All posts by jbair

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street – Review

Karina Yan Glaser. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. New York: Houghton, 2017. Print.

I have to come out and explicitly affirm that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is not the 1,832nd remake of A Christmas Carol. Yes, it takes place right before Christmas, and the villain of the story is an isolated, curmudgeonly old man. That is the extent of the similarity (unless literary sleuths find subtle hidden allusions that escaped my first reading).

The Vanderbeekers are a lively family of five kids ranging from four to twelve and their two parents and three pets. They have lived in their Harlem brownstone two-floor apartment since the twins (the oldest) were quite young. It sits in a vibrant neighborhood near a branch of the City College of New York (CCNY) and St. Nicholas Park. Mr. Vandebeeker has lived in the area most of his life. Though part of the largest city in the United States, the neighborhood exemplifies an urban village where people know each other.

Suddenly, two weeks before it expires on January 1, their landlord Mr. Beiderman tells the Vanderbeekers that he is not renewing their lease and they will have to move out. A real estate agent is already lining up potential renters to show the apartment to. Oh no, is this a remake of Snively Whiplash coming after the Hardscrabbles because they ain’t got the money fo’ the mortgage on the farm?

We could call Mr. Beiderman Scrooge-ish. Obviously, he is spoiling the family’s Christmas and New Year celebrations. But he does not call Christmas humbug. Indeed, he does not call it anything because the family has never met him. He keeps to himself on the top floor of the building. Even though Mr. Vanderbeeker acts as the building superintendent, he has never seen Mr. Beiderman, either. This recluse has TV dinners delivered to his door, and whenever he needs to talk to Mr. Vanderbeeker, he speaks to him from another room.

The kids have developed a few legends about this unseen eminence grise; for example, he looks like a werewolf. They learn from neighbors that he used to teach Art History at the CCNY campus, but mostly people who knew him react with a look of muted horror and do not say anything. Perhaps there is a little of a Scrooge-inspired cold wind when someone mentions his name.

The kids are fun. The two oldest, the seventh-grade twin girls are Jessie and Isa. Next is the only boy, Oliver. Then comes Hyacinth, and finally four-year-old Laney. Each has a distinct personality and much of the story’s engagement and conflict come from the way the siblings interact. If in this one is reminded of other Christmas stories, if might be Little Women with the four sisters, or perhaps we could call the Vanderbeekers better-behaved Herdmans. (And if you do not know who the Herdmans are in 2017, perhaps you are a Scrooge…)

Besides the story’s main conflict, which becomes for the kids a countdown from December 20 to December 25, the other significant one stems from a misunderstanding. Isa is good friends with Ben, son of the owners of the neighborhood bakery. They have gotten along well all their lives, and Ben, who is a year older, is thinking of asking Isa to the eighth grade formal at their school.

When Isa’s twin Jessie goes to the bakery on a family errand, Ben tells Jessie that he is thinking of asking Isa to the dance. Jessie is not interested in that kind of thing and assumes that her twin feels the same way. After all, they are twins and often do think alike. Jessie tells Ben that Isa would never go.

When Jessie sees how her answer upsets Ben and Isa begins to wonder why Ben is avoiding her, Jessie realizes she has made a mistake. Yes, there is psychological conflict with Jessie, but she also sees that it has caused a conflict between Isa and Ben. But if she tells Isa what she did, then the conflict would be between Jessie and her twin best friend.

There is a lot going on in this family in a mere five days. Every Vanderbeeker child has a plan to try to get Mr. Beiderman to change his mind. None of them seems to be working. When Isa plays a virtuoso violin piece, for example, he angrily tells her to go away. Even little Laney does not understand—everyone else seems to like it when she hugs them. Some of their plans end up taking on a life of their own, far beyond what they imagined.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is tender and fun. Yes, it may be the kind of Christmas story that finds its way onto the Hallmark Channel. But, hey, isn’t that why we like Christmas stories in the first place? They bring a sense of hope as the Messiah did on the first Christmas and a sense that there is till some good will among men.

The House of Unexpected Sisters – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. The House of Unexpected Sisters. New York: Pantheon, 2017. Print. No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories make readers happy—that is well known. The latest of Smith’s low-key Botswanan mysteries is no exception.

Some things never change. Mma Makutsi is still looking for status. While Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to call her co-director of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, since Grace Makutsi is overseeing one aspect of a new investigation, she names herself the Chief Investigating Officer.

