Showing posts from September, 2013

Poetry Sunday: A Dirge

Last week, I read The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling, and I enjoyed it immensely. I learned that the rather enigmatic name of the book was taken from an evocative and affecting poem by Christina Rossetti called A Dirge . Let's make it the featured poem of the week. A Dirge BY  CHRISTINA ROSSETTI Why were you born when the snow was falling? You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling, Or when grapes are green in the cluster, Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster    For their far off flying    From summer dying. Why did you die when the lambs were cropping? You should have died at the apples’ dropping, When the grasshopper comes to trouble, And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,    And all winds go sighing    For sweet things dying.

Caturday: Internet Cat Video Festival

Did you know that there is an Internet Cat Video Festival ? I suppose it should not be surprising that there is a festival honoring one of the most popular cultural phenomena of our time.  The second annual festival was held in Minneapolis in late August and it was reported on by the international press. And, of course, there was a video about the festival!  How long will it be, I wonder, before this festival is a yearly, much-anticipated event on television with the attendant red-carpet stroll and a scornful Joan Rivers critiquing the diamond collars worn by the kitties?

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars As all the reading world now knows, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I admit I had not heard of the book before the brouhaha broke when that fact was leaked, apparently by someone associated with the law firm representing Rowling. I went back and read some of the reviews of the book that were published before the true authorship became known and found that most were quite positive. Some even remarked that it was a particularly accomplished effort for a debut novel! I think I can understand Rowling's decision to publish under a pseudonym in an effort to have the book stand on its own rather than be influenced by readers' preconceptions. The irony, of course, is that the book had very modest sales until it became known that it was a Rowling work. Then it immediately shot to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list. And one of those buyers was me. I am glad that the book was brought to my attention, even if it was at the sacrifice

Landscaping with Native Plants of Texas by George Oxford Miller: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars I was shopping at Lowe's the other day when I happened to spy this book on a rack near the garden gloves that I was trying on. The title was appealing so I picked it up and thumbed through it and then dropped it in my shopping basket. One more success for the art of product placement. One more impulse buy. As impulse buys go, this turned out to be quite a useful one. I'm always looking for more information to help me with the establishment and improvement of my Southeast Texas habitat garden, and this book is quite chock full of such information. The author, George Oxford Miller, is an environmental photojournalist and the book features his pictures of the plants which he discusses in the text. There is an amazing variety of them - wildflowers, shrubs, trees, vines, cacti, and groundcovers. These are all native plants that are adapted to the ecosystems where they thrive, and, thus, a gardener within one of those ecosystems can be pretty well assured t

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Fall migration

Autumn is an exciting time for birders, even for a backyard birder like myself. Birds are on the move and have been for several weeks now. All those migratory species that spent their spring and summer raising families in North America, some in the very far northern reaches of the continent, are now on their way south to find their winter ranges in Central and South America. Fall migration actually starts in late June or early July for some species. Typically, the shorebirds that nest in the far north start wending their way south at this time. But even some of the familiar songbirds begin their fall migration this early. For example, the Purple Martin, which is one of the earliest arrivals among the spring migrants, typically arriving in my area in late January, is one of the earliest to leave. By mid-July, these big swallows, so much a part of the avian sights and sounds in my community for six months, are completely absent. By late July, early August, I begin seeing migrating Ru

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the freedom to read

Every year during the last week in September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week. It is an event which unites librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all kinds in a shared appreciation and support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those that some people might consider unorthodox or unpopular or even offensive. The purpose of Banned Books Week is really to draw attention to the harm that censorship does. The books that are featured have all been targeted for removal or restriction in libraries and schools, but, while some books have been and continue to be banned, there is reason to celebrate the fact that, in the majority of cases, the books have remained available. This is true thanks to the efforts of librarians and members of the community who continue to stand up and speak out for the freedom to read. In recent years, the big push among those who seek to ban books has been in the field of young adult fict

Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars We last visited with Patrick O'Brian's creations Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in The Ionian Mission during which they spent an interminable amount of time in a blockade off Toulon. It was a boring assignment for Aubrey/Maturin and crew and somewhat boring for the reader, as well. Now, the action picks up again in Treason's Harbour , the ninth entry in the series. This tale is set mostly in and around Malta, which turns out to be a veritable hotbed of intrigue. Half the population seems to be spying on the other half and nobody is to be trusted. Spying, gathering intelligence, is, of course, the purview of Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and erstwhile biologist. Malta is both a Mecca and a nightmare for him. When his ship is sent on what turns out to be a wild goose chase that is meant to lead them into a deadly trap, it becomes apparent that the admiralty's intelligence network has been compromised. It is only Captain Aubrey's

Poetry Sunday: The Walrus and the Carpenter

How about a little nonsense poetry for today? Well, here's a famous one from the king of nonsense poets, Lewis Carroll. The Walrus and the Carpenter BY  LEWIS CARROLL "The sun was shining on the sea,       Shining with all his might: He did his very best to make       The billows smooth and bright — And this was odd, because it was       The middle of the night. The moon was shining sulkily,       Because she thought the sun Had got no business to be there       After the day was done — "It's very rude of him," she said,       "To come and spoil the fun." The sea was wet as wet could be,       The sands were dry as dry. You could not see a cloud, because       No cloud was in the sky: No birds were flying overhead —       There were no birds to fly. The Walrus and the Carpenter       Were walking close at hand; They wept like anything to see       Such quantities of sand: If this were only clea

Proof that science has a sense of humor

The eagerly awaited - well, I always look forward to them - Ig Nobel prizes in science were handed out this week. These are the prizes that began 23 years ago as a spoof of the somewhat more prestigious Nobel prizes that will be given out next month. The humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research organizes and sponsors the ten awards and the ceremony takes place at Harvard University around this time every year. The stated aim of the awards is to "first make people laugh, and then make them think." There's certainly a lot in this year's awards to make us think. And occasionally retch. For example: The archaeology prize went to Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl for parboiling a dead shrew, then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days just so they could determine which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system and which bones would not. The sacrifices that some scientists are willing t

Should journalists point out blatant lies that politicians tell?

