Showing posts from January, 2022

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: A review

  Stephen Hawking's most famous book was published in 1988 and became a surprising best-seller. Of course, there is no way of knowing how many of those books that were bought were ever actually read. I acquired a copy of it during that time with all good intentions of reading it and it has languished on our bookshelves ever since. I was otherwise engaged in 1988, raising children, and should surely have known better. Anyway, to make a long story a bit shorter, I decided that 2022 would finally be the year that I made good on my intention. And since, these days, I read books exclusively on my Kindle, I even got the ebook. That paper volume is still gathering dust.  The first thing to be said about the book is that Hawking intended it for the general public, people with no particular background in or knowledge of physics. In other words, dummies like me. He made every effort to keep it simple. In fact, at times I can almost feel him straining to do so. But ultimately it seems to be a

Poetry Sunday: Music by Ralph Waldo Emerson

It may be easy enough for us to see or hear the music in beautiful things, but Ralph Waldo Emerson maintains that even in the ugliness of life there is music. Even in the "darkest, meanest things" or in the "mud and scum of things" always something sings. It may be a challenge to hear that music but the effort is worthwhile. Music by Ralph Waldo Emerson LET me go where'er I will, I bear a sky-born music still: It sounds from all things old, It sounds from all things young, From all that's fair, from all that's foul, Peals out a cheerful song. It is not only in the rose, It is not only in the bird, Not only where the rainbow glows, Nor in the song of woman heard, But in the darkest, meanest things There alway, alway something sings. 'T is not in the high stars alone, Nor in the cup of budding flowers, Nor in the redbreast's mellow tone, Nor in the bow that smiles in showers, But in the mud and scum of things There alway, alway something sings. 

This week in birds - #486

  A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : A Red-bellied Woodpecker poses for us, showing off a bit of that red belly.  *~*~*~* A federal judge has canceled oil and gas leases for more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico, ruling that the Biden administration did not sufficiently consider the effects of climate change. *~*~*~* Meanwhile, the administration has canceled mining leases that would have allowed a Chilean mining conglomerate to dig for copper and nickel near the Boundary Waters wilderness in Minnesota. *~*~*~* Red Knots like to feed on the abundant protein-rich horseshoe crab eggs along the Delaware coast. Conservation groups warn that changes planned for the horseshoe crab harvest could be a threat to the birds . *~*~*~* A huge iceberg that broke off the ice shelf on the Antactica Peninsula in 2017 had been drifting across the southern ocean ever since, but near South Georgia, it has finally broken up and the pieces drifted away. *~*~*~* L

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris: A review

  It's hard to get a handle on Charlie Barnes at first. His story is narrated by his son, Jake Barnes. Jake is a novelist and he tells the story not in a linear fashion but as a series of zigzags through time. Each new direction takes us to another aspect of Charlie's life. Even so, all those different aspects don't necessarily shed too much light on who exactly he is. They are often contradictory and lead to questions rather than answers. When we meet him, he is 68 years old. In those eventful years, he has married five times, fathered assorted children, and held at least 40 different jobs. Each new job or situation seems to reveal a different personality. He's had numerous failures and has "started over" many times. He is described at one point as "effectively insane since about 1960." At different points in his life, he's been a hippie and a financier. Once he even worked in social services. His financier period coincided with the 2008 financi

The Maid by Nita Prose: A review

  "I love cleaning. I love my maid's trolley, and I love my uniform," so speaks Molly the maid in Nita Prose's debut novel, The Maid . Molly is the first-person narrator of the novel and what a wonderful narrator she is. We are able to fully enter her world as a maid at the Regency Grand five-star boutique hotel where she cleans twenty-plus rooms every day. "I like things simple and neat," says Molly. "Never in my life did I think I'd hold such a lofty position in a grand hotel." From these quotes, you might gather that Molly has a rather simplistic view of the world and that is accurate. She is devoted to her work and was devoted to her grandmother who raised her and who was also a maid. But when we meet Molly, her grandmother had died nine months before, leaving her alone in the world. She no longer has anyone to interpret the meaning of social interactions for her and Molly badly needs that. She is very "different," possibly on the

Poetry Sunday: Snow Day by Billy Collins

We don't generally get a "revolution of snow" where I live. Indeed, if we got snow it would be a revolution of sorts. But Billy Collins writes of places that are more...wintry. Where snow can cause the closing of schools and interrupt the plotting of children.  Snow Day by Billy Collins Today we woke up to a revolution of snow, its white flag waving over everything, the landscape vanished, not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness, and beyond these windows the government buildings smothered, schools and libraries buried, the post office lost under the noiseless drift, the paths of trains softly blocked, the world fallen under this falling. In a while, I will put on some boots and step out like someone walking in water, and the dog will porpoise through the drifts, and I will shake a laden branch sending a cold shower down on us both. But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house, a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow. I will make a pot of tea and listen to

