Sunday, October 30, 2016


Dubh-Linn: A Novel of Viking-Age Ireland
© 2014 James Nelson
326 pages

All Thorgrim Nightwolf wanted was to go home.But the gods and Irish women have a way of...complicating things.  Thorgrim has more sense than to tangle with this benighted island and its politics, but his son Harold and his captain are another story.  Both are besotted with a woman who claims to be the heir to the Irish throne; she's so vulnerable and lovely and in need of a protective hand, what with her story of having fled a murderous and now mysteriously stabbed-and-burned husband. But Brigit is playing them like a fiddle, and what's more -- she's in a contest with the equally beautiful and equally ruthless Morrigan, who hopes to rule through her brother's claim on the throne.  As Thorgrim tries to save his brethren from themselves from these deadly wiles,  the plot develops to a final battle involving four armies,  none of which have any idea who is pulling the strings.

When I read Fin Gall, the first book in this series, I noted that the two Irish women seemed interchangeable. To a degree, that's still the case here: they're both beautiful, dangerous, and manipulative. But one is pregnant, and the other is in power.  While Nelson isn't as comedic as Cornwell, his action scenes are utterly gripping, and he's even better than Cornwell at making the environment around his characters come alive. The gloom of clouds, the mists of forests, the odor of rotting hay -- it's all very effective. So far both of his books have involved his main characters stumbling through other people's schemes, but one here was an absolute beauty. What I especially like here is a main character, Thorgrim, whose main concern is protecting and guiding his son as he assumes more responsibilities and perils of manhood.

Definitely will continue in this series.  And Cornwell is coming again in November with the Flame Bearer!


  • Vikings, season 3. (Trailer)  Ragnar's son Bjorn is rapidly becoming not just a man, but a leader of men. Also, dangerous women aplenty, especially in  Kwenthrith. Holy cow. (Also, they attack Paris and it is BRUTAL.)
  • The Saxon Stories series, Bernard Cornwell. Lots of Saxon-Dane fighting and bountiful humor.
  • Leofric, Sword of the Angles. An story of Angle politics from when they were still migrating into Britain. 

Shots from Alabama hill country

My return from New Mexico has left me feeling slightly guilty that there's so much of Alabama I haven't seen.   To start setting things to right, yesterday I traveled several hours north to Winston County, where can be found the Longest Natural Bridge East of the Rockies.

According to the signs, the 'bridge' was created by sandstone eroding out by water, leaving behind the more stubborn iron ore. 

Going underneath the bridge is rather like being inside the lip of a cave, but without the smell of bat poop. 

'Ripples' in the rock, possibly caused by water --there were many spots where water is still leaching out.

Nearby, in Double Springs, there is a curious soldier: a Civil War infantryman holding a broken saber, standing behind both union and rebel flags.  The statue is a memorial to the mixed loyalties of Winston County, which declared neutrality, attempted to exist as the Free State of Winston, but sent soldiers from the same families to fight in both causes.  This soldier was used as the cover of David Williams' Bitterly Divided: the South's Inner Civil War, which I read back in 2012. 

The courthouse itself is small but attractive, far and away the biggest building in Double Springs. 

Approaching Cullman to return to a major highway, I noticed magnificent spires in the distance. They proved to belong to Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Catholic church. Noticing a sign for the Ave Maria Grotto, I decided to take a look there as well.

The grotto is attached to a monastery, which I've thought about visiting because I have an odd obsession with'intentional communities', whether they be hippie communes, monasteries, or survivalist camps in the woods.  (Also: these monks make bread and brew coffee.) One of the monks there, Joseph Zoettl, was a master of bricolage. 

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Over the years, he created hundreds of miniature buildings, as well as original abstract pieces. Most of them have a religious connection, being recreations of various Spanish missions

Zoettl's model of the Mobile basilica, and a picture of the basilica itself. (Not mine --I've not yet made it to Mobile's downtown.)

Not every project was a miniature, either:  those stalactites are created from seashells. 

There were scale models of St. Peters in Rome, of Herod's temple ,of the Colosseum, of the wonders of the world, plus an uncountable number of smaller buildings that makes this stretch of hillside mind-boggling.  No trains, though. 

Here's hoping for a few more interesting trips this year!  A few possibilities: De Soto Caverns, De Soto Falls, and Mt. Cheaha, our highest point. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Immoderate Literati

This is a screencap I took back in May, something I spotted while reading reviews of Wilbur Smith's River Gods. At least no one is ambivalent about it!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Week of Enchantment: Santa Fe, the City Beautiful

I headed for Santa Fe in the early dawn, driving even as the sun rose.  I'd been assured that the capital's traffic was nothing like Albuquerque's, and found this to be the case. It didn't want for cars, but the roads didn't lend themselves to Daytona imitations. (Santa Fe is also considerably smaller, both in population and in physical expression; when I climbed a hill north of town,  it made a happy picture, a quiet little city whose buildings didn't tower over the trees.)   I'd been warned that the main road is a confusing horseshoe, and I did get properly lost trying to navigate it into Old Town. But because it's a horseshoe, all roads lead to Paseo de Peralta, and  -- to end a long story -- I managed to find a parking lot just a street behind an Old Town entrance, and still have no idea how I managed it.

