Category: travel

Monday Miscellany: Books, Birds, Movie(s) and Art, In Whatever Order You Choose

Well, dear readers, since I’ve now reached page eleven of my paper on Renaissance child portraiture, I’ve decided to break from the 16th century for (imagine a drum roll here) — Monday Miscellany!  This week’s miscellany will be more of a miscellaneous mess than it usually is, as the unofficial deadline for my paper is next Friday (that scream you just heard, dear readers, is Janakay having a weensy little panic attack.  Not to worry! I’m doing some deep breathing, so I’m much better now).  Because this post is largely a quick stream of consciousness, with its various parts having absolutely nothing in common with each other, feel even freer than usual to click hither and yon.  To suit my current mood, which is a visual mood, I’ll begin with photos and a quick trip down memory lane:

MISCELLANY FIRST:  BIRDS!

Back when Janakay and Mr. Janakay were busily, if not happily, employed turning out thousands (well, maybe hundreds) of pages of legal tootle, those breaks away from the law books and the bustle were made as frequently and exotically as possible.  If you want remote, exotic and sometimes (very) uncomfortable travel, then you were born to go on a professional bird tour (don’t dare ask Janakay about her camping experience on that mountainside in central Peru.  She might tell you, complete with scatological details!)  Here are a few colorful little mementos of trips past, thanks to Mr. Janakay’s awesome photographic skills (Janakay herself is far too lazy to carry that big old camera lens):

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A Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, from Ecuador.  A common bird in the rain forest of the lower Andes, one of its most endearing characteristics (aside from its color) is its habit of traveling in flocks.  If you see one, it’s usually in the midst of a group of equally colorful little friends!
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The big red one is a Scarlet Ibis, from Venezuela.  This species is widespread in South America and the Caribbean, not rare at all and who cares?  They’re living proof that beauty doesn’t depend on rarity!  P.S.  Standing behind our colorful friend is a Cocoi Heron, the South American equivalent of Europe’s Grey Heron and North America’s Great Blue.
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A Crimson-rumped Toucanet, small but breath-taking, particularly when he has the taste to roost in an interesting bit of foliage.   The unusual tree compensates for the fact that you can’t see the bright red patch on this guy’s tail because he’s facing the wrong way.  This particular toucanet lived in Ecuador.
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This serious looking fellow is a Feruginous Pygmy-owl; these are pretty wide-spread in the neotropics (this one is Venezuelan).  The photo makes him look deceptively large; as the name denotes, these are tiny little owls.  I also saw one in Texas, at a place called the King Ranch, but they’re rare in the U.S. and usually quite difficult to see.
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An Orange-breasted Fruiteater, from Ecuador.  Unfortunately, he just wouldn’t turn around . . . . so you don’t get the full effect of the orange.
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A Yellow-headed Caracara from Venezuela.  The U.S. has a different species of caracara, mostly in Texas.  They’re nice, but Venezuela’s is prettier, at least IMO!

And, the rarest of them all — the Kagu!  One of the most endangered birds on the planet, the Kagu lives in a small patch of preserved habitat on New Caledonia, a Pacific island (located about 750 miles or 1,210 km east of Australia) that is still affiliated with France (New Caledonia was a French territory that, I believe, rejected independence in a fairly recent vote).

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Isn’t he gorgeous?  That silvery gray color has earned this species the soubriquet “the ghost of the forest.”  Since Kagus can’t fly and live on an island, they were really out of luck when people, cats, dogs and pigs moved in.  They’re hanging on, thanks to major conservation efforts, but the entire species now numbers less than a thousand birds.

MISCELLANY SECOND: DONNA TARTT:  BOOK vs MOVIE

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Does anyone out there besides myself adore Donna Tartt’s novels?  I came late to the DT bandwagon and probably would never have read The Secret History, her first novel, had I been left to my own devices, as I had somehow gotten the impression that it was one of those sensationalist, potboiler, best-seller things.  Well, fortunately, I wasn’t — left to my own devices, that is — I had an incredibly persistent literary-minded friend who talked me into trying it.  Ten pages in and I’m a fan of Tartt and all her works!  For life!  I have totally drunk the Kool Aid (if you don’t understand this metaphor, it’s just as well).  Where has this woman been my entire reading life?  When is her next book coming out and how do I survive until it does?  Can I join her fan club?  I’m exaggerating, but not by much!

