Friday, November 11, 2011

"Birdology" Sy Montgomery

Although I waited anxiously to read Sy Montgomery’s book “Birdology: Adventures With Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks and Hummingbirds” I have to admit I wasn’t that impressed when I first finished it. But months passed and I went back to it – first to re-read the chapter on hummingbird rehabilitation, then the one on chickens then the one on hawking…and now I’m sure I’ll be going back to this book often.

I think I was fully expecting something epic such as “Journey of the Pink Dolphins”, “Search for the Golden Moon Bear” or “Spell of the Tiger” a full-on immersion expedition, intense, exotic and emotional. But “birdiness” is not a conveniently packed, uniform quality, nor is it located anywhere specific – you might go to New Zealand to see a particular bird but you can also see a particular bird out your window. In effect birds are incredibly diverse from pre-historic looking predators to something so common as to be invisible such as a pigeon; they might elicit feelings of tenderness in the form of a baby hummingbird, or of moral uneasiness in the shape of a hunting falcon or a highly intelligent parrot kept as a pet.

With this in mind “Birdology” assumes the perfect shape with its self-contained snapshot chapters that each address not only a particular species but also a more generic characteristic of birds. As weird as it might sound it’s a book that I love now even though I thought it was only o.k. when I first read it almost seven months ago.

"Kraken" Wendy Williams

I had been meaning to read “Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid” ever since I first saw it. But it after reading Sy Montgomery’s brilliant article on octupuses for Orion magazine and seeing Wendy Williams book listed as a suggested reading I had to order it right away.

And it is an amazing book. Packed with astounding information on these amazing cephalopods (and also octuposes and cuttlefish) that will make anyone realize just how incredible they are. While their physiology is so alien-like (three hearts, blue blood, capable on changing color) scientists have also found incredible similarities with human beings namely in the structure of their eyes and neurons. It was truly startling to learn of the many medical breakthroughs that have been based on research carried out on squid. Future treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will most likely owe something to these animals.

And yet they remain enigmas – do they think or communicate in ways we might fathom? Or did their brain structure and invertebrate body (not to mention their marine environment) cause them to evolve a relationship with the world and each other that our brains, so tightly wound inside our skulls will never be able to glimpse? It seems indisputable that there is “something” there, even if we try to stay away from loaded terms such as intelligence and conscience.

“Kraken” will fascinate anyone interested in natural history, science, animals and the sea. Wendy Williams has written a book that has not only a perfect rhythm but also a perfect length – and doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is still so much we don’t know about squid (and also doesn’t hide the immense amount of squid dissection needed for scientific research- which is the “slightly disturbing” part, I guess).

Any reader, even acquainted only with cephalopods in the form of lunch, will come away with a newfound respect for these creatures and maybe more importantly, a desire to know more.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Feel Better Little Buddy" Julia Segal

I guess "Feel Better Little Buddy: Animals with casts" is primarily aimed at children who have broken a leg or arm and need reassurance that a cast does not make you a monster, or something. But most people who get the book are probably pet-cute-junkies such as myself.

Just what is this obsession with charming animals sporting hats, or casts and quizzical looks? A symptom of end-of-days malaise? Misdirected brooding instinct? A side effect of enormous cupcake consumption?

Oh well, I'm sure some harried grad student is about to drop a Phd on the "Semiotics of Cute: Childlessness, Infantilization and Recession", that will shed light on this enigmatic phenomenon.

"Somewhere Towards the End" Diana Athill

What’s it like being an old woman? Well, in the benefit of full disclosure the answer to that question is not the primary reason why I got “Somewhere Towards the End”. I was actually won over by the first paragraph where Diana Athill professes a love of black pugs but sadly realizes that at 89 years old it wouldn’t be fair to get a new puppy. I decided to read the book on the strength of that musing, such is my faith in the discerning world-views of pug connoisseurs. And am glad I did, because this memoir-essay is fascinating for anyone interested on the exceptionally lucid ramblings of an almost nonagenarian on love, sex, illness, death and friendship.

As soon as I realized Athill was a non god-fearing, childless woman I became more interested in her views on old age: don’t we end our days clutching rosaries and cursing our decision not to procreate? What is a woman’s life without faith and babies (and faith in babies)? Well, it turns out that a life without either (nor money – for it turns out the other thing I share with Athill is the absence of a savings account) can be, in the immortal words of Maude Lebowski “a natural, zesting enterprise” (Maude, was of course referring to sex, something Athill also found zesty until she didn’t and had no problem saying so to her partner - nor with his continued activity with others).

