Sunday, January 26, 2014

It's all ancient history ...

I finished Fire from Heaven about a week ago.  Then I went off course from my challenge, and read the second book of the trilogy, The Persian Boy.  When I spend some time reading about a particular era, or on a theme, often I'll keep going in the same vein.  So I did that this time, too.

Sunset at Persepolis.  Photo courtesy of Pourhassan, Alireza at the German language Wikipedia.

Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy are two very different books, particularly for being part of one trilogy.  Different points of view, wildly varying settings, the same characters were children, now men.  Alexander the Great from birth to death.

Fire from Heaven was difficult but rewarding.  Simply following the story was hard, I kept falling in and out of it.  But, within 50 pages of the end, the book sparkled.  You knew Alexander's father would die, and having it approach and then occur was both dreadful and spectacular.  The same was true of The Persian Boy, despite how differently the books are structured.  You know that Alexander dies but you resist it the entire book. Once Hephaistion begins to feel unwell, the downhill flow is inexorable.

Statue of Alexander, Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Photo from: user:Tkbwikmed / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

But the differences. Because The Persian Boy is told in first person, the plot is easier to follow.  The problem is the person.  Bagoas is sympathetic, but he comes to be a mechanism as much as a character.  He spends a quarter of his time explaining how he, however unlikely his presence, manages to witness the current dramatic moment.  Or telling us how he, who might as well be a professional foreshadower, wishes he fully realized the importance/significance/deeper meaning of whatever just happened. 

I think, in both books, the choppy flow is the result of being a fairly accurate representation of the historical record.  Real life mostly does not have a narrative flow to it.  It's only as the action reaches the climax, in both books, that the story grows wings.    

Of the two, I believe The Persian Boy is generally considered to be the finer book, but I will say that I enjoyed it a smidge less.  More food for thought in Fire from Heaven, but more emotional juggling in The Persian Boy.  How Renault manages an all-male love triangle (one solidly rooted in history) is impressive.  

The third book, Funeral Games, moves back to a third person POV and tells the story of Alexander's empire after his death.  I'm going to save this one for later.  I'm not in the mood to read about the vultures picking over the spoils, and I'm not sure how the trilogy can finish strongly with Alexander, the fire, snuffed.   

  Final call:
  Fire from Heaven

  The Persian Boy

Give the books a shot, but beware that the going isn't smooth.  In both, the portrayal of Alexander himself, and how he sees the world and how he's motivated, is outstanding and worth the read alone.  His relationship to his friends and his troops are icing on the cake.  The sheer energy of the man is mind boggling.  


Thursday, January 23, 2014

More from Monday

Believe it or not, I did more than look at birds all day Monday.  Or, to be exact, I noticed some other stuff while I was out looking for birds.  Given the recent weather, ice and snow were an unavoidable secondary theme to the day.

At the Falmouth river access, there were several puddles, except that the water had receded.  All that was left were the icy caps, sunken in and full of interesting cracks and bubbles.

Another interesting aspect to Falmouth is that it's just north of Brunner Island, a coal-fired plant on the banks of the river.  It's actually not far south of Three Mile Island, either, but the view in that direction is obstructed.  

Although it makes complete logistical sense, the amount of industrial and power-producing facilities that use this river amaze me.  Off the top of my head, I can name two hydroelectric dams, one coal-fired power plant, and two nuclear power plants in the stretch that runs between York and Lancaster counties (plus a smidge of Dauphin).  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Today was for the birds - part two

The Ross's goose was great, but I had a few other avian highlights in the afternoon.  Here's one.

I was able to track down a snowy owl six or seven miles south of town, again in open farmland.  This owl is in addition to the three east of Lancaster city, one just found today north of the city, at least three that were seen once and never again, and one that was relocated here from the Philadelphia airport (and promptly flew right back).  

The second was a visit to Safe Harbor dam.  I'd heard that a large group of bald eagles was present.  I counted at least 15, and my gut tells me that there were actually more.  

For example - when I arrived their were 6 eagles on this power line tower, 2 sitting in the trees underneath it, and 4 on the rocks to the right.  I don't know for sure, but I assume the eagles are dispersing from Conowingo dam further south on the river, where large numbers overwinter.  It's right about now that bald eagles start thinking about nesting, believe it or not!