To be fair, Secret History is a bit of a sensationalist potboiler (and it did sell off the charts) but oh, my stars and whiskers, good gracious me — can that woman write!  Throw in the fact that the plot concerns a group of oddball misfits who are studying classics at an elite New England school (I studied Latin and classics, among other things, at a much more plebian state university in the New England area, so I could identify.  I and my fellow Latin students were weird!  But harmless!) and I don’t mind admitting that I was not only hooked but mainlining!  Unfortunately for those (like myself) who have addictive personalities, Tartt is not a prolific novelist.  I had to wait over a decade for her second novel, The Little Friend.  Was the wait worth it?  Weeeeell …….. sort of; not really; maybe. The incredible way with words and literary skill were as great as ever but the narrative, for me at least, was a flop.  Still — that brilliant writing, the creepy sense of atmosphere, the characters  . . . .

Another long (very long) wait and then comes — The Goldfinch!  The New York Times’ assessment (a “smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind”) was an vast understatement, in my opinion.  I was powerless before a novel named for one of my favorite paintings, particularly one with the message that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.'”  This is one long book — almost 800 pages  — and while I read it I lived in Tartt’s world and not my own.  I only wish I could read it again, for the first time, but we don’t get the same gift twice, do we?  Given my reaction to the book, you can imagine my excitement when I learned last winter that a movie was coming out in September!  Dread (“this book can’t be filmed”) warred with excitement (“I don’t care — I have to see what they do with Boris!”) and neither won.  With trepidation mixed with longing and seasoned with hope (forgive my purplish prose, dear reader, but I was très excited) I marked the opening day on my calendar with a very large red “X” and started counting down the days until the movie came to a theater near me.

You can imagine my dismay when, a week or so before the opening day, the very negative reviews started rolling in.  Strictly for the birds (so clever, the New York Times).  A movie that “lies as flat as a painting.”  (Oh, those critics! so entertaining!)  The Washington Post critic, not to be outdone by her colleagues, didn’t like the movie either but couldn’t come up with anything clever to say; she had to settle on being offended by its “unmistakable air of unexamined privilege” and the WASPY sounding names of several of the characters (the novel is partly set in New York City’s Upper East Side, for gosh sakes!  Of course the characters are privileged! Do we need to examine the socio-politico basis for it?)  Oh, and she couldn’t sympathize with the main character, whom she found to be self-pitying (in case you can’t tell, I have severe reservations about WaPo’s movie critic, whom I’ve been stuck with reading for years).   Perhaps I am being just a little unfair; no one, but no one, had a kind word to say about Goldfinch: the Movie.  Critical opinion was so unanimous that the movie was an awful waste of time that even I, much as I loved the story, almost decided to skip the movie.

Last Friday, however, flush with the triumph of finishing page eight of my draft (did I mention I have a paper due this week? Oh, I did!) I made my way to the nearest art house theater that served alcohol and settled in for two hours and thirty minutes of “fabulous book into lousy movie” disappointment.  And — I wasn’t disappointed!  Was the movie as good as the novel?  Of course not; it never is!  Did it have faults?  Oh yes — it was definitely a bit slow at times, and there were certainly things I didn’t like (some of the casting; the fragmented narrative) but on the whole I thought it was, actually, pretty good.  And definitely worth seeing despite the flaws.  But then, what do I know, compared to all the professional critics who panned it?  My reaction was possibly due to a case of reverse expectations, i.e., the reviews were so very bad, my expectations were so very low, that anything short of a disaster would have made me happy.  Perhaps I simply liked the novel so much that I’d put up with anything, just to see the characters on a screen in front of me.  A mystery inside an enigma, to misquote a great man.

Have any of you, dear readers, seen the movie? If so, I’d really like to hear your reaction.  Has anyone read The Goldfinch, or either of Tartt’s other two novels?  Ditto! (and it’s o.k. if you’re not a fan!  Despite my DT worship I can understand how others might be less smitten by her art.  How very boring it would be, if we all liked the same things, wouldn’t it?)  It’s almost a truism to say we’re always disappointed when a favorite book is made into a movie — what’s been your experience?  Mine is usually “I hate, hate, hate the movie,” which is why I’m so interested in the fact that this time my reaction was actually quite different.  The only comparable situation I can think of personally was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; a complex and wonderful novel made into a sort of C+ movie that I sort of C+ liked!  Any thoughts?