La Fonda

The parking lot attendant was marvelous, using my trip book to tell me where I was (just off the map by an inch), and soon sending me on my way. I wandered, first, going up and down streets willy nilly, soaking in the architecture so completely different from anything I'd ever ever seen. Even the subdivisions in Santa Fe are built in a style imitative of pueblos; it's a code ordinance.  My two foremost objects of desire were San Miguel's and the Palace of the Governors. Respectively, they are the oldest church in North America, and the oldest continually-used public building in North America. (Oddly, St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest European city in North America, but can't dispute Santa Fe's titles.  St. Augustine was razed at least once, though, so that may have cost it a few building records.)

It was just after seven a.m. here, the morning as cool as all the others I had expected. (Fun fact: I packed a suitcase full of shorts, with one pair of jeans for Carlsbad Caverns.  The days were so cool I spent the entire week wearing the same two pairs of blue jeans.)

Nothing was open for gawkers yet, but San Miguel made for a marvelous shot.  After obtaining a superior map from the visitor's center, I returned to my sight seeing.  Santa Fe kept me in awe from seven until late in the afternoon.

First up was the Loretto Chapel, which is beautiful inside and out.  This is no longer a chapel, but a museum maintained by the city, and -- as grateful as I am that this building has been preserved by their administration --   what has not been saved is any sense of atmosphere.   The crowd didn't kill it for me, nor even did the man taking tickets inside the building itself. Some perverse soul decided to mount loudspeakers throughout the space that drone on about the history of the building and the staircase.   I found it appalling. Loudspeakers? Why not mount televisions, too,  so the kiddies won't be bored?  

 The big attraction here, apparently, was the staircase. I'd never heard of it and assumed (from its mentioned appearance on 'Unsolved Mysteries' -- it had a ghost associated with it, or healed people who climbed it, something like that.  I took a cursory shot of it but was more interested in the Stations of the Cross, easily the most elaborate of any I'd see.

The actual story with the staircase, as I learned later, was that the church architect died before creating access to the choir loft. The nuns prayed for help from St. Joseph, traditionally a carpenter, and lo! Some mysterious stranger showed up, constructed it without any visible means of structural support, without nails, and then vanished.  

After extracting myself from the building, I followed the Exit signs and found myself in a classy downtown hotel; they're joined at the hip.

I returned to San Miguels, this time to see its open insides. I had plenty of company, but the women staffing it inside  were enthusiastic and friendly;  personable, not businesslike. They gave the visit a special kind of warmth.  Now hungry, I stopped at a nearby pizzeria (The Upper Crust), which was a favorite of people who actually LIVE in Santa Fe, and enjoyed a couple of slices before moving on.

Next I sought out the Basilica, the largest building in Santa Fe and one that looked so glorious on Wikipedia I knew I'd seek it out.  The basilica is named after  St. Francis, and proved to be too grand to really capture in a picture.  Draw close, and its size fills the eye; retreat, and it is coyly veiled behind trees and other buildings.

 Its interior is vast, so large that even the amount of visitors couldn't diminish the awe it inspired. I sat for a while to admire some of the detail on the ceilings and pillars.  There are buildings that would require a lifetime of daily visitation to take in half their glory, the graceful touches that long-dead artisans added, and this is one of them.   I'd never been in a church so large than the sanctuary seem effectively in the middle, though I have seen them on TV.  

To the left of the sanctuary was a chapel devoted to La Conquistadora, the oldest icon of Mary in North America.

Not too far away was the old Plaza itself, and I knew I'd found the Palace of the Governors when I spotted Alabama flags. (Not really, of course, but the Spanish 'Burgundy Cross' is derived from St. Andrew's cross, which both Alabama and Florida use as our state flag.)  The palace itself is a museum devoted to Spanish colonial history ,and connects to a more modern building that covers New Mexico's 20th century.

It contained a fair few artifacts from colonial days -- Spanish armor, weaponry, a full-size wagon from the days of the Santa Fe trial connecting New Mexico to the east -- as well as native American pottery.  The building itself was an exhibit, though, with glass 'windows' built into the floor  revealing parts of the foundation.

My PC wallpaper since Oct 1st. 

