Friday, October 30, 2015


This is a Booker Prize finalist from the 1980s, and I am left to wonder if maybe it doesn't age very well.  I think it's supposed to be a grand statement about the spirit and character of Australia, with comedy and tragedy and everything in between and everything a little fantastical, too.  

The general theme, i.e., lies and their value and what they say about the people who tell them and listen to them, is very intriguing.  Unfortunately, a lot of the book doesn't really address it.  You read on and on about improbable people doing improbable things in improbable ways, and then before you know it everyone's living in cages in a pet store.  No, really.  Maybe every 20 pages or so, you get a quick little flash of really insightful or beautiful text that you can't tie to the rest of it.  The balance is off, for me.  Or maybe it's just that I am not familiar enough with Australia to get all of the in jokes.

This is the only Peter Carey book I have read to date, but I get the impression that several of his other titles might have been a better place to start.  I also cannot tell you how much I dislike the cover.

Final call:

This book actually might be right up a lot of people's alleys, especially if those alleys are very literary and enjoy world fiction particularly, so don't write it off on my account.     

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Diamond Age

I .... just don't know about this one.  The premise sounds beyond promising:  a young girl (ok, street urchin) in the future gets her hands on a smartbook programmed to essentially raise said child to be subversive, and before you know it, the entire world's in trouble.  

But the execution is a bit off.  Instead of getting tighter, the story spins off into weird subplots.  Poor Hackworth, always hapless, and disappearing from his family for ten years.  Sort of.  Miranda's in the story, then she's out of it sort of, then she's suddenly the key to it all.  And here's a sentence I never thought I'd have reason to type: the sexually transmitted data plot line was a huge turn off in a book about raising young girls.  It just didn't fit the mood or style and reaaalllllly slowed down the story. 

Sometimes books go astray by going for a big picture at the end, and giving no closure for the characters we've loved the entire book.  The Diamond Age is the exact opposite.  Just a few pages from the end of this looooooonng saga, we're still hearing incredibly specific details about how characters are fighting in the street.  Then, the book ends.  It's so bogged down in the minutia that I have no idea how the large scale competition between the Feed and the Seed is actually going to shake down.  Worse, I have no idea whether Hackworth is helping the Seed or not, or whether it's even a good thing.  


Final call:

I can't give a book with this much humor and imagination less than four stars, but it probably deserves three. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Brooklyn Bones

I don't think I've read a book by someone I've known, however meager the acquaintance, excepting academic books.  But here's one. I have to say, I expect the worst from genre mystery books these days, and Brooklyn Bones is solid.  It avoids a lot of traps.

Erica is our main character, and she has her head on strait.  The relationship between Erica and her daughter is really sweet, even if it fraught with teenage angst, and Erica always acts for her daughter first.  Really the only criticism I have is that the mystery seems to coalesce around Erica and then resolve itself without much action by Erica herself.  I'm not even sure that's a criticism.  It's just different from other mysteries.  But that's how I think Brooklyn Bones stays true - a lot of books veer off course because the hero/heroine has to take nonsensical or contrived actions to move the plot forward, and here Stein finds other ways to get to the end.  

This is definitely not hard-boiled, or even much of a thriller, per se.  But it is a nice, quick read of the cozy variety.

Final call: 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Years of Rice and Salt

Somehow, I read a synopsis of this book somewhere, and bought it, and read the back of it, and still managed to not realize what the book was about!

I thought it looked at how life in Africa might have proceeded if European colonization had not occurred.  And yes, that is a part of it, albeit a very small part.  I missed the whole let's rewrite global history as if the Plague breakouts in the 1300s had killed almost everyone Western Europe, instead of only one third of them.  And I definitely had no idea about the strong Buddhist bent to the plot.  Not that any of that is a bad thing, but I rarely go into a book so off course as to what I was about to read!  

This one lies pretty solidly in that grand science fiction tradition of using alternate worlds and/or histories to question how society operates.  The author is compared to James Michener, too, since both have written epic fictionalized histories that follow generations (not quite generations in this case, but the effect is similar). I realized that it's been quite a while since I've read something in either of those veins.