MISCELLANY THIRD: ART

Any René Magritte fans out there? (as I recall, Silvia likes his work!).  I don’t know much about 20th century art but it’s hard to resist Magritte.  Don’t we all need to have our world view shifted just a little at times?  Magritte is very, very good at that!  This painting is titled, for no particular reason that I know of, Sixteenth of September, which just happens to be today’s date (from where I’m typing at least).  I’d like to say I thought of the painting myself, but truth compels me to give credit where it’s due — the New York Times’ daily cooking newsletter!  Thrown in gratis, along with a recipe for meatloaf with carmelized cabbage!  (If you’re interested, the newsletter also recommended Lara Prescott’s debut thriller, The Secrets We Keep.  Has anyone read it yet?)

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Rene Magritte’s “Sixteenth of September,” painted in 1956.

Enjoy!

 

Monday Miscellany: One Barrier Island, Eight Books and Exciting News for Austen Lovers

If  you’re a visitor to my blog, you may have noticed that my postings have been a little, ahem, erratic in the last month or so.  What I have posted has perhaps been more visual and nature oriented than literary or bookish, which isn’t to say that my interests have shifted.  As much as I love my nature viewing and museum visiting (I’ve at least two very nice regional museums to share with you, so watch out!) my life remains centered on books and the printed word, as it has been since I learned to read around the usual age of six or so.  While I’ve been nature viewing, I’ve also been reading as much as ever (perhaps even more so) but — I hide nothing from you, dear reader — Janakay is just a teensy-weensy bit lazy!  And it’s so much easier to read the wonderful books than to organize my thoughts and string them together in coherent sentences!  Although I’m actually on track as far as the reading goes to meet my two challenges (Roofbeam Reader’s TBR, and Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics), I’m woefully behind in writing and posting the reviews of all that I’ve read.  Monday is “Miscellany Day,” however, so I’m doing a hodgepodge of related topics; because the relationship is a rather loose one, feel free to skip around!

My first Miscellany is —  Anna Maria, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, and its nearby areas (I’m just back from a visit and sorting through photos).

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This certainly isn’t the tourist board’s presentation of Florida, is it?  I love summer visits to the Gulf Coast, partially for the opportunity to see drama such as this.
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A favorite activity for many visitors is simply watching the sunset, which can be truly spectacular.
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These large pink birds are Roseate Spoonbills, which are generally not seen in large numbers. Finding this little flock on an early morning walk at a nearby nature preserve was quite a treat; catching the reflections made the view even better.
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Anna Maria’s Rod & Reel Pier, a community gathering spot.  Do you see the line waiting to get into the yellow building, which is a restaurant?  If you look closely, you can see everyone is facing in the same direction because they’re watching a couple of dolphins hunt fish.  EVERYONE goes to dinner at the Rod & Reel Pier!
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A roosting tree, loaded with White Ibises waking up for the day . . . . .
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In keeping with my interest in food, I couldn’t resist a shot of Minnie’s Beach Cafe!  You’d never guess it was in a small shopping center would you?  Anna Maria frequently throws visitors this kind of curve ball!

While I was visiting Anna Maria, I did lots and lots of reading, which brings me to my second Miscellany:  books that I started, stopped or finished during my time there:

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One of my TBR Challenge books, which I FINALLY finished!  An absolutely stunning read by Esther Freud, a British novelist I like very much.  I honestly can’t understand why it took me EIGHT years to get around to this book.
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One of my Back to Classics selections (category: novel from a place where you’ve lived) and my first novel by Walker Percy. I’m still mulling over my rather complicated reaction . . . .
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A debut novel, sitting on my shelf since 2012.  Can you guess it’s part of my TBR Challenge?  A truly searing tale of a transgressive relationship, not for the faint of heart.
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Harrison’s beautifully written but intensely troubling memoir; a non-fictional treatment of a relationship similar to that depicted in Peile’s novel.
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Although I love science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m not reading many these days.  This tale of operatives Red and Blue, locked in a centuries old struggle through time, is a wild mix of genres rendered in beautifully poetic language.
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One of my TBR challenge books, reprinted in a beautiful new edition as part of the NYRB Classics series.  A blackly funny look at Cassandra’s descent to chaos at her twin sister’s wedding, with some serious thoughts about sibling bonds and “unconventional” life styles (my review will come, eventually!)
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Bánffy’s “They Were Counted” was my “very long classic” Challenge read.  One chapter in and I know I’m in trouble — I need Plan B!  I will not be reading this book in 2019!
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Some times (and a stressful travel day is one) NO ONE but Georgette Heyer will do! This one isn’t my favorite of her regency romances (that honor probably goes to “These Old Shades”) but it’s still wonderful!

