Monday, September 26, 2016

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: A review

The Gap of Time was the first entry, published last year, in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This is the project that has modern writers reimagining the Bard's plays in modern settings.

This book is a reimagining - or, in Winterson's own words, a cover - of Shakespeare's play, The Winter's Tale. It is one of his late plays, usually classified as a romance. It starts in tragedy and ends in comedy with everyone, but for two notable exceptions, living happily every after. The tragedy part of the play deals in some heavy psychological drama and the comedy part is replete with Shakespeare's famous misdirections and misunderstandings that are all cleared up in the end.

At least this is what I gather from the Wiki information about the play, for, in truth, I have not read it nor have I ever seen a production of it. Neither have I ever read any of Winterson's work, so I come to the book as a complete virgin.

The center of Shakespeare's tale is King Leontes of Sicilia. Winterson turns him into Leo, a fabulously wealthy, arrogant and utterly paranoid hedge fund manager in London in the era after the 2008 financial crash.

Sixteen years before, his best friend had been Xeno (Shakespeare's King Polixenes of Bohemia) who is now a gay, introverted video game designer. In Winterson's telling the two had had a sexual relationship as teenagers.

When we first meet him, Leo is married to MiMi, a popular singer-songwriter, who is mother of his son, Milo, and now heavily pregnant with another child. In his paranoia, Leo becomes convinced that the soon-to-be born child is not his, that his wife and Xeno have been having an affair and that he is the father.

He tries to kill Xeno by running him down in a parking garage and then goes home and rapes his wife. She goes into labor and gives birth to a daughter, whom Leo rejects and gives to one of his employees to deliver to Xeno.

Plans go awry, of course. The messenger with the baby is killed after he leaves the baby in a BabyHatch at a hospital because he senses he is about to be attacked. A man named Shep and his son Clo find the baby when they stop to change a tire next to the hatch. Shep, who has recently lost his wife, takes the baby and the bag left with her that contains money and jewels. As his son later said, "he fell in love with that baby and the baby healed him," and Shep raises the child as his own.

Through too many misdirections to recount here, sixteen years later, the foundling named Perdita meets Xeno and his son Zel - and, of course, falls in love with Zel - and eventually is reunited with her now penitent and lonely father. And, bottom line, all (or at least most) wounds are healed and everything is made right once again.

I really appreciated Winterson's writing. She made everything in this very convoluted tale zip along with her beautiful and seemingly effortless prose. She was able to capture the complex emotions of the characters and to build the story scene by scene so that those characters attained a certain heft and they all emerged intact from a complicated and satisfying contemporary tale that I think even Shakespeare might enjoy.  

I don't mean to imply that the tale is perfect. There are a few clunky and awkward passages, but, on the whole, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It stands along all the other "covers" that I have read in this project, every one of which I have found to be entertaining. Now I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The awards you've been waiting for

The Nobel prizes will be announced in early October, but stealing a march on their "competition," last week at a ceremony in Boston the Ig Nobel prizes were announced to general hilarity and profound amazement at the lengths that some scientists will go to in their quest for knowledge.

The Ig Nobels are in their 26th year and every year at this time they honor some of the strangest research in all of science. The prize this year was Zimbabwean currency worth about forty cents in U.S. money and the prizes were given to the winners by some actual Nobel prize winning scientists.

Proving that there are no bounds on the curiosity of scientists, these were some of the winners this year:

  • Egyptian urologist Ahmed Shafik investigated the effect that wearing trousers would have on male rats. He made trousers for his subjects in different kinds of materials including 100% polyester, 50/50% polyester/cotton, all cotton and all wool. He found that rats wearing polyester had significantly lower rates of sexual activity but that those wearing cotton or wool were relatively normal.
  • A team from New Zealand and the UK studied the personalities of rocks. Yes, that's right - rocks. They determined this by asking 225 New Zealand students to describe what they perceived as the personality of various rocks.
  • The biology award went to two Britons, one of whom created prosthetic limbs that allowed him to move like a goat and to live among goats and the second one who tried to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, and a stag. While living as a badger, the researcher ate worms, dug a hillside den, and tried to sniff out voles. The goat researcher infiltrated a herd in the Swiss Alps and spent three days eating grass, bleating, and stumbling over rocks.
  • The psychology award was given to a team that studied liars. They asked 1,000 liars how often they had lied over the course of their life and rated how well they lied. They found that lying decreased with age, although they had to admit their their respondents might have been...uh...lying.   
  • The peace prize was awarded to a team of philosophers who published a paper titled "On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit." The group studied how people understand gibberish that has been presented as if it means something, and they came to the conclusion that "bullshit may be more pervasive than ever before."
  • A group of German scientists earned the medicine prize by determining that if you have an itch on your left side, you can look into a mirror and scratch your right side to relieve it.
  • A perception prize was awarded to Japanese researchers who tried to learn whether bending over and looking at things between your legs changes how they appear.
  • Physics awards were given to researchers who found that white horses attract fewer horseflies and that dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones.
  • The award for literature went to a Swedish author, Fredrik Sjoberg, who wrote a trilogy about collecting flies.  
Finally, the most surprising award was that for chemistry which was given to the automaker Volkswagen. The tongue-in-cheek citation for the award stated that it was given "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electro-mechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested." They were given the nearly worthless Zimbabwean currency prize to help pay for their massive legal costs for cheating on emissions tests.