So, this one was hot and cold for me.  There were parts that were frankly just beautiful, but more and bigger parts were a slog.  I had 15 pages left last night to finish this entire 700+ page book and couldn't do it.  That, like, never happens.  Some of the issue comes from the difficulties of covering so much time relatively quickly - the pace gets very uneven.  Some of it comes from the extended discussions, which were really mini-lectures, on the fabric of religion and civilization, although actually many times those were interesting to me.  

There are 10 books, I most liked Awake to Emptiness and The Widow Kang.  For a long time I thought the book's title had no specific meaning, but Widow Kang has a wonderful explanation.  The discussion of reincarnation in the last few pages of the book is both amazing and wickedly clever.     

Maybe most troubling is that I'm not sure what the big picture is.  The book seems to make judgments about particular religions/civilizations, but some of them don't seem correct, even within the context of the book.  But I think I would need more time than I'm willing to commit to untangle everything. 

Final call:
I wouldn't say that this book has broad appeal, but it's also pretty approachable.  If you feel like walking on the philosophical wild side, give it a go.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Jersey Birds

Time for more photos from Forsythe.  We went out to Atlantic City a few weeks ago and of course took the time to drive up to my favorite wildlife refuge, once on Saturday and again on Sunday.

Pine trees and egrets, what a mix.  You don't see the two together a whole lot, but this Great Egret was proud as a peacock up in his perch.  The flexibility in these guys' necks never fails to amaze me.

Birds were somewhat scarce (although scarce for Forsythe means there's still plenty around.)  But maybe two miles down the dikes, we found a huge group of several types of birds in what appeared to be a feeding frenzy.  This is the best shot I could get of it, and it's missing maybe half the birds that were there.

There were:  Double-crested Cormorants, Great and Snowy Egrets, plenty of Laughing and other Gulls, and about 30 Glossy Ibis.

Here's a cormorant close-up, sixteen of them in this shot alone.  It must have been a good day for birds in groups, because about three quarters of the way around the wildlife drive, we came upon this small tree covered in Great and Snowy Egrets.

This is really just about a third of the tree, there were many more birds hanging out in it.  Funny, because we've been going to this refuge for years now, in all seasons, and this is the first time I've really seen any kind of heron hanging out there.

Lastly, a Snowy Egret we found making use of a piling and giving us a very good demonstration of the leg and feet colors that are so distinctively identifiable.  Adults usually have a strong break between the yellow of the feet and the black of the legs, but this one doesn't, so I'm thinking it's a juvenile bird, hatched just this spring.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Always Time for Middle Creek

The same day we took the butterfly tour at Fort Indiantown Gap, we decided to swing through Middle Creek on the way home.  I like going there on random summer days - it's always beautiful and the crowds are gone.  Plus you just never know what you're going to see!

I love the look of the summery meadows that take over so much of the open ground at Middle Creek in the warm months.  In truth, I was hoping for more butterflies, but they were sparse.  It was a pretty hot day, so maybe that had an effect.  The birds weren't out much, either.

There was a dragonfly, posing semi-nicely on a Common Mullein stalk near Stop #3.  I say semi-nicely because he stayed put for a long time, but never turned his butt away from the camera.  The internet tells me this is probably a Halloween Pennant, which I can see, given the black and orange color scheme.

Another treat to going in summer is that there's a spur road off of the Wildlife Drive that seems to be open only at this time of year.  Back this road, we found a Grasshopper Sparrow with some grub sitting on a fence post.

The spur road ends in a cup-de-sac by a pond and wetlands. Bird activity here was stronger, and there were also two White-Tailed Deer.  They amused me by wading out into the shallows of the pond.  In the meantime, Orioles, Catbirds, Goldfinches, Robins, and more were poking around and flying from bush to reed to tree.  All in all, one of my favorite spots in the Management Area!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Reviews: A Blast from the Past

For Christmas of 2005, one of my then coworkers (and a fellow reader) gave me a journal and told me it was to keep track of what I read.  I recently pulled it out, with the intention of adding these into Good Reads as a kind of back up.