During a segment on "Morning Joe," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. (MSNBC reporter Chuck) Todd said that Republicans "have successfully messaged against it" but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that's President Barack Obama's job. "But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it," Todd told Rendell. "They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."  - from TPM What is the responsibility of an ethical journalist when it comes to reporting news on which there are two diametrically opp

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Mediterranean gecko

Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) by unknown photographer In this part of the world, we are blessed with the presence of several different types of very beneficial little reptiles. I routinely encounter green anoles, garden skinks, as well as small snakes in my garden. They are all welcome here. But one of the most interesting of our small reptiles is not a native but actually an introduced species that has made itself right at home in our area. It is the Mediterranean gecko. As its name would imply, it is native to the Southern Europe and Northern Africa area. It is adapted well to living in and around homes and has spread to many other parts of the world, including Southeast Texas, and their numbers are apparently increasing. They are insectivores that eat many harmful insects, including cockroaches.  By day, these little lizards usually hide in cracks, crevices, and under tree bark or other such spots. At night, they become most active. They are frequently f

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: A review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars "Am I alive and a reality, or am I but a dream?"  - Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Return of Tarzan People of a certain age - my age - remember fondly the great television series of 1959-1964, "The Twilight Zone."  Each week it presented stories of a unique vision, stories that could be loosely categorized, as could this book, as science fiction. Indeed, as I read Kate Atkinson's latest marvelous book, Life After Life , I kept thinking that this would have made a great tale for "The Twilight Zone." Earlier this year, I first met Kate Atkinson through her Jackson Brodie series. I read all four of the books in that series, in which she explored the outer reaches of possibilities of the mystery genre, beginning with Case Histories . In this new book, she seems to be exploring the outer limits of possibilities of science fiction. She imbues the genre with her own unique brand of creativity. But how to begin to describe this

Hatewatching "The Newsroom"

"Are you sure you aren't just a massive bag of douche?" - MacKenzie to Will during the finale of this season's "The Newsroom" on HBO There are some shows on television that I watch because I love them. "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory," "Orange is the New Black," and "House of Cards" to name a few. ("Breaking Bad" will probably be added to this list if I can ever get around to watching it on Netflix.) There are some that I'm not crazy about but can tolerate because there might be at least one character that I am invested in - "Boardwalk Empire" and Richard, for example. Then, occasionally, there are shows that I actively hate and yet I still watch them, because... I'm not sure why. Because they are there? Because it's the hour that I've designated for television watching and I'm a creature of habit? Because they are like train wrecks and I just

Poetry Sunday: A Woman Waking

My featured poet this week is Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate who spent his early years writing verse between shifts as a Detroit autoworker. It has just been announced that Mr. Levine has been awarded the Academy of American Poets'  Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement .  The prize, which comes with a $100,000 award, is given annually for “outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry." Mr. Levine is the quintessential blue collar poet, a poet of the commonplace. I looked at a number of his poems over the last few days and found them quite affecting, but there was one in particular that spoke to me. And here it is. A Woman Waking She wakens early remembering her father rising in the dark lighting the stove with a match scraped on the floor. Then measuring water for coffee, and later the smell coming through. She would hear him drying spoons, dropping them one by one in the drawer. Then he was on the stairs going for the milk. So

Caturday: Scaredy Cats

As a human who lives with two cats who are extremely sensitive to unexpected sounds, sights, or movements and who can jump several feet in the air flatfooted when startled, I can appreciate the cats in this video. They are not really scared - they are just drama queens and kings.

The myth of exceptionalism

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."   - Vladimir Putin in New York Times op-ed Russia's Vladimir Putin made a big splash this week with his op-ed  piece in the Times in which   he lectured the United States and President Obama about the " need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression." Of course, he doesn't mention here the fact that Russia has vetoed any effort by the Security Council to address the two year old crisis and civil war

The Warden by Anthony Trollope: A review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars Most of the reading I've been doing this summer has been of murder mysteries. Noir. Police procedurals. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. But always with a murder involved. It was time for a cleansing of my reading palette. The writers of those mysteries all tailor their craft for the tastes of typical readers (if such animals exist) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They feature short, pithy, undemanding sentences calculated to keep those pages turning and keep the reader from turning away to any of the other myriad of possible entertainments available to her. They write for a short-attention-span audience, and they are entertaining in their way. But now, for something completely different. Anthony Trollope's sentences can in no wise be described as short, pithy, or undemanding. Here is an example from early in the book, where Trollope is describing the warden's habit of playing on an imaginary violincello when he was under emotional str

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Beautyberry

The berries which give beautyberry its name, photographed in my garden this week. Beautyberry is well-named. Those shiny berries that develop in late summer and early fall on the 3-5 foot tall shrubs are indeed very attractive, both to humans and to birds which love to feast on them. In fact, I am sure that all the purple-berried beautyberries in my yard were planted by birds - birds who either pooped out the seeds from the berries or dropped them in flight. I do have several of these native shrubs from the verbena family, because, generally, if possible, I just leave them alone and let them grow where they are planted. Historically, Native Americans made a tea from the leaves and roots of American beautyberry ( Callicarpa americana ), sometimes called French mulberry, which they used for sweat baths for rheumatism, fevers, and malaria. A root tea was used for dysentery and stomach aches. Root and berry teas were used for colic. The plant is very valuable in a native plant