And since I’m doing books, make sure your visit to Anna Maria includes a side excursion to nearby St. Petersburg (the drive is lovely) and the wonderful:

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Are you surprised to learn that I’ve added to my TBR pile?

My third and final miscellany: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death.  Has anyone read this?  Or, unlike myself, realized the importance in Austen’s fiction of seaside resorts and beach villages?  Today’s Guardian has a wonderful article discussing Austen’s use of seaside resorts — a key scene in Persuasion occurs in Lime Regis; Lydia Bennet elopes from Brighton and Austen herself may have enjoyed a seaside romance.  The article suggests that in Sanditon, Austen may have written the first seaside novel; at any rate, she certainly anticipated “what the seaside has come to represent in later modern fiction,” such as Chopin’s The Awakening, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Banville’s The Sea.   

The exciting news?  Sanditon is being adapted for an eight part series on ITV, which will air this autumn! Thoughts anyone, about Anna Maria Island, Sanditon or any of my other reads?

Monday Miscellany: Nature along the Delaware Coast in May

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Although it’s hard to make out, the rocks and beach are covered with shorebirds, stopping to feast on horseshoe crab eggs before heading to the arctic ….

I am consumed with shame (well, figuratively if not literally) when I realize how little I’ve posted lately.  I can’t say I have any reason for my sloth, except that I’ve been enjoying the incredible luxury of unscheduled time; in other words, I’ve been slothful because I’m slothful!  I’ve read a few books (but not written any reviews — too analytical, for my present mood); done a little museum hopping (not nearly as exciting to normal people as pub crawling); and made a half-hearted attempt to clean up a closet or two.  The closet cleaning has been quite distracting, as I’ve uncovered a number of lost or forgotten treasures —  a great old paperweight (I warn you, I adore paperweights, so you probably have a Monday Miscellany on this subject headed your way); a wonderful glass fish that’s only got a slightly broken tail — it’s got to be good for something; and a lifetime supply of yellow sticky notes!  Have any of you wanderers on the internet discovered similar wonders in your closets or cupboards?

In addition to these rather domestic activities there’s always something interesting going on in the natural world.  Even casual birders such as myself have certain little rituals they observe, particularly in the spring when there are actually some birds to look at for those of us living in the (mostly) urban portion of the northern hemisphere.  One of these, which I posted about last month, is a trip to Magee Marsh, a wonderful natural area and major stopping off point for song birds migrating through the central United States.  Another, which comes a little later in May, is a short trip north to the shores of Delaware Bay, where every spring the horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs.  In one of those marvels of the natural world, the egg laying coincides with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds trekking from South America to their far northern breeding grounds.  Unfortunately for the birds, horseshoe crabs are extremely useful in medical research and commonly used as bait, and are being heavily over-harvested, leaving the famished birds with nothing to eat.  This misuse by humans threatens to break yet another strand in nature’s great web of life.

First, for a little geographic orientation:

Delaware Bay, with the prime horseshoe crab areas marked in orange.
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A very simplified map of the eastern United States. As you can see, Delaware is a small state with lots of sea coast; south of New Jersey and New York, it’s also a relatively short drive north of Washington, D.C.

Have any of you ever seen a horseshoe crab?  They’re actually not crabs.  Popularly referred to as “living fossils,” they belong to a far more primitive species closer akin to scorpions or anthropoids.  And — they’re big!  I believe there are only four species left on the planet; three are in the Indo-Pacific area and one is found in the coastal waters of North America.

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A single horseshoe crab.  You NEVER see just one — when the tide is right during their breeding season, these things come to shore by the thousands to lay their eggs.
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This gives you some idea of what the Delaware beaches are like when the horseshoe crabs show up to lay eggs.  The shorebirds, needless to say, are delighted.
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A group of Red Knots, a type of sandpiper. They’re extremely dependent on horseshoe crab eggs to survive their incredibly long migration from southern South America to the Arctic.  Because humans are overharvesting the crabs the Red Knot population is in sharp decline.

