on houseplants. She is also the author of a number of other gardening books, none of which, I admit, I had ever read. The uninitiated tend to equate indoor plants with that dusty, forgotten philodendron standing in some dark corner of the house, but according to Martin, the choices for indoor plants are much more extensive than philodendrons, African violets, and orchids. She is an evangelist for adding plants of many different varieties to the indoor garden. She writes of using spring bulbs, lush perennials, succulents, even flowering vines and trees indoors. The key to the survival of  all these plants is, of course, light, water, feeding, grooming, and pruning, especially light and water, and Martin gives practical advice on how to provide what these indoor plants need. She gives tips on t

Poetry Sunday: In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

In only two more days we will be seeing in the year 2014. Where did 2013 go? I would never have believed it when I was a child, but I have learned as I get older that time does speed up. The years whiz by before we have time to fully experience them. And what can we do about that? Nothing. Nothing but prepare to ring in the new year and hope for better things from it than we got from the old year. The poet Alfred Tennyson knew about that wish. One of the most well-loved of the Victorian poets, he wrote this poem about seeing out the old year and seeing in the new and about the hopes that the new year will bring good things to humankind. In Memoriam , [Ring out, wild bells]   by  Lord Alfred Tennyson Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,    The flying cloud, the frosty light:    The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die. Ring out the old, ring in the new,    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:    The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false

What's my dialect?

Here's a fun activity for your Saturday. The New York Times has a language quiz that will pinpoint from where in the United States the dialect that your speak is most likely to originate. In other words, it tells you where you are from. I was very skeptical of this. I don't think I have an accent. My speech is fairly bland and without, I thought, any particular markers that would identify my place of origin. Boy, was I wrong! I took the test and answered the questions honestly and at the end, the map glowed red all over...Mississippi. Bingo! That is where I grew up, although I haven't lived there for almost forty years. Will the test be able to identify where you originated? Give it a try and find out. Click here to take the dialect quiz .

The Layered Garden by David L. Culp: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars A long-time writer and lecturer about gardening, David Culp, along with his partner, Michael Alderfer, has spent some twenty years creating their two-acre garden at Brandywine College in Downington, Pennsylvania. In this book, Culp shares the lessons he has learned from that experience. The Brandywine garden is a layered garden, which simply means that it is a garden with plantings that are planned in order to provide a succession of eye-catching combinations (layers) of interest and beauty from earliest spring right into winter. It is a true four-season garden. The way that Culp and his partner achieved a four-season garden in Pennsylvania is not necessarily the way that I would achieve it in Southeast Texas. The plants will be different with very little overlap because our climates and our soils are different, but the principles embraced by Culp and recommended by him have application regardless of the area in which one gardens. The design technique

The Bat by Jo Nesbø: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars This was actually the novel that introduced Harry Hole to the reading world. Unfortunately for those of us who read English, it was not translated for us until 2013. This was after I had read four of Jo Nesbø's later books in this series that, for some reason, had been translated earlier. So I had to read The Bat out of sequence - not my favorite way of experiencing a series. It was interesting though, having read the later books, to go back and see the beginning, to meet the younger Harry and to learn more about his troubled background and particularly how alcohol came to rule his life at times. This is a very different Harry Hole novel from the others I've read because we find our Norwegian detective in the exotic (for him) setting of Australia, where he has been sent to be the liaison for the investigation of the brutal rape and murder of a Norwegian national in Sydney. There, he finds himself partnered with an Aboriginal detective in the Syd

Holiday greetings

As we near the end of 2013, I want to thank all my readers for visiting my blog this year. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences with you and I look forward to doing more of that in 2014. For the next few days, I will be busy getting ready for the  holidays and then enjoying them with my family  and loved ones. I hope that your holidays find you surrounded by people that you love and who love you and that the coming year is a happy and healthy one for you. Have a joyous and peaceful holiday season.  

Poetry Sunday: Christmas Bells

The Christmas season once again. Let us acknowledge it with an old favorite from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the mid-nineteenth century American poet. This poem simply reminds me that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Christmas Bells   by  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,     And wild and sweet     The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men! And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom     Had rolled along     The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men! Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day,     A voice, a chime,     A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men! Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South,     And with the sound     The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men! It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent,     And ma

Caturday: Climbing up the Christmas tree

We put up our holiday decorations a week ago and since then I've been in a constant struggle with my cats, Beau and Bella, to keep those decorations in their place. Everything is a cat's toy, according to the feline way of thinking, and that includes the Christmas tree.