This week in birds - #485

  A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : The chippies have arrived! Chipping Sparrows are always one of my favorite winter visitors. I generally see them in mixed flocks of small birds, but this week there was a pretty big flock of only the little sparrows - about 15 to 20 birds - around my front yard feeder. What a wonderful sight!    *~*~*~* The Tonga volcanic eruption and its aftermath are still making news. The eruption itself was captured by satellite imagery and could be seen from space. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to understand the global implications of the eruption. Their conclusion is that it may affect global weather, at least in the short term. *~*~*~* Ecuador has announced that it is extending protections for the Galapagos Islands to more than 20,000 square miles of ocean to the northeast of the archipelago. No fishing will be allowed in half the area and longline fishing will be banned in the rest. *~*~*~* The Cornell Lab of Ornithology h

The Smash-up by Ali Benjamin: A review

  Ali Benjamin has taken her inspiration from Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome , even borrowing the name of its title character. Her Ethan and his wife Zenobia ("Zo") and their 11-year-old daughter Alex have moved from New York to the village of Starkfield, Massachusetts, a fictional town in the Berkshires, in search of a quieter, less complicated life. Starkfield is described as possessing "a nondescript village green, around which are scattered a handful of small businesses, no more than one of every variety." It sounds idyllic, but it doesn't quite work out that way. Ethan is the semiretired co-founder of a media start-up. His former partner is being accused by a former employee of sexual harassment and exploitation and he is pressuring Ethan to support him. Zenobia is a struggling filmmaker who gets deeply involved with a local activist group called All Them Witches. It is September 2018 and the Senate confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh are in progress.

All Girls by Emily Layden: A review

The "all girls" of the title refers to an all-girls boarding school in northwest Connecticut. The action takes place in the 2015-16 academic year which is chiefly important because it is prior to the #MeToo movement. The main character in the book is the school itself, called Atwater. It is a beautiful campus and the school is steeped in tradition and has high academic standards. It's the kind of a place where the rich and famous send their daughters and it's the kind of place that obsessively guards its unsavory secrets. The unsavory secret it was guarding in 2015-16 was a sexual assault lawsuit from an alumna who was raped by a teacher 20 years before. Apparently, the teacher is still working at the school. Families driving to the school to deliver their daughters on move-in day are greeted by signs along the roads that say "A Rapist Works Here." The school manages to get the signs removed fairly quickly, but the local newspaper gets the story and publishe

Poetry Sunday: Birthday by Robert William Service

When it comes to poetry, I'm a dipper. I don't tend to read entire books of poetry, but I dip into them from time to time, usually in search of an appropriate poem for this weekly feature. While "dipping" last week, I happened upon this little gem written by Robert Service in commemoration of his seventy-fifth birthday. It made me smile and I thought it might do the same for you. Just for the record, I'm with Robert; I think eighty would be just about the appropriate time to recant my sins. Until then, let's whoop it up! Birthday by Robert William Service (16th January 1949)  I thank whatever gods may be  For all the happiness that's mine;  That I am festive, fit and free  To savour women, wit and wine;  That I may game of golf enjoy,  And have a formidable drive:  In short, that I'm a gay old boy  Though I be Seventy-and-five. My daughter thinks because I'm old  (I'm not a crock, when all is said),  I mustn't let my feet get cold,  An

This week in birds - #484

  A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : White-winged Doves have been prominent visitors to my bird feeders this week. When they come, they generally come en masse. It's not unusual to see 10-15 on the feeders or on the ground under the feeders at a time. *~*~*~* Lots of "hot" stories in the news this week: - 2021 was the fifth hottest year on record according to scientists. The seven hottest years on record have occurred in the last seven years. - How hot has Earth been during your lifetime? This link allows you to check that. - For nearly a quarter of the planet's population, 2021 was actually a record hot year .  - The waters of the Gulf of Maine spiked to record warm levels in autumn of last year. The gulf is warming faster than 96% of the world's oceans. - This map shows where all-time record temperatures for both heat and cold were set in the United States during 2021.   - In most of the country, winter is the fastest-warming se

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves: A review

  I enjoyed reading the second book in the Shetland series, White Nights , so much that I decided to head straight on into the third. So on to Red Bones . And these follow the first book in the series, Raven Black . I do believe I'm sensing a theme here. This one features Jimmy Perez's colleague Sandy Wilson a bit more prominently. The action takes place on Whalsay Island where Sandy's family lives. His grandmother, Jemima (Mima) Wilson, is a bit of a recluse but she had agreed to allow an archaeological team to dig on her land. She had bonded with one of the young archaeologists digging there, a woman named Hattie. The team had made some interesting discoveries, including human bones, among them part of a skull.  Sandy was supposed to visit his grandmother one night but when he went there she was not in her house. He went looking for her and discovered her body near the digs. She had been shot. He calls his boss, Perez, to report the death. Perez is not on the island and m

