Showing posts from January, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A review

A book about racism, segregation, slavery that is laugh-out-loud funny? Yep, that would be The Sellout in a nutshell! It's easy to see why this book won all those awards last year, including the first Man Booker for a work by an American author. It is a tour-de-force of writing, a biting social satire that makes its point not with a bludgeon but with a delicate literary sensibility firmly based in historical authenticity. Beatty has given us a protagonist/narrator who is a young black man from the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, a neighborhood on the outskirts of southern Los Angeles. He was raised by a single father, a sociologist who used his son as the subject of his weird, often outlandish psychological studies of the roots of fear and of racism.  The son grew up to become a farmer who raised delicious fruit of many kinds, the most delicious of all being satsuma oranges. He also grew watermelons and weed, one of the finest varieties of which he called "A

Poetry Sunday: Mending Wall

Walls are much in the news these days, which, of course, brought to mind one of my favorite Robert Frost poems. Two neighbors meet in spring to repair the winter damage to the wall between their properties. Frost makes the argument to his neighbor that they really don't need a wall. After all, neither has any cows:       "...Before I built a wall I'd ask to know      What I was walling in or walling out,      And to whom I was like to give offence.      Something there is that doesn't love a wall,      That wants it down." But his neighbor stubbornly clings to what he was once told by his father, with no better reason for wanting a wall:      He moves in darkness as it seems to me,      Not of woods only and the shade of trees.      He will not go behind his father's saying,      And he likes having thought of it so well      He says again, " Good fences make good neighbours." Let us not move in darkness but examine in the light of

This week in birds - #241

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : Sandhill Crane photographed at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. *~*~*~* Several years ago there was a flurry of excitement over the reported sighting in an Arkansas swamp of a bird that had been thought to be extinct. However, no definitive photographic evidence of the sighting was ever presented and eventually the excitement and the talk about the possibility that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still lived subsided, and the bird was once again consigned to the rolls of the extinct. Some researchers remain true believers in the bird's existence, however, and recently a new paper has been presented outlining evidence that the bird may still survive in Florida. Audubon online sums it up for us .  *~*~*~* Among the flood of executive orders signed by the president this week was one reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines , both of which pose significant threats to the environment as well as the Da

Civil servants as heroes

Our national park system has been referred to as "America's Best Idea." I would not argue with that. And to think, it was all started by a Republican. The national park system and the rangers who are its caretakers have some of the highest approval ratings of any institution in the country. Everybody loves parks; what's not to love? And everybody appreciates those guys (and gals) in the funny hats who are always around to offer directions, explain the features of the land under their care, tell us about the history of our country, and tell us that, no, we should not try to pet the bears or the bison. Park rangers are civil servants and, as such, they are nonpartisan. They serve an ideal not the political party that happens to be on top at any given time.  I, myself, was a civil servant for my entire working life. During more than 30 years in various jobs, most of my service was done during times when I strongly disagreed with the governing philosophy of the electe

The Innocents by Ace Atkins: A review

And now for something completely different. At least different from all the literary fiction I've been reading lately.  No one could accuse Ace Atkins of writing literary fiction, but his books are well-written and are fast-paced reads. The Innocents , the latest in his Mississippi noir series featuring ex-Army Ranger Quinn Colson, is no exception. I enjoy reading this series, first because it is well-written and carefully plotted, but also because I know from my childhood growing up in the area that Atkins writes about that he's got the place just right. The cadences of speech, the interactions between people, the insularity of that society, Atkins, who still lives in Oxford, Mississippi, understands it all and he writes about it with clear-eyed vision while retaining his empathy for his characters who live in this hidebound place. Which is all probably just a long way of saying that Atkins' characters are believable, and that is some of the highest praise you can g

Outline by Rachel Cusk: A review

What do we know about the narrator of Rachel Cusk's novel? Her name is Faye. She is a writer. She lives in London and is divorced. She is the mother of more than one child. She has taken a job teaching a summer writing course in Athens. That's about it. We never get below the surface with her. She remains a cipher. This cipher, however, seems to have the ability to inspire other people to reveal their deepest secrets. Throughout this very unusual and very intelligent book, Faye has a number of conversations with people that she encounters and all of these people end up telling her stories about themselves and all the people they are closest to in their lives. Her first encounter happens on the plane when she is flying from London to Athens to take up her summer job. She sits next to an older man, a Greek who is returning home. He unburdens himself about his failed marriages. Initially, he mentions only two but we learn later that he has actually had three. He talks abou