Gleeful absurdism and high satire were the mood of the night. Never let it be said that scientists don't have a sense of humor. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The Beautiful Changes

Autumn has arrived and, if we just peek over our windowsill, we can see October coming up our driveways. It is a time of change - changes in Nature and changes in ourselves as we enter this more contemplative season.

Richard Wilbur's poem addresses the beautiful changes that take place in autumn as the forest and the meadow are touched back to wonder. If we look hard, maybe we can see the changes in ourselves as well. 

The Beautiful Changes

by Richard Wilbur

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it:
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

This week in birds - #224

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Green-winged Teal


The winter finch forecast is out. This is the forecast published by Ron Pittaway every year that predicts the movements of finches from Canada and the upper northeastern United States into the southern parts of the continent during the winter months. In general, he says that some of the cone crops in Canada have been poor this year which may prompt the finches to move farther south in search of food.


The modern day version of the Sagebrush Rebellion advocates turning over federal public lands in the West to private ownership or to the states. One of many questions not addressed by such proposals is just how the new owners would deal with protecting communities from wildfires that occur with increasing frequency over the area.


For the past fifteen years, ultralight aircraft have led young captive-hatched Whooping Cranes from Wisconsin to Florida on their first fall migration. There have been numerous problems with this program and this year researchers are trying something different. The young cranes are being placed with mature experienced cranes who, it is hoped, will lead them on migration. 

A few of this year's chicks which researchers hope will be able to make it safely to Florida with their adult leaders.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it is proposing giving the Iiwi, a red honeycreeper unique to Hawaii, status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, allowing the bird to have greater protections. This comes at a time when very many of Hawaii's indigenous birds are in dire circumstances and facing possible extinction. 


The rusty-patched bumblebee has been proposed by the USFWS for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This native bee, found in the Midwest and Northeastern United States, has been declining over the past two decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides and other chemicals in farming and gardening practices, and other challenges. 

Rusty-patched bumblebee


The National Audubon Society announced results of a national poll that suggests that two-thirds of America's registered voters are in favor of stronger regulations of energy industries that make them more accountable for causing the deaths of birds.


News from the world of anthropology: The first extensive study of the DNA of indigenous Australians supports the claim that they are the most ancient continuous civilization on Earth. The study dates their origins to more than 50,000 years ago and traces their journey out of Africa and across Asia. 


Birdbaths are important aids to birds' survival, but it is important to keep them clean to prevent spread of disease and breeding places for mosquitoes which may cause harm to humans and other animals as well as birds. 


There is a crisis going on in American forests which isn't getting a lot of notice. Call it a quiet crisis. Millions of trees across the continent are dying from drought, disease, insects, and wildfires. All of these problems are exacerbated by a warming climate. 


The winds of Hurricane Newton which hit the western coast of Mexico in early September pushed many seabirds all the way into Arizona, a bonanza for birders there.


Ancient oyster shells, long entombed in the muck of salt marshes, may be able to give scientists clues that will aid in the restoration of such vital habitats. 


The islands where two Pacific seabirds, the Scripp's Murrelet and Guadalupe Murrelet, breed have been restored and invasive species that posed a threat to birds have been removed. This has prompted the USFWS to announce that the birds no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Common sense conservation practices do work!


Caspian Terns have been found nesting 1,000 miles farther north than ever before recorded. This is an adaptation to the warming climate.


The world's only alpine parrot, the Kea of New Zealand, is facing extinction from predation by non-native predators and persecution by farmers who view them as a threat to their crops.


Did you know that fish sing? Apparently, fish on the reef have been found to greet the day much as birds do with a dawn chorus. Of course, a fish "song" sounds a bit different.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Autumn tiptoed through our doorways this morning, glancing fearfully over its shoulder in case summer was about to tackle it and pull it back. And it should well have been nervous. Temperatures have still been in the 90s this week and the high today is supposed to be 90 degrees F. 