Working into her seventies, gardening, painting, friends and family – and the odd lover – kept Athill very much alive and kicking at an age where women are supposed to be, at most, doting grandmothers. Even taking into account that her occupation as a literary editor is probably a lot more intellectually demanding and fulfilling than most, one has to applaud her spirit.

She is, however, very candid in stating that she can’t help her personality any more than a pessimist can and that her mainly positive outlook might simply be innate, but I believe that most people fall somewhere between the extremes, and especially for women, role models who enjoy old age might go a long way into putting any fears to rest (fears that might loom over us long before actual age sets in).

While not all of us can boast a spectacular record of longevity (Athill’s female relatives have often lived into their nineties, including her mother) we can still take a lot from “Somewhere Towars the End”. Indeed the skills of not taking things too seriously, of enjoying deeply that which we can still do, of seeing our flaws more clearly and yet, being kinder and more understanding with ourselves, would be precious at any stage of life.

I also appreciated that Athill isn’t one of those (hypocrites? zealots?) who claim that you should just stop whining and keep your head down. She does understand that some people get a rotten deal in their life circumstances:

“I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes, because the kind of fortune one enjoys or suffers, does not come only from outside oneself. Of course much of it can be inflicted or bestowed on one by others, or by things such as a virus, or climate, or war, or economic recession; but much of it is built into one genetically, and the greatest good luck of all is built-in resilience.”

In short the best thing one can wish for is not money, health or even luck – being a born optimist is a better deal than any of that. What about the rest of us? Well, I guess we’ll have to fake it, ‘till we make it.

If there is a woman in your life beset by the age blues, whether she is 25 or 75, “Somewhere Towards the End” might just prove a welcome antidote. It manages to be both unflinching and positive and an absolute treat of a book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Sketchbook From Southern France" Sara Midda

Another beautiful book of illustrations by Sara Midda.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Bird-keeping and Birdcages: A History" Sonia Roberts

A quaint little book, “Bird-keeping and Birdcages: A History” was published in 1972, and is probably more interesting for its black and white illustrations and photos than for its historical research. Excluding the first chapter which deals with “The Ancient World” and travels from biblical times to the medieval age in about five pages and the second “Renaissance Exoticism and After” which has some titbit information on western European countries, Sonia Roberts' book mainly deals with British history and the rise of its bird fancy - and is more assured of its facts when it does so -, especially concerning small species such as canaries and, later, budgies.The rest of the world and its “simple societies” are taken care of with a mention on the first page.

However, this book provides a series of interesting vignettes on bird-keeping from Ancient Egypt to our days and is the only book I know of that also addresses the evolution of bird-cages and aviaries and understands that they can be important cultural and artistic objects on their own.

I do wish someone would write a revised and updated version of this History, taking into account archaeological and documentary evidence from the last forty years. After all, I feel Roberts makes an interesting point when she states: “it is reasonable to claim that caged birds were man’s first true pets, for although the dog and cat predate the cage bird as companions of man, they were originally co-opted as assistants in hunting and vermin control respectively”.
Are you there Tim Birkhead, Marina Belozerskaya and Louise Robbins?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Fox in the Cupboard" - Jane Shilling

I own a small, modern imitation of an antique clock which in I bought in my early teens because I loved the illustration it features: a rider in a red jacket, jumping a fence and three running hounds in the foreground all set in a bucolic landscape. Later, when I realized there was such a thing as fox-hunting and that this was unmistakably a representation of it (despite there being no fox in the picture) I was quite embarrassed by it. After reading “The Fox in the Cupboard” I went and got the broken, little plastic thing back from where it was hiding – fact is I quite still like that image for all it suggests to me: a welcoming, unthreatening countryside, horses and dogs and, why not? red jackets. As with Jane Shilling’s book it features no cruelty or violence and evokes a world that, as an adult, I still dream of being granted entrance to.

Jane Shilling’s “The Fox in the Cupboard” is certainly a book that left a deep impression, a memoir that enveloped me in an almost dream-like stupor while I wandered its pages and followed the author into the world of horses and hounds. There is an almost poetic rhythm to this book, the chapters on the first horse-riding lessons as an adult, interspersed with childhood memories, adult musings and first-hand accounts of hunts, horse-riding excursions and an episode on buying fox-hunting apparel which is straight out of a fairy tale, if in fairy tales girls ever chose clothes based on function as well as beauty.