My favorite books of 2013

December is the time of year when everyone is making his/her list and checking it twice for the best or worst things about the year. Time announces its person of the year and we see lists of the best and worst movies or TV shows or video games. The New York Times lists its notable books of the year. As a constant reader, I have my own list of "notable" books, the best books I have read this year. It was a difficult list to narrow down because I have read some very good books in 2013. I tried to select my favorite book in each month and found that in some months I just couldn't do it. Here, then, is my own highly personal list of my favorite books that I have read this year with links to my review of each book. January: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver Kingsolver's novel of the effects of global warming on the life cycle and migration of the beautiful Monarch butterfly was one of the first books that I read this year and it is still one of the most af

Beyond Reach by Graham Hurley: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars The more I spend time in the company of Detective Inspector Joe Faraday and former Detective Constable Paul Winter the more I enjoy that company. I find myself feeling rather sad to be leaving them when the book has ended. That often happens with series that I enjoy and I do read a lot of series. Beyond Reach was number 10 in the Faraday/Winter series. Fortunately for me, there are still a couple more left. The thing that makes this particular series so enjoyable for me are the disparate personalities of the two main characters. Faraday is the buttoned-up committed lifer in the Job (always written with a capital J), i.e, the police. As the series has progressed, we see his frustration growing with the Job and with the direction that his society seems to be taking. Moreover, he longs for a committed relationship with a woman he can love, but it often seems that that is never going to happen. His solace from all his frustrations is Nature, and especially the b

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Let those seedheads be!

I have this "weed" in my garden. Actually, I have many weeds in my garden. The weeds may even outnumber the plants that I've planted on purpose, but this particular weed turns out to be special. In the first place, it came to me from the nursery. I had bought a white mistflower from one of my favorite nurseries. I brought it home and planted it. I noticed there was a separate little plant in the pot, but it was mixed in with the mistflower and I actually thought at first that it was part of the plant I had bought. As the mistflower grew, it became obvious that this was a separate and different plant. I dug it out from the mistflower planting and normally would have put it on the compost pile, but curiosity got the better of me. I planted it in a bed nearby and it flourished. All of this happened last year and in the late summer, the mystery plant bloomed. The plant was still fairly small and the flowers were few but I set about trying to identify it. I decided pretty

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars Within a few days, the fearless reporter Tatiana Petrovna falls to her death from her sixth-floor apartment in Moscow and a mob billionaire name Grisha Grigorenko receives a bullet to the head and is buried with all the trappings of a lord. Meanwhile, Tatiana's body is "lost" by the morgue, then found and secretly cremated. Investigator Arkady Renko is suspicious of connections between the two deaths. No one else cares to see any connections. As usual, the cynical and analytical Renko is on his own as he pursues his investigation of Tatiana's death, even though the prosecutor's office has decided that there is no case. Tatiana supposedly committed suicide. But there is a witness who heard her screaming as she fell. Does a woman who commits suicide by jumping from a great height scream on the way down? Renko goes to Tatiana's apartment and finds tapes in Tatiana's voice that describe horrific crimes. Her account of these cr

Poetry Sunday: The Shortest Day

Admittedly, it has seemed like winter for some time now, as much of the continent has been blanketed in snow and ice. And even here where I live, though we haven't had either ice or snow, we've had gray, cold, drizzly days with icy winds from the north that made us huddle in our sweaters and turn up the thermostats. The calendar assures us that winter has not, in fact, truly arrived yet, but just a few more days and Earth will have completed its transit around the sun. The year will be complete and the shortest day will signal that the new astronomical year is about to begin. From the earliest days of human history, this has been a time of festivals - festivals meant to hold the fearful dark at bay and welcome the light of a new day and a new year. We continue this tradition with our year-end holidays and celebrations. They connect us to our forbears, singing and dancing around the fires to drive the dark away. The Shortest Day  by Susan Cooper So the shortest day c

Caturday: Enjoy!