Today was for the birds - part one

No, seriously.  I spent most of the day birding.  Since MLK Day is a holiday for me, but not my husband, I decided to track down some recent sightings and bird the river a bit along the way.

First up.  Reports have been coming in for at least a month about a Ross's goose staying on the campus of the Masonic Village retirement community.  Today,  I found him after a bit of searching - Masonic Village is HUGE.  And gorgeous, also.  Conoy Creek flows through it and there are a couple of ponds bordering the creek and fields.   

Ross's geese are the cuter and rarer cousins to snow geese.  Much smaller, more delicate head and beak.  I've tried to find them in big flocks of snow geese before and never had any luck.  Much easier to pick one out of a flock of Canadas!

A bonus was a ruddy duck hanging out in one of the ponds.  Elizbethtown wasn't my first stop, today, though.

I was ready to head out just before sunrise, to try my luck at the Wrightsville River Park again.  It was an incredibly beautiful morning, although devoid of ducks. Unfortunately, I forgot to put a memory card in my camera.  At least I had my phone.  Sigh.

The saving grace of my time here was finding a winter wren right along the water.  I've seen a winter wren once before, about 10 miles north of here, and heard them singing (they sound like wind-up toy birds!) this summer, but this was by far the best looks I have had at one.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Weren't you reading some books or something?

I was really excited for my Man Booker challenge the afternoon I rooted out all of the relevant books from my collection.  I asked my husband to pick a number from 1 to 20.  He said 18, and that meant my first book was Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault.

She wrote this right around 1970, and it was considered in 2010 for the "Lost Booker."  Rule changes at that time meant that a year's worth of published books weren't eligible for any Booker prize.  In 2010, the committee revisited 1970, nominated books and chose one.  Not this book.  But, I don't have the winner, and I've heard wonderful things about this one.  

Fire from Heaven is the first in a trilogy that follows the life of Alexander the Great.  Alexander as a small child until the assassination of his father, Philip of Macedon.  

Surprisingly, given my anticipation, I am finding this one hard to ease into, more problems than usual falling into the flow.  Now, 150+ pages in, sometimes I think I have it by the tail, and then I lose it again.  

It's been a long time (since Creation by Gore Vidal as a teenager) that I've read actual or fictionalized history of the ancient world.  So I'm lacking context, and this is a detailed book.

This far in, a few passages have caught the eye of my mind, enough to keep me going.  In most good books, the plot matters, but the insights along the way make or break the experience.  Renault's doing fine here, so onward we go.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

River crossings

The Veterans Memorial Bridge is easily the neatest thing within 5 minutes of my house.  A dramatic 1930s design paired with piers of even older bridges.  So you'll likely be getting quite a few shots of it here.  

Not really "On the Road" but you may as well be as curious about where you live as you are about other places.  Keeps life interesting.  Plus, I commute over the neighboring bridge, which gives me a good opportunity to scope out current lighting conditions and weather effects every afternoon.

This evening showed a rising fog that made the old bridge appear to be floating, when viewed from the Rt. 30 bridge.  From the shore, lower down, the fog blended into the water and made it seem like the old peers and 1930s bridge were drowning.

The ice of last week is quickly melting, dislodging, and freeing the surface.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cold snap and winter ducks close to home

People who like to go look for birds have it pretty good these days.  There are a lot of ways to hear about good sightings.  Most states (I think every state, but I'm not sure) have an email listserv for posting sightings.  When I'm visiting other parts of the country, I'll hang out on the appropriate listservs for a few days prior to see if anything interesting is afoot.

So I've seen a few listservs in action and I happen to think Pennsylvania's is excellent.  A lot of traffic and a lot of good information.  You can access it here.  I just looked, and 16 messages went out so far today, covering all sorts of birdy topics.

All of that is a long way of saying that on Wednesday, I saw a PA Birds message about some interesting ducks on the nearby Susquehanna River.  With the latest cold snap, the river has mostly frozen over, except for a smallish area at the river park in Wrightsville.  

