Tag: Nature

Summer update: Butterflies, Books & Donuts

These are most, if not quite all, of the books I’ve read since mid-spring.  April and early May were definitely a walk on the lighter side, as I concentrated on C.J. Parker’s fantasies (highly recommended for the cynical at heart) and Mick Heron’s Slough House series (super! and there’s also an excellent mini-series you can watch afterwards).  By the end of May, I felt ready to tackle more challenging fare; I particular enjoyed Zola’s The Fortunes of the Rougons and Peter the Great’s African, a short collection of some of Pushkin’s more experimental prose.  For the rest of the summer, I’ve been flitting among a hodgepodge of whatever struck my fancy . . . .

Without intending to, it appears that I’ve taken quite an extended break from most things bookish.  It’s common for me to have breaks between my posts (sometimes quite lengthy ones), usually because I’m reluctant to stop reading long enough to write about whatever new book is currently holding my interest.  This break, however, differs from previous ones; the posting stopped last spring and so did many other bookish things that I ordinarily enjoy a great deal.  My favorite book blogs remained unread, as did book reviews and literary journals; even  — gasp! —  the exponential growth in the TBR pile slowed to a crawl.  In short, for a variety of reasons I spent some time last spring wandering in that bookless desert so unwillingly visited by many bloggers from time to time.

My drought began in April, when a long-anticipated surgery date finally arrived.  I was quite proud of my sang froid in the months leading up to the big event; there was nothing rare about the procedure; the odds were overwhelming that it would be both quick and relatively minor, just another day at the office so to speak, but . . . . when it’s your body and the time to start hacking away at it is actually staring you in the face . . . it’s a different situation, isn’t it?  Since my hacker of choice was in metropolitan Washington, D.C. while I now live in Florida, I also had a fairly lengthy stay away from home.  My little ordeal proved to be a best case scenario, which meant a quick in and out with the medical folks, followed by a very nice post-op recovery in one of my favorite cities, full of museums, bookstores and wonderful ethnic restaurants but . . . well, it wasn’t quite a vacation.  After that, it was home again, home again, and slowly having life flow back into its accustomed channels when — guess who had a breakthrough case of covid?  (I suspect I caught it at the gym; despite intense propaganda otherwise, don’t we all just instinctively know that exercise is inherently unhealthy?)  My case was mild by medical standards but it was unpleasant, as was the physical fatigue and emotional lassitude that followed.

By June, thankfully, I felt some energy beginning to stir and, even more welcome, my bookish mojo slowly, slowly returning but — summer was then in full swing . . . and there were . . . various non-bookish things I needed to do, both for practical reasons and as part of my personal “healing.”  (I know this sounds a bit New Agey, but fear not, dear readers!  There’ll be no discussion in this post of spiritual auras or wellness crystals.)  Because it’s been some time since I posted, however, I’m afraid I am going to ramble a bit, so please bear with me.  To ease your pain if you decide to do so, I’ve divided my lengthy post into sections, so that you may easily click into and out of whatever you find of interest. 

I.  SUMMER DOINGS

Doesn’t everyone love summer?  Even in my new home, where it’s always summer, more or less, there’s still a different feel to things this time of year.  Because there are fewer tourists, the traffic is lighter and favorite restaurants more accessible; because it’s hotter, there’s even more of an excuse to spend the afternoon on the lanai (Florida talk for a porch or patio) reading something interesting (under a good fan and with a tall glass of something nice & frosty, needless to say).  Aside from restaurants and books (surely two of the greatest of life’s many pleasures, n’est-ce pas?), my summer has included . . . .

Putting tropical things in pots & containers and placing them about the house;

Elephant Ear plants (genus Colocasia) were a fixture of my childhood in the southern U.S.  I must admit that as a child I thought them the most boring things going — what’s the point of a plant that doesn’t have flowers?  What a change in attitude a — ahem! few years — can bring about!  They’re now among my favorite plants (I’ve several pots of these things), as I love the illusion they create of a tropical rain forest.
Meet “Freddie,” the fern that threatens to swallow the house, the cats and Mr. J!   A native Florida species, Freddie is tough enough to survive  sun, floods & drought, not to mention my sporadic attention.  When my energy level is up to it, Freddie will be released back into the wild, i.e., planted permanently in a nice, shady spot next to his current location, as the two of us simply can’t go through another re-potting . . . .

(Attempting) to attract butterflies;

Although there’s not much blooming right now, most of these plants (including the tree) were chosen because they attract butterflies (the plants in the earthenware pots are a mix of native vegetation that provides nectar for adults and leaves for their caterpillars).  The keen-eyed among you may notice lots of weeds poking up through the bushes . . . .  Mr. J needs to get busy here!
After all our effort, we managed to attract ONE Monarch butterfly (although we did get a fair number of butterflies from other species).  Ironically, the Monarch preferred Mr. J’s shirt to the plants selected specifically to lure it!  Among the most beautiful of the North American butterflies, Monarchs have declined over 80% in the last decade or so; without drastic intervention, such as inclusion in the Endangered Species Act, they may well be headed for extinction.  I can’t bear to think of a world without Monarch butterflies . . . so I’d best hurry up and put out another pot of milkweed, a necessary element for a Monarch’s life cycle. 

Visiting the local farmers’ markets;

Summers are actually NOT the best season for farmers’ markets in my area of Florida; it’s just too hot.  Still, even the scaled down versions are fun, as there’s always something interesting to sample!

and, best of all, making serendipitous discoveries!

One of my great discoveries of the summer:  Farmhouse Donuts!  Unaware of the treasures contained within, I’d been passing by this old brick building for almost a year before checking it out.  What a wonderful surprise awaited me . . . .
This is only a small portion of the goodies offered by Farmhouse.  I usually opt for “the plain Jane,” i.e., an utterly delicious confection austerely enhanced by a simple sugar glaze.  I am, however, nerving myself to try my first “buttercup” (peanut butter, powdered sugar & a chocolate drizzle) and/or the “haystack” (toasted coconut, chocolate & caramel).  Or perhaps even designing my own treat, a nice option Farmhouse offers to its customers.
After selecting your gooey delight, there’s nothing like a nice rustic setting in which to devour it . . . .

So that’s the outline of my summer, more or less.  What about yours?  Am I alone in my passion for large green plants and gooey treats? 

II.   BOOKS

And, of course, my summer has included books. Always, there are books. Even though I checked out of the blogosphere last spring and pretty much stopped writing, I never stopped reading. As I noted in my caption to the first photo, during surgery & covid months I focused almost entirely on sheer entertainment and quick-paced stories. Any C.J. Parker or Mick Herron fans out there? Although the two write in wildly different genres — Parker does fantasy, albeit hard edged (more G.R.R. Martin than Tolkien, with nary an elf in sight) while Herron gives a unique twist to the espionage novel (think le Carré meets The Office, with moments of real heartbreak and some very pointed political satire, U.K. variety) — they are both very, very funny and know how to move their stories along. All in all, their novels were most satisfying reads during a difficult time.

By mid-May, however, I felt up to focusing on more serious fare, so it was on to my very first novel by Zola, an author who’s been haunting my reading selections for a few years now.  For several years running, my January resolution has been that “this year” will be the year that I finally read something by Zola!  But then, he wrote so very many novels, didn’t he?  Where does one begin?  And aren’t most of them extremely long?  Readers — this year I did it!  I took the plunge and I’m so very glad I did!  Zola rocks!

Somewhat at a loss as to where to start with Zola’s famed Rougon-Macquart cycle, I decided, logically, to begin at the beginning, i.e. with The Fortune of the Rougons, which chronicles the family’s origins and the Rougon branch’s rise to prominence.  Although the novel’s structure is a bit awkward (several chapters go by before crucial characters enter the tale and the various story arcs begin to intersect) and the mid-century French politics can be a trifle dull at times, these are minor flaws.  Zola’s writing is wonderfully evocative and his ability to create memorable characters is unequaled.  It will be a very long time before I forget Félicité Rougon, family matriarch and one of the great female characters of 19th century fiction.  Although I’d have to be reincarnated a few times to make it through all twenty novels in Zola’s cycle, I do plan on reading at least a few more from my stash during my present incarnation!