Putting funny captions on pictures of cats and posting those pictures on internet sites is a hobby with a certain type of person, and the rest of us owe them thanks because their hobby brings smiles and sometimes chuckles. For your Caturday enjoyment, here is a baker's dozen of such pictures that I have come across this week.

That Christmas spirit

This time of year in the northern hemisphere is especially difficult for the poor, the homeless, the sick. Many religious traditions take note of this by making special appeals at this time to their adherents to provide assistance to those in need. It is a time when people of conscience must be particularly aware of those who are less fortunate than they and wish to reach out to them and help them. Having been raised in the Christian tradition, I always associate this desire to help with Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats as related in the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. The relevant section of the parable from the New International Version of the Bible begins with Matthew 25:34. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.   35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame has written a remarkable novel featuring a remarkable woman of the 19th century. Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to the richest man in Philadelphia, grew up to become, in fact, a female counterpart to Charles Darwin in the century of Darwin, a time when the idea of a female scientist would have been laughed at. Before we meet Alma, though, we meet her father, Henry Whittaker, a low-born Englishman who was banished because he stole plants from Kew Gardens, where his father worked as a plantsman. Instead of having him hanged, as could have happened, his father's employer sent him on an ocean voyage to assist his plant collectors. Henry already knew much about plants from his father, and now he learned even more as he traveled to exotic locations around the world. He grew into a man with an unquenchable thirst to succeed and accumulate wealth. He did both. After his ties with Britain and Kew Gardens were severed,

Backyard Nature Wednesday: The Chrysalis

For the last few weeks, my garden has been home to several Monarch butterfly caterpillars . This is cause for celebration because Monarch butterflies have been so scarce in the garden this year, but, finally, as the migrants have made their way south, several of them have stopped over in my yard to deposit their eggs on my milkweed plants. The eggs that successfully hatched have resulted in hungry caterpillars which have now stripped most of the leaves from those plants. I've been on the lookout for the next stage in butterfly development, but I had not seen any evidence of it until yesterday. I found this lovely green Monarch chrysalis hanging from the back of one of my patio chairs. Now, butterfly development proceeds in a fairly mundane fashion up until the chrysalis point. The female lays the egg on the host plant - the milkweed in the case of the Monarch. A tiny caterpillar hatches after a few days and begins to devour the plant. All caterpillars are born hungry and, a

The war on Christmas

It's that time of year when Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, and all of their cohorts in Right-Wingnutville get their knickers in a twist over what they call "the war on Christmas." For the rest of us, surrounded as we are by symbols of Christmas everywhere we go and perfect strangers wishing us a merry Christmas, this "war" looks a lot like peace, but you'll never convince those who peddle the war stories. It turns out, though, that the war stories they constantly peddle on Fox News and in books like Palin's book, Good Tidings and Great Joy , are mostly pure bunk. We had an example of that bunk in Texas just this week when State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) held a press conference to crow about the bill he had introduced that had just become law. His law ensures that everyone in Texas has the right to say "Merry Christmas." Yes, the Texas legislature this year, with all the serious and real problems that this state has, took time to pass a

Legacy of the Dead by Charles Todd: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Legacy of the Dead is the fourth in Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series. This is an intelligently written, literate series about a veteran of the trench warfare in France during World War I who, after the war, is trying to pick up the pieces of his life and his career at Scotland Yard. But he carries the burden of a dark secret - namely, that he still suffers from the effects of shell-shock, as it was then known, post-traumatic stress disorder as we call it today. He carries with him the persona of a young Scots soldier named Hamish McLeod, whom he had to have executed on the battlefield for his refusal to obey an order. Hamish's cynical, taunting voice is a constant presence in his mind. One of the strengths of these books is that they deal with the issue of PTSD in a very sensitive fashion. Ian Rutledge's superior at Scotland Yard is a very jealous man and he prefers to keep the skilled investigator Rutledge as far away as he can, so h

Poetry Sunday: Snowbound (The sun that brief December day)

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was an American Quaker poet who was strongly influenced by Scottish poet Robert Burns. He wrote poetry that was very evocative of time and place. This week, as much of the country is wrapped in snow and ice, this seems an appropriate poem, with which to commemorate this season of cold. Snow-Bound  [The sun that brief December day]   by  John Greenleaf Whittier The sun that brief December day Rose cheerless over hills of gray, And, darkly circled, gave at noon A sadder light than waning moon. Slow tracing down the thickening sky Its mute and ominous prophecy, A portent seeming less than threat, It sank from sight before it set. A chill no coat, however stout, Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,     A hard, dull bitterness of cold, That checked, mid-vein, the circling race Of life-blood in the sharpened face,     The coming of the snow-storm told. The wind blew east: we heard the roar Of Ocean on his wintry shore, And felt the strong pul

Caturday: You shall not pass!

