Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer is the time for Murder

Fred Vargas:
This Night's Fowl Work
Coule la Seine
L'homme a l'envers
Ceux qui vont Morir te Saluent

Dorothy L. Sayers:
Strong Poison
Busman's Honeymoon

Jefferson Bass:
Carved in Bone
Flesh and Bone

Dr Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson:
Beyond the Body Farm

Santo Piazzese:
La Doppia Vita di M. Laurent

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

believe me when I tell you these are great...

...but I'm not in a reviewing mood - it's too hot

Golden Boy - A Hong Kong Childhood
Martin Booth
I honestly did not want this book to end

From The Ground Up - The story of a first garden
Amy Stewart
I think I'll re-read pieces of this one - and not necessarily wait until I have a garden of my very own

...and this one is not worth your time

documentation and bibliography are iffy
the better known episodes deserve books of their own, the others are just boring and how did the authors manage just 5 pages on the Krakatoa eruption when Simon Winchester wrote a whole book on it.

I liked the Naked Baroness (Elisa von Wagner) story, but she must be the least explored character on the whole cyberspace - she doesn't even have a Wikipedia article if you can believe it - and the Italian book on which the authors base their tale is from 1978 and apparently out of print...oh well it wasn't that interesting...

Monday, June 08, 2009

Yummy Wishlist

Reading memoirs and chronicles that center around food is something I love, but haven't really done lately. Last books I read on the subject were "Climbing the Mango Tree" by Madhur Jaffrey and Elizabeth David's "My Life in France". I much preferred the first - I like my books, if not my food, on the exotic side.

Then I read the second part of Ruth Reichl's autobiography: "Comfort me with apples" which honestly wasn't that good, especially compared with her first "Tender at the Bone", and sort of let the food thing slide for a while.

But no more! I found these three books which I feel certain will provide hours of food craving:

Staling Buddha's Dinner: A Memoir - Bich Minh Nguyen

Bento Box in the Heartland - My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America - Linda Furiya

Serve the People: A Stir-fried Journey through China - Jen Lin-Liu

Although, in the spirit of thrift I should probably get to these two - which I got on may last food book binge and still haven't read:

The Passionate Epicure - Marcel Rouff

Endless Feasts: sixty years of writing from Gourmet

My absolute favourites in this collection, you ask? Why, here they are:

Clémentine in the Kitchen - Samuel Chamberlain

Katish - Our Russian Cook - Wanda Frolov

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Kiwi's Egg - David Quammen

Kiwi's Egg - Charles Darwin & Natural Selection

I liked the image of Darwin pregnant with his evolution theory just as a female kiwi is enlarged with her egg (the only bird whose egg comprises 25% of her body weight). Yup, he was just about to burst. But it was a long pregnancy and in the end, labor had to be induced – by the young fella Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace basically scared Darwin’s big idea into the public domain. The older man had been sitting on it for a couple of decades and was seemingly in no hurry to present the British public and scientific community with rope to hang him.

But as the young upstart sent him a sketch of his ideas from far away Indonesia he realized he best get to it. We can see Darwin’s reluctance to publish his ideas as a sign of arrogance – obviously he didn’t think anyone else would get there too; or, more in tune with Quammen’s portrait, as a mark of someone so uncomfortable being under the spotlight that he truly dreaded the attention that was sure to follow the unveiling of his ideas.

In “Kiwi’s Egg” Quammen decided to start his mini-biography were others would willingly end it – as Darwin descends the Beagle never to travel again outside his native island. Surely this is where the exciting part of Darwin’s life ends?

Well, maybe. But after all, his voyage was a fluke and while it might have changed his professional plans (from man of the cloth to man of science) and given him plenty of intellectual fodder for years to come, it didn’t change who he was. He was a man who liked to think things through – really thoroughly – he made a list of pros and cons on marriage, after all, so he wasn’t about to rock the core of science and eject religion from the map without being sure of it, either.
I was amazed at how complex Darwin’s character was – he was capable of great generosity and great egotism; a shy man who avoided travelling from his country house to London, electing letter-writing as his favorite means of communication with the world at large, and yet, someone who moved very fast (and cunningly) to assure a younger man wouldn’t get full credit for a theory he considered his. Complex characters, after all, don’t make good icons. Fortunately Quammen doesn’t seem willing to participate in Darwin’s canonization just yet.