The main plot centers around Charity who was unfairly dismissed from her job at an office furniture store and warehouse. In the course of looking into Charity’s story, Precious Ramotswe discovers a newspaper account of a Mingie Ramotswe, a nurse who looks enough like Precious to be her sister. Another mystery.

We discover that the owner of the business from which Charity was fired is planning to go into the home furniture business as well and has a plan to eliminate the competition within a year. The main competition is Phuti Ranaphuti’s Double Comfort Furniture Store. Rra Ranaphuti is, of course, Gace Makutsi’s husband.

Charity’s story may not hold water but Grace supports her because she is also a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College and was also treated poorly by (readers can guess…drum roll)—Violet Sephoto. Mma Sephoto lurks in the background of many of these stories as a kind of Moriarty or McCavity.

What is the story? Does Precious Ramotswe have a relative she had never known about? Is Violet Sephoto really trying to make the lives of more people miserable?

Grab a cup of red bush tea and smile.

Tyndale – Review

David Teems. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God and English Voice. Nashville TN: Nelson, 2012. E-book.

One of the best Young Adult books ever written is Scott O’Dell’s The Hawk that Dare Not Hunt by Day. It is a novel about a boy whose father helps smuggle Tyndale Bibles to England in the 1530s. Tyndale is a mystery figure whom the boy and his father may or may not have seen when on the Continent.

Of course, O’Dell wrote fiction. But it is not easy to write much nonfiction about the life of William Tyndale. There is really nothing concrete until his university days at Oxford where he received his M.A. in 1515. A few secondary sources including Foxe’s Acts and Monuments say that Tyndale was from the country in southwestern England between Gloucester and Bristol. From the time he left England in 1524 or thereabouts until his arrest in 1535, about all we know is that he translated the Bible into English and wrote a few other tracts.

This is Teems’ challenge. We really know very little about the man other than from what writings he left behind. Teems does very well with what he has. He makes few direct claims. Instead, he focuses on Tyndale’s impact.

Some years ago when I was putting together history of the Bible in English lessons for a British Literature class I used to teach, I found a reference to a study that said that the Authorized Version (or King James Version) which became the standard Bible in English for 350+ years was based more on the Tyndale Bible than any other translations. Technically, it was supposed to follow the Bishops’ Bible (1580) but Tyndale came in first.

Teems tells us why. Tyndale wrote in what was typical English idiom. He also coined a number of words, but words with common roots so that an ordinary English speaker could understand. Teems tells us many of the words, two stand out: atonement (simply at-one-ment) and Jehovah. Much of Tyndale’s style was not only clear but sounded good. That is the reason that so many of his phrasings would be used in later versions.

Perhaps even more interesting, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice makes a case that without Tyndale’s Bible setting a standard for English writing—at a time when modern English was a “new tongue” and there was precious little published in the language—there would have been no Shakespeare, no Elizabethan Renaissance, no English Literature as we know it.

Teems also tells us a lot about the one-way rivalry between Thomas More and Tyndale. We do know a lot more about More’s life and letters, so he can document this. Even though More had signed Tyndale’s death warrant, More was actually executed before Tyndale was. Teems is quite fair in his treatment of More. Few inquisitors get such understanding in historical records. He notes, for example, that today the Church of England has days set aside for both Tyndale and More.

We know that the first complete Bible in modern English was the Coverdale Bible which came out in 1535 and was actually made legal in 1537. Miles Coverdale was a disciple of Tyndale, and his book is, in effect, the complete Tyndale Bible. After this, and especially after Elizabeth I took the throne, the English became a “people of the book.” Not only were English-speaking people no matter where they settled primarily Protestant, but they were educated in their Bible, and all the arts alluded to it time and time again, even by those who did not believe in its inspiration.

We know little of Tyndale the man, but we know about his work. Teems would have us believe that is just the way Rev. Tyndale would have wanted it.

Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New – Review

Matthew Robert Payne. Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New. Litchfield IL: Revival Waves of Glory, 2017. E-book.

Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New is different from any book I have read for one simple reason. The author says this is a record of conversations that he has had with departed Christians who have returned to earth from heaven to speak with him.

I used to work in a Christian bookstore. I have read testimonies of conversations with angels, of visits to heaven and hell, but never something with this narrative frame. In this volume, Payne interviews Bob Jones (the Kansas City prophet, not the university founder), John Paul Jackson, Madame Guyon, and the two biblical Josephs (of Egypt and of Nazareth).

The conversations are actually pretty straightforward and do not strike the reader as being unorthodox in any way. The Word is our test. Jones and Jackson both frequently quote the Bible. A passage they both emphasize is I John 2:15-17 (“Love not the world…the world is passing away…”) which certainly sounds like something someone in heaven would point to. Both men encourage the reader to seek the eternal and focus on Jesus.

Jackson (a speaker I once heard at a conference in Massachusetts) noted three things that are important in a walk with God: humility, childlike faith, and teachability. That certainly sounds like something a preacher might preach. Do I hear an Amen?

Joseph son of Jacob speaks quite a bit about prophecy and how his personal prophecies and his awareness of God’s love maintained him and gave him favor even in captivity. No doubt such things may have encouraged David as well.

The other Joseph still seems amazed and blessed that was allowed to raise Jesus. He says, “God told him [Jesus] once that he was to respect and honor me because I was chosen to be his father.” He also mentions in passing that he was in “paradise,” then taken to heaven. That reflects a certain biblical interpretation that says the blessed dead went to a pleasant waiting place called paradise until Jesus opened heaven after his death.

The conversation with Madame Guyon, the 18th century French mystic, was mostly about Mr. Payne and his calling. Having never heard of the Australian author until I received this book, I cannot say much other than she also sounded orthodox. It may surprise some readers what one of the figures says about President Trump.

Can this happen? Payne notes that Moses and Elijah appeared to the disciples during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2-3) and that saints who had died appeared in Jerusalem to many people when Jesus rose (Matthew 27:51-53). There is nothing to indicate that Payne was calling upon the dead as Saul did to his own destruction (I Chronicles 10:13-14). Let the reader decide. Certainly I John 2 is well worth meditating on. The Lord is eternal.

Disclosure of Material: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review.

Empires of the Word – Review

Nicholas Ostler. Empires of the Word. New York: Harper, 2010. E-book.

Empires of the Word is a social and political history of languages. By political, I do not mean the political use and misuse of language as we read in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I mean the socially and politically most significant languages in the world.

Arguably the longest-lasting language may be Aramaic. It began in the Near East and became the language of Syria and Babylon and a kind of lingua franca throughout southwest Asia and to some degree, even Egypt. It is still used as the liturgical language and home language in some Chaldean churches. Ostler believes the only reason that it faded was that it was similar enough to other languages like Hebrew and Arabic that when the Moslem conquest took place in the Middle Ages, it was not a strain to switch from Aramaic to Arabic.

Another Semitic language ranged over the Mediterranean, namely Phoenician. However, people never picked it up except perhaps for trade. Other language groups, notably the Greeks adapted Phoenician alphabetic writing for their own language as did Aramaic, apparently. (Ostler suggests Hebrew also, but the Phoenicians may have picked up their alphabet from ancient Israel. The oldest known alphabetic writing is from an Egyptian turquoise mine written by Hebrew slaves. That significantly predates any known Phoenician writing, though that fact alone is not proof, it is highly suggestive,)

Empires of the Word
notes that the two longest-lasting widely spoken languages both have written pictographic languages rather than alphabetic ones. Both began along rich river valleys somewhat protected by outsiders. When outsiders were successful in either immigrating or conquering, they inevitably took up the local language. These two languages are Egyptian and Chinese. Although the Moslem conquest eventually put an end to Egyptian, the language is still used in the Coptic churches. (If you know anything about the Roman alphabet, you may recognize that Egypt and Copt have the same root.) True, both languages changed over the centuries, but they still remained recognizable as Chinese and Egyptian.

Greek has had an influence well beyond the borders of its homeland. We have both Greek traders and settlers who sailed all over the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Then in the fourth century B.C. there was Alexander who Hellenized much of the known world. By the time of the New Testament, Greek was the lingua franca from India to Spain. It continued as the language of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Caesars until the fall of Byzantium. By then it had influenced Latin and most Slavic languages. Both the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets are variations of the Greek one.

Another empire of the word was the Roman Empire. Languages from Romania to Portugal are variations of Latin today. Ostler tells why the Latin-rooted languages became the standard even in most places where the Germanic tribes later conquered. Indeed, about the only place that Germanic tribes conquered where their language was maintained was the British Isles. The conquest of the Celtic tribes there was sufficient to mean that in most places English became the main tongue.