There are some mildly frustrating passages mostly courtesy of Shilling’s (female) riding instructor who is not shall we say a very tactful or comforting person (and which coupled with the even worse description of female instructor’s in Lynn Reardon’s “Beyond the Homestretch” has me scared stiff of women riding teachers). I sometimes wondered how much more abuse Shilling was going to take from the woman (quite a bit). There is also a rambling chapter on the history of the hunt – who did what for the first time and whatnot, that has its interesting bits but felt a bit too long.

On more than one occasion Shilling states that she will never belong in the fox-hunting or even horse-riding crowd: to her everything feels artificial and must be thought out and carried out with enormous effort, while everyone else who has learned how to ride at an early age is at ease with the body language of horses, the labyrinth of tack and the lay of the land where fox hunting takes place. However there is something to be said of being an outsider (at least I hope there is) and certainly this sensitive account could never have come from someone brought up among the horses and hounds. Here we see everything through the eyes of the newly anointed – we feel with the author the challenge of being admitted into a closed off, highly ritualized endeavor: it is daunting, nerve-wrecking and sometimes downright embarrassing being the new adult in the gang, but on the other hand it keeps you from taking it all too seriously and allows you to recognize some pretty funny stuff going on while everyone is busy being proper (or properly drunk if you are witnessing a Hunt Ball).

My mother once asked me why on earth I would want to learn how to ride since I couldn’t possibly keep a horse (it was a good question and I still haven’t learned how to ride). Once you are learning it seems inevitable that you must do something with that knowledge – a horse after all, is not a bicycle, it needs to be exercised, challenged even humored – jumping and whatever that other thing when people dress up is called, or fox hunting seem perfectly adequate ways to keep a horse happy.

However, writing about “The Fox in the Cupboard” is a lot more difficult than enjoying it as a reader which is comparatively easy: try as I might to avoid it (and I did) I keep stumbling on the ethics of the whole thing. It must be said that there are no scenes of the actual killing of the fox by the hounds in the book and if I remember correctly the author describes seeing a fox once. Most of the memoir is concerned with the process of learning how to ride as an adult and the social aspects and rituals of fox-hunting. I never felt that Shilling was using her memoir as some sort of apologia of hunting but she did convince me that as far as animal cruelty goes there are far worse things going on in the world. To make matters more complicated for non-British readers there is also the fact that vocal pro and con opinions on fox hunting are deeply immersed in economic and social history and are sometimes as little concerned with the fate of that single fox as she is invisible to the majority of riders from start to finish.

To go down that endless road though, would really detract from the enjoyment of this singular memoir. To the reticent reader I would compare “The Fox in the Cupboard” with a painting featuring a hunting scene that would capture your imagination: it won’t convince you to go out shooting hares with bow and arrow (I hope) but the appreciation of it will enrich your mind.

Books of 2011

His Dark Materials– Philip Pullman
Once Upon a Time in the North - Philip Pullman
Into the beautiful North – Luis Alberto Urrea
The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver
The Hearts of Horses – Molly Gloss

Half-Broke Horses – Jeannette Walls
Un Lieu Uncertain – Fred Vargas
The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger - Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston

Yoga School Drop-Out – Lucy Edge
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why it's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals – Hal Herzog
Dog Walks Man: A Six-legged Odyssey – John Zeaman
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance – Edmund De Waal
Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
Needled to Death – Maggie Sefton
Sink Trap – Christy Evans
Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Birdology: Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds – Sy Montgomery
My Driver – Maggie Gee
The Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-And-Rescue Dog – Susannah Charleson
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale – Michael Holman

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them – Donovan Hohn
Les Annèes Douces 1&2 – Jiro Taniguchi
Tortoise – Peter Young
A Sombra do Vento (The Shadow of the Wind) – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Court of the Air – Stephen Hunt
O Jogo Do Anjo (The Angel's Game) - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Great Penguin Rescue – Dyan DeNapoli
Bossypants – Tina Fey

Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve Learned from Saving Racehorses – Lynn Reardon

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade – Christopher Benfey
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
The Fox in the Cupboard: A Memoir – Jane Shilling

Watership Down – Richard Adams
Playing with the Grown-Ups – Sophie Dahl
Graveminder – Melissa Marr
White Cat – Holly Black
The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Somewhere Towards the End – Diana Athill