Archive for February, 2013

Ardent Blue

All night it has been
open to heavenly starlight,
but now, no longer
a portal, the morning sky
begins to take shape.
Hardening into boundaries,
still black before azure,
its surface already shows
the imprint of trespass;
a recent red-eye flight has
left a faded vapor
trail across its chalkboard.
Trees seem at risk
of crumpling beneath this
majestic dark weight.
But before Chicken Little
can raise an alarm,
with a faint blushing exhale,
dawn’s ardent blue
softens the mass transparent.

Ephemeral View

I have learned after
approaching this
window often enough
that the view
beheld is ephemeral.

As clothes change
the impression
of what’s underneath,
mood shapes
each day’s perception.

Whether puddled with
shadows or
sliced by sunlight,
look again
and there is a robin.

No matter how long I
wait for the paint
to dry, its true self
will never be
lured to the surface.

But that is no excuse
for not noticing
the difference when I
hurry past with
a perfunctory glance.

Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy

I read this book decades ago, when in college, but after seeing its recent movie adaptation, I decided to give it a second look.  From the first page, I was captivated by the story and delighted by Tolstoy’s prose.  Reading thirty pages a day was like consuming a five-course meal; it left me feeling sated and content.  Set in late 19th Century Russia, marriage is one of the principle themes in the novel.  The three primary couples profiled are Anna and Alexei, Stiva and Dolly, and Konstantin and Kitty.  Alexei is twenty years older than Anna and it is clear she married him not for love but for status.  When she meets Vronsky, a dashing cavalry officer, she is swept off her feet.  Stiva and Dolly represent the other side of the coin.  He is a “man about town” who enjoys the good life and affairs with younger women.  His long-suffering wife, Dolly, has lost her looks after bearing him five children.  It is her diminishing wealth that is keeping her husband financially afloat.  Konstantin is the moral center of the story, and to my way of thinking, he is Tolstoy’s counterpart.  He is thirty-four and has fallen in love with eighteen year old Kitty.  In the end, it is their love for each other that becomes the book’s shining example.  Anna and Vronsky later represent a couple living together outside the realm of marriage. There is another couple that is also contrasted within the novel—the two principle cities of Russia, Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  Tolstoy masterfully weaves the lives of these “couples” together as they intersect to create a mosaic of Russian life at the time.  The book touches on numerous other themes: jealousy, religion, rural life contrasted with high society, to name a few.  While much has changed in the world since the book was written, its themes have remained timeless and compelling.  This is one book that everyone should make the effort to read at least once.  Don’t be daunted by its length; a five-course meal created by a master chef, it is worth putting aside other activities to enjoy such a delicious feast.

Native Son / Richard Wright

This novel is difficult to like, but that is by intent.  Published in 1940, its purpose is to confront the reader with troubling truths of race relations in America. The book is a manifesto warning that if the second-class status of Negroes is not addressed, it will lead to a bloody revolution by black America and other disenfranchised classes.  What makes the novel difficult to read is the story’s main character, Bigger Thomas.  At age twenty, having grown up in Chicago without a father and in extreme poverty, he is a sullen, angry young man.  Given the opportunity to improve his life and the lot of his family, he rejects the hand of kindness when it is extended his way.  This leads him to accidently killing the daughter of his new employer, then burning her body (after cutting off her head) in a furnace to hide the crime.  Feeling no remorse, he then tries to hatch a scheme to make it look as if she had been kidnapped.  To further blacken his name, he later murders his girlfriend, fearing she might give him up to the police.  Bigger is self-centered to the extreme: the only two emotions he exhibits are anger and fear.  The second half of the novel, centering on his inquest and murder trial, has a staged feel.  Main characters give lectures in an effort to explain what made Bigger act the way he did.  It is in these longer speeches that Wright delivers the uncomfortable truths about segregation in this country.  Facing the death sentence at the book’s end, Bigger is still unable to express any remorse for his actions.  The author makes clear that white society is to blame for his main character’s amoral state.   This lack of any redeeming features makes Bigger difficult to sympathize with.  But that is Wright’s intention; he isn’t aiming at the readers’ heartstrings.  The book is meant as a warning that when the hope of equality and betterment ceases to exist, monsters will arise in our midst.

Memory’s Seed

There comes an April morning when dawn
effortlessly dispels the dark,
a fragrant sunrise like this that inspires
birds to wax poetic in song.

I did not truly grieve when we buried you
in a lifeless November ground,
but I do today to think you’ll never again
delight in such perfusion.

Still, even as fertile mud is the reward
waiting beneath the snow,
so too this sorrow sprouts the seed of
a memory I had forgotten.

Once again, it blooms in the vernal air:
you, five years past eighty,
on hands and knees, planting annuals
despite every infirmity.

Hoard Of Cold

Ironed flat and without a wrinkle
What dawn has revealed is blemish-free
Yesterday’s swirls freshly groomed
By fussy gusts into this trackless plain

A starched-white arctic presence
In sunshine, it dazzles a miser’s heart
Yet rather than gold, such sparkle
Proves to be a worthless hoard of cold

The Poisoner’s Handbook : Murder And The Birth Of Forensic Medicine In Jazz Age New York / Deborah Blum

In this fascinating account of the birth of forensic medicine, science writer Deborah Blum takes the reader back to early-twentieth-century New York.  It is a city with a corrupt government and an inept coroner’s office.  This is at a time when poisonings, intentional and otherwise, were common and usually impossible to detect in autopsied bodies.  The situation began to change in 1918 when Charles Norris was appointed the city’s chief medical officer.  Working with toxicologist Alexander Gettler, Norris would help to establish the discipline of forensic science.  From their laboratory in Bellevue Hospital, they perfected tests for identifying poisons in the human body and spread the tests’ use throughout the country.  The book is a combination chemistry lesson and detective story.  Blum highlights many of Norris and Gettler’s most interesting and challenging cases.  It is not only murders they investigated; they also studied the dangerous compounds found in products like pesticides and cosmetics.  Their tenure took place during Prohibition, when the federal government intentionally poisoned industrial alcohol in an attempt to keep bootleggers from stealing it to use in lethal alcoholic beverages.  This did not stop the thefts and countless people died as a result.  Norris decried the government’s practice and was an early vocal opponent of Prohibition.  What a delicious concoction Blum has created here—equal parts history and science with murder investigations as a chaser.  It is an amazing story and a worthy tribute to forensic detectives Norris and Gettler.

Packing For Mars : The Curious Science Of Life In The Void / Mary Roach

When humans ventured into outer space, there were a host of questions that needed to be answered beforehand.  What would happen to the human body when exposed to zero gravity for long periods of time?  How would astronauts psychologically cope with the isolation and confinement of a space capsule or space station?  What can be done to prevent motion sickness, and if an astronaut does vomit in their helmet, what then?  These questions and numerous others have been studied by various space agencies over the years.  Mary Roach takes the reader behind the curtain of some of the more bizarre space simulations that have been carried out since the space race began.  While the book is educational, Roach’s use of humor makes sure the science goes down easily.  She focuses on the weird stuff that rarely receives coverage elsewhere.  The topics covered include sex in outer space, space hygiene, bowel movements and the development of a toilet for the space shuttle.  Uncowed by the experts she interviews, Roach boldly asks the indelicate personal questions about life in the void.  Behind the humor there is serious science, and her research is impeccable and well documented.  If you are looking for the technical details of the space program, look elsewhere.  This book examines an even more complicated machine and how it functions in outer space: the human body.