Monday, June 30, 2014

A Fine Balance

I picked another hefty Booker contender for my next read.  A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

It took a while for the cover picture to resolve itself into its separate parts.  That's the whole book in so many ways - the balance between hope and despair, between protecting one's self and sheltering others.  The balance between protection and exploitation.  I'm intentionally not going into detail here, because it's better to read it not knowing much going in.  

One of the best parts of this book is the writing.  It's a very well-written book, but it's not arty or overdone.  The story is the point, and that's the focus.

We follow four people, each with painful histories, who slowly forge a family in horrific circumstances.  You hope that their lives will get better, or at least less precarious, as the book moves forward, but that doesn't happen in any kind of way that makes you feel better for them.

One of the four has a very different fate than the others, and the reason for it is one of the big questions the book asks.  This story also shows how a breakdown in the protection of basic human rights victimizes nearly everyone.  Character A steps on the back of Character B to avoid being crushed by Character C.  And then there's the appalling but very human Beggarmaster.  One of the most complex characters I have come across in a long time.

I'll be honest, I nearly stopped reading several times. I empathized to such a degree that I could hardly bear to keep going.

The extreme fragility of living in poverty will stay with you long after you put the book down.

But.  I finished it, and it's beyond rewarding.

Final call:

You need a good dose of emotional fortitude to make it through A Fine Balance, but please do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Adorable Alert, Kestrel Edition

In one of life's little serendipitous moments, I ran into a friend Sunday evening, and she invited me to watch kestrel chicks being banded tonight.  It felt like Christmas in not-quite-July :)

These kestrels live on land owned by the county's landfill.  They have had boxes for three or four years, if I remember correctly.  We checked two boxes, one with four chicks and one with five.  The first box of nestlings were very calm.  The second box, man, they had attitude.

This is the bander, collecting the chicks from the nest and putting them into a cardboard box lined with wood chips.  Then, each chick has head and wing measurements taken and is weighed.  Finally, they are carefully fitted with a leg band.

A chick is in the blue bag.  This method keeps them calm and also contained.  We did have a runaway chick - fortunately it only escaped into the back of the truck, and not out into the field.  They can't fly at this point, but they still move pretty quickly!  

When the bander fished the five chicks out of the second box, he told us it was really four and a half.  The fifth chick was very noticeably smaller than its siblings.  But just as outraged at its treatment :)

They were mostly content to sit on the bander's hand and pose for the paparazzi.  Kestrels are a type of falcon, and you can see here that typical falcon beak.  Notched, all the better to tear you apart with!

The second box had a dominant chick that spent a lot of time making alarm calls and kicking its feet anytime a hand went in the box.  I have some video of those shenanigans that I will post next time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Adorable Alert, Kitten Edition

There are two kittens at the family farm.  They're too scaredy to pet, and were always very cautious around us, but that didn't stop them from having a great time with each other late one evening:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cat about town

We take walks around town from time to time, and last night was no exception.

Sometimes we run into porch cats, and if we're really lucky, they let us mess with them :)

This nice little tabby was on an elevated porch. So I was actually holding my camera a little above my head to get these pictures.   Sad eyes, and then curious kitty emerged:

This cat is the same basic model as my cat, just maybe half the size and a lot friendlier to strangers!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I decided to read this book because I saw it on a list of "books to read before the movie comes out this summer," and because Amazon had it on sale for $3 or $4 at one point.

Technically, I believe this is a young adult book, but it's perfectly entertaining for adults, too.  No, not much of the plot is realistic.  Especially the parts that involve the eccentric author of the main character's favorite book.  And the teenagers are all smart and full of witty repartee (if only this reflected reality!).

But it doesn't matter.  There's a lot of laugh out loud moments.  I snuffled my way through the last third of the book.  It pulls at your heartstrings, that's the long and the short of it.  There's some 'meaning of life'  and 'why are we here' stuff that keeps it from being total fluff, but it's close to the line.

Final call:

Give it a shot.  Eat some ice cream and cry like a baby.  Don't feel bad about it  :)


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pinelands by night

The nights we camped in the Pinelands of New Jersey were blessed with a bright moon.  So bright, I thought it would be neat to try a little night photography.

Here's what I ended up with - pine branches backlit by the moon.


Any idea what this is?

I spent some time this evening at the family farm, looking at the barn.  When the sun is setting, spikes of light come through the knotholes and spaces between the boards.  Here's an idea of what it looks like.