Although Red Knots tend to be popular favorites, they’re only one among many bird species that feast on the crab eggs.  On a good day, you can also see Ruddy Turnstones, Dowitchers, Dunlins, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and Yellowlegs.  One of the best viewing areas that I’ve found is:

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The DuPont Nature Center has a great observation deck (the photo at the beginning of my post was taken from it) and lots of information about birds, horseshoe crabs and other critters.

In addition to all these attractions, the Nature Center even has art work:

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Do you recognize this?  It’s a sculpture of a Red Knot, done by a local artist.  As you can tell by the human in the background, this is seriously NOT done to scale!

In addition to the Horseshoe Crab-shorebird spectacle, a trip to Delaware in the spring offers other delights.  You pass through several scenic little towns (but beware! many of them have speed traps!) with odd little bits of local history:

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Leipsic, Kent County, Delaware.  Population: 183.
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Bet you didn’t know that Jimmy Fox, one of baseball’s greats, was from Sudlersville, Delaware! Here’s the town’s monument to Jimmy ….

Delaware is surprisingly rural in spots, to be so close to so many east coast cities; in the spring many of the farm fields are gorgeous:

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I love this view of the farm buildings at a distance.

 

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Not a farm field, strictly speaking — more a border alongside the road — but with such gorgeous wild flowers, who cares?

 

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It’s subtle, but if you look closely, you can see there are blue flowers throughout the field.

Delaware, like many other states, also has links to a darker past ….

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Did you realize that in the 19th century areas as far north as Delaware had plantations, worked by enslaved labor?  This former plantation is now part of …
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Bombay Hook is a major reason to visit Delaware.  Although it doesn’t have horseshoe crabs, it has lots of other interesting things, such as ….
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boardwalk trails;

 

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Purple Martins (a large North American swallow) and
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Purple Martin houses (they love to hang out together)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ospreys (here you see one on its nesting platform).
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Bombay Hook provides a home to other creatures besides birds; it also has turtles (this one got a helping hand across the road, otherwise he might have been squashed) as well as ….

 

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unspecified water rodents, with Red-winged Blackbirds, and ….
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some very pretty marsh flowers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Miscellany: Nature on the Move

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Magee Marsh, a prime stopover for migrating birds, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. The boardwalk extends over almost seven acres and provides eye level viewing for some spectacular birds!

I’m afraid my blog has been distressingly free of any new content for — my heavens! — can it be a week now?  Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Well, it does happen, especially when we get just a teeny bit preoccupied, which does make all those good intentions fly right out the window!  The distraction last week was SPRING!  And not just toasty weather, nice new green leaves and flowers, but SPRING Migration!  This may not mean much to all you normal people out there, but for birders (even for halfway, fairly frivolous birder types such as myself) spring migration is a very big deal indeed, especially if you live in a northern location where for the rest of the year the birding can be rather dull.

Migration’s most fundamental attraction is simply visual — birds are beautiful to look at, especially during the spring when they’re wearing nice new feathers and bright colors.  The reason is obvious; they’ll soon be staring in their own version of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as they’re migrating to summer mating and nesting areas.  There’s also the simple fact that there are birds to look at, after a long winter during which there are few to be seen.  During migration you not only see more birds, but you also have the chance to see bird species that are passing through your area as they travel to their summer home somewhere else.  Spotting a species that you don’t normally see, or that you see only rarely, is like winning a lottery prize, albeit a non-material one.

There’s a more serious note, at least for me, however, that underlies the visual beauty and the enjoyment of being out of doors and that’s an almost mystical sense of how various creatures and processes make up the great web of life.  Did you know that a North American warbler, for example a Blackpoll, weighs less than a ballpoint pen and is only about 5 inches (15 cm) long?  Yet in the fall that tiny thing (and keep in mind that a Blackpoll is one of the larger warbler species) flies over 1800 miles non-stop, crossing parts of the the Atlantic Ocean to reach its wintering grounds.  The journey is so tough that the bird’s body starts to literally consume itself, feeding off muscle and even organs that the bird doesn’t need as it flies, such as its digestive system (remember the warbler’s not eating after it launches itself over open water).  Warblers and other song birds can only sustain their flights for so long; for them it’s literally reach ground before their bodies consume themselves or die.  And, of course, many of them do.  A storm; unusual weather patterns; a strong wind from the wrong direction; a housing development where a feeding stop used to be; gulls or migrating raptors looking for a snack and … well … you get the idea.  The individual bird perishes, but the species goes on, at least until we finish paving the world over with concrete.  When I see a migrating warbler I sometimes think of the moment when that warbler reaches the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Erie and, without knowing the outcome, strikes out into the unknown, simply hoping to reach a good spot on the other side of those vast and terrifying depths.  If that isn’t a metaphor for human existence, I don’t know what is.