After Zola I felt another round of fatigue setting in, so it was time for a return to the light side.  Some time ago I read and (enormously) enjoyed Margery Sharp’s Rhododendron Pie.  Since I had a few other of her novels in the stash of Middlebrow books awaiting my attention, I selected one, almost at random, as a palette cleanser before moving on to something “more substantial” (I know this sounds terribly pompous.  Forgive please; this was before I realized that, in her own sphere, Margery Sharp is unequaled)  Several days, and three novels later, I was still marveling at how very good Sharp is, within the parameters she set for herself.  Her dialogue is crisp and believable, and her eye for her society and its foibles keen but compassionate.  I think she’s particularly good at dealing with class differences (admittedly, a reader from the U.K. would be a better judge of this than I); she’s very light handed on this topic but also quite realistic.  In The Nutmeg Tree, the favorite of my three summer reads, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, with its description of “Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermott,” sequestered in her bath and surrounded by her most prized possessions, holding her creditors at bay as they banged on the bathroom door.  Julia, a good-time girl fallen on hard times (Mr. Macdermott has decamped for parts unknown when the novel opens), has various more-or-less believable adventures, all recounted in a very amusing manner.  Running through the comedy, however, is a real vein of emotion as Julia attempts to forge a relationship with the daughter she abandoned as a child.  Harlequin House and The Foolish Gentlewoman, if not quite up to Nutmeg Tree IMO, fit my then current mood perfectly, being equally fun and well-written.  I think of all three novels as very much in a P.G. Wodehouse vein, but with a streak of social realism that the latter (IMO at least) doesn’t possess.  (As a side note for those interested in such things, Nutmeg Tree is published by Open Road, while Harlequin House and Foolish Gentlewoman are part of Dean Street Press’ Furrowed Middlebrow series.)

Although Percy can’t quite decide which of these Margery Sharp novels is his favorite, his paw indicates that (like me) he’s inclined to favor The Nutmeg Tree.

After my delightful little detour with Margery S., I felt the need for a big door stopper of a novel, something on the serious side and lengthy enough to keep me occupied for several days.  What better choice than David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?  Although my enthusiasm has waned a bit in recent years (I have some reservations about his recent science fiction), I’ve been a huge Mitchell fan since his wonderful Cloud Atlas.  So puzzling then, that I’ve had this copy of Thousand Autumns since its 2010 publication, without once even reading the first chapter.  My delay in reading this novel is even more inexplicable given that I’m quite interested in the time and place about which Mitchell writes (the Dutch mercantile empire and its trading activities in the Far East during the early 19th century).  Past time, then, to open that cover and read the first chapter!

Although it took a little effort for me to get into this tale of an upright young clerk, employed by the Dutch East India Company in Tokugawa-era Japan, Autumns turned out to be a marvelous read.  More structurally straightforward than some of Mitchell’s previous novels, it still displays his characteristic ability to create compelling characters (aside from Jacob himself, the Japanese midwife Orito is reason enough to read the book), his humor and his ear for dialogue.  Autumns is a major commitment of time, but worth it if you’re in the mood for beautifully written historical fiction. 

Isn’t it wonderful, dear readers, when fate places an unexpectedly wonderful book in your hands?  This delightful event occurred to me, when I received April’s selection from the NYRB’s Classics Club.

Unfamiliar with Pushkin’s work, I was initially reluctant to make his acquaintance by reading pieces dubbed  “experiments in prose” . . . .

Since I had never read anything by Pushkin, this ordinarily would have gone to the bottom of the TBR stack; prose “experiments” not sounding very promising to this Russian literature novice.  Because I was still in a bit of a dead zone (i.e., I wanted to read and didn’t much care what) I decided, however, to give it a go, based largely on that very intriguing title.  The collection includes four of Pushkin’s short pieces, along with an essay by one of the translators (Robert Chandler), “suggestions for further reading” and excellent notes.  What a wonderful discovery this book turned out to be!  Although I loved all four selections, I particularly enjoyed the eponymous first piece (part of an unfinished novel), which portrayed a changing Russian society through the eyes of Peter the Great’s African godson (and former slave), a character closely modeled on Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather.  The remaining pieces in the collection, almost as satisfying, included a clever parody of historical writing (“The Village of Goriukhino”), an adventure story (“Dubrovsky”) and the strange and beautiful “Egyptian Nights,” in which Pushkin used a mixture of prose and poetry to question the place of art (and artists) in an increasingly commercialized society.  Contrary to my fear my that the collection would be too esoteric for someone such as me, I found it an ideal introduction to Pushkin’s work.  If any of you wanderers of the web have read the NYRB collection, or any of the individual works it contains, I’d be very interested to hear your views on the subject.  (As a side note, a recent New York Review contains a very interesting piece by Jennifer Wilson regarding Pushkin’s views about his African heritage.  I’m not sure of the Review’s free click policy, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s definitely worth a try.  https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2022/08/18/the-first-russian-peter-the-greats-african-pushkin/ )

Although it’s impossible at this point to discuss all the books I enjoyed this summer (I do hope in the following months to review at the very least the ones included in my Back to the Classics and European Reading Challenges), I’d like to list a few that stood out for various reasons.

This slender novel, published by New Directions Press, was easily my most challenging read of the summer.  Thuân takes you into the mind of her narrator, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris; known to her French contemporaries as Madame Âu, the narrator herself never shares her identity with you.  In 160 pages, written without chapter or paragraph breaks, you enter the narrator’s memories of her youth in communist Hanoi & her university days in the former Soviet Union; in a tale-within-a-tale you read the narrator’s draft of a short story she’s currently writing and, eventually, you enter her fantasies of reuniting with the husband who abandoned her and their new-born son twelve years before.  Beautifully translated (by Nguyen An Ly), it’s claustrophobic, hallucinatory, fascinating and maddening, all at the same time.  It’s also not to be missed if you’re up for challenge
A few years ago I read Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations and enjoyed it a great deal; so much so I supplied myself with several additional Keun novels.  I finally got around to reading After Midnight, one of her best known, and was not disappointed.  Keun was a first hand witness to the Nazi regime and her choice to use Sanna, a sharply observant but naive young girl, as the narrator of her novel, ratchets up the horror.
I love books about books and, when I venture out of straight fiction, tend to read them.  Because Castillo discusses “reading” in a broad sense (she includes signage, movies & TV, as well as books themselves), in many respects this is more of a collection of essays on, generally, how we “read” our cultural surroundings.  Fierce, opinionated and passionate, with no use for the traditional literary canon, Castillo isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  While not always agreeing, I found many of her views to be a valuable correction to my own very traditional education.  If you’re interested in Joan Didion, Castillo’s devastating analysis of the latter’s fiction is alone worth the price of admission.
Longlisted for the Booker, Trust appears to be generating a bit of a buzz.  Set in a New York that Edith Wharton might have recognized (but only if she could have envisioned Lily Bart or the Countess Olenska being interested in the stock market), the novel’s clever structure continually forces a reader to question the very basic assumptions of the story.  Ultimately (IMO at least) Trust asks us to question who is remembered by history and who is written out of the historical record. 
Does anyone still doubt that Elizabeth Taylor is one of the 20th century greats?  If so, they should read Mrs. Palfrey.  It’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and so heart-breaking I put off finishing it for weeks . . . .
Although I’ve read little poetry for a great many years now, this summer I found that I needed it again in my life.  I’ve focused mainly on Emily Dickinson, a poet who’s taken me a life time to appreciate.  Slowly, slowly, slowly, with lots of help from Helen Vendler, I’ve been working my way through Dickinson’s odd rhythms, elliptical thoughts and breathtaking images . . . .

III.  BOOKISH ODDS & ENDS

Over the past few months I’ve been keeping a list of interesting bookish topics that I might, or might not, get around to investigating.  It’s all very haphazard, and not terribly current; if you’re interested in such things, you’ve probably already found most of these items for yourself.  On the off chance it might be helpful, however . . . here goes!

Are you a fan of Jean Rhys?  If so, you may want to check out The New Yorker’s “The Many Confrontations of Jean Rhys,” a wonderful overview of Rhys’ life and literary output (be warned!  After reading it, I felt a reading project coming on . . . .) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/07/11/the-many-confrontations-of-jean-rhys-miranda-seymour-i-used-to-live-here-once

Looking for an interesting book column, one that includes the old and the new; the highbrow and the low and everything in-between?  Check out Molly Young’s “Read Like The Wind” pieces.  It’s a New York Times’ subscription only service, but you should be able to get a freebie or two.  Here’s a representative sample, which includes a biography of a legendary art dealer and an Elizabether von Arnim novel that I hadn’t previously heard of.

Curious about the great Australian writer Gerald Murnane?  It’s back to The New Yorker and, hopefully, another free click if you’re a non-subscriber.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/01/the-reclusive-giant-of-australian-letters

Did you know that it’s the 100th birthday of the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant?  There a nice episode offered by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel.  Check it out!  https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-77-writers-and-company/clip/15929224-mavis-gallant-celebrating-centenary-masterful-canadian-short-story

Are you an arm chair traveler?  If so, check out the New York Times series in which various writers recommend the books they believe help you to get to know their favorite cites.  So far I’ve only read Leïla Slimani’s “Read Your Way Through Paris” (it was great BTW) but the others (which to date include Cairo, Berlin, Stockholm, Newfoundland, Reykjavik & Lisbon) look equally enticing.