What a delight that plaza was!  Now in the full of the day,  people filled it with music , food, and happy chatter. I ignored most of the gift shops, being more interested in the architecture, but "The Christmas Shop" had to be looked into. I saw one in Albuquerque's old town, too.  I searched for the proprietor and told him about the coincidence, asking if it was a New Mexico thing -- when they said Christmas all year, I assumed it only meant a mixture of green and red chile sauce -- or a tourist thing.  It's the latter, according to him. My curiosity mollified, I moved on.

My day in Santa Fe involved a lot of back and forth movement, but the last place I sought after was the Cross of the Martyrs, a concrete cross mounted on a hill, dedicated to the friars who died when the Pueblos drove the Spanish out of New Mexico for a little while. Here, I made my boob-of-the-day decision. I didn't look for approaches to the hill, but beelined for it. Going around a small building, I noticed steps leading to the hill proper, and what seemed to be a dirt trail.  I realized as I clambered up, though, that I hadn't seen a dirt trail, just dirt; the hill's vegetation was patchy.  I pressed on, though, the rising slope and its challenge making the journey only seem more authentic, more pilgrimage-y.  When I slid down and hit something spikey, so much the better!

Twas then that I heard laughter, and - - now high enough that I could  see around the hill -- spied two people strolling along. So there WAS an easy way! No matter. I'll climb this the pilgrim way!

Ah, well.  After  repeated falls,  I realized I was just making an fool of myself for machismo or extra credit tourist points. I eased around the hill to where I'd seen the strolling pedestrian. Getting back on THAT path required threading myself through a barbed wire fence, but soon I was strolling along in tight S-curves up the hill.  Having arrived at the cross, the pilgrimy thing to do was to kiss it. I settled for wetting my index finger and touching it.   There was more to the hill, a path going to what I think was a picnic place, but I was worn out from my Ascent of Idiocy.

My last visit in Santa Fe was to the public library, where I printed off my boarding passes for my morning flight.  I found it a little surreal.  People sitting around reading,  or quietly looking at information on the computers -- where were the moms with screaming children,  the librarians running around juggling?  The same attendant at the parking lot gave me easy directions back to the interstate, and soon I was on my way.

I have a few regrets from Santa Fe, but they couldn't be helped. I had intended to visit the  branch of St. John's here, a genuine liberal arts college. I say 'genuine' because St. Johns actually takes the Great Books seriously; they're used to form the mind and character of the students. I drove right past the Missionary Hill sign,  too tired to remember St. Johns being down that road. Still later, once I hit the interstate, I was too tired to contemplate turning off to take the Sandia Peak Tramway.  This is a little cable car that can take visitors up the mountain, there to bask in the countryside. I'm sure it would be marvelous, but I'd been seeing Epic Vistas for a week now.   What I wanted more than anything, with my heavy eyes, was to return to my motel and sprawl in bed.

The next morning was a sad day, of course, but had a triumphant start.  Waking up long before dawn, I checked out and hit the interstate in the dark.  I'd slept  fitfully the night before, and at three am was listening to the never-easing rush from the freeway itself; now I joined it.  I had to find the airport for the first time  and return my car before the dawn, but I also had to find gas. My trip book came with the answers, though; a lone station near University Blvd that would take me to the airport.  I reluctantly turned over the keys to that Kia Rio, in which I'd spent so much time, and ran (suitcase in hand) to catch a shuttle-bus that got me to the airport's check in counters.   Even so early, just after six,  people filled the lobby for early flights, and despite my early rising I still wondered if I might make it out in time.  All went well, and as much as I disliked leaving the vistas of New Mexico behind, I was able to savor my flight home in the knowledge that I had planned and executed everything to great success.  This week of constant travel was the most ambitious thing I've ever done, and I return knowing I have the traveling bug.

I will visit New Mexico again, assuredly, hoping to land in Sante Fe and explore it more fully, then heading north to Taos. My experience of Albuquerque and Santa Fe was slightly warped by my being there during the start of the Balloon Fiesta, so both cities were crowded. Apparently it's a Very Big Deal, but I had no idea of its existence when I made my arrangements.

A month later, I still see the New Mexico countryside streaming by when I close my eyes, can still imagine the roar of ABQ's interstates, and still long to see Santa Fe again.  What a week, what a place, what an adventure!

Jasmine and Stars

Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran
© 2007 Fatemeh Keshavarz
180 pgs

Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran rebukes Azar Nefisi and other writers for contributing to a 'new Orientalism' that looks at Iran only as a place inferior to the west. The author opens Jasmine and Stars with a reminiscence of her summers spent in Shiraz. Growing up, Keshavarz's family spent the nights outside, bringing out wooden cots so they could fall asleep to the view of the glittering stars above, and wake up to the smell of jasmine flowers that her grandmother used during her morning prayers. As exquisite as these summers could be, there was a moment of gloom: the annual migration of grasshoppers. Their migrating mass blocked the starlight and threatened the fields, and some lollygaggers would fall from the skies and litter the yard. Most of the literature westerners read about Iran or the middle east -- Reading Lolita, Tehran Honeymoon, The Kite Runner -- focus on the transient grasshoppers, with nary a mention made of the beauty around them. In response, Keshavarz simultaneously provides tales of jasmine and stars -- recollections from her youth, mixed in with reflections on Persian literature -- and directly critiques the substance of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Her greatest problem with RLT is the depiction of literature as something foreign, as though Nefisi's literature circle created the only opportunity for her students to ever encounter thoughtful literature. Keshavarz holds that there is no culture on Earth more passionate about its literature, or literature in general, than the Persian people. As illustration, she discusses many works, only one of which (Rumi's poetry) has any name recognition in the west. She also points to the enormous popularity of particular authors and poets, most of whom have produced literature the authorities would not endorse, but do not oppress. The Persia of her youth, and the Persia she visits regularly today, is one that engages with literature and arts constantly -- filling public theaters. Similarly, Keshavarz contends that the depiction of Iranians in literature like RLT is simplistic: the women are naive, and the men all knuckle-dragging tyrants. As a counter, she recalls many stories about extraordinary men and women she knew in Iran, and continues to visit - stern military officers who spent their nights painting, and of an illiterate peasant farmer who so loved a particular poet that he committed her every verse to memory.

Jasmine and Stars is a fascinating little mix of literary reflection, criticism, and memoir that provides readers with a welcome view of Iran beyond its political structure.

Interview with the author on NPR's Speaking of Faith/On Being, covering "The Estatic Faith of Rumi".

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Week of Enchantment: The Garden of Eden is Missing its Critters

From here  I moved to the attached Gardens, one of the most beautiful, romantic, and sometimes weirdest spots in New Mexico.  Beauty first:  Moorish gardens open the area,  ending in a tree-lined walkway that is utterly  peaceful

This goes around a park with a lagoon, and following the arbor-laden path took me to several greenhouses. The greenhouses are massive, multiple-story places.

  Another area of the gardens is done up in Japanese style, including round stones buried in the water used as a stepping bridge. The strangest part of the gardens, though, is the multi-acre farm in the middle.

"Farm"? Yes, farm. In the middle of Albuquerque,  there are apple orchards, vineyards, and rows of other crops.  Despite the abundance of rusting old farm equipment and the penned-in steer and horses, this isn't a museum. There's a barn on the premise that actually makes cider.  The irrigation used, at least in part, is traditional, as the farm is maintained here to remember how agriculture on the Rio Grande used to be.

Downtown Albuquerque, everyone!

One exceptional and enclosed area houses butterflies, who flit by constantly. I made it my mission to take a picture of one of the blue ones in flight, although the young woman on station warned me it was impossible.

A nearby building housed bugs, which were far less photogenic. I deleted several pictures of leaves before I remembered those were shots of LEAF INSECTS. D'oh.

The gardens took an enormous amount of time to enjoy, and that cypress walk was just as lovely going back. If I lived in ABQ, it would be an obvious place to go on a date.

After this, I headed for the zoo. Not that I hadn't seen enough animals this week, but it was two miles away; how could I resist?  I didn't realize how late in the day it was, and in fact I very nearly got kicked out of the zoo at closing.   There were three kinds of exhibits: the ones where the animals were not there for explained reasons, the ones where the animals were not there for unexplained reasons, and the ones with actual animals.  The polar bears were no-shows, and I arrived just in time to see the chimpanzees disappearing into a wall like hairy Oompa-Loompas.   Bear in mind this wasn't at closing, but starting around 4 a lot of the animals were being wheeled in,  so I wound up doing a lot of trekking and not seeing much at all.   After an hour and a half of wandering, booming voices warned me the zoo was closing in fifteen minutes, at which point I started scurrying.

In total, waste of energy, time, and $8.  I did see a few things, though:

Breathing steam! ...or mist.

Is it five o'clock yet?

Zoom issues again, hence the blurriness. 

I came back to admire this fella after being disappointed by another exhibit, and was just in time to see him turn his back on a group of people.  Heh.

Grant's Zebra. I'd like to know who this Grant fellow was. Every zoo I go to, he's donated zebras. 

A hippo! 

The only primate I managed to see before closing, and at this point I was frantically trying to find a way out so men in carts didn't come after me. 

Although I'd planned to go downtown and look at a piece of 'pueblo deco' architecture, at this point I was so tired of walking the only thing I wanted to do was return back to my room.

And so, back up Central I went, passing under something claiming to be Rt. 66, home to rest up for Santa Fe and my last day in New Mexico.