Ostler, of course, looks at the influence of both Spanish and English in their respective overseas empires. He notes the interesting action-reaction among Spanish settlers and missionaries in relation to the native languages, many of which have disappeared, some of which have survived (most notably in Paraguay). However, just as it is most helpful to know English in the United States, it is usually a sign of upward mobility to know Spanish in most of Latin America and Portuguese in Brazil. Ostler details how these languages fared. He also takes some time discussing the influence of French

In many places English is the second language. Sometimes it is a kind of neutral language that does not have local tribal or regional associations. This is the case in India and some other former British colonies in Africa and Asia. While Dutch was widely spoken in ports throughout South Asia, it never became a national lingua franca mostly because the Dutch themselves helped created Indonesian as a kind of Malay lingua franca through the Dutch Indies.

Ostler notes that there are about six thousand languages spoke in the world today, and half of them have fewer than 5,000 speakers. Nearly a thousand have under a dozen speakers. (A piece of film trivia: The novel Dances with Wolves was set among the Comanches, but when the producers wanted to have a Plains Indian tribe speak their native language on film, they had to go with Sioux speakers since the few Comanche native speakers were all elderly.)

There are also detailed chapters on the status of Russian, before and after the Soviet Union.

Not only was Sanskrit the root language of many South Asian languages, but its alphabet was often adapted for other Asian languages the same way the Phoenician alphabet was adapted for Greek and Latin.

While English is widely spoken and is already a kind of lingua franca, Ostler is unsure if it will maintain its position. While many modern Muslims are learning Arabic, the classical Arabic of the Koran is very different from the numerous dialects of Arabic spoken today. We still have various Empires of the Word around the world.

This book has scope. It was a labor of love that must have taken years. The closest thing this reviewer has read was something by Morris Swadesh years ago. Swadesh was trying to see the interconnectedness of various languages. Ostler is showing the influences and scope of discrete languages. In its own way, Empires of the Word helps us see the big picture.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Review

Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968; New York: Del Rey, 2008. E-book.

I bit. With the new Blade Runner film coming out and Amazon offering this book at a bargain price for a few days, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a book I had always wanted to read. I had seen the original Blade Runner a few years ago and, like most people, got a kick out of the special effects. It had a potentially interesting theme in the background, too.

I liked the book better. Much better.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a gem. It has literary merit. While a few of the characters are similar to the Blade Runner film, the story is quite different. I honestly am not sure how the book’s Soviet-era plot would fare in left-coast Hollywood, but it is much more ingenious than the Blade Runner film plot.

Yes, Rick Deckard is a special policeman who acts as a bounty hunter. Scientists have developed androids that appear to be almost human, though a good bounty hunter with some specialized testing should be able to tell the difference. Apparently though, the sophisticated androids are trying to take over the earth and killing humans, so these specialized bounty hunters must “terminate” them first.

In the book, by the way, the androids are called andys for short. We have to thank Star Wars, I guess, for using the last syllable instead of the first for droids. The film used the term replicant. They are all the same thing.

Nuclear war has devastated the earth. People who were able have left earth to colonize other places in the Solar System. Many species of animals have been wiped out. Even people have been so affected by the nuclear radiation that many are born with low functioning intelligence—known colloquially as chickenheads. The other main character is John R. Isidore, a chickenhead who lives alone in an abandoned apartment complex.

Isidore is a driver for a pet store. Pets are status symbols because so few animals have survived. Many are extinct. Often people buy electric animals manufactured with standards similar to the latest andys so that it looks like they have a live animal. Perhaps this is what inspired Sony with its robot dogs.

Deckard and his wife Iran (yes, he is married, and he stays married) have an electric sheep which most of the neighbors think is real. Bounty hunters get a bonus of a thousand dollars for every andy they terminate, so he is hoping to get a few they are tracking so that he and his wife can afford a live horse.

Two other things we should note in the post-nuclear culture: Mercerism and Buster Friendly. Mercerism is Dick’s answer to Huxley’s soma. Instead of a drug to keep the masses stoned, Mercer (or someone using that name) has invented an electronic device that attaches electrodes to the skull to stimulate the brain emotionally. The relatively petty conflicts that Rick and Iran have are usually over which setting to set their Mercer machine to make them happier.

Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends is a 22-hour a day television show. It mostly consists of Buster telling bad jokes and interviewing a variety of different people. It seems to be popular with many. It really gives meaning to the life of J. R. Isidore, for example. He watches it when he can. Even when he is working, he is usually listening to the show on the radio.

The conflict begins almost immediately as the top bounty hunter in the San Francisco Police Department has been nearly killed by an andy that he mistook for a human. These latest models have been fooling even the experts. It looks like a group of the most sophisticated robots are planning to take over the governments of the world. (In Dick’s future the Soviet Union still exists.) But it is all very subtle. There is no superhero monomachy as in the film, just clever detective work and learning from mistakes.

I am reluctant to give too much away, but Deckard does find himself in an alliance with one of these sophisticated andys, a female figure called Rachel. It appears that the andys think the Soviet-style honey trap can work to bring down their opponents with the help of useful idiots (in this case literal idiots, namely chickenheads). The question then becomes whether or not Deckard can trust Rachel in his work and whether the andys can execute a Soviet-style takeover.

As was the case with The Man in the High Castle, Dick seems to try to either escape or perhaps mock the “pulp fiction” reputation that his works have. In our review of the other novel, we quote a character trying to define what science fiction is and, by implication, that The Man in the High Castle is not sci-fi. Similarly, at one point in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, an undercover Deckard calls himself Frank Merriwell—an athletic hero of early twentieth-century pulp fiction magazines.

Dick is known for presenting speculative fiction more than specifically science fiction: What if…

With The Man in the High Castle, Dick wondered what it would have been like if the Axis had won World War II. In this case, he asks what if androids were that sophisticated? Do they dream? Would they think they were superior to their maker the way that many people have?

And also like some of the Star Trek: Voyager episodes with the Borg, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? confronts us with a second existential question: What does it mean to be human?

It is a little like Genesis and Revelation together.

Splendor of Heart – Review

Robert D. Richardson. Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature. Boston: Godine, 2013. Print.

Splendor of Heart is a sentimental portrait of a famous teacher. Walter Jackson Bate won several prizes for books he wrote, but he was a teacher at heart. This book is a combination of character sketch by a former graduate student who worked closely with Bate for a number of years and an interview conducted in 1986.

An upperclassman said to me, “You’ve got to take Bate.” His course on 18th Century English Prose did not sound that exciting to this English major, but I could tell that the upperclassman meant it. I was glad I took it. When word got around campus that Bate was giving certain lectures such as The Death of Samuel Johnson, the lecture hall would be standing room only.

One lecture that stood out for me was Bate’s account of Joshua Reynolds’ farewell to the Royal Academy. Reynolds knew times were changing. Even though he would not be a part of it, and, indeed would probably not fit into the Romantic movement, he looked ahead with excitement and encouraged the younger artists to do what they had to do. That is the way to go out.

I am even more thankful that I took Bate’s other course open to undergraduates on the history of literary criticism. He put the postmodern fad into perspective, and kept this writer from being sucked into nonsensical discussions of literary criticism. The po-mos had already more or less taken over Duke and Yale, but it would still be a few years before they got a foothold on Harvard.

Ironically, Bate predicted it. His The Burden of the Past and the English Poet predicted a kind of romantic reaction to modernism. I am not sure anyone anticipated the extreme subjectivity of postmodernism, but he was pretty much correct in his prediction. I am not sure that it has done much for poetry, though some po-mo prose has great merit (think David Foster Wallace, Tim O’Brien, or even Jorge Luis Borges).

Anyway, Splendor of Heart shows Bate’s enthusiasm for great art from whatever period. He took annual boat trips to the Dry Salvages, the three small islands off the New Hampshire coast that gave their name to one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. He also enjoyed tooling around the woodland paths near his country home in New Hampshire in an old truck. From the sounds of it, it was probably fortunate that he did not do this on ATVs or motorcycles or I might not have had him as a teacher.

The interview gives a number of specific thoughts about teaching. I think I may have subconsciously imitated some of Bate’s habits when I teach, but I learned one thing that I wish I picked up back in college. Bate said that his lectures were stories (good so far), and that like an epic, he usually begins in medias res. I had not thought of that before, but I have already tried to alter some of my lectures that way.

In 1849 Nathaniel Hawthorne had a Serious Problem. He had been married in 1842 and now had a growing family. He had a comfortable job working for the Bureau of Customs in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. He had published a number of short stories; these had earned him some recognition, though not much money. A new president from a different party had been elected, so he was fired from his job. He actually sued to get his job back, but the lawsuit failed. What was he going to do?

Good lectures do tell a story. The root meaning of lecture, after all, is “reading.” What better reading than to tell a story?

This is a short book, just a little over a hundred pages with few words on a page. Anyone who had or who appreciates Bate would get a touch of nostalgia. Even those unfamiliar with him might get some inspiration on how to teach.

Lost Among the Birds – Review

Neil Hayward. Lost Among the Birds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. E-book.

I could not put this book down. Even though I knew the ending, I wanted to see what happened next. Let me explain a little.

Some people like to fish or hunt because when they were kids they went fishing with their fathers. A friend is a NASCAR fan, even though he is from New York, because his dad used to take him to car races when he was young. My father used to take me birding. I pored over bird books and always went looking for birds as a hobby. Neil Hayward’s experience of catching and breaking the Big Year record—which many people thought was unbreakable—is worth sharing and reading about.

The book The Big Year was reviewed on these pages. Hollywood very loosely adapted the book into a film. Even now when I talk to my wife about it, I have to say “the Jack Black character” or the “Owen Wilson character.” Hayward had made a lot of money at a company he helped found. He resigned and was at loose ends, so he began taking some long bird trips away from his Massachusetts home to see some rarities that had been reported.

Hayward was not thinking of a Big Year until at the end of February when he was with some friends talking about what he was doing. Frankly, he was not doing much other than chasing rare birds a couple of times a week. A friend said, “Maybe you should do a big year! I am sure you could beat Owen Wilson!”

Hayward’s initial reaction was “Do I look like a freakin’ idiot?” But he began thinking about it and decided to give it a try.

There was a reason why Hayward was not doing much. He was depressed. Indeed, he had struggled much of his life with depression. He was going to be turning forty in 2013 and not sure about the direction of his life. In his mind, in spite of his business success, everything he tried worked out poorly. He had lost a girlfriend of four years and had started going out with another woman, Gerri, and just assumed that the relationship with her would fail as well. The birds not only gave him something to do, but the Big Year quest gave him a focus with a goal and a time frame for it to happen.

Every now and then, the book begins to get a bit maudlin as Hayward reflects on his personal life, but then there is another bird trip. He is meeting new people, including many people who are well known in the world of birds. (Two whom I know by reputation—one I have met—are Debi Love Shearwater and Brian Patteson.) He notes how helpful other Big Year record holders were, even Sandy Komito, the 1998 record holder, now in his eighties and still out birding whenever he can.

(For what it is worth, Debi Shearwater was loosely played as Annie Auklet by Anjelica Huston in The Big Year movie.)

He is also seeing a lot of different birds. The Internet is more robust than it was in 1998, so he gets alerts about rare birds anywhere in the “legal” ABA Area. The American Birding Association is a group of hobbyists who have set the rules for different bird lists. The Big Year (capital letters) refers to a bird that has shown up in North America north of the USA-Mexico border or within 200 miles of the coast. In other words, Canada and the United States except for Hawaii.

There are around 660 birds that nest or otherwise make this part of the world their home for part of the year. Komito’s Big Year record was 748. Indeed anyone who has a North American Life List (i.e., birds seen in their lifetime) of 700 or more is in rarefied air. This means that to reach the magical Seven Hundred Club, one not only has to see all or nearly all the birds he or she expects to see, but needs to see at least forty or fifty “accidentals”—birds that do not normally come to North America but show up.

This does mean that hard core birders spend time along the Mexican border (Arizona and Texas are especially inviting) tracking down Mexican and Latin American birds that stray north. They also spend more time in Florida looking for strays from the Bahamas and Caribbean. A trip to Newfoundland for European birds that barely make it to North America is necessary. And Hayward was advised to spend as much time as he could in Alaska.

Western Alaska to be specific—that is where Asian birds often stray and even live, for parts of Alaska are not that far from Asia. Once when I was birding in a western state (alas I do not travel that much but once in a while I get away) I ran into a birder from Alaska. I asked her where I should go in Alaska if I wanted to go birding there. She said the Pribilofs, the islands in the Bering Sea near Siberia. That made sense. Nearly all the birds found in eastern or southern Alaska can be found in the lower forty-eight or Canada. But Nome, the Aleutians, and the Bering Sea islands are different because the birds there are different.

For the enthusiast, Hayward does include a list of all the birds he saw and where and when he first saw them. Timing is important as well. Some birds were gifts. He just happened to be in a place where a rare bird showed up. In many cases someone else he was with spotted it first. Others he had to track down into some difficult places including high peaks at the right time of year or mosquito-infested swamps. Some he missed. Some he had to try for several times before he found one.

Lost Among the Birds describes some of the birds in a way that show Hayward’s delight and fascination. His description of the Ivory Gull stands out.

There’s only one gull that’s entirely white, the Ivory Gull. The adult is so white it looks like a soft, albino pigeon. The simple lack of color (except for the yellow-blue bill, black legs, and liquid black eyes) makes it a surprising favorite for those birders who’ve seen one, and the most-wanted bird for those who haven’t.

This is most certainly true. The Ivory Gull is rare below the Arctic Circle, but I had the opportunity to see one that showed up on the Hudson River in New York state. I had snowed that day. Fresh snow was everywhere. But I can honestly say I have never seen such a radiant, pure white as in that gull. It made the snow look dull. There is nothing like it. I will remember it. I also will probably never see one again unless, like Neil Hayward, I visit Point Barrow, Alaska.

Hayward visited Alaska eight times. I lost track of the number of times he went to Arizona and Florida. One elusive duck from the Bahamas he never saw, though one appeared a few times that year in Florida.

Hayward does mention how the speciation of birds has been in a state of flux since the seventies. While it is virtually impossible that a new species of bird will be discovered in North America (occasionally a new one is found in the jungles of Asia or Latin America), ornithologists in recent years have frequently “split” what was a single species into two or more species because of differences in behavior and DNA analysis. Hayward mentions the Sage Sparrow was recently split into two species: the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell’s Sparrow. I found six “new” species that if they had been labeled in 1998 might have changed Komito’s Big Year record. One of the rules, though, is the birds have to have been recognized species in the year that they were seen. One could say it is like basketball records before and after the three-point shot was adopted.

Although it has been rarer in recent years, occasionally birds that were considered separate species are “lumped” into one species. For example, the Oregon Junco and the Slate-Colored Junco used to be treated as separate species. Now they are two of about four or five subspecies of the Dark-Eyed Junco. I noted that one species Hayward saw in 2013, the Thayer’s Gull, is now considered a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. That gull had a short life as a species. Until the eighties, it was considered a subspecies of the Herring Gull. My experience was that even if you saw one, no one believed you. It was doomed as its own species.

What is almost as exciting as the birding in Lost Among the Birds is the year-long recovery from depression. Besides deciding to do a Big Year, Hayward also decided to get some professional help. This, along with the birds and a very patient girlfriend, produces a change that hopefully will last a long time. His struggle may not be as intense as Stacey O’Brien’s fight with cancer recorded in her book about Wesley the Owl, but God’s creation really does have many things to show us if we are willing to explore.

Elementary, She Read – Review

Vicki Delany. Elementary, She Read. New York: Crooked Law, 2017. Print.

Gemma Doyle (yes, that is her last name) has taken over as manager of the Sherlock Holmes Emporium at 222 Baker Street in West London, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her great uncle Arthur is a Sherlock Holmes fan and bought the property because of its address. There is no 221B in town.

Cape Cod makes its living form summer tourists. The emporium specializes in Holmes memorabilia including books, film, DVDs, issues of Strand magazine, even a six-foot cardboard cutout of Benedict Cummerbatch. There is nothing especially valuable here—this is no rare book store—but they do sell reasonably priced copies of old illustrated books and issues of Strand with Holmes stories in them.

Gemma herself is like Holmes. She is no detective, but she observes people the way Holmes used to and comes up with similar clever deductions. Here are two examples from the first few pages:

“How did you know I went to Oxford?”
I waved my hand in the air. “You picked up a trace of an accent.”

“I see Fiona had a fight with her husband,” I said.
“She didn’t tell me that. How did you know?”
“Wedding ring’s off again.”

Yes, there are echoes of Holmes. Unfortunately for Gemma as for Sherlock, some people get annoyed at this. Others think she knows more than she is letting on. Perhaps she knows too much. It is not always the best way to make friends.

Indeed, West London Detective Estrada takes an immediate dislike to Gemma and thinks she is responsible for a recent murder in town. A woman that Gemma has never seen before arrives at the same time a tour bus group comes into the store and leaves behind a copy of the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual. That annual journal contained the very first Sherlock Holmes story every published and is quite rare. Gemma and Jayne—her best friend and manager of the tea shop at 220 Baker Street—track down this woman from a postcard left with the magazine. When they get to the inn where the woman has been staying, they discover her murdered body. Gemma becomes a suspect.

Besides Gemma, her uncle, and her friend, there are a few other characters. There is the attractive Detective Ryan Ashburton who had once proposed to Gemma but changed his mind (she blew it). We infer that one reason Detective Estrada does not like Gemma is because the detective herself has a crush on Detective Ashburton. There is Doug Morris, a local member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the international Holmes fan club. Gemma’s young, newly hired clerk Ruby also knows a lot about Holmes, though she is not a terribly dependable worker. Grant Thompson is a rare book dealer who has heard rumors about a Holmes coup on the market. And Irene, the reporter for the local paper, who wants to find out as much as she can about the murder.

Then there are the people associated with the wealthy Kent family. The patriarch Kurt Kent has recently died and his children and grandchildren are fighting over his estate—especially his son and daughter-in-law. It turns out that the murder victim nursed Mr. Kent at the end of his life and was also included in his will. Mr. Kent collected rare Holmes memorabilia—not the kind of tchotchkes that Gemma sells to tourists—and some people suspect that the Beeton’s may have been stolen from Mr. Kent’s estate. The nurse’s son shows up in town saying that he should inherit from his mother.

Like most cozies, there are also a couple of pets with personality: the store cat Moriarty and Gemma’s pet spaniel Violet. And what could be a better location for a cozy mystery than Cape Cod? Elementary, She Said should appeal to fans of both Holmes and Miss Marple.

A Tale of Two Elmos – Review

McMillan Moody. A Tale of Two Elmos. OBT Bookz, 2014. E-book.

A Tale of Two Elmos is another installment in the saga (?) of Elmo Jenkins, associate pastor of a large urban church. This time we get the sense that First Church might be somewhere in Tennessee since the Ozarks are five hours to the west. Again, this is a lighthearted story of a large church and its church politics.

Now Ellington M. Jenkins, called Elmo by all, is celebrating five years at First Church. The near-legendary Rev. Jorgensen has retired, and the go-getting Rev. Billy Pike Jameson and his wife Sassie LeMay have taken over. There are some rough edges that need smoothing as is always the case when a new leader takes over, but Elmo makes the transition well.

As always seems to be the case with Elmo, he tries to solve a low-key mystery. This time the local radio station has begun carrying an inspirational program given by someone only known as the Radio Guy. Radio Guy really speaks to Elmo when Elmo hears him while driving his car. Elmo would like to know who he is, but the ratio station accepts correspondence but keeps his identity a secret. Gee, would Elmo change churches to follow this guy?

There is some fun as Elmo and his wife Bonnie are given a church anniversary gift of a stay at a bed and breakfast in the Ozarks. Their room is in a high turret in a Victorian style mansion. Rumors are that the place is haunted.

Without giving too much away, Bonnie is expecting, and much of the story is about Elmo and Bonnie getting used to the idea of being parents. They have difficulty agreeing on a name and finally reach a compromise: if it is a boy, Elmo will contribute his first name and Bonnie the middle name; if a girl, Bonnie will name the first name and Elmo the middle name. Yes, they do not want to know the gender until the child is born.

Anyone who has read The Old Man and the Tea will understand why Elmo chooses Elijah for the name of their newborn son. And Bonnie’s family has a long tradition of naming men in the family Morgan. It does not take long for someone to see that Elijah Morgan also naturally shortens to Elmo, so the baby becomes Little Elmo.

A lot of humor in this story comes from the outspoken Erlene Markham, widow and former missionary who places herself in a nursing home. Elmo also gets drafted to lead a short-term mission trip to the boondocks of Papua New Guinea. There is some fish out of water humor here, but also a lot of respect for people who give up virtually everything to bring the Gospel of Jesus to such a remote tribal region. The First Church volunteers are just there for ten days. The missionaries are devoting their lives.

A Tale of Two Elmos might not be as wild as some of the other Elmo Jenkins stories, but it is fun to read nevertheless. The publisher has kindly included a list of names in the back of the book the way we sometimes see with Russian novels. A big church does have quite a few people we have to keep track of.

Have fun.