Hat tip to The Huffington Post for this compilation of canine cowardice. I'm not a big Huffington fan, but I have to admit this is kinda funny.

The Captain of his Soul

Photo by Darryl Hammond, Getty.  “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.” (Nelson Mandela, 1994) NELSON MANDELA 1918 - 2013 I have featured this poem on the blog before in connection with writing about Nelson Mandela, a man almost universally admired. It was a poem that was apparently very meaningful to him and which brought him comfort in his long years of imprisonment on Robben Island. It seems appropriate to feature it again today.  If any man could ever be called the Captain of his Soul, it was surely Nelson Mandela. We are privileged to have walked the Earth at the same time as this great man. 

Anti-green ALEC

Do you know who writes the bills that become law in your state? The chances are quite good that it is a right-wing lobbying group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. If you live in a state that is dominated by right-wing politics, as I do, then the odds of ALEC's involvement in the laws of your state go up exponentially. ALEC is an organization, like most of its kind, that prefers to operate in the dark. They do their work in back rooms, meeting with state legislators and their staff members, and ghost-writing some of the most draconian of the anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-voter, anti-immigrant, and, at least in the past, anti-gay legislation that state legislatures have passed. Note that their campaigns are almost always "anti" something. I'm not aware of any positive legislation they have sponsored.   One of their most notorious legislative campaigns which has seen success in many states around the country is the one in which they teamed

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Gray squirrels - the new squirrel in town

A half-grown gray squirrel kit photographed in my backyard over the past weekend . The gray squirrel ( Sciurus carolinensis ) is native to the eastern and midwestern United States and to the southern portions of the eastern provinces of eastern Canada. But they have never been resident in my yard in the twenty-five years that we have lived here, and so it was a surprise when three of them turned up in my backyard over the weekend. The first to show up was an adult female who was feeding under my bird feeders in the yard. I went inside to get my camera to document her presence, but while I was gone, she disappeared. However, in just a little while, two very young gray squirrels came to the same area to feed. The adult's babies? Maybe. The two little squirrels were picking up seeds and also munching on some pieces of stale rolls that I had scattered on the ground.  Now, our yard is and ever has been well-populated by fox squirrels ( Sciurus niger) , the big rusty

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a Swedish husband and wife writing team, who, between 1965 and 1975, published a series of ten books featuring the detective Martin Beck. In many ways, this was an iconic series, forerunner and progenitor of some of the most popular Scandinavian mystery/thriller series of today. Writers like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Stieg Larson certainly owe a debt to the Sjowall/Wahloo team. Over the years, I have seen references to this series in reviews that I've read of other books. Finally, I decided it was time for me to get to know the works and to find out why others spoke of them so reverentially. This Kindle edition of Roseanna that I read had an introduction written by Henning Mankell, in which he acknowledged his debt to the earlier writers. (Mr. Wahloo is now deceased, but Ms. Sjowall is still with us - just not writing mysteries anymore.) He also mentions the influence of American detective fiction on the Sjowall/Wa

Poetry Sunday: Mad December

Here we are at last at the first day of December - last month of the year. What will the month bring? "Sickly grey" days of "puddling mud of endless dreary rain?" Or maybe bright, sunny days with clear blue skies and brisk temperatures, the last days of autumn before winter truly begins? Well, that is to be determined, isn't it? Thirty-one days of the unknown lie ahead of us. Let's make the most of them!   Mad December       by Thomas Horton This is not yet the howling winter Huffing its bluster hither and yon Heaving its intense fury In swells of former flurries Gathered like an army of tiny invaders Forming a carpet to choke the life From all they touch No, this is the sickly grey Of a desolate late autumn That has forgotten The beauty of her childhood Gone the leaves of fire Against crisp blue skies And harvested bounty In beige fields where Children enjoyed hayrides And picked the perfect pumpkin And banishe