I wrote the date I finished, the title, the author, the page numbers, and then a 1-2 sentence review. I diligently logged books from 2006 through July of 2013, when I moved totally to Good Reads.

I thought I'd share some of these reviews; looking back they're hilarious, often in a "what was I thinking" kind of way :)

For example.  My thoughts on Twilight:  "An easy read, but a dumb book.  Like it's written for teenagers by teenagers. Grrrrr."

And, The Harlequin by Laurel K. Hamilton: "Actually not that bad. The psychobabble yapping did not totally dominate the book."

What was my obsession with the word dumb?  Here's The Secret Lives of Doctor's Wives: "A dumb book, but it's entertaining, which is actually pretty good for a dumb book."

I seemed to use the words excellent and incredible overly much.  But what can you do when you read a book like Making Money by Terry Pratchett:  "Excellent as always, and it's hard to say that about a book where the main character's first name is 'Moist!'"

One more, The Secret History by Donna Tartt (a generally well-liked book): "What is the point of great writing about dull people?  How does a genuine bacchanal turn into a yawn???"

I do still wonder about those questions, by the way.

I'm only through 2008, for tagging all the books in Good Reads and entering my reviews, and I can already see how my tastes have changed.  Less paranormal series now, less thrillers, more literary books and more of the classics I never picked up in high school or college.  More books, period.  About 10-15 more per year now!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Tiger's Wife

The big "thing" with this book, if you read know anything about it at all, is that it's a blend of the realistic and the mythic.  A major theme is how people turn real events into stories to comfort themselves or help them make sense of their lives.  But exactly how this works with the events and stories presented in the book, I'm not always sure.  The diggers in the vineyard, those were obvious.  And the way the deathless man's role seemed to mirror what a doctor's role is, knowing who will live and who will die.  The tiger seemed like a symbol for outside influences pulling on a very insular village, dangerous and to be distrusted.  I could make those connections.  But the tiger's wife herself, and Luka, and the apothecary, and their back stories, those remain opaque to me. 

How almost any of this relates to Natalia and her grandfather, I don't know.  Aside from it all supposing to be very Balkan.  Despite Natalia saying that the key to understanding her grandfather lies between the stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man, I struggled to pull together any grand connections between the stories and his life.

Then there's war.  The entire book is painted on a backdrop involving various and numerous wars.  Sometimes you get lost and can't remember which war caused what to happen.  The author plays it as another facet of the Balkan cultural attitude, which may not be fair, I think.  Certainly it's what led me to see the tiger and his wife as the "outside" and the "different" sparking conflict.  

I do get the impression the author was trying to use animals to make us see plainly what humans hide, particularly the costs of stress from war.

I thought I would like this book more than I did.  Which is not to say I didn't like it; I predicted that this would be an easy five stars for me, and it's a solid four instead.  I'm not sure I completely got what the author was throwing out there, but I was able to interpret (i.e. make stuff up!) enough on my own to feel satisfied.  

Final call:

I say read it, and don't stress out about trying to figure everything out on the first go.  This is an impressionist painting done in words - individual parts may make no sense, but the overall effect is clear enough.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Fort Indiantown Gap Miscellany

Here's the big group of us, after arriving at the range.  We got a good lecture on safety and respect for the habitat, and we listened because the guy was big and loud.  But, most of us also had our eyes on the field while our ears were on the instructions :)

There were plenty of things besides butterflies to be interested in, like this Ring-Necked Snake that was found by the herpetologist of the group.  Later he found a turtle, too.

This concluded our time at Fort Indiantown Gap, but it turns out that we had more outdoor adventures in store for us this particular day.  But more on that in the next posts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

More than Just the Regal

As you might imagine, habitat good for the Regal Fritillary is also good for lots of other winged denizens.  The butterfly tour consisted of a leisurely one mile loop through fields and meadows, with plenty of butterfly aficionados around to help you figure out what was what.