White Nights by Ann Cleeves: A review

  The white nights of the title are a phenomenon of the far north in summer when the sun never entirely sets. A truly dark night does not happen, thus "white nights." It is a phenomenon that can be disturbing to human biorhythms, and one can understand how it might make some sensitive people just a little bit crazy. The phenomenon is just a part of life on the Shetland Islands. Once again Ann Cleeves takes us there and the best part about this Shetland series of hers from my point of view is her evocation of the landscape, the culture, and people of the islands. Her main character, detective Jimmy Perez, is a creation of those islands and that culture and he understands very well the insular nature of the communities and the fact that things may move a bit more slowly here. This is highly irritating to the big-city detective, DCI Roy Taylor from Inverness, who is sent in to lead the investigation of the latest murder on the islands but he and Perez do manage to work together

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: A review

  I was so disturbed by the last book of Sayaka Murata's that I read, Earthlings , that it put me off reading this one. Consequently, this little gem had languished in my TBR stack for almost a year. But this is a new year and, determined to clear out my backlog of books to be read, I picked it up and began to read. Now I'm wondering why it took me so long. Eighteen-year-old Keiko Furukura has never fit in anywhere, not in her family and not in school, because she has never been able to comprehend the rules of social interaction. She comes to understand that "The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that's why I need to be cured. Unless I'm cured, normal people will expurgate me." She thinks of herself as that "foreign object" that needs to be "cured." She apprehends that in order to survive she needs to be able to mimic the social exchanges of those

Poetry Sunday: New Day's Lyric by Amanda Gorman

One of the most memorable moments in the inauguration of President Biden last year was provided by the young poet Amanda Gorman when she read her poem "The Hill We Climb." Since then, she has published a new book of poetry that ended up on the best sellers' list, a rare place for poetry books.  Here is her new and inspirational poem, "New Day's Lyric," in which she reminds us that "wherever we come together we will forever overcome."  New Day's Lyric by Amanda Gorman May this be the day We come together. Mourning, we come to mend, Withered, we come to weather, Torn, we come to tend, Battered, we come to better. Tethered by this year of yearning, We are learning That though we weren’t ready for this, We have been readied by it. We steadily vow that no matter How we are weighed down, We must always pave a way forward. This hope is our door, our portal. Even if we never get back to normal, Someday we can venture beyond it, To leave the known and t

This week in birds - #483

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment : This is the first week that American Goldfinches have shown up at my feeders - or maybe just the first week I've seen them there. This picture was actually taken a couple of years ago. I haven't seen this many yet but they will likely come. *~*~*~* The Revelator has identified six big environmental stories that bear watching in 2022. *~*~*~* Clean drinking water is at a premium in so many parts of the world. The problem in most cases is an inadequate infrastructure. A water bottle company has one possible solution to the problem. *~*~*~* The Arctic region's air does not generally engender lightning strikes, but there has been a drastic rise in such strikes due to the warming air caused by climate change. Scientists find the change worrying.  *~*~*~* Twenty wolves have been killed after wandering outside of Yellowstone National Park where hunting is prohibited. Now, only 94 remain in the park, but the hunti

The President and the Frog by Carolina De Robertis: A review

  What a pleasure this book was to read. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to it for it had been in my reading queue for months but finally, I picked it up as my very last read of 2021 and it turns out it was a great way to close out the year.  It is a short book at only around 220 pages so one could almost read it in one sitting if one had nothing else to do. Carolina De Robertis packs quite a lot into those few pages. She gives us the story of an 82-year-old man who is the former president of a South American country that is never actually named but is assumed to be Uruguay. He is about to be interviewed by a television journalist from Norway and as he waits for her he reflects on his life and on the part of it that he does not want to reveal to anyone. That secret part is his relationship with a frog. As a much younger man, the former president had taken part in an attempted revolution against the autocratic government that was then in power. The attempt was unsuccessfu

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking: A review

  I chose this book as my final read of 2021. It turned out not to be that because I managed to squeeze another in, but this one was chosen as a comfort read. It is literally about comfort. Coziness, happiness, being comfortable in your own skin and appreciating the life you have. Doesn't that sound like a positive note on which to end the year? The author of the book, Meik Wiking, is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. (Yes, apparently there is such a thing!) Whenever there are polls about which country is the happiest, Denmark inevitably ends up at or near the top so it is appropriate, I guess, that the Happiness Research Institute is located there.  And what are the things that Danes associate with this feeling of happiness? Wiking lists them from most to least important as follows: hot drinks, candles, fireplaces, Christmas, board games, music, holiday, sweets and cakes, cooking, and books. I find it interesting that at least half those things are related