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On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of aging high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, wealthy women) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Travel, on November 19th, 2015.

termite_mound5

Termite Mounds. That above is a live one.

Other than seeing termite mounds on TV, usually on National Geographic programs, I’d not paid much attention to them. They’re odd looking. Many are phallic-shaped, and some jesting was mentioned amongst our group about that. The one above is a fairly young mound, probably only about 4 feet tall. And when I tell you they “pepper” the African landscape is an understatement. They’re everywhere.

As days went by and we drove by hundreds of them (pictures below) I began to notice the differences between them, and could tell whether one was live or not. The answer to that has to do with the color and look of the stuff you see on the outside – this one is dark colored, meaning that the workers (the termites who take care of the mound, build it, clean it, excavate it) have been doing their jobs by removing detritus and dung, pushing it up and out, where it clings to the outside. There are vent holes in the mound, which are kept scrupulously clean by the workers.

The soldier termites defend the nest (mound) and have unique stuff they excrete onto attacking animals or insects that becomes a glue-like substance, in effect paralyzing the attacker.

termitemound1The surface of these things is hard. I never did go up to a fresh mound and push on the dark stuff (we were rarely out of the Land Rovers) – perhaps I could have budged it – but I wasn’t interested in touching termite dung. As the weather on the savanna changes the surface of the mound becomes hard, almost like rock.

Termite mounds have a king and queen (similar to a bee hive but without a king bee), worker termites and soldier termites, and believe it or not, a mound can live for about 20 years. Eventually the life span of the insects wane and the mound dies. When that happens other rodents move in – mostly mongoose. Or snakes (but not both).

At first, I thought the termites must choose a place near a tree (because so many of them were mounded next to one), but actually not. These termites aren’t exactly wood eating (like the type that live in the wood in my house) – they eat anything that contains cellulose, which they forage from the surrounding landscape. It’s in hay and other botanical stuff they find. The workers and soldier termites are both blind.

termite_mound_abandonedThere at left is an abandoned termite mound – note that there is no fresh (dark colored) stuff on or around the mound. And the mound has been cleaned out by rodents with plenty of escape holes.

As a termite mound rises in time, baboons use the tops of them as a sentry post, scanning the savanna for predators. And those baboons poop as they’re sitting there. Because baboons eat botanical stuff, their poop contains seeds, hence you can see behind this termite mound a tree that’s grown up beside it. So here I thought it was the egg and the chicken, but no it was the termite first, then the trees.

Utterly fascinating, this planet of ours and how it all works!

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on November 29th, 2015:

    Phew, I have just finished reading your African odyssey, you really were intrepid, I would not have survived the trip in that heat. Thank you for writing it up and the photos too. I will re-read more slowly next week and enjoy it further.

    Yes, it was HOT for sure. But as time has passed, I’ve somewhat forgotten how uncomfortable I was. We just happened to be there during a long heat spell. I guess it’s not usually that hot in October. . . carolyn t

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