My apologies for my New Yorker fixation, but it’s offering some really good stuff these days.  High on my list for this afternoon’s reading is its account of Ivan Turgenev and his composition of Fathers and Sons, a book that his Russian contemporaries loved to hate.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/05/liberals-radicals-and-the-making-of-a-literary-masterpiece-ivan-turgenevs-fathers-and-children-slater-translation

IV. IN CLOSING (AND AREN”T YOU GLAD?) 

At this point in my blathering, I traditionally close with a cute cat photo (I have several I’m dying to inflict on the internet).  Because Mr. J has been experimenting with his super-duper, deluxe new camera, however, I thought I’d share a couple of his recent photos.  These were taken at one of the many little ponds that dot my neighborhood, where we recently spotted . . .

this Osprey.  I love Ospreys, although I probably wouldn’t if I were a fish (Ospreys are commonly known as “fish hawks” for obvious reasons).  This one looks ready to go mano a mano with Mr. J, who’s fortunately at a safe distance.

Warning: this next photo isn’t for the faint of heart . . . .

Well, we all have our favorite food item, don’t we?  I love sushi, myself.  I can’t imagine that this big old fish came from the tiny little pond near my house; since Ospreys have a reversible claw that allows them to carry their dinner over fairly long distances, it’s probably from a nearby river.

Well, that’s it for now, for anyone who happened to hang with me this long. Next week I’m off for my first big trip since the pandemic, a jaunt involving hiking shoes, binoculars and, hopefully, some birds. I won’t be posting again for a bit, but I’m dying to start reading the blogs again (I’ve peeked a little already & see that y’all have been reading some great stuff while I’ve been eating donuts) and will begin doing so, just as soon as I finish reading that article on Turgenev!

Short Reads For A (Short) Road Trip

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A few of the more interesting things I read during my recent road trip.  Did I like them?  Well . . . .

Do you make New Year’s resolutions?  I do, every year; it’s a little ritual I follow, an annual triumph of hope over history.  This year I resolved to do the usual things:  lose weight; step up the exercise; no more eating potato chips (I even did the farewell ritual recommended by certain therapists: “I love you very much, fried salty things, but I can’t have you in my life anymore”).  I did, however, add a new one for 2022, i.e., to post a little more frequently on my blog.  There would be no more weeks (or even months), I resolved, when I read wonderful books but didn’t write a word about them!  No more holding back the good news from my fellow bloggers about the stunning new works of fiction I was discovering!  Weekly posts, it’s true, might be a little too restrictive, but surely I could manage twice a month?  I am proud to say, dear readers, that my resolution to increase my number of posts actually survived into February!  (By contrast, I’m totally embarrassed to tell you how soon after New Year’s Day I ate my first, utterly delicious potato chip and just how quickly I wolfed it down!)  At any rate, receiving some rather upsetting health news (unpleasant but highly treatable), combined with just a teeny bit of travel does give me an excuse for neglecting to post for the past few weeks.  The travel, while nothing exotic or international, alas, was a nice little interlude away from the palm trees and unrelenting sunshine of the U.S.’ gulf coast (Florida has earned its moniker of “the Sunshine State.”)  My trip was the usual, to Washington, D.C. and, also as usual, combined tedious errands and fun things.

Although I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do on these little jaunts, my trip reading included three wonderful, new-to-me writers.  I’ll discuss their respective works, short in page length but deep in content, in the first part of this post.  I’ll follow with a few travel photos and comments on the sight-seeing; this was quite satisfying, although I missed a few nice things I didn’t have time to see (I still haven’t made it to the Art Museum of the Americas, for example, or re-visited Baltimore’s stunning Matisse collection).  See how easy I make it for you to zero in on what interests you and skip what doesn’t?

A.  BOOKS

Because I’m drawn to tales about artists and/or the creative process generally, Aysegül Savas’ White on White has been on my radar since its publication last December.  How could I resist a novel with a title invoking, deliberately or not, Kazimir Malevich’s great Suprematist painting?  No matter the fact that I already had a copy of Savas’ well-received debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, which needless to say I haven’t yet read!  This one went (almost) to the top of the TBR pile.

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Clocking in at a mere 175 pages or so, White On White can be read in an afternoon.  Its story lingers, however, and the pleasures of Savas’ elegant prose demand a slow and thoughtful read. 

White’s ostensible plot is simple.  An unnamed graduate student narrator, the lucky recipient of a grant to finish researching and writing a dissertation on medieval sculpture, has taken up residence in an unidentified European city.  The narrator is also lucky (or not) in finding very nice and very affordable lodgings, an apartment belonging to an eminent medieval scholar who makes it available to researchers with the proviso that his wife Agnes, a well-known local painter, will occasionally use the upstairs studio.  Our narrator (I presumed a “she” although gender is never specified) diligently does her research; attentively observes the city that is temporarily home and becomes keenly interested in Agnes, who begins to spend more and more time in the upstairs studio.  The two settle into an increasingly intimate and claustrophobic relationship, one not always welcome to the narrator (after all, she does have all that research to finish and there’s pressure to begin writing as well).  Their roles are seemingly well-defined: the narrator listens and Agnes talks; the narrator receives and Agnes gives — gifts of food, of friendship and of an increasingly detailed portrayal of her marriage; her adult children; her former friends; the beautiful au pair who once worked for her family and her painting.  At the end, Savas leaves us questioning the nature of the narrator’s passivity as well as the reliability of Agnes’ revelations and the generosity that prompted her gifts.

Although short on action (a warning to dedicated plot hounds: you’ll need to go elsewhere), White on White is a novel of echos & resonances; of character and connections.  Just as the narrator studies the medieval consciousness that created the Gothic sculpture of her dissertation, so Agnes explains her art, “white paintings of the human figure * * *  with expressions like those seen * * * from the medieval period.”  The two are interested in the same period, but from the different perspectives of an academic interpreter and an artist-creator.  Is one way to be preferred over another?  At a very deep level the novel is also about change and mutability.  Characters and relationships shift and even a painting in the narrator’s apartment appears to mutate as the story progresses.  The novel’s structure, a double narration, is equally deceptive.  Is the unnamed graduate student who ostensibly relates the tale actually the narrator, or is it Agnes, who speaks to us directly at times and whose life provides the novel’s structure? Can either, neither or both be trusted?

As a former wanna-be medievalist and an adult student of art history, this novel pushed all my buttons.  Although I obviously loved it, however, it’s not without flaws.  How significant these are depends on your own personal preferences.  (I found the ending, for example, rather unsatisfying and a little melodramatic but neither fact detracted from my overall enjoyment.)  I’ve already mentioned that the novel isn’t heavy on plot; if this is of paramount importance to you, I’m afraid Savas’ character driven tale won’t be your best choice for an enjoyable afternoon.  Keep in mind as well that this is a very visual novel whose characters are closely associated with the arts; certain readers may feel that Savas’ descriptions of art and nature are too digressive.  I, on the other hand, was hooked in from the novel’s opening paragraphs (pages 1-2):

Mornings, the apartment expanded with light.  Light flitted across the walls and curtains, streaked the wooden floorboards, lay dappled on the sheets, as if a luminous brush had left its mark upon my awakening.

From my bed, I could see out onto the small, trellised balcony, lush with the thick foliage and purple flowers of a clematis climbing up a stone wall.  White geraniums lined the railing.  There was a single forged iron chair and a round table * * *

On the dressing table beneath a mirror stood a green ceramic bowl; in the hallway, the dark, rounded arms of the coatrack were bare.

Still, everything was marked with life, rich and varied.  Each room echoed a story of unknown proportion, appearing and disappearing out of focus.  The sparsity gave the place its character, so distinct and so fleeting.   

Gentle readers, I wanted to live in that apartment.  Do you think it’s the purple clematis?

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My first novel by Sarah Moss, Summerwater was a tale of almost unbearable tension.  Let’s hope, gentle readers, that we never experience similar vacations  . . .

Turning to my second short read (second only in a chronological sense, that is), I’m happy to report I was equally satisfied in an entirely different way.  For some time now, I’ve been intending to check out the increasingly well-known British writer, Sarah Moss.  We all know, however, what paves that road to hell, don’t we?  But then, what are road trips for, if not to haul around a big pile of books, some of which you actually read?  I’m happy to report that after a year of gathering dust on the shelf, Summerwater received my long overdue attention.  It did not disappoint.

Summerwind takes place in a remote Scottish vacation park, located on a rather menacing loch; it begins before dawn and concludes late the following night.  The vacation cabins — some owned, others rented — are occupied by a motley assortment of families and couples whose outdoor activities have been frustrated by the torrential, unnatural, unceasing rain:

Although there’s no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is raining; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.

The rain, a character in its own right, reinforces the feeling of nature being out of joint.  Moss links the human and natural worlds by interspersing sections dealing with a fawn, an ant hive, a starving falcon and geological time with the sections centered on her human characters.  It’s a wonderful touch that lends a great deal of depth to her story.

Cut off from the outside world by the terrible weather and equally terrible internet access, the would-be vacationers become increasingly unmoored in their isolation.  Middle class and British (mostly Scottish, with one English couple in the mix), they are united in only one thing, i.e., their distaste and distrust of the “foreign” family occupying one of the cabins.  Variously described as Poles, Gypsies or Ukrainians, their music is loud, their manners uncouth and their ways are not the ways of their temporary neighbors.

It’s clear from the beginning of the story that something dreadful is going to occur; the suspense lies in what will it be, when will it happen and who will get the ax.  Will it be the obsessive runner who persists in her solitary and grueling runs despite her bad heart or the quietly resentful retired doctor who drives just a little too fast in his “boomer mobile”?  The kid who’s taken his kayak too far from land when the storm hits or his bored sister who slips away from her family to meet a stranger in the woods?  Or one of the many other characters in this ensemble cast?  By switching the point of view from one character to another, Moss gives the reader wonderfully realistic depictions of each (no one does teenagers better) while ratcheting up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.  About midway through the novel, I had to stop and read the end simply so I could relax enough to enjoy the rest of the story.  Highly recommended, except perhaps for the morbidly timid.

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Two works that I’ve recently read by Claire Keegan, a new personal favorite.  I’ve just added Walk the Blue Fields, one of her short story collections, to my Mount TBR.

The third in my most excellent trifecta of excellent fiction writers is Claire Keegan, whom I read for the first time earlier this month.  As even the most casual visitor to the bookish internet must know by now, Keegan’s Small Things Like These has been widely and very favorably reviewed on numerous blogs.  Although I was mildly curious about Keegan, whose work was unfamiliar to me, I initially had no intention of reading her novella; I’ve read a fair amount of reporting on Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries and didn’t feel I could emotionally handle the subject even in a work of fiction.  After reading the third (or was it fourth?) highly favorable review of Small Things, however, all written by bloggers whose opinions I respected, I decided to give it a go.  After all, I was curious.  Was it possible for any writer to be that good, for any short story/novella to be that morally perceptive or for any fictional character like its protagonist to be that sensitively portrayed in all his glorious, fallible humanity?  Well, yes.  It’s been many years since I’ve read William Trevor, my own personal god of the short story, but I’d rank Small Things as equal to the best of his work.

Since I’ve nothing new to add to the many fine reviews I’ve read of Small Things, however, I’ve decided to limit my comments to Foster, an earlier Keegan work.  Originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, Foster was later published in an expanded form by Faber and Faber (a most unusual step in the publishing world).  A simpler, less morally complicated tale than Small Things, it’s the story of a neglected child, temporarily abandoned by her family for the summer to grieving foster parents.  Despite the notorious difficulty of creating a believable child narrator, Keegan never gets a note wrong in her portrayal of her wary young girl narrator (her age is never specified, but she appears to be around eight years old).  In a beautiful, utterly realistic way that depends as much on what’s left out as on what is said, Keegan shows how the child slowly gains a sense of trust and belonging when she is given attention and nurturing in a home “where there is room and time to think.”  Although Foster lacks the moral complexity and drama of Small Things, I actually preferred its beautiful but utterly unsentimental depiction of human nature, the petty and malicious as well as the good.

I’ll conclude my short reads section with a word or two about Slightly Foxed, a quarterly periodical to which I’m mildly addicted.  If you’re on my side of the Atlantic, it is a bit of an indulgence, but it’s such a perfect way to pass the time between novels, while discovering some half-forgotten treasures from yesteryear, that I justify it as a birthday or Christmas gift, from Janakay to Janakay, so to speak.  The articles are short and beautifully written, often by well-known writers; and the format lends itself to dipping and skipping, so it’s perfect for short attention spans.   If any of you are current or former readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this pricey-but-worth-it gem.

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This recent jackpot issue had a number of articles on my favorites, including Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels; Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop & Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine.  Oh, and a Patricia Highsmith novel I haven’t yet read ….

B.  TRAVEL

Because Washington is such a city of museums, my first stop is almost always . . .

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Washington’s National Gallery of Art.  Not a great photo (drat that truck!), but it nevertheless conveys the scale & size of the entrance to the West Building, the original part of the museum.

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Whenever I visit the National Gallery, these two paintings by Giorgio Morandi are mandatory must-sees.  While I think they’re sublime, Mr. Janakay considers them a bit dull (but then, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?)

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This New York street scene (1902) by the American realist painter Robert Henri is one of Mr. J’s favorites.  I find it (yawn) somewhat interesting . . . .                            

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The National Gallery’s enormous blue chicken contemplates Washington’s skyline.  The Museum’s founder, a very serious robber baron & admirer of traditional European painting, would not have been amused  . . . .

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I can’t be in the D.C. area without a nature walk in one of my favorite spots. This lovely, if stark, photo is from Maryland’s Little Bennett Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Washington and a nice break from all those museums.  The photo was taken a few weeks ago; by now there’ll actually be a little green here and there.
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It’s equally vital to visit Politics & Prose, one of the leading independent bookstores in the U.S.

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Just a smidgen of P&P’s riches; most of the fiction is in an adjacent room.

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Since I had visited P&P only a few months before, my haul this time was relatively restrained. The two military histories (shudder) are Mr. Janakay’s selections.  He’s very picky about his nonfiction and seldom buys from a non-specialist source; I included them in the photo to give you an idea of the selections available in this marvelous bookstore.

For the last bit of sightseeing, it was back to a museum, albeit one I seldom have time to visit.  Nestled in the heart of Washington’s estate area, Hillwood Museum & Gardens remains something of an unexplored treasure for most tourists.  A former residence belonging to Marjorie Post, the sole heiress of the founder of what later became General Foods (jello, cereal or frozen veggies, anyone?), I think of Hillwood as an American equivalent to a British stately home, albeit one associated with oodles of dollars rather than aristocratic descent.  Hillwood is a treasure trove of French antiques and porcelain, as well as Russian imperial relics; Ms. Post was the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union when the Bolsheviks were happily trading Romanov bling for western currency.  If you don’t care for Fabergé eggs or the nuptial crowns worn by Russian princesses, Hillwood’s magnificent gardens provide a wonderful respite from the huge and bustling city that seems (but isn’t) a million miles away.

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One of Mr. J’s photos of Hillwood’s exterior.  Although I don’t often visit, I generally enjoy myself when I do; the museum’s contents are a feast for the eye, the cafe is quite good and the gardens are stunning at any time of the year.

After several days of unseasonably warm weather, the mercurial Washington climate decided that it was winter after all on the day of my Hillwood visit.  Although it was too rainy and cold to walk in the gardens, the greenhouses were open and the orchids were almost, if not quite, in full bloom.  Since I enjoy gaudy tropical flowers very much, I’ll leave you with several shots of blinding color, courtesy of Mr. J:

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After the excitement of the big city, it’s home again, where two of our resident aliens were getting ready to levitate up to their space ship:

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That it for now (and I’m still working on that review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood . . . .)

There and Back Again (with books and art along the way)

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Home again, with the spoils of travel. The bag on the right is filled with contemporary fiction from Politics & Prose, a wonderful independent book store in Washington, D.C. The box on the left contains my treasures from Second Story Books, a rare & used book dealer whose warehouse is located in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland (SSB has a more polished retail outlet in downtown D.C.)

Now that Spanish Lit Month is winding down, and Women’s Lit in Translation Month is gearing up, I really should get busy on those reviews.  After all, I want to be ready for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1976 Club, don’t I?  Wait!!!  Are these events already over?  Are you saying it’s not August?  What happened to August?  And September?  It can’t possibly be October, can it, with November beginning tomorrow?  Oh, Halloween horrors!  Have I been in a time warp or something?

Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes!  At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit.  And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe.  For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck!  Doctors!  Needles!  Nasty medicines!  Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time.  Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date.  Ah, memory …)  I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities.  While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above.  I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?)  Seriously.  I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things.  As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans.  In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read).  And October?  Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television.  In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.

Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed.  Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis.  During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant).  I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:

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Oops!  Guess I really shouldn’t have packed the cat!  Doesn’t Maxine look like a type of avant-garde, live action sweater?  Not to worry, however, I DID evict her from her new napping spot before zipping the bag . . . .

One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C.  I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.    

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This photo gives only a faint idea of the store’s huge size. Notice the “All Books 50% Off” sign.  That’s half off Second Story’s marked down prices!  A little lolly goes a long way at Second Story Books!  And — they’ll even throw in a box or a bag, depending on the size of the purchase!
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Luckily, the interior is organized by subject.  Fiction has its own very large section, semi-organized by authors’ last names.  On my last visit, I never made it past the letter “H.”  This time I’m determined to be more disciplined!

As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover.  This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work).  I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit!  (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area.  The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)

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A small portion of my riches from SSB’s warehouse. The fellow on the left seems to be having second thoughts about being part of the shield wall at Hastings, doesn’t he?
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Although they were rather scarce, I also found a few Virago Modern Classics.  Ivy Litvinov, an English writer who married into the upper reaches of Soviet society, looks very interesting, as does this (previously unknown to me) work by Miles Franklin.

After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose.  When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes.  Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.

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Conveniently located near a metro stop, P&P is absolutely not to be missed for book loving visitors to D.C.!  Stocking literary fiction, the latest best sellers and offerings from indy presses, P&P also makes major efforts to recognize BIPOC voices as well.

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A small portion of P&P’s interior . . . the coffee house is downstairs.

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My treasures from P&P:  Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads; Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories; Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (a replacement copy for an old read); Kathryn Davis and Evelio Rosero from, respectively, the always interesting Grey Wolf and New Directions publishers and last, but far from least, Drifts and The Talented Miss Farwell, a couple of fun, impulse purchases.

I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception.  Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning.  Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings. 

A street view of the National Galley (courtesy of Mr. Janakay), my favorite museum in the entire universe!  Although I always visited occasionally when I worked a couple of blocks away, I really began to haunt the place after I began my second career as an art history student.  Only a quick visit this time, a single afternoon, to say “hello” to some of my old favorites . . . .
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If you’re lucky enough to have access to some of Europe’s great museums, well, you can see a Leonardo.  If you’re in the Americas (north or south) your one shot is this oil portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci, acquired by the NGA from Liechtenstein’s royal family in the mid-1960s . . . rumor has it that the royal sellers needed some extra cash for a son’s wedding!
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I love this fantastical, demon-haunted landscape (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) painted by an anonymous artist of the 16th century.
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Mr.Janakay, on the other hand, favors the rationality and drama of Rembrandt’s The Mill (painted in the 1650’s).

The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.

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The Phillips Collection is still housed in part in the original brownstone, which is located in one of the most scenic parts of the city . . . .

Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the favorite painting of all who visit.  I’m not much of a Renoir fan, but even grumpy old me agrees it’s quite the masterpiece.  Its new, temporary space somewhat dampens its impact but even so it packs quite a wallop!

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Part of the original brownstone, the music room is still used for chamber music concerts (it was the site of Glenn Gould’s American debut in 1955).  If you look hard, you can just see Renoir’s Boating Party in the left rear of the room (usually it’s upstairs in the new annex, with an entire wall to itself).

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One of my personal favorites in a museum filled with great art, Franz Marc’s Deer in the Forest I.  It was painted in 1913, when Marc was at the height of his powers.  Killed at Verdun in 1916, Marc was later denounced by the Nazi regime as one of the so-called “degenerate” artists.

After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing.  Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:

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This spot in Montgomery County Maryland is always lovely, but I’ve never seen it looking so gorgeous.  One of Mr. J’s very best nature shots IMO! 

Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home  . . . . 

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I know I’m home when I see my own little palm tree . . .  
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My, Pooh Bear’s certainly been busy while I’ve been away . . . . wonder which one of these she liked best?

Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

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Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.

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My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!

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The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!

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I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)

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Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.

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Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.

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Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.

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An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.

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Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!

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One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 

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Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.

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A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?

Monday Miscellany (Moving! Books! Nature!)

Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence!  Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog.  However did the blogosphere survive my absence?  (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!)  Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs.  You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books.  I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews.  But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked.  Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).

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A collection of most (not all) of the things I’ve read this year, beginning way, way back in January.  Although I enjoyed some more than others (surprise), there really isn’t a dud in the stack . . . more below!

Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.

A.   MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)

Have you ever moved, dear reader?  I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go!  I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay.  If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode.  After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”

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A would-be deserter from the family unit, which is preparing to move from temporary to permanent quarters.  Not to worry, dear reader, Maxine reconsidered her escape plans and was scooped up and moved with her little feline frenemies!

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Percy says “you can move these stupid birds if you want, Janakay!  I’m not going anywhere!”  Unbeknownst to Percy the horrors of the cat carrier awaited him . . . .

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My new kitchen, three weeks before move-in date.  Not to worry, however, as R., the kitchen guy, assured me he’d return to finish up as soon as he completed his second quarantine period (R. has many relatives who love large family gatherings . . . . .  not the best strategy during a pandemic).  All did in fact go well, after move-in dates were adjusted a couple of times!

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My new home at last!  Surely those boxes will unpack themselves?

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Just when needed most, professional help arrives!

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A major reason for all this moving business:  new shelves!  Miles and . . .

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miles of new shelves!  And what do new shelves need, dear book bloggers?  If you have to ponder the answer you should definitely take up another hobby!

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Slowly, slowly, progress is made.  Fiction is generally arranged alphabetically by author’s last name but how to organize the art books?  Alphabetical by artist doesn’t quite work . . . .

Completion at last!  (Well, mostly. There are still a few boxes of unpacked books in the garage.)

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As we adjust to our new home, we’re each finding our favorite space.  Although Percy enjoys watching basketball in a mild kind of way, he’s far more interested in sitting under the TV than watching it when a boring old baseball game is in progress  . . . .

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As life settles down, we’re also beginning to indulge again in our favorite activities, which in Maxine’s case involves going off on a little toot now & again (the pink thing is stuffed with catnip, to which she is quite addicted).

Despite many fundamental differences among members of the household (we disagree, for example, on whether new rugs make the best claw sharpeners), we do agree on one thing: moving is totally exhausting and requires a really good recovery nap!

B.  Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read

Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading.  After all, isn’t that what we’re all about?  Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events.  Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it?  My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”).  As my opening photo demonstrates,  my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here).  During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world.  What can I say?  You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer.  Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:

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My first book of the New Year, completed on January 4th.  Although I generally struggle a bit with short stories, Matsuda’s (translator Polly Barton) feminist, idiosyncratic and original treatments of Japanese folk tales deserved its glowing reviews.  Added bonus:  publisher is Soft Skull Press, a small indy publisher “at war with the obvious” since 1992 and located in New York City.

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Jean Stafford has been one of my great discoveries this year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion, her best known novel, I read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  It’s a family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s and displays to the full Stafford’s elegant style, eye for character and ability to evoke atmosphere.  A proper review is coming (sometime) on this one.

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Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet was my first encounter with a surrealist literary work.  Although I was mildly apprehensive at first, I soon settled in for a wild adventure with a nonagenarian like no other, a cross-dressing abbess, the goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.  As subversive as it’s wildly funny, I hope to review it in the next few months.

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Despite some ambivalence about Elizabeth Bowen (there are times when she’s just a bit too refined for my taste), I’ve been slowly but steadily working my way through her novels.  Eva Trout, Bowen’s final novel published in 1970, turned out to be one of my favorites. Very, very funny in some spots, tragic in others and with some very heavy things to say about communication, or lack thereof, among its characters.  Put this one on your Elizabeth Bowen list.

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Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance was a trip down memory lane, as I first read it shortly after its publication in the late 1980s.  Jacquiwine has been doing some incredible reviews of Brookner’s novels, which prompted me to pull this old favorite down from its home on my new shelves.  Blanche Vernon, an excellent woman of a certain age, consoles herself with a little too much wine and lots of visits to London’s National Gallery after losing her husband to a much younger rival (pet name: “Mousey”).  I enjoyed Brookner’s elegant style and dry wit as much this time around as I did initially and can’t wait until Jacquiwine’s review!

Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:

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I’ve been eagerly following Simon’s reviews of the British Library’s Women Writers series.  Although all the titles look great,  I’m particularly eager to try Rose Macauly’s Dangerous Ages.  On a different note entirely (remember!  I said my tastes were ecletic) is Damon Galgut’s The Promise, a family saga/fable set in contemporary South Africa.  I first “met” Galgut in 2010, when I read his haunting and beautiful novel, In A Strange Room, short listed for that year’s Booker.  Despite my good intentions, I have never managed to get back to his work.  As for Paula Fox, I’ve been intending to sample her novels for ages now and I’m resolved to begin this year with her highly acclaimed and best known work!

Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust?  If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:

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I’m sure I’m the last Proust fan on the planet to be aware of this book, which I happened upon while browsing on that internet platform we all love to hate. Pricey, but worth every penny, it’s a wonderful way to dip into and out of Proust’s great masterpiece.  I’ve paired it with Mr. Janakay’s great photo of a Blackburnian warbler, which I’ll miss seeing for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.  Why this particular pairing?  The Proust reminds me that even a plague year has some compensations . . . .

Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time.  Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color.  Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus  . . .  exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner?  Quelle horreur!  Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.”  Guess what, dear readers?  The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!

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There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions.  It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of In Search of Lost Time.  After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two.  After all, there are several different editions!

On a last Proustian note:  The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907.  Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed.  The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.

C.  Nature

What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J?  Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery.  Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.

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The nature preserve’s boardwalk as viewed from the observation tower, the only high spot around in a very flat landscape! The basic circuit is around three miles (close to 5km) and there’s always something to see . . . .

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A view from the boardwalk, across the salt marsh. Unfortunately, the bird in the tree is too far away to make out, but I always see numerous ospreys and a variety of herons and egrets when doing the circuit; if I’m lucky, there’s the occasional kingfisher as well.

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If you look closely, you can see the large great blue heron standing in the water.

If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you  no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end.  I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.

HAPPINESS IS . . .

As Mr. Janakay has occasionaly observed (admittedly somewhat to his peril), I do not possess a naturally sunny disposition. Unlike my more fortunate friends, I do not, alas, look for the silver lining purportedly possessed by even the stormiest cloud; think that it’s darkest just before the dawn; or consider a half-empty glass to be half-full. These days we live in are so very dark and dreadful, however, that I have decided to turn over a new leaf. Away with the doom and gloom! Up with the smiles and sunshine! For strictly pragmatic reasons, I have resolved to go from frowny to smiley face. Without some (perhaps irrational) optimism I see no way to survive the upcoming weeks, when I and my fellow Americans (of the U.S. variety) are clearly in for a very rough ride indeed. As part of my new program of sunshine & smiles, I’ve decided to compile a “Happiness List” of all the positive things that will keep me going in these stressful times. So — here goes!

FIRST HAPPINESS:

The certain knowledge that 2020 will be over in fifty-six days and approximately four hours (depending on when I manage to finish this post). To borrow words once uttered by her British majesty during her own dark year, 2020 has been one annus horribilis and can’t end soon enough!

Will it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that I also “officially” voted earlier this week for one other thing to end as well? (Janakay doesn’t mean to be a tease, but no more details — some forums (fora?) need to stay neutral.) With respect to the current political situation, what can one say, except:

I lifted this great photo from today’s edition of the Washington Post. It speaks volumes for the pitiful state of the times that this photo accompanied the daily weather report, for gosh sakes . . .

SECOND HAPPINESS:

Having many, many wonderful new books, many more than I could read in a lifetime, but, hey — since when has practicality been a factor in my book acquisition? I began this awful year traumatized with the need to do a massive cull of my bookshelves, which I managed after some hysterics and the moderate assistance of medically prescribed tranquilizers. After dismembering my little library, I dumped the surviving volumes onto a moving truck that carried them away to their temporary new home, an unused bedroom where they’re currently sharing space with some lamp shades and a table or two. I retained, unpacked, only the very minimum number of books necessary for survival — perhaps 200 volumes or so — and resolutely refused to unpack the others, as they’d be moving again in a few months. My heroic restraint created empty space in the bookcases for the first time in my adult life! Well, we know that old saw about nature abhorring a vacuum, don’t we? I’m actually too embarrassed to disclose all of my new acquisitions, which are, frankly, quite enormous (I handle my stress by acquiring books). In mitigation, I plead extenuating circumstances: I began collecting my new stash months ago (last April to be exact); the NYRB Classics had several great book sales this year and many of you write really great blogs with excellent reading recommendations that I couldn’t resist (I’m like Oscar Wilde in one way at least, being able to resist anything but temptation). Below is an incomplete but fairly representative sample of my new books:

My books aren’t usually this neatly stacked, but I’m trying to impress my readers!
I’ve been meaning to try Lispector for ages; with all this new “at home” time, perhaps this will be the year . .
This one is Kaggsy’s fault! After reading her September review of a Berridge novella (kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com), I had to try Berridge for myself. I really meant to post a review but — didn’t quite get around to it! I will say, however, that this slightly lurid cover image is rather misleading; clearly the publisher was marketing the novel as a Gothic romance, which it most certainly is not.
Another of my books that I’ve actually read! This was the monthly selection automatically sent out by the NYRB Classics Club, so it really doesn’t count against my total. These two novellas are a great introduction to Ginzburg, whom I had not previously read. I loved both novellas and now must get copies of Ginzburg’s other works as well.
Another September review, this time by Ali (heavenali.wordpress.com) led to this acquisition. Penelope Mortimer sounded so interesting this novel became a “must.”
This one I blame on Simon (at stuckinabook.com). I’ve been following his reviews of this great new series by the British Library (which he is curating) and just had to try one (ahem; actually three — notice the sticker — how could I refuse an offer like this?)
I’m reasonably fond of Henry Green (he’s so original that, at least for me, his work takes some getting used to) and haven’t read this one. When it was available on sale by NYRB Classics, there was only one thing to be done . . .
What’s a book binge that doesn’t include some art books? The art world has recently rediscovered Klint, a woman painter who was doing abstracts years and years before the big boys like Pollock. I find it very soothing to sit and look at pictures . . .
Another art book. I love landscapes but this book has lots of text and looks quite serious. It also has a limited number of pictures. Whatever was I thinking? Who reads an art book? Perhaps I’ll just place this one in a casual position on the coffee table, to impress my new neighbors when they drop by . . .
I don’t think Faulkner’s very fashionable these days and I’m not sure how many people actually read him. I loved Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and the few other novels I’ve sampled but . . . there’s no ignoring the fact they were written by a white southern male of the pre-civil rights era. In my opinion, Faulkner views his culture with a merciless and unflinching eye, although he is quite unable to escape its limitations. I’m eager to dip into this study, to see if Gorra shares my view . . .
Last but far from least, these two Gothic novels are a trip down memory lane. They were among the first Gothic romances I ever read, oh so very many years ago, very shortly after I read my first Victoria Holts. I was thrilled to rediscover these books a few weeks ago and will be interested to see how they hold up (so far, Sarsen Place is doing pretty well).
Maxi says, “Enough blathering about books, Janakay. Move on to the next item on your Happiness List!” There are times, dear reader, when Maxi is as wise as Confucious (and far more sly).

THIRD HAPPINESS

My third happiness is — gasp! new book shelves! Lots and lots of lovely, empty new shelves, just waiting to be filled when I finally complete my move.

Shelves in the living room . . .
Shelves in a bedroom . . .
Shelves on one side of the dining room and
Shelves on the other! And, of course, besides all the shelves, I still have all my old book cases.

Haven’t we all known the agony of triple stacking our beloved treasures, or even (horrors) boxing them away in one of those plastic slidey things that fit under the bed? Could it be that finally I will have enough space to alphabetize my fiction by authors’ last name and group my art books by artists? Reader, is it possible to have a greater happiness than this?

FOURTH (AND FINAL) HAPPINESS

Although I am definitely not an athletic type (turning the pages in my book, or clicking my kindle is quite enough exercise, thank you very much) I do find it absolutely necessary to touch nature at some level for at least some portion of time. In this respect, I’ve been lucky indeed; both my old home and my new have lots of green space.

Aren’t these Sandhill Cranes gorgeous, particularly with their red head stripe? There’s nothing to show you the scale, but these are big birds, standing 4 to 5 feet (approximately 152 cm). If you want to see them “live,” plan a trip to North America, where they’re primarily located. This little family group hangs close to my house and seeing them is always a major treat.
A classic river scene from a large state park about 20 minutes away from me by car. This photo was taken a few months ago, when it was unbelievably hot. Although I didn’t see any, it’s a very safe bet that this river has alligators!
Same state park, different habitat . . . those golden flowers were at their peak when this photo was made earlier in the year (note to self: I really must get a plant book to learn what I’m looking at!)
This is an older photo, from an Audubon sanctuary located about 100 miles (160 km) further south from my house. The weird spikey things are flowers and the orange things are butterflies. Aren’t they both marvelous?