With my work schedule, getting up for first light on Thursday was my only chance to see the river during daylight hours.  I found the ducks, but got a spectacular sunrise over the ice in the bargain.

With so little open water, ducks were concentrating on this patch, maybe 2-3 dozen all told.  Most were common mergansers or scaup, probably lesser scaup.  Here's a common merganser male. 

Colors deepened as the sunrise progressed.  Common mergansers were floating in the part of the river colored by the sun.

I don't have a picture, but a small group of tundra swans were at the far edge of the free water.  At one point, a bald eagle made a few lazy swipes at a ring-billed gull just behind the swans.

A drake and hen Redhead were with the larger group of Scaup.  There were also about a half dozen Common Goldeneye.  These were a life bird for me - it's not easy to get those this close to home anymore!

It's obvious who the Redhead is here.  The Common Goldeneye is in the back, partly on its side.

I saw a white-winged scoter just when the light was bright enough to pick out detail.  I couldn't relocate it.  I enjoy seeing them - they have an unmistakable look, and are relatively rare on these inland waters.  Here's one I saw at Barnegat Lighthouse jetty in New Jersey in 2010, my first run-in with one, and a very patient one at that.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Walking Forsythe

The snowy owl was a big attraction, don't get me wrong.  But, Forsythe is always a pleasure. I have birded it in every season and in nearly every type of weather, and it never fails to knock one's socks off.

Most would agree that it's the second best birding spot in New Jersey, which isn't bad considering Cape May is one of the best in the nation.  Forsythe is almost never crowded, but there's always a steady trickle of vehicles on the wildlife drive.  Cars speed the process of moving around the 8-mile drive, and keep the warm-weather bugs and cold-weather cold out.

On Friday, when I first heard that the drive was closed to vehicles for the weekend, I thought about cancelling our visit.  Then I realized it was an opportunity. 

And, our time there proved me right.  Walking was fantastic, despite meaning that we covered less than a quarter of what we normally would.  

Birdsong gets drowned out by engines.  Even moving at 15 mph means some birds are inevitably missed, details lost.  For example, this member of a trio of ruddy ducks  were too close to the edge of the dike to be seen while sitting down.    

Walking it this weekend increased my love for the place by leaps and bounds.  With the cars gone, it truly shined.  I could hear brant calling from the far side of the impoundments, snow geese from all over.  

Smaller birds didn't get lost in the mix.  Dunlin were squeaking by in small flocks.  They are in their drab winter plumage, but their slightly dropping bill makes them relatively easy to identify (of course, they are plunging this feature in the mud for this picture, and you can't see the curvature). 

Sparrows were foraging and quite tolerant of our presence.  Between the two days, I found white-throated, savannah, swamp, and song sparrows along the drive.  One swamp sparrow gave us quite the show at the entrance to the Leeds Eco-trail.  

Savannahs were all over the drive, flushing forward with every few steps we took.

I don't necessarily prefer to bird in extreme cold, and I'm fond of the comforts and convenience of a car as much as anyone else.  But I do find that it's getting out there in unusual times and conditions that provide the most wonderful experiences.  Right now I wouldn't trade my two hours on Saturday morning in bone-chilling temps for anything! 

Monday, January 6, 2014

On white wings

As you may have heard, this is an irruption winter for snowy owls.  A few northern birds range wide and far when their boreal food sources fail - crossbills, grosbeaks, even red-breasted nuthatches.  The 2012/2013 winter saw an irruption of all of these species. 

But the snowies this winter are different story.  To the experts' knowledge, their arrival here en masse is the result of an overabundance of lemmings, their favorite food, this summer.  Nesting owls were able to raise more chicks than usual, and now with winter in full swing, these younger birds are heading south to find food and shelter far from their normal range.

For me, I've been enjoying having at least 3 snowy owls in Lancaster County.  I was fortunate to see two of them at once, two weeks ago, on an Amish farm east of the city, with at least 30 other watchers.

This last weekend was a special treat, though.  We were heading to Atlantic City, NJ, and I was aware that 2-3 snowy owls were being seen regularly at the nearby Brigantine Unit of the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

The Atlantic City skyline, snow geese in flight, and the snowy owl just below and right of center.