Full warning, I might mess these names up.  But I believe the butterfly above is a Spicebush Swallowtail, and I'm sure the one below is a Pipevine Swallowtail.  This one is pretty worn, but I think they are a particularly pretty butterfly.

Now we're back to the Spicebush on the thistle bloom.  It amazes me how differently the undersides of the wings can look from the tops.

It may be hard to tell, but here we have a much smaller butterfly, some sort of Copper, I think.  Maybe.

And here we have three Great Spangled Fritillaries, as identified by the person standing next to me as I took this photo.  I just noticed the small bee in front of the butterfly on the right.  It blended right in!

And some Skippers, resting on a Bee Balm, or Monarda, blossom.  

Near the end of the tour, when I thought the new kinds of butterflies were mostly behind us, I snapped this long shot of a colorful guy, and later was able to ID it as an American Lady.

So there's your whirlwind tour of the butterflies of Fort Indiantown Gap.  I heard that they do a bird tour in the spring, so that's definitely on my list now!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Regal Fritillary

The Regal Fritillary has a unique relationship with Fort Indiantown Gap.  You see, this butterfly feeds on arrow leaf violets.  These violets like to grow in disturbed habitats - places where the soil is churned and turned over fairly frequently.

This habitat is in short supply in much of the nation.  However, military vehicles with tracks, like tanks, are great at creating it.  Once the Fritillaries were found at the Fort, the military began special conservation measures to ensure they continue to have a home.

One of their firing ranges is now more or less dedicated to the Fritillary.  We were never in unsafe areas, obviously, but signs like these did kind of raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Here are a couple more of my Fritillary pics:

As you can see, these were not particularly shy.  They enjoyed their butterfly weed while many lenses snapped around them :)  

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Kingdom of Ohio

Back to my 2015 Challenge reads.  I was totally sucked into this one by the cover.  But, I've been chugging away at it for the last few weeks, getting distracted by other books and then coming back to it.  That's usually a bad sign, indicating that my attention is not being held.  Which I think is a fair statement.  The narrator is not a natural storyteller, lost in the past as he is, and distances the reader from the action of the book.  

One of this book's biggest problems (related to the above) is that it spends far too much time telling us how crazy and incomprehensible and indecipherable the past events that the book is based on are.  So, when you find out what actually happened, you're left feeling a little underwhelmed.  I mean, the events are improbable, but considering I just read a book with not just time travel, but Egyptian cults, Gypsy doctors, insane clowns, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge being a bad ass, they're really not that out there.

The other problem is that the relationship that develops between Peter and Cheri-Anne is hard to believe.  They know each other for about a week, and have so little in common, and yet he pines for her the rest of his lifer?  It can happen, but the book doesn't really sell it.  And, this book is badly titled. There IS a Kingdom of Ohio, but it's not center stage.  Not much of it takes place in the Kingdom.  It puts you on the wrong footing right away.  Similar to how the stuff from the Roanoke Colony is introduced so late in the book, it's a distraction.

But I'm not being fair.  There are wonderful moments: meditations on memory and the relationship between past and future.  Detailed looks into how traveling through time can affect a person's psyche.  Interesting takes on early America and its technologies.  I want to say that this is a realistic look at time travel/world hopping, but that's ridiculous, isn't it?  A realistic look at unreal things, lol.  But if those things were possible, I bet this is how people would react.  Not instantly figuring out the circumstances and making brilliant and death defying moves, like characters in a blockbuster.  They probably would be hurt and confused and longing to get back to where they belong.

What really interests me, though, is that the author said he was influenced by Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, a book that is also on my list to read this year.  I'm wondering how this one will compare!    

Final call:

The good stuff averages out the bad stuff, so let's just leave it at three stars.      

Military Might = Butterfly Flight?

In this case, definitely yes!

For quite a while, we have wanted to make it to Fort Indiantown Gap's butterfly tours.  They do them two weekends in July, and that's it.  Fort Indiantown Gap is Pennsylvania's large Army & National Guard training facility.  You get the impression that all manner of things happen here, and they probably do.