But when I was playing with my camera, I noticed that the light seemed to read funny on the screen.  A slight sideways movement, and the spaces seemed to widen.  That gave me the idea to move the camera just a bit, horizontally, while taking a picture.  I really like the result!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Quality time at the Brig

How many times is the weekend you picked to go camping also the weekend with the most gorgeous weather?  We really lucked out!  We were at Bass River State Forest in New Jersey.

But of course we didn't stay in camp, we also went to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR ("the Brig") for a spin around the wildlife loop.  Saturday AND Sunday :)

At the Leeds Eco Trail, which is partly a boardwalk out over the marsh, you always see barn swallows in warm weather.  They nest underneath.  The top shot isn't super sharp, but I love the action.

Another denizen of the eco trail area - a willow flycatcher.  I saw one here last fall, and now this trip.  And that is the two times in my life I've seen willow flycatchers.  They look like a lot of other flycatchers, unless you pay sharp attention to detail.  But, man, once they open their mouths, their songs give them away.

Oddly enough, there was a report of a scissor-tailed flycatcher the evening before we arrived.  That's a bird that usually comes no farther north than Texas and Oklahoma, so way out of range.  But there was no sign of it Saturday morning!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The English Patient

And the catch up continues ...

What I knew about this book before I read it:
  • I saw at least some of the movie when I was younger.  I remember a lot of sand and a very dead woman.  Pretty sure Voldemort was in it.
  • It's the centerpiece of a funny Seinfeld episode.  Elaine just doesn't get the appeal of the movie and hilarity ensues.

What I know about the book now that I have read it.
  • It's apparently not very similar to the movie, although both have the same spirit and feel.
  • Michael Ondaatje is a poet and it shows in his novels.
  • It's really hard to praise it highly enough.
Seriously.  This isn't a long book, but it has layers upon layers, and the symbolism runs deep.  A lot of reviewers will tell you the book is about identity, and how people define themselves in relation to nationality, their environment, and each other.  

And I think that's correct, but that it's also about bombs.  There's a lot of detail about the mechanics of explosive devices, and I think that is a reflection of the "bombs" in the story.  Situations and combinations of personalities that are inevitably going to to blow up.

The four primary characters are in a place and time where any part of the physical world could explode at the whim of an IED.  They're near the end of WWII in a near-destroyed villa, following the German retreat from Italy, and they themselves are mentally and physically bombed out from their various and numerous wartime traumas.  Their stories crisscross with each other and explosive characters from their pasts.

At the center is of course, the English Patient, who has no physical identity any longer and who isn't really English, either.  Who connects all of the characters, past and present, and who has been responsible for more than one explosion of his own.

And then, of course, the atomic bombs that effectively end WWII also bring the book to its end.

This book, moreso than many others, reminds you that stories are art.

Final call:

Read this, please.  Not if you want a plot burner.  You are going to feel like Elaine if that's what you're after.  But if you want to be reminded of why you read ALL of the books, then read this one, now.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Never Let Me Go

I'm behind.  I actually read this book in the first half of April.  So bear with me as I play catch up.

I have read an Ishiguro book before - The Remains of Day - so I know he's good at using unreliable narrators.  Or, at least, narrators who who stick their head in the sand and hold on tight!

Never Let Me Go is accessible and approachable.  The narrator, Kathy, feels like an old friend telling you about her school buddies.  Which I am sure is part of the point, as you sympathize with her even as you come to realize that she and her friends are very different in a key way.

It's a quiet book.  Whoever designed the cover picked up on this, with the watercolor feeling.  A few moments of high drama, and the rest is subtle.

You could call this horror, although almost everything horrific is left unsaid.  Many people pick it up without knowing it is science fiction.  To be honest, I didn't know, either.  I knew there was a twist to it, and that you should just read it and go with it.

So, I did.

Final call:

I felt a little bit like I knew Ishiguro's tricks already.  Of the two, I feel like The Remains of the Day is a little more satisfying.  But this one is good, too.  Read it!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

On Chesil Beach

A note:  I finished reading this book a month or two ago.  As you'll see, I didn't much care for it and didn't feel like writing about it and let this post sit as a draft till now.  Oh well, time to get it out!


What a squirm-inducing little book.  There's hardly anything to it, lengthwise, but there's so much uncomfortableness.  This is one of my Man Booker Challenge books.  It was short-listed in 2007 but did not win.  

I have to say, I'm not surprised.  First and foremost because the publishers took a short story and finagled it into a very small hard-bound book.  Second, because I have read Ian McEwan before - Atonement is one of my more favorite books.  This just isn't the same level or quality.

I mean, I see what he was trying to do, but it didn't totally work.  The whole arc is messed up, neither of the main characters grow.  Except for maybe a hint given by one sentence in the last few paragraphs.  Not enough.

Final call: