Thursday, November 20, 2014

And Now for Something Completely Different . . . .

It’s in the nature of mothers and daughters to have conflicts. For decades—long before Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries—my mother and I have argued the relative merits and general appeal of vampires versus werewolves. Mom’s the werewolf fan, even though I’ve pointed out to her many times that vampires are generally better dressed, better looking, and overall possessed of greater social skills, all qualities she values in normal mortals. And she does admit to really liking two cinematic vampires: George Hamilton in Love at First Bite and Frank Langella in Dracula. But then, she also for the most part prefers her men tall, dark, and handsome, so I suspect she might have gladly bared her throat to either of those guys, no matter what part they were playing.

Mom introduced me to the pleasures of the horror and suspense genres at an early age: I remember my brother and me, wearing our pajamas and climbing into the car (which was thoughtfully fitted out with blankets, pillows, and a thermos of hot chocolate) and heading off to the drive-in to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Mike, the baby of the family, was quickly traumatized and went to sleep in self-defense, but I was fascinated. Even at that early age my inner critic kicked in; I found the supposedly sympathetic victim Joan Crawford much creepier than Bette Davis, who I guess was meant to be the villainess. Maybe I should watch it again to see how I react today.

As vampires go, Bela Lugosi didn’t really do it for me when I was a kid, though I’ve come to appreciate him since. It was Christopher Lee in the Hammer Films versions of Dracula who really got me interested in vampires, both cinematic and literary, and I still take a guilty pleasure in those movies when they show up on TV. Strangely, Mom never seemed to particularly like him.

When I got to university, my interests in literature, history, and anthropology led to some fascinating research. The academics were ahead of the curve on that one by several years, though as one of my lit professors pointed out, the author of a typical academic journal article or book should feel happy if it’s read by 3,000 people. That’s nothing compared to the readership of Twilight (which I confess I did read, after being bullied into it by a friend, and even kind of enjoyed—the book, that is, not the movie). But academics like historical and social context and complications, and so, I think, do many vampire aficionados and writers of vampire fiction--aside from those who write and read the less complicated and consequently less interesting examples of what's come to be called "urban fantasy," a label that in most cases leads me to put a book back on the shelf without opening it, having opened a few that I wished I hadn't. Without the dramatic background and [probably fictionalized] romantic tragedy of his resistance against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad Dracul is just another monster from Transylvania.
What’s led me to pondering these topics is a novel I’ve just finished, which I received from an interesting operation called “Blogging for Books.” The premise is simple: you request a book, and they send it to you, for which you agree to write a review of said book. You can check it out at
But back to vampires, and my book review. Another Transylvanian monster with a well-documented basis in history was Elizabeth/Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous “Blood Countess” who provides the basis for Rebecca Alexander’s first novel, The Secrets of Life and Death.  Báthory, the niece or cousin of the king of Poland, Stephen/István Báthory, was said to have bathed in and drunk the blood of hundreds of young girls (the official count stands at 80), mostly servants from the peasant class, to maintain her own youth and beauty. She finally came to trial in 1610, after a quarter century of these macabre practices, and was found guilty on the basis of physical evidence and the testimony of over 300 witnesses, but she could not be executed because she was a member of the royal family. Instead, she was walled up in a chamber inside Cachtiche Castle, where she died four years later.
Explaining how Báthory became the monster recorded by history (and numerous other fictions) is part of the task Alexander tackles in The Secrets of Life and Death. The novel moves between two engrossing narratives, one set in the present and one in late sixteenth-century Transylvania; the exotic and threatening atmosphere of the earlier Transylvanian courts is especially well realized and compelling. Alexander has clearly done her homework and turned it into a narrative that’s hard to put down.
The narrator of the historical sequences is Edward Kelley, assistant and protégé of Doctor John Dee, the mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, alleged necromancer, and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Historians disagree on Kelley’s character; he claimed to be a medium who received messages from angels and Dee believed him, but others have called him a con man and opportunist. Here he is a complicated but sympathetic character caught in an incredibly difficult position: he and his master can either participate in something hideous and morally reprehensible, with what will surely be disastrous consequences, or they can die. (For another, quite different representation of Kelley, see S.J. Parrish’s second Giordano Bruno thriller, Prophecy.)
In present-day England, protagonist Jackdaw Hammond teams up with Professor Felix Guichard, an anthropologist and expert in the occult, to try to save the life of a young girl who should be dead, but who has been saved by a set of symbols inscribed on her skin, the same symbols that are keeping Jackdaw herself alive. Now someone is bent on capturing and destroying both women, unless Jackdaw and Felix can discover what lies behind the symbols and their magic. That knowledge is to be found in Edward Kelley’s four-hundred-year-old diary, that will help them to unravel the mystery of what really lies behind the legend of Erzsébet Báthory.
The journey to that conclusion is an exciting and disturbing one, replete with hard rides through dark forests, car chases, witches both ancient and modern, and glimpses into sinister and threatening worlds where, the writer would have us believe, sinister occult transactions involving “the secrets of life and death” may be taking place at the table next to yours in a café.
The characters are varied, interesting, and for the most part well-drawn, especially Kelley and Jackdaw Hammond (though I had a hard time getting used to a heroine named Jack, for some reason). Some characters remain flatter than I’d have liked (Maggie, Jackdaw’s foster mother and John Dee, for example), but Alexander’s not claiming to be Dickens, after all. This kind of novel can be frustrating to the history buff, when authors don’t provide enough historical context or detail, but as I mentioned earlier, Alexander has done her homework and, although the Kelley chapters are shorter and the focus is ultimately on the present-day story, her handling of (her version of) the history is most satisfactory.The two strands of the narrative come together in an explosive and just about perfect conclusion. If Rebecca Alexander writes another novel featuring Jackdaw Hammond and Felix Guichard, I’ll be happy to sit down by the fire with it, preferably with a nice cup of tea or glass of wine on a winter’s night, and give it my full attention.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Changes in latitude, changes in attitude