But here's the deal.  They put on an excellent show.  There were 5-6 naturalists traveling with the probably close to 200 citizens who came to tour.  Specialists in butterflies, plants, birds, and more.  At the beginning, a pavilion had a lot of mounted winged creatures and skulls.  Here are some mounts of what we were about to go find live in the field.

For example, above are a few of the swallowtail type of butterfly, and also the fritillaries and sulphurs.  Below is a skull that I have to believe belonged to a heron of some sort.  

I have to say, I thought perhaps two dozen people would be on this tour.  But I was wrong.  The guides told us they expect 150-200 people per day.  And this was definitely the military.  All 100 cars or so were lined up in precision order, and given instructions on how to leave the site and proceed to the firing range that is home to the butterflies.  Here's the starting line :)

Now, we saw many butterflies this day.  But the star attraction is the Regal Fritillary, a butterfly known in only a few places in Pennsylvania, if not just this one location.  But Fort Indiantown Gap and the Regal Fritillary have a complex history, one that I'll share in the next post. 

Before we arrived, the main concern was ... would we really see a Regal Fritillary?  Or would it be a long shot?  Well, we didn't have to worry.  There were scads, and even without the high numbers, the naturalists were out to find one for us to see up close:

Here you go, the Regal Fritillary, in all of its glory.  In case you haven't noticed, these guys have been the banner on my Facebook page for a while.

The other common fritillaries in the area are the Great Spangled Fritillary and the Aphrodite, both of which have an even orange wash on both fore and hind wings.  The Regal Fritillary's hind wings are a deep black, making it stand out from the fritillaries and also the Monarch.

The big question, of course, is why the Regal Fritillary chooses a firing range as its home.  But more on that later ...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the Woods (Not Literally, This Time)

Here's another book I picked up recently and decided to wedge in to this year's reading list (like many things in my life, chalk it up to a Chambersburg thrift store).  Part of the attraction was that it's set in Dublin and its suburbs.  And the other attraction is that every once in a while I just have a hankering for a good detective novel.  Plus, this one's set up is pretty engaging, when you read the back cover.

What I wasn't expecting was the quality of the writing.  Tana French is good!   And funny!  She's got a sly way with it.  She has great adjectives.  She describes someone's voice as "Daffy Duck with a Donegal accent," for pete's sake.  French is good at character development, too, because at the heart of this mystery, she's really exploring the personalities of and relationship between the two lead detectives.

There are two mysteries in this book:  one based in Detective Ryan's past, and the one he's investigating in the present.  We do get an answer - terrifying and unsatisfactory as it may be - to the present-day mystery.  The past mystery, though, that one's handled in a more artful and subjective manner, and we come, along with Detective Ryan, to accept that we'll never know what happened.  Considering I was afraid the book would go all Shutter Island on me, that's a relief, actually.

The whole shebang, in all its aspects, is just handled very well.

Final call:

Aaaaaaaand now I have more books to read, because I found out that this is the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series.  A wonderful problem to have!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Now for the Mountain Tops

As we headed out of Shenandoah, we hiked to what is apparently one of the few 360 degree views in the park.  So sayeth our guidebook, in any case.  

Bearfence  Mountain is home to a relatively short loop, if you want it to be, but part of it is a pretty decent rock scramble.  That being said, as promised, the views were more than worth the effort.

Here's Justin, mid-scramble.  This one wasn't terribly tough as far as it went, but one spot did have some precarious balancing that - I'll be honest - made me wig out.  But I made it!

Back at the trailhead, we found a small flock of Cedar Waxwings in a dead snag.  Here's a couple shots I got.  

And one Waxwing, vamoosing.  

There's one more thing I want to show you from this weekend.  We were out at the right time for Mountain Laurel to be in bloom.  While this is Pennsylvania's state flower, it's just as pretty in Virginia.  These were blooming behind the museum in Rapidan Camp.  

And with this, we'll leave Shenandoah behind, even though there's a few more adventures that didn't translate to photographs well :)