Some of the story – especially the part where Darwin’s path crossed Wallace’s - had already been told by Quammen in “Song of the Dodo” albeit through Wallace’s perspective. Not that it bothered me in the slightest – for one it’s a great story, second Quammen uses a different angle in “Kiwi’s Egg”, third I’m glad he didn’t try to bury Wallace – it’s obvious that if it wasn’t for him Darwin, wouldn’t have published his theory so soon (in fact, he had already left written indications for his wife to publish his notebooks after his death – indicating he was definitely in no hurry) – their stories are truly inseparable.

Another thing readers might not be aware of is that Darwin didn’t exactly become Mr Popularity right after “The Origin of Species” was published. It’s not like everyone (or even anyone) cried “Gosh, we’ve been so stupid, believing for generations that species were immutable and created just as they are and put just where they are by a kindly Divine hand – and by the way, don’t we look incredibly like chimps? Hooray for Mr Darwin!”. Nope, it was more like “What a crazy old coot. Sigh. Chuckle. Next please!”

We seem to resent being enlightened – most prefer being saved – heck, sometimes thinking is a right nuisance.

But after all is said and done, Quammen rocks.

All Things Reconsidered - Roger Tory Peterson

All Things Reconsidered - my birding adventures

I had some trouble getting into this book. I guess one reason is, while I love birds very much, I’m not (yet, maybe) a bird-watcher, so many bird names in the book, especially the first pieces didn’t really mean much to me.

I also didn’t know much about Roger Tory Peterson except for a couple of articles I read on New York Review of Books (one, a review of this book). I knew only that he was considered peerless in his artistic portrayals of birds and that his bird identification guide (published in 1934) revolutionized the field-practice. So with that in mind I think I bypassed the two large groups of people this book is aimed at.

These are a series of articles publishes in the magazine Bird Watcher's Digest from ‘84 to ’96 (the year of his death at 88) ranging a breath of subjects: many are reminiscences of the author’s first steps into bird-watching (among my favorites), exotic expeditions, smaller adventures near-home (some of these were also beautiful), eulogies of colleagues, reflections on conservation and wild-life art.

His style is very polite, very soothing even gentlemanly. Reading “All Things Reconsidered” I really got a sense of how important Peterson was in the bird-watching and conservation world in the U.S. He was one of the first to witness the damage DDT spraying was causing among birds, and to demand its eradication; he also was the driving force behind many sanctuaries both in the U.S. and outside, not to mention his activities within the Audubon Society, his work with young people and teachers, some of the first bird-watching expeditions aimed at tourist, and of course, his guides, who found a way into every bird-watchers pocket everywhere around the world.

A Venetian Bestiary - Jan Morris

This is a tiny, off-beat book by famous travel-writer Jan Morris. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read. I loved all 90 pages including the illustrated ones. It tells of the animals of Venice which might be real birds, cats and dogs, or statues of winged lions and horses.

She knows Venice so well she travels deftly between everyday life, history, art pieces and architectural markers. It’s a joy to be lead by someone so knowledgeable and clearly passionate about this magical city.

Now, I’ve never been to Venice, but I can tell you I will not set foot on that boggy water without first having read Morris’ renowned book of the same title. In fact, I’ll very likely read the book anyway and skip the journey. Great travel writing gives you permission to do that.

Bob Tarte - Fowl Weather

Fowl Weather - how thirty-nine animals and one sock monkey took over my life

The title does not lie. This one’s a bit of downer. In fact, unless you read the author’s first book “Enslaved by Ducks” and liked it, I’d say skip this one. If you have no prior reading relationship with Bob Tarte and his mad menagerie there is no reason you’d want to endure hearing about the worst years of his life.

Sometimes life sucks. After Tarte’s father unexpectedly passes away, his mother starts fast descending into senile dementia. And at the same time he’s trying to cope with that, many of favorite pets seem to start kicking the bucket too. I told you it was depressing. The only good thing is that new pets keep showing up – although some of them don’t fare too well either.

It’s not that I didn’t like the book exactly – I guess in a way I kinda did. I like reading about all the parrots, bunnies, cats, geese and ducks. Sometimes life sucks and there is no good reason not to write about it. But it did get me down.