This birding spot is a special one to me.  But this trip was wild - sunny, cloudy, freezing, cold, calm, windy, snowy - we had it all.

On Saturday morning, we arrived around 9 am, prepared for birding in 15 degree weather. That's officially the coldest I've ever birded.  Fortunately, it was sunny with no wind.  We also had to leave our car behind.

So we were on foot, and experienced so much that we wouldn't have from a car (including the temps!).  More on that later, but for now, just know that the owls were elusive.  That wasn't true on Sunday.  We returned to much warmer temperatures and the drive still closed to vehicles.  There were more people, but few bothered to walk out more than a mile, which is just about where we found "our" snowy.

The other snowy owls I have seen were resting and at most turning their heads occasionally.  This one was far more animated, and also came a bit nearer.  It flew three times, preened, watched the snow geese fly over, and bobbed its head quite a bit.

Snowies are as large as red-tailed hawks, lengthwise, but are heavier and have a wider wingspan.

A small pontoon plane was flying low patterns over the refuge, and stirred up two large flocks of snow geese as it passed.  The owl took keen interest in them.

After at least an hour and a half of viewing, the owl flew over the marshes to the southwest.  

I've also posted some videos (definitely not great quality, you've been warned) on youtube: here, here, and here.  The first is the best, the others were taken with digital zoom and are sasquatch-level work, but do show interesting behavior.

If you are interested in snowy owls in general, a good centralized spot to track owl sightings and catch up on news and research can be found on Nemesis Bird, just one page of an all-around excellent blog about all things bird.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

In the mood

I'm not sure what's behind my motivation to come back to blogging.  But I'm going to run with it.  I suspect the motivation is somewhat selfish.  At least, writing for myself over writing for an audience.  

My new title is a nod to three things I intend to focus on as I go along:  travel, books, and birds.  I hope it will also turn into something more than that.  A diary of sorts, a record of observations.  

So, a picture to begin with.  Hmmm.  I guess I should start in the vein I intend to go on in.

So here's what a bag of chow mein noodles looks like when you buy them at about 2,000 ft in elevation and take them up to 10,000+ feet.  An unexpected way to show that the air really is thinner.  Simple things like this are the spice of travel.

That's a start, now we see where the wind takes us!

2014 Reading Challenge

I use the Goodreads website to track my library and reading habits.  Two years ago, I noticed that Goodreads had a Reading Challenge feature. You set a number of books as a goal and it tracks your progress.

In 2012 and 2013, my goal was to read 50 books each year.  In 2012, I blew that out of the water.  In 2013, I fell short.  You can check out the stats for yourself.

I'll keep the same goal for 2014, but I wanted to finesse it a bit.  You see, one thing I've noticed over a number of years is that I consistently seem to really enjoy British and Commonwealth authors.  It may be pure chance, but it's true.  

Another thing I noticed, this year, is that three of the books I read, and which subsequently ranked as three of my favorite books ever, were winners of the Man Booker prize:  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Unsurprisingly, books eligible for the Man Booker must be written by authors who are citizens of Great Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe, or the Commonwealth of Nations.

So, for 2014, I pulled a list of books shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I located the ones I currently own, but have not read.That gave me twelve books (plus one ebook):

That's a good start, but to expand the challenge I went ahead and did the same thing with the Booker longlist from 2001 forward.  

That's eight more books.  However.  A modification is in order.  

The shortlist includes number9dream by David Mitchell.  The longlist adds Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.  I have read his other two published books:  Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten.  Those two launched Mitchell, in my personal system, into the ranks of Authors Whose Books I Must Make Last.  Special treats, to be read one per year or every other year.  So, I'll keep number9dream on the list and skip the others, for the sake of future reading pleasure.    

2014 Man Booker Reading Challenge
19 books (20 if I can ever find my copy of The God of Small Things!)

  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
  • Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
  • number9dream by David Mitchell
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • The Night's Watch by Sarah Waters
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  • Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
  • The Book of Evidence by John Banville
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (ebook)
  • Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
  • Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Some new authors and some old favorites.  This should be fun!