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A Blackpoll Warbler at close range during spring migration.  This particular Blackpoll has stopped to feed and rest before the next leg of its journey over Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The Blackpoll began its spring trip in South America; if it’s lucky, it will reach northern Canada or Alaska, where it will breed and raise young.  While fairly common, Blackpolls (like nearly every other bird species) are rapidly declining in number.

Well, enough of the heavy stuff!  One more factoid and I’ll shut up and let you enjoy photos.  Did you know that birds, like airplanes, follow regular travel routes?  These “flyways” usually occur along coastlines, rivers and mountains; if a species is lucky some nice nature group, like the Audubon Society, will have located a refuge providing food and a rest stop along its travel route.  (The Audubon Society has a great website showing flyways for several common North American species).

I spent my week of non-blogging (and rather limited reading, I must admit) at Magee Marsh, a nature refuge on the southern shore of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes along the northern United States (four of the Great Lakes form part of the border between the U.S. and Canada).

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Although it’s not on a flyway, Magee Marsh is a critical stopping point for migrants that come to Lake Erie and need food and rest before they’re strong enough to attempt a crossing.  Essentially the Marsh, which is one of Lake Erie’s last bits of undeveloped wetland, is a giant bird hotel that provides shelter, food and water for the birds, and a boardwalk trail for the birders.  Both groups appear happy with the arrangement.

Here are some of the things I saw at Magee Marsh last week:

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A Blackburnian Warbler.  It’s not difficult to see why one of the old fieldguides refers to it as “flame throat.”
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A Canada Warbler, an enormous favorite with just about everyone.
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A Bay-breasted Warbler.  They’re even prettier when you can see one at a different angle.
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A head-on view of a Northern Parula.  It looks pretty fierce from this angle, but no need to worry — it weighs less than an ounce (28 grams).

 

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A Magnolia Warbler; many of these turn up regularly during spring migration.

Over 300 different bird species pass through Magee Marsh each year.  Although warblers are certainly the main attraction, many other wonderful things also rely on the Marsh to survive during spring migration:

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A Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  It’s not a warbler but I don’t mind, do you?
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An American Woodcock.  This photo doesn’t really convey the beauty of the bird’s subtle colors and patterns.
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American Bald Eagles are some of Magee Marsh’s permanent residents; in spring you can usually see at least one nesting pair.

For a wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh is easily accessible from several midwestern cities, including Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.  It’s easy to stay in one of several small towns withing driving distance.  I usually pick Port Clinton, a small town that’s primarily centered on sport fishing (it styles itself “the Walleye capital of the World” and who’s to say it isn’t?).  Port Clinton has a sprinkling of older houses and an impressive array of yachts; it also doesn’t really come alive until late May, after spring migration is over and birds and birders have left.

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Port Clinton was founded in the 1840s and grew slowly; it’s still pretty small.  This is one of its relatively rare older buildings.
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A glimpse of one of Port Clinton’s wharves.  The summer sports fisherman aren’t here yet.
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And what’s an outing of any kind without an end of the day stop at an Irish pub?  McCarthy’s is conveniently located across from a popular wharf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Miscellany: architecture & art in unexpected places (with a little history on the side!)

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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberllin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Cass Gilbert, a leading American architect, designed the gorgeous Renaissance style building in 1917.

A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity.  I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure.  And — it’s easy to do!  Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida?  Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!)  Traveling to or near Pittsburgh?  You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.  Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans?  If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city.  Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama?  Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.

It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay).  Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:

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Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio.  Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination.  As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy,  in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain.  As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one!  Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:

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Sofonisba Anguissola’s Double Portrait of a Boy and Girl, most probably siblings, from the wealthy Attavanti Family of Florence.  Sofonisba painted this portrait around 1580, using the relatively uncommon tondo or round format.

Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art.  The latter includes works by  Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more!  Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior.  Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon.  Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:

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The Allen Memorial Museum’s main rotunda. The individual galleries open from this space and there’s more space for rotating exhibits upstairs (behind the square windows over the arches).
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The Allen Museum’s wonderful ceiling and chandelier.  You can also catch a glimpse of the upstairs exhibitions through the square windows on either side of the circular chandelier.

When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes.  Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!)  The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement.  It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom.  Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?

 

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A popular and well written history recounting an episode in 1858, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the residents of Oberlin defied the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law requiring them to return escapees to bondage in the slave states.
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Colson Whitehead’s novel won both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards and was nominated for Britain’s Man Booker Prize.  Drawing on magical realism, Colson depicted the underground railroad as a literal physical structure used by escaping slaves.  Despite the fantasy aspects, Whitehead’s depiction of slavery’s horrors was, alas, all too real.

Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.

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Baldwin Cottage, designed by Weary and Kramer. Probably not everybody’s idea of a “cottage” . . . .

 

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Finney Chapel, also designed by Gilbert and located on Professor Street — a perfect address for a college campus!

 

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Bosworth Hall, designed by Cass Gilbert

Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.

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One of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s rare Usonian houses, a residential design he developed in the 1930s.

Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:

A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two.  Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….

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A wonderful bookstore, full of charm and character; so different from those faceless mall-type stores or online offerings.  Although mainly specializing in second-hand books of all types, it also offers prints, paintings and interesting “objects,” utilitarian and otherwise!

Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….

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Bead Paradise — wonderful selection AND it has more than beads!

… and FOOD!  Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..

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True to its name, Aladdin serves fabulous Middle Eastern food!

 

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I wasn’t able to hang around for dinner or lunch, but the breakfast was great! Local produce, with lots of vegetarian and vegan options.

 

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Saturday morning BEFORE the rush. An hour later and the place was packed!

In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Virtual Voyage to Visionary Vienna

Yes, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking — enough already with the bad alliteration!  But you know, sometimes I just can’t help myself  — it’s like a little demon is sitting on my shoulder, urging me on!  So how could I possibly resist?  I will be the first to admit that, sometimes, I really, really need to (resist, that is), but if we were good all the time, well — we’d be pretty dull, wouldn’t we?  And, besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to call this post!

My last few posts have included, but not been centered on, books, which is odd, because I read all the time (well, most of the time.  When I was a kid, I did read all the time). Reading a book, however, is not quite the same as writing about a book; for one thing, it’s a lot more fun (although I do enjoy discussing what I’ve read).  The problem, however, is that so much of my reading these days is required, which definitely changes how I approach a book.  For instance, I absolutely adore Middlemarch, which I regard as the second greatest novel in English (the first being, with apologies to any ichthyophobes, Moby Dick!  What’s a blog for, if not to voice your opinions?) but knowing that I have to read a hundred odd pages by next Wednesday does detract a bit from the pleasure of the experience!  Also, I’m reading so much non-fiction these days for my research paper — Renaissance this, Baroque that; visions of whatever in the art of so and so — very interesting stuff, to be sure, but so serious!  Do art historians never laugh?  All this required reading was giving me the megrims, as Georgette Hyer might have said (another of my favorite writers, BTW, as much a genius in her own way as George Eliot.  If you haven’t read Heyer yet, stop immediately, right now, run out and buy one of her books) so I decided to take a much needed break from Victorian England and Renaissance Italy and head for deliciously decadent Vienna — the city of Gustav Klimt! Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind (and of about five other guys)! Sigmund Freud! Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolph and Maria Vetsera! Egon Schiele!

In other words, I went for a brief but very pleasurable visit to the Neue Galerie, one of the most wonderful museums in the city of New York City.  The Neue Galerie isn’t a comprehensive museum like the Metropolitan or Washington’s National Gallery; it’s focused, rather, on German and Austrian art from the early 20th century and is the brainchild of Ronald Lauder, son of Estee and heir to her great cosmetic fortune (it makes me very happy to think that all my eye shadow purchases may have inadvertently contributed just a teeny bit to the enormous amount of lolly it took to purchase this artwork!).  Have any of you visited the Neue Galerie?  If so, please share your experience; I’m such a fan of this place that it’s impossible for me to give an unbiased judgment, so I’d welcome someone else’s reflections.  Although I’d gladly visit any time (the truly great cafe with its authentic Viennese pastries is in itself quite a draw), the specific lure this time around was the Galerie’s exhibition on “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckman.” Before going there, however, the museum itself deserves some visuals, as the building itself is a work of art.