Well, that’s it for my Happiness List. What’s on yours, dear reader? What’s keeping you afloat, so to speak, during these dark times?

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?

Midweek Miscellany: Nature Along Florida’s Gulf Coast (with pics & videy!)

Are any of you denizens of the internet residents of Florida?  Has anyone visited Florida or, if you’re a wanderer of the blogosphere from somewhere other than the U.S., have you even heard of Florida or have any idea of what it’s like?  To many, Florida is a sun-drenched version of the American dream, where summer is perpetual, the beach a block away and fresh orange juice as close as the tree in your back yard.  The Florida lifestyle, in fact, can be so pleasant that it’s easy to forget, or overlook, the complexities of America’s third most populous state (that’s right!  Only California and Texas have more people and New York — New York! — has less.  In American presidential politics, this makes Florida one big electoral prize).

Florida is literally the land of tomorrow and of yesterday; a place where you can watch a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral one day and on the next visit St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States (founded by the Spanish in 1565, long before those English pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock).  Florida is a land of paradox and contradictions, with disparate elements often existing in close juxtaposition to each other:  a manicured golf course lies next to a mangrove swamp; Disney Land and tourist theme parks co-exist with Miami’s International Art Fair (the place to go for serious collectors of contemporary art); an alligator suns itself on a suburban driveway; egrets and herons fish alongside their human counterparts.  Florida wraps this package of self-contradictions in endless miles of beautiful beaches.  With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, Florida has more seacoast than any other continental state; its gorgeous white sand beaches and tropical waters have tempted generations of American college students south for spring break (note to anyone planning a mid-March Florida trip:  take care in booking your hotel, unless you think setting off fire alarms at 3 am is the height of humor.  Mr. Janakay does not and was very grumpy indeed after one of his spring Florida jaunts).   

Because Florida has so many pleasurable ways to pass the time (not least, dear reader, it offers numerous opportunities to lounge on one’s porch or patio with something white and chilly in hand), it’s very, very easy to overlook its fantastic natural attractions.  If you’ve wandered by my blog before, you know that I adore swamps, marshes, wildlife reserves, boardwalks, and parks; I’m basically a huge fan of any place where humanity has left even a sliver of room for non-human creatures.  (Nature along the Delaware Coast; Nature on the Move).  Although so many of Florida’s natural wonders have been lost to commercial development and population growth, there’s room for hope because so much still remains.  Of these surviving remnants of “natural” Florida my very favorite is Corkscrew Swamp, a 13,000 acre sanctuary (about 5300 hectares) located in the western Everglades and operated by the National Audubon Society.

You may find Corkscrew and its wonders about thirty miles inland and slightly north of Naples; find Naples in the map’s lower green quadrant, put your finger on the “a” and go up a bit and you’ll have a rough idea of Corkscrew’s location.

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Condominiums and beach playgrounds dominate much of the coast in this area; logging and agriculture have taken their toll.  Despite visiting this part of Florida many times, I still find it hard to believe that this:

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Naples, Florida

is only about 30 miles (approximately 48 kilometers) from this:

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A portion of Florida’s last remaining Bald Cypress forest, visible from Corkscrew’s boardwalk.

Visiting Corkscrew and viewing its wonders is easy.  The sanctuary is open every day of the year; admission fees are minimal (fourteen American dollars; admission good for two consecutive days if you save your receipt) and the two miles of boardwalk provide easy access to Corkscrew’s different habitats (if you’re not up for two miles, there’s a shorter loop you can do).  Because Florida is hot, and birds and wildlife can be scarce when people are present, I always try to arrive as early in the morning as possible (the boardwalk opens at 7 am).

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It’s always fun to check the “do it yourself” list of sightings left by previous visitors at the beginning of the boardwalk.  On this trip, I missed the “giant grasshopper” and “yellow rat snake” seen by others!

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The boardwalk “loop” begins at the visitor center.  The first portion of the walk covers Florida prairie, marked by open space, palms and pine trees.

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A Red-bellied Woodpecker, seen near the beginning of our walk.  It’s a common species in the eastern U.S. but always fun to see (and hear!  They drum and make lots of squeaky sounds).  The ones in Corkscrew appear darker to me than the birds found further north; this type of regional variation can be fairly common with birds.

One wonderful thing about wetlands are the sounds, which are frequently as interesting and unusual as the sights.  Even though its sound recording isn’t great, this short video of Corkscrew’s prairie does give some idea of the cacophony of frogs, none of which were visible (the snuffling sound is the frogs; there’s also a bird in the background):

 

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By this point, the boardwalk is traversing deep swamp.  Its very inaccessibility helped Corkscrew to survive:  bugs, snakes, water and no roads simply made logging too difficult, at least initially.

Once in the deep swamp I had one of those wonderful, unpredictable experiences that sometimes occur — a wildlife sighting!  This was my first view of a group of Corkscrew’s river otters:

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Otter No. 1 is checking out the boardwalk, deciding whether it’s safe . . . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yup, it’s safe!

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Another member of the gang appears  . . . . . .

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Three otters are enough to begin a group wrestling match!  Ultimately, the pile included 6 or 7 animals . . . .

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Another recruit . . . .

 

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A head-on look.  The otters were totally unintimidated by human presence . . . .

This is a brief video of the otters’ appearance.  Because it was made towards the end of the wrestling match, several of the troupe had already moved along the boardwalk.  You can hear some swamp sounds and (alas) the click of someone else’s very high tech camera:

 

Although the otters were hard (well, impossible) to top, Corkscrew has more wonders:

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One of Corkscrew’s “lettuce lakes;” it’s hard to believe there’s water under all that vegetation.  The lettuce lakes provide important habitat for all manner of creatures, including . . . . . .

 

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baby alligators!  Can you spot this one, right in the center, on one of the leaves?  Don’t be fooled by the size; although this one is tiny, adults can range from 8 to 11 feet (2 to 4 meters) and weigh several hundred pounds.

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More baby alligators, sunning themselves on the bank of the same lettuce lake.  On my last visit, about a year ago, I also saw a mother alligator with her brood; this time, however, I didn’t see an adult.

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Another lettuce lake.  That I didn’t see any alligators doesn’t mean they weren’t there!

 

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An Anhinga, one of Florida’s “specialty” birds.  They swim under water and stab fish with that long, nasty bill.  This one is drying its wings after taking a dip.

 

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A profile view of the same Anhinga; this gives a better view of that nasty bill!

 

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I’ve almost always seen a barred owl on my visits to Corkscrew; this one came late in my walk, when I had almost given up!

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Red-Shouldered Hawks are also common Corkscrew residents . . . .

 

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An immature Green Heron.  When this one grows up, he (or she! Hard to tell which) will lose those stripes . . . .

 

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A very imperfect view of Aldo No. 3, one of Corkscrew’s great bald Cypress trees.  It was named after Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement.  Aldo No. 3 is over 500 years old and stands 98 feet tall.  We’re lucky to still have Aldo, as logging activity was halted less than a mile away.

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This is only one of Corkscrew’s many species of flowers. . . .

 

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One of the swamp’s many dragonflies . . . .

You may have noticed, dear reader, that I have a tendency to preach, which I do attempt (not always very successfully) to keep under control.  Chalk it up to all that earnest, didactic Victorian literature I sometimes read (BTW I’m currently engrossed in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s wonderful doorstopper of a novel!).  So — skip this paragraph if you like, you’ve received your warning — but it’s impossible for me when discussing Corkscrew not to stress how incredibly difficult it’s been (and continues to be, actually) to preserve its wonders.  Have you ever heard of plume hunters or noticed the feathers in all those gorgeous women’s hats, so fashionable in the early part of the 20th century?  Well, those feathers had to come from somewhere and the rookeries of south Florida were easy pickings.  Plume hunters could make a fortune in one successful hunt and their activities almost wiped out Florida’s heron and egret population.  The trade was finally outlawed in the 1920s but even then official enforcement was lax.  Audubon hired its own wardens to protect Corkscrew’s nesting sites and launched a public relations campaign against wearing the plumes.  It was difficult and violent struggle — two of Audubon’s wardens were murdered in the line of duty —  but their efforts were successful and the egret/heron population was saved.

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Snowy Egret in breeding plumage. A century ago, this guy would have ended up on someone’s hat.

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The boardwalk ends, as it began, with a stretch of Florida prairie.

Because you’re observing a living biome, every trip to Corkscrew is different.  For example, if you’re lucky enough to visit during October to February, you have a very good chance of seeing:

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a Painted Bunting, which spends the winter “down south.”  Wouldn’t you think that something so unbelievably colorful would love to show off its plumage?  Nothing could be further from the truth!  These birds are very shy and are normally quite hard to see.  Corkscrew, however, has bird feeders located where they like to hang out (deep brush), making for fairly easy viewing if you visit during the right season.