Wow, it's been a long time since I've even looked at this blog and I really don't know why. Maybe it was just summer lassitude. Now it seems like summer may finally be over (after some temps in the 90s as late as last week!) and I'm feeling pretty happy about it!

 Back in June I found a half-price deal for the Hotel Vendome in Prescott, Arizona, where we stayed a few years ago, and last week we finally headed north for a little getaway. Autumn had to be happening somewhere, after all, and since Prescott's more than 3000 feet higher and 3 1/2 hours north of Tucson, it seemed like a good place to go looking for it.

We weren't disappointed. There weren't quite as many colorful leaves as we'd hoped for, but enough. And we like the Vendome, where we stayed last time we were in Prescott ( It's historic without taking itself too seriously (built in 1917, and there's even a ghost, though we weren't in that room), just funky enough to be comfortable, and with a nice continental breakfast included at the little bar every morning.

 Prescott's a great town for walking - not too big, with lots of lovely older homes and historic neighborhoods where the residents decorate for Halloween the way people other places do for Christmas. Imagine how much fun it would be to trick-or-treat there! And these photos are of some of the more restrained decor!

 The Hotel Vendome is in the center of town, just a block off the courthouse square. We walked a half-mile or so, uphill and through the neighborhood in the pictures above, to the edge of Acker Park, which is hilly with a couple of miles of trails. This is what we saw when we turned around to look back down at the town.

 Farther along we found these interesting shrubs, up to about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. A sign identified them as Apache Plume, and a web search told me that there are several varieties. These, with the wild and crazy white plumes, seem to be among the more unusual ones. This time of year they're fruiting and going to seed but there were a few of the pretty white open rose blossoms left; they're a member of the rose family.

 The trail was punctuated with words of wisdom like these - I agree with Thoreau:

Another view of town, from the top of the ridge, with Thumb Butte in the distance:

The best place we found to eat is this little "coffee bistro" right next door to our hotel. Wonderful salads, very generous portions - a half salad at $4.99 was just right for a delicious, light, and satisfying lunch. And the coffee's really good, with free refills.

 The next day we headed a few miles farther afield, driving out to Willow Lake, which is ringed by a network of trails that link up with miles and miles of other trails heading out in other directions. We confined ourselves to a long walk about halfway around the lake. One of the things we liked about being there was the relative quiet. Prescott may once have been Arizona's territorial capitol, but it's  not really on the way to anywhere now - it's the county seat and a fairly small one, so even though the lake is close to a main road, the noise is minimal and unobtrusive.

 We saw ducks and coots, even a cormorant and a snowy egret, birds we saw often when we lived  in northern California but which are much less common in Arizona.

Someone had put together this shelter among the cottonwoods on the south shore,

and a little further along we encountered this fellow lying across the trail. We weren't sure if he was dead or alive (he wasn't moving, even when gently prodded), or whether he was one of those snakes whose markings were similar to a rattler or an actual young rattler who hadn't grown his rattles yet, so we took a detour off the trail and around him - he was gone when we came back. A little beyond this big tree,

we came upon this sign, but the trail didn't end at all, though it's apparently under water when there's water for it to be under.

 We went a little further before turning back. The trees and brush grew thicker and the feeling was quite magical. It was the middle of the week and we'd met only one other person, a runner on her way back to the trailhead.

 I found myself remembering a couple of poems I read long ago, like this passage from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence":

       The world stands out on either side
       No wider than the heart is wide;
       Above the world is stretched the sky,
       No higher than the soul is high . . . .

and from Christina Rossetti's "Uphill":

        Does the road wind uphill all the way?
        Yes, to the very end.
        Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
        From morn to night, my friend.

Our journey was not "uphill all the way," nor did it "take the whole long day"; we were back home in Tucson by dinnertime. But those few days away and being outside in the cool, clean air, in "October's bright blue weather" were just what we needed, I think, though I suppose some might say it's silly to drive 3 1/2 hours each way and pay for a hotel just to take a few long walks in the country. And now we can do that here at home, since it feels as if we've brought autumn back with us.

Friday, July 11, 2014

After the Rain

Now that the monsoon has arrived (though it's taken the last 2 days off) the desert seems revitalized and if Joe and I are any example, so do the people who live here - well, some of us, at least, those who spend any significant time outdoors. Instead of the usual 30-45 minute stroll around the neighborhood, we've been taking longer morning walks in Greasewood Park, a minimally developed desert park just a quarter-mile away on the other side of Speedway. It's where I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake some years ago (and haven't seen one there since) and where all these pictures were taken two days ago.
     One of the first things we noticed was the number of bright green baby ocotillos - and the bigger ones are also greener than they've been in a while.
 Here's a closeup of the leaves and the formidable spines. When we first moved to Tucson I read an essay by a local writer who was reminiscing about how, in spring, her mother would send her out to scratch the ocotillo with her fingernail to see if it was green below the bark-like skin. I guess that was a sign spring had arrived. We always look for the scarlet flame-like blossoms at the tops of the long stalks.
 What a gorgeous gray sky! It was so cool and the air was so moist, almost like far northern coastal California, where we used to live. Except no redwoods, or blackberries, or ocean - okay, maybe not much like it after all. But it sure felt good. These cactus wrens seemed pretty happy - and amorous.
We call this area the saguaro nursery because of the many young saguaros there; in fact, I've never seen so many youngsters in one place, spread out over a rather large depression below a low ridge.
 Young saguaros are often found in the company of "nurse plants" that protect them from predators and the elements. This one is very well protected by a dense and very spiny cholla (I never argue with a cholla) and a greasewood on the other side.
 And here, in the foreground, is a saguaro at the other end of its life cycle, dead but still standing. You can see the nice straight ribs of the skeleton still holding it up, and a big "boot" at the top, a cavity that in the living plant would have served as shelter and/or a nest site for various creatures. Our neighbors have one in their front yard where woodpeckers raise a brood of babies every year.                            
I have no idea what these tiny seedlings are.
 The rain dug a channel down the middle of this trail,
 where we also spotted these deer tracks. We see quite a lot of wildlife in our neighborhood - coyotes, javelinas, hawks, rabbits, the occasional bobcat - but have yet to see an actual deer on the hoof.
 When Isaiah was about 3, he and I took a walk in Greasewood Park and found a deer's foreleg (that's the most deer I've seen there). He hunkered down and poked it and turned it over with a stick. "Nana, where's the rest of it?" he asked, and we talked about how coyotes had probably eaten the rest of it. He was very serious and scientifically fascinated with his observations, in a way that was just wonderful to share.
     I don't know what these little plants are, either, but I'm fairly sure they're seedlings of some cactus-type plant. And what an interesting color!
There's so much that's so interesting on the trail that it's easy to forget to look up, but this sky, this view was certainly worth it. When we lived in Humboldt County I had a friend who said that, living there, he'd become a conoisseur of gray sunsets. Here we become conoisseurs of skies like this because they are such rare gifts.

One reason I'd brought my camera was to get pictures of millipedes; we'd seen hundreds the day before but I was beginning to think we might be out of luck. And then there they were, along the last ridge on the way home. This is their defensive posture, coiling up to protect their heads, which seems quite sensible though I don't imagine things with such tiny brains do much actual, logical thinking. Most of them are about 5 inches long, and you can see the pairs of delicate legs on each segment. I think they're rather beautiful, and they're harmless, since they can't bite like their centipede cousins. But they do have some rather disgusting - though I'd argue also useful - behaviors.
 Millipedes are detritivores, which means they eat things that are rotting and otherwise unappealing to humans. They're also coprophages, which would be a wonderful insult to use in a bar fight, I think. Instead of telling someone to "eat sh-t and die" you could just call him a coprophage and he might be so confused that it would give you time to get away safely. Anyway, judging from their numbers in the  park, millipedes live quite well on the feces they find along the trail. What we were trying to figure out was how those bits of cloth wound up in coyote scat. There was certainly nothing in the news about anybody going missing who might have wound up as a coyote's lunch - anyway, they really don't eat people.

      Looking up again, here's another long view of the results of the rain. I took this shot while standing on a bank about 12-15 feet above the wash that a few hours earlier would have been running with water. The center is smoother than it's been in months, still unmarked by any tracks and scoured clean, except along the edge, of smaller rocks and debris. I wish I could describe the feeling in the air and the way, on a morning like this, the desert smells like rain.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I wanted to start this post with a drawing of the Roman goddess Flora, but alas, I haven't finished it. And with the rains things are changing so fast in the garden and elsewhere that these photos will just have to serve as my tribute to the goddess of flowers.
      The summer squash have been taking a beating from the heat, but with the cooler monsoon temps they look like they may recover.
Joe didn't think he liked okra 22 years ago when we planted our first garden together, but I persuaded him that the gorgeous flowers were worth it. Now he loves it (and the flowers). I like burgundy okra for the colorful stems and leaves that you can see here, and the pods (that turn green when you cook them).
 I saw this artichoke at the Tucson Botanical Gardens last Sunday. If you don't pick the big buds to eat them, you get this kind of spectacular beauty!
 Also at the botanical garden I found a display of potted adeniums, much bigger than the one in my kitchen window! But mine has sprouted two limbs since I posted a picture of it (  and it's getting ready to bloom again!
 This gorgeous sunflower is as big as a good-sized salad plate! My friend Caren gave me the seeds: Hopi Black Dye Sunflower from Native Seed Search (, a fantastic organization specializing in seeds for desert-adapted plants. Can you see the bee at the lower right of the center, his back legs covered with pollen?
 These sunflowers are almost as big as the one above but I don't know what variety they are; they were part of a packet of mixed seeds, some of which did well while others couldn't take the heat (I'm guessing that was the problem, along with being savaged by birds before they had a chance to bloom).
 The chives are also in bloom, and I have lots of them, though I'm not sure why I grow so many since I don't use them all that often. But they're hardy and healthy and make a nice border. I think these are garlic chives.
 These pink rain lilies (zephyranthes) were a wonderful surprise yesterday afternoon, after two successive afternoons of good rain, a lovely line of them popped up all along the edge of this raised bed.  The monsoon was such a bust last year that I don't think we had any that bloomed, maybe one or two at most. But they've been biding their time and multiplying underground, more than I thought. Most of the year they look like chives, nothing but leaves, and as the leaves die they collect around the bases and aren't terribly attractive. Then almost all - sometimes all - the leaves die back and it looks very empty and sad until - voilá! - one day there's a nice line or cluster of them where you didn't expect to see anything at all! They're about 8" tall and remind me of the "naked ladies" that used to grow along a neighbor's driveway when I was growing up in Idaho, but those, I think, were amaryllis belladonna, much taller and highly poisonous.
There are many varieties of zephyranthes,  mostly in pink, white, or yellow. They're not very cold-hardy (zones 7-10), so it surprised me that the original bulbs for these came from my brother in Idaho. Maybe he took them up to store over the winter. Here in Arizona they thrive on my benign neglect with no particular care at all except watering and occasionally digging them up to thin them out and move some to different areas of the garden. They're such a delight, made all the more precious because they're so ephemeral, like so many beautiful things that lift our hearts and then disappear, things that appear right before our eyes but that we may not notice at all if we forget to pay attention.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Yellow, seems it's everywhere one looks these days . . . like the yellow orchid vine that climbs a trellis outside our kitchen window,
 cassia blossoms,
or the Santa Rita prickly pear, which shows that nature knows how well yellow and purple go together.
Palo verde trees come in several varieties, so their bloom season is extended over several weeks,
(and more palo verdes, in the wash across the street from our house and marching up the hill).
Of course all those blossoms eventually drop in a rain of gold - these are in our driveway, crisp and crunchy underfoot.
This little wildflower lines the sidewalks and roadsides,
and the yellowbells (a wilder, hardier variety of the orange Tecoma stans seen in many yards) will eventually shoot back up to 6'-8' tall, filled with this year's blossoms and last year's seedpods.

The marvelous mesquite, one of the desert's hardiest plants is in blossom now, source of so many things, from wood (and charcoal) to the pods that provide nutritious flour and other foods, and the wonderful mesquite honey that helps keep my unfortunate allergy to mesquite under control. Just a spoonful in my first cup of tea or coffee in the morning for a homeopathic effect that, over time, has remarkable results.
Last but not least, the more common prickly pear, which I think is quite uncommon in its beauty and the sustenance its fruits and even its spiny pads offer to so many desert creatures, including humans (see my post on prickly pear jelly,