The exterior retains its original appearance of an Upper East Side brownstone dating from 1914, transformed with great skill to house a stunning collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which worked in a sort of Austrian version of art nouveau:

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I will try to limit myself to only a few images of the interior.  It’s difficult, for as you can see the space is gorgeous:

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The museum’s entrance, which is usually thronged.  You can see the wonderful attention the architects paid to the historical elements of the building.

 

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The second floor, which opens onto the rooms displaying the Klimt paintings and products of the Vienna werkstätte, including jewelry, furniture and glassware.
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The second floor gallery where the museum displays its collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt (mostly portraits but there’s a landscape or two).  You can see how the museum interspaces objects with the paintings, which makes for a very interesting display.

No matter what specific exhibition draws me to the museum, I always pay homage to the museum’s show stopper, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer:

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This reproduction gives you a good idea of the textured quality of the painting, as well as some of the details of Adele’s costume.

Aside from its undoubted greatness as a work of art, the painting’s history makes it even more special.  Because the Bloch-Bauer family were Jewish, their fabulous art collection (including this painting) was stolen by Nazis in the 1930s.  Did you notice Adele’s necklace?  It, too, was stolen and eventually “presented” to the Nazi general Herman Goering as a gift for his wife.  After the war, the Austrian government refused to return the Bloch-Bauers’ paintings to Adele’s surviving heirs (many of her relatives and friends perished in the camps).  The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling in the area of reparations for stolen art works (spoiler alert: the family won).  Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read all about it in this very good book or …..

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…what’s even more fun, watch this possibly not great but very entertaining movie (worth it, just to see Helen Mirren in top form!):

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For those of an historical bent, Frederick Morton provides a thorough and very readable account of a fascinating time and place, ominously ending his history of late 19th century Vienna with the birth of Frau Klara Hitler’s son, little Adolf.

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But — I digress!  Back to the museum and its very, very good bookstore (after all, this is a bookish blog!):

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This space is much smaller than it appears and is usually jammed with people.  The reason?  It’s a WONDERFUL bookstore. In addition to the usual tomes on painting, there’s a literature section featuring German, Austrian and eastern European writers.

Despite my best intentions, I don’t read a lot of literature in translation and many German and eastern European writers are not familiar to me.  As a result, when I browse here I usually find wonderful things that I didn’t previously know about; on a previous visit, for example, I discovered the great Joseph Roth and his Radezky March (keep this wonderful novel in mind if you need a European classic in any future reading challenges!):

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This time around, my haul consisted of two shorter works, both by Stefan Zweig and published by the Pushkin Press (Zweig by the way was only one of the many writers and artists who frequented Adele Bloch-Bauer’s literary salons):

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And you might ask, if you haven’t forgotten it by now, what about the exhibition itself? Although I seldom read autobiographies, I’m very interested in self-portraits, which I consider a type of visual equivalent.  I love to see how an artist chooses to represent herself (and by this time there are at least one or two “herselves”) and the elements she uses to construct the identity presented to the viewer.  This particular exhibition was both fascinating and troubling; many of these artists were Jewish, they all lived in troubled times; you know what’s coming and the art frequently makes you suspect that they did so as well.  I particularly liked the following paintings:

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Felix Nussbaum’s 1944 Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card.  Nussbaum escaped from the Nazis once, but wasn’t so lucky the second time, dying in Auschwitz in 1944.

 

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Paula Modersohn-Becker, a new artist for me.  Her 1907 Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in her Raised Left Hand is one of the first self-portraits in which a female artist painted herself as pregnant.  She died at age 31, shortly after the birth of her daughter.

To end on a positive note, I turn to one of my very favorite subjects — food!  The Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky is modeled on the Viennese cafes that were a center of the city’s intellectual life.  Beautiful period furnishings and great food — no better way to end a visit!

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It speaks much to my character than the cafe is, perhaps, my favorite part of the museum.  More knowledgeable sources than I have proclaimed that it has “the best museum food” in NYC; the waiter “warns” you that you’ll have to “put up” with the whipped cream on the Viennese chocolate!

 

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After viewing Adele’s stunning portrait upstairs, I was positively obligated to eat a slice of the “Klimt tart” (it’s one of the chocolate/hazelnut things)!