And then, if you’re incredibly lucky (not ordinary luck, but the kind where you’d win the powerball lottery), you might see — a Florida panther!

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Needless to say, this is NOT my photo!  Despite being quite willing to trade several years of my life for the experience, I’ve never seen on of these beautiful animals.

I can’t resist using this great video, lifted directly from YouTube.  There’s a naughty expression at the end, so if you’re sensitive to such things you may want to turn off the sound.  I’ve left it in, as it so exactly expresses how I would have felt!

 

Florida Panther

 

Audubon calls Florida panthers an “umbrella species,” i.e., if they survive, so do lots of other things that use the same habitat.  Once they were found over the entire southeastern U.S.; now there are about 100–150 left in a few spots in southern Florida.  Cause for despair or reason to hope?  Because the numbers have grown since 1995, when the population was down to only 20-30, you decide.

 

Miscellaneous Monday: Summer Weekends

Are you, dear reader, a worshiper of the weekend?  On Monday mornings do those two precious days glimmer like a mirage on the far horizon; a heavenly vision that gets you through those nasty mid-week blues?  I must admit that I’m more tolerant of weekdays and less reverent about weekends since I’ve left the 9 to 5 routine but — they do remain special.  Weekends are little breaks from the mundanity of everyday routine, with even the most ordinary non-special-occasion weekend offering its own little serendipities.  The greatest, of course, is the weekend read.  An entire afternoon, with no chores or commitments, and nothing, absolutely nothing, between you and the book of your choice.  A treat of this caliber is rare, even on weekends, but there are lesser delights to savor.  On weekends, the morning’s hasty bagel breakfast can expand to include a friendly  interchange with the bagel chomper at the next table, or the harried trip to the grocery store can become leisurely enough to notice (finally) that nice patch of flowers along your route.  Or — hang on to your hat, Magellan! — you might feel relaxed and adventurous enough to explore a different route to a familiar destination; or even to try a different activity — a new store, an unfamiliar park or museum or that obscure cafe you’ve being hearing about.  Even the domestic routine mellows out — weekends are for trying new recipes, or looking at forgotten photos, or giving the cat an extra tummy tickle along with his/her’s Little Friskies Gravy Lovers’ Treat (a huge favorite in my household).  In short, weekends are for doing all those little things that are actually very big things.

Although weekends are pretty super any time of the year, summer weekends are really unbeatable.  One huge factor contributing to their charm — farmers’ markets!  Do any of you live near farmers’ markets and, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?  In my area, they’ve gone from being rather rare to being ubiquitous.  Although you may find, depending on location, a pop-up market on Friday, or even Thursday, Saturday morning markets tend to be the most popular.  Many of the markets also include much more than the usual fruits and veggies (although I tend to stick to the produce).  The Saturday morning farmer’s market is one of summer’s delights, combining exercise (well, sort of — you do have to walk past the stands), entertainment (if nothing else, there’s always people watching, or a clever dog chasing a frisbee) and really great food:

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Very early morning at the local farmers’ market.  Not all the vendors have set up their stands and the street entertainers haven’t yet made their appearance. In an hour or two, this place will be mobbed ……

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A few of the local offerings.   At this particular farmer’s market, items must be locally grown and preferably organic. As you can see, basil, greens and baby tomatoes are in season.  They will be followed later in the summer by local strawberries, cherries, peaches & corn.

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It’s no mystery why this particular bakery does quite a lively business at the Saturday market!

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If you’re ambitious, and unlike myself non-fatal to plants, you can even find things for your very own garden.

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At last, an entertainer shows up!

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A souvenir from the farmers’ market, to enjoy all week after the eatable goodies are gone.  Although I didn’t get photos of the stands, several of the vendors at my local market specialize in flowers, less expensive and far nicer than the greenhouse variety…

When you’ve had enough of the farmers’ market, or if you decide to skip it that week, not to worry!  Summer weekends have still more delightful possibilities for the dedicated hedonist!  Although my ideal physical exercise is ordinarily confined to turning a page, in the summer I actually like to walk.  One of my very favorite places for a summer’s stroll (quite accessible from where I live,  but, unfortunately, not terribly close) is Little Bennett, a gorgeous multi-use state park containing numerous paths and trails, natural wonders in the form of native plants and critters and some interesting historical sites.  Although Little Bennett is under increasing pressure from a growing population (it’s only a couple of miles from a recently developed “town center” that added approximately 20,000 people to this part of the state), it remains an incredible oasis of natural beauty.  Because Little Bennett is a large place (3700 acres or about 1497 hectares), quiet and solitude can be found there even on crowded weekends.  It has a variety of trails, suited to almost every energy level:

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Little Bennett is hilly; this particular trail has lots of dips and ascents.

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For a more sedate walk, you can use the remnants of an old road that once connected several of the farms whose acreage is now included in the park. This portion is relatively intact; the road disappears entirely further along.

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One of my favorite things about the park is its large and meandering stream, which provides habitat for fish and birds, including …….

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Louisiana Waterthrushes, a species of North American warbler.  These birds are regular summer residents of Little Bennett.

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An area I call “the Bluebird meadow” (I have NO idea of its official name, if any). If you squint really hard at the center of the photo (behind the tree shadow extending from the left) you can see two Bluebird nesting boxes (small square shapes on a pole).  This portion of the park is — surprise! — a pretty good spot to see ….

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Eastern Bluebirds.  Bluebirds eat bugs, love meadows and need cavities for their nests. Without nesting boxes, they would probably be totally displaced by non-native European starlings, which are more aggressive and are also cavity nesters.

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Wims Meadow, once part of a farm owned in the 1930s by Jim Wims, a prosperous African-American farmer. Mr. Wims donated the meadow as a baseball field for African-Americans, who had nowhere else to play in those segregated times.  The Wims teams became known for their excellence and a couple of the players went on to become professionals.

A third summer delight for those less outdoorsy moments is taking a bit more time to savor the cultural offerings that come with the season.  This year I hit the jackpot, as there’s a wonderful June-August exhibition at the National Gallery on:

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The exhibition, the first of its kind, covers 17 centuries and animals real and imaginary. Many of the objects, which include sculpture and ceramics as well as paintings, have rarely if ever left Japan.

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The wall banners are located outside and to the left of the exhibition’s entrance.  As I recall, the banners portray animals associated with the Japanese zodiac.

(in the first exhibition photo, you can see that this digital display is located to the right of the entrance; as you can tell from the sound — you may want to use mute — its animated  animals are quite popular with the kids).

Since summer is my time for exploring, I usually visit the Gallery’s east wing, devoted to modern art, more often than I do at other times of the year.  The east wing has recently reopened after a five-years renovation.  Its totally gorgeous galleries are expansive, roomy and filled with light.

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Although this photo shows only a portion of the East Building’s atrium, it does give you an idea of its size. If you like Alexander Calder’s mobiles, it doesn’t get any better than this!

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A gallery devoted to Calder’s smaller works.  My favorite is the glitter fish in the upper right.

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See what I mean about the gorgeous display spaces? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten the names of the artists whose works you see here — help anyone?

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I love Giorgio Morandi’s paintings .  My significant other finds his work dull; I find it deeply spiritual and contemplative. When I’m in the East Building, I NEVER skip these paintings!

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One of the very nicest features of the renovated East Building was the addition of a roof top terrace, an ideal “break” spot for the summer time art lover! Pay close attention to that hint of blue underneath the left-most tree …….

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. . . which is the bottom half of this huge plastic sculpture by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.   Just LOOK at its size (use the door to the left and the tree in the preceding photo for scale). Are you surprised to learn this is a popular spot for selfies?

Although this post is growing dangerously long, in the spirit of Miscellaneous Monday I’m throwing in some miscellaneous video, also from the National Gallery (as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m learning how to use video on my website!)  One of my favorite parts of the museum is its “people mover,” part of an underground concourse that connects the older West Building to the Gallery’s newer East Wing.  The lights you see in the video are part of the  Multiverse light sculpture created by the American artist Leo Villarreal:

Immediately preceeding the people-mover/light sculpture is the National Gallery’s “waterfall,” which is visible from the underground cafeteria and bookstore and provides a source of natural light to these spaces:

Finally, if all this activity is just too energy consuming, nothing is better on a summer weekend than just plain taking it easy in a favorite spot:

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Farmers’ markets, hiking and museum exhibitions are all very well and good, but Percy knows the best way to pass a summer weekend . . . . on a nice cushion underneath an air conditioning vent!

 

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!