Maybe that doesn't sound too bad, but the humidity makes that feel like it is 97 degrees. To step outside, as I just did for about thirty minutes, is to quickly realize that autumn has not exactly taken hold yet.

Still, the calendar says it's here and there are some autumnal signs in the land. Some of the leaves are beginning to turn. 

Now, we don't get a lot of fall color in our leaves here, but a few trees, like the sycamore pictured above, will give us a bit of the feeling of fall. (Full disclosure: That picture was actually taken a couple of years ago and it was in late October when most of our fall colors, if we get any, make their appearance.

Crape myrtles, too, offer some reds and yellows in their fading leaves.

Crape myrtle leaves.

And the muscadine leaves in my backyard do get quite colorful before they drop.

Monarch butterfly sunning itself on the yellowing muscadine leaves.

Besides the changing leaves, there are other signs of autumn, of course. The fall bird migration has been in progress for weeks now. The most visible sign of it in my yard has been the hummingbirds. There's been a lot of activity lately as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Rufous Hummingbirds pass through. 

If we are lucky, some of the Rufous hummers will choose to stay with us through the winter, like this female shown perched on the crook holding one of my feeders last winter.

So, even though the signs are faint and often fleeting, I have it on good authority that autumn has arrived, finally. Our weather forecasters even promise us milder temperatures in the 80s, and on one day in the 70s, over the next ten days. I'm going to hold them to that. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wishbones by Carolyn Haines: A review

Needing some light reading as a palate cleanser, I turned to Carolyn Haines. It doesn't come any lighter and fluffier than her Southern belle private eye series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney (hereafter referred to as SB). It turned out this one didn't so much cleanse my reading palate as poison it, or at least curdle it. Let me not mince words: This is not a good book.

In this entry, we have SB heading to Hollywood, on the basis of one turn as a star in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Zinnia, Mississippi, to star in a remake of Body Heat, with her in the Kathleen Turner role and her lover, Graf Milieu (that name - really???), in the William Hurt role. So, we have two complete unknowns starring in the millions of dollars remake of this major motion picture.

Oh, yes, and Ashton Kutcher is in a supporting role.

In Hollywood, SB and Graf seem to spend most of their time making sweet, sweet love and very little time working. They roll onto the movie set around midday, after spending the morning in bed, and play hot, hot scenes, getting it all done in one take.

But soon, even stranger things start happening to people involved in the movie. One woman falls to her death. A man falls from a balcony and is seriously injured. Rumors start circulating that the movie is cursed.

Before the police investigation of the death and injury are complete, the whole mob is allowed to decamp to Costa Rica where most of the movie will be shot at a home that is owned by the director. And when we get to that house, weird things REALLY start happening.

The house seems to be haunted by the mournful spirit of the director's long dead wife who apparently died of anorexia nervosa. She starved herself to death thinking she was not thin or beautiful enough. It also seems to be haunted by the very much alive daughter of the dead woman and the director, who blames the director for the death of her mother.

Of course, SB is very much at home with "haints" since she has her own personal family ghost, Jitty, back in Zinnia, Mississippi. In fact, Jitty actually turns up in Costa Rica when SB calls on her for help. Moreover, all of SB's Mississippi gang of friends drop everything and travel to Costa Rica to support their friend and SB and her PI partner Tinkie get busy trying to solve the mystery of what's going on with this movie set.

Oh, did I mention that people were getting pushed down stairs, tied up on rocks by the ocean and left for the tide to drown them, conked on the head with various instruments, there are mysterious moans and whimpers coming from somewhere in the walls of the house, and a woman in red keeps materializing for SB, although nobody else seems to have seen her? Yeah.

This plot is a mess. It just flails around and it seems that the writer is just throwing everything up against the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Nothing does.

Perhaps the silliest thing about the book is all the name-dropping. We have Robert Redford and Brad Pitt dropping by the set - just because they have nothing better to do, I guess. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (because you can't have one without the other of course!) turn up at a party. Charlize Theron gives SB and Tinkie a plane ride back to Hollywood from Costa Rica.

No, I take it back. The silliest thing about the book is that SB and Graf are continually referred to - and refer to themselves - as movie stars, even though neither of them has ever been in a movie before. And everyone is continually gobsmacked by the prodigious talent of SB. She's "brilliant!" The director is "brilliant." Graf is brilliant and off-the-charts sexy and his only desire in life is to settle down with SB and raise a family.

The early entries in this series were entertaining and had a certain charm. The last two that I've read just seemed like the writer had lost interest and was phoning it in. This was the last one of the series that I had in my reading queue. I can't imagine a circumstance where I will be adding any more.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars