It wasn’t long after the initial pandemic lockdowns that I stepped outside and found a man and a woman in what appeared to be hazmat suits thrashing around the olive trees in front of our house. My first thought was that Dr. Fauci had found out about that time I didn’t wear a mask and was sending in the quarantine squad, Shanghai-style. Hey, nothing surprises me anymore…
But actually, it was a sting. As in ouch, a sting! No sooner had I called out a query to the bulkily clad figures than YOW! I was stung! It turned out they were volunteers called by a neighbor whose bees had absconded (that’s actual apiary terminology) from their hive and were swarming in our olive trees. Apparently, humans were not the only ones to get the “work remotely” memo. These bees did NOT want to go back to their office!
I nursed the sting on my neck for a few days and then forgot about the bees. We’ve always seen them here and there, even during the so-called “bee apocalypse” when there was great concern that the very existence of honeybees was imperiled. According to RealClearScience as reported on the popular web site LiveScience, all the buzz about disappearing bees was in general, overblown. Bees do face real threats including pesticides and loss of habitat but they are not facing extinction.
At least not in my yard.
Not too long after I bumbled into that first bee encounter, I heard a steady thrum coming from somewhere near our orchard. Whether it was the same swarm of bees that were eyeing our olive trees or not, I don’t know, but bees from somewhere had found refuge in an apparent hollow in the trunk of the big pepper tree that stands by our garden gate.
Day after day we heard them – these were busy bees! Our gopher control guy showed up one day and expressed concern. “You need to have those bees removed”, he warned us. “When fall comes, they’ll become aggressive and you’ll have a real problem.”
I guess we were too busy thinking about the real problems we already had, because we didn’t bother to do anything about the bees. Truthfully, we liked having bees as guests. It made us feel like we were living in a little eco-paradise, our own fractional Hundred Acre Wood where Pooh or some other brave soul could stick a paw in that pepper tree hollow and come out with a handful of honey.
The bees did their thing and we did ours. Fall came and went without any bee aggression. And the buzz died down. We guessed, with some regret, that the bees had moved on.
Ah, we of little faith! I was today years old when I learned that while bees don’t actually hibernate, they do cluster in their hives over the winter months to keep warm. Those bees never left – they were just waiting for spring. And now, our buzz is back!
When the light is just right it looks as if sunbeams are spilling out from the tree trunk as the bees emerge to carry out their daily work. And they don’t have far to go. The other day I found that one had discovered our apple blossoms just on the other side of the wall – see it there on the lower left?
And this morning one was working a nearby hedge – lower right of the photo:
Lately it seems the world is crashing around us a thousand different ways every day, but a little “vitamin bee” sets things right for me. I don’t know why they chose us – according to a thread on Quora, bees seek “a large cavity with plenty of room for the colony to expand, impervious to rainfall…sunlight in the early morning to warm things up and shade the rest of the day to keep things from getting too warm.” Well, that pepper tree trunk does face northeast, now that I think of it! Maybe they came to us because we had the “dream house” they were looking for. Or maybe they came just bee-cause… 🙂
Is there anything more utterly absorbing, endlessly fascinating and maddeningly annoying?
And no, I am not talking about my husband here (although hmmm I suppose I could be…)
I am talking about my fledgling garden, the one that went nowhere last year and probably headed nowhere this year but I just can’t stop myself from trying. I think it’s moments like today when I found this tiniest seedling just beginning to sprout:
At some point, if all goes well (and yes, that’s a big IF!) it will grow into a head of Little Gem lettuce and I will be inordinately proud of it.
For a long time, I just assumed gardening was one of the many things off limits to me given my endless list of physical limitations. Can’t lift anything. Can’t get down and dig in the dirt. Can’t even begin to think about shoveling. But it’s amazing how creatively we all began to think amidst the house arrest of the past few years. Workarounds! Maybe there are workarounds!
And of course there are:
1) Table top and container gardening.
2) Grow the easiest things imaginable.
3) Have an extremely helpful husband.
Check, check and check (thank you, Dear). It’s only April and things are starting to grow! It helps to plant some things that are basically invasive weeds, chief among them being mint. We tore vast amounts of volunteer mint out of the tabletop garden and still, it finds a way. Oh well, it’s lovely in lemonade and cocktails.
What might be even easier than mint is dill:
Yes, I have a lot to learn – plant deeper I guess, so they get bigger, but I challenge you to find a happier moment than standing in the garden on a sunny afternoon and biting into a crisp, just-harvested radish.
Or a blueberry…
Lots to learn here, too – I was thrilled to learn that blueberry bushes love pots but I need to work on the soil. I’ll be reading up on it this weekend in Greg Alder’s Yard Posts, which are a nice resource for the southern California gardener.
The one thing I managed to grow last year was snap peas, so I’ve re-embarked on that journey
along with an attempt at their floral cousin, sweet peas. We’ll see how that goes…the sweet peas seem to be taking their sweet time.
And the easiest flower of all? Sunflowers!
My first row met with tragedy shortly after sprouting. Bunnies or snails, I’m not sure which, but I found a workaround that has so far thwarted those wascally wabbits. Look at these sweet mesh cloches I found from Gardener’s Supply:
Lest you should think I have any idea whatsoever of what I’m doing (never mind the fact that I now throw around terms like fish emulsion in everyday conversation) I humbly submit to you my track record with tomatoes. Last year I scored a big, fat zero unless you count the puny, mushy-tasting one that somehow survived on one of my withered vines. No idea what I did wrong (maybe overwatering?) but it was especially hard to take while my next-door neighbor was dropping off scores of tomatoes from her garden. “We have so many we just can’t keep up with them!” Well, I had no choice but to try again. Maybe my neighbor will stop by and talk to them for me.
A homesteader I follow on Instagram made a comment recently that jumped out at me. She said something to the effect of “don’t feel like you need to know everything when you start out at the beginning of gardening.” And that is so true. The trial and error, yes maybe especially the error, is part of the fun. Well, depending on how the tomatoes turn out this year I may feel differently, but for now – I’m just going to let it all grow…
Oh, and of course it’s all easier if you have the cutest garden assistant:
This blog was born way back in 2009 to record our foray into flock-keeping. Back then you were actually considered kind of cool if you had chickens and especially if you had a blog. Now, people just think we’re farmers and, of course, everyone has a blog.
But I did notice recently that Polloplayer, which began as a way to show grandkids then on the East coast photos of our baby chicks, today has more than 500 followers. Thank you so much to all who take the time to faithfully follow and especially to those who post encouraging comments. So fun to see those!
And since we did begin as a chicken blog, every now and then it seems wise to return to our roots in chickendom:
It’s spring and the ladies are laying again. Here’s Willa on the nest:
Which reminds me of the #1 question I get as a flock-keeper: How do you get eggs if you don’t have a rooster?
I would have asked the same question fourteen years ago and I hear it over and over. The answer: hens lay eggs with or without a rooster. The only difference is that with a rooster, the eggs will be fertilized and can result in baby chicks. Hens living spinster lives without rooster produce infertile eggs.
#2: The second topic that always seems to surprise people is the answer to What do chickens eat?
Most people seem to think they are vegetarians, a belief that is encouraged by egg brand marketers:
It’s a big selling point for eggs these days, but the truth is that “vegetarian fed” chickens are not the happiest chickens. Yes, our hens have a staple diet of layer crumble, which is indeed vegetarian with corn, soybean and wheat as the top three ingredients.
And they do enjoy a nice salad course (too bad about those succulents we planted)::
But you know what they really like to eat?
Worms. And bugs.
It rained here a week ago and the hens have had a field day feasting on every manner of creepy crawly creature that emerged from the ground after a good soaking. Here are the girls busily digging holes in search of worms and grubs:
So when you ask, “what do chickens eat?” the answer is “pretty much everything!” Be mindful not to give them avocado or green potato skins, which are toxic to them, but other than a brief list of other no-no’s, almost any kitchen scrap is gobbled down. Even, and including, scrambled eggs and cooked chicken.
And #3: The third question I hear when someone learns that we have a flock of hens is “But aren’t chickens dirty?”
The answer to that one is “only if the humans allow them to be dirty“. I’ve seen a few sorry barnyards with soiled, bedraggled hens. But it’s not the norm and shouldn’t be! Keeping the coop and the birds clean is key to keeping them healthy. It’s as simple as disposing of their waste on a regular basis and as complicated as the very occasional bath if a hen’s fluffy butt ends up being matted with soil or waste. Hens want to be clean and that’s why you’ll see them create their own dust baths to free their feathers of dirt or unwanted mites or parasites. Here’s Bella having a dirt bath:
I often watch the hens as they go about their daily routine and think how much easier life would be for them if only they had hands! There are so many things they can’t do for themselves, having to manage it all with just their beaks and their strange and sturdy little dinosaur feet. But God decided to give them wings instead of arms – maybe that just means they are angels:-)
Again, thanks to all the Polloplayer followers from everyone in the flock!
Maybe it’s when you discuss unironically that the morning walk commenced three minutes late and now we would all be off schedule for the entire day. “All” meaning the two elderlies and the three pets because in this household they have equal votes. Meaning we’re outnumbered. Meaning that yes, we’re basically out of our minds. Time to re-calibrate.
So out came the suitcases and off to the airport we went. Nothing too ambitious, mind you. There’s a nice little direct flight now from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas so basically just an hour from paradise to sin city. What could be easier?
Except that it was raining that day; something that has occurred in our drought-plagued town only twice in the last nine months. And when we finally arrived at our hotel, hours late, we learned that we’d out-maneuvered ourselves trying to set a room upgrade and we had no reservation at all!
Thankfully, this is exactly the kind of challenge the CE embraces. And after a few minutes of earnest conversation with the reservation clerk, we somehow had the keys to a suite. A newly remodeled one, at that!
Just like everything else in Las Vegas, the hotel rooms are out-sized and over the top:
And the entire place is unreal. As in faux. A brief walk down the Las Vegas Strip will take you to Venice, Lake Bellagio and Paris as seen through the eyes of what must have been a Disney imagineer. It’s all too much or all too little for some travelers but faux what it’s worth – we love it!
We settled in for our usual first night dinner at Sinatra, the Wynn hotel’s signature Italian restaurant. I somehow calculated that our three-hour flight delay entitled me to a piece of their terrific olive bread before dinner:
And the CE insisted that we have the chocolate dessert with a hat tip to Frank Sinatra’s fedora. Like I said, everything in Vegas is faux:
And so we eased into our Vegas routine. We’ve been there twice during COVID when things were very quiet and we were mummified in our masks. This time – wow – Vegas was hopping! Conventioneers all over the place and hardly a mask in sight. The CE played poker, and I searched out a 25 cent slot machine- not an easy find anymore!
As usual, I played the whole week with a hundred dollar bill and came home with an extra $20. I don’t spend money on gambling because I prefer to squander it across the street at the Fashion Show Mall. And after all that hard work, the CE and I meet up for the loveliest dinners – you can find a lot to criticize about Las Vegas but the restaurants are amazing!
There was pâté at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon:
Then an evening at Mizumi
where we sat in front of the waterfall and I sipped a “Hanami”, translated as “celebration of flower viewing”:
and then enjoyed a spicy salmon/shrimp tempura roll:
Lunch at Cipriani where I failed to take a photo of the Pappardelle Genovese because it looked like buttered noodles – but after the first bite I realized some real sorcery had gone into the reduction of veal and vegetables that resulted in one of the most divine plates of pasta I’ve ever had. I did take a photo of the vanilla meringue cake. Hey, it came with the prix fixe, I had no choice!
For our last evening, as always, we walked down the Strip to Mon Ami Gabi for steak frites. We time it that way so we can carry half the steak home to Lily as a peace offering for our absence.
I’m not entirely sure she deserved the treat, as she was a bit of a handful – grateful thanks to Christi for dealing with all that. Still, can’t imagine anything better to come home to…
And now we’re back on schedule with the morning walk, happy slaves to our furry masters after a few days off. It was whole lot of fun – faux real!
Among the many things that no longer seem possible is the idea of packing a suitcase.
We returned from San Francisco last month certain we had our travel chops back and we were determined to plan another jaunt right away to keep the momentum going.
Momentum? Turns out that’s something other people have.
I went to an actual party earlier this week. A party with lots of people (these days that means more than two) and lots of conversation (these days that means complete sentences) and by the time I came home I was a wreck. “There’s something wrong with me” I told the CE (who is always unfortunately more than happy to agree with that statement although not necessarily for the same reason it was expressed).
“No, seriously,” I said. “Something is wrong.” What is wrong is that other people might think I’m a little nuts to equate two hours at a party with a climb up Mt. Everest.
Cue The Wall Street Journal, just in the nick of time, with an article this week by reporter Alex Janin entitled “There’s Still a Limit to How Much In-Person Socializing Many Can Handle”. The old me would have summed up this collection of “I just can’t” as a bunch of whiny losers. The new me read it over three times and cried out “These are my people!”
People who need to rest up an entire day after a social encounter. Yep. People who describe convivial interactions as being “almost like jet lag where you’re just so bone-tired.”
And now I’m supposed to pack a suitcase? Could anything be more daunting?
I spend hours studying maps and itineraries for the big Return to Travel I’ve been planning since we got knocked down in 2020. We’ll go here and there and there…yeah, maybe in our next life. I supposed part of the problem is age. Part of it angst. Part is inertia. And part of the problem is, um, fur…
Odysseus had his sirens and we have ours:
“You wouldn’t really leave me, would you?”
“I promise to just lay here and stare at you if you promise not to go.”
“Take one step toward the door and I’m gonna mess you up.”
Way back in 2017 B.C. (Before Covid) Victorinix, the purveyor of Swiss Army knives and a range of travel products, conducted a survey that was widely reported for its surprising findings. According to The New York Post, “an amazing eleven percent of survey respondents have never traveled outside of the state where they were born.” Thirteen percent had never flown in an airplane. More than thirty percent of those polled reported that they “don’t own or can’t actually remember buying travel luggage”. This was BEFORE Covid – can you imagine what the responses would be today?
B.C. the CE was begging me to slow down our travel schedule of a trip every six to eight weeks. These days a trip every six months might be ambitious. And that’s presuming we make it past the sentries:
Okay. I gotta go pack because otherwise I am dangerously close to joining the 1 in 10 poll respondents who said they “have no interest in going anywhere”…
Remember when all we did was hide in our houses and keep track of our mask inventory? Those days (fingers crossed) seem to be in the rear view mirror. Now we’re out and about and back to real life – stuck in traffic and not being able to find parking spaces. Well, that assumes, of course, that you can afford gas for your car…
We had a little traffic jam on our street last weekend. The CE was coming back from the beach with Lily and had to slam on the brakes to avoid smashing this little guy to smithereens:
On the long list of things we know absolutely nothing about, turtles might be in the top ten. What to do? Since I thought it might be someone’s pet, I posted on the NextDoor app. Unlike ourselves, everyone on social media turns out to be an expert.
“It’s a pond turtle. Needs to be in water ASAP.”
“It’s a desert tortoise. If you put it in water it will die.”
Oh dear? What to do? The CE fashioned an enclosure for our visitor from an old dog pen and set out some vegetables and meal worms and a tray of water. Then we went inside to ponder our next move.
Little did we know that the turtle was likewise pondering a next move. When we came back outside, he or she had vanished! Harry or Harriet Houdini as we will fondly remember it, had managed to squeeze through the tiniest gap in the cage. So there we were, literally beating the bushes. Our found turtle had almost instantly become a lost turtle! “He couldn’t go far,” said the CE, peering through the bushes near where he had set up the pen.
Enter Lily the wonder dog.
I noticed her standing at attention wayyyyy across the yard. And sure enough, she had tracked the turtle for us. This turtle is going to win any tortoise vs. hare race it enters, because in a few minutes it managed to cover several hundred feet.
We snatched up the turtle again and as we did, it stuck it’s head out of its shell far enough that we could see the red marks above its eyes. A red-eared slider, we decided. A pond turtle. While we waited for someone to claim it, we needed to give it access to water. The CE hefted a stack of heavy stones into our fountain to create a shelf:
No sooner had the turtle happily eased into the water than someone posted “Don’t put it in a fountain! The chlorine and chemicals will kill it!”
Ooph. We needed Plan B. Maybe, just maybe, we should take it back to the place it was found and set it on the other side of the fence? By now we’d alerted other neighbors to the drama and this Plan B was roundly rejected. “No, no you can’t do that! What if it goes back into the road? It will be killed!” said one neighbor eyeing me as if I already had turtle blood on my hands.
And that is how Plan B ended up being B for bath tub. Complete with fluffy palace guards:
B is also for befouling the bathtub. It wasn’t pretty. Something had to be done.
That’s when I remembered that we have an acquaintance in our neighborhood who just happens to have a very fine duck pond. Hmmmm. Would he consider welcoming a new addition? The CE got in touch with him and the answer was yes! The hand-off occurred the next morning and the turtle was clearly pleased with its new digs:
This neighbor, familiar with the ways of turtles, explained to us that it’s not uncommon for them to migrate in the spring, especially females that may be looking for a place to lay eggs. For whatever reason, this turtle decided it was time to be on the move. I’ve decided that Mr. or Ms. turtle is my new spirit animal – it seems like it’s time to come out of our two-year-long hibernation and figure out what “normal life” looks like. Some days I’m not sure I can remember how to do it, but I know I have to try. As the saying goes about the turtle “you don’t make any progress unless you stick your neck out”. Time to come out of our shells!
Ah, spring. Especially this spring. Daylight hours edge deliciously ever longer, and the wisteria and the calla lilies are in joyful bloom.
The air is filled with the perfume of orange blossoms, our little swarm of honeybees have returned, and the hens have come out of their winter trance and begun laying again. Even Ginger, who is going on eight years old!
Best of all, mask mandates, vaccine mandates and Dr. Fauci have absolutely vanished from the stage as if none of it every happened. Poof!
So all is well, in fact, better than ever.
But beware the ides of March, at least if you’re a chicken.
Because a new avian flu has winged its way in on the Atlantic flyway, and it’s a doozie. I usually shrug off news about avian flu since it generally only impacts large-scale poultry operations. But there are two things about H5N1 that ruffle my feathers:
1) it is being found in backyard flocks, and
2) it is being spread by migratory waterfowl.
Since I have a beloved backyard flock
and our neighborhood is a hangout for waterfowl,
I’m paying close attention to this one. Backyard Poultry Magazine has sounded the alarm on Bird Flu 2022
and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) at least thirteen commercial flocks have been impacted by the virus since February in twenty different states. 2.7 million birds have been destroyed as a result. The virus has been found in backyard flocks in Maine and New York as well as in the UK. To date, it seems to have moved westward as far as Iowa and Utah.
A recent Healthline article states that “current evidence suggests H5N1 to be low risk to people” and that there are currently no human cases of it in the United States. There is, however, a vaccine which “as per the CDC…is being stockpiled for pandemic preparedness by the United States government.”
In other words, here we go again? Hopefully not. In the meantime, flock keeper bio-security protocol is especially important.
If the pair of mallards that annually tries to take over our swimming pool shows up they will not be receiving a warm welcome this year. Hand washing and parking the chicken shoes at the door is a given, as is, of course, keeping a clean coop.
In the meantime, it’s still a spectacularly lovely spring and our little flock is blissfully unaware. Fingers crossed that it stays that way…
I tried to choose a favorite but every day it changes so I just listed them alphabetically by author. You should read them all!
Half of a Yellow Sun: A Novel
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kindle, 562 pages
A deftly crafted and unvarnished fictional account of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War which culminated in the creation of the ill-fated Republic of Biafra whose flag featured “half a yellow sun”. Most of the author’s blame goes to British imperialistic penchant for creating arbitrary boundaries. When they combined the north and south together to create Nigeria, instead of a melting pot they got a boiling pot. High-minded Nigerian socialist academics also come under the author’s withering eye. As in any and every war, lives and relationships are imperiled and Adichie’s character development is superb – the reader is drawn completely into the web of war along with them.
By Wendell Berry
Paperback, 363 pages
This book was a gift from a friend and what a gift, indeed! Set along the bank of the Kentucky River in the fictional town Port William which is oft used in Berry’s works, this is a book you will inhabit more than read. It’s gentle, elegiac tone was my favorite thing about it. Themes include human frailty, unrequited love, man’s spiritual nature and the importance of community. “There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.” Such a beautifully written book. Please read it.
House of Sand and Fog
By Andre Dubus, III
Audiobook narrated by the author (13 hours 54 minutes, 364 pages)
This is as good as contemporary fiction gets. Well crafted. Every note rings perfectly. It is a novel that turns into a thriller. The setting is California’s Bay Area and the conflict develops when an Iranian immigrant desperate to find a foothold in the United States purchases a house that, due to a bureaucratic error, was mistakenly seized from a young woman equally desperate to maintain her own foothold on life. A finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the book was also turned into a film starring Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley.
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood
By Elspeth Huxley
Paperback, 281 pages
Huxley was six or seven years old when her father impetuously purchased a coffee plantation in Kenya. If this brings to mind for you the theme music for Out of Africa, so be it. Huxley’s passion for the land and its people is not unlike Karen Blixen’s but her observations are made from the point of view of a child, which makes it a much different book. It is a beautifully and thoughtfully written book, and Huxley has a remarkable perspective given the time in which she wrote. She spent her childhood steeped in British colonialism but has a keen awareness that the Kenyans have their own culture and a passion for its preservation.
Klara and the Sun: A Novel
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Audiobook read by Sura Siu (10 hours 16 minutes, 320 pages)
I was a bit leery about reading this book. I hadn’t been a big fan of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and it seemed that he was wading deeper into the same dystopian waters with his latest novel. And indeed he does, this time, though, he takes a detour into a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence. Klara is a robot designed to be a special friend of a teenager who lives in a time somewhere in the near future when children are routinely “lifted” via gene editing to enhance their educational and career opportunities. I suspect that somewhere down the road this book will be regarded as a harbinger of a skid down a slippery slope in the same way some of us look back today upon Orwell’s 1984. Ishiguro’s greatest accomplishment here is in creating a character that, while clearly comprised of nuts and bolts, comes closer to embodying the concept of a soul than any of the humans around her. Deeply affecting.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
Kindle, 495 pages
From the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England to a Time Projection Changer in a salt mine to the network of fungi whispering to trees in the forest to the Paris Catacombs to cave art in Norway, Macfarlane writes knowledgeably and exquisitely about the world that lies beneath. An astonishing read.
Peter the Great: His Life and World
By Robert K. Massie
Kindle, 963 pages
This was a most deserved winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Peter the Great was born in 1672 and before he died in 1725 his curiosity and enthusiasm for all things European resulted in a decisive shift bringing Russia out of isolation and into greater contact with the outside world. After Peter’s 1697-1698 “Grand Embassy” to Europe came to an end, he realized how backwards Russia was compared to the West. Upon his return to Russia, he promptly made all the men shave their long beards. Well, that was a start! He also westernized the Russian calendar and currency. Fascinated with Dutch naval advancements, he created his own fleet of ships, spending months at a time as a shipyard worker. His reign was dominated by a twenty-year war against Sweden’s Charles XII, but he found time to create the city of St. Petersburg from the marshland at the mouth of the Neva River. Exhaustive and compelling, this was a longggggg but invaluable read.
The Last Picture Show: A Novel
By Larry McMurtry
Paperback, 308 pages
This is the great Larry McMurtry’s coming-of-age tale set in a dusty north Texas town in the late 1950’s. I suppose you could say it is “dated” but that just enhances the read. Like Texas, the characters are larger than life. Undisciplined and unrestrained, these are mostly people who don’t follow the rules, and the ones who do seem to blown aside like so much Texas tumbleweed. The children are struggling to become adults and some of the adults behave like children. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film starring Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards. It’s not a long book, but it cuts deep.
The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave Embattled People
Kindle, 232 pages
Michener just happened to have a front row seat for the exodus of Hungarian refugees into Austria via the Bridge at Andau during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. His interviews revealed the incredible against-all-odds bravery of citizens determined to resist the Soviet Union despite the hopelessness of their efforts. While there was complete Communist indoctrination of Hungarian youth in school, their families secretly provided slender lifelines of truth and when the test came, almost 100% of Hungarian youth hated Russia and tried to destroy communism. Of every hundred Russian tanks burned up in the streets of Budapest, about eighty-five were destroyed by young people under the age of twenty-one. Michener’s prescient conclusion: “There is no hope for any nation or group that allows itself to be swept into the orbit of international communism. There can be only one outcome: terror and the loss of every freedom.” An important read even – and especially – today, as political and military oppression never seems to go out of style.
Warlight: A Novel
By Michael Ondaatje
Paperback, 285 pages
This jewel of a novel was so good I had to read it twice. It’s brilliance is quiet so you have to stay with it, give it time. The first half is setting everything up. Be patient! The story begins by introducing the reader to London teenagers Nathaniel and Rachel. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”. And because the plot develops like a mystery, I cannot give away any details for fear of spoilers. I can tell you that it is a coming of age story. That you will read about greyhound dogs and stegophilists (look it up!) That every event and every character matters, so read carefully. And then read it again!
And that’s a wrap for 2021. I’m thirteen books into 2022 and already feel so far behind. Send me your favorite reads so I can add them to my list!
I think we’ve established that reading-wise, I’m more of an ethereal girl than a material girl. Hey, the heart wants what it wants. But if I’m forced to read non-fiction, at least it should be good non-fiction. Here are eight of my favorite keeping-it-real reads from the year:
By Sarah Vowell
Audiobook narrated by the author (7 hours 28 minutes, 256 pages)
We were headed to Hawaii and I longed to immerse myself in it. This book seemed like a good way to begin. Vowell describes herself as a “godless heathen” and seems to see pretty much everything through the lens of her smattering of Native American heritage. This is the backdrop against which she traces the history of the Hawaiian people.
She deals out an unflinching account of Kamehameha I and his bloody “unification” of the islands. She takes a dim but reasoned view of the 19th century missionaries who sailed to Hawaii to convert the godless heathens there, likely with greater success than they would have with Vowell herself. She understandably runs completely out of patience as she recounts the annexation of Hawaii by the United States, a move that, in her eyes, benefited businessmen with last names like Dole, and the enormous wave of future tourists but not the Hawaiian people.
She has opinions. Informed opinions. The book is well researched and well written. Vowell is a little quirky and a little prickly but throws in just the right balance of sardonic humor to make this a go.
Yes, I’ve read Wild, so when a friend chose this title for our book club read I wondered what else there was to say about the Pacific Crest Trail. As it turns out, quite a bit! Where Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was primarily self-referential, this author turns his focus outward to chronicle the impact of the grueling 2,650 mile trail on a small group of hikers with whom he and his wife become close during their trek. Each hiker comes to the challenge with a heavy backpack and some even heavier emotional baggage. A few of our book club members felt that the author inserts himself a bit too much into the narrative of the book and the narrative of others’ lives. I didn’t mind so much. Since this is a hike I will never be able to make, experiencing it through Scout and Frodo’s (trail names for the author and his wife) step by step journey was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The author, a biologist who lives an isolated life somewhere in the general vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, breaks a cardinal rule of her trade and gives in to anthropomorphism when she is befriended by a fox who makes daily visits to her property. She reads to him from The Little Prince and Moby Dick and frets about Fox’s well-being. She shyly drops the occasional alarming revelation about her own origins, which leads the reader to be just as concerned about her well-being as the fox’s. This is not a perfect book but it is an interesting one for the nature and animal lover. The primary takeaway for me: nature is hard and life is hard, but there are moments – especially if you have a fox for a friend – that make it all worthwhile.
Of Wolves and Men
By Barry Lopez
Paperback, 293 pages
After reading Barry Lopez’ transcendent Arctic Dreams, I just wanted to keep hearing his voice so I sent for this book. While not transcendent, it is certainly thorough and I can’t imagine a better or more sympathetic primer on Canis lupus. The most striking thing I learned from this book is how highly sophisticated and social relationships are among wolves. “Notably friendly to one another” they can exhibit touching loyalty to their pack mates, although “disputes over an alpha position sometime come down to a bloody, eerily silent fight to the death.” Lopez stoically relates the lachrymose history of man’s treatment of the wolf. Bounty laws, strychnine, the social pastime of “wolf killings” and of course the wolf as villain throughout centuries of literature are recounted. A worthy read.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American SpyWho Helped Win World War II
This is a biography every bit as gripping as a spy novel. Virginia Hall grew up in privilege but sought a life beyond the predictable. A woman of great talents, great courage and exceeding tenacity, she overcame an astonishing series of underestimations and setbacks to become a valued asset for the British during World War II and then for CIA in post-war years. I don’t want to tell too much about the book because I want you to read it for yourself! Excellent!
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
By Robert K. Massie
Kindle, 758 pages
Massie is your go-to guy on the Romanovs and Nicholas and Alexandra are likely the most tragic characters in his canon. It is an almost painful read because you see the train wreck of Bolshevism coming and you are helpless to stop it. So many “if only’s”. If Nicholas had been a stronger leader…if Alexandra had been made of sterner stuff…if their son Alexis had not been born with hemophilia…if Rasputin hadn’t entered the scene like the devil himself…If all these things had been different, perhaps Lenin would not have ascended. And then we wouldn’t have had Stalin…Khrushchev…Putin…
Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads
By Paul Theroux
Hardcover, 441 pages
Like Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux is an esteemed travel writer and, like Bryson, more than a little bit full of himself. I have issues with Theroux. His incessant virtue signaling is tiresome. His intellectual arrogance is maddening. I mean, seriously, he unironically quotes Chaucer to people he knows have never read Chaucer. He is cynical and self-congratulatory and smug and un-self-aware. And now that I have all that out of the way, he writes a very good book.
While this may be shelved in the travel section it is also a book about culture and history and politics. I don’t share Theroux’s politics but he is apt in his observations about the ways in which the South has failed to thrive in myriad ways ever since the Civil War. He writes a most comprehensive, thorough and nuanced exposition on the use of the word we do not use that starts with an N. His assessment is thoughtful and courageous and really should be required reading. He sees very clearly the ways in which the people of the South have been oppressed by the very leaders who claim to have their best interests at heart, wearing their bleeding hearts like a badge while simultaneously stripping the region of industry and outsourcing jobs to China and India.
I don’t know that I will ever completely forgive Theroux for calling Harper Lee a hack and criticizing William Faulkner, but I would recommend this book to everyone.
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
by Barbara Demick
Kindle, 327 pages
There are a lot of people on the CCP payroll these days pumping you with subliminally positive messages about China. And then there is Barbara Demick’s relentlessly reported, clear-eyed, spot-on tale of China’s grotesque subjugation of the people of Tibet.
Demick literally smuggled herself in under cover of darkness and wearing disguises to interview Tibetans whose families grew up under what the Chinese called “Democratic reforms” of the 1960’s and beyond, which involved a redistribution of the land from the nobility and the monasteries to “benefit the poor”. More than 300,000 Tibetans perished during the Great Leap Forward and there was untold suffering during the Cultural Revolution. Oh, and what a surprise: the poor remain poor. The Dalai Lama was of course forced to flee and the Chinese government has made it clear that they alone will choose his successor.
China has been labeled a “perfect dictatorship”(publicly admired as such by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau). Confiscation of weapons, “struggle sessions” and today’s social credit system are all hallmarks of their system that are being enthusiastically exported. I humbly suggest you read this book before you consider buying what they’re selling. Demick is also the author of the excellent Nothing to Envy about North Korea. While my review is not objective, Demick is impeccably so, which makes her books even more chillingly effective.
Next week: finally, we come to the end – my top ten reads of 2021.
Ah, reality. You know I try hard to avoid it but here and there I convince myself to read a non-fiction book. Here are the first half of my year’s non-fiction reads. Some of them actually make the real world seem like an inhabitable place – well, if you stay away from current events, at least!
A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of anAge
by William Manchester
Kindle, 316 pages
Best known for his biographies of Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill, Manchester wandered into the writing of this book on the heels of a debilitating illness. The informality of its structure (although certainly not its prose) is apparent as he seemingly ambles through the trash heaps of Medieval European history on a trek toward the Renaissance.
Manchester takes the reader from the slime to the sublime – the Borgias, de’ Medicis and Macchiavelli all figure in his gimlet-eyed narrative. But so, eventually do Botticelli, Michelangelo, Copernicus and Da Vinci. He doesn’t stint on his critical view of the sixteenth century: “Men behaved like boors at meals. They customarily ate with their hats on and frequently beat their wives at table, while chewing a sausage or gnawing at a bone.”
But Manchester saves his most strident venom for the Roman Catholic church, citing the “incomprehensible jabber of the Latin mass” and noting that “at any given moment the most dangerous enemy in Europe was the reigning pope”. He doesn’t seem much more approving of Martin Luther, noting that “deep within him lurked a dark, irrational half-mad streak of violence”. He waxes hopeful at the advent of Humanism and finishes the book with a rhapsodic meditation on Ferdinand Magellan. While not scholarly, the book manages to be dry, so it’s not a romp and is not particularly objective. But the reader emerges with a somewhat organized awareness of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, so for me, it was worth the read.
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
by Alexandra Horowitz
Kindle, 321 pages
If I were to list a few of my favorite things, books, New York City and walking would be right there near the top. So this seemed like a promising read and I was charmed by the author’s approach of exploring the city on eleven walks, each with a different “consultant” in tow.
Her “experts” include a geologist, an illustrator, a naturalist, an elderly blind woman, and the author’s son and dog. As you can imagine, the city – mostly NYC but with a detour to Philadelphia – is a completely different place to each being experiencing it. And Horowitz points out how little, lacking intention, we tend to pay attention: “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.”
The premise is terrific, the book not quite so. I would rate it a moderately good read.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
by James Nestor
Paperback, 230 pages
Take a deep breath. And then settle in to read an entire book about it. You will not be bored!
Nestor informs us (“this book is a scientific adventure into the lost art and science of breathing”), and chides us – no mouth breathing!“No amount of snoring is normal”.
He also takes us on a breathing – dare I say breathtaking – journey from the Mandan tribe of Plains Indians in the nineteenth century to the Paris catacombs to the ancient Indus-Sarasvati civilization of South Asia, all in the name of taking a better breath.
The perfect one, by the way: breathe in for 5.5 seconds. Exhale for 5.5 seconds. Nestor suggests that better breathing can improve not just our appearance and ailments including obesity, high blood pressure and asthma but our life span, as well – according to him, larger lungs = longer lives. I don’t know if his claims are thoroughly provable, but the book was fascinating from start to finish. Recommended.
The Imitation of Christ
by Thomas à Kempis
Written c. 1418-1427
Hardcover, 152 pages
This book, which I think I stole long ago from a shelf in my parents’ home, glared at me from a shelf for several years and then took me three more full years to read. It wasn’t a book I could read straight through. For me, the best approach was to utilize it as a devotional, nibbling at it a little bit at a time.
Written in Latin sometime early in the fifteenth century, it is attributed to the monk Thomas à Kempis, although it is widely thought that others contributed to the work. Major themes are the trivial and ephemeral nature of any life but the spiritual “Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone” and achieving death to self in service to God and others. There were passages that failed to engage me and others that will long stay with me.
Two favorite nuggets: “Sit as the sparrow lonely on the housetop, and think on your transgressions in bitterness of soul”; and “Many often err and accomplish little or nothing because they try to become learned, rather than to live well”. It is a work cherished by believers through the centuries. According to the introduction by Eugene Peterson, “When Dag Hammarskjold was killed in an airplane crash in Africa, the books found in his briefcase were The Bible and The Imitation.”
The Cruise of the Snark
by Jack London
Audiobook narrated by Andre Sojka (8 hours 18 minutes, 224 pages)
I know Jack London is a literary giant. But I cannot read books that involve animal cruelty or negligence, so I have to stay away from his famed works like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. So I hover tentatively around the edges of the London canon. This one seemed safe – a wry memoir of London’s intrepid 1907 voyage to Hawaii and beyond on a 45-foot sailboat he built himself. The second chapter, entitled “Inconceivable and Monstrous”, patiently catalogues the considerable calamities of all that went wrong with the building of his boat.
London is in high spirits, however, always up to an adventure, even one that includes navigational challenges, storms at sea and threatening natives. Accompanied by his wife, Charmian, London surfs at Waikiki Beach, visits the Moloka’i leper colony and travels on to Tahiti, Bora Bora and the Solomon Islands. It has been suggested that the mercury chloride administered for the skin lesions called “Solomon sores” ultimately contributed to London’s early death at age 40. He packed more living into his brief years than do most who live twice as long. An engaging read.
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl
By Jonathan C. Slaght
Audiobook narrated by the author (8 hours 43 minutes, 368 pages)
This book began its life as the author’s PhD dissertation and was determined to be worthy of broader publication, eventually being long-listed for the National Book Award for nonfiction. I’m not sure it’s worthy of being on that list, however long it might have been.
But given that most of us are likely not going to travel to the wilderness of Primorye Russia to behold a Blakiston’s Fish Owl, this slim book is our only opportunity to get close to these creatures whose footprints are as big as a grown man’s palm.
The narrative includes a lot of tromping around in cold, wet, primitive conditions along with copious amounts of vodka. I enjoyed it, but non-bird fanatics probably need not apply.
In a Sunburned Country
by Bill Bryson
Kindle, 436 pages
Bill Bryson’s mocking, condescending tone annoys the heck out of me but I cannot seem to stop reading him. As one reviewer states, “every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out.” This book gave me, more than anything, an appreciation for the immensity of the continent of Australia, as well as a sobering respect for Bryson’s admonition that “it has more things that will kill you than anywhere else.”
It was January 1788 when the first transportation of prisoners arrived in Botany Bay from England. A gold rush in 1851 doubled the population. But even at the writing of Bryson’s books there were only six people per square mile in Australia compared to seventy-six in the United States. As vast as the country is, their history still managed to acquire a stain from the less than successful interactions between the settlers and the Aborigines, a subject to which Bryson gives extensive and damning attention. He has only a slightly higher opinion of an unhelpful hotel clerk in Darwin: “How I longed for a small firearm or perhaps a set of industrial tongs with which to clamp his reedy neck …” Classic Bryson, like him or not.
The book was written over the course of a few separate trips Bryson made to the continent in an effort to traverse from Sydney to Adelaide to Perth to the Northern Territories yet he freely admits to not having nearly covered the continent. And while he says virtually nothing about kangaroos, he does introduce the reader funnel web spiders, box jellyfish and giant Gippsland earthworms, which average around three feet in length, gulp. Greatly enjoyed the book, but travel plans are definitely on hold!
American Eden:David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
by Victoria Johnson
Kindle, 461 pages
A finalist for the Pulitzer and National Book Award for nonfiction, there was quite a bit of buzz for this biography of physician/botanist/educator David Hosack. To be honest, I was drawn to it by the dreamy cover.
It was a rather long book for a rather narrow subject, but interesting for the post-Revolutionary history and, of course, the backdrop of New York City. Hosack was close to both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and served as family physician to both. But his true passion was botany – at one point, he saved Hamilton’s son, Philip, from a fever by administering Peruvian tree bark. In 1805, after years of wrangling, Hosack was finally given an annual allowance from the state of New York for the Elgin Botanical Garden, which was located near where Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall now stand in midtown Manhattan. Hosack could never maintain sufficient funding for the Garden, which passed to Columbia College and ultimately into distant memory.
There is apparently a plaque memorializing Hosack and the Elgin Garden somewhere in Rockefeller Center – something to look for next time we’re in NYC! The book is well written, but I’m not sure David Hosack is the most compelling subject for a biography.
A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious
by Roya Hakakian
Audiobook read by the author (7 hours 45 minutes, 240 pages)
I’ve seen mixed reviews for this book, but I’m giving it a thumbs up. Some readers find the author’s tone mocking, whereas I interpreted it as an effort to lend a wry, tongue-in-cheek humor to an experience that can be by turns traumatic and bewildering.
Being a newcomer in a country where the language and customs are perpetually mystifying must be exhausting. Hakakian should know: she left Iran as a young woman in 1984, and enfolds into the general narrative of immigration her own thinly veiled memories of stepping from an oppressive Middle Eastern culture to living in the United States.
Her observations are witty and often humorous. “Americans can never hear enough about the weather”, she says. Her astonishment at couples freely canoodling in a public park after having herself lived under the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini makes for a poignant illustration of how different her cultural experiences have been.
I didn’t agree with some of Hakakian’s views about politics and about the U.S., but that’s the beauty of where we live – we’re allowed to (or used to be, at least) have and express different opinions about our country. Her affection for the U.S. comes through as heartfelt, and that’s good enough for me.