Poetry Sunday: Phenomenal Woman

Here's a poem that I will dedicate to all the phenomenal women around the world who marched yesterday to say,  "We are strong and we are not going anywhere!" Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size But when I start to tell them, They think I'm telling lies. I say, It's in the reach of my arms The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I'm a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That's me. I walk into a room Just as cool as you please, And to a man, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees. I say, It's the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I'm a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That's me. Men themselves have wondered What they see in me. They try so much But they can't tou

This week in birds - #240

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : Eastern Bluebirds are searching for nesting sites and starting to build their nests already. If you have a bluebird box, make sure it is cleaned and ready for habitation. If you are thinking of putting up a nesting box, now's the time! A few weeks from now will be too late.  *~*~*~* The first act of the new administration in Washington was to take down the climate change page from the White House website. There you go, America! Problem solved. No more climate change. *~*~*~* Back in the reality-based universe, scientists announced this week that 2016 set a new record for high temperatures on our planet. It was the third consecutive year that Earth's temperatures have reached a new high. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have surpassed previous records for three years in a row. *~*~*~* Since the 2009 accident when a jetliner was forced to land on th

"A day that will live in infamy"


The Nix by Nathan Hill: A review

Nathan Hill begins his novel by retelling the Buddha's story of the blind men and the elephant. A king commands that all the blind men in the town be brought into the presence of an elephant. Each of the men experiences a different part of the animal. One feels an ear, one the trunk, one the tail, and so on. Then they are asked to describe what they have felt and, of course, they all describe different things, even though they have touched the same animal. The king is highly diverted. Hill then proceeds to show us his "elephant" as it is seen by many different characters. Although it is the same story, each one has experienced it from his/her own unique perspective and so each person's truth may be different from all others. The New York Times review of this book referred to it as "the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." I can see that. The multiple story lines, the wordiness, the different styles of writing that are employed at v

Anahuac NWR in January

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast is one of my favorite places for birding. It's an hour-and-a-half drive from my house, if the traffic is light, but it is well worth the effort. In the past, we've had a family tradition of visiting Anahuac every January, often on January 1. It's a nice way to start off the year. We haven't made the trip yet this year, but I'm hoping we will be able to in the next couple of weeks. Looking back over my records from previous January trips, I selected some of my bird photographs to show you. The refuge is visited by more than 300 species of birds throughout the year. Not all of them are there in January, but here are a few that are.  American Coots with their striking red eyes are always plentiful on the refuge. Forster's Tern searching for lunch over the bay waters. A small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers bob along in the waters. Willets look like very plain birds until they take

Infinite Jest reconsidered - maybe

Are you a David Foster Wallace fan? Most literary critics are it seems; most of his fellow writers, too. Whenever his name comes up, they wax rhapsodic about his prodigious talent and bemoan the tragic loss of that talent that occurred when Wallace was finally overcome by his depression and killed himself in 2008. I admit that I totally missed out on the Wallace worship of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was entirely ignorant of him. Obviously, my head was somewhere else at the time. In fact the first time I really became aware of him was in late 2010 when I saw an article entitled "13 books that everyone says they have read - but haven't." I wrote a blog post about it in which I said that I had no intention of reading Infinite Jest,  Wallace's book that was on the list.  But I felt bad about cavalierly dismissing a book that so many people seemed to adore and the next year my conscience - and my curiosity - got the better of me and I committed to reading it

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2017

Well, it was nice while it lasted. The end of our tropical "winter" came about ten days ago when our nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 20s F for two consecutive nights. That put paid to nearly all the blooms in my garden and left a lot of blackened and mushy plants to be pruned back and made neat in anticipation of spring. At such a time, we'll take color wherever we can find it. We find it in the indoor garden. Amaryllises gladden our hearts with their frilly blossoms - with the promise of more to come. Outside, violas are undaunted by cold weather. As are their cousins, the pansies. Then, of course, there is the reliable old Carolina jessamine for which the butterflies of January are extremely grateful. By the goldfish pond, the pink flamingoes do their bit to provide color to the garden. Last but not least, my bottletree blooms on in spite of everything and the Texas sage behind it retains it gray-green foliage.

Poetry Sunday: Let America Be America Again

I've featured this poem here at least a couple of times before, but it is a favorite of mine and, frankly, it has never seemed more appropriate than now when one has reason to fear that the ideal of America may be lost forever. Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the 20th century, and he was well aware that America had not lived up to the ideal imagined for it by our founding documents. It is an ideal that still eludes women and minorities in this "homeland of the free."  On this weekend when we celebrate the life of another great African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as we anticipate the inauguration of a demagogue as our president, all our hopes and all our efforts should be directed toward letting America be America again. (The emphasis on the last three stanzas is my own.